Thursday, December 24, 2015

Movie Review: “The Hateful Eight”

The Hateful Eight

***** out of 5
168 minutes
Rated R for strong bloody violence, a scene of violent sexual content, language and some graphic nudity
The Weinstein Company

Article first published at The Reel Place.

The only movies I’ve tried to keep from showing my bias toward this year are Jurassic World and Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight.  I have a tried and true love for each and every one of his masterpieces. Case in point: I have a dog named Beatrix Kiddo, and I own a complete set of the eBay-banned Django Unchained action figures from NECA. As for Tarantino, there aren’t very many filmmakers who can create their own complete universes every time they make a movie. They all revolve inside the same one, really — his. Never scurred to wear his inspirations on his sleeves, Tarantino is the master of his film domain and The Hateful Eight only proves that the man truly is an unstoppable force of nature.

Some time after the Civil War — and broken up into five chapters — bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell) is trying to beat a snowstorm while bringing in his latest fugitive, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Along the way, John picks up Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) and Chris Mannix, the new sheriff of Red Rock. Knowing they aren’t going to arrive in Red Rock, they make for Minnie’s Haberdashery where they shack up with Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), Bob (Demian Bichir), and General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern). It doesn’t take long before Ruth and Warren call shenanigans on the situation and discover that they may be in over their heads and someone, or everyone, may not be who they claim with ulterior motives.

Yes, Tarantino has gone and made another western. But don’t let that fool you into thinking it’s an incidental sequel to Django Unchained. The Hateful Eight is a beast all its own and it’s firing on all cylinders from the opening credits, right up until the bloody ending. Don’t think that’s giving anything away now, this is a Quentin Tarantino film after all. The cast is having a ball delivering the year’s best screenplay, with monologue after monologue just waiting to be memorized by the most savvy filmgoer. This is also the year’s best looking film. As much as I loved the cinematography of The Revenant, Robert Richardson and Tarantino take full advantage of their 70mm film stock. While I wasn’t lucky enough to see the film as intended, the digital theatrical cut still looks incredible.

The Hateful Eight also features one of the year’s best scores with Ennio Morricone giving Junkie XL a run for their money after Mad Max: Fury Road. It saddens me that I wasn’t able to take in the film’s overture or intermission, but Morricone has delivered a tried and true classic film score. The surprises come fast and furious, which may sound like the biggest shock considering the film’s length. Even at 168 minutes — with the Roadshow running over three hours — this is Tarantino’s least indulgent movie, but yet his most satisfying. That’s not to say it isn’t without its own set of Tarantino Easter eggs.

Long story short, this is the big one I’ve been waiting for all year and it never disappoints. There have been a lot of really good films in 2015, but this takes the cake. It’s the absolute best. And before you cry “fanboy” on me, just make sure you give the film the chance it deserves. Never boring and keeping the audience on their toes for that long is no small feat. Plain and simple: The Hateful Eight is the best damn film of the year.

Movie Review: “Concussion”


**** out of 5
123 minutes
Rated PG-13 for thematic material including some disturbing images, and language
Sony Pictures

Article first published at The Reel Place.

While watching the new football drama Concussion, it made me think, “there’s no way the NFL is going to want people seeing this film.” As it turns out, the NFL had a hand in the final cut and what we get is a surprisingly watered down version of Dr. Bennet Omalu’s discovery of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) — not that it’s any less powerful. Writer/director Peter Landesman has an Oscar-worthy performance from Will Smith on hand as they team up to bring Omalu’s plight to the big screen. Considering how hard hitting what we see is, I can only imagine how scary CTE really is.

In Pittsburgh 2002, Omalu is working at the Allegheny County Coroner’s Office as a neuropathologist. His unorthodox methods make him beloved by some — namely Dr. Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks) — while hated by others — fellow pathologist Daniel Sullivan (Mike O’Malley). After retired Pittsburgh Steelers’ Mike Webster (David Morse) — and a string of players including Justin Strzelczyk (Matthew Willig) — start taking their own lives, Omalu sets out to discover why. Using his own money, Omalu discovers CET and wants to let the world know. Of course it’s not without the obvious headbutting of the NFL with everyone from Dave Duerson (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) and Christopher Jones (Hill Harper) to Commissioner Roger Goodell (Luke Wilson), doing everything they can to try and discredit his findings.

Landesman makes an astounding case for CTE, even with the NFL having their meddling hands in the process. Most of the public will once again shrug off Omalu’s findings, but there’s no doubt going to be a lot of people watching the film and realizing that Omalu is right, and football is in no way shape or form as safe as the league wants fans or parents to believe. Stretching all the way back to childhood sports, there’s going to be more than one set of parents who may stop their child from playing to save them later. The NFL is an almost god-like institution now — something pointed out by Wecht during the film, that they even managed to steal Sunday away.

The cast is phenomenal. Brooks shines as Wecht, delivering some of the most pointed jabs, while Alec Baldwin gets to play doctor alongside Smith as Dr. Julian Bailes. Gugu Mbatha-Raw is a great love interest as Prema Mutiso. Her fantastic chemistry with Smith makes the two a believable couple — even if their story sits on the sidelines of the real one. With Smith already nominated for a Golden Globe, I won’t be surprised if he’s nominated come Oscar time. He wound up on my ballot for the annual Utah Film Critics Association — losing to Leonardo DiCaprio — but Smith emerses himself in the role like never before. This is one of his best performances period. The icing on the cake is that he manages to bring such a powerful performance surrounded by a story that needs to be heard.

I’ve never been a huge fan of football, and it’s very interesting to see a little bit of the seedier side of things. Not that I’m surprised it’s there, that would be ridiculous, but for it to be cast in such a spotlight in a big Hollywood production is something of a minor miracle itself. Concussion is a surprisingly important film, and I hope the right people see it. Let’s just say that it’ll never be used a recruiting tool, but it’s definitely a fantastic warning for parents who think that their kid somehow needs to play football. Oh, it’s also one of the best pictures of the year to boot. Who knew science could be so thrilling?

Movie Review: “Joy”


**** out of 5
124 minutes
Rated PG-13 for brief strong language
20th Century Fox

Article first published at The Reel Place.

The biopic Joy — chronicling the life of Joy Mangano, inventor of the Wonder Mop — directed by David O. Russell, proves two things: his ability to turn even the most mundane sounding venture into something enormously entertaining and his hot streak shows no signs of stopping. Accidental Love aside, Russell has delivered a stellar lineup after a six year hiatus.

Not discounting his earlier films, the man has just never directed a bad film. Something most directors only dream being said about their career. And Joy only keeps the momentum going after The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, and American Hustle with another Oscar-caliber performance from Jennifer Lawrence. Something I was praying we would see after her sleepwalking through The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 2.

Joy (Lawrence) lives at home with her helpless mother Carrie (Virginia Madsen), grandmother Mimi (Diane Ladd), basement-dwelling ex-husband Tony (Édgar Ramírez), and her two kids. She’s barely making ends meet when her father Rudy (Robert De Niro) is given back to him from his current fling of two years, and takes up residence in the basement with the lounge-singing Tony.

Dealing with downsizing at work, Joy is forced to come to grips with the reality that her life is nowhere close to what Mimi told her it would be. One day, Joy decides she’s had enough and sets out to make an invention that will save her family and her sanity: the Miracle Mop. Now, she’s in more debt than ever before after a disastrous turn of events thanks to her half-sister Peggy (Elisabeth Röhm) and must take a stand when a tycoon tries to steal her patent and ruin her forever.

If there’s one emotion that comes to mind watching Russell’s Joy, it’s that of the title. From scene to scene he takes the mundane and finds just the right amount of quirk to make it immediately familiar, but just larger than life to be entertaining. The cast helps in this regard, but that should come as no surprise. It was interesting to think that it appeared as if Amy Adams was Russell’s muse after her turns in The Fighter and American Hustle, but here, it becomes all too clear that it’s really Lawrence.

And just because Bradley Cooper is in the credits, don’t think that Russell is milking their chemistry together again so soon. The two do work wonders together, but they aren’t here to play hookup. The film opens with the disclaimer: “Inspired by stories of daring women. One in particular.” And that’s exactly who Joy is. Strong and independent — at least after the character finally gets deep enough to take action — Lawrence owns the character of Mangano and brings her to life in all her vulnerability as well.

The rest of the cast are having a lot of fun, with De Niro in particular making sure we know that he doesn’t just take paycheck flicks. With the right material and director, the man is every bit as good as he’s always been. Russell keeps the pace chugging along, making the two hour runtime fly by, something that can’t be said for most biopics. With Lawrence giving another one of her Oscar-caliber performances, we’re bound to see her name announced come February, and I bet we get the same thing with Russell. Joy may not be the best film of the year, but it’s definitely one of them. And would we expect anything less from Russell & Company?

Movie Review: “In the Heart of the Sea”

In the Heart of the Sea

** out of 5
122 minutes
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action and peril, brief startling violence, and thematic material
Warner Bros. Pictures

Article first published at The Reel Place.

If there’s any director who used to make great films, it’s Ron Howard. While Rush made it appear as if maybe someone had finally lit the fires and kicked his tires, here we are with one of the year’s most boring films, In the Heart of the Sea. Adapting Nathaniel Philbrick’s novel, In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, should have been a cakewalk. And while screenwriter Charles Leavitt gives us one or two fantastic action sequences involving the whale attack that inspired Herman Melville’s classic novel Moby Dick and John Huston’s epic film, what we’re left with here is not the whale of a tale we were hoping — instead, it’s more like Jaws meets Castaway, but nowhere near as fun as that sounds. Not even close.

In 1850, Melville (Ben Whishaw) has just arrived in Nantucket, seeking out Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), the sole survivor of the fateful Essex vessel. Melville offers Tom all the money he has in the world for one good story — one Tom won’t even share with his wife (Michelle Fairley). Bouncing back and forth from 1850 to the disastrous whaling expedition, we join the rest of the crew, including First Mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), Captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), Matthew Joy (Cillian Murphy) and teenage deck swabbing Tom (Tom Holland). Everyone is off in search of whale oil, something Chase manages to bring back more than anyone else, and it’s not long before they’re attacked by the giant sperm whale and fighting for their lives.

Whaling, the high seas, and cannibalism all sound like the makings of an interesting film, but Howard and company let everyone down with horrendous pacing. It takes forever to get to the action beats, and you never care who lives or dies as the whale attacks. The bickering between Chase and Pollard is supposed to give the film some emotional heft, but they both come across as pompous. And while some may be interested in the fact that this is the first chance to see Thor and Spider-man on screen together for the first time, don’t get too excited. Their interaction is few and far between and honestly, it could have made a far more interesting story had Chase played surrogate older brother, but that never comes to light.

Howard is clearing aiming for Oscars with In the Heart of the Sea, and there may be some technical nominations in its future — one thing it will never win is for cinematography. While managing to pull off the feat of making you feel like you’re sitting in the middle of the action, it means you feel like you’re standing on the rocking boat. Seasickness is bound to strike the most average moviegoer, only to be exacerbated with being in 3D. The whale should have been the star of the show, and whenever it comes to attack this is certainly one realistic sea creature. So much so, that Warner Bros. used their footage to finally convince Eli Roth to jump on the long gestating megalodon flick Meg.

Somewhere, In the Heart of the Sea, there’s a way better movie to be made. But alas, this isn’t it. The film is a complete bore and doesn’t really deserve any kind of special mention aside from the whale footage. And on that note, anyone with even an inkling of interest might as well hold off to watch it at home from the safety of their own couch, with a bucket standing by. The cliche “thar she blows” gets hollered more than a couple of times, and sadly, the same is all there is to say.

Blu-ray Review: “Goodnight Mommy”

Movie: **** out of 5
Video: **** 1/2
Audio: **** 1/2
Extras: **

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: ‘Goodnight Mommy’ Lives Up To the Hype As One of the Year’s Creepiest Films on Blogcritics.

Creepy twins are nothing new to the horror genre. The Shining, Dead Ringers, Sisters, Basket Case. If you want an easy way to keep audiences on their toes, twins are always a winner. And the German horror Goodnight Mommy certainly delivers on its premise — even if you can see the big twist coming in the first five minutes. Don’t let that get in the way as writing/directing team Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz manage to pull out the stops in what will go down as the year’s creepiest film. Armed with a more than game cast in Susanne Wuest and twin boys Lukas and Elias Schwarz, they set out to make you squirm more and more as the film makes its way to its final reveal.

Goodnight Mommy, Horror, Severin Fiala, Veronika Franz, Susanne Wuest, Lukas Schwarz, Elias SchwarzThe film is quite simple really: Lukas and Elias’s Mother (Wuest) has just returned from having cosmetic surgery. Wrapped in bandages, the boys don’t question the identity of the woman beneath the gauze, until some increasingly warped happenings shed light that she may not be who they think she is. A quick Internet search only heightens their suspicion when they find pictures of their mother with someone they don’t know, who happens to look an awful lot like Mother. A disappearing birthmark, pet cockroaches, missing family photos, and a dead cat all make an appearance as the boys embark on a mission to find out whether their Mother is an imposter as a fight to the finish erupts in the ultimate case of identity.

Anchor Bay Entertainment sets Goodnight Mommy loose on a 25GB disc, framed in a 2.39:1 aspect ratio with pretty fantastic results. While there may not be any crush — aside from intentional — or aliasing — a small miracle considering the home is filled with blinds — the finale is riddled with excessive banding. Thankfully, detail is razor sharp, aside from a few inherited soft shots. Colors are muted for the most part, something that certainly helps when blood is finally spilt. The German 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track also makes the most of a full surround environment —most particularly when a storm blows through with plenty of wind, rain, and deep rumbling thunder. Music is sparse — I honestly can’t remember a single instance of it — so you never have to worry about missing dialogue. It’s not a problem anyway with the included English subtitles for the deaf and hearing impaired.

Goodnight Mommy, Horror, Severin Fiala, Veronika Franz, Susanne Wuest, Lukas Schwarz, Elias SchwarzConsidering how simplistic the film is, it’s no surprise that there’s only one special feature: “A Conversation with Filmmakers Veronika Franz & Severin Fiala.” Here, they discuss multiple aspects of the production, indicating the plot is based on their own real fears from childhood, and Fiala’s struggles with identity having a twin of his own. They also mention how they like the idea of how horror movies are essentially nightmares compressed into a controlled two-hour environment and how exciting they find it to wake up from a nightmare knowing that it was all just a dream. The film itself at times has a dreamlike quality, always keeping the audience on its toes.

Wuest and the Schwarz boys do a magnificent job keeping the audience enthralled in the deviousness no matter how extreme they start to get before the credits roll. My only complaint, surprisingly, is that the film feels like it could use another twist. Maybe it’s just the fact that I called it five minutes in, but at least they stick to the twist and never cheat. Goodnight Mommy is so highly-acclaimed right now that a Hollywood remake is inevitable, but I would say, aside from the ending, the film is damn near flawless. Filled with enough creepy visuals to haunt you long after it’s over, Goodnight Mommy lives up to the hype and is worth a look for anyone in need of fulfilling their annual horror quota in a year that’s been sorely lacking from anything this great.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Movie Review: “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

***** out of 5
135 minutes
Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence

Article first published at The Reel Place.

Film critics get the chance to review a lot of films. But how many happen to be called Stars Wars? OK, so the vets have had the chance to review six of them, and I bet they remember their first. And so it comes to pass, I too, get the chance to write my own first Star Wars review with The Force Awakens. While having never necessarily been in development hell, it’s been 10 years since the iconic title card and John Williams’s soaring score graced the silver screen in Revenge of the Sith. With J.J. Abrams at the helm can the rabid fanbase rest easy, or does the joke hold true that J.J. would turn out to stand for Jar Jar Abrams? Luckily, The Force Awakens lives up to the original trilogy in every possible way, leaving the prequels to mold and rot as they rightly deserve.

Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has vanished! Thirty years since the fall of the Empire, a new threat to a galaxy far far away has risen from its ashes. The First Order — overseen by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) — are on the hunt for the missing piece of a map leading to Skywalker. Luke may have vanished, but the First Order will stop at nothing to find and destroy him. General Leia (Carrie Fisher) has sent her best Resistance pilot, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) to meet with Lor San Tekka (Max von Sydow) on the planet Jakku, to get the missing piece of the map before it falls into the wrong hands. Poe is captured then freed by Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) and they crash land back on Jakku where Finn joins forces with scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley). Now, the two must find safety for Poe’s droid BB-8 who holds the map piece. Aboard the Millennium Falcon they take off on the adventure of a lifetime with Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) in tow.

Oh mama, audiences are in for a treat with The Force Awakens. The biggest sigh of relief for the most hardened fans, is that Abrams hasn’t just gone and made an Abrams Star Wars movie. This is a Star Wars film through and through. From Williams’s score to the beloved sound effects, characters, and scene transitions, this is the Star Wars fans know and love. There really isn’t much to get into. There’s only so much praise you can heap upon one film, right? I mean, I guess I could dive into how much fun everyone is having back in such an iconic universe and how the new blood mix fantastically with the characters of yore and amongst themselves as well. Or how amazing the action sequences are. Or how no one will be left walking out of the theater without a big fat smile slapped across their face.

My only minor quibble is with the character of Maz Kanata (played by Lupita Nyong’o). She may be a gifted actress, but she doesn’t seem to have the requirements needed to bring a full-CGI character to life. I’ve heard her character was trimmed down immensely and sometimes less is more. She definitely sticks out amongst the rest of the animatronic/made up creatures and characters. At first I wasn’t too keen on the look of one of the main villains, Supreme Leader Snoke, but Andy Serkis can only do so much with a small amount of time. It isn’t the character that could have used a tuneup so much as the special effects which call attention to themselves until the end of the first scene Snook is in. Once something is revealed about the character I was able to let it go. This may not make sense now — you’ll see what I mean.

And speaking of which, I may have seen this with select critics in Salt Lake City, but I cannot wait to see it again with a huge audience. I will be back to see again in IMAX 3D and can’t wait for everyone I know to finally witness all the thrills, chills, and feels that I’ve been managing to keep mum on for the past day and a half. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the biggest gift fans — and anyone else — could wish for this holiday season. It’s one of the biggest, badass rides of the year, and never disappoints for a second.