Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

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Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

The most enjoyable thing about Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is exemplified in its very first action sequence. An alien race called The Sovereign have hired the guardians – Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax, Rocket Racoon, and Groot – to protect some highly powerful and very valuable batteries from a giant space slug. An epic battle ensues as a backdrop to the opening credits. There’s plenty of razzle-dazzle special effects work and camera trickery in this sequence, to be sure, but the real focus isn’t the fight at all. Groot, the 12-foot tall extraterrestrial tree-creature, sacrificed himself in the first Guardians film, and regenerated as a tiny seedling now known as Baby Groot. Obviously, he’s not much help in this fight. Instead, director James Gunn has him avoiding danger by showing off some hilarious dance moves to Electric Light Orchestra’s classic hit Mr. Blue Sky.

It’s a clever, goofy way of launching directly into the oddball sense of humor that made the original movie from 2014 so entertaining.

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Colossal

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Colossal

If all you know of the movie Colossal is its marketing campaign, then all you know is a complete lie. I rarely ever talk about the marketing or trailers of films I’m writing about because I view all of that as superfluous. What really matters is what happens between the production company logos and the final credits. The team in charge of selling this movie, though, are responsible for a bait-and-switch of such unbelievable scale that it’s impossible not to mention. What I thought I was getting into and what I actually saw were completely different, and that made me wrestle with Colossal in a way I wouldn’t have if I had known nothing going into it.

The elevator pitch premise – and what the trailer would have you believe – is that Colossal is a quirky, comedic twist on the giant monster movie genre (called Kaiju in Japanese cinema). The twist is that our hero Gloria, a down-on-her-luck-just-moved-back-to-her-hometown woman in America, actually controls, with her body movements, a strange creature that materializes in South Korea whenever Gloria steps into a children’s playground at exactly 8:05 a.m.

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Free Fire

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Free Fire

Free Fire is an outrageous little movie. It shouldn’t be as entertaining as it is. This hilarious gun-deal-turned-shoot-out is provocative and cathartic, with cartoonish violence aimed mostly for laughs. It’s Tarantino, but straight-slapstick.

It would be reasonable to think a movie that consists almost completely of people shooting each other would become tedious, not to mention a little hard to watch considering the unimaginable spate of mass shootings constantly featured in the news. Director Ben Wheatley and writer Amy Jump – who co-wrote the script together – pull it off, though.  Set in 1978, the movie begins with two factions traveling to a Boston warehouse to complete an illegal weapons deal. An intermediary, Justine, represents the buyers: a group of IRA members, led by Chris, who want firearms for use against their enemies in The Troubles. Justine’s colleague, Ord, is bringing the seller, a South African gun runner named Vernon, who is accompanied by his own group of associates. An uneasy tension hangs in the air as all the interested parties, ten people total, attempt to exchange cash for guns.

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Wilson

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Wilson

If you watch a lot of movies, odds are you end up spending time with characters you don’t like very much. Sometimes that can lead to insight into a perspective you’ve never considered, or to experience a character’s growth as they change over the course of the movie. Other times you can perversely enjoy behavior in which you would never engage, but is cathartic to watch from a safe distance - a comfy chair in a dark room, say. Sometimes it just means you have to grind your teeth for 90 minutes as you suffer through a comedy that’s not funny featuring characters that are gratingly annoying. Such was the case for me with Wilson. I don’t always need characters to learn and grow, especially not in broad comedies. I’m as big a fan as anybody of a show like Curb Your Enthusiasm or Seinfeld, which thrived by the ethos “no hugging, no learning.” If that’s the approach, I do need the comedy to be clever, and it would be nice to not want to throttle the “hero” in every scene.

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Aftermath

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Aftermath

Movies, like just about every other art form, are manipulative. For each one, there are hundreds of people working together to make the audience laugh or cry, feel uplifted or depressed. The best movies, and the best filmmakers, can achieve the desired emotional response without the audience ever being aware it’s happening. That is not the case with Aftermath. This is a movie that is relentless in telling the audience just how they should feel, and whose makers – most egregiously, director Elliott Lester, and composer Mark Todd – throw subtlety completely aside. There are elements that work against this trend, one performance in particular, but they aren’t enough to salvage the rest.

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Song to Song

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Song to Song

The phrase “found it in the editing” describes a perilous method of filmmaking. Basically, it’s what happens when a movie has been shot with no clear vision – or there is a voluminous, unwieldy amount of footage – but during the editing process, the filmmakers are able to shape a story that is much better than the raw materials would suggest. A famous example of this is Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. That movie initially had very little to do with the relationship between the two leads, but during cutting, Allen and his editor created one of the best romantic comedies of all time. More often than not, though, this approach leads to a muddled mess.

Terrence Malick’s creative process lends itself to this kind of metamorphosis in the editing room. The notoriously private director shoots and shoots, sometimes for years, and hones his narratives in the cutting room, also sometimes for years. Song to Song clearly follows this pattern. In a rare interview to promote the picture, Malick said the original cut of the film was eight hours long. That’s a far cry from the 129-minute final version. Song to Song is also a far cry from the beautiful transcendence of his best films, like Days of Heaven or The Tree of Life. It’s not a complete mess, but it’s a disappointment to be sure.

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T2 Trainspotting

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T2 Trainspotting

When I think back to the person I was 20 years ago, I’m amazed by how much I’ve changed. Things that I once thought were fundamental truths are laughable to me now. As true as that is, though, at my core, I’m still the same person in many other ways. That observation is at the heart of Danny Boyle’s T2 Trainspotting, the sequel to his 1996 break-out hit. We check in with Renton, Sickboy, Spud, and Begbie two decades after the heroin fueled events of Trainspotting. It’s like visiting old friends you haven’t even thought of in years, and discovering that despite all the time that has passed, you still get along like you just saw each other yesterday. Despite a few missteps, Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge have captured the free-wheeling fun, sick humor, and pathos present in the original.

The screenplay for Trainspotting was Hodge’s adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s novel of the same name. This time, Hodge is adapting Welsh’s sequel to Trainspotting, titled Porno, while also using characters and elements from the first book. Porno was written in 2002, and takes place ten years after the events of the first novel. T2 moves things forward even more, and despite 20 years having gone by, we discover that echoes of the past are ever present for these characters.

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Get Out

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Get Out

There is a long history in horror movies of incorporating social commentary into the thrills and chills of the plot. The genre has had a renaissance in the last four or five years, both in terms of quality and box-office success. Movies like Don’t Breathe and It Follows caught on with critics and audiences alike, a difficult feat. Comedian Jordan Peele – best known as one-half of the sketch comedy show Key & Peele – wrote and directed Get Out, a horror movie that takes racism as its central plot element. Get Out is a complex and thought-provoking picture, sure to start some awkward, important conversations. Peele has proven himself an immensely talented writer and director. He made a horror movie that is genuinely creepy, while also providing pointed observations on what being black in a white world is like.

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Logan

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Logan

Since the beginning of the comic book movie’s modern era, arguably starting with Richard Donner’s Superman in 1978, the genre has fought for legitimacy. Critics and audiences alike would dismiss the majority of them as kid’s stuff – they’re fun and entertaining, sure, but not to be taken too seriously. The makers of these movies started challenging that philosophy in earnest when the number of comic book movies released per year ramped up, starting with Bryan Singer’s X-Men in 2000. Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy was one major step forward. The superhero’s capacity for emotional and moral complexity got deeper even as the body count and onscreen carnage got bloodier and more overwhelming.

Director James Mangold’s Logan feels like a leap forward. There is an emotional resonance here that’s more profound than any comic book movie I’ve ever seen. It’s made more affecting because there are real stakes in Logan. Mangold – who co-wrote as well as directed – breaks through the usual pitfall of these sorts of movies by having his characters change in ways that can’t easily be reset for a next installment. Logan is a brilliant example of the heights that comic book movies are capable.

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I Am Not Your Negro

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I Am Not Your Negro

One of the front runners in the Best Picture Oscar race this year was La La Land. It’s a movie some people condemned due to a racially charged element: white appropriation of jazz music, a historically black art form. The white central figure sees himself as a savior of jazz music, while the film simultaneously sidelines any black characters, and sanitizes jazz of its deeply African-American origins and past. Defenders of the movie belittle this critique as making the film about racism when it’s simply a sweet love story. The backlash against the argument that La La Land is racially troubling speaks to a central theme in the magnificent documentary I Am Not Your Negro. When a society is structured around one race’s superiority to all others, everything is about race. To suggest otherwise is to be naïve or willfully ignorant. The way the film illustrates this and many other points is elegant, eloquent, and unflinching.

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Jackie

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Jackie

“Don't let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment, that was known as Camelot.” Jacqueline Kennedy crafted the idea of her time in the White House as the second coming of Camelot. Jackie, which takes place in the days after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, is more Shakespearian tragedy than Arthurian musical. More precisely, it’s the aftermath of one of The Bard’s tragedies. Director Pablo Larrain, screenwriter Noah Oppenheim, and star Natalie Portman have given us a compelling and intense character study of the former First Lady. She was at the epicenter of a catastrophic event in 20th century American history, and their film humanizes her in a profound way.

The main plot of the film covers the week between JFK’s assassination and his burial...

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Hacksaw Ridge

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Hacksaw Ridge

If all you knew about Hacksaw Ridge was the title, you might think it was a horror movie. That’s what I initially thought before I saw a trailer or even a poster. Hacksaw Ridge sounds like the newest Eli Roth torture-porn entry, or maybe the title of a Rob Zombie film. While it’s not a horror movie per se, director Mel Gibson’s World War II drama does share some of the genre’s iconography. It’s a function of Gibson’s preoccupations with physical suffering. There are plenty more of Gibson’s fixations present here: his hero is a Christ figure, the moral of the story involves being true to your convictions at any and all costs. Hacksaw Ridge is also a deeply flawed film, but one that manages to overcome those flaws through compelling action and a moving conclusion.

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Interview with Hollywood Composer Craig Safan

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Interview with Hollywood Composer Craig Safan

On February 21st, 2017, as part of its fifth season program, the Dallas Chamber Symphony will premiére a new score for the classic silent film The Kid, Charlie Chaplin's first full‑length movie.  Released in 1921, Chaplin wrote, produced, directed and starred in The Kid, playing his iconic figure, The Little Tramp.  I had the opportunity to interview the composer of the new score, Craig Safan.  An accomplished Hollywood composer, Safan has written scores for film and television, as well as live theater. 

Notable works include the instrumental scores for The Last StarfighterStand and Deliver, and the music for the television series Cheers. Tickets for the Dallas Chamber Symphony performance of Mr. Safan's score, which will be performed live with a screening of the film, can be purchased at the Dallas Chamber Symphony website, dcsymphony.org.

Listen to interview audio or read transcript...

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A Tale of Sadness and Regret: Manchester by the Sea

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A Tale of Sadness and Regret: Manchester by the Sea

Is there a direct antonym for the term nostalgia? If not, I’d like to submit a new word for that purpose. Lonergania: To look back on the past not with fondness or a desire to return, but with deep pain and unease. That’s exactly what director Kenneth Lonergan explores in his film Manchester by the Sea. The picture is a mix of devastating tragedy and sharp comedic moments that either work or don’t depending on the scene. It’s a bruising experience, filled with an emotional richness that achieves the goal for which all great art should strive – uncovering a fundamental truth of the human experience.

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Gold

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Gold

There’s a well-known maxim in Hollywood:  the best way for an actor to get an Oscar is to play a role in which he or she is ugly or disfigured. See Charlize Theron in Monster, or Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot. Typically, this strategy only works in tandem with one other element – the movie showcasing the performance must be good or interesting in some way. Matthew McConaughey has the first part down in his new film, Gold. He isn’t exactly disfigured in the movie, but to lose his trademark good looks for a role amounts to the same thing. He plays an average schmo, complete with a potbelly and male-pattern baldness. That’s the most interesting thing about the movie, and it’s not nearly enough to salvage the mishandled structure and uninteresting story.

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The Founder

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The Founder

Mark Zuckerberg only thought he was an original. Long before he upended all of our lives with social media, Ray Kroc did the same thing with burgers. According to The Founder, the biopic about Kroc and the fast-food empire he swindled from a pair of brothers, the two even shared a few of the same tactics. The subject matter of both this film and David Fincher’s The Social Network, about the founder of Facebook, make comparisons between the movies almost unavoidable. In any such assessment of the two, The Founder is bound to come out as the lesser work of art. That’s mostly because director John Lee Hancock is not as assured or stylistically bold as Fincher. Robert D. Siegel’s script also lacks the verbal pyrotechnics of Aaron Sorkin’s dialog for The Social Network

All that makes it seem like The Founder is a failure, which isn’t true. The movie is entertaining and even, at times, compelling. The core performance, Michael Keaton as Kroc, is a wonder to behold. Almost every actor around him turns in similarly solid work. There’s just a missing sense of pathos in the overall effect of the movie that, were it present, would transform The Founder from good to great.

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20th Century Women

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20th Century Women

It’s a rare bit of magic when a movie can perfectly blend comedy and drama to create a bittersweet poignancy. Writer/director Mike Mills has performed just that with his new film 20th Century Women. His tale of a collection of oddballs who form a unique family unit in a specific time and place in America’s recent past is mournful, yet hopeful. It captures the humanity and heartbreak in everyday relationships: mother and son, deep friendships, and lovers. The movie is an examination of the sublime that’s hidden in the mundane. It’s a transcendent experience.

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Lion

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Lion

If you’re already familiar with Garth Davis, it’s probably from his work on television commercials.  Subtlety isn’t high on the list of attributes for that particular discipline, but it is something Davis excels at with his feature-film debut, Lion. It’s one of the most emotionally resonant movies of 2016, yet it is completely devoid of manipulation. The physical, emotional, and spiritual journey of Lion’s protagonist is transcendent. Davis and screenwriter Luke Davies take care to never succumb to heavy-handed melodrama. They tell the story simply, and let the character’s actions speak for themselves. A film can’t stand on writing and direction alone, though, so Davis and Davies brought in a cinematographer (Greig Fraser) who shot the film beautifully, and cast actors who brought the story to life with powerful, but understated performances. Lion is a quiet, unassuming movie and it’s that much more impactful for it.

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North Texas Film Critics Association Announces Best of 2016

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North Texas Film Critics Association Announces Best of 2016

The North Texas Film Critics Association (NTFCA), of which I am a member, voted late last month to honor the best films of 2016. As an organization, the NTFCA is proud to call attention to outstanding achievements in the craft of filmmaking. I consider movies to be not only entertainment, but in the best examples, they are also art. They teach us about the human condition. Here are the winners for each category in which we voted:

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Passengers

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Passengers

Passengers is a great movie. At least, it’s a great movie if you hate thinking. The makers and marketers were clearly aware of this. Razzle and dazzle ‘em enough, they must have thought, and they’ll look past the fact that it's deeply flawed on a basic, storytelling level. It’s true enough. If you mentally check out, Passengers is a pretty enjoyable experience.

The tale of two interstellar space travelers, who wake up from hibernation 90 years too soon, is packed with gorgeous special effects and tense action sequences. The two leads have a heavy burden, and they pull it off in grand style. Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence, semi-stranded like Robinson Crusoe, are on a lonely craft adrift in the vast ocean of space instead of on a deserted island. Almost the entire movie rests on their shoulders, and they prove themselves capable of the task. But they do all that in a movie so clunky and half-baked that it’s easy to forget; the film’s rightful destiny.

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