Battle of the Sexes

September 22, 2017 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough
Directed by
: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (“Little Miss Sunshine”)
Written by: Simon Beaufoy (“Slumdog Millionaire”)

With a story as relevant today as it was in 1973, it’s easy to see how a dramatic portrayal the Battle of the Sexes tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs could strike a chord and bring to the forefront the relevancy of the lack of equality between men and women in areas from respect, to wages, and how those battles are still being fought today. It’s a shame that the film has no interest in doing that.

In protest of the pay gap between men and women for tennis tournaments, Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) breaks from the professional tennis association and forms her own tennis circuit that tours the country. Meanwhile, tennis hustler and former champion Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) is struggling to pay off debts and deal with a gambling addiction. In an effort to drum up money and publicity, Riggs devises a plan: to take on King in a tennis match to determine the superior gender.

Though Stone and Carell are certainly good in the film, both suffer from a lack of well written characters. Carell’s Riggs is particularly one-dimensional and never fully feels like a fleshed out character. Instead, he seems like a desperate man who is either drunk or perpetually out of it, trying to drum up controversy for a big pay day. King, on the other hand, is subdued and struggling internally with her sexuality. It’s certainly an interesting take, and a complex story, yet it somehow feels out of place given the setting and early design of the film.

Rather than focusing on the pivotal Battle of the Sexes tennis match and the events that led up to it, screenwriter Simon Beaufoy chose to frame the movie through following a love-triangle of sorts, with King struggling to maintain her marriage with a man, while becoming involved with a woman. So much screen time is devoted to this plot line, that it’s almost easy to forget what movie you are watching. Stone and Andrea Riseborough are good here, but the film never really commits to this relationship hard enough to feel like a movie about King’s sexual awakening.

The biggest problem, however, is the way in which it treats the driving force behind the match itself, which is the attitude of Riggs and his persistent attitude that men are superior to women. By treating Riggs’ sexism as a publicity stunt to promote a tennis match, “Battle of the Sexes” severely undercuts any and all impact it makes as a statement of inequality. There is no context or worse, consequence, to any of his sexist statements or chauvinist attitudes and, subsequently, it all comes across as one big joke. It’s made even worse by having King partake in the publicity frenzy, having fun with Riggs and focused in her own world which makes her moment of catharsis completely unearned.

But beyond that, “Battles of the Sexes” is just a dull film that is more interested in telling a lustful love story than it is talking about equality, gender gaps or even tennis. The tone never sets in comfortably, leaving the film feeling disjointed and dispassionate. Worst of all, in a time where this story could draw a striking parallel to present day issues, it takes a route that virtually ensures that can’t be done. Ultimately, “Battle of the Sexes” feels like a missed opportunity.

May It Last: A Portrait of the Avett Brothers

September 12, 2017 by  
Filed under Uncategorized

Directed by: Judd Apatow and Michael Bonfiglio
Starring: Scott Avett, Seth Avett

Early on in “May It Last: A Portrait of the Avett Brothers,” mega-producer Rick Rubin discusses how traditionally, when bands are comprised of siblings, they tend to hate each other. Obvious omission of Oasis aside, Rubin’s point remains that the closeness of working together and the struggle for creative control can break bonds as thick as blood. Throughout the film, however, we see what Rubin means firsthand, as the Avett Brothers are clearly the exception to the rule.

Directed by comedy producer/director extrodainnare, Judd Apatow as well as Michael Bonfiglio, “May It Last” chronicles the writing, production and release of the Avett Brothers’ 2016 album True Sadness.

As far as music documentaries go, there isn’t a lot of conflict. Band members aren’t screaming at each other or talking behind each others backs, nobody is getting kicked out, and there’s no debauchery to be found. Instead what we see is a peak behind the curtain of not only the Avett family, but the creation of a new album from the ground up. Some of the best studio footage shows the Avett’s working through new songs, suggesting lyrics to each other and organically creating. It’s a really interesting look at how songs are composed and evolve from an idea, to laying them down on the album, to performing them live.

From the get-go, it is clear that the Avett’s are the type who wear their hearts on their sleeves. For better or worse, what they are feeling is expressed through their music, and the band feeds off of catharsis. It is these moments, where the Avett’s open up, that are what makes the film truly special.

Seth, for example, explores the depths of heartache and despair following his divorce in a traditional sounding and extremely catchy song “Divorce Separation Blues.” The best sequence of the film, however, comes during the recording of the song “No Hard Feelings.” The entire take of the recording unfolds, with pure feeling oozing out of Seth and Scott. When the take ends, Seth in particular is emotionally drained as the brothers are complimented on how great the song is. What follows is a fascinating conversation between Seth, Scott, and the man behind the camera about the uncomfortable conflict with being congratulated for completing a song that was born of suffering. It’s an entirely new perspective on music in general that is worth the price of admission alone.

There are times that “May It Last” feels more like a behind-the-scenes companion piece that may be included with their new album. But as the film evolves, it is clear that audiences are getting a uniquer glimpse into the creative process of two immensely talented artists with a singular vision and a gift for expression. Existing fans of the Avett Brothers may get a bit more out of it, but “May It Last” stands on its own as a successful foray into why music, and especially deeply personal music, is so important.

Step

August 18, 2017 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Paula Dofat, Blessin Giraldo, Cori Grainger
Directed by: Amanda Lipitz (debut)

One of the more complicated things in the world of documentary filmmaking is being able to not only make your subjects, topics and narratives interesting to watch, but to also be able to give them enough context to be impactful on multiple levels. With “Step,” director Amanda Lipitz takes a seemingly singular subject matter, a high school step dancing team, and deftly explores the socio-economic and political undertone surrounding its events.

As an all girls school in Baltimore, Maryland, The Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women has one goal in mind: for all of its attendees to be accepted into and graduate from college. Though academics are of utmost importance, for many girls, the step dancing (chants and vocals mixed in with creating percussive sounds with body movements like stomping or slapping) team is the primary outlet of artistic expression, frustration, and camaraderie. Through the eyes of several subjects, the school year is documented as some girls thrive and some girls struggle to find their next step in life.

When viewing “Step,” it’s hard to not pull parallels to 2011 Oscar winning documentary “Undefeated.” Like the football players in Manassas, this step dancing team is one of the only outlets for these girls. With the stresses of school, energy and emotion comes pouring out during practices and competitions and you can see the passion in every movement. Beyond that, their education is, for some, the only way out of not only the town that could be holding them back, but the cyclical nature of family history. Many of these girls are the first in their families to go to college, and some of the most effective scenes of the film show the gravity of just how important breaking this educational barrier is.

There are also subjects who run themselves ragged for these kids, often times when the students don’t quite understand not only the gravity of the situation, but the ways in which they are being helped. These counselors, coaches, teachers and parents are often brought to tears with the possibility that some of these girls maybe prone to getting in their own way of success, or not giving enough effort to make it into college.

“Step” is an enriching glimpse into a culture that is fiery, passionate, and at times, an expression of pent of frustration of very timely cultural and political situations. But beyond that, it’s a very humanistic story about not just the strive for excellence, but breaking cycles and going further than generations before you…all while being gracious towards the groundwork that has been laid.

Dunkirk

July 21, 2017 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy
Directed by: Christopher Nolan (“The Dark Knight”)
Written by: Christopher Nolan (“Inception”)

As one of the most highly regarded filmmakers of the modern era, director Christopher Nolan’s ambition is both his biggest strength and his greatest weakness. With his ambition, Nolan conceptualized “Inception,” which explored the world of dreams and consciousness, creating an entire universe filled with painstakingly detailed ideas and a dazzling visual landscape to match. His ambition has also occasionally stifled him, such as with “Interstellar,” a generally good movie that gets far too bogged down with a convoluted third act to make any lasting impact. With his latest film, “Dunkirk,” Nolan has taken historical subject matter and while staying ambitious in certain ways, created his most restrained film yet. The results, like most of Nolan’s work, are spectacular.

Telling the story of the largest retreat in military history from allied forces in World War II, the film unfolds with a trio of timelines, one taking place by land over a week span, one by sea over a day span, and one by air over an hour span. It is the most noticeable narrative quality, evoking Nolan’s non-linear storytelling from “Memento,” though not nearly as radical. The results of this narrative structure pay off immensely. Through this device, Nolan is not only able to shift in and out between different perspectives, but he is able to create an immense amount of tension. Nail-biting moments may begin over one timeline and the audience not see a resolution until the timelines intersect. It’s the type of higher level thinking that Nolan has made his signature and really allows him to put a new perspective on a war movie.

While none may stand out, every one of the timelines are solid in their own right and serve their purpose. The land segments, bolstered by unknown actor Fionn Whitehead as Tommy are really able to show the desperation of the soldiers trapped at Dunkirk. Even as he tries to sneak his way just to survive, the soldiers seem to be foiled at every turn as sitting ducks to the enemy. With the sea segments, Nolan is able to use fantastic actor Mark Rylance to display the courage of a regular citizen insisting on taking his own boat rather than having it be commandeered to rescue troops. Finally, with the air segments, Nolan utilizes the films most notable actor, Tom Hardy, to display the heroism from fighter pilots who were some of the only protection the soldiers had.

From a visual standpoint, Nolan has created another masterpiece. The air segments feature impressive aerial shots, especially from cameras mounted on planes that feature the vast oceans below. Even on regular screens (the film did not screen for critics on the much lauded 70mm IMAX), the scope of “Dunkirk” is massive. But beyond just visual marvels and beautiful constructed shots, the audio of “Dunkirk” is wildly immersive. Gunshots in the opening segment and the unexpected ones throughout the film are jolting, creating visceral intensity and tension. There is also an unsettlingly taut score from Hans Zimmer, doing his best work in years. Make no mistake, “Dunkirk” is loud, but with the chaos going on around, it feels like a necessity.

Perhaps as a result of the timeline jumps, leaving characters in one place and picking up with others, the only thing that “Dunkirk” truly feels like its missing is stronger emotional ties to its characters. Still, it can’t help but feel like a nitpick when the movie, despite having traditional heroes to really latch onto, still generates plenty of emotion. With “Dunkirk,” Nolan has created nothing less than a cinematic marvel. It’s visually breathtaking, ambitious and stirring. In other words, it’s exactly what we’ve come to expect from Christopher Nolan.

Kumail Nanjiani & Emily Gordon – The Big Sick

July 7, 2017 by  
Filed under Interviews

In “The Big Sick,” comedian and actor Kumail Nanjiani and his wife and co-writer Emily Gordon dramatize their real-life love story, which is a little unusual.

After dating for several months, Emily wound up in a medically-induced coma to fight an infection. In the film, Kumail must navigate this stressful situation while trying to cope with his family, who want him to follow Pakistani traditions with an arranged marriage, and the stress dealing with Emily’s parents.

Kumail and Emily sat down with us to talk about maintaining a comedic tone in a dramatic situation, the screen-writing process, and the importance of culture in film.

Was it surreal at all for your movie to open with an Elijah Wood joke with Elijah Wood there in the theater watching?

Kumail Nanjiani: I had forgotten and we knew Elijah was sitting right behind us. As that scene was happening I was like, “Ohhh no!”

Emily Gordon: We were both just covering our faces.

KN: Then I turned around and mouthed, “I’m sorry” to him.

EG: He took it like a champ. We actually had more dialogue there where the response was, “No, he lives in Austin most of the time” and we cut all that out. We should have put back in just for this.

KN: He was literally right behind us.

With a movie like this, obviously tone is one of the most important things about it. You’ve seen movies like “50/50” tackle cancer with a humorous tone. How did you strike the balance with tone and what were some of the things you were most concerned about?

EG: I think we were very concerned that if we had too much fun that people would think that we were making light of this girl who is sick the entire time. I think we always wanted to make sure to remind the audience that we’re not forgetting about her. Don’t forget about her either. What was cool is that we didn’t really realize that when you have any scenes in a hospital, even if you’re not directly seeing a girl that’s in a coma, you can’t stop thinking about it. We would write scenes that were set in a hospital that were just about talking about medical stuff but we realized that as long as you’re seeing the hospital, you know whats going on. So we were able to write scenes that were in the hospital that we’re a little more fun and deviated a little bit because the work is already being done by the scenery and that’s stuff that we didn’t think about while we were writing.

KN: The tone thing is important because we always wanted to make sure that with the reality of Emily being sick, that the comedy didn’t feel unreal. But also that there was enough comedy. The scene right after she gets put in the coma and I use her thumb to unlock her phone, I think that makes people feel safe. They’ve seen something very intense happen, certainly the movie has taken a turn. That little joke signals to the audience that, “Hey, this is still the same movie. It’s still going to be funny. It’s obviously more intense now, but don’t worry, it’s still a comedy.” I think that little joke plays so well because it’s a relief for the audience.

EG: We would calibrate it as we were editing the movie and we would move scenes slightly to make sure that we’re keeping the movie aloft in the zone we wanted it to be in. I think (director) Michael Showalter is so good with tone.

KN: Judd (Apatow, producer) obviously, too, but we did so many edits of this movie and Judd would be like, “Alright, this scene needs a funny joke in here, so find some version where we can get one big laugh in this scene.” He would give us a lot of assignments like that. There’s a scene with my whole family towards the end of the movie, with me at the dinner table, and that’s where he was like, “It’s going to be a moving scene, but it’s also gotta be funny.” We realized that we could actually put in a lot more jokes than we thought. We did an edit of the movie that was great and he was like, “The movie needs 20 more great jokes, so put in 50 more jokes and we’ll figure out which 20 to keep.” So, we did that. We put in 40 jokes, 20 of them worked in front of an audience, so we kept 20 of them and suddenly the movie had 20 more jokes in it.

In terms of joke writing versus producing a screenplay, what did you find as the differences between joke writing, which you’ve done before as a stand-up, and screenplay writing with story beats and everything?

KN: What was interesting is that you realize the higher the stakes, the funnier the joke is going to be. So, actually, we realized that if we have jokes in there that are funny, that are in character, that are in the right situation, you can get really, really big laughs just because the stakes are so high. In stand-up, you’re starting each story and the stakes as you go, and you have to be super funny, but in a movie like this, as long as the reality level is good, the jokes will work much bigger than they would in a pure comedy. Just because it’s a release of tension. We did so many drafts of this movie and when we would shoot, we would have the older version of jokes, too, so we could try other versions and put them in front of an audience and see which ones worked better.

When you’re writing something that is as deeply personal and traumatic, for both of you, how do you handle the urge to overshare or the idea of pulling back because it is too personal?

EG: I think you try to put as much as you can out initially and then go back and see what feels like too much. When you’re reading it, what would you not want the world to see? I kept thinking, “If I don’t want even Michael Showalter to read this, then I definitely don’t want the world to see it.” So, that’s a version of it. But then you find that there’s more that you’re comfortable with than you realize. I think it can be self-indulgent to do a real overshare. So, this was always in service of the story, more so than the shock value of what it’s like to be in a coma. I think that was really important for us and a litmus test for us, too.

KN: We weren’t using the shock value of the coma. In fact, that was a big obstacle for us.

EG: I still have people make coma jokes to me and I’m like, “You don’t get to make a coma joke to me.”

KN: We have that in the movie! And she goes, “That’s too soon, dad.”

EG: When Ray (Romano) suggested that, I said, “It’s too soon, Ray. But do it in the scene! Please, let’s do that!”

Culturally speaking, you’ve seen some advancement in some aspects in movies, but very rarely have you seen Muslim culture taking center stage. Can you talk about the importance of putting the culture front and center?

KN: I don’t think that this movie in and of itself is really important in any way except that I think it’s important to have different kinds of stories about every group in the world. You can obviously see that there’s a lot of Jewish humor around, but there isn’t that much Muslim humor around. I think this story is only important in the sense that it shows a Muslim family being like a human American family that loves each other and has fun and has its own problems. I think we’re starting to see more points of view. I think “Get Out” really articulated some racial…

EG: Stuff?

KN: Yeah, I was trying to think of another word than stuff. It’s been a long day of talking. But like racial…I’m gonna find a better word than stuff.

EG: Do you want me to say stuff while you’re thinking of the word? I have never seen a family speaking Urdu on TV or in a movie that wasn’t to plan a terrorist attack. That bummed me out. I, as an outsider…half of my family is Muslim now, and I get to see them having fun and I get to see them in a way where I realize, “Oh, I’ve never seen this represented on television or in the media at all.” That really bummed me out. It was important to me that we see a Muslim family having fun. We always have this joke that I want to start a Tumblr called “Muslims Having Fun” because I see it all the time and other people don’t and I feel like I’m privy to this cool little world that other people don’t know of. I wanted to make sure family spoke Urdu in the movie and I wanted to make sure that they were a fun family. I think that was really important to both of us, but that’s been a thing that I’ve seen that I’ve realized most White people don’t ever see. Did you think of the word?

KN: I think “Get Out” really articulated some racial stuff about America. (laughs)

EG: (laughs)

KN: I was just wrapped up in what you were saying. I didn’t think of it. I think hopefully what that movie shows is not just that people are making stuff with other points of view but that people also want to see them.

EG: People are making money!

KN: Yeah, that’s the most important thing. If new viewpoints are commercially viable then we’re going to see more of them. I think that’s why movies like “Get Out” or “Hidden Figures” are important, because they are financially successful.

EG: And “Moonlight” for God’s sake.

KN: “Moonlight,” yeah. They’re successful movies from different points of view.

EG: The idea that we could be grouped with any of those, which we just grouped ourselves in with them, but the idea that they could…

KN: I didn’t, you did. I’m hoping that there’s an audience for our movie as well.

It Comes at Night

June 9, 2017 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Joel Edgerton, Christopher Abbott, Carmen Ejogo
Directed by: Trey Edward Shults (“Krisha”)
Written by: Trey Edward Shults (“Krisha”)

Post-apocalyptic films have always been a source of intrigue, but recent years have shown a different take on them. While many films in the past have focused on the catastrophic event itself, contemporary films have experimented with deeply intimate and passionate narratives in the wake of these events, instead choosing to focus on the character influence and even ignoring the cause of the event itself. It’s a great way to tell a personal story, and has allowed independent filmmakers to tell a big story on a small scale. It’s perhaps fitting, that indie filmmaker Trey Edward Shults (“Krisha”) takes the idea of a post apocalyptic landscape and creates a moody, tense thriller with his sophomore effort “It Comes at Night.”

Keeping to just his wife and his teenage son, Paul (Joel Edgerton) fights to protect his family from an unknown threat outdoors that has made everyone sick and wiped out the population. When he finds a man Will (Christopher Abbott) in his home, he meets with his family who agrees to allow him to bring his wife and young son to live with them in exchange for food. As the family dynamics change, events begin to make both Paul and Will leery of each other as paranoia sets in and nobody can be trusted.

Though the title, trailers and marketing may suggest that the film is a horror, “It Comes at Night” feels far more like a psychological thriller than anything else. There are some moments of horror with disturbing imagery and a couple of cheap jump scares, but the film is truly effective in its ability to build tension.

The film is boosted by its performances, primarily that of Edgerton and to a slightly lesser extent, Abbott. Edgerton, in particular, plays his role with a sense of desperation that makes his character feel capable of doing anything for the sake of protecting his family. The tension doesn’t necessarily come from the looming threat outside, but rather what is going on inside closed doors and what truths will be unveiled.

It’s also a very well made film from a technical standpoint. It features beautiful cinematography from Drew Daniels that really helps set the tone and mood for the film. It’s well edited, well performed, and for the direction from Trey Edward Shults successfully creates a fully believable post-apocalyptic landscape.

When digging deeper, however, “It Comes at Night” fails to find much below surface level. Thematically, there’s nothing overtly present that makes the film stand out in any significant way. It’s technically sound and is certainly intense at times, but other than creating mood and atmosphere, very little about the film resonates.

Shults is a name to watch out for and has created a thriller full of mystery, intrigue and slow-burning intensity. It feels, however, like a missed opportunity to create something deeper and more meaningful. Instead, “It Comes at Night” plays as an above average thriller about how desperation and protection can push a man to the brink and awaken hidden horrors.

Chuck

May 27, 2017 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Liev Schreiber, Naomi Watts, Elizabeth Moss
Directed by: Philippe Falardeau (“The Good Lie”)
Written by: Jeff Feuerzeig (debut) and Jerry Stahl (“Bad Boys II”)

Even though its prominence and national interest has waned in favor of MMA in recent years, there seems to be an everlasting connection to the cinematic world and boxing. Perhaps it is because boxing has seen so many of its prominent figures rise and fall, which makes for a good narrative. Or, more likely, perhaps it is that “Rocky” set the bar for sports films so high that boxing films will always be timeless comparisons. It is fitting, perhaps, that the latest entry into the genre is a biopic of Chuck Wepner, the man who, allegedly, inspired Sylvester Stallone to write “Rocky.”

In 1975, boxer Chuck Wepner (Liev Schreiber) gets the opportunity of a life time: to fight the heavyweight champion of the World, Muhammed Ali. As a huge underdog, Wepner goes 15 rounds with Ali and is seconds away from going the distance. This performance turns Wepner into a local folk hero, and Wepner must do all he can to keep his family intact while turning down a path of drugs and women.

Without question, “Chuck” serves as a showcase for Schreiber who gives a fantastic performance. Wepner is a character who absorbs and loves the fame, as small scale as it is, but also has an acute awareness of the façade and showmanship that goes into it. Schreiber captures this quite well, especially in scenes where he must work his way through shame and guilt over his behavior. While the supporting cast is mostly good, nobody is on screen long enough to make much of a difference one way or another. Elizabeth Moss is probably the best of the bunch, and far-underutilized.

One of the more interesting aspects of “Chuck” is that the most formative event of Wepner’s life is a stepping stone to more story, rather than a climax. Wepner’s famous fight with Ali takes place relatively early on in the film with very little build up. It’s an admirable decision from screenwriters Jeff Feuerzeig and Jerry Stahl to not center the movie around that one big fight, as it may have come off as a biopic version of “Rocky.” Instead, it shows what happened in the wake, and the darker, self-destructive patterns of a man with very little self-control and the need to be admired.

That said, the movie still has some pretty generic moments. Once the debauchery starts, it’s no different than any other film where a person of prominence spirals into drugs, lets the fame get the best of them and alienates family. There’s some pretty good writing sprinkled throughout the film and the early parts of the film feature some true greatness. But “Chuck” punches itself out and staggers to the finish. Despite that, “Chuck” is still worth the price of admission for Schreiber’s excellent performance.

Their Finest

April 21, 2017 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Gemma Arterton, Sam Claflin, Bill Nighy
Directed by: Lone Scherfig (“An Education”)
Written by: Gaby Chiape (debut)

Recent history has shown that the entertainment industry really loves making films about the entertainment industry. We have seen a propensity for filmmakers and storytellers to make films about the production of film, music, or other art forms, especially throughout moments of history. In “Their Finest,” a movie that is based on a novel rather than a true story, a spin on this idea is presented, with mostly strong results.

During World War II, the British military, in an effort to keep up morale and volunteers in an increasingly difficult war effort, is churning out propaganda films. In an effort to give the films a more “womanly” touch, Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin) must pair up with writer Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) to create a film about the the Dunkirk evacuation. As they struggle to find the balance between providing what the military wants in a propaganda film and making the film good, personal relationships are strained and tested as they must fight to make the movie they want in the midst of war.

By far, the most impressive element of “Their Finest” is its performances. Arterton and Claflin have strong chemistry (even though their trajectory can be spotted from a mile away), with Arterton having delivering on a showcase role. The MVP of the cast, though, is international treasure Bill Nighy. Struggling with admitting that his leading man status is quickly waning, Nighy plays pompous perfectly, while nailing the nuances of a far-too-serious actor who is protecting his craft.

But while the strength of the movie lies upon its actors, there are a few things that aren’t quite up to snuff. One of the biggest problems facing “Their Finest” is the urge to tell, not show. There’s a lot of characters speaking about how great or talented someone is, talking about problems or elements of screenplays or work, but very little of it is happening on screen. Without that context, it is really hard to dig into the story and buy what they are selling. It also misses the mark when the script explains the differences between men and women in the workplace. Slight comments are made about wages, but it only seems to scratch the surface of true issues of inequality.

There are also some pretty predictable story beats, which feel as if most viewers will be able to, at the very least, figure out where the story is headed and how it’s going to get there. That isn’t to say that the narrative isn’t effective when it needs to be, it just all feels a little derivative, though performed in satisfactory ways.

The film misses a few opportunities to really make a statement about the advancement of women in the entertainment industry, though the themes of war-time fear and stress are nicely constructed. Though “Their Finest” isn’t quite the strong female-empowerment movie it wants to be, it is a well-performed, and at times well-written and well-told story.

Silence

January 13, 2017 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson
Directed by
: Martin Scorsese (“Goodfellas”)
Written by: Jay Cocks (“Gangs of New York”) and Martin Scorsese (“Goodfellas”)

As a film almost 30 years in the making, from one of the most prolific, respected and decorated filmmakers of his time, it’s almost impossible for Martin Scorsese’s “Silence” to not have impossibly high expectations. Sprawling, beautifully bleak and yet quietly presented, the first trailers indicated that this wasn’t your average Scorsese. As we move into the final wave of awards season films, all eyes are on Scorsese to see what exactly he has been sitting on for decades.

After the disappearance of Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), a pair of Jesuit priests, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Gariupe (Adam Driver), head to the dangerous land of Japan to track him down and to spread the word of Catholicism. As the two priests enter Japan, they see that being a Christian in Japan is a death sentence and they fight to keep the faith alive while trying find their mentor and keeping and their whereabouts a secret.

As an actor on the cusp for a while, “Silence” sees a fully realized Garfield. It’s a physical performance with a bit of weight loss, but also a sorrowful, charismatic, heartfelt and at times, humorous performance. It’s his film to carry with Neeson and Driver taking a bit of a backseat and he handles it well. Much of the rest of the cast is Japanese and very solid across the board. A lot is being made of the performance of Issey Ogata who plays the Inquisitor, and it’s valid. It’s almost strange as the performance seems hammy and cartooney yet completely works due to its commitment and darkly funny personality.

With a film this steeped in the story of priests and Catholicism, it is almost impossible to not say that what the audience takes from this film will largely depend on their own personal beliefs. At a minimum, however, the themes that can be extrapolated come down to “how far would one go to defend what they believe in?” As we watch our protagonists given time and time again to pull themselves, and those who follow them out of a situation at the expensive of selling out their believes, we see their struggle and their faiths tested. Scorsese deserves credit for not delving too far into forcing his beliefs on his audience, but the undertones are unmistakable. Is it meditative? Of course. Is it extremely religious in its themes? Absolutely.

“Silence” feels almost aggressively long, which isn’t helped by its slow pace. While much of the movie is compelling and ripe with strong performances, there are several false endings and a few check your watch moments. As a comprehensive piece, “Silence” probably falls around the middle or mid-to-lower range in Scorsese’s filmography. That isn’t to say it is a bad film on any level. It’s harrowing and challenging. It’s well performed and well written. There’s fantastic sound design and beautiful cinematography. But in the end, it remains a tough nut to crack and a little difficult to connect with on a level beyond its religiosity.

Manchester by the Sea

December 12, 2016 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, Michelle Williams
Directed by: Kenneth Lonergan (“You Can Count On Me”)
Written by: Kenneth Lonergan (“Gangs of New York”)

Tragedy and grief are some of the universal occurrences that every human on the Earth experiences. It is where we, as people, often find ourselves at the lowest. It is also a test of strength. Many films this year will deal with how people, sometimes normal, sometimes in the spotlight, deal with that tragedy. “Jackie” for example, follows Jackie Kennedy in the hours and days following her husband’s assassination. But perhaps no film this year quite explores the wake of tragedy like “Manchester by the Sea,” a powerful ensemble character study of a devastated family.

After the death of his brother, Lee (Casey Affleck) must return to the Massachusetts fishing village that he left years ago to take care of his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Reluctantly, Lee tries to deal with his current situation while simultaneously dealing with past experiences with his now estranged ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams). Through these experiences, Lee and Patrick try to bond and make the best of an unenviable situation.

Leading the way of the ensemble is Affleck, who is primed to nab his first Oscar nomination since 2008 and is likely the frontrunner to win. It’s a subtle and subdued performance, but also one that has nuance and depth. There’s a certain pain in Affleck’s face that is visible in almost every scene. His character has lost the ability to interact and function on a normal level and Affleck displays this perfectly with vacant eyes that stare off into the distance. Not to be outdone, Affleck’s performance is matched by newcomer Hedges who employs a fantastic Boston accent, and is at times reminiscent of a young Matt Damon. Hedges’ character is a bit rascally, but the way he is able to maintain a level of sweetness as well as display some serious acting chops make for a really empathetic character.

Credit should be given to screenwriter/director Kenneth Lonergan for refusing to pull any punches. Make no mistake: “Manchester by the Sea” is not an easy watch. There are some devastating revelations throughout and many characters face impossible situations. It would be easy for the film to teeter towards melodrama, but it’s a testament to the strength of the screenplay that Lonergan is able to balance these heavier moments with levity and humor, mostly between Affleck and Hedges who continually butt heads.

The film slowly reveals its details, and despite the enormity of the situations, consistently feels grounded and extremely realistic. Perhaps it’s the working class look of the picturesque landscapes of Manchester, or even Affleck’s blue collar job as a handyman, but “Manchester by the Sea” feels authentic and true. Some may find it slow, but those parts are important to show the depths of Affleck’s despair, which is the most important narrative factor of the film.

As Oscar season heats up, “Manchester by the Sea” is undoubtedly a player. Acting nominations will be aplenty and Lonergan’s absorbing script is sure to get some notice. It’s a pretty basic story, with some pretty dramatic turns and although the plot may seem slight, the film is certainly anything but.

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back

October 21, 2016 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Tom Cruise, Cobie Smulders, Aldis Hodge
Directed by: Edward Zwick (“Blood Diamond”)
Written by: Richard Wenk (“The Magnificent Seven”), Edward Zwick (“Love & Other Drugs”), Marshall Herskovitz (“Love & Other Drugs”)

In the movie landscape of constant sequels, it may not always make narrative sense to come back for more, but there’s almost always a monetary reason to do it. Original films (or films made to be tentpole franchises) perform so well at the box office that going back and making more of those films is, at worse, less of a financial risk and at best, studios practically printing their own money. It’s why there was a collective shrug and head scratch when it was announced that Paramount was going back for another installment of the Tom Cruise vehicle “Jack Reacher.” The reception for the first film was mixed, and it only grossed $80 million in North America, which is pretty modest for a film marketed as a potential blockbuster. Yet here we are, with an unwanted sequel in hand: the ironically titled “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back.”

As Jack Reacher (Cruise) returns back to his military base to visit a friend and colleague, Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders), he discovers that she has been arrested and charged with espionage. Suspecting something has ran afoul, Reacher works to break Turner out of prison and along the way, discovers a girl who just may be his biological daughter. From there, Turner, Reacher and his possible daughter fight to stay hidden and take down their enemies while keeping each other safe.

A better title of this film would have been “Jack Reacher: Military Dad” as the main narrative through-line is the idea of Reacher coping with possibly being a father. There are, of course, generic scenes of him being a hardass and acting like he doesn’t care about things. Or when he and Cobie Smulders’ character have super on-the-nose “parental” fights. It’s just such a lazy, ho-hum story that is sandwiched in between a lazy, ho-hum action film. There is some somewhat surprising brutality, but beyond that, nothing on screen feels meaningful and Cruise doesn’t seem particularly interested.

The last act of “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back” contain some of the most contrived, Hollywood-fake, lazy moments I’ve seen in any film this year. The only appropriate word to describe the way events plan out is “insulting.” Ever heard of the concept of “Chekov’s gun?” The idea that nothing is shown on screen unless it will play out somehow? This is basically Chekov’s everything. Every twist, turn and plot point can be seen from 400 miles away. Being unpredictable would be one thing, but it happens in such a hokey way that it is deprived of any emotion. It’s a truly awful sequence of events.

A look at Tom Cruise’s most recent film output shows that he is still mainly focused on being an action star. The problem is, the market desire for perennial kick ass action-star driving vehicles seems to be dwindling with the saturation of comic book films. It’s also a reality that Cruise is a man in his early to mid 50’s continuing to pursue his career as an action hero. There’s no question he’s got acting chops and a magnetic personality on screen. He can certainly keep making “Mission Impossible”’s 13 and 14 until he gets physically unable to hang off of jets and scale large buildings, but if the staleness if “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back” is any indication, it may be time for Cruise to re-consider the direction of his career.

The Accountant

October 16, 2016 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Ben Affleck, Anna Kendrick, J.K. Simmons
Directed by: Gavin O’Connor (“Warrior”)
Written by: Bill Dubuque (“The Judge”)

Ben Affleck has had an unusual career. Lauded for his Oscar-winning screenplay for “Good Will Hunting,” Affleck had a few solid, if not unspectacular roles in films before turning in a series of duds that bottomed out with the back-to-back combo of “Daredevil” and “Gigli.” After taking his licks, and essentially becoming a Hollywood punchline, Affleck made a bold career move: He started directing films. He began with the fantastic “Gone Baby Gone” and eventually won another Oscar as producer for “Argo.” Re-invigorated by his work behind the camera, Affleck started improving in front of it as well. While it may not be the best film he’s been in, “The Accountant” may just be one of the best performances Affleck has given in his career.

As an accountant for some of the most dangerous criminal organizations in the world, Christian Wolff (Ben Affleck) does not shy away from danger. As Wolff is brought in to take a look at the books for a robotics company, he and accounting associate Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick) notice some peculiarities. As Wolff uncovers more, he finds himself in the midst of danger and must use his unique skillset to keep him and Dana safe.

A good chunk of “The Accountant” is devoted to an exploration of Christian’s autism, and the film deserves a lot of credit for getting that right. Affleck nails the idiosyncrasies of autism, with elements of both brilliance and social struggles. It’s Affleck’s most well-rounded performance in a while, and perhaps best, he is surprisingly funny in the films lighter moments.

While Affleck’s performance is magnetic, the B and C plotlines of the film (essentially any goings on not involving Affleck) feel so oddly pieced together. Even with their eventual resolution, so much of “The Accountant” lacks structure and feel out of place. What results is a complete waste of acting talent and screen time. Back-to-back Emmy winner in Jeffrey Tambor is essentially given five minutes of backstory context, Simmons is there for pure exposition and Kendrick is there for a lazy romantic plot that not only goes nowhere, but is abandoned for a solid half hour.

But beyond being just a waste of talent, “The Accountant” has a ton of parts that are outright confusing and don’t really add up. The focus is to keep the story moving along, but at some point it is difficult for the audience to continue to care. Somewhere along the later part of the film, Simmons’ character delivers what seems like an excruciatingly long exposition dump that starts to make the picture a little bit more clear. What follows is a series of shrug-worthy twists, ho-hum reveals, and even more clunky exposition. It nearly derails the entire film and is only saved by some well-executed violence.

If you are willing to forgive “The Accountant” for its faults, there is plenty of great acting, intense shootouts, and surprising laughs to sustain its runtime. It’s a really solid Affleck performance and is actually quite gripping in moments. Held up to scrutiny, however, “The Accountant” is unnecessarily complicated, convoluted and lacks a satisfying payoff.

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