March 31, 2017


Tim Miller, 2016
You can't really look at Ryan Reynolds filmography and see winner after winner. But to be fair, who can you really do that with? It's unlikely that any actor is going to bat 1000 in terms of always picking something that is going to be artistically fulfilling and please an audience. A respectable actor takes on risky roles, are willing to put themselves out there. Reynolds has proven that he is willing to do this when you consider his roles in The Nines, Buried and The Voices. Clearly he had better hopes for Green Lantern and he wouldn't be to blame for the film's flaws. You also can't blame him for his first portrayal as Deadpool in 2009's X-Men Origins: Wolverine. As director Gavin Hood explained in an interview with The Independent, the studios had too much control and mishandled the character.

Fortunately the studio heads didn't ruin this Deadpool. Which could have been so easy to do. They could have stripped away the R-Rating and made it PG-13 to put more bodies in theaters. That would have been an early kiss of death, as this movie just wouldn't work with much restriction. Instead Deadpool becomes the R-Rated superhero film that we didn't we know we needed. In a way it's very refreshing after enduring so many safeguarded Marvel universe films. Deadpool has some real grit and danger to it. It's also probably the most self-aware superhero film to be released. From the opening credits where it makes fun of the category's tropes to the latter points of the movie where it's still poking fun at other superhero films. It will be interesting to see if the trend continues of the studios providing superhero films for adult audiences and not just for mid-puberty teenagers borrowing $9 admission from their parents. People have accused Deadpool of being too topical, as if it's going to date itself. But I didn't have that reaction. It is certainly topical, but it feels like it will have a longer shelf life. Certainly more than an Eminem song. Go listen to one of those early tracks (with the Backstreet Boys and Mariah Carey references) and tell me they don't feel dated.

March 21, 2017

I Don't Feel At Home In This World Anymore

Macon Blair, 2017
Anyone familiar with Jeremy Saulnier's films is going to recognize Macon Blair. Blair has had roles in every one of Saulnier's feature films from Murder Party to 2016's Green Room. The pairing is almost like a dark art-house variant of Scorcese and Dicaprio where Saulnier has clearly found someone he can remain confident in who shares similar sensibilities. All of Saulnier's films have dark elements to them and Blair is responsible for carrying a bulk of the weight of those very tones to the screen in Saulnier's movies. He is a very distinctive actor. More of an internal force, playing more reserved characters who have a certain level of unpredictability to them. With them having so many cinematic collaborations with each other of course one of the big questions going into this directorial debut of Blair's is going to be "does it feel like a Saulnier film in any way"? The answer is yes, but to avoid marginalizing this very good film we should just say it feels inspired by Saulnier in ways but also feels like it really has some identity on it's own.

You could describe this film as an adventure into the underbelly of society, if, say, you caught a junky stealing from you and you followed him home. But junkies don't live in modest homes. They live in condemned houses, or in the woods. So now imagine that you continued to follow this junky into the woods. Instead of getting too creeped out when you find a bum-camp in the woods you decide to get out of your car to further confront the person. Of course the depths that you could venture down with these types of people will continue to descend lower and lower. These are the types of people who lurk in the shadows. They come out at night. Ruth (Melanie Lynskey) is not this type of person. She is a 9-5er who is bound to a mundane daily routine.

Lynskey (who has a lot of indie credits under her belt now- Happy Christmas, Perks of Being a Wallflower, etc) is completely fitting and really nails the Ruth character. Ruth is a person that is having one of those totally identifiable bouts of misfortune. When you feel like the world is just shitting on you over and over again. She drowns her sorrows at home, and when she discovers the break-in the theft of her aunt's silver is the last straw. I Don't Feel at Home reveals itself to be the black comedy that it is when Elijah Wood's Tony character appears. Wood is so great in this movie and it's really refreshing to see him continuing to take on indie roles like this when he could just take a pass on everything and enjoy his Hobbit money.

A lot of elements of this film continue to stick with me days after viewing. Blair has veteran indie sense and clearly understands pacing and character development. I Don't Feel at Home is a movie I will be pushing on the people around me. I am actually eager to get another look at this one again soon. 

March 13, 2017

Doctor Strange

Scott Derrickson, 2016

Kids today don't realize how good they have it. The enormous amount of great content that is available to them. Anyone looking for a visual spectacle has a vast library to pick from, readily available. When we were in High School, if we were high and wanted some kind of eye candy, we had to download a visualization screensaver and attempt to line it up with the bpm of some primitive, poorly produced techno. It often failed, but we took what we could get and were happy with it. Doctor Strange is a visual spectacle to say the least. It's a bit of an ocular masterpiece that feels like Inception and Guardians of the Galaxy had a baby. When Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) desperately ventures to the far East in search of a cure for his damaged hands, he meets "The Ancient One". Skeptical and unsure of The Ancient One's abilities, she throws him into an multidimensional wormhole to shake his senses. This entire sequence might have you thinking someone laced your popcorn with LSD, but no need to worry. A 14 year old version of me would have literally watched this segment repeatedly until my eyes gave out and I fell asleep. The special effects capabilities that are available today continue to be mind-blowing. Marvel Studios continues to keep upping the ante as well, raising the bar from a technical standpoint. It's really gotten to the point that when you watch these Marvel stories come to screen, you know you are going to be fed such quality magical realism that you can just sit back and take it all in. Like Pixar studios, these are beautiful looking films that transcend generations in terms of story that is mature enough to keep adults watching along with their kids.

Cumberbatch is kind of the perfect fit for the Stephen Strange character. He is able to channel that over-confident English-cored arrogance that worked in The Imitation Game and the Sherlock television series. Strange is an ego-driven brain surgeon who feels like he has lost everything when he sustains serious nerve damage to his hands. Strange is a lot like Tony Stark in the sense that they have humongous egos that people sort of forgive because of their impressive brain power. But they are both reckless characters as well. Strange's accident is totally self-inflicted. He learns quite quickly how vulnerable and as human as (everyone he has operated on) he really is. Sometimes movies that play with time can become convoluted quickly. Derrickson keeps things manageable enough that you don't get lost in confusion. If anything it seems like Stephen picks up on the magical arts a little too quickly, but I suppose its excusable because of his tremendous brain power. He admits himself that he has a photographic memory. So this would mean he would be able to consume the texts in his chambers and retain the vast knowledge contained in them without any problems. Either way, his quick grasp of the powers only helps to move the already interesting story along.

Doctor Strange is a unique offering to the MCU from a stylistic standpoint. You could argue that it falls into the same formula as the other origin stories do. Person has some kind of conflict. Conflict creates need for special ability. Special ability obtained. Special ability used in climactic segment. But the delivery of this formula is done through such a spectacular visual spectacle that it makes you eager to stay in the world shown to you.

An optical feast, a visual journey, something that I am eager to jump back into. Something I wish was on screen 15 years ago when I was most hungry for these types of movies. When you think about all of the atrocious superhero offerings we have had to endure over the years: Batman Forever, Spawn, Batman and Robin, Elektra, Affleck's Daredevil film, those Fantastic Four films. Ugh. It's safe to say I personally won't take films like Dr. Strange for granted. The unfortunate thing is - today's youth totally will.

Captain America: Civil War

Anthony Russo, Joe Russo - 2016
Along with the Iron Man films, the Captain America Marvel installments have proven to be the most dependable and consistent, possibly even more than the former. Winter Soldier was such a solid film that I was convinced I will give them all a view when the opportunity arose. When I was browsing through Netflix and saw Civil War - the only thing keeping me from putting it on for so long was the 147 minute run time. Interestingly enough, while Captain America is a central figure in the film, Civil War could really be a stand-alone film not bound to the Captain America narrative. This is the first film to put normally very friendly characters at odds with each other. There's always the small conflicts and differences between the various characters but this is the first outright battle story.

Faced with the global ramifications of some of the collalteral damage that the Avengers created, the UN has drafted an agreement holding the Avengers accountable for their actions. Tony Stark, feeling the weight of his actions, is eager to sign the agreement while Steve / Captain America is against doing so. The main thing keeping Steve from signing is it pits him against his old friend Bucky (Winter Soldier) who has been accused of a terrorist attack and is now a global target. Steve being loyal and protective to Bucky forces him to create a Captain America vs. Iron Man dilemma.

The tension builds between Tony and Steve and while the divide grows between them, they both build their own camps on each side. It all erupts into one of the big moments which of course is the battle sequence between them all. The delicate balance of conflict leading up to it is so impressively well-done. It's also another great showcase of these well developed characters in the Marvel Universe coming together in these big moments.

Civil War actually did something for me that hasn't been done since I saw the first Avengers film back in 2012. I admit that, like many other people, had become fatigued a bit by the constant superhero movie drops. Since that Avengers film, I would casually check in with the Marvel universe periodically, never at release point but with more of a "when i get to it" attitude. What continued to be absent for me was that level of excitement that I would get. That little boy excitement. Can't even remember the last time I had a gross sense of that excitement. Decades ago probably. But Civil War managed to resurrect at least a hint of it. Civil War also managed to resurrect a character that I had written off in Spiderman. Being a fan of the Tobey Maguire Spiderman films, when it was announced that Maguire was no longer going to be involved in the franchise and Andrew Garfield was taking over in a rebooted version I basically checked out. For me it was going to be just another product of money-hungry studios rebooting the shit out of everything and their inability to turn down the next dollar-making opportunity.

Tom Holland brings an energy to Spiderman that should have always been there. High School-age innocence and youthful naivety. Tobey Maguire was 27 when he played Peter Parker for the first time so of course he just wasn't able to fully capture a high school student. But Holland is 21, and could easily pass for a 17 year old. When he meets Tony Stark for the first time, he is at a loss for words and is completely star-struck. Later when in costume doing his thing, he talks too much and makes rookie mistakes just like any high school age kid would 6 months into having superpowers. There's a lot to look forward to with Holland in the Spidey suit. It seems like Marvel Studios cutting a deal with Sony may have saved the character from total mediocrity.

The level of quality that these films are working with should override the cultural fatigue that the marketing executives are inadvertantly unleashing upon us. There's no reason to believe that these films are going to degrade anytime soon.

March 8, 2017

The Jungle Book

Jon Favreau, 2016
Before I ramble about all of the ways in which the Jungle Book failed to wow me, I need to point out something. I am not a non-believer in CGI-heavy film. Seeing Avatar in IMAX 3D was one of the most memorable cinematic experiences of my lifetime. The Lord of the Rings trilogy is my Star Wars in terms of it's immersive world-building and how I just want to live inside of it. I didn't even have that much of a problem with the copy-and-paste army in the Battle of Five Armies.

So going into The Jungle Book, a movie in an almost entirely CGI constructed world, I went in with an open mind and with open eyes. I am a supporter of Favreau, who has really contributed some solid films in his career. Elf, the first two Iron Man films, Chef are all well-made films. But now he is taking this direction in his career that almost feels Tim Burton like by "re-imagining" classic Disney favorites. After making this film - they are of course going to continue to wring out the proverbial sponge by having Favreau direct a Jungle Book sequel. But they are also employing him to direct a live action reboot of The Lion King. Nothing is untouched these days.

I wanted this movie to be great and impactful, especially being someone that grew up with the original animated version. I sat watching and kept waiting for it to hit me. Waiting and waiting. I realized by the mid-point that it likely wasn't going to happen. For whatever reason I wasn't ever able to make an emotional connection to anything on screen. Was it the abundance of CGI? I am not sure, because the animals all look amazing. But Life of Pi had one CGI Tiger and I was totally on board with the film emotionally.

It was a delight to see veteran actors like Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley and Christopher Walken provide the voices for Baloo, Bagheera and King Louie. But it didn't elevate the movie from more than just good grabs. Shere Kahn left more to be desired in a villain. He wasn't nearly as ruthless as he should have been. He didn't have that despicable nature to him as say, Scar in the Lion King. While Neel Sethi deserves some credit for working hard in front of a green screen, he wasn't exactly the next Jacob Tremblay (Room) with his performance as Mowgli. The best sequence in the film by far is the sequence in The Monkey City with King Louie. But the climax was just underwhelming and it just didn't feel like the stakes were high enough. Like the rest of the movie, it just seemed to run through the motions without ever being too significant.

The Impossible

J.A. Bayona, 2012
There are disaster movies that focus on the disaster, and then there are disaster movies that aren't really disaster movies because they focus on the characters that are victim to the disaster. The Impossible is definitely the latter of the two. A disaster film with a heart. Focusing on an English family of five, they are on Christmas holiday in Thailand in 2004 when the historic tsunami hit their beachside resort. The images of this natural disaster have been in my memory for the past 13 years since it happened. Seeing the beautiful country decimated by Mother Nature so quickly. I remember seeing the amateur footage on Youtube back when the disaster occurred.

Bayona's immediate accomplishment with this film is getting you invested in the characters so quickly. Without this they would be nameless faces dealing with the destruction. But instead, you are familiar with them very early on. You see their vulnerabilities as they sit on an airplane on their way to their vacation spot. Maria (Naomi Watts) has anxiety from the turbulence. Henry (Ewan McGregor) has some OCD tendencies with trying to remember if he had set an alarm at home before they left. These elements cleverly humanize them and help to generate empathy early.

When the tsunami hits, it doesn't feel like a bastardized CGI construct. It feels like an authentic force. The film doesn't heavily lean on the CGI though. It feels completely necessary, like its just enough. How it should be. A supplemental tool in the absence of the real thing. There is an obvious sense of panic. You are left with no real answers as to which members of the family have survived and which members have perished. The film then evolves into more of a gripping survival film as a wounded and incomplete family desperately tries to become complete again.

The sense of desperation and heartbreak resonates throughout the film and I can't remember the last time that a 2 hour running time passed by so quickly. Watts and McGregor deliver remarkable performances as they usually do. Surprising to see that Watts was the only one that received attention from the Academy with a Best Actress nomination (she lost to Jennifer Lawrence for Silver Linings Playbook). McGregor really deserved a nomination too. It's actually quite surprising to realize that McGregor has yet to receive a single Oscar nomination in his entire career when you remember his performances in films like Trainspotting and Big Fish. The Impossible is a really gripping film, rich in detail. History should be kind to this film. A really accurate look at one of the most tragic and destructive natural disasters in our modern era.