Wednesday, August 30, 2017

REVIEW: Courageous



I lost a bet, and because of that I have had to watch and review the movie Courageous.  Before I begin and start talking about the movie, I should state that I should have never taken the bet and anyone who is tempted to take a bet when viewing Courageous is on the line should just pack up and walk away.  If it makes you look like a coward, then so be it.

It should be noted that I am a Christian and this is a Christian movie.  That means that I should love it, correct?  Wrong.  I was pretty upset with what I saw in this movie, and I think that comes from the fact that generally faith based movies are not that good.  The production quality is not as solid as main stream movies, and that sure is the case with Courageous.  It felt more like a 'made for TV' affair than it did something that was destined to be on the big screen.

So, is it a budget issue?  Surely that must be the case, you would think.  The production budget of this movie is two million dollars, which answers the question.  It is not the budget.  Blumhouse productions have made movies for that price, as well as many other studios, that look so much better. The only real answer to the question of why this doesn't look like a cinema movie is the fact that there just isn't the attention to detail that most studios put forth.  It is not as bad as the remake of Left Behind, but it isn't much better, either.

The film focuses mostly on four men, with a token hispanic.  This was better race representation than I was expecting from the movie, to be honest.  As well, not all black people are criminals, and not all criminals are black.  That's another positive for this movie.  I have seen other Christian movies and trailers for Christian movies that seem lost when it comes to racial depiction.

These four men, plus the token hispanic, make a pledge to be solid fathers based off of biblical teaching.  There it is.  That's the plot.  It isn't much of one, and the movie sure takes its sweet time in getting there.  I should mention that this movie is over two hours long, and could have probably been a much snappier and poignant film around an hour and a half.  The film adds on scenes of action with no real connection to the story.  It feels like an attempt to make it more marketable and, as much as I like action, since it has nothing to do with the plot then it really shouldn't be in the movie.

When it comes to the spiritual aspect of the movie, there is nothing subtle about this film.  The faith components are heavy handed, ham-fisted, elements that are laid out in a manner that will probably resonate with people of the same belief system, but will most likely not be intriguing to someone outside of it.  There is a scene where one believer tells a non believer about their faith, and there is no back and forth in that moment.  No questions raised by the 'pagan' to get any sort of apologetics or airing out of the big questions surrounding those who may not be Christians.  It is a missed opportunity, and is a reflection of the poor script in general.

The movie was written by Alex and Stephen Kendrick, and it is a script that could have used a lot of culling.  As I mentioned, there were action sequences, though well shot by director Alex Kendrick, that could have been scrapped from the film.  The movie also tries to balance too much with its tale of five men, and could have been simplified.  There is no shortage of expository dialogue, and, as mentioned previously, the elements around spirituality aren't handled with a great deal of ease.

While I am being very tough on this film, it should be mentioned that it is not the most painful experience in the world.  While it doesn't meet the level that it should be aiming for, it is not the biggest miss in the world.  Where it shines are in the aforementioned action sequences, but I have already mentioned that I don't think they should have even been in the film.  The cinematography isn't the worst, and there are a few small performances that hit the mark (it needs to be noted that in general the acting in this movie is serviceable at best).

I have to say that it sucks to be a Christian and have to watch a movie like this.  It could have done such a better job.  I know that it could have.  The problem is in the lack of attention to detail and the fact that just good enough was what it felt like they were aiming for.  I really wish that there was a better pool of faith based movies to reflect what real religion looks like, but that is not the reality.  We are stuck with what we have, and generally that is barely good enough.

Rating - 1.5 out of 4 stars

Sunday, August 20, 2017

REVIEW: Jackie



So many times a Hollywood, Oscar-baiting biopic can be drivel.  There are so many tropes and times that overly manipulative music can play, diminishing the content to something that we have seen a thousand times over.  Luckily, Jackie is not one of those types of movies.  It strays from format and is far from your typical, straightforward biopic.

You may think that the movie would focus a great deal on the fate of the infamous motorcade incident, but it doesn't.  There is only a quick shot at one point of JFK getting shot in the head.  There is no attempt to sensationalize the incident and use its popular narrative to drive the story.  Instead, the movie is about the moments and week after the incident, following Jackie Kennedy as she wades through the different emotions that would wreck havoc on a recent widow who is thrown from a place of power to becoming just an average person.

The backbone to the movie is the stunning performance delivered by Natalie Portman, who plays Jackie.  Words cannot describe the depth of emotion that she is able to bring to the character, from having to wipe her husbands blood off her face shortly after the incident, to realizing that she is getting kicked out of the White House and will have to find a place to live.

I could never imagine the horror of seeing my wife killed in front of my eyes, and I could only guess at the disconnect from reality that would happen in the minutes and days afterwards.  Through Portman's performance, and a solid script from Noah Oppenheim, we are witness to the loss that is felt, as well as the fact that there needs to be some strength shown from the woman who instantly became a former first lady.

Director Pablo Larrain uses the camera well to dictate what the audience feels and to surround us with the hopelessness that Jackie Kennedy faces.  There are many shots that follow her around, from either the front or behind, as she wanders around the White House.  This hit home for me, as personal tragedy had me in a spot where I felt like I was just wandering in circles, not knowing what to do with myself.  The production elements that are on display in Jackie captures that feeling incredibly well, making sure the audience is transported into the heart and soul of the grieving main character.

Accompanying all of the solid acting and wonderful camera shots is an atypical score by Mica Levi.  It uses mostly string instruments, and is far from flowing and melodic.  It is sporadic almost in its tones and notes, jolting to go along with the emotional upheaval that the film portrays.  The music sets the tone early in the film, and cascades along with it throughout, never feeling out of place with what we are seeing on the screen.  There is a very good reason why it was nominated for an Oscar.

One thing that I really liked about Jackie was it's powerful use of profanity.  Only two times is the f-word used, but it is impeccably placed and adds a dynamic punch to the proceedings on screen.  Too often it is a through away word that does not seek its rightful home, but in Jackie it is used to perfection.  I know that this seems to be a small thing to be praising, but it really is a powerful tool in this film.

I should also take a moment to talk about the supporting performances in this film.  Peter Sarsgaard plays the role of Bobby Kennedy, something that is no small task.  As well as having to deal with the assassination of JFK, he still has a vital role to play in politics.  He is a man divided between his own personal experience and the continuing job that he must perform.  Another great performance, although it is a small one with limited lines, is Greta Gerwig as Nancy Tuckerman who seems to be a personal assistant to Jackie.  There are only a few scenes between the two, but Portman and Gerwig show a wonderful chemistry with each other and you get a sense of the strength that the relationship holds through the crisis.

What all of these components do in a whole is create an extremely emotional experience.  This is not an inspirational, feel good, movie.  It is an exercise in the brutal, swirling emotions that would follow such a tragedy.  It is a numbing and depressing affair, the exact experience that Larrain would have us take.

Rating - 3.5 out of 4 Stars

Monday, August 7, 2017

REVIEW: The Founder



Biopics are tricky little films.  Done well, they can not only educate, but they can also put you in the mind of a historical figure.  Done poorly, they are tedious and nothing but drivel.  They are also notorious for being Oscar bait, movies that aim to secure a handful of nominations come awards time.  These films come with great highs, and, as well, great lows.

The Founder is the story of Ray Kroc (Micheal Keaton), a struggling salesman who comes across a booming restaurant in southern California called McDonald's.  He is enraptured by the system that the McDonald brothers, Mac (John Carroll Lynch) and Dick (Nick Offerman) have created.  It is something that hasn't been seen before, and instantly Kroc becomes obsessed with this restaurant.  He sees potential in it, and he pressures the McDonald brothers into allowing him to franchise it.

What is interesting about this movie is the fact that it doesn't take any stance on the moral qualities of Ray Kroc.  He is neither hero nor villain.  He just is.  It is up to the viewer to decide where he lands.  The passion for seeing the franchise progress shifts the compass of Kroc, turning him from someone who has just seized an opportunity to someone who will stop at nothing, not only for the success of the franchise, but for his own personal financial well being.

Michael Keaton is wonderful in this role.  We see him at the beginning of the movie, doing a routine sales pitch, and we feel for the guy.  He is not successful.  He is barely a provider.  He is spending all of his time on the road trying to make a living to support him and his wife, who he barely sees.  It is an incredibly sympathetic situation for a character to be in.  It is the morphing of the character over the course of the film that becomes interesting.

Keaton is able to portray minuscule changes in character that shadow the journey from family man to someone who admits he would step on his opponent if they were drowning.  Ever since starring in Birdman, Keaton has been in a resurgence.  Most well known for his portrayal of Batman, he redefined his career and has been better off for it.  His acting has matured a lot since movies like Multiplicity.  He is refined, and able to dig down deep and pull out masterful performances such as in Birdman and Spotlight.  This is just another movie to add to his ledger of outstanding achievements.

One of the refreshing aspects about The Founder is that it doesn't fall prey to the general tropes and trappings of most biopics (mainly a third act tension that is contrived and pulls away from the main narrative).  These sorts of things affected the hugely popular, and I would almost say over-rated, The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything.  The Founder's script stays tight to the story of Kroc, and dares not deviate from it.

The only odd occurrence in the movie would be the score, done by Carter Burwell.  It feels like something that is more fit for a Hallmark movie than the seedy character study that is portrayed on screen.  I felt that it took away from the moral ambiguity of the character and insisted on an upbeat, positive bent.  It was at odds with what was happening on the screen, and did not seem to be the best choice of music.

That criticism aside, The Founder is a solid biopic that never strays from the original purpose of telling the story of someone who we could either admire or hate.  Depending on your own personal stance, you will have your own opinions of Ray Kroc as portrayed in this movie.  That is the magic of what director John Lee Hancock (Saving Mr. Banks and The Blind Side) has graced us with.  It is the opportunity to see what personal choices must be made to build an empire, and we are left to decide whether or not it was worth it.

Rating - 3.5 out of 4 stars

Sunday, August 6, 2017

REVIEW: The Incredible Jessica James



It took a while for it to happen, but I can't shake the feeling that Netflix has finally arrived.  Since it has been focusing on creating original movies for its streaming service, there have been a number of let downs, movies that have seemed to be ready to strike gold but then failed to do so.  Okja, from Joon-ho Bong, appeared to be the first champion on Netflix since Beasts of no Nation, but I would have to say that felt like it was to be expected.  Joon-ho Bong has a solid catalogue of movies under his belt, and it felt like it was going to be a winner regardless.

The movie that has given me the most confidence in the new Netflix model is the recently released The Incredible Jessica James.  This is the film that feels like a perfect depiction of a director's vision come to the screen.  It makes it feel like Netflix could be a destination stop for film-makers with a concept, just like Blumhouse Productions has become.

The reason why I feel this way is that there is an incredible amount of personality and style behind The Incredible Jessica James.  It has heart, character, and emotion.  It follows the standard beats of someone coming off of a long term relationship and trying to find out what love is, but it does this in its own unique way, keeping it from feeling like its contemporaries.

The backbone behind this tight little movie is the lead character, Jessica James (played by Jessica Williams).  It is a performance from Williams that is worth writing home about.  She not just plays the character, but breathes life into her, making her someone who stands out from the typical film.  She adds energy, making Jessica James the type of person on screen that the audience wishes they were in the company of.  It is the type of performance that transcends the screen and works its way into the heart of the viewer, ultimately causing them to wish nothing but the best for her.

This is a very key thing in a movie like this.  Why would I care about aspects of love and life if I don't first fall in love with the person facing those things?  The core of a film such as this is the journey travelled, and with Williams' performance it is a journey that is well had.  We feel the highs and lows of Jessica James as she tries to move on from her life-engrossing relationship with Damon (Lakeith Stanfield) into a less descriptive one with Boone (Chris O'Dowd)

The chemistry between Williams and O'Dowd is truly something to behold.  They fit well together as two people who are on the rebound and don't quite know what it is that they are looking for.  I have long been a fan of the comedic talents of Chris O'Dowd, but here we get some good dramatic acting from him as well.  It was clear from his performance in Bridesmaids that he was capable of it, and in The Incredible Jessica James he pulls through with some perfectly executed scenes.

Jim Strouse, who both wrote and directed the film, shows a great understanding of both pacing and style.  The movie never lingers too long on any one element, moving at a comfortable speed that never feels rushed.  It is also amped up by the choice of music to be its backdrop, pumping energy into the film that feels perfectly suited to the character of Jessica James.

This is one of those movies that starts with a beat and never deviates from it, even when the tone changes.  While the movie takes us through a number of different circumstances and emotions, it never strays from its overall feel.  It is jam packed with personality, great casting, well delivered comedy, and a message about sticking with your dreams.  It could be the sign that Netflix has now become a contender in the movie distribution realm.

Rating - 3.5 out of 4 stars

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

REVIEW: Snowden



The last Oliver Stone movie I saw was Savages.  It left me feeling unimpressed.  It lacked compelling characters and had a jerky story telling narrative.  It was a long way from the all time classic, Platoon.  That is one of my favourite war movies of all time, and it shows everything that Oliver Stone is capable of as a director and script writer.  It is a haunting tale of a child born of two fathers in war, needing to choose which one to follow.

Going into Snowden, I didn't know which Oliver Stone to expect.  Would it be the one who crafts characters from the ground up, magnifying their struggles, or would it be the more scattershot version that was seen in Savages?  I can luckily say that it was closer to the former than the latter.

Snowden tells the story of Edward Snowden (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a man who needs little introduction.  The movie starts off with his meeting of members of the press and film-maker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo).  Those meetings are central to the film, as the rest is the backdrop of Snowden's story of trying to get into the military, and then ending up being a contractor for the CIA and NSA.

The real strength of this movie is the acting performance by Gordon-Levitt, whose portrayal of Edward Snowden is spot on.  He is soft spoken, patient, and eager to learn.  He is also driven by a large moral compass, which may end up being the biggest weakness of the film as well.  When Snowden is confronted with examples of government overreach, there is no real inner turmoil as to how to respond.  It is clear that Oliver Stone sees Edward Snowden as a hero, and this is reflected in the script and how the movie is directed.

This is a problem because the leaks brought to us by Edward Snowden have caused a huge debate over privacy and security.  It is something that is still reverberating today, as those discussions continue with governments wanting back doors into encrypted messaging systems.  Well, that's not true.  They know that saying the word 'back door' is going to rile the public against them because of the intense metadata that they had collected before, so they don't use this word.  But, what they are asking for is essentially that.  The point is, the Snowden leaks are something that have forever changed the landscape of the electronic world, and there are valid points to be seen on both sides.  The movie steers clear of properly making justifications without villainizing the characters central to that argument.  The fact that there is an obvious bias towards what Edward Snowden did does take some of the teeth out of this movie, which could have otherwise served as a great piece to continue the existing debate.

That issue aside, this is a really solid film from Stone, who uses pacing, his shots, and the score Craig Armstrong to create tension and make it roll out like a thriller in some points.  There have been some great movies that are able to create this sort of tension without having scenes with chases and violence, and Snowden stands up as one of them.

Central to the story is the relationship between Edward Snowden and his girlfriend, Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley).  Woodley's performance is easily one of her best, and it is of vast importance to the success of this movie to get the power of the relationship right.  For Edward Snowden to release the data, he is having to choose between what's best for the public interest, or what's best for him.  To not disclose it means he gets to keep his life with his love, but to disseminate it means to possibly lose out on the relationship, as he would have to flee the United States.

The chemistry between Gordon-Levitt and Woodley is impeccable.  It is easy to accept them as a couple of love birds, and we are introduced to the struggles that they have to get through to make the relationship work long term.  It is a relationship that is easy to accept and cheer for.  Without that, we would not get a full sense of what was at stake when Edward Snowden made his decision to do what he did.

While I am talking about that, I do realize that I have another small issue with the movie.  It never really invites the audience member into the shoes of Edward Snowden and make them ask if they would do the same thing, risking their lives and their relationships.  This is because the character of Edward Snowden, as portrayed in the movie, is a moving vessel that never really stops to allow the audience to climb aboard.

There have been a few things that I have mentioned as being issues with the movie, but those are more things that arrive out of missed opportunities.  This film could have easily been one of the major cinematic talking points of the last few years, but the bias towards Edward Snowden robbed it of being a topic of discussion in coffee shops and class rooms.  For that, you need to check out the documentary Citizenfour.

While there are issues, what is clear about this movie is that it is a solid work of art.  Stone uses all of the techniques in the book, and borrows some from documentary film making (which could create a disjointed experience for some viewers, but I found it to work).  What we are treated with in the end is a piece of cinema that captures the interest of the viewer, and takes them through the unravelling of one of the biggest social revelations of our time, and it is done while being vastly entertaining at the same time.

Rating - 3.5 out of 4 stars

PS - Melissa Leo is fantastic as always.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

REVIEW: Sex and the City



It was messed up right from the beginning.  I should never have taken the bet.  I lost, and I am being punished.  For those who do not know, there was a competition on The Movie Breakdown podcast last year, a podcast that I co-host, where we picked movies that we thought would make the most money in their opening weekends.  I lost, and in a big way.  Because of that, I have had to watch and review movies that were picked as punishment.  They included Smurfs 2 and Sex in the City 2.  A third pick fell off of Netflix, so the replacement for that was the original Sex in the City, meaning I got to have another go-around with the girls in New York city.

Seeing Sex in the City 2 was my first outing into this world that was set up during the popular television show.  It was a mess of a movie, as it had almost no plot and it was extremely difficult to identify with the main characters.  They had major first world problems, and not the kind that you and I may bitch and complain about.  The entire crux of the movie was them trying to get to the airport so that they could fly in first class.  It wasn't that they would miss the opportunity to get home and would be stuck in the UAE, but that they would miss out on first class and have to travel like the rest of us.

Perhaps that is the allure of this franchise.  It is soap opera like in that it depicts a life that the normal person cannot attain and presents it in a way that allows for some fantasy through the vicarious living of the characters.  The main character is Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker), who is a writer, loves nights on the town with her good friends, and is in a relationship with someone named Mr. Big.  I know that is just a nickname for him, but it is rather silly.

All turns to hell when Big doesn't show up for their wedding, casting the illusion of marriage to the ground for Carrie as she struggles to pull herself back together and get her feet underneath her again. The issue of marriage becomes a major theme for the film, as Carrie's friend Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) is going through a divorce.  Another friend, Samantha (Kim Catrall) is in a monogynous relationship and fantasizes about life prior, when sex could be had with anyone.

So, what is director Michael Patrick King saying about the institution of marriage?  Not a whole lot.  He fails to deeply look at it, and keeps a lot of the realities to the surface.  The one character who is not going through a relational transition is Charlotte (Kristin Davis), and, frankly, she offers very little to the conversation.  She is pretty much a useless character, which is unfortunate because Davis' portrayal of her is really well done.

This film, like its sequel, lacks a conventional plot.  It instead tries to create moments between the friends that are the glue to this bloated run-time.  For it's length of two hours and twenty five minutes, it must be said that the film doesn't drag too long on any one scene, and it has a decent pace.  The problem is that the material just isn't incredibly enticing.  It's not boring, it just isn't a journey through human emotions that would come along with upheavals in long term relationships.

The problem is that you are either in with this fantasy of living the high life in New York city, or you are on the outside.  It has the feeling of a members only club.  You are either endeared to the characters already, or you are left on the outside trying to find a way in.  To be honest, they aren't one dimensional characters, but they aren't necessarily captivating, either.

Without a solid plot, this film just takes us from scene to scene, with the only real binding force being the rise to individual freedom of Carrie.  Perhaps this is enough to pacify viewers and keep them engaged.  The script just doesn't bring enough emphasis to this struggle, and the end result is something more out of a fairy tale than the world that has been created by Michael Patrick King.  There have been many other films that I have seen that are worse, but this one does little to justify the immense run time and keep the viewer engaged.

Rating - 2 out of 4 stars

Saturday, June 24, 2017

REVIEW: Logan



Logan (Hugh Jackman), AKA the Wolverine, is washed up and an alcoholic.  He makes a meagre living driving a limousine, using the money to save up for a day when he and the aged Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and he could purchase a boat and live on the ocean.  Charle Xavier is in rough shape, no longer a master of his mind, but deteriorating due to age.  The X-Men are long gone, and all that remains are Wolverine, Professor X, and Caliban (Stephan Merchant), a mutant who helps tend to Xavier and whose power is being able to track down other mutants.

It is a far fall from what we have seen before.  It is a more tender and desperate side of Wolverine, as he is staring down his own aging and having a harder time recovering from the wounds that in his youth were overcome by his ability to heal himself.  It is also a more profane Wolverine, as the film sits tightly in its R-rating.  His passion for helping people and fight for justice are gone.  Now it is just a simple mission to take care of the decrepit mentor from his younger days.

Of course, it wouldn't be much of a movie if there wasn't any story line past that.  Through circumstances, the three remaining mutants find themselves having to help out a little girl as she is chased by a clandestine group of armed and relentless fighters.  The girl, Laura (Dafne Keen) is being hunted because she used to be part of a project to grow people with mutant powers to turn them into soldiers.  To survive, she must make it to Canada where her freedom, and freedom for those like her, exists.

Director James Mangold focuses mostly on the character of Logan, and not worrying about making him the shining example of justice and truth that people who generally follow super heroes pray for.  Mangold shows us someone who is selfish, self destructive, and uncaring for anyone other than Professor X.  He is not the typical type of hero, and that is what makes this movie special.  It is more of a character study, as Logan must come to terms as to what is best for people other than himself.

This is not to say that there are no action sequences in this film.  There sure are, but they are measured and used sparingly.  When they happen, they are shot with a steady hand with with great choreography.  The limited use of action makes the hype for the sequences that we do get more anticipated.  We see Wolverine as he truly is, a beast that viciously rips his opponents apart, something that is difficult to do with a PG-13 rating.

The central premise of the film is what would you do, with your limited abilities (because his advanced age has made his abilities limited), to assist someone else for no other reason than for doing what is right.  When would you help out a stranger if that meant that all you had been working for and hoping for was put in jeopardy?

What stands out most about Logan is the fact that it deals with the mortality of the titular character.  This is someone who is no longer invincible, and has to rely more on his character than on what had once made him great.  This is the type of story that I love.  It was present in Iron Man 3 when Tony Stark was without his suit and had to decide if he could still be a hero without it.  It was what made The Dark Knight so emotionally powerful.  When the heroes become mortals and have to make the same choices that the rest of us would have to make.

Did I mention that the action was used sparingly?  This was evident when there was twenty five minutes left in the film and I wasn't stranded in the chaotic 'final battle' that pretty much all super heroes have for their final forty five minutes of run time.  This shows the devotion to story that Mangold has with this film.  Even with little action, it is never a dull movie, as the characters are always on the run, and it is edited to keep a fast pace that never tires.

In the midst of a storm of super hero movies that all feel like they follow the same beats, save for a few, Logan truly is a special entry into the genre.  With great dialogue and outstanding performances across the board, this is a really well constructed film.  The best thing about it, spoiler alert, is that it isn't used to set up any more stories.  It is a self-contained tale that is of itself.  Hugh Jackman was always the Wolverine, and this is a world class send off to his efforts for this popular character.

Rating - 3.5 out of four stars