Friday, December 18, 2015

Review: Star Wars - The Force Awakens

The much talked about and ballyhooed return to the Star Wars universe with the first franchise film in 10 years is thankfully in the proper and capable hands of J.J. Abrams.  Abrams and a crew of relative unknown actors team up with some iconic greats from the series in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, a thrilling, intense, old-school mashup that (like his Star Trek reboot) injects fresh new life into the greatest Science Fiction franchise in film history.  It is almost enough to label this film as a success in saying that it makes us forget all about Episodes 1-3 and everything George Lucas has touched since 1983.

I won't get into real specifics of the plot of the latest chapter of this space saga as I don't want to spoil anything for anyone.  I'll leave a few specific spoilers for the end of this review and they will be colored appropriately so you have to highlight the text to actually read them. Let's just say that we find the rebels (re-branded as The Resistance this time around) in a battle against The First Order (the new empire).  Finn, a defecting Stormtrooper played by John Boyega teams up with Rey, a scavenger young woman played by (Keira Knightley clone) Daisy Ridley and the cute BB-8 droid that everyone has seen in stores and in trailers to complete a secret mission in support of the rebellion.

The lead bad guy in this episode is Kylo Ren, a misguided sinister young man played with excellent creepiness by Adam Driver (Girls).  Ren and his gang of evil that form The First Order (including a strange masked appearance by Game of Thrones' Gwendoline Christie) end up in multiple air and ground battles against pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Issacs) and the rebel fleet.  The tie-fighter / X-wing battle sequences are almost worth the price of admission alone.  It's not a surprise along the way that the venerable legends of the saga, Han Solo, Princess General Leia, Chewbacca, C-3PO, R2-D2, etc.. help support the resistance. Harrison Ford in particular is amazing as Solo and it's a welcome sight to see the Millennium Falcon in action once again. Abrams manages to bring a lot of humor out of his actors at just the right time without going over-the-top.

The real testament to the success and high quality of this film lies in the five new leads (Boyega, Ridley, Driver, Isaacs and...yes... BB-8).  All are very likable (even Driver in his sinister motives) and seem to have that perfect charisma for this franchise.  Kathleen Kennedy and the team at Disney did an outstanding job in the casting department.  Ridley herself may be the undiscovered star here.  She has the perfect expressive face that exudes wonder, amazement and horror at times.  She seems to wear her emotions on her sleeves and it works very well in her role as Rey.  Both Boyega and Ridley have instant chemistry with Ford and the overall cohesiveness of the cast of this movie only adds to the entertainment it delivers as a whole.

Abrams does an amazing job with story pacing and the overall visual effects.  We get a lot of practical effects mixed with excellent CGI.  BB-8 is an engineering marvel and actually made me forget R2-D2 even existed for a while.  The computer generated effects in this film supplement the action on screen and are not in any way similar to the over-the-top "look at me" effects from Episodes 1-3.  George Lucas simply did not get it after Jedi and Abrams totally "gets it" with his effort here.  I'm a little anxious going forward knowing that another director will be in charge for the next film, but Rian Johnson (Looper) is a great choice and I hope he gets some tips from J.J. along the way.

Now I will get into some spoilers, so if you HAVEN'T seen the movie then please DON'T HIGHLIGHT the invisible text below.  If you HAVE seen it and want to read on, then please DO highlight the text below.  You have been warned........

We get a few interesting revelations in this film. One being that Kylo Ren is actually Han and Leia's son Ben (named after Obi Wan I'm sure).  It's clear that he has been turned to the dark side and hates his father.  Even more so when he puts a lightsaber through Han, ending a remarkable 4-episode run for arguably the best Star Wars character of all time. This had to be done as it sets up an overall hatred for Ren that will power the next two films.  Also, we FINALLY see Luke in the final scene and he looks very bad-ass as an Obi-Wan-esque Jedi warrior. It seems that Luke will end up training Rey in Episode 8 and it also seems that Rey's newfound jedi powers are a result of her probably being the daughter of Luke.  The family dynamics will be interesting to watch in the next film and as in Empire, we get a great cliffhanger to feed into the next story.  It's sad to see Ford move on from his iconic role but he definitely went out with a bang as opposed to his whimper as Indiana Jones. Two things I didn't like were very minor. One of which is that Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) seemed a bit too cartoony and strange to be the new "emperor" of this new trilogy.  Also, the overall plot is a bit too similar to A New Hope in that a droid has secret plans that need to be delivered to a rebel base in order to kill a giant spherical weapon (Starkiller Base).  Hopefully Episode 8 will venture into a more original plot path.  I do love the fact that we don't see Luke until the VERY end.  Watching him in the Yoda/Obi-Wan role after recently seeing him as an apprentice in A New Hope should be very fascinating to watch.


This is a wonderful homage to the GOOD films in George Lucas' catalog and sets the base properly for what should be an even better Episode 8.  Despite a few small flaws (shown in the spoilers above), this is pretty much the movie I was expecting when I saw the first trailer.  Once again, Abrams has delivered and is about to fill Spielberg's position as the master of mass entertainment.  It's also great to see John Williams once again fill the speakers with his trademark Star Wars melodies and I hope he gets another Oscar nod for his work on this soundtrack. Episode 7 gets a very high 4.5 5 out of 5 JRs (decided to bump this up a bit after some thought) for one of the best movies of 2015 and the best Star Wars film since The Empire Strikes Back.

Monday, December 7, 2015

5 Reviews: The 33, Creed, Spotlight, Mockingjay Part 2, Brooklyn

Watching movies with Movie Pass has been a revelation.  I've been able to see more movies for cheaper than before as I try to cram as much as I can during Awards/Holiday season.  The downside is I'm not able to keep up with my reviews.  In an effort to get back on track I'm writing some quick-fire mini reviews of the last 5 movies I've seen.  One of the 5 was the best movie I've seen all year and another brings a dying boxing franchise back to life.

The 33

This is the on-screen depiction of the real-life story of 33 Chilean miners who are trapped for months in a caved-in mine in Chile.  Antonio Banderas and Lou Diamond Phillips lead a patchwork cast that feature a lot of overacting from the supporting characters.  The miners themselves are believable and the story is pretty intense at times but the scenes of the loved ones gathering and praying for safe passage for the miners just seems forced and a lot of the emotion does not seem genuine.  I didn't really enjoy this movie that much and while the story is a worthwhile one, it definitely is not a must see film.  Skip this and wait for cable. 2.5 JR rating.


Creed is the 7th film in the Rocky franchise and focuses on Adonis Creed the illegitimate son of Appolo Creed (Rocky's main adversary and friend in the first four films).  The younger Creed (portrayed brilliantly by Friday Night Light's Michael B. Jordan) looks to Rocky himself (Sylvester Stallone reprising his role for the 7th time) to be a mentor and trainer.  Directed by Fruitvale Station director Ryan Coogler (another collaboration between him and Jordan), this film is intense, inspiring and an absolute joy to watch.  The boxing sequences are often done in one take with a spinning in-ring camera that brings the audience directly into the action.  Jordan is believable and (more-importantly) very likable as Creed.  His chemistry with Stallone comes off naturally and enables Stallone himself to give one of the best performances of his career.  Don't be surprised to see Sly walking the red carpet next year as a Best Supporting Actor nominee. Let's hope the young, dynamic Coogler decides to extend this franchise further.  4.5 JRs for one of the best films of the year thur-far.


A movie that focuses on a Boston Globe journalistic investigation into pedophile accustations within the Catholic church system that is almost 100% dialogue doesn't sound like the kind of film I usually get behind, but in the case of Tom McCarthy's amazing Spotlight, when the screenplay is so well done and the acting is on such a high level, you can't help but get engrossed in what's happening on-screen.  The all-star cast of Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery and relative unknown (but outstanding) Brian d'Arcy James play various employees of the Boston Globe who under the title of Spotlight run a deep investigative piece that uncovers the Catholic priest scandal of the early 2000's.

I was totally engrossed in this film from start to finish.  McCarthy is able to make the idea of investigative journalism seem thrilling and the pacing throughout the film is absolutely perfect.  Lines of dialogue replace bullets and car chases and the tension has rarely been higher.  It's a sick sadistic underworld within the Catholic church that gets highlighted in this movie and you end up feeling for the victims and rooting for the journalists involved to shine a light where some people don't want it shined.

Much like All the President's Men, this is a showcase for journalism done right.  As a holder of a degree in Newspaper Journalism myself, I held a special interest in what was going on in this film. Watching the group build leads and uncover the various layers of the overall investigation, you feel as if you're on the team yourself and you get caught up with the passion these professionals have to reveal the truth to the public.  This movie benefits from the era in which the film is set.  Cellphones and the internet are not omnipresent as they are now and there is a lot of grass roots investigation that is done in libraries and public offices across the city.

Everyone is great in the movie but Ruffalo in particular is the heart of the narrative and will hopefully get recognized by the Academy come Oscar time.  With 5 out of 5 JRs this is the best movie I've seen in 2015 so far and it looks like it's about to collect a lot of Oscar gold and recognition over the next few months.  You need to see this film as soon as possible and while the subject matter is extremely tough to digest, you'll enjoy the investigative thrill-ride and the showcase of the (dying) power of print journalism.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2

This trilogy has totally gone downhill with each subsequent movie since the brilliant Hunger Games original film.  Thankfully we get a slight uptick with Part 2 of Mockingjay that is a little more interesting than the totally droll Part 1.  Jennifer Lawrence is solid as always as Katniss Everdeen and we get to see the action slowly center on the Capital and the end-game for President Snow (the ever creepy Donald Sutherland).  The effects are believable and the action is done well at times but this film is already in the hole thanks to Part 1.  I really do think that some content could have been trimmed out of both parts of this final story and we could have seen a long but thrilling single Mockingjay film.  As with the final book of Harry Potter, the first film took a lot of the momentum out of the entire series of films.  A lukewarm 3 JRs for a franchise that I found myself not caring about anymore.  I'm personally hoping that directors stop this trend of breaking single film stories into multiple chopped-up movies (I'm also looking at you, Peter Jackson!).


This film tells the pleasant story of a young Irish girl who decides to discover the world in traveling to America for a job.  In the process, she meets a young Italian boy and the ensuing love story is balanced with her need to re-visit her family back in Ireland.  Atonement's Saoirse Ronan plays Ellis (pronounced Elise) and gives us a career performance in the process. Director John Crowley does a wonderful job of using Ronan's talents and depicting a genuine feeling of homesickness on-screen.  When Ellis finds herself nearly alone in a new country, you can feel the ache of missing her family at home that she is experiencing.  This film is well shot and well acted and tells a great story of finding one's home and balancing love and career aspirations. This really isn't my type of movie though and I was a little bored at times.  That being said, I'm sure a lot of you (especially those older than me) will get more out of the movie and I definitely recommend it to most everyone.  A solid 4 JRs for what should be a shoe-in Lead Actress nomination for Ronin.

That's all for now, hopefully I can start writing longer reviews as some key upcoming movies are released.  (Star Wars, The Revenant, etc...)

Friday, November 13, 2015

Reviews: Spectre & Crimson Peak

If you read the press lately you'll hear how Daniel Craig is growing tired of putting on the tailored suit and asking for his drinks to be shaken and not stirred.  Unfortunately for us, the end is near for his reign as one of the better James Bonds in movie history.  In Spectre, the latest effort from Skyfall director Sam Mendes, Craig once again plays Bond as a bad-ass that shows little emotion. The rest of the cast play along well and we get another satisfying addition to the legendary spy series.

The plot of Spectre is a bit convoluted as the key adversary Franz Oberhauser (played with villainous glee by the always great Christoph Waltz) seems to be linked to the various villains of Bond's past (the past three Craig/Bond films).  Oberhauser heads up the sinister titular organization of Spectre, a group that Bond attempts to infiltrate through many locations around the globe. The opening scene in particular (shot in Mexico during the Day of the Dead) is quick-paced and intense and sets the tone for the film.  During his travels he meets at least two women he tries to seduce including 51-year-old Monica Belluci who still looks stunning at her age.  Lea Sedouyx plays the main bond girl of the film, Madeleine Swann, who is connected to Bond's past through her father.  She is a relative newcomer and makes a very compelling Bond girl with a classic silver-screen beauty that accompanies her quick wit.  Joining Bond on his adventures once again are M (Ralph Fiennes - who took over for Judi Dench's character), Q (Ben Whishaw), the nefarious C (Sherlock's Andrew Scott) and Moneypenny (Naomie Harris).  The best new addition to this rendition of Bond is the evil henchman Hinx, played with nearly no dialogue and a ton of kick-ass physical prowess by Guardian of the Galaxy's (and WWE's) Dave Bautista.  That Bautista really does have a future in movies and he might be able to play second fiddle to The Rock's post-WWE film career.

The biggest problem I had with this movie is the story. There are so many plot threads that reference previous films that it's hard to make sense of what's going on.  It probably didn't help that four screenwriters combined to white the screenplay. Thankfully, what makes everything tick and helps overpower the plot holes is the deft visual eye of Mendes.  He is able to take these larger than life set pieces and make them live and breathe as characters on their own in the film.  He loves shooting Craig as an ultimate tough guy and we get lots of scenes that show him in his iconic suit striking a "don't-fuck-with-me" pose. At first I didn't think the director of American Beauty and Road to Perdition was the right filmmaker for this franchise, but Mendes has certainly found his sweet spot with this spy series of movies.  The rumor is he will be helming Bond 25 in a few years.

I was entertained by Craig in what may very well be his last time in this role.  He certainly has taken the Bond reigns with solid performances from the get-go in Casino Royale and this would be a fitting conclusion to his four-film arc as Bond.  3.5 out of 5 JRs for a big-budget thrilling (if somewhat misguided) trek across the globe.  It'll be interesting to see if Craig does return for Bond 25 or if we get Idris Elba to don the tuxedo as the first black James Bond.  If Mendes is in charge, I'm sure we'll get a quality film regardless.

The mood of Crimson Peak, Guillermo Del Toro's latest horror/drama effort is cold and creepy for sure. Set at the turn of the 20th century, the story follows a young girl named Edith (Alice in Wonderland's Mia Wasikowska) who marries into a strange family at a young age and ends up moving to a totally haunting English manor that sits atop a red clay mine.  Ghosts and demons end up roaming through the house with no escape due to the blizzard-like conditions outside.

Similar to my previous review, the visuals are all on point here and Del Toro puts his unique ghastly spin on everything, but again we're lacking in the script department. There's not much intrigue here and you really don't end up becoming emotionally invested in the characters.  Del Toro can only blame himself here, as he co-wrote the script with two other collaborators. All of the acting is really well done though, especially Jessica Chastain and Tom Hiddleston as the creepiest brother and sister pairing since Jaime and Cersei Lannister.  

The real draw here is Del Toro's knack for making beautiful cinema. The English manor is shot brilliantly with creaks and cobwebs lining the walls and antique furniture that adds to the timeless atmosphere.  The stark contrast of blood (there is a lot of it) mixed with the pure white Winter snow is the perfect thematic tone for this type of movie.  You can tell that Del Toro is at the top of his game and one can only hope that he gets to keep making these personal passion projects as his eye for film-making is something that shouldn't be kept from the big screen.

This film has a definite gothic creepy vibe and the early 1900's setting helps define it as a standalone entry in the horror genre. The acting is great throughout and Chastain especially shines in playing against type. As with Spectre, I am giving 3.5 out of 5 JRs for Crimson Peak, a slightly spooky visual feast with a sort of wonky plot. It's totally worth seeing in the theater (it's not playing in many anymore unfortunately) to fully realize Del Toro's vision. Let's hope he comes up with a better story to match his visual prowess next time around.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Review: Burnt

Not since Julia Child dominated PBS with her french cooking series in the 70's and 80's has cooking been so en vogue. Thanks to the over saturation of cable network channels, there's no shortage of cooking-themed television on the air.  Celebrity chefs from Gordon Ramsay to Mario Batali to Bobby Flay .  It should come as no surprise that Ramsay himself is one of the chief consultants for John Wells' chef-centric Burnt, an interesting yet flawed behind-the-scenes look into the finest kitchens in the world.

Burnt stars Bradley Cooper as Adam Jones (no, not THAT Adam Jones, nor THIS one), a two-star Michelin chef who went off the deep-end with substance abuse and is now sober and ready to make a comeback in London. His career goal is to get his third Michelin star and he ends up convincing Tony, a renowned maitre d' who is looking to pump life into his father's investment, to hire him as head chef in a newly renovated restaurant.

Cooper enlists the help of a team of cooks and kitchen experts led by the fiery understudy Helene played by the lovely Sienna Miller.  We see Jones' culinary squad go through highs and lows in responding to the high demand that Jones has in his kitchen.  Cooper does his best Ramsay impression by hurling both full plates of food and F-bombs at his co-workers.  Towards the middle of the film, Jones ends up competing with a rival chef played way over-the-top by The Americans' Matthew Rhys.  The dramatic highlights occur when the kitchen is trying to plate a pristine meal to impress the Michelin food critics who arrive at restaurants around the wold unannounced but with certain "tells" (ordering a half-bottle of wine and leaving a fork on the floor to test the wait staff).

This film ends up providing a solid behind-the-curtain look at the fine-culinary industry.  We see quick-cut scenes of food and detailed chef preparation techniques.  Cooper once again proves his versatility and can play basically any role nowadays.  Miller was competent as the supporting love-interest / eager sous chef.  You can tell she and Cooper have developed a quality chemistry on-screen after appearing in consecutive movies together (American Sniper).  Rush's supremely talented Daniel Bruhl plays the role of Tony and is humorous and engaging at times.  The biggest problem with this movie lies in the overall story.  It really dragged at times and was completely railroaded by the totally unnecessary  introduction of a group of thugs trying to get drug money back from Jones.  The movie score was a little too new age and over the top as well.  We also got some random strange-casting appearances from Uma Thurman as a food critic (she's on screen for basically 3 minutes) and Emma Thompson as Jones' counselor (I feel that an actress of her caliber is too good for this film and her presence was a little distracting).

The overall acting ends up carrying the sub-standard plot and I did like the Michelin-critic angle as well. Despite some consistent flaws, this is an easy movie to watch and you can't help but marvel at the intensity and commitment that Bradley Cooper brings to his work.  A passable 3 out of 5 JRs for Burnt.  Not quite as good as Jon Favreau's Chef but a little bit better than an episode of Kitchen Nightmares.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Reviews: Room & Bridge of Spies

Room is a small Canadian film staring two relatively unknown actors in which half of the film takes place in a single small room within a garden shed.  It is unique, introspective, thought provoking, harrowing, depressing and a total immersive experience for the audience. Dealing with the horror and weight of abduction and the plight of single-mother parenting totally on her own, it is simply the best movie of 2015 so far and a vehicle to stardom and recognition for it's two young stars.

Emma Donoghue, an Irish-Canadian writer, wrote the novel Room in 2010, telling the story of Joy Newsome (played brilliantly by Brie Larson) who ends up being abducted as a 17 year old and kept prisoner for 7 years in a compact room in the backyard of a maniac in Ohio.  During her time held captive, she gives birth to a child named Jack who spends his first 5 years of his life completely confined to the small space.  The book was written from the perspective of Jack (Canadian actor Jacob Tremblay), but in director Lenny Abrahamson's film adaptation, we are observing the events as a witness, sometimes in the head of Jack, sometimes from Joy's perspective suffering along with them as they attempt to survive in a seemingly helpless situation.

It's not a spoiler to reveal that Joy and Jack do eventually escape the room.  This happens midway through the film and is referenced in the trailer. The film sort of plays out in three acts.  The frustrating isolation of the room, the escape from captivity and reuniting with family, and finally the reacclimation to everyday life which ends up being the most fascinating aspect of the movie.  We have two characters who spent 5 years together in isolation and must now interact with the rest of the world around them.  They relish their newfound freedom but naturally have problems with everyday tasks and communication (especially Jack who has known of no other than his Mom and her kidnapper "Old Nick"). and the experience of being free and living life completely different than the past 7 years.

Seeing these types of stories (like the Ariel Castro kidnapping in Cleveland a few years ago) I feel so much rage at the kidnapper involved.  The role of Old Nick, played by, is a thankless one and Sean Bridgers does a good job of being creepy, awkward and sinister at the same time.  Of course Nick thinks he's the hero in this situation when in reality he is just a demented monster who needs to be locked up (or better yet) put to death.  Seeing Joy and Jack in the room and what they went through you become totally invested in their well being outside the room in the third act.  When they struggle with their issues and communication to their family (including solid turns by William H. Macy and Joan Allen) you feel for them because you were there trapped with them in such a confined space.

The real power and soul of this movie lies with Larson and Tremblay.  Larson is a shoe-in for a Best Actress nomination and painfully emotes the struggles she has to deal with in caring for her child while thwarting off the threat of Old Nick.  When she slowly loses it in readjusting to her family life outside the room, we understand all the emotional baggage she's carrying.  Physically and emotionally it will be hard for Larson to exceed what will probably be her career defining performance.  This movie just doesn't work without a competent believable child actor and Tremblay knocks it out of the park.  Asking any actor, let alone an 8-year-old boy (he plays three years younger in the movie) to convey the wonder and discovery of seeing the real world for the first time at age 5 is a task of the highest order.  Somehow, Tremblay nails that sense of amazement in experiencing everything he read about and only saw on TV.  For all his life the only window in the room was a small skylight in the roof.  It's a product of the writing of Donoghue and the genuine portrayal from Tremblay that makes this film so interesting to watch.  If I'm a member of the Academy, I'm not only nominating Tremblay right now for Best Supporting Actor,  I'm giving him the damn award (which would make him the youngest Oscar winner ever).  I don't know if the Academy is ready to nominate an 8 year old but I really hope they do so.

It's a testament to the acting and pacing of this film that I felt glued to my seat throughout and despite seeing it on Sunday night at 9:30 PM, I never felt like I was on the verge of dozing off.  This film pulls you in at the beginning and never lets go.  Yes, it's an awful depressing story that has somewhat of a hopeful ending, but I don't let that affect my judgment of the filmmaking as a whole.  This movie needs to be seen.  Larson and Tremblay need to be honored for their work in making this tragedy so human to witness.  At this point in the movie season, Room is the film to beat for Best Picture in my opinion.  We still have a long way to go but I definitely think at least Brie Larson should be looking at renting her Oscar dress and better start preparing her speech as well.  5 JRs for Room, a completely engrossing story about the love between mother and child against all odds.

I wanted to add another small review of Bridge Of Spies which I saw last week, Steven Spielberg's latest film about the Cold War spy game between the USA, Germany and Russia during the 1950's and 60's. Tom Hanks plays James Donovan an attorney that becomes involved with defending a suspected Russian spy Rudolph Abel (played with a joyously minimal amount of enthusiasm by Mark Rylance).  In the process of representing Abel, Donovan is asked to travel to Berlin and help negotiate the trade of Abel for two Americans held captive by Russia and Germany (one of which is a captured American Spy).

The middle of this film is slow at times but once the spy trade intrigue picks up in the final third, it's classic Spielberg/Hanks magic.  Spielberg is a total pro at using inventive camera angles and managing the pace of the tension that builds before the prisoner exchange.  And here we have Hanks, now a total Hollywood living legend.  He plays the unassuming hero role to a "T" and we really are watching this generation's Jimmy Stewart at work.  When Hanks and Spielberg get together, it's a must-see in my book and this film does not disappoint.

Clever and entertaining throughout, this is one of the better films of the year and earns a 4.5 out of 5 JR rating.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Review: Steve Jobs, Two Bonus Reviews

The story of former Apple CEO Steve Jobs has been told multiple times through several different mediums.  Actors from Noah Wylie to Ashton Kuchar have had a chance to play the man in the Dad jeans and black turtleneck who helped revolutionize the tech industry.  Now it's Michael Fassbender's turn to take the reigns in Danny Boyle's Steve Jobs, a blow-by-blow look at the career of the computer visionary through three key product launches.

Boyle gives us Fassbender as Jobs and lets him lead the show, he commands the screen every time he's on it and does a great job of showing the passion that drove Apple to grow into the cult company it is now.  Jobs is portrayed as a heartless genius who only cares about the bottom line and wants to do everything his way.  The idea of a closed computing infrastructure (different from Windows and *now* Android) comes off as a giant ego trip.  I've always been more of an Android guy than an Apple guy and this film reinforces my beliefs.  Fassbender embodies the sliminess and calculating nature of Jobs, showing how careless he is of the important people in his life.  He is simply one of the best actors working today and will certainly be one of the front-runners for Best Actor at the Oscars.

Aaron Sorkin wrote this film and a lot of it plays like The Social Network (which he also wrote).  If you enjoy heavy talking and confrontational conversation in your films, you'll probably enjoy Sorkin's script here. We see frequent arguments and back-and-forth between Fassbender, Kate Winslet (as Jobs' work-wife Johanna Hoffman), Seth Rogan (Steve Wozniak) and Jeff Daniels (former Apple CEO John Sculley). The huge problem in my mind is that almost all of these scenes are set right before a key product launch (Macintosh, NEXT Cube and the iMac).  It's just hard to believe that all of these meaningful conversations actually occurred minutes before Jobs would go on stage to make a major announcement.  Maybe it's because I work in the tech industry that I was disappointed by both The Social Network and this film.  I feel that I am looking for more scenes about the technology involved and not the verbal confrontation between titans of industry.

Unfortunately, Danny Boyle doesn't really have much to do in this film as a result of the script.  We see audience shots, shots of Jobs going on and off stage and that's about it.  There are some flashback sequences to Jobs and Woz working in a garage but that's about it. We've seen Boyle at his best in Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours, 28 Days Later, etc..  All of these movies allow Boyle to get creative with his camera work but Steve Jobs and Sorkin's script lock everything into green rooms and auditoriums.  It becomes monotonous at times and I just kept waiting for something different.  The film doesn't even touch on the iPhone and only hints at the iPod towards the end of the movie.  I left the theater feeling very unsatisfied.

Rogan as Wozniak brings a breath of fresh air to a droll film.  It's fun watching him counter Jobs' beliefs and the audience really ends up siding with him during key moments of the film.  I think this is Rogan's most "grown-up" performance and might actually deserve a Supporting Actor nomination.  Without a doubt it's the acting from Fassbender and Rogan that is the main highlight of this movie, without the two of them bringing their A-game, this film would probably be unwatchable.

Steve Jobs is a one-note film that becomes very repetitive at times and clearly shows the faults of a creative genius without showcasing a lot of his accomplishments.  I really would have liked to have seen Jobs interact with the world outside of auditorium backstages.  The only reason I am not putting this in the 2 JR range is because of the excellent acting from everyone involved.  This is one of Danny Boyle's more forgettable films and I reluctantly give Steve Jobs 3 out of 5 JRs. If you do see it, WAIT for video. This film definitely does NOT needs to be seen on a big screen but it is worthwhile to watch for Fassbender and Rogan's work.

I saw two other movies within the past few weeks and wanted to give a quick-hit review of each of them.  Pawn Sacrifice is the story of chess prodigy Bobby Fischer (Tobey Maguire), his rise to stardom and his epic battle with Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber) in Iceland in 1972.  This movie had its slow moments but gave an in-depth look at the US/USSR cold war rivalry that was duplicated as a chess game between two great players.  You really get to see the madness behind Bobby Fischer's greatness as well.  Maguire was a little over-the-top in his portrayal but it's a film you should catch on video.  Goosebumps is an adaptation of R.L. Stine's kids' book series that features monsters coming to life directly from the page of spooky books.  Jack Black stars as Stine with help from Amy Ryan and a competent supporting cast of teen actors.  This film is very funny and entertaining from start to finish.  Black is great and the monster visual effects are really well done for a PG movie.  The premise is ridiculous but executed well.  I would recommend this film to anyone who has young kids.  3.5 JRs for Pawn Sacrifice and 4 JRs for Goosebumps.

Note: I tried using Movie Pass this week.  It's a service that lets you watch one movie a day for $30 a month.  Seems pricey but I usually see 3 movies a month it seems, so paying $12 a movie would be more than the monthly fee.  I plan on giving it a try through the holidays,  so expect a lot more reviews from me over the next few months at least. If you are interested in trying it yourself, make sure you use my referral link here:

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Review: The Walk

Every once in a while a movie will come along that demands to be seen in the theater. With the rise of 3D that began with James Cameron's Avatar, Hollywood has gone all-in on big-screen 3D theater immersion. As more and more movie-goers opt to wait for On-Demand to watch blockbuster movies at home, the studios are trying to engineer experiences that can only be had in a movie theater. Robert Zemeckis' The Walk is the next film in a line of movies that are geared towards big-screen 3D viewing. Like the aforementioned Avatar, Tron Legacy and Gravity, the true biopic of wire-walker Philippe Petit's 1974 traverse across the World Trade Center in New York City is a film that HAS to be seen in IMAX 3D to be fully appreciated.

Zemeckis (along with James Cameron) is probably the biggest technical innovator in recent cinematic history. Starting with Back to the Future and through Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Contact, Forrest Gump, Cast Away and 2012's Flight, he takes pride in pushing the envelope when it comes to visual effects. With The Walk he may have out-done himself by recreating the newly constructed Twin Towers and placing a free-flowing camera in, up and around the entire structure.

The story of this film is almost secondary to the "coup" performed in the final third of the film. Joseph Gordon-Levitt (delivering lines with a very passable French accent) plays Petit as a sort of ornery acrobatic pioneer. Gordon-Levitt is able to convey the youthful enthusiasm of Petit which makes the payoff at the end of the movie seem even more powerful as a young man accomplishes a career goal. The rest of the supporting cast (including Ben Kingsley in a rather forgettable role as Petit's mentor) admirably helps guide the narrative but once Petit and his gang are in NYC, the Twin Towers themselves command the screen as the lead characters.

The scenes in and around the towers are totally majestic to experience in IMAX 3D. The various virtual camera angles that Zemickis chooses help bring the viewer up to the 110th story of the complex along with Petit and his crew. In preparing for the walk there were several shots on the edge of the tower where you IN YOUR SEAT IN THE ACTUAL THEATER feel as if you are a few inches from falling and plummeting to the concrete below. The digital wizardry on-screen is complimented with tension sounds of the wire and the August wind whipping between the towers. I can't overstate this enough. My stomach was in knots for the final 20-30 minutes of this film. I'm not really afraid of heights but I've never experienced a sensation in a movie similar to this. I can't imagine it being anywhere close to the same feeling if I had viewed it without the Real-D glasses on my nose. As with Gravity in particular, the 3D effects help grab the attention of the audience and effectively bring them into the screen as a part of the action.  The only problem here is that the other two thirds of this film are not as immersive. Gravity's 3D sensation was able to grab hold of me from the beginning and never let go. (As I think back to it more-and-more, Gravity is probably the best theater experience I've ever had)

The end of the film (after the walk is complete) becomes a sort of silent memoriam for the World Trade Center. Never before have the two towers been depicted so gloriously on-screen. With the 3D visuals you really do get to feel just how mammoth these structures were and how tied to their city they ended up being (despite an auspicious beginning in the 70's). 9-11 is never mentioned but as a viewer, you can't help thinking about the lives and memories unnecessarily taken away on that day. Zemeckis shows you all aspects of the architectural jewels that were senselessly wiped away from the canvas of Manhattan.

If this type of movie at all interests you (and you can handle sensations of extreme height), then you NEED to see it (*cough* IMAX *cough* *cough* 3D) before it leaves theaters. I doubt I will ever re-watch this film as I feel seeing it at home without the three dimensional depth of a movie theater will not allow the effect duplication of being 110 stories in the air.  Zemeckis (who coincidentally was born exactly 23 years before me) has added another technical marvel to his arsenal of Hollywood wizardry and will hopefully be rewarded by an Oscar. Despite some slow development in the first half of the film, the final act is WELL worth the price of admission and earns The Walk 4.5 JRs out of 5 and a spot as one of the best film experiences of 2015.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Reviews: Black Mass & The Martian

Scott Cooper brought Jeff Bridges his long awaited Oscar in Crazy Heart and now he's trying to do the same with Johnny Depp in Black Mass.  Depp plays real life crime-boss Whitey Bulger as we see the life of a gangster informant played out through the 70's and 80's in Boston.  Depp has played a few villainous characters over his career but Bulger is definitely the darkest.

Cooper brings out a great supporting cast with Joel Edgerton, Bennedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon and Dakota Johnson (proving that she's ready to move on from 50 Shades of Grey).  Edgerton in particular helps balance the story but I can't help think he's starting to look more and more like a Conan O'Brien clone. He plays FBI agent John Connelly who enlists the help of Bulger to provide inside information on organized crime in Boston. The film chronicles the back and forth between Bulger and that leads to the ultimate demise of the crime boss.

Depp totally owns this film and commands your attention everytime he appears on-screen. He's very effective as a soft-spoken (at times) calculating villain, but I can't help but see elements of Sweeney Todd at certain times in the film. Some of his facial expressions.  We can probably just chalk this phenomenon up to "that's what Johnny looks like when he gets angry" and leave it at that. As in Donny Brasco before it, Depp seems to be right at home in movies about organized crime. He is able to overcome some shortcomings in the script and make Cooper's film better than has any right to be.

This film is enjoyable to watch but has its slow moments.  Some of the fake Boston accents put on by the actors (especially Cumberbatch and Edgerton) are a little over the top.  However, it is Depp's performance alone that saves this film.  He is menacing, calculating and downright creepy at times. This is probably one of his very best performances and one that should earn him an Oscar nomination. I'm not sure it's quite good enough to win but we'll see next February. A solid but slightly flawed film from Cooper that earns a respectable 3.5 out of 5 JRs. You can wait for video on this one, but definitely see it at some point for a career turn by Johnny Depp.

Ridley Scott makes his triumphant return to outer space with The Martian, the story of Mark Watney, an American astronaut accidentally left behind on the surface of Mars without proper supplies or food and the coordinated rescue mission that is launched to save him. Scott most recently left Earth in 2012 to film (the is it or isn't it Alien prequel) Prometheus and Matt Damon (who plays Watney) left Earth just last year in Christopher Nolan's Interstellar. Scott gathers a cast of A-List actors to assist in this action/drama/comedy and we are left with an entertaining, but not totally satisfying motion picture.

This story of bringing an astronaut back to earth is adapted from the book of the same name by computer scientist Andy Weir.  Weir's plot helps fuel the narrative as we are thrust between Mars, Mission Control and various labs and research locations as all of NASA attempts to work together to solve a series of problems. Damon becomes the focal point of this film and like him or not (and I really do like me some Matt Damon) you're stuck with him for nearly 2.5 hours. His portrayal of Watney comes across a little smug and not totally likable. He really does give a complete performance (especially since he's on screen alone so much) but I don't really think it's his best performance of his career and one that does not really deserve Oscar attention.

The best part of this film is the visuals of Mars and the way Scott is able to show how vast and desolate the planet is.  Shot on location in Jordan (sweet!) we get to see large wastelands of red terrain that make it seem even more impossible that someone can survive on Mars for two years by themselves. Scott brings the tension through a constant check on the date (mission days are referred to as "sols") and through scientific calculations that force decisions to be made quicker than folks at NASA are comfortable with. He manages to keep the pacing solid, making the long film go by a bit quicker than you would imagine. Scott also expertly weaves a fragmented set of locations and characters, keeping the audience interested at all times. You can tell Sir Ridley is just VERY comfortable shooting films set in outer space.

I definitely didn't LOVE this film (and I really wanted to). It was very entertaining and most of the acting is great (Chiwetel Ejiofor gives the movie's best performance and he really is due for an Oscar one of these years). It just didn't really move me like Gravity and Interstellar did. Both of those space films were more complete in my mind and I thought the journey to the far reaches of space that Nolan brought us felt more epic and tense than the effort to save Mark Watney.  We also got to know the main characters in those films a bit more through character development and back story. I really wanted to see Sandra Bullock and Matthew Mcconaughey survive their space adventures, but if Matt Damon didn't make it back I really wouldn't have been that broken up about it.

Another problem I had was with the shear scope of the cast. Ejiofor, Damon, Jessica Chastain and Jeff Daniels were all acceptable in their roles, but adding on countless other stars in Kristin Wiig, Kate Mara, Michael Pena, Sean Bean (who is in a hilarious scene that mentions Lord of the Rings) and even Donald Glover (who seemed to be randomly forced into the film).  Sometimes less is more (hell, Gravity really only had two actors) and in this case I don't think all of these stars (especially Wiig and Glover) were needed. I actually enjoyed Prometheus a lot more than this film, probably primarily because the tone seemed more dark and serious and there were just too many corny moments mixed into The Martian's plot to keep me fully invested.

That being said, this is a very good movie that needs to be seen on the big screen. Shot in 3D it was effective to watch this with glasses on as well (especially the scenes in space towards the end of the film). I hope Ridley Scott keeps sticking to his science fiction roots which has become a sweet spot for him at his advanced age (77). I am excited to see that Hollywood has fallen in love with outer space exploration once again and I hope we'll continue to see well-told stories of space pioneering on the big screen.  Teetering between 3.5 and 4 I'll give 4 out of 5 JRs for a flawed, sometimes hilarious but still very exciting space epic. It's Ridley Scott and not Matt Damon that make The Martian work for the most part.

Stay tuned for my next review of Robert Zemeckis' The Walk (IMAX 3D) which I plan on seeing later today.