Trick or Treat: Trailer or Spoiler Big Deluxe Halloween Edition

Mindscape, movie, poster, Mark Strong, Taissa Farmiga, Jorge Dorado

 

There’s a bumper crop of new films headed for your multiplex. Luckily I’m here to help you separate the wheat from the chaff with brand new trailers for a handful of those films.  Since it is Halloween, I’ve chosen four with lots of candy supernatural, spooky or fantastic overtones. Okay, so The Wolf of Wall Street doesn’t actually have any of those, but it has Leonardo DiCaprio directed by Martin Scorsese (which means it could conceivably be fantastic). I just thought the title looked good with the other three. Sue me.

Okay, so that was a trick, now for some treats: We’ll start with the first English language trailer for the supernatural thriller, Mindscape, about a man with the ability to enter peoples’ minds and memories (see? Spooky!),  who takes on the case of a brilliant, yet troubled sixteen-year-old girl. Is she a victim…or a sociopath? Dun dun dun…

Produced and “presented” by Jaume Collet-Serra (Orphan, Unknown), Mindscape marks the feature directorial debut of Jorge Dorado, for which he has assembled a pretty impressive cast. It includes the smoldering Mark Strong (in a leading role, huzzah!) as John, and Taissa Farmiga (“American Horror Story”) as Anna,  with Brian Cox, Indira Varma (“Rome”, “Luther”), Noah Taylor and Saskia Reeves.

Walk this way and have a look at the trailer:

See? Candy. Finely chiseled rock candy…

Admittedly, I’m an easy sell, since this promises to have, ounce per ounce, more Mark Strong than anything else on his big screen resume, but I think the film itself has enormous potential.  It’s being compared to Inception, and it turns out mind-bending thrillers with ambiguous endings are popular if done right. On the other hand, Inception is undoubtedly the gold-standard of the genre and if Mindscape doesn’t get good “word-of-mouth”, that comparison might spell disaster. (Much the way that being compared to “Breaking Bad” did that other Mark Strong-starring project, AMC’s “Low Winter Sun”, no favors either.)

We don’t have any domestic release information yet, but since they’ve bothered to put out an English trailer, I’d say they’ll be forthcoming. Warner Brothers has the rights both domestically and overseas. They’ll open it in Dorado’s native Spain first (fitting of course. It premiered at the Sitges Film Festival as well) on 31st January 2014.  That tells me that since it won’t be opening cold in the dread January doldrums in this country, the WB must have some faith in it.

This first trailer sets up the story in only bold strokes. My interest is piqued, but I don’t feel like I’ve seen the whole movie in two and a half minutes, which, as you know, I consider to be a very good thing,  We’ll see how much we’re given next time, but for now, they’re doing it right.

Moving on to long, tall British Curley Whirley candy

Richard Armitage, Thorin Oakenshield, The Hobbit, movie, still

via imdb

The second in a trilogy of films adapting the enduringly popular masterpiece The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug continues the adventure of the title character Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) as he journeys with the Wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and thirteen Dwarves, led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) on an epic quest to reclaim the lost Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor.

I still don’t understand why the “Lord of the Rings Trilogy” got only one movie per book and “The Hobbit” is one book with three movies. I hope it’s because Peter Jackson knows that the world just doesn’t want to part company forever with the hobbits, elves, dwarves, dragons, trolls and wizards that we all know and love, and not so they can fleece us of our hard earned cash. It’s the dreamer in me.  I’m certainly not immune to the draw and I am eagerly awaiting this installment.

While this is the first full-length trailer for The Desolation of Smaug, there has been a version of this kicking around since late summer. We’re all familiar with Jackson’s vision of Middle Earth and with this bit of carefully curated footage, we’re immersed in it once more. The first of the Hobbit series may not have been as warmly greeted as the LOTR trilogy, after all there were all sorts of plot lines going off in a lot of directions (the better to justify three movies), and it was a setup for the next two, but this middle segment looks to pack in a lot more action, as well as getting to some of those portents of events yet to come that we’ve been expecting, since this is still and all a prequel to what we’ve already got committed to memory.

Bilbo lies to Gandalf about his discovery of the One Ring, and for his part, he warns about the rise of Sauron’s forces. Orlando Bloom returns as Legolas and apparently has a love interest, Evangeline Lilly‘s Tauriel is an entirely new character created by screenwriter (and the world’s foremost Tolkien expert) Philippa Boyens “to bring feminine energy {to the film}… completely within the spirit of Tolkien”. We also see the Dwarves, led by Thorin Oakenshield (Armitage) as they seek help from their arch enemies, the Elves and their king Thranduil (Lee Pace).

The main event, of course is Bilbo’s first encounter with Smaug,  the dragon who has taken over the Lonely Mountain.

“”Well thief, where are you? Come now, don’t be shy. Step into the light,”

Was that what you imagined Tolkien’s  villainous dragon would sound like? It’s exactly what I imagined. Benedict Cumberbatch nailed it, in my humble opinion, and that for me was the burning question that Peter Jackson had to answer here. Is it a spoiler? Hell no. It’s an enticement, exactly what a good trailer should do. Since this is essentially Smaug’s movie,  and Smaug, a dragon, is going to be entirely CGI, we have to be hooked by the visuals and the sound of his voice.  It seems to me that we can also trust  that the rest of the story he’s wrapped in will be the spectacular visual and visceral experience we’ve come to expect from Jackson.

A batch of new tv spots have recently popped up as well – online, even if they’re not yet saturating the television. I’m especially fond of this one:

“I have the only right.”

Richard Armitage has another one of those great British voices that I could just listen to read the phone book or the back of a soup can. I’m glad he’s getting some exposure, even if he is pretty much unrecognizable.

As luck would have it, five new international posters were released today as well. They feature Bilbo, Gandalf, Elves Legolas, Tauriel and Thranduil, Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) and Dwarves Kili (Aidan Turner), Fili (Dean O’Gorman) and Thorin. More treats! You can check them out below.

X-Men:Days of Future Past, Patrick Stewart, James McAvoy, Charles Xavier, poster, movie

via imdb

Discussing the trailer for X-Men: Days of Future Past is, for me, the perfect Michael Fassbender interlude, between having written about the intensity of his performance in The Counselor, and preparing to write about the infinitely more intense performance he gives in 12 Years a Slave. Although quite frankly, there isn’t nearly enough German Irish Crème candy in this trailer.

What there is a lot of, is the older Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and the younger (James McAvoy) and as hoped, the twain shall meet. This trailer has been picked over with the proverbial fine toothed comb (more like tweezers) by those more familiar with X-Men lore than I, but even the eyes of this philistine caught a lot that was familiar, including Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine (hell after 7 movies, if you don’t know Wolverine, why are still reading this?), Halle Berry’s Storm, Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), Iceman (Shawn Ashmore), Rogue (Anna Paquin) all from first series and Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique, and Nicholas Hoult as Beast from X-Men: First Class. Mercifully, there was no January Jones as Emma Frost. I saw a lot of new characters that look intriguing, like Bishop (Omar Sy), Sunspot (Adan Canto), Blink (Fan Bing Bing), and Warpath (Booboo Stewart), but about which I don’t have a clue. Then there’s villain Bolivar Trask played by Peter Dinklage, whose casting had the fanboys foaming at their mouths from the moment it was leaked online.

The ultimate X-Men ensemble fights a war for the survival of the species across two time periods in X-Men: Days of Future Past. The characters from the original X-Men film trilogy join forces with their younger selves from X-Men: First Class in an epic battle that must change the past – to save our future.

The focus in this first trailer is clearly Professor X, but since I’m still not sure what exactly the plot is, other than it will feature “an epic battle that must change the past – to save our future”, which obviously means the two Xs have to work together to avoid some catastrophe (and I really don’t want to think too long on the science or the whole space/time continuum thing), I’d say that’s the mark of a good trailer.  I’m already looking ahead to the next one, thinking that it will give us the Magneto we (or just I) crave.

I do know that the storyline for X-Men: Days of Future Passed comes from the similarly titled comic-book? graphic novel? by Chris Claremont and John Byrne.  XMDoFP will also see the return of director Bryan Singer (After XMFC director Matthew Vaughn passed), who created the series by hasn’t directed an installment since 2003’s X2. The bad news is that it was written by hit-or-miss Simon Kinburg who wrote Mr & Mrs Smith and 2009’s Sherlock Holmes, but was also responsible for This Means War and X-Men: The Last Stand, generally considered to be the worst in the series.  Luckily, Kinburg worked from Matthew Vaughn’s story. (If Vaughn had been allowed to go with his initial idea, to make XMDoFP a direct sequel to XMFC, which would have included things like Magneto being responsible for the Kennedy assassination, he would have directed as well.) Keep your digits, paws and flippers crossed for this one.

If you want more, MTV has the trailer with Bryan Singer’s commentary. X-Men: Days of Future Passed is currently scheduled for US release May 23, 2014.

Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street, Jordan Belfort, Martin Scorsese, movie

via imdb

So what’s Leonardo DiCaprio? I don’t know. Given how long I’ve had a crush on him and how good he continues to be, how about an Everlasting Gobstopper? No? What’ve you got?

The Wolf of Wall Street, directed by Martin Scorsese, chronicles the true story of Jordan Belfort, a Wall Street wizard living large in early 90’s Manhattan. The flick charts Belfort’s (played by Scorsese muse DiCaprio)  involvement with crime, corruption, an expensive drug habit and the Feds, bumps on the way down from Park Avenue all the way to Taft Federal Correctional Institution, where he spent four years for securities fraud and money laundering (and with his cell-mate Tommy Chong). The penny stock “boiler room” he operated served as the inspiration for the the 2000 film The Boiler Room which starred Ben Affleck, Vin Diesel and Giovanni Ribisi. The Wolf of Wall Street costars Jonah Hill, Matthew McConaughey (who has been in the most incredible streak of incredibly good movies, giving incredible performances in all of them), Jon Bernthal (who knew zombies could be so could for one’s career? Then again, just ask Zack Snyder about that one), Jon Favreau, Kyle Chandler, Shea Whigham, Joanna Lumley, Rob Reiner and Jean Dujardin.

That trailer is actually the second one released. Does it give anything away? Yes, but in this case, the particulars are known. We’re not looking for surprises. We’re looking to experience the schadenfreude that comes from watching the “haves” get caught with their hands in the cookie jar and get punished for it. Warner Brothers knows that with this cast and this director, they need only make sure they bang the drum loudly enough throughout middle America, and it will make piles of money. Hence the new trailer.

Scorsese, one of the producers of HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire”, turned to that show’s creator and head writer (Terrence Winter) for his screenplay. I think we can expect The Wolf of Wall Street to be howlingly good. My description may be lame, but c’mon, it’s already been added to the Oscar “most likely to be nominated” list in the Best Actor, Picture, Director and Adapted Screenplay categories. They may think of a new category for Jonah Hill’s teeth.

The Wolf of Wall Street, it has finally been confirmed, will come out on Christmas Day here in the US. Santa is giving movie goers a lot of choices that day, including Labor Day with Kate Winslet, Ben Stiller‘s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and pure-bred Oscar bait, August: Osage County, to name but a few. So any adult who gives their money to Justin Bieber (who also has a movie opening that day) instead of well made adult fare like this, deserves a lump of coal.

That’s it for this installment. Four trailers done right. Happy Halloween boys and ghouls!

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Gerard Butler Set to Keep London Bridge From Falling Down…Maybe

Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart, bromance, movie, Olympus Has Fallen

via imdb

Now that Olympus has been reduced to rubble, Gerard Butler and company are taking their show on the road. It’s just been announced that a sequel, London Has Fallen, is scheduled to begin shooting in Old Blighty next spring.

No director has yet been named, but Katrin Benedikt and Creighton Rothenberger will again write the screenplay. Millennium Films is financing and will produce along with Alan Siegel and Butler’s G-Base (formerly known as Evil Twins), as well as Mark Gill, Matt O’Toole and Danny Lerner, while Avi Lerner, Trevor Short, Boaz Davidson, John Thompson and Christine Crow will exec. produce. Focus Features (which swallowed up Film District, which distributed the original) will release the film in the US.

Butler, along with Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman, Radha Mitchell and Angela Bassett are all reportedly on board. (So why isn’t OHF director Antoine Fuqua…yet? After the lovefest between Butler and Fuqua during press for OHF, there can’t be any bad blood there…can there? Surely not between any of the other producers? Olympus Has Fallen brought in $161m worldwide from a budget of approx. $40m. So, that can’t be it. Is he holding out for more money? I suppose we’ll soon find out.)

Okay, those are facts (along with a little conjecture). I just haven’t decided how I feel about this. On the one hand, it means that Olympus Has Fallen was a big enough hit that, according to the suits and bean counters, it merits a sequel. On the other hand, does it actually merit a sequel? Few films, in my humble opinion, do. Dollars (rubles, pounds, euros whatever) in the till should not be the only criterion. Is there more story to tell? The answer to that questions would appear to be no, since the plot sounds like it’s going to be a rehash, set in a different city:

There’s a  plot to strike the city of London during the funeral of the British Prime Minister. Only the President Of The United States (Eckhart), his secret service head (Butler) and an English MI6 agent can save the day.

This could be good if that agent is James Bond, played by Daniel Craig. Hey, I can dream. As long as it’s not Johnny English, there’s hope.

Please don’t misunderstand me. Would I like to see more of Special Agent Mike Banning as he wrecks havoc from Piccadilly to Mayfair, all the while gruffly spouting humorous one-liners and kicking terrorist ass? Of course I would. (Especially if it will mean another press tour featuring my new favorite bromance, Butler and Eckhart.) However, that’s not to say that I should. Sequels, with very few exceptions, do not live up to their originals, nor the hype with which they are inevitably surrounded in order to sell you a ticket.

Butler was smart enough to take a pass on the 300 sequel, but that was before his terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year…or couple of years. I need not devote any more space to a defense of his past projects. The fact is, prior to OHF, his last couple of movies were box office duds, regardless of their respective actual merits. And we all know the saying, “You’re only as good as your last picture”. **

If all goes according to plan, London Has Fallen will go before the cameras on May 5, 2014. (So I’m assuming they’re looking at a 2015 release). Watch this space for updates.

Source: ScreenDaily.com

**Actress Marie Dressler upon acceptance of her Academy Award for Best Actress for Min and Bill, 1930

See The Counselor For The Counselor

**What follows may contain spoilers, although I do try to sidestep them.**

The Counselor, movie, poster, Michael Fassbender, Sir Ridley Scott

via imdb

I’ll begin by reiterating something I’m sure that even the most casual reader of this blog has probably  already figured out by now, and that is that I am a fan of Michael Fassbender. I have been since the first time I saw the trailer for 300. Yes, yes, he’s gorgeous, but he’s also one of a handful of what I consider to be truly great working actors and I don’t think he’s even at the height of his powers yet. I’ve been waiting for the release of the first “mainstream” movie (it’s at least got the widest initial opening, with more than 3000 screens) in which he gets to be the leading man. I just wish it were a better movie.  Sir Ridley Scott’s The Counselor is just not equal to the sum of its parts and taken individually, there are some pretty great parts.

The plot is pretty straightforward, “A lawyer’s one-time dalliance with an illegal business deal spirals out of control.” But the plot is merely a delivery device for some stunning visuals, terrific performances and Sir Ridley Scott and Cormac McCarthy’s own brand of morality play. The Counselor (no other name given) is repeated given warnings about what the possible consequences of his actions could be and to make damn sure he’s willing to pay the price. Does he heed these warnings? Noooooo. If he did we wouldn’t have a movie would we? That much is evident from the trailer.

We’ll get back to Fassy, but in discussing the four principals, let’s start with Brad Pitt. Now, Mr. Pitt has achieved that level of stardom where we, as moviegoers, rarely ever see him as anything other than Brad Pitt, the ex-Mr. Aniston, the Bra in Brangelina. It’s easy to forget that he’s a very good actor when he’s allowed to be. Here he gets to lose himself in a character. His twangy “Missourah” accent works for Westray, as does the long stringy hair and mustache. The brown contact lenses, not so much. I think they must be part of Pitt’s ongoing attempts to down-play his good looks. Westray is a kind of soothsayer, his major function is to deliver the most overt of the above mentioned warnings.

Penelope Cruz doesn’t have much to do other than be the beautiful object of the Counselor’s love and she does that very well. (She’s called Laura, but might as well be called Beatrice*. Cruz is obviously pregnant, though she’s costumed to camouflage, and she truly is glowing. It must have been nice to have been on set with her husband, Javier Bardem, even if they didn’t share a single scene. Bit of trivia: Angelina Jolie was originally going to play Malkina. That would have made two real-life couples in the movie and neither of them would have shared scenes. It would, however, have made a particular conversation between Pitt and Fassbender a lot more interesting.) The Counselor is completely and desperately in love with Laura, although we don’t know why, other than the hint that she perhaps, represents a lost innocence. The Counselor wants the good life, but he also wants the good girl.

Javier Bardem as Reiner, has received some criticism, that the character is not up to par with his last two villains, the equally coiffure-challenged Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men (for which he won an Academy Award) and Silva in Skyfall. Contrary to popular belief, however, he is not playing another villain (I do however, think his hair is a nod to NCFOM, which was, of course based on a book by The Counselor’s screenwriter Cormac McCarthy.) To Bardem’s credit is the fact that we are never quite sure whether Reiner is on the level, at least in terms of his dealings with the Counselor. It is tacitly understood from the jump that Reiner’s lifestyle is not supported by legitmate means (and we later learn that not all of his means are ill-gotten either. In fact, the Counselor wants to do the drug deal, at least in part, so that he has the cash to open a new club with Reiner.) He’s weird and eccentric, but likeable…as opposed to his girlfriend.

Where this movie took a wrong turn, and then just kept going, was in casting Cameron Diaz. Now I admit I’m not a fan of Ms. Diaz and I’ve been skeptical of her involvement in this movie since her casting was announced. I think she peaked with Something About Mary. Here, she seems to be doing a riff on her Bad Teacher character, except that she’s playing it straight and not for laughs. The hair and makeup and costuming are so on the nose as to be almost laughable. Her name is Malkina. We get it, she’s bad. Did she really have to look like Cruella deVille? (She truly does, just my humble opinion, although instead of wearing Dalmatian pelts, she’s covered in leopard spot tatts and travels around with two cheetahs.) The scene she shares with Cruz serves to point up the latter’s lack of guile and the former’s lack of a moral compass. (This is then hammered home in a bizarre scene involving a confessional. Oh well, at least it had Édgar Ramirez in it.) Malkina is supposed to be evil-incarnate, but it’s a self-centered form of evil that’s donned like a cloak that she believes makes her look sexy and irresistable. It doesn’t.  And the profundity of the lines she’s given to recite is all but lost in the community theater-quality delivery.

Michael Fassbender, on the cover of the current issue of GQ is called “The Leading Man Hollywood’s Been Waiting For.” Whether or not this is prescience or a curse remains to be seen, but I will tell you (all fan-gurling aside) that if there is any one reason to see The Counselor, it is Michael Fassbender.  It is a performance of rippling highs and lows. He is effortlessly sensual and sexual (and nearly giddy), in his scenes with Penelope Cruz, whether they are rolling around (literally) under the sheets in the opening scene (seriously, that is an Olympic level of explicitly non-explicit hotness. I wanted to hold up a card with a “10” on it) or just casually draped over his impeccable couch in his impeccable lounge pants as he talks to her on the phone. (The smokey growl has always been there, but I swear he lowered his voice an octave for this role. Perhaps it’s the American accent.)  Okay, maybe some of that was fan-gurling, but it’s all of the other moments as well that add up to another bold performance.

The Counselor starts out smug and supremely confident in the idea that he can do this deal and get out “clean”; that he can do business with criminals, but not be of them. What we know from conversations between the Counselor and both Westray and Reiner is that this is the biggest illegal activity he’s ever participated in. It may or may not be the first. We’re given clues that could go either way in scenes with Toby Kebbell (using an outrageous southern accent), who is obviously holding a grudge for something that we aren’t privy to and another with the incarcerated Rosie Perez, but he passes off his relationship to her as down to court-appointed pro bono work.

It is obvious from the trappings of his life that he’s been heretofore very successful on his chosen career path, including the Bentley, a gorgeous home, Armani suits, flying to Amsterdam to choose the diamond for his fiancé etc. When it all starts to go to shit, watch closely the scene in which smug turns to desperate. The scales fall from the Counselor’s eyes right in front of our own.  We follow as he bounces around against the bumpers that the unseen “they” have set up for him, like a silver pinball, all of his allies, real or imagined peeled off, one way or another, hoping to find his way to avoid going down the chute. His final scene is a culmination of all of that. There are no words, no sounds except for the wretched sounds of a soul descending into Dante’s 9th circle**.

I have read in several places that The Counselor felt more like a Tony Scott film, rather than any earlier work of Sir Ridley’s. I have to wonder if that wasn’t the point, that it aspired to be more like a Tony Scott film. Tony is not listed among the producers but the two were partners in Scott Free Productions. They always had hands in each other’s pies. (Production on The Counselor was suspended for a week following Tony Scott’s suicide in August 2012. Perhaps the elder Scott turned it into a tribute to his brother. It is dedicated to him.) While it doesn’t have Tony’s frenetic camera style, and Sir Ridley doesn’t have the same feel for “pulp” that his brother did, it does use his color palette. (More than one scene reminded me of one of Tony’s last films, Domino.) It is a visual feast, from Reiner’s colorful outfits to Malkina’s tatts to the heat-bleached desert vistas, dirty junkyards and desolate Mexican towns, juxtaposed with the cool blue of London streets. Credit cinematographer Dariusz Wolski for that as much as for the literally in-your-face photography that catches the glint of tears in the Counselor’s eyes, the malice in Malkina’s and the fear in nearly everyone else’s.

The younger Scott was also much more familiar with the geography of The Counselor than his older brother.  Of course that’s well-trod territory for the screenwriter, Cormac McCarthy. The dialogue is much more McCarthy than Tony Scott, that’s for certain. The writer of No Country for Old Men’s first original screenplay could probably have benefitted from the Coen Brothers lighter touch, but that said, what did critics and film goers who take issue with the wordy script expect? McCarthy has often been referred to as the “philosopher poet of the American Southwest” and his script is both philosophical and, at times, wonderfully poetic. Some of the speeches put into the mouths of even minor characters, are beautiful. Ruben Bladés sole purpose in the film is to deliver a prosaic treatise on the meaning of life while Fassbender listens on a cellphone, at last realizing with finality that his is over. It’s also possible that scripts are not his forte. As brilliant a writer as he is, as highly praised as his novels are, the only other script he’s responsible for is the HBO adaptation of his own play, “The Sunset Limited” (which I always get confused with the novel by James Lee Burke), and which also left critics divided.

Whatever it was that director Scott wanted, I don’t think he got it, despite the fact that it was edited by Sir Ridley’s long-time collaborator Pietro Scalia, I have to wonder, as I often do, whether or not there’s another, better movie laying about on the cutting room floor (Actually nothing makes me more sure of that than this. Even if it was never meant to go into the finished film, the fact that it exists makes me think that someone else believed that it fit. WHERE?). All of the great snapshots that comprise this movie are still all jumbled up in the box under the bed.  I had the feeling that The Counselor aspired to be a sort of sun-washed neo-noir with a Tex-Mex flavor. Instead it’s more like a classical Greek tragedy. While it may be true that not everyone is dead at the end, there is certainly no hope left.

What do you think? Did I get it wrong? Feel free to leave me a note below and let’s discuss.

*from Dante’s Inferno: Beatrice Portinari was once Dante’s fiance and true love who was killed by a Kurdish survivor from Acre out of revenge.
** also from The Inferno: the 9th circle of hell represents Treachery, in which betrayers of special relationships are frozen in a lake of ice. Inhabitants include Satan and Judas

A Question for Kevin Spacey, Along with Some Thoughts on Captain Phillips

Captain Phillips, Tom Hanks, movie, poster, Paul Greengrass, true story

via imdb

Dear Mr. Spacey,

Let me start by saying you and your producing partner at Trigger Street, Dana Brunetti, have made a fine film, a very fine film. Captain Phillips is inarguably one of the best of the year.  Tom Hanks gives such an emotional, gut-twisting, and realistic performance, that he will undoubtedly receive another well-earned Oscar nomination. (He won’t win of course. He can’t win. Not this year. If the Academy gives it to the middle-aged white guy this year of all years, there will be blood in the streets. But I digress.)

The movie follows the titular sea captain of the US container ship, Maersk Alabama, starting in the non-seafaring state of Vermont, where he bids farewell to his wife (played by the always terrific Catherine Keener in her one and only scene). There is something about their conversation in the car that is at once comfortable and mundane, and yet we feel the twinge of fear and dread that she probably always feels as he departs on one of these trips. We’d feel it even if we didn’t know what was about to happen, because she feels it. The next thing we know, we’re onboard the huge vessel as it prepares to leave the port of Oman, where it is immediately clear that Phillips himself is worried about the possibility of attack from pirates, especially in the face of his crew’s apparent lax attitude and the ship’s inadequate security measures. (People are screaming themselves hoarse to protect the rights of US citizens to own an assault rifle, but these guys, aboard an American ship aren’t allowed to have guns?)

As we come to find out, it’s not paranoia. There have been numerous recent attacks in the same waters Captain Phillips is about to navigate. And soon enough, his fears are realized as two small skiffs full of gangly young Somalis, hurling insults at each other, make a beeline for his boat. (Speaking of insults, I found it interesting that they call each other “Skinny”. I thought that was a term UN Peacekeepers used to identify, possibly to denigrate, the Somali natives, as they did in Black Hawk Down. Of course they’re skinny, a lot of them are starving. But it could stem from their natural body type, with a tendency to be tall, lean and rangy. I don’t know which came first or who picked it up from whom.)  We’re given a short scene on the beach as crews are chosen for this mission, where it’s made clear just how cutthroat the pirate business is (and it is frequently referred to as “just business” throughout the film) and that there isn’t really any honor among thieves. What is also immediately apparent is that there aren’t a lot of alternatives for these young men (and boys). This is also reiterated in a later scene, to great effect, by the pirate leader Muse (played by Barkhad Abdi in his first film).

Director Paul Greengrass, working from a script by Billy Ray (Shattered Glass) in turn based on Phillips’ own memoir, has shaped his film into a tale of two captains, Phillips and Muse. Phillips is shown as stern, humorless and a taskmaster. (The real Phillips is apparently considered something of a tyrant by his actual crew, but this is a movie.) Muse might not be much back on land, but once he boards the Alabama, the oppressed becomes the oppressor. (And Abdi is brilliant. There is nothing cliché or one-note about his performance in which he compels us to understand why he feels he has no choice, every step of the way, even when it appears he’s being given an “out” at several junctures.)

About half –way through the film goes from the expansiveness of the open sea and the massive ship, to the tiny and claustrophobic confines of an escape boat, ratcheting up the tension to an almost unbearable degree. The passage of time is marked by a sunset or cutaway to the encroaching US Navy vessel in pursuit, so we know how long those people have been crammed into that tiny space. The hand-held camera work is very effective here. It’s literally “in your face”. The fear and desperation of the occupants is palpable. (I kept thinking about how bad it must have smelled in that cramped space.)

Tom Hanks is as strong as the embattled captain facing extraordinary circumstances, playing the kind of decent, hard-working, long-suffering everyman,  as we have come to expect him to be. This is both an asset and a detriment. He is Tom Hanks the way that Tom Cruise is Tom Cruise. He can never quite disappear any longer into any role. We feel we know him as a person, as much as we know him as an actor, and all of the tools of his trade. As Captain Phillips, Hanks does seem like an able seaman, running a tight ship, maintaining discipline and trying to keep his crew safe, but it is the scenes where he and Abdi go head to head that really crackle.

But Hanks, as good as he is at giving us clues as to what Phillips is thinking, often with just flicks of his eyes, is spectacular in his final scene. It is for this scene alone that he will almost certainly garner that Oscar nomination. It is something we have never seen from Hanks and it will shake you.

There are a lot of stories of survival winging their way to your multiplex this fall and winter, all gearing up for the big awards season push. A lot of them are real life to reel life as well. (Such is the case of Hanks other would-be awards contender, Saving Mr. Banks, although it’s not a survival tale.) Captain Phillips probably isn’t an automatic best picture contender like some of the others (including Gravity and 12 Years a Slave), but it’s a thrilling two plus hours at the movies.

I do, however, have a small bone to pick with you, Mr. Spacey, and all of the other producers. After having seen the film at a 5:30pm showing on opening night, having taken the profound and often frightening journey with my fellow movie-goers in a darkened theater, twisting my napkins to shreds,  my pulse pounding in my ears as I watched the fate of the titular Captain and his captors play out in vivid Technicolor in front of me…all the while listening to the woman a few rows back trying to silence her small child, I have to ask,“Why wasn’t your film rated “R”?

Do you really believe that the intense and harrowing emotional and sometimes physical torture that Tom Hanks endured is appropriate for children? Is it appropriate for them to watch terrified people with guns to their heads in fear for their lives? “But it was rated PG-13,” you might well respond. “It’s up to the parents (or guardians) to make decisions about what is appropriate for their individual child. ”  Ah, but there’s the rub!

Any movie not rated “R” is fair game and open season. Yes, a designation of PG-13 should tell a parent (or responsible adult) that they need to use caution, that there might be imagery that a young child shouldn’t see. (Just as there are now ratings on television programs that should provide guidance.)  But there will always be those parents who think a movie ticket is cheaper than a babysitter and so bring the kid along. There are also older teens who will bring younger children with them as well. It’s not as if employees of a theater have anything to say about it. “They can do that with an “R” as well”, you counter. “It’s hard enough to get them to enforce an “R” rating.” That’s very true. But it might, actually SHOULD give more of them pause. An”R” rating is a much clearer line in the sand.

In the audience with which I saw your movie was at least one small child.  I have two issues with this, the first being that the subject matter is inappropriate. Now, on paper, one could describe your movie as having no inappropriate language and minimal violence and no onscreen bloodshed. (I’ll leave it at that, lest I spoil anything.) But even though that argument would be merely splitting hairs,  that in and of itself, as concerns that kid is not my problem. If the kid gets nightmares and keeps that parent up all night, too bad and it’s their own fault. The second issue, however, is that there is little or nothing in this movie to hold the attention of a six or seven year old. What do six or seven year olds do when they are bored? They make sure everyone knows it.  While that might not directly be your problem, it was mine. And I bought a full priced ticket. I was on the verge, on at least two occasions, of getting up and asking for my money back. As it is, I’ll want to see it again so that I can concentrate fully.

Was that your dastardly plan all along? That I buy not one ticket, but two?  Too bad. I’ll probably wait for cable.

Captain Phillips with Tom Hanks, Catherine Keener, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, Mahat M. Ali, Michael Chernus, Corey Johnson, Max Martini, Chris Mulkey, Yul Vazquez, David Warshofsky, directed by Paul Greengrass from a screenplay by Billy Ray, based on the book “A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea” by Richard Phillips with Stephan Talty, is in US theaters now.

NOTE: I thought I had posted this over a week ago (It was saved in drafts – D’oh!). In case anyone has forgotten (or never heard about) the actual incident depicted in the movie Captain Phillips, which took place in 2009,   as I post this today, I’ve just gotten an email containing a breaking news report of an incident involving the kidnapping of Americans by pirates off the coast of Nigeria. Apparently the threat is still very real.

Check Into the Trailer For Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Grand Budapest Hotel, movie, Poster

via imdb

I’ve been suffering from an extreme bout of laziness. One of the side-effects is the severe neglect of this blog. I have at least three half written discussions of the latest films I’ve seen, all awaiting completion, not to mention notes for posts about new clips and images for upcoming awards-bait.  I’ll get to them all, hopefully before they become irrelevant. What has finally jerked me out of my doldrums? Oh, just this first trailer for Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. The official trailer has just dropped, and if I was eagerly awaiting Anderson’s first film since 2012’s Moonrise Kingdom (one of my favorites of that year) before, I am now ridiculously excited!

What’s the big deal”, you ask? For one thing, I have an affinity for Anderson’s films that, much like my love of the Coen Brothers, borders on the obsessive. It has his name on it, I will see it. Period, no questions asked.  I’ve been hooked since 1996’s Bottle Rocket on Anderson’s warm, witty and often, wacky, tales of functionally dysfunctional families. (The only one I haven’t been able to give my whole heart to is The Royal Tennebaums. Against the director’s usual day-glow color palette, it just feels “drab” to me. Maybe it’s Gwyneth Paltrow’s hair. I don’t know.)

I love the troupe of players he’s assembled, some whom have been with him from the beginning, like Owen Wilson#$^+~, Bill Murray@$*+^~ and Jason Schwartzman@$*^~, others he’s added along the way, like Anjelica Huston$+^, Adrien Brody^ and Edward Norton*, but once they’re in, they’re in. I don’t know whether or not it’s true or not, but I get the feeling that his “players” are always offered roles first and depending on their schedules, it’s only after they’ve passed that anyone else gets a shot at joining “the company”.  The stunningly good cast of The Grand Budapest Hotel includes Ralph Fiennes (who replaced Johnny Depp), Wilson, Murray (their 7th collaboration), Schwartzman, Norton, Brody, Tilda Swinton* (who replaced Angela Lansbury. Wait…what?), Jude Law, Harvey Keitel*, Willem Dafoe+~, Jeff Goldblum+, Saoirse Ronan, Léa Seydoux, Mathieu Amalric^, F Murray Abraham, Bob Balaban* and Tom Wilkinson. I think we’re allowed to expect great things from a cast like that (and conversely, disappointed if we don’t get it).

Another thing I really like about Anderson is that as a writer and director he’s obviously a movie fan. The argument could be made that one would have to be a fan to work in the medium, but I’m not so sure that’s true. It’s certainly not always as evident as it is in the work of someone like Martin Scorsese or Quentin Tarantino. Anderson’s sensibilities  tend toward the romantic (at the very least a lot less gritty, bloody and violent than QT), but like QT, a lot of his work pays homage to the “Golden Age” of Hollywood”, some of which are apparent from this first trailer. Anderson has said that The Grand Budapest Hotel was directly influenced by the work of Ernst Lubitsch (Shop Around the Corner), Edmund Goulding (Grand Hotel), and Billy Wilder (To Be or Not to Be). Those first two referenced films were both set in Budapest as well.

The official synopsis:

THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL recounts the adventures of Gustave H, a legendary concierge at a famous European hotel between the wars, and Zero Moustafa, the lobby boy who becomes his most trusted friend. The story involves the theft and recovery of a priceless Renaissance painting and the battle for an enormous family fortune — all against the back-drop of a suddenly and dramatically changing Continent.

Now take a look at this:

That just makes me giddy!

I’m thrilled that, not only does Ralph Fiennes obviously have the lead, but he gets to be funny! I haven’t seen him in anything even close to a comedy since In Bruges and before that…I don’t think there is anything before that. (The Avengers** does not count – at all.)

It’s not immediately obvious, but Jude Law has reportedly let slip that the film takes place in two different eras: the 1930s and the 1960s. The apprentice “lobby boy”, Zero, is played by Tony Revolori (or Anthony Quinonez as he has been billed in everything he’s done to this point). The kid’s a relative unknown but it would appear he’s the co-lead.

Written and directed by Anderson, the film’s music was composed by the brilliant, Academy Award winning Alexandre Desplat, who was responsible for the memorable score for Moonrise Kingdom, as well as The Fantastic Mr. Fox. Costumes were designed by Milena Canonero (The Darjeeling Limited, The Life Aquatic…), Production Design by Adam Stockhausen (Moonrise Kingdom, The Darjeeling Limited) and cinematography is by Robert D. Yeoman, who has filmed every Anderson movie since Bottle Rocket.

I can not wait to see this! But, unfortunately, wait I must, since Fox Searchlight won’t let us check in to The Grand Budapest Hotel until March 7, 2014.  Until then, you can stay up-to-date at the official site.

#BottleRocket

*Moonrise Kingdom

$Royal Tennenbaums

@Rushmore

+The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

^The Darjeeling Limited

~The Fantastic Mr. Fox (voices)

** The 1998 version with Uma Thurman – I know you’d forgotten about it…or were trying to.

Hugh Jackman Gives Prisoners Conviction

Prisoners, Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, poster, movie

I still hate this overly photoshopped mess of a poster. I mean, who is that?

It was way back in May that I first talked about Prisoners with Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal. At that time I posted the trailer and asked if it was just me, or did the thing give away too much of the movie? As it turns out, it was just me and no, while the trailer might have led us (notice how I’m now including others) to believe that we could figure out where director Denis Villeneuve and writer Aaron Guzikowski have gone, believe me when I tell you that it only took us about a quarter of the way.  So first, let me just admit that I was wrong; happily, thankfully wrong, and then say, “Well done, sirs!”.

Prisoners, is not an easy film to watch. It’s a spellbinding and morally complex thriller with an unquestionably career-best performance from Hugh Jackman.  It’s also the harsh and often brutal story of two Pennsylvania families as they suffer the soul-rending experience of a parent’s worst nightmare after their daughters are both kidnapped.  It’s dark,  twisted,  and harrowing . What starts with a bucolic image of father and son on a hunting expedition, builds and builds and builds (with help from the great cinematographer Roger Deakins and his steely gray/blue color palette and Johan Johannsson’s haunting score) until the tension becomes, at times, almost unbearable.

The film turns “been there, done that, seen it before” tropes and stereotypes on their heads, though, starting with the fact that Hugh Jackman’s Keller Dover and Terrence Howard’s Franklin Birch are so effortlessly friends. They spend holidays together (the movie begins at Thanksgiving). Their wives are friends, their children are friends, including the two older teenagers. Why this is worth noting is not just the obvious, but that the Birches are the more affluent of the two.  Howard is white collar with a bigger, nicer house, nicer car etc. Keller is a carpenter. Blue-collar, whose family has probably been in the same area of rural Pennsylvania for generations; a man of faith who still teaches his son to “be ready” for anything.  All things considered (and especially when we find out what he’s storing in his basement), in another movie we would expect Dover and Birch to be at odds. It is but one deftly avoided cliché.

Another is that suspect number one, Alex (an amazingly creepy Paul Dano), lives with his aunt (Melissa Leo) in the kind of run-down, single-story, cookie-cutter aluminum sided example of depressed suburbia where all serial killers, pedophiles and drug dealers tend to reside, at least in the movies. But Villenueve, and Gruzikowski’s script, let us know that not only are they aware of these things, they let us know  that it’s okay if we’re aware of them, because they’re just the tip of the iceberg.  We know from the trailer that the police are forced to let Alex go, at which point Keller, who is as sure as we are that Alex is guilty, takes matters into his own hands, abducting the suspect and chaining him up. Again, we know this from the trailer. But if we think we’re in for another tired, trite and banal story of vigilante justice, we are wrong. This is only the beginning.

We first see Jake Gyllenhaal’s Detective Loki  watching the rain come down in sheets against the window of a Chinese restaurant (more like a diner). Despite the bright fluorescent lighting, the rain closes in the space, making it feel very forlorn. He’s spending Thanksgiving alone, flirting with the waitress, and on call, ready to respond to his radio. Loki is a study in contrasts. We are told that he has never failed to solve a case, which lets him get away with insulting his superiors.  Despite his wide blue eyes, Loki’s face is closed, like the top button on his shirts, the collars of which don’t entirely cover what look like gang tatts.  He’s so solemn that when he does smile, we’re instantly on our guard and expecting him to explode in barely-contained rage.

But Hugh Jackman is the heart of this movie. Keller Dover is always at the epicenter despite the puzzles and twists and turns that Guzikowski’s brilliant script has laid out for us. More suspects crop up and seem to fall away while Jackman’s character comes apart at the seams, his family in shreds.  Meanwhile Loki , who has become single-mindly obsessed with the case is in a similar state, but manages to internalize his damage.

Every single character is absolutely vivid and multi-dimensional. We are given details that define them,  allow us glimpses into their lives, but do not define their actions and vice versa.  Villeneuve maintains a delicate balance between holding the audience in a death grip and yet still manages to allow the film to take its time without rushing through scenes another director might decide were unnecessary.  I don’t mean to suggest that there is anything superfluous that does make it on screen.  I don’t think there was a single aspect that was simply for “shock value” either, (although there was a scene that I wish I’d known about going in. Anyone who knows me and has seen the film, knows to what I refer).

The acting is, as you would expect from a cast like this, stellar. Despite very limited screen time, Maria Bello and Viola Davis both give us indelible portraits of the various stages of a mother’s desperation and grief.

One of Gyllenhaal’s greatest strengths as an actor is that he is continuously underrated so that he’s still capable of astonishing us. If you ‘ve seen David Fincher’s Zodiac, you’ll understand what I mean when I say that it’s as though Gyllenhaal is almost giving us the flipside of the detective he played in that film.  Loki is almost Robert Graysmith several years on, his eagerness beaten down by time and circumstance into Loki’s haunted dread.

The final reel belongs to Melissa Leo, who despite being given a role front-loaded with opportunities to chew up and spit out the scenery, instead takes things down so far and so quiet that we have to pay attention and hang on her every word while our empathy slowly turns to horror and disgust.

Still and all, it is Jackman that will be remembered come awards season. His Keller Dover is an earthy, rugged “every man”; a true believer gut-punched into questioning his beliefs and pushed to the edge of hopelessness. It has been suggested that he should now hang up his adamantium claws and mutton-chop whiskers lest he be typecast; that he shouldn’t have to toil in the land of the comic book heroes any longer because now the world will see his “range”. I submit that not only has it been there all along (one has only to look at his CV on imdb), even if, like so many other actors, he is the best thing about a questionable movie, but that part of his appeal is that he can do a movie like Prisoners as well as Real Steel or The Wolverine or even voice a character in an animated film like Flushed Away.  But beyond that, I don’t see anything wrong with making a movie, provided it’s done well, purely for the sake of entertainment. I enjoyed Australia (even if it didn’t quite reach the heights of the classic Hollywood romances like Casablanca to which it aspired) and I liked The Fountain and The Prestige and Deception as well.  (Oddly enough, the one role I can honestly say I wasn’t entirely thrilled with, is the one for which he received his first ever Oscar nomination, that of Jean Valjean in Les Miserables. I know I’m out on a limb with that opinion.)  Frankly, I think Hugh Jackman is one of those actors, nay those people, that are so appealing that we’ll buy them in anything. (The only comparison I can think of is Tom Cruise and before you tell me I’m nuts, you have to remember that whatever we think about him here at home, he’s still the biggest movie star in the world.) I submit that Jackman won us over during that song and dance during the Oscars in ’02 and he hasn’t looked back.  Not to mention, with X-Men: Days of Future Past, he will have played Logan/the Wolverine in 7 films and produced the two stand-alones. I think he’s okay with it.

The best thing about this film, in my humble opinion is its restraint. In the pacing certainly, in the acting definitely, but most of all,  despite the fact that we and the characters involved are faced with the weighty issues of morality, justice, right and wrong, we aren’t ever taken by the hand and led to an “obvious” conclusion. What might have, in less gifted hands, been nothing more than the best, most brutal “procedural” ever, becomes something more. Avoiding cliché and focusing on the drama, Villanueve allows us to absorb everything and draw our own conclusions and that applies to both the joyous moments and the horrific ones. We are spoon fed nothing. To my mind, the ending, the final shot, was perfectly spot on. (Some members of the audience I saw it with disagreed. Especially the man who yelled “Seriously?” at the screen.)

Prisoners with Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo, Paul Dano, Len Cariou, Dylan Minnette, Zoe Soul, Erin Gerasimovich, Kyla-Drew Simmons, Wayne Duvall, and David Dastmalchian, directed by Denis Villanueve from a screenplay by Aaron Guzikowski has been embraced by audiences in the US (succeeding not only due to word of mouth, but to a large extent due to Jackman’s appeal) and just opened in the UK.  It is a two-and-a-half hour slow-burn that probably won’t lose anything in the translation to home viewing, but it’  an intelligent “adult” movie, the likes of which are few and far between. So go to the theater and support it. Prisoners is at times difficult to watch, but watch it you must.

So, have you seen it? Do you agree? Disagree? Anything? Bueller…. Feel free to sound off below.