Saturday, March 26, 2016

Movie Review: "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice" (2016)

© Warner Brothers

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice lacks any vision, whatsoever. A tepid beginning of the franchise to come.

Sometimes (usually not for me, but for some) there's nothing more that needs to be said. In a story that struggles to create a troubled conflict that it didn't earn—and inject a backstory as if it was something we'd all experienced—we're left with a limp, tired battle saga between two of the most beloved characters ever written: Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) and Clark Kent (Henry Cavill). I'm not sure where those guys were, but they were nowhere to be found here. How director Zach Snyder managed to ruin not only them, but likely the most interesting villain in the DC Universe, Lex Luthor (played like a sniveling, spitting wackadoo by Jesse Eisenberg), is an absolute wonder to behold. That may be for some, but it wasn't for me.

Let's cumulatively pretend this film never happened, and assume Justice League will go in a very different direction. Deal?

Rating: ★½ / 5 stars

Friday, March 25, 2016

Blog, Interrupted



It's been exactly two weeks since I've posted, probably the longest span of silence since I kicked off this blog (again) in 2014. Ramp ups at work and personal life planning (and endless travel) meant putting my writing on the back-burner for a short time. For those who've been checking in, however, I haven't forgotten you.

My writing draft queue is filling up with uncrafted thoughts on movies, tattoos, and food, things I'm gearing up to talk more about, and I can't wait to give them a polish and share them with you. Even discussing the epic cluster**** of this weekend's movie releases will have to wait just a few more days. Bear with me, friends, and since I don't get the opportunity to say it all that often, thank you infinity for visiting.

xx

(image via Rosa Tammaro Photography)

Friday, March 11, 2016

Movie Review: "10 Cloverfield Lane" (2016)

© Paramount Pictures

In what can only described as an "accidental sequel," one connected to Matt Reeves' brilliant 2008 found-footage monster film, Cloverfield, by only the merest of whispers, Dan Trachtenberg and superstar Bad Robot producer, J.J. Abrams, have delivered a masterful psychological thriller in 10 Cloverfield Lane. It's a project that may have been better off with no connection to its popular predecessor, if only to bottle the mysteries that lie beneath; or rather, outside. Originally a 'spec script' floating around Hollywood under the title The Cellar, writer Damien Chazelle scooped up the claustrophobic mind-meld and eventually morphed it into the loose Cloverfield universe feature hitting theaters this weekend. What we get is a superbly-directed amalgamation of Saw meets Room... with an ending you will absolutely see coming.

While escaping the city and the personal trials of life, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) makes her way through the Louisiana countryside when she's run off the road, flipping her car and losing consciousness. When she wakes up, she finds herself in a sealed, concrete bunker deep underground owned by Howard (John Goodman), a conspiracy theorist and doomsday prepper who claims to have saved her from not only the car wreck, but a devastating attack that has killed the entire population and left the outside world uninhabitable. More than a little skeptical and determined to find a way to escape, Michelle befriends their only other bunker-mate, the simple and trusting Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), to help her uncover the truth about Howard... and find out what's really happening on the surface.

This movie should never have been linked, in any way shape or form, to Cloverfield, much as I'm desperate for a true sequel. The story purposefully separates us from any notion about what is really out there, an aspect of the film's tension that is vital to the effectiveness of the story. But we do know, because we saw the original (if you haven't, you'd probably really enjoy this movie). We walk into the theater with our own preconceptions, completely overriding the external mystery that Michelle is clamoring to uncover. Now, it would be hugely detrimental if that were the only mystery there was to unearth. The locked-room/confined brilliance of the rest of the film requires nothing from the events occurring outside; it's all about the delusional truths swirling around Howard inside his apocalypse den.



Mary Elizabeth Winstead is the fighter we all hope we'd be in a situation like this. A captive guilted into giving thanks to the man who holds the keys to the lock—regardless of how justified you come to believe he may be—would be enough to gut the best of us and leave us grateful for having a couple VHS options to choose from. But Michelle never loses her cool; she's always working through the problem right in front of her, and unlike most heroines who inexplicably take a lifetime to make the only decision that could save their life, she never hesitates. She takes risks, a lot of them, and the danger is palpable—even when we're unsure where the real danger lies. Winstead is a skilled performer and never lets Michelle devolve into frantic freak-outs that would give the whole game away. It's refreshing to root for someone who not only deserves your respect—she earns it.

Then there's John Goodman. Goodness me, John Goodman. His portrayal of an odd-duck doomsday prepper so unhinged—swinging between generous caregiver, domineering prison guard, and wheezing psychopath in the span of one spaghetti dinner—is the thing of legends. There's a dark and complicated narrative happening in the twisty-parts of his mind that we're never quite privy to, which makes every one of his reactions throughout the film hugely unpredictable. Together, Winstead and Goodman never allow their characters to be at ease with one another; for Michelle, this is intentional. Trust is fickle, but for Howard, experience has not been kind, and try as he might, the loose screws just won't secure in place long enough so he can let his guard down.

The best compliment to the intensity of the primary storyline is the score by Bear McCreary. Like a long, never-ending violin note, threatening never to break unless the tension does, the music is a combination of lingering orchestral interludes and jarring crashes that keep us in a constant state of unease. Interspersed with jukebox favorites that make happy and light what is truly dark and terrifying, McCreary's moody creation steals the show. The reveals are more tangible and the suspicions are more urgent, and it's all thanks to him and those sharp string stings (try saying that 5 times fast).

While I'm attempting to avoid spoilers as best I can, it's a sad truth that this rock-solid concept suffers from an underwhelming and disassociated ending. Trachtenberg and Abrams' vision for an expansion of this world was not only unnecessary, it wound up actually hurting the film. Thankfully, though, up until that point, there is nary a falter; from the acting to the direction to the editing, putting aside the inevitability of the final moments would be in the best interest of every viewer so that you can see how exceptionally the rest comes together. Believe me, you'll have a far better time if you forget that they dared to call this Cloverfield.

Rating: ★★★½ / 5 stars

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Movie Review: "Zootopia" (2016)

© Walt Disney Animation Studios

It shouldn't surprise anyone that the biggest release this last weekend went to an animated movie full of fluffy animals, perfectly thought up by the masters at Disney Animation. In what could be considered the best non-princess/feature film formula the House of Mouse has conjured up since The RescuersZootopia is a true procedural at heart, and the possibilities are endless for new and exciting stories injected into this beautiful and touching world. Like the long-running detective shows ruling primetime, there will never not be a case that this rag-tag team of polar opposites can't dive into with gusto, and as a result, Disney has set itself up for one helluva potential movie franchise.

Ever since Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) was a little bunny in school, she dreamed of becoming a police officer. Even though no rabbit had ever been appointed one, she was gonna be the first. When she achieves her dream, venturing off to the thriving mammal metropolis of Zootopia—a bustling city where all residents, from the biggest predator to the smallest prey, live in harmony—and leaving her family's carrot farm behind, Judy's idealism is tested when none of the other hulking, tough-animal cops take her, or her small size, seriously. Relegated to parking duty, Judy tries to make the best of her situation until she meets con-artist, Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a smooth-talking fox who may be the key to uncovering one of her precinct's biggest unsolved mysteries. Determined to prove her worth, Judy bands together with Nick to find the truth and get the respect she knows she deserves—but she may not be prepared for what she finds, or how it may change her view of her new Utopian home.

The geniuses at Disney considered every possibility as they built this creative and innovative world, working very hard to make it seem like every detail wasn't there on purpose. It's reminiscent of Wreck-It Ralph, in that way, injecting every nook and cranny with something to see, something that adds depth to every creature, and every building on every street in every borough. From doors to escalators to temperature control, they really did think of everything. The vastness of the animal kingdom, all consolidated into the confines of this bustling city, is really something to behold. You could watch this movie ten times and still see something new, and I'm sure the Disney-aficionados are already well on their way there.

A few quirks in the animation stand out, most notably in wider shots when characters on the periphery are moving or interacting, an occasional stutter here or there. Not distracting in the least, but the entire construction of the world isn't quite as clean as it could have been. In a close up, the view is flawless, and that's where much of the story focuses. It's only in the sweeping views of the Zootopian territories where the wide shots become rich with detail. Those are the money shots, and extra care was clearly taken. But a howling wolf on a foggy night at the outskirts of the city? Some rough frames that most would never notice and those who do will easily ignore.



Thematically is where Zootopia really shines. The film puts a mirror up to what ails society and forces the adults in the audience to take notice. And it isn't subtle. Stereotypes, prejudice, fear-tactics, and privilege build the foundation of conflict within this complex narrative, where predators aren't trusted merely because of the way they look, and prey are undermined and talked down to at every turn. It all is very complex, far more than it needed to be for a buddy-cop film about a city full of animals wearing clothes where the biggest laughs come from a sloth working at the DMV that moves—wait for it... super slow.

The plot itself is relevant and represents a myriad of issues facing the real world today, told through the eyes of an optimistic rabbit with her own cross of prejudice to bear. This concept of 'prejudice'—something adults have a hard time understanding as it is—framed in a way that children might just be able to grasp, not to mention how privilege can permeate a society so deeply, it is hardly noticed by those who possess it.

Nobody knows how to cast voice talent like Disney, and finally someone gave the bright light that is Ginnifer Goodwin a starring role. As Judy Hopps, she's manic and hopeful and impatient, and just delusional enough to believe she might make a difference. Then there is her counterpart, Nick Wilde, who couldn't be more perfectly voiced by Bateman. He is the yin to her yang, the pessimistic realist with a chip on his shoulder, and Bateman's dry delivery gives the insensitive jokester his humor, while making us believe he may just have a few soft spots.

Together, Bateman and Goodwin bring energy and camaraderie to the pairing. They have an 'early Castle, Kate Beckett/Rick Castle' dynamic that has an even greater level of respect and friendship than the TV detective team. The connection happens quickly here, but the movie earns every moment of trust in their relationship and never takes for granted the underlying social conflict that exists between them, as rabbit and fox. The result is an emotional gut-punch that speaks knowingly to the more mature audiences, all the while incorporating a fantastic soundtrack and enough fluffy sheep to make the kiddos squee with glee.

Rating: ★★★★ / 5 stars

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Movie Review: "Pride & Prejudice & Zombies" (2016)

© Lionsgate

There aren't many film adaptations that are as scrutinized as those for Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. Hollywood has the BBC's 1995 mini-series starring Colin Firth to thank for that. But with every iteration, we find that, so long as directors and/or writers are telling the story in a new and interesting (or visually different) way, audiences will still applaud. After all, this is Elizabeth Bennett and Fitzwilliam Darcy, we're talking about. The BBC version had Mr. Firth, the 2005 version had director Joe Wright, and 2016's version has zombies. I guess we're getting a new one of these every ten years. Based on Seth Grahame-Smith's book of the same name, and his creative take on the Georgian romance, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, is as faithful to the source material as adaptations get. Particularly parody ones.

The five accomplished Bennett sisters have spent their lives in training to protect the zombie-plagued British countryside. Now of marrying age, the headstrong Elizabeth Bennett (Lily James), along with older, quieter sister, Jane (Bella Heathcote), are forced to enter society in search of husbands, at the behest of their dizzying mother (Sally Phillips), despite their father Mr. Bennett's (Charles Dance) hopes for them to pursue zombie-hunting. When Jane catches the eye of the wealthy and hapless Mr. Bingley (Douglas Booth), Elizabeth finds herself face to face with his unpleasant best friend, Colonel Darcy (Sam Riley), a famous and snobbish killer of the undead. As romance blossoms between Jane and Bingley, Darcy attempts to quell his confounding feelings for Elizabeth, who despises him—a near impossible task when he comes to see how she can fend for herself on the battlefield. As the country is descended upon by a zombie apocalypse, the two must put aside their differences if they hope to survive the war and save the world.

Lily James plays tough and soft to perfection. She doesn't have any hard features, which makes her very unassuming in a role like this. It's why her turn as Cinderella this past year was so believable. Where the film doesn't quite hit the mark is in her on-screen dynamic with Sam Riley's Darcy. The interactions between these two characters, both spoken and unspoken, are absolutely vital to the success of this story, and while each of them embodies their characters nicely, the back and forth between them is missing a key component: chemistry. Sure, Riley pulls off the brooding, across-the-room stare, and James has no issues affirming her defiance in needing a man.

But the film inherently works against the build up of tension, particularly in the famous scene where Darcy first, reluctantly, proposes to Elizabeth (spoiler alert?... ugh, read a book!). The most important part of here is that he wants to touch her, but he can't. HE CAN'T. But how does P&P&Z handle this scene? The frustration devolves into, not unspoken pain, but hand-to-hand combat. Enjoyable to watch! But all the sexual tension built up to that point? Dissolves in an instance. Once Elizabeth straddles his face to pin him down and Darcy pops the buttons off her shirt, it's over. We can all go home. The romance isn't completely lost, but the little bit of magic that Austen fans live for slips just out of reach.



The oddest piece of this plot is not that it's full of Regency zombies. No, that all works quite well, actually. In a world where the rich study Japanese fighting and the "poor" can only afford lowly Chinese martial arts... I'm left wondering, Uhhhh... huh?!? That any of these people traveled any great distance beyond the confines of their county is questionable already, but that they're making nonchalant trips to study in the Orient for long stretches of time while still having the wherewithal to concern themselves with boys rather than diphtheria? I don't buy it. Thankfully, the movie kinda doesn't either, playing the whole thing as a bit of a society status joke, and it makes for plenty of "Up yours!" moments between Elizabeth Bennett and those who aim to demean her for only knowing dumb ol' Shaolin Kung Fu. What a plebeian, amirite?

Oh, and we learned something else super vital to our survival. Social balls are zombie-bait. I mean, duh, of course they are, everybody knows this. So one would wonder why civilized people in this society would continue to throw them. Finding a suitable husband is simply more important than avoiding zombies, I suppose. Knowing that truth, there is something inherently comical about all this that the film barely needs to work hard to achieve. The jokes tumble about with ease, situational as they are, and the entire concept benefits from the commitment to the parody.

The combat makes all the pieces, the ones that work and the ones that don't, come together, because there's just nothing more fun than watching these girls suit up, slip on their knife sheaths, and kick a whole lotta zombie ass. I wish more British society characters solved their problems using a katana. They're not unlike the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in this way, as each sister has her specialty weapon and skill set—but in the end, it's Lily James as the level-headed Elizabeth who grounds the entire film, making us root for everyone's survival. The climax falls apart more than a little bit, particularly as we learn the truth about who the enemy really is, but the initial set-up pays off in spades, and we're rewarded with everything one could have hoped for from a film like this: a wedding. And a blood bath.

Rating: ★★★ / 5 stars

AFI Top 100: #34 "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs"

The titular Snow White in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

One of only two animated features on the AFI Top 100 list, Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is also the only film on our countdown to represent the pioneering House of Mouse. A pioneer in and of itself within the world of animation, the #34 ranking fantasy is based on the dark and harrowing 1812 Brothers Grimm fairy tale, Snow White, and stands alone in being the first full length animated movie of all time. A list of endless accolades reminds any viewer that they are watching history be made, and regardless of the trouble-points presented in the film's story and primary characters (Snow White specifically), this is an undeniable achievement, and a contribution to movies worth remembering.

The lovely princess Snow White (voiced by Adriana Caselotti), left in the care of her vain stepmother, the Queen (Lucille La Verne), has been punished for her beauty and grace, forced to work as a scullery maid. The Queen's jealousy, however, knows no bounds, as she possesses a Magic Mirror (Moroni Olsen) that for more than a decade has declared her the most beautiful woman in the land. But one day, when asked "Magic Mirror on the wall, who is the fairest one of all?" the mirror responds for the first time with Snow White's name. Desperate to be rid of this reminder of her fading beauty, the Queen tries to have Snow White killed, but the Huntsman (Stuart Buchanan) sent to do the deed, wracked with guilt, sets her free in the mystical forest instead. As Snow White befriends the creatures of the wilderness, she comes across the home of seven unruly Dwarf miners, who take it upon themselves to protect her from the pursuit of the Evil Queen and her treachery.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Movie Review: "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot" (2016)

© Paramount Pictures

In a movie culture where comedies and action films involving terrorism or war wind up being offensively out of touch (*cough*London Has Fallen*cough*), the Lorne Michaels/Tina Fey produced Whiskey Tango Foxtrot surprisingly manages to make light of tough situations while making every effort to avoid trivializing them. It's also not the lighthearted comedy the advertisements promised it to be as Fey pushes to take the subject matter as seriously as the studio would allow. With most of the laugh-worthy one-liners shown in the trailer, audiences should expect a film that aims to educate as much as it aims to entertain. Based on the dark comedy memoir by journalist Kim BarkerThe Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan, about her time on the ground in South Asia covering stories for the Chicago Tribune, Fey's mature turn as Barker ('Baker' in the film) brings a sophistication to this story's darker elements, even when faced with the over-simplification of the Afghan war.

Cable news copy editor Kim Baker (Tina Fey) is in a rut, with a work and life routine that lacks any excitement, so when an opportunity arises to act as the station's war correspondent from the ground in Kabul, Afghanistan, she naively jumps on the assignment. Having no experience in travel or reporting, Kim faces culture shock, an uncertain war zone, and the struggle to convince people back home to pay attention to this quickly forgotten war. Welcoming distractions wherever she can with new friends, fellow reporter Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie) and freelance photographer Iain MacKelpie (Martin Freeman), ranging from nighttime partying, 'embed' reporting with the Marines, and investigating warlords, Kim comes to discover a love of this complicated, beautiful region—not to mention, a passion for life she's never experienced.

Having not read the novel, I can't speak to the liberties W.T.F. took with events. Noting the film's penchant to focus on the bed-hopping, excessive drinking, and the cliche competitiveness among the journalists over showing war events, it does inform the concept introduced of the "Kabubble" (or Kabul-bubble), a warping of reality that makes the dangers of their work feel normal. This is the most interesting feature of the film, and the part that offers most of the comedic moments, adding thrills to otherwise dangerous scenarios and allowing more opportunities to inject humor. Seasoned professionals and mature adults thrust into a literal bubble of imagined safety that feels more like a college frat house than a work place is a fantastic way to challenge Baker's development as a character and journalist.



Tina Fey is far and away the film's best asset. She's smart and natural and never fights for a laugh. Good on her, because strong-arming the comedy here would never have worked, particularly as she comes face to face with legitimately troubling situations, like wandering into a male-only park in the heart of Kabul, or enduring enemy fire to get the perfect video shot on the front lines. The story even takes a few subtle moments to educate the unassuming audience, in case you didn't know that Afghan people aren't called "Afghanis" (that's the currency). Kim's continuous bombardment of education informs her increasing confidence, a self-assurance that adds dimension to her character and the focused goal of the film. A light is shed on the early state of war in Afghanistan, the complex nature of the conflict and the role of international forces there—all shown through the veil of an intelligent comedy.

Writer Robert Carlock does his best to keep the tone consistent, and he's more or less successful. The film never veers into inexplicably serious territory, or on the other side, silliness. But one major exception to the "tonally aware" praise previously given is Alfred Molina's confounding casting as Afghan Attorney General Ali Massoud Sadiq. The "come hither" jokes from Sadiq to Baker are awkward and tasteless, easily the least useful part of the film. And no one should ignore the clear oversight in casting a British actor over an Afghan one—though he isn't the only example of that kind of casting choice. Christopher Abbott, an Italian American, as Baker's fast friend, Kabul native Fahim, is much more effective in forging a connection with our protagonist. Their moments together are actually the most touching in the film, and their interplay highlights an impressive range of cultural incompatibilities that, when effort is made, can be overcome.

The rest of the cast's talents aren't so much wasted, but they're not given as much material to work with. Martin Freeman takes a bit of a departure from his usually innocent and sweet persona and pulls off the womanizing machismo pretty well. Margot Robbie, distracting in her beauty, as always, is far more one-dimensional than she should have been, and sadly, her character is kind of pushed to the side all too quickly. The biggest surprise might have been Billy Bob Thorton as Marine General Hollanek. Not only was he a good fit for the role, he drives every one of the embed sequences and strengthens the messaging about the happenings in war—an obvious counterpart to Baker and her curiosity; Hollanek is a dose of welcome reality.

It could easily be argued that the film doesn't go far enough, only taking a handful of moments to remind us about the violence of the front lines. But at the same time, Kim Baker is a sharp, fascinating female lead, a character that comes to readily understand just how dangerous being a woman unprotected in this region can be, and one who finds a touching camaraderie with colleagues that make the hard work worth doing. The end result is a balanced, albeit overly playful, story that is driven by the incomparable Tina Fey, her strongest foray into a [semi]-drama to date.

Rating: ★★★½ / 5 stars

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Ranking the 2016 Oscar Nominated Shorts: Live Action

The Oscars may have been last Sunday (my "prediction count" was an acceptable 15/24), and I may have run out of precious time to write and post every review for all 57 films nominated (as of the telecast, I'd managed to get out reviews for 35 of them), but I won't stop just because the ceremony has come and gone. This is, after all, the first year that I watched every single film on the Oscar checklist, so even though we know who the winners turned out to be, I can't help but share my thoughts on all the great cinema in 2015—and a few films that left me scratching my head (I may be one of nine people who watched The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared). But I digress.

The last bunch of Oscar-nominated Shorts I managed to pop in to see the weekend of the awards show, knocking them out in the 11th hour, were the Live Action films. While the award eventually went to crowd-pleaser Stutterer, there were four others very worthy of attention. A group of projects that, after critiquing the Animated and Documentary shorts, turned out to be the best collection of nominees in the bunch.

So now, a week too late, here are my thoughts and rankings of the 2016 Oscar Nominated Shorts: Live Action:

1. EVERYTHING WILL BE OKAY (ALLES WIRD GUT)


Directed By: Patrick Vollrath
Country: Germany/Austria
Run Time: 30 min
View the Trailer

As we're introduced to young, eight-year-old Lea (Julia Pointner), she's picked up from her mother's house one morning by her father, Michael (Simon Schwarz), for their weekend together. Divorced, Michael and his ex-wife don't speak, but the hand-off is made and Lea joins her father happily. As the fun commences and Michael takes his beloved daughter on a series of small errands disguised as adventures, Lea begins to feel as is something is different on this particular weekend. Something that could have the potential to change their lives forever.

It's unsettling because it feels so real. There is nothing shiny or epic about this story, and I found it disturbing and beautiful. In many ways, this is easily the most involving film of the nominees, because there is no apparent threat to any of these characters... that is until you realize what's really going on. Slow and patient, the predictability (or rather, the realization, whenever it is that it hits you--for me, is was about 4 minutes in), doesn't take away from the intensity for one second. Because even if you understand that no danger may come to young Lea, it's impossible not to fear for her. I found her performance magnificent, especially for someone so young. It's rare that the camera even leaves her face, and her curiosity and worry build over time. A purely immersive film, and my personal favorite.

2. SHOK


Directed By: Jamie Donoughue
Country: Kosovo/UK
Run Time: 21 min
View the Trailer

The most difficult film to watch of this collection and by far the most singularly cinematic achievement, as well. In twenty minutes, director Jamie Donoughue managed to create a complex war-torn society, one being navigated by two young boys just beginning to understand the severity of the danger they're encountering. Set during the Kosovo War in 1998, and framed through the stark memory of a bicycle, we're introduced to friends Oki (Andi Bajgora) and Petrit (Lum Veseli). As the Serbian takeover threatens the lives of the Albanian citizens, Petrit naively finds a way to make some money from the leader of a group of local Serbian soldiers. When his involvement puts a wedge between he and Oki, the two must fight to do what's right in the face of terrifying injustice.

The final moments were some of the most upsetting and beautifully shot climaxes of the year--of any film. It being inherently difficult to watch is what's keeping it from being higher on this list, but I have no doubt in my mind that it should have taken home the 2016 Oscar. Not to mention, this is another example of the incredible young talent we've seen steal the show throughout this entire awards season.

3. STUTTERER


Directed By: Benjamin Cleary
Country: UK/Ireland
Run Time: 12 min
View the Trailer

This is the only movie presented in this category that I'd happily watch again. And I say "happily" because it stands alone in its uncompromising happy ending and optimistic outcome for everyone involved. A rarity in cinema this year, regardless of length (Brooklyn may be the only other celebrated example). Is it any wonder that Academy voters took to its hopeful protagonist, a justifiably quiet typographer named Greenwood (Matthew Needham) who suffers from an uncontrollable, debilitating speech impediment? His stutter surely doesn't represent the eloquent words swirling around his head, but his inability to convey them has left him isolated.

When he discovers that his online relationship with the engaging Ellie (Chloe Pirrie) is approaching the next phase after she asks that they meet face to face, Greenwood goes through a transformative period as he comes to terms with his deepest fear: communication. I adored this story, and not just because of the British Sign Language we get to watch Greenwood practice (signed languages are a huge passion of mine, and I wish I saw them represented in cinema more). A touching and sweet escalation of one man's determination to overcome such a personal challenge, this one stands out for exactly that reason.

4. DAY ONE


Directed By: Henry Hughes
Country: USA
Run Time: 25 min
View the Trailer

There really isn't a bad film among these, and Day One is no exception. The only contribution from the United States to receive a nomination, this film about an Afghani-American named Feda (Layla Alizada) enlisting as an interpreter and being deployed to Afghanistan is a small story in a much larger ecosystem of war. Like Shok, this is a snapshot framed around the personal inexperience of our protagonist. And while it didn't quite have the structural genius as the previous shorts, the acting and direction make it undeniably compelling.

On her first day on the job, an unsure Feda accompanies a group of US soldiers to investigate intelligence that a bomb-maker is residing in a small village. When they arrive to arrest the bomb-maker, Feda discovers that his wife is not only pregnant, but is about to give birth. Navigating cultural limitations, fear, and wavering trust, the team instructs Feda, the only female on the team, to aide in the complicated and dangerous delivery of the baby. In some ways, this story is very simple. We don't really get to know these characters, but the world is rich with complications that force these very different people to interact and work together for a common goal. It's beautiful watching it all come together, and despite some strange shot choices (fake baby arms), Alizada is a captivating lead in a high stakes story.

5. AVE MARIA


Directed By: Basil Khalil
Country: Palestine/France/Germany
Run Time: 15 min
View the Trailer

When a boisterous family of Israeli settlers crash their car into the Virgin Mary statue outside of a remote West Bank convent, the group of nuns living inside are asked to help, despite having taken a vow of silence. Realizing that they're at an impasse after the family realizes their Sabbath rules restrict the operation of a telephone, the group must find a way to communicate and work together to restore peace to all of their lives.

Self-described as a comedy, this film may not be considered the most memorable or interesting, but it's playful nature and cross-cultural confusions are enjoyable nonetheless. An issue I might cite is that it feels far less important than it might think it is, and that may have to do with the writing, which is creative in its situational comedy but slightly obnoxious in its dialogue. But at only 15 minutes, it's a short and simple movie with a fun cast of characters. There is just no way it could hold a candle to the films above, especially thematically.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Movie Review: "London Has Fallen" (2016)

© Focus Features

Around this same time last year, I watched Olympus Has Fallen for my 365 Movies Project, and it shouldn't have been a surprise to anyone that Hollywood would find another way to put the President of the United States in unbelievable danger, this time across the pond in the suitably titled, London Has Fallen. Far less "pro-America" than its predecessor, it is instead significantly more "anti-everywhere else." Xenophobia and racial sensitivity run amuck, almost as aggressively as the nineties action-flick clich├ęs that, after 100 long minutes, begin to feel inescapable. Director Babak Najafi's US film debut (having spent a career in his adopted home country of Sweden) regurgitates the same terrorist plot formula that has become all too familiar if you've watched a movie in the last 30 years, and while Najafi leans heavily on his over-qualified cast, they can't save the film from its humdrum dialogue and predictable plot twists.

Having returned to serve U.S. President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart) for his second term, lead Secret Service agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) awaits the birth of his first child, this time considering an official resignation on his own terms. But when the British Prime Minister unexpectedly passes away, Banning scrambles to oversee the safety of the President as they, along with all the leaders of the western world, travel to London for the funeral. Despite the heightened security and without warning, terrorists led by vengeful arms dealer, Aamir Barkawi (Alon Aboutboul), infiltrate the intelligence and police's ranks, bringing down a devastating attack on the city. Desperate to keep the President safe and not knowing who he can trust, Banning makes his way through the streets of London, fighting to ensure Barkawi's men never get their hand's on the leader of the free world.

Since this is essentially the same movie as its prequel, I'd say that neither is better than the other, but the fact that the original separated the two leads from interacting makes the buddy-adventure explored here completely override the intensity (and uncertainty) that was generated before. Butler and his accent are gruff and commanding, certainly more so than the dimple-chinned and charming Eckhart, who takes full advantage of the floundering battle-green persona he's given. Banning is so aggressively capable, you're left battled at how he can be so bad at his job.

The whole crux of the first film was: "Had Banning only been here, none of this would have happened," and that assessment is immediately cut down at the knees the moment hell fire rains down from Westminster Abbey and Banning stands in shock and dismay. As wonderful as it is watching Banning protect Asher against all means of chaos and terror, a good Secret Service head wouldn't have put him at risk in the first place. I don't think it's USSS protocol to "reluctantly" gamble with the President's life just because POTUS doesn't want to be rude.



Unfortunately, most of the other characters littered throughout the plot spend the length of the film in constant wide-eyed disbelief, if for no other reason than to contrast the inexplicably unflappable Banning. Locked in the Situation Room, they... watch screens and occasionally gasp and more often than not look concerned, and the talents of Oscar-celebrated stars, Morgan Freeman, Melissa Leo, and Jackie Earle Haley go completely to waste. The only exception is the exceptional Angela Bassett as Secret Service Director, Lynne Jacobs. Displaying an emotional range none of the other actors can match, she's sadly relegated to being the character whose advice everyone ignores—with irreversible consequences.

Four credited writers attached to this excuse for a screenplay suggests there were a multitude of rewrites, likely stripping the film of any of its initial personality—that is to say, if it ever had any. Full of "took you long enough"s and "we will find you, and we will destroy you"s, it doesn't even try to say anything new or hide the obvious reveals to come. Close your eyes and you're listening to Michael Bay's greatest nineties hits. Open your eyes, and your witnessing the worst of his CGI effects reel. While the hand-to-hand combat scenes packed a damn impressive punch (hardy-har), try not to look too closely at the multitude of poorly designed computer-generated explosions. Calling the flat and terror-less flames "first-year VFX student quality" would be an insult to first year VFX students everywhere. Thankfully for the film's sake, director Najafi took as much time focusing in as tight on Butler as he could, managing to create a more than solid infiltration scene during the climax reminiscent of a first person shooter. But that impressive execution stands very much alone.

If it weren't for the fact that the blindly insensitive, one-dimensional, and petty portrayal of the villainous terrorists infused the film with such hostile, chauvinistic racism, this may have been an excusably good time. The leads do possess a friendship that isn't hard to believe in and root for, and frankly, that's more than most would expect in an action film this straight-forward. It's also not hard to argue that London Has Fallen is typical Hollywood March-release faire that, while wholly tone-deaf, shouldn't be taken seriously enough to offend anyone. There are certainly entertaining moments of shoot-em-up glee that would be enough to lift most viewers out of boredom and keep their attention until the obvious "We'll be back" close, but one can't help but wish Asher's term as President would come to a goddamn end already and save us from another sequel.

Rating: ★★ / 5 stars
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