by Philip Price
Having never been a “Star Trek” fan it is difficult to gauge where the new series of films lands when it comes to understanding how much it draws on what made the original series and other features so endearing and loved by so many. With “Star Trek Beyond,” the third film in the re-booted series and the first not directed by J.J. Abrams, it finally feels like (to an outsider, at least) that this new set of films has found its footing. While I have thoroughly enjoyed the previous two Abrams films they have very much been in the vein of attempting to re-establish the brand and telling the origin of what became the legendary crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise on the Gene Roddenberry series that ran for 80 episodes beginning in 1966. This was all necessary, of course, though ‘Into Darkness’ certainly could have come more into its own rather than once again feeling like an assembling of parts, but as an introduction to this world and these characters the 2009 version is almost flawless save for some third act story elements that cause the film to trip at the finish line. In saying that this third film has found its footing is to say that it finally feels these characters know who they are and are more assured in their roles (both in the actors playing them and the characters themselves). Much of this has come from being almost three years into a five-year mission thus giving us our first glimpse of this newly assembled band of actors in these iconic roles in the midst of actually exploring uncharted areas of the galaxy. It seems, at least from my non-seasoned perspective, that “Star Trek Beyond” is the film “Star Trek” fans have likely been waiting on since the credits rolled on that 2009 re-introduction. Written by Simon Pegg and his writing partner Doug Jung (who has at the same time both a minor and major role in the film) and directed by Justin Lin, “Star Trek Beyond” is full throttle entertainment from beginning to end, packing in a contained and straightforward action narrative into an evenly paced two hours with interesting character dynamics abounding and even some slight philosophical meanderings to wonder about in the process. In essence, “Star Trek Beyond” does an exemplary job of compiling every facet a movie such as this should contain and executes them without question or hesitation-the only downfall to this being there isn't anything necessarily unexpected about what we receive. It's hard to fault a film for accomplishing the job it sets out to do and ‘Beyond’ fills its sci-fi action/adventure quota with ease, but this lack of anything fresh or unique to make it stand apart or on its own is also what keeps it from being anything more than your solid summer blockbuster.
As previously mentioned, the crew of the Enterprise has now been in the furthest reaches of space for nearly three years and in that time Captain James T. Kirk (the wonderful Chris Pine) has reached the birth year in which he is now a year older than his late father (played by Chris Hemsworth in the '09 film) lived to see. This shakes something in the good Captain given he's undoubtedly spent his whole life first trying to run away from the bar his father set for him then chasing what seemed like the unattainable goal of commanding a starship. Now that Kirk has both surpassed both the time his father lived and the accomplishments his father attained he has been left with something of an existential crisis. What now? What is next? And inevitably...what is the point? Always there for Kirk to lean on is longtime friend and the Enterprise's chief medical officer Doctor Bones McCoy (Karl Urban). McCoy understands the questions floating around in Kirk's head and why, at this juncture in his life, he has been forced to contemplate the nature of mortality. While ‘Beyond’ is very much about moving forward it relishes in the moments in which these characters are now existing and thus allows for the events that occur in the space of its narrative to help its characters in what their decisions might be moving forward. Making its main antagonist despise the idea of unity or peace in a way that isn't necessarily founded by a desire to destroy the world, but more the race who he feels doesn't have the mentality to justify remaining a part of the whole of the living organism that makes up the galaxy is a long and elaborate way of saying that he desires to go backward, to not only stop people from moving forward, but wipe the slate clean all together. Zachary Quinto, who has been the highlight of each of the previous two films, once again portrays Spock in excellent fashion, but even the ultra-logical Vulcan is forced to deal with questions of destiny and what most deserves his attention with what time he may have left in existence. This mindset of having to comprehend inevitable change while simultaneously figuring out what that change might be from the Captain and his First Officer extends to the likes of Lieutenant Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Sulu (John Cho), Scotty (Simon Pegg), and Chekov (the late Anton Yelchin) as they are tasked with helping a friend of the Federation who leads them into a powerful, unstoppable wave of aliens led by Krall (Idris Elba) that destroys the Enterprise and leaves the crew stranded on an unknown planet with no apparent means of rescue.
In discussing “Star Trek Beyond” it feels necessary to talk about the action and the plot by which our characters are put through the ringer of another starship mission, but those aren't the topics that immediately spring to mind when recalling the film. Given more time and distance it only seems those things will fade the fastest while what will continue to stand out and reassure viewers down the line that the film is well worth repeated viewings is the actual character interactions and the amount of creativity that clearly went into the smaller details. While the design of Krall's ever changing armor and the visual power of the space station referred to as Yorktown are no doubt the product of many a minds in the design and prop departments what is really subtle, but greatly appreciated here is the writing. When it was reported Simon Pegg would be taking over for previous screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (who are the epitome of what one would call "writers for hire" in Hollywood these days) there was a sense of relief in that moving forward (Hey! There's that phrase again) the series would no longer try to capitalize on storylines and references to the past series' and films', but rather that this new trilogy of “Star Trek” films would find an uplifting and refreshing note that would have the Enterprise crew explore the furthest reaches of uncharted space as they were always meant to. More or less, that we would finally come to see these new incarnations of these familiar characters in their element. In that, Pegg and Jung have crafted a screenplay that delivers on these hopes and expectations by taking the crew off ship and onto a strange alien planet where they must use their individual skills as well as their ability to work together as a team to figure out how to get out of what is seemingly a lose/lose situation. Pegg allows for this familiar groundwork to feel comfortable by emulating what seem to have made up the bulk of the original shows template while differing it enough by pairing up unexpected members of the crew and stranding them together. As a result, audiences are given numerous scenes of Uhura and Sulu working together to send out a distress signal after becoming captured by Krall, Scotty working with new character Jaylah (Kingsman's Sofia Boutella) to fix a thought to be lost starship from centuries earlier that might be the key to the crew's escape, as well as Kirk and Chekov hoping to return to what's left of the Enterprise and salvage what they can, while the best pairing of the film comes down to Bones and Spock whose two temperaments couldn't be more different, but whose chemistry cultivates one of the more fun dynamics this series has played with. In doing this, Pegg not only puts unexpected characters in unexpected situations, but he emphasizes the main idea the crew stands by, but must also project for us to believe they could actually overcome the all-powerful enemy they're up against.
While Elba's antagonist is unfortunately one of the weaker elements of the script it is what Pegg and Jung do with this villain and his macguffin to further develop and explore the arcs of the main stars that make this forgivable. It is akin to going to church and finding what relates to your life in the message the priest is delivering despite the fact it will have numerous interpretations by the whole of the congregation. In other words, Kirk finds clarity for what he is experiencing in his personal life in the missions his job takes him on. There could be any number of angles and lessons taken from a disgruntled alien who desires to destroy the Federation because he lost faith in humanity, but in the case of Kirk he sees a being who became lost rather than someone who inherently found satisfaction in killing off large portions of the galaxy's population. More specifically Kirk finds that happiness and real unity comes from and depends on those you surround yourself with. Pegg and Jung do a nice job of reinforcing this line of thought through the character of Jaylah while also providing another strong, female voice in a cast that Uhura sometimes fights to stand out in (also, did Alice Eve's Carol Marcus just decide she didn't want to be a member of the crew anymore and jump ship or???). Combine this sly ability to explore Kirk and Spock's current head space through the larger narrative with the not so subtle metaphor of Kirk and his crew having to resort to an older, more rough and tumble model of the Enterprise to save their asses as a way of stating that ‘Beyond’ is getting back to the basics of what made the show work so well and what we have is the fun, action-packed adventure movie that is all most fans of the brand are looking for. That Pegg and Jung also come up with smart and unique ways of overcoming the odds they set in front of their characters is refreshing in that they utilize a payoff for every detail or tool they set up earlier in the film. Whether it be the image refracting devices or the stereo with "classical" music; no matter how familiar the beats of this story are what matters is that cool and creative ways are found to re-purpose those beats and the screenwriters as well as director Lin have found plenty of ways to do as much here. To go one step further, the use of the Beastie Boys "Sabotage" is perfection (no matter how doubtful you might have been after that teaser trailer). Speaking of Lin, he brings from his previous franchise the ability to convey familial ties between a mismatched group of people to the Enterprise crew in a way that allows the disparate groups they're split into still feel like a cohesive unit. Emphasizing the smallness of the space they take up in the vast universe they're exploring Lin inadvertently heightens that main idea of it being the ones you surround yourself with that make life worth living and thus a wholly satisfying movie on both basic and more cerebral levels.
by Philip Price
“The Infiltrator” opens with a nice little tracking shot through a 1985 bowling alley as Rush plays on the soundtrack and arcade games make up the lighting. We're informed we're in Tampa yet we're following a man with hair so black it can't be natural and who is wearing a jacket in what is no doubt an insanely hot summer. Something feels off. When the camera finally pans around from the back of the figure’s head to reveal Bryan Cranston's face and all the stories it tells with its many cracks and crevices, but still ruggedly handsome and definitive features most will know the set-up we've been dropped into. Given the context clues provided not only by the title of the film, but by what we see in the opening seconds it is clear Cranston is undercover and is preparing for a moment of some sort. He's effortless in his adaptation of the customs and dialect in which the men he's now keeping company with do business. From here we are given a brief and subtle glimpse of how adept Cranston's character, who we come to learn is U.S. Customs and Drug Enforcement Agent Robert Mazur, actually is at modifying his persona and adjusting to whatever the situation might call for which will naturally inform moments later in the film to be filled with even more tension once we become invested in the characters. In all honesty, you've seen this movie before. It is easy to pick up on the beats of the story and understand where things are headed even if the real life events this film depicts are likely much more complicated than we're led to believe. By containing this story to what are more or less genre trappings though, director Brad Furman doesn't limit the power of the story or the tension that unfolds from these moments, but rather gives what is undoubtedly a sprawling epic guidelines by which the highlights and necessary information of Mazur's story can be communicated to a mass audience in a clear and effective way. “The Infiltrator” may feel somewhat familiar in its execution, but the exceptional cast led by Cranston and by virtue of the unique details that make up the familiar plot there is much to be taken from the film if one is looking for a white-knuckle crime drama worthy of that descriptor.
And so, it is 1985, special agent Mazur is coming off what might seemingly be his last mission given he sustains an injury that would qualify him for retirement with full benefits. This is an alluring proposition given Mazur has a wife and two children at home whose lives he tends to miss large chunks of, but there is something about the job he can't turn away from. Given it is the mid-80's this means that it takes places at a time in U.S. history when the importation of drugs, specifically crack cocaine, was running rampant. In light of this Customs is overwhelmed with cases as it conveyed by Amy Ryan's director of operations Bonni Tischler who, after Mazur turns down retirement, partners him with Emir Abreu (John Leguizamo) who has an informant (Juan Cely) that could be their "in" to infiltrating some of the world's largest cartels. Mazur becomes "Bob Musella" who is set to become a pivotal player for drug lords as he offers them the opportunity to make their dirty money look clean. The informant first introduces them to low-level movers Gonzalo Mora Jr. (Rubén Ochandiano) and Sr. (Simón Andreu) who assess Musella in his credibility and willingness to party with them which gets him in trouble when he creates a fictional fiancée to get him out of a situation that might threaten his marriage. In doing this, Tischler is forced to place novice agent Kathy Ertz (Diane Kruger) in the field as Mazur's soon-to-be wife. While Abreu handles his informant and keeps the Mora's in check Mazur's Musella continues to climb the ladder as he is introduced to Javier Ospina (Yul Vazquez) and then Roberto Alcaino (Benjamin Bratt) who was a wealthy Chilean-born jeweler and one of the main collectors of cash for the Medellín cartel in the United States. As a direct associate of Pablo Escobar it is at this point that both Mazur and Ertz must come to terms with just how deep they have become entrenched not only in the situation, but with the people whom they have somewhat become fond of. On top of orchestrating the infiltration and carrying out this persona that allows Escobar's organization and mist trusted associates to trust him Mazur is simultaneously helping take down Bank of Credit and Commerce International (the seventh largest bank in the world at the time) which was secretly assisting the cartels in moving their money.
While the film starts off somewhat slow in its exposition editors Luis Carballar, Jeff McEvoy, and David Rosenbloom really find a groove by the time the film hits its thirty-minute mark. As the movie settles into its rhythm and we begin to get to know the characters better and better it is clear how much more they are conveying about the situation than the actual plot is. Like I said, the plot is paint by the numbers "undercover operation," but through the instant love/hate camaraderie between Mazur and Abreu and how the film then makes us feel as if we've known each new level of command that the Customs agents must go through in order to reach their goal of Escobar for years is a quality not to be taken lightly. The chain of command we come to know could be little more than a barrage of different Latino and Hispanic actors spouting lines about how much affection they have for torturing people, but instead they each possess a distinctive quality. The Mora's are more your typical drug traffickers-what one would expect from the type of people who live in a world of excessive money and no code by which they try to love by. It is when we reach Vazquez's Ospina that there is a more refined state of being. The higher up the chain Mazur goes the less and less these people seem to be involved in the seediest of seedy operations. This especially becomes true when Mazur and Ertz become fast friends with Alcaino and his wife Gloria (Elena Anaya). At about the hour mark Cranston really begins to dive into and break down the psychological state of Mazur as he deals with choices that could put his marriage in jeopardy, but at the same time could compromise his mission. He deals in walking the line of not knowing who he really is before crossing the line of full immersion and while it spares us any of these insights on Ertz's part what it does with their characters and what Cranston and Kruger do as performers is actually somewhat surprising and impactful in unexpected ways. There is a kind of compassion that is formed on the part of Mazur and Ertz as they've come to know the Alcaino's not just as drug dealers, but human beings. They have been welcomed into the inner-circle and so, when it comes time to inevitably bring down the hammer there is part of these characters that wished they didn't have to. It is a caveat unique enough to the situation that it gives the film extra heft and more than just tension, but real emotional weight as we draw near to the conclusion.
Sure, it may be easy to tell where the story is going from scene to scene and Furman, along with screenwriter Ellen Sue Brown who adapted Mazur's book, certainly telegraphs a few too many plot points, but in regards to executing the story and the inherent tension it holds this is a pleasurable thriller that more times than not will keep you at the edge of your seat. The editing moves and communicates the broad scope of what is happening efficiently while the actors provide the more specific details that make for the film to not feel as run of the mill as its structure suggests. There are of course several ideas thrown around within the straight-forward narrative that concern themselves with the main topic of drug trafficking. Whether it be Bratt spouting ideologies of how America's economy is addicted to drugs, never mind its people or an outed informant hoping to legitimize his life by questioning why the human race begs for a list of do's and don'ts from the church only to act like animals in defiance-there is plenty here to stimulate. The film also includes a few interesting facets of our protagonist’s job such as going to a graveyard to find an undercover alias or how someone in such a role deals with leading a double life for what could potentially be years at a time. All of this only adds to the immersive performance an actor like Cranston can bring to such a role. Even Leguizamo, who is often dismissed and relegated to bit supporting roles (and to some extent is treated the same way here) is able to pull out a fully formed character in Abreu. He's not simply the comic relief in an otherwise nerve-wracking movie, but Abreu is a fully formed person that likes to joke around while remaining a trustworthy source of street smarts and a keen ability to read people and situations that comes in handy when the film allows for us to see the full extent of his character. Still, as good as Leguizamo, Bratt, Vazquez, Olympia Dukakis and Juliet Aubrey all are it is Cranston who remains "the one who knocks" and the reason audiences will walk away from The Infiltrator feeling as if they've seen as good an example of a genre film as possible. In a scene that involves an anniversary cake Cranston turns on everything that makes him a movie star in that you'll physically sit-up in your seat and understand the impact of what you're witnessing. Cranston has that power and he exercises it to great effect turning “The Infiltrator” into a far more layered and compelling experience than it might have been otherwise.
by Philip Price
One might call “Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates” director Jake Szymanski's feature debut and to a degree I guess that's correct as this is his first film getting a wide theatrical release (and his first that runs over an hour), but Szymanski is no stranger to comedy or the space in which it occupies in Hollywood. In fact, Szymanski turned Andy Samberg's rather thin idea for a 30 for 30 parody, “7 Days in Hell,” into a rather entertaining 45 minutes last summer. All of this doesn't necessarily mean that ‘Mike and Dave’ is anything more than one might expect it to be (it's not) and despite sounding like one of those straight to VHS “American Pie” knock-offs where you might find Tara Reid and the chubby kid from “The Sandlot” working not-so hard to earn a paycheck, ‘Mike and Dave’ actually delivers on the promises and premise that have been set up in its marketing. Though it might seem obvious that 20th Century Fox would like to make something of a comedic brand out of ‘Mike and Dave’ (‘Mike & Dave Go to London,’ ‘Mike and Dave Take the World’) it somewhat feels as if Szymanski and writers Andrew Jay Cohen and Brendan O'Brien feel the opposite. “Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates” is very much a contained story that gives our main cast of characters defined arcs that take them from one clear point in their lives to the next. What is nice about what both the writers and Szymanski do though is that they don't allow this transformative period to completely define these characters. The titular siblings are still very much who they were in the beginning of the movie at the end of the movie save for the fact they've learned a few lessons and earned some perspective. What I'm saying is that ‘Mike and Dave’ doesn't turn into a fable of some kind where the intent of the film is to teach its characters and audience a lesson, but rather is more about the challenges and obstacles presented in a certain situation and how a specific type of person deals in the messes they've made. This is undoubtedly the films strongest trait in that it doesn't become wholly what we expect though it is mostly the obtrusive and familiar raunchy comedy you hoped it would be if you bought a ticket in the first place. That said, ‘Mike and Dave’ delivers some modest pleasures for, despite largely adhering to the beats of the genre, it excels in hitting those beats through a likable and appealing cast.
In something of a strange twist this latest R-rated Zac Efron comedy is actually based on a true story. Mike and Dave Stangle really do exist and really did place an ad on Craigslist in order to acquire dates to a wedding. The story goes that the Stangle's party habits had become so notorious the idea was they'd be less likely to cause a scene if they had dates to keep them busy. In the true story the Stangle's were instructed by their cousin to bring dates to her wedding and the wedding took place in the boy’s hometown of Saratoga, N.Y., whereas in the movie version it is the Stangle sister who is getting hitched and is doing so with a destination wedding in Hawaii (allowing even more allure for the women responding to the Craigslist ad). The real-life Mike and Dave also attest to the fact that the formidable duo of Anna Kendrick and Aubrey Plaza were not like the dates they ended up taking to the wedding but instead the movie's pick for who they ended up with were more inspired by the barrage of women who responded to the ad and the dating experiences they had as a result. That we're even talking about this outlandish comedy in terms of how much of it is rooted in reality feels insane, but it certainly takes that "so crazy it must be true" saying to whole other level. In the film, Efron plays Dave who is the more artistic and understanding of the brothers whereas Adam Devine's Mike is the self-conscious party animal who's always turned up to eleven in order to compensate for his lack of self-esteem. When together, the two can't help but rile one another up and have turned so many past family gatherings into outright catastrophes that their parents (played by Stephen Root and Stephanie Faracy) call an intervention of sorts so that their sister, Jeanie (Sugar Lyn Beard), and her fiancé Eric (Sam Richardson) can request they bring nice, accomplished women to their nuptials. Cue the introduction of Alice (Kendrick) and Tatiana (Plaza) who are more or less the female versions of Mike and Dave, but put on facades as a school teacher and hedge fund manager in order to look respectable and score themselves a free trip to Hawaii. That the crux of the film comes not from the brothers trying to keep their act together, but from finding themselves outsmarted and out-partied by the uncontrollable girls they brought allows for ‘Mike and Dave’ to become more a comedy of manners than the comedy of errors it seemed destined to be.
Upending expectations results in more appreciation for a given product, especially movies, due to the fact it seemingly gives us more than we expected from it and no one has ever complained about getting more for their money than anticipated. While ‘Mike and Dave’ is commendable for going the route not easily traveled it still doesn't make the film unique or compelling enough to make it stand out in a genre whose exceptions are characterized by how many moments they have that can be turned into conversation pieces able to be recited again and again. That is to say that somehow, despite laughing consistently throughout, it just doesn't feel as if ‘Mike and Dave’ will stick around in the cultural zeitgeist for longer than the few weeks it does better at the box office than expected. I wouldn't mind if I were proven wrong in this regard as I've already said I enjoyed the film more than I expected and there are definitely a few lines of dialogue and a few moments of physical comedy that stand out even a few days after seeing the film, but overall the feeling that surrounds ‘Mike and Dave’ is one of indifference. In the moment, what makes the film so massively appealing is the charming cast. To be honest, the only thing that made me not initially dismiss ‘Mike and Dave’ because it did in fact feel like one of those “American Pie” knock-offs was the quality of the cast. With his third raunchy R-rated comedy in seven months Efron is seemingly hip to his meal ticket. Of course, he has to realize he won't be able to play the frat guy/twenty-something screw-up his entire life, but while he can he seems intent to take as much advantage of it as he can. At the very least, he's honing his improv and comedic skills for later on down the line and ‘Mike and Dave’ is a prime opportunity to do just that. It's easy to see that Efron has become more comfortable in this role and has begun to take the lead in many situations even when next to a seasoned pro like his co-star Devine. While Devine has been a consistently funny presence on his own Comedy Central show for years now he has created a movie career out of bit and supporting parts. Going full blown lead with ‘Mike and Dave’ the actor, who always seems to be on, could potentially turn grating for those not familiar with his temperament, but I enjoy his manic outlandishness to the point every time he was on screen I was laughing.
The duo of Efron and Devine make it clear from the outset they have formed a chemistry worthy of kinship as the opening scene in which the brothers are consulted by the rest of their family lends insight not only to their relationship, but the dynamic between them and their individual relationships with the rest of their family. Dave is the one his father feels he can talk to and get through to while Mike is the one who will never understand and never mature. Dave is the sweet, sensitive type when not influenced by Mike, but Mike is always asking Dave to live up to his antics. Dave is the center of attention without trying and Mike is always striving to be that main attraction. These boys clearly need a little leverage in their lives and with the idea to make the movie not about the fantastical and absurd nights they spent trying to narrow down and find dates Cohen and O'Brien have instead forced Mike and Dave to come to their senses with who they really are and want to be through two equally rambunctious and outrageous women. Cohen and O'Brien never ask that Kendrick's Alice or Plaza's Tatiana apologize for the way they are or choose to lead their lives despite the point of the film being for Mike and Dave to do just that. While this is a very movie-world thing to say and do-Alice and Tatiana allow Mike and Dave to realize their own flaws and embrace them as much as they realize they balance one another out. Most of the time, this existential thinking doesn't seep too much into the fun, but when it does ‘Mike and Dave’ feels completely out of its depth and even worse-it brings the light tone and breakneck pace to a halt. And though the world these two couples end up living in isn't as admirable as the idea that spurns it given the film deteriorates more into a fantasy as no one is made to answer for their actions it is the point and approach that counts. Kendrick and Plaza have the roles mastered and Plaza is especially hysterical in a handful of scenes, but it is Beard who comes to steal many of the scenes she participates in. The massage scene you've likely seen highlighted in the red band trailers featuring Kumail Nanjiani is a stand-out for sure, but even in the smaller, more subtle moments Beard elicits laughs from this cheery, bubblegum persona she's perfected. And speaking of Jeanie, I wouldn't be surprised if both Beard and her on screen fiancé, Sam Richardson, come away from ‘Mike and Dave’ with the most to gain as both only solidify the fact that much of the excess charm on these familiar grounds come from genuinely charismatic character moments. Though it may not live on in the pantheon of great summer comedies, ‘Mike and Dave’ is a fun enough diversion to enjoy once or twice which is probably along the lines of how one would feel after hanging out with the titular party crashers.
by Philip Price
“Swiss Army Man” is an odd film. One should know that first and foremost. When seeing the quotes on the posters or other marketing material that claim, "you've never seen a movie like this," you should take that to heart. Sure, I get it, you've probably heard that countless times before, but if you continue to read such quotes you'll get reassurance that such hyperbole is accurate when discussing “Swiss Army Man.” It is in this wholly unique fashion that the film naturally finds its own identity, but also finds a way to convey what is essentially an existential crisis by our main character, Hank, played by Paul Dano. Of course, when the film opens and we meet Dano's character as he attempts to kill himself by hanging we don't know any of this. We assume, given the writings we glean on pieces of trash floating in the water, that Hank is the lone survivor of some type of sea-faring accident and that he has more or less reached his breaking point. It is as he readies himself to step off a cooler with the noose around his neck that he notices a body has washed ashore. Though this body belongs to Daniel Radcliffe it is clear the soul inside has long since gone on to greener pastures. For Hank though, this body he eventually deems Manny is his saving grace. It becomes apparent almost immediately that directors and screenwriters Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (collectively known as Daniels) enter into Hank's personal reality and are insistent on not letting us out of such a world until they have made a clear statement on each individuals own necessary version of sanity. We all need a different kind of rational to deal with our different set of circumstances. When it comes to Hank we have a very fractured and uncomfortable human being who, as we discover more about him, comes to be this man that doesn't feel he meets the basic standards of normal that society requires. While “Swiss Army Man” may feel like and project to be an outlandish buddy movie of sorts between a man who at first glance likely belongs in an insane asylum and a corpse the movie certainly has bigger ideas in its head than the fart jokes that have made up much of the conversation around it.
The set-up is simple: Hank is marooned on this island and in order to both keep his sanity while simultaneously delving further and further into delusions he keeps the corpse of Radcliffe's body around to both have discussions with as well as to use in other ways that include helping with building shelters, hunting for food, and riding him like a jet ski. Radcliffe plays the human version of a Swiss army knife to Dano's stranded Hank (hence the title), but as Radcliffe's Manny comes to possess abilities akin to a human that is alive and breathing he not only serves as a way for Hank to survive physically, but mentally (sorta). This is all very sticky territory as, if you were to see this film play out without being inside Hank's head, it would be terrifying. That we are given full access to Hank's psyche and what qualifies as logic from his point of view we come to understand the world we're existing in and it is compelling, but always somewhat tragic. You hate to judge Hank as his inherent fears about society come from the fact he has been forced into thinking he doesn't belong or that he's never been good enough his entire life. And so, though we know Manny is purely a creation of Hank's mind, something the brain has invented to help him survive, and given the fact Hank imbues upon Manny a child-like mentality we come to understand that what “Swiss Army Man” encapsulates is a kind of therapy session for Hank as he discusses topics such as sex, fear, internal conflicts and personal tendencies in what comes to be an eye-opening, self-evaluation of sorts for our protagonist. The trick here is that despite Hank feeling alone and different the filmmakers know this is more of an epidemic than a single exception. Certain viewers will relate to the ideas of not feeling as if they measure up to what society expects from men and hopefully come to understand it's ridiculous that a certain type of masculinity should apply to an entire gender. Other viewers will latch onto the feelings Hank expresses over his longing for a girl he saw on the bus every day while at the same time being afraid to shatter the illusion he created of her. We can all relate to the pursuit of happiness, but it's the idea of being able to overcome the obstacles within that pursuit that Daniels really latches onto and runs with.
These aren't issues or ideas that haven't been explored a million times before. We've all had similar thoughts about ourselves, our insecurities and our shortcomings when stacking them against how other people's lives *seem*, but it is all in the way such ideas are conveyed that make them fresh and interesting and it is in this particular conveyance that such ideas don't feel nearly as puerile as they could have. On the forefront of the reasoning fart jokes with deeper meanings work is the fact Daniels has two credible and rather incredible actors doing much of the heavy lifting. Like the themes, there is nothing new about seeing Dano play a depressed white guy who doesn't feel like he belongs, but given Hank's circumstances Dano is able to add more layers and insight to this character than we might typically get were we seeing him fight against those he fears rather than simply confronting his own self. Dano is fine as he's done this a handful of times before and is a perceptive enough actor to know how to push this type of character in different directions with this unique set-up, but it is clearly Radcliffe who has both the more difficult and interesting role. As Manny, Radcliffe is technically playing a dead dude, but more than just having to look and act like a corpse Radcliffe then has to project this infantile mentality and be present in this consistent state of wonder while exuding as much through a limited vocabulary. It is amusing to watch Manny figure out the world around him, but that he's simultaneously dealing with the burden of having Hank project all his issues upon him only adds to the true psychological nature of what we're witnessing. Needless to say, this leaves a lot for Radcliffe to convey while not being able to emote very much. It helps that Radcliffe and Dano form a relationship akin to what you'd see in a buddy comedy, but with Radcliffe playing an aspect of the character he's playing off of for the purposes of that character's large-scale existential crisis it makes the line Radcliffe has to walk all the more interesting. Anchored by the relationship Hank builds with himself through Manny that Dano and Radcliffe execute with pure tenderness in the face of harsh surroundings and featuring Mary Elizabeth Winstead as the girl of Hank's false reality a small, but committed cast aids in allowing the fart and erection jokes to go a long way. Further than you no doubt imagined they could.
“Swiss Army Man” (I kind of wished they'd used the acronym and called Radcliffe's character Sam instead) is a whimsical, demented fantasy of a film in many ways. It is largely unique in its visual representation of the events we see unfold and employs a type of mysticism in its nature cinematography that only further reinforces the magical aspects of this world Hank has created for himself. Going one step further to let us know immediately how inside the head of Hank we actually are the soundtrack for the film, which also serves as the score, features Radcliffe and Dano on vocals (which immediately scored the film bonus points in my book as Love & Mercy was one of my favorite movies of last year). Composed by Andy Hull and Robert McDowell the consistent humming and improvising of lyrics that serve as the basis of this score only augment how alone and in what state of mind our protagonist is. That Hull and McDowell are able to spin "Cotton Eye Joe," into some kind of heart-wrenching ballad is beyond comprehension, but that they also use the world around Hank and Manny as well as their strange discussions to build this kind of soundtrack to their time together-the actors sometimes breaking into song as if they were in a musical-does nothing but to make this all feel a little bit more magical.
What ultimately comes to remain the movie’s strongest trait is that it can and wants to discuss how Hank isn't necessarily living life by pushing everything away from him. That waiting is more or less delaying the life he could be having, but it does so in ways that never come across as heavy-handed. Though the film clearly touches on some weighty topics that have to deal not only with what mental illness Hank might actually suffer from, but also going so far as to question why we have social constructs that tell us flatulence in front of others is disgusting there is a beauty and a whimsy that we only see in this way because we're seeing things through the Hank's mind's eye. There is a beautiful sequence in the middle of the film where Hank and Manny build a bus and reconstruct scenes from what their lives once entailed where I wondered how fascinating it might be for an outsider to stumble upon this site and wonder what might have happened to lead to the creation of something so random yet so uniquely enchanting only to realize a moment later that we were seeing that story, we were being given that insight. In that moment it became clear that while this makeshift reality may seem sad and depressing to someone looking in that, for Hank, to be able to create his own home is far better than having to go back to the rule restricted world where he can't live at all. Maybe he's not delaying. Maybe his own mind is his paradise-is where he feels he gets the most out of life. Though the film ends on less of an ambiguous note than I might have preferred the character that gets the final line in the film perfectly sums up what every audience will no doubt be feeling as the credits roll. Still, it is impossible to deny the sympathy and strange logic applied to our society that comes from the insanity Hank experiences that we'd never understand had we not seen this man on the brink of death through the perspective of his best friend who just so happens to be dead.
by Philip Price
It is difficult to know where to begin when discussing the new Matthew McConaughey film, “Free State of Jones.” The film encompasses such a large canvas spanning nearly 15 years from the heart of the Civil War in 1862 up until 1876 illustrating how, despite the war being over, many people-especially freed black men and women-were still fighting battles every day. If “Free State of Jones” is anything it is an admirable piece of work, a beautiful disaster in some ways, but more than anything it doesn't seem to know what to do with or how best to convey all that it so strongly desires to say. Writer/director Gary Ross has created a two-and-a-half hour epic of sorts, but in the end it still feels as if the movie has more to say. This isn't a good thing and it certainly doesn't do the audience, who have already sat through that extensive run time, much consolation if not some satisfaction. In many ways, “Free State of Jones” should have been an HBO or FX miniseries that simultaneously chronicled the life of Newton Knight and how he seemingly lived for others as well as his family tree that came about after having children with Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), an African-American who was once a slave. That the feature film version of this story even attempts to go back and forth between the actions of Knight himself as well as 85 years into the future where one of his great grandchildren stands trial for being a small percentage African-American and is thus charged with breaking the law for marrying a Caucasian woman is nuts. Sure, the parallels between what Knight was fighting for in 1875 and what his descendants were still dealing with in the 1950s is effective and certainly makes a strong statement about how little has changed despite a considerable amount of time passing-making the main idea of the movie more relevant than ever today-there just isn't room for it here. Going from the midst of the Civil War to our protagonist hiding out in a swamp, to him building a community that forms the basis of his rebellion and eventual secession from the Confederacy, and then going even further into the continued struggles during the Reconstruction period “Free State of Jones” leaves itself no room to breathe. That said, because there is so much there is a lot of stuff to find interesting, as well. It is almost the opposite of that mantra that goes, "It's not what's being said, but how it's said," as “Free State of Jones” is more focused on what's being said given how it's being said is something of a mess.
The opening scene of the film takes place on the battle fields of the Civil War where Ross keenly displays the senselessness and harsh realities of what war meant in those days. He photographs the men, some so young they barely have peach fuzz on their chins, as they march over a hill and into a battle where the likelihood of death was greater than that of survival. He focuses on their faces. These are faces that carry terror and fear in ways that transcend the viewers understanding of not just taking in the image we are being shown, but understanding the ramifications of the actions/choices these characters are taking/making. It is in these opening moments that I was already being pulled into the moment in time this story would be taking me to, entering the mindset of those who were being forced to fight a war many didn't see as their fight, and understanding what Ross might be trying to convey in regards to the fragility of life and how equal those lives were and still are. It is 20 minutes in, when Ross cuts to 85 years ahead of the events we were just watching, that I was taken out of an experience I was already fully immersed in. Though these scenes of the parallel narrative taking place in the ‘50s are both short and sparse they nonetheless break up the main narrative in unnecessary ways. We are then shown that Knight becomes a deserter of the war due to an incident concerning his young nephew, Daniel (Jacob Lofland), that places both he, his wife, Serena (Keri Russell), and their young son in trouble with the Confederate soldiers who still patrol Knight's hometown in Jones County, Mississippi. Side note: there is an interesting set of stories to be told of the lower-class women who were left behind during the war and how they were expected to "man" the house and the farms and how the governing law took further advantage of these individuals despite the fact their husbands were out fighting a war that was not their own. In the context of “Free State of Jones” though these injustices spur what Knight can't simply stand by and watch. His inability to let things go and remain hidden force Serena to leave him and for Knight to eventually flee to the swamps of Mississippi where he meets a group of runaway slaves, including Moses (Mahershala Ali), who he forms an unbreakable bond with.
Newton Knight is a man who comes to be known for waging a war on his own ideals and it is without a doubt that, according to McConaughey's portrayal, he was willing to do just about anything to help his fellow man given his advantages as a white male, but it is somewhat out of happenstance that Knight becomes this figurehead for the uprising that defines a major portion of the film. It is without question that Knight's compassion and strong ideas about the war led him to these situations that placed him as not only the core of the rebellion, but the emotional core for which we see all the world's problems weigh on his heart and mind. This is all to say that McConaughey is as good here as he's ever been despite the overall film feeling somewhat scattershot. McConaughey creates a complex character who is forced into and put in a position where he had nothing to lose and the Texas actor parlays this mentality with a certain crazed, but confident look in his eye. Knight is a man only trying to do the right thing and stop those lower on the totem pole from being taken advantage of by those who are allowed to remain seated on their high horses. Knight fought everyone's war who he saw wrong being done to-not just his war and not just the wars where he had something to gain. In fact, most of the fights early in the film cause Knight to lose the little that he did have. It is after losing Serena and becoming secluded in the swamps that Knight meets Mbatha-Raw's Rachel whom he eventually forms a relationship and starts a family with. The film takes its time developing the connection between the two and McConaughey and Mbatha-Raw have a nice, tender chemistry with one another that allows for moments such as when we should have seen a discussion about the hesitation to bring a mixed child into the world or when Knight welcomes Serena and his son back into his life and he and Rachel's home after they were forced to flee their own to go by on looks and understanding nods rather than lengthy scenes of dialogue. Though we see the physical toll the choice to lead this kind of life takes on Knight in McConaughey it is the debilitating emotional toll in McConaughey's performance that really hammers home the idea that no matter how hard he tries he can't seem but to keep fighting a losing battle. Also of note is Ali's performance for, despite McConaughey's rather phenomenal turn, it is Moses' similar arc that stays with you.
So, in being what feels like such a sprawling epic what is it that writer and director Ross wanted to say with the film? What was it that made him feel the need to bring this interesting and compelling true story to the big screen? It could have certainly been enough initially that it was just that: a compelling true story, but through the writing process one would imagine Ross locked onto a main idea or two. In prefacing that, what I can glean from the massive pool of story Ross conducts here is that of a law about how if a soldier owned 20 or more slaves they were excused from fighting in the war. Ross seems to have looked at this true facet of the story and latched onto the ridiculousness of the idea that people who didn't own slaves had to go fight and die so that those rich people who did could go on doing so and only become richer because of it. Insane, right? Stirring, huh? Exactly. Ross tapped into a new aspect of America's ugly past that allows for his film to exist in a world where films like “12 Years a Slave” and the upcoming “Birth of a Nation” also exist. That the film only places Newton Knight at the center of the film because in those days it took a white man helping black people for real change to occur rather than making him something of a white savior only makes the picture more commendable. That the film goes into these unexplored areas that not all white southerners owned slaves, but rather that this practice was largely relegated to the rich elite and that despite the war and slavery ending things were still far from picture perfect for the newly freed blacks of the south is even more fascinating. It's that the film latches onto these events and gives us example after example of situations that represent these truths that it loses some of the effectiveness it initially holds in highlighting these facts. While I can understand why Ross felt the need to cover as much ground as he does here-making the point that never will everything be alright-he needed to find a way to say as much as he does in a more efficient fashion. It is that losing battle mentality of his characters that seems to have imbued itself on Ross as he feels the need to keep his movie going and going only to come to the same conclusion he would have were he to have given a more measured and confined telling of Knight's story.
by Philip Price
We’ve reached the halfway point of the year. While this mostly means the best is yet to come in terms of movies it also means the summer movie season is in full swing. With the expected barrage of super heroes and sequels it has been nice to see smaller, more original films like “Hail, Caesar!,” “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” and “The Nice Guys” get a brief moment to shine, but despite the fact I enjoyed each of those films and am happy they exist each possessed a quality that left me feeling like it was missing something (though upon re-watch “Hail, Caesar!” is incredibly enjoyable and I expect the same to be true for “The Nice Guys”). And so, while my favorite films of the year so far might be a few you missed while in their theatrical run at least one of them is now available on DVD & Blu-Ray and I suspect two of them will be headed that way soon. They are films you don't have to necessarily see on the big screen, but I would of course suggest you do given I came out of the theater after watching each of these films with a sense that I needed to tell everyone I knew about them that very moment and I have no doubt some of that had to do with the uninterrupted epic-ness of experiencing each on the big screen. In what I feel like is the only time a group of baseball players from 1981, a young boy with supernatural powers, a faux pop star, a couple of kids from Dublin and a Jane Austen character will be brought together I now give you my favorite films of the year so far...
5. “Love & Friendship”
This came out of left field. I'm not a big Jane Austen fan. I mean, I don't necessarily mind her, but I haven't read enough to consider myself a fan and so I'm more of a passive observer by default. Walking into director Whit Stillman's adaptation of a short novella the author wrote in 1794, but wasn't published until 1871 I had no idea what I was getting. All I had to go on was the buzzy premiere it had at Sundance earlier this year and the fact Kate Beckinsale might have the chance to change up her ‘Underworld’ legacy. From the opening moments in which Stillman introduces each of his many players in a rather modern and quirky fashion I knew I was in for something different than I'd expected. This turn of the expectations only continued as we are introduced to our lead character in Beckinsale's Lady Susan. Unlike any character you've seen in an Austen story or in this time period at all-Lady Susan Vernon is the one to vocalize what everyone else is thinking, but what no one dares to say out loud as how things look is much more important in 19th century England than the way things actually are. In doing this, “Love & Friendship” has an immediate charm to it and a layer of comedy that was unexpected but wholly welcome. It doesn't hurt the film is only 90-minutes either as it whips by at a fun and flippant pace that gets its story and its commentary across in effective fashion. Also, look out for Tom Bennett - if that guy gets the right roles he's going to be huge.
4. “Everybody Wants Some!!”
I think I've finally come to the realization that I really, really love Richard Linklater movies. After first being introduced to the filmmaker without knowing I was being introduced to him in 2003's “School of Rock,” I slowly became more of a fan as I discovered that not only did he and Jack Black create the insanely re-watchable and universally loved film, but that he had his own strange franchise of sorts with “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset,” that he was diverse enough to try something like “A Scanner Darkly’ before capping off his ‘Before’ franchise with the trilogy completing “Before Midnight” and then re-teaming with Black for the highly underrated “Bernie,” in which he uses skills he no doubt honed on his 2006 documentary, “Fast Food Nation,” to blend the documentary and feature into some kind of hybrid true story tale that was both unique and containing just the right amount of kitsch while still being of a respectable quality. All the while creating something of another experimental masterpiece that culminated with 2014's “Boyhood.” So, where would the director go next? Well, that his career kicker, “Dazed & Confused,” has not been mentioned yet is not without purpose as this tale of high school students on their last day of school in 1976 feeds directly into “Everybody Wants Some!!,” as Linklater's latest chronicles the first weekend of a college freshman at his new school in 1981. Though this latest effort didn't immediately strike me as a great film I couldn't stop thinking about how much fun it was. Even now, almost two months later, I can't wait to share the experience of watching the film with certain people and in that joy comes what has to be one of the best films I've seen this year.
3. “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping”
Save for maybe “Batman V Superman” or ‘Civil War’ I haven't walked into a movie this year with bigger expectations than I did when walking into The Lonely Island's “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping.” Needless to say, it was The Lonely Island who disappointed the least. It just so happened I was at the perfect age of 19 when Andy Samberg and his crew debuted their particular brand of viral comedy on “Saturday Night Live” in 2006 and I've been a fan ever since. Whether it be their collaborations with Justin Timberlake or their ability to make a song sound insanely credible while being equally ridiculous there is always something to be entertained by, to laugh at, and to marvel at. The Lonely Island may put on a goofy and juvenile persona, but they are commentating and highlighting on timely societal issues and structure. After three albums and a slew of directing jobs for Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone The Lonely Island have come together to bring us what feels like, in many ways, what they were always meant to create. With ‘Popstar,’ the trio have created a Timberlake/Bieber/Macklemore hybrid called Conner4Real who is the star of his own popumentary that goes south when it becomes clear that his second solo album is a failure. With new original songs like "I'm So Humble," "Finest Girl (Bin Laden Song)" and "Mona Lisa," combined with some of the most observational and consistent humor I've seen in a comedy lately ‘Popstar’ is as re-watchable (noticing a theme?) as it gets and more fun than you might imagine if you think this isn't your cup of tea. Given the film disappeared from theaters less than a month after release it's clear this wasn't many peoples cup of tea, but I can only hope that once this thing arrives on DVD and Blu-Ray it will garner a following much like its spiritual cousin “This is Spinal Tap” did back in the ‘80s.
2. “Midnight Special”
Though the re-watchability factor is a major one when it comes to what typically makes up my favorite films I am unsure as to whether my pick for my number two of the year will necessarily fall into this category. “Midnight Special” is a precisely paced and methodical piece of work from auteur Jeff Nichols who only continues to impress with each new film. While this may not necessarily be the type of film one pops in to enjoy multiple times it is so immediately striking upon first viewing that it is impossible to ignore. There is something beautiful about Nichols’ attempt at a sci-fi film that reminds him of his own childhood and these feelings of innocence and of attachment, of love and loving obligation are all expressed in subtle and nuanced ways that leave the viewer feeling almost spiritual. I may be of a slight bias considering Nichols is from my hometown of Little Rock, Ark., but I think you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who goes to the movies quite frequently that disagrees with the fact “Midnight Special” is an impressive achievement. Every aesthetic choice helps to inform the interpreted meaning behind the narrative. With the score from David Wingo and the cinematography by Adam Stone (both who have worked numerous times before with Nichols) the emphasis on the Spielberg/Carpenter tone as well as the juxtaposition between the mundane world of the southern region of the U.S. and the magic of Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher) make the film not only one of great beauty, but a full immersive experience that will be difficult to escape even weeks after seeing the film.
1. “Sing Street”
Having only given out one perfect score this year it wasn't hard to determine what my favorite film of 2016 is so far. Director John Carney's (“Once,” “Begin Again”) latest music-infused narrative about a boy growing up in Dublin during the 1980s who escapes his strained family life by starting a band to impress the mysterious girl he likes is pure magic. “Sing Street” not only appeals to the re-watchability factor I tend to find necessary, but it also connects with the soul inside me that always yearned to be a musician and songwriter. Part of me knows I love this film for the personal connection I've created with it. My mother grew up in England (which I know isn't Ireland, but close enough), I heard about Top of the Pops my entire childhood, I ate Mars bars until my heart's content, and as my mother was a teenager of the early ‘80s I felt like in many ways I was taking a trip through what it might have been like to be her at a younger age than even I am now. There is also the factor of once being in a band with my own brothers and being willing to create our own music and put it out there for the world to listen to, enjoy and criticize. The relationship between the two brothers at the core of the film is key to the heart of “Sing Street” and it spoke volumes to many a personal experiences I've had in my own life. I'm not saying I connected with this film more than others will be able to because I've had these experiences, but for these reasons specifically I feel a deeper relationship to this film than with anything else I've seen this year.
What has been your favorite film of 2016 thus far?
by Philip Price
One should not approach the latest from Illumination Entertainment with the lofty expectations of the emotional devastation and weight brought on by the Pixar films, but rather set their sights and mood in a different general direction all together. Of course, with the kind of impactful and more substantial stories that Pixar tells they are intending to make something of a lasting impression on viewers, but the folks at Illumination-the same ones who created the “Despicable Me” and “Minions” movies-aren't really up for that-at least not yet. Rather, their latest original offering, “The Secret Life of Pets,” is a complete farce of sorts-a straightforward comedy that has no intent of connecting on some deep, emotional level with the audience, but instead simply hopes to skate by on its absurdity and slapstick. This can only result in good things as far as comedy goes and by virtue of that mentality it is the comedy that is the best thing “The Secret Life of Pets” has going for it. To push the Pixar comparison further I went in expecting something akin to “Toy Story,” but with animals. Given the tone and perceived concept that was conveyed in that first, rather stellar trailer it seemed that was what we were getting. Like “Toy Story,” the idea of what your pets might do all day while you're at work could be a fascinating world to explore (and maybe they'll stick to this premise in the inevitable sequel), but this movie deviates from that idea rather quickly and becomes more an "animals on an adventure" type movie in the vein of something like “Homeward Bound,” but with much more ludicrously improbable situations. And that's fine. Really, it is. Not every animated movie has to shoot for the stars and bring about a narrative that is designed to capitalize on momentous moments that forever influence the course of our lives and “The Secret Life of Pets” is a completely acceptable animated family movie that displays the different types of animated family movies that can be made without trying to hue as close to the Pixar brand as possible. I rather enjoyed the entertaining diversion that is “The Secret Life of Pets” and I laughed: a lot. Granted, the lack of any emotional investment will lead to that subsequent lack of any lasting impression, but somehow that doesn't seem to matter when what's in front of you is as fun as this.
To sum up “The Secret Life of Pets” would be to tell you that it is about a small dog named Max (voiced by Louis C.K.) who has a good thing going with his owner Katie (voice of Ellie Kemper) until he all of a sudden finds his routine upended when Katie brings home a second, much bigger dog, in Duke (Eric Stonestreet). Max doesn't like the idea of having a brother and Duke isn't one to take crap from a tiny dog like Max thus crazy adventures ensue that also include a barrage of Max's friends and other animals that populate New York City. To elaborate would be to include information about the rather expansive ensemble cast and the plot points that see Max and Duke wandering away from their group while on a walk only to encounter a gang of stray cats led by a Sphynx known as Ozone (voice of Steve Coogan) who steals their collars and baits them for animal control. While it looks as if both Max and Duke may be at the end of the line, heading for the pound, they are abruptly broken out of the animal control truck by a band of domesticated defectors that are led by the villainous bunny Snowball (voice of Kevin Hart). Snowball more or less convinces himself that Max and Duke could be good for his growing organization and thus takes them underground, through the sewers, with the intention of initiating them into the "home of the flushed pets." Of course, Max and Duke are only going along with Snowball's plan in hopes of finding an outlet to escape while at the same time their relationship has no choice but to grow stronger. If that wasn't enough, as all of that is going down we also have a rescue mission put into action by the white Pomeranian Gidget (voice of Jenny Slate) who lives across from Max and has a not-so-secret crush on him. Rounding up their circle of friends that includes a cat who couldn't care less, Chloe (voice of Lake Bell), a Dachshund who's just as cool and sly as he can be named Buddy (voice of Hannibal Buress), a hyperactive Pug named Mel (Bobby Moynihan), a Parakeet named Sweet Pea (voice of Tara Strong), and a grumpy old Hawk named Tiberius (voice of Albert Brooks) Gidget and her gang set out across the Big Apple to track down her lost love.
As you may be able to tell, “The Secret Life of Pets” largely benefits from its comically inclined voice cast. Having what are two of the biggest stand-up comics in the world in C.K. and Hart voicing what are essentially the two leads of your film only stands to create as many small, subtly funny moments as there are laugh out loud moments despite the two likely never being in the same booth with one another. Hart's spitfire persona as contained in his small stature is perfect for the role of a tiny, fluffy bunny who has as much tenacity as the real Hart does on stage. Watching Snowball lead this rebellion against "leash lovers" lends the character echoes of Hart's stage act were it an appropriate routine for seven year-old's. To say all of this is to say Hart steals the show. Every time Snowball is on screen he is either garnering huge laughs or doing something outlandish that will cause huge laughs at any moment. In short, there will undoubtedly be a lot of Snowball stuffed animals sold this year. In the same way the film utilizes Hart's comic persona for Snowball it does the same for C.K. with our protagonist Max, if not as directly. In the beginning Max is very much our narrator and in this introduction to the world C.K. delivers the necessary exposition in a way that very much employs his preference for strong, observational comedy to shape the type of distinct perspective the audience will explore this unknown world through. As the plot thickens and C.K.'s Max plays more of a role in the action rather than directing it his voice becomes somewhat lost in the shuffle of everything else that is going on. This is something of a disappointment considering the opportunity the writers were afforded with C.K., but it feels more like the comic was asked to stick to the script rather than add his own flair to the character. That said, the film does utilize its tremendous voice cast elsewhere such as with Gidget who Slate brings real personality to (her voice work is only becoming increasingly more impressive and diverse) as well as in Chloe, who we recognize from the moment we meet her, but who Bell completely embodies in her own snarky, apathetic way. And were it not for the lack of room in the movie Mel might have run away with the thing literally and figuratively as SNL's Moynihan is a close second to Hart's Snowball in terms of pure pop sugar pleasure.
Where the film finds strength in its voice cast (I've failed to mention Dana Carvey as the elderly Basset Hound, Pops, but he deserves a nod) it comes up somewhat short in the story department. Like I said before, this could have very well have been a "pull back the curtain" type of film that explored the different personalities and world views based on different domesticated/abandoned/strayed experiences and in some regards it seems like “The Secret Life of Pets” wants to take this route. In many ways, the film has an identity crisis of tone in that it desires to simply be about the characters and about where their personalities take them rather than follow the standard structure of an animated children's movie, but in this kind of tug of war of tone the overall film ends up feeling a lot more scattershot than the first twenty or so minutes indicate. The large roster of characters is both a savior in terms of giving the 90-minute feature plenty of ground to cover, but that it offers as many personalities as it does allow for parts of the movie to feel like they don't necessarily fit or are out of a different movie entirely. It's funny really, just as I was beginning to think “The Secret Life of Pets” would have made a great musical in the vein of something like Oliver & Company we get The Sausage Factory Singers doing a rendition of "We Go Together," from “Grease” and while it's super entertaining and features some creative ways in which hot dogs could be used as hula skirts it is insanely random and only leaves the more mature members of the audience wondering what exactly was in those hot dogs? That the film goes from this scene to the next where it then tries to tap into some genuinely emotional material dealing with Duke doesn't exactly mesh and sends mixed signals about what exactly the film is trying to be/say. And yet, the film has enough inherently creative tendencies and uses its NYC setting to its full advantage (a scene where Buddy scales a building perfectly melds these two attributes) as it explores a world where tattooed pigs drive taxis. It is a perfectly cute and appropriately silly movie that also doesn't villainize those that don't have the same advantages as our main characters and may even give them a happy ending as well. “The Secret Life of Pets” might not be so much to write home about, but it's fine and sometimes that's fine enough.
by Philip Price
I'd like to think there's not as much ignorance in the world as the Internet tells me there is, but the small corner of the World Wide Web known as IMDb and more specifically the user reviews for 2016's reboot of “Ghostbusters” would suggest everything I've hoped to be true about this world is in fact wrong. Given the film has been out in wide release for less than 24 hours at the time of this writing it's astonishing how many harsh and outlandish tirades have been hurled at this film. Of course, we're not here to discuss the inability of what are likely now 40-year old men to share in the wealth of their childhoods, childhoods that provided such pleasures at the original 1984 film, and extend those same feelings of excitement and pure joy to the kids of today and moreover the young girls and women of today who have undoubtedly always looked to the portrayal of their gender in Hollywood and wondered why they were always so restrained. As far as I'm concerned and as far as I can tell (I was born in 1987 so I don't exactly "get" the hoopla that surrounds the original) despite how much the original “Ghostbusters” was a huge success and universally praised at the time of its release I've never understood the level of infatuation with it. Sure, it's a perfectly enjoyable comedy with a charismatic cast and unique premise, but in the 30-plus years since its release I can't help but think the film has lost some of its charm otherwise I wouldn't feel as out of the loop. With this new, all-female version director Paul Feig has both paid homage to the original film while creating a world and characters all his own. Written by Feig with the help of “The Heat” screenwriter Kate Dippold this new “Ghostbusters” universe doesn't capitalize wholly on the gimmick of the gender swap, but more it uses this basis of an idea to explore a familiar world from a new perspective. While no matter how good the film might have turned out to be there would undoubtedly still be people decrying the fact it exists at all, but that it is a lot of fun if not necessarily an exceptional comedy will surely only anger them more. To remain focused on those who take away from the unadulterated fun that “Ghostbusters” can provide though is to be reminded of the disappointment this world can be whereas to simply take the new “Ghostbusters” on its own terms can make you believe good does in fact exist among us. In short, it's a delight.
While it might have been easy and likely very tempting for Feig and Dippold to go the route of the reboot for the sake of not having to come up with a new story that continued as well as gave closure to what happened to the original team of ghostbusters (which would have only been more controversial I imagine) it also allowed them the option to more or less remake the original film which could have been a dead end as well. Essentially it is a lose/lose situation, but it is the straddling of this line-between reboot and remake-that “Ghostbusters” is able to find a solid balance that it walks most expertly. In one sense it pays homage to the source material with an abundance of references, nods in both design and sense of humor, as well as plenty of cameos, but at the same time-and if this was really going to succeed- “Ghostbusters” 2016 would have to stand on its own as well. “Ghostbusters” would need to create something that was just different enough to be new, but just similar enough to remind fans why they fell in love with the series in the first place. It's a tall order and one I can't imagine anyone being envious of, but it's clear from the cold open Feig has a finger on the pulse of the tone and comedy that he wants to convey in his “Ghostbusters” movie. More than anything, that tone is clearly intended to capture the fun of the original as the credits state that this new film was "inspired" by the 1984 one. And from the get-go, it is a lot of fun. We are introduced in nice succession to each of the four main characters as the actors are (mostly) given ample opportunity to flesh out their personas which each lend a little something unique to the group dynamic. Kristen Wiig's Erin Gilbert chases her academic dreams with hopes of reaching tenure making what everyone around her thinks of her of the utmost importance while her previous scientific partner and best friend, Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy), could care less if people believe she's crazy just as long as she can go on doing her work trying to track down the supernatural. Somewhat filling the void Erin left in Abby's life, but in a much different capacity is Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon) who is something of a total psychopath, but is a genius that scraps together weaponry in the blink of an eye. Banding these three scientists, engineers, and paranormal enthusiasts together with the street smart Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones) the film is off and running with a lot of chemistry to play with if not a little too much emphasis on the bigger names of the cast.
“Ghostbusters” is fun, no doubt, but that doesn't mean it's without its issues either. Chief among them is that it doesn't fully utilize the brilliant cast it has compiled. It's something of a given that McCarthy and Wiig would lead if not carry the majority of the film, but that we as an audience want to see more of McKinnon and Jones' characters is a detriment to the film as the script isn't nearly as resourceful with its second tier ghostbusters as it is even with Chris Hemsworth's character. Hemsworth, for what little I expected of him compared with what we get, essentially walks away with the movie. What that says about a comedy hell bent on solidifying that women are just as capable as men when it comes to comedy I'm not sure, but as the dim-witted secretary Kevin, Hemsworth is able to land every gag he attempts whether it be one concerning a lack of lenses in his glasses or that of explaining the logos he came up with for the girls and their "club". While Hemsworth is excelling though, McKinnon especially is given less and less to do despite clearly forming an insane but somehow still attractive presence in Holtzmann. There is clear potential here, but the film doesn't seem to feel like it has enough room for four leads and in bumping McKinnon and Jones' roles down to that of more supporting players it more or less disregards a huge amount of comedy potential as it is clear Jones doesn't have enough to do either. While I personally have found Jones to be a winning member of the recent ‘SNL’ cast it is easy to see how she can be perceived as one note by others. The comedian turned actor is still clearly honing her skills when it comes to conveying real emotion in front of the camera as some of her line readings are off and unnatural, but this isn't what is most bothersome about her performance, but instead it is the fact she isn't allowed room to really let loose much less be as funny as she is so clearly capable of being. Of course, there are moments here and there where both McKinnon and Jones are allowed to flourish and we see what might come to more of a fruition should this film do well enough and sequels are made, but that they didn't throw everything at the wall in this initial outing is something of a letdown. Other than these character complaints the second biggest detractor is that the film feels like it loses some steam as it enters its third act-when it should be gearing up for the big final showdown. Up to this point the development of the plot and characters goes hand in hand, but in coming to the special effects laden finale it can't help but feel as if Feig loses his grip on where he was hoping to guide the conclusion to.
Speaking to plot, this 2016 “Ghostbusters” is something of an enigma that deserves cracking as we know the beats this thing is clearly planning on hitting after the first few scenes mirror the original in a clear way without being exact copies. It is a way of emulating the original while still allowing room for change and new ideas to seep into the narrative. Feig and Dippold take the most advantage of this when it comes to the films villain as no longer is there a demon dog waiting in someone's fridge, but rather an uber-nerd and disturbingly lonely young man named Rowan (Neil Casey) who decides to seek vengeance on mankind for always shunning him. It's somewhat ironic given it is probably those who fit closest to this mold that are angrily sitting behind their keyboards spewing hate at the film for ruining their childhoods, but at the same time Feig and Dippold offer a sliver of sympathy for the bad guy who believes he is doing the right thing or at least the just thing. Casey's antagonist could have been developed a little more to elicit even more sympathy and make his master plan a larger part of the plot, but in that the script allows the team of ghostbusters to piece things together and deliver scientific/supernatural mumbo jumbo to draw conclusions on what Rowan may be attempting also allows for a shroud of mystery around the proceedings which helps up the tension thus allowing the comedy to shine through even more. Overall, the film has its ups and downs when it comes to the pacing as the first two acts are really solid in that they move the plot along and offer some great set pieces and visual effects with an abundance of comedy to string these moments together. The downside is that the attempted comedy doesn't always land and I ended up not laughing as consistently as I'd hoped to or how much I thought I would after the first act. This leads us to the question of day seeing as the original is hailed as one of the funniest movies of all time so, just how funny is this new “Ghostbusters”? There is a lot of heart on display and Feig's humor is hard to sum up as any particular brand, but the best way to describe it would be to say that it just flows and comes from unexpected places. It isn't necessarily inherent to the story always, but it lends the story his movies are trying to tell that aforementioned heart. This may be a movie about nerds trying to find a place for themselves in the world that contains body snatching dance sequences, but such things allow for “Ghostbusters” to land in an affectionate place that is worth embracing rather than rejecting.
by Philip Price
There is a bit of trivia on the IMDb page for “Independence Day: Resurgence” that talks about how, after the success of the first film, 20th Century Fox paid screenwriter Dean Devlin a large sum of money to write a script for a sequel. The story goes though, that after completing the script for what would have been the original sequel to 1996's “Independence Day” Devlin decided not to turn it in and instead gave the money back to the studio. The trivia goes on to state that Devlin did this because he felt the story didn't live up to the first film. As we are now 20 years removed from that original film and have now seen what an “Independence Day” sequel looks like this course of action only seems to beg one question: how bad must that original sequel script have been? Could it really have retreaded the beats of the first film as much as ‘Resurgence’ does? The only thing that differentiates the first film from this new one is the passage of time and how that has changed earth's technologies and defense systems while having what cast returns look a little older. The IMDb page goes on to say that it was only 15 years later, when Devlin met up with director Roland Emmerich to try again, that they felt they had finally "cracked" a story for a sequel. Though it is difficult to be downright negative toward a film story and character development certainly aren't ‘Resurgence’ strong suits and may even be the most laughable aspects of a movie that tries really hard to be funny. One can't help but feel that, in this scenario, "cracking" the story only meant they were offered a lot more money than before. If ‘Resurgence’ does indeed deliver the story that Emmerich and Devlin thought more justified the existence of a sequel to their 1996 feature it can only now be concluded that they were only going to repeat themselves more with the scrapped screenplay. While ‘Resurgence’ certainly finds moments of dumb fun and some rather spectacular action sequences given special effects have improved greatly in the last two decades it is more or less a retread of what we saw in that original movie in terms of ensemble cast and humans versus aliens. Granted, the question easily posed in response to that statement is, "what did you expect it to be?" and the answer to that is that they at least try to find a new way into that same old story.
In trying to find light in the darkness we'll talk about the pros of the film first. Fair warning: there aren't many. The first thing that happened in the movie that actually made me sit up and pay attention was the performance of Bill Pullman. The man who played President Thomas Whitmore in the original has largely been plagued with bad dreams and psychological breakdowns since what is now referred to as "the war of 1996" occurred. While we only get a brief glimpse of the man's mentality initially when the film finally comes back around to Pullman's character the guy sells it. There are a number of performances in the film and overall the movie suffers from a lack of development for any certain clique of characters by virtue of the fact it's trying to spread itself too thin while remaining inside a strict, two hour box, but despite having a limited amount of screen time and despite the fact he could come off totally insane if not played correctly it feels as if this was at least one of the more interesting places Devlin and Emmerich (along with three other screenwriters) decided to take one of the original characters. And all the way through, Pullman's performance sells it. Sure, they replay his iconic speech and sure, they try to give him a new rousing moment, but these aren't the moments you'll remember this time around-more it is the admiration and loyalty his appearance inspires and the courage he still holds that Pullman plays like a badge of honor that has plagued him for 20 years. All of this to say, there seems to have been genuine effort on Pullman's part whereas Liam Hemsworth (who is supposed to be the new Will Smith of the movie even though they have a new kid playing Will Smith's son from the original) is more or less doing his best Maverick impression. Next, there is the final battle sequence between a massive alien running around in a desert landscape with alien warships, school buses, and the weapons that have come out of the fusion of human and alien technology since the War of '96 all masquerading around together in a beautiful storm. It is legitimately breathtaking on the big screen. And while Brent Spiner returns as Dr. Brakish Okun with some degree of pleasure and joy his character feels more shoehorned in than anything while everything else feels like what we expect from conveyor belt summer blockbusters: empty spectacle.
And so, let us talk about the cons. Though it is depressing to imagine how long the numerous creative minds in the art, sound, and visual effects departments toiled away on this $200 million B-movie that finds its rhythms more in non-stop action beats than the character moments that made the original so heartening despite its obvious dumbness the worst part is that Emmerich has crafted a film that feels lazy despite the no doubt extended hours put in by those aforementioned artists. One could easily find merit in the rather breezy pace of the movie and the fact that it doesn't take itself too seriously, but in that ‘Resurgence’ is still trying to be “Independence Day” this sequel feels more like a sequel made by a fan of the original who remembers that film through rose colored glasses rather than a sequel made by someone who worked on and understood the caveats that made the original more than a piece of spectacle, but something movie-goers from all walks of life could unite behind and have fun with. ‘Resurgence’ is not fun. One could argue that at least it's not boring, but that doesn't make it fun. There are no thrills to be had in watching Hemsworth's Jake Morrison live on the edge and break all the rules and there isn't a single spark between he and his onscreen fiancée, President Whitmore's daughter Patricia now played by Maika Monroe rather than Mae Whitman, that inspires viewers to root for their survival. There is no time given to Jessie T. Usher to develop his character of Captain Dylan Hiller much less become as charismatic as his movie father, but worst of all is the fact ‘Resurgence’ absolutely destroys any of the affection the audience once had toward Jeff Goldblum's Dr. David Levinson as this new movie essentially turns him into something of a hotshot asshole whose head is now bigger than the spaceship that takes over our planet. Also returning from the first film is Judd Hirsch as Levinson's father, Julius, whose relationship kind of defined a fair portion of the tone of that original film. This father/son camaraderie was executed in a fashion that wasn't typically seen in big Hollywood blockbusters and thus gave a level of credibility to an otherwise loud and mindless movie. That ‘Resurgence’ makes Goldblum's character this hotshot head of alien defense that has seemingly made him too good to speak to his father or treat women with any kind of reverence kind of ruins the whole experience. Granted, I don't have a special bond with the original, but in having re-watched it just before seeing the sequel you notice these things.
And so, yes, confession time: I didn't watch the original “Independence Day” until three or four years after it was released. It was good fun and I can understand now why I should kind of regret missing it on the big screen. The point is to relay I wasn't at a stage in life where I was able to comprehend the cultural impact the original established in 1996 and despite obviously coming around to see the movie a few years after the storm had settled-it was never a film that defined a large part of my adolescence. And so, the thought of Emmerich and Devlin resurrecting the movie in hopes of creating a new franchise for 20th Century Fox always felt more desperate than anything else. There was never going to be a satisfying way to make a sequel in the fashion they have tried to do here. Bringing back a large chunk of characters from the original while at the same time introducing a roster from the new generation relegates the first hour of the film to pull double duty in not only re-establishing where all the old characters currently are and how all the new characters got to where they are, but also in having to move a narrative forward. The film goes from President Whitmore, to Patricia who is now working in the White House as it explains that she and Jake are engaged as well as friends with the deceased Captain Steven Hiller's son despite tension between Dylan and Jake to the introduction of a new (minor) character in General Joshua Adams (William Fichtner) who runs the Earth Space Defense organization from its Area 51 headquarters for the sake of showing that the aliens Earth kept from the 1996 battle are beginning to wake up after an apparent twenty year coma. Oh, and by the way-Jake is stationed on a moon base as a kind of first line of defense if the aliens are in fact to return where the movie gives him a best friend in Charlie (Travis Toth) who develops a crush on their General's niece who is also a pilot. The film then jumps to the re-introduction of David Levinson in a scene meant to inform viewers that only one ship remained on earth after the '96 attack and has been unreachable due to the fact a warlord controlled the area it sat on. This scene also tells us Levinson will have a new love interest in the form of Charlotte Gainsbourg and that it will try to create more (unnecessary) comic relief from a bumbling assistant played by Nicolas Wright. In all fairness, this scene also introduces us to warlord Dikimbe Umbutu (Deobia Oparei) who is one of the other few pros Resurgence has to offer. All of this and we haven't even seen Hirsch's Julius, Spiner's Okun, or Vivica A. Fox's return as Jasmine Hiller yet much less have a grasp on what the main conflict is. By trying to do too much “Independence Day: Resurgence” ultimately accomplishes nothing which is summed up perfectly in its final scene that sets up the what is likely a never to be seen third film confirming that what we've just watched wasn't really a movie, but rather one long, extended trailer.
by Philip Price
The latest from director Steven Spielberg is an odd little film. It is a project that seems all too good to be true. A feature length version of a classic Roald Dahl story, set to the music of John Williams, and directed by one of the greatest living filmmakers. What could possibly go wrong? The truth is, there isn't much wrong with “The BFG” if you're looking for a charming little think piece to show your children and teach them patience, but as far as the entertainment factor goes you might have the kiddos clawing at your feet five minutes in. Some children will no doubt find this story of a young girl who is kidnapped by an exceptionally nice giant and taken to his home in Giant Country to be completely mesmerizing and there are certainly plenty of reasons to be struck with this reaction, but as the film played out and as it became more and more apparent there was no driving narrative to the piece I became less enchanted with the product as a whole. More, the film is essentially Spielberg creating a handful of the type of drawn-out sequences he seems to have enjoyed crafting more and more in the latter part of his career. Extended scenes of discussions documented by richly creative camera movements with just as much inventiveness being poured into the setting and the performances. While such techniques give “The BFG” a sense of that Spielbergian touch that has been glimpsed in many a sequences in the auteur's other films there is nothing else to support such scenes here. On one hand, it is admirable that Spielberg and screenwriter Melissa Mathison (“E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial”) have created a film that doesn't care to hue close to the typical conventions of a children's movie or most movies for that matter as much of the first hour of the film is focused on developing the relationship between the titular giant (Mark Rylance) and Sophie (newcomer Ruby Barnhill) as they come to figure out one another in ways that subtly explore their similarities and differences enough that we see how well different types of people, never mind different types of species, can complement each other. At two hours though, there simply isn't enough content to justify the running time. “The BFG” may have made a truly enchanting short, but as a feature film this feels more like an escape for a specific niche of an audience rather than the broadly appealing summer family film it has been positioned to be.
Taking place at some point during the ‘80s, we begin with a short introduction to 10-year old Sophie as she wanders the halls of her orphanage late at night while everyone else is asleep. With little to no context around our protagonist's situation or how she came to become an orphan we learn that Sophie suffers from insomnia, and yet as much as you can be one while still awake-Sophie is very much a dreamer. While many of the other girls who Sophie shares her orphanage with believe the witching hour to come at midnight or 1 a.m. Sophie believes it to be a little later, at 3 a.m., when she is the only one in the house left awake. It is on one of these endless nights, as Sophie shouts down at a few drunk louts leaving the local pub that she notices a giant hand reach around the building to pick up a trash can. Our reaction is the same as hers-what is it? What could it belong to? Given we know the title of the film we're watching we realize this must be the titular giant, but the way in which Spielberg slowly reveals the full appearance of the Big Friendly Giant (henceforth referred to as BFG) is near filmmaking perfection. After picking up Sophie simply for seeing him and out of fear she'll run tell the rest of the humans about their existence the BFG takes Sophie with him back to his home where the two develop a friendship. They come to learn things about one another; that they both like to wander around at night as well as that BFG performs the job of catching dreams which is conveyed visually as if you were catching lightning bugs in ajar on a hot summer evening. This is something akin to serendipity as this hobby and the fact Sophie likely avoids sleep to avoid dreams of what she might wish her life to be go hand in hand too perfectly. In coming face to face with a fantastical creature such as BFG, a creature who catches and constructs dreams, Sophie might at once be able to accept the power and magic of dreams while at the same time fulfilling her need for an emotional connection and caretaker in the giant. As our two main characters grow closer they also attract the unwanted attention of the less gentle and less charming giants that live with BFG. Bloodbottler (Bill Hader), Fleshlumpeater (Jemaine Clement) and a few others can't help but to sniff out the new human "bean" on the scene in hopes of securing a light snack-a predicament that prompts BFG to take some long-delayed action.
Though “The BFG” deals with giant beings and in larger than life visuals this is very much a small and rather contained story. With just under an hour to go the previously non-existent driving force of the film begins to take hold and we feel as if the film might finally make strides to give us something more in the way of story than simply the friendship that has been born out of this unusual meeting. The developing of the BFG and Sophie's friendship is all well and good and I in fact did appreciate the more tempered pacing to allow this connection to really sink in, but the lack of any overarching goal or intent really hinders the ability to remain interested. It doesn't help that when this second hour begins and the manufactured conflict with the other giants takes hold there is no real urgency to have this problem resolved. That the central conflict of the film feels like an issue BFG could deal with any day of the week depending on when he works up the courage to do so give the film little to no stakes. That said, the film does become more fun in its second half as Sophie concocts a plan to help BFG face his fears. In what could feel like too little too late “The BFG” somewhat redeems itself by taking its action to Buckingham Palace and to a Queen Elizabeth II (played brilliantly by Penelope Wilton) who has no trouble buying into the fact that giants exist and that it is her duty to help Sophie and BFG rid themselves of these man-eating giants. The film elicits this state of mind where you have to sit back and wonder if what we're seeing is actually happening, if this is where the movie is actually going, or if what we're seeing is somehow a dream BFG crafted and placed into Sophie's head so that she may never have to know the harsh realities of the world again. As this type of reveal never comes we are to assume we take “The BFG” at face value. Though the second half of the film certainly ups the momentum it can't help but feel like there was a large chunk of something missing by the time the credits begin to roll. It is more than apparent what Spielberg and his team were going for here and to a certain degree it's hard to argue they didn't achieve this parable of sorts on defying our circumstances to find our hearts desire, but that doesn't mean what they set out to achieve was guaranteed to be a masterpiece in the first place.
Even as I write this review now I'm still conflicted on how to feel about the film as it is clear at this stage in his career that Spielberg is making movies the way he wants to make them with no inhibition as to what critics of his over-sentimentality might think. This leaves little doubt that “The BFG” is very much the movie he wanted to make and there are certain sequences such as the one in which BFG escapes London and sprints across the continent, camouflaging himself along the way, which will serve as reassurance that Spielberg is not simply on autopilot. With this being his first out and out live action children's film since 1991's “Hook” there must have been something specific drawing him to this project. Though his résumé has been filled with more dramatic work as of late the man who shaped many a childhoods with the likes of ‘E.T.’ and the ‘Indiana Jones’ films has clearly not lost his touch, but with “The BFG” it feels more like the director has created a love letter not necessarily to those movies from his past aimed at more adolescent audiences, but to the audiences themselves. The audiences those movies connected with. In this sense, “The BFG" is something of a metaphor for the filmmaker’s relationship to an audience he's been out of contact with for some time, but whom he hopes he can still connect with. As somewhat stated previously, the result feels mostly like a mixed bag.
The motion capture performance from Rylance is without a doubt the highlight of the film. His warm presence is felt immediately despite his sometimes plastic and grizzled appearance. Still, the Giant country scenes in which all of the giant characters are in play are insanely photo-realistic. Rylance enlightens the most academic of the giant clan with a vocabulary of mispronunciations and mashed-up words that only serve to make him more endearing. Gargling a drink that bubbles the opposite way of our sodas and thus forcing explosive green gas out your rear end Rylance seems to be having a blast as the title character. That he then serves it to The Queen and all of her subordinates (including Rebecca Hall and Rafe Spall) in a running joke that really pays off only further defines this undeniably delightful presence further. His chemistry with the authentic and not at all garish performance of Barnhill shines through in both the emotional and physical dynamics between the two as well. Spielberg sets up some impressive logistical shots that allow for Sophie and BFG to interact seamlessly while also providing for some solid laughs in the more entertaining last act of the film, but no matter the events taking place on screen the question that remains throughout the entirety of “The BFG” is how well Spielberg has gauged the young audiences of today and how well he might still be able to enchant them. In truth, the jury may be out on this for some time as “The BFG,” while undoubtedly having its charms, seems a movie not able to be fully comprehended without time and space between the experience and the full impact.