Star Wars: The Last Jedi

December 15, 2017 by  
Filed under Brian, Reviews

Starring: Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Carrie Fisher
Directed by: Rian Johnson (“Looper”)
Written by: Rian Johnson (“Looper”), George Lucas (based on characters created by)

It was 1977 the first time that cannonblast-of-a-musical-fanfare, yellow text crawl, and intrepid white runner-ship exploded across a celluloid starfield, changing movies forever. Forty years on, few phrases have the capacity to ripple the pop-cult zeitgeist like an upturned bedsheet in quite the same way as “they’re doing a new Star Wars.”

Toss it casually into your nearest social-media flea market of opinions and it’ll be met, in part, by a tide of cocksure pessimism, even anger – but know that these reactions are inflated artificially by their purveyors (even the most hardened and embittered of fanboy cynics and Han-Shot-Firsters) to castigate themselves for the inner flame of hope they dare not allow themselves to indulge.

Because that’s the power of this series: Even that wide (or at least vocal) swath of a generation that purports to feel intimately burned by the trio of p-words (sort of rhymes with “seagulls”) that “everyone hates” (disclosure: I don’t) would likely have to admit that their fear of feeling that way again is still tempered by a light side – a deep, secret longing to feel the wonder and awe they did when, as children, they watched a towheaded space-hick teenager thread the needle on a no-scope proton-torpedo shot that blew up a planetful of jackbooted, corrupt-establishment assholes. And of course it is. That fear and that hope coexist always, in all of us, swirled like chocolate-and-vanilla soft-serve, one amplifying the other. We’re afraid to wish for the feeling we grew up with, but we want desperately for someone to give it to us again, the same but different. So. Enter Rian Johnson?

Johnson’s “The Last Jedi,” Episode 8 of the Saga That Launched a Quadrillion-Million (Toy) (Space)ships, takes the baton (almost literally) from J.J. Abrams’s “The Force Awakens,” the December 2015 sequel that kickstarted a third trilogy under Lucasfilm’s new auspices at Disney. (Disney further cemented its “Star Wars” ownership this week – including new rights to the original theatrical versions of Episodes IV-VI – by purchasing 21st Century Fox). “Awakens,” despite its colossally daunting charge, acquitted itself more-than-admirably well: It delivered thrills, introduced winsome new players, and was for the most part received warmly, even enthusiastically, with perhaps its most common and agreed-upon criticism (a fair one, perhaps) being that it tried too hard and too often to call back to the original films. For my money, it was certainly a good time.

“The Last Jedi,” then, benefits not only from Awakens’ strong start, but more particularly from its predecessor’s having laid down backstory and development for such characters as First-Order-Stormtrooper-turned-rebel-hero Finn (John Boyega), orphan-junk-scavenger-turned-lightsaber-wielding-icon Rey (Daisy Ridley), and – despite the actor’s own demurrals, let’s face it – inescapably Han-Solo-esque fighter pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac). This legwork done, Johnson’s film is free to hit the ground running, and wisely does so, kicking things off with a rather breathtaking space-action sequence, engaging multiple concurrent storylines, and bringing faces old, new, and new-but-familiar into the galactic fold. At times, in fact, there almost seems (but doesn’t quite) to be too much going on: Clearly expository dialogue, which would otherwise chafe, is instead often welcome, as it helps explain (natch) and contextualize things that are happening quickly. Without spoiling much of anything (I promise): Rey has gone in search of Luke Skywalker (and found him, as we saw in “Awakens”), Finn decides to go in search of Rey, and Poe and Leia are alternately fleeing and facing down the First Order (General Hux [Gleeson], Kylo Ren [Driver], Supreme Leader Snoke [Serkis], et al.), who want the Rebellion quashed, because that’s what oppressive regimes like to do to rebellions. More happens, of course. But you don’t want me to tell you about that.

So. Does it work? As a film, and as a Star Wars film? In a word: Yes.

In another word: ABSO-PORG-ING-LUTELY.  Johnson is bold in his choices – and, more importantly, enacts his choices with the requisite confidence and style (and then some) to bring us along for the rollicking ride, even when we’re not immediately onboard. Further, again, so much is happening, and so much of it is so good, whatever’s questionable is easily and happily swept up by the consistent and captivating entertainment that surrounds it. One conceptually brilliant plot point/character motivation, for instance, doesn’t seem to get to breathe enough cinematically to have maximum impact, but is intrinsically such a stroke of genius that it nearly gets there on its own anyway. Johnson, who also wrote the film, uses humor early and liberally (and often notably modern-seeming humor, at that), which occasionally threatens to distract, tonally, but ultimately lands frequently enough to more-or-less justify itself. A few performances aren’t the sort in which one gets lost and forgets the effort being expended, but work well enough, for various reasons, to not break things up much. The porgs probably aren’t as cute (or omnipresent) as you think they are, but they’re still pretty freakin’ cute.

Much of everything else: Great.

Battle scenes, in space or otherwise, are gripping and spectacular. One of them contains a short action set piece that is, without exaggeration, one of the most instantly unforgettable sensory experiences I’ve ever had in a movie theater. Visually, sonically, narratively, emotionally, it’s utterly, utterly stunning. We were at a press screening, full of critics – generally a more restrained audience (no whoops at the onscreen appearance of the words “Star Wars,” say) – and here there were audible gasps, surprised laughter, cheers, … even applause, I think. Ridley, as Rey, has come fully into her own. While she was certainly scrappy and charismatic in “Awakens,” “Last Jedi’s” Rey anchors and drives the emotional and narrative core of the film. Her focus is unblinking; her power undeniable. She’s one of a number of self-possessed, memorably heroic women in the film (there are a couple in even just the first few minutes), but Ridley’s transformation, and the calm certainty and resolve with which she carries vital portions of the picture, are astounding: She’s become the legend-in-the-making “Awakens” was hinting at, and I can’t wait to see more. The same could be said of Driver’s Kylo Ren, whose arc and inner turmoil are further explored and expanded, giving us a deeper, emerging portrait of a truly fascinating character – rendered so in large part by the actor’s quietly searing, often transfixing performance. Both actors are dialed in, and Johnson crafts a sprawling, compelling narrative around their interwoven fates — one that makes me want to keep watching.

Oscar Isaac, too, is phenomenal. He’s given much more to do this time around, and knocks it all out of the park. He flies like Maverick, disobeys orders for good reasons (like Maverick), and lights up like a Christmas tree when he sees buddies Finn (Boyega is as heart-on-his-sleeve magnetic as ever) or BB-8 (whom I could watch speedroll chirpily around for hours). (Side note: You deserve someone who looks at you the way Poe Dameron looks at Finn or BB-8. We all do.)

There are surprises to be had, and remembrances to be made. Go in willing to have a good time, and it might just be inevitable. Johnson tackles a monumental task with aplomb, paying deep homage in ways that feel integrated with and advance the story while putting his own stamps on it, as well. He knows how to create truly “cool” movie moments, but also how to weave them into the narrative so that they feel organic and earned. While Abrams is back at the helm for “Episode IX,” Disney has announced that Johnson will be directing an entirely separate Star Wars trilogy – which, following Last Jedi, sounds good to me.

Ep. 107 – Star Wars: The Last Jedi (spoilers start at 17:04) and The Disaster Artist

December 14, 2017 by  
Filed under Podcast

This week on The CineSnob Podcast, Cody and Jerrod review the year’s most anticipated movie, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” BE AWARE: Spoilers run from 17:04 to 40:35!

They also review last week’s wide release “The Disaster Artist,” which is also the subject of Bonus Episode 13, so give that a listen too!

Click here to download the episode!

American Made

September 29, 2017 by  
Filed under Jerrod, Reviews

Starring: Tom Cruise, Domhnall Gleeson, Sarah Wright Olsen
Directed by: Doug Liman (“Edge of Tomorrow,” “The Bourne Identity”)
Written by: Gary Spinelli (“Stash House”)

Based (somewhat loosely) on a true story, “American Made” finds Tom Cruise finally returning to the type of role that gives him some vulnerability—something which has been sorely lacking in a decade filled with high-octane “Mission: Impossible” movies, the dull “Jack Reacher” series, and this year’s dreadful reboot of “The Mummy.”

Cruise plays Barry Seal, a TWA airline pilot who, in 1978, is bored of welcoming passengers to Bakersfield and Vancouver. While in Canada, he and other pilots run a low-level smuggling ring, bringing Cuban cigars into the United States for a few extra bucks. This attracts the attention of a CIA agent named Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson) who plays into Seal’s boredom to recruit him to fly a twin-engine plane over communist training camps in Central America, snapping photos for Uncle Sam. Barry agrees, but doesn’t tell his wife Lucy (Sarah Wright Olsen), who pesters Barry for more money for their growing family. When he’s shut out of a raise by Schafer, Barry accepts an offer from the men who would become the Medellin drug cartel, led by Pablo Escobar (Mauricio Mejía) and Jorge Ochoa (Alejandro Edda), to smuggle cocaine into the United States for piles and piles of cash.

When Barry is arrested and thrown into a Colombian prison for drug smuggling, Schafer again comes to his aid with an offer: deliver guns to communist-fighting Contras in Nicaragua. Again, the cartel steps in and offers to buy the guns from Barry, who becomes obscenely wealthy from the smuggling, attracting the attention of the FBI, ATF, and several other law enforcement agencies.

Directed by Doug Liman, who previously helmed the under-appreciated (and poorly titled) Cruise sci-fi vehicle “Edge of Tomorrow,” “American Made” aspires for the breezy, comedy-drama feel of “The Wolf of Wall Street” or “The Big Short” and ends up mostly succeeding. There are times when the plot feels hacked up to get the running time just under two hours, with stunted characters like Jesse Plemons’ “look the other way” small town sheriff getting featured introductions and significant follow-up scenes only to end up with little to do afterward and the sudden fore fronting of one of Barry’s vague associates in the final act.

It’s a small quibble, really, and it doesn’t do much to detract from the enjoyment in finally seeing Tom Cruise really sink his gorgeous teeth into something for the first time since “Magnolia” or “Vanilla Sky.”

Ex Machina

April 24, 2015 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, Alicia Vikander
Directed by: Alex Garland (debut)
Written by: Alex Garland (“28 Days Later”)

After the SXSW premiere of “Ex Machina,” director Alex Garland was asked a directorial question, with this film being his debut after years of solely screenwriting. In a fantastically articulated answer, Garland explained that people tend to deify directors; a sentiment that he called “bullshit.” He contended that he is a writer first, and that every part of the crew from the director down was a “filmmaker.” Writer, director, filmmaker; the semantics, job titles and roles don’t matter. As long as Garland is putting his ideas to screen, like the fascinating ones he has with “Ex Machina,” the film industry is a better place.

After winning a company-wide contest, programmer Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) is invited to spend a week with his reclusive boss and tech CEO Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac). Previously unsure of what the week would entail, Caleb soon finds out that Nathan has built artificial intelligence, and that he is there to perform a test on its intelligent human behavior. However, as Caleb gets to know the A.I., Ava (Alicia Vikander), he sees that things may not be what they seem.

Another word about “Ex Machina” cannot be written without first acknowledging the staggeringly great performance from Isaac. Equal parts charismatic, humorous, dark and enigmatic, Isaac shows expert level character building and chops. It’s a down-to-earth performance that gives what could easily be an off-putting, egotistical, super-genius character into an affable, fun-loving guy. He’s also responsible for a completely unexpected and equally hilarious dance sequence that will easily go down as one of the best moments in any film this year.

Garland’s smart and ambitious screenplay keeps an air of mystery that allows every moment to unfold without knowing is what to come. After a great set up to pique interest, Garland throws a wrinkle into the film that keeps audiences on their toes. Without getting into too many plot details, motives begin to come into question and the complexity of the story and relationships kick into high gear, allowing audiences to flex their mental muscles to stay engaged.

As “Ex Machina” comes to its dramatic conclusion, there are moments where the storytelling becomes a little too dense and thematically crowded. As a result, the different themes at play get a little muddy and it takes a little unpacking to find the prevailing ones. Even with an overstuffed ending, “Ex Machina” is jam packed with moments of brilliance and bursting with originality. It’s atmospheric, intimate and joins Mike Cahill’s “Another Earth” and Duncan Jones’ “Moon” as one of the best original sci-fi films of the past several years. Also, that Oscar Isaac dance scene.

Unbroken

December 25, 2014 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Jack O’Connell, Miyavi, Domhnall Gleeson
Directed by: Angelina Jolie (“In the Land of Blood and Honey”)
Written by: Joel Coen (“Inside Llewyn Davis”), Ethan Coen (“Inside Llewyn Davis”), Richard LaGravenese (“Water for Elephants”) and William Nicholson (“Les Miserables”)

As inspirational as any real-life war biography can get, the survival story of Olympic athlete and WWII POW Louis “Louie” Zamperini, who sadly passed away this year at the age of 97, is the kind of hero-worshipping film that would be difficult for any American to resist. Think of something like last year’s “Lone Survivor” or this year’s “American Sniper.” A real patriot has to love these movies, right?

Spanning from Zamperini’s childhood to the end of WWII, “Unbroken” features Jack O’Connell as Zamperini during his time as an Olympic track star to his service in the U.S. military where he survived a plane crash, 47 days in a life raft and two years as a prisoner of war in Japan. While much of the first half of the film is beautiful to look at (credit cinematographer Roger Deakins for his work in the air and ocean) and the life raft scenes are incredibly harrowing and intense, the same can’t be said of the narrative that focuses on Zamperini’s life once he is taken prisoner on enemy soil.

These scenes, which feature Zamperini pitted against his cruel torturer known as “The Bird” (Miyavi), are lacking in sentiment from the get go. Miyavi, while menacing enough to make his character believable, isn’t written with much depth. Instead, screenwriters seem comfortable enough in the rest of the story to keep Bird as a cliché antagonist who wields a bamboo stick with authority. In one scene, Zamperini and Bird, after some time apart, are reunited in a way that should have felt devastating, but comes off as diagrammed and impassive.

Directed with complete respect by Angelina Jolie from a Coen Brothers’ script adapted from Laura Hillenbrand’s best-selling book, there is surprisingly little emotional impact from such an incredible story. Jolie has made a film to admire because of its heroic subject, but not one that honestly captures a character like Zamperini more than skin deep.

Frank

September 4, 2014 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Michael Fassbender, Domhnall Gleeson, Maggie Gyllenhaal
Directed by: Lenny Abrahamson (“What Richard Did”)
Written by: Jon Ronson (debut) and Peter Straughan (“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”)

After heavy career-defining roles in “Shame” and “12 Years A Slave,” a comedic side is just about the only thing we haven’t seen from Michael Fassbender. With Lenny Abrhamson’s musically-skewed dark comedy “Frank,” Fassbender gets a chance to shine in a completely new fashion.

Aspiring musician Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) doesn’t have much in the way of musical or songwriting talent, but stumbles across an opportunity to play in a band. The band is led by a strange, but kind-hearted man named Frank (Michael Fassbender) who wears a giant fake head at all times, with the reason and true identity not known by anyone. As the band retreats to write and record an album, Jon begins updating on their progress and videos of their retreat on social media. When the band gains notoriety from its videos, they are provided an opportunity they might not be ready for.

With how talented Fassbender is, it is no surprise that he is excellent at comedy. What is truly impressive is how adept he is at physical comedy. Often flailing, getting laughs from well-timed looks, or excitedly describing his facial expression from under the fake head, Fassbender is able to mine an incredible amount of infectious personality and humor despite having his head and face covered. Some of the funnier bits also come from the absurd props that Frank needs to get by with the fake head, like long stretching headphones or super long straws to drink from.

As a musical film, there isn’t much to write home about as the music is intentionally bad and can occasionally become grating. Still, as Jon builds the hype of the band through Twitter and YouTube, the elements of being in a band and going through the song-writing process is interesting to watch even if the music is often atonal noise.

Tone-wise, “Frank” isn’t completely funny, but rather has a hint of sadness present throughout. Overall, however, the film has a certain sweet streak running through its veins and is a frequently interesting look at mental illness and seeking fame in the digital age. It doesn’t work in every aspect. The film’s first half is far better than the second and there are some tonal shifts that are a little jarring as the film goes from dark to silly at the drop of a hat. There is also the major issue of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character being entirely off-putting, with every one of her scenes coming off as extremely annoying. Still, Fassbender carries “Frank” and gives it a lighthearted touch that makes the film easy enough to digest.

About Time

November 1, 2013 by  
Filed under Ashley, Reviews

Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Rachel McAdams, Bill Nighy
Directed by: Richard Curtis (“Love Actually”)
Written by: Richard Curtis (“Love Actually”)

What never fails to makes a great love story is genuineness. It’s what all the greats – “Annie Hall,” “When Harry Met Sally,” “Love Actually,” – have it in common. Simple, authentic storylines with relatable characters and relationships are what really make a romance, well, romantic. Encompassing all that and more is writer/director Richard Curtis’ “About Time.” It’s a film that just might find itself somewhere on the list of greatest rom-coms of all time, but probably not for the reasons you’re thinking. A heartwarming story about one man and his ability to time travel, “About Time” reminds you just how much life and love inevitably go hand in hand.

On his 21st birthday, Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) learns from his father (Bill Nighy) he has the inherited ability to time travel. Initially set on using his newly-found talent to find a girlfriend, Tim soon discovers his skills at time travel may give him the power to do so much more. After meeting the beautiful yet insecure Mary (Rachel McAdams), Tim travels back in time to make her fall in love with him again and again after their first encounter doesn’t go as planned. Depicting the events of their life together over the span of a decade, Tim is eventually forced to realize his gift cannot fix everything wrong in his relationship after all.

Luckily, “About Time” does not revolve around the topic of time travel, and therefore is nothing like “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” which is great news for anyone that has seen how horrible that movie is. And sorry ladies, but it’s really not even a movie about finding your soul mate. Setting itself apart from the great love stories out there, Curtis writes a delightful and wonderfully surprising screenplay about the relationship between a father and son and, even more so, about the journey of life, how majestically messy it can be and how love can make it all worthwhile.

Portraying the ordinary and naive character of Tim, Gleeson hits the mark and graces the screen with an honest performance. One can only hope, after watching this movie, he is given the continued opportunity to earn more roles throughout his career. While McAdams complements Gleeson with their undeniable chemistry, Nighy transforms this story into what it is. Creating a unique and memorable takeaway for the audience, Gleeson and Nighy work together effortlessly and create a strikingly close picture of what it’s like for a son to idolize his father and what it’s like to be a parent who loves their child more than anything in the world.

There are scenes in “About Time” where Tim decides to time travel one too many times, making it feel a little repetitive. It’s easy to overlook that, however, with a perfectly paced screenplay filled with an abundance of quick and much appreciated comedy, not to mention its sporadic artistic cinematography. With many moments guaranteed to leave you breathless, “About Time” will have you walking on air.