by Philip Price
“Rock the Kasbah” is a film that is neither here nor there. It is an odd case of feeling completely inconsequential while using relevant aspects of our current cultural climate to try and make a statement yet only proving itself irrelevant for it. It's a strange film - an experience that isn't exactly unpleasant while you're in the midst of it, but is ultimately more forgettable than anything I've seen at the movies in recent memory. It's is a shame, really, as the production has so much going for it and could have certainly been an interesting film were someone with any kind of motivation or vision in the director's chair. It's always fun to see Bill Murray's name above the title, leading a film and especially if that film is a broad comedy (something we don't get often anymore), but while Murray is seemingly giving this his all director Barry Levinson looks to be on autopilot. This isn't necessarily unexpected as Levinson hasn't produced anything that's been universally loved or appreciated for some time, but to have frequent Murray collaborator Mitch Glazer behind the screenplay and Murray front and center with an off the wall premise one would think there'd be more to this tale of a washed up music manager who ends up stranded in Afghanistan. Instead, Murray and a rather outstanding supporting cast that includes Bruce Willis, Kate Hudson, Zooey Deschanel, Scott Caan and Danny McBride are wasted in this meandering mess that only stays afloat for the pure intrigue of seeing where the movie might go. Turns out, “Rock the Kasbah” isn't worth paying much attention to even if every facet it offers up is one you would normally give enough credit to do as much. It's not horrible by any means, but it's easy to see the amount of untapped potential here that inevitably makes the final product all the more disappointing.
Glazer based his screenplay around a 2009 documentary called “Afghan Star” that essentially followed a season of what is Afghanistan's version of “American Idol.” That season just so happened to feature two women in the final four whose presence on the show alone brought them death threats. In Glazer's fictionalized take on this documentary (that I haven't seen, but clearly offers an interesting insight to a culture most of the world is not familiar with) Murray plays Richie Lanz who is a has-been rock manager. Lanz, after consulting with his daughter that doesn't matter in terms of story, takes his only viable client who also happens to serve as his receptionist, Ronnie (Deschanel), to Afghanistan for a USO tour. Upon arrival Ronnie freaks out, takes Lanz's money, passport and hitches a ride with a professional soldier, Bombay Brian (Willis), whose services she can't afford thus putting Brian on Ritchie's trail. As this leaves Lanz more or less stranded in hostile territory he quickly makes friends with two opportunistic war profiteers (Danny McBride and Scott Caan) that enlist the desperate American to transport weapons to a Pashtun village. During this venture Lanz comes across a Pashtun woman, Salima (Leem Lubany), with an admittedly incredible voice whom he immediately tries to book on Afghan Star in hopes of getting her the recognition she deserves. The oddest part about this already odd film is that Murray's character, a seemingly competent, mature adult with plenty of perspective doesn't seem to comprehend either the danger or the weight of the situations he's asking Salima to be a part of or even the danger he's placing himself in. Oh, and for some reason Kate Hudson shows up as the prostitute with a heart of gold to help navigate Lanz through this mess he's entangled himself in.
The main attraction here is clearly the cast as it was always going to take the charm of the ensemble to convince audiences this story was a good idea or at least one worth being mildly interested in. Murray has become such an American icon of sorts one would think a large portion of the population would flock to the rare film he headlines just to get a better glimpse at the man who keeps his persona a guarded one. With ‘Kasbah,’ Murray is giving his most outright comedic performance in a leading role in some time (it's been nearly 20 years since “The Man who Knew Too Little” and over a decade since ‘The Life Aquatic’ if you'd even classify that as pure, broad comedy) and yet it is so sporadic and weightless in his portrayal of such a sad sack that it effectively means nothing. In a sense, Murray is recreating any number of his iconic characters from the eighties and having them age as gracelessly as possible through Lanz. The problem is that as opposed to many of those characters that made Murray a household name and comedy legend were, unlike Lanz, the straight man of the situation. They were the reactors to the chaos and Murray's ability to excel at acting by reacting in the funniest way possible is what continues to make his obscure personality all the more endearing. Instead of Lanz simply coming across the ridiculous parade of characters that Willis, Hudson, Caan, and McBride play as well as the countless detractors of Salima's dreams and reacting to the outlandishness of the situation he has found himself in Glazer's screenplay pits Lanz as the center of attention in every set of circumstances he falls into. Some of it is genuinely funny: a soldier finding Murray tied to a prostitute's bed smeared with lipstick the morning after, random details like Deschanel's Alabama tour jacket or McBride's Travis Tritt t-shirt, or simply having Murray belt out a version of "Smoke on the Water," to a group of unsuspecting Pashtun villagers, but these moments and particulars mean little without a solid story to hold them together.
The story is most certainly the downfall as none of these scenes seem to make sense in the larger scope of the narrative as we go from one to the next. At one point, early in the film, after Ronnie has disappeared and Lanz is looking for her McBride and Caan's characters tell him that she's likely at a bar called "The Vulcan" because that is where everyone goes on a Friday night. There is no way that Ronnie would have known about this club given how far the drive is from Lanz's hotel, but more it becomes painfully obvious that the only reason the script takes us to this location is to introduce us to Hudson's Merci. In turn, this is for no other reason than providing Lanz with some kind of Jiminy Cricket-like companion. Speaking of things getting tough-let's talk about the biggest problem with the story: first of all, this is a movie set in the war-torn country of Afghanistan and yet the crisis of character for our lead is whether or not he can still make a star out of the most unsuspecting singer. There are literally car bombs going off and people being decapitated around Lanz and yet none of these white people find it within their realm of moral responsibility to do something more. Anything, really. Second, Lanz seems to honestly believe that if he can get this girl on TV (who will undoubtedly be ostracized by her village and her father for doing so) that he can reverse hundreds of years of tradition. It wouldn't seem so bad if any of the main characters even once acknowledged the absurdness of their goals given the present situation, but nothing is ever looked at as more than an opportunity for a joke and unfortunately more times than not those jokes fall flat. The only inspired bit Levinson seems to contribute is not even something he should get credit for given its cinematographer Sean Bobbitt who gives the film an interesting color palette by washing it out like its surrounding, sand-filled setting. In the end, “Rock the Kasbah” isn't even worth getting worked up over as you'll forget it as soon as you leave the theater and only become more irritated by it if you continue to contemplate it.
by Philip Price
To preface this review: I'm not the biggest Guillermo del Toro fan. I like his stuff well enough, but I don't understand the fuss around him that has essentially made him a brand. It's easy to go back and say how much you enjoyed “Cronos” as it was an introduction to the director for many or how great “Pan's Labyrinth” was because it is in fact that (I still can't see del Toro ever hitting that kind of high again), but beyond his somewhat spotty resume what is there? I thought “Pacific Rim” was fine, but nowhere near great or even worth the excitement many a fanboy have lauded it with since the film’s release two years ago that have garnered it a sequel campaign for the ages (will it be made or not?!?!? Ahh who knows!!). With “Crimson Peak” though, I was intrigued from the moment gothic horror and del Toro's name were thrown together in the same sentence. It made perfect sense, but more it would be magnificent to see something of this genre made in the modern Hollywood system. If there were ever a chance for del Toro to return to the heights of ‘Labyrinth’ it would certainly have to be in this type of film, right? It's as if the horror genre is ingrained in the way the director thinks-each piece of writing attempting to elicit the horror of whatever circumstances his characters find themselves in with a flourish of the fantastical thrown in to boot. As penned by Del Toro and Matthew Robbins, “Crimson Peak” is an amalgamation of something Edgar Allen Poe might have thought up conveyed in the style of the horror films of the ‘50s and ‘60s. It is easy to say that the film could easily fall into the "all style and no substance" category, but it's also easy to see there is a lot going on under the surface here even if the film I saw isn't exactly the one I expected. Given the title seemed to be referring to the colossal gothic mansion that the trio of main characters inhabit I imagined this would be a tale of a haunted family heirloom that held plenty of secrets for the innocent Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) to discover, but while this element certainly plays into the film, “Crimson Peak” is more about desire and how the nature of such emotion can consume every inch of our being.
We are introduced to the young Ms. Cushing who is both an aspiring novelist and the daughter of a wealthy businessman (Jim Beaver) in turn of the century America. Edith is visited twice by the ghost of her deceased mother warning her of "crimson peak," but having no idea what this means Edith thinks nothing of it when she begins to fall for a struggling English aristocrat seeking investors for his clay mining invention. Enter Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) and his obviously creepy (and clingy) sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain). While Edith is charmed by Sharpe's advances her father as well as childhood friend Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam) don't share the same affections. Mr. Cushing sees the Sharpes as little more than spoiled brats whose previous failures to raise capital don't bode well for their future while McMichael is more or less jealous because Sharpe's advances only place him more firmly in Edith's friend zone. It is when Edith and Sir Thomas become officially romantically attached that Mr. Cushing takes things into his own hands by essentially kicking the Sharpes out of America by paying them off and forcing Thomas to break his daughter's heart. After a certain tragedy befalls Edith she tries to escape her past by falling into Thomas' arms and moving back to the Sharpe estate in England, named Allerdale Hall, after they are married. It's not soon after her arrival, though, that she begins to learn of Allerdale's haunted history. Lucille is all but pleasant to the young bride, ignoring Edith's attempts to form a friendship and only talking with her when she delivers her tea. With Thomas back to work on his inventions Edith begins to explore the dilapidated mansion discovering more secrets than she ever imagined along the way.
The common complaint against the film will be that it looks gorgeous, but that its narrative is standard ghost story stuff that has been tread many times before. It's a valid complaint even if it's the most popular one. I can understand where those who log this complaint are coming from and can even agree with it to a certain extent, but I found a lot to like here and frankly found it hard to concentrate on much of the negatives. For starters, the casting is impeccable. Wasikowska is more or less a given with this kind of material at this kind of level and she is more than capable, but the inspired pairing of Hiddleston and Chastain is what really makes the movie work. Hiddleston was born to play such a role. His slight pale frame and jet black hair that falls almost to his shoulders give off the perfect balance of handsome with a side of eerie. As Thomas, Hiddleston plays strongly into the privileged angle of his upbringing as part of a larger act that seems a constant struggle to simply please Lucille. It's clear from the first time we lay eyes upon the siblings that Lucille is the one that runs the show; that she is the dominant player in the web the two are spinning even if Thomas is the one doing all of the heavy lifting. As Lucille, Chastain is as cold as ice. She lets no one into her headspace and is especially prickly about those she lets into her house. When Thomas begins courting Edith it's easy to see the unease, the tension and even the jealousy that arises in Lucille's expressions. Chastain is a measured actress, taking an in-depth and careful approach to each role and with Lucille has come out the other end with a very deliberate and restrained performance that highlights each of Lucille's vulnerable, but concealed emotions. To play such a guarded person, but to still signal the audience on what might truly be going on inside a character's mind is a real gift and Chastain provides this kind of nuanced and calculated performance in spades making her Lucille the most striking and impressionable character while being the quietest of the bunch.
It's true though, the production design (credit to Thomas E. Sanders) and the uber-intentional color scheme and everything else that makes this a visual stunner is what really pushes “Crimson Peak” over the edge. From the outset we are privy to some of the most beautiful settings and photography we've seen all year. del Toro and his cinematographer, Dan Laustsen, capture the hustle and bustle of booming America in 1901 with a ripe vividness and with the widest lens possible so as to allow the viewer to drink in every inch of the beautifully constructed sets. The architecture of the time period is brought to the forefront as well, not only in the intimidating Allerdale Hall, but in the entire aesthetic of the first 45 minutes of the film. The train station and the men's country club where Mr. Cushing grooms himself are both particularly ornate and of an elegance that is worth drawing attention to. The climactic scene outside of Allerdale where the crimson clay of the grounds oozes through the white snow and Wasikowska's Edith wanders around in her blood-stained nightgown highlights this main complaint of the film being more visually affecting than emotionally resonant. The score from Fernando Velázquez is a highlight given its traditional orchestral arrangements feature darker tones underneath what we expect from music that typically accompanies this time period. While the Hammer horror influence comes in regards to the film’s visual style the story itself is more in line with something along the lines of Jane Eyre combined with the brutality of a Poe novel. The brutality of the film is especially striking in how bluntly it's presented, which is nothing new for a del Toro film, but it is especially jolting in these rather pristine settings. The gothic romance angle is certainly reminiscent of Charlotte Brontë's novel, but all of this combines to make a rather compelling story of those aforementioned desires and the ghosts that always tend to surround them, especially when they're forbidden. I expected this to be more of a haunted house tale with the uniquely created ghosts that haunt it taking center stage, but rather I received more of a love story that was born out of true desire overriding the obligation to continue making those assigned loved ones happy. Haunting for sure, but not always in the grand, gothic way I'd hoped it might be.
by Philip Price
“The Last Witch Hunter” is one of those movies that, were Vin Diesel not coming off a more prominent period in his career, would star Nicolas Cage in the titular role. What that says about the actual state of Diesel's career outside of the ‘Fast & Furious’ franchise is up for debate, but what is undeniable is the guy at least has some modicum of charisma even if it only extends so far. With that charisma he has chosen to portray an 800-year old witch hunter that operates within a film that feels all too familiar and all too like it should be released in the doldrums of January when the weather outside matches the dark, wet and dreary aesthetic of the film. Instead, Summit has decided to release the film around Halloween in seeming hopes that it may connect on a festive level, but folks who flock to Diesel's follow-up to the biggest entry in his ‘Fast’ franchise won't find the actor giving us the knowingly cheesy tone of that over-the-top action spectacle or even any solid action as everything about “The Last Witch Hunter” is messy and incoherent. This isn't to say the film has no redeeming qualities as some of the character design (mainly that of the Witch Queen) is pretty interesting and the costume design is sleek even if the palette director Breck Eisner is painting on is a grainy one. This is more or less to say that Diesel shows little range in his performance, but his jackets are nice. It doesn't help that half an hour in one can fairly easily tell where things are going story-wise and while what is hinted at more or less turns out to be true it's as if screenwriters Cory Goodman, Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless (yes, it took three writers to compose this slop) knew their script was too predictable and so they began throwing in random obstacles and twists that only end up making the film all the more confusing and all the more stupid. I hate to go into a movie doubting that it will provide anything of value, but if “The Last Witch Hunter” exceeded anything it was the expectation of just how generic and forgettable it would be.
Beginning in the 12th century we are introduced to a bearded Diesel as Kaulder, a witch-hunter, who, along with his comrades, is seeking to destroy the Witch Queen (Julie Engelbrecht) once and for all so that mankind may never again fall under one of her spells. Of course, Kaulder comes to be the last man left in his brigade and thus the last hope for killing the Queen. He gets to her, but not before she is able to curse him with eternal life. In the wake of this curse, Kaulder is tasked with the job of coming between the covens of New York City and their goal to destroy humanity by way of a horrific plague. As we learn from Dolan (Michael Caine), there has been a pact made between witches and humans that witches are more than welcome to do as they please so long as they swear not to harm any humans. Most witches respect these rules (or so we're told in voiceover), but others can't help but to see themselves as the superior beings they truthfully are and so Kaulder still has a gig from time to time. Kaulder has formed an alliance with the Catholic Church who designate a "Dolan" to him in order to keep track of his activity and adventures. Caine is the current Dolan upon our initial meeting with Kaulder, his 36th since striking up this working relationship, but all of that is set to change as Caine's character is retiring and Elijah Wood's character will be taking over as the thirty-seventh Dolan. Things take a turn for the unexpected when Caine's Dolan is found dead the morning after passing his torch on to Wood's character. Unable to see this simply as a coincidence, Kaulder begins investigating the death and comes to learn a secret from his past that will definitely be coming back to haunt him. He teams up with a dreamwalking witch named Chloe (Rose Leslie) who might just be able to help him uncover exactly what that secret is. In short, there is a whole bunch of mumbo jumbo there in the middle that doesn't make much sense while the climactic end scene is more a rehash of what we've seen before rather than a culmination of it all.
With this type of film it's easy not to expect much, but even with these tempered expectations “The Last Witch Hunter” is a disappointment. With everything it has to offer, including appearances from credible talent like Caine and Wood, it would seem that Witch Hunter might intentionally be positioning itself as something of a guilty pleasure. A guilty pleasure in the sense that there was no way something like this would ever be held in high regard, but that it might offer enough small moments of pure entertainment and adrenaline-pumping action to be enjoyable. There is nothing to enjoy here though, unfortunately, as Diesel is taking himself completely serious while there is nothing innovative or interesting about the story and the look of the film is as generic as can be. Even the score from Steve Jablonsky feels tired and recycled which is really the trouble with the film as a whole. What's worse is the film had a real opportunity to do something interesting with its premise and instead of coming up with anything of value or even remotely insightful pertaining to its 800-year old central character it resorts to cheesy little anecdotes for him to spout every now and then just so we're reminded how much he's actually seen. There are off comments made about Hitler or the beginning of New York City being built that hint at something interesting, something that might have actually formed Kaulder into a summation of all he's seen, but instead of delving into any of this Diesel resorts to simply referring to Caine as "kid" and that is apparently enough to remind us of his age. Heck, if they go ahead with the sequel that has already been planned for this thing the best option might be one of the adventures Kaulder had in the meantime between being granted eternal life and what we see in this film, but instead I'm guessing we'll get another modern-day set parable that teaches Kaulder a lesson of how he only thought he knew everything about the witching world, but has only scratched the surface. Pass.
And so, who is Kaulder? What is a guy who has seen more of history than any person ever like? Well, he's pretty much Vin Diesel, except this guy had a beard and hair at one point. That's all we know, that's all we're given sans the constant flashbacks to the 12th century that tell us Kaulder once had a wife and child that he lost to the witches. Of course, it's been a few centuries so he's moved on, but only in the way that he sleeps with stewardesses and shows them the door the next morning. Does Kaulder use protection you ask? Or does he have a million tiny eternal witch hunters running around somewhere? The film doesn't address these questions, but this is the random crap one begins considering when the story we're presented with isn't enough to hold our attention. There are hints of Diesel giving into the cheese factor at certain points, but he never does and thus he never looks like he's having any fun. This is serious actor Vin Diesel and he's trying his damnedest to make this thing as legit as he can, but there's simply nothing about “The Last Witch Hunter” that could be considered immersive or even stylish much less very good. Of the supporting actors, Wood is basically a walking witch encyclopedia present only to give us exposition and explanations as he dips in and out of the story so often he hardly feels necessary. Everything Wood conveys could have been done through the relationship between Caine and Diesel's characters which is a much more appealing combo if only for the strangeness of it. Then there is Leslie as Chloe who is more or less fine in the role of the eventual sidekick and supposed love interest, but her and Diesel never gel. There is nothing here to suggest any chemistry between the two beyond the abilities they possess to take down the bad guy and that isn't enough to base a relationship off of. If you saw them smooching in the trailer and therefore already expect things to move forward here, don't, because apparently that was cut so as to be developed in the "Next Adventures of Kaulder & Chloe" that may as well get picked up for a full season next fall on CBS because they have a better chance of surviving there than on the big screen again.
by Philip Price
As a child of the ‘90s, as someone who was in fourth and fifth grade at the dead center of the decade I was completely immersed in the Goosebumps books. I can easily recall going to Wal-Mart with my mom every month and constantly checking to see if the new book was on the shelves yet. I would devour these books to the point of ridiculousness and their popularity was such that at this point in time even my fourth grade teacher decided to read one of author R.L. Stine's works of adolescent horror to the class so as to appeal to those who weren't on board with Tuck Everlasting. While the books meant a great deal to me and I was a big fan of the Fox Kids Saturday morning line-up at the time I was unfortunately never able to get into their live-action adaptations of Stine's stories in the TV series that ran from 1995 to 1998. There was all the excitement in the world for such a series, but once it premiered there was never enough to keep me coming back-unlike the books. And so, how would a live-action movie version of such stories be any different? Given I was also 20 years removed from the source material, would I even care if a “Goosebumps” movie did honorable service to the literature or was it time to move on and accept that whatever it was that made these books so captivating to so many kids on the brink of their teenage years in the mid-‘90s was just an elusive quality never to be contained on celluloid? It turns out, all the material needed was a dash of meta-comedy that allowed the story to not only incorporate several of Stine's most popular characters, but Stine himself. With this opportunity to tell a brand new story rather than simply rehashing one of Stine's more popular titles the film is given a fresh idea that combines the likes of something akin to “Jumanji” or “Zathura” with the perfect balance of slightly off-kilter comedy and scary scenarios with over-the-top monsters that made the books so engaging. In short, this new “Goosebumps” film exceeded all expectations by delivering a fun and charming horror flick for kids that will undoubtedly be brought out every year around Halloween for a long time to come.
Written by Darren Lemke, this new story tells of high schooler Zach Cooper (Dylan Minnette) who is forced to move to the fictional town of Madison, Del. when his mom, Gale (Amy Ryan), gets a job as assistant principal at a new school. Zach is still reeling from the death of his father a year before and his mother hopes a change of scenery might help to heal such wounds. Zach and his mother's new neighbors are the mysterious "Mr. Shivers" and his daughter Hannah (Odeya Rush), but when Zach tries to make nice and introduce himself, Mr. Shivers warns him to stay away from his house and his daughter. Hannah has other ideas, though, as being both home schooled as well as cut off from the world in every way imaginable has led to a rebellious spirit that is immediately attracted to the new neighbor. At school, Zach befriends a fellow student named Champ (Ryan Lee) who sports an endearing dorkiness and social awkwardness that keeps the comedic pacing of the film up to task. On the night of a school dance Zach overhears Mr. Shivers and Hannah arguing, followed by Hannah screaming. He instinctively calls the police, but Mr. Shivers is able to deflect any suspicion of any wrongdoing only further confirming to Zach that Hannah is in trouble. After calling up his new friend and devising a plan to get Mr. Shivers out of the house Zach and Champ break in next door with the intent of rescuing Hannah. What they actually do is unlock one of the many Goosebumps manuscripts they come across inside Hannah's house that unleashes a multitude of monsters from the series. Concluding that Mr. Shivers is actually R.L. Stine (Jack Black) and that Stine's creations all have the capability to come to life it is up to our trio of new friends and Stine himself how to figure out how to get all of these characters back in their books before they completely destroy the town of Madison.
Beginning with Black, who doesn't remotely look like the actual Stine, the cast appear to all be having a great time here as well. Taking on something of a more restrained demeanor and a dialect that impresses immediately upon the audience that of a snooty writer mentality Black plays Stine as an uptight adult in a world where childlike curiosity is king. While the film doesn't go so far as to place the adults in the position of the ignorant authority while the children are the only ones privy to the actual facts of the situation like many a Amblin produced children films, Black is still the authoritative figure that keeps our heroes in line while serving as their guide through this uncharted territory. As the leader of the trio, Minnette is a capable lead and most impressively is able to pull off the balance of being effortlessly cool while unafraid of being portrayed as a dork which in turn only makes his character more appealing. I tend to get Minnette confused with Logan Lerman from time to time, but over his last few roles Minnette has proved to have something of a knack for solid comedic timing and proves himself again here by being able to hang with Black throughout. As what is more or less the co-lead of the film, Rush's Hannah is both the object of Zach's affections and a fully fleshed out character in her own right. It's not only appealing that Lemke gave dual leading duties to a male and female so as to give the crowds of kiddies each a surrogate, but that both are competent, hip and slightly mature for their age speaks well to the role models they'll be looked to as. Rush is a soothing presence on screen and so we feel the anxiety of her tense situation with her father as a genuine strain. Minnette and Rush are a formidable pair on screen as well despite the inherent awkwardness of their obvious fondness for one another. Present to smooth that awkwardness over is Lee's (Super 8) comic relief that, when paired with the hilarious Jillian Bell and a couple of goofy small town cops played to perfection by Amanda Lund and Timothy Simons, give the film a great sense of humor that effectively balances the scary character designs of some of Stine's most famous creations.
As the film began and the camera panned over a large body of water it was immediately reminiscent of that other ‘90s piece of Halloween nostalgia that is “Hocus Pocus.” There was a sense of scope to it, while the score from Danny Elfman really reinforces the tone of that time period by giving the film a sense of adventure with enough character thrown in to make both the charming, comfortable moments shine and the creepy ones extra-creepy. In essence, watching “Goosebumps” was something like being transported back to my childhood. It was a quality production of a Saturday morning TV show with top tier talent and special effects making the bigness of it all the more exciting and the wholesomeness of it all the more endearing. These qualities did nothing but leave me with a smile on my face the entire runtime. In writing all of those pleasantly descriptive words without giving any real explanation as to why I was made to feel this way I'm finding it difficult to pinpoint what exactly the movie did to make me react this way. More than saying this simply feels like a real movie, something people put actual time, effort and care into, there is no one detail that was so glaringly great that it stands above the rest. Maybe that is the magic of it. Everything was so well balanced, each element given its rightful due that by the time we came to the end of the journey and were able to reflect it all melded together to form nothing more than good memories. What I enjoyed most about the experience though, was seeing it in a theater full with its target audience (though the fact this will appeal to several generations is a real plus for Columbia) who reacted with such excitement to a movie that seemingly elicited such genuine thrills and scares that it was all the more validating this was as good a movie as I thought it was. In all honesty, this movie had no right to be any good and could have turned out to be little more than a cash grab on a familiar property, but director Rob Letterman clearly took great care with the material and as a result has delivered a legitimate crowd-pleaser for what could potentially be a very broad crowd.
by Philip Price
I'm not going to say anything new or anything you probably haven't already heard about the latest from Steven Spielberg, but hopefully it will still be somewhat insightful and interesting to you. Come to think of it, that's kind of what Spielberg himself has done with “Bridge of Spies.” There is nothing new or original about what he's put on display here, but it is still very much an engaging and insightful take on the topic he's decided to tackle. Everything about the film, from its period setting of 1957 during the height of the Cold War to the fact it once again pairs the most famous director in the world with the most likable actor in the world, Tom Hanks, screams pedigree and pure Oscar bait. What's reassuring is that “Bridge of Spies” never comes off as such. It aspires to be little more than an intense study of the small details of human interaction and what crafts us to be the people we truly are as tested by extraordinary circumstances. This is a film purely for adult viewers, not because it contains anything too risqué for younger viewers sans a few curse words, but because it is a film that moves slowly, builds it's character and tension assuredly and then delivers an overall message that comes at the story from a very distinct perspective only making us consider the many other perspectives one could see this story from (which is sorta the point). “Bridge of Spies” isn't anything to necessarily write home about in that regard, but while you're watching it, as you're sitting there experiencing it, you can do little more than appreciate the obvious care and dedication that has gone into producing this handsomely mounted picture. That it includes a solid performance from Hanks and something of a revelatory showing by character actor Mark Rylance only emphasizes further the type of respect a film such as this deserves; not only because it is indisputably a good movie that consists mainly of adults talking, but respect for its backers and makers for being willing to create an old school drama during a time when it seems anything in the realm of adult-skewing entertainment is labeled as less than profitable.
As previously stated, it is the height of the Cold War and tensions are high between the U.S. and Soviet Union due both to the fact each possess nuclear weapons and neither are sure how the other plans to utilize them. In the midst of all this there is a man, Rudolf Abel (Rylance), who is suspected of being a Russian spy. The CIA is confident in their arrest of Abel in his small Brooklyn apartment that paints him to be little more than a humble painter. In an effort to portray the country as fairly as possible the government grants Abel the right to a trial. To this effect, insurance lawyer James B. Donovan (Hanks) is recruited by the CIA to represent Mr. Abel. Every man deserves the right to a fair trial and Donovan acknowledges this sentiment, this morally upright thing to do, despite the fact it could potentially put his family, including wife Mary (Amy Ryan) and their three children, in harm’s way. While the evidence is pretty overwhelming and the outcome is all but guaranteed before they walk into the courthouse Donovan is an upstanding citizen and gives Abel's case his due diligence. As all of this is taking place Spielberg is intermittently building the secondary story that covers the narrative of U-2 spy-plane pilot, Francis G. Powers (Austin Stowell). Powers, after being enlisted in a secret mission to take photographs of Soviet territory at 70,000 feet, was shot down mid-mission by the Soviet Union and taken prisoner. There is also the facet of American economics student Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) who was ultimately in the wrong place at the wrong time and was taken into custody by East German police making the intense negotiation mission to release and exchange Abel for Powers all the more so.
What is most engaging about the film from the standpoint of an admirer of the art form is the way in which Spielberg is able to convey information beyond the spoken word. His visual sense is unmatched. Still utilizing his well-known techniques, but nevertheless remaining effective under the right conditions. There are certain shots, whether it be the close-ups of children's faces as they watch an instructional video on how to protect themselves from an atomic bomb or that of the many camera bulbs littered on the street from paparazzi outside the courthouse, that simply resonate more than any monologue could ever hope to achieve. Spielberg, as he's always done, uses this keen sense of understanding the image to as good effect as we've ever seen. That isn't to say “Bridge of Spies” is up there with the director's best work, it's certainly something of lesser Spielberg, but it is to say that the legend is still at the top of his game. In being able to tell a story such as this and make it compelling or give it any sense of energy whatsoever it's not only up to the director to capture his actors dialogue in an interesting fashion, but it's vital they truly understand the story so as to construct a film that conveys it in an effective fashion. With “Bridge of Spies” it is layers. The first hour, for example, is a perfect balance of set-up and propulsion. We watch in on Donovan and Abel as the two come to know one another through short exchanges in an interrogation room. We see their relationship build and form something of a mutual respect for one another thus creating an objective based purely on principle. It is in short fits between these scenes of Hanks and Rylance giving a masters class in juxtaposing performances that Spielberg feeds the audience just enough information about Powers to make those not familiar with the true story curious as to how all of this might come together. Both Powers and Pryor are wrinkles in a bigger picture. Spielberg utilizes these wrinkles to piece together a full narrative, but doesn't focus on the semantics of their individual situations as the key factor to the story being told is the symbolic meaning of Donovan and Abel's friendship.
There is something rather straight-forward about the film as a whole. Nothing about it feels flashy and yet it is gorgeous to look at (Janusz Kaminski once again serves as Spielberg's cinematographer). The minimal score from Thomas Newman (Spielberg's first film without John Williams scoring since “The Color Purple” and only the second in his 40-plus year career) is utilized only when necessary and the film is all the better for it. This is a movie about what is being said as much as the Cold War was a war of information. The focus remains on the dialogue and the screenplay from Matt Charman with what I assume were polishes if not a flat out collaboration with the Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, keeps things moving by virtue of its effortless dialogue conveying what, at times, could be a rather complex plot. Of course, the fact Spielberg and crew have players such as Hanks and Rylance, along with Alan Alda, Jesse Plemons and Eve Hewson, doesn't hurt the way in which this expertly crafted dialogue is spoken either. Admittedly, none of the secondary players are given much to do here as this is more or less Hanks' show when he's not sharing the screen with Rylance. Per usual, the man is a commanding presence and automatically enlists our deepest sympathies and heartfelt wishes that whatever his character hopes to accomplish that he does in fact accomplish it. Hanks is a perfect picture of the American standard, what we strive or hope to be and that's what needed to come through in James Donovan, the bigger reason I imagine Spielberg once again wanted to work with his prior producing partner and frequent collaborator.
What “Bridge of Spies” does best, what it is most admirable for, is bringing up the idea that we cannot be fools to our own prejudice. It is a statement that has always been true and is still valid today making the film's message all the more pointed despite its historical context. In taking on the dealings of figuring one another out, recognizing that despite another's interests being different than our own and acknowledging that this opposing point of view is only doing their job as much as the protagonist we're rooting for is doing theirs is a theme as strong for its insight into why the world works the way it does as it is for opening one's eyes to this possibility in other situations. Spielberg hammers this theme home by mirroring many of the scenes he shows us with similar situations under much different circumstances. Whether it be the conversation Donovan is having with a fellow lawyer about an insurance claim at the beginning of the film that can then be applied to the negotiation Donovan eventually finds himself in the middle of or a particularly moving shot where Donovan is on a train in Berlin and sees people running for their lives, hopping over the wall, only to be gunned down with that of kids hopping fences on their way to school back in Brooklyn, Spielberg knows how to make his point. With “Bridge of Spies” the director says what he wants to say very well and though in the broad scope of things this is meant to be a film about a rescue mission, it more seems to be a statement for modern audiences to take a step back and consider how we might rescue ourselves from those prejudices that are more apparent than ever in this social media age that we allow to blind us in the face of simply treating fellow humans with respect and dignity.
by Philip Price
It's difficult to summon exactly how to feel about a film like “Beasts of No Nation.” It is somewhere in the realm of “12 Years a Slave” in that it's impossible not to acknowledge the craft and effectiveness of what it achieves, but is without a doubt something I and I presume many others would not care to experience again. What I find to be most endearing about director Cary Fukunaga's third feature directorial effort is that of its pacing. Having not read Uzodinma Iweala's novel on which the film is based it's hard to tell how much Fukunaga's adaptation stays true to the original narrative, but the story he has delivered feels so whole and so effortlessly consecutive that there is no need to harp on this detail. If you know what you're getting yourself into, you know that “Beasts of No Nation” is going to be a devastating watch. It is a film about child soldiers in Africa and is so distant from what those of us settling down on our couches to watch the film on Netflix are accustomed to that it can't help but be somewhat shocking. Nothing we see in the film though, no matter how gruesome, is done purely for shock value. Rather, Fukunaga's highly stylistic eye is trained to capture not the arc of violence, but that of a single young boy who comes from a rather innocent and somewhat naive background to that of someone robbed of their childhood only to have it replaced with the inner-conflict of having to kill, to commit sins against the God they worship and question continuously whether or not they are making the right choices for their particular set of circumstances. There is no doubt this tragic story is a tough watch, but by the time we are brought around to the conclusion of the character arc Fukunaga intends to expose it can't help but feel like a necessary one to experience.
“Beasts of No Nation” follows the journey of a young boy, Agu (Abraham Attah), who is forced to join a group of soldiers in an unnamed West African country. Agu's childhood has been brutally shattered by the war raging through his country as he sees his father and older brother murdered in front of him while his mother and younger siblings have been jettisoned out of this region that they once called home. Upon escaping his own execution, Agu finds himself among the ranks of an intimidating Commandant (Idris Elba) who enlists soldiers of all ages and convinces Agu to join them so as to avenge his family and seek revenge on those that killed them. Naturally, this Commandant is a charismatic figure that tends to have darker motives beneath his charming surface. Elba exudes this presence with his appealing stature and frame while consistently playing to the trust factor many of his soldiers guard with their lives. He reassures them, lets them know he believes in them and makes promises that pull them in closer, painting his victims as all the more innocent and himself as being all the more villainous. While Agu fears his commander and many of the men around him, the focus on Agu's conscious is most relevant as Fukunaga likes to remind us that it's this preciousness that is the real victim. Agu is torn between the conflicting revulsion and fascination that comes with the actions he and his company are instructed to carry out. “Beasts of No Nation” depicts the inner-workings of war in a land most viewers will not be familiar with while having the nerve to never shy away from the explicit, visceral detail that makes up the complicated and difficult picture of a child soldier.
While “Beasts of No Nation” will likely come to be known largely as the first original film from Netflix, it should not be discounted as less of a film for being experienced more commonly on the small screen than that of a theater screen. While I myself watched the film through the subscription video service I'm somewhat kicking myself for not catching the film on the big screen when I had the chance. Knowing the film would be premiering less than a month after returning from the Toronto International Film Festival where the film was screened multiple times I opted to see something else I might not get the chance to see in theaters or anytime soon instead. Given Fukunaga's eye for the luscious exteriors and vibrant colors that paint this stark tale in a juxtaposing light it is something of a visual treat I wish I'd seen unfold in the format it was meant to. To that effect, Fukunaga has enlisted the tone of a seventies war film where the grain of the greens can be felt. The framing, on the other hand, consistently feels particular in that it remains a very cinematic experience-as if we're watching the photos of a National Geographic come to life. The images are both beautiful in the way they are captured, but completely distressing for the message they're conveying. Distressing may be the best word to describe this experience as a whole. As if knowing his audience would reach a boiling point, a point where the viewer as well as the main character would take a step back and look at the mess of a situation we'd become entangled in, Fukunaga plants a sequence where he turns his colors up to an almost infrared level as if to correlate the inner frustrations of all involved. It is a beautifully rendered scene that assures us, the viewer, that the film is in tune with the emotions of who it's playing to while doing its duty of visually telling the story of Agu and what he's experiencing. Pairing this with the flawless pacing only makes the distress of the film all the more affecting.
In all honesty though, the movie could have been a found footage style documentary and would still stand to be as riveting as it is in its current form as long as the performances of Elba and Attah were captured in similar fashion. It is expected that the engaging Elba be absorbing in his performance of the Commandant that is reportedly based largely on members of the Civil Defense Forces that the actor and Fukunaga consulted during the pre-production phase of the film. It is expected that he bring a layered and complex performance to this man who let's what is essentially a small amount of power go to his head. What Elba also brings to the presence of this commander though is a mythic sense that is immediately tangible even if it's false. There is a legendary sense to the persona that Elba radiates on screen, making the submission of so many young soldiers understandable if not all the more disturbing. On the other end of the spectrum is Attah who conveys the proper amount of childlike wonder with the necessary measure of mischief to make Agu both endearing and genuine. It is through Attah's performance of this fractured child, who has to be both a singular presence and represent a whole nation of injustice, that Fukunaga is able to balance the brutality of the details of his story and still convey this arc in a rather elegant fashion. It is in Attah's performance that there is some type of humanity and it is through his perceived mentality that this story is made compelling rather than just a play by play of ugly incidents made worse by senseless carnage. This is more than evident in a scene where Agu is forced to kill for the first time. The single downfall of the film is that it doesn't include smaller yet highly wrought moments such as this that make the tragedy of the situation all the more real. Still, Fukunaga has crafted a mostly poignant picture that is worth seeing even if it's difficult to get through.
by Philip Price
I know what you're thinking, "Hasn't there already been a movie about Steve Jobs?" and yes, there has, but nothing about this new film is comparable to the one starring Ashton Kutcher from 2013. Like the man himself, everything about this new Steve Jobs film is innovative in the way that it creates a product consumers will no doubt find engaging as well as hopefully being something most will feel the need to seek out the same way they feel the need to own an iPhone. Coming from an all-star roster of creative minds and performers “Steve Jobs” is an electric two hours in the theater that possesses an energy unlike anything I've seen in recent memory. There is so much going on in every scene, so many other things beyond the expected exceptional dialogue from writer Aaron Sorkin. It's clear this is a Sorkin script simply from the way people speak in perfect thoughts that are conveyed with precise wording, but more is the direction that Danny Boyle takes by highlighting this dialogue with a trained eye on the influencing factors that surround his actors and the words they're speaking to paint a fully-realized picture. While it is certainly necessary to have some pre-existing knowledge of Jobs and his reputation, this film is able to convey the major portions of what crafted the arc of this man's life in such an unconventional way that even if the film doesn't give you all you want in regards to story it will undoubtedly make you want to rush home and read more about the man and the myth that is Steve Jobs. One could criticize the film for not filling in these gaps or for feeling like an incomplete work by virtue of sticking to its unique structure, but for me this only propelled the energy forward while keeping the intrigue at top notch. Beyond the craft of the writer, director and their respectful teams that put this work together it is the stellar cast that allow us to buy into these captivating monologues. As Jobs, Michael Fassbender doesn't look much like the former Apple CEO, but he carries this film in every moment with a vicious performance that will no doubt keep him at the forefront of everyone's minds as we head into awards season.
Staged in a very strict three act structure we are taken backstage at the launch of three individual products that were pioneered by Jobs if not actually created by him. We begin in 1984 with the launch of the first Macintosh computer before moving four years down the road to after Jobs was fired from Apple by then CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels) and his board. Jobs was setting up shop with his NEXT brand at this point with bigger plans on the horizon. Finally, there is a 10-year jump to 1998 where Jobs had since been reinstated as the CEO of Apple and was getting set to launch the computer that would bring the company back from the brink of extinction with the iMac. Within each of these sequences Jobs is inundated with guests and personal issues that are seeking some kind of clarity or closure. It is in staying so true to its structure where the movie will draw most of its complaints. Naturally, a large portion of the conversations we see here likely took place at another location or at a different time, but it is all what is relative to Jobs at the presented stage in his life that matters. Obviously, the same four people weren't waiting backstage at every product reveal to hash out their issues and if you can understand that and apply it to what Sorkin is attempting to do your viewing experience will be all the better for it. Do I wish he would have varied up the guests a little bit? Not made Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg) a necessary conversation for each? Sure, there are a million Apple employees Jobs likely pissed off-give us a few variations, but I understand Sorkin's need to keep the arc intact by delivering a broad picture of a complex man through his most intimate of conversations. In between each sequence we are brought up to speed by a flurry of news reports, making the structure not feel as flawless as it maybe should. Still, “Steve Jobs” is an accomplishment in so many more ways than it isn't that these few shortcomings and complaints hardly render in your mind once you leave the theater. Instead, you're left awestruck by the sheer ease with which this dauntingly complicated man's life has just been explained to you.
That is what Sorkin is essentially doing with “Steve Jobs” after all: he's digging into the psychology of what made this man who was, on one hand, a tyrannical leader that alienated employees and made them miserable a global phenomenon and the face of the most beloved tech company on the planet to others. Jobs death elicited reactions akin to those of Princess Diana's passing. So, how can a person be both gifted and decent at the same time? This is the main idea the film seeks to explore and Sorkin gives us a warts and all biography of the man who, more than anything else, knew how to market himself as much as his products. Jobs was a walking contradiction. Jobs always felt a sense of rejection given he was put up for adoption as a baby with his sense of being exceptional only coming from the fact his adoptive parents told him they "chose" him. One might think this would lead to Jobs being especially passionate about his own children and yet he publicly denied his oldest child, Lisa (played by Makenzie Moss, Ripley Sobo and Perla Haney-Jardine at the three different stages of the film), essentially calling her mother, Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston), a whore in TIME magazine. Sorkin used Walter Isaacson's authorized biography as his source material and though I haven't read the book it is easy to see the overriding idea that permeates throughout the film in that Steve Jobs didn't care if those closest to him liked him or not, that his mind wasn't wired like the rest of us who find more value in our loved ones’ affections than worldwide praise. Jobs knew this about himself as he is portrayed here as a very perceptive individual and though it's clear the people who were heaping such praise upon him didn't feel connected to him because of his personality, but because of the stuff he made the genius in this is that Jobs made he and his products one in the same. A welcoming, smiling presence with the sense of something bigger behind the curtain when in reality all Apple has ever been is a company designed to make money and keep its shareholders happy.
How then, does one cram all of this complex confliction into three set pieces with the same handful of characters coming in and out of our titular character's life? It's accomplished by both keeping the themes broad as far as Jobs' life is concerned while letting the details of his smallest actions speak to these ideas. As Jobs, Fassbender is exceptional at giving the small moments his utmost attention; especially when they are intended to allude to the bigger picture of who this man was as a whole. One such example comes early on in the film when Jobs is arguing not over getting the Macintosh to say, "Hello," in the demo as he hoped it would, but about the "Exit" signs going dark when the rest of the lights go down during his presentation. It is a detail that could be easily overlooked as the main conflict with Hertzfeld and Chrisann is more than enough to keep this first segment afloat and yet the fact that having the theater in complete darkness so as to elicit a specific response from his audience is such a big deal to Jobs speaks volumes to the type of man he was. With each segment Fassbender is not only required to walk and talk and manage a million things at once while seemingly being fully prepared to go on stage and deliver a well-rehearsed presentation, but as an actor he is readying himself for a major showdown with at least one character per time period. In the 1984 segment that comes with Hertzfeld. Stuhlbarg is one of my favorite character actors working today so to see him go toe to toe with Fassbender in full on dictator mode is thrilling in and of itself. Their conversations are full of technical jargon and backdoor resolutions for shortcomings that might come up in the demonstration while the more emotionally resonant moments come when Waterston's Chrisann shows up to illustrate the absurdity of her situation. In short, both resonate in juxtaposing fashion so that we see the beginnings of the aforementioned contradictions.
For the first 45 minutes or so, as the first act rages on you can feel the buoyancy and the energy with which these actors are soaring through the meaty material. It truly is like watching an all-star sporting event where you're not concerned with sides or who's winning or losing, but rather just amazed at being able to see so many people who excel at their craft doing so in the same vicinity. As the second act begins and we can feel the gut punch that Jobs has taken after being exiled from the company he helped found we feel the movie's pace take the same punch. He is disheartened without being defeated and yet everything about his disposition at that time would have you think he is still the master of the universe, the Da Vinci he likes to think of himself as even if his public persona was nowhere close to that yet. In the second act the film begins to lose steam slightly until Daniels' Sculley shows up and all the cards are placed on the table. Watching pro's like Fassbender and Daniels (who, after serving three seasons on Sorkin's “The Newsroom,” is accustomed to the writer's style) go at one another is like listening in on an argument between your parents you know you're not supposed to hear, but can't help but to keep listening due to the pure intrigue of the truth of what goes on behind closed doors. In the final act, the big confrontation comes in the form of Seth Rogen's Steve Wozniak or the co-founder of Apple who built the first circuit board in a garage with Jobs in the seventies. While Rogen has only stepped into dramatic territory a couple of times in the past, he plays into Wozniak's humbly awkward appeal to great effect here by being the bubbling volcano that eventually erupts bringing one of Jobs' most heartfelt relationships to its knees and testing how far he's actually willing to go to remain in control even if it severs his longest-running friendship.
While Fassbender carries the film, it is Kate Winslet who is the glue that holds it all together. As Joanna Hoffman, Apple's marketing executive, Winslet is something of Jobs' closest confidante and the only person he ever feels comfortable enough to be himself around. Their relationship is the one that gives Jobs a human facet, the one outlet to which he can explain his rationale and it somehow make sense in a way that could be understood in typical human terms. Hoffman was also a large proponent of Jobs developing a relationship with his daughter and thus the film puts a large emphasis on the developing relationship between Jobs and Lisa. Given the man was a known terror when it came to the company he was running and the products he was pitching. Sorkin and crew stick to the constant condescending nature that Jobs exuded throughout each act with the only aspect in which Jobs is offered any redemption being with his daughter. All of this comes together to form a film that while guided by Sorkin's script is made whole by the direction of Boyle and the inclusion of multiple Bob Dylan references or insinuations of monk-like rituals and behaviors that will mean more if you know more about Jobs prior to seeing the film. The always moving camera, the extended takes, the framing techniques that vary by time period; everything about the film feels as calculated and as precise as one of Apple's launches giving the tone a brilliant mimicry with content that is relentlessly captivating. “Steve Jobs” paints it's titular character as something of a mythological figure, someone who attained knowledge beyond that of any mere mortal and blessed us with revelations of that knowledge one bit at a time. I have no doubt that is the way the real Jobs would have liked to be remembered and though he's still is presented as something of an asshole through and through there is a purpose behind his cruelness that pushed everyone around him to work for him and to make him look like the deity his ego always imagined he'd be.
by Philip Price
Yesterday marked two months until the arrival of the first new “Star Wars” film in over a decade. Disney marked the occasion by not only releasing the official poster for the film, but several teasers for the full trailer that has debuted tonight during Monday Night Football (you know, what most “Star Wars” fans tend to watch on Mondays). Every other movie in town has pretty much cleared out sans the fourth “Alvin and the Chipmunks” film (yes, fourth!) which just decided to go head-to-head with the mammoth J.J. Abrams sequel that will see the continuing adventures of Luke, Han and Leia and what are presumably plenty of new characters given the expansive cast. It's been six months since the last trailer dropped for the film in the midst of the “Star Wars” celebration that took place in Anaheim, Calif., but now we have what I assume to be the final trailer before the actual release of the film and the reality of there being a new “Star Wars” movie just over the horizon is finally becoming a reality. While I was going to try and resist paying attention to what this trailer might hold the anticipation is unbelievable and I couldn't help but to divulge every bit of this glorious clip several times already. Things of note are the surplus footage of antagonist Kylo Ren and our first glimpse at Princess Leia, but still no sign of Luke. The film stars Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, John Boyega, Daisy Ridley, Oscar Isaac, Adam Driver, Lupita Nyong’o, Gwendolyn Christie, Domhnall Gleeson, Andy Serkis, Warwick Davis, Kenny Baker, Peter Mayhew, Anthony Daniels and Max Von Sydow. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” opens December 18th.
'Fantastic Four' Wasn't as Bad as People Say, But Let's Hope Marvel Regains What's Rightfully Theirs
by Preston Tolliver
Perhaps it was the two months of bad reviews and the 9 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes that set the bar so low for the reboot film of Marvel's hallmark quartet, but watching the movie resulted in a startling thought: Fox’s “Fantastic Four” reboot wasn't bad.
Don't get me wrong – “Fantastic Four” was by no means a good movie, either. To say it was would be a bigger stretch than, well, anything Reed Richards did during the 106-minute duration of the movie. But, for a Fox-helmed Marvel movie, it wasn't bad.
And it wasn't bad "for a Fox-helmed Marvel movie," because, unlike their competitors on the other side of the Marvel Comic Universe, Fox doesn't exactly have a reputation for making solid super hero films. The ‘X-Men’ franchise is stagnant, and the upcoming “Deadpool” film comes off more as a plea for fans to stick around a little longer than it does a legitimate effort at creating a movie based on one of Marvel's most popular characters. Marvel Studios, however, has never had to pander -- they had their hook, line and sinker with first Iron Man movie.
Before we continue, let's get all the bad stuff out of the way -- where other origin movies have become known for their character development, “Fantastic Four” didn't offer much time with its characters for the viewer to gain any sort of attachments to them. We had more Reed Richards than anything, but even Miles Teller, the phenomenal actor that he is, seemed bored with the script at times, appearing to be less fantastic and more just a guy waiting on a paycheck (this, of course, was likely due to his falling out with “Fantastic Four” director Josh Trank). Further, while the movie seemed to drag too much in some areas, others areas that could have used much more face time were rushed. Essentially, the movie was 95 minutes of plot developments, and 5 minutes of action. And in a super hero movie, action should never ride shotgun, no matter how captivating the story could be (looking at you, “Watchmen”). Additionally, the story, while taken from a different angle, felt much like a recycled version of Fox's 2005 attempt, right down to the weird change-up to Victor Von Doom, an action among comic book movies that has become more sin than creative liberty. After all, what makes comic book movies a headache for movie studios isn't so much that the target audience goes into the movie knowing what's supposed to happen, but rather what's not.
That said, the performances, minus the parts where the cast seemed as bored with the writing as the audience probably was, were promising. Teller is an excellent young Richards, and Kate Mara plays a pretty good Sue Storm. Michael B. Jordan was an interesting take on Johnny Storm, and certainly is no slouch in the acting department, and all Jamie Bell had to do to nail down the part of Ben Grimm was appear likable, which he did pretty solidly. The story, for all its drab, is entertaining -- it just lacked balance. Had it followed the trend of other Marvel films and pushed the two/two-and-a-half hour mark, perhaps it would have filled in those holes.
Yesterday, Yahoo! posted that a deal seems to have been struck between Fox and Marvel Studios, sending the rights to Marvel's most famous family back home (however, the rumors were quickly denied). While the rumors are still swirling about and there's been no clear definition of what the future holds for Richards, Grimm and the Storm siblings, the shift would be a victory for everyone -- Marvel, for getting its trademark team back; Fox, because they know no one will shell out money to see whatever sequel they were planning; and the fans, because it's time we did have a good “Fantastic Four” movie -- it would spell doom for a cast that showed more promise than any of the Fox superhero movies that preceded it. However, should the “Fantastic Four” fall back into their creator's hands, the possibilities could be endless for Marvel's signature super-team.
by Philip Price
Written and directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (“Half Nelson,” “It's Kind of a Funny Story”) “Mississippi Grind” is a story about an expert talker and a man who doesn't know when to stop. It's a film about the slums of gambling and the inescapable ditch you're constantly trying to crawl out of when you can't avoid the itch. In this regard, it's admirable in it's telling of certain personalities and it is perfectly in line stylistically with those it owes its inspiration to. Whether it be “The Gambler” or “California Split” there is a distinctive ‘70s-inspired feel to these proceedings. Boden and Fleck have made a partnership of exploring human psyches with crippling problems, but never have they seemed to commit to a genre so boldly. With this distinction in mind, Boden and Fleck take on this specific tone more than anything and more or less capture what they seem to be going for due mostly to two charismatic and emotionally compelling performances from Ben Mendelsohn and Ryan Reynolds. The story is rather generic as “Mississippi Grind” quickly becomes a road movie about redemption these characters know will never be earned, but it is within this standard storytelling that the small, interesting caveats of character are born and are what continue to make the film as entertaining as it consistently is. Throughout the film Reynolds' Curtis comments on how it's not the destination, but the journey that matters most and that mantra stands true of the film as well. While this is a nice sentiment thus permitting the film to fall into certain clichés while hovering above average with its character development as well as the unexpected but engaging dynamic between the two leads. And yet, this oft repeated motto still doesn't allow the film, as a whole, to be anything more than an impressive experiment in nostalgia that succeeds in some areas and is only content in others. “Mississippi Grind” is a solid film, a movie of rhythms and textures, but it's nothing so compelling that it will stick with you.
We are introduced first to Gerry (Mendelsohn), a talented poker player whose habit is getting the best of him, as he sits in his car listening to a tape on poker tells. He meets younger player Curtis (Reynolds) at a casino he frequents in his home state of Iowa. Curtis is a player in the sense he can talk anyone into a distraction while displaying a confidence that is naturally appealing to the down on his luck Gerry. Gerry admits to not being able to pick up on Curtis' tell to which Curtis replies that it's because he doesn't play to win, but simply for the joy of playing. From here Gerry can sense something of a strange, but inherent kinship between the two of them. For the audience, it always feels as if Curtis has something up his sleeve, an ulterior motive of sorts, but for Gerry this is a moment of kismet; exactly what he needed at a time when he desperately needed something. After a night of drunken bonding and a day of betting on horse races that produces only better vibes between the two Gerry convinces Curtis to spot him enough money so that they might gamble their way towards a high-stakes poker game in New Orleans. This high-stakes tournament is put on by Curtis' friend, Tony Roundtree (James Toback), and Gerry more or less guarantees Curtis a win as long as Curtis sees him as a worthy investment. Curtis agrees and the two set off on a road trip through the South with visions of winning back what's been lost.
Again, like Curtis' headstone motto and his mentality about gambling itself, it is the journey that matters most and this road trip sets up the perfect way for the film to elicit what is necessary from our characters to make them both appealing and mysteriously engaging. It is being able to live in the midst of the moment and not think about the effects of your current actions or the end goal of a certain game, but Gerry simply doesn't operate this way and his nature allows for a cool juxtaposition to Curtis' free-wheeling take on life. It is during their journey that true motivations are revealed and genuine bonding ultimately takes place, but that shouldn't matter to you if the movie does its job-what should matter is the moments these two share. Every scene though, as much as it is meant to develop the relationship between these individuals, is also simultaneously working as a way to further develop the individual. Whereas it is easy for Curtis to place a bet and win or lose and walk away it is Gerry who can't stand to let the possibilities go thus forcing him to stay and try again; in short, he's addicted. As much as Gerry is a good poker player he is a horrible gambler and this trait gets the best of him which naturally brings out the worst in him. On the other side of things, Curtis is all too eager to constantly be moving. He says things like, "I like women too much to marry one," all while having a clear connection to Simone (Sienna Miller), a call girl at a casino, that he takes for granted when he leaves for extended periods of time. The women factor little into the film as far as actual characters go, but as with Simone and Curtis, both Vanessa (Analeigh Tipton) and Dorothy (Robin Weigert) are meant to highlight certain aspects of Gerry that better paint a full picture of who this man actually is.
And so, “Mississippi Grind” is essentially a character study of two personality types and how these opposite approaches deal with the same situation. It's an example of what makes certain people tick and while the film overall is something of a tepid excursion both Reynolds and Mendelsohn turn in exceptionally charming performances. Reynolds is a pro at portraying the smooth, fast-talker and while he delivers that same schtick here he seasons it with his older, more experienced age that he currently resides at which lends the role just enough vagueness to keep whatever hidden reasoning he might have for helping Gerry as point of intrigue. Mendelsohn, on the other hand, has the more guarded role of playing a certain facade to everyone around him while keeping everything that is going wrong in his life (which is a lot) tucked away on the inside. When Mendelsohn's Gerry cracks under the pressure it is heartbreaking not only because we know it's just another in a long line of misfortunes, but because we know it will only lead to another bet that will only dig his grave deeper. It is in these instances that we can't help but understand what the film is going for, not to mention much of the dialogue from Boden and Fleck is pretty outstanding, even if the film doesn't resonate as much as may expect. I liked “Mississippi Grind,” I would have no qualms with watching it again, especially given the blues-centered soundtrack of regional music that only further compliments the very specific atmosphere the film carries. I liked that the film focused more on the character dynamics for tension than any of the actual games being played and that it makes a stop in Little Rock that acknowledges the cities place in the South, but while Gerry and Curtis may find what they were looking for at the end of their rainbow I was hoping for a little more for the audience.