Friday, October 21, 2016

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back

This movie is about an inch deep. The conspiracy at the heart of the story is never explored in any depth, the bad guys just kill people to keep things quiet. The shadowy figure giving orders turns out to be the least interesting villain you can imagine, The whole film is one long set up for a final confrontation with the chief thug carrying out the orders to kill. He never has a name, we just know that he is someone equivalent to the hero in training but clearly not in values. 

One of my students asked mockingly the other day why Tom Cruise is playing Jack Reacher. He did not think Cruise was intimidating at all. I'm going to disagree. Tom may not be six foot five and built like the Hulk, but as an actor, his has a perfect bad ass expression on his face at the right time, and he can wield his tone of voice around like a six shooter. The answer to my students question was simple, Tom Cruise is Jack Reacher because Tom Cruise is a movie star who can still carry a film on his shoulders single handed.

Maybe you are a fan of the Reacher books and that's what would bring you to this movie. The problem is if only fans of the book turn out, the film won't make any money. Enter Mr. Cruise. This 54 year old can still play well below his actual age and sell it. He is in great shape with an expressive face and the cocky tone of violent superiority in his voice that fits the character to a tea. There are some good moments of improvisational escape, detective work and combat. A few scenes demonstrate his intelligence but people are going to see this because Jack Reacher is going to kill a lot of bad guys and let us enjoy as we watch.

Cobie Smulders is not a damsel in distress like Rosamund Pike in the first film. She is a army Major who can take care of herself, but Jack Reacher doesn't really understand working with others. He is a loner as established by his lack of connection to any location, much less any person. It's tough enough trying to work that kink out but there is another woman in the story as well. Jack feels a sense of Protectiveness towards Sam since she gets involved in the conspiracy as a result of him.  There are a couple of foot chases and car chases in the movie, bit it really feels like a road picture more often than an action film. The action scenes mostly consist of fistfights and gun battles. Director Edward Zwick, has made some good films and this is his second film with Cruise. The film feels like an 80s action film. There are a lot of fights and shootouts but you don't have a huge special effects budget.

The payoff is the brutal smackdown at the end. The bad guy makes every cliched mistake to piss the lead character off and earn some justice. There is a little blood but most of the conflict plays out like two guys pounding on one another and finally one gets the upper hand. This movie is not going to be remembered as well as the first Jack Reacher film, but I think it will do some business because it is a serious action film with a big star. That is as opposed to an action comedy with lesser stars. Pass the Hot Tamales and buttered popcorn, The more anticipated films of the year are yet to come, but you might as well enjoy this as you are waiting.

Sunday, October 16, 2016


This was an interesting weekend for films at our house this weekend. My daughter is in the middle of her first watch Halloween Horror  month, and I have a few blind spots there to fill in. This weekend however provided multiple opportunities at the movie theater for catching up on some quality films that have been out of theaters for years. "Taxi Driver" is having a 40th anniversary screening at AMC,  and the whole Harry Potter Series was screening this weekend as well. There was however one film that I have visited only once before and it was showing as part of an IMAX Space film salute also at the AMC Theaters. My daughter had never seen it before, and since Interstellar was number two on my list of films from 2014, it seemed the right choice to make.

The opening act is long and it often feels oppressive. It takes a long time for this voyage to start but the premise is set up very well and the relationship between Father and Daughter is the key to the emotional payoffs we get at the end of the film, so it is important to get it right. I wanted to scream again at the approach the education system was taking to the Earth bound crisis. The Moon Landing is substituted for SDI in the theory about how we crushed the Soviets and then a big helping of conspiracy paranoia lifted from "Capricorn One" is laid on top. Fortunately, the terrestrial politics is larger in the background and instead we get a thoughtful speculative story about travel that is not yet technically possible. 

I have already linked my earlier review for you above, so I'm not going to recap all of the things I thought were worthwhile in this film, you can read them there. I do want to add that the sound design is very impressive and I really enjoyed listening to the movie and the score in the dynamic stereo system that the IMAX [Fauxmax} theaters provide. I also wanted to express my admiration for the creative and simple design of the two robot travelers that accompany our hero astronauts. TARS and CASE look futuristic without resorting to art deco elaborations. Their role in the film is not as significant as that of HAL in "2001" but they provide humor and companionship along the way. 

There are still some things about the interactive gravitational model in the climatic scene that confuse and bother me. The interjection of future human travelers into the process requires an understanding of physics and relativirty that will give even the very smart people out there a headache. I'm willing to grant all sorts of time travel conundrums so I can focus on the story in a number of films, it just feels like a bit of a cheat in a movie that has taken these concepts so seriously up to that point. The payoff however with the Father Daughter dynamic was worth it all. It provides a great emotional high point and does Cooper's final mission and the imagined future for him. 

I saw that this same film was playing on my satellite programming this morning, and after watching for a few minutes, I once more can tell you that if you love movies. The best place to see them is in a theater with other film fans who share the experience with you.  I may have paid more for the two tickets than I would have for a Blu-ray copy, but the value of the experience to me was worth it.

Friday, October 14, 2016

The Girl on the Train

Certain types of films seem to grow in different eras. The fact that many of those films originated as books, written in those time frames will explain some of that congregation. I believe the culture influences much of those trends. In the 1980s, with the U.S. resurgent in world affairs under a new Presidential administration, action heroes flourished and Stallone and Schwarzenegger were the big stars. In the 1990s, as HIV and AIDS were frightening Americans, we got sexual thrillers starring the likes of Michael Douglas and Ashley Judd. Murder mysteries have always been a staple of theaters so it is no surprise that they continue to draw in audiences, but the tone has changed. No longer are women stalked by strangers and voyeurs,  they are active participants in the crimes. Not simply as victims or femme fatales but as curious witnesses or antagonists with non-sexual agendas. The complexity of modern thrillers is in the psychology of the women involved in the crimes. Forget "Silence of the Lambs" gothic horror trappings, the modern American nightmare is suburbia. The big cities prowled by Sharon Stone have become bedroom communities haunted by wounded women.

"The Girl on the Train" deserves some obvious comparisons to "Gone Girl" from two years ago. Both films are set primarily in quiet neighborhoods where soccer moms are raising their children in lavish surroundings. There is comfort, space, and a family unit that is supposed to provide support. Yet when those spaces are violated and the support disappears, there are some ugly truths under the surface.  Three women are tied together in a mystery. All of them are victims of some sort, the question is whether they can find the strength to discover the truth. Emily Blunt is Rachel, a psychologically unbalanced woman who has sought solace in her inability to conceive by drowning herself in alcohol. The inebriation allows her to indulge in elaborate fantasies concern a couple she sees every day from the train that she takes to the city. The couple live in the neighborhood she used to be a part of. Just a few doors down from where her ex-husband and his new wife and baby now live. While her intoxication may fuel her imagination, it also blanks out her memory and the complex relationship between her imagination and reality is tangled.

Very much like Rosamund Pike dominated "Gone Girl", Blunt is the main force in the film. The big difference is that in "Gone Girl" we are waiting to see what will happen, in this film, we are trying to discover what did happen. Our sympathies for Rachel will rise and fall as memories flood back into her head. Memory is a tricky master however and the damaged Rachel is challenged to interpret the events of her own life from a alcoholic haze. Anna, the woman who has replaced her in real life, is an indifferent and needy woman, who loves being a mother but is not really strong enough to be one on her own. Megan is the young married neighbor who serves as Nanny in Anna's house. While there are three male characters that serve as suspects, red herrings and psychological motivation, the story is really about the lives of the three women. Rebecca Ferguson, so great in Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, does not get as much to do as she should, playing the former mistress and new wife to Rachel's ex.

Blunt however, has a meaty role that she pulls off without the ferocity of Rosamund Pike but with equal skill. She is a lost soul finding meaning in empty bottles, but she forces her way back into a real life in a particularly twisted narrative. Haley Bennett is the Jennifer Lawrence look alike that nearly steals the movie. She is an unsatisfied women that we at first might dislike because of what seems to be her selfish nature. As the story unfold in flashbacks arranged in chronological order, we will change our perceptions of her as much as we do those of Rachel. Bennett was just in the Magnificent Seven Remake, and except for the last line of that movie she was quite credible there. In this film she is completely convincing as the sexual plaything of oppressive men. She has a juicy scene with the therapist she comes to for comfort by bearing to him an unbearable secret. Both Blunt and Bennett could be contenders for awards consideration if the movie is accepted for it's emotional script rather than the lurid nature of the plot.

You have to pay close attention to the time sequence and a large number of characters. It would be easy to get lost in the events if you stepped out to go to the bathroom for a couple of minutes. Allison Janey plays a no nonsense police detective investigating the disappearance of one of the characters. She is usually used to lighten the tone of a film but not in this case. She is brutal in the honesty with which she confronts Rachel with the truths that she sees. Despite being insightful, her character is not going to be the one who solves the mystery. There is a lot of intrigue but not much action in the film. Those places where violence occurs are infrequent but startling. The downward spiral that Rachel falls into is depressing as heck and when all is said and done, although things look up, they don't look up much. Don't expect a vicarious sense of relief at the outcome, but consider how much your sense of self can hurt not just you but everyone you love.

Sunday, October 2, 2016


Tom Hank"s character, the real life hero Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, has a fortune cookie fortune that he looks at in one scene of this film. "Better a delay than a disaster".  I feel a little bit as if this describes my relationship with the movie, I wanted to see it but put it off for almost a month. After the screening, I felt as if it would have been a disaster if I'd missed this movie. This is a film and a story right up my alley. It is a true life drama, with a humble hero and a group of people who all did whatr they were supposed to do. The outcome is one of the amazing stories of modern aviation.

Having recently listened to a lengthy podcast in which the work of director Clint Eastwood was somewhat criticized, I may have lowered my expectations a bit. I did think "Jersey Boys" was a misfire but "American Sniper" was an effective film about the Iraq war and the toll it took on multiple people. It was dramatically shot and there are some incredibly tense scenes in it. This film is directed in a straightforward manner as is most of Eastwood's work. The fact that the near disaster at the center of the story remains clear and coherent is mostly a result of choices the director made about how to film it. One criticism that came up was that the side stories that explored some of Sully's background were confusing in time and story placement, well I did not find that to be the case at all. [That is mostly the screenwriter's responsibility]. There is a little bit of ambiguity about the process of the NTSB and how long that hearing process took, but that is hardly confusing to the story.

I did think that the script went a bit of a ways to create drama from the investigation but you have to have a little dramatic license to give the film a narrative backbone. The real themes of this film are about self doubt and doing your job. Until Arron Eckhart and Tom Hanks know what the voice recorder and aviation data reveal, there is enough doubt for even a confident man to wonder if something else could have been done. "Sully" and co-pilot Jeff Skiles knew they did the right things but only from the inside. There is plenty of PTSD to go around between them, but except for some nightmares about what might have happened if they had acted differently, we all feel confident as well.

The other theme of this movie was well expressed at the end by Captian Sullenberger when he deferred credit. It was not he alone who was the X factor. Every crew member did their job well. The cabin crew remained calm as they prepared the passengers, the passengers followed directions and helped each other, the ferry captains acted immediately and saved lives by doing so, the water rescue tem from the NYPD was in place and doing their jobs as well. I recommended another Aaron Eckhart film from a few years ago based on the same premise. "Battle L.A." may not be a great movie, but it was great at showing how when people work together, and do their jobs to the best of their ability, the outcome is more likely than not to be success.

Hanks and Eckhart both are low key and credible as the professionals who made a difference that day on the Hudson and above. They also rock those mustaches that the real heroes appear to favor. Laura Linney as Sully's wife does not get to do much more than talk on the phone, but it worked pretty well as a dramatic device, especially that first call after the landing. The technical crew who shot the effects and then put together a set to work on in the water are deserving of some respect as well. This was a very realistic depiction of the "forced water landing".  In the long run, the movie does not have deep messages to impart to us, it just gives us a good condensed version of events that we can marvel at and appreciate, as we look at real people who deserve to be called heroes, even if they don't see themselves that way. 

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Title Pending Movie Podcast Strikes Back

My little hijack of the end of summer movie draft, resulted in Tank and Fogs grabbing the other guys and getting an episode up. I am heavily quoted and it was fun to be part of the event. Click the image below to find the podcast.


Sunday, September 25, 2016

Kubo and the Two Strings

I was really impressed with this amazing film. Laika has been responsible for some wonderful films in the last few years. From "Corpse Bride" to "Pananorman" tho only one I still have not seen is "Boxtrolls". This is a studio that when it comes to quality of production is second to none. They have a track record of artistic consistency to rival Pixar. What they have not had is the box office to match. It is especially sad when so many less worthy projects have taken the field and scored big time. "The Secret Life of Pets " was fine but not great. I have no idea how "Angry Birds" came out but I'm not hopeful. This movie however knocked my socks off and it is my hope that "Zootopia" and "Finding Dory" will be satisfied with their box office glory at the end of the year, but that the Academy will see the truth, "Kubo and the Two Strings" is a real achievement.

The painfully slow and delicate process of stop motion animation  is supplemented with digital artistry to make this movie smooth and polished. While older stop motion films sometimes look a little jerky or the flaws in clothing or facial impressions sneak by, you will not find anything like that here. The art direction is lush with Japanese landscapes that look as if they came from classic watercolors of old Japan. The character design is faithful to traditional styles of story in that culture. There are sequences so breath taking as to merit being watched all on their own, even if you are not going to see the whole film.

The only reason I can think that audiences here have not embraced it as much as it deserves to be is that it has that sensibility of Japanese magic stories that often feel so unworldly, that audiences are not sure how to take it. Kubo is a boy of nearly 11, who has an amazing gift for telling stories. It is a magical trait that he has received from his mother, who after crossing part of the ocean in a fierce storm that seems directed at her, brings the infant to a cave on a peak, that is solitary and overlooks that same ocean. Kubo has grown as a boy into a creative and responsible child, but his mother seems to be slipping away. She has filled him with stories, many of which feature his grandfather as a cold and harsh deity in the heavens.  She has warned him not to be outside of their hidden cave after dark, least her cruel sisters find him and take his one remaining eye for their father. So yeah, it is a dark fairy tale filled with the spirits of the dead and the night sky.

We don't ever get any explanation for why things are the way they are, we just have to accept them. That is a daunting task for a culture that is low context and so direct. What is really unusual though is that this film is an original as far as I can tell. It is not an ancient story from Japan nor is it based on a film from the Asian market. It is grown right here but feels organically Japanese. Another barrier might be that the story is complex and there are some dark elements to it, but not any darker than "The Lion King". Kubo's adventure takes him in search of a suit of Armour that had been pursued by his father before him. The curse his family is under involves him in conflict with monsters and the elements. The gifts that Kubo has however are companions with a secret and his own ingenuity. If you suspend your disbelief long enough to watch the magic come to life, the story issues will seem unimportant. We don't need a plot summary when the emotional climax of the film arrives, we need tissues.

If you miss this movie, you are missing one of the best films of the year, much less the best animated film of the year. I'm going to include a little extra for you to push you into seeing this. If you watch the music video below and are not intrigued by the film, I don't know what to say. It is a wonderful match of music to the theme of the film.

Get out of your house right now and go see this movie.