Tag Archives: Brett Wiesenauer

Brett the Wiese vs. Batman v Superman

brett_wiesenaurIn the review of Deadpool on this newsblog, the author noted the slump comic book movies have been in since Marvel has hit their stride. Some may have queried as to why the lack of mention of DC properties in the post-Nolan age. Well, at that time, the public had only been exposed to one entry in the now-expanding DC Film Universe, and that was the terribly flawed Man of Steel. For the past three years, fans and critics alike have been arguing and dissecting Zack Snyder’s vision of Superman with venom, online screaming matches, and shallow low blows, in print as well as in conversation. The film caused a rift between fans of the material, one that still hasn’t quite recovered at the time of the release of the newest entry, also helmed by Snyder.

 

What does this mean for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice? Well, it really depends on who is going to see it. Short version, if you didn’t like 300 or Man of Steel, you will most likely take issue with this film’s continual lack of actual character content in place of EXPLOSIONS! If you just want to see Batman and Superman duke it out mano-a-Supermano, you’re going to be in for a long sit since the climactic battle has a lot of setup. And it gets chaotic narrative-wise long before the anticipated battle.

 

After a brief prologue recounting Bruce Wayne’s tragic family life, the opening scene plops us back into the climax of Man of Steel, where the now retired from crime-fighting Mr. Wayne (a super-serious Ben Affleck) has arrived to evacuate his Metropolis outlet of Wayne Enterprises. Unfortunately, Superman and his nemesis Zod melt the buildings beams in course of their battle royale and a fair share of Wayne’s employees are killed or maimed. To be frank, the 9/11 imagery is strong with this sequence. Director Snyder seems intent on trying to access some emotional recall by referencing this horrible day in American history like his own version of the Easy Button from Staples. We get it, man! ‘Twas a day that shall live in infamy. Enough!

 

2988068-bvs-posterAnyway, cut to 18 months later, where Bruce Wayne has returned to the mantle of the Batman, beating sex traffickers and the like to bloody, broken pulps and branding them with Bat symbols as a warning. Across the bay in Metropolis, Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) finds the unlimited reach of the vigilante to be worrisome and strives to editorialize his concern at the Daily Planet, but his editor Perry White (a caustic Laurence Fishburne) is having none of it. Meanwhile, Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is recovering from a spat in a desert country with some terrorists who seemed set on icing the Man of Steel. She discovers a unique brand of firearm was used that, of course, doesn’t match any on record. She heads off to Washington, all while a Congressional committee, headed by a fiery Holly Hunter, is gathering to call out Superman for his selfish and catastrophic actions.

 

Anywho, billionaire lunatic Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) is out to discredit Superman and inspire Batman to rip the Man of Tomorrow a new one in one fell swoop. He discovers in the wreckage of the Kryptonian battleships from the previous film a substance that could prove weakening to Superman. Batman also discovers this and steals said item in order to further his own vendetta against Superman. Thus, a titanic conflict is ignited between the Bat of Gotham and the last son of Krypton. Who will emerge victorious? Do audiences actually care?

 

There’s a strange sort of moral ambiguity at play that rivals the Batman titles helmed by Tim Burton almost thrity years ago. In those movies, this reviewer likens them to movies of “Batman as played by The Punisher”, seeing as Michael Keaton’s incarnation had no obvious qualms with dropping petty criminals off roofs and blowing up whole factories of bad guys. While not as outlandish as those films stylistically, Batman v Superman still doesn’t hold our heroes to the high standards of previous characterizations.

 

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Superman outright causes collateral damage to the citizens of Metropolis people in the leftover footage from Man of Steel, and then he enters this film by flying an arms dealer through a rock wall and to his screaming end because the poor schmuck pointed a pistol to Lois Lane’s noggin.

 

Batman also causes some questionably over-powered damage to some henchman using crashed vehicles as missiles and outright blowing some poor villains up with their own weapons of choice. Note that it is not necessarily bad that these two anti-heroes don’t quite have a “no-kill-code” in these iterations, but we as audiences need to have such qualms or lack of established early on rather than popped on us halfway into the film.

 

As with most movies of the genre, there are great things as well as crummy things in this adaptation of the World’s Finest mythos. Ben Affleck is smugly inspiring as Bruce Wayne, and downright terrifying as Batman. I would argue he makes a better Caped Crusader than the previous titleholder, Christian Bale, if only for the fixing of the Dark Knight’s voice to be more like that of Kevin Conroy’s voice modulations in the classic Batman the Animated Series.

 

Henry Cavill is passable as the Man of Tomorrow, still struggling with issues held over from the previous film including the death of his Earth father as well as his destructive battle with General Zod. Amy Adams is pleasant to watch, as always, as Lois Lane, lover of Superman and the American way. Holly Hunter is also enjoyable in her brief screen time as seemingly the only person in the country who will say no to both Superman and Lex Luthor.

 

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Speaking of, onto our primary villain of the week: Lex Luthor, as played by Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network). Ho boy, where to begin. To put it plainly, he is awful. We’re talking as-directed-by-Joel-Schumacher levels of badness. He is trying so hard to be quirkily evil, he comes off as spastic and idiotic rather than intimidating. He practically cackles his lines like Caesar Romero would have in the 1966 Batman TV show. He is clearly meant to inspire fear, since he is basically Bruce Wayne with an even more-so misguided savior complex, but since he is so goofy and has only one real sinister moment (involving a jar of urine, of all things), audiences are going to question why this performance is in this movie when it does not mesh. It’s jarring and inspires cringes for all the wrong reasons.

 

The music in the film is a curio in and of itself being from the same composer as the Dark Knight trilogy as well as Man of Steel, Hans Zimmer. But he brought in industrial composer Junkie XL to work on the Batman half of the score, since Zimmer didn’t want to be tempted to reuse material from the Nolan movies. Aside from some outright theft from classical Profokiev in the crafting of Luthor’s theme, the new music melds well with the chaos onscreen. The scenery has a smidge more color than the previous DC entry, which is a plus. And then there’s Gal Gadot’s glorified cameo as Diana Prince/Wonder Woman. Every time she appears, you want to know more about her, which can only mean good things given we will eventually get a Wonder Woman movie out of this. In addition, Jeremy Irons as Alfred takes over well from Michael Caine in previous installments, giving a biting repartee to the relationship between Master Wayne and his loyal butler and confidante. This gives hope that Affleck’s now in-production solo effort as Batman will be a solid step up from this tripe.

 

Interestingly, for the past week, super-fans have been loudly and venomously reacting to Rotten Tomatoes’ collection of negative reviews against the film, where the film currently sits at a certified Rotten 29% score. These fans are not realizing that RT is not the source of the bad reviews. RT only collects and aggregates the reviews. It is not a grade like in school environments, it is a measurement of how many critics recommend and liked the film.

 

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In short, there is just too much happening in this movie. There are at least 15 storylines crashing together in this film desperately trying to stick in order to set up the Justice League movie in 2017. And it all lands with a dull flop as audiences try to keep track of motivations and actions and catchphrases and ugh! It just gets to be too much, and director Snyder is not skilled enough to streamline the elements into the movie smoothly.

 

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BvS Doge

The film still looks grim and bleak, which is fine, but he needs a change in style and aesthetic for a while. He’s not great at comic-book adaptations. He needs a change, to give some other director a chance at saving DC’s cinema properties. But what do I know? The movie’s still going to break the box office and set up sequels simply because of brand recognition. The average moviegoer doesn’t care about quality at this point, they simply want big, bad, superhero brawls, and even then, this movie will skimp on that in the end.

10 Cloverfield Lane: A twisted and claustrophobic paranoia thrill ride

There is a point a little over halfway into the second entry in the Cloverfield saga where a character is attempting to pass time putting a jigsaw puzzle together and he comments on how the puzzle is missing pieces. Earlier in the accompanying montage, he is shown attempting to jam a puzzle piece into place that obviously doesn’t fit.

 

This is a rather perfect analogy for describing the impression left after viewing 10 Cloverfield Lane.

 

The film conveys a lot in its stay, mostly considering the repercussions of ultra-conservative paranoia and the personal sacrifices required to transcend meager humanity to attain apocalyptic warrior status, Mad Max style. But before we get to that, we must discuss the actual content of the film, pre-analysis.

 

So, what does the film concern itself with, aside from what I stated above? Well, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is recovering from a toxic relationship with Bradley Cooper’s voice and is run off the road after she flees her apartment somewhere in a cityscape. She is rescued by a paranoid bunker dweller named Howard (John Goodman). He claims there was an “attack” and he has assembled a modest amount of supplies to survive in the aftermath of whatever happened above. Believing the air to be contaminated, he has allowed only two others into his bunker, Michelle and down-to-earth redneck, Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.).

 

At first, Howard takes some steps to chain up Michelle so she apparently won’t leave the bunker, but it also may have been to prevent her from exacerbating her leg injury she received in the accompanying car crash. She eventually is let on a looser leash, proverbially, but the doubt in her and our minds never quite alleviates until the film’s questionable conclusion.

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The film has a lot of slowly unspooling tension from the moment we and Michelle arrive in Howard’s bunker. Howard is not a completely benevolent host, as he showcases several antisocial tics and nervous anxieties that bring his handle on his issues into question. He slams his hands on the dinner table in impotent frustration at how easily Michelle and Emmett get along while Howard is left to himself and his hordes of videocassettes and DVDs.

 

Eventually, Michelle comes to understand that Howard may not be entirely crazy but that doesn’t help that she is still trapped in a bunker with a man whose grip on his emotions is tenuous at best. There’s a magnificent game of Taboo played in the latter half of the film that turns the simple game of charades into a terrifying marathon of second-guessing suspense, which I won’t spoil here.

 

To come completely clean without spoilers, the movie does satisfy on many levels. It is thrilling, it has compelling and relatable characters, the film looks and feels pent-up like the characters and setting, and there aren’t any overblown, ridiculous elements that remove audiences from the viewing experience, outside of the questionable choices made in the last 15 minutes. But if one does wish to discuss the implications and revelations in the later stages of the film, they are free to strike up a conversation with me on social media or just see the movie and make decisions for yourself.

 

Executive producer J.J. Abrams’ never-sated lust for movies that spring themselves on unsuspecting audiences only to land with a dull thud and leaving audiences bewildered for the wrong reasons is a terrible habit of his that he should really get to moving past. Star Trek – Into Darkness suffered from the same unsurprising ‘Mystery Box’ marketing that succeeded so well with the likes of LOST came back to bite after fans of Star Trek came out in vehement opposition to what they saw as a lack of understanding of what made Original Series Trek interesting and entertaining. In that case, Abrams has come out and admitted that he is not a ‘trekkie’ per se, but that doesn’t excuse the lack of research on his part.

 

10cl_posterAs for Cloverfield, the first film came and went with some impact on audiences, but it should be noted that a sequel was never fast-tracked until production on a little film code-named Valencia was acquired by Abrams’ Bad Robot productions. As soon as that happened, J.J. Abrams assigned a new writer to polish some connections to the 2008 movie and dropped a trailer on the unsuspecting public just after the New Year. The results did prove that people were very curious about the contents. And the box office returns did reflect that curiosity, as 10 Cloverfield Lane took in over $50 million in its first two weekends at the multiplex.

 

10 Cloverfield Lane is a curious little experiment of sorts for short-term marketing and release planning. The film is quite excellent as a thriller and worth seeing in the theater before Batman v Superman comes in and wrecks its staying power. It could be a lot worse. But once the last 15 minutes happens, then Abrams’ intent becomes obvious and audiences scratch their heads in regards to how the ill-fitting pieces actually resemble the puzzle they feel they should have solved by now.

Deadpool Review: Hard-R Superhero Romance for the win!

Superhero movies have been in a bit of a creative slump. Marvel Studios has created the new standard in the post-Chris Nolan years of superhero adventures, for better or worse. But with a record five Marvel properties receiving a theatrical outing in 2014, it has been postulated that the formula Marvel has imprinted on each of the entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is growing stale in the over-saturation of such films released each year.

 

Thank goodness for Ryan Reynolds and company convincing Fox to up the ante by making the first R-rated Marvel movie. This is a unique step for a company that has been making the X-MEN movies, the most consistently challenging and socially conscious series based on Marvel properties.

 

With Deadpool, the socially conscious moralizing is tossed out as soon as the opening credits roll. Set to Juice Newton’s “Angel of the Morning,” the opening showcases the carnage Mr. Pool is most ready to indulge in, including torturing bad guys with cigarette lighters and atomic wedgies. This opening really conveys all the gleefully subversive brutality one will find in the feature to follow. But the whole of the movie is not just decapitated heads and one-liners, oh no. This flick is also a romance movie, the posters were not lying.

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That’s right, a key plot of this movie revolves around the smart-mouthed mercenary attempting to reconnect with his fiancée, while also hunting down his nemesis, Francis. The romance is introduced after the initial opening action scene in a flashback to Wade Wilson’s life pre-red costume. Wilson (Ryan Reynolds) is a low-rent mercenary who meets an equally acerbic escort, Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), at his favorite dive and strikes up a romantic interlude, complete with things I cannot mention in this review due to decency standards, but all things aside, it is hilarious, provided you like joy.

 

Unfortunately, the twosome’s romance was cut short by that mood-killer of a diagnosis, cancer. At his wits’ end, Wilson leaves his girl in the teary rain and signs up for an experimental program that will give him superpowers while curing his cancer. But there is a cost – his personal freedom. Driven bonkers by his treatment at the hands of the vicious Francis (Ed Skrein) and his cool-as-ice assistant, Angel Dust (Gina Carano), Wilson adopts the persona of Deadpool to track down his nemesis with the aid of his bartender pal Weasel and a couple of X-Men who show up to critique Deadpool’s violent, anarchic methods. Along the way, he works himself into getting enough courage to visit his old flame and hopefully rekindle their kinky escapades.

 

The flick revels in tapping into childish exploitations of brutality and smugness that could easily backfire, as some disappointed audiences noted in reviews on various social medias, including Letterboxd, the social media for film lovers. To be fair, most of those critics likely had no idea what they were in for.

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Deadpool has a history of subversive cultural savviness that frequently pokes fun at anything and everything – think South Park style. While the film does consider itself a superhero movie, it really is a fascinating hybrid of all sorts of genres: romantic comedy, action thriller, gross-out comedy, and superhero movie. The tone is still playfully anarchic, with star Reynolds as the titular anti-hero pointedly breaking the rules of movies constantly, looking to the audience, making smart comments, and cuttingly criticizing the studio that unwittingly gave Reynolds and the writers free rein to make the movie that Deadpool fans deserve, for better or worse.

 

The character of Deadpool originated as a straight-laced satire of 1980s and 90s action movie stereotypes, continuing this way until around 2004, when Marvel Comics executives chose to heavily exaggerate the already over-the-top cultural references and invincible self-awareness. While his escapades have attracted an audience of devoted followers, his character has not always received proper mainstream treatment. The 2009 film X-MEN Origins:Wolverine did include Ryan Reynolds as the pre-weaponized Wade Wilson, but in the third act decided it would be best to sew Deadpool’s mouth shut and turn him into the strange love-child of Frankenstein’s monster and the Abomination from Incredible Hulk comics. To put it mildly, fans were very displeased with the film, especially its treatment of the beloved ‘Merc with a Mouth’.

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*DUN DUN DUN*

 

What should be taken away from this review is that Deadpool is a breath of fresh immaturity that comic book movies have been lacking. The pace is frenetic, the romance is cute and pleasing, the action is over-the-top and fun, and Ryan Reynolds has finally found a property to showcase his talents. It is a good time to be a fan of comic books and their adaptations…for now.

New and Classic Japanese Animations to debut in West Michigan

brett_wiesenauerI love to promote animation from anywhere and everywhere that’s not Disney. Audiences have grown lazy in supporting flicks that don’t descend from the House of Mousecapades. I for one will always look to view things that challenge me asides from hammering messages into me like “RACISM AND CLASSISM ARE BAD, Even With Animals”.

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Luckily, the next two weekends hold promise to showcase wonderful Japanese treats that, while not implicitly for kids, look like exciting experiences for animation fans and non-followers alike to feel free to dive into.3997_the-boy-and-the-beast_24E7

 

Opening this Friday at Woodland Mall is the latest from Japanese artiste Mamoru Hosoda, The Boy and the Beast. The tale concerns a boy who falls into a strange apprenticeship to Kumatetsu the Beast Lord, who is currently involved in a competition for succession with another beast warrior who is more popular in standing than our Beast Lord.

 

The film was the second-highest grossing film in Japan last year and is from a creative talent who has been honing his skills over the last decade with visually pleasing and stimulating projects like Summer Wars and Wolf Children. As a fan of the whole of the directors work, going back to Digimon The Movie back in 2000, I look forward to exploring a whole different culture (of animal-warrior hierarchy) via the lens of another culture (Japan), and seeing how Hosoda seeks to delight audiences with a good story and unique character archetypes.

 

If you are in the mood for a less fantastic trip into Japanimation-Land, boy do I have good news for you. West Michigan is also receiving a dose of classic, classy Studio Ghibli within the week, in tandem with The Boy and the Beast.

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Opening at the Kalamazoo Alamo Drafthouse this weekend and spreading to Celebration Cinemas and select AMC theaters on March 11th is a special revival of the previously unreleased-in-America Studio Ghibli work, Only Yesterday. Featuring the voice talents of Star WarsThe Force Awakens ingenue Daisy Ridley and helmed by Ghibli legend Isao Takahata (director of the Oscar-nominated Tale of Princess Kaguya as well as the tearjerker classic Grave of the Fireflies), the film promises to be a beautiful adult tale of nostalgia in youth and adapting to womanhood. Animation circles have whispered on the beauty and grace of Only Yesterday for years, due to it never acquiring proper release outside of Japan due to its non-fantastic story and setting, which is the image Ghibli has presented internationally for most of its filmography.

 

Best of all is the relic quality of Only Yesterday, being released in Japan in 1991, when cel animation and hand-drawn family flicks was still the prominent animation style before computer animation made a hostile takeover thanks to Disney and Friends deciding putting pen to paper was old-hat and wasn’t worth the effort of maintaining. I miss classically drawn epics like the original Sleeping Beauty and Princess Mononoke. I want to see actual effort onscreen rather than glorified computer coding. Yes, computer animation can be impressive, as Tangled and Frozen showed in slow spurts, but due to the shrinking successes of mid-2000s releases like Home on the Range and Princess and the Frog, the Disney studio gutted the hand-drawn department and decided to focus more on computer technologies. But the companies mistook the failure of their products to be good and memorable films as the failure of the medium rather than the product.

 

Hopefully the two flicks will live up to the unearthly expectations I have planted on them as an animation fan.

RIP Brett’s Oscar Picks

Academy_Award_trophyBy: Brett Wiesenauer

 

Well, Oscar season has come and gone. This year was a ridiculous year, good and bad, for films of all ranges of quality. The final showcase of such occurred on February 28th and landed with a few surprise aces up its pre-packaged sleeves.

 

Chris Rock made his monologue count with a takedown of the accusations of institutional racism by outside critics earlier when the nominations were announced. The only issue I had with his hosting was I could have done with less of the easy race jokes he made every time he was on-screen. Apparently everyone else thought he went far enough with his prodding of the stodgy Academy demographic, but I remain dubious in my belief that he could have been a bit more cutting in his commentary. That being said, I loved the payoff of the Girl Scout cookies gag with Michael Keaton scarfing them down after Spotlight stuck the landing, winning Best Picture. Long Live Betelgeuse!

 

Aside from Rock, I won’t be commenting on the presenters and various cameos spurred by his hosting (*cough* Stacey Dash), but I will say that there was still fat that could have been trimmed from the telecast. I noticed certain advertisements were repeated throughout the commercial breaks, showing there is an overlong amount of advertising time, which needs depleting, or the red carpet ceremony needs to start way earlier. I like my beauty sleep, thank you very much.

 

As for my personal ballot, I nailed 16 of the 24 categories, surprisingly getting the non-animated shorts and documentaries correct, though I was least sure of their chances. I missed both the Supporting categories, due to the surprise upset of sneaky spy Mark Rylance stealing the thunder from Sylvester Stallone’s gracefully aged perfromance in Creed. Alicia Vikander ended up impressing audiences and Academy voters who still rewarded her for the least of her work released last year, over Kate Winslet’s solid performance in Steve Jobs.

 

In addition, I lost faith in Mad Max: Fury Road over Costuming and VFX at the last minute, voting for The Martian in the latter category through my mLive ballot on Saturday night. Turns out Ex Machina had an effect on people after all, which is more than acceptable. I am more than happy to lose to a film I willingly support even though I made the mistake to count it out of my personal nominations.

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Of all the surprises, the most pleasant was George Miller’s own wife, Margaret Sixel, winning Best Film Editing. In hindsight this makes sense, as Fury Road‘s breathless pace and structure deserved recognition. I still feel it was wrong that while the majority of the crew under Georgie was recognized, the Academy didn’t have the guts to give it to the director for organizing those people. Meh, I know in my heart who the real hero of the night was.

 

Regarding Best Song, I admit I was shocked to see the Spectre song “Writing’s on the Wall” win over the likes of Lady Gaga’s sexual assault survivor ballad “‘Til it Happens to You”. I was sure Gaga was on her way to finalizing her EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony), but apparently that was not to be. D’oh! I’m pretty sure Gaga and Weeknd split the vote, leading the way for Sam Smith to sneak his way onstage and snatch it away.

 

With Best Animated Short, I’ll admit it was neat to see someone besides the soulless company that is PIXAR win the Oscar. I still wish Cosmos or World of Tomorrow had won, but a loss for PIXAR is a win for those of us who want more diversity in Academy Awards nominees.

 

It was an okay ceremony. I am sure that everyone else and their dog has written up better summaries of the ceremony than I could at the moment, as I am content that The Revenant didn’t win Best Picture. That being said, I am still upset that it won Best (Hamhanded) Director, considering how much of a sore loser Iñárritu is.

FINAL SCORE: 227/ 300

Here Lie Brett the Wiese’s Confident Oscar Predictions. . .

Academy_Award_trophybrett_wiesenauerThis year is probably more straightforward in the big categories, but quite the troublesome hedgemaze in terms of technicals and short films and such. Here be my picks, complete witommentary, a confidence-inspired ranking system*, and binary Who Will Win/Who Should Win tags:

 

*The ranking system is based on confidence in each category. A score of 24 – since there are 24 categories – carries the most confidence, and therefore the highest point value. As the score lowers, start loading up on grains of salt. A perfect score will only make me look all the Wieser…

Documentary Short (2)

This is tough, as the offerings really run the gamut in terms of content. We have a Holocaust eulogy, an Ebola crisis piece, a piece on domestic violence in Pakistan, a Vietnam vet think piece, and a short on a Vietnamese teenage artist affected by Agent Orange. My gut tells me to go with Body Team 12, the Ebola one, though I feel A Girl in the River, the Pakistani film, deserves a look for the cultural horrors it produces on viewing.

 

Will Win: A Girl in the River // Should Win: A Girl in the River

 

am15Documentary Feature (20)

Amy is the one that will win. It’s inevitable, like other awards later on. Cartel Land and the Nina Simone piece were intriguing, but they lack the controlled manipulation that director Asif Kapadia holds in the tragic overview of the short starburst of a career that belonged to Amy Winehouse.

*The Hunting Ground was nominated for Song, and while I acknowledge some of its content is dubious and controversial, I feel the content and filmmaking should be acknowledged for its headway in dealing with collegiate sexual assault cases.

Will+Should Win: Amy

Should’ve Been Nominated: The Hunting Ground

 

Live Action Short (1)

I really have no opinion, having not seen any yet. But research is edging me towards Stutterer. Eh, might as well.

Will Win: Stutterer (??)

snj

Animated Short (12)World_of_Tomorrow_(film)_POSTER

History has taught me that if it has Disney plastered on the product (Sanjay’s Super Team), bet on it stealing the Oscar over usually much more interesting and rewarding things like Don Hertzfeldt’s jaw-dropping World of Tomorrow and the equally inspired Russian entry We Can’t Live Without Cosmos. They’ll listen to me eventually.

Will Win: Sanjay’s Super Team

Should Win: World of Tomorrow / We Can’t Live Without Cosmos

Animated Feature (22)Inside OUt

Pixar has had this one in the bag since the film made a splash back in June when it was released. It is sad, because it was a really extraordinary year for feature animation, between the Ghibli coming of age drama When Marnie was There, the mimed hijinks of Shaun the Sheep, and the intriguing headpiece Anomalisa. Still mad that Peanuts wasn’t nominated, by the by.

Will Win: Inside Out

Should’ve Been Nominated: The Peanuts Movie

Sound Editing (19) +Mixing (8)

Source: variety.com
Source: variety.com

Fury Road really should have this in the bag, but research tells me assorted experts expect The Revenant to steal one or both for some reason that is unfathomable by me. Thing is, I remember the hellish soundscapes of the furious roadway, but aside from the bear attack, I remember nothing remarkable from The Revenant. Ugh, you people are all crazy, Academy.

EDITING – Will+Should Win: Mad Max: Fury Road

MIXING – Will+Should Win: Mad Max: Fury Road

Film Editing (5)

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© 2015 Paramount Pictures.

A tough call to end all tough calls.

In one corner, we have Best Picture front-runners The Big Short, The Revenant, and Spotlight. In the other, we have wild-card options Fury Road and the latest in the legendary Star Wars series. What to choose, what to choose…?

Twist my arm and I’d say The Big Short. If not, I blame John Serba.

Will Win: The Big Short

Should Win: Mad Max: Fury Road

© 2012 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
© 2012 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Makeup and Hairstyling (11)

Another one that I am proud to say Fury Road has in the proverbial bag. Just look at the level of creativity and imagination given to ol’ Immortan here.

Long Live Mad Max! Long Live The Wasteland! Sing, Brothers! Sing, SING!!

Will+Should Win: Mad Max: Fury Road

Best Original Song (4)

Please don’t let Fifty Shades of Grey get past Oscar-nominee status. Just give it to Gaga and spare us the pain of remembering. My heart can’t take the strain.

Will+Should Win: “Til It Happens to You”, from The Hunting Ground

Best Original Score (21)8h

Tarantino’s little outburst at the Globes, spouting that Morricone has never won an Oscar, (technically untrue, he won an Honorary Oscar at the 2007 ceremony) basically ensured that H8ful Eight will garner one, and only one, award over the course of the evening.

That being said, Carter Burwell’s score for Carol was an exquisite treat that deserves to be recognized above Maestro Morricone, sorry to say.

Will Win: Ennio Morricone, The H8ful Eight

Should Win: Carter Burwell, Carol

© 2015 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
© 2015 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Best Visual Effects (10)

Fury Road vs Star Wars. Sometimes I despise that so many good genre films come out in one year, looking so technically flawless.

 

I really wish Ex Machina had gotten more love, but at least it also has a screenplay nomination.

Will+Should Win: Mad Max: Fury Road

Best Costume Design (3)

© 2015 The Weinstein Company.
© 2015 The Weinstein Company.

I am torn.

Carol was a truly gross oversight by the Academy on two of the big categories (Director and Picture) and deserves every nomination and more. But I really want Fury Road to walk away with the night.

Don’t Make Me Choose! -cries-

Will Win: Carol

Could Tie With: Mad Max: Fury Road

Best Production Design (17)

© 2012 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
© 2012 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

George Miller and his crew of lunatics crafted one of the craziest worlds ever in Fury Road. Frankly, nothing else comes close to its achievement in sheer world-building, even with its non-existent exposition.

 

Ex Machina and the under-seen Crimson Peak could also have benefited from some love here, but the Academy can’t help but shovel nominations out to lackluster things like The Danish Girl and Bridge of Spies. Heaven forbid we don’t give credit to the movies that will be remembered down the years as the best alternatives for sleep aids.

Will+Should Win: Mad Max: Fury Road

Should’ve Been Nominated: Crimson Peak

Photo Credit: Kimberley French - © 2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved. THE REVENANT Motion Picture © 2015
Photo Credit: Kimberley French – © 2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved. THE REVENANT Motion Picture © 2015

Best Cinematography (13)

Ugh. Look, I like pretty pictures as much as anybody, but ‘Chivo’ has already won 2 consecutive Oscars, and his work on The Revenant proved more distracting than masterful. I much preferred the laid-back grain of Ed Lachman’s photography in Carol. Plus, lots of soft focus to increase the romantic tension.

Will Win: Emmanual Lubezki, The Revenant

Should Win: Ed Lachman, Carol

 

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Foreign Language Film (18)

Son of Saul has been picking up a ridiculous amount of hype and awards buzz since mutterings of its power escaped the festival circuit early last year. Plus, it’s a Holocaust tale, and y’all should know how much the Academy loves that subject matter.

*Note that I haven’t seen any of the nominees yet, as foreign releases are negligible outside of the big, big cities (LA and NY), and Saul won’t see the silver screen in MI until March 4th. This is all gut instinct based on patterns in other award circuits. This is why there is no “should win” below. I feel I haven’t seen enough to make a confident choice.

Will Win: Son of Saul

spotlightOriginal (14) +Adapted Screenplay (15)bgshrt

Another tough call. Typically, the Best Picture winner will pick up its assigned screenplay award, as with the case of the last few ceremonies. However, this is not always the case, as neither Million Dollar Baby nor The Artist picked up a screenplay award the night they won big.

 

In terms of original work, the Straight Outta Compton script could pick up the win as a peace-offering from the Academy for the #OscarsSoWhite debacle. But, Spotlight is the clear-cut victor of the bunch, seeing as it is neck and neck with The Revenant for the big prize. And Ex Machina gets a sympathy nomination knowing it won’t win anything. Cursed anti-science fiction Academy voters.

 

In the realm of Adapted work, critics and audiences have shown a lot of love for Brooklyn, the little movie that could, which could manifest into it’s only award of the evening. On the other hand, The Big Short had one of those scripts that was equally nutty and rage-inducing in all the right ways. Plus, Drew Goddard’s clever writing made The Martian the box office smash of the third quarter of 2015. This is a literal crapshoot, but with unbelievably high-quality pigeons.

Original, Will Win: Spotlight // Should Win: Ex Machina

^Should’ve Been Nominated: CREED

Adapted, Will Win: The Big Short // Should Win: Brooklyn

Best Supporting Actress (7)

Photo by Francois Duhamel - © 2015 Universal Pictures
Photo by Francois Duhamel – © 2015 Universal Pictures

Another one I am truly torn on for different reasons. As I explained in a previous editorial, Alicia Vikander is only nominated for The Danish Girl because she was the best part of the cursed flick. She played a much more interesting character and delivered a perfectly nuanced performance in Ex Machina, but alas the Academy voters are still wholly anti-genre films, so no dice there.

 

In addition, Kate Winslet has been picking up mucho praise for her work in Steve Jobs; she even picked up the Golden Globe and was honestly shocked. This category, along with Best Picture, could go either way.

Will Win: Kate Winslet, Steve Jobs

Should’ve Been Nominated: Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina

Creed_poster

Best Supporting Actor (23)

For the longest time, it seemed like Mark Rylance’s quiet spy from Bridge of Spies was the easy choice, but Sly Stallone is another one of those inevitable picks that only became apparent to me once the Golden Globes hit. When Sly picked up the Globe, there was a standing ovation. If that’s not a guaranteed in for Sly, I don’t know if such a thing exists.

 

Add in the fact that his performance is one of his personal best up there with his work in the seminal Rocky as well as his turn in James Mangold’s Cop Land. His Rocky Balboa is aged, but not down and out quite yet. Stallone’s journey through Hollywood has been a fascinating one, and it’s time he was rewarded for sticking the landing in such a graceful way.

Will+Should Win: Sylvester Stallone, Creed

Should’ve Been Nominated: Jacob Tremblay, Room

^+Steve Carell, The Big Short

Best Actress (16)room_xxlg-500x500

Brie Larson is, along with Leo and Sly, a shoo-in for her award.

 

She brings a true gravitas that speaks of her patience in the Hollywood landscape so far, and her role as ‘Ma’ was a star-making performance like nothing else offered to the Academy this year.

 

Now, that is not to say I wouldn’t be disappointed to see Saorise Ronan grab something for her delightful turn in Brooklyn. Both are equally deserving.

 

Will Win: Brie Larson, Room

 

Should Win: Brie Larson or Saorise Ronan, Brooklyn

 

Should’ve Been Nominated: Charlize Theron, Mad Max: Fury Road

Best Actor (24, Guaranteed)

revenant_0Leo has finally got his Oscar, all for scowling over 2-½ hours.

 

11 years too late, as well.

sigh-

Will Win: Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant

Should Win: I dunno. . .Fassbender?

Should Have Been Nominated: Michael Keaton, Spotlight

Good ol' Georgie
Good ol’ Georgie

Best Director (9)

My dubious research into the depths of Oscar predictions gave me one significant bright spot/potential upset: George Miller will win Best Director.

At first I was in shocked denial, but then I thought on it more. The Academy loves to hand out career awards, and for once, this could work in ol’ Georgie’s favor. He’s been pulling his weight for nearly 40 years in the business after coming to it from being an emergency surgeon. And this career achievement award would coincide with his greatest, most impressive directorial work since Mad Max 2/The Road Warrior. Plus, AMPAS could see his effort as pulling off what Linklater did with Boyhood last year, with all his struggles, genius choices, and smart editing shining through his action-packed opus. Thank the Academy for that small relief.

Will+SHOULD Win: George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road

Should’ve Been Nominated: Sir Ridley Scott, The Martian

+Alex Garland, Ex Machina

and finally:

 

~BEST PICTURE~ (6)

All right, let’s get this outta the way at the start:

© 2015 Paramount Pictures.
© 2015 Paramount Pictures.

My two favorites, Brooklyn and Fury Road, don’t have a chance at the top prize, unless the Big Three Choices split the vote, like what happened with Crash back in 2006. Frankly, that would delight me, but I’m gonna be safe and narrow it down from the Big Three: Spotlight, The Revenant, and The Big Short.

Of the three, The Big Short has been picking up the most momentum since it was a surprise Golden Globe nominee. It also won the Producer’s Guild Award, but that is it so far. It could be the surprise winner that takes the audience off-guard, having built up speed over the holiday and corresponding awards season.

The heavy hitter out of the gate is The Revenant, having won the BAFTA (British equivalent of the Oscar), the Director’s Guild Award, the Golden Globe for Best Drama, and numerous others. But, it has no script nomination, and no film has won Best Picture without a screenplay nomination since Titanic in 1998.

© 2015 Open Road Films
© 2015 Open Road Films

Spotlight is the tried-and-true pick of the trio, having won the SAG Award for Best Ensemble, the Gotham Award for Best Film, the Critic’s Choice Award, and the Satellite Award for Best Motion Picture. Its cast is legendary, its script has been lauded all over, and the direction was exceptional, considering the director previously made the universally-hated Adam Sandler vehicle, The Cobbler.

Taking all of this into account, here’s how I narrowed it down. Bridge of Spies leaves no noticeable impression upon viewing, it’s outta here! Room is out due to story structure problems I mentioned in my review. The Martian proved to be a crowd-pleasing box-office smash, but the Academy is still notoriously and inexplicably anti-science fiction. My beloved Fury Road is just too weird for the old fogies of the Academy, so I’m resting on it picking up six other awards. Brooklyn is the quiet innocent among the cutthroat Oscar race, so it’s doomed from the start. On top of all that hype, I’m knocking out The Revenant due to superstition over that phantom screenplay, and plus Alejandro already won big last year.

Between Spotlight and The Big Short, my gut tells me to go with Spotlight, seeing as the Academy could give it to make up for snubbing All the President’s Men way back in ’76 (which lost to Rocky, humorously enough). Though, my subconscious instinct tells me that The Big Short could be the troublemaker that flips the night on its head.

Who knows anyway? We shall see, Sunday evening. Until then, Witness Me!!

Will Win: Spotlight, I guess.

What I Want to Win: Brooklyn // Mad Max: Fury Road

Most Potential to Upset: The Big Short

Oscarwatch 2015: Bridge of Spies VS Carol

brett_wiesenauerOf all the Oscar nominees, Bridge of Spies is the one I’ve been dreading writing about the most. My feelings on the latest Spielberg drama are complicated, due to my internal struggles to classify it by that terrible, outdated binary distinction of it being a “good movie” or a “bad movie”. It’s almost as if my inner film snob is trying to strangle itself, Dr. Strangelove-style.

In terms of technical craft, it is fine.

But I don’t talk technicals in my reviews. I talk about emotions, characters, stories, images, concepts, and interesting and memorable events. And when the first thing that comes to mind after a STEVEN SPIELBERG MOVIE of all things is the technical craft, the alarms start to go off. This is a director whose whole of his image is based in his innate ability to play the audience like the orchestra, swelling emotions like string sections under the hand of maestro John Williams. And yet, here is a film that left me feeling… nothing.

Bridge of Spies.... not even once.
Brett watches Bridge of Spies….

I walked out of the movie acutely aware that a craftsman, whom I have respected as an artist for years, had tried to manipulate my feelings for the characters and story before me, and he failed hard. Like the far, far worse The Danish Girl, I find that the more I think about it, the less I appreciate it. And I just loathed The Danish Girl from frame one save for Alicia Vikander, while initially I did try to defend some of the more troubling aspects of Bridge of Spies as soon as I viewed it before Christmas.

 

The acting is just unimpressive on the whole. Tom Hanks played his role as you’d expect Tom Hanks to play any role outside of the realm of the Wachowski siblings, and I didn’t care. Amy Ryan as his wife makes no significant impression, whatsoever. Alan Alda makes his rounds as still relevant older actor, yawn. The kid playing Francis Gary Powers, of the U-2 Spy incident, doesn’t make any sort of impact that he’s supposed to. Character actors come and go portraying various degrees of hostility, strong-arming, and intolerance that you’d expect from any message movie.

 

Of the whole cast of characters, the only one who makes a substantial impression is Academy Award-nominee Mark Rylance as the incriminated spy Rudolf Abel. In a movie filled with stuffy and stale archetypes, he brings a quiet precision to his character, sighing at the complexities of American justice systems prejudiced against any semblance of equality for his petty actions. The direction is where this movie falls short in terms of audience sympathy for the American characters, or any characters actually.

 

Granted, a good portion of the screenplay was at one point in the hands of the Joel and Ethan, the Coen Brothers. They bring a fast-paced banter to the story that certainly Bridge of Spies Launch One Sheetlifts it above uninvolving period drama and upgrades it to a level of ambition that is still mildly entertaining, just not successful in winning me over. That being said, classy banter does not a good movie make. Take for example the 1992 remake of the classic, low-budget noir Detour; that movie had an excellent hard-boiled script, but the actors just couldn’t handle it and the movie completely fails as thriller and drama. The difference between Bridge of Spies and Hail, Caesar is there were characters and situations that intrigued me in the latter, while I was nearly bored to tears in Spies.

 

The direction is where I realized just how unhappy I was with the movie. Spielberg tries on multiple occasions to grab on to emotions that were nonexistent on my end throughout. At the big trial, Tom Hanks makes a grand old speech for liberty and justice for all, and it lands with a hollow thud. I wasn’t swayed to his side as I should have been because I was already there. I believe in liberty and justice for all, this isn’t that ethically dubious, spy or no spy. Later on, we view youths in East Germany being gunned down as they attempt to cross the Berlin Wall. And again, it felt hollow. I felt like I was getting reheated outtakes from Schindler’s List, in a lesser package. I felt Spielberg simply going through the motions rather than making an honest effort.

The reason I mentioned technicals above is that, on paper, this film works fine. The editing, camera work, sound, music all do their jobs, but they overshadowed the lacking sense of story and investment/stakes. That is the sign of a truly flawed script and directorial duties. Trying to get involved in the storytelling and coming up empty save for “it looked nice, and sounded nice” is not the reaction this movie needed.

~Now let’s change gears and talk about a truly excellent movie that was snubbed in categories Bridge of Spies picked up.~

Carol is a much smaller scale movie than the latest Spielberg project, being the tale of a unique relationship ignited between an amateur photographer/full-time department store clerk and a married housewife. The film stars Rooney Mara of Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Social Network fame, alongside screen demigoddess Cate Blanchett, two-time Oscar-winner and patron saint of screen actors, whom audiences may recognize from the Lord of the Rings saga and The Monuments Men.

The story does concern itself with certain subjects that are still in contention throughout much of the United States. The unique relationship of mention is a close friendship that does evolve into lesbianism. The first hour is foreplay and character buildup for the ingénue Therese (pronounced Teh-rezz) and the lovely titular Carol Aird. The film doesn’t jump headlong into the intimacies of the bedroom, rather it explores the intimacies of female relationships in the early 1960s.

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The acting is utterly top-notch. Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara are radiant whenever they get a chance to steal the focus from Ed Lachman’s gorgeous photography. Also along for the narrative are Kyle Chandler as Harge, Carol’s estranged husband and Sarah Paulson as Carol’s best friend and confidante, Abby. The characters transcend their performers and take on actual existence on the screen, which is the goal of all great film performances. Under careful, consolidated direction from Todd Haynes, the cast work alongside one another, moving the story along at a good pace, keeping the performances front and center in tandem with the imagery and Carter Burwell’s ingenious scoring.

Seriously, the music is incredible. As much as I loved the thrilling tones of Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack to The H8ful Eight, I feel the score to Carol is so much more moving and deserving of recognition. The score is most certainly Mr. Burwell’s most Burwellian score, since Fargo at the least. The best way to describe it is an Adagio for Love as influenced by Phillip Glass. The strings and piano combine to form a perfect ode of nostalgia and melodrama, like one’s memory of a first love.

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Topping off my list of exquisite elements of Carol is the imagery, delivered through the lens of Oscar-nominated Ed Lachman. The film was shot on Super 16 millimeter film, exuding a sense of being shown a private stash of home movies. The generous amount of soft lighting and truly lush color adds to the dream-like quality of the pictures. I mentioned H8ful Eight previously, and I have to say, even with all of Tarantino’s grandstanding about his use of 70-mm film in that project, methinks this little film about love makes a better case for preservation of physical film elements than that film did in all of its bloated three hours.

Unlike Bridge of Spies, I was fully invested in the love story on-screen from the minute we are introduced to Carol and Therese. There wasn’t a single moment where I lost interest in what was unfolding between the lovers and struggled to reattach my attention to anything, be it a filmmaking or storytelling element. Through the emotional journey audiences are transported on, the romantic tension and surprising amount of dramatic involvement will catch audiences off guard.

See, Carol is going through a divorce over the course of the film, and her husband Harge does not approve of the relationship she initiates with young Therese. There is a single moment shortly past the halfway point where a betrayal takes place that truly puts the stakes of Carol’s marriage into focus. With such stakes present, the hardest of hearts will be hard-pressed to honestly say they can’t relate to Carol’s decisions, regardless of her lifestyle choices.

 

The Academy most ungraciously passed Carol over for Best Picture and Best Director. Initially, I felt Academy_Award_trophyshocked and disturbed by the omissions. But then I thought about the Academy’s history with LGBTQ projects and then it hit me. The previous projects of queer intrigue recognized by AMPAS all contained a significant arc of tragedy. Brokeback Mountain, The Imitation Game, Midnight Cowboy, Dallas Buyers Club, and Milk were nominated for Best Picture, but only Midnight Cowboy took home the statuette, and all ended poorly for their characters. The sole exception to this pattern being 2010’s The Kids are All Right, but since that was a comedy, which the Academy has a terrible history of overlooking, it received nothing for its efforts.

Carol is not by any means a tragedy; it is a tad harrowing at times, but the tone of the film is not one of “woe is me, for I am queer”. And actually, the focus is not on the genders, but on the romance, something more queer movies should take note of. It’s an update on the Romeo and Juliet story with the tragic bits replaced with that of 1950s and 60s high melodrama, which director Todd Haynes mastered previously in the Best Director-nominated Far from Heaven.

The point of it all is that instead of gracing a daring and matter-of-fact presentation of queer romance with well-earned recognition, the Academy went with the lazy, easy choice of nominating the old-hat, typical choice that only points to how outdated and out-of-sync the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are with increasingly progressive movie audiences. For an organization that previously gave big awards and recognition to the likes of 12 Years a Slave and Philadelphia, the Oscars seem to act more like they are filling thematic quotas rather than actively recognizing quality film efforts that just so happen to push boundaries.

HAIL, CAESAR: A Classy Throwback to Golden Age Tinseltown

brett_wiesenauerThe Brothers Coen, or Coen Brothers as most describe them, are back in the out-and-proud business of entertainment with a rambunctious ride of a comedy, in the vein of Raising Arizona and the cult phenomenon that is The Big Lebowski. Their latest, Hail, Caesar!, is a period piece/melodrama/screwball comedy hybrid that functions as a nostalgia-driven look back at the celebrated Golden Age of Hollywood that produced epics along the likes of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, as well as the cheesy, but classy musicals featuring Esther Williams, Gene Kelly, and that guitar-playing gaucho, Roy Rogers.

 

Our leading player, Eddie Mannix, played to worn perfection by Josh Brolin, is a “fixer”, a man whose talents are put to use sniffing out and snuffing out potential scandals before they happen. A typical day involves a morning confessional at church, on-the-run schedule dictation with his world-weary secretary, multiple phone calls with studio heads and big-wig power players to keep the films on schedule, and meetings with actors and directors to work out their personal gripes.

 

On this day of days, a big name leading male star is kidnapped from his trailer, and that’s only the beginning of the shenanigans. Not only does Eddie have to pay ransom money for his missing male lead, he also has to deal with a furious director unsatisfied with his actors’ abilities, a pregnant starlet whose image is dependent on the public not finding out about her previous marriages and mishaps, twin gossip columnists on the prowl for juicy scoops, and on top of all that, he still has to make it home in time for dinner with the wife.

Eddie Mannix, the 'fixer' (Josh Brolin) Source: twitter.com/HailCaesarMovie
Eddie Mannix, the ‘fixer’ (Josh Brolin) Source: twitter.com/hailcaesarmovie

 

This film gets how to make a complicated narrative interesting to unravel, and still navigable without a color-coded map of characters, partially because they already are by their costumes. The Hollywood players wear suits to work, the mermaid has a tail, the kidnapped lead looks like a cosplayer from ancient Rome, and the song-and-dance men are all gussied up in their sailor outfits.

 

The cast of characters is eccentric to say the least, with a sizable portion of the film put aside to detail the confusingly offbeat path set for one Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), prominent star of singing cowboy B-movies, who is suddenly thrust into a big and fancy, A-list prestige picture, complete with tuxes and tails. Doyle struggles to make do, but it’s obvious to all that he’s out of his element. But, a chance meeting with Eddie in his office leads to Hobie getting involved in tracking down the missing Baird Whitlock. Of all the key characters, Hobie is the only one truly intertwined with the kidnapped George Clooney story, unlike what the trailer sold to audiences: an all-star team-up of Scarlett Johansson, Channing Tatum, Tilda Swinton, and Jonah Hill to rescue George Clooney.

 

Many have accused the movie of being uneven and not unjustly so, as the film juggles many plot lines, mostly played for grins, dealing in sexy scandals, undercover communists, and kidnappings behind the scenes of a major Hollywood studio, Capitol Pictures. The story meanders around and jumps to different locations and character point of views as much as most rambling stories told to us by friends do. But, realistically, the changes in tone and pace make sense, as the main character is being escorted from problem to problem in the expectation that he can “fix” it with minimal trouble, but that’s not always the case.

 

One single, simple case of covering up an unwanted pregnancy ends up involving two trips to a law office to scope out legal solutions and a visit to a sound stage where the potential father is directing a musical sequence. Not all problems nowadays come in single events or day lengths. Some days, problems just proceed to pile on top of another until the poor schmo of problematic stature throws up his hands and reaches for the hooch. This is a filmed version of one of those days, and it’s being treated like it’s unbelievable fantasy. Harsh.

 

A particularly memorable sequence involves Eddie organizing a meet-up between local religious leaders to discuss whether the appearance of The Christ in the titular film would be considered tasteful by audiences of faith. “So a Protestant Minister, a Rabbi, an Orthodox Priest, and a full-blooded Catholic walk into a movie studio…”, you see where I’m going with this? The dialogue crackles with dry, witty barbs and argumentative personalities who just can’t agree on who The Christ was in context of the film, instead picking apart the stunts in the script for being “unbelievable”. It’s a really fun scene that makes the film feel heightened in hilarity, yet grounded in realistic human personalities. Late in the film, an actor, crucified on high, is asked whether he is a principal or extra by the lunch organizer. The actor wearily replies with uncertainty, as if to say even the cast doesn’t quite know what’s going on, which is a nice touch.Hail,_Caesar!_Teaser_poster

 

The movie itself looks fantastic. Roger Deakins, up for an Oscar this year for his haunting work on SICARIO (a vastly different Josh Brolin movie), brings a true touch of class to the proceedings, providing lush and vibrant recreations of Hollywood Old with a new twist. The cast plays well together, with not just the big established stars turning in great performances, from the likes of Clooney, Johannson, and Jonah Hill. The up-and-coming support shine through the action, with special mention to Alden Ehrenreich as the sure-footed cowpoke suddenly thrust into stardom. Besides Brolin and Clooney, not everyone else shares a lot of the screen time, with Brolin rushing from problem to problem and Clooney staring bewildered at his mischievously political captors from time to time. There’s a cute moment with Coen Bros. veteran Frances McDormand showing up as a chain smoking editor locked in a suite with her current project, the prestige picture that Hobie was thrust onto. But it is mostly a “hey, it’s [that actor]” kinda movie, with two kind of central characters navigating a never-ending pool of eccentrics.

 

Hail, Caesar! is a worthy addition to the Coen catalogue of manic and truly original works that straddle genre boundaries and don’t care if the audience can keep up with its brand of joyful noise. It rockets along at a gleeful pace and just packs in the homages to everything from Anchors Aweigh to Ben-Hur. I have a feeling this could be the Grand Budapest Hotel of 2016; it comes out early, entertains the crowds, and silently pokes its head up around Oscar season to snag some Oscar nominations later in the year.

 

If you are in the mood for a jolly old time revisiting the tone and imagery of Hollywood Classics of old, this movie will thoroughly entertain. If you are in a No Country for Old Men mood, you best stay home and watch the Coen’s version of True Grit, or the bleaker Josh Brolin movie, SICARIO.

Oscarwatch 2015: ROOM

brett_wiesenauerOf the Academy Award nominees out and about this season, Brooklyn and Room are the two that are fighting against the bigger tent-pole projects that the studios are hedging their bets on, solidified with big budgets, big names attached, and saucy subject matter that grabs attention easily. The smaller projects have more to prove with tighter stories, up-and-coming talent, and much less promotional material compared to studio powerhouses such as The Big Short and The Revenant. This is not to say “big studios are undeserving”, but indie movies have to struggle in order to earn their own awards and accolades.

room-exclusive-clip
Jacob Tremblay and Brie Larson, a boy and his “Ma”

 

Alongside Brooklyn, Room is seemingly the movie to beat when it comes to the Best Actress race. With Room, the film concerns Jack, played with hesitant wonder by the young Jacob Tremblay, and his “Ma” (Brie Larson), who live in “Room”, a very small enclosure somewhere on the property of their guardian “Old Nick”. Jack has just turned 5 and celebrates with exercise and a birthday cake. Unbeknownst to Jack, “Ma” is not a willing resident of Old Nick. She was kidnapped by Nick over 7 years before, who impregnated her with Jack. The only thing that keeps Ma, whose real name is Joy, around is her undying love for her child. Since Nick has fortified the garden shed where they are kept with a special pair of doors that only open when Nick is around, Joy comes clean to Jack about the world that lies outside the shed where they are trapped. Jack, who has only known the “Room” all his life, doesn’t believe her and “wants to hear a different story”.

 

[(SPOILERS AHEAD)] In a last-ditch effort to escape, Joy comes up with a dangerous plan to fake Jack’s death and when Nick takes the boy’s body out, Jack can find the authorities to help. By the luck of a careful pedestrian, the effort succeeds, and after a brief stint in the hospital, the two are deposited at Joy’s mother’s house where they are descended upon by journalists. The remainder of the film deals with Joy and Jack coming to terms with life outside of the “Room”, and how they both deal with the new outside forces that neither of them had any intention of attracting. [(SPOILERS END)]

 

Like plenty of the other nominees, the key strength of the movie is in the performances rather than Lenny Abrahamson’s direction or storyline. Frankly, the story is glorified Lifetime channel movie material, literally ripped-from-the-headlines, as Emma Donoghue’s seminal book that she adapted herself for the screen was based on a lurid case of kidnapping that’s actually even more disturbing than the novel and movie are.

 

The director’s previous film was the delightfully offbeat musical comedy Frank about a band led by the eccentric titular character, dressed in a paper-mâché mask/head. In jumping to hard-hitting drama, Mr. Abrahamson is most certainly attempting to broadcast a talent for handling all types of movies, comic and dramatic. Granted, this is his 5th feature film, according to Wikipedia.

 

Brie Larson is a pillar of resilience in Room. Having done her time in the romantic comedies and bit parts in Big Hollywood movies, she has been biding her time, waiting for something to grab and make her own. And with 2013’s indie darling Short Term 12 and Room, she has made her presence known to the Hollywood establishment at large. That being said, she has a genre-spanning career, having appeared alongside Amy Schumer last year in Trainwreck, as a smoldering ex in Scott Pilgrim vs The World, and with Ma Newsome under her belt, she’s made it clear her acting prowess is something to behold.

 

Ma is memorable because of her balance of strength and vulnerability. Every scene is a balancing act along the lines of her keeping her mind sharp and being there for little Jack. Her skin reflects the pallor of one who has had no view of the sun for years, her eyes water constantly, but she keeps a smile on to ensure her son’s safe rearing and both of their survivals. In her dulled eyes are the personality of a woman near the breaking point, risking it all on a last ditch attempt for survival. Like Hugh Glass in The Revenant, she has moments where she breaks, but it is brief and never the real focus of the story, since at the heart, this is Jack’s tale.

 

Jacob Tremblay is a marvel as Jack, the precocious, yet exploratory child that’s yet to experience the world and its grand offerings. Many critics have complained of the irritating shrillness given by Jack at times, and those people obviously have no idea how children actually act out. Children are not just packages of smiles and laughs, not properly brought up children anyway. There is variance in their moods and behaviors. much like adults, but their emotions have more extreme poles of expression. And Tremblay nails the portrayal of a boy who, while possibly stunted, is still learning about the world and willing to explore, with his Ma of course.

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The film is not without detracting elements. The first half of the film is a closed off thriller, and the second half talky drama about feelings and experiences. These two halves don’t mesh very well as a whole product, and it’s not the fault of the director or the writer. It just feels off, and they tried to make it work. The best way I can explain it is you feel like you’re connected to these characters for the first half by umbilical, but after that passes, that connection is weakened due to the decrease in stakes. But on the bright side, Abrahamson has assembled a fine cast for support, including character actors Joan Allen and William H. Macy as Joy’s parents, worried beyond sick over the years of her imprisonment. Orphan Black cast member Tom McCamus adds solid support as Leo, Joan Allen’s new husband after separating from Joy’s father, finding moments to connect with young Jack over food and dogs.

 

To conclude, Room is a flawed film anchored by 2 stellar lead performances and a solid cast and script. While it won’t remain revered as a classic example of 2015 filmmaking, it is certainly worth a watch.

UICA Showcasing Oscar Shorts

brett_wiesenauerIn coordination with my Oscarwatch series, I decided to throw some recognition towards that little theater in town that is taking part in Oscar season by showing the films that not everyone typically gets to see.

 

Today, the subject is short films, an often overlooked style of filmmaking too often dismissed by typical audiences as not worth their time unless the Disney logo is plastered on the front of it. That is a shame, since there are many talented people out there whose livelihoods thrive on the 45 minutes and under length of storytelling. Some stories just work better in bite size form, which many of Hollywood’s star producers and directors could take some lessons from.

 

The Urban Institute for Contemporary Art (UICA for short), located on Fulton and Division in downtown GR, is taking the time to showcase the Oscar nominated shorts this year, three categories split into four programming blocks. The programs consist of the animated, live action, and two sets of documentary short films deemed worth of recognition by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, along with the Shorts Channel (ShortsHD). The programming shows Tuesdays thru Sundays through March 3rd, with at least 2 showings per day, sometimes more.

we-cant-live-without-cosmos
The Russian nominee WE CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT COSMOS

 

I personally went to see the animation selections with a small group over the weekend and was not disappointed. The program included the 5 nominees as well as 3 honorable mentions, all of which were unique in their own right. I even thought one of the honorable mentions was better than a couple of the nominees. The program lasted about 90-95 minutes, and the best thing about the UICA is that like other theaters, they pad out the first five minutes with trailers and advertisements, so if you get caught in traffic, you won’t miss the important bits.

 

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Poster for WORLD OF TOMORROW

Up for Animated Short this year are five shorts spread out across three continents and four countries, showcasing many different cultural perspectives. Bear Story, the submission from Chile, details a day in the life of a pauperish animal, who struggles to eke out living as a performer. The Russian entry, We Can’t Live Without Cosmos, is set during the glory days of the cosmonauts, exploring the relationship between two best friends who pass through Russia’s space program, hoping to make their country proud. The United Kingdom entry, Prologue, from the lauded animator behind the legendary unfinished project The Thief and the Cobbler/Arabian Knight and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, shows the anxiety and brutal chaos of a battle between two pairs of warriors in ancient Greece.

 

The PIXAR submission, Sanjay’s Super Team, deals in Hindu heritage and lore while giving nods, as evidenced in the title, to American superhero mythologies. The American independent darling, World of Tomorrow, narrates the inter-spatial meeting between a precocious young girl and her third-generation clone from over 200 years in the future, with a droll, goofy heart alongside morbid philosophizing on what the future holds in store for humanity.

 

All the shorts are certainly worth viewing, especially for the value of seeing them theatrically in downtown Grand Rapids of all places. Be warned, there is a viewer discretion break for young viewers after the fourth entry, as the fifth entry, Prologue, is a very violent and graphic depiction of an grisly battle scene. Luckily, the program does pad itself with 3 honorable mentions before that film. This goes to show that not all animation is kid-oriented, as most of the general public is due to find out.

 

Tickets are available at the UICA front desk, cost is $4 for UICA members, $8 for non-members. For showtime specifics, visit http://www.uica.org/movies

Brett the Wiese Champions the Un-Nominated Awards Contenders

brett_wiesenauerBrett’s Personal Picks: Championing the Un-Nominated

It is awards season, so I just gotta give some love to the flicks that the big Tinseltown award parades passed by, undeservedly so. Here be the nominations that Hollywood messed up, plain and simple.

Achievement in Sound Editing: Love and Mercy

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As much as I adored the hellish machinations of the sound crew on FURY ROAD, I choose to champion the smaller movie that got absolutely no love at the Globes or the Oscars. Love and Mercy, the Brian Wilson biopic, was a truly engrossing and emotional journey through the life experience of the boy genius behind the Beach Boys. Paul Dano, John Cusack, Elizabeth Banks, and Paul Giamatti were great performers in the film, but the highlight was the sound score. Not simply the music, but the soundscapes that emulate the inner workings of Wilson’s musical intuition that permeates the movie like an anarchic blanket that constantly buzzes, hums, throbs, and rattles over and under the action. It provided a perfect aural compliment to the musical charms and the emotional peaks and valleys that were presented over the course of the film’s length. By all means look for this one. I’m sorry to have missed it in theaters.

Best Production Design +Costume Design, Crimson Peak

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The artists who land the gig of working for Guillermo del Toro are among the most blessed individuals working in the industry, exponentially moreso than Kirk Cameron can claim to be. The settings and properties even outside of the massive mansion are dripping with period specificity. The film reeks of both Hammer horror and Victorian Sears Roebuck catalogue. Taking the horror elements out of the discussion, the film just looks right. The halls are as spooky as what you’d expect of a creepy mansion. The cities look classy, yet still natural without too much whitewashing of the presence of little things like mud and clay. And the costuming is simply superb, all threads looking lived in and actually wearable unlike those that Disney has it’s feminine characters clad in. It is a delight to see a slight case of naturalism injected into costuming, because your brain tends to flag things that just don’t look right in costuming, but Guillermo and his staff are already way ahead of that curve. I really need to own The Art of Darkness, the concept art book where I got the image from.

 

Best Supporting Actress of the Year: TIE Jessica Chastain, Crimson Peak + Alicia Vikander, Ex Machinacp-xm

 

Both actresses had busy years, with Chastain pulling in double duty with Ridley Scott’s The Martian, and Vikander having the busy year to rival Ex Machina co-star Domhnall Gleeson, with roles in The Man from U.N.C.L.E., The Danish Girl, and Ex Machina. While Ms. Vikander is nominated for an Oscar for Danish Girl, I will argue to the last day that she was nominated for the wrong role, much like Leo is going to win for the wrong role. She only stood out in Danish Girl because her level of talent and ability was too good for that incredibly hollow and lackluster movie. I will say that she is an adorable dancer, though.

 

On the other hand, Chastain was the stand-out of the ensemble of Guillermo del Toro’s ode to gothic romance and ghost stories, exhibiting a mad tenacity reminiscent of the golden age of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford that some might call “scenery-chewing”, but I refer to as insanely entertaining acting. Every time Chastain’s Lucille Sharpe appeared on screen, all eyes are immediately on her, for fear if you don’t pay close attention she’ll sneak up and whisk you off to oblivion. Both actresses sent chills down my spine in an age when most movies are lucky to get someone pretty in them that can read lines with half-decent conviction. Alas, no one listens to the court jester when the enemies are at the gate. They’ll learn eventually.

Best Supporting Actor of the Year: Tom Hardy, Mad Max FURY ROAD

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*Most probably expect me to go with Benicio del Toro in recognition of his harrowing turn in SICARIO, and while I did admire Benicio’s work, I take into account that he’s already won an Oscar before. My specialty is supporting those who have not yet been recognized; on that note, Tom Hardy!

Mister Hardy has proven to be a force of nature on-set, off-set, and online. And as with Vikander above, he is nominated for The Revenant. But I will argue he is actually more deserving for carrying the torch from Mel Gibson rather well in portraying “Mad” Max Rockatansky. He still has the anti-social ticks, the subdued to the point of repressed emotional responses, and the animalistic swagger that made Mad Max well and truly mad in all senses of the wording. Most viewers will tell you, Max is very much a supporting presence in the movie, though still important nonetheless. His name may be on the title but it could have easily been called simply FURY ROAD, had the bean-counters at Warner Brothers not insisted on name-dropping the franchise because why treat your audience like they are smart when you can double down and bet on the unintelligent flocking to your movie like sheep? Funny, CREED seemed to draw in crowds without Rocky Balboa’s name on the marquee…

One of the most memorable aspects of Miller’s epic action-fest was the smaller moments dealing with Max’s internal demons, taking form of a type of post-traumatic stress disorder, accentuating the times that he’s failed to save others from the dangers of the unruly Wasteland. These moments could easily have been throwaway moments, but they build to payoff after emotional payoff that only confirm the solidarity of Georgie’s storytelling and the wonderful dramatic presence that is Tom Hardy, Esquire. As good as Fitzgerald turned out in Alejandro’s brutally bloated take on the western, without Hardy or a similar Nick Nolte level of performer, the character would have simply come and gone as a decent villain archetype. Max needed proper and considered care in order to translate properly into a new generation, and Miller and Hardy undoubtedly succeeded in giving him that.

 Best Screenplay: CREED, Ryan Coogler & Aaron Covington

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People went into CREED expecting only the bare essentials of a Rocky-caliber movie, and most crowds came out shocked and pumped. Coogler and his partner-in-crime Covington didn’t falter in keeping the spirit of Rocky Balboa’s Philadelphia alive, while infusing it with a fresh and culturally diverse perspective that is lacking in too much of the current Hollywood fare. He acknowledges the past work while ushering in a sense of new directions for the denizens of Philly. The opening scene alone deserves a mention for never stepping to the level of cheese or corny revelations that Stallone may have infused it with had he directed or written it. Nothing against Sly, but his writing style would not have meshed well with what Coogler was trying to convey in CREED.

Best Actress: Charlize Theron, Mad Max FURY ROAD

furThe Academy has always had a problem with recognizing exceptional performances in genre films. The only exceptions have been in such films that have art-house origins, typically in their director, such as in the case of that little science fiction called G R A V I T Y a couple years ago. Charlize Theron truly owns FURY ROAD hand in hand with the visionary director George Miller. Her Furiosa marches, fights, and screams like a primal being from the tribal days. She is the main driving force of the story line. Furiosa’s sense of maternal anguish over the women in her care and the obstacles she has to hurdle are palpable just by a glimpse of her eyes and body language. She tries to keep it together, but she has moments of wavering, and it is devastating each and every time. It doesn’t hurt that she is also the legendary Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley levels of badass, coincidentally an Oscar-nominated performance. <– The More You Know

 

Point is, you don’t mess with Charlize Theron, period. I know she’s already won an Oscar as well, but her work as Furiosa was an exceptional performance that redefines the scope of action heroine. She transcends the mere confines of action cinema and becomes an key emotional center for the film, alongside the Wives she protects, with her mechanical arm.

Best Actor: Michael B. Jordan, CREED

creed07576-dngOf all the snubs that the Oscars could easily have avoided if they had made the effort, this one stings the most. Michael B. Jordan has been working his way up the figurative Hollywood ladder for a few years now, and unfortunately his 2015 resume was stained by the flop of Fant4stic, which certain critics, whose voice does not matter, will blame on the diverse casting of Johnny Storm in part. Frankly, an actor paired with a horrible script and sub-par direction is doomed to appear incompetent. With CREED, Jordan reunites with Ryan Coogler who directed him in his freshman effort, Fruitvale Station. And Jordan brings all the emotions to the forefront in his portrayal of the illegitimate offspring of legendary boxer Apollo Creed. Young Adonis has some abandonment issues, struggles with his personal anger and loneliness, and is not at all the gold-hearted bum like Rocky Balboa. And it never paints him as a jerk, with all his problems. He’s troubled, but not a bully. And that’s just what CREED needed in its protagonist.

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Best Director: Ryan Coogler, CREED

As mentioned previously, Coogler’s handling of the Rocky universe really blindsided audiences and critics alike. As with his scripting, he keeps the material fresh through his kinetic sense of storytelling that hurdles over cliches like the pavement Adonis speeds down in training. The choices of direction shine within, never overshadowing the material like Alejandro’s visionary flourishes tend to in the likes of previous Best Picture BiRDMAN. He handles the camera similar to how Michigan-native Sam Raimi directed The Evil Dead in 1980, directing as if this was his last chance, though Coogler never strives into the extravagant as Raimi most likely would have. There are a few long takes in CREED, but they feel right for the narrative and don’t cry out for attention like certain directors would make them. They function more like fun Easter eggs that add to film lovers’ enjoyments on re-watches. Coogler was overlooked for Fruitvale Station back in 2013 and now it’s happened again. I hope this isn’t a shoddy pattern you’re starting, Academy.

Best Animated Feature: The PEANUTS Movie

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I know I gave Inside Out a glowing review back in the day, and I do stand by that it is a marvelous comeback for PIXAR Animation. But, upon rewatch, several character and narrative flaws became evident that I was too starstruck to notice the first couple times I saw the film. That being said, the lifelong Charles Schulz fan in me will not stop promoting this gem of a film that was overlooked in favor of the PIXAR powerhouse, another example of how Disney just has the Oscars in their pocket. This film gets childhood like Inside Out gets mental development. But PEANUTS deals with interpersonal relations, carrying itself with good humor, fun for all ages to enjoy, and truly unpredictable aerial battles that give every recent war movie a run for its money. What makes me push for its recognition even more so is Blue Sky’s charming update of the classic PEANUTS animation style. The animation kept the style classic enough to keep audiences recognizing the classic characters, updating it but never pushing into the uncanny valley like PIXAR and Disney has been notable at fumbling into. All this present in a movie that at its heart is about a boy and his dog. What a film.

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Best Comedy: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

 

Yes, yes. Trainwreck was surprisingly good considering the track record of Judd Apatow and co., and it undoubtedly was the most popular comedy at the box office this year, but this is not a measurement of the popular picks. This is a subjective article on what some pudgy, Caucasian film snob from the Midwest thought of the cinematic year. That said, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is like a lost Wes Anderson coming-of-age film set in a high school filled to the brim with teens at the peak of their inherent awkwardness. This story of a socially misanthropic amateur filmmaker who befriends a leukemia-stricken classmate is told with the goofiest of hearts and honest themes that grip your heartstrings and takes no prisoners. Beware of films with “thematic elements”; those are the flicks that’ll give y’all the feels. And your cheeks will be very teary by close, thanks in part to the humor and the great characters you feel for.

 Best Horror Film: Crimson Peak

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The absolute best thing about watching Crimson Peak is the sense of detail and history that the director and his crew infuse everything with. Every set dressing feels real and like it was plucked from the best preserved Edwardian-era home on Long Island. Every costume breathes and ruffles appropriately without looking like it was just picked up from the local Kostume Room. The mood seeps through the celluloid and drips into your bones, like a harsh wind that subtly makes its way across the countryside. The cast glides through the brilliantly composed settings like specters of an age gone by. The sounds that reverberate down the cavernous halls of Allerdale Hall are super effective, like ice chips in homemade ice cream. And now every critic supreme will jump down my throat, demanding to know why It Follows, the obvious pick, isn’t sitting atop this title. Meanwhile, I’ll be enjoying myself just revisiting another Guillermo-helmed meisterwerk. More for me.

Best Science Fiction: Ex Machina

 

Ixm15 will never get the Academy’s attitude against the science fiction and fantasy genre, as I’m sure there is a dedicated group petitioning for The Force Awakens to be nominated simply for not being disappointing as the previous entries. But this little film from the writer of the acclaimed zombie actioner 28 Days Later and bloody superhero reboot DREDD (a personal favorite of mine) stunned all with its lurking sense of curious anxiety. As the protagonist further studies Ava, the artificial intelligence created by an arrogant software baron, he comes to question his own station in life and the hierarchy of first-world humanity and the toys they create. Long story short, the film makes you think about the world we live in by making us slightly uncomfortable with the advances we are making in technology. Alicia Vikander is perfect as Ava, Domhnall Gleeson makes a great protagonist, and Oscar Isaac is also a likable sleaze as the carefree whizkid who plays God with his circuit boards and “wetware” android brains. The film’s pretty neo/post-modern architecture adds to the isolation of the mood, and director Alex Garland’s ingenious scripting just tightens the screws until the audience has no choice but to squirm.

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Best Drama/Best Picture: Carol

 

Undoubtedly the biggest missed opportunity of this year’s award nominations, apparent racial discrimination aside. This small-scale romance about the affair between an affluent, but troubled mother and a department store ingenue was a perfect theatrical experience. The performances from screen goddesses Blanchett and Rooney Mara, plus roles by cult favorite Sarah Paulson, and television’s Kyle Chandler were spot-on and heartfelt, never straying into one- or two-dimensional caricature. The imagery was lustrous and just stunning from frame one. The music was the most ingeniously Burwellian thing Mr. Carter Burwell has ever composed. And to top it all off, the film is the perfect length. I can’t think of a single extraneous scene or situation that needed trimming. It is so rare to find a film that doesn’t overstay its welcome in the age of 3-hour length Transformers sequels and pretty but overblown Oscar-bait. If you haven’t yet, by all means see this movie before it disappears. CAROL deserves the big screen appreciation.

 And, for the pièce de résistance:

Best Stuntwork, Mad Max FURY ROAD

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What gives Academy? You have been flaking out on stunt performers for decades, and they actually made several of your movies classics. John Ford’s Stagecoach is legendary for the climactic chase with the Apaches, with guns a’smokin’ and performers leaping off and flying off horses. The Matrix owes its success solely to its originality in its stunt-work. Jason fricking Statham has been lobbying for recognition for stunt performers for years, and y’all just sit there pouting, refusing to acknowledge the people who actually risk their fragile well-beings for the sake of your entertainment. I anxiously await the day all the out-of-touch troglodytes are shuffled out of the system and we can retroactively give these people the respect and honor that the SAG Awards can manage to recognize, but the Hollywood Foreign Press and AMPAS are too self-centered to honor. Take my advice and don’t look both ways when crossing the street, you ungrateful snobs.

CREED: The Best Picture Not Recognized

brett_wiesenauerAmong the many films up for Academy Awards at the end of this month, there has been minor uproar over the lack of colored persons nominated for anything at all in the major categories. I briefly discussed my thoughts in my review of that hollowed out DiCaprio frontier vehicle. And again I iterate, this could have been easily resolved on two fronts: I- Giving Straight Outta Compton a Best Picture nomination for the sake of appeasing the crowds who flocked to it. II- Give Creed a Best Director and Best Actor nomination.

 

Now, to be fair, I had only read opinions at the time on the latest Rocky Balboa-verse installment. But, I had not yet seen the film to adequately surmise its merits.And I am here to stand by those words as I have now seen Creed, and I must say I did not expect to enjoy it nearly as much as I did. Not to say I expected to dislike it, not at all. But over the years of viewing the Rocky Balboa franchise, I never was truly struck with the story of the boxing worlds greatest underdog, aside from the classic first entry. The first two movies are considered classics in their own right, telling Rocky Balboa’s tale with care and tenderness, but quickly devolved into silly, showy camp once Stallone took over directing duties, starting with ROCKY III. True, he has been the one behind the writing and conception of the character, but sometimes creators need a bit of distance between their darlings and them.

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Sly Stallone, the brains and brawn behind Rocky Balboa

 

The exception to the silliness was the seeming conclusion to the franchise, 2006’s Rocky Balboa, where the tone was much more morose and Lazarus-esque, with Rocky having lost his wife to cancer in between the last movie and had truly retired from the world of prize-fighting to be a restaurateur. The sixth entry had a tone much closer to the initial film, focusing on Balboa’s relationships to old friends and his family rather than the outlandish fight situations he manages to land himself in. True, there was a fight at the center of the picture, but the story was much more based in Rocky recognizing his paternal relations with his son and the one he has with his community at large. Seemingly, Stallone was content with retiring Balboa with that entry, ending it with a sense of grace not too common in today’s big and bombastic film community.

 

Ryan Coogler had other ideas, apparently. And with Creed, he injects fresh vitality into the weathered Rocky Balboa universe. Instead of remaking the original film as any other director or studio would have happily done, Coogler takes the risk of telling a side story, one taking place in the same shared universe and community of a franchise, but focusing on entirely new characters with connective appearances by key characters from the original franchise, in this case the only living in-universe lead, Rocky himself.creed

 

The new film focuses on young Adonis “Donnie” Johnson (Michael B. Jordan, Fant4stic, Fruitvale Station), illegitimate son of Rocky’s sparring partner Apollo Creed, who was killed in the ring during the events of Rocky IV. Johnson grew up in and out of foster care, until finally being discovered as a pre-teen by Creed’s wife, Mary Anne, and taken in to her home. As an adult, he nurtures a talent in the ring, and leaves for Philadelphia when L.A. refuses his services. He connects with Rocky Balboa at his restaurant over Creed’s memory and eventually Balboa comes to appreciate the fiery fighting man. Adonis starts romancing a local songstress and starts to train for small-time events to hone his skills. After his parentage is revealed in the aftermath of his first showcase, an opportunity comes to Johnson for a major headlining fight against world light heavyweight champion “Pretty” Ricky Conlan, where Adonis hopes to go the distance, as Balboa did in the initial Rocky.

 

Once upon a time, George Lucas infamously said of his Star Wars series, “it’s like poetry, they sort of rhyme” in reference to recurring plot developments and action set pieces. Now, The Force Awakens has received reasonable amounts of criticism for seemingly rehashing the storyline of much of the original STAR WARS for a multitude of its plot and structure. Arguably, Creed could be seen to suffer from the same problem, but here’s the thing that prevents me from calling both films lazy: differences in approach and the journey itself. In Episode VII, JJ Abrams had to keep the grounds familiar to fans of the franchise while taking baby steps in a different direction for the franchise, which he did.

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Creed starts out a wholly different creature from the Rocky franchise as possible, a study of a young man struggling to make a name for himself doing what he enjoys and has a knack for. While Adonis does not quite have the ability to take punishment like Rocky could in his prime, he does have a constantly sensitive rage boiling underneath his seemingly zen demeanor. His is a story about finding and nurturing your talents with the right supervision, much like the original Rocky, with nods to Balboa in Creed acting as mentor to “Donnie” as Burgess Meredith’s Mickey did originally. As mentioned, there are parallels in this film, with the long shot chance to prove his worth being the most obvious, along with the rigorous training ol’ Rock puts Johnson through while Donnie simultaneously finds love with Bianca, a level-headed musician played with compassion by up-and-comer Tessa Thompson.

 

Most audiences and Academy patrons would write this film off as a Stallone comeback vehicle alone that just happens to continue with a black protagonist, but that is being unfair and cynical. Rocky has had comebacks before, and so has Stallone, proving his dramatic chops with choice titles such as Cop Land and First Blood. This movie does give Rocky a choice role, but he is not the focal point. If there is one, it’s shared by both Adonis and Balboa equally, as it is primarily Johnson’s story that happens to lead to Philadelphia, and Rocky by association. Coogler takes the existing material and takes what he wants freely from the mythos of the Balboa backstory, but fashions it into a lively and reborn sports drama that thrums with energy and skilled visual storytelling, one of my soft spots.

 

The prologue where we meet young Adonis in juvenile detention and learn of his parentage is shot not sappily, as Stallone may have, but honestly and it cuts to the title at the perfect moment. Immediately we are thrown into the seedy prize fights in Tijuana, where the now-grown Johnson seeks his sport. There are a couple of solid long takes during the fights that truly put audiences in the ring with the fighters almost as if participating as an unofficial referee, dodging hulking masses of muscle and spinning around the fighters without making viewers queasy.

 

Coogler crafts a magnificent picture more than worthy of awards attention, never stooping to the clichés creed_movie_poster_1that the Rocky franchise has set the stage for in previous years. There is never a sense that the writers insert conflict for the sake of scripting, the foils and foibles are organic to the characters and their faults. The camerawork is simply splendid. Michael B. Jordan was robbed of an awards nomination for no obvious reason. Eddie Redmayne has no standing for the Oscar this year compared to Jordan’s living, breathing sense of ferocious ingenious. He broods, lashes out at his loved ones, cries for recognition as his own man, not just living in his father’s immense shadow of legacy. And Stallone also has his moments of quiet understanding, watching Adonis as a sort of reflection of himself as a young fighter. Both are equally deserving of recognition is what I’m saying.

 

Are You Listening, Academy? You Goofed Again!

 

Creed is one of those near-perfect cinematic experiences that proves you can still instill life into an aged franchise provided the right point-of-view. I can only hope more filmmakers attempt to tell similar stories in other beloved franchises after Coogler’s success here. I look forward to his next work as well as the ongoing success of Mr. Jordan. Bravo, sirs.

BROOKLYN: The Oscarwatch Continues

brett_wiesenauer*Methinks I’ll do pieces on each of the Big Oscar Contenders, seeing as I have already done pieces on Trumbo, FURY ROAD, The Martian, and The Revenant, as well as mentioned that little gem Spotlight. Expect a CREED review soon, as well as something on Room, The Big Short, and possibly Bridge of Spies. No promises on the latter.

 

As far as the Academy Awards go, one of the easiest ways to impress the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) is to tell a unique, simple story really well, in a memorable way. Take as an example a movie about ambassadors trapped in a hostile country that have a fake film crew organized by the CIA to rescue them: Argo, the Best Picture winner from 3 years ago. A small-time boxer and low-rent enforcer overcomes his station in life to go the distance to spar with the heavyweight champion of the world of boxing, and finds romance along the way: 1976’s Best Picture and beloved franchise kick-starter ROCKY.

 

Now, I assume some readers presume the worst in me since I have been touting the praises of Mad Max: FURY ROAD since its release back in May of 2015, and could not be happier to see it as a big Academy Award contender. As an oscar_0avid fan of genre films and the director’s work, I will chalk up a lot of my hype for the film as fan-boyish glee, knowing that one of my favorite things about film and fantasy is being recognized by the star-making industry event that is The Oscars(tm).

 

And while I hope it sweeps the technical categories (visual fx, sound, designs) instead of the STAR WARS juggernaut and possibly takes one of the Big 5 (Picture or Director) away from the clear favorite The Revenant, I don’t presume to call FURY ROAD the winner out of the gate, since I’ve been disappointed too often before by the powers that be.

 

And to those readers who curl their lips to my feelings on defending my post-apocalyptic ice-cream sundae of artistic chaos, I offer a concession: If the Oscar doesn’t go to FURY ROAD, I hope it goes to BROOKLYN.

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BROOKLYN is a film I would refer to as the “little movie that could”. ‘Tis the dark horse of a most competitive Best Picture race. The small-scale romance movie tells the tale of Eilis (pronounced AY-lish) a young lady who moves to the United States in the early 1950s to escape the droll life she leads among the gossips and the matrons of Enniscorty, a small village in southeast Ireland. Leaving her mother and sister behind, after a slightly harrowing boat ride, she arrives in New York, passes through Ellis Island, and finds quarters at a boarding house in the titular borough, with some lively boarders including some shopgirls who help her get her start in the busy world of American life. She connects with a kindly Irish priest, who starts her in a night class to learn bookkeeping. At a community dance, she meets a handsome, slightly shy Italian boy named Tony, and the two quickly fall into love with each other.

 

We as an audience proceed to follow a delightful little treat of a romantic journey between two adorable people and the trials that come up between them when Eilis suddenly has to return to Ireland to deal with a bit of family drama. Once she arrives back to the land of her birth, she is courted by another young man and is expected to settle down in her old community for the sake of her little village standing. Eilis must make tough decisions that could decide her life’s journey for the better. And it is beautiful.

 

What most people don’t know about me, judging solely on what I present to the world, is that while I give off the air of a desperate, sardonic adrenaline junkie and hardcore action man, I am a hopeless romantic at heart. And I love a good romance movie. None of that rubbish that Nicholas Sparks sells in his recycled works, not the uncomfortably by-the-numbers that pass for romantic comedies these days, I mean a true blue story about human beings, not stereotypes, who fall in love, and the sometimes harrowing emotional journey that love takes them on.

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A scene from the early Academy Award winner SUNRISE

 

Confession time: My favorite movie of all time is SUNRISE: A Song of Two Humans. The story concerns a farmer, tempted by a woman from the city, who becomes convinced he should murder his wife in order to move to the city with his mistress. It tells a low-key, low-stakes story with graceful storytelling, careful performances from its two leads, and gorgeous photography that influenced modern filmmaking all the way back in 1927.

 

Fun fact that few people know or remember: At the first Academy Awards in 1929, they gave out two Best Picture Awards. AMPAS gifted SUNRISE the second one, titled “Unique and Artistic Production”, but scrapped its legacy by retroactively declaring the other winner, the war drama Wings, to be the better picture that year. I have seen both films, and I have to say, like too many times, the Academy is Wrong.

 

BROOKLYN reminded me heavily of the romantic tale at the center of Sunrise. I, along with other audiences and critics worldwide, was caught up in the beautiful story of love that blossoms among the backdrop of the big city, and the youthful tenderness that accompanies early love. The performances by the whole cast is superb, from Julie Walters as the head of Eilis’ boarding house to accomplished character actor Jim Broadbent as the friendly priest that Eilis confides in. Even Actor of the Year Domhnall Gleeson is enjoyable to watch as the bashful suitor awaiting Eilis back in Ireland.

 

But undoubtedly the heart of the film is the two leads, Saorise Ronan, (pronounced SIR-shah) and Emory Cohen. Ronan is charming to boot as the feisty young lady determined to make her own way in life with or without the aid of others, though she continually receives it because she’s just so adorable and admirable to those around her. And as much as I applaud the awards buzz Ms. Ronan is receiving for her darling role, the Academy missed out not nominating Emory Cohen for Supporting Actor. As Tony, he obviously aches for Eilis whenever she isn’t around and exudes an old-fashioned chivalry that transcends his humble roots as a poor plumber’s apprentice. To add to that, Indiewire included him on their list of the 16 Best Characters of 2015, among the likes of Furiosa from FURY ROAD, and Jack, the little boy from Room, another approaching Oscarwatch subject.

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I adored this little movie, and am most happy to have caught it while it was still humbling its way around the theatrical circuits. Catch it if you can while the Oscars are still promoting it, at the likes of Woodland mall, where you can see it for only $5! Peace and Love, y’all.

THE REVENANT review + An #OscarsSoWhite rebuttal

brett_wiesenauerAll right, it’s your favorite time, it’s my favorite time: It’s Unpopular Opinion Time! -wow- ~awesome~

 

Today’s first topic is that infernal Oscars controversy and then I’ll get on with my thoughts on the latest Iñárritu. Sound good? Alright.

 

ahem

 

Y’all should know by now that the Oscars are run by a group of middle-aged white men who tend to hand off awards to a specific type of movie [vanilla, slightly trendy period drama or ham-handed message movie about the environment/war/poverty/racism/mental illness/cultural malaise] and are as willing to change their ways as the modern Republican party. Is it any surprise these people are nominating prominently Caucasians instead of more than worthy people of color?

 

In the previous 25 Oscar ceremonies, Best Picture has gone to a movie prominently featuring non-whites only 3.5 times*. I count Dances with Wolves as half, since it is still primarily this guy’s movie:

'Murica by Kevin Costner‘Murica
by Kevin Costner

In defense of the current nominations, I will say this. I’ve seen a fair majority of the nominees and can’t fault the choices for the most part. That is not to say there is not room for improvement. On the contrary, I spotted a few spaces where the Academy stooped to the lazy nomination choice, for example Eddie Redmayne for that abomination The Danish Girl took a place that could, And Should, have been occupied by Michael B. Jordan for CREED. In addition, Ryan Coogler should have gotten a director nod for said film in place of Iñárritu, who already won last year for a slightly better film, plus Benicio del Toro should have easily secured a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his devastating turn in SICARIO.

 

Other than that, a lot of the people of color performances just couldn’t top what was chosen. I love Idris Elba as much as the next person, and I appreciated his role in Netflix’s flagship title Beasts of No Nation, but I can’t say he’d have been a better choice than Benicio or Mark Ruffalo’s turn in Spotlight, or Tom Hardy. The only one Elba had a chance to overcome was Christian Bale, who I feel was put on a pedestal above Steve Carell’s equally, if not more, compelling performance in The Big Short. Other than that, Straight Outta Compton was exceptional, and had a surprisingly good cast, but it would not have been on my personal list for Best Picture, and no one from the cast truly stood out. That is not to say the acting was lacking, far from it. But the strength in the performances was in the sense of ensemble that came about whenever they were together on screen. At least I would have considered the movie, unlike what AMPAS did.

 

In conclusion, there are issues with both sides of the issue. If you want to read some additional rebuttals I feel are worth sharing, The Rebel did a fine piece examining the Academy voters and their vision. And the Academy recently announced a few changes they are making to their populace in order to save face…by 2020.

 

I am now stepping down from my soapbox; we now return to your regularly scheduled movie criticism.

4evenantGetting this here joke outta the way now.

The Revenant is a good movie. I will not dispute its worth as a piece of entertainment to be viewed au cinema. It is a frustrating, self-importance-touting, frontier art-house flick that, at the end of the day, I feel deserves to be nominated as one of the 10 (8 *cough*) Best Pictures of the Year. But, it does not deserve to win anything.

 

What’s it all about, you ask?

 

Hugh Glass and his half-breed son are tagging along with a crew of frontiersman transporting furs, when suddenly a troupe of renegade Arikawa tribesman attack the men and send them fleeing down the river with massive casualties. Fitzgerald, one of the brigands whose sole livelihood was the abandoned furs, takes out his frustrations on Glass, causing tension to fill the group. While hunting further in the wilderness, Glass is viciously set upon by a mother grizzly, in one of the most anxiety-inducing action scenes of 2015. Afterwards, Glass is laid up and left in Fitzgerald’s care until he either regains his strength or dies and is buried.

 

But the treacherous brigand tries smothering Glass, is caught by Glass’ half-breed son, and dispatches the boy so as to wipe all evidence of his wrongdoing away, escaping to a fort to claim his rewards for “doing what had to be done”. But Glass is still quite alive, and now thirsts for revenge. He limps his way through the wilds of frontier-era territories to find retribution as well as civilization, dodging the renegade tribe after his fellow crew, and struggling to heal his wounds and survive long enough to confront his nemesis before nature claims him as well.

 

Let’s talk the look of the film as a whole: People get messed up, a lot. Arrows fly, men’s faces are bloodied in the worst of ways, people on horseback fly off cliff sides, Glass has to treat a horse like that poor Tauntaun from The Empire Strikes Back, he eats raw buffalo liver, it all gets pretty intense. The film looks great, in all its brutal glory. This is to be expected; it’s shot by now 8-time Academy Award-nominee and 2-time winner Emmanuel ‘Chivo’ Lubezki, who shot both G R A V I T Y and last year’s Best Picture BiRDMAN. Here’s the thing though, the entire movie reminded me of another very flawed, visually epic film adaptation: Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth.

 

Now, those of you who read my things will know that I mentioned that film as one to look out for come its release sometime in December. Welp, I saw it, and here’s one of the problems with both movies: Both films are filled to the brim with “trailer fuel”, shots that look amazing and will look great in the trailer for the film. But the whole film just screams “Look at me, I’m so interesting and pretty” and the audience tiredly nods like parents with over-excited children.

 

I feel most film should be like a good meal. The meat should be hearty and excellent, that is here. Every single shot is the photographic equivalent of a blue-ribbon slice of filet mignon. But, everything in the movie is a perfect shot, and I love filet mignon, but I can’t make a whole meal out of piece after piece of filet mignon. I need a side dish, one that’s not filet mignon. My champagne glass should not be filled to the brim with steak juice is what I am saying.

rev1Wow: That’s a great shot! The MOVIE

Onto the little director that could: Alejandro Gonzales Iñárritu. He proved last year he was a visionary, with wit, charm, and a limit to his pretense that made The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance a neat treat of narrative and visual flair that was certainly worthy of a nomination for Best Picture.

 

Here’s the rub: He thinks too much. Seriously, there could be a good 20-25 minutes cut out of this movie for the sake of making it less pretentious and slightly more palatable. I hold no issue with the brutal nature of the violence or things that happen to Glass and his fellow frontiersman. I hold issue with the fact that there can be small cuts made here and there to keep the flow going, narratively. The Pirates of the Caribbean series also has this issue. The director refuses to sacrifice a frame of their vision and it can be aggravatingly slow-paced.

 

This does not mean Alejandro doesn’t know what he is doing. I can see what Alejandro is going for, after all one of my all-time favorite flicks is Lawrence of Arabia. That film was later described by one of its stars as “four hours long…no women, and no love story, and not much action either, and he wants to spend a huge amount of money to go film it in the desert”. I can appreciate his efforts, but he ends just short of the mark. Please don’t give him another Oscar simply because he made something that looks nice.

 

^Long story short: The Man Won His Oscar Last Year. Give it to Georgie.

 

Oh, Leo. You under-appreciated over-achiever, you. I appreciate all you’ve done over the years to entertain us. Catch Me if You Can is still a delightful romp of fun and intrigue, The Aviator showed your acting chops just right, Inception gave you a little something different that still had strengths for you to flex, and Django Unchained was psychotic fun from the moment you arrived onscreen. I truly appreciate your breadth of work.

 

I think you could’ve done better here.revenant_0

 

My problem is not what Leo does in this movie. It’s what he doesn’t do. The character is two-note: Cautious Experienced Hunter & Revenge-seeking Revenant. He screams occasionally, like when he’s attacked by the bear, or when he finally confronts his adversary at the tail end of his journey. But in between those bursts, he is stuck with this comical scowl on his face that is supposed to stand in for emotion as he treks through the wilds of the American frontier for the sake of REVENGE.

 

At times, he will dream of his dead wife and his recently-deceased son, then he looks sad for a moment’s time. Then he wakes and he keeps on trekking, scowl plastered back on his face. There is no defined range that we saw in the likes of The Wolf of Wall Street or the under-appreciated grindhouse throwback Shutter Island. We’ve come to expect a range of things from this actor, and the film hobbles him by limiting him. That is wasting your talent. Not as in Leo is wasting it, but the film is wasting the talents of a gifted performer.

 

Now I expect a fair amount of backlash over my feelings on Leo along the lines of, “But you loved Tom Hardy’s rugged mug in FURY ROAD, and he spends most of that movie looking desperate and grunting every few minutes. You hypocrite!”

 

But, with Mad Max FURY ROAD, we have a franchise backlog of 3 other movies that contain Max’s backstory and experience to reference, and even with that the movie does a good job of catching us up without clunky exposition. Mel Gibson wasn’t exactly the most expressive Rockatansky after the first Mad Max. Tom Hardy did well carrying the torch as previous.

 

Speaking of Tom Hardy’s rugged mug, much like the similarly troubled H8ful Eight, this movie does have its share of excellent attributes. The cinematography, as noted, is par for the celebrated course. The cast is really good, with Tom Hardy providing a great character in Glass’ nemesis Fitzgerald, with a hefty swagger and true grit in acting that shows him as worthy of a Supporting Actor nomination, having been snubbed for previously excellent work in the likes of The Drop and Nicholas Winding Refn’s Bronson. Also of note is Actor of the Year, Domhnall Gleeson, as the expedition leader who pulls a few bad-ass moments out of his brief screen time. Keep your eyes peeled for Grand Rapids native Joshua Burge as an expedition member. The music is properly ethereal and never takes audiences out of the moments onscreen.

 

People and critics keep heaping praise on this work, citing how “it was such a difficult film to shoot”, “Leo had to eat bison liver raw, and he’s vegan”. Well, this is what happens when the director and ‘Chivo’ decide the film needs to be shot using only natural light, limiting their locations and schedule as per. I don’t know what to say about Leo’s life choices, but he signed on to make the movie. He knew what the hardships would be. He’s a big boy. He’ll survive.

 

In terms of difficult films to make, George Miller started pre-production on FURY ROAD in 2000. He spent nearly a dozen years location scouting, raising money for the production by making the Happy Feet films for the big studios, recasting when delays set in due to lack of funds, and designing props, vehicles, costumes with his crew. FURY ROAD was finally shot in 2012 and released to cinemas just last year.

 

Alejandro and His Films Do Not Need Defending. He Has Already Won Big. Long Live George Miller!

 

Overall, The Revenant is a good one. I think it is definitely worth seeing in the theater and ruminating over afterwards with friends by a fireplace, over a glass of Jack Daniels, neat. I will insist however that it is not the Best Picture of the Year. It is flawed, it is portentous, it is twenty-five-odd minutes of frontier action inflated with over two hours of artsy imagery. And I do hope Leo is finally rewarded, so he can relax for a few years before he decides he needs another Oscar. I wish they’d give it to Michael Fassbender or Bryan Cranston who had better performances overall, but I will be satisfied if they give it to Leo just so he can stop scowling at us.

Amazon: The Dangers of Dashing

brett_wiesenauerRecently, Amazon.com started selling grocery items, available using their trademarked Prime Shipping, even though it isn’t technically available in 2-day shipping. To me, this new step seems inspired, what with the increasing levels of laziness in the millennial generation, myself included, but the system still has plenty of fine-tuning to be made until I personally proclaim it a successful venture for the internet shopping giant.

 

First of all, as mentioned above, the shipping takes too long. I experimented with ordering something the other day, but once I arrived at checkout for my measly package of Fanta, Pringles, and Dove soap, the site announced that the package should not be expected before Monday. This was Wednesday. For something called Prime Pantry, I expect a better status of shipping than using a third-rate electronics outlet operating out of Jakarta.

 

Second of all, not every grocery and health and beauty item is available for PP yet. For a system to work to the fullest, the majority of Prime-worthy items, lest they be on back-order, should be available to pick out and ship out together. It says something that I could use normal Prime shipping and get non-Prime Pantry grocery items more quickly than the heavily advertised Prime Pantry, Amazon’s prime outlet for grocery items. Um…

 

Third, the newest option for Prime Pantry is the following: The Dash Button.

azdshNow, in theory, this tech sounds downright brilliant: press a button, groceries appear. Brilliant!

 

I can appreciate the leaps in technology that bring us those couple of steps closer to The Jetsons. However, there is still the issue at hand regarding the reliability of unregulated Dash-ing.

 

The device is a simply designed tab with a single button and single operation:

trupBut what happens when little Donny Jr. gets his hands on the shopping button and presses it to his heart’s delight? What if the analog apocalypse strikes your house and you are unable to access your Amazon account and suddenly your checking account is slapping you with multiple overdrafts while gallons of Gatorade are dropped off in front of your residence, barricading you inside the dwelling with only Gatorade to sustain yourself on while anxiously awaiting rescue? Can we protect ourselves from such a promising, yet volatile new technology that connects itself directly to our financial arteries?

 

What happens if you accidentally set your tablet next to the device and suddenly your e-books have been corrupted, replaced by multiple incarnations of vintage Sears-Roebuck catalogs and Amazon promotional guides from 1995? Are you going to be hypnotized by the overt consumerism on display and spend all your hard-earned Monopoly Monies on dog-eared copies of The Bold Vegetarian: 150 Inspired International Recipes?

 

Is there no end to the ridiculous consumerism that permeates the pores of our pauper-ish patriarchal penitentiary? Can Brett finish this editorial before he leaves for the evening? Is there no end to the madness?

scared_tech

Citizen Journalist Eyes on MLK Jr. Celebration

brett_wiesenauerThe Kentwood library held a celebration of the life and teachings of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the community room, consisting of readings from lead organizer Jessica Ann Tyson and Mayor Stephen Kepley, a fact-filled PowerPoint, a powerful and moving musical solo, and food and drink for guests. This celebration was an inaugural event in Kentwood’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day plans, in the works for now two years.

 

Lead organizer Jessica Ann Tyson led the proceedings, initially admitting she neither knew the late Rev. King or had actually participated in his rallies or demonstrations, but she was determined to keep his ideals alive through the celebration and remembrance of the iconic civil rights leader.

 

After the introduction came a presentation by the Kentwood ARCH program, the program helmed by Kentwood Public Schools in an effort to aid disadvantaged youth in the bottom 30% of the schools. ARCH stands for academics, recreation, community and health, and it allows students to focus on excelling in the classroom by connecting learning to their everyday lives. Later on, Mrs. Tyson gave out awards to student essayists and artists alike who made contributions to the celebration proceedings. It was a great choice to get the younglings involved in the celebration proceedings, so as to spur on their talents and imaginations with the universal topics Dr. King’s work can provoke.

 

Mayor Stephen Kepley spoke on how influential the Rev. Dr.’s I have a Dream speech was on his perspective and life choices. A Proclamation was performed by various personnel from around the area of varying ages, cultures, and viewpoints, all in the name of simultaneous equality and diversity.

 

Craig Tyson performed a song for the guests that was most effective. All present truly felt the emotion of his musical plea for leadership. Tears welled, guests cheered, and this here reporter cannot deny the passionate power of his simple musical interlude.

 

Passion is a powerful thing; ’tis something that can inspire, unite, employ the emotions of your surroundings to further a cause, and all present at the MLK Jr. celebration knew exactly how to utilize these feelings for the betterment of the community at large. This day speaks to not just persons of color, but to all populations, black, white, brown, pale, dark, big, and small, who believe in justice, equality, and the power of ordinary people in (extra)ordinary times.

MLKjrDayHappy Birth Anniversary, Dr. King.

Celebration + Founders Announce Newest Brewed for Film Series Lineup

brett_wiesenaurCelebration Cinemas and Founders Brewing Company are teaming up for yet another incarnation of their popular Brewed for Film series.

 

Starting February 10th, Founders Brewing will install itself inside 5 Celebration Cinemas across West Michigan and present a specifically chosen film to share on the big screen with thirsty film-goers, along with serving some fine beverages that match the tone of the shows.

 

Mixed among the films picked are a Scorsese gangster epic, a classic Indiana Jones adventure, 3 Coen Brothers comedy-dramas, including their award-winning FARGO and Oscar-nominated True Grit remake, a stop-motion animated Wes Anderson family flick, and some Monty Python shenanigans to wrap up this particular series.

FBccAs per usual during the series, entry is only $2 per person, 21 years of age and above. In addition, the series is selling a pass for entry to all films as well as a complimentary beer for each show for $25, while supplies last.

 

Having attended last years showing of The Shawshank Redemption with a friend, I can truly attest to the friendly atmosphere and unique experience offered at the events the two collaborators offer here. The value of entertainment for the price offered is exponentially more than a typical movie outing. Plus, who wouldn’t want the option of refreshing Founders classics at hand for viewing and consuming pleasure?

 

For all the information, including show dates and featured beer choices, please visit the Celebration information page.

MI Senators Plan Muskegon Habitat Restoration

U.S. Senators Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters recently announced $497,507 in funding for the Great Lakes Commission to lead a regional partnership to restore habitats in the Great Lakes. Working with the West Michigan Shoreline Regional Development Commission, the Great Lakes Commission plans to restore fish passage and habitat in Muskegon Lake. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) provided the funding for this plan.

 

The Commission will work with the West Michigan Shoreline Regional Development Commission to design a restoration project, so as to reconnect the former floodplain wetlands with the Muskegon River and restore fish passage and habitat for native fish and wildlife. A similar initiative was awarded $1,595,505 to restore the Buffalo River Area of Concern in New York.

 

This support will help continue work already underway through the U.S. Great Lakes Areas of Concern program and the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, being a multi-year plan to restore and preserve our Great Lakes by eliminating toxins, combating invasive species, restoring habitats, and promoting the overall health of the Lakes. This Commission has received $30 million to date for Great Lakes restoration efforts.

lm115
Muskegon Lake, where the Great Lakes Task Force is planning its next initiative.

Senator Stabenow, Co-Chair of the Great Lakes Task Force had this to say: “Our lakes are part of who we are and our way of life. This investment will help regional partners work together to protect our Great Lakes, waterways, and wildlife habitats.”

 

“Protecting the health and sustainability of the Great Lakes is a top concern for Michiganders, who rely on the Great Lakes for their water supply, jobs and way of life,” said Senator Peters, a fellow member of the Great Lakes Task Force. “This investment will play a significant role in restoring fish passages and wildlife habitats, which strengthen our economy and preserve the state’s natural beauty.”

SPOTLIGHT, Truth, and the evolving presentation of film journalism

brett_wiesenaurOver the course of time, many films have come and gone about the press and its volatile relationship to democracy and the public it serves. To many, All the Presidents Men remains the benchmark for exceptional storytelling in the investigative journalism field that went on to become a beloved masterwork of true-life drama and political intrigue.

 

Since then, every newspaper movie has to have a conspiracy, a cover-up, something hidden in plain view that no one dares bring up for either reasons of personal safety or the argument of “the greater good” of society better left not knowing about the filth lying beneath society’s mirror sheen, sometimes both. Movies such as Zodiac and Michael Mann’s excellent The Insider both deal with journalists as the diggers, the folks who latch onto a story and dedicate the whole of their lives, for better or worse, to seeing their stories through.

 

In late 2015, two films were released that dealt with journalistic events in the 21st century, both dealing with scandals that had repercussions in society, as well as the news field and the journalists who had to break the story.trth

 

Released first was Truth, covering the 60 Minutes Killian documents scandal, when, just before the 2004 election, CBS News Producer Mary Mapes ran a story that questioned George W. Bush’s National Guard duty in the 1970s. Acquiring questionable documents from a biased source who expected a political favor in return, the semi-anachronistic documents, once aired on television caused a major stink on conservative web-blogs, who lambasted the reporters and the network for airing such a questionable, scoop-worthy piece of glorified hear-say. This eventually led to CBS apologizing for the story and the termination of Mapes and accelerated resignation of Dan Rather, the legendary anchor who stood by Mapes as the controversy unfolded.

 

Spotlight dealt with the Boston Catholic child abuse scandal uncovered between 2001 and 2002 by the titular Boston Globe investigative team. The team, headed by “Robby” Robinson and overseen by incoming editor Marty Baron, follows up on various news clippings on abuse in parishes all over Boston, involving approximately 90 priests who were simply moved to different parishes to avoid scandal, only creating more issues of abuse.

 

The city officials and law offices refuse to participate with the team for the most part, leading the team to do most of the footwork themselves to interview victims and hunt through phonebooks and go door-to-door to ask about the priests involved. Eventually, thanks to some alliances made in the law offices and a miraculous legal loophole, they eventually manage to uncover damning documents that prove the Cardinal of Boston knew of the abuse and merely covered it up rather than dismissing his troublesome clergy.

spotlight-one-sheetWhile journalists have been portrayed as heroes in many titles, there is still a slight stigma on the news community as troublesome and prone to “scooping” for some publicity rather than the democratic principles journalism is expected to fulfill.

 

The 1981 drama Absence of Malice portrays a headstrong reporter (Sally Field) who goes to great, morally unethical lengths to get the first word on a juicy murder story that may just be damning an innocent businessman. Even Roger Ebert noted in his review for the film that Sally Field’s character “is a disgrace to her profession”. Other films such as the satirical Thank You for Smoking and the recently released ROOM feature journalist players that exploit their subjects in order to make names for themselves or simply to make it a “good story”, aka a ratings success.

Kirk Douglas in Billy Wilder's scathing drama, Ace in the Hole
Kirk Douglas in Billy Wilder’s scathing news drama, Ace in the Hole

 

While this may seem like a common trope of today, that is not quite the case, as journalists have been portrayed both as crusaders for democracy as well as scuzzy ratings fiends as long as the classics of old. In films such as Billy Wilder’s seminal Ace in the Hole, Citizen KANE, and the classic Sweet Smell of Success, journalists hound sources and stories until tragedy strikes their subjects and launches an even bigger scoop, that only serves to disgust the moral centers and further the careers of the scum who tackled the story; behold the dark side of capitalist journalism.

 

Meanwhile, classic films such as 1947 Best Picture-winner Gentleman’s Agreement and Deadline U.S.A. feature the typical champion reporters who risk it all to take down the corruption they see surrounding them, all for the sake of democracy. It’s still inspiring sometimes, to read about true-life heroism in the print, on-screen, and in your neighborhood.

 

To conclude, check out Spotlight if and when you get the chance. The movie is a great example of a near-flawless journalism picture that covers just how the work is done and the lengths reporters go in order to break a story that just needs to be told. The acting is spot-on, the drama effective, and the story is anger-inducing in the best of ways. The anger involved is specific to the wrong done to generations of Bostonians and other effected youth around the world. While Truth is certainly an interesting story to read about, the film presentation is a bit biased and not quite as involving as the Boston controversy. Here’s to more great journalism in the future…and movies, too!

Hateful 8 Review: A Troubled, Watchable Mess of a Western

brett_wiesenaurThe H8ful Eight is among other things a troubling work to behold and mull over. On one hand, this is to be expected, coming from the most beloved exploitation director of Gen-X, Quentin Tarantino, who loves his women bare-footed, his violence explosive and over-the-top, and his dialogue so chewy and memorable, it’s no surprise he keeps picking up awards for screenwriting. On the other hand, it’s not as much the content that troubles the author as much as the sloppy presentation of Mr. Tarantino’s work, who is expected to know better by now.

 

Before all the film geeks pounce and spear me with their pitchforks and flambé my pudgy rump with their torches, note that I am not complaining about the format I viewed the film through. I traveled all the way to Livonia to view The Hateful Eight in Glorious 70 Millimeters, complete with Overture and ten-minute Intermission. While the print seemed a little wonky at times, the format was not what I take issue with at all. I am a terrific fan of old-school entertainment presentation, the roadshows, the Ben-Hur’s, heck one of my favorite films ever made is Lawrence of Arabia, which I saw twice au cinéma when Celebration Cinema featured it as part of its now sadly defunct “Celebrating the Classics” series, presented in such a format.

 

My problem is with aspects of the storytelling that Tarantino uses to possibly make his work stand out from his stolen draft that was leaked online by the Internet press in early 2014. If this is the case, I still feel the choices made in the later pages of the screenplay render much of the entertainment garnered from the early pages moot. Let me explain:

 

The H8ful Eight starts out with Samuel L. Jackson’s Maj. Marquis Warren hitching a ride on a stagecoach in the snowy wilds of Wyoming with bounty hunter “The Hangman” John Ruth, played with mustachioed machismo by Kurt Russell, who himself is transporting a prisoner, Daisy Domergue.

 

Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Domergue takes a lot of abuse in this movie, hence troubling aspect number one. Granted, she is an outlaw who takes the most vicious of glee when harm and disappointment comes to her captors, but the level of violence directed toward her just to fill in the silence gets a little uncomfortable even for a he-man like myself whose favorite works include the many visceral works of Dario Argento and John Carpenter.

KurtRussellSamuelLJacksonHatefulEightAs their carriage navigates the snowy drifts reminiscent of Michigan’s current roadways, the trio picks up yet another guest, the self-professed new Sheriff of Red Rock, Domergue and Ruth’s destination. The new sheriff only happens to have been a former southern raider during the Civil War, leading to a beef with Warren, former Union cavalry. Shortly thereafter, the travelers arrive at Minnie’s Haberdashery, a lodge that already houses four guests, the Red Rock hangman, a cow puncher, a Mexican named Bob, and a grizzled old Confederate general. Our now 9 players, I forgot to mention the carriage driver O.B. who takes as much crap as Domergue takes beatings, hunker down in the lodge to escape the hostile blizzard just arriving at their doorstep.

 

But is all as it seems at the lodge? For those answers, you’ll have to see the film, and then we’ll talk.

 

As for the questionable elements, I’ll be as discreet as possible without spoiling the whole film. The film is split into 6 chapters, the first four of which function magnificently as an outrageous, slow-burn, pseudo-stageplay. Seriously, if the film had only consisted of the first four chapters with a slightly retooled ending, the film would be a near-masterwork of modern frontier westerns along the likes of Once Upon a Time in the West via the Coen’s True Grit.

 

Unfortunately, after the movie ended and I mulled over the contents as a whole, elements of the last 45 minutes only angered me as to provoke the question, “why was this film over 3 hours long?” The choices and events of the last act only instilled in me the unbelievability of the story as a whole, it took me out of the movie, and when that happens, the director and script have utterly failed at their jobs.

The-Hateful-EightBut this is not to say the movie is awful as a whole. On the contrary, many of the elements of the story come together like magic and work marvelously.

 

The wintry photography is cool and effective in its isolation. The acting all around is spot-on, from Tim Roth’s slimy, smug “hangman” to Bruce Dern’s grizzled, bewildered ol’ general, alongside the powerhouses that are Samuel L. Jackson and Kurt Russell. But the two greatest standouts of the picture are Jennifer Jason Leigh and Walton Goggins, portraying Daisy Domergue and Sheriff Chris Mannix, respectively.

 

Leigh gives Domergue a quiet, palpable menace that comes alive when she just silently stares at her captors, actively seething while letting nothing explicit show in her facial features. Goggins’ Sheriff is a fun misanthrope who simply fought for the wrong side of a conflict and is now paying karma’s toll. He has a gleeful streak of humanity and clownishness in an outright cruel and killer environment. Much of the dialogue is laugh-out-loud funny in the most pitch-black fashion and truly haunting in its realism at many points in the story, such as Warren’s introduction to Ruth as well as his eventual conversation with the grizzled general who executed black soldiers at the Battle of Baton Rouge.

 

But undoubtedly the most memorably awesome aspect to The Hateful Eight is maestro Ennio Morricone’s wicked musical score, a first for a Tarantino picture, which typically steals from 60s and 70s Top 40 hits to fill the musical accompaniment. Once the overture struck the big screen over the image of a lone carriage against a blood-tinted landscape, I found myself totally engaged in the proceedings and enthralled by the sense of simultaneous dread and excitement that Morricone instills in the audience, courtesy of some unused music from John Carpenter’s The Thing.

Hello, Gorgeous!
Hello, Gorgeous!

I keep looping the soundtrack on YouTube as I compose this piece; that is how good the film soundtrack is.

 

Morricone, a seasoned veteran of spaghetti westerns and blockbusters such as The Untouchables, has still got whatever he had way back in the days of yore when he was the Italian equivalent of Hans Zimmer, with his paws in a lot of pictures of varying quality that still had the great fortune to land his talents as musical maestro. I need this soundtrack, like yesterday!

 

Being the Tarantino-brand of picture, it is no surprise that The H8ful Eight is in parts outrageous and glorious. It just so happens that I took more offense at what I perceived to be sloppy storytelling rather than the raucous content Mr. Tarantino is peddling this time around. It is most concerning that his projects get seemingly less thought-out the more ambitious his projects get. I do recommend viewing the movie but only if you know what you’re getting: a Tarantino western with a bleak moral center and a killer soundtrack that outshines most everything in the movie.

The Force is Awoken! The War in the Stars Continues!

Like GONE WITH THE WIND in 1939, STAR WARS in 1977, and JURASSIC PARK in 1993, this will go down as The Film Event of a generation.

It’s most certainly a JJ Abrams/STAR WARS film. There are moments of brilliance, as well as occasional narrative shortcomings that frankly come with the territory. It’s almost as if the creators came together to make the perfect ode to all things Long Time Ago/Far Far Away, even the flaws that tend to make the films all the more treasured. There is amazing technical wizardry on display along with a wry and splendid sense of humor that the Original Trilogy thrived on. And I for one am glad to have sat in awe for two glorious hours of welcome nostalgic joy that myself and numerous other fans of the Force have waited too long now for.star-wars-force-awakens-trailer

To talk cast, the original crew is still in prime form. Ford is now a fine vintage Han Solo, fully developed after his rollicking adventures with Luke and the gang aboard the Millennium Falcon. Alongside Solo, Luke’s mere presence gives all fans strength, Chewie is still violently charming, and Carrie Fisher is a breath of nostalgic majesty as General Leia who’s only gotten better with age. Now if only they’d allow her to hold some true screen time, but there be a firm reason for that.

The Force Awakens functions as a film that passes the torch down the line. The Original Cast won’t be around much longer, and therefore an insurance policy must be taken out in the form of the new characters. And what a solid policy they’ve landed!

Oscar Isaac is The Man! From his excellent supporting moments over the years in projects like Drive to his powerhouse roles in A Most Violent Year and Ex Machina, I have been fanboying all year in anticipation of him truly hitting the big time with this here War in the Stars franchise. He gives the charming ace Poe Dameron a vivacity that rivals Ricky Ricardo in just his ability to smile.

John Boyega is solidly enjoyable as the Stormtrooper turncoat Finn, who makes strides to improve his lot in life by escaping to better worlds, stumbling over each step as he goes.

There’s also the wonderful revelation that is Daisy Ridley as Rey, our Luke stand-in who has spunk, a history, and a no-nonsense sense of feminine agency that is more than welcome in the STAR WARS canon, seeing that the character of Mara Jade has been retconned entirely (boo!).

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One of the films protagonists, Rey (Daisy Ridley)/Our Luke Skywalker stand-in.

Of the new arrivals, the one that had the most to prove was Adam Driver as our antagonist, Kylo Ren. I was most worried that this was going to be another Anakin situation, with a promising actor being forced to play up angst in a character that needs a finer touch in performance. Lo and behold, I was impressed by Mr. Driver’s palpable sense of impotent rage and innate menace that the Prequel trilogy just couldn’t quite harness. Bravo, sir.

My hesitant attitude towards Kylo Ren mirrors my thoughts on the director, JJ Abrams. Previously, his films have proven to be hit-or-miss at best, strange and obtusely irritating at worst. Don’t get my words wrong, I was not going into the film expecting a total trainwreck, but having seen his prior work in science fiction (Star Trek +Into Darkness, Super 8), I was cautious about expecting anything extraordinary from the now 49-year old boy genius, who tends to struggle with the third act of storytelling.

But my thoughts were for naught. This film is thriving with imagination, grit, suspense, and childlike glee. Abrams knows how to intrigue fans by not insulting their intelligence. I loved the look of the film, the practical effects, the minimal obvious computer effects, the classy atmosphere of fun and high adventure, the colors, and the glorious situations he presented for our enjoyment. And the film magic he brings forth in the third act is probably some of the strongest work he’s ever made in his career.

Several moments just stick out as all-time best franchise moments: The first glimpse of the Falcon and the associated comments from the characters; the Falcon dogfight on Jakku; Kylo Ren’s lightsaber tantrum; “We’re Home”; and best of all, the final moments, which shan’t be spoiled here, which will drive home the stakes of what we can expect of the next installment in 2017, helmed by Looper director Rian Johnson.

Director JJ Abrams directs his diverse cast well in Episode VII.
Director JJ Abrams directs his diverse cast well in Episode VII.

While I have had much positive to say about the film, there are a few minor hiccups in the storytelling. Yes, this film is a retread of the first STAR WARS, but it is the good kind of retread that takes the same goals of the first but takes it on the road less traveled. The final sequence steals outright from the initial Death Star run so much so that I thought aloud, “Haven’t we seen this before?”

Along those same lines, a lot of happenstance moves the story forward. Han and Chewie appear in the film mostly out of a stroke of good luck more than anything else. The cute droid BB-8 only happens to go in the right direction to run into a Force-sensitive junk forager on Jakku. Finn barely escapes a TIE fighter crash with only stress and plenty of sweat stains. At this point, you’re either in this series for the long haul or you’re not. I do have gripes, but blast it all, I’m glad to be seeing a new STAR WARS movie!

There is a genuine sense of wonder and fun that has been missing since Return of the Jedi in 1983. Since that flawed film concluded the series proper, fans have been scrounging the corners of the galaxy for things to sate their thirst for all things STAR WARS, be it books, television properties, LEGO sets, lunchboxes; the marketing juggernaut at Lucasfilm Limited has boomed in the absence of proper continuations of Lucas’ science fantasy epics (I refuse to rant on the Prequel trilogy, as there is more than enough valid and overhyped criticism of that saga on the internet as is, from much more qualified personnel than I). Heck, I’ve been going on a mini-binge of licensed properties since watching the Despecialized Editions at home in preparation for the release last week. But, since the Disney corporate heads decided the Expanded Universe is no longer canon in tandem with my local library vastly depleting their catalog options, my options for satisfying this STAR WARS craving has been limited outside of spending my hard-earned Christmas cash on various tithes of formerly licensed literature, television programs, and video games.

Thankfully, this movie is a welcome retread that changes just enough aspects of the Original Trilogy while keeping things fresh enough for the old and new fans to stay excited for the upcoming installments. Overall, ’tis a bravura example of popcorn science fantasy done right, just as they were 35 years ago. You’ve got your hooks in me and the audience, Lucasfilm. I can’t wait to see this one again au cinema. I can’t wait until Rogue One is released next year. I Definitely can’t wait until the next installment premieres in 2017. Heck, I can’t wait to go home and break out Shadows of the Empire for the N64 to spend some of my break time on.

Bravo, Mister Abrams. And Thank You!

"Chewie, we're home..." RAWWRR!
“Chewie, we’re home…”
RAWWRR!

The Five Finger Discount During the Holidays

ShopliftingThe Michigan State Police reported over 21,000 people were caught defrauding major retailers in 2014, counting for 8.3% of all criminal arrests in Michigan alone. This has led to retailers boosting prices to make up for the theft. From the beginning of the holiday busy season in October through the start of the new year in January, retail stores see their greatest sales volume of the year, but this particular quarter also accounts for half of all retail shrinkage.

There’s a common misconception among those who “lift” that the big retailers can afford the loss of a candy bar or a pack of smokes since it doesn’t really add up to a hill of beans when compared to the cash flow in the day-to-day business of retailers. However, all the fraud and theft adds up to $44 billion in what the retailers call “shrinkage”.

In Kent county alone, of 629,000 residents, 2,359 arrests were made for ‘the ol’ five finger discount’ or retail fraud, comprising 16% of all criminal arrests in the county.

According to Data Mine, women comprise 53% of shoplifting and fraud arrests, with white women comprising a third of those total arrests. However, you are three times more likely to be arrested for suspicion of shoplifting as a black woman. Likewise, black men are 3.5 times more likely to be arrested.

ShopliftingIn addition to the gender disparity, two-thirds of shoplifting involved items priced under $200. This is classified as third-degree shoplifting, with second degree involving items priced between $200 and $1000, and first-degree consisting of items above $1000. Meanwhile, only 91% of the arrests for shoplifting concerned actual theft, while 5% dealt with fraudulent exchanges and 4% with misrepresented, switching price tags for higher priced items.

Those arrested for shoplifting ranged in age from 9 to 92 years old, with four different 9-year-olds, one 90-year old woman, and one 92-year old white man arrested for such offenses. And of all the metropolitan areas and counties in the Mitten, Cadillac has the highest rate of theft and fraud per thousand residents.

TRUMBO: Or Oscar Season Begins

It’s the most wonderful time of the year.

The popcorn’s popping, the crowds are gathering, and those pesky limited releases are finally getting to the general public in hopes of snagging a nomination for my beloved personal Super Bowl, the Oscars! The race has begun, so before the nominees are announced January 14, the studios are pushing the pride of their harvest, hoping to land at the least consideration for one of those gilded statuettes. The first films I’ve managed to see that I know to be striving for consideration is Jay Roach’s biopic of much-maligned screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, starring Bryan Cranston as the titular TRUMBO.

Bryan Cranston IS Dalton Trumbo
Bryan Cranston IS Dalton Trumbo

Bryan Cranston, as always, owns the film, playing the unflappable screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, leading the fight against the Red Scare in US courts and tirelessly concocting stories for various studio bosses behind pseudonyms so as to keep his family living in comfort. A communist in belief, he is held in contempt of Congress when he refuses to answer questions before HUAC and sent to prison. After serving his sentence, he finds the big studios don’t seek him out because of the stigma of his politics in the wake of McCarthyism, and instead seems doomed to work in B-movies and trash pictures like The Alien and the Farm Girl for the rest of his days due to his blacklisting. Even his neighbors make evident their disdain for him in their petty acts of vandalism to intimidate his family.

However, his passion and quality of work (including the likes of Roman Holiday and The Brave One) spreads the word of his still-present talent and eventually draws the attention of powerful, A-list Hollywood players such as Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger, and the ire of John Wayne and gossip queen Hedda Hopper. In order to combat the crushing and relentless atmosphere of work, Trumbo enlists the aid of his children and devoted wife to help him cruise through screenplays bestowed on him by the company, while he sneaks his classier works to the bigwigs. Cranston has always had a knack for making us in awe of an average man’s amount of integrity and energy, from Malcolm in the Middle to last year’s GODZILLA. He is always pleasant to watch and has a wry wit that permeates this sometimes harrowing picture.

An example of Trumbo's classic pen.
An example of Trumbo’s now-classic works.

The rest of the cast is of particular mention as making the ticket price worth it. Joining Cranston is Diane Lane as his aforementioned wife, American treasure John Goodman as a cheapo movie producer who employs Trumbo after his prison sentence, cult favorite Alan Tudyk as a still-employed front for Trumbo’s classier work, Louis C.K. brings an anarchic edge to his extremist partner-in-crime to Trumbo, and Dame Helen Mirren oozes a petty grandeur as the debonair and equally detestable gossip columnist, Hedda Hopper.

A key standout in the supporting cast is Kiwi actor Dean O’Gorman playing legendary leading man Kirk Douglas. Mr. O’Gorman did such a great job that I hope they find time to make a Kirk Douglas biopic so he has an excuse to keep playing him.

The film plays out quite well, never stooping to clichéd routes of storytelling outside of the final speech, where it felt deserved. It takes a special hand to make these true life accounts not seem like they’re going by the numbers as some biopics can easily go (*cough* 42 *cough*). In terms of telling the story without overstaying its welcome, it is also a success, being very brisk in pacing. Whenever something dour happens, Trumbo proverbially brushes off his coat and continues onward, unswayed by the roadblocks before him.

If you’re still wondering if this qualifies as an awards contender, this film is leading the Screen Actors Guild awards in nominations, a sure sign of Oscar-worthiness. As a history lesson, TRUMBO proves just as watchable as one of the History Channel’s epic mini-series, and as a tale about the dangers of hateful group-think, it’s a film that could be useful as a tool exploring the consequences of blacklisting others because of their differences, regardless of your political or religious beliefs. Check it out at a theater near you!

Holiday Traditions and Treasures on Exhibit at Frederik Meijer Gardens

If one gets the opportunity to visit Frederik Meijer Gardens between now and the arrival of the New Year, don’t squander this wonderful holiday gift! There are plentiful examples of holiday cheer and unique exhibitions that request viewing before some of them disappear forever! In addition to the enchanting Railway Garden, where model trains traverse a landscape filled with models of Grand Rapids landmarks as well as those of its sister cities, they are offering a chance to tour Holiday Traditions from around the world.

A tree representing Japanese cultural traditions.
A tree representing Japanese cultural traditions.

Talking to the volunteers manning the information desk yielded treasures of all sorts. Dave Pelak spoke enthusiastically of the holiday trees representing all different and diverse backgrounds in Meijer Gardens’ Holiday Exhibition. “You need to pay attention to the detail in all the ornaments and just the overall presentation on each of them.” He was particular about the German and Irish trees especially, saying that if it were up to him, “no one could leave until they find the pickle”, referring to the German tradition of hiding a pickle ornament in the trees of the Dutch.

Pelak went on to explain the great amount of care each and every piece in the exhibition is given, with ornaments and crafted decorations being transported in basically padded safes. The effort shows through as one walks through the beauteous showcase, as the meticulous setups and utterly charming atmosphere provided are near-guaranteed to lift up all Christmas and assorted holiday spirits.

To further drive home the magnetic power of the worldly pageant, the author encountered a delightfully curious happening. As I perused the various traditional settings, I heard multiple languages around and within the Holiday Showcase of trees. Not just the typical English and Spanish filled my ears, but also the words of Russian family and methinks a Korean one as well who passed through enjoying the  remarkable exhibition. These exhibits are truly examples that bring out the melting pot in our culture.

Traditional Irish Tree
Traditional Irish Tree

Also of note was the current exhibit within the Sculpture Gallery, just inside the entrance before one enters the Holiday Exhibition. Volunteer Cathy Ezinga told of how much of the current exhibition, rare and fragile Japanese art, is so delicate that once January 4th hits, the end of the exhibition, the pieces are being shipped off to Japan to be put in a sort of final resting place, out of public viewing, for the rest of time! That’s right, for just as the infomercials always claim, these pieces are only here for a very limited time and then they’re gone forever. Come to Frederik Meijer Gardens and behold the culture before it is too late.

Top 11 Other Christmas Classics That You Should Be Watching This Holiday Season

brett_wiesenaurThe Christmas season is one steeped deeply in traditions. The tradition of decorations, traditions of assorted foodstuffs, and my favorite, holiday movies. Everyone knows the classics:

*Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life,

*A Christmas Story,

*Elf,

*Love Actually,

*Nat’l Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation

And those are just five of the most popular choices. Every list tries to top the trending bars by listing the “Best Christmas Movies Ever”. Well, I’m here to try something different. Instead of shoving my opinion of the greatest holiday flicks, I am going to showcase the holiday movies most tend to forget about, with a couple of exceptions, just because. I hope to bring some entertainment and appreciation to these little-known classics that are certainly worth finding.

Christmas with Nick and Nora
Christmas with Nick and Nora

The Thin Man (1934)

First up is a noir caper from the early days of Hollywood, and also the film debut of the popular detective duo, Nick and Nora Charles. The film is the granddaddy of the murder mystery, with snappy dialogue, shadowy showdowns, and two of the classiest detectives this side of the pond. It also takes place during the holiday season, opening with Nora going Christmas shopping for her girlfriends, and ending just after New Years at a dinner party with all the suspects invited to be wined and dined by the witty couple. But that still dictates a Christmas morning scene that remains one of the most dryly funny interactions between a couple on such a day that was ever put on celluloid.

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The Bishop’s Wife (1947)

Cary Grant, Loretta Young, and the unflappable David Niven star in this delight of a romantic comedy from the 40s. A down-on-his-luck bishop (David Niven) is trying to raise funds for a new cathedral and decides to pray for guidance, expecting a sign. Instead, he is surprised to find he has an unexpected guest, a suave angel named Dudley (Cary Grant). Dudley professes to know exactly what to do in the poor bishop’s situation, and then sets off to woo the Bishop’s wife, who has been almost abandoned in her husband’s obsessive quest for monies. I know what it sounds like, but you have to watch the movie. It’s actually quite heartwarming, and funny, too! This is a very popular treat among classic movie lovers who have outgrown the typical NBC broadcast fare and wish to explore other Christmas classics from Hollywood’s Golden Age.

 

Three Unlikely Angels: Bogey, Peter, and Aldo

We’re No Angels (1955)

A seldom mentioned dark comedy from 1955, the film We’re No Angels deals with 3 convicts who escape from jail with only their wits, the clothes on their back, and their pet snake Adolphe in tow. Determined to escape Devil’s Island and make their way to a far-away paradise, they hole up in a local shop run by a much-beleaguered family who give supplies on credit. Initially intent on knocking over the joint and skedaddling, the three ex-cons grow fond of the family and decide to help them in regards to their visiting villainous store owner (Basil Rathbone, the original screen Sherlock Holmes) and his equally duplicitous nephew who plan on ruining the store so as to take it over and ensure a bigger profit margin. The three “angels”, played by Humphrey Bogart, Peter Ustinov, and Aldo Ray, are a delight as characters that operate more like a military unit, with quality repartee between the three of them in regards to properly demonstrating the customer is not always right and how to cook a grand Christmas turkey, after stealing the money to buy it first, of course. Best of all, the snake prominently features in the film, but is never really onscreen for those squeamish of the slithering reptiles. I would know, since my mom loves this movie, and absolutely hates snakes.

Santa Claus (1959)

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SANTA vs SATAN

Somebody stop me! No seriously, this particular entry might be dangerous if not viewed under the right conditions. This Mexican production of the Santa Claus myth takes a go-for-broke approach in terms of creativity. Here, Santa Claus lives in space, having…erm…adopted various kids of all cultures into his workforce in place of unionized elves and teamed up with Merlin the Magician to ensure Christmas goes well for the children of the earth. However, (this is where I lose people) Satan sends his underling Pitch to force children to do bad and make Santa’s Christmas delivery most difficult, including breaking store windows and promoting theft to get the gifts they want. Imagine if David Lynch made a Christmas movie…for children. That’s sort of what you’re in for with the proto-NSA technology Santa uses to keep an eye on Earth’s child population as well as the strange life-size doll interpretive dance nightmare sequence and don’t forget the terrifying wind-up toy reindeer, whose laughter will stain your thoughts for the rest of time, that Santa uses to fly across the world. This gem was featured on the cult comedy series Mystery Science Theater 3000 so you should know what you’re in for. Watch at your own weird risk.

Tropical Nativities are the Best Nativities
Christmas with The Duke and Co.

Donovan’s Reef (1963)

John Ford directs The Duke and Lee Marvin in this glorious vacation home movie masquerading as a tropical buddy comedy. Before you look at the poster and yell at me, “What does John Wayne and John Ford on a Polynesian island have to do with Christmas?”, two words: Christmas pageant. The film takes place during the month of December, as a brief scene in Boston alludes to how the majority of the world experiences the holiday season. About two-thirds the way into the film, the entire cast sits down to view a Polynesian Nativity story complete with appropriated wise men and updated gifts for the wee Son of G-D. Even the sudden cloudburst of rain can’t bring down the show, even though it kinda does, for the characters. There’s plenty of shenanigans and post-war humor that makes this movie a classic that deserves a better reputation, though it has its share of fans across various communities. It also functions as a good anti-bigotry tale that eventually crosses into the Christmas spirit.

DIE HARD + Die Harder

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I know, I know. Every man’s man whom you ask about Christmas traditions immediately spouts, “DIE HARD! Greatest Christmas Movie, Ever!” While I slightly disagree on the term greatest, I cannot deny that DIE HARD is both a great action movie, and it does take place on Christmas…so it’s a great Christmas movie. But, also worth mentioning is the sequel, directed by Renny Harlin, who will direct another flick on this list. While not quite as fresh and overall inspired as the initial film, this film does continue to showcase the action talents of Bruce Willis and his supporting cast, including William Sadler, Dennis Franz, and the original Django, Franco Nero. Two quality Christmas actioners that take no prisoners, count me in!

xnp90The Nutcracker Prince (1990)

While not the best Nutcracker adaptation by a long shot, this particular version, released in the early 90s by a tiny Canadian animation studio that didn’t quite survive into the millennium, holds a dear place in my heart as it reminds me of my childhood days when I would get up before the parents on cold December weekend mornings, huddle close to the fireplace and turn on Cartoon Network’s Cartoon Theatre to spend some time catching up on the delights of animated classics like Balto, various Looney Tunes and Tom and Jerry movies, and Race for Your Life Charlie Brown. This particular classic was a retelling of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Ballet, via The Princess Bride. It’s got a decent cast at it’s head, Kiefer Sutherland as the Prince, Peter O’Toole makes a cameo as the lead soldier general, and Phyllis Diller plays her usual shrill self as the mother of the Mouse King. It’s not a maligned masterwork, but it entertained me in younger times, perhaps some of that charm is still present…?

 

The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996)xkiss

Oh, the 90s! Renny Harlin, of Die Harder fame, gives the world another holiday season-set action film, this time not starring the ever-receding hairline of Bruce Willis, but a super sensual and cold-as-ice Geena Davis. Davis plays Samantha Caine, a small-town housewife and local celebrity who was previously an assassin for the CIA, unbeknownst to her and her family until a concussion brings to light her skills with cutlery and crack shot skills. Shortly after, a busload of goons decide its time to wipe her and her associates off the map, prompting her and her private investigator buddy Mitch, played by the always-entertaining Samuel L. Jackson, to clear the playing field, unlocking her latent abilities, and saving the world from shady chemical weapons dealers by shooting them mercilessly. It’s a tad bit vulgar and toes the line between blunt-force trauma thriller and buddy comedy, but it’s still a very fun ride to go on.

xHomeI’ll Be Home for Christmas (1998)

Another favorite of mine from years ago that begs a revisit. Back in the days of yore when Jonathan Taylor Thomas was relevant and riding the wave of post-Home Improvement popularity that could be argued to have proven his undoing, Disney released this little gem concerning a college boy who has to hitchhike across the United States in a Santa Claus outfit after a juvenile prank gets out of hand. His goal is twofold: I- Win back his disenfranchised girlfriend (Jessica Biel, post-Seventh Heaven) before his arrogant rival scoops her for himself, and II- Get to his New York State home before Christmas dinner so he inherits his father’s vintage Porsche. Along the way he has to deal with bratty children, disgruntled bus drivers, and the wrath of his frat boy rival. A genuine little family film teaching the wrongs of arrogance and the fruits of perseverance in a comic fashion.

Tokyo Godfathers (2003)

The typical audience reaction to most Satoshi Kon movies.
The typical audience reaction to most Satoshi Kon movies.

The late Japanese animation legend Satoshi Kon spent his career building stories that got under viewers’ skin while introducing concepts of humanity and imagination that stick with you after the story has ended. Of his oeuvre, this film, his second-to-last, is the most inviting and least disturbing feature, being an off-beat Christmas tale that concerns three homeless vagrants, each with a tragicomic backstory that tugs at your heartstrings and your sense of humor, who discover a newborn baby wrapped in swaddling clothes in a trash can. Determined to find out the babe’s origins and return him to his parents, they set off across Tokyo in search of answers, and maybe a hand-out along the way. Imagine The Hangover crossed with Adventures in Babysitting and toss in a little Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and you have a rough idea of what kind of journey you have in store when you watch Tokyo Godfathers. I am unashamed to admit that I was so struck with this movie’s heart and zany tragicomedy that it is now one of my cherished holiday traditions. Check this one out!


xCarolCAROL
(2015)

This is currently in limited release across the country, and from what I hear, a big Oscar(tm) contender. Based on a story by Ripley mastermind Patricia Highsmith, Rooney Mara stars as a young 1950s-era department store clerk who falls for an older woman, the sumptuous and charismatic Carol (Cate Blanchette). That’s the gist of the plot that I dare to give away. More than likely the prettiest movie released this holiday season, the film promises luscious photography and a tumultuous romance between 2 of the loveliest people working in the movies currently. My contacts in the industry centers tell me this is The Movie to see this Oscar season. I can’t wait!

 

I hope to have inspired some newfound Christmas spirit in time for the approaching flurry of festivities. Peace, Love, and Happy Viewing to all.

Blue Man Group Announces Return to Grand Rapids

The award-winning performance troupe Blue Man Group is coming back to Grand Rapids after six successful years taking their show on tour around North America, only 3 years since their last stop in the heart of the mitten. Boasting a program of “comedy, theatre, rock concert, and dance party all rolled into one”, the show will stop in at DeVos Performance Hall for two performances in early February as a last-minute addition to the Broadway Grand Rapids 2015-16 season lineup.bmg2

“We live in a fast-paced, ever-evolving world. The Blue Man character is a curious being who explores our cultural norms, our every-day objects, but he sees them with fresh eyes and an innocent perspective. As the world around us changes, we are constantly inspired to create new scenarios for the Blue Man to explore,” said Phil Stanton, Co-Founder of Blue Man Group.

“Plus, we really like to keep things fresh and vibrant. For almost 25 years, although the content within the show varies, the mission of every Blue Man Group show has remained the same – to bring the collective audience together with the Blue Men for a euphoric celebration, a heightened state of being alive,” added Co-Founder Chris Wink.

In addition to the bombastic antics involving a live rock n roll band, ludicrous props, and unbelievable acrobatics, Blue Man Group offers playful commentary that appeals to our innate humanity. They also have started taking into account the outliers in interested audiences, offering Autism-friendly shows, in support of Autism Speaks, in certain locations with subdued musical volume and slight modifications to accompany differences in audience interaction. No word yet on whether such a performance is part of the stop in Grand Rapids.

bmg1

Tickets go on sale to the general public December 3rd at 10am. Performances will be at 7:30pm on February 2nd and 3rd, at DeVos Performance Hall on Monroe Ave. Pricing starts at $37.50. To purchase tickets, visit broadwaygrandrapids.com, call 616-235-6285 or charge by phone through Ticketmaster at 1-800-745-3000.

Mockingjay 2: Thank Katniss, It’s Finally Over!

Hunger Games part2The YA film community has finally hit its last hurrah. The Hunger Games, the flagship of their current generation, after Harry Potter, and Twilight, has finally run its course.

Personally, I am glad. I found the series as a whole to be resoundingly hollow.

I have a bone to pick with the author and screenwriter’s intents with Katniss, the character that has entered the same lexicon as Charlie Brown and Voldemort. Everyone knows Katniss. She’s the bad-@$$ with the bow and arrow. This finale to the series just proved how little I cared for  the concept and characters that came with. Here Katniss is still recovering from the PTSD acquired during the events of the first two flicks as well as the harrowing denouement of Mockingjay Part I, but for this reviewer, I just felt as she probably felt: empty. She sees or hears about bad things that happen to those around her and then she shoots bad guys with arrows. The gratifying moments just don’t ring true.

Hunger Games Part 2Jennifer Lawrence is not to blame here. The director and screenwriters messed it up, she’s just dealing with what she’s given.

My other massive problem with the movie deals with Gale (Liam Hemsworth). The other Hemsworth that has had trouble finding success outside of his big brother’s shadow. Every moment he appeared on screen was punctuated by a massive yawn. Whoever cast this man should have been fired. So much of this movie concerns a bloody love triangle between him, Katniss, and Peeta that anyone with a third-grade education can call from frame 1.

This does not necessarily mean the movie is a total disaster. Donald Sutherland milks every moment he has on screen to fill the air with menace as well as charming sociopolitical intrigue. [SPOILERS] His final moments are among the most chilling in the whole series. [END SPOILERS]

I have always considered myself a little biased against The Hunger Games. Suzanne Collins created a series and concept that was lauded by critics and readers as wholly original and earth-shattering… except for the tiny fact that the title centerpiece is a clear adaptation of cult classic Battle Royale, a gory satire from Japan.*

I don’t like plagiarists, I despise plagiarists who don’t admit when they’ve been caught. I don’t respect people who lie to avoid blame getting caught in the cookie jar. Quentin Tarantino has been accused of this as well. Reservoir Dogs can be interpreted as an American remake of a Hong Kong film called City on Fire. And his use of the word homage to escape lawsuits is borderline theft.

Hunger Games Part 2The action was middling, the music okay, the settings standard dystopian action fare, I just felt bored the entire movie. Every other reviewer mentions the stunning homage to ALIENS halfway into the movie. Yes, I caught it. James Cameron still did it better. Heck, I was getting FURY ROAD flashbacks when albino xenomorphs started popping out of the walls for a bloodless^ massacre in the sewer. Every supporting character we followed felt expendable, which surprise, surprise, they were! This series would have been much more interesting told from the point of view of the psychotic Johanna (Jena Malone). At least there would have been bursts of giggling fury from her.

*Isn’t it funny? Hunger Games steals from Battle Royale, then Divergent outright steals from Hunger Games. The wheel of cinematic inbreeding continues to spin.

^I really dislike “edgy” PG-13 action films that showcase carnage and horrific things, only escaping the dreaded R-rating by excising all the blood. Stop it, Hollywood. This is getting annoying.

Hearthside Aims to Expand Job Market in Kentwood

hearthsdeThe nation’s largest privately-held baking company is planning on adding to the local job market thanks in part to a grant from the Michigan Strategic Fund.

Hearthside Food Solutions, LLC, est. 2009, specializing in grain-based foods and snacks, announced that due to the generous grant, the company would be able to add as well as train 66 positions to their 3225 32nd Street baking line location. The grant came in order to offset higher energy and operating costs in Michigan, compared to a site they considered in Kentucky.

Based out of Illinois, Hearthside currently employs over 1700 full-time employees in West Michigan, operating four plants, including the 32nd Street location, as well as one on Shaffer Avenue, one on 44th Street, and one on Oak Industrial Drive, off of Michigan St NE. The specific baking line location on 32nd Street was the former Meridian Auto Systems plant before said company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2005.

WKTV reached out for comments from Hearthside, but they could not be reached.

Holiday Prevue 2015: Thanksgiving & Christmas & STAR WARS, oh my!

Before the summer blockbuster took over the box office in the 1970s with the likes of JAWS and Star Wars, Christmas was the big pull for movie-goers, and in many ways it still is. Most of the big awards contenders are sometimes pushed back to take advantage of the bustle of consumer behavior accompanying the holiday season. In recent years, at least since the successful debut of Toy Story in 1995, Thanksgiving has also become a hallmark holiday to milk for movie releases, often spawning plenty of family-friendly fare for the close-knit holiday. Looking ahead, this article is to spotlight big movies being released through Christmas.

creedCREED (Thanksgiving)

First up this Thanksgiving is a spin-off from the ever-popular Rocky Balboa franchise, this time focusing on the son of Rocky’s ally and rival from the first four films, Apollo Creed.

The movie follows Adonis, Creed’s son, who decides to step into the ring to prove something to his family, Rocky, and maybe himself.  The films is being helmed by Ryan Coogler, who previously directed star Michael B. Jordan in Fruitvale Station, a ripped-from-the-headlines tragedy about the last day of Oscar Grant, an Oakland native who became a victim of police brutality. The film is a different direction for the franchise giving Stallone’s Balboa a supporting turn in the vein of Burgess Meredith’s Mickey.

Reviews have been favorable so far, so hopes are this underdog can be the long shot to steal the weekend from the likes of Pixar and the monstrous Frankenstein reboot.good-dinosaur-poster

THE GOOD DINOSAUR (Thanksgiving)

Information is rare on this other Pixar movie being released on Thanksgiving. All we know for sure is that it revolves around a slightly altered pre-history where a meteorite didn’t wipe out the beasts that ruled the Earth pre-humanity and the interactions between a gentle dinosaur and his feral human companion. Trailers haven’t related much of a story, only images of beauty reminiscent of AVATAR and interactions reminiscent of The Land Before Time. Comic and social media artist Patton Oswalt seemed to enjoy it! The most likely winner of the Thanksgiving weekend, overall.

Victor Frankenstein (Thanksgiving)Victor-Frankenstein-Poster

This is a movie I don’t think anyone saw coming. A Frankenstein movie starring rebooted Professor X as a whimsical, rebellious Doctor Frankenstein and Harry Potter as Igor, the overwhelmed assistant. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t curious after seeing the trailer. Mayhaps it has a chance, gobble gobble…

Macbeth mcb15(December TBA)

Being released sometime in December, Michael Fassbender takes on the Bard in the upcoming adaptation of Shakespeare’s most notorious tragedy, The Scottish Play. -sorry, my theatrical background is keeping the superstition alive- While Shakespeare has proven to be hit or miss when it comes to film adaptation, this one has a quality actor at the front as well as a unique artistic approach to authenticity that could bring in the crowds.

krampsKrampus (December 4th)

This will be the second horror film released this year featuring a cast of people known primarily for their comedic work: Adam Scott (Parks and Rec), David Koechner (Anchorman+2), Allison Tolman (FARGO), Toni Collette (United States of Tara)… all signed on for a film not about Santa, but the other supernatural creature associated with the Christmas season, that fewer people are aware of. That being is Krampus, a Christmas demon of sorts who does not come bearing gifts, but horror and terror. Hopefully, it’ll be in better taste than Silent Night, Deadly Night

in_the_heart_of_the_seaIn the Heart of the Sea (December 11th)

Ron Howard makes movies that I enjoy watching, personally. His latest, RUSH, was an exhilarating drama about a rivalry that made me care equally for both parties. Now, he’s decided he wants to adapt the true-life tale that inspired Moby Dick, that contender for the title of The Great American Novel. And it’s got Chris Hemsworth and Cillian Murphy (Batman Begins). Even though it’s been pushed back multiple times this year, I really can’t wait to see what the mastermind behind A Beautiful Mind and Apollo 13 has in store for his audience.

Episode VII (December 18th)

swviiYes, yes, the movie we’ve all been waiting for is less than a month away. And it’s going to make more money than organized religion in general has seen in the last decade. Do I really need to add anything…besides the fact I already have my IMAX tickets? -sigh- I am a disgrace to objective cinema journalism.

Don’t disappoint us, Jar Jar Abrams. Some of us still remember what happened the last time you went into space…

*A brief mention regarding Sisters, the Tina Fey/Amy Poehler comedy vehicle that’s decided to challenge The Force Awakens for a spot on December the 18th: It Doesn’t Have A Snowball’s Chance…

**A word on The Road Chip: no.

concussion-2015-01Concussion (Christmas)

Will Smith’s controversial drama putting the NFL under the radar is aiming for the Christmas crowd. I guess it’s a better spot than Thanksgiving, considering…

My dad will wanna see this. A better pick than Draft Day, I suppose.

h8fulThe Hateful Eight (Christmas)

Quentin Tarantino really has a thing for releasing his glorified exploitation films at Christmas. Since Jackie Brown in 1997, he has gleefully enjoyed subverting the typical Christmas fare with his bloody, ironic takes on cinematic language, genre, and uproarious content. His second western in a row, he has promised The Hateful Eight will be “the funniest snow western ever made.” Since his crowd-pleasing movies are ridiculous in content and often hilarious as well, don’t write off the holidays as completely in the hands of Jar Jar Abrams and his space opera playset.

pb15Point Break (Christmas)

If it were up to the author, this summary would be limited to “No Keanu? No Swayze? No thank you!” Alas…

It looks like it’ll cater to the adrenaline junkies crowd with portrayals of extreme (!) action sports like quad racing against avalanches, wingsuits flying through mountain forests, and an epic bromance between Edgar Ramirez and Luke Bracey. Yeah, I never heard of him either. Don’t expect this one to sweep the audience from their Tarantino gunplay and the continuing adventures of Han Solo and Co.

It looks like it’s going to be a very Star Wars Christmas after all.sw

PEANUTS: Somewhere, Charles Schulz is Blushing

Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and Co. are back with style in The Peanuts Movie.
Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and Co. are back with style in The Peanuts Movie.

I was worried when I heard Blue Sky had acquired the rights to make the next theatrical PEANUTS movie, at first. Blue Sky tends to make movies that look presentable, but rely on too much bathroom humor and irritating characters to really trust with – what I believe to be – the cornerstone of golden age comic strips.

Thank goodness for the father-son writer-producers of Bryan and Craig Schulz to keep the inherent warmth and pathos of PEANUTS intact, able to be enjoyed by children and adults all around.

The Peanuts Movie turns out to be a crowning achievement of storytelling that would make Charles Schulz proud and just a little bashful. Mr. Schulz was a notoriously humble man who simply enjoyed giving others joy with his characters and comics.

The story is split up into two separate, yet joined story-lines involving Charlie Brown and his incorrigible dog, Snoopy. Charlie Brown spots a newly moved-in neighbor, the cutest Little Red-Haired Girl you’ve ever seen, and immediately falls in puppy love. He spends the rest of the film trying to discover ways to build up his self-confidence, from visiting the local psychiatric booth to modern dance lessons. Meanwhile, Snoopy is inspired by his master’s lovelorn behavior and sets off into the skies as his Flying Ace alter ego to rescue a beautiful poodle flying ace from the clutches of the nefarious Red Baron.

There are uniquely wonderful moments provided in this movie, from Charlie Brown daring to fly a kite in the middle of winter to spite the Kite-Eating Tree to his sister Sally’s rodeo demonstration at the school talent show.

The gang is all here to perform as well, with Lucy being fuss-budgety as always, Linus providing moments of childish, philosophical clarity, and Schroeder being the compulsive soundtrack artist we know he is, even providing the iconic 20th Century Fox theme we expect. The filmmakers realize that the best PEANUTS adventures focus equally on both Charlie Brown’s struggles as well as Snoopy and Woodstock’s shenanigans.

Of the five features made of the Peanuts canon, this is certainly one of the best, alongside A Boy Named Charlie Brown and the truly under-appreciated Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown, whose only sin was being released the same year as a little movie called Star Wars.

I really adored this movie. It presented a fresh slice of PEANUTS lore, with plenty of literary callbacks, heartfelt character interactions, and surprisingly well-mounted aerial sequences that more than live up to the past specials and films. The gags are awesome and inventive, the cast uniform and charming all around, and the direction is pretty spot-on, if I should say so myself.

I hope it gets an Animated Feature nomination, because it’s really deserving, just for adapting the Schulz animation style, updating it, while not radically altering the design and lining of the world. Also, kudos for not trying to “update” the material or setting. PEANUTS should stay timeless. Please make more of these, Blue Sky!

*If I could make one suggestion: ditch the modern music and bring back the classy jazz soundtrack. It just works better that way.

Gothic Beauty Awaits chez Crimson Peak

Director Guillermo del Toro shows off the set of Crimson Peak.
Director Guillermo del Toro shows off the set of Crimson Peak.

Too many audiences are making a key mistake when they go to theaters to see movies. When the Crimson Peak trailer debuted, audiences simply assumed from the imagery and the booming score that this was just another period-piece, horror movie. The old adage still holds true: Trailers Always Lie!

They are half-right. It is a period piece. I don’t expect audiences to do research studies before going to see a movie, but a little reading has never really hurt, has it?

The director himself, Guillermo del Toro has even come out in various interviews explaining that the marketing is out of his hands, as his movie is a Gothic romance; just “a story that has ghosts in it”, not necessarily a ghost story. And the man is right, after all, he made the movie.

To describe this movie in simplest terms is if Hitchcock’s best Gothic romances (Suspicion, Rebecca, & Notorious) were all pureed by Dario Argento and topped with delicious Guillermo del Toro frosting.

The story concerns a troubled young American socialite, Edith Cushing, played by Mia Wasikowska of Disney’s Alice in Wonderland reboot fame, who yearns to explore the world and become a writer of stories. To escape the literal ghosts of her past, she falls for brooding inventor and land baron, Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston, The Avengers), but is forbidden to love him by her concerned father (Jim Beaver, Deadwood). After her father’s mysterious death, Sharpe whisks her off to England to reside in the family manor, a decrepit house occupied by Sharpe and his curious sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty). Little does Edith know of the dark past of the manor and its occupants, but she’s about to find out the price of loving mysterious men.

The cast here is truly top-notch. Hiddleston is basically playing a combination of Laurence Olivier’s Heathcliff and Michael Fassbender’s Rochester, with both turmoil and conviction. Wasikowska is a brilliant stand-in for the Joan Fontaine type. Charlie Hunnam is a charming character, for once, as the optometrist who has an interest in detective work. Jim Beaver, as Edith’s father, is not a stubborn fire and brimstone man as much as a cautious father, protecting his kin from what he perceives to be trouble. Even Burn Gorman in his brief appearance instills a sense of professional quality and resolve in his private investigator.

Spooky, Scary Jessica Chastain in Guillermo del Toro's gothic chiller, CRIMSON PEAK.
Spooky, Scary Jessica Chastain in Guillermo del Toro’s gothic chiller, Crimson Peak.

And then Jessica Chastain appears.

The fire that powers this woman is terrifying. Apparently possessed by the enraged spirits of both Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, all eyes are on her whenever she enters the story frame. There is a definite feeling of unease when she shares the screen with anyone, especially Hiddleston and Wasikowska. Brrrr! Just remembering every scene she has brings a shiver and a smile. It’s that chillingly good! Even when she’s simply playing the piano, she’s intimidating, and yet ridiculously alluring at the same time. like if Lauren Bacall played Mommie Dearest…or maybe that’s just me.

Everything else is quite up to snuff. The production design and costumes are equally lush and epic in construction. The music is on point, although sometimes plays to horror conventions much too easily for my taste. The sound design is downright masterful, echoing the likes of Robert Wise’s classic The Haunting as well as the under-appreciated Legend of Hell House.

I gotta admit: I am in love with Guillermo’s oeuvre. The man is a cheerful storyteller whose geek flag is flying high with every movie he makes. 2013’s Pacific Rim was his love letter to kaiju movies of the 1950s as well as mecha anime of the 1990s. His Academy-Award winning Pan’s Labyrinth was an ode to fairy tales and mythic creatures of Mexican lore. This movie is his love letter to both the Gothic romance genre, the works of Brontë and Daphne du Maurier as well as classic haunted house fare like The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932). The man truly appreciates western and eastern pop culture equally, which y’all would know if you follow him on twitter. The man has near-encyclopedic knowledge of culture going back 150 years, nearly.

If you haven’t fear of witnessing what would happen if a classy story of ghosts, murder, and romantic intrigue was given a solid R-rated treatment, feel free to check out Crimson Peak before it leaves theaters, forever.brett_wiesenauer

Trunk or Treat 2015 brings Seasons Treatings

Tractor rides at Trunk or Treat

brett_wiesenauer

On the morn of October 24th, a truckload of cute ghouls and characters appeared outside the Kentwood Public Works Garage. They shambled and moved in unison with a hunger, for seasonal treats. It was Halloween time and that meant Trunk or Treat had arrived.

The event was put on by Kentwood Parks and Recreation in association with many local organizations including Kent District Library, the Fun Spot, and the local police and fire departments, of course.

The event had much to offer for all in attendance. There were the treats, of course, but also warm cider and donuts for sale, a bouncy castle, a clownish DJ playing assorted holiday favorites like “Thriller” and the “Addams Family Theme”, and tractor rides on the way out.

100_0973
Mr. President!

In attendance that crisp morning was Mayor Stephen Kepley, or rather, Mr. President. Dressed in deluxe Abe Lincoln attire, the mayor was most gracious in handing out treats and goodie bags for the festive multitudes. Asked afterwards about his thoughts on this year’s event, “It was a really great turnout. We only expected around eight-hundred or a thousand, but I surmise we at least doubled that estimate this morning.”

There had been a warning of rain that morning, so the event had actually been moved from its original location to an indoor locale, just in case the weather made a turn.

Representing the police department, Officer J. Morningstar dispensed candy to passing minions, ninjas, superheroes, and even a cupcake!

Attendance proved so numerous that halfway into the two-hour showcase, a supply run had to be made, as sweets were in such high demand!

A miniature horse was also in attendance, representing Karin’s Horse Connection, a group who specializes in equestrian riding as well as vaulting, gymnastics on top of moving horses.

‘Twas a fantastic event that got the community involved and cemented a genuine Halloween atmosphere in the township. Good job, Kentwood Parks and Rec.

  • Trunk 'r Treat 2015
    So many people!
  • Trunk 'r Treat 2015
    McGruff the Crime Dog teams up with Officer Morningstar for the festivities.
  • Trunk 'r Treat 2015
    Officer J. Morningstar dispenses candy to a passing princess.
  • Trunk 'r Treat 2015
    A costumed princess comes'a treating
  • Trunk 'r Treat 2015
    The line of eager participants kept growing throughout the morning.
  • Trunk 'r Treat 2015
    A packed house indeed.
  • Trunk 'r Treat 2015
    Mr Mayor, erm, I meant Mr. President hands out treats to a grateful ninja.
  • Trunk 'r Treat 2015
    Pumpkin Racers, start your gourds!
  • Trunk 'r Treat 2015
    Ooo, Spooky!
  • Trunk 'r Treat 2015
    Wait for it...
  • Trunk 'r Treat 2015
    Boo!
  • Trunk 'r Treat 2015
    Firehounds gotta stick together.
  • Trunk 'r Treat 2015
    I dunno if I can trust this DJ. Seems spooky.
  • Trunk 'r Treat 2015
    And the award for cutest confection goes to...
  • Trunk 'r Treat 2015
    Minions
  • Trunk 'r Treat 2015
    Godzilla, much cuter than previously thought.
  • Trunk 'r Treat 2015
    Look at this tiny horse! Look At It!
  • Trunk 'r Treat 2015
    Rooby-Rooby Doo!
  • Trunk 'r Treat 2015
    Hayrides were free with entry.

The Martian Provides Quality Escapist Entertainment

brett_wiesenauerSir Ridley Scott has had a tough couple of years. His return to the ALIEN franchise, the inception of which made him a household name, was met with derision and snide remarks from fans and critics, and Exodus: Gods and Kings gave no impression of staying power longer than a mosquito bite. The man who gave us Blade Runner, Thelma & Louise, and Black Hawk Down has needed a comeback hit for ages.Ridley_Scott

And This Is It.

Sir Ridley returns to space with a mammoth cast and a stellar script from Drew Goddard, of Cabin in the Woods and Netflix’s Daredevil fame. The Martian is thoughtful, funny, engrossing, and a sure-fire hit with audiences and critics, judging from its first weekend alone. After witnessing it in 3D its opening weekend, I can further the hype even more with this here glowing review of mine.

Matt Damon plays Mark Watney, a botanist part of NASA’s mission to Mars. When a surprise storm hits and whisks him off, damaging his life support, he is reluctantly left for dead by his fellow crew, much to the chagrin of the Captain of the outfit, played by Jessica Chastain (Interstellar, Take Shelter). The next SOL (the Martian equivalent of a day), he limps his way back to his HAB[itat] and starts planning to survive while finding a way to contact Earth and alert them to his Robinson Crusoe situation.

The cast here is mammoth and incredible. To list a few names who make appearances: Michigan native Jeff Daniels as the cautious head of NASA who has the bottom line and legacy of his organization resting on his decisions, Sean Bean as a fiery mission director who will do anything for his crew mates, Chiwetel Ejiofor as the passionate engineer who is Watney’s main contact with Earth, SNL alum Kristen Wiig as a passive spokesperson; the list goes on, but then that’s just what this would become, a list.

The film looks genuine, even in the slightly dimmed RealD 3D I viewed it in. The Martian backdrop looks convincing, no hints of life as far as the camera eye can capture. We have been graced with 4 consecutive years of breathtaking space travel films, starting with Sir Ridley’s Prometheus in 2012, continuing with Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity in 2013, Christopher Nolan’s INTERSTELLAR last year, and this year we have The Martian.

There is a clear sense of human achievement in the film that makes some of the harsher elements easier to deal with. Whenever something bad happens to Watney, he often remarks on his bad luck but comes quick with a witty response and a sense of optimism that Matt Damon can easily provide with his screen presence.

martian25I am glad that space travel movies are making a comeback. There is a sense of wonder that they provide that spurs the imagination and inspires young minds to explore the sciences, which this movie will surely aid in seeing as science is what keeps the main character alive throughout. It makes for an entertaining adventure, that’s for sure.

SICARIO: A Bleak, Suspenseful Pill to Swallow (R)

brett_wiesenaurEscalation.

That’s a major part of what makes SICARIO, the latest from Denis Villeneuve, the director behind Enemy and Prisoners, a true Villeneuve experience. Tension starts to coil in your stomach, your heartbeat slows, then quickens as your breath gets caught in your throat. The droning score from Jóhann Jóhannsson only amps up the tension provided by the careful composition of suspense in the film proper. I have never been more terrified of a single place on Earth than I was during each excursion into Juarez, Mexico.

Image Credit: ©2015 Lions Gate UK Limited. All Rights Reserved. -
Image Credit: ©2015 Lions Gate UK Limited. All Rights Reserved. –

The story here involves an FBI tactician played by Emily Blunt, who specializes in kidnappings. After a routine raid in Arizona reveals a grotesque site of cartel activity and depravity, she is roped into accompanying a team of elite military agents over the border into Mexico to “shake the tree” of the cartels and provoke some chaos. Through the film, our protagonist struggles to balance by-the-book activities with surviving in an oppressively male-oriented society of violence, strong-arm tactics, and drug-fueled paranoia with varying rates of success.

This cast is fantastic. Emily Blunt makes a solid impression as our undermined protagonist, Josh Brolin is great as the fast-talking recruiter, it’s nice to see Victor Garber in things again, Jon Bernthal is great in a crucial, menacing scene, and then, there’s Benicio del Toro.

Benicio del Toro in SICARIO Photograph: Allstar/Lionsgate

Benicio is the true star of the film. At first appearing burnt out and barely alive, his Alejandro rumbles with a rage that hasn’t been seen onscreen since the days of yore when Reb Brown was still active. He’s part Splinter Cell, part interrogation specialist, and part Doberman Pinscher. I can’t believe he was acting, as I was sure he was just being Benicio: raw and intimidating, to put it mildly.

I have a single issue with the film in that it sets up a character to play a role later which feels almost shoe-horned in, a la Syriana, but it didn’t ruin the film. I just felt it gave a minor character more screen time than necessary for the machinations of the storytelling.

SICARIO is a fascinating cross between a war film, a south-of-the-border western, and the grittiest police procedural ever made. There are no real good guys or bad guys in this world, everyone has a bit of both in them. This movie is not for everyone. If you as viewers cannot stomach chilling, HARD-R content such as torture and absurd levels of tension, I would recommend you check out something else, The Martian, for instance.

But if you’re willing to take a chance and tunnel down the cartel equivalent of a rabbit-hole, you’ll be rewarded with one of the best dramas of the year.

Mission: IMPOSSIBLE ? Not really, quite enjoyable actually…

brett_wiesenaurIf it’s not apparent yet, I am a connoisseur of all things cinema, but I have a particularly fond appreciation for genre films. For those unfamiliar with the fine lingo, a genre film is a work that typically follows a particular formula of narrative, either loosely or obsessively, while not being an outright comedy or drama, outright.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: secret agency has a problem; to solve that problem, they put a team together of powerful societal misfits to fight said problem, and in the process save the world. I’ve just described easily a dozen movies made since the 1970s, including one of the most popular genre films ever made: 2012’s The Avengers.Mission Impossible: Rouge Nation

One of my favorite examples of a true, blue genre film is the 1986 release Big Trouble in Little China. A burly all-American trucker loses his truck in a series of mishaps in Chinatown. Later, he teams up with a low-brow, ragtag group of fighters to not only find his truck, but they happen to save a pair of kidnapped girls from a cursed mystical Chinese sorcerer in the process. While a comedy of sorts, the plot also tosses in elements of fantasy and adventure, making this a defining example of a genre film.

Many genre films are part of franchises, and today, your humble contributor is to examine and discuss the merits and history of one of cinema’s strange little successes, the Mission: IMPOSSIBLE franchise.

In the beginning, there was a television show. Starting in 1966 and running until 1973, the initial show was practically an instant classic, cementing several spy tropes in the public memory: “This message will self-destruct…”, the elaborate use of hyper-realistic masks and simplistic gadgetry, and the tension of a mission that could easily go wrong, but rarely did.

MissionImpossiblePosterThis was the daddy of all great spy shows, inspiring countless others from JJ Abrams’ ALIAS to the USA serial Covert Affairs. It was so popular, it was revived briefly in the late 80s, when the Cold War was winding down, to mediocre success, running only 2 brief seasons. Fun fact: I was raised on this series before I had seen any single frame of the movies, so I am very familiar with the formula and execution of some very classy 60s television in addition to the landmark film franchise.

A film adaptation of the series had been pitched as early as 1978, but it wasn’t until 1996 that the world finally experienced Mission: IMPOSSIBLE on the big ol’ silver screen.

The 1996 film is a very different creature from the initial television series. There are elements that are the same, including the use of masks and absurdly effective tension throughout the mission, but the initial series was heavy on thrills, low on action. Heck, most episodes didn’t even feature a car chase or a gunfight.

The first movie installment in the series opts for a classic action-adventure approach; plenty of stunts, running, a few explosions here and there, plus a slight bit of gore to pay homage to director Brian de Palma’s big start in the horror business [Carrie, Sisters]. Its plot is convoluted enough to keep audiences scratching their heads, even after the movie has wrapped itself up in a nice, tidy bow, which can be a good thing. Overall, the first film remains a splendid, perfectly serviceable action-thriller that paved the way for even more adventures…four to be exact!

MissionImpossible2The second adventure was even more different than the first one, opting for less suspense, and going for the throat with fiery action scenes galore. M:I-2 was helmed by Hong Kong action virtuoso John Woo, fresh off of Face/Off. While his visions were spectacular to say the least, the film itself falls apart without his signature mayhem. The plot is a cheap rip-off of the James Bond flick, GoldenEye, and the film’s pace veers and brakes like a truck driven by a coke-head epileptic.

Critics and retrospective audiences weren’t that enthused with it for its seemingly unending tirade of set-pieces without much substance beneath the shenanigans. Movies are an illusion, held together by characters, music, and some sense of pacing, graciously given in the editing room, usually. This movie just ended up being concussive and not much else. Even acclaimed character-actor Brendan Gleeson couldn’t save this movie, and he was Mad Eye freaking Moody!

My take on it is as follows: it was colorful, and relentless in its pursuit of adrenaline, but the movie just ends up being a chore to sit through, having no center or sense of balance. Afterwards, the series went into hibernation for six years, before some new blood could revive the stuck series.

2006 was a big year for action. Fresh off the heels of 2005’s Batman Begins revitalizing the comic book movie market, alongside Sin City, comic book flicks and franchise pictures were everywhere. X3, V for Vendetta, Superman Returns, and even James Bond rebooted himself with the stellar Casino Royale.

MissionImpossible3JJ Abrams, he of aforementioned ALIAS fame, was given the reins of the third entry in the series, M:I-3. This was a big turning point in the series, taking it back to its taut, tension-filled roots, but still managing to keep some big action sequences without overpowering the audience. Holding the film together is undoubtedly the best villain in the series, Owen Davian, played with vicious gravitas by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Davian is even more haunting than most any Bond villain, carrying an aura of menace usually reserved for undead counts and real-life serial kidnappers. The man outright promises, not threatens, to find that someone that our hero, Ethan Hunt, cares for, following up with, “I’m gonna hurt her. I’m gonna make her bleed, and cry, and call out your name. And then I’m gonna find you, and kill you right in front of her.” Can you feel goosebumps or is that just me?

Granted, there were other things that worked, such as an insane “fulcrum” jump from one skyscraper to another, and a race through Shanghai towards the end that should leave most audiences breathless. Needless to say, critics and audiences went nuts for a much more mature handling of the spy franchise that was sorely missing from the second film. My personal fave of the bunch.

Where to next? How about atop the tallest building the world knew at the time?

In a previous review of Tomorrowland, I noted my adoration of wizard/wunderkind director-creator Brad Bird. His first live-action feature was the fourth entry in the series, Ghost Protocol, the first one to warrant a subtitle, because you oughta be prepared when ghosts happen.

MissionImpossible4This film was a bit bigger in scope than the previous one, riding on the fact that Tom Cruise climbs the tallest building in the world with only a pair of sticky gloves! Wouldn’t that catch anyone’s attention? But they didn’t just ride on that big stunt, no sir! Not only does Tom Cruise’s avatar climb tall stuff, he outruns bomb blasts at other famous landmarks, crashes expensive sports cars, escaping unscathed of course, and chases baddies in the middle of a Fury Road-esque dust storm. Yeesh!

Overall, the film was mucho successful at the box office, being the most money-making entry in the franchise thusfar, as well as the most profitable Tom Cruise movie ever, even taking into account Top Gun re-releases! It also had Jeremy Renner in it, which is always a plus.

As for me, I thought this film was passable action fare, seeming a step down from the adrenaline-injected menace of the previous entry. Aside from some of the set-pieces, I don’t remember much of anything besides Jeremy Renner and Simon Pegg were in it.

What does this mean for the future of the series? Who knows? All we can hope for is previous along with fresher elements of all the films will collide together and form more fun entries in the coming years. Perhaps there will be that stand-out entry that will stand out for all history as a definitive spy thriller. Hey, I hear good things about the newest one. -Wink Wink-