Brooklyn Review


Many romantic films try to sell the audience on love first, and characters second. As if the concept of two pretty people who find each other attractive, stare into each other’s eyes, and kiss is enough to carry a story on it’s own. It’s certainly proven to be a successful, with people like Nicholas Sparks making a career out of the circus of romance. Enter Brooklyn,  which on paper may sound like yet another dime story reel of nonsense not worth bothering with. However, it it actually a film refreshingly more interested in the circumstances and human urges that make people fall in love.

Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) is a young woman living in Ireland who dreams of a life more fulfilling than the shop-girl existence she’s currently resigned too. When Father Flood (Jim Broadbent), a local priest, finds her a boardinghouse in Brooklyn to live in, she takes the opportunity in home-sick stride. Upon arriving, she finds herself a bit lost in the hustling, never sleeping city until she meets Tony (Emory Cohen), a kind hearted Italian boy who almost instantly falls head over heals for her. However, just as things are looking up in both life and love, tragic circumstances force Eilis to go back to Ireland for a while. Once there, she finds herself conflicted by the charms of Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson), a sharp polo club member soon to inherit his family fortune.

While that might sound like a typical manipulative love triangle that would make Katniss Everdeen blush, Brooklyn pulls ahead of it’s contemporaries in large part due to it’s fantastic performances. Saoirse Ronan has been one of the most magnetic young actresses in the industry for quite some time, but she’s never had a role as quite as meaty as this one. Eilis is both utterly charming through her quiet strength and warm sense of humor, and yet convincingly frustrated and homesick as the more subjective parts of the story start to take form. Is she one hundred percent likable at every turn? No, but that’s the point. She’s a fully three dimensional character that we root for because we see how sweet she is at heart. It will be an absolute shame if she does not receive a Best Actress nomination this year, as Eilis is one of the most well fleshed out female protagonists a film has had in quite some time. As for the two men in question, Domhnall Gleeson is certainly impressive,  the prize belongs to Emory Cohen by a long-shot. After turning in such an utterly lame turn in The Place Beyond The Pines, Cohen is an utter revelation here as the sensitive if slightly dim witted Tony. There isn’t a moment where Tony does not come across as sweet, but it’s genuine sweetness, not movie sweetness. At times, this means that he’s a little awkward and forceful, but Cohen is unafraid of loosing his heartthrob appeal and lets it go there. There are also nice turns by Jim Broadbent as Eilis’ mentor, and Arrow’s Emily Bett Rikards as one of the more icy girls in the boardinghouse.

These performances are bolstered by a fantastic screenplay by sap master Nick Hornby, and solid direction by John Crowley. Hornby, who’d work ranges from the novel About a Boy, to the script for Wild, has a near perfect balance of sweetness and authenticity loaded inside his pen. While the characters come across a bit old hat on the surface, each one is given enough layers of humor, sadness, and emotional mismanagement that they stretch beyond what would have been sleepwalked through by a lesser writer. Meanwhile, Crowley makes both Brooklyn and Eilis’ home in Ireland look absolutely beautiful, further driving home the conflict within her heart. He has a masterful sense of tone in individual scenes, letting some of the stranger and more awkward beats live in silence, while giving the more glamorous moments the perfect infusion of both music and humor.

The film does have one major roadblock that keeps it from being as great as it could be. When Eilis goes back to Ireland, she takes a secret with her that turns the ensuing love triangle into something a bit icky. The movie never really provides a good reason beyond very primal emotional ones for why she never tells anybody about this secret, and the way it’s ultimately unveiled is deeply contrived and very ham-fisted. However, it’s easy to get lost in the story and not think about it a whole lot once this segment of the story really gets going, and the somewhat grey nature of the ending provides for a more interesting resolution than the typical film of this type.

At every turn Brooklyn proves to be infinitely more charming than virtually any of it’s recent contemporaries. While it’s a deeply sensitive film, it never comes off like it’s trying to wring these emotions out of it’s audience. Like the fantastic Creed, which it shares both screens and hopefully an Oscar ballot with, it’s a film deeply rooted in typical troupes that carries them out so well that you’ll remember why they became troupes in the first place. It achieves these reactions naturally, through rich characters and fantastic performances. Beyond that, it provides insight into just how wrenching the life of an immigrant can be, which in light of recent events is both effective and timely. If you’ve got heart-strings to spare, these are just the hands to pull on them.

Rating: A-

Creed Review


When I was about six years old, I watched my very first boxing match with my dad. Naturally, there wasn’t a whole lot in common between us yet, but as I saw the re-run of whatever Muhammad Ali fight he was watching, that quick changed. Before I knew it, I was learning about the mythology of fighters like Ali, Smokin’ Joe Frazier, and George Foreman. As my passion for movies developed, I was always drawn to films featuring fighters, When We Were Kings, Million Dollar Baby, The Fighter, and of course, Rocky evolving into my personal favorites. Many nights were spent with my father and I watching the ever-changing Rocky franchise develop, starting as gritty dramas and transforming into insane superhero films. Even so, writer/director/star Sylvester Stallone certainly did bring Rocky to a very fitting conclusion in 2006’s Rocky Balboa, which made it all the more surprising when the notion of Creed came along. Sure, Rocky stepping into the mentor role for a fresh lead seemed like a novel idea, but would this new character capture the same authentic magic that made Rocky such a sensation? Well, after picking up my jaw from off the theater floor, I have a very clear answer.


The film centers on Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), the troubled illegitimate child of legendary fighter Apollo Creed. Struggling to find his place in the world and constantly finding himself in fights, Adonis decides that like his father, his destiny lies in the ring. Traveling to Philadelphia from Los Angeles, he seeks the training and guidance of a deeply retired Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone). Reluctant at first, Balboa decides to take the young man under his wing, and together they form a bond that allows them both to face their own individual demons. Meanwhile, Adonis finds himself smitten with Bianca (Tessa Thompson) a musician living in his apartment complex, who does even more to calm his fiery soul.


If Creed had a lead who in any way paled in comparison to Stallone, then the whole thing would have toppled over. Fortunately, Michael B. Jordan grapples onto the opportunity with everything he has, and does what might be the best work of his young career here. He gives Adonis, who could have very easily just been a simplistic fuming bore in other hands, incredible depth and passion. At heart, he’s a guy who feels as though he lives in the shadow of a man who didn’t even stick around long enough to love him, and that deeply rooted sadness seeps under every moment of arrogance, anger, and sweetness stems out from that. We never have any doubt that he’s a good person who just needs to apply himself, and watching himself do just that is a pleasure. Meanwhile, Stallone is just as good if not even better as the aging Balboa. After playing a character for the seventh time, it would have been easy for the iconic star to phone it in and just play the barking trainer. Instead, he shows us vulnerable layers that had been touched on in Rocky Balboa but really get exposed here through his relationship with Adonis. It’s a performance worthy of a Best Supporting Actor nomination, and is the key piece in perhaps the most touching father/son dynamic that has graced the screen in quite some time, even if it isn’t biological. Thomson is also very impressive, Bianca being afflicted with hearing loss that gives her limits in pursuing what she loves. Even if she is by far the most under-written character in the film, she gets the job done in making sure that we care about her and Adonis’ relationship enough to not make it feel like filler.


Ryan Coogler (hot off of his spectacular debut, Fruitvale Station) grows and excels like crazy as both a director and screenwriter here. This was an absolutely perfect project for him to cut his teeth on as his stock in Hollywood grows. He creates an style in this film that is both intimate, and operatic in equal measure. All the character moments are given the space and air to breathe, with extended sequences of beautifully written and emotionally stirring dialogue. Then, when it’s time to evolve into a Rocky movie, Coogler crafts some of the most epic training and boxing sequences ever put on film. While the standout sequence is clearly a brilliantly choreographed second act bout captured all in one take, there’s a plethora of moments that come fairly close to matching it. With a beautiful, thundering score that invokes the original Rocky theme without copying it, Coogler makes us feel the snap of every single hit. If real life boxing was this thrilling to watch, it would be the most popular sport in the world.


The only major failing here is the film’s antagonist, Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew). While Bellew is perfectly component in the role, he’s never really given a whole lot to do. He’s introduced in a fairly clumsy way at the beginning of the film, and then never really gets to develop the larger than life persona that many of the previous Rocky villains have. I’m not asking for Mr. T again, but it would just be nice to have somebody with a bit more charisma or personal connection to Adonis to drive the drama of the film that much further.


  Creed is not only a respectfully and masterfully crafted reboot of the Rocky franchise for a new generation, but it’s a film that made me remember why I loved the boxing films of my young years so much. It’s emotionally resonant, inspiring, and just about as crowd pleasing as a movie gets. In 1977, the original Rocky went on to take Best Picture. I suspect that almost thirty years later, it just might be time a double K.O.

Rating: A

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay- Part 2 Review


There’s a scene early on in Mockingjay: Part 2, where all of the major characters converge for a major wedding. It’s their last moment of peace before they enter a war-zone for the rest of the film, and for some, the last smiles that will ever cross their face. One would think this would be an incredibly emotionally charged moment, particularly after three very solid films of build-up. However, every single character just looks tired. Not in the authentic, war-torn way the film is going for, but in the way the janitor in an office building looks after working two night shifts in a row. In this moment it became clear, although this is supposed to be the last hurrah for one of the biggest and most beloved franchises in recent memory, everybody involved in the considerably talented creative team has already left this series behind. Now we’re just stuck with their bodies, as they fill their final contractual obligation and move on to bigger and better things.


Picking up right where Mockingjay: Part 1 left off, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) finds herself juggling being a leading propaganda figure in the war against the totalitarian Capitol, and attending to her recently rescued friend Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) who is still having violent side effects from his brainwashing. Tired of waiting in the wings of District 13 to end the war and kill President Snow (Donald Sutherland, who perhaps gives the best performance as the infuriatingly calm dictator), Katniss disobeys revolution leader Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) and places herself into the front lines. At least, that’s the plan, until her unit decides to hang somewhat away from the main battle, and film bolstering material for the soldiers by hanging just behind and having Katniss contend with the remaining traps or “pods.” Frustrated yet vigilant, Katniss, Peeta, and Gale “third side of the triangle” Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) and the rest of their unit make their way deeper and deeper into enemy territory, setting the stage for the hopeful downfall of The Capitol.


One can practically hear the fibers of this thin story ripping in the sound mix as director Francis Lawrence tries to wring yet another two and a half hour film out of a book that barely had enough content for one. While Mockingjay: Part 1 was criticized for it’s deliberate pace, I found that it’s attempt to pull some genuine social commentary out of the carnivorous world of war propaganda to be rather admirable. There were moments of genuine emotion stirred in that film, and although the action was light, the character interactions and invested performances made up for it. After all, it’s all building to the big crescendo in the second part right? Wrong.


When this film starts, the chance for talking things over has long passed us by. It’s time to take all of the emotion we’ve invested into these characters, and strangle us with it through constant danger. Instead, the film takes on an even more glacial pace than it’s predecessor, but with much less to chew on. It would like to have it’s audience believe that it’s something of a war film, with characters in danger at every turn. In reality, it’s a story constantly bracing itself for the set-up to pay off, with constant moments of sitting around, resting, and waiting, while on the battlefield. These aren’t silent moments of tension and fear either, but a constant pumping on the breaks so that Katniss can have a late night chat with either Gale or Peeta, and finally decide which one of these two lap dogs she will finally bless with the privilege of her mouth on theirs. It’s a shame that director Francis Lawrence, who did such a masterful job with both the tone and visual style of the previous two films, seems so completely overwhelmed here that he seems to be constantly procrastinating getting to the more complex action sequences. The man clearly needs a nap.


The Hunger Games’ cast has always been an eclectic mixture of extremely talented performers, both young and old. However, their performances here are all so pulled back that they reach behind subtlety and grab onto boredom instead, especially in the case of Jennifer Lawrence.  There’s no denying that through this series, the Oscar winner has received an incredible launching pad for her career. However, she does not seem quite as aware of that here, as she seems to just be lounging about while waiting on a call from David O. Russell the whole time. She does get one scene towards the end of the film to really show off, but by the time we get there, it seems borderline out of place. Hutcherson and Hemsworth just seem upset that their last major gig in Hollywood is ending (the latter getting his most meaty role in the series and succeeding minimally) while the veterans and fun Catching Fire supporting players seem to just be eying the craft services table the whole time.  What a shame it is that the late Philip Seymour Hoffman had to go out on such a minimal note, wasted along with a whole bunch of talents who deserve better.


At one time a series that showed just how grim and stirring young-adult adaptations could be, The Hunger Games goes out with a whimper with Mockingjay: Part 2. Taking the already pressing flaws of it’s source novel and extenuating them to the maximum, it takes a scenario that should be more tense than any game played before, and makes it into a bore. It’ll always be a series held in high regard for bringing the radiant Jennifer Lawrence into the mainstream, and in my view, crafting one of the decade’s best blockbuster films in Catching Fire. However, I think I’d take a gander that I speak for a decent amount of the creative team when I say, “I’m full.”

Rating: C-

The Night Before Review


It’s hard to put into words exactly what makes a great Christmas movie. After all, there’s a part of everyone that just wants to enjoy something that embraces this festive season of family, friends, and bright lights. For me, the answer comes in the form of two simple word, genuine love. We root for A Christmas Story’s Ralphie to get his Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle because the family he comes from is just so damn authentic, just as we cheer for John McClane in Die Hard as he slaughters terrorists to save the wife he took for granted for far too long. This brings me to The Night Before. Advertised as a silly Seth Rogen buddy comedy/stoner romp, it would be easy to think that lighthearted and loopy fun is all this film has to offer. While that stuff is certainly delivered on in spades, there is a sweetness here lying below the surface that just may take it from throw-away holiday goofball party to a Blu Ray that gets popped in every Christmas.


The story centers on three “ride or die homies,” Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Isaac (Seth Rogen), and Chris (Anthony Mackie). Fourteen years prior, Ethan’s parents were tragically killed in a car accident right around Christmas, prompting Isaac and Chris to take him out on a crazed holiday romp to get his mind off it. So effective was this night of debauchery that they have re-united for a yuletide adventure every year since. However, things have changed this year. Isaac and his wife Betsy (Jillian Bell) are about to have a baby, Chris’ football career has taken off in a meteoric way, and as such, they’ve decided that this will be the final “Night Before.” Ethan, at a stalled point in his life and desperate to change his friends’ minds, procures tickets for the legendary “Nutcracker Ball,” said to be the most wild rager in New York City, and the journey to get there goes to some pretty strange places.


The Night Before is an absurd stoner comedy above all else, perhaps the most directly drug fueled film Rogen has concocted since Pineapple Express. This could have been disastrous with a lesser script, as it seems that just about every way to parody the classic Christmas stories has been done over and over again, and then again in A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas. However, this film rather intelligently relies on it’s three talented leads and their chemistry to draw out the humor, the more absurd stuff serving as a frame for some very likable characters. Levitt, Rogen, and Mackie feel like a group of real friends, as opposed to a group of actors thrown together to pretend to be such for a movie. This camaraderie, along with the film’s enthusiastic willingness to go the maximum amount of ridiculousness to sell it’s snow covered gags, sell sequences that could have been flat otherwise. It feels like a crazy story that these guys would tell later one, embellished and exaggerated for the listeners entertainment. The supporting cast is rock solid as well. Jillian Bell, Lizzy Caplin (as Gordon-Levitt’s ex girlfriend) and Mindy Killing are great comedic foils, while Michael Shannon makes an absolutely hysterical turn as the group’s mysterious drug dealer.


However, the film’s secret weapon is it’s surprisingly mature dramatic heft. Don’t get me wrong, there’s no incredibly dark turn or out of place scenes with lots of crying all of a sudden, but there is something going on beneath the surface of each character. This isn’t a buddy movie where the buddies fight for arbitrary reasons the plot just decides to have, but because of a genuine tragedy that has taken Ethan in particular to a place of arrested development. While Gordon-Levitt slightly over-sells Ethan’s childlike manic persona at first, it becomes clear later on that this is a truly lost person who feels trapped in the young adulthood he never really got to have. At the core, the story is really about a group of friends who have taken each other for granted in one way or another, and need to re-discover just how much they care for each other. The film is directed and co-written by Jonathan Levine, who was behind the fantastic Rogan/Levitt collaboration 50/50. While he certainly loosens up his restrained style for most of the film, when he needs to pull back he does it in spades, ensuring that the scenes where the characters clash feel completely earned. Beyond that, the subplots that in any other movie would drag out forever come to surprisingly sensible conclusions, ensuring that the film doesn’t waste time on things that don’t really matter a whole lot.


While certainly not as strong as the greatest Christmas films, The Night Before succeeds at capturing the essence of what makes the holiday season so beautiful, while also plenty of the absurdly raunchy comedy that Rogen has made his trademark. It’s certainly the funniest stoner film to come along in quite some time, taking full advantage of just how well it’s three leads work together. If the family is causing a bit of stress this holiday season, and you need to be reminded why people enjoy this time of year, put the kids to sleep, and take the one brother in law that you do like out to this film. It just might re-invigorate your holiday cheer, if you’re not too busy searching for The Nutcracker Ball yourself upon leaving.

Rating: B+

Room Review


There is perhaps no relationship more primally loving than the one between mother and son. Not only do the typical loving responsibilities of having a child come into play, but in my observation, the best mothers of boys take it upon themselves to correct the evils that have been done upon them. It’s a plain fact, women endure a great deal of horror at the hands of men, and when one comes out of their very flesh and blood, there’s a never ending need to create the true upstanding young man. However, what’s a mother to do when the world she needs to teach her son about is taken away from her by the man who helped her create him? Through two wrenching hours of heartbreaking realism, Lenny Abrahamson’s Room attempts to answer just that.

Joy Newsome (Brie Larson) has been living in a man made circle of hell for the past seven years. A man known only to her as Old Nick (Sean Bridgers) abducted and sexually assaulted her when she was seventeen years old. Trapped inside a small shed for seven years, Joy only has her now five year old son Jack (Jacob Tremblay) for company. The two have formed an unbreakable bond, Joy having convinced her young son that “Room” is the entire world, a perception that quickly changes when an opportunity to escape aries. Once out in the real world, both Grace and Jack have a hard time adjusting to their new surroundings, despite the best efforts of her mother Nancy (Joan Allen).


If the mother/son dynamic in Room had fallen flat, the entire film would have been dead on arrival. Fortunately, we have two exceptionally talented actors in Brie Larson and young Jacob Tremblay. Larson, who showed shades of flawed maternity in her somewhat similar role in the excellent Short Term 12  a couple years back, gives a piercingly raw and authentic performance here. There are so many qualities about Joy that make her incredibly brave, but also deeply troubled. She’s graceful and patient with her son one minute, and about to burst on him another. However, there isn’t a moment where there’s doubt that she loves Jack more than her very beating heart, and wants to both hide and expose him to the flaws that will cripple her until the end of her days. The rage, crushing sadness, along with subtle joy as the world piles in and then expands on her all come across beautifully. It’s a performance that isn’t just worthy of an oscar nomination, but should be a shoe in for a victory.


Larson’s beautiful performance shines most brightly in her chemistry with Tremblay, who is also spectacular especially for such a young actor. Jack is a deeply confused character, one who is essentially born twice. This volatile mix of emotions would be hard for an adult actor to tap into, which makes it all the more remarkable that Tremblay connects so effortlessly. It doesn’t feel like a child who’s acting, but a real person pulled from one of these situations that we just so happen to be watching. It’s perhaps the best turn by a child performer since Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense. Joan Allen is also solid in a slightly undercooked supporting role. Frankly, her character deserves a bit more screen time than she ultimately gets, as her outside perspective is one of the more fascinating personality clashes with both of our recently released leads.


Lenny Abrahamson should also be commended for his subtle but deeply effective  touch behind the camera. The first half of the movie is essentially a bottle film, with Joy and Jacob trapped in “Room”, and Abrahamson soaks in every single inch of the tiny space for the audience’s maximum sense of isolation. It also helps that Old Nick is treated as something of a monster in the shadows, his hulking footsteps and limited background making him feel like a force of nature is keeping them confined. Even though we’re only inside “Room” for about an hour, by the time we see the outside world again, it’s a delirious joy parallel to what the characters feel. Once Joy and Jack are free, Abrahamson pulls back a bit, but there is also skill in simply letting the actors fill the space with the words on the page, and that’s exactly what he does.


Room is a film so deep battered in misery that it’s hard to imagine watching it again any time soon. However, it’s also one of the most shattering portrayals of a mother and son ever put on film, that is so well acted that one just might forget that they’re looking at a screen at all. Even as somebody who does not get particularly emotional towards films, tears welled up in my eyes as I watched these two interact. It’s a love story better than any romantic tale in cinema this year.

…I should call my mom.

Rating: A

The Peanuts Movie Review


In every single group of new kids thrown into an elementary school class, there is always a Charlie Brown. A kid who just doesn’t mix with the pack of already wildly unformed personalties that would give anything to be seen as “normal” as they are. This was as true sixty five years ago as it is today, which is why we’re still drawing from these brilliant  Charles M. Schulz comic strips. Anybody with a pen and a loud voice can potentially make cartoons that entertain children for a time, but none have quite entered into the mind of a child quite as wonderfully as Schulz. As such, creating any new version of Peanuts is an order much taller than any of it’s pint sized heroes. The Peanuts Movie seems hyper aware of this, and instead of trying to re-invent the wheel, they’ve decided to have faith that an utterly loyal adaptation will come across just as potently for a new generation based on the strength of the material alone.


The film begins just as many Peanuts stories have before. The entire gang is excited about the snowy weather freeing them from school so they can ice skate, but eternal block-head Charlie Brown (Noah Schnapp) has other plans. Today will be the day he gets his kite to fly. Perhaps not choosing the best conditions for such a confident run, he humiliates himself once again. However, soon after he and the other kids notice a moving truck driving into their neighborhood. Inside is The Little Red Haired Girl (Francesca Angelucci Capaldi) whom Charlie develops a borderline delirious crush on, and wouldn’t you know it, She moves right next door to him. Charlie desperately tries to form a plan to get the girl’s attention, each of which come with more and more dismay from the ever consistent gang.


The greatest success of this film is how wonderfully it captures the tone of the original Peanuts cartoons. It would be very easy to veer new versions of these characters into overtly mean spirited territory. Perhaps even worse, the film could have softened them up in belief that this current crop of kids would be upset and confused by animated characters who look like them being cruel to each other. No such folly here. The screenplay by Bryan Schulz, Craig Schulz, and Cornelius Uliano perfectly re-creates the essence of these characters, from their personalities, to the childlike way each of them speaks. There isn’t a moment where these characters don’t feel real kids, and while they certainly rag on each other quite a bit, there’s an unspoken love they all have for each other that gets to take center stage in this story. While there certainly are some very classic Schulz moments of slowly forming cynicism, there’s an equal amount of tenderness, especially as the film comes to a close.


It also helps that for once in an animated film, the actors voicing the kids aren’t going home to pay their taxes after they finish the recording session. While it was certainly a risk to use a completely child-filled cast, it ends up being what really brings these characters to life. It gives that extra dose of authenticity to the writing, which makes a great of the dialogue in here very funny indeed. While all the performances are strong, particular props go to young Noah Schnapp as Charlie, who carries Charlie through a great deal of emotions whilst being completely likable. There have been certain interpretations of Charlie Brown that make him a bit too much of a downer for his own good, but this one has just the right balance of optimism and despair.


The film is also quite a looker, with lush animation that brings the comic strips to life with a unique style that I’ve never quite seen before. It would have been such a mistake to try and take these characters into full 3D, as so much of the charm of the Peanuts comes from just how simple looking it is. This half and half aesthetic provides the best of both worlds, keeping the simple hand-drawn feel intact, while providing a greater range of motion for the more hyper-active sequences. In fact, the only times that the film really falters are when it seems that the animators get a little bored with the gang, and take Snoopy on one of his many Red Baron adventures. While they’re certainly fun to look at, they get a little exhausting when the clearly more interesting story lies with the characters who can say more than just a loud yelp. With that said, the Red Baron stuff is an integral part of Peanuts, so even this isn’t a major hold-up.


The Peanuts Movie is about as successful a modern reboot of this property as could have been done. It ushers the gang into a new era without betraying what made them such icons in the first place, while further layering them as characters that could carry in a franchise to come. While it perhaps could have been more ambitious in the story department, rehashing some of what’s been done before, it’s clearly not aiming to create any major shake-ups. It’s a film as warm and satisfying as the first sip of coffee taken while reading the Sunday comics, and frankly, that makes it a good man in my book.

Rating: B+

Let’s see… 912, 913, 914, Good Grief! I’ve still got seventy six words to go.

Spectre Review

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Of the entire long-running James Bond franchise, Daniel Craig’s four movie stint has been the only one so far to attempt to tell a somewhat contentious story. Sure, each movie has stood alone, but they’ve also connected elements of the others in order to create a more character focused take on 007. All of that comes to a head in Spectre which very well could be the forty seven year old’s final run in the role. At least, it’s supposed to. That’s the idea. Unfortunately, from the moment it starts, Spectre seems like the product of an absolutely exhausted Sam Mendes (returning to direct after his fantastic Skyfall) and a screenplay that’s messier and more convoluted than any international crisis Bond has had to stick his neck in before.


We find James Bond (Daniel Craig) in Mexico City during the Day of the Dead celebration, hunting down a target he was ordered to find by a posthumous message by the deceased M (Judi Dench). Upon discovering a mysterious ring on the man’s finger that seems to connect him to something larger, Bond wants to pursue him. However, the current M (Ralph Fiennes) insists that he stay due to a brewing government initiative to terminate the 00 program in favor of a overarching surveillance program. Naturally, Bond disobeys, and discovers the mysterious organization Spectre, headed up by Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), who seems to carry a personal grudge against 007. Desperate to stop him, Bond partners up with  Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), the daughter of a former enemy connected to all of this.


Spectre is the clear result of it’s well documented production, which was well documented as long, injury filled, and placed on a screenplay that simply was not ready yet. Gone is the tight, emotionally fueled storytelling of Casino Royale and Skyfall. In it’s place is a hulking mass of a film that has about three plot points to it’s name that it somehow still manages to rush through over the course of two and a half hours. There’s some intriguing ideas and twists posed here, but they’re thrown so completely to the side in favor of standard Bond posturing and action sequences that they are never given the time to be explained properly. The attempt to connect nine years of storytelling that clearly was not planned to be so by simply saying “it is, because Spectre” falls completely flat, harming not only this film, but all of the others by proxy.

Daniel Craig stars as James Bond in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures/Columbia Pictures/EON Productions’ action adventure SPECTRE.

While I’ve always found Daniel Craig to be an exceptional James Bond, he seems completely bored inside this lackluster story. He’s forced to either unconvincingly act out Bond troupes in the film’s attempt to pay tribute, or react heavily to personal story beats that make no sense. You can practically see him eying the craft services table just off-screen as he sleepwalks through this. Also running around are Ralph Fiennes’ M, Ben Wishaw’s Q, and Naomie Harris’ Moneypenny who all seem to be wondering why they’re not in a better movie.   Meanwhile, the newbies hold up a little better, but they’re hardly given anything to do. Casting Christoph Waltz as a Bond villain is as big of a no brainer as it gets, and while he’s every bit as deliciously devious as we have come to expect, he’s only in the movie for about twenty minutes. His entire arc relies on a reveal that can be seen coming from the Dollar Tree across the street from the theater, and his motivation which is given about a sentence to be fleshed out is even sillier. Seydoux gives a decent amount of pathos to her character’s motivation, but her chemistry with Craig is borderline non-existent, which is a problem considering the amount of weight the film places on their relationship. It’s a series of wonderful actors who are all trying to fight the terrible script, or simply cave in under it.


One of the finest aspects of Skyfall was Sam Mendes’ classy and restrained direction paired with Roger Deakins’ masterful cinematography. Now that Deakins has jumped ship to undoubtably work on something better, a more worn out Mendes seems to have significantly less inspiration this time around. The action sequences that could very easily save this movie from being boring are utterly flat. There’s so much time spent with cars and planes just chasing each other in a straight line, or hand to hand combat brawls filled with quick cuts that feel ripped out of one hundred other movies, twenty of which are likely Bond movies. One would think that having Dave Bautista as the massive henchman would add some personality to these scenes, but he might as well be a lamp. The film cannot decide if it wants to be a pathos ridden personal journey for Bond, or a goofy tribute to the series’ past, and as such both tones are cannibalizes. It also cannot be stressed enough how long this movie is. It comes to what feels like a climax, until you realize that there’s a while other subplot that needs to be dealt with, and then the actual climax begins, in which Bond essentially cannibalizes all of the traits that have been set up for him over the course of these movies.


While Spectre isn’t quite as ineptly constructed as 2008s Quantum of Solace, it almost manages to surpass that film in sheer disappointment by doing so much damage to the story as a whole. It’s workmanlike at best, borderline terrible at worst, and no matter what always feels like it’s going through the motions. After Skyfall put the franchise in a place of such promise, this essentially tears it all down in favor of an undercooked climax. Essentially concluding the story of the four films thus far, it certainly screams that it’s time to swap out Craig and start fresh. However, I’d hate to think that this is how such a great Bond goes out.

Rating: D+

Burnt Review


Films about food are often just as tricky a recipe as the culinary creations they chronicle. On one hand, they simply need to be well told stories like anything else, but there also seems to be an expectation that they be just as sweet and happiness inducing as the most mouth watering dessert. Foodie stories that leave a bit more bitter a taste in the mouth are often derided, which certainly seems to be the case with Burnt. It might be easy for most to latch onto the kind hearted kitchen escapades of Meryl Streep or Jon Favreau, but the icy and often cruel chef given to us by Bradley Cooper here simply seems to be repellant to some. However, since I personally find Cooper’s mentally unstable characters to be his most fascinating, I found myself very excited going into Burnt, simply hoping that there was enough supporting this crazed head chef to provide entertainment worth a hefty tip.


When we find master chef Adam Jones (Bradley Cooper) he is completing a self imposed exile of sorts, shucking oysters in New Orleans. He at one time ran one of the top kitchens in France, but thanks to a spectacular drug-induced falling out lost it all. Returning to London with the hopes of picking up where he left off, and hopefully getting a coveted third star that has always eluded him, he takes over a kitchen ran by his friend Tony (Daniel Bruhl). Determined, but brutally demanding, Jones’ new staff struggles to please him, most particularly Helene (Sienna Miller) who is the only one not intimidated by Jones’ godlike status among the other cooks.


While Burnt certainly has quite a few problems as a story, it excels as a star vehicle for the ever-improving Cooper. He is utterly magnetic as the arrogant, hot-tempered, and yet deeply hurting Jones. There are moments where his utter perfectionism and narcissism turns him into something horrible, but just as often is he willing to pull back and reveal that underneath all that bravado is a man who deeply craves his redemption. He’s a complex character that will certainly alienate some audience members, but for my money, he’s what made the story engaging. Meanwhile, the supporting cast might not shine as brightly as Cooper but they all fill their roles admirably. Miller’s Helene often serves as a perfect counter balance to Jones’ hyperbolic ramblings, often calling him out on just how silly he sounds. Their chemistry is not only far above and beyond the more wooden interactions they had in American Sniper but is what keeps the film from feeling like a pretentious piece of culinary snobbery. Bruhl gets a surprising amount to do as Jones’ wounded former best friend, and while the story ultimately peters out of the most interesting aspect of the character, he fills the role well. There are a few actors that just completely go to waste,with Omar Sy, Uma Thurman, and Alicia Vikander having such pointless roles that they’re only on screen for a moment or so.

Although the actors bring their A-game, the story they’re cooking up feels like a mix of different ingredients and spices that just never quite feel united. We have Jones’ story of redemption and determination in the kitchen, which is by far the most interesting. However, it’s often side-lined in favor of the silly love story between him and Miller, or his various interactions with all of these walk on cameos that just take up screen time. This feels like a two and a half hour movie cut to pieces in the editing room, with so many subplots that start without even being revisited, let alone satisfied in some cases. This disjointed structure makes what is ultimately a very short movie feel rather long, because it feels like it never runs out of new random problems to throw at Jones. When we’re focussing on his work, the film is generally really entertaining, it’s just a shame that not enough time is devoted to that.


Much of the film is rather well directed too, which makes it even more of a shame when it doesn’t work. The Company Men’s John Wells most certainly has a taste for these character driven dramas, and he not only stages the individual dramatic scenes well, but the cooking stuff as well. Many of the sequences in the kitchen here feel intense, like we’re right there frantically trying to get the perfect recipe ready for Jones. It dosen’t quite have the slow, delectable euphoria factor of the cooking scenes in Chef but it’s also going for an entirely different feel. It also helps that the screenplay by Steven Knight is chock full of witty dialogue that ranges from sharp banter to lyrically pretentious musings. In other words, the film is entertaining even at its most messy.


Burnt feels like a recipe slaved over by a bunch of master chefs that just dosen’t come together for them. It works best as a showcase for Cooper, who has made this kind of role his trademark at this point. However, it’s a little too obtuse and disjointed to truly warrant a recommendation to see in the theater. It feels like a film more in love with itself than with food, and that’s a key marker that the best culinary films knock out of the park. With that said, if it’s happened upon on television one day like the little road-side restaurant after eight hours of driving, it may end up being surprisingly tasty.

Rating: B-

Crimson Peak Review


With his gothic tales of blood soaked fairies, ghosts, and all apparitions in between, Guillermo Del Toro is about as close to a modern day Grimm brother as our generation will be graced with. That’s not to say that his stories are derivative of those original classics. Those tend to use the creatures that make up children’s nightmares to full effect to teach them lessons about adulthood. Meanwhile, del Toro will often employ the horrors of both youth and adulthood in equal measure. Crimson Peak is very much in the tradition of Del Toro’s most acclaimed work, and while it’s certainly masquerading as a horror film to get people into the seats, it asserts itself early on as more of a deranged romance of sorts.


Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) has carried a belief in ghosts from a young age. On the day her mother passed away, she appeared to appear to Edith in spirit form to give her a cryptic warning to “beware of Crimson Peak.” Unsure of exactly what to make of this cautioning, Edith grows up writing ghost stories to very little acclaim, despite the best efforts of her industrially minded father Carter (Jim Beaver) to support her. Then, a mysterious blessing arrives in the form of Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), a young inventor keen on making something of himself who takes an extreme liking to Edith. Despite the extreme suspicions of her childhood friend Alan (Charlie Hunnam), and father (who winds up dead fairly soon after making his opinion known) Edith marries Thomas and follows him and his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) to his home, which as she soon comes to find out, is the very Crimson Peak she was warned to stay away from.


Del Toro always has a knack for fantastic visuals, but through every gorgeous looking frame of this film, he outdoes himself. As the film’s title card aggressively suggests, the world here is modeled after that of a storybook. That is to say that while it does take place in a somewhat realistic world, there is a impressionistic spin on even the smallest details. Every new room or environment looks like a painting, with each detail meticulously crafted to tell a little more of the story. That, along with the rich special effects that are a near perfect blend of practical and CGI, completely draw us into this creepy and often sad world. While this isn’t a scary film in the sense that it’s constantly assaulting the audience with creepiness, it contains a couple deeply disturbing plot elements and is at times incredibly violent. It’s a film that’s charming one minute and tense in another, all of which is due to Del Toro’s rich attention to detail and well-crafted story.


While some of the characters are a bit more rich than others, most of the actors step up to greet Del Toro’s eccentric tone with glee. Hiddleston completely sells Thomas’ earnest drive to be loved, coming off like a puppy dog caught in the middle of a really demented situation. It’s a shame that his chemistry with Wasikowska is a bit off, mostly due to the latter’s fairly plain screen presence. With that said, the Alice in Wonderland star is certainly more charismatic here than she normally is. Edith is easy to care about, a well-judged mix of valuable and inquisitive. However, it’s Chastain who runs away with the show as the psychotic Lucille. From the moment she appears onscreen, she exudes such an icy presence that she’ll even make seats in the theater feel cooler. It’s a fiery, scenery chewing performance that is perhaps even worthy of awards consideration. Meanwhile, it’s a shame that Charlie Hunnam is still struggling with his stiff American accent, as Alan is the only character who falls completely flat under the weight of the former Son of Anarchy’s lack of energy on-screen.


The film does falter a bit in it’s screenplay, somewhat shoddily written by Del Toro and Matthew Robbins. There are moments of dialogue here that are just flat out bad. They mostly involve characters dictating just how much they care for one another in flowery, overly descriptive ways that sound more like dollar store novel prose than movie dialogue. There’s also some fairly self congratulatory conversations at the beginning of the film involving Edith’s writing that sound more like Del Toro preparing the audience for what kind of film this is going to be than organic exposition. There’s a also a bit of a pacing issue, particularly in the first act. A bit too much time spent establishing the relationships and inter-workings of Edith’s father that ultimately don’t matter very much in the grand scheme of the story. It feels like a bit of a dry period piece for a while, but as soon as we get to Crimson Peak, the pace picks up and slows down in a more deliberate way.


While it’s certainly not as fine tuned as some of Del Toro’s other films, Crimson Peak carries on his style very effectively. While perhaps not as much of a traditional ghost story as some will be hoping for, it more than makes up for it with just how rich in atmosphere it is. While it might find itself a bit buried as it tires to compete for a mainstream audience, I suspect that it will develop something of a cult following as it gets discovered on home video. Much like the dusty old books that make up it’s inspiration, it’s well-worth opening if stumbled upon in a collection of other seasoned stories.

Rating: B+

Beasts Of No Nation Review


It’s a bit of a shame that Beasts of No Nation may end up going down in history more for the way it was released than it’s content. Being the first film to be released theatrically and on Netflix is a pretty big deal after all, even if the benefit clearly streams in the latter party’s direction. With that said, Netflix certainly could have picked a fluff piece to test this new strategy out, and boy did they do the opposite. True Detective Season One helmer’s film is an unflinching look at the atrocities of war, that pulls back the curtain on one of it’s most despicable practices. There have been plenty of films with child soldiers in the background, but here we get to see the indoctrination that crushes their innocence so completely.


The story takes place in an intentionally vague African country, and centers on a young boy named Agu (Abraham Attah) who lives in relative poverty in a buffer zone for a raging civil war. One day, the military storms through the village, and murders hundreds of people including Agu’s father. Separated from his mother, Agu finds himself swept up in a group of rebels called the NDF lead by the charismatic and vicious Commandant (Idris Elba). These men will use anybody, regardless of age as a soldier. As Agu starts to be further and further conditioned to this violence as the NDF moves through the country, he starts to loose his soul.


While everybody in the cast is incredibly authentic, there are two performances that pull ahead of the pack for very different reasons. Young Abraham Attah’s Agu is forced to endure a great deal of suffering to ultimately complete his decent into soullessness, and he sells every inch of it. We see the pain written all over his face, particularly when he is first forced to kill his fellow man. It’s one of the best performances by a young actor in recent years. Elba is given a far less subtle character, but he commands the audience as much as the soldiers under his thumb. While his Commandant initially seems to just be made up of a series of impassioned speech, he starts to form a fascinating bond with Agu that gives him a great deal of depth. While he’s forcing his young captives to do horrible things, he does seem to genuinely care about Agu in particular to some degree. He sees himself as some sort of father figure to these boys, and whether or not Agu sees him the same way is mostly left up to the audience to decide.


Cary Fukunaga who wrote, directed, and shot this film, proves himself to be a major force to be reckoned with here. Visually, this film is absolutely stunning. Employing a deft mix of crisp steady-cam and documentary style hand-held, each scene makes the viewer feel as if they are right there with these soldiers. The action sequences here are not only thrilling in a visceral sense, but utterly shocking in a sobering way. There is a whole lot of brutality and inhumanity in this film, and Fukunaga knows exactly what to show and what to cut away from for maximum impact. Even if the acting wasn’t as spectacular as it is, we would feel every inch of these people’s pain simply by the way we’re forced to look at them through Fukunaga’s camera.


As masterfully crafted as this film is, there are some pacing issues that ultimately keep it from really flying over the top. After Agu joins the NDF, the film settles into a somewhat monotonous rhythm which ensures that about half of it’s sequences of brutality are as effective as they should be. There’s only so much atrocity I can take without anything breaking it up before I start thinking about what else I could be watching, no matter how good the film is. Nothing in the film is crafted any worse than the whole, but some trimming to bring out the key plot points would make it feel like a bit less of a slog. With that said, the point where the movie does decide to end is extremely effective, even if it’s not the utterly hopeful conclusion that many will desire after being put so completely through the ringer.

Beasts of No Nation

Beasts of No Nation is one of the most technically well-crafted and intense films of the year. The performances are stellar, and the capturing of the setting by Fukunaga is nothing short of masterful. Even so, it is a bit too sluggishly paced to really knock it’s emotional impact out of the park, and ultimately comes across a bit one note. Even so, it does deserve to be seen, if nothing else so that Netflix will continue to give risky and powerful films like this a home that it may not find with a conventional studio.

Rating: B+