FILM REVIEW – THE HATEFUL EIGHT

THE HATEFUL EIGHT POSTER

Every three or four years a Quentin Tarantino movie is released and every three or four years people forget what a Quentin Tarantino movie is. General complaints in the theater I screened Tarantino’s latest were that it was really “heavy on dialogue” and featured the “n-word”. Interesting that people would be surprised a movie taking place a couple years after the Civil War featuring Samuel L. Jackson waving a gun in the face of an ex-Confederate General would feature the ‘n-word.’  It was funny to me because I remembered when I saw Django Unchained Christmas night three years ago, a large middle-aged woman was roaming outside the theater, screaming and crying, “I came here to see a fuckin’ Jamie Foxx movie, what the fuck kind of nasty ass shit was that?!” The Hateful Eight has all the fixin’s ya’ll come to ‘spect from a Tarantino feature — a surplus of beautifully rendered characters and dialogue laced with the most grotesque of profanities, racial and social tension and plenty of graphic violence. The only difference is that here, the violence is rarely a punchline. Not since the director’s debut Reservoir Dogs has a film of his felt so unsettling and sinister. Tarantino has made a movie about racism, gun violence and not being able to trust anyone, perhaps his most socially relevant and upsetting.

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Structured more like a stage play than a film, the film only features fifteen characters or so, with only eight leads. There’s a blizzard coming, and Bounty Hunter John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell) must transport his prisoner, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to Red Rock to hang. Along the way they pick up a black Union Major (Samuel L. Jackson) and an incredibly racist and stupid Sheriff (Walton Goggins). Unfortunately, they can’t outrun the blizzard for long so they must stop and camp out at a haberdashery for a couple days. There, they meet a grumpy Confederate General (Bruce Dern), a cowboy (Michael Madsen), an actual hangman (Tim Roth) and a Mexican (Demian Bichir). As the storm intensifies, their mistrust for each other intensify. Oh, and Channing Tatum shows up.

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A lot of people were upset in the theater because unlike Tarantino’s other features (with the exception of the criminally underrated Jackie Brown), The Hateful Eight is a slow burn. In fact, for the first two hours, the film is mostly dialogue. Incredibly entertaining dialogue that wonderfully builds eight wholly three-dimensional characters. However, most audience members will only see it as “a lot of talking.” It seemed like everyone was just on the edge of their seats waiting for a character to get their head blown off. Perhaps that gleeful anticipation of carnage speaks more about gun culture in America than a film about eight armed sociopaths locked in a room together. If there’s one complaint I had about the film, and it’s a big one, it’s Tarantino’s voice-over narration. It sounds like a DVD commentary and completely took me out of the story. It only appears for a brief while after the intermission, but it damn near ruins a fantastic sequence in the beginning of Act 2 for me.

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From a technical standpoint, The Hateful Eight is Tarantino’s most impressive work. The 70mm presentation looks absolutely amazing, from the beautiful wide landscape shots to the gargantuan close-ups. Robert Richardson’s cinematography is on-point and Ennio Morricone’s score is haunting. The performances are all fantastic with Kurt Russell and Samuel L. Jackson giving their finest performances in years as the closest thing the film has to protagonists. Jennifer Jason Leigh is getting the lion’s share of attention, but the real MVP is brilliant character actor Walton Goggins. As the ignorant Sheriff Chris Mannix, Goggins is simultaneously repulsive, hilarious and even sympathetic. This is not to say that Jennifer Jason Leigh is chopped liver. As the unbelievably vile Daisy Domergue, she delivers her best performance since the 90s. She’s absolutely frightening and with the exception of Goggins, delivers the best performance of the film by a mile. Rounding out the cast are Dern, Roth, Madsen and Bichir, all perfect in their roles. The only actor who seems out of place is Channing Tatum who seems to be playing Channing Tatum. He’s passable in other films, but standing next to these eight actors he’s noticeably Channing Tatum.

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When the dust and blood settles in The Hateful Eight you’re left with more of a sense of dread than pure adrenaline. The film opens with a shot of a wooden cross depicting the crucifixion getting pummeled by falling snow of the impending blizzard. Perhaps this is to signify that a nation built more or less under the blanket of Christianity (forgiveness, humility, ect.)  is ironically ripping itself to shreds over the prospect of monetary gain. Or maybe, The Hateful Eight is merely an aggressively cynical Western. Either way, it’s well worth your time and money if you have the stomach for it. Grade: A- 

 

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FILM REVIEW – THE BIG SHORT

THE BIG SHORT

The filmmaker who cut his teeth on Will Ferrell comedies has switched gears to make this hyper-cynical dark comedy about the mortgage crisis and eventual economy collapse of the late 2000s. Dr. Michael Burry (Christian Bale), a hedge fund manager with Aspergers, realizes how unstable the housing market is when he starts doing the math. Of course, no one believes him or even wants to believe him, so banks allow him to bet against the housing market by creating a credit default swap. Everyone thinks Burry is nuts, but one night at a bar his outrageous investment is overheard by Jared Vennet, an unbelievable bro-dawg investor played Ryan Gosling. Vennet accidentally calls hedge fund manager Mark Baum (Steve Carrell) and then two rookie investors Jamie Shipley (John Magaro) and Charlie Gellar (Finn Wittrock) accidentally discover a document about it while waiting to meet with Jared Vennett in his lobby for a meeting. It’s very comical how all the main players happen to stumble upon this investment opportunity by chance, and for the next two hours we switch back and forth from the three separate groups trying to profit and also, especially in Baum’s case, come to terms with how shamelessly greedy corporate America has become.

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The film does a great job analyzing the possible reasons while these practices have become so criminal and while most of the film (especially the dialogue) is sharp and funny, some of the humor is a little too on-the-nose. There is a re-occurring segment where celebrities explain complex investment mumbo jumbo in a “fun” and “exciting” way. This was an unnecessary gimmick that not only took me out of the picture but felt like a lazy way to simplify difficult concepts. Also, the fourth wall breaking becomes a bit repetitive after a while. We all understand that McKay and crew are clever so they really don’t need to beat us over the head with it.

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The highlight of the film is the acting. Christian Bale is fantastically subtle  as always while Ryan Gosling makes the perfect douche bag. Magaro and Wittrock are solid as the rookie investors and Brad Pitt does the best he can with a role that’s really a one-dimensional caricature as the rookies’ financial advisor.  The real stand-out of the movie is Steve Carrell as the out-spoken and foul-mouthed hedge fund manager Mark Baum. He’s the closest thing The Big Short has to a protagonist. While making him a very eccentric and entertaining presence, Carrell also imbues him with striking relatability. Although dealing with the suicide of his brother is a plot device that is used a little too conveniently to get the waterworks pumping, Carrell plays his emotional scenes with a surprising amount of restraint while succeeding in making Baum outlandish in other scenes. It’s an incredibly well balanced performance, the best of Carrell’s career, and it deserves some serious Oscar consideration.

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Adam McKay’s The Big Short actually works better as a drama than it does a comedy. When all the jokes settle and the characters are left to bask in how fucking awful the situation is, that’s when the film really takes flight. The Big Short is far from perfect, but with it, Adam McKay has made his most passionate and urgent film to date. I can’t wait to see what he does next. Grade: B+

 

Now That’s a Name I’ve Not Heard In a Long Time. A Long Time.

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Due to the hefty amount of spoiler sensitivity involved in Star Wars: The Force Awakens that has inspired unity on the internet that makes Jimmy Carter wish he had made a Star Wars picture, to the point that even vaguely nudging towards character traits or naming locations gets somebody very very disappointed in your lack of tact, I’m obviously going to have to start this review off with a URGENT SPOILER ALERT!

Not only because, y’know, people get mad about hearing what actor appears in the movie, but also because there are story elements that one has to discuss in detail or allude to in order to talk about this movie. It’s imperative, otherwise I’m just going to go into vague “this was good, that was ok” without elaborating and that just bugs me. I will obviously not reveal the really big plot points that are surprises – the ones that undoubtedly other viewers will walk out speculating and spilling their reactions about – but I have to get into a story synopsis at least and discuss how some decisions affected the final product.

So, if you don’t mind a vague at best, cursory at worst, knowledge of what happens in this movie, feel free to read on, but if you really don’t want to know a damn thing, this is the SPOILER ALERT OF NO RETURN AND TURN BACK NOW.

OK?

YOU READY?

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The first unshakeable feeling I got walking out of Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the feeling that I had seen this movie before. If I were in my 40s, I’d get a chance to be really snarky and claim I saw it in 1977, but instead I can only say that I have indeed since this film before except with only the slightest change in wardrobe.

And going on the internet has allowed me to see that pretty much all others who seen The Force Awakens have recognized all the exact same story beats of the first Star Wars picture, but the real tell and reward from reading these reactions (as well as allowing myself a little under a week to actually write this review at the risk of losing the hype that would bring views) is in seeing whether or not people feel this damned the movie or was a great boon to it. Some think it solidifies the movie’s role as a soft reboot to reign in more optimism and implant the new characters – whom we’ll get into – in a familiar story, others think its shamelessly lazy and derivative and a cop-out and just a poor cover for lack of originality.

I honestly sit somewhere in between one feeling or the other. If I’m being honest with myself, in spite of all my cautious pessimism, I left the movie thinking it was ok and I can even see myself eventually growing to like it reservedly the same way I do now with Return of the Jedi – which is on the same level as The Force Awakens more or less – or Star Wars – Episode III: Revenge of the Sith – which is still a bit underneath  The Force Awakens, because for all we can bitch and moan about how writers Lawrence Kasdan, J.J. Abrams, and Michael Arndt retrace Lucas’ original scriptwriting steps, we all need to remember that Revenge of the Sith has more cringe-worthy dialogue than even the worse The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones.

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Anyway, their script begins with Leia Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), Princess Leia’s top pilot in the Rebellion Resistance, sending his droid R2-D2 BB-8 off with an important document he just received to escape capture from the Empire First Order while Poe is taken prisoner on the way to the Death Star Starkiller Base by the masked black Sith Avenger of the evil Order, Darth Vader  Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who takes charge alongside Prickly British General Moff Tarkin Hux (Domnhall Gleeson). BB-8 finds his way through the desert planet Tatooine Jakku, where a gearhead who finds herself feeling trapped in the barren wasteland named Luke Rey (Daisy Ridley) and, upon finding out about BB-8’s documents, dedicates herself to returning the droid to the Resistance with the aid of Wild Card ally Han Solo FN-2187, a Stormtrooper defector who is dubbed by Poe “Finn” (John Boyega) during their daring escape from the First Order’s Star Destroyer. Rey and Finn journey across the galaxy with disillusioned elderly mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi Han Solo (Harrison Ford) who had once had a hand in the central conflict between Resistance and First Order ages before this movie’s opening, while Finn – with a death warrant on his head by his former employers – is less willing to be involved in the fight itself and more eager to escape his pursuers.

I know that was sort of annoying, but while of course it’s respectful that some of this movie’s most vocal defenders do not let the movie’s outright plagiarism of self bother them as that’s not wholly the point of the movie and the familiarity of it is in some cases comfortable, it’s important to recognize that yes, this movie is for real for real ripping itself off. It’s not superficial changes, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is exactly as recognizably unchallenging as everyone is saying.

Of course, what is especially interesting about this decision to retread into the first Star Wars is how Lawrence Kasdan was noted as the primary screenwriter returning after his work for the original trilogies… yet the original 1977 film is the only one of the three that had no writing input whatsoever from him. However, Star Wars creator George Lucas was still involved in both building the story for The Empire Strikes Back (Lucas has sole credit for this while Kasdan shares screenwriting credit with Hawksian legend Leigh Brackett, who died shortly after turning in her draft – how much of the draft was kept in the final film is still up to scrutiny) and co-wrote the script with Kasdan for Return of the Jedi. So this is Kasdan’s first entry into the original story and what’s more without the facilitation of George Lucas, who was almost certainly the real ideas man between the two of them.

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Let’s recognize and accept something right off the bat: All of the Star Wars scripts are the hands-down weakest part of the movie and while I’m certain there are many people who walk into those movies in anticipation of the story, it is not what keeps their butts in those seats. Hell, all of the Star Wars movies are derivative to a notable degree from mythology tropes and hero’s journey fixtures but it’s all something that George Lucas undoubtedly has an enthusiasm and knowledge for.

I don’t think Kasdan was that guy (and Abrams especially, Mr. “Mystery Box”, probably doesn’t even care about it), he was just the guy to filter what works and what doesn’t. All of this to point out that it feels like, honestly, every decision to hang tight intellectually to the Original Trilogy communicates more and more a lack of confidence and certainty in the storytelling that all the other Star Wars movies (even the prequels) – one that says “THIS is the journey we are taking these characters on” instead of tripping over itself to say “Hey, we’re not gonna screw it up! It’s gonna be EXACTLY. LIKE. THE. FIRST. TIME!” In spite of Star Wars just being derivative of The Hidden Fortress and Odin Knows How Many Westerns, it covered its recognizability with true weight on the story – the futility of leaving Tatooine, the menace of the Death Star, the thrill of the battle. Star Wars: The Force Awakens relies more on the cushioning of heightened expectations (which are of course unfair to it) with nostalgia.

Another detriment from this decision is what I call the Ghostbusters II effect – this desperation to dig into the exact same story beats means undoing most of what the last few movies fought to do to wrap up the story. You need to remove all of the resolutions between the characters – Han Solo and Leia (Carrie Fisher) are now separated and Solo has left the Resistance just because the story wants him to be re-re-disillusioned, the New Order rose from the Empire just because we need an antagonist, there’s also a poorly defined New Republic simply so that we can have another “blowing up Alderaan” in all of the ways The Force Awakens acts as a Greatest Hits movie for the franchise.

But the biggest one – the one that makes me most annoyed by this remnant play – is that every time the movie seems to imply that it is finally about to deviate and be its own story, it frustratingly returns back to A New Hope 2.0 mode. Rey and Finn are on their own adventure for a while and then revert back to Han Solo’s entry, the three of them break away again and then we get another Mos Eisley cantina sequence… and this is all frustrating because the new factors are admittedly more interesting than the old.

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The new lead actors for instance – Ridley, Boyega, Isaac, Driver – are better here than maybe any other Star Wars film has ever had and it’s even more impressive when their characters are kind of compromised on a screenwriting level. People have completely dismissed Rey as a “Mary Sue” on account of her skill set and that’s not really something I agree or disagree with (Anakin and Luke Skywalker are just as much Gary Sues, so it doesn’t bother me), but her emotional arc is absolutely solved halfway through the script so all that’s left is her evolution as a hero and Ridley gives Rey humanity and hesitance towards her newfound role in the universe that’s not in the dialogue or story beats that makes her earn the fact that the movie ends on her perspective despite it beginning on Finn.

Finn, on the other hand, has an excessive amount of atonal character traits. He has an urgent arc based on his previous affiliation with the New Order and his fear of their retribution towards him that makes him idealistically attractive as a protagonist and that Boyega is 100% qualified to portray, but that gets sidelined often by the movie’s eagerness to make him goofy and comic relief. It doesn’t entirely go together well, but not even Daniel Day-Lewis or Michael Fassbender would have been able to make such a terrible personality flip work and Boyega reins it in and imbues a balance of himself in Finn that we can totally believe this same guy who is ready to run away can sometimes go overboard on his interrogation.

Isaac, an actor I’ve adored for a long while now, has maybe the most undernourished character in Poe Dameron but, man, if his devil-may-care charisma didn’t steal the show every time he was on-screen, I don’t know what’s up. But even he’s not my favorite performance when it comes to the new villain Kylo Ren’s turn by Driver, an actor who has more autonomy than Hayden Christensen did as Anakin Skywalker did and so is able to completely play out the immaturity and emotional instability Ren has to literally steer scenes psychologically and make every moment Ren is in the same room as a protagonist feel threatening and unsafe.

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The older actors honestly are the real disappointment – Fisher is the Leonard Nimoy of this movie with no real reason to be here except communicating things we as an audience already knew, while Ford has his moments where he lets obvious fatigue with playing Solo again play into a disappointment and self-doubt and even times where we can recognize the smuggler inside him, but Ford feels like he’s about ready to go to sleep. In the meantime, Gleeson and Nyong’o just function as much as they need to while Andy Serkis gives his first performance under a mass of CGI where he is unable to emote in any way shape or form as Sith Supreme Leader Snoke. Max von Sydow is out as quickly as he’s in. And Mark Hamill practically forgot his lines.

OK, that last one was a joke. One that you won’t get until you see the movie. But hey, The Force Awakens is also a movie that assumes you saw the Original Trilogy – what with its dismissal of the sacred twist of The Empire Strikes Back and certain emotional beats just not hitting as hard when you don’t recognize these characters the way you do with the OT in your head – that the movie can only half work as a reintroduction into the saga. Plus it suffers the same problems as Return of the Jedi in maintaining that the entire universe revolves around one small family that irritates me.

That’s a lot dedicated simply to the narrative content of the film, but that’s honestly because there’s not much to talk about on the technical level. J.J. Abrams has never had much to him on the visual aesthetic without him lifting out of the Spielberg playbook like he did in Super 8 and he does so here sparingly, but to the point that most of the handful shots that actually tell a story had already been revealed in the trailers (reading earlier that he intended to use Terrence Malick, John Ford, and High and Low as his visual inspirations gave me a belly laugh) and the movie, I shit you not, ends on the ugliest shot of his whole career, a helicopter telephoto that jars completely with their need to make an unnecessary rhythm between close-ups and wides to pretend that they don’t solely rely on the actors to control the tone of every moment. Still, in spite of all the continuous camera movements and dutch angles done without reason, cinematographer Dan Mindel has a wise eye for color that can pop and distinguish the objects on-screen in a comic book manner, but it’s not in the same manner as distinguishing atmospheres and allegiances. I never felt hot watching Jakku the same way I did watching the sunbaked Tatooine, I never got a sense of isolation with the final location like I did the swamps of Dagobah, I never got a sense of unnerving sterility in Starkiller Base like I did the Death Star. This while Mary Jo Markey and Maryann Brandon are a little too eager to deviate from the Star Wars way of cutting sequences (the final climax – for all it being the most bullshit moment of the movie’s “WE ARE NEW NEW HOPE” – is such a great place for a cross-cutting showcase and instead we have to patiently wait until we don’t care about one end of the battle to move on to the next) and make the film more modernized that alarmingly is the only place where the movie might very well reject its source franchise. And the CGI, save for the miracle of BB-8, is honestly just as good now as the CGI in the prequel trilogy was, with enough places threatening to age as quickly as Revenge of the Sith has (I can’t decide if Snoke already has with his obvious scar tissue and limit of facial expressions to hide what the shadows can’t) and is intercut with enough practical effects and creature work (though one robot we focus on at the cantina feels kind of lazy) that I don’t have much of a reaction to yet. The costumes are inarguably the best thing the movie has going for it visually, feeling like an evolution from our expectations in a way the set design doesn’t and being the most effective element in its small changes from the original to communicate how much time has passed and give characters like Rey in her homely rags and Poe in his cocksure jacket that he lends Finn, who otherwise sports a completely characterless black (somehow going against the color scheme in the originals, since Finn never feels like a villain).

On the sound end, well, I literally can’t say more than we already have said about Ben Burtt’s intelligent application of sound to give physicality to these fantastical worlds (my favorite thing is what he does to BB-8 to make him feel like a character – from his beeps and whistles to communicate a charming sarcasm that’s more cute than anything else to the heavy thud when he’s rolling around on the spinning Millennium Falcon – maybe the only truly physical setpiece in the whole movie, when Rey and Finn escape Jakku) and if John Williams is for once dethroned by the acting as the consistently best thing in a Star Wars film, it’s not from a lack of quality so much as how much more subtle he is – recognizing these new characters enough to heel on his repetition of motifs for emotional manipulation, he only fades into those cues when they’re at their most suggestive – Snoke has a certain theme from Revenge of the Sith sneak in that almost feels like a spoiler, so I won’t name it – and otherwise doing his John Williams thing the way he does it best, sweeping musical landscapes of the most operatic kind.

In any case, that’s just a whole lot of sifting through the details to explain how I’ve overall just felt about the movie which is… ok. I thought it was simply ok. I think Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens can be switched around a lot on where they rank in my preference of the Star Wars films, but The Force Awakens is without a doubt better than every one of the prequels. Which is about as good as one expected and I certainly had my moments where I enjoyed myself beyond my expectations – the Falcon chase and BB-8 and Poe and especially the final lightsaber battle, which, despite poor editing in Abrams manner, holds on to the psychology of Empire and Return way better than expected – but I didn’t walk out feeling like I had seen a Star Wars film.

Maybe I need to give it a bit more time but that’s the biggest one – in spite of its need to hold onto Lucas’s characters and story beats, the lack of personality made me feel like I’d watched something with as much as a Star Wars film as The Muppets in 2011 felt like a Muppets movie. Still not entirely feeling like Star Wars is better than feeling a bad movie and whatever structural or storytelling flaws The Force Awakens has, it’s not a bad movie. It carries itself as far as it needs to be Rian Johnson takes the wheel and with the promise of these new characters and the suggestion of where they’re going now, maybe the force will finally awaken when that movie is released in two years… because for right now, it’s dormant… but it’s just a little bit ready…

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FILM REVIEW – YOUTH

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I used to think chugging Rumplemintz was the quickest way to induce vomiting, then I saw Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth. An agonizing, pretentious and unfunny two hour stretch that ranks along side shitting my pants in Funcoland  when I was eleven as one of the most uncomfortable experiences of my life. This review is going to sound needlessly harsh and mean-spirited, but it’s only a reflection of how bewildered and taken advantage of I felt in the theater. This is the cinematic equivalent of getting urinated on.

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Michael Caine as “Fred” in YOUTH. Photo by Gianni Fiorito. © 2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

Films built around old men musing about missed experiences in their youth are anything but original, and one must really have something urgent and poignant to say to stand head and shoulders above the pack. Unfortunately, Sorrentino just has his characters rehash things that have been said a million and half times about getting old – you don’t have the energy, you don’t have the drive and you have trouble urinating (the white hairs in my theater sure loved the heck out of this “classic” reoccurring joke.) In one scene, Harvey Keitel’s aging filmmaker is talking to a gaggle of horribly cliched young screenwriter characters. They are looking through one of those binocular things at scenic ski slope. You know, you put the quarter in and look at shit outdoors. Don’t know what it’s called. Don’t give enough of a fuck to look it up, either. Anyway, Keitel tells one of the young female screenwriters to look through it. He tells her that’s how you see life when you’re younger, up close. Then he flips it around and tells her to look at it. Everything is looks farther away and unattainable when you’re older. What kind of moldy, corny old metaphor is that?

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SET DEL FILM “LA GIOVINEZZA” DI PAOLO SORRENTINO. NELLA FOTO HARVEY KEITEL CON CHLOE PIRRIE, MARK GESSNER, NATE DERN, TOM BECKETT E TOM LIPINSKI. FOTO DI GIANNI FIORITO

Youth might have been easier to handle as just a schmaltzy obvious old dog comedy, but Sorrentino adds a heavy dose of melancholy to the mix. This might be the first feel-bad sentimental movie ever made. First of all, Youth follows a bunch of ridiculously rich and famous elderly people lounging around in a beautiful Swiss resort. Surrounded with luxury most people have only seen on television, we’re supposed to empathize with these sad rich assholes getting massages and watching beautiful women swim naked all day. I could understand this if the film wanted to make a point about taking privilege for granted, but it doesn’t. In fact, it doesn’t really explore the characters at all. Instead of properly exploring the characters, Sorrentino found it important to add a bunch of beautifully shot but obscure imagery of artists performing for the depressed older gentleman while contemporary indie music blasts in the background.

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I have to give credit where credit is due, and applaud the film’s cinematography. It’s stunningly gorgeous. If only it was enhancing an actual story. The acting is solid for the most part. Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Paul Dano and Rachel Weisz do the most that they can with underwritten, uninteresting and unrealistic roles. There’s a monologue given by Weisz that is so expository and on-the-nose you can’t help but laugh. If there’s an MVP in Youth, it’s Jane Fonda as a bitter, aging actress who shows up in the film for five minutes. Those five minutes shared with Keitel’s aging filmmaker are the most powerful five minutes of the film, and make you wish Youth had been about these two characters. Instead, we get gorgeously filmed pee jokes scored by Sun Kil Moon. Kill me. Grade: D 

History by Lightning Leaves Scorched Earth

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I really wonder if I am remotely qualified to review one of the most notorious pictures of all time, The Birth of a Nation, in any manner at all – whether approaching it simply as movie or looking back at the century since it came out taking the entire world of American cinema by storm (and that’s me being very reserved – many of its technical introductions, if not innovations, really transcend nationality of film) having canonized it as an irremovable part of our film history. It is a landmark for better or worse and it’s more mandated as essential viewing for anybody interested in film as a document of historical sensibilities or the craft of the medium itself. And it is immediately accessible to anyone – being in the public domain, on Netflix Streaming Services, and on YouTube, among other ways to find it.

Especially in the face of the state of racial relations here in 2015, it’s especially a tough question to ask if I’m to really shrug off its disagreeable politics and attitudes to just judge the film on solely on its aesthetics or if I’m going to have to recognize that D.W. Griffith’s creative ambition and his narrow viewpoints come from the same places and we have to hit them both head on.

But The Birth of a Nation was always that towering mammoth of a historical picture that I always had half a mind to look back on and review on my own grounds and now that it is 2015 – literally 100 years since 1915, the year of the film’s creation – it comes a point that I realize it is the time to jump into that picture and try to shake out my feelings about it. Though, the fact that 2015 is also a year of significant events alongside the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of the Baltimore protests, Walter Scott and Sandra Bland’s deaths, or the Charleston shooting, deserves some mention, I’m not gonna be able to apply this to the The Birth of a Nation‘s criticism the same way that I will when I finally post on Panel & Frame about Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly sometime this coming week.

In the meantime, The Birth of a Nation will be something to simply approach as what it is. That’s it.

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And what is the movie on the narrative is the ties that bind and the discord that splits two families close to each other during the Civil War that changed America irrevocably and its aftermath Reconstruction, based on their relations to each other and where they stand. The Northern based family is the Stonemans – abolitionist patriarch Senator Austin (Ralph Lewis), his daughter Elsie (Griffith’s interminable muse Lillian Gish), and his sons Tod (Robert Harron) and Phil (Elmer Clifton). In the Old South resides the more voluminous Camerons – young Southern Gentleman Ben (Henry B. Walthall) will be our primary protagonist and not simply by screentime proxy, but there is also a notable presence in his sisters Flora (Mae Marsh) and Margaret (Miriam Cooper).

In the first act of this infamously 3-hour silent picture, The Stoneman sons join the Union Army while the Cameron sons enter the war on the side of the Confederate (Ben being joined by his brothers Wade and Duke, played by George Beranger and Maxfield Stanley respectively) and so begins the tragedy of their place while the world changes around them as all but Ben are casualties of the bloodiest war in U.S. history. Ben however is still put under legal jeopardy when he gains notoriety as a Confederate Colonel and is forced to be attended to medically in the North by none other than Elsie herself, whom we are early on revealed that Ben has long held a romantic torch for. Elsie and Mrs. Cameron are able to make an audience with President Abraham Lincoln himself (Joseph Henabery) and successfully make a case for Ben’s presidential pardon alongside Lincoln’s many attempted policies to reconcile the Confederacy and Union into one nation again after the Civil War has torn the United States apart.

Lincoln’s post-war attempts are cut short as John Wilkes Booth (who I just realized is played by Raoul Walsh! THAT Raoul Walsh! The guy who made White Heat and High Sierra and if you haven’t seen those, stop and go watch them! Speaking of directors in little roles, here how about that John Ford playing a Clansman?!) executes the President shockingly at the Ford Theatre and Sen. Stoneman and his fellow Congressmen begin to corrupt the Reconstruction to their own vitriolic means against the South as the first Act of The Birth of a Nation concludes.

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And I’m gonna take a break from synopsizing the moving picture to note how remarkably restrained the First Act is in its attitudes, though not less than obvious that Griffith had clear sympathies for the Confederacy beyond narrative. Romanticizing Confederate soldiers is still a classical storytelling trope used to this very day without obligating the work to share the points of view of the Confederacy (the last notable usage to my mind is essentially the Firefly/Serenity franchise, albeit space Confederates), but Griffith goes above and beyond to portray the Southern way of life as fragile and essential – the Cameron daughters particularly as framed as pure young virginal allegories for how perfect life already is while the politicians in favor of the abolition of slavery, namely Sen. Stoneman, are all bluntly high and mighty and flaunting in their idea that they know what is best and that change and progress is necessary (I really fought about whether or not to put progress in scare quotes to portray the movie’s attitude accurately, but I really can’t even pretend to put myself in Griffith’s bigoted perspective). And the minstrel presence of two blackface actors portraying black servants of the families already serves as precursor to the truly ghastly Second Act of The Birth of a Nation, where blackface becomes more than just caricature but an appalling way to visually identify the villains as being the dark and blackened men who act on animalistic instincts in desire of sex – as is the case of Gus (Walter Long) – or supremacy, in the case of the mulatto antagonist Silas Lynch (George Siegmann).

Which causes me to realize I haven’t explicitly acknowledged what it is that portrays The Birth of a Nation as such a problematic film. Let me take a deep breath:

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The screenplay by Griffith and Frank D. Woods is adapted from a novel called The Clansman by Thomas Dixon, Jr. and the play Dixon also produced after the novel’s publication. The title of that novel is based particularly on the events of the Second Act where Ben himself is now moved to action by free blacks now mobbing their way into influencing the South to a darker age and, by taking said action, creates the Ku Klux Klan to fight off the Reconstruction.

… Yes. The Birth of a Nation truly shows its distorted colors in its second half and desperately maintains that they’re red, white, and blue.

Anyway, what makes this most shocking is how aesthetically powerful the movie is. There’s a reason it has always been considered a gigantic snapshot of all the capabilities of the cinematic medium in the same vein as Citizen Kane and Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans and that comes from how impressively stimulating it is. D.W. Griffith brings to the table panoramic shots in full frame 1.33:1, knowing just how to accommodate the scale to fill the image with nostalgic liveliness in the early scenes and surrounding action in the war and raid scenes at the same time using the implication of off-screen space. It utilizes the pointed perspectives of irises to portray the intimate and character-based, alongside the length of the picture desperately attempting to expand the scope into more of an epic and involving atmosphere. It competently contains challenging night scenes and occasionally moves the camera further into the lives Ben and Lynch. Its cross-cutting, of course, by Griffith himself in moments of peril and tension – namely in the infamous scene where Gus chases down Flora while Ben races to rescue her – is the stuff of legend. But what is of course worth noting is that most of these skills are not without precedent, only that The Birth of a Nation is a big enough splash to pioneer them into the basic and involuntary artistry of film and a momentous enough picture in its ambition to be admired for its ability to say the things the way it can.

What really surprises me, though, are the storytelling techniques that are ahead of their time in The Birth of a Nation in both the best ways and less than pleasant ways, and I think they all culminate in its war scenes in the First Act. Continuously pummeling scenes of violence that does the impossible (according to Francois Truffaut) of propelling further and further into the fight without any excitement, but without any sound work to give one more dimension to the experiential part of the film. I especially think sound would have really benefit the slow and lengthy shots where we watch each of the Stoneman and Cameron brothers die and languish, having the unsettling rhythm of war turn more and more distant as their gazes become vacant and we watch their souls leave them. It’s agonizing in a manner it aims for, but not with the same potency as the rest of the film pumps through its veins. What does give the unpleasantness of war its biggest potency is dousing the frame of the war scenes in a visceral red until all is settled and we return to the usual grey of silent cinema, now having more of a thematic meaning as the rubble after the battle has reduced everything to dust. A devastating portrait of war that pre-dates All Quiet on the Western Front, the most devastating of war films.

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You see, the formal construction of The Birth of a Nation is immaculate and while I would not hesitate to claim the following film Griffith made in vague response to this one, Intolerance, would better take artistic flourishes with the tools Griffith displayed here, it is impossible to argue against The Birth of a Nation‘s spot in canon no matter how much we might resent it.

And I really have to admit to resenting it now.

The First Act of The Birth of a Nation is relatively fine, the story it uses its impressive tools for is a naive fiction based on romanticism with its ugliness merely sitting in its pocket. I’d say if it weren’t for that First Act, the movie would be hard to understand what there is to admire about it. Its racism is muted, never impossible to ignore, but sidelined in the way of its emotional manipulation towards faces as genial and attractive as Gish’s and Walthall’s. It’s essentially no different than recognizing Gone with the Wind‘s grandeur alongside its objectionable content.

But that Second Act… that Second Act is like suddenly finding a real nightmare on your hands. It’s the darker side of how skilled someone can be in crafting a despicable narrative in art when he has the talent to do so. That Second Act is completely morally reprehensible, made all the more shocking because it tells its tale almost as well as the First Act, if not for how obviously it dips its hand in melodramatics then.

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For one, Lynch is already introduced as an unnerving psycho who’s devious grin and buggy eyes is just more and more of a manner of turning black people in this movie into cartoons, but it’s nothing compared to the scenes portraying black representatives and voters in Washington as picking their feet, and eating fried chicken, and drinking like, after the Stonemans and Camerons are given broad but sophisticated presences all throughout Act I, we have here the worst Looney Tunes short in existence.

In the meantime, it underlines this misrepresentation of black people with the elitist suggestion that Congress is FORCING white people to salute and allow black soldiers to pass and legislating mixed marriages and at one point a handshake becomes a point of contention between Ben, a revered war hero, and Lynch. Because “are these the sort of people you want marrying your daughters or sitting in your courtrooms? For shame!”

It only gets worse underneath when it uses these tensions to justify summary execution of a black character, turn it around to imply a white man’s life is in danger and more valuable, and finally lets its melodrama go full throttle to release Lynch upon the Stonemans as living plague targeting Elsie herself for his lecherous desires. And my, how fearful I am of how persuasively the actor’s performances and Griffith’s editing takes charge of expressing the peril of Dr. Cameron’s legal charges, the daring heroics of Ben’s Klan riding down to save the two families and the South, the implication that there are “loyal” black folk as well who “know their place” (really, the entire perspective of Griffith’s racism seems less malicious and more absent-minded and that’s severely depressing in what says about American culture in the later 1800s to 1910s), the “unity” that comes from bigotry and subjugating the black population, and… oh boy! The best damn part! the implication of divinity and peace in that same amount of subjugation by tinting the frame again into a golden shimmer and superimposing the image of Jesus Christ over the happy people once the blacks are back in their place and kept from our sacred voting booths by intimidation (I know I stated I’d not to apply 2015 racial relations to this, but seeing mounted horsemen guarding those booths with rifles to scare blacks out really says a lot especially today)! Oh God Bless Us Every One!

It makes me want to spit the taste out of my mouth as soon as it’s off and I can’t help knowing how effortlessly the film feeds these bias ideals towards sexuality, race, and class, by the confidence and stature of its technical achievements. Maybe the fact that we recognize its persuasiveness is exactly what holds it as an eternal tenet towards moviemaking and the expressiveness of the visual and image-based, but you cannot by any means separate the politics from the art when the two are so very much intertwined as they are here. Especially in consideration of how aggressive it announces those principles it has around its second half. It’s just how it goes. I respect as a picture, but in the end, I don’t think anyone is obligated to. And I wouldn’t dare suggest one should reject their feelings for it, one way or the other. But that doesn’t mean I have to give it all of my respect nor do I have to look up to Griffith or the hypocrisies of this movie’s portrait of America’s virtue as threatened by integrating black people and whites together and then ending on this pompous note:

Dare we dream of a golden day when the bestial War shall rule no more? But instead — the gentle Prince in the Hall of Brotherly Love in the City of Peace.

… Fuck off.

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FILM REVIEW – STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS

SPOILERS! MAJOR SPOILERS! YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED, HOLD-OUTS. SERIOUSLY, JUST SEE THE GODDAMN MOVIE ALREADY AND STOP WHINING ABOUT SPOILERS ONLINE, YOU BUTTHOLES.

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With Star Wars Episode VII, J.J. Abrams has made a promise. A promise to honor the original Star Wars trilogy while adapting the series to the more cynical and less romanticized world of 2015. A promise not to let that fat white hermit crab, George Lucas, anywhere near the writing room. It’s also a promise to add more much needed humor into the series.  While there are some unbelievably spectacular action sequences, most of Force Awakens seems like set-up for the new trilogy.

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The film spends a lot of time introducing new characters and re-introducing older characters, as well as introducing new plot points for the new trilogy. Unfortunately, most of the action upstages much needed character development on a few key players, namely Rey (a very good Daisy Ridley). It was odd that she just automatically knew how to use the force at a fairly advanced level without any training. The film also doesn’t do much to build Poe (the great Oscar Issac) or his relationship with Finn (John Boyega). Towards the ending of the film, there’s a moment shared between the two that is supposed to have a lot of emotional weight. Unfortunately we haven’t seen their friendship build so it seems really forced and awkward. They’re just all of a sudden as close as brothers and we’re supposed to just shut the hell up, nod and smile. A good contrast to this relationship is the relationship of Han and Luke in the original trilogy. Initially they hate each other (like any hot bromance), and eventually they earn each other’s trust by saving each other’s lives on numerous occasions. Abrams should have added more friction to Poe and Finn’s relationship to make it work.

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A lot of minor characters including a wasted Lupita Nyongo as an old tangelo, Domnhall Gleeson as a beautiful Nazi and one of the aliens from Prometheus (voiced by Andy Serkis) are just kind of there to move the plot forward. On the other hand, the character of Finn minus the suspicious bromance  with Poe, is a really well developed character. Boyega brings a lot of personality and likability to the character as well. The best character out of the new bunch is Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren/Ben Solo. Most everyone I saw the film with hated him for being a “whiny little bitch”, but I felt that his character perfectly inhabited all of the traits of a person seduced by the Dark Side. Imagine for a second, having Han Solo as a father. Emotionally distant and prone to anger, it’s easy to speculate that Ben didn’t get much of a strong male role model. A villain this unpredictable and emotional played by such a talented and nuanced actor  is what Star Wars needed.  There’s nothing more threatening than an unstable individual. They don’t think clearly, so you don’t have any idea what they’re going to do next.

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The returning cast is a mixed bag. Carrie Fisher is predictably terrible, mushing her words together like a broken garbage disposal. Mark Hammil gives a really dramatic look, and C3PO delivers the biggest laugh of the film. Harrison Ford is far and away the best part of Force Awakens. I don’t know if it’s just his general disinterest in the Star Wars series shining through or a remarkably spot-on portrayal of guy getting too old for this shit. Whatever it is, it works. The character is really well written and the decision to have him die at the hands of his son the best dramatic decision the film makes. He’s the perfect bridge for Rey to Luke Skywalker.

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Star Wars Episode VII is far from perfect but it’s the best film in the series since The Empire Strikes Back. The cheesy dialogue, convenient plotting and forced relationships still exist to a degree, but everything this go around seems more inspired. The cinematography and all the technical aspects are better than they’ve ever been and the performances are actually believable. I could spend another paragraph talking about how all the Nazi imagery is too on-the-nose and possibly triviales the Holocaust. However, I’d rather just wrap things up by saying this is a really good and entertaining film that is well worth your $10. Grade: B+ 

 

 

 

Dinosaur Eats Money

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Jurassic World – the anticipated fourth film in the Jurassic Park series since Jurassic Park III 14 years ago – came out to an overwhelming performance at the box office, breaking summer blockbuster records and stealing away 1.7 billion dollars. Though it was undoubtedly going to be a huge success, nobody saw that shit coming. I don’t care how excited you were about dinosaurs, NOBODY saw this sort of success coming. As a result, not only is Jurassic World the highest-grossing movie of 2015 yet, it is also the third highest-grossing movie of all time (unadjusted for inflation).

We’re about hours away from the release of the one picture that could threaten to remove Jurassic World from its throne so I think it does to look back on it for now and see how, in spite of its box office performance, the movie itself happens to fare content-wise.

And the answer is… it’s ok.

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We’re far enough from its massive hyped-up release (though I was not part of that hype) that a lot of people have thrown Jurassic World back to the dogs and claimed that it’s a really obnoxious piece of crap and I think their arguments are not invalid, but I also kind of remember having something of a good time with the movie during my two hours in the theater. In any case, Jurassic World is itself better than The Lost World: Jurassic Park and Jurassic Park III, but clearing that line is not a real challenge. But out of the three sequels to Jurassic ParkJurassic World is the only one capable of functioning as fluffy useless popcorn film, the aim all four films had to begin with.

What’s probably my biggest gripe is how much of that function comes from director/co-writer Colin Trevorrow and co-writer Derek Connolly’s tapping into the nostalgia of the concept – namely hitting on the idea of “what if the park was actually opened for once just as John Hammond envisioned?”, one of the only points of interest in revisiting the Jurassic Park brand and… well, they did build it and all. The design of the park is sort of sleek and leafs are undoubtedly taken from the idea of Universal Studios, but I am a bit disappointed in how little the film feels like a day in the park. There’s an extremely brief montage dedicated to showing “look at all these things people can do with dinosaurs now” that even includes a very shaky moment where a child in the foreground of the frame awkwardly hugs a CGI baby brachiosaur in a very confusing physical manner. But I didn’t feel like a festive theme area was going on around these characters, I just felt like I watched a promotional reel asking me to go take a visit.

Which isn’t possible, not only because it’s fiction, but because Jurassic World is still a Jurassic Park movie and so shit’s gonna get destroyed by some convoluted and cliched blunders.

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Those blunders being based on how Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), operations manager of Jurassic World, and owner of the park Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan) plans on unveiling their new homegrown megahybrid dinosaur – the Indominous Rex – despite their animal trainer Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) suggesting it to be a bad idea. In the meantime, Dearing is making sure her nephews Zach and Gray (Nick Robinson and Ty Simpkins respectively) are being taken care of by her assistant Zara (Katie McGrath) and Owen is trying to dodge Vic Blart’s (Vincent D’Onofrio, and I know that is not the name of the character, but my friends and I could not help making Blart Blart comparisons) pitches on using Owen’s trained velociraptors as weapons for the military – perhaps the single most Crichton aspect of this film yet.

Somehow this pajama jam of arbitrary characters and storylines – alongside a returning Dr. Henry Wu (BD Wong) from the first Jurassic Park eager to continue experimenting on dinosaurs – leads to the intelligent Indominous breaking its way out of its confines and wreaking havoc over the park like how infamously done 22 years ago.

When you’re done laughing, I want to remind everybody that even the first Jurassic Park was not exactly a pinnacle of screenwriting. All of the franchise’s scripts have been lousy, but they’ve been able to lead into their central catastrophes in a pretty organic manner. Jurassic World doesn’t give itself that chance really, it’s just haphazardly stacking events on top of each other to lead to the Indominous’ escape and then the episodic attempts by our leads to stop its rampage on the park by different means, lifting many of these incidents from action movies so recognizable I’m surprised Amblin wasn’t sued for plaigairism (Predator and Mimic are in fact the strongest shades I recognize throughout Jurassic World, but if I have to list all the movies it mimics, I’m gonna be here a while). Many of which include moments like that free-roam orb ride and pterodactyl release that just absolutely causes me to call bullshit on character decisions.

Like I’m obviously open to people in movies making bad decisions, but this movie didn’t have much on the human level to sell those decisions beside as flimsy foundation for the central premise. This movie performs a feat I honestly thought impossible by making the usually charismatic Pratt feel more like a placeholder action hero. I only think one can appoint him the protagonist of the film by mere screentime and even his post-2014 recognizability doesn’t make him standout amongst the rest of the flat characters who are manipulated by the screenplay simply to do things to keep the movie going and then stand in the background with no inner life whatsoever. Masrani is perhaps the closest thing one could call a dynamic character an account of how many different directions the script throws him – one moment he cares about the park attendees’ safety, the next “protect the assets”, another moment he decides “I can pilot a helicopter for what is an extremely imperative mission”. We can’t seriously buy these people acting the way they do.

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But hey, that’s a lot of retrospective ripping onto a movie that I actually liked. Like, I said, the point of Jurassic World was always to just be a really fun and big popcorn spectacle and THAT’s really where it succeeds with itself. Sure, I was just complaining about its setpieces of tension being blatantly derivative but that never removes the grandeur of moments like the climactic battle between the Indominous and a particular dinosaur we were damn well willing to see again, or how we were totally sold on Chris Pratt riding a motorcycle alongside his rap group, or how I 100% love the Mosasaur and think it’s the greatest thing the movie has up its sleeve. Even if it’s used for one of the more morally ugly moments where the movie stops its harmless destruction scenes (with even an intercut of Jimmy Buffett himself double-fisting margaritas while running away from pterodactyls. I’m not bullshitting, the brother has his priorities in order) to give an otherwise boring character a shockingly cruel death, the mosasaur’s maybe the most accurate yardstick for the movie’s attempted scale – not stealing screentime, but popping every once in a while to go “hey, this is a big damn movie”.

Of course, the movie’s attempt to match the mosasaur just leads to the climax becoming a bit more sprawling and elements stacked on top of each other over and over, but hey, there was no way the movie was coming out of this clean and the fact that it wants to give you a ride (even if it’s not exactly the ride you expect) is enough to have made me left the theater with pretty much a smile on my face. It’s definitely not going into any canons of mine, but I can’t exactly look back and say “the movie is a pile of crap”. Trevorrow is clearly just trying to make the movie function enough to be worthy of the idea of “Summer Blockbuster with FUCKING dinosaurs”, even at the risk of its ambition leading to disaster. And if there’s one thing I admire, it’s ambition even above imagination.

The ambition seems to have been enough to keep people coming enough to overwhelm the movie’s release, more than expected even with its brand recognition. In just a few hours now, with Star Wars: The Force Awakens, we’ll just about see how it fares in the box office with its own name recognition. And hey, franchises created by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, the New Hollywood guys accused of killing New Hollywood. And hey, Trevorrow is even directing Episode IX! How you like that?

Because I’m just… ok with it.

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TOP 15 SHOWS of 2015

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2015 has been an absolutely stellar year for television and here is what I found to be the absolute best of the best. Keep in mind, this is merely an opinion piece and you’re more than welcome to your own in the comments section.

15. Transparent (Amazon)

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Transparent remains one of the most emotionally rich and well acted comedies on television, but not all the risks taken by it’s bold second season paid off. The Pfefferman family is getting harder and harder to identify and empathize with, the Holocaust flashbacks are bizarrely out of place and it’s just not as funny as it’s first season.

 

14. Game of Thrones (HBO)

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Although Thrones concluded amazingly well, with three back-to-back episodes that ranked among the series’ best, the first seven episodes were rather sluggish and underwhelming. This is easy to forgive, seeing as though Game of Thrones is the most complex and layered show on television by a mile. Adapting Martin’s novels into one-hour increments must be a bitch and a half.

 

13. Nathan For You (Comedy Central)

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While not as consistent as the first two seasons, Nathan For You‘s third outing offered three mind-bogglingly brilliant episodes: Electronic’s Store, Smokers Allowed and The Hero. It’s the most cringe-worthy television out there.

 

12. Hannibal (NBC)

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I could rant all day about how much I hate NBC for canceling the only decent drama on their network, but I’d rather talk about how much of a miracle it is that Hannibal was ever allowed on network television in the first place. Besides being incredibly gruesome, Hannibal was an incredibly cerebral character study of two introverted geniuses who form a prickly friendship on the basis of being the only people who understand each other. Season 3 wasn’t as fully realized as the incredible second season, but it did feature some of the show’s most haunting imagery as well as bumping up the always excellent Gillian Anderson to series regular.

 

11. W/ Bob and David (Netflix)

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Without a doubt, my favorite sketch show of all time is Mr. Show with Bob and David, so naturally I was beyond stoked for Netflix to resurrect it. W/ Bob and David is a little different in style and tone than HBO’s Mr. Show, and while not as great in it’s limited four episode run, this was definitely the most imaginative sketch comedy 2015 had to offer. Just watch the Dry Cleaner’s sketch.

 

10. Justified (FX)

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Possibly one of the most underrated shows of all time, Graham Yost’s pulpy powerhouse Justified reached the heights of it’s near-perfect second season in it’s sixth and final year. Capping off a solid season with an intense and unlikely series finale that featured the show’s finest scene involving Timothy Olyphant’s Rayland Givens and Walton Goggin’s Boyd Crowder. “We dug coal together.”

 

09. Mr. Robot (USA Network) 

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If you told me a year ago that one of the most unique and unsentimental shows not television would be on USA network, I would have called you a liar. With shows like Psych and Suits, USA Network hasn’t exactly paved the way for fearless, gritty dramas. However, Sam Esmail’s sad and angry indictment of Corporate America is powerful, unpredictable and exactly what we need right now.

 

08. Togetherness (HBO)

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The Duplass Brothers’ awkwardly hilarious show about four unhappy thirtysomethings had the most painfully realistic dialogue and hands down the finest acting from any television comedy I’ve seen this year. I also related to Steve Zissis’ Alex Pappas more than any other character on television or film this year.

 

07. Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp (Netflix)

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Far and away, the hardest I’ve laughed this year was watching Netflix’s reboot of the Showalter/Wain 2001 camp cult classic Wet Hot American Summer. Featuring fantastic guest spots from John Slattery and Jon Hamm, and a lead performance from a very fat Michael Showalter. My god, did he get fat! He’s fat!

 

06. Show Me a Hero (HBO)

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David Simon, the genius behind The Wire, brings us an incredibly unsentimental portrayal of Nick Wasiscko’s (a career best performance from Oscar Issac) struggle to build low income public housing in a white middle class Yonkers neighborhood. Filled with extremely realistic characters and extremely frustrating city council meetings where everyone is just shouting over each other, Show Me a Hero was at times a chore to watch but it was ultimately rewarding. Alfred Molina, Catherine Keener and most surprisingly, Jim Belushi, deliver stellar supporting performances.

 

05. Better Call Saul (AMC)

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Everything was stacked against this show, a tonally different spin-off of the most acclaimed television drama of our generation. However, great writing trumps all, and Better Call Saul had some of the sharpest writing of the year of any medium. Led by an unexpected tour-de-force performance by Bob Oedenkirk, that makes you feel deep empathy for a character that was such a sleazy shitbag on Breaking Bad. Great supporting performances are provided by Jonathan Banks reprising his role of Mike and the hilarious Michael McKean as Oedenkirk’s very ill older brother.

 

04. BoJack Horseman (Netflix)

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Groundbreaking in that it’s the first animated show to work just as well as a drama as it does a comedy, BoJack Horseman follows the existential crisis of washed up 80s sitcom actor/horse. Instead of making BoJack a predictably vile mess like Californication did with Duchovny, show runner Raphael Bob-Waksberg makes him painfully self-aware of his shortcomings. If all this sounds like a giant downer, I assure you, it’s not. The show balances out the dramatic weight perfectly with humor both irreverent and poignant.

 

03. The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst (HBO)

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The most shocking and revelatory moment of television in 2015 came in the riveting finale of this engrossing HBO documentary series. Following Robert Durst, the privileged and perverse son of a millionaire newspaper tycoon, and the three murders he was accused but never convicted of. Some have accused the show as being exploitative, but I really think it was just a fantastic character study about a man unable to buy happiness.

 

02. South Park (Comedy Central) 

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Who would have thought that South Park’s best season would be it’s nineteenth? Far and away the best social commentary we got from anywhere this year, this season of South Park is one long, continuous story about how PC has completely fucked us over. Targeting both the far left and the far right, South Park calls bullshit on gentrification, social media self-victimization, anti-immigrant policies, Caitlyn Jenner and so much more. It might not be the subtlest satire in town, but bullshit this nauseating needs to be torn apart in the most theatrical way possible. It’s a wild ride. BUCKLE UP, BUCKAROO!

 

01. Fargo (FX)

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Noah Hawley’s brutally hilarious and thrilling second season of Fargo was the best show of 2015 by a mile. Each episode was somehow more intense, funny and poignant than the previous one, combining the most impressive ensemble cast on television with stunning cinematography that perfectly captured the Midwest and the best goddamn soundtrack I’ve ever heard in a show. If the first two seasons are any indication, television has found it’s new Breaking Bad. 

 

BEST ACTOR

RAMI MALEK

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A beautifully nuanced performance that can explode at any second.

 

BEST ACTRESS

MELANIE LYNSKEY TOGETHERNESS

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Given the least funny material in the show’s quartet of actors, Lynskey miraculously succeeds in upstaging most of her co-stars with her sympathetic portrayal of a unhappily married woman that’s totally on-point.

 

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

BEN MENDOLSOHN BLOODLINE

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Bloodline had one of the most impressive ensemble casts of any television drama this year, but the clear stand-out was the brilliant Ben Mendolsohn. Mendolsohn is quickly becoming my favorite actor, and his turn here as the Rayburn family black sheep is one of his most complex performances yet.

 

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

CARRIE COON REGINA KING

CARRIE COON and REGINA KING – THE LEFTOVERS (HBO)

Say what you want about Damon Lindelof’s The Leftovers, but the second season, while flawed, was much more consistent and powerful than it’s first. The one thing that has always been consistent about the show is the acting, and Carrie Coon and Regina King completely stole this season with an unbearably tense five minute scene.

 

Malfunction

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When Chappie‘s trailers were first premiering, they were a clusterfuck of tones. It was tough to get a true reading as to whether or not the movie was meant to a Nolan-esque satire-stripped answer for RoboCop (which we got when we had… y’know, the remake of RoboCop) with its sober handling  or a remake of Short Circuit with its treatment of its titular robotic character (motion-captured and squakily voiced by director/co-writer Neill Blomkamp’s favorite Sharlto Copley, never more annoying than he’s been here… ok, definitely more annoying in Oldboy) as a child’s mind on a sort of learning curve to being a full person. These are two tones that ideally can’t be mixed together in the severity that the trailers painted them in, so we’ve got to totally assume it was a fluke of marketing.

Came the release of Chappie and we realized there was no fluke. That was exactly how the fuck the movie was made jarring inability to juggle those tones and so on. Whoever cut those trailers shouldn’t be tossed off, they had an no-win job to begin with.

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Let’s see if I can win something like a synopsis out of it: Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) is a robot developer in a Joburg-based weapons manufacturer Tetravaal, whose latest creation – a crew of humanoid robots capable of police objectives – has been ordered en masse by the local police force to deal with the escalating gang violence. When he doesn’t get the ok to continue tinkering with the A.I. capabilities and test out his latest development, he salvages one of the police robots himself and uploads the A.I. program. Unfortunately, while he’s doing this, he’s hijacked by one of those dangerous racketeers and God Bless Us Everyone, it is Ninja and Yolandi of Die Antwoord playing themselves.

Don’t know Die Antwoord? I’d link a song via YouTube, but I don’t want to scare off readers.

Oh fuck it.

They’re also joined by a third wheel Amerika (Jose Pablo Cantillo). The three of them, after some barking demands and unconfident negotiation, force Deon to start up this little robot for their own use as an affiliate of their gang to loot and rob and go do some crime shit with. However, given how infantile the now-uploaded Chappie’s A.I. is, Yolandi takes ecstatic glee in raising him as a child and Deon begins to plot further on the possibilities of his success.

Back at the Tetravaal office, Deon’s rival is really upset that the Joburg police has less interest in them his own bulky bipedal heavy-artillery monster MOOSE and now instead of trying to sell upwards (seriously, the motherfucking thing is practically a war machine, he could seriously sell to some armies rather than a police force; also, speaking of RoboCop, MOOSE is a thinly veiled albeit functioning life off of the ED-209), he’s aiming to sabotage and discredit Deon’s work and hoping the Tetravaal CEO (holy shit, is that Sigourney Weaver? Is she seriously the first name on the list of directors who need a sci-fi cameo now?).

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There was a time when I really wanted to believe in Neill Blomkamp, back when District 9 showed itself as an extremely impressive debut piece in 2009 – even despite a third act that falls apart on itself. I don’t know if I did a good enough job of summing up the movie that you didn’t notice, but Chappie doesn’t even have until its 30 minute mark. It’s a mess from the beginning.

If you were to hold a gun to my head and ask me the one that could fix this movie, I wouldn’t be able to tell. The movie begins outright with a disinterest in coherent montage work in its editing and only sinks lower from there stylistically until its climactic battle which at least gives Julian Clarke and Mark Goldblatt a singular objective and they can for once be as coherent as possible. Sure, it’s designed fine on the visual level in only a small manner – Die Antwoord’s is a great extension of their personality within the film… naive and full of eager wonder like Yolandi within its bright elements, jagged and scrawled and messy like Ninja’s attitude. We never get a good ol’ exterior of Tetravaal but the interiors feel like a broken company desperate attempts to look utilitarian. The robots themselves however are derivative in the worst ways – I already pointed out MOOSE’s shameless OCP lawsuit lurking in that universe but even the scouts themselves actually look similar to the police units in Blomkamp’s previous disappoint Elysium, although Chappie makes Elysium look like goddamn Eisenstein. The attempts to individualise Chappie by dressing him in gangsta garb like graffiti tattoos and bling not only adds “looking like Riff Raff” to his dislikable traits, but it also unfortunately makes him feel more like a prop than a character and that’s just a shame when he’s meant to be our protagonist

Avoiding what about the production design works, its the rest of the picture that just kills any good satirical fun it could be. For one, the movie demands we accept Ninja to become a hero at some point in the movie just because Moore and the gangster Hippo (Brandon Auret) are already eating up all the antagonist beats. On the other, the movie is unsatisfied with simplicity that it introduces a bunch of storylines to underline Chappie’s evolval and then dropping them before they could go anyplace. And of course, I must nod to its ending beats which are so very far-fetched and out of left field in such a very precious manner that I can’t say I hate the film for its fearlessness.

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But I do still hate the film. And the dysfunctional storytelling is only part on the part of the writing, but on the fact that Blomkamp doesn’t seem half invested in facilitating the several different performances given to him into something of an ensemble. Die Antwoord, old friends of Blomkamp, are as inspired a choice as any. From what I understand, Blomkamp originally wanted Ninja, to star in Elysium, but given how absolutely frozen his mood happens to be all through this movie without any chance of allowing likability as a hero (though he does maintain being a threat for the two seconds he’s a villain), I’m glad he didn’t. The only real twists of energy is his erratic spitting of his lines which actually doesn’t liven up the movie one bit. Yolandi is certainly a better actor than Ninja, but she’s also as unrefined as any debut could be without understanding of exploring internal commentary or utilizing her new parental role as an organic character trait beyond what the script tells her to do. Patel is the most sketched, uncertain performance we’re ever meant to believe is a God complex. Jackman is a fucking riotjack, man. From the boneheaded idea of letting the man sport a fucking mullet for the role to letting him over-exaggerate his Australian to outright cartoon parody to his heavy whiplash switches from “I’m gonna shoot you down in a bloody office” to “it’s just a prank, mate!”, I don’t know if Blomkamp intended for the role to be a showstopper, but all dismissal of discipline makes Jackman just the most insane presence in a great big cast of dunces. Weaver is just absolutely on neutral, I wouldn’t even know she was breathing

The worst part is because of all of these elements that simply refuse to mesh together, Chappie‘s political message (as per Neill Blomkamp’s regular self-righteous morality inherent in his films) just isn’t recognizable. We know there’s something the movie wants to say but all these tangents and gluttony of characters and elements just makes the movie drown itself out. Chappie ends up not only a swamp to sit through but it becomes absolutely pointless when despite Blomkamp’s attempt to communicate his imagination, it just comes off as sound and fury signifying nothing (apologies to Shakespeare).

I’m just really really bitter to find out that the idiot who told this tale is going to make a fucking Alien picture on account of his fan art.

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FILM REVIEW – MACBETH

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Young Australian filmmaker Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth has a fascinating visual style to it. The opening battle sequence is this beautiful shade of bluish grey and uses slow motion oddly but effectively to capture the fatal blows. Spread across the slow-motion bluish grey landscape is a bunch of dirt and blood that capture the cold and removed brutality of war. Intercut are unnerving green filtered shots of the three witches and what is I’m assuming their demon child that make for some of the most disturbing images I’ve seen this year. Then, the drama starts and awkwardly staged line readings by brilliant but restrained actors cannot compete with the flashy battle sequences. While I’m all for making the work of Bard more visually striking for the modern era, it should never be at the cost of the material. Spectacle over substance is always a crime, but when that substance is one of the most poignant tragedies ever written, it’s a goddamn felony.

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Kurzel trims down the story to a brisk one hour and fifty minutes. He spends more time with the actual battle sequences than character development. When a major character dies, it’s supposed to be this huge moment. Unfortunately, we can’t feel any sympathy for the character because the film doesn’t establish this person as anyone except guy who stands behind Macbeth in one scene. A lot of the major monologues and scenes, besides being awkwardly staged, are way too played down and understated. In a story not using iambic pentameter this would acceptable, but with it it’s utterly incomprehensible. Those unfamiliar with the the source material, will be completely lost. I read Macbeth like two times in middle school, so I more or less knew what was happening. Kurzel reduces the witches (the most fascinating part of the play) to bit players and completely cuts the scene in which Macbeth seeks them out. Kurzel’s film also takes a pivotal assassination scene that was only implied in the play and trades in the emotional weight of it for Game of Thrones-level violence.

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While the sharp visual style and slight disregard for the source material might irritate some viewers, the one inarguably great aspect about the film is the acting. Michael Fassbender is as excellent as he always is as our title character, but the real standout is Marion Cotillard as Lady Macbeth. Compelling from beginning to end, Cotillard breathes new life into a character that has been done to death. Both of their performances are so good it makes you wish you could see them in a better interpretation of the play. This one has a beautiful package, but unfortunately, it’s mostly empty. Grade: C+