Friday, August 28, 2015

My Top 10 Most Anticipated Movies of the Fall Season


With the big fall festivals like Venice, Telluride and Toronto soon to be underway (and Awards season to follow soon after), I wanted to offer up my thoughts on my 10 most anticipated movies to be released in this last third of 2015. For me personally, anticipation for a movie is built off some combination of these factors:

a) I like the actors/cast
b) I’m a fan of the directors' work(and, sometimes, occasionally the writers')
c) The subject matter is intriguing to me
d) The trailer peaked my interest

Though there are certainly a few titles coming out in the next few months that tick some of those boxes, I’m also finding that there are few films that I’m wholly anticipating without any skepticism (at least more so than in previous years). While my perception of the offerings this yearwill change drastically as these films start screening and a consensus starts to form around them, here are the ten titles that as of now, on paper, intrigue me the most, listed alphabetically.

Black Mass-
Director - Scott Cooper 
Cast- Johnny Depp, Benedict Cumberbatch, Joel Edgerton, Kevin Bacon, Dakota Johnson, ect.

Premise: A biopic of James “Whitey” Bulger (Depp) a notorious organized crime boss in Boston who served the FBI as an informant. 

Why I’m Intrigued: The third trailer for the film was very solid and the supporting cast is formidable. The subject matter has cinematic potential and this has the potential to be a return to form for Depp.

Why I’m Skeptical: Cooper’s previous features, Crazy Heart and Out of the Furnace, indicates a competent but not great director who benefits from having impressive ensembles. Also, between the look and the voice of the character, I’m still not entirely sold on Depp as the right casting choice for Bulger.

Bridge of Spies-
Director - Steven Spielberg (Screenplay by Joel and Ethan Coen) 
Cast- Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan, Alan Alda ect.

Premise: A Cold War thriller based on the 1960 U-2 incident.

Why I’m Intrigued: Spielberg’s last film, Lincoln, was rather unexpectedly my favorite film of that year and this one finds him in similar historical territory. The Cold War setting is an interesting historical backdrop.

Why I’m Skeptical: As much as I loved Lincoln, Tony Kushner’s script deserves a lot of the credit for that and Spielberg can be hit or miss with this type of prestige drama. Though the Coen brothers are great writers and inspired choices for this type of material, the same was said for Unbroken last year, so who knows?

Director - Ryan Coogler 
Cast- Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, ect.

Premise: The son of Apollo Creed seeks to be trained by Rocky Ballboa. 

Why I’m Intrigued: After Coogler’s first feature Fruitvale Station (also starring Jordan), I couldn’t wait to see what he’d do next. The announcement that his follow-up would be a Rocky feature struck me at first glance as an indie talent selling out big time. However, after the impressive first trailer, Coogler seems to be trying to reinvigorate this tired franchise and harken back to the scrappier roots of the 1976 original. 

Why I’m Skeptical: It’s very possible that what we saw was just a very nicely put together trailer, and I suppose this could end up being a fairly routine boxing picture.

The Hateful Eight-
Director - Quentin Tarantino 
Cast- Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Bruce Dern, ect.

Premise: Eight strangers are stranded in a stagecoach stopover during a blizzard. 

Why I’m Intrigued: I don’t automatically flock to whatever Tarantino does, but of his more recent output, Inglourious Basterds was my favorite film of that year and, though it had it’s flaws, I thought Django Unchained was also a triumph. The Western facade of The Hateful Eight suggests a common DNA with Django, but the bottle episode premise to me is more suggestive of his first feature, Reservoir Dogs

Why I’m Skeptical: While I’m hoping the stripped down narrative abates some of Tarantino’s more indulgent sensibilities, there’s also the possibility that this is minor Tarantino and won’t resonate as his more ambitious outings. 

Director - David O. Russell 
Cast- Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Bradley Cooper, ect.

Premise: A biopic of Joy Mangano (Lawrence), a single mother and entrepreneur who builds her own business empire. 

Why I’m Intrigued: Following a string of modern classics with The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, Russell is on one hell of a hot streak. After a secondary lead performance in Silver Linings and a smaller supporting turn in Hustle, it’s nice to see Russell put his muse Lawrence front and center this time, especially given his knack for crafting strong female characters. 

Why I’m Skeptical: While it’s hard for me to complain about Russell casting actors as good as Lawrence, Cooper and De Niro, their appearances in his movies might soon start to have diminishing returns. Russell’s gifts as an actors director shouldn’t exclusively extend to such a small handful of actors. 

The Martian-
Director - Ridley Scott (Screenplay by Drew Goddard)
Cast- Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kate Mara, ect.

Premise: An Astronaut (Damon) becomes stranded on Mars after a failed mission and is forced to survive in the harsh and inhospitable climate. 

Why I’m Intrigued: Damon is a reliably strong leading man and the supporting cast is just as impressive. Goddard showed a knack for inventive genre filmmaking with The Cabin in the Woods and Scott has the craftsmanship to make this type of science fiction sing on screen.

Why I’m Skeptical: Many of the same qualities that look good on paper for this film (great ensemble, good screenwriter) were also true of previous Scott misfires The Counselor and Prometheus.

The Revenant-
Director - Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Cast- Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, ect.

Premise: A fur trapper (DiCaprio) is mauled by a bear and left to die by his men. He is forced to survive in the harsh wilderness. 

Why I’m Intrigued: After last year’s Birdman, Iñárritu has shown himself to be a truly visionary director. The central role will give DiCaprio a lot to chew on as an actor.

Why I’m Skeptical: Even in his best work, Iñárritu has a tendency towards pretension. There have also been reports of a turbulent production, which can often be a bad sign. 

Director - Denis Villeneuve
Cast- Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, Benicio del Toro, ect.

Premise: An FBI agent (Blunt) joins a task force tracking down a Mexican drug kingpin. 

Why I’m Intrigued: I was very impressed with Villeneuve’s film Prisoners two years back. I’ve heard good things about the film overall and particular praise for the performances by del Toro and the frequently underrated Blunt. Also, the great Roger Deakins, who was DP for Prisoners, is back again for this one.

Why I’m Skeptical: Not all of the reviews out of Cannes for the film were positive, with suggestions the direction is a lot stronger than the script.

Director - Thomas McCarthy
Cast- Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Stanley Tucci, ect.

Premise: Follows the investigation of the Massachusetts Catholic sex abuse scandal by the Boston Globe “spotlight” team. 

Why I’m Intrigued: This is a compelling true story and I’m a fan of movies centered on investigative journalism (All the President’s Men, Zodiac, ect.). The ensemble is deep with great actors.

Why I’m Skeptical: Director Thomas McCarthy is coming off of the first critically panned film of his career with The Cobbler, but he looks to be in better territory here. 

Steve Jobs-
Director - Danny Boyle (Screenplay by Aaron Sorkin)
Cast- Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, ect.

Premise: A portrait of the life and career of Steve Jobs told through the behind the scenes of three apple product launches. 

Why I’m Intrigued: Sorkin did amazing work on The Social Network and he looks to be in that mode again here. Boyle is one of the best directors of his generation and this looks to be a wonderful showcase for the talents of Michael Fassbender.

Why I’m Skeptical: Honestly, not really skeptical for this one at all. This is easily my most anticipated film of the year. Although I was slightly disappointed when David Fincher (my favorite director) and Christian Bale (one of my favorite actors) left the project at various points in its troubled production, Boyle and Fassbender aren’t exactly slouch replacements, though. 

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

A (Tepid) Defense of "Fantastic Four"


I’m not here to defend Fantastic Four as being a great movie, nor will I attempt to even defend it as an especially good one either. In reality, it’s a deeply flawed movie, marred by the scars of studio interference and as a result unable to make up its mind about what type of superhero movie it wants to be. That being said, we live in an age where a Rotten Tomatoes score can carry an enormous amount of weight (it appears to have had a devastating impact on the film’s box office). In this particular case though, I think the low RT score (currently at 9%) isn’t a strong representation of the more nuanced problems at the heart of the film.

Much of the conversation around the film’s negative reception has centered on it’s notoriously troubled production history, much of which has already been discussed ad nauseam. There was a large chunk of reshooting done on the film, resulting in the heavily reworked (and studio approved) ending that has been the main target of critical pans (and deservedly so). Though the reasons this production was troubled are numerous, a big factor was trepidation on the part of the studio regarding writer/director Josh Trank’s take on the source material. In interviews, Trank suggested his take on the characters was darker than previous iterations, skewing more towards hard science fiction with elements of David Cronenberg body horror also in the mix. Though darker takes on inherently corny superheroes can go horribly wrong (just look at Man of Steel), I think Trank’s take on this material could have resulted in a very interesting (though likely polarizing) film. Unfortunately, his vision is greatly compromised by the studio reshoots in the final product, resulting in a film that falls uncomfortably between Trank’s darker take and the more traditionally corny iteration of these characters. There is still evidence in the final cut of what Trank was initially going for, and I think that material makes Fantastic Four a more interesting watch than it’s RT score would suggest.

Unlike Man of Steel, which failed to understand how a darker take on that character betrayed the fundamentals of who he was, Trank’s body horror vision actually suits the origin story of these characters quite well. Though the origin story here is altered slightly, the Fantastic Four traditionally gain their powers as the result of a science experiment/space expedition gone horribly awry (as was the case in the more traditional 2005 “Fantastic Four” movie). This follows in the vein of the body horror genre, particularly Cronenberg’s The Fly. Even John Carpenter’s The Thing shares its title with one of the Fantastic Four, and the particular circumstances of that characters’ transformation make for an inherently interesting study in body horror. Where other iterations of the Fantastic Four only slightly address the effect that these type of physical mutations would have on these characters, it seems as though Trank was aiming to take these issues head on in the film. As someone with no attachment to these characters at all, I think this darker take on the material is an intelligent and refreshing way to add a level of depth to these characters and eschew the traditionally corny tone of the series, which has failed to connect on the big screen.

Unfortunately, we will never get to see how the original version Trank envisioned, unmarred by a skeptical studio, would have played. I suspect that the film still would have had its issues, as the studio interference can only partially be blamed for the problems with Fantastic Four. Regardless, I imagine that film would have faired much better with critics, and, while it would have had some setbacks appealing to a wide, mainstream audience, I can’t imagine the box office would’ve been any worse than it ended up being. 

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Performance Showcase: Ryan Reynolds in “The Voices”


In lieu of writing a full-on review of Marjane Satrapi’s The Voices (released earlier this year), I’ve opted instead to do a more focused piece on the films’ central performance. There are several reasons for this, the main one being that my thoughts on the film, which I saw two days ago, haven’t really settled into a strong opinion of it as an overarching work. I mostly enjoyed the experience of watching The Voices (though “enjoy” is a strange word to throw at a film that’s often very disturbing), and I admire the ways the film attempts to be subversive. Though it operates as a dark comedy, there’s something very humanistic about The Voices in the way it treats its central characters’ mental illness. It was a bold move on Satrapi’s part to take the mental state of such a disturbed character so seriously in a film that otherwise operates on a heightened level. Nonetheless, when the film makes these shifts between fantastical dark comedy and a more grounded, compassionate reality, it starts to feel very glib in a way I don’t think it intends to be. Given the disparate elements in play, it’s miraculous that The Voices works on any level, and much of that is to the credit of the incredible performance Ryan Reynolds delivers.

Because of his impeccable, movie star good looks, Reynolds has been frequently pigeonholed as the serviceable-yet-boring leading man type in his more Hollywood outings (The Proposal, Green Lantern, ect.). As I never got around to seeing his acclaimed performance in the claustrophobic indie thriller Buried (the first suggestion their might be more to him than meets the eye), I took it on good faith that Reynolds was capable of good work, but I didn’t see the proof of that until The Voices. His performance as Jerry, an extremely odd but seemingly affable guy with latent psychological issues (to put it mildly), seems on the surface like the epitome of playing against type. However, I suspect that Reynolds’ skill-set, like Brad Pitt and Bradley Cooper before him, is actually best suited for roles that play against his leading man looks.

Though it would seem hard (if not downright impossible) to buy Reynolds from the outset as Jerry, he is utterly convincing in the role. Though it’s immediately clear upon our introduction to him that there’s something wrong (though the film takes its time in peeling back the psychological layers), Reynolds brings a disarming sweetness and vulnerability to the character that renders him enormously empathetic. Though Reynolds frequently portrays Jerry’s social awkwardness for uncomfortable humor, he is just as convincing in the moments where the film decides to take him and his mental illness seriously. Though the tonal shifts in the film are still apparent and somewhat jarring, Reynolds’ ability to balance these aspects of the character in his performance help to smoothen them out. Reynolds manages to make Jerry so endearing that he’s even able to turn him into a convincing romantic lead when the film decides to go in that direction. It helps that he’s paired opposite the always likable Anna Kendrick, but it’s still remarkable that we’re rooting for him, given how well-established the threat he poses to her is at that point in the film. 

As if everything I mentioned above wasn’t more than enough for any actor to chew on, there’s a conceit to Reynolds’ performance that I’d be remiss not to mention. As the title of the film implies, Jerry’s mental illness entails him hearing voices, which manifest in the form of his two pets, a dog and a cat (operating like the angel and devil on his shoulders, respectively). Reynolds voices each of these psychological projections himself, and this aspect of his performance demonstrates an unexpected penchant for immersive voice acting on his part. He gives both pets a distinctive voice (the cat sporting a menacing Scottish brogue and the dog speaking in a drawl reminiscent of Cecil Turtle) and in either case it’s heard recognizing Reynolds’ usual speaking voice underneath. 

Whatever else my feelings about The Voices, Reynolds offers a tour-de-force performance that might very well end up being my favorite performance of this year. 

“Trainwreck”: Review


Regardless of its desire to stretch the boundaries of the genre, or to stay safely within them, no romantic comedy works unless the chemistry between the central pairing is palpable. Trainwreck, the latest directorial effort from the current mastermind of American cinematic comedy, Judd Apatow, passes this litmus test with ease. The film benefits from it’s uniquely female-centric perspective (a nice change of pace for the usually male-centric Apatow), and the female at the center here is Amy Schumer (serving here as both star and screenwriter whilst playing a character who shares her name). Schumer’s prickly brand of comedy makes an unconventional match with what is otherwise a fairly traditional rom-com, but it’s a match that helps to elevate Trainwreck. Though she’s already a huge success on TV, this is Schumer’s first major film role (let alone star vehicle), and she carries the film with an effortlessness in balancing both the silly and sincere moments.

As much as Schumer carries the film, it wouldn’t matter if she wasn’t well-matched romantically. Fortunately, Bill Hader (an equally bright comic talent whose often relegated to the sidelines in these types of films) is given the chance here to shine in his first romantic lead, owning the role of Aaron with a performance of great subtlety. It’s no small task for an actor to balance playing an affable guy while still making him interesting, but, like Schumer, Hader performance feels effortless in pulling off that balance. The genius of Schumer and Hader as a romantic pairing is that you buy them as a real couple with real emotional stakes, in spite of the genre trappings, precisely because neither of them are conventional romantic leads. 

In Trainwreck, Schumer and Hader are doing an inversion of the conventional rom-com dynamic in that she’s the one who’s phobic of commitment, while he takes commitment more seriously. That the film in its conclusion advocates for commitment and monogamous relationships has been seen by some as a passing of judgement on Amy’s initial lifestyle. I personally didn’t see it that way, as Schumer and Apatow do a good enough job of establishing that without her being fully aware of it, this lifestyle is making Amy into a lonely, unfulfilled person. 

As is often the case with an Apatow film, the supporting cast of Trainwreck is a smorgasbord of stunt casting, and most the choices work improbably well. Even if you know going in that the usually pale Tilda Swinton is in this movie, you’ll be hard pressed to recognize her under a thick layer of spray tan as Amy’s icy boss (she shares a scene early on with her We Need to Talk About Kevin co-star Ezra Miller, and I was floored upon realizing that these were the same two actors from that film). Apatow also gets not one, but two terrific comic performances from athletes in the form of wrestler John Cena (as Amy’s muscle head ex-boyfriend) and, especially, LeBron James (here playing himself an unlikely iteration of the best friend archetype opposite Hader’s character). 

One of the most disarming and unexpectedly moving performances in the film comes from comedian Colin Quinn as Amy’s abrasive, sickly father Gordon. Quinn is hilarious in conveying how unabashedly awful this man is (the film begins with him defending his own polygamous nature to his young daughters through a doll analogy), but underneath this abrasive exterior, Quinn manages to find the soul in this lonely man in a performance that’s ultimately very moving. The always wonderful Brie Larson (Short Term 12) also does solid work as Schumer’s younger sister. Though not the central framework of the film, the complicated dynamic of Amy’s family is where some of the best, most honest material in Trainwreck comes from. 

What holds Trainwreck back over are the many usual pitfalls of any Judd Apatow directed joint. These tendencies (scenes going on for too long, scenes that don’t add anything to the story, ect.) are so well established at this point that it feels cliche to even go over them, but nonetheless they are ever present in Trainwreck. Apatow is as capable as any modern comedic director of creating inspired moments, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that the same impulses that lead to these inspired moments are the same ones that lead also to some of more inept moments in his films (an awkward cameo scene featuring Chris Evert, Matthew Broderick and Marv Albert late in the film stick out in this regard). While the inspired moments continue to make up the difference, it’s a shame that these problems seem to be inherent, as they are the only thing holding these films back from being transcendent comedies as opposed to just really good ones. That being said, I will continue to welcome any really good comedy like Trainwreck (particularly one from a major studio) with an open embrace.

Grade: B+