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- 

 

FILM REVIEW – THE BIG SHORT

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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+

 

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 

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+ 

 

 

 

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

RAMI MALEK – MR. ROBOT (USA)

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

BEN MENDOLSOHN – BLOODLINE (NETFLIX)

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

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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.

 

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+ 

 

CRITERION COLLECTION REVIEWS VOL. 6 (Nashville, Ratcatcher, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!)

NASHVILLE COVERTIE ME UP TIE ME DOWNRATCATCHER

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NASHVILLE (1975 / dir. Robert Altman / USA) – On the surface Robert Altman’s ambitious ensemble drama is about country music in Nashville, but it’s really about keeping up appearances. Beneath the clean, optimistic Christian song lyrics lies anger, jealousy, desperation and a bunch of pettiness. However, beneath all the bullshit there is some room for tender moments. There’s a beautiful scene featuring Keith Carradine singing to and about Lily Tomlin.  With a runtime of 160 minutes, Nashville lets some of it’s scenes run on a tad too long and features a completely unnecessary subplot involving Elliot Gould playing himself. Criterion gives this a beautiful 2K digital film restoration making it worth every penny. Grade: A- 

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RATCATCHER (1999 / dir. Lynn Ramsay / UK) – Lynn Ramsay’s  directorial debut about life in the Glasgow slums is cripplingly depressing. Nothing is particularly impressive or profound about the way it’s shot or the writing, but it does feature some very raw and powerful performances, especially from young William Edie. His scenes with the neighborhood girl are oddly touching and without a doubt the strongest aspect of the film. Extremely realistic in it’s depiction of poverty, Ratcatcher ends up just being a painful film with nothing to say that hasn’t been said before in better films. The “ambiguous” ending is fairly trite as well. Available for Streaming on HuluPlus Grade: C+ 

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TIE ME UP! TIE ME DOWN! (1990 / dir. Pedro Almodovar / Spain) – Truly one of the greatest and most unique filmmakers around, Pedro Almodovar has a way of merging soap and realism into a wonderfully potent brew of human emotion. Antonio Banderas stars as a mental patient recently released from an institution. He kidnaps an ex-porn star and junkie trying to be a legitimate actress (Victoria Abril) in an attempt to make her fall in love with him. It’s a dark comedy that is incredibly funny and sexy, but fails to be thrilling or intense. Banderas and Abril give fantastic performances but their characters aren’t as fleshed out as Almodovar’s best characters and for that matter the plot is not as complex or as compelling as Almodovar’s best work. Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! is  a really good movie, just not as good as you’d expect from Almodovar. Available for Streaming on HuluPlus Grade: B+ 

FILM REVIEW – CREED

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I’ve never been a fan of the Rocky movies. The 1976 original was a good film with solid performances, but it was far too sentimental for my tastes. It also beat out three of the best films ever made (Taxi Driver, Network, All the President’s Men) for the Best Picture Oscar trophy. The sequels I saw (the one with Mr. T and the one with Dolph Lungren) were flat out terrible with cheesy 80s editing and writing so infantile and stupid it could induce migraines. However, I’m a fan of actor Michael B. Jordan and filmmaker Ryan Coogler, who’s Fruitvale Station was one of the more impressive debut films I’ve seen. I thought if any fresh young filmmaker could breath life back into this increasingly pathetic film series, Coogler could be the one to do it. While not perfect and certainly not one of the best films of the year, Coogler succeeds in losing the over-the-top ridiculousness of the sequels while still honoring the roots of the 1976 original.

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The story structure of Creed is incredibly formulaic in a Hollywood-has-tampered-with-this kind of way. Every beat of the movie is predictable and some moments are so saccharine it will make you want to grind your teeth off. However, Coogler fills this familiar structure with interesting characters and sharp dialogue, and the actors endow their characters with fine performances. Far and away the best part of Creed is the performance of Michael B. Jordan. It’s an incredibly restrained and quietly powerful performance one would never expect to find in a Rocky movie. Sylvester Stallone is better here than he has been in years, showing a vulnerability to Rocky Balboa we haven’t seen. Stallone is getting a lot of Oscar buzz, and while he is solid in the role, I don’t think it’s completely deserved. I’ve seen over a dozen supporting male performances this year that are infinitely more complex than what Stallone does here. Stallone’s Rocky Balboa strikes a strong emotional cord with the audience, but I think it has more to do with how the character is written than the performance given by the actor.

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Coogler’s direction is top-notch, with impressively choreographed fight sequences that create more tension and suspense than most boxing films out there. He also does a great job in capturing the city of Philadelphia and handling the actors. The story structure might be annoyingly straightforward but all the characters’ dialogue rings true. I don’t want to end my review by saying “Creed isn’t a knockout, but it holds it’s own for all twelve rounds”, but I don’t think I have a choice. Creed isn’t a knockout, but it holds it’s own for all twelve rounds. Fuck, I hate myself. Grade: B 

 

FILM REVIEW – SPOTLIGHT

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When the the trailer for Spotlight first dropped, I was pretty much ready to write it off as a Lifetime Original Melodrama. The way the trailer was edited made it seem like the film focused more on the emotional turmoil of the journalists rather than the facts of the case. Intercut sequences of Mark Ruffalo practically screaming, “Give me an Oscar!” didn’t really help dissuade my initial impression either. There was one glimmer of hope, though. The fact that Spotlight was helmed by Thomas McCarthy. The actor turned filmmaker did such a fantastic job keeping the sentimentality at bay with his previous films The Station Agent and The Visitor, that it would be hard to believe he’d start making Shondaland bullshit once he booked an all-star cast. Plus, working on the final season of The Wire, which was centered around the Baltimore Sun, I was confident McCarthy got a genuine feel for what reporting is really like. It turns out whoever cut that trailer is an idiot, because Spotlight is a powerful and intelligent film that focuses more on the integrity of journalism rather than the personal lives of it’s characters.

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Spotlight is a rather optimistic film, because it shows that even in a world as cynical as our own, a news story that isn’t sponsored by a major corporation or has a political bias attached to it can still exist. The major story is child molestation in the Catholic Church and the vast conspiracy of high-ranking Church officials to bury it going all the way up to the Vatican. Michael Keaton is phenomenal as Walter “Robby” Robinson who heads up the Spotlight news team at the Boston Globe. He and his team (Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Brian D’Arcy James) begin investigating the abuse claims and realize the case is much bigger than any of them could have possibly imagined.

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While Michael Keaton is certainly the stand-out, the acting is uniformly excellent. Mark Ruffalo is solid as the emotional anchor of the film, a role he’s more than a little familiar playing, and Rachel McAdams is surprisingly restrained in a role that easily could have been stereotypical or overcooked. Speaking of restrained, the forever underrated Liev Schrieber is given the opportunity to provide some majestically low-key acting as the Globe’s new editor. Needless to say it’s much more complicated and delicate than his work in Ray Donovan. Rounding out the cast is John Slattery, Stanley Tucci, Neal Huff, Jamey Sheridan, Billy Crudup and Brian D’Arcy James, all fantastic.

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For the most part, Spotlight never succumbs to being a Lifetime Original Melodrama. There’s no Precious-esque grainy flashback of a priest running his fingers through a little boy’s hair or dramatic confrontations between priests and molestation survivors. My biggest qualm with Spotlight lies is a montage towards the end featuring the team  writing the final draft of their story to the soundtrack of an altar boy choir. It’s a little too on-the-nose and doesn’t fit the tone the film has already established. I see how McCarthy might have thought this would properly punctuate the scene, but he didn’t need it to get his point across. Most films, especially about touchy issues, try to spoon-feed us everything . Spotlight excels when it assumes we’re not idiots. Grade: A- 

 

FILM REVIEW – ENTERTAINMENT

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Entertainment, the unsurprisingly bizarre but surprisingly hollow Tim Heidecker-produced existential crisis movie, follows an unnamed comedian (Gregg Turkington) on a stand-up tour he completely bombs. Depressed and anti-social, the only time we see the comedian come to life is when he’s on stage. Besides having an estranged daughter, we don’t really don’t anything about him and to be completely honest, we have no reason to care. The comedian throws a 110 minute pity party for himself, while making absolutely no strides to improve his life or his material.

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While the scenes involving the comedian not performing are painfully dull, the film comes to life when he hits the stage. The comedian’s sets are foul and shock-based in a way that completely alienates and confounds the viewer, but they are filmed with the urgency that anything could happen. The lighting and the pacing are perfect. “Why? Whyyyyy? Whhhyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy?” the comedian taunts his audience before shattering his strangely intriguing build-up with a joke about Madonna lactating Alpo. I never felt sympathy for him as people heckled, jeered and literally threw things, but I was completely fascinated with him. Watching Turkington’s comedian immediately brought to mind watching Dean Stockwell and Dennis Hopper duet Roy Orbison in Blue Velvet. Watching something so ridiculous you think you might still be asleep.

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Unfortunately, these stellar scenes take up a combined ten minutes of the film. The rest of the hour and forty minutes is full of glacially-paced, pretentiously-shot exposition. The comedian is such an apathetic character that we are unable to give a shit about him. He has all the power in the world to improve his life or at his perspective but he acts like that’s too big of a chore. One scene features Turkington delivering a still-born baby in a truck stop restroom, then awkwardly staring into space for a good thirty seconds. How deep. Life is so fleeting, right? I understand that writer/director Rick Alverson was trying to create a film about a man who is completely disconnected with the world, but in so doing he created a film that was so completely disconnected with it’s audience.

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The cast is solid but misused. Tye Sheridan plays a hipster clown that accompanies Turkington on his tour. Michael Cera plays a lonely dude. Speaking of Dean Stockwell, Dean Stockwell and Tim Heidecker play a couple of Hollywood millionaires that scream obscenities at girls in a swimming pool. John C. Reilly, admittedly, the funniest performance of the bunch, is the comedian’s supportive cousin who speaks in mumbles. Gregg Turkington is riveting in his stand-up scenes but practically non-existent in 95% of the film.

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In the end, Entertainment has no weight. There is no poignancy or deep irony to be found in it. Much like the comedian’s set, it’s just posturing. Grade: C-