Now on Blu-Ray: Bridge of Spies Another Fine Spielberg Look Through the Historical Looking Glass

Blu-Ray Cover Art for BRIDGE OF SPIES, courtesy Dramworks Pictures, 2015
Blu-Ray Cover Art for BRIDGE OF SPIES, courtesy Dreamworks Pictures, 2015

 

Blu-Ray Review by Dominic Messier, Founder and Editor

 

When it comes to historical highlights of the 20th Century (and beyond — i.e. Amistad) told in heart-wrenching authenticity and tasteful vision, very few other directors have managed to convey as much character and emotion as Steven Spielberg has in his latter-day projects.

Whether it’s about the horrors of the Holocaust (Schindler’s List), the Olympic hostage crisis (Munich) or one of the most celebrated American presidents (Lincoln), you know there’s a worthwhile experience waiting for you for a solid two to three hours.

Spielberg’s latest, a narrative about the 1960 prisoner exchange between Russia and the U.S. during the Cold War, is a chatty drama packed with great dialogue and inspired performances by Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance that never loses any of its intrigue and suspense, despite evolving like a captivating legal tale rather than a Bourne-like action thriller.

 

Mark Rylance and Tom Hanks in BRIDGE OF SPIES, courtesy DReamworks Pictures, 2015
Mark Rylance and Tom Hanks in BRIDGE OF SPIES, courtesy Dreamworks Pictures, 2015

 

Tom Hanks plays James B. Donovan, the real-life no-nonsense lawyer with the unenviable task of trying to successfully negotiate the retrieval of downed U.S. pilot Gary Francis Powers from Soviet hands, all while developing an unusual rapport with his client, the KGB spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), captured as an uncooperative Soviet informant held by the Americans.

After unsuccessfully demonstrating how Abel’s sham trial makes a mockery of the judicial system based on fairness as opposed to political hysteria and public opinion, Donovan travels to West Germany in order to begin arrangements to exchange Abel for Powers — that is, until he learns that an American student named Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) has been mistaken as a spy by East Germany and is being indefinitely detained.

It’s up to Donovan to use every ounce of guile to parlay a delicate game of diplomacy, hopefully bringing everyone home without any of the major players at the table losing face, potentially triggering another World War,

 

Tom Hanks in BRIDGE OF SPIES, courtesy Dreamworks Pictures, 2015
Tom Hanks in BRIDGE OF SPIES, courtesy Dreamworks Pictures, 2015

 

Beautifully shot in New York City, Germany and Poland by Spielberg regular Janusz Kaminski, Bridge of Spies flawlessly evokes the smoky, cold dampness of the Cold War years, with an increasingly complex government bureaucracy and foreign policy evolving slowly in the wings while the masses are too busy out front discovering the Beatles.

Spielberg wastes no time tapping into the excellent chemistry between his two leads, pitting the ever gallant Hanks against the stoic Rylance, whose Academy Award nominated performance maximizes his minimal but effective delivery as Abel. The resulting personality clash makes for uneasy partners, turning a cold client into an unlikely would-be friend, had the circumstances been oh so different.

This is one of Tom Hanks’ most enjoyably verbal role in years, thanks to a great script by Matt Sharman and the Coen Brothers (yes, the very same you’re thinking of.) Considered by many to be our generation’s Jimmy Stewart, Hanks embodies wholesome values once again, giving us a hero who’d rather use words and common sense rather than a gun and various spy craft.

Spielberg maintains the mood of the film appropriately, injecting levity when needed but keeping to the matter at hand, creating captivating mystery even though the story is historically well documented, denying many of us the chance of a surprise reveal by the end credits.

 

 

Part legal drama and part Le Carré intrigue of sorts, Bridge of Spies (named after the Glienicke Bridge connecting Potsdam and Berlin, essentially a diplomatic neutral zone) is another fine piece of history committed to film, a group effort to illustrate a key component of the last century which became a building block to lasting peace.

Nominated for Best Supporting Actor, Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Sound Mixing and a much deserved Best Production Design (the 60s look and feel is palpable on screen), this film is another top notch Spielberg project worth your time and money.

I urge you to see 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 Playing: The 5th Wave Amounts to Xeroxed Sci-Fi at Best

Theatrical Poster for THE 5TH WAVE, courtesy Columbia Pictures, 2016
Theatrical Poster for THE 5TH WAVE, courtesy Columbia Pictures, 2016

 

Theatrical Review by Dominic Messier, Founder and Editor

 

I’m all for new sci-fi films. Except in January.

Known by movie habitués as “the cinematic graveyard” (i.e. that dumping ground when studios are forced to contractually release a film they wish they’d never made in the first place), you can never have high hopes for movies released in the first month of the year, knowing it was picked last during gym class activity.

This one, The 5th Wave, while based on the first of Rick Yancy’s novels, comes off as so rehashed and patched up using familiar tropes from other YA novels and cinematic clichés, that you find yourself having more fun playing a game of “didn’t we see that concept in (insert movie here)” during the entire running time.

 

The aliens arrive in THE 5TH WAVE, courtesy Columbia Pictures, 2016
The aliens arrive in THE 5TH WAVE, courtesy Columbia Pictures, 2016

 

Onto the flimsy premise: the world sees the sudden arrival of a giant ship as it starts orbiting over the planet. Uncommunicative, these “Others” don’t bring any message of peace (or any other message for that matter) but proceed to engineer a series of “waves” by which to eliminate the human population while keeping the planet and its resources intact.

So, systematically, mankind sees total loss of power and energy; a bird flu type plague; tidal waves; subterfuge via disinformation through human host possession and finally, reeducation of the world’s young by way of brainwashing.

Seen through the eyes of a surviving teen cheerleader(Chloe Moretz) torn between affection for the popular boy at school (Nick Robinson) and the mysterious man with abilities who later comes to protect her (Alex Roe), The 5th Wave explores how the remainder of humanity, composed mostly of teens and children, could pool their resources together and fight back toward their much more powerful oppressors.

 

Alex Roe and Chloe Moretz in THE 5TH WAVE, courtesy Columbia Pictures, 2016
Alex Roe and Chloe Moretz in THE 5TH WAVE, courtesy Columbia Pictures, 2016

 

To sum up the worth of this film: rarely have I felt like I was re-watching parts of better films I’d enjoyed, patched together, on a much smaller budget. From memory, I managed to find pieces of Independence Day, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, They Live!, The Road, Twilight,  Armageddon and Starship Troopers, all as if seen through the primetime lens of a CW TV drama.

Try as she may, Chloe Moretz quickly goes from seemingly capable Hit-Girl to Helpless Damsel, by the time she is forced to rely on two heartthrobs, each with something to offer from very different ends of the spectrum.

The bulk of the budget appears to have been squandered in the first half hour as we witness the world being decimated, with scenes of giant waves destroying major cities, not unlike every disaster film produced in the summers of 1997 and 1998.

I want to run through a list of other recognizable actors you’ll spot during the film, but I’d rather save you some valuable time so you can go and watch all of those other films I’ve just referenced, instead.

 

 

Assuming that producers have the ability to gauge audience reaction in a pro-active and sensible way, I’m hopeful we won’t see more sequels based on this first installment. Then again, there’s only so much you can do with a 38 million dollar budget than to point off screen and refer to things that only our mind’s eye can afford the visual effects to.

Even then, there’s little mental gas left in the tank after enduring this visual and narrative exercise in torture.

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.

 

Oscar Watch: The Revenant a Veritable Cinematic Endurance Test

Theatrical Poster for THE REVENANT, courtesy 20th Century Fox, 2015
Theatrical Poster for THE REVENANT, courtesy 20th Century Fox, 2015

 

Theatrical Review by Dominic Messier, Founder and Editor

 

After the masterful treat that was last year’s Best Picture Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) and its impeccable direction by Alejandro G. Innaritu along with dizzying technical aptitude in both camera work and flawless uninterrupted scenes, one wondered what could next be in store for the Mexican filmmaker, known for his tough on-set attitude but a worthwhile man to follow into difficult, demanding projects.

The result is his latest, The Revenant, a marathon tale of survival and revenge very loosely based on real events, one which follows a tracker left for dead as he returns from the wild, unforgiving woods of the American 1800s in order to seek retribution.

 

Leonardo DiCaprio in THE REVENANT, courtesy 20th Century Fox, 2015
Leonardo DiCaprio in THE REVENANT, courtesy 20th Century Fox, 2015

 

While assisting a group of trappers and hunters in the 1820s with the help of his son, experienced tracker Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) manages to guide his group through the dense terrain of Montana, only for their expedition to be attacked ay hostile Arikara natives.

With their numbers depleted, the surviving trappers hope to make it back to their home base, that is until Glass has an near-fatal encounter with a protective grizzly bear mother out to defend her cubs.

Near death and without proper medical attention, the mauled Glass is left in the care of young Jim Bridger (Will Poulter) and brash John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), who both volunteer to stay behind and bury Glass once dead,  thanks to a cash reward by Captain Andrew Henry (Domnhall Gleeson).

Rather than wait out Glass’ death, Fitzgerald decides to kill Glass and rejoin the party, thinking of his task as easy money. Forced to kill Glass’ son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) when he discovers Fitzgerald’s plan, the treacherous trapper talks Bridger into following him back to the fort, stating that no one would ever know they’d left Glass and his son behind.

What they didn’t count on is Glass’ resilience, fueled by his need to avenge his son and return to the civilized world, assuming he survives Arikara search parties, wolves, gangrene and starvation, not to mention constant sub-zero temperatures.

 

Tom Hardy in THE REVENANT, courtesy 20th Century Fox, 2015
Tom Hardy in THE REVENANT, courtesy 20th Century Fox, 2015

 

What makes The Revenant an interesting viewing experience is when one also subconsciously revels in the daunting filming process cast and crew have undertaken.

Insisting that the film be made in sequence and using only natural lighting, this two and a half hour story set in harsh locales proves physically and emotionally exhausting, which only helps us identify with the hardships experienced by DiCaprio’s character on screen.

Though I admit that some proverbial fat could easily have been trimmed here and there to make this a leaner story, I was willing to ignore the excessive running time thanks to another great photographic job by Emmanuel Lubezki, who captures the Canadian and Argentinian film locations with an impeccable eye, conveying the cold winter conditions of the Montana wild with haunting blue hues and the occasional orange-reds of a small campfire.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy are both impressive on screen, with the latter inhabiting yet another new persona with ease, while DiCaprio displays his best work yet, having endured grueling and uncomfortable physical hardships in the name of a great story.

This film can only mean further success for Alejandro Innaritu, who’d likely be winning back-to-back Oscars if he wins for this picture. Whether this repeat event means other actors will sign up for his insane filming schedule is up for debate, of course.

 

 

If you’re faint of heart and have trouble at the sight of blood, disembodied animals or vicious acts of violence both offensive and defensive, then perhaps you’re better off reading Hugh Glass’ real life exploits on the printed page.

Despite some liberal changes to the real story of these men, you can still appreciate the effort made by these actors in enduring rough conditions in the name of the seventh art.

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: Sicario Draws Out Like Interrupted TV Police Procedural

Blu-Ray Cover for SICARIO, courtesy Entertainment One, 2016
Blu-Ray Cover for SICARIO, courtesy Entertainment One, 2016

 

Blu-Ray Review by Dominic Messier, Founder and Editor

 

When I sat down to watch Denis Villeneuve’s latest piece, my first instinct was to think back 16 years when I’d seen Benicio Del Toro in a similarly themed film, Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic.

I thought, “hey, he’s done this kind of role and film before…this can’t be all that bad, right?” Well, with Del Toro’s muted but intense performance as a Colombian enforcer working with a CIA spook (Josh Brolin) and an up and coming FBI agent (Emily Blunt), Sicario hits the right notes but has the eerie feel of an incomplete drama, like you’d walked in on a TV police drama mid-episode.

 

Daniel Kaluuya, Victor Garber and Emily Blunt in SICARIO, courtesy Entertainment One, 2016
Daniel Kaluuya, Victor Garber and Emily Blunt in SICARIO, courtesy Entertainment One, 2015

 

Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is a member of a drug enforcement task force from the FBI assigned to raids along the U.S. – Mexico border, looking to make a dent on the trade by way of worthwhile arrests.

After the latest booby-trapped raid ends up killing a few of her men, Macer gets recruited into a secretive op with the Department of Justice to ferret out certain key Mexican targets in order to flush out the bigger prey, namely a kingpin named Alarcon.

Asked to follow instructions given to her by an obnoxious but effective CIA/DOD man (Josh Brolin) and a silent but dangerous looking Latino fellow named Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), Macer is to act as FBI liaison on the operation, unaware that her presence on the team may be nothing more than window dressing to legitimize a series of legally ambiguous actions designed to destabilize the drug trade’s control within the U.S. distribution grid.

Forced to decide whether to swallow her pride for the greater good or act on her conscience and report her teammates’ illegal actions, the noble but inexperienced fed must tread carefully as she puts her life on the line, risking her career for the sake of what amounts to a borderline illegal black op partly executed on domestic soil.

 

Benicio Del Toro in SICARIO, courtesy Entertainment One, 2015
Benicio Del Toro in SICARIO, courtesy Entertainment One, 2015

 

I can’t fault the excellent work shown by Del Toro and Blunt on screen in this piece, despite a story that feels patched together, thrown in at rapid pace in a greater story that is barely defined.

All drug-related films end up with variations on the same theme, namely who controls the trade and who takes over once the current boss is taken down. Here, the focus instead shifts to the American point of view, showing what steps are needed to truly make a difference in the drug war, especially when the rules keep changing, negating any efforts made by law enforcement to keep narcotics off the streets.

I can’t call Sicario a morality tale per se; instead, I prefer to call it a well-edited, suspenseful thriller that simply doesn’t give the leads enough material to truly flesh out their characters, barely letting us know who we’re dealing with save for the essentials.

A third act reveal illuminates the audience as to the true reason behind Del Toro’s demeanor throughout the film. His take on the mysterious Alejandro drives the film forward when the color-by-numbers procedural pattern cannot. Otherwise, we’re asked to hope and pick up the missing elements by extrapolation of the available data, while watching the principals dodge enemy bullets while day-tripping into Juarez.

I weep for poor Daniel Kaluuya, whose Reggie should have a stronger role alongside Blunt’s, but who is relegated to a handful of throwaway scenes, putting into question why the character exists in the first place, aside from being an opportunistic sounding board when called for, for Blunt’s Kate Macer to debate ethics as to her predicament. Call him the FBI’s Jiminy Cricket.

As for Josh Brolin, his role as CIA/DOD vet Matt Graver feels thrown in for good measure, a vain and brash man who has no qualms crossing the line to get the job done, a vocal American counterpart to Del Toro’s cool and calculated mystery man.

 

 

Overall, Sicario isn’t a bad film. It’s a solid piece of film making by a capable director who simply tried to make the best of an ambitious script with a solid middle but weak book ends. Given the size of the never ending U.S. – Mexico war on drugs, this feels like a very small chapter, taking away from its effect as a standalone story.

Watch it for Blunt and Del Toro’s impressive exchanges and get into the narrative if you’re a big fan of TV procedurals. Same gimmick, bigger budget.

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.

 

Awards Watch: The Big Short Easily the Best Finance-Themed Film to Date

Theatrical Poster for THE BIG SHORT, courtesy Paramount Pictures, 2015
Theatrical Poster for THE BIG SHORT, courtesy Paramount Pictures, 2015

 

Theatrical Review by Dominic Messier, Founder and Editor

With respect to Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, the film that taught us that “greed is good”, or at least was in the 80s, Adam McKay’s The Big Short takes Michael Lewis’ book about the 2007-2008 housing market bubble crisis and turns it into an engaging, inventive and often hilarious dramatic comedy about American excess and the quest for a quick buck.

This is the story of a handful of guys who saw the crash coming and decided to use Wall Street against itself, despite the world economy collapsing in the background.

 

Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling in THE BIG SHORT, courtesy Paramount Pictures, 2015
Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling in THE BIG SHORT, courtesy Paramount Pictures, 2015

 

When fund manager Michael Burry (Christian Bale) examines the American housing market and discovers that investors are unaware of its shaky footing given the unethical bunching of sub-prime mortgages given an artificial higher rating for reporting purposes, he decides to bet large against it by predicting widespread financial collapse within two years.

While most Wall Street firms are happy to take his easy money (much to the ire of his own backers), Burry insists on contractual conditions guaranteeing payout if there should be insolvency. His tactics soon catch the ear of an opportunistic trader named Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) who sees the brilliance in Burry’s plan.

Soon after, an accidental call by Vennett informs this situation to hedge fund manager Mark Baum (Steve Carell) and his team, who cannot believe that American investors would so fraudulently be playing with peoples’ homes and life savings this way. They also adopt Burry’s plan.

A discarded prospectus by Burry falls into the hands of two inexperienced junior traders (Finn Wittrock and John Magaro), who seek out a paranoid retired banker named Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), who gets their feet in the door so to join in on Burry’s insane idea.

As the economy gets closer and closer to collapse, these men realize the monstrous profits they are about to make based on America’s investment folly, while realizing that their opportunistic gain will signify massive losses worldwide.

 

Christian Bale in THE BIG SHORT, courtesy Paramount Pictures, 2015
Christian Bale in THE BIG SHORT, courtesy Paramount Pictures, 2015

 

Despite some of the names having been changed, the remarkable fact about this highly entertaining story is that most of it is based on factual events. Though dense in terms of complex financial concepts and terms, director Adam McKay and co-writer Charles Randolph utilize several clever storytelling techniques (including my favorite, asides with actors talking directly to the camera, Ferris Bueller-like) and surprise cameos to walk viewers through some of the important devices that lead to the disastrous 2008 crash.

As a result of these inventive narrative approaches, the filmmaker turns what could have been a dry treatise on investment errors and turned it into a morality tale and dramedic yarn about investor deafness when it comes to risk versus appealing returns.

I could find nary a bad performance here, with each actor benefiting from an incredible script, one which I hope will garner a nomination come Oscar time. Never before has finance been so entertaining yet so educational, thanks to great writing and well-executed dialogue.

I give additional kudos to Carell, whose dramatic turn here once more proves he isn’t just a comedy man, but a capable actor with nuance to his performances. See Foxcatcher if you don’t believe me.

 

 

I walked into this experience expecting some decent ensemble work and an average story that would likely put a finance neophyte like me to sleep within 30 minutes. Instead, I was riveted from start to finish.

I predict it will have the same impact on you. I’d even be willing to bet against you hating it. Takers?

See this film. Learn from it.

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: Scout’s Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse Fails as Watered Down 80s Type Horror Comedy

Blu-Ray Cover Art for SCOUT'S GUIDE TO THE ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE, courtesy Paramount Home Video, 2016
Blu-Ray Cover Art for SCOUT’S GUIDE TO THE ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE, courtesy Paramount Home Video, 2016

 

Blu-Ray Review by Dominic Messier, Founder and Editor

For the last decade, the go-to trending trope has been the undead. Zombies, to be precise. Whether they’re slowly shuffling or walking about (TV’s The Walking Dead) or dashing at you at top speed (World War Z), nothing beats a good survival story about an unlikely group of inexperienced people joining forces to plow through hordes of bloodthirsty brain eaters.

Paramount decided that one novel approach would be to hearken back to the good old Porky’s days of topless scenes and dick jokes in order to draw new blood from the proverbial stone.

Well, it ain’t Shaun of the Dead, but it tries, anyway.

 

Logan Miller, Sarah Dumont and Tye Sheridan in SCOUT'S GUIDE TO THE ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE, courtesy Paramount Home Video, 2016
Logan Miller, Sarah Dumont and Tye Sheridan in SCOUT’S GUIDE TO THE ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE, courtesy Paramount Home Video, 2016

 

Ben (Tye Sheridan), Carter (Logan Miller) and Augie (Joey Morgan) have been friends since childhood, finding common ground in their love of the Boy Scout troop they’ve been in forever.

Now, with senior high school (and hot girls) on the horizon, Ben and Carter are rather tired of the tradition and wish to leave the troop in order to focus on more important stuff, while Augie can’t wait to get his Condor Badge from troop leader Rogers (David Koechner).

When a sudden viral outbreak in their town starts turning regular people into fleet footed raging zombies, the boys realize they’ll need to band together to save their siblings and friends, with the help of a lovely, street smart strip club cocktail waitress (Sarah Dumont.)

 

Joey Morgan, Tye Sheridan and Logan Miller in SCOUT'S GUIDE TO THE ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE, courtesy Paramount Home Video, 2016
Joey Morgan, Tye Sheridan and Logan Miller in SCOUT’S GUIDE TO THE ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE, courtesy Paramount Home Video, 2016

 

Much to its credit, the film doesn’t waste any time on pointless exposition as to the virus’ origin, save for the fact that it gets loose from a lab. Well done, sirs.

More time is instead spent exploring the various ways a trio of teens can use their otherwise seldom-used Scout skills to get out of deadly situations, when they’re not too busy pining over each others’ older sisters or MacGyvering some weapons together at Home Hardware.

Mind you, that sort of gimmick can only take you so far. With unimaginative dialogue and predictable coming-of-age kissing scenes, I couldn’t help but think back of every John Hugues film of the 80s, along with the gratuitous pseudo-skin flicks of that time, like Bob Clark’s Porky’s, about horny teenagers tricking high school girls into some indiscreet nookie.

Though these boys don’t quite get to third base on that front, the film does offer plenty of opportunistic jokes of the same ilk without adding much to what amounts to a feeble attempt at cashing in on the zombie genre.

The three leads don’t have much chemistry together, and the mature talks between Ben and the waitress have all the steaminess of an after school special.

See below, a red band trailer for the film. Caution: the trailer contains nudity and coarse language, if only to demonstrate a taste of the juvenile type of humor seen through the majority of this flick’s 92 minute running time…

 

 

With enough gore and violence to satiate the most basic zombie fan, Scout’s Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse won’t exactly go down in film history as one of the classics, but it may induce an accidental giggle or two.

Or knot. (Bad pun definitely intended.)

2.5 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.

 

 

Awards Watch: Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight a Soliloquy-Filled Cinemascopic Gorefest

Theatrical Poster for THE HATEFUL EIGHT, courtesy The Weinstein Company, 2015
Theatrical Poster for THE HATEFUL EIGHT, courtesy The Weinstein Company, 2015

 

Theatrical Review by Dominic Messier, Founder and Editor

 

There are so few directors left in Hollywood whose sporadic output can become a source of anticipation, given their established body of work. Think Terrence Malick, Ridley Scott, Oliver Stone and, of course, Quentin Tarantino.

After three long years since the talkative enfant terrible’s expletive-filled Django Unchained, we are treated to a fascinating hybrid of a whodunnit mixed with a scoopful of paranoia à la John Carpenter’s The Thing in a drawn-out tale of greed, justice and revenge.

Tarantino-level dialogue ensues, albeit with a tad too much gratuitous use of the n-word.

 

Samuel L. Jackson in THE HATEFUL EIGHT, courtesy The Weinstein Company, 2015
Samuel L. Jackson in THE HATEFUL EIGHT, courtesy The Weinstein Company, 2015

 

Set in a period following the American Civil War, the film follows bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell)’s trip through the cold Mid-Western winter as he hauls criminal gang member Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to the town of Red Rock to be hanged.

Along the way, the no-nonsense freelancer reluctantly picks up a Black veteran soldier turned bounty hunter named Marquis Warren  (Samuel L. Jackson) and a former criminal turned soon-to-be Sheriff named Chris Maddox (Walton Goggins), both of them also on their way to Red Rock.

When the storm comes a-hittin’ with a vengeance, the cautious group of hapless travelers are forced to shack up at the nearby Minnie’s Haberdashery for a few days to wait out the storm. There, a few more strangers with varied pasts (Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern, Demian Bichir) are sitting out the blizzard, each with their own convenient back story and motivation for being in the area.

With a high price on Domergue’s head and a roomful of potential enemies or allies just looking to cash in on an easy bounty or be helpful in carrying out due justice, the question remains whether these men have ulterior motives in showing up in the middle of nowhere, or whether anyone is to be trusted to close their eyes for even a moment’s respite without every waking up again, with a bullet in the head to spare.

 

Tim Roth, Kurt Russell and Jennifer Jason Leigh in THE HATEFUL EIGHT, courtesy The Weinstein Company, 2015
Tim Roth, Kurt Russell and Jennifer Jason Leigh in THE HATEFUL EIGHT, courtesy The Weinstein Company, 2015

 

This wouldn’t be the first time we’d seen an ensemble cast of misfits dole out violence in the name of mistrust; just look at Tarantino’s first film Reservoir Dogs, a tale of criminals working together to pull off a heist whilst one of them is a cop working them up from the inside to ruin their plans.

Here, you don’t know who’s playing the other, with a touch of detective work thrown in, and each suspect revealing a bit more of themselves to the audience, causing us to change our minds about certain fellers over the course of the film’s considerable running time.

 

 

The Hateful Eight has much going for itself, despite several elements running counter-current to the desired effect. Great script writing is still ever present, with erudite dialogue aplenty and great characterization work by what I’ve come to call the Tarantino Company Players, namely Jackson, Roth and Madsen, to name a few.

Filmed in beautiful 70mm (if you can find it) with a haunting score by Ennio Morricone (who’d sworn he wouldn’t work with Tarantino again after Django, but whaddayaknow?), the piece is a throwback to the classic Western themes of the 60s and 70s.

The film’s color palette is a grainy one, the winter storm becoming as much of a character onscreen as any of the dubious brigands with a pair of six-shooters.

Expect a metric ton of violence, typical for a Tarantino flick, with most of the gore coming up courtesy of The Walking Dead‘s effects master Greg Nicotero. The crescendo of violence and bullets isn’t unexpected, but works well within the context of the story, making for another great spun yarn by the Pulp Fiction director.

My problem lies in Tarantino’s excessive use of the n-word, which could be excused if brought into the fold within the frame of post-Civil War emancipation, Southern resentment included.

Sure, that could excuse a couple of utterances here or there, but with the dreaded word popping up every 30-seconds over the two and a half to three hour running time (depending on whether you’re watching the domestic or Roadshow extended cut), the repetitiveness of it becomes both annoying, lazy and opportunistic, like a kid getting away with saying “shit” without Mom and Dad catching him.

I’m a fan of a good thing as much as the next critic, but this piece of meat also has quite a lot of trimmable fat, time-wise. There is no reason the story couldn’t have come in at a more respectable running-time, with many of the scenes running too long as a form of indulgence by Tarantino playing away in his sandbox, overfilled with cinematic sand backed up by the truckload, courtesy of Uncles Harvey and Bob Weinstein.

To paraphrase a line from Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, “just because you can do a thing doesn’t necessarily mean that you must do that thing.” True words at that. The overall product, while entertaining, reeks of unchecked excess by a renegade filmmaker whose success, while well deserved, has allowed him to release a bloated work of this magnitude without thought as to any need for outside intervention.

Take what you will from it: some will deservedly praise the excellent dialogue while others will store the eventual Blu-Ray next to Django Unchained for those nights when “Spot the N-Word” becomes a drinking game. An artistic choice can only take you so far.

For shame, sir.

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.

 

Star Wars: The Force Awakens a Successful Revival of a Timeless Sci-Fi Saga

Theatrical Poster for STAR WARS THE FORCE AWAKENS, courtesy Lucasfilm, 2015
Theatrical Poster for STAR WARS THE FORCE AWAKENS, courtesy Lucasfilm, 2015

 

Review by Dominic Messier, Founder and Editor

 

It’s the film most people often speculated about or wished would get made someday, following in the steps of a glorified classic trilogy of films which had been tarnished by a less-than-stellar batch of prequels.

Now, three decades after Return of the Jedi, Lucasfilm has released the most anticipated film of the 21st century to date, offering light saber battles, TIE Fighter and X-Wing dogfights, characters new and old and adventure from a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.

Was it worth the wait? For the most part, you bet your Tauntaun.

 

Peter Mayhew and Harrison Ford in STAR WARS THE FORCE AWAKENS, courtesy Lucasfilm, 2015
Peter Mayhew and Harrison Ford in STAR WARS THE FORCE AWAKENS, courtesy Lucasfilm, 2015

 

(Note: This review may contain some spoilers, but then again if you’re reading a bunch of reviews before even seeing this film, you had it coming, folks!)

Thirty years have passed since the Resistance foiled the plans of Emperor Palpatine and his apprentice Darth Vader, following the destruction of the Second Death Star.

Now, a new military power called The First Order has risen from the Empire’s ashes and is looking to destroy the republic once and for all.

A key element in repelling the Order’s ominous advances through all star systems is for the Rebels to locate the missing Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), the Jedi Knight who’d vanquished Darth Vader and the Emperor decades earlier.

As a means to find him, General Leia (Carrie Fisher) dispatches a gifted pilot (Oscar Isaac) to the planet Jakku to secure star maps to her brother’s location. Along the way, a gifted young scavenger named Rey (Daisy Ridley) and a noble stormtrooper deserter (John Boyega) will cross paths with the pilot and his robot BB-8, as they realize the importance of getting the map in Rebel hands before the Order’s ruthless taskmaster Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and his legion of troopers kill everyone in search of the map.

How do they manage this? Why, with an opportunistic chance encounter with Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), of course! Together, this group of resourceful rebel-friendly adventurers will do what it takes to save lives, combat the Order and find Skywalker, at all costs.

 

Daisy Ridley, BB-8 and John Boyega in STAR WARS THE FORCE AWAKENS, courtesy Lucasfilm, 2015
Daisy Ridley, BB-8 and John Boyega in STAR WARS THE FORCE AWAKENS, courtesy Lucasfilm, 2015

 

Though I found that there were several remarkable script gaps in this much awaited sequel, none of it seems important when faced with a masterful and respectful approach to the material, thanks to the brilliant direction by JJ Abrams, who performed a similar sci-fi miracle by rebooting the Star Trek franchise six years ago while still retaining the original elements from beloved classics.

Here, much is revealed despite a thirty year absence, with a story that reintroduces important characters as needed, rather than throw a bunch of CGI and extraneous tertiary roles for the sake of a few new collectible toys for Christmas. Many veiled parallels with the original trilogy pop up here and there, but are so organic and fluid in their development that it only furthers the story in the cleverest of ways.

Newcomers Daisy Ridley and John Boyega hold their own despite co-starring alongside living sci-fi icons, while Girls‘ Adam Driver offers a refreshing new take on the archetypical black-robed villain, playing Kylo Ren as a short-tempered, volatile new disciple of the Dark Side of the Force.

Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Peter Mayhew appear effortless in their reprisal of their legendary roles, while Oscar Isaac brings some attitude as ace pilot Poe Dameron, infusing the hothead with some humor, sarcasm and good heart. A number of other notable actors pop up here and there, but their limited screen time isn’t a source for worry given that two more sequels are on the way.

 

 

I’ve made sure there were plenty of good reveals left in the movie without listing them all off in this review; suffice it to say that the TLC by Abrams and the gang is apparent here, from the decision to approximate the look and feel of the original trilogy through use of actual film rather than digital, to the lack of self-awareness a mighty sequel might otherwise have ruined, mood-wise.

Does this film worthily compare to the original series? While I won’t readily say it’s better, it’s certainly earned a spot among them, though many moments felt rough and incomplete.

With Disney likely to make a quarter of its investment back from the purchase of Lucasfilm from sheer box office momentum over holidays, you can rest assured that there’ll be tons of standalone fillers to plug any chronological holes in the three decades of history leading up to this film.

And like a patient Jedi master living in the shadows, we’ll be waiting, and we’ll be ready.

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.

 

 

 

On Blu-Ray: Marvel’s Ant-Man Revamps Classic Comic Book Hero for a New Era

Blu-Ray Cover Art for ANT-MAN, courtesy Marvel, 2015
Blu-Ray Cover Art for ANT-MAN, courtesy Marvel, 2015

 

Blu-Ray Review by Dominic Messier

 

After the wave of Avengers films, standalone Captain America, Hulk, Iron Man and Thor chapters (not to mention a certain group of Galaxy Guardians), it was time for the Marvel movie machine to delve into some of the vintage material of yore, bringing back a founding member of the original Avengers for his passing of the baton to a later incarnation.

If none of this sounds familiar to you, it’s probably because you’ve either never read the comic books or didn’t realize that this series of films tweaked the cinematic Avengers’ genesis.

Don’t worry, it all works out great in the end, making for an entertaining action film done the Marvel way.

 

Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) summons an armada of flying ants in ANT-MAN, courtesy Marvel, 2015
Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) summons an armada of flying ants in ANT-MAN, courtesy Marvel, 2015

 

To summarize what I’d essentially filled you in on during my theatrical review back in the summer, know that an aging inventor named Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), the original Ant-Man, fears that a former protege named Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) may be on the verge of solving the mystery of Pym’s secret shrinking formula, but for potentially destructive military use.

Having seen a long career of crime-fighting take its physical toll, Pym recruits a smart but down-on-his-luck thief named Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) to don the Ant-Man suit, allowing him to infiltrate Cross’ Pym Technologies offices to thwart any attempt to develop a Yellowjacket combat armor, a suit capable of the same abilities as Ant-Man, but with deadly purpose.

With help from Pym’s estranged daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) on the inside and with a support team of eccentric ex-cons, the mother of all super-hero heists is on, with the security of the world resting in the very small hands of a very big hero.

 

 

At its core, Ant-Man means well, what with a relatable tale about the need for redemption and the importance of family. At the same time, the story seems a world apart from the previous Marvel films which up to this point have been tailor-made to fit well with each other as pieces of a greater whole, namely the Avengers films where each individual hero teams up for the greater good.

You don’t quite get this feeling while watching this film. At best, Ant-Man feels and looks like it could have been a serialized Netflix show alongside its cousins Daredevil, Iron Fist and Luke Cage, the former already airing with the other two lined up in the near future.

Granted, the Ant-Man character isn’t exactly as popular as Iron Man or Captain America, but in the hands of Paul Rudd, a comedian who can still convey an impressive range of emotions when called for, the Scott Lang role isn’t necessarily played for laughs but acts as a worthwhile counterpoint to his new mentor Hank Pym, stoically played by Michael Douglas as an aged hero filled with the regrets of mistakes and battles past, a man haunted by events he couldn’t control.

Look for a brief appearance by a new Avenger and the usual Stan Lee cameo, as well as some pretty juicy Easter Eggs in the credits.

Is Ant-Man the beginning of a slew of other standalone Marvel films destined to link up to other major summer flicks? Well, who knows… theoretically, the character is a founding member of the Avengers in the source material, though I couldn’t see Scott Lang holding his own as well with the core team, now disbanded and a new team of Avengers having taken over.

It’ll be interesting to see how this film fits within the greater framework, but for now be content to enjoy Ant-Man for what it is: a pleasant, visually creative pit stop along the way to a much bigger confrontation of heroes and villains ahead, namely the Civil War event for next summer, along with the inevitable confrontation with the Titan Thanos by 2017.

I’d recommend you check out the blooper reel chock full of Rudd silliness, along with some great segments on how to believably recreate the microverse to bring the fight to a whole new level….literally.

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: I Smile Back Reveals Sarah Silverman’s Dramatic Chops

Theatrical Poster for I SMILE BACK, courtesy Egoli Tussell Film, 2015
Theatrical Poster for I SMILE BACK, courtesy Egoli Tussell Film, 2015

 

Review by Dominic Messier

When it comes to the sobering subject of drug addiction and mental illness in movies, there is always the potential to do it justice thanks to either a brilliant performance, a great script, or both.

Look at Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas, a film that visually gets you sick of the very thought of alcohol. Trainspotting could very well do the same for drug abuse. In the case of Adam Salky’s adaptation of Amy Koppelman’s 2008 novel, you get a stunning, revelatory performance by comic actress Sarah Silverman in a film that barely scratches her potential, mostly due to a brief running time and incongruous narrative.

 

Sarah Silverman and Josh Charles in I SMILE BACK, courtesy Egoli Tossell Film, 2015
Sarah Silverman and Josh Charles in I SMILE BACK, courtesy Egoli Tossell Film, 2015

 

In the film, Silverman plays Laney Brooks, a well-to-do wife and mother of two with a family history of mental illness whose behaviour borders on the self-destructive: illicit affairs with family friends, secretive lines of cocaine when no one’s looking, one too many glasses of wine at dinner.

When her behaviour becomes a threat to her marriage and her children, Laney checks into a rehab centre where she deals with unresolved paternal abandonment issues and a dependency on self-destructive behaviour.

Before you know it, life’s curve balls assault her stability, causing definite friction with her patient husband Bruce (Josh Charles), potentially leading her to lose it all.

 

 

There’s definitely some great work by Silverman in this latest turn at the dramatic end of the film spectrum (see her earlier turn in 2011’s Take This Waltz), as she digs into the scarred psyche of a damaged woman, both physically and psychologically, as she deals with a complex family history while also worrying she may have passed on her genetic disposition for such behaviour to her anxiety-prone son.

The script allows for the comic actress to flex her dramatic muscles but falls short in several other areas, abruptly ending before we’d get to find out more about her troubles.

Damaging moments are oh so barely explored like ephemeral vignettes we’d long to rewind to in order to explore more thoroughly; long overdue confrontations are hinted at but once again barely tapped.

I get the impression that the novel has so much more depth that couldn’t possibly fit into this film’s all-too brief 86 minute running time. I applaud Silverman’s honest take on Laney, also giving credit to her supporting cast members for kicking it up a notch when it counts.

All the same, I can’t shake the feeling that there’d be more to see in an unrated director’s cut somewhere down the line, if I didn’t already assume I was looking at a worthwhile finished product.

I want Sarah Silverman to get notice for this role. I’m reluctant to say the big “O” word this early in the game, but far lesser actors have gotten higher praise from lesser films.

Here’s to more dramatic turns for her in years to come.

I SMILE BACK is currently playing at Toronto’s TIFF Lightbox and can also be bought or rented on iTunes.

3 out of 5

 

Dominic Messier is a media veteran who’s written and discussed movies for over 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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