Now on Blu-Ray: American Sniper an Overhyped Repetitive War Drama

Blu-Ray Cover Art for AMERICAN SNIPER, courtesy Warner Home Video, 2015
Blu-Ray Cover Art for AMERICAN SNIPER, courtesy Warner Home Video, 2015

 

Blu-Ray Review by Dominic Messier, Founder, Editor and Hater of Repetitive Exploitative Drama

As an attempt to be an inspiring war drama about the realities of PTSD and the hardships of duty on mind, body and family, Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper successfully explores the downside of waging war by examining the detailed life of one soldier whose skill and accuracy saved countless fellow soldiers’ lives, but took an irreparable toll on a man torn between family and duty.

The problem here isn’t so much the source material as it is Clint Eastwood’s mishandling of the project, turning a gripping human drama into a rote, repetitive half hour repeated over and over over the course of two hours and change…

 

Bradley Cooper in AMERICAN SNIPER, courtesy Warner Home Video, 2015
Bradley Cooper in AMERICAN SNIPER, courtesy Warner Home Video, 2015

 

Dramatized from the detailed story of late Navy SEAL Chief Chris Kyle, American Sniper stars Bradley Cooper as a God-fearing Texas man who decides to join the armed forces after seeing terrorist attacks on American innocents. Having survived SEAL training, Kyle heads off to Iraq for a first tour, but not before having met the lovely Taya (Sienna Miller), a strong-headed woman he meets in a bar near base.

As his first outing in the war zone proceeds with daily caution, Kyle’s natural talent with sniping quickly earns him the reputation among his peers as “Legend”, due to his impressive kill rate, enough so that enemy insurgents start placing a bounty on his head for fear of losing more men to his pinpoint accuracy.

Upon his return from each tour, Kyle realizes he can’t sit and watch his fellow men fall prey to the enemy, including an Iraqi sharpshooter whose skill rivals his.

Torn between returning to battle and staying behind to build his family, the morally torn soldier must decide how far he is willing to go to serve his country, despite the toll his duty is taking on his personal life.

 

Bradley Cooper in AMERICAN SNIPER, courtesy Warner Home Video, 2015
Bradley Cooper in AMERICAN SNIPER, courtesy Warner Home Video, 2015

 

Clint Eastwood has shown he can direct a film, what with great pieces like Million Dollar Baby and Unforgiven. At the same time, he never quite got the knack of the military genre, with his previous effort, Heartbreak Ridge, turning out to be more exciting in its boot camp eccentricity than its action scenes.

The latter was no Kubrickian success, and I fear the same will occur with Sniper, despite its multiple Oscar nominations earlier this year.  Having decided to adapt Chris Kyle’s story to the big screen for emotional and dramatic heft, the film seems to only work in two speeds: frenetic or downright neutral gear.

Though the soldier’s experiences up to his last tour (he died while off duty in 2013) are remarkable in their own right and make for good story fodder, Eastwood can’t seem to get the same result from Cooper, who either plays Kyle as morally torn when faced with ambiguous targets, or as a catatonic shell of a man being eaten alive by PTSD.

It’s those two extremes that take away from the film’s dramatic impact, creating a severe cinematic handicap. At age 84, Eastwood shows he can still come up with a finished product, but I find myself wondering if he thought no one had read the book or was going to notice any shortcuts being taken in order to keep the tale under a respectable running time.

Sienna Miller goes brunette in her role as Kyle’s wife Taya, however her performance becomes rote and repetitive after her hubby’s first return from action, along with the next three tours that followed.

 

 

Is Bradley Cooper’s lack of emotion a masterful acting choice or a directorial mistake? It’s hard to tell. I choose to think the latter, but while the film isn’t terrible, it doesn’t live up to the book it’s based on (and which I suggest you pick up and read) and therefore can’t pass muster when being considered for the awards it’s been nominated for.

American Sniper is good. Just not Oscar good, as it turned out.

Still worth a watch. Judge for yourself.

3 out of 5

Dominic Messier is a media veteran who’s written and discussed movies for almost 20 years, from entertainment radio shows to newspaper columns to websites. Follow him on Twitter via @dommessier or join the Pop Culture Landscape with Dominic Messier page on Facebook.

 

Now on Blu-Ray: Fifty Shades of Grey Fails to Titillate Eager Audiences

Blu-Ray Cover Art for FIFTY SHADES OF GREY, courtesy Universal Home Video, 2015
Blu-Ray Cover Art for FIFTY SHADES OF GREY, courtesy Universal Home Video, 2015

 

Blu-Ray Review by Dominic Messier, Founder, Editor and One Shade of Black Enthusiast

 

Just because everyone owns a copy of a book doesn’t mean the book itself is of great quality. I mean, how often has someone made a purchase, be it a paperback or a movie ticket, only to realize they’d made a terrible mistake in doing so, akin to buyer’s remorse?

In the case of Fifty Shades of Grey, whether we’re talking the book or the film, you’re just as likely to want to whip yourself into a reimbursement frenzy at the very thought of having shelled out hard earned cash for the sort of pseudo-titillation one can easily get for free on the internet by watching porn instead.

 

Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan in FIFTY SHADES OF GREY, courtesy Universal Home Video, 2015
Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan in FIFTY SHADES OF GREY, courtesy Universal Home Video, 2015

 

The premise is as paper-cutter Harlequin as one can find, the kind of fluffy but hollow material designed to make the ladies swoon, unaware their intelligence is being insulted: a young inexperienced senior year student named Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) is asked by her sick roommate to go interview an ambitious, dashing young billionaire businessman named Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) for the college paper.

Upon meeting, there’s some electricity between the pair, with the wealthy magnate quietly and subtly seducing the young lass with his good taste, wealth and particular sexual proclivities. It slowly becomes obvious that Grey doesn’t enjoy your usual roll in the sack but is instead an enthusiast of the dominant/submissive lifestyle of bondage play.

With the promise of a non-disclosure agreement (to protect his privacy and wealth) and the further guarantee of a new sexual horizon of unknown pleasures, Grey hopes to turn Anastasia into his latest conquest in the S&M playroom, assuming she doesn’t do what others couldn’t manage: win his heart instead.

I truly thought I could give this film a second chance on home video following the theatrical release, but the unrated version is just as vapid and unrewarding. Le sigh.

 

Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan in FIFTY SHADES OF GREY, courtesy Universal Home Video, 2015
Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan in FIFTY SHADES OF GREY, courtesy Universal Home Video, 2015

 

Now don’t get me wrong, I enjoy good sex and appealing romance as much as the next person, assuming there is an quantifiable element of quality involved.

The big problem here lies in successfully adapting a best-selling book for the purpose of grabbing those opportunistic Valentine’s Day weekend release dollars, all without so much as taking a moment to realize just how shitty the source material really is.

Long criticized for its poor writing quality, the first book in the Fifty Shades series by E. L. James (real name: Erika Mitchell) reads like a rushed piece of Twilight fan fiction, with goofy dialogue and soft-core double entendres dripping off every other page, right between those other portions filled with descriptive nonsense.

Film-wise, as much as Jamie Dornan’s steely stare and Dakota Johnson’s doe-eyed innocence and random lip bite can be used as filler, there’s just not enough of a plot to justify this back and forth of will-she-or-won’t-she air of sexual curiosity that one would rather find in those old school Emmanuelle late night erotica films.

Instead, the film just goes through the motions of brief sex scenes, discussions about sex contracts, incongruous family gatherings and displays of opulent wealth and recreation right out of The Thomas Crown Affair.

See below, a look behind the scenes of the film:

 

 

At the risk of being accused of hating love and all things cinematically sexy, I’m sad to report that this film will be a complete waste of your time. It sure was mine. It could be good for a few laughs, that is, if you like schadenfreude, the act of enjoying the misery of others.

I feel sad at the idea that the two leads may be contractually bound (no pun intended) to two more sequels when the entire concept is syrupy garbage of the highest order. Actual bondage enthusiasts may likely find the experience of watching this film so painful and wrong that they may utter the safe word before the first act ends.

Want to see this material done better? Go back and watch 9 1/2 Weeks. Not the best of material either, but no one’s seen the contents of their own fridge quite the same way since.

1 out of 5

Dominic Messier is a media veteran who’s written and discussed movies for almost 20 years, from entertainment radio shows to newspaper columns to websites. Follow him on Twitter via @dommessier or join the Pop Culture Landscape with Dominic Messier page on Facebook.

 

Book Review: Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy a Perfect Geeky How-To Companion

Cover Art for FANGIRLS' GUIDE TO THE GALAXY, courtesy Quirk Books/Penguin Random House Canada, 2015
Cover Art for FANGIRL’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY, courtesy Quirk Books/Penguin Random House Canada, 2015

 

Book Review by Dominic Messier, Founder, Editor and Respectful Fanboy with Many Like-Minded Fangirl Friends

 

We all love pop culture. Be it a show like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a novel from the Firefly franchise or a vigorous discussion as to the handsomest Brit to play a Whovian Time Lord, we all have our own valid opinions and are usually happiest when exchanging thoughts with other like-minded individuals.

Unfortunately, despite a minority of men who are eager to engage in such debate with their distaff counterparts, a large number of fanboys don’t quite accept that women and girls of all ages are as equally up to the task of talking anime or DC versus Marvel, deeming them as nothing but outsiders or at best, “intruders” into their geek territory.

At best, this is utter nonsense. Toronto-based writer Sam Maggs, a known geek icon in her own right and champion of girl geek culture and feminism (not to mention also being one of the friendly pre-show faces during the Cineplex pre-show at a theater near you), offers the world The Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy, an incredibly comprehensive reader-friendly guide for all women looking to expand their inner circle of fellow girl geeks, be it at a convention, during a Star Wars movie night or any other pop-culture based social event.

 

Geek Culture Writer and Author Sam Maggs, courtesy sammaggs.com, 2015
Geek Culture Writer and Author Sam Maggs, courtesy sammaggs.com, 2015

 

The book itself, without necessarily being linear in intent, covers the basics of what to know and how to be prepared in order for geek girls to be battle-ready for the pop culture ahead.

Not sure what type of fandom you fall within? Not a worry, Chapter 1 breaks down a large number of them, be you a Potterhead, a Wholockian, a Tolkienite, Trekkie, Star Warrior (the Force is very strong with them), Whedonite or an Unsullies, Maggs defines each group with amusing examples of their usual behaviour patterns, fan gear and typical debate subject matter.

That chapter also elaborates on many known geek terms defining the types of fans out there who apply their love of a given sub-genre onto the written page, with fan fiction and its intricacies. Terms like “glomping” and “stanning” are covered, along with a brief overview of commonly used terms seen online. Truly, all of the feels are literally covered from the get go.

Chapter 2 addresses the inevitable battlefield that is the Interwebs, where Maggs explains how each of the major social media tools like Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Tumbler and Instagram, among others, can be used (or misused) for good and evil when it comes to discussing a shocking Marvel book cover or a perception of Black Widow in the latest Marvel film. Many of the usual avoidable pitfalls are discussed here, to great effect.

Maggs even throws in a modest Fanfic Character Generator for motivated girls who’d be looking to pour out their original stories based on established pop culture characters, a very popular type of online content where fans can truly pine for that OTP, or One True Pairing. I agree with the one where Sam Carter and Jack O’Neill from Stargate SG-1 find happiness, even though I think Rodney McKay was a better match.

Chapter 3 discusses that fun but often treacherous minefield that is the Fan Convention, with many do’s and don’ts  regarding behaviour, cosplay and planning during weekend-long journeys onto the Con floor, including how to avoid harassment and disrespectful boys.

Maggs suggests a handy shortlist of emergency gear any girl should consider bringing to such events, either in order to stave off starvation or at the very least, ensure that the outfit so arduously worked on doesn’t break down half a day in.

Chapter 4 gets down and dirty (figuratively speaking), addressing the elephant in the room, namely that of the very real existence of sexism and deprecation often seen in real-life and social media, with the chapter defining and encouraging geek feminism.

Maggs is incredibly adept at breaking down the components of the problem, using a comprehensive glossary of terms like “mansplaining”, “gender binary” and “Male Gaze”, bringing insight into aspects of pop culture that men often take for granted, but that I agree are real issues that need to be addressed maturely and urgently.

This chapter is my favorite for several reasons: rather than take an easy route and dismissing the concept that both women and men can both enjoy the same things without both sexes being mutually exclusive, Sam Maggs is very quick to point out that feminism doesn’t necessarily mean that women MUST be above men, but rather than it’s more of an equality thing. A brilliant point, if I’ve ever read one.

The author also goes on to debunk myths about geek feminism, demystifying the presence of booth babes at cons and the hypocrisy of certain comic book depictions of famous crime fighters in oversexed poses.  For those looking for additional info as to how to embrace one’s feminism, there’s a list of strong female characters in pop culture as well as a decent list of websites one should cheerfully investigate.

 

 

Friends, this is a must read if, like me, you eat, drink and sleep pop culture and share a love and respect for your fellow geeks of the fairer sex. The book is friendly, insightful, well-thought out, brilliantly edited but most of all, fun like heck.

Anyone worth their weight in gold pressed latinum will quickly recognize Sam Maggs’ speech pattern as their own, with non-stop pop culture references quickly bringing a point home no matter what the given topic is.

This book is obviously aimed at women readers, but I’m proud to say it’s also essential reading for men as well. I wholeheartedly suggest you give it a read, if not as a means to better understand the need for pop culture equality and inclusiveness, but also to better understand that geek women in your life.

If you wish to read more about the author, I suggest you check out her work on The Mary Sue or also on the author’s own website.

What an indispensable and incredible geek culture tool to add to one’s Bat-Utility Belt!

5 out of 5

Dominic Messier is a media veteran who’s written and discussed movies for almost 20 years, from entertainment radio shows to newspaper columns to websites. Follow him on Twitter via @dommessier or join the Pop Culture Landscape with Dominic Messier page on Facebook.

Now Playing: Going Clear Scientology and the Prison of Belief a Sobering But One-Sided Eye Opener

Promotional Poster for GOING CLEAR: SCIENTOLOGY AND THE PRISON OF BELIEF, courtesy HBO, 2015
Promotional Poster for GOING CLEAR: SCIENTOLOGY AND THE PRISON OF BELIEF, courtesy HBO, 2015

 

Theatrical Review by Dominic Messier, Founder, Editor and Polyatheist Galore

 

In the recorded and documented history of pseudo-religions, cults and other modern belief systems to come down river, none has garnered as much attention, both good and bad, as has that of L. Ron Hubbard’s Scientology movement, established in the early 1950s.

Despite widespread criticism, the movement has grown by numbers and profits throughout the decades, and very little has been said regarding its former members.

The adherents in question, who for some reason or other departed the organization following disagreements or disappointments, had never publicly received a chance to speak out about their experiences, that is until Pulitzer winner Lawrence Wright came out with a book filled with multiple interviews with former members, including filmmaker Paul Haggis, the director of Best Picture Oscar winner Crash.

Now, in the hands of documentarian Alex Gibney, known for revelatory pieces on everyone from Enron to Hunter S. Thompson by way of Wikileaks, Going Clear explores the claims made by the church’s former members, including a few Hollywood notables.

 

Actor Jason Beghe of TV's Chicago P.D., during an interview in GOING CLEAR: SCIENTOLOGY AND THE PRISON OF BELIEF, courtesy HBO, 2015
Actor Jason Beghe of TV’s Chicago P.D., during an interview in GOING CLEAR: SCIENTOLOGY AND THE PRISON OF BELIEF, courtesy HBO, 2015

 

Established over a two-hour running time, Going Clear mixes it up with a combination of back story as to the group’s origins while also allowing some of its former members to speak out on their time with the infamously litigious organization, declaring some of its inner practices as brutal and intimidating.

With a shortlist of former high-profile members being interviewed for this documentary, people like Jason Beghe, Paul Haggis, Mike Rinder, Marty Rathbun, Tony Ortega and several others go on to explain their involvement with the group, their original goals in joining and their eventual departure, mostly having to do with an ill perception of the organization’s stricter approaches to self-improvement.

 

Filmmaker Paul Haggis in GOING CLEAR: SCIENTOLOGY AND THE PRISON OF BELIEF, courtesy HBO, 2015
Filmmaker Paul Haggis in GOING CLEAR: SCIENTOLOGY AND THE PRISON OF BELIEF, courtesy HBO, 2015

 

The documentary makes heavy use of archival footage, much of it directed towards higher profile celebrities like Tom Cruise and John Travolta, not to mention LRH’s successor David Miscavige, who took over control of the group’s affairs following the founder’s death in 1986.

While the piece comes off as a shocking eye-opener as to the various dangers of blindly following a movement that allows very little criticism of itself, its members or by the public at large, I found it dismaying and disappointing to learn that none of the higher profile members even accepted an opportunity to go on the record to defend their point of view. The blame falls on the subject of the piece to provide an impressive enough retort by someone known to wide audiences, but said payoff never materializes, narratively speaking.

As such, the documentary, while thorough in its argument against such a tightly guarded group, comes off as a biased affair rather than the provocative exposé it tries to be.

 

 

While it would have been more rewarding to see both sides of the coin under one documentary piece, the issue of fairness becomes inevitable, given that either side would purport to call the other a liar, with each party deeming the other’s argument as “propaganda” and “lies.”

As it stands, Going Clear makes a fairly strong argument, but not an objective one by any stretch of the imagination. We’re not talking history or political conflict from the textbooks, here. In the court of opinion, the facts are of little importance, with strongly worded points of view from both sides canceling each other out.

Full Disclaimer: While I don’t embrace the purpose or existence of Scientology or any other man-made religious concept out there, I still allow for each person’s ability to choose what they believe in, no matter how silly, grandiose or far-fetched said belief might be to an objective observer. I’m more of a caveat emptor kinda guy.

While I detected some cult-like keywords and behavior patterns in the information provided on the movement, I still think the final opinion as to the group’s merits or faults falls on the shoulders of the follower…Isn’t it up to said follower to make a decision to go blindly into their chosen belief system, and either suffer the consequences or reap the rewards?

In the end, it’ll be up to the viewer to decide on what to make of this latest piece by Gibney. I can try and blame the producers for failing to grab some really juicy interviews from the pro-side, while I could just as easily point out the overabundance of evidence showing how harshly the Church has managed to go against its own proclamation of improvement to humankind, by lashing out at every single person who’s ever expressed an opinion that differed from its own.

I’m probably next, just for utilizing my constitutionally protected freedom of expression in writing a review of an HBO documentary on a controversial subject. Be that as it may, I’d seriously hoped for a more balanced look at a continuously provocative subject matter.

My views are my own, regarding film, TV and religion. Take from it what you will. Pick up a book. Find the facts. Make an informed decision as to what you believe in. At least you’ll feel better having dismissed the subject if you had least took time to look at both sides of the argument.

3 out of 5

Dominic Messier is a media veteran who’s written and discussed movies for almost 20 years, from entertainment radio shows to newspaper columns to websites. Follow him on Twitter via @dommessier or join the Pop Culture Landscape with Dominic Messier page on Facebook.

 

 

Now Playing: Maggie a Revelatory Acting Feat by Schwarzenegger and Breslin

Theatrical Poster for MAGGIE, courtesy VVS Films, 2015
Theatrical Poster for MAGGIE, courtesy VVS Films, 2015

 

Theatrical Review by Dominic Messier, Founder, Editor and Compassionate Friend to Zombies Everywhere

 

In a media age where the undead are all the rage, whether in a Max Brooks series of books or on AMC shows based on Robert Kirkman’s demented yet brilliant writings, it’s refreshing to see a tale not based on a first-person shooter perspective but rather on the humanistic approach to loss and grief in a setting where loved ones are slowly lost to a zombie-like infection.

Director Henry Hobson utilizes a concise and emotionally charged script by John Scott 3 to give legendary action hero Arnold Schwarnezegger a career changing dramatic role, that of a loving father hoping to make the best out of the last few days with his infected daughter (Abigail Breslin) before she reaches the point of no return.

 

Arnold Schwarzenegger and Abigail Breslin in MAGGIE, courtesy VVS Films, 2015
Arnold Schwarzenegger and Abigail Breslin in MAGGIE, courtesy VVS Films, 2015

 

Wade Vogel (Schwarzenegger) is a loving father of three living on a farm with his second wife (Joely Richardson) and kids in the Southern U.S.  When it’s revealed that the eldest, Maggie (Breslin), has been infected through a bite from a late stage infected patient of a viral outbreak of some new disease that inevitably turns its victims into raging cannibals, Wade decides to locate his daughter and bring her home, much to the concern of his wife, the authorities and neighbors.

With the change in Maggie slowly taking place and the danger to the family growing ever much so, it falls on the sympathetic family man to decide what’s best for his child, whether to hand over over to the authorities for potentially ruthless execution or whether to end her himself, should it come to that.

 

Abigail Breslin in MAGGIE, courtesy VVS Films, 2015
Abigail Breslin in MAGGIE, courtesy VVS Films, 2015

 

Like most episodes of The Walking Dead, the majority of scenes seen in Maggie don’t necessarily rely on threatening hordes of Walkers swarming a group of unsuspecting survivors. Instead, we are made to sympathize with the ethical dilemma any of us could face if charged with deciding upon life or death for a loved one, especially when weighing the needs of the many versus those of the few or the one.

Maggie‘s narrative pacing and somber color palette keeps viewers invested, with Schwarzenegger acting decidedly un-herolike, albeit still brandishing a weapon — mind you, there are potentially dangerous zombies loose, so you can never be too careful — but able to carefully avoid cheesy one-liners and catchphrases.

Indeed, this film represents an incredibly refreshing turn for the bodybuilder-turned-action star, offering us a vulnerable and stoic man of integrity, one who clearly has the respect of local officials and neighbors alike yet unafraid to do the needful when circumstances demand it.

Abigail Breslin plays along with her co-star by giving a nuanced performance in the titular role. The Little Miss Sunshine actress takes the audience on an emotional roller-coaster of angst and terror, when she is faced with the finality of her fate, seeing herself slowly turn in the mirror each passing day.

A somber but effective soundtrack by David Wingo adds to the already fatalistic mood of the film, a welcome variation on the zombie horror sub-genre.

 

 

You should definitely see Maggie as an alternative to the gory servings usually dished out by Hollywood, also to see a completely different type of performance by Arnold Schwarzenegger alongside a capable young actress with a promising career ahead of her.

I foresee this film as the first of many new and innovative twists on established horror fare, with remarkable performances all around and a measured level of humanity in an otherwise inhuman setting.

Don’t miss it.

4 out of 5

Dominic Messier is a media veteran who’s written and discussed movies for almost 20 years, from entertainment radio shows to newspaper columns to websites. Follow him on Twitter via @dommessier or join the Pop Culture Landscape with Dominic Messier page on Facebook.

Now on Blu-Ray: Selma a Noteworthy Film Event About Civil History

Blu-Ray Cover Art for SELMA, courtesy Paramount Home Video, 2015
Blu-Ray Cover Art for SELMA, courtesy Paramount Home Video, 2015

 

Blu-Ray Review by Dominic Messier, Founder, Editor and Firm Believer in Equal Rights

An important political drama about a milestone moment in American Civil History that got brutally ignored at the last Academy Awards, Selma is an excellent, informative film about the events which led Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to advance the cause of African American voter registration in Alabama in 1965.

 

David Oyelowo (center) in SELMA, courtesy Paramount Home Video, 2015
David Oyelowo (center) in SELMA, courtesy Paramount Home Video, 2015

 

It’s early 1965 and the oppression against Blacks in the Southern states has reached an all-time high, with violence and bombings affecting the lives of thousands of innocents trying to vie for their basic human and constitutional rights.

Seeing a number of administrative entanglements at the clerical level designed to deny poor Black people the right to even register to vote, preacher and activist Dr. Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo) meets with President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to discuss changes that must take place at the legislative level, to allow Alabama voters the right to register for elections.

After being given the brush off by Johnson, Dr. King heads back to Atlanta to plan a symbolic march from Selma, Alabama to the state capital, Montgomery. Before this even happens, the project is met with violent opposition by racist white men in power, including Sheriff Jim Clark (Stan Houston) and Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth), not to mention local KKK members who take it upon themselves to teach a few protestors a lesson.

With casualties building up and the national mood shifting towards King’s righteous cause, it’s up to the good pastor to stay the course in order to reach the goals set out for themselves, if only to honor the sacrifice of those whose lives were lost in the effort.

 

Tom Wilkinson and David Oyelowo in SELMA, courtesy Paramount Home Video, 2015
Tom Wilkinson and David Oyelowo in SELMA, courtesy Paramount Home Video, 2015

 

An incredibly well-acted, insightful and thought-provoking period drama, Selma showcases the talent of its director, Ava DuVernay and her take on the pivotal events in this milestone civil rights page of history.

Though many are quick to question the depiction of the relationship between Dr. King and the White House as flawed and inaccurate, I can only state that a certain artistic license is granted when making cinematic works of fiction, though one wonders why the gifted filmmaker wouldn’t adopt an “all or nothing” approach to historical accuracy, especially when presenting a worthy project focused on such an important part of American history.

Nevertheless, the acting in this film is top notch, especially that of Oxfordshire native Oyelowo, a versatile, chameleon-like man whose portrayal of King, while not as physically striking as the real McCoy, still manages to capture the legendary preacher’s verbal tone and inflection to stunning effect.

Tom Wilkinson also does a great job as Lyndon B. Johnson, playing the American Commander in Chief as a man torn between many battles, both military and political, stretched too thin to truly and properly address King’s concerns, leading to the march depicted in this film.

While these two fine actors aren’t the only good players in this populous production of dozens of other noteworthy actors, it must be said that the interaction between Oyelowo and Wilkinson is polarizing and makes for great tension and drama on the screen.

Kudos to Tim Roth for embracing yet another sleazy villain, that of oppressor Governor  Wallace, a man long known and vilified as a civil rights dissenter. Roth rolls with the punches and offers a worthy foil, though it would have been nice to see him clash with Oyelowo’s King. Instead, we can relish a late Oval Office scene opposite Wilkinson.

 

 

Regarding the Blu-Ray release, fans of the film can enjoy a feature-length audio commentary by director DuVernay and David Oyelowo, or watch a number of features about the painstaking process of recreating the pivotal events that changed the course of the 1960s in the American South.

An important piece of film making that should be made a part of the school curriculum in the States, Selma is an inspired story, one which should hopefully lead viewers to learn more about the true story, seeking out interview and news footage on YouTube, reading up about it in libraries and learning about the importance of such a powerful achievement in political activism. A Must See.

4.5 out of 5

Dominic Messier is a media veteran who’s written and discussed movies for almost 20 years, from entertainment radio shows to newspaper columns to websites. Follow him on Twitter via @dommessier or join the Pop Culture Landscape with Dominic Messier page on Facebook.

Now on Blu-Ray: Paddington a Flawed but Family Friendly British Comedy

Blu-Ray Cover Art for PADDINGTON, courtesy eOne, 2015
Blu-Ray Cover Art for PADDINGTON, courtesy eOne, 2015

 

Blu-Ray Review by Dominic Messier, Founder, Editor and Self-Professed Cuddle Bear

In most films, family fare or otherwise, that exploits our childhood memories in order to create a new and pleasant experience, there always comes a tipping point in which a film can seesaw between being a nostalgic gem or simply a crowd-pleasing by-product of too many studio meetings and focus groups.

In the sense that I can’t argue that seeing a big screen version of Paddington Bear fills me (and millions of others) with glee, I can’t help but scratch my head as to why a script for such a celebrated character would call for our curious Peruvian Bear who lives on Windsor Gardens becoming one of the clumsiest characters this side of Inspector Clouseau?

 

PADDINGTON attempts modern grooming methods (badly), courtesy eOne, 2015
PADDINGTON attempts modern grooming methods (badly), courtesy eOne, 2015

 

I mean, don’t get me wrong: director Paul King ensured that all the top elements of the book are present, from copious amounts of marmalade to the curmudgeonly Mr. Curry (brilliantly played for laughs by Doctor Who star Peter Capaldi), as well as the tolerant but loving Brown family, led by Downton Abbey‘s Hugh Bonneville.

The plot is relatively simple: young Paddington Bear (brilliantly animated via CGI and voiced by Ben Whishaw) packs up a suitcase full of marmalade and heads off from Darkest Peru to London, England by stowing away on a cargo ship, hoping to locate a pleasant explorer who’d met his family years back.

Upon his arrival, Paddington makes his way to the Paddington train station (where he gets his name, his real one is hard to pronounce if you don’t speak bear), where he has a chance encounter with the Browns (Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, Madeleine Harris and Samuel Joslin) who offer him a brief stay at their home so he can find his bearings and complete his goal.

Of course, the modern world is a mystery and a novelty to the all-too pleasant visitor, so many human customs take him by surprise, leading to several misunderstandings and a few too many accidents.

Paddington becomes imperiled when a vindictive taxidermist (Nicole Kidman) tracks him down too add him to her collection of stuffed rare animals.

 

Hugh Bonneville and Paddington (voiced by Ben Whishaw) in PADDINGTON, courtesy eOne, 2015
Hugh Bonneville and Paddington (voiced by Ben Whishaw) in PADDINGTON, courtesy eOne, 2015

 

The film blessedly still contains great humor while keeping some of the thematic elements from the book, namely the veiled commentary about immigration and the hardships of adapting to new environments, as well as a touch of xenophobia, mostly seen through the eyes of the Browns’ curmudgeonly neighbor.

My main problem with this film lies on its over reliance on pratfalls and slapstick. Too much clumsiness makes for a disruptive effect evocative of Clouseau type behaviour, distracting us from the source material.

To my recollection, the literary bear from the 70-odd books by Michael Bond was never this much of a costly klutz, as most of his adventures stemmed from a cultural misunderstanding.

Still, praise the writers and director for keeping the “hard stare” in the script, a great element from the source material.

Nicole Kidman is relegated to the role of token villain in a plot twist which feels extraneous and facile and  which could have easily have been left out.

 

 

In the end, the film’s good heart and humor wins out over the script’s failures. Curiosity doesn’t necessarily make for all out mayhem, only sticky situations. Though the film overworks the accident-prone angle while trying to keep with the literary character’s unique world view, its willing cast, all obvious fans of the popular character, are game enough to engage in the silliness head first.

This film is recommended for all families looking for a bonding experience. Who knows, by the time your kids are old enough to understand grown-up humor, you may want to segue from Paddington to The Pink Panther and its sequels.

Every kid should eventually know about the genius of Peter Sellers. Just not in a beloved kiddie film.

3 out of 5

Dominic Messier is a media veteran who’s written and discussed movies for almost 20 years, from entertainment radio shows to newspaper columns to websites. Follow him on Twitter via @dommessier or join the Pop Culture Landscape with Dominic Messier page on Facebook.

 

Now Playing: Avengers Age of Ultron Expands Marvel Movie Universe

Theatrical Poster for AVENGERS AGE OF ULTRON, courtesy Marvel/Disney, 2015
Theatrical Poster for AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON, courtesy Marvel/Disney, 2015

 

Theatrical Review by Dominic Messier, Founder, Editor and Honorary Card-Carrying Part-Time Avenger

Welcome to the 2015 Summer Movie Season, please do kiss your senses goodbye, won’t you?

Marvel opens up the box office race with what will invariably be the biggest draw of the year with the possible exception of the next Star Wars film come Christmas, a release also held by the now conglomerated House of Mouse.

2015 will indeed be the year that Disney got itself a license to essentially print their own money, right?

In any case, in this second team-up by the myriad characters established in previous Marvel films, the titular heroes face a new brand of evil, one coldly obsessed with saving the world — by destroying the humanity that infects its surface. Cue explosions.

 

Cobie Smulders, Chris Evans, Don Cheadle, Claudia Kim, Chris Hemsworth, Robert Downey Jr., Jeremy Renner, Mark Ruffalo and Scarlett Johansson in AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON, courtesy Marvel/Disney, 2015
Cobie Smulders, Chris Evans, Don Cheadle, Claudia Kim, Chris Hemsworth, Robert Downey Jr., Jeremy Renner, Mark Ruffalo and Scarlett Johansson in AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON, courtesy Marvel/Disney, 2015

 

In this latest chapter, the Avengers are tracking down the last whereabouts of the alien Sceptre which had caused so much grief in the hands of Loki in the first Avengers film. Now in Hydra custody, the “Hokey Pokey Stick of Doom” is repatriated at Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) request since its gem contains untold science and magic unsafe in human hands.

When Tony Stark  (Robert Downey Jr.) decides to ignore this warning and inspire himself from this technology to kick start a worldwide armored protection initiative with the help of Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) and loyal A.I. J.A.R.V.I.S. (voice of Paul Bettany), he unwittingly creates a new form of artificial intelligence named Ultron (brilliantly voiced by James Spader) which coldly calculates that the only means to save the planet and create world peace is to destroy humanity and remove them from the equation.

Thus begins a battle with a new brand of ubiquitous evil, one that can multiply and replicate itself and which enlists the help of two newly powered individuals, speedster Pietro Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen).

Can the team and all of its friends and recruits (including The Falcon and War Machine) beat Ultron and save the day? If so, at what price? For the sake of future Marvel films, it’ll take all the teamwork possible to unite and vanquish their new foe.

And we’ll be right up front, popcorn in hand, enjoying the fireworks.

 

The villainous Ultron (voiced by James Spader) in AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON, courtesy Marvel/Disney, 2015
The villainous Ultron (voiced by James Spader) in AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON, courtesy Marvel/Disney, 2015

 

Having already been introduced to the franchise’s various characters in past films, Age of Ultron benefits from allowing itself to dispense with formalities and jump right into the action, bringing back a tightly knit ensemble of actors whose undeniable chemistry guarantees its box office success, especially in the capable hands of popular helmer Joss Whedon, in another (and reportedly last) turn in the writer/director’s chair.

The pop culture filmmaker succeeds yet again in providing all the right geek cues, especially to hardcore Marvel fans whose potential rabid response to mistreatment of their beloved icons is always a volatile and looming threat

The movie does at times start to show signs of weakness under the weight of its own populous roster of characters, with no less than a dozen top tier characters fighting (no pun intended) for screen time.

Mostly led by Robert Downey Jr. and his vivid, rapid fire banter, the main cast stretches out as best they can with a few unexpected subplots thrown in for character depth, some potential new romances and a whole lot of combo moves you’d only otherwise see in a computerized game version of the film.

Some of the co-stars get less screen time, but with a running time of a little under two and a half hours and our planet in a new type of peril every fifteen minutes, there are bound to be casualties, both acting and story wise.

The real gem in this project, aside from the later introduction of new team members, is the use of James Spader voicing the CGI animated  Ultron. The Blacklist actor steals the show at every opportunity, providing a nuanced robotic nemesis whose demeanor and mode of expression is blessedly free of clichéd megalomaniacal one-liners.

One could have expected grandiose schlocky repartee from such a capable foe, but Spader infuses his usual wit, humor and verbal cruelty in his portrayal of the rogue bot.

 

 

To summarize, there is nothing wrong with a sequel of this sort when it provides all the action and excitement expected when paying the price of admission. In that sense, Age of Ultron delivers in spades, another successful Whedon product which invariably sets the next phase of Marvel movies in motion.

Just as long as you can keep track of all the players on the busy chessboard, you’re likely to get a decent kick out of seeing this densely packed popcorn film. It definitely helps if you’ve done your Marvel homework prior to sitting down, but no one will blame you if you can’t tell your Scarlet witch from your Vision or your Quicksilver.

Oh, and rest easy. Stan “The Man” Lee is back. That’s always a good sign, right?

3.5 out of 5

Dominic Messier is a media veteran who’s written and discussed movies for almost 20 years, from entertainment radio shows to newspaper columns to websites. Follow him on Twitter via @dommessier or join the Pop Culture Landscape with Dominic Messier page on Facebook.

Now on Blu-Ray: Inherent Vice Showcases Thomas Pynchon Brilliance Onto Film

Blu-Ray Cover Art for INHERENT VICE, courtesy Warner Home Video, 2015

Blu-Ray Review by Dominic Messier, Founder, Editor and Wannabe Hippie

 

The only thing, in my humble opinion, which could only be better than a really good book is an equally great cinematic take on said book, especially when it allows good actors to make new and innovative decisions about their characters, flaws, quirks and all.

By using a recent Thomas Pynchon novel and pairing it with filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson’s love of his native greater Los Angeles area, Inherent Vice explores a tale of drugs and conspiracy in the early 70s, when the hippie lifestyle was on its way out while the Vietnam War still raged overseas. Joaquin Phoenix and Josh Brolin lead an all-star cast of unusual bodies embroiled in a stoned haze of mystery and intrigue.

 

Joaquin Phoenix and Josh Brolin in INHERENT VICE, courtesy Warner Home Video, 2015
Joaquin Phoenix and Josh Brolin in INHERENT VICE, courtesy Warner Home Video, 2015

 

Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is a laid back private eye who enjoys some good reefer when he isn’t busy tracking down missing persons or investigating cheating spouses, with no love lost from the more square law enforcement officials in the area, including the straight-laced, hippie hating Detective “Bigfoot” Bjornson (Josh Brolin.)

When Doc’s off-again, on-again sweetheart Shasta (Katherine Waterston) drops by asking the stoner P.I. to look into her wealthy new boyfriend’s (Eric Roberts) mysterious absence and disappearance, the sharp but laid back investigator discovers that many of his current clients’ queries are all tied in somehow, with all roads leading to a potential heroin smuggling ring in the L.A. area, with several players involved including a loan shark (Peter McRobbie), a paranoid, drugged-out dentist (Martin Short), a police informant separated from his family (Owen Wilson) and a secret group known only as the Golden Fang.

With the help of various collaborators including his lawyer (Benicio Del Toro), an assistant to the D.A. (Reese Witherspoon) and a whole lot of weed, it’s up to Doc to figure out how it all ties in together, keep his head on straight, his life safe and his clients happy. All while steering clear of the fuzz, who both hate him and harshes his mellow.

 

Benicio Del Toro and Joaquin Phoenix in INHERENT VICE, courtesy Warner Home Video, 2015
Benicio Del Toro and Joaquin Phoenix in INHERENT VICE, courtesy Warner Home Video, 2015

 

There’s a definite air of psychedelia which permeates the setting of this film which takes place at the start of the 1970s. Joaquin Phoenix, looking like a hippie Wolverine and likely smelling of pot and patchouli, inhabits the role of “Doc” Sportello with the sort of endearing affability that makes him an interesting central protagonist, albeit a seemingly unreliable one who barely jots down coherent investigative notes between rolled up doobs.

The film’s dense narrative is helped by a feature-length voice-over by a friend of Doc’s named Sortilege (Joanna Newsome), though aside from flashbacks to happier (or would that be hippier?) times, her absence is largely unexplained in the film.

Her voice is effective in acting on behalf of Doc’s brain, an ethereal voice of conscience, responsibility and more importantly for us, plot exposition when trying to make sense of the crimes at hand, just as Bjornson and Sportello are busy trying to solve when not hating on each other.

The film mostly retains Pynchon’s brand of erudite dialogue and snappy prose, with several scenes running on with constant to and fro that would make Aaron Sorkin a happy camper, minus the latter’s snappy banter and wit.

The film doesn’t need to rely on excessive visual effects to convey the drug induced clarity the hero needs to connect the criminal dots; the film’s sparse editing (the movie runs at an impressive 149 minutes) allows for plenty of room for the story’s investigators — and in turn, ourselves — to solve this multifaceted conspiracy.

 

 

I daresay it wouldn’t be wrong if someone ever managed to convince Thomas Pynchon to sell character rights to Doc Sportello in order to make an HBO TV series or some other cable channel that would allow for the main character’s non-mainstream drug habits, in that Phoenix is a delight to watch here, bringing eccentric levity to an otherwise straightforward crime drama. Whoever manages this feat would get extra points if they could retain Phoenix’s enjoyable services.

A fun mystery romp with nuanced layers of interesting interlaced characters from all walks of 1970s life, Inherent Vice will likely cause you to watch it at least twice so you can fully appreciate its awesomeness. Hell, you might even want to pick up a few Pynchon novels afterwards, and that’s not a bad thing, either.

4 out of 5

Dominic Messier is a media veteran who’s written and discussed movies for almost 20 years, from entertainment radio shows to newspaper columns to websites. Follow him on Twitter via @dommessier or join the Pop Culture Landscape with Dominic Messier page on Facebook.

Now on Blu-Ray: Jennifer Aniston Acts Out Her Piece of CAKE

Blu-Ray Cover Art for CAKE, courtesy ANConnect, 2015
Blu-Ray Cover Art for CAKE, courtesy ANConnect, 2015

 

Blu-Ray Review by Dominic Messier, Founder, Editor and Source of Emotional Support

In the vast universe of projects and experiments that make up the movie world, the fascination always remains in seeing how a niche actor or comedian can leave their comfort zone in the hope of stretching their acting muscles and show they’re not just a one trick pony.

Results will vary of course, with some actors fixed in the pop culture landscape as a single genre hit machine (sorry, Jim Carrey and your dramatic films!) but every so often, a diamond in the rough emerges, often surprising the audience with its refreshing take on unexpected roles.

In comes Friends alum Jennifer Aniston, doing away with the glamour and the prestige, playing a grieving mother whose difficulty handling chronic pain and loss make her a formidable foe to those around her, but also a desperate woman dealing with her own demons.

 

Jennifer Aniston in CAKE, courtesy ANConnect, 2015
Jennifer Aniston in CAKE, courtesy ANConnect, 2015

 

In the film, Aniston plays Claire, a former lawyer now recovering from a devastating loss when a car accident left her severely scarred — both physically and emotionally — and causing the death of her young son.

Now, crippled with severe chronic pain and barely able to function, the once brilliant woman now grudgingly makes her way through each day with the help of her ever-patient maid Silvana (Adriana Barraza). Following an inconsiderate anger outburst during a support group meeting which she subsequently gets kicked out of, Claire finds herself trying to understand the suicide of one of her former group members (Anna Kendrick), while strangely feeling the need to reach out to the widower (Sam Worthington) she left behind.

As the need for healing grows, both survivors find comfort in each other’s presence, with a glimpse of acceptance and solace lying on the horizon, hopefully helping both of them move on with their lives.

 

 Jennifer Aniston and Sam Worthington in CAKE, courtesy ANConnect, 2015
Jennifer Aniston and Sam Worthington in CAKE, courtesy ANConnect, 2015

 

At first glance, one would think this film could pose a serious risk of being a downer of Lars von Trier proportions, with its grim subject of loss, grief and pain. I’m glad to report it was not the case at all. Yes, the subject matter gets dark at times, but doesn’t really go for the exploitative, allowing Aniston a chance to explore the nuances of grief and pain endurance that could easily turn any otherwise decent person into an acerbic, curmudgeonly shrew.

The comedic actress has excellent chemistry with co-star Barraza as her Mexican house maid. The film doesn’t quite delve into hilarity, but maintains a sense of sarcasm and irony that permeates the script with a modicum of levity to allow for the flow of more intense scenes — such as a run in with the man (William H. Macy) responsible for causing your child’s death — that much more poignant.

Sam Worthington embraces the role of no-nonsense Roy, an angry widower whose resentment towards Nina’s (Kendrick) suicide causes him to have a high tolerance for other people’s scruples, causing him amusement and leaving him with very little care for rules and etiquette, a worthy partner in misery for the beleaguered Claire.

 

 

Give Cake a try for its unexpected poignancy, pleasant cast and comfortable approach to a serious topic, all without delving into a downright depressing experience. I felt that the Academy of Motion Pictures robbed Aniston of a nomination at the Oscars, but with so many great performances this past year, I can certainly understand that not everyone gets their chance. Enjoy the film for its successful handling of a difficult subject nearly free of manipulative intent.

3 out of 5

Dominic Messier is a media veteran who’s written and discussed movies for almost 20 years, from entertainment radio shows to newspaper columns to websites. Follow him on Twitter via @dommessier or join the Pop Culture Landscape with Dominic Messier page on Facebook.

 

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