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by Tony Johnson 11.11.2015 18 days ago
at 05:39 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Spoonful of Cinema: Spectre

When it comes to the James Bond pictures that have hit theaters in my lifetime, none hold a more important place in my memory as Daniel Craig’s embodiments in Casino Royale and Skyfall. So when I saw Spectre, the fourth and final Daniel Craig-led installment in the iconic spy series, it was more than just a Bond movie. It was a conclusion to a span of my young life that stretches across more than nine years. The franchise reboot came at a time in my life when a love of movies was only beginning to mature. It’s been a long time. Come to think of it, I didn’t even have a Facebook account in the Casino Royale days. A lot has changed since the first time we saw Craig take on Bond.

But has James Bond changed with times? Sure. But his challenges and villains haven’t. There’s honestly nothing exhilaratingly new brought to the series with Spectre — unless if you count Bond occasionally seeming superhuman in gunfights (I expect better than the “all the bad guys missed eight times” shtick when I watch Bond films). It’s mostly the usual routine just blown to larger proportions. The Bond girl has vital information and there’s another girl he seduces for some other important leads. The bad guy gets a scar on his face and the cars are fast and the explosions are bigger than ever before. It’s great fun, but it felt a little too self-aware for 007. Occasionally Spectre felt stuffy when it could have flourished. I prefer my spy thrillers lean and mean, especially when James Bond is putting it on the line, and that is not what we got here.

Despite the shortcomings, the opening sequence brings us a scrappy, resilient 007 that we’ve come to expect, know and love. He follows an enemy target through the Day of the Dead festivities in Mexico City, up into a hotel and across a roof, all to the sound of the city and a pounding percussion score. Bond kneels and peers through a laser-sighted combat riflescope to take down some international terrorists. But when someone lights a cigar, the smoke exposes the rifle’s laser. It’s a mistake that, for the moment, costs him his opportunity to complete his mission. He goes on to inadvertently blow up a building, almost gets crushed by falling chunks of rubble, leaps to a safe platform, then falls conveniently onto a loveseat. He brushes himself off and chases his target through a grand showing of the Day of the Dead’s festivities, and at this point we realize how rhythmic the picture has been. Bond continues to chase the terrorist onto a helicopter, punching up the target and the pilot. The English spy nearly falls to his death before he takes care of his enemies, and after he comes inches away from flying the chopper into the holiday festival crowd, he flies triumphantly into the sunset, grinning to himself as he goes. Much of the sequence is shot in long tracking and crane shots.

Director Sam Mendes’ best moments of the film feel similar to the accomplishment of the first scene, with perilous encounters and gutsy execution from everyone’s favorite womanizer on government payroll. With the ultra sleek cinematography provided by Hoyte van Hoytema (The Fighter, Her), the tone of the picture — especially its action — seems all at once sophisticated and chaotic. Hoytema may well be a modern master at manipulating and capitalizing on a sort of spatial tension to coincide with what we witness. There are no problems with how the film is presented or how it looks. It’s the makeup of what the film presents.

A good example of what Spectre lacks may be Dave Bautista’s role as the mightily violent Mr. Hinx. Hinx is a massive, intimidating colossus who greets us by gouging a guy’s eyes out. He chases down our suave hero for a good portion of the picture, and he (almost) never says a word. He just fights, chases and ultimately meets his match in James Bond. It’s fine popcorn entertainment. But it doesn’t raise the stakes in the world of 007. It’s just more of the same. “I’m out of bullets,” he tells an enemy at a crucial moment. Maybe the writers were out of ideas.

The same sort of dissatisfaction can be said of Christoph Waltz’s role as the mastermind conspirator. He is trumpeted throughout Spectre as Bond’s greatest challenge yet. But the man known as Franz Oberhauser is not as effective as he is feared. He brings Bond into his lair to —guess what — be mean to him then kill him, instead of just kill him. You would think that people dealing with this particular spy would learn — you don’t capture him. Kill him immediately, or he will ruin everything. But even the most brilliant madman in all of Bond-world can’t figure that one out. It may be the most disappointed I’ve been with a Christoph Waltz performance.

I suppose it’s not cliché when a Bond villain gets duped twice in the same movie, though, and this one absolutely does. To his credit, Waltz’s villain does command a very narrow, automated drill through the spy’s head a couple of times, so he doesn’t go down without giving his enemy a good scare.

But I didn’t want a good scare with a couple of twists thrown in to catch me off guard. I wanted to seriously think there was no way Bond could make it out of the mess he found himself in. My generation’s 007 shouldn’t have gone out this way, but he did. He deserved better, if you ask me. He arrived nearly 10 years ago after a brief hiatus, ready to break our hearts and save the day. Now, as he goes, he leaves us empty-handed and wishing he had stayed for one last mission accomplished. But, just like the women he woos and loses and (almost) never fails to leave, we should only be glad we got a peek into the make-believe life of a daring, handsome, instinctive saboteur that is bigger than any single villainous counterpart, any single actor or any single movie. Period. 007 is a monument to Hollywood, to cinema, to blockbuster filmmaking that is engrained in the DNA of Western pop culture. And if we’ve learned anything about James Bond over the years, it’s that he will always be back. And when he does return, he’ll be looking a bit younger than when we last saw him, but we’ll recognize him. Whether its Jude Law or Tom Hardy or Chiwetel Ejiofor or someone I haven’t heard of, for around two hours we’ll only see James Bond. And he very well may learn a trick or two from those that have come before him. Let’s hope his opponent –— and everyone behind the cameras and at the writing tables, too — can keep up the pace. Grade: C –

by Tony Johnson 11.05.2015 24 days ago
at 01:54 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)
steve jobs

Spoonful of Cinema: Steve Jobs

How do you manage to pack the lifetime of a generation-defining innovator into just more than two hours of screen time? This is the challenge that Danny Boyle (director of Slumdog Millionaire and Trainspotters) faces with his latest directorial effort, Steve Jobs. With a trademark rat-a-tat screenplay from Aaron Sorkin (Moneyball, The Social Network), the latest film surrounding the late Apple founder opts out of a tame, status quo biopic format for a compact, perhaps more difficult and ultimately beautiful picture revolving around three pivotal product releases that helped define Jobs’ career. But while we are taken from the launch of the original Macintosh to Jobs’ stint at NeXT to the original iMac unveiling, a struggle to grapple with his role in a scrambled family tree persists. It is a cumulative narrative gamble intricately orchestrated by Sorkin, sharply executed by Boyle and remarkably brought to life by the film’s star, Michael Fassbender.

The accumulation of ingredients that goes into the final recipe, oddly enough, mostly reflects the biopic subject’s own tendencies as a business leader. The picture takes big chances, trusts its audience to see through the final product’s negligible flaws and eventually breaks through with something truly astounding. Occasionally, the film feels erratic — the jumps in time can feel jarring — but it is grounded in relationships revolving around a troubled but brilliant protagonist. The decision to force the life of an industry giant to be shown in miniscule slices of life — only three days with occasional flashbacks — also forces discussions that occurred (or half-occurred) at different times in Steve-Jobs-the-man’s life to occur backstage with Steve-Jobs-the-character. The decision is the mark of a filmmaking team dedicated to a narrative that does its subject justice as opposed to doing their subject a service. It sacrifices history for narrative, a worthy payment to achieve an eventual triumph. It would have been much safer to simply roll a tape that marched steadily along throughout the protagonist’s lifeline. But Sorkin’s script does for Jobs exactly what his The Social Network screenplay did for Zuckerberg — mythologize the work of the subject while humanizing them. And although it may be more fun to witness the glorification of the achievement of the iMac or “the Facebook” (do you remember the “the”?), it is much more rewarding to observe the inner workings of men mostly accessed indirectly through their inventions.

It’s hard not to compare and contrast Steve Jobs with The Social Network. Their premises and Sorkin connection make them a perfect future double-header. In 2008, David Fincher showed us a heartbroken, bitter whiz kid-version of Zuckerberg crawling through the pains of social rejection and industry success in a coming-of-age story. Now, we get Danny Boyle’s take on a Sorkin wunderkind of a more optimistic flavor. Like the Zuckerberg character we get our hands on, this re-creation of Steve Jobs’ main issue isn’t his talent. It’s his ability to accept responsibility for people who are close to them in favor of his work. But Sorkin trades in the open-ended relatively bleak conclusion of Zuckerberg’s rise to fortune for a mostly uplifting ending to Jobs’ struggles with his daughter Lisa.

The characters and settings and dialogues are not exact replicas of reality. At one point, Jobs remarks that everyone seems to confront him about personal qualms right before product releases, and we have to wonder how much that is wink to those who lived the real thing. The Beginning of 2013’s American Hustle comes to mind, when the opening frames read: “Some of this actually happened.” Of course, Steve Jobs is more honorable to the subject than O. Russell’s ABSCAM critique, which took unprecedented liberties and changed stories and names entirely for the sake of the narrative. Boyle doesn’t break the facts to pieces and create a new world to explore. Rather, he puts a spin on things, and he mashes tons of crucial life moments into 122 minutes of screen time.

The final result feels intelligent, delightful and human. These three qualities — intelligence, delight and humanity — may have been Jobs’ most endearing personal elements that he contributed to the computer industry. “It needs to say, ‘Hello!’ ” Jobs commands Apple engineer Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg) before the unveiling of the Macintosh. The Steve Jobs we meet via Michael Fassbender is calculating and demanding, but still charming in his sheer passion and enthusiasm for his line of work. In this regard, Steve Jobs is a resounding success.

Throughout the three product release events, we also get a glimpse of Jobs’ struggles as a reluctant father, a challenging friend and an adopted son. There is no practical reason to like him for how he handles his out-of-wedlock daughter, Lisa, whom he initially rejects as someone else’s. “You must see that she looks like you”, Steve’s marketing executive Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet) tells him backstage of the Macintosh presentation. More than 10 years later, Hoffman tells Steve before the launch of the iMac, “What you make isn’t supposed to be the best part of you. When you’re a father — that’s what’s supposed to be the best part of you.” His old friend and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak confronts him about giving recognition to the team that developed the Apple II computer, Apple’s earliest commercial breakthrough. When Jobs declines time and time again, Wozniak breaks it down. “It’s not binary,” he explains. “You can be decent and gifted at the same time.” Even Steve’s business partner and eventual foe John Scully (Jeff Daniels) poses the question, “Why do people like you who were adopted feel like they were rejected instead of selected?” It all adds up to a man who is so sure of what he does, and so unsure of who he is.

Steve Jobs is a picture with a pulse — a heartbeat. It is overwhelmingly more man than machine. This humanity drives the film’s central concerns with an airtight script, clean direction and stellar acting. We are spoiled with a wonderful glimpse of an artistic interpretation of who Steve Jobs was. We see him as a tech industry giant, a flawed father and a victim of identity crisis. “It’s about control,” the silver-screen version of Jobs admits to Scully in regard to his uneasy feelings towards his status as an adopted child. “I don’t understand anyone who gives it up.” And yet what makes Jobs so intriguing as a character is his reluctance to give up any control of his life, even if it means denying responsibility as a father. Perhaps now we can begin to understand. Grade: A

by Tony Johnson 10.14.2015 46 days ago
at 10:16 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Spoonful of Cinema: 99 Homes

Andrew Garfield, the actor most famous for his portrayal of Peter Parker/Spider-Man in the not-so-amazing The Amazing Spider-Man franchise, has a lot going for him. He first came onto the scene when he brought Eduardo Saverin to life and put a tasteful pulse of humanity into David Fincher’s sublimely cold-blooded The Social Network back in 2010, for which he picked up a Golden Globe supporting actor nomination. As if that wasn’t enough, he also makes up a half of a very formidable Hollywood power couple with Emma Stone. So, with the world at his fingertips, on the brink of bona fide stardom, Andrew Garfield decided to star in a relatively small-budget limited release directed by Ramin Bahrani, 99 Homes.

The picture is a small-time crime flick with a modern angle pitted around Garfield’s lead character, Dennis Nash. When Nash’s work as a roofer runs out, he and his mother and his son are evicted from their longtime family home. They are forced to move into a hotel, and their funds are running out when Nash goes to the office of the real estate agent that evicted his family to recover stolen tools. But when his allegations are denied, Nash instead finds himself carrying out repair jobs for the local real estate operator, Rick Carver — the very man who evicted Nash and his family. By the end of the day, Nash agrees to continue his work with Carver, and before you can say, “Here we go,” things begin to spiral out of control.

Carver is not an honest real estate mogul, and he isn’t personable in even the simplest of ways. “Don’t get personal about real estate,” he repeats throughout the film. It contradicts the very reason that Nash is so desperate to make more money working for Carver. For Nash, having a house isn’t a financial opportunity to flip for profit later on. It is an opportunity to keep his son from living in a run-down motel, and to keep his mother in a space where she can run her personal hairstyling business. It is an opportunity to keep from being woken at night by screaming motel-stayers. An opportunity to live somewhere that your son is not constantly barraged with the smell of cigarette smoke. To keep your son in the same school with his friends. To give your family a future.

The socio-economic and values-based chasm between the two characters is extreme. While Nash is a down-on-his-luck blue-collar type with a conscious and a family he so desperately wants to provide for, Carver uses the county map as a board for what he describes as “a rigged game. By the winners, of the winners, for the winners.” Carver also could give a damn about his family — he cheats, and treats his daughters like dogs who prefer ice cream to Beggin’ Strips. Rather than spend quality time with his kids, he spends quality cash on them to cover up any wounds.

Nash’s somewhat reluctant assistantship to Carver grows into a prominent role for the former roofer, who spends his days stealing appliances from government-owned homes, evicting squatters and re-selling the previously stolen appliances. The story serves to propose a series of unasked questions regarding the morality of such eviction processes. When Carver removes personal desires and factors from home owning, he tilts into the realm of the sociopath, treating unfortunate eviction subjects as hindrances to monetary gain rather than victims of monetary gain gone wild. Carver is a one-dimensional, single-minded dickhead of a boss, sharply played by veteran actor Michael Shannon. Shannon astutely narrows in on what makes Rick Carver tick. Cold, pragmatic and impatient, Carver seems practically impervious to psychological analysis. He is a monster much at home in a world where money is lord and people are only peasants whose purpose is to serve the royalty.

But where does 99 Homes bring Andrew Garfield’s career? Does it give him the opportunity to truly dominate a lead dramatic role? I’m not so sure. He is on point, and feels authentic as the poor working-class hero Dennis Nash, which is surprising considering Garfield’s background playing a multi-millionaire venture capitalist in The Social Network and Spider-Man. I understand that Nash is desperate to restore some sort of dignity to his family’s life. I believe him when he briefly grieves over his son changing schools. But I wasn’t clinging to him. I didn’t feel any sense of desperation at the prospect of his losing out to the system rigged against him. I felt compelled to care, but I didn’t feel I would be crushed by a horrific outcome. There is still something else to explore with Nash, and I don’t think we saw it ourselves. Andrew Garfield gets a good role in 99 Homes, but it might not be the role that he’s been searching for. He gets a ton of screen time and a winner’s share of the script. He pulls off a subtle Floridian accent that is noticeable but non-invasive, and he really knows how to get us to panic every once in a while. But I couldn’t bring myself to declare Garfield an absolute winner for his job-well-done in 99 Homes.

99 Homes is pretty solid. The film, the lead role and its lead actor have something in common. They are all only a few steps from greatness. But I can’t tell you that I’m sure how they might get there. For now, and for Andrew Garfield, hopefully good enough will just have to do. Grade: B-

by Tony Johnson 10.08.2015 52 days ago
at 11:29 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Spoonful of Cinema: Sicario

You can feel it. Under the suspense, the action, the tension — fear. The fear of the unknown. The fear of death. The fear that you don’t amount to anything more than the dirt you tread on. The fear that your efforts to do what is right only contribute to the very evil you fight. The fear that you are horribly wrong. The fear that you are as alone as you think you are.

This unrelenting fear bubbles viciously beneath the surface of Sicario, the crime-and-punishment thriller that brings our greatest nightmares to the Mexican border drug wars. Emily Blunt stars and shines as plays-it-by-the-book FBI Agent Kate Macer. When Kate is recruited by Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) to search for the men responsible for the killing of two police officers and dozens of immigrants, she agrees. But almost immediately, the motives behind the mission become less and less clear. A mysterious Colombian partner of Graver’s, Alejandro Gillick (Benicio Del Toro), is heavily involved in the operation, which troubles Kate, and she begins to wonder who she is really working for, who she is helping and who she is fighting against.

Kate’s journey to Juarez and back and throughout the border is as tense as it gets. Director Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Enemy) holds nothing back in keeping us on the edge of our seats, squeezing our sodas and shoving popcorn into our faces. Kate never seems safe. Alejandro barely seems human. Graver hardly seems genuine. If Sicario were a roller coaster, it would be in our best interest to buckle up and strap in.

The story and visions that flash on the silver screen throughout Sicario are gritty and unnerving, fraught with uncertainty and discomfort. Villeneuve’s camera is unafraid to intrude upon our characters. We see every mark of desperate frustration on Kate’s face. We are thrust into a shootout in the middle of a traffic jam. We witness Alejandro’s interrogation methods. It isn’t pretty, but it makes for a strikingly suspenseful trip along the tracks of the Mexican drug cartel’s trade routes and the U.S. government’s efforts to mop up the mess.

If a plot is only as good as the actors that bring it to life, it should be safe to say that there are no shortcomings with the players who provide the pulse of the story. Emily Blunt seems ready to take her place amongst Jennifer Lawrence and Scarlett Johansson in the upper echelon of A-list Hollywood-actress badasses. She is as much as anyone can ask for as agent Kate Macer. We find ourselves rooting for Kate not only to survive, but also to find some legitimate meaning or purpose or silver lining to the work she has given herself to — even if we doubt that it may be there. She lays her life on the line, not without questions, but without a trace of cynicism. Blunt nails the character, creating an overwhelmed hero who pushes her private life aside for the sake of an idealistic pursuit of bringing those to justice who most require it.

Blunt is supported by the macho pairing of Brolin and Del Toro, each in prime form. Brolin is spot-on as the ethically dismissive Graver. Rather than being up-front with Kate about their objectives, Graver keeps her in the dark, laughing off most of her concerns with country-boy quips and tasteless witticisms. Del Toro turns in an ice-cold performance. His commanding brevity accentuates the frozen stare he gives anyone and everyone, and there isn’t an ounce of trustworthiness to be found upon his face. Whether Alejandro’s loyalties exist or not is a total mystery, and the only thing that we are sure of with him is that he gives nothing up — he has no tells. Del Toro gives us a relentless portrayal of a man with nothing to lose, little to gain and motivations shrouded in stoic ruthlessness.

But once the film finishes — once the curtain is drawn back and the gears of the murderous machinery are revealed — we are left feeling as hopeless as when we are oblivious to the inner workings of the border conflict at hand. There is no saving grace. No relief. No future. Only more of the same. More empty hands, more empty promises, more empty homes — all of which fuel the fire of the drug trade to grow stronger and more sure of itself with each passing day, week and military operation.

With twists and turns throttling our sense of security along the way, Sicario eventually reaches its stunningly bleak conclusion with a sobering impression left on the audience. The notion is suggested that violence and war and vengeance are not chosen. They are evils that are learned, inherited and bestowed upon those unfortunate enough to experience the effects of the evil that they are afflicted with. They are a collective plague, a virus impossible to end — an epidemic unable to be curbed. War, violence, and betrayal never end. It only reimagines, redistributes, and recreates itself. Somewhere between the militaristic sabotage of Zero Dark Thirty and the desert-heated tension of No Country For Old Men, Sicario is a stunning knockout of a picture that pulls no punches, provides no apologies and leaves even the most romantic of all of us asking: Are there “good guys” anymore? And if there are, how different are they from the “bad guys” they’re after? Grade: A



by Tony Johnson 09.29.2015 61 days ago
at 04:02 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Spoonful of Cinema: The Green Inferno

Whether or not you like The Green Inferno probably depends on whether or not you can put up with the guy at parties who says, “I don’t want to be that guy, but…” and then suggests something inconvenient (usually they want your food). This gore-fest of a horror film knows it’s being “that guy.” But does acknowledging one’s faults make them automatically forgivable?

Director Eli Roth’s latest effort to gross us out is propped up against the backdrop of the Amazon rainforest. Like many of his films before (Cabin Fever, Hostel), it focuses on a naïve protagonist venturing to unfamiliar territory. When Justine (Lorenza Izzo) finds herself teaming up with a social activism group at college aiming to end the destruction of the rainforests inhabited by indigenous tribes, she doesn’t just sign up to hold a rally at a capitol building or egg a corporation’s headquarters. She signs up to go into the jungle, which is currently a warzone between industry and indigenous tribes. Justine ignores the risks because she thinks the leader of the student activists is really, really hot. One of their planes eventually crash-lands, leaving them in the middle of the jungle with no sense of direction and no GPS. In a turn of events soaked with irony, the students who are attempting to save the indigenous people from neocolonial expansion are mistaken for workers of the aggressive enterprisers and are brought in as prisoners by the unnamed tribe. Once the students are locked in a cell, we quickly learn that the students are not so much captives as they are cattle. The tribe is cannibalistic, and it seems that the only thing they revel in more than eating human flesh is the ceremonial torturing of it.

The Green Inferno knows exactly how wrong it is, and Eli Roth is laughing all the way. It is a campy, tongue-in-cheek, refreshing throwback to the likes of the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, although its premise does directly call back to Cannibal Holocaust, even if the film at hand doesn’t match up to either of the two grindhouse horror classics. Roth wastes no time trying to get us to genuinely care for any of the characters, most of whom cannot help but exude privilege even in the most typical of conversations. Rather than try to get us to root for the survival of a group of heroes, he gets us to pity Justine along the way. Roth hopes that we become overwhelmed not only by the buckets of blood spurting from victims’ severed limbs or heads, but also by the insurmountable misfortune that Justine attracts. She serves as a sort of doppelganger to the unsuspecting moviegoer that unwittingly finds themself in a showing of The Green Inferno. Way in over her head, constantly shocked by the brutality of her apparent fate and always trying to plot ways to escape when she isn’t trying to contribute to another prisoner’s plan, Justine may represent that weak-stomached tag-along in the group of friends who shouldn’t have come to this movie. And I am warning you: Any popcorn you eat is coming right back up if you aren’t ready for Roth’s demented exposé. Better yet, Justine might be seen as the squeamish piece in all of us that we can’t help but hear in the back of our minds saying, “Get me out of this theater.” And that’s where The Green Inferno really burns brightest — in its ability to make us cringe, make us looks away from the screen for brief moments, make us wish were brave enough to keep watching.

It differs in an essential manner from the all-out seriousness of last month’s similarly plotted No Escape. But while the Owen Wilson-led action flick felt heavy-handed and unapologetic in its possibly xenophobic premise, The Green Inferno is packed with enough despicable victims that it doesn’t feel like the American college students are helpless against foreign customs. It just feels like they’re getting what’s coming to them. They are a carefully crafted crew of stereotypical archetypes with foul mouths and insensitive opinions. Some are homophobic. Some seem racist. One smokes pot, one plays guitar and two of them are partially along for the trip to the Amazon in an attempt to eventually get laid. Before our characters get captured, tortured and perhaps killed, we are given ample reason to wish it upon them.

Despite any of the premise’s inherent faults, Roth understands that if we want to celebrate the relentless cannibalistic carnage that he so desperately loves, the deaths must not be tragic, but a release. That’s where the unlikable characters become so useful. I caught myself grimacing as much at what the characters said as when I witnessed their respective dooms, but I also caught myself occasionally laughing at the grotesque images of severed limbs, gauged eye sockets and impaled skulls. There’s no getting around the uncomfortable dull-mindedness of its protagonists, but for all of its bumps and bruises, The Green Inferno mostly slashes, burns and bleeds its way to a good time. And it’s not in spite of how unlikable the characters are. It’s because of how unlikable they are.

But just because I mostly had a good time doesn’t mean I was mostly impressed. The Green Inferno delivers where it should and comes up short where you might expect. The dialogue serves its purpose but drags its feet, and I’m not sure that the attempted commentary on globalism hits its mark. None of the actors shine — although to be fair, this is an Eli Roth film, where acting is but a mechanism to eventually get your head chopped off. The most troubling conceptual piece of the movie comes with its script’s big “reveal” moment. Underlying hidden motivations for their trip are eventually unveiled to the students upon their capturing and it absolutely reeks of a “ghost in the machine.” Even though the twist tries to serve as an anti-neocolonial statement, it comes across as just a hollow plot device that could have been solved somehow else.

Still, the point isn’t to be impressed with a social commentary, stellar acting or a remarkable plot when you walk in the theater for a cannibal horror flick. The point is that the subtext, performances and story amplify the fear of intense physical pain, the fear of a slow tortuous death and the fear that the worst things can happen to people who believe that they are working to create a better world. In that regard, The Green Inferno is definitely worth a viewing for horror enthusiasts despite its missteps and it is also a must-avoid for the weak of stomach. If it were any bloodier, you would have to bring a bib. If it were any better, you would have to see it to believe it. Grade: C

by Tony Johnson 09.24.2015 66 days ago
at 02:21 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Spoonful of Cinema: Mistress America

I thought I was going to see Sicario, the border crime drama starring Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro on Sunday night. I originally didn’t think it was in town yet, so when I Googled the movie and a lone show time for 7:30 p.m. popped up, I immediately headed out to catch it. I had been under the impression that Sicario wasn’t expanding from select venues for at least another week, but I did not hesitate to trust Google. Turns out I should have. Sicario still had not hit Cincinnati. But I was in the mood for a movie, so I caught a showing of Mistress America instead.

Mistress America is a sweet-hearted comedy with something to say about itself. The 86-minute romp is warm and witty and cozy, too. Writer/director Noah Baumbach is known for keeping it real with considerations of generational conflict and coming-of-age, and this time Baumbach is willing to push his story template into the realm of the absurd. The script is packed with dialogue that flies rapidly out of the mouths of leading ladies Lola Kirke and Greta Gerwig.

The story is preposterous and the delivery is silly, but the film is kept grounded with an overarching observation of art and honesty. The story follows college freshman and loner Tracy (Kirke) as she begins to discover New York City as an accomplice to Brooke (Gerwig) on frivolous adventures after they meet due to an eventual family wedding that will make the pair sisters. Things get real when Tracy uses her experiences with Brooke as an inspiration for a short story that might gain her entrance into a campus literature group. But things get zany when Brooke begins to actively pursue her dream of opening a restaurant and the lead investors back out. When Brooke and Tracy visit Brooke’s psychic for counsel, they conclude that Brooke must face her ex-fiancé and ex-best friend, who are now married and wealthy in Greenwich, Conn., and fully capable of funding Brooke’s entrepreneurial venture. So the two girls set off to “Greenwich grossville” to get the money that Brooke desperately needs.

Along the way we discover that Brooke’s former best friend, Mamie-Claire, stole Brooke’s T-shirt design and made a company and decent profit out of it. Meanwhile, Brooke’s current best friend, Tracy, is feeding off of Brooke’s life for writing material. The parallels and paradoxes begin to mount, and eventually culminate in a modest but meaningful conclusion.

Mistress America never sacrifices its message for laughs and doesn’t have to sacrifice dignity for them, either. It is new but familiar territory for Noah Baumbach, whose off-the-screen partnership with Gerwig hopefully reflects the chemistry evident on set of production. Gerwig is an absolute star that can make us feel as young and optimistic as her characters often feel. And Baumbach knows exactly what to do with her on screen.

Baumbach’s most recent movie is brief but bold enough to satisfy. It makes no apologies for its rat-a-tat pace and brings us along for a youthful rush that ends with a smile. Baumbach’s talent is on full display here — this comedy is a fun, clever and endearing look at what it means to grow up, what it means to be a friend and what it means to be an artist. Sometimes, as Mistress America maybe helps us understand, there’s more to art than art. There are months of maturation and countless random encounters that develop the crafter and, in turn, their craft. There are broken promises and broken dreams and fresh starts and lucky breaks. Overall, Mistress America is mostly somewhere in between fresh and lucky, with only a few pieces that could use some fixing. Grade: B

by Tony Johnson 09.22.2015 68 days ago
at 02:53 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)
black mass

Spoonful of Cinema: Black Mass

My movie weekend started at 7 p.m. Friday night, when I went and saw Black Mass, the true-crime expose of the Boston crime boss James “Whitey” Bulger. The picture stars Johnny Depp as the murderous, opportunistic kingpin, while Joel Edgerton portrays fellow South-Bostonian and conspirator, FBI agent John Connolly. It’s a somewhat typical, mostly entertaining look at one of America’s most notorious most-wanted criminals of the time.

Black Mass has a few things going for it. First of all, Depp is in good form as “Whitey” Bulger. He commits cold-blooded murder to solve any inconvenience along the way to ruling Boston’s scummy criminal underworld. Depp’s Bulger is a methodical, cunning and careful small-time mobster who takes every opportunity granted to propel himself to the big leagues of the black market. We get a particularly riveting piece of the character’s psyche when he explains the ethics of punching people in the face to his elementary school-aged son. “It’s not what you do”, he tells the boy. “It’s when and where you do it and who you do it to or with. If nobody sees it,” Bulger reassures his son, “didn’t happen.”

Along the way, we get solid work from an impressive cast. Supporters Benedict Cumberbatch, Dakota Johnson, Jesse Plemons, Kevin Bacon, Adam Scott and Corey Stoll all come along to fight the fight that sees the eventual downfall of Bulger’s Winter Hill Gang. It’s a tense cat-and-mouse game throughout, but we only get short glimpses of the damage done.

The crime drama covers roughly seven years in just over two hours, and director Scott Cooper takes on the difficult task of packing such a long period into 122 minutes. It’s a movie with fundamental flaws in its nature. A highly calculated, brutal and bloody war unfolds on the streets of Boston. But it all happens so fast, and some moments and spaces that Agent Connolly, “Whitey” Bulger and their respective peers occupy feel more intriguing than others. It left me wishing that the story had something to say about itself, and didn’t just serve as a series of glimpses into the acts of a real-life villain.

Interestingly enough, the real James “Whitey” Bulger has denounced what he’s heard of Black Mass and Depp’s portrayal of him. Former member of the Winter Hill Gang Kevin Weeks claims that what we have on our hands is pure “fantasy.” It seems strange that the makers of a true crime story about “Whitey” Bulger would veer from the facts and into the realm of exaggeration when a movie already exists that does just that. I’m talking about Martin Scorsese’s The Departed. Not even 10 years old, the Academy Award-winning movie was a loose interpretation of “Whitey” Bulger’s eventual end. Perhaps if The Departed had not been released, Black Mass would be more worthwhile. But the new, supposedly more genuine representation felt hesitant, as if trying to straddle the line between fact and fiction while propelling us a month-per-minute through the timeline.

Essentially, Black Mass is a shadow to both Bulger’s true story and The Departed’s artistic falsehoods. It feels aimless despite its grit, its guts and its star, and I think that to some degree there is a good movie hiding somewhere within this Mass. Grade: C-

by Tony Johnson 09.16.2015 74 days ago
at 02:45 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)
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Spoonful of Cinema: The Visit

The Visit is a change-up for M. Night Shyamalan. Kind of. The man notorious for refusing to make a movie that doesn’t have a massive twist, usually in the final few moments of the film, has brought us Academy Award-nominated The Sixth Sense, but he has also brought us Razzie-nominated films like The Happening and (gulp) After Earth. So when he decided to try to get back to his roots of suspense and horror and away from his misadventures in big budget nonsense, I decided I would take a flier.

The premise surrounding The Visit is as straightforward and crisp as vintage Shaymalan could get. Two grandchildren, Becca and Tyler, armed with digital cameras, go to visit their never-met grandparents and things get a little… spooky. Grandpa is wildly paranoid. Grandma wanders around at night, sometimes on all fours, sometimes scratching the wall the way a housecat would a scratching post. Grandma gets a kick out of having Becca climb in the oven — “all the way in” — to clean it.

Of course with Shyamalan, it can’t be all that simple. That would be too fun to watch. There’s a Shyamalan-trademark family drama needlessly bubbling underneath the otherwise self-explanatory event. Becca and Tyler’s mother, played by Kathryn Hahn, eloped against her parents’ will only to be ditched by her husband once Tyler, the younger of the siblings, was born. It feels like a cheap way to get us to fear for the kids’ fates, and feels even more like a waste of my time in the theater. Shyamalan really lays the family-love on thick throughout, doing his damnedest to get us to pray to whatever we believe in that the grandparents are only very strange, somewhat sick elderly folk and not the perhaps murderous plotters looking to claim vengeance on their daughter’s rebellious days that we can’t help but suspect.

Speaking of trying to get us to like the characters, I really have to wonder what in the world I was supposed to like about Tyler, the tween-ish boy counterpart to his much more likable older sister, Becca. Tyler is annoying. I don’t like his voice, I don’t like how clever he thinks he is and I don’t like that he raps about cake. He drives me nuts. I really can’t understate how obnoxious this freaking kid is, and I remember thinking to myself very honestly, “Please, if only one of these kids makes it out of the visit alive, take Tyler.”

While I imagine Shyamalan was trying to make the kids a sort of duality in the sense that one is female and modest while the other is male and blurts whatever is on his immature mind, M. Night really just makes one kid seem like an angel and the other seem like that accumulation of snot you get in your nose (sometimes only one nostril, now that’s the worst) overnight when you have the flu. To all you Louis C.K. fans out there, Tyler is essentially my Jizanthapus. He’s a kid, and I shouldn’t despise him, but… I totally despise and I won’t lose a second of sleep over it. For all I know, young Australian actor Ed Oxenbould — unfortunate enough to be cast as Tyler — has a bright career ahead of him. If he does, this performance will be that embarrassing moment he doesn’t want brought up in interviews. The worst part is, this isn’t his fault. Shyamalan really went to great lengths to create one of the lamest characters of the year, and perhaps of his career (and that is really saying something).

But after we get past the fact that the movie is split three-quarters the way of solid horror flick, one-quarter sappy family drama and after we put up with Tyler’s painful inclination to rap about nonsense off-beat in random moments, we are still forced to come to grips with the found-footage direction style of the film. No longer a fresh way to frame a horror flick, the found-footage approach is honestly executed with a surprising volume of youthful energy from the veteran filmmaker behind the cameras (all two of them). The Blair Witch Project may have popularized (and perhaps immediately perfected) the style for scare-tactics all the way back in 1999 (ironically the same year Shyamalan popularized himself with The Sixth Sense) but the method seems to still have something to offer the world of horror films.

The “jump scares” are tastefully sparse and truly give audiences the surprised shouts we crave heading into a theater for a scary movie like The Visit. I tend to be more impressed with the “slow-burn” scares that push horror films into the realm of classics, and while The Visit offers enough paranoia to keep us in the theater, it also falls flat on its face often enough to be make us raise an eyebrow. I found myself laughing every three or four times I was supposed to be shaking in my seat. That’s not a good formula for a good horror film. While I’m on the subject, let me just be clear: This is not a good any-kind-of film, and it basically derails its own formula.

When a film has one half of a protagonist duo of grandkids that is utterly unlikable and one half of an antagonistic duo of grandparents makes you chuckle when you know you’re supposed to be screaming, the movie doesn’t come out on top. It comes out low (but not the lowest) on the Shayamalan scale, but with a much more bitter taste than most of his failures. There’s a good movie somewhere in The Visit. Perhaps this one is on the editor, but I’ve been too disappointed too many times by M. Night to believe anyone but the writer/director deserves most of my negative feelings toward the horror flick. While The Happening and After Earth were downright disastrous implosions, The Visit has just enough redeeming qualities to keep us generally on board, somewhat intrigued and mostly entertained. But that’s not what Shyamalan wants us to feel. It’s not what I want either, but it’s what we got. If you’ve been holding out for a Shyamalan comeback, this may not be the trip you want to take a chance on. 

Grade: D

by Tony Johnson 09.10.2015 80 days ago
at 11:30 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)
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Spoonful of Cinema: Fall Movie Preview

Autumn 2015 looks unusually strong. Perhaps I’m optimistic, but there seems to be several upcoming titles on the release schedule in the months leading up to the holidays that I find myself looking forward to as much as any fall I can remember. It just comes down to whether you trust the cast and crew around the individual film release or if you trust that the movie studios will stick to the script and deliver the best quality films when they intend to. Sometimes they do. Sometimes they don’t.

Hollywood justifies its existence with its accomplishments. We get bombarded annually with loads of nonsensical big-budget franchise flops — we also get our minds blown when the picture is right, when it all comes together. Here’s to hoping that, this fall, we experience enough excellence to forgive and forget the never-shrinking studio batch of goofy big-budget embarrassment we are sometimes forced to sift through as moviegoers.

September has a lot of movies on the schedule that I wouldn’t raise my hopes for, but a few strike me as intriguing. I would say that M. Night Shyamalan won’t be making another good movie any time soon — The Happening is a great ironic viewing — but sometimes a director has to take a turn for the worse to make an eventual turn for the better. The perhaps too-often-mocked director behind The Sixth Sense and Signs returns to horror with The Visit, set for wide release from Universal on Sept. 11. The premise is as frightening as it is vintage Shyamalan. In the PG-13 “original thriller” (so says the trailer), two kids visit a pair of grandparents who strictly enforce bedtime. Over the course of The Visit, the kids notice strange noises after bedtime, and their grandparents begin to behave strangely the next day. I would say that the idea of a total Shyamalan comeback is outlandish, but Universal seems to be releasing nothing but insanely popular movies this year. I’m not getting excited for The Visit, which seems to feature a heavy found-footage-style dosage of screen time, but I’d be lying if I denied that I typically root for any horror film to scare the living snot out of me.

On Sept.18, Warner Brothers will distribute Black Mass for wide release. The true-crime drama will feature Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Depp in what looks like a good old-fashioned gangster film. Depp is already being hailed for a sort of comeback in TV spots and reviews. It’s good to know that he at least decided to play a character that isn’t some sort of mystical being or peculiar sad man. The hype for Depp portraying Boston crime legend James “Whitey” Bulger is astronomically high, and I can only hope that he reaches the performance level that most critics seem to believe he has delivered.

October is when things will get pretty exciting. The first weekend of the month will see the wide release of Ridely Scott’s The Martian, a limited release of Robert Zemeckis’ The Walk in IMAX, and a double helping of Tom Hardy in Brian Helgeland’s Legend. The Martian has a bold ensemble cast led by Matt Damon, but its merit will be accomplished or missed behind the camera. I like to liken Ridley Scott to a power hitter in Major League Baseball — sure, he strikes out more than most, but when he gets ahold of something good, he really makes it count. There is a good level of hype for The Martian — some seem to hope that this could be Scott’s finest film since American Gangster, but it could be as disappointing as Scott’s similarly hyped (albeit very different subject matter in) The Counselor, which turned out to be an uncomfortable sitting for movie fans hoping for the best out of a Cormac McCarthy script. The Walk is based on the true story of French high-wire artist Philippe Petit’s 1974 attempt to walk a wire connecting the two towers of the World Trade Center. It stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt and is directed by Robert Zemeckis, the guy behind Back to the Future, Forrest Gump and Flight. The movie should at least be worth seeing in IMAX, and Zemeckis’ films always have an outside shot to be awards-season surprises. Zemeckis’ constant attempt to walk the fine line between broad appeal and powerful visual skills won him an Oscar and massive box office success, but The Walk’s story seems as risky as its protagonist’s goal.

In limited release, Legend seems sure to satisfy the best of the Tom Hardy fan in everyone. We all know that the only thing better than Tom Hardy starring in a movie is Tom Hardy starring with Tom Hardy in the same movie. He’ll be portraying real-life London crook icons, the twin Kray brothers. One is the brain. One is the brawn. The colorful biopic has already garnered mostly mixed but positive-leaning reviews. We are about to discover if Hardy may be ready to prove that he can carry a film at the box office for any studio. The film will not have an initial wide release, but it will be interesting to see if Hardy — practically the entire selling point of the movie based on its trailer — can pull Americans to smaller movie houses for a mobster flick about British criminals. Legend will be another Universal release. If Universal’s box office mojo continues into the fall, Legend will probably surpass expectations.

And that’s only the first weekend of October.  On Oct. 9, we get to watch one of the best actors around — Michael Fassbender — portray one of the most monumental, impossible-to-ignore public figures of our time in Steve Jobs. Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire) will be directing, and Aaron Sorkin (Moneyball, The Social Network) has penned the script. It’s worth noting that Sorkin has now written two big-time portrayals of tech industry tycoons; but if it works, why not do it again? If the picture shows as well as its producers seem to expect, we could very well see Fassbender at the Globes and Oscars in early 2016. Much of Steve Jobs weight will rest on his shoulders. Keep an eye on this one.

The week after we watch Fassbender take on Jobs, we get two auteurs’ latest releases on the same wide release date. Bridge of Spies will be the newest movie from Steven Spielberg. The legendary filmmaker is teaming up with Tom Hanks to take on a story loosely based on Cold War espionage. It seems a little bland from the trailers, but this is Steven Spielberg, so I’m definitely more optimistic than not for Bridge of Spies. The other half of the awesome Oct. 16 weekend is Guillermo Del Toro’s gothic horror extravaganza Crimson Peak. The trailer footage is stunning, and Del Toro should be capable of scaring us in more ways than we might imagine. The Mexican master of the supernatural has brought us the Hellboy movies, the chilling Pan’s Labyrinth and the outrageous Pacific Rim. His ability to visually stun us with his creations is only matched by his ability to compel us with his mysterious plots and scheming villains.

by Tony Johnson 09.01.2015 89 days ago
at 03:07 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Spoonful of Cinema: No Escape

No Escape is fine, I guess. It’s surprisingly better than I would have suspected, but I’m not recommending it. The action is tense but the story is flat. Its story is wildly boring and its perspective is probably xenophobic. Giving the filmmaking Dowdle brothers the benefit of the doubt as far as the xenophobic possibilities go, there’s still something wrong with this picture.

Star actor Owen Wilson isn’t the problem. Neither is star actress Lake Bell. Neither is star support Pierce Brosnan. Neither is the directing team of Drew and John Erick Dowdle. What’s wrong with No Escape is the uninspired writing team of Drew and John Erick Dowdle.

Unfortunately for the 40-something brothers out of St. Paul, Minn., their combined efforts behind the keyboard are far more tragic than the events we witness on camera. The filmmaking duo brings us Wilson as Jack Dwyer, a newly transferred employee of a large corporation. The international company has something to do with the water supply in an unnamed, apparently irrelevant Asian nation. And guess what? The native inhabitants of whatever country Jack is in don’t like the fact that a big, bad business is taking their water because things have apparently gotten worse since Americans began controlling the supply.

The well-armed revolt puts the Dwyer family in an unexpected scenario. The locals are violently rebellious, and they want American blood. Despite the film’s title, Jack and his wife Annie (Lake Bell) do everything in their power to bring themselves and their children to escape from the lethally unfortunate situation they have found themselves in.

The route of escape takes us from the inside of a hotel building to the top of a hotel building to the top of another building and down and through the unnamed city to the U.S. Embassy and to the Vietnam border. Along the way, British Intelligence Agent Hammond (Brosnan) assists the Dwyers. Hammond alludes to the fact that Western military intelligence operations are responsible for the mess in whatever country the Dwyers are escaping from. He helps the Dwyers and puts his life on the line out of some sense of guilt. It all adds up to a script that feels like its main mission is to apologize for its lack of any sort of brains and then shove us into a somewhat suspenseful moment.

But the cameras do the trick. Whether I like it or not, I found myself occasionally impressed with the stylistic delivery with which the Dowdle brothers prop up their mundane screenplay. It is a directorial display that gives heavy hints to their roots in horror films, from the pacing to the music to the title screen. The dialogue is mostly fluff, but the suspense is mostly well executed and even somewhat gripping. But it didn’t stop me from feeling uncomfortable with myself every time I caught myself enjoying a near-death experience of one of our on-screen protagonists. Just like the script seems to apologize for its non-story, I felt like I had to apologize to my brain for having some sort of fun watching it play out.

No Escape seems to be entirely the Dowdle Brothers’ creation, and with the paltry substance that they provide themselves to work with, they manage to satisfy us in some very basic ways. We don’t know if any of the Dwyers will make it or not until the very end. We don’t feel as though any of them are safe throughout, but we are also unsure of why we would really care if a main character were to bite the bullet. Of course, some level of tragedy is implied when we watch a anyone get shot or beat to death, but building up a struggling family with a weak script to serve as their infrastructure doesn’t do the Dowdles any favors.

The body count in No Escape is probably the most impressive thing about the movie. It echoes part of the appeal and much of the nonsensical aspects of 2008’s Taken. But instead of a man’s daughter being taken by foreign assailants, No Escape paints us a picture of a man who obliviously marches his family right into Hell’s gates, which are seemingly always located overseas. The fact that Jack’s ineptness in planning so sharply contrasts his ability to think on the fly in emergency scenarios is troubling. There’s no way someone — particularly someone so bright as the inventor Jack Dwyer — would relocate their family via global megacorporation job placement without looking into the company’s social standing in the impoverished, politically unstable region it inhabits. Right?

What we have here is not so much a disaster movie as it is a disastrous movie. No Escape is a fitting title for this predictably unexceptional, relatively low-budget Weinstein Company flick. Owen Wilson seems to have no escape from bad movies, despite his obvious talent exhibited in films like Bottle Rocket and Midnight In Paris. Lake Bell seems to have no escape from taking bland roles as “the-wife-of-so-and-so,” despite her directorial and creative talents. The Dowdle Brothers’ directorial talents galore have no escape from the toxic script that they penned themselves. And we the audience had no escape from No Escape. In the end, whether the Dwyers survive or not, everyone leaves the theater a loser.

Grade: D+