Academy Award Predictions
by Philip Price
When the Academy Award nominations were announced last month they came with their expected favorites and a few upsets that weren't completely unexpected, but hey, you can't please everyone. Much has, of course, been made of the whitewashing of these awards, but I wish we'd all stop acting like that's a new problem or that it's a problem with only the Academy. It's clearly an industry wide issue where the type of films the Academy honors aren't made with black actors, but that is a discussion for another time. Fortunately, there actually seems to be some competition this year in two major categories without a clear cut winner being ordained before going into the broadcast. Best Picture and Best Director are something of a "your guess is as good as mine" scenario at the moment with the biggest category of the night coming down to a three-way race between “The Revenant,” “The Big Short” and “Spotlight.” With director it could very well go to any one of the filmmakers who made whichever picture wins the Best Picture statue, but it could seemingly even go to George Miller who has bucked every kind of trend this year by garnering a Best Picture nomination for an out and out action film that was considered a summer blockbuster last year, so what is stopping him from winning Best Director? Nothing...and he kind of deserves it. As far as number of nominations going in we have “The Revenant” with 12, followed closely by “Mad Max: Fury Road” with 10 then “The Martian” with seven (though I see it being completely shut out) and “Spotlight” with six. Since recovering from the onslaught of end-of-the-year movies and being able to actually re-visit a few of them I'm more compelled than ever to think that even though Leonardo DiCaprio is owed an Oscar Michael Fassbender deserves one for his work in “Steve Jobs” just as DiCaprio should have won for his turn in “The Wolf of Wall Street.” Unfortunately, with “Steve Jobs” largely being shunned (especially in the lack of a nomination for Aaron Sorkin in Best Adapted Screenplay) it seems as if the film will go unnoticed due to its early October release date and lack of buzz/tickets bought despite being one of the best films of 2015. All of the acting categories are rather straightforward sans Best Supporting Actress which I could potentially see going to three different nominees. This is the one category where Steve Jobs has a shot to be recognized in Kate Winslet's performance and while Winslet always displays a master class of technique and compassion Alicia Vikander's performance became the heart and soul of “The Danish Girl” and thus is the deserving winner in my mind (it doesn't hurt that she was also excellent in “Ex Machina” last year). As for the other acting categories Brie Larson should have her acceptance speech written and ready to go while Sylvester Stallone will undoubtedly come full circle from Rocky's 1977 Best Picture win and his acting nomination for the Supporting Actor win here as the same character in “Creed.”
Let's dig into this varied Best Picture race though. While there have been some tight races in the past few years I don't feel like the top award has ever been as up in the air as it is this year. With the Actors Guild and Critics Choice Awards naming “Spotlight” the top film of the year and the Producers Guild giving their top prize to “The Big Short” it seems it has come down to these two, but I wouldn't count “The Revenant” out just yet. “The Revenant” was more or less the last horse in the race and it is benefiting from that momentum. It is clear DiCaprio will more than likely be winning his first Oscar this Sunday for the film and no matter who wins Best Picture it seems Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu is all but guaranteed to win his second consecutive directing award for “The Revenant,” as well. Were Inarritu to accomplish this feat he will be the first director since Joseph Mankiewicz did so for “People Will Talk” and “All About Eve” in 1950 and 1951. So, could the film sweep three (maybe even four) of the six major categories? With the film not winning any other major awards this season I find it unlikely that it will ultimately win Best Picture and that, despite talk of Tom Hardy making a last second surge in the Supporting Actor category, it is still Stallone's to lose. So, what do I think will actually win? My money is still on “Spotlight” and I would be more than happy with this outcome. “Spotlight” was my number one film of the year. It is as close to a perfect movie as one can come and does what all excellent films should do in that it doesn't profess to be excellent, but is undoubtedly so. That said, “The Big Short” was my number five film of the year and were Adam McKay's hilarious and poignant film about the housing bubble collapsing in the mid-2000s to win I would kind of be elated. There was no expectation for the film to be as great as it turned out to be and that it came out of the gate, firing on all cylinders has only propelled it to the front lines. It would have been unthinkable eight years ago to say the guy who made “Step Brothers” (which, don't get me wrong, I love) would be an Oscar-nominated director in less than a decade, but McKay deserves to be here and his film certainly has a shot at winning. If nothing else, I firmly believe McKay and writing partner Charles Randolph will take home the award for Best Adapted Screenplay, but to score Best Picture would be huge. A real shift I imagine as “Spotlight,” while indisputably great, is more along the lines of the type of movie people expect to win.
The presumption here is that Best Director goes to whoever's film wins Best Picture and while that has happened more times than not in the past there have been twenty-two exceptions to that rule with the last two coming consecutively in 2012 and 2013. Those years the directing awards were given to the likes of Ang Lee and Alfonso Cuarón for what seemed to be the technical achievements of their films whereas the Best Picture winners those years (“Argo,” “12 Years a Slave”) were more in line with the pedigree of what are typically considered Best Picture qualifiers. It is this distinction that gives way to the idea that Inarritu will very likely win Best Director for his second year in a row (joining the ranks of only the aforementioned Mankiewicz and John Ford for “The Grapes of Wrath” and “How Green Was My Valley”) due to not only the technical achievement that is “The Revenant” (it will seemingly also earn Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki his third consecutive Oscar, which has never been done by a cinematographer before), but also for the struggle it took to bring this picture to the screen. Of course, the same could be said for seventy year-old George Miller and his thirty year later sequel as ‘Fury Road’ was both a struggle to get made and is a technical marvel that I predict will win in at least three of the technical categories. A consistent predictor of this award is who takes home the Directors Guild win and that went to Inarritu again this year as well. And so, it does not seem foolish to call for a split in the two biggest categories this year, but while Inarritu is my firm pick for who I think will win if he doesn't, who is the runner-up? If we're being completely honest-it has to be Miller, but something tells me that the Academy only nominated Miller and his film for the sake of not being completely irrelevant and out of touch, but never considered actually awarding him or his action movie anything. That leaves the competition to Tom McCarthy for ‘Spotlight’ or Adam McKay for ‘The Big Short.’ For me, ‘Spotlight’ is the clear Best Picture winner so that gives McCarthy something of an edge, but I could see the Academy potentially giving ‘The Big Short’ both major awards as well. I don't believe Lenny Abrahamson has a shot in hell, but then again I never thought he'd get a nomination either so that goes to show you what I know. Still, I believe Inarritu has this one nailed down with ‘The Revenant’ also claiming DiCaprio's Best Actor win and Lubezki's three-peat with ‘Spotlight’ taking Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay.
Will Win: Leonardo DiCaprio (The Revenant)
Should Win: Michael Fassbender (Steve Jobs)
Will Win: Brie Larson (Room)
Should Win: Saoirse Ronan (Brooklyn)
Best Supporting Actor
Will Win: Sylvester Stallone (Creed)
Should Win: Sylvester Stallone (Creed)
Best Supporting Actress
Will Win: Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl)
Should Win: Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl)
Best Adapted Screenplay
Will Win: Adam McKay & Charles Randolph (The Big Short)
Should Win: Adam McKay & Charles Randolph (The Big Short)
Will Win: Tom McCarthy & Josh Singer (Spotlight)
Should Win: Tom McCarthy & Josh Singer (Spotlight)
Alternate Picture Categories
Best Animated Film
My Pick: Inside Out
My Pick: AMY
Best Foreign Language Film
My Pick: Son of Saul
Music & Score
Sound Editing: Mad Max: Fury Road
Original Song: "Til It Happens to You" (The Hunting Ground))
Sound Mixing: Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Original Score: Ennio Morricone (The Hateful Eight)
Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki (The Revenant)
Production Design: Mad Max: Fury Road
Visual Effects: Ex Machina
The 88th Academy Awards air Sunday night, February 28, at 7 Eastern/4 Pacific on ABC with Chris Rock hosting.
by Philip Price
“Race” has good intentions. That is probably the best thing one could say about it which is unfortunate given its subject matter. One hears about the epic talent of Jesse Owens from the time they're in elementary school, when racing one another at recess was just something you did. With this myth and the still spectacular accomplishments Owens achieved as a track and field star very much ingrained in the history of not just American sport, but America in general it's somewhat surprising a movie about the man hasn't already been made. And so, “Race” has good intentions, clearly. Regrettably, that is all it has going for it though, as director Stephen Hopkins (a spotty director who has credits on well-renowned TV series, but whose feature credits are rather lousy) infuses his film with little to no energy leaving audiences to feel more as if they're walking through a Jesse Owens exhibit at a museum than becoming immersed in his life experiences. The film is a by the numbers biopic that takes us through the year of 1933 when Owens begins attending Ohio State up through the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The film gets points for not being your traditional cradle to grave biopic as it never dwells on the fact Owens was one of 10 children and only notes his penchant for running by referencing his equaling of the world records in the 100-yard dash and long-jump competitions while still in high school. Of course, it is this achievement that would gain Owens national attention and the attention of numerous colleges from which Owens would choose Ohio State due to the reputation of their coach, Larry Snyder, for being the best there was. Did I lose you over those last few sentences? Dolling out information that is undoubtedly interesting, but as no soul or feeling were extracted from them you also tended to feel nothing. Well, guess what? That is pretty much how the movie will make you feel as well. It plays out, hitting all the expected beats of a film about a famous figure, sports or any kind of star, and then slogs to its conclusion before delivering the obligatory note cards over real-life pictures of our main characters that tells what the rest of life held for them. All interesting, but never invigorating.
Beginning in the fall of 1933 in Cleveland, Ohio we come in contact with Owens (Stephan James) as he readies himself to leave for college. We're still clearly in the bowels of the great depression even if, historically, it was on its last leg. In this first scene, as Owens mother fits him with a suit jacket he didn't expect to possess she scans over a scar on his chest and makes a comment about how she once thought she was going to lose him, but that "God spared him for a reason." This type of prophesying sets up Owens as an exception to the rule, someone who is already destined for greatness. We are then hurriedly introduced to Coach Snyder (Jason Sudeikis) as someone who isn't holding up to his promise as the head track and field coach at his Alma mater. These quick, but precise introductions more or less tell us the arc of the characters and what obstacles they might overcome as well as what predictions they might fulfill. From here the details are filled in at a rather expected pace. Owens is set to be married to Ruth Solomon (Shanice Banton) whom he already has a daughter with and he ventures to Ohio State with Dave Albritton (Eli Goree) where they immediately come face to face with the racial tensions of the time. At this point in time African Americans were still not allowed to play football, but shared a locker room with the team. One can imagine the confrontations. The double entendre in the title becomes apparent here as the film begins to then take an interesting albeit confusing turn. Instead of remaining solely focused on the trials and tribulations Owens would face as he trained, became the most prominent runner in the nation, and eventually leading to his dominance at the 1936 Olympic games writers Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse decide to divide their narrative between developing the Owens and Snyder relationship and the U.S. Olympic Committee given potential conflict between the States and Germany with the restrictions placed on the Berlin games concerning minorities and Jewish athletes. Jeremy Irons and William Hurt show up as Avery Brundage and Jeremiah Mahoney, respectively, to debate whether or not the U.S. should pull out of the games.
While it is understood how each story compliments the other and how parts of each don't make sense without parts of the other “Race” begins to feel like two separate movies quite quickly. The cause and effect of what the Olympic Committee decides to do and the ultimate fate it lays upon our protagonist are intrinsic to how history played out, but a movie doesn't have to show us the deliberations and the meetings taken between committee members to give us this information. The debate, deals, and ultimate decision that pushed for America to compete in the Berlin games is undoubtedly a fascinating story, but it isn't the story “Race” claims to be telling and so instead of getting a through and through biopic of Owens and who this guy was as a man, husband, father and athlete we have half a movie that highlights his relationship with his inspiring white coach and little more.
It is a half hour before we even see Owens run in competition and rather than finding a groove with the races and Owens style as well as his particular ticks when it came to preparation and performance the first thing we see is the Big Ten meet at Ferry Field in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he set three world records and tied a fourth in the span of forty-five minutes. There is no building to this point, there is hardly even a training montage that prepares us for this character reaching those types of heights so quickly. Instead, we get a few short scenes where Sudeikis (who is rather solid in his first, more dramatic role if not slightly mimicking every "crotchety old coach" performance you've seen) as Snyder leans on his inherent dislike for "naturals" due to the fact most believe they don't have to work as hard as others in order to test Owens to find out what kind of "natural" he is. There is some talk about the start being the most crucial part of a race and Snyder offering insights into how to improve Owens time by improving his starting technique, but hardly anything of substance that would communicate Owens and Snyder forming something of a deeper bond. That bond comes later when Owens lets his modicum of fame get to his head and he cheats on Ruth with something of a groupie. It is here the film finally begins to find something of a groove as we're privy to a personal crisis that gives insight into the type of man Owens was. It is on this momentum that we are hurdled through to where it's been decided the U.S. will compete in Berlin and the NAACP approaches Owens asking him not to go to the Olympics. This is clearly the more interesting and layered conflict that would not only show Owens qualities as a person, but provide plenty of context on the time period as well as the turmoil surrounding the games, but given it isn't introduced until an hour in it all feels too little too late.
Rather than building the protagonists character and then developing the key relationship between athlete and coach that would then be tested by the titular noun within the context of the Olympic games the film goes back and forth between these worlds of a black man struggling to be a black man in 1930s America while being respected as the fastest man in the world and a bunch of old, white guys sitting in their ivory towers talking about the politics of sport. Were the film to address the conflict Owens felt by pondering the lack of difference between his country and Germany at this point in history and whether him attending the games would make a difference or not the inevitable collision of these two aforementioned worlds might have held more of an impact. As it is though, this internal struggle amplified by Snyder's opinion that he should obviously attend the games paired with his inability to walk in Owens shoes is relegated to maybe 20 minutes of the film before Owens decides he will in fact attend the Olympics to which we are then delivered several more story points all to be managed in the last forty or so minutes of the film. From Owens not getting along with his Olympic certified coach and requesting Snyder be his instructor to the refusal of Hitler to congratulate Owens after his first gold medal win, as well as the ongoing conflict between filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten ) and Reich Minister of Nazi Propaganda Joseph Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat), and the unlikely friendship Owens forms with German long-jumper Carl 'Luz' Long (David Kross) it is both exhausting and boring given the movie is trying to do so much that no one thing is particularly effective. Newcomer James plays Owens as a very assured talent that is confident in his skill and knows how to push himself further, but in giving us this impression early it is surprising when that confidence is shaken late in the film under the weight of his Olympics decision. This is the type of film that reduces life changing decisions to the sentiment of "listening to your heart" though and thus we have what is more or less a based on a true story movie where the real complications of these true stories are smoothed over with idioms rather than dug into and explored in order to discover something truly enlightening. Jesse Owens life and legacy deserves more than “Race” can deliver; no matter how honorable its intentions are.
by Philip Price
Maybe it was the expectations, maybe it was the promise of something fresh in a genre we only get one or two exceptional pieces in each year, but whichever way you cut it “The Witch” is something of a letdown. Still, as I walked out of the theater I couldn't help but to feel I'd just witnessed something I wasn't supposed to see. Writer/director Robert Eggers has adapted his story from old folklore and stories of supposed witchcraft in the New England region circa 1630 that have been passed down over generations and has even used a fair amount of dialogue from journals and other written accounts that still exist. While this is nothing short of fascinating and makes for an authentic-feeling atmosphere that unfortunately ends up being the film’s single greatest strength. The lurking woods that lay just outside the house of William, his wife Katherine and their five children including newborn Samuel stand as something of a no-man's land that is a constant reminder of just how little wiggle room there is for our characters. This is not only true of their physical space, but of their mindset as William and Katherine lead a devout Christian life and teach their children to do the same. We never look at the characters as ignorant or naive, but more in the light of them having a very narrow view of how to explain things and thus the film itself feels trapped in this little box just waiting to burst out with the supernatural sorcery that seems to lie just on the other side of those woods. Of course, some would argue that is what is so beautiful about the story as well-that it is restrained enough throughout thus making its final minute all the more haunting. The thing is, for that final minute to be something of a payoff the previous eighty-eight have to be enthralling enough for that final one to make a serious impact and in that regard, “The Witch” simply isn't consistent enough to warrant the gasp it so desperately yearns for.
We are first introduced to William (Ralph Ineson) and Katherine (Kate Dickie) as they are banished from their colony for going against the rules of man for the sake of God's word. Rather than conform to the wills of man William chooses exile for his family forcing them to build a homestead on the edge of the aforementioned impassible wilderness. The oldest of their five children is Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), a young lady who is beginning to come into her womanhood and who her parents are considering sending off to another family so that she might be paired with a boy and begin to make babies of her own. Then there is Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) who sits on the edge of his teenage years, has a pension for contemplation while fully supporting his father and having something of a strange attraction to his older sister. This temptation seems to be more or less because Thomasin the only girl for miles rather than some creepy incestuous tendency, though still creepy nonetheless. William and Katehrine also have twins in the irritating toddler stage that are Jonas (Lucas Dawson) and Mercy (Ellie Grainger) as well as Samuel who can't be more than a few months old. It is when Samuel mysteriously vanishes while Thomasin is playing peek-a-boo with him along with their crops beginning to fail that things take a turn for the weird and the family starts to turn on one another because of it.
Beyond being privy to the chilling scene in which Samuel is kidnapped and the horrible result of his kidnapping the first 45 minutes or so rely heavily on the influential and stark atmosphere that has been meticulously constructed on a micro-budget to feel as credible as possible. Kudos to Eggers and his team for pulling this off as the film truly does transcend the trappings of small scale filmmaking and feels like a movie that might have been produced by the likes of Blumhouse or one of the other, smaller companies that specialize in horror. Once we hit that 45-minute mark though “The Witch” begins to embrace itself. This isn't embracing in terms of simply going nuts either as the film is very measured (maybe a little too much) and never lets itself devolve into silliness, but more it comes to deliver on what we might have hoped for from the established, twisted atmosphere. The problem is, by the time we reach this point we feel it has held out too long or at least not given us enough reason to stay invested along the way. When the film eventually gives it goes hard and it hurts to watch, making more than a few people around me wince and look away, but all I could think as shit began to hit the fan was that it needed more. More gore, more blood red colors, more witch. Just more all of it. If you're reading this prior to seeing the film I'm not even asking that the film go over the top with any of these facets, but more that it deliver wholeheartedly on the promises it sets up.
I also understand that horror films shouldn't strictly be about or judged on the amount of blood and gore that is spilled on screen, but there is a certain amount of horror-ridden tension you expect a scary movie to hit and “The Witch” falls short of that quota while having the atmosphere and tone to provide such scares in spades. It's like taking a once in a lifetime opportunity and squandering it because you woke up too late. At only 90 minutes the film feels brief, but that only makes the last half of the events portrayed feel even more fleeting. The film is commendable for its efforts in restraining itself from being just about the jump scares and actually trying to paint a portrait of a family slowly unraveling because of their fears, faith and anxieties, but there is no big metaphor meant to be interpreted here-this is about pure, inescapable evil that is preying on a rather innocent family and yet the battle feels completely one-sided with the outcome being somewhat predictable (if not visually striking) and thus nowhere near as grand as it should given the forces this family are at odds with. The films main antagonist, a goat known as Black Phillip, is used effectively despite the inherent silliness in zooming in on a farm animal's face. Instead, Eggers uses the animal not as an adversary for Thomasin to overcome, but rather a presence that forces the family to come to terms with what is happening around them. It is touches such as this that only make the fact of what actually occurs all the more disappointing given it isn't as frightening or jarring as the possibilities.
All of this taken into consideration, the performances are rather superb given many of the actors have few credits to their name and those that do mainly consist of little more than bit parts. The way in which each performer is able to naturally speak in the dialect of the time is impressive in itself, but that they're also able to inject a sense of understanding and emotion into the dialogue helps ease the disconnect that could easily occur with an audience. Ineson is admirable as the patriarch of the family, making his compassion as tangible as the regret that eventually overtakes him. Dickie is equally as effective in the mother role, playing crazy to the point we understand why she's been driven as mad as she seems. Scrimshaw is also rather good and is able to speak the language with a better flow than I would have imagined anyone his age could, but Taylor-Joy is the clear breakout here and while her character doesn't have nearly as much to do as she should, when she is on screen she makes every second count and every moment one to build upon the disturbing nature of the events we're seeing unfold. That's the thing about “The Witch,” it is more disturbing than it is scary and while there is nothing wrong with that (in fact, it could be construed as inspiring) I left the theater with that feeling of having witnessed worlds I shouldn't know exist (disturbing, right?) and yet I couldn't explain why it didn't leave me petrified if I tried.
Eddie the Eagle
by Philip Price
More than anything “Eddie the Eagle,” a new inspirational sports dramedy not from Disney, gets away with being as cute as it is largely due to the fact it doesn't come from Disney. Instead, “Eddie the Eagle” comes to us courtesy of Marv Films, the British production company owned by director Matthew Vaughn. Vaughn, who surprised no one with the quality of “Kingsman” last year, but did slightly stun a few with its box office capabilities also discovered Taron Egerton in the process. Egerton cements his rising star status in this somewhat unexpected follow-up for the new collaborators. Fortunately, this direction is an interesting one and the film works as there truly hasn't been much in the way of a credible sports story as of late where we don't inherently expect the sentimentality factor to be over the top. With the mouse house not having its hands on this property, though, we expect something slightly more mature, something a little closer to reality in the ways of the world and while “Eddie the Eagle” is certainly cute and even somewhat fantastical in certain aspects it never makes excuses for its titular characters shortcomings. Instead, it simply uses those real world circumstances to push our peculiar protagonist further. And thus, the reason “Eddie the Eagle” succeeds as well as it does despite being pure formula-it understands its hero and it breaks down the walls that people were afraid to climb over in Eddie's real life introducing us to a fully faceted character and not just a one note joke who can't take a hint from reality. Yes, “Eddie the Eagle” is formulaic in every way imaginable as you inevitably know all the beats the film will hit from the training montage down to the late second act obstacle that will be greatly overcome in the third, but it is damn entertaining formula and is made with such affection and honest aspiration one can't help but to want to cheer for Eddie just as all those at the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics did.
Even when describing the film as another sports movie inspired by true events it feels as stale as those Cheez-It's you forgot were sitting in your bottom drawer. Of course, the reason sports movies typically get made is because there is some interesting facet to a game hundreds of thousands of people watch every week and know the rules to. And so, these movies typically display exceptions to those rules, but here is where “Eddie the Eagle” begins to differentiate itself already. More than not being about a sport people care to watch on a weekly basis, “Eddie the Eagle” is arguably about a sport most don't even know exists. Ski jumping is a sport in which the athlete descends a specially constructed takeoff ramp, jumps from the end of that ramp with as much power as they can, and then "flies" as far as possible down a steep, sloped hill. So, not only does the film center itself around an outcast of a protagonist and a somewhat obscure Nordic sport, but it also finds drama and a compelling nature in a sport where that outcast isn't really competing against anyone but himself given Eddie is Great Britain's first Olympic ski jumper since 1929. We know he's not going to win any medals from the get-go, so there's no tension there-the tension lies in will he accomplish his dream of going to the Olympics or not? Will Eddie achieve an Olympic moment of his own? Of course, given the nature of the story and the fact there is a real Eddie Edwards out there that you can Google and watch YouTube clips of there is no such thing as a spoiler. This makes it all the more crucial for the filmmakers to deliver a final product that conveys this fascinating journey by a fascinating character rather than simply making it about the obvious destination. Director Dexter Fletcher has made two features prior, neither of which I've seen, but look to be smaller/indie films strictly distributed in the UK. That said, Fletcher never makes his presence known here, but instead allows the characters and soundtrack to shape the mood and tone of his film. For a filmmaker working with a bigger budget and big movie stars for the first time I imagine it is difficult to remain restrained, but it works to Fletcher's advantage here as Eddie and his story more than speak for themselves.
We begin in 1973 as we meet 10-year old Michael "Eddie" Edwards (Taron Egerton) who, from the get-go, is an unlikely athlete. Eddie has braces on his legs due to "dodgy knees" and despite constantly being picked last in the forum of school organized sports continues to work his way through the Olympic moments book his parents have given him in hopes of finding a sport he excels at. His mother (Jo Hartley) is a soothing presence that encourages her son to chase any dream he sets his sights on while his father (Keith Allen) is less so. Eddie's father has made a sustainable living working construction, specifically plastering, and hopes his son will find honest work and honest pay with a more traditional career. There is great momentum from the start though that shows us Eddie is up for something more than the traditional nine to five as Fletcher combines editing techniques and an eighties synth-inspired soundtrack to move us rapidly through the stages of Eddie's adolescence. It is here that Eddie settles on the sport of skiing. When the film jumps to 1987 though, we meet a twentysometing Eddie who is cut from Britain's Olympic ski team and is forced to once again figure out how he might make it to the Olympics. Eddie comes to ski jumping given the fact Britain hadn't had a competitor in the sport since 1929 and he could essentially qualify for the Olympics by default. Of course, if you've seen the trailers or looked up any footage of ski jumping you'll learn very quickly that it's quite a dangerous sport and that even after Eddie travels to Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, to learn the basics he will still need a coach if he hopes to survive. Enter the rebellious and charismatic Bronson Peary (Hugh Jackman), a once promising ski jumper under the wing of legendary coach Warren Sharp (Christopher Walken) who has since been reduced to a drunkard that finds work in snowplowing the Garmisch slopes, and you have the makings of an odd couple willing to take on the establishment and win the hearts of audiences around the world.
It is in this duo that the movie finds both balance and its battling themes. The overriding arc of the film is the idea that there is no greater motivator than telling someone they can't, but by providing us with this specimen who garnered fame and attention for not being particularly skilled, but being immensely dedicated and juxtaposing it with this older, grizzled athlete who had all the talent in the world but couldn't find the drive or love of the sport to save his career the film taps into something more, something about the nature of competition, the right to compete, natural ability, and the culture that cultivates a "15 minutes of fame" phenomenon so as to convince ourselves we're more compassionate than we like to think we are by allowing such loveable underdogs such as Eddie Edwards to experience their dreams if not for only a moment. Eddie may not have been the most gifted athlete, but he was clearly a hard worker and there are no athletes at all, much less great ones, without hard work. And so, it is in this sense that the only thing that differentiates Eddie from those who have been training their entire lives for the Olympics is the fact their natural make-up includes more inherent skill than his. Given they've been training their entire lives because their circumstances allowed them to raises the question of whether they're more deserving of the attention Eddie ultimately receives for only competing in his sport for barely a year before making his Olympic debut and on something of a technicality at that. Writers Sean Macaulay and Simon Kelton hint at this conundrum of who deserves what and even show that Eddie is well aware of his sideshow status, but they defend their hero by going back to the words of the founder of the modern Olympic games, Pierre de Coubertin, who said, "The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part; the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well." If this quote is to be taken as some type of credo for Olympians to live by then it's hard to argue that Eddie doesn't completely personify this sentiment given his never say die attitude. And it is in that mentality that Eddie wins us over as well, despite his conventional and clichéd road to glory he nonetheless remains inspiring especially when seen through the magic of the movies.
Zoolander No. 2
by Philip Price
I'm not one who necessarily believes that comedy sequels are necessarily going to be horrible. I understand the case that is made for why many of them are and do in fact agree that “Dumb and Dumber To” may be one of the worst movies ever made, but as a rule of thumb, as a blanket statement, I like to think there is more to this phenomenon than that. No one will argue that comedy is the most difficult genre to pull off successfully and when one does so to the effect that it connects with a large group of people it is hard to not want to return to that well in hopes of capturing those same gracious returns once more. What is strange about this latest nostalgia-fueled sequel though, is that it didn't seem to connect with many people upon its initial release back in 2001. Ben Stiller likely knew this about his dimwitted male model character when he came up with it for a pair of short films for the VH1 Fashion Awards in 1996 and 1997. Stiller knew there was never a real chance the character would catch on or even that his modest comedy would make a boatload of cash, but he clearly loved the material and put his creative mind to the pedal to not only come up with something silly, but something topical that provided commentary on the frivolity of the fashion world when compared to something as sobering as sweat shops and child labor laws. Then, something happened that Stiller never would have guessed or foreseen in a million years – “Zoolander” became something of a staple of the post 9/11 world in that it was released a few weeks after the attacks and provided some much needed silliness to divert our national consciousness away from all the horrible things that were happening. In this regard “Zoolander,” a film about the titular idiot model becoming the pawn of corrupt fashion executives in order to assassinate the Prime Minister of Malaysia, held a special place in many people's hearts. It didn't hurt that the film was a genuinely good, funny comedy, but that fondness for this safe haven of a comedy has now snowballed into a world dominated by social media that consistently referenced and recapped the original enough that Stiller and co-stars Owen Wilson and Will Ferrell (each who have long since passed their pique popularity) couldn't help but to re-visit these characters in hopes of reaping those gracious returns once more. Instead of being the warm, safe place to return to in times of sadness or stress though, “Zoolander No. 2” only makes it clear how sad the reality of these characters lives actually is. Even worse, the legacy of Stiller's once pristine fashion satire is now tainted by having dressing it up in something ugly.
To give you an idea of where I'm coming at this sequel from though, I love “Zoolander.” At the time of the original films release, I was fourteen years old and didn't see the movie until early December while attending a couple of friend's joint birthday party where we all decided to see a movie at the local dollar theater. We didn't know what “Zoolander” was, but we knew it had the guy from “Meet the Parents” and the guy with the nose from “Shanghai Noon” that was also in “Meet the Parents,” so we were game. It may not have been an instant classic, but over the years “Zoolander” became the kind of flagship film for the once domineering Frat Pack and a reliable quote factory for people of a certain generation. In fact, I could give you a handful of signature moments from the film if you were to stop me on the street at any moment I've watched the film so many times, but all of this only made my concern for a sequel even greater. Obviously, comedy sequels have that certain reputation I touched on earlier and with all of the three main stars having careers that have more or less been on the decline in recent years it seemed the reason to do a sequel to “Zoolander” was more a desperate attempt at capitalizing on one of their more cherished properties rather than for any artistic or relevant story reason. If something radical had happened in the fashion industry or if Stiller again wanted to craft a social commentary through the guise of male models running around with their shirts off I could understand and see where, given the climate, it might be fun to explore how Stiller's Derek and Wilson's Hansel might fit into such a conversation, but none of these things are the reason we have a sequel to “Zoolander.” Rather, it seems we have a sequel to “Zoolander” because Stiller has now made three ‘Focker’ and three ‘Night at the Museum’ films a piece and with his last directorial effort, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” not going over as well as expected-it was the obvious, reliable choice. That and it feels like Justin Theroux has been working on the script since 2005.
For as long as it seemed that Theroux (who returns here as the creepily suspicious DJ) worked on the script though, it is concerning to think that what we have here is what he worked on for so long. Even more frightening is that he collaborated with both Stiller and Nicholas Stoller (director of “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” “Get Him to the Greek” and “Neighbors”) as well as long-time Stiller collaborator John Hamburg and what we have is a hodgepodge of ideas that have something to do with the fountain of youth and Zoolander's son, Derek Jr. (Cyrus Arnold), who just so happens to be the chosen one. In the end though, I don't even think they stick with that outlandish narrative, but rather just use it as an excuse for Ferrell's Mugatu to hatch this master plan of breaking himself out of high security fashion prison. Going in and through the first few scenes I was hopeful though. There were real hints of what made the first movie so ridiculously fun and yes, ridiculously good looking. It becomes apparent that Stiller is not only aware of how absurd it is that he's just now making a sequel to a 15 year old property, a property that 15 year old's these days will relate to the same way 15 year old's in 2001 related to “Ghostbusters,” but that despite this time span he is still able to be very much in tune with this character. In seeing so many of these nostalgia-fueled follow-ups that have graced our big and small screens over the last few years it has become clear it's not always easy to fall back into a character you thought you'd left behind long ago, but Stiller does so with ease here. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Christine Taylor as she's abruptly forced out of the picture to make way for Penelope Cruz's new character or for Ferrell who in some scenes seems to be playing a different character altogether. There are times, especially during the climax when Ferrell reaches back into his bag of tricks and pulls out something that would have fit perfectly into the original film, but other times and surprisingly when he's sharing the screen with Kristen Wiig's plastic surgery obsessed designer Alexanya Atoz, the jokes are as flat as his platforms are high.
Believe it or not, “Zoolander No. 2” isn't all bad though, and interestingly enough what saves the film is what begins to pull it down after its rather promising start. The set-up is golden, the recap of what's happened in the interim between 2001 and 2016 is actually pretty great in how it breaks down each year and the progressive decline of Derek's life that leads to him living in a cabin in extreme Northern New Jersey. We then are swiftly delivered the Billy Zane cameo we were promised giving way to Derek and Hansel making their way to Rome and reconnecting for the first time in 15 years. Their arrival just so happens to coincide with the fact all of the world's most beautiful people are being systematically assassinated with Zoolander's trademark "Blue Steel" look on their face. This brings Cruz's Interpol agent into the picture as she recruits Derek and Hansel to help her figure out what is happening and why Zoolander's signature look seems to be at the center of it. So far, so good right? Sure, well enough at least even if Wilson is on more of his autopilot level of performance than actually seeming to care about anything, but then the cameos pick up as do the retreading of old jokes and the ambition of what this sequel could have been begins to go down. Some of the references are subtle enough they're funny without being distracting, but others are so blunt they are basically repeating the same joke in hopes of getting a laugh for nothing more than recognizing the fact it's the same joke. “Zoolander No. 2” runs into this problem a lot: stating the obvious about pop culture components and expecting a laugh for simply recognizing them rather than crafting a joke around them. Like some of the old jokes, some of the cameos work. I won't spoil too many of them, but Kyle Mooney in a supporting role absolutely kills it as does Kiefer Sutherland in a recurring bit that has him sporting a bizarre relationship with Hansel. On the other hand, poor Fred Armisen. Of course, none of this is enough to make up for the many shortcomings and shortcuts this sequel takes. I wanted so badly for Stiller and his crew to buck the trend of comedy sequels and for him to not pollute the legacy of the original, but in the end Stiller has made of Zoolander what should never be able to describe a model, much less the most famous one in the world: a hot mess.
by Philip Price
The current cinematic landscape couldn't be more primed for a character like Deadpool. Audiences in general are all rather jaded when it comes to the superhero genre even if we don't care to admit so. That doesn't mean I think the genre and its success is going anywhere anytime soon, I don't. What I mean is simply that the genre is evolving and right now we're at the stage where we're all well aware that things have taken a turn into overdrive and are bordering on the ridiculous. That said, I kind of can't help but love it as the interconnected universes and team-up movies are everything I wanted the movies to be as a child. Even the TV platform is being invaded as super heroes are becoming just as present on the small screen as they are at the cineplexes. The market is saturated. There is no avoiding that truth and as we grow largely more self-aware of what each of these comic book adventures will hold we expect our heroes to do the same thing. As the genre grows and evolves we expect our heroes and their movies to grow and evolve as well. That is why, given his penchant for simultaneous self-aggrandizing and self-degrading humor, Deadpool is able to get away with being both a narcissistic degenerate yet inviting sympathy for his plight and pulling the audience to his side despite the fact he may not be that great of a guy. He's different. He's fresh, but it goes deeper than that. Much has been and will continue to be said about the self-aware nature of the character and his vulgar, R-rated humor that isn't inherent to the comic book movies that have allowed for the genre to become as mainstream as it is now, but the language, violence and sex presented here is not solely for the sake of undoing every expectation set up by every super hero movie prior, but instead is simply part of who this guy is and the type of environment he was nurtured in. Deadpool AKA Wade Wilson (played by Ryan Reynolds as what I can only imagine is really just Ryan Reynolds) is simply a product of his environment in the same way Thor and and Captain America are fantastical products of theirs. The difference being what these environments stipulate as appropriate and in Deadpool's world there is no excuse to not let it all hang out and that's exactly what Reynolds along with director Tim Miller do here.
Going into the film I'd never read a Deadpool comic with my only reference to the character being that of the ill-handled version Reynolds also portrayed in 2009's “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.” All I knew of the character was the he was intended to be something of an antihero with a talkative nature that was used for comic effect in such instances as when he would break the fourth wall. Obviously, none of these characteristics were used in Wolverine's movie as that version of Reynolds' Deadpool had his mouth sewn shut so the movie could be kept at a pleasant PG-13. Cut to seven years later and we now have a version of the "Merc with a Mouth" that is apparently much closer to his comic book version. In doing some not too in-depth research I also came to find out that in the 2004 series Cable & Deadpool, Deadpool refers to his own scarred appearance as "Ryan Reynolds crossed with a Shar-Pei." It feels like something of a preordained fact that Reynolds was the rightful actor to portray this character as even the character in print referred to himself as being like the actor. And so, while that prophecy wasn't exactly fulfilled in Reynolds first go-around he is making sure that doesn't happen again and seems to genuinely want to do right by fans of the character by delivering what he has here. As the titular antihero Reynolds lets his improvisational wit fly as he slings insults and jokey commentary with no such thing as a second thought entering his mind. Reynolds is as one with a character as he has ever been and believe it or not the guy has delivered some excellent performances (go ahead and check out last year’s “The Voices” because I know you haven't already). In many ways, “Deadpool” will signal something of a career rejuvenation for Reynolds as the guy hasn't actually produced a hit since “The Proposal” in '09 and “Safe House” in '10 both of which were hits due to his co-stars with nothing depending on his presence. That being said, it's nice to see Reynolds hitting a stride with the character he will undoubtedly become most synonymous with as he truly owns the role like no one else has owned a role in quite some time.
Having only a vague understanding of who the character was meant to be, but knowing this version intended to go all out I wasn't exactly sure what story writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick were going to tell or how they were going to structure what was clearly something of an anomaly in comic book movie world. And so, when it became clear this was going to be something of an origin story I was slightly reassured and disappointed at the same time. We've seen countless super hero origin stories, but what immediately becomes evident with “Deadpool” is that its structure will set it apart that. While the film blatantly and shamelessly relies on many tropes of the genre it never feels dull or worn out. In fact, given the energy of the title character infused by a Reynolds dynamic performance and the obvious fact the rest of the cast is having a blast “Deadpool” feels very much the opposite of stereotypical as it puts a fresh, transparent spin on everything.
We begin by catching up with Wilson in full costume as Deadpool as he catches a cab to a freeway intersection where he knows antagonist Ajax (Ed Skrein) will be passing through soon. In what is a rather stunning piece of action directing Miller constructs a single set-piece that was previewed in the leaked test footage a few years back where Mr. Pool (as he is so earnestly referred to) handily dismantles an entire squad of henchman in ultra-stylized fashion. From here, Deadpool takes us back in time explaining how he, who was once a bad guy stopping worse guys from doing worse things, came to be disfigured and dressed in red spandex. Naturally, things revolve around a girl, Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), with whom Wade finds true love and plans to spend the rest of his giddy life with until he finds out he has late term cancer. Approached by a shadowy figure portrayed by Jed Rees Wilson is promised the opportunity to cure his cancer and become a super hero in the process. Wilson cautiously proceeds, but it becomes clear quite quick that Skrein's Ajax, who runs the facility that Wilson is taken to with the help of Gina Cornano's Angel Dust, is not all it's promised to be and ends up being more of an experiment than a patented surgery in which Wilson is indeed cured of his cancer and imbued with the ability of accelerated healing and a wider physical prowess, but is also left with the disfigured exterior that makes him unwilling to return to Vanessa and set to seek revenge on the man that did this to him.
From the word go “Deadpool” is a blast. I was worried that, despite the genius marketing campaign, the film would be trying too hard for the laughs it wanted to earn. While I've always found Reynolds to be appealing he is the kind of comic actor who knows he's funny and his delivery is always with that tinge of cadence that says, "I'm saying this a certain way because it's obviously funnier if I say it this way." Such ego can take away from the genuine side of the humor. Funny has never been easy to pull off and with “Deadpool” I was concerned things would resort to juvenile humor and mean-spirited jabs that were nothing if not easy targets and lazy writing. Instead, the film never feels forced. It's just the opposite actually as Miller (who's never directed a feature film before, but is known mainly for his visual effects work) keeps things moving at such a brisk pace the jokes fly by just as fast and never feel vulgar in the sense of being gross, but more playful and light with the simple hope of making you, the audience our hero's well aware of, crack a smile. I became slightly worried when the film got caught up with itself in one of the extended flashback sequences as the jokes slowed slightly and the tone became more serious, but by the time the film reaches the end of its first hour and we're brought up to speed on the events that have led Deadpool to the freeway intersection things pick back up and once the obligatory costume montage hits (set to a ridiculous Deadpool rap by Teamheadkick) we're back at full throttle. More impressive than any of the humor, the violence, or the truly involving action sequences though is that Miller and his team are able to find the line between the type of outlandish comedy they're relaying and the genuine human emotions involved. Reynolds and Baccarin have legitimate chemistry and because we understand that the main character doesn't care about anything, but rather approaches it all with a cocky indifference it makes us take things all the more serious when he is indeed emotionally affected. Sure, we could nitpick and say the story is thin as is the villain (nothing new there), but such minor complaints are balanced out with major contributions from the likes of T.J. Miller and Leslie Uggams making this unconventional heroes movie just the same despite some natural shortcomings.
All of that said, I look forward to catching up with Deadpool again and again with the hope that the many references to this being a low budget super hero movie with no ambitions to be a franchise prove false as our constant concern over super hero fatigue could use the kind of wake-up call Deadpool provides from time to time. Speaking of franchises, sequels, and things of the sort “Deadpool” does involve two X-Men from Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters that clearly exists in the same universe as the other X-Men films, but they are admittedly low-key characters as even Deadpool himself confesses they were the only X-Men the studio could afford to feature. Collossus (voiced by Stefan Kapicic) and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand) show up here and there mostly with the intent of trying to recruit Deadpool to be an X-Men as well, but to no avail. It's unclear how Deadpool might eventually intertwine into the larger X-Men universe, but for now it seems best to keep him on the outskirts, allowing him to do his own thing and completely succeed at being the outsider, the total aberration, oddity and downright rarity that he is.
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
by Philip Price
Say what you will, but I've never read Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. That said, I've clearly become familiar with the story over the years and have seen some of the many adaptations namely Joe Wright's 2005 film starring Kiera Knightley. Again, say what you will, but I did read Seth Grahame-Smith's 2010 novel Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and kind of loved it, but the 2012 movie adaptation was less than satisfying. Given I knew Grahame-Smith's debut novel would also get the movie treatment I decided not to give it a look with the fact I'd never read Austen's original text also weighing on my decision. And so, going into “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” I looked forward to seeing if a film version of one of Grahame-Smith's parody/mashup novels could be turned into an entertaining movie or if it would still be little more than a good idea even without knowing the depth of the original text. Of course, much of Grahame-Smith's novel from which this film is based is apparently text taken directly from the Austen classic only with elements of modern zombie fiction inserted throughout. So, one could say if you know Pride and Prejudice it isn't hard to imagine what “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” might be. That's true. It isn't. Strangely enough though, it isn't the fact the story doesn't have to be outrageously creative in order to weave the zombie narrative through it, but more simply how much the movie embraces that aspect. Director Burr Steers has crafted a film with its tongue planted firmly in its cheek, but does so without ever going too far. Sure, the movie is aware of what it is, but it never becomes a parody of itself in that it goes to certain lengths to highlight its unique premise while never giving cause to laugh at it. In short, the film is cool enough to laugh with us at its absurdities and for that it packs a fun enough punch as far as action/adventure movies go. All in all, the film is simply decent. While it exudes style at certain points and embraces itself fully that still doesn't necessarily mean it executes itself well and when it comes to following through on the promise of the premise with such spectacle this film version falls short and unfortunately feels rather fatigued by the time we cross the finish line.
The story, of course, follows the plot of Pride and Prejudice, but places the novel in an alternative universe version of Regency era England where zombies roam the countryside. We are first introduced to Elizabeth Bennet (Lily James) and her four sisters who live on a countryside estate with their parents (Charles Dance and Sally Phillips) as they are under a strict regimen of martial arts and weapons training. While Mrs. Bennet admits the molding of her daughters into fearsome zombie fighting warriors is necessary she also knows she and her husband will have nothing to leave their children once they die and so it is her ultimate goal to find suitable and preferably wealthy husbands for each of her five girls. It is when the wealthy and single Mr. Bingley (Douglas Booth) purchases a nearby house that things begin to get interesting as Bingley hosts a ball upon his arrival and Mrs. Bennet, being ever the clever woman that she is spies an opportunity to get at least one, if not a few more of her daughters, in front of the right kinds of people. Dance's Mr. Bennet is not as keen on his daughters seeking the reliance of a man, but understands his wife's position and permits his daughters to go to the dance. Sharing her father’s sense of wit and sarcasm Elizabeth has little desire to be paraded around as if a prize to be won, but upon attending the dance can't deny an immediate sort of attraction to Mr. Bingley's friend, Fitzwilliam Darcy (Sam Riley), who just so happens to be even wealthier than Bingley as well as a skilled zombie hunter, if not an arrogant one as well. As things go, this initial attraction is overshadowed by aspects of each the other grows to dislike only driving a wedge between the attraction that sparks between Mr. Bingley and the eldest Bennet daughter, Jane (Bella Heathcote). Through the drama of marriage and women seeking men and men seeking women we get hiccups in the traditional story in the form of zombie attacks and, well, you get the picture.
Truth is. I really wanted to like this movie. I really wanted it to be good and it’s not that it isn't, but it isn't actively innovative either. The idea of the title alone is a great idea, one that could really be taken in uber-creative directions and while there are facets of how well utilized this alternate take can be such as when the ideas of being ladylike are constituted not by how well one can dance, but more on how well one can defend themselves. The conversations around how far is too far when toting around muskets and what crosses the line to unladylike behavior in such regards are great, but such examples are too few and far between for the film to really feel like it takes advantage of such opportunity. It is in these areas where the film starts out strong, but loses interest in its own gimmick halfway through resulting in another human versus zombie showdown that packs almost no emotional wallop and features a caveat in the plot of the zombie population that isn't explored enough to be as pivotal as it ultimately turns out to be. Adapted for the screen by Steers as well, the director would seemingly have a strong connection to the screenplay and all its intricacies that would result in a carefully plotted story with purpose in each scene and a propulsive nature that keeps things moving forward. And yet, despite all of the romantic drama that is set-up in the first half hour or so it feels as if it operates in one too many fits and starts to really get the movie off the ground. Things improve ever so slightly when Matt Smith's Parson Collins, who is a clergyman and heir to Longbourn working for the noble Lady Catherine de Bourgh (played by Lena Heady who in this version is an ass-kicking ninja with an eye-patch) who is also Darcy's aunt. Collins is intent on marrying one of the Bennet girls, but runs into trouble with his first two choices. Smith plays the rather bookish and stilted Collins with a flair of oblivious concern that puts his squirrelly mannerisms in the moment, but never for too long. He is the comic relief of the piece and he steals every scene in which he participates.
This relief due to Smith's performance works well though as he appears in the series of events just prior to Jack Huston's George Wickham appearing. In the original text Wickham is a militia officer who has a checkered (to say the least) past with Mr. Darcy despite having been close with Darcy's father. In this version these details are the same, but it is in twisting the narrative to fit the zombie apocalypse that things become muddled or at least not fleshed (hah) out enough for the film to cover as many bases as the novel. What also doesn't help is Steers inability to film the action scenes with much clarity. The film is so darkly lit in many of these scenes that it is hard to tell who is fighting who or even what is going on much of the time. It's odd because outside of the moments that involve swordplay the film can be quite striking in its beauty and color palette. Of course, there is a ton of color correction going on here to give the film that blue chrome hue that seems to be something of a trend at the moment, but nonetheless it has visual flair in large portions while looking like Steers had no idea what he was doing when staging the combat scenes. Fortunately, much is forgiven due to his charismatic cast. As she proved in last year’s “Cinderella,” Lily James is simply a pleasure to watch on screen. She is so unbelievably charming and accessible that you are immediately drawn to her Elizabeth and feel like you and her would get along immediately even if you have no frame of reference to her character from Austen's novel. As Mr. Darcy, Riley is perfectly fine if not somewhat too subtle in his performance as the conflicted, yet truly agreeable bachelor. One can hear the cadence in his vocal performance that displays a kind of pain in seeing his world torn to shreds around him with the idea he might have to kill a close friend or loved one at any moment weighing on his shoulders. While we feel some strange type of sympathy for him, we don't necessarily see what Elizabeth is supposed to see in him. It's clear to see what Riley was going for and he hits something specific and honestly kind of special on the head, but it doesn't totally work here. Maybe even because it's too good for the type of movie it is in. Like “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” I can't help but feel the novel was a complex and intricate weaving of new and old to a degree the movie simply can't capture, but if you're simply looking for some good ole cheap thrills and trashy fun one could do much worse than “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.” Especially in February.
by Philip Price
The latest from storied writers and directors the Coen Brothers, “Hail, Caesar!,” is what some would label a zany comedy. It is a lark in many regards, a film where there seems no other intention by the filmmakers other than to create an amusing escapade and in this regard the film genuinely succeeds. The most outward thing one could say about the film, in fact, is that it is exceedingly charming and fun, that the Coen's have given themselves a set-up that allows them to explore all of their favorite genres of movies in Hollywood's golden age and that they take this opportunity and run with it. Casting the likes of current movie stars such as George Clooney, Scarlett Johansson and Channing Tatum and placing them within the context of what types of movie stars they might have been in the 1950s is an incredibly appealing idea and the opportunity to see Clooney channel bits of Clark Gable, Johansson essentially play Esther Williams, and Tatum do his version of a Gene Kelly number is what sells the film. These movies within the movie are what make the film worth recommending in a sense despite the fact Josh Brolin is doing a good job carrying the connective tissue between each even if, somewhat ironically, he doesn't have enough to do. If you've seen the trailers for the film then you know the overarching plot concerns Clooney's Baird Whitlock, the biggest star in Hollywood, being kidnapped and held for ransom by a group who refer to themselves as "the future," but this turns out to be not so much what the movie is about rather just a small piece. Instead, as most Coen pictures do, “Hail, Caesar!” wants to be about something more and this time the Coen's are exploring that very thing-the worth of the movies, of stories even. Words like frivolous, flippant, lighthearted, silly and any other synonyms of sort are used consistently throughout forcing our protagonist, Brolin's Eddie Mannix, to search his soul to find a reasonable rebuttal to validate not only the movies he and his studio are making, but his livelihood. It's true that the movies have a platform like no other and that they have the power to influence certain demographics, but beyond the Coen's attempting to convince themselves of these same things as they grow older in age, there isn't much to grasp onto here or there is too much and none of it ends up making the impact it should. Either way, “Hail, Caesar!” is still a rollicking good way to spend an hour and 45 minutes even if it is a minor work in the Coen pantheon.
Beginning with an ominous shot of a crucifix hanging over the camera and then transitioning to an expertly lit Brolin as Mannix sitting in a confessional and the first few minutes of the film make you think this is something entirely different than it turns out to be. Of course, this looming image of Christ as he hangs bloodied and beaten on the cross plays largely into the facets of who our main character is and begins a throughline of discussions about faith and other forms of belief that make their way in and out of the film. This initial image of Christ though, reminds us that he died for our sins, it reminds us of His saving grace and in essence that is what Mr. Mannix is for these movie stars. Why Mannix is in the confessional booth boils down to little more than he bummed a few cigarettes when he told his wife he was going to quit, but no less than a few hours later he is on the lot of Capitol Pictures and is working every angle he can to make his stars as appealing as possible and his movies equally as profitable. In short, he is working to spread the word of his own personal Gospel in as effective a way as possible, a way where it might reach as many people as it has the potential to. At the same time, Mannix is deliberating over whether or not to take a different job at an aviation company that would guarantee him better hours, a 10-year minimum contract, and stock options that would more than secure his financial future, but he simply can't seem to turn his back on the pictures. Every day Mannix is out there sacrificing himself for both his movies and his stars, making them as appealing as he can, washing away their sins if you will, so that when their movies arrive at the local multiplex they are greeted with love and forgiveness by the ones who will judge them most harshly. Trust me, it's not that much of a reach and it creates a sense of mysticism about the film that I think the Coen's like given they seem to be heavily fascinated by how the teachings of such figures influence countless people's lives. After all, Jesus ultimately wants us to prove to him in the way we live our lives that we were a bet worth investing in and what does a studio head want more than to know his investments will pay off in the end?
What the broader implications of that might be as far as what the Coen's are trying to say could go many ways, but it is noteworthy that they've tried to discuss something so profound within the context of what is, on the surface, that zany comedy I mentioned earlier. Still, while there is obviously a fair amount of substance attempting to be conveyed through these in-between portions that depict Mannix going from set to set and problem to problem it is these moments that also tend to make the film lag. Brolin's character of Mannix is always on the run, always has another meeting to attend, or phone call to make, but other than creating this analogy I spent the previous paragraph trying to explain so that audiences might come to some type of epiphany in the end about how we all need to find purpose in our daily excursions, the actual movie we're watching is most enthralling and most fun when it allows itself to indulge in the setting it has made for itself rather than indulging further in whatever point it is trying to make. While the inability to not try and say something more might ultimately hinder their latest film, the Coen's also have a brand of humor all their own and know, without a shadow of a doubt how to pull that off. It is the conveyance of such big ideas through this humor and commentary that makes the film work and the themes felt, even if they ultimately weren't as necessary to this story as they are to some of their heavier works. The Coen's have always had a knack for analyzing the outlandish elements of our nature and pulling out the comedy in as much and in our nature to build huge sets and wear ridiculous costumes for the sake of creating something that is ultimately rather self-congratulatory and indulgent they have analyzed themselves and questioned if what they've been doing for the past 30 years will be worth anything over the next 30. Through this lens, “Hail, Caesar!” is an exercise in self-discovery and admitting to themselves that even if their films fail to live on that they simply cannot go on without the promise of creating something new. It may not mean something to everybody, but it means something to them. That the Coen's have parlayed this existential discussion into an excuse to create multiple short films in the vein of any number of movies from Hollywood's "golden age" is just a bonus for audiences as, despite my bewilderment after walking out of the theater, I was grinning almost the entire running time.
“Hail, Caesar!” feels like one of those movies, especially one of the Coen's movies, where once I watch it two or three more times I will come to notice things I didn't upon this first viewing and enjoy it all the more. For all the talk of trying to find meaning in this haze of quirkiness or meaning in this compilation of Hollywood's greatest hits the film is most enjoyable not for its attempts at eliciting meaning, but for creating an homage of sorts to an art form the directors clearly adore. While “Hail, Caesar!” may be something of a perplexing hodgepodge of ideas to some, for those who love movies it is an exquisitely written love letter that you wish hadn't strayed off topic for as much time as it does. Out of the many revelations that prove to be insanely fun, the front-runner and clear MVP is Alden Ehrenreich as Hobie Doyle, a Roy Rogers type who stars in countless Westerns and was picked up not for his talking skills, but for the way he could swing a rope and strum a guitar. Ehrenreich's Doyle is a rather unencumbered type of star who comes in, does as he's told, and goes home counting it all in a good day’s work. He has no wife as he seems slightly too offbeat to carry on a legitimate relationship and he has no further ambition than what he has already achieved. So, when Mannix decides to pull Doyle from the set of his latest Western into the world of real drama things get as complicated in his world as they've likely ever been. A scene in which Doyle comes face to face with his new director, Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes doing a version of Laurence Olivier), gives prime example to the type of situations Mannix and his actors create for which they eventually have to find a way out of.
A scene in which Mannix and a rabbi, Catholic priest, protestant minister and Eastern orthodox priest all discuss the depiction of Christ in the movie from which this movie takes its name is worth mentioning as it's the best in the film and a prime example of all the Coen's do best in mixing comedy, commentary, and complex ideas. Tatum's tap dance sequence, on the other hand, may be the most entertaining bit of the film while Clooney, doing his typical Coen doofus routine gets the short end of the stick as his "conspiracy" storyline somewhat runs out of steam. If you're going to see the movie for the likes of Jonah Hill (though his small scene is rather charming), Johansson, or even Tilda Swinton (playing some versions of Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons) know they're only in the film for a few minutes a piece and that this is largely Brolin's show with Ehrenreich coming out periodically to steal the show. All of that said, Roger Deakins photography elicits real moods of the old Hollywood films they are emulating and Carter Burwell's score is having as much fun as the film is reveling in this period of time. And so, in the end, “Hail, Caesar!” may not be a game-changer of any sorts, but it does have value and it does show worth and I think that's all the Coen's were after this time out.
Jane Got A Gun
by Philip Price
Life is complicated. Even more so in the old west. Natalie Portman's passion project, “Jane Got A Gun,” wants to remind us of this and ultimately that what we perceive as good and bad aren't as easy to differentiate between as most would like to believe. What was even more complicated though, was the long and tumultuous road it took to get this project to the big screen. After several pre-production delays that included original director Lynne Ramsey exiting the project on the same day shooting was scheduled to begin it was difficult to see how the film might come out unscathed. Pair this with the exit of star Jude Law and a roster of other actors including Bradley Cooper coming in and out for the role that was finally filled by Ewan McGregor and you have what is sure to be nothing short of a downright catastrophe. Eventually though, director Gavin O'Connor took over the reins and enlisted the help of his “Warrior” star Joel Edgerton to what now, having seen the film, is a wholly serviceable and often times even compelling Western that hardly shows any of the scars it garnered along the way. From a story and script originally crafted by Brian Duffield it seems that once O'Connor was brought on board that he utilized both Edgerton (a writer and director himself) and “Warrior” screenwriter Anthony Tambakis to punch up the script and it is here where we find the first of many things to admire about the film. From the opening moments, set in dusty 1871 New Mexico, as Portman's titular Jane tells her daughter a bedtime story it is made clear the position of the three main characters in the story and where they fall into the plot while not making it clear where they might fall into one another's lives. This structuring of mystery around each of our main characters and their past and how they might intertwine with one another is what hooks the audience and while the first 20 or so minutes may seem to drag and ostensibly be vague for no other purpose than being vague the film hits its stride within the first half hour and from there briskly unravels a heartbreaking narrative of love, loss, and the will to do what it takes to keep on keepin' on.
Centered around Jane Hammond (Portman), the story tells of how this woman, once thought to have lost her fiancé, Dan Frost (Edgerton), to the war, has come to build a new life with new husband Bill "Ham" Hammond (Noah Emmerich). The catch is that Hammond once worked alongside a gang of outlaws known as the "Bishop Boys" under the guidance of Colin McCann (McGregor). It turns out the Bishop boys were exploiting the widowed women of the war by offering protective services for travel to a nearby town made to sound like a utopia. In reality, McCann and his gang were simply looking to take over this town and utilize the girls they schemed into coming along with them as prostitutes in order to turn a profit. It seems Jane was one of the unfortunate souls who fell for this trap, but along the way Hammond became attached to Jane and broke away from the gang with the hope of starting fresh with his new love. McCann doesn't look kindly on Hammond's decision sparking a war of sorts between the Bishop boys and Hammond that naturally finds its way back to Jane and Bill's front porch leaving Bill badly wounded and unable to move. With the impending arrival of McCann and an unknown number of his gang members Jane enlists the help of the fiancé she once thought dead. Of course, there is more to the story than what can be divulged here and it is in these nuances of haunted memories that there is a depth and meaning to the interaction between Dan and Jane that can't be discussed, but is conveyed delicately through the respective performances of Portman and Edgerton. The conflict evident on Portman's face as her character comes to the realization of her mistakes and shortcomings and how she must let such things go in order to allow her past to meet with her present is an arc I can understand wanting to play enough to endure all it took to make this story a reality.
While the script certainly gives the film a rather tight and brilliant pace with which it peels back the layers of the story, it is the characters that keep us invested and furthermore it is the performances that make this potentially generic Western one worth sticking around for. Maybe what is most telling about these characters though is the way they deal with these situations in which neither of them are privy to all the details of the other's story. Regardless of how they once pictured life, now knowing how things do indeed turn out has turned two optimistic and joyously in love people into hardened cynics that can barely stand to look at one another for fear of what thoughts might come rushing back. It is in this relationship that the film really flourishes. For the most part, knowing what she knows and taking her position in life based on this knowledge Jane is still a very confused soul. She has jumped at an opportunity to be rescued only to find she has to be rescued once again. She experiences unthinkable tragedy after unthinkable tragedy and that Hammond is there to catch her when she falls is all she knows. She convinces herself she's a different person, someone Dan wouldn't care to be with even if he were to return. Though confused and likely permanently shaken, these experiences also lend Jane a certain perspective on things. Whereas Dan comes to the table with a serviceable set of skills, Jane has an intelligence and intuition about her that is displayed through Portman's subtle performance. As Dan, Edgerton plays the guy with such grief and regret it is impossible not to label him as the most complex. He is tortured by what he saw himself becoming and what his life has actually turned out to be and the actor keeps that sorrow and misery as permanent fixtures on his character’s face. A key moment between Dan and a member of McCann's gang pushes the character forward while delivering a high amount of tension by allowing the stillness of the atmosphere to take over. This memorable scene helps to build the damaged relationship between Jane and Dan while at the same time moving the film along by setting up what we can expect from a rather magnificent final showdown.
While such scenes as the one just mentioned as well as the one that follows it give the film a real sense of purpose and weight. Still, there are certainly some detractors. First of these would be the use of flashbacks that are relied on too often. In a scene where we are finally given the details of Dan's journey the use of flashback feels particularly unnecessary as it would have been more impactful to simply allow Edgerton's performance to convey the pain and sadness clearly felt. Whereas the script at least allows these two characters to progress and displays the unraveling of the mysteries that inform who these characters are it hardly does the same with McGregor's character. As the only full-fledged bad guy in the whole thing there could have been a real opportunity for this Brit to dig into a villainous Western role as hinted at in one of the early scenes, but instead McCann is reduced to only a few moments on screen-most of which might as well have featured him actually twirling the mustache he so proudly sports. While the film itself is built around the revealing of the layers of its two leading characters it hangs its baddie out to dry. While I somewhat appreciate the decision to not harp on the single out and out archetype in the script, but rather to spend more time with the more engaging and complex heroes who may or may not be as heroic as we think it's necessary to give these heroes something to fight for and McGregor's McCann never feels like as menacing a threat as he should. Most depressing though is that the film feels the need to go and undo the tragedy it sets up by going back on itself in order to deliver a happier ending. The conclusion of the film would have been all the more affecting had they left things well enough alone and made McCann even more deceitful than we initially expected, but with what is actually delivered there is not as much poignancy to the final shot, but rather a feeling more of compromise: something neither Jane nor Dan would have ever done were making a film up to them.
by Philip Price
Ethan Hawke seems like the type of actor who does as much work as he can no matter the genre, or the paycheck simply because he loves the idea that he gets to make movies for a living. What does it matter, really? He can justify it all by saying one never knows what will catch on and he'd be right. After all, he made a low budget horror flick in “The Purge” three years ago that will see its third installment be released this year. Of course, it was also around this time that Hawke began to seem to give into the temptations of making more pure genre flicks outside of what is largely an independent filmography. With “Sinister,” “Getaway” and what feels like a handful of direct to DVD releases Hawke has become the actor we wouldn't be surprised to see turn up in anything. His presence no longer signals whether what we're watching might be a horrible film or a near masterpiece as he's arguably starred in films on either end of that spectrum. With “Regression” the actor wanders back to the territory of the horror genre with what are nothing but honorable intentions, but unfortunately that willingness to commit to almost anything lets him down here. Written and directed by Alejandro Amenábar, who shared those same duties on both 2001's “The Others” and 2004's “The Sea Inside” that garnered him a barrage of rave reviews and what was undoubtedly a large amount of good will and momentum, “Regression” is inspired by a rise in the suspicion of Satanic cult-related activities in the early ‘90s and how such acts began making their way into the mainstream as well as what were apparently many a police investigations. Of course, through this guise the narrative feels all the more familiar given the number of horror films we've seen that get their "in" through a tortured official investigating these claims that are always scoffed at initially. While Amenábar certainly has an interesting approach to this type of story it might have aided his film even more had he come at it from a different perspective. As it is, there are both some beautifully haunting and cringingly cheap images on display with a few cool period details, but ultimately we've seen this all before and in much better, more effective fashions.
Specifically, “Regression” deals with a detective, Hawke's Bruce Kenner, and a psychoanalyst (David Thewlis) who begin to uncover evidence of a satanic cult while investigating the rape of a young woman (Emma Watson). Set in Hoyer, Minnesota in 1990, we are introduced first to John Gray (David Dencik) who turns himself into the police after being accused of having sexually abused his daughter despite the fact he doesn't remember anything about such an event. With the help of Thewlis' Professor Kenneth Raines both Kenner and Gray attempt to get to the bottom of what is really happening by assisting Gray in reliving those moments eventually leading to the accusation of a policeman, George Nesbitt (Aaron Ashmore), for having participated in the crime. Given the circumstances of the case and the fact Watson's Angela Gray is the victim and is adamant about the involvement of a satanic cult and their rituals as motivators for the crimes committed against her both Kenner and the law enforcement organization at large have to take into consideration the possibility that they might be dealing with something other-worldly. Given this spectacular aspect, the local media really digs into the case preying on the panic and suspicion across the community in order to spike ratings all of which puts more pressure on Kenner as lead investigator whose men aren't even behind him given he's arrested one of their own (Nesbitt) and thrown him in jail. Naturally, this becomes something of a daunting weight on Kenner's shoulder, a case he can't detach himself from, and thus we see the slow decline of this once sane being who we believed couldn't be deceived by hokey religions and ancient rituals. You know the drill.
That such things (satanic cults that is) actually became of some relevance throughout the ‘80s allows for Amenábar to claim up front that his film is inspired by true events, but this effectively means very little in this day and age when three out of the first four weeks of the year have featured films based on true events. The fact this is a horror film only discredits it further. That said, it's clear the movie itself never buys into the nonsense that its victim purports to be the truth. Still, it wants to mess with its audience just as much as the case at the center of the movie begins messing with its protagonist. And so, Amenábar uses his keen sense of tone and visual splendor to attempt to hold the audience in wonder over what to believe and what not to. We get serious minded conversations about people's mental states and the psychology of those who allow themselves to be vulnerable enough to believe that a greater power has more control over their life than themselves. There is talk between Kenner and Raines about Angela's father, John, and how he was a man who spent years trying to stop drinking and did so by giving into faith which in turn can be something of an explosive combination. This type of exploration of character where this man, who's clearly not trying to protect himself might have gone too far and done unspeakable things and who can't live with the awful things he's done has repressed such memories is where the film excels. Further, the discussion of Raines area of specialty in regressive hypnosis and the ability to unlock such recollections sets up an obviously engaging idea. It's inherently strange stuff, but also fascinating which makes the ultimate slog of a movie that Regression turns out to be all the more disappointing. And while such existential and religious talk is present throughout the entirety of the film (there is a nice segment on how the devil wants us to forget he exists thus making it easier to fall into his trap when you don't expect his existence) this is not enough to make the bland characters operating in these circumstances compelling no matter how charismatic the actors portraying them are. Hawke going full tough guy detective is slightly laughable while Watson doesn't have near enough screen time to convey the layered, very disturbed mind of Angela.
Maybe the most interesting aspect of this entire movie, which feels like a half-hearted attempt through and through, is the statement Amenábar is making with his title and its relation to the actions of his story. Without digging too much it would seem that Amenábar chose the title for the reasons that one of his main characters, Professor Raines, practices regression therapy meaning he aids patients in accessing long lost childhood memories, thoughts and feelings through a psychotherapeutic process. Since the 1990 setting of this film, many regression therapies have been discredited for generating false memories, but more important is that this key element of Amenábar's film can be looked to as the reason for him naming it as such when in reality it would seem the writer/director is making a bigger statement on society and our need for structure, order, and the promise of purpose. For me, the title of “Regression” seems to hint that Amenábar believes buying into such things as the battle between good and evil, God and the devil are simply a regression of the mind; that we as a race of living organisms are returning to a less developed state when scientific innovation couldn't explain so many of the happenings in our universe and daily lives and so we used folklore and 2,000-year old tomes to base our existence around. Human beings naturally need purpose and what better way to create such purpose than the promise of an even greater, eternal life if you live accordingly in this one? It makes sense, but as we progress and become more independent minded the question has always been will there still be room for God and faith? I don't think Amenábar is necessarily denouncing the existence of any God or Gods, but I think he is concerned about our ability to use the intelligence we've acquired in progressive ways. I don't even think he is arguing that we don't need a rule book to follow, or spiritual guide to comfort us in times of stress, but that instead he's looking for balance and in attempting to show how wrong things can go without as much he has made a film about the antithesis of evangelists and the evil that can come when such beliefs are held at such a strict level. Amenábar is onto something, but needs a more potent way to relay it. I hope he finds it soon.