Film Review: Mass (dir by Fran Kranz)


As we all know, this year’s Sundance Film Festival started tonight.

To me, Sundance has always signified the official start of a new cinematic year.  Not only is it the first of the major festivals but it’s also when we first learn about the films that we’ll be looking forward to seeing all year.  It seems like every year, there’s at least one successful (or nearly successful) Oscar campaign that gets it start at Sundance.  Last year, for instance, Minari took Sundance by storm and it was able to ride that momentum all the way to a Best Picture nomination.  Before that, nominees like Manchester By The Sea and Brooklyn got their starts at Sundance.

And, even if their films weren’t nominated for best picture, some of the most important filmmakers of the past few decades got their first exposure at Sundance.  The Coen Brothers first won notice with Blood Simple.  Years later, Quentin Tarantino took the festival by storm with Reservoir Dogs.  Though an argument can be made that Sundance is now just as corporate as the Hollywood system to which it’s supposed to providing an alternative, one can’t deny the importance of the Festival.

For the next few days, I’m going to taking a look at a few films that made their initial splash at Sundance.  Some of these films went on to become award winners and some did not.  But they’re all worth your attention, one way or another.

Take for instance, Mass.

The first directorial effort of actor Fran Kranz (you may remember him as the clever and genre-savvy stoner from The Cabin In The Woods), Mass made its debut at least year’s Sundance Film Festival.  It was one of the more critically acclaimed films of the festival and, in a perfect world, it would currently be an Oscar front runner.  And who knows?  There’s always a chance that Mass could pick up a nomination or two.  Ann Dowd is apparently running a very energetic campaign for Best Supporting Actress and she’s said to be well-liked in the industry.  It’s probably a bit too much to expect the film to be nominated for Best Picture, though it certainly deserves some consideration.  It’s perhaps a bit too low-key for a year that’s full of bombast and big emotional moments.  It’s a film that raises interesting questions but refuses to provide easy answers.  In short, it’s the type of film that, ten years from now, people will watch it and say, “How did this not get nominated?”  Even if it’s not a Sundance film that’s destined for the Oscars, it is a Sundance film that will be remembered for heralding the arrival of a vibrant new directorial talent.

Playing out in almost real time, Mass is a film about two couples having a very emotional conversation.  Richard (Reed Birney) and Linda (Ann Dowd) are the parents of Hayden.  Jay (Jason Isaacs) and Gail (Martha Plimpton) are the parents of Evan.  Hayden and Evan went to the same high school.  Years ago, Evan was killed in a school shooting.  Hayden was the shooter.  After killing ten students, Hayden killed himself.

The two couples are meeting in a room in the back of a church.  It’s a part of therapy.  They meet and they talk about their children and the events that led to the shooting.  Jay and Gail demand answers.  Richard and Linda can’t provide them.  At first, Gail is angry and Jay is the one who tries to keep things civil but, as the conversation continues, it becomes obvious that Jay is in fact angrier than Gail. Even when Richard and Linda express obviously sincere remorse for what Hayden did, Jay cannot accept it because, in a way, he needs them to be evil or ignorant or both.  Linda and Richard struggles to reconcile their love for their son with their hatred over what he did.  Gail and Jay feel that their son was unfairly taken from them and they’re right.  Richard and Linda feel that they’re being blamed for something they couldn’t control and they’re also right.  There are no easy villains or heroes in this film.  Instead, there are just four unique and interesting characters, all trying to understand something that makes no sense.

Almost everything we learn about the characters comes from listening to them speak.  Almost the entire film takes place in that one room.  By the end of the film, not a single character is who you originally believed them to be.  Jay’s search for meaning has led to him becoming a political activist.  He insists that there has to be some sort of identifiable reason to explain why his son is dead, even though he secretly realizes that there isn’t.  Gail, who starts out as the angriest person in the room, reveals herself to be the most empathetic.  At the start of the film, Jay accuses Richard of not having any emotions but, by the end, we see that Richard’s emotions are very real.  Finally, Linda seems meek but quickly reveals herself to be perhaps the strongest and most honest person in the room.

It may sound a bit stagey, this film that takes place in one room and which is basically just four characters having a conversation.  But director Fran Kranz does a wonderful job keeping the story moving and the conversation within the room never seems to drag.  Indeed, the room itself is almost as fascinating as any of the people inside of it.  At the start the film, we watch two church employees and social worker going out of their way to make the room as safe and non-confrontational as possible.  However, their efforts have the opposite effect.  The room is so friendly that it makes it impossible not to compare its pleasantness with the issues being discussed behind the room’s closed doors.  The room itself tries so hard to avoid confrontation that it has the opposite effect.

In the end, the film suggests that there are no neat answers.  Even though the two couples come to an understanding and even a sort of peace, there’s no guarantee that peace will last more than a day.  Indeed, as soon as they leave the room, their initial awkwardness returns, a reminder that we can understand pain but we can’t necessarily vanquish it.  It’s not a film about easy answers but there’s something liberating about the film’s willingness to acknowledge that life can be difficult but that life also goes on.

The film is a masterclass of good acting, with Dowd and Isaacs getting the biggest dramatic moments while Birney and Plimpton offer fantastic support.  In a perfect Oscar world, all four of them would be nominated and so would the film itself.  Unfortunately, one of the lessons of Mass is that there is no such thing as a perfect world.

Miniseries Review: The Last Don II (dir by Graeme Clifford)


The Clericuzio saga continues and it’s sillier than ever!

The Clericuzios were the Mob family who were first introduced in a Mario Puzo novel called The Last Don.  In 1997, CBS turned The Last Don in a three-part miniseries.  The ratings were good enough that, in 1999, the network gave the world a two-episode sequel, The Last Don II.  The Last Don II was created without the input of Mario Puzo (who died shortly before the miniseries aired) but director Graeme Clifford returned, as did a few members of the cast.

For example, Danny Aiello briefly returns as the honorable but aging Don Domenico Clericuzio, talking about life in the old country and demanding to know why some of his children have yet to marry.  Under his leadership, the Clericuzios are almost totally legit and they’ve even become powerful in Hollywood.  Claudia De Lena (Michelle Burke) is in charge of the family’s film studio and has recently become engaged to a film star named Dirk Von Schelburg (Andrew Jackson, trying to do an Arnie impersonation but coming across more like Jean-Claude Van Damme).  Still, despite the fact that the Clericuzios are (slowly) abandoning organized crime, they haven’t completely cut their ties.  They still have enemies.  And when Don Clericuzio dies after dancing at his final birthday party, those enemies are set to strike.

Who can run the Clericuzio family?  Only one of the Don’s son was actively involved in the underworld aspect of the organization and he’s promptly (and, to be honest, hilariously) crushed when someone drops a shipping crate on him.  Another Clericuzio son is gunned down at his legitimate business, proving that someone is trying to take out the entire family, regardless of whether they’re a part of the family business or not.  Georgio Clericuzio (David Marciano) goes to Paris and tires to convince Claudia’s brother, Cross (Jason Gedrick), to return from exile to take things over.  Cross refuses because he’s happily married to the most famous actress in the world, the improbably named Athena Aquataine (Mo Kelso, replacing Daryl Hannah in the role).  However, Athena is subsequently blown up by a bomb that was meant for Cross and that’s all it takes to bring Cross back to America.

Now that Cross is in charge, he sets about to discover who, among the other Families, is targeting the Clericuzios.  Helping him out with this is Billy D’Angelo (James Wilder), who we are told is the the most important of the Clericuzios capos, despite the fact that he was neither seen nor mentioned in the previous Last Don.  It seems pretty obvious from the start that Billy is not to be trusted.  Everyone who has ever seen The Godfather will automatically look at Billy and say, “There’s your rat.”  But Cross is a remarkably naïve crime lord.  He’s apparently the only guy in the Mafia who has never seen a Mafia movie.

Of course, there’s more going on than just Cross trying to figure out who is targeting the Clericuzio family.  His unstable aunt, Rose Marie (Kirstie Alley), wants revenge for the murder of her son Dante but, fortunately, she’s distracted by an affair with the family’s priest (Jason Isaacs, of all people).  Disgraced former studio exec Bobby Bantz (Robert Wuhl) is plotting against Claudia.  And finally, Cross is falling in love with his stepdaughter’s nanny (Patsy Kensit) despite the fact that it’s kind of obvious that the nanny is actually an undercover FBI agent.  Remember what I said about Cross being impossibly naïve?

The Last Don was a fairly silly miniseries.  The Last Don 2 is even sillier but, for that every reason, it’s also a bit more entertaining.  If the first Last Don was held together by the rivalry between Cross and Dante, the sequel is held together by a nonstop flow of melodrama, overheated dialogue, and thoroughly unsubtle acting.  It’s as if the director looked at every over-the-top scene and said, “It’s okay but can we turn things up just a little bit more?”  As such, tt’s not enough for Danny Aiello to merely make a cameo before his character dies.  Instead, he has to deliver cryptic words of wisdom about family and and honor and he has to do one final, Zorbaesque dance of joy before his heart gives out.  Meanwhile, Kirstie Alley really throws herself into playing the insane Rose Marie and whether she’s seducing a priest or hoarsely yelling that she doesn’t know how to ice skate, her performance is always more than strange enough to be watchable.  Jason Isaacs, meanwhile, furrows his brow desperately as he tries to resist temptation.  Patsy Kensit is the world’s worst FBI agent while Kim Coates shows up as one of her colleagues.  Conrad Dunn returns as Lia, the Sicilian assassin with the world’s silliest mustache.  Even the presence of Robert Wuhl is less of a problem in the sequel.  With everyone chewing up every piece of scenery that they can get their hands on, it somehow makes sense that Robert Wuhl would show up and start yelling, “DON’T LAUGH AT ME!”  Somehow, it even seems appropriate that Joe Mantegna receives a “special appearance” credit, even though his character pretty much only appears in the archival footage used during the opening credits.  The Last Don II is just that type of miniseries.

Jason Gedrick and James Wilder are both good actors and they both do what they can with the roles of Cross and Billy.  Unfortunately, both of them were seriously miscast in The Last Don 2.  Neither one of them is the least bit Italian and Wilder was a bit too young to be convincing as the most feared capo in the family.  Compared to the classic gangster films that inspired them, both The Last Don and its sequel feels more like gangster cosplay than an actual portrait of life as a member of the Cosa Nostra.  Like the first Last Don, The Last Don II suffers from a lack of authenticity but it’s just ludicrous enough to be fun.

Lisa Marie’s Oscar Predictions for October


It’s time to take a little break from horror so that I may once against do my list of my monthly Oscar predictions!  I guess some people would consider predicting the Oscars to be a scary thing.  Personally, I have fun doing it, even if my predictions often seem to be for naught.  That said, I did manage to predict that Thomas Vinterberg would be nominated for Best Director last year so take that, haters.

Probably the biggest development this month is that I’ve lost all faith in Spielberg’s West Side Story.  It’s just not getting the type of hype that I would expect from a Spielberg Oscar movie.  In fact, it seems like everyone involved is in kind of a hurry to move on.  So, for now, I’m dropping it from my predictions.  While West Side Story goes, Dune has definitely established itself as a probable nominee.  I think the only problem that Dune will have is the possibility of people saying, “We’ll just nominate the sequel instead.”

I’ve also added C’mon C’mon and Passing to my list of Best Picture nominees.  This is almost totally due to their popularity with the Gothams.  If the other critics groups don’t duplicate the love, they’ll probably get dropped from my predictions come January.

As always, keep in mind that I don’t claim to be an expert.  The picture is a bit clearer but I don’t claim to have any inside information or anything like that.  These are just my guesses, for better or worse.  To see how my thinking has evolved,  check out my predictions for March and April and May and June and July and August and September!

Best Picture

Belfast

C’mon C’mon

CODA

Dune

The Lost Daughter

Nightmare Alley

Passing

The Power of the Dog

Spencer

The Tragedy of MacBeth

Best Director

Kenneth Branagh for Belfast

Jane Campion for The Power of the Dog

Maggie Gyllenhaal for The Lost Daughter

Guillermo del Toro for Nightmare Alley

Denis Villeneuve for Dune

Best Actor

Benedict Cumberbatch in The Power of the Dog

Peter Dinklage in Cyrano

Jude Hill in Belfast

Will Smith in King Richard

Denzel Washington in The Tragedy of MacBeth

Best Actress

Jessica Chastain in The Eyes of Tammy Faye

Olivia Colman in The Lost Daughter

Penelope Cruz in Parallel Lives

Frances McDormand in The Tragedy of MacBeth

Kristen Stewart in Spencer

Best Supporting Actor

Willem DaFoe in Nightmare Alley

Jamie Dornan in Belfast

Ciaran Hinds in Belfast

Jason Isaacs in Mass

Kodi Smit-McPhee in The Power of the Dog

Best Supporting Actress

Jessie Buckley in The Lost Daughter

Dame Judi Dench in Belfast

Ann Dowd in Mass

Kirsten Dunst in The Power of the Dog

Marlee Matlin in CODA

Lisa Marie’s Oscar Predictions for September


Well, it’s the time of the month again.

No, not that time!  That time ended two days ago.  I’m talking about the fact that it’s time for me to once again share my monthly Oscar predictions.  Thanks to the festival circuit, we’ve finally gotten some advance word on the big Oscar contenders that will be coming out over the next few months.

Belfast, as of right now, sounds like the prohibitive favorite to win it all.  At first, it seemed like the reaction to The Power of the Dog was a bit mixed but later reactions were almost overwhelmingly positive.  It sounds like the type of film that will be nominated even if it won’t necessarily win.  Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter is coming on strong, as is Spencer.  For me, the biggest surprise has been the amount of acclaim that Dune has been getting.  I was a bit dismissive of its Oscar chances earlier this year but now it definitely sounds like it will be in the hunt.

West Side Story has been seen by no one but I continue to list it because it’s a Spielberg film and, with all the musicals that are being released this year and which have subsequently struggled with either critics or audiences or both, it still seems the most likely to pick up a nomination.  I’m a little bit skeptical on whether or not Nightmare Alley is going to be an “Oscar picture” but the trailer was nice to look at so I’m giving it the benefit of the doubt.  House of Gucci is three hours long and full of stars so it’s either going to be an Oscar nominee or a complete bomb.

You may notice a lack of predicted nominations for Licorice Pizza. Licorice Pizza is a film that I fully expect to love but the trailer definitely feels a bit more like Inherent Vice than The Phantom Thread.  I still think that the actors could get nominated but the rumor right now is that Bradley Cooper’s role is actually very small.  That’s why I no longer have him listed as a supporting actor nominee.

Again, keep in mind that I’m not an expert.  The picture is a bit clearer but I don’t claim to have any inside information or anything like that.  These are just my guesses, for better or worse.  To see how my thinking has evolved,  check out my predictions for March and April and May and June and July and August!

Best Picture

Belfast

CODA

Dune

House of Gucci

The Lost Daughter

Nightmare Alley

The Power of the Dog

Spencer

The Tragedy of MacBeth

West Side Story

Best Director

Kenneth Branagh for Belfast

Jane Campion for The Power of the Dog

Guillermo del Toro for Nightmare Alley

Steven Spielberg for West Side Story

Denis Villeneuve for Dune

Best Actor

Clifton Collins, Jr. in Jockey

Benedict Cumberbatch in The Power of the Dog

Peter Dinklage in Cyrano

Will Smith in King Richard

Denzel Washington in The Tragedy of MacBeth

Best Actress

Jessica Chastain in The Eyes of Tammy Faye

Olivia Colman in The Lost Daughter

Penelope Cruz in Parallel Lives

Frances McDormand in The Tragedy of MacBeth

Kristen Stewart in Spencer

Best Supporting Actor

David Alvarez in West Side Story

Willem DaFoe in Nightmare Alley

Ciaran Hinds in Belfast

Jason Isaac in Mass

Kodi Smit-McPhee in The Power of the Dog

Best Supporting Actress

Jessie Buckley in The Lost Daughter

Dame Judi Dench in Belfast

Ann Dowd in Mass

Kirsten Dunst in The Power of the Dog

Marlee Matlin in CODA

Lisa Marie’s Oscar Predictions for August


It’s time for me to do my monthly Oscar predictions.  Again, as I’ve said in the past, the majority of these predictions are based on a combination of instinct and wishful thinking.  However, the picture may become a bit clearer as early as the end of this week.  With the Venice and Telluride film festivals right around the corner and Toronto also swift approaching, critics are finally going to get a chance to see some of the contenders and, as the early reviews come in, it should be easier to pick the probable nominees from the also-rans.

Personally, I will curious to see how people react to Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog.  Among the other possibilities that we’ll be hearing about: Spencer, King Richard, Dune, The Lost Daughter, The Last Duel, and Belfast.

If you’re curious to see how my thinking has developed, check out my predictions for March and April and May and June and July!

Best Picture

Belfast

Blue Bayou

CODA

House of Gucci

A Journal For Jordan

Mass

The Power of the Dog

Soggy Bottom

The Tragedy of MacBeth

West Side Story

 

Best Director

Pedro Almodovar for Parallel Mothers

Jane Campion for The Power of the Dog

Joel Coen for The Tragedy of MacBeth

Ridley Scott for House of Gucci

Denzel Washington for A Journal For Jordan

 

Best Actor

Clifton Collins, Jr. in Jockey

Benedict Cumberbatch in The Power of the Dog

Udo Kier in Swan Song

Will Smith in King Richard

Denzel Washington in The Tragedy of Macbeth

 

Best Actress

Jessica Chastain in The Eyes of Tammy Faye

Penelope Cruz in Parallel Mothers

Jennifer Hudson in Respect

Lady Gaga in House of Gucci

Kristen Stewart in Spencer

 

Best Supporting Actor

David Alvarez in West Side Story

Bradley Cooper in Soggy Bottom

Andrew Garfield in The Eyes of Tammy Faye

Jason Isaacs in Mass

Jesse Plemons in The Power of the Dog

 

Best Supporting Actress

Ann Dowd in Mass

Kirsten Dunst in Power of the Dog

Marlee Matlin in CODA

Ruth Negga in Passing

Alicia Vikander in Blue Bayou

Horror Film Review: Event Horizon (dir by Paul W. S. Anderson)


event_horizon_ver1

Event Horizon, a sci-fi/horror hybrid from 1997, is one of those films that starts out with a series of title cards:

“2015 First permanent colony established on moon.”

Wait … 2015?  How did I miss that?

” 2032 Commercial mining begins on Mars.”

Yay!  Only 16 more years to wait until we’re finally on Mars!

“2040 Deep space research vessel ‘Event Horizon’ launched to explore boundaries of Solar System. She disappears without trace beyond the eighth planet, Neptune. It is the worst space disaster on record.”

Wow, that sucks.  But things happen…

“2047 Now…”

Alright, let’s get this story going!

Seven years after it disappeared, the Event Horizon suddenly sends out a distress signal.  It turns out that it didn’t blow up like everyone assumed.  Instead, it’s still out in space.  The surly crew of the Lewis & Clark is called off of leave and sent on a rescue mission.  (And when I say surly, I do mean sur-ly!  Seriously, nobody on the Lewis & Clark is in a good mood … ever!)  Accompanying the crew is Dr. Weir (Sam Neill), the scientist who designed the Event Horizon.  Captain Miller (Laurence Fishburne) may not be happy about having Dr. Weir on his ship but, then again, Captain Miller always seems to be annoyed about something.

The Event Horizon appears to be deserted.  The walls are covered with blood.  The captain — at least it appears to be the captain — has been crucified and left on display.  Dr. Weir explains that the Event Horizon was designed to create an artificial black hole and it’s possible that the ship went into another dimension and that it may have brought something back with it.  Other crew members speculate that the Event Horizon may have accidentally been transported to Hell.  Either way, it’s not a good thing but, after the Lewis & Clark suffers some damage, the crew find themselves stranded on the Event Horizon.

Soon, the crew members are having hallucinations.  The ship’s doctor (Kathleen Quinlan) sees her son running through the ship.  Captain Miller sees the burning corpse of a friend that he had to abandon during a previous mission.  Another crewman appears to be possessed and attempts to commit suicide by opening up the airlock.  Dr. Weir has visions of his dead wife.  Things get darker and darker.  People die.  Eyes are ripped out of sockets.  A video of the original crew is found and it’s like something out of a painting by Hieronymus Bosch.  Miller wants to blow up the Event Horizon.  Dr. Weir replies, “We are home!”

Agck!

Seriously, Event Horizon is a curious film.  I’ve seen it a few times and I have to admit that it’s never quite as good as I remembered.  If you want to get really technical about it, Event Horizon is a poorly paced film that is overly derivative of the Alien franchise and it features perhaps the worst performance of Laurence Fishburne’s career.

(Yes, even worse than his performance in Contagion…)

But, at the same time, even if I’m always somewhat disappointed with the film, Event Horizon is also a movie that stays with you.  Whatever flaws the film may have, it is genuinely scary and disturbing.  Director Paul W.S. Anderson does a good job of turning that spaceship into the ultimate floating haunted house and, even more importantly, he keeps you off-balance.  This is one of the few horror films where literally anyone can die, regardless of whether they’re top-billed or have an Oscar nomination to their name.  Whatever the evil is that has possessed the Event Horizon, it is ruthlessly and sadistically efficient.

Plus, there’s that video.  If you’ve seen the movie, you know what I’m talking about.  Anderson has complained that the studio made him cut a lot of footage out of the video but what remains is disturbing enough.  Seriously, you’ll never want to hear another Latin phrase after watching Event Horizon.

Film Review: Stockholm, Pennsylvania (dir by Nikole Beckwith)


MV5BMTYwODA2NzA0Nl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMjk0Mzg4MzE@._V1_SY317_CR47,0,214,317_AL_I think I’m going to start writing Stockholm, Pennsylvania fanfic.  It’s not that I’m a fan of this particular movie.  It’s just that, after watching it last night, I’m convinced that I could probably write a better version of the same story.  At the very least, I could come up with a better ending.

(And who knows?  Pennsylvania is technically close enough to Canada that I could do a Degrassi/Stockholm crossover.)

Stockholm, Pennsylvania premiered on Lifetime last night and, as a result, it will always be known as being a Lifetime movie.  However, unlike such excellent films as Babysitter’s Black Book and Fab Five: The Texas Cheerleader Scandal, Stockholm was not originally made for television.  Instead, it was meant to be the feature film directorial debut of playwright Nikole Beckwith.  Earlier this year, it played at the Sundance Film Festival, where it received some memorably mixed reviews and the film’s star, Saoirse Ronan, received more attention for her work in Brooklyn.  And while Brooklyn was picked up by Fox Searchlight and declared an early Oscar contender, Stockholm, Pennsylvania was ultimately purchased by the Lifetime network.

Unfortunately, Stockholm, Pennsylvania is not the type of film that is served well by premiering on television.  For the first 45 minutes or so, it’s a low-key film that moves at its own deliberate and moody pace.  The film doesn’t have the right rhythm to remain compelling when combined with frequent commercial interruptions.  And make no mistake about it — the interruptions were frequent!  The 99 minute film was padded out with enough commercials so that, on television, it ran for 2 hours and 30 minutes.

Or, as I put it on twitter when I discovered that the movie wasn’t as close to being finished as I had originally assumed:

The film opens with kidnapping victim Leanne (Saoirse Ronan) being returned to her parents after spending 17 years living in the basement of Ben McKay (Jason Isaac).  As we see in flashbacks, Ben kept Leanne isolated from the rest of the world and raised her as his own daughter.  Ben also renamed her Leia but, at the same time, he apparently never let her watch any movies.  (“He said I was named after a princess,” Leia cluelessly says at one point.)  Ben also taught Leia to regularly pray to the Universe (“Dear Universe…”) and … well, that’s all we really learn about Leia’s relationship with Ben.  And while I love cinematic ambiguity, the ambiguity of Stockholm, Pennsylvania just feels lazy.

Having been rescued (under circumstances that are left ambiguous because this is a lazy fucking movie), Leia is reunited with her parents, Marcy (Cynthia Nixon) and Glen (David Warshofsky).  Leia doesn’t remember either of them and resists all of Marcy’s awkward attempts to force any sort of emotional relationship.

And, for the first half of the film, it’s actually fairly interesting.  Nixon gives a good performance and Ronan proves again that she’s one of the best actresses working today.  The film is moody and properly creepy and I was really interested in seeing what would happen…

And then, out of nowhere, an entirely different movie started.  Suddenly, Marcy’s character completely and totally changed.  Nixon stopped giving a good performance and instead became shrill and one-note.  Ronan continued to give a good performance but the entire film crashed and burned around her.  It all led up to quite possibly one of the worst endings that I have ever seen.  It was seriously one of those endings that made me want to throw my high heels at the TV.

Seriously, it was terrible.  In fact, it was so terrible that it didn’t matter that the first 45 minutes of the movie were not neccesarily bad.  It did not matter that Saoirse Ronan was giving a great performance.  It did not matter … well, nothing mattered.

Once I saw that ending, all I could think of was that I had just wasted two hours and 30 minutes on a film that was apparently made by someone who studied both Martha Marcy May Marlene  and We Need To Talk About Kevin without ever understanding what made those two films worth studying in the first place.

Saoirse Ronan saved the film from being a complete disaster.  It truly says something about her talent that she can give a good performance even when appearing in something like Stockholm, Pennsylvania (or Lost River for that matter).  She’s like Meryl Streep without the condescending attitude.

I’m looking forward to seeing Saoirse Ronan’s work in Brooklyn.  But Stockholm, Pennsylvania is best forgotten.

stockholm-pennsylvania

 

Review: Fury (dir. by David Ayer)


Fury

“Ideals are peaceful. History is violent.”

1998 saw the release of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan.

Prior to this most films depicted World War II as a noble endeavor that needed to be done to help rid the world of Hitler and the horror he was inflicting upon Europe (beyond if given the chance). It gave birth to the “Greatest Generation” that people still look up to even to this day. These were young men who volunteered for a conflict that would change history and for the millions involved. Yet, World War II films were always cut and dried. It was always the good guys (American, British, Canadian, etc…) fighting against the nameless and efficient Nazi war machine.

In time, so many of these films followed the same formula that character stereotypes came about. We always had the cynical, older veteran who becomes a sort of father figure to a hodge-podge group of young, untested soldiers. What these films also had in common was the fact that they remain bloodless despite the nature of the story being told. Some filmmakers would try to buck this time-tested formula (Sam Fuller being the most prominent), but it would take 1998’s Saving Private Ryan to set a shift in how we saw World War II.

Spielberg lifted the rose-colored glasses from the audience and dared to show that while noble, World War II was still war and it still had the horror and brutality that all wars have. 2014’s Fury by David Ayer would continue this exploration of the last “Good War” in it’s most gritty and blood-soaked detail.

The film shows the last gasp of the German war machine as Hitler gives one of his final orders for the German people to repel the invading Allies. It was to be a scorched earth defense. Whether by choice or forced into this desperate tactic, every man, woman and child was to take up arms to their last breath to defend the Fatherland. It’s in this nightmare scenario that we find the veteran Sherman tank crew led by Don “Wardaddy” Collier trying to survive these final days til war’s end. Their home for the last two and a half years since North Africa has been a modified Sherman tank they call Fury. It’s a crew that’s been battle tested from the sands of North Africa, the maze-like hedgerows of France’s bocage and now the countryside of Germany itself.

We can see right from the start that this crew has been through hell and back many times and already resigned to going through hell many more times before they can eveb think of getting back home. It’s a crew that’s already lost one of it’s own minutes into the film. Wardaddy (Brad Pitt) looms over his crew like a weary father figure. This ragtag group consists of Bible (Shia LaBeouf) as the born-again Christian who sees their survival battle after battle as a sign that God’s grace is upon Fury and her crew. Then we have Gordo (Michael Peña) who has been so traumatized by the war and what he has had to do to survive that he has numbed himself from these memories by being in a constant state of drunkenness. Lastly, we have the tank’s loader Grady (Jon Bernthal) whose misanthropic attitude comes as a crude and brutish counterpoint to Bible’s religious fervor. Into this misanthropic soup of a crew comes in the replacement to their recently killed comrade.

Logan Lerman’s character, the young and naive clerk typist Norman Ellison, becomes the audience’s eyes in the brutal world of Fury and her crew. We’re meant to see the war’s brutality and horror not through the jaded and cynical eyes of Wardaddy and his men, but through a young man who has never killed an enemy or even fired a weapon in anger. Norman becomes the surrogate through which we determine and decide whether there is such a thing a nobility and honor in war.

Honor and nobility have always been used by those always willing to go to war to convince the young and impressionable to follow them into the breach. Fury takes these two words and what they represent and muddies them through the muck and gore left behind with each passing battle and tries to see if they remain unchanged on the other side. Norman is a literal babe in the woods as he must adapt or die in a war nearing it’s end but also becoming even more deadly and dangerous than ever. His very naivete quickly becomes a hindrance and a real danger to Wardaddy and his crew. He’s not meant for this world but has had it thrust upon him.

The film treats Norman’s humanity as a liability in a war that strips it from everyone given enough time. We see Wardaddy attempt to speed up the process during a tense sequence where Norman’s being forced to shoot a German prisoner. It’s a sequence of events that’s both unnerving and disturbing as we see the veteran soldiers encircling Norman and Wardaddy cheering or looking on with indifference in their eyes. They’ve all been in something similar and one can only imagine what they had to do to make it this far.

Fury straddles a fine line between showing and explaining it’s themes to the audience. It’s to David Ayer’s skill as a writer that the film’s able to use some finely choreographed scenes both violent and peaceful to make a point about war’s effect on it’s participants both physically and mentally. Whether it’s through several well-choreographed battle scenes to a sequence of tense and quiet serenity in the apartment of two German women that bring back the plantation segment from Coppola’s Apocalypse Now Redux, the film does a great job in showing how even when stripped down close to the bone, Wardaddy and his veteran crew still has semblance of humanity and the honor and nobility they all began the war with.

As a war film, Fury brings a type of combat to the bigscreen that has rarely been explored and never in such a realistic fashion as we watch tank warfare at it’s most tactical and most horrific. Ayer doesn’t fall for the jump cut style that many filmmakers nowadays sees as a way to convey the chaos of battle. Ayer and cinematographer Roman Vasnayov have planned every sequence to allow the audience to keep track of the two opposing sides and their place in the battle’s geography. And just like Spielberg’s own Saving Private Ryan, Fury shows the very ugly and bloody side of World War II. There’s a lot of bodies being blown apart and torn to chunks of meat yet they never seem to come off as gratuitous. Every bloody moment makes a point on the horrors of war and the level of inhumanity that another man inflicts on another man.

If there’s something that Fury does lag behind on it would be some of the narrative choices dealing with Norman’s character. The film takes place literally over a day’s time and the quick change in Norman’s mentality about the war seem very sudden and abrupt. While this day in the life of Fury and her crew worked well in Ayer’s past films (both as writer or director) here it puts Ayer stuck in a corner that made it difficult to fully justify Norman’s sudden change of heart from babe in the woods to hardened Nazi-killer. We can see throughout the film that the war is affecting him in ways that could lead up to this change, but to have it happen in just under a day really stretches it’s believability to the breaking point.

Yet, despite this the film is able to stay on course and recover from this misstep on the strength of Ayer’s direction and the performances of the ensemble cast. Brad Pitt has been the focus of the media campaign leading up to the release of Fury, but every actor who comprises the crew of Fury leave their own mark in the film. Shia Labeouf has had a tough past year both professionally and personally, but one has to admit that performances like the one he had in Fury is a reminder that he’s a damn fine good actor. Whether this film has become the path to his redemption in the eyes of the public is irrelevant. One doesn’t need to like the man to respect the talent he’s able to put up on the screen.

Awards season is in full swing as Fall 2014 arrives and Fury makes it’s case known that genre films (and make no mistake this is a genre film) can more than hold it’s own with the more dramatic life-exploring films that critics tend to put on the pedestal as examples of great filmmaking. While Fury is not perfect it is a very good film full of great performances that just misses being great.

 

Trailer: John Wick


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I usually have a good idea of upcoming action films once they’ve been announced into production, but I have to admit that Keanu Reeve’s upcoming action film, John Wick, has been quite the ninja. I’ve not heard one thing about this project until I came across the just released trailer earlier today.

The trailer itself pretty much lays out what looks like a basic premise for the film. The title character seems to be some sort of retired badass who is brought out of it to get his revenge on the idiots who killed his cute little dog (given to him by his dying wife) during a home invasion robbery.

I know there are many whose brain starts to wander and/or seize up whenever they hear the name Keanu Reeves. I, fortunately, am not one of those people and I actually think that Reeves has been much-maligned throughout his career. For one thing he does seem to handle action scenes pretty well and this trailer for John Wick just continues to reinforce that thought.

John Wick will be setting wrongs right and bringing killer of dogs their just due this October 24, 2014.

Trailer: Fury (International)


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I must admit that World War II films are a favorite of mine. Even bad ones I tend to enjoy. Whether it’s alternate fantasy fares like Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds or something that combines historical accuracy with dramatic license like Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, the World War II genre always manage to hit straight and true to my film wheelhouse.

This October there looks to be another World War II film that seems almost tailor-fit for me. I’m talking about David Ayer’s follow-up to his underappreciated film End of Watch. This follow-up is Fury and tells the story of an American tank crew in the waning days of World War II in Europe. Just from the two trailer released I already know that I’m seeing this. Ayer looks to be exploring the bond of a tank crew that has seen war from the deserts of Africa and now to the urban and forested landscapes of Germany.

The film is already getting major buzz as a major contender for the upcoming awards season and I, for one, hope that it’s a well-deserved buzz. Even with Shia LaBeouf being part of the cast is not dampening my excitement for this film. Even if it doesn’t live up to the hype I know that I’ll probably still end up enjoying it.

This trailer looks to be selling the utter brutality and carnage of World War II’s final days in Europe when German forces were literally fighting for their homeland and that makes for a desperate enemy (who still had weapons and soldiers that were still hands down better than what the Allies had one-on-one).

On a side note, I like the fact that the tracers in the film actually look like tracers which means they look like freakin’ laser blasts. That’s how tracers behave.

Fury is set to hit theaters on October 17, 2014 in the United States and October 22, 2014 internationally.