FORCE MAJEURE

— by Jeff Schultz

This dark comedy of manners from Sweden (partially in English) played at festivals in America with limited release last year to positive reviews. I rented it on iTunes for the ridiculously low price of 99 cents, and it was worth every penny. Here’s the premise: a model family — Dad, Mom and their two kids — goes on a skiing vacation. While having lunch on the deck of their hotel, they watch what Dad assures them is a controlled explosion on the slopes. But as the snow tumbles toward them, it appears quite likely they are about to be engulfed by an avalanche. In the ensuing chaos, Dad runs for his life — away from his family, leaving Mom and the kids behind. The snow stops just short of the hotel, and no damage is done. But the father’s panic so rattles and disillusions the mother, it threatens the marriage. It’s not exactly played for laughs, but the uncomfortableness of the situation plays out so awkwardly, it brings nervous laughter — especially during two bang-up monologues, in which the mother relates the incident to friends, right in front of her husband, who at first tries to defend himself, but ends up a pathetic and ridiculous fool. Only a subsequent act of possible bravery on Dad’s part — possibly engineered by Mom — saves the day. There is also a coda involving their bus trip home which I have to admit left me puzzled. But the acting is flawless, most notably Lisa Loven Kongsli as the wife and the naturalistic performances by the two children.

DADDY’S HOME

— by Jeff Schultz

The reason I haven’t posted many reviews lately is because there’s been almost nothing I’ve wanted to see. Even FOMO Syndrome won’t get me to STAR WARS. I’d rather claw myself into unconsciousness than watch THE REVENANT. And I would take no JOY sitting through David O. Russell’s latest bag of tics. (I’ll stick with Wes Anderson for whimsy.) Still, if there’s a new horror movie or non-romantic comedy, I’ll pretty much go. And since Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg have been in some really funny movies, alone and together, this sounded promising. But it’s godawful, with godawful timing (acting and editing) that leeches out what little steam there might have been in any given gag, gag after gag. Linda Cardellini (a B-list Janeane Garofolo, no, make that a C-list Leslie Mann) offers the men nothing to play off of. Still, they should have been able to generate a few laughs on their own. Instead, Wahlberg is dullsville and Ferrell seems barely interested. All of this at least applies to the first half hour; that’s how long I lasted.

STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS

After more than 30 years of waiting, suffering through three prequels loaded with too many special effects and things we will never be able to unsee (I’m talking to you Jar Jar and Hayden! )…the darkness has finally been lifted and fans finally have the movie they’ve been waiting for. JJ Abrams takes over for an out of touch George Lucas and brings back everything we loved about the original trilogy. From the opening crawl we know and love to the closing credits, this movie does the unimaginable: reboots the franchise. Old characters we love. ..new characters we come to love…I felt like I was a kid again. The Force is strong…and back big time! Bravo!

Stormy Curry

THE HATEFUL EIGHT

A mystery western that takes place after the civil war, this latest offering from QT is also one of his most enjoyable. Kurt Russell, Walton Goggins, Samuel L. Jackson, and others bring their A games and chew up the scenery…especially Russell who looks like he’s having more fun here than he has in years. A whodunnit and whydunnit that’s an entertaining mix of Reservoir Dogs and Clue…with a dash of Pulp Fiction…it works. The scope is smaller, the story simple, and the dialogue different than anything Tarantino’s done before. Bottom line? Loved Hateful.

Stormy Curry

THE HATEFUL EIGHT

— by Jeff Schultz

The title of course nods its Stetson toward THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, which, being a sweeping Western with an ensemble cast, it resembles. [Sidebar thought: the phrase “The 8th Film by Quentin Tarantino” works fine in marketing and promotion — but to place it at the top of the credits (instead of the standard “A Film by Quentin Tarantino”) raises the bar for Hollywood self-adulation.] Anyway, back in 1960 when MAGNIFICENT was released, the Production Code was dying, but there were still strictures on gunplay. That came to mind during perhaps the most extreme moment in EIGHT — a point-blank shotgun blast to the face. Pulp fiction, indeed. Tarantino used to shock us with the suddenness of violence and its scary ugliness. Michael Madsen in RESERVOIR DOGS, Christoph Waltz in INGLOURIUS BASTERDS. But with DJANGO UNCHAINED and now here (really, the two are companion pieces) the violence is more like ballet. The aforementioned blast to the face doesn’t have the oh-my-god-i-can’t-believe-that-just-happened!! feel of, say, the gun going off accidentally in the back of the car in PULP FICTION. Here, it’s walked up to slowly, making sure we know we’re going to see someone’s brains blown away. To me, not as effective. But three quarters of the movie is lead-up, and you’re hooked. Much of it plays out in two confined spaces — a stagecoach and then a general store where these blizzard-trapped hateful people are all understandably wary of one another. The screenplay is terrific; if your fear is that two hours of talk would be talky, forget it. The lines are great, and the dream of a cast delivers to a man — and woman: Jennifer Jason Leigh we hardly knew ya! As the handcuffed bounty bound for the noose, she acts like she deserves to hang, and you love her for it. Singling out two others: if “larger than life” means anything, it’s Kurt Russell. He’s the Jeff Bridges of his (and, well I guess Jeff’s) generation. Rules the screen. And Walton Goggins, mostly from tv, rocks his racist role. Goggins is also half the reason why the movie ends up (in a way) like DJANGO, with a faint dusting of civics by way of a lecture on race relations. A movie this dependent on close interactions in even closer spaces demands that the editor be credited: killer job, Fred Raskin. As for the 70mm, we get the expected gorgeous sweeping vistas when the movie is outdoors. But how amazing is DP Robert Richardson for also being able to fill up his giant screen with those two smallish spaces, the stagecoach and the general store, and still create the sense of claustrophobic dread that gives so much of this movie its spark.

THE BIG SHORT

by Alan Yudman

How to explain the event and misdeeds that led to the 2008 worldwide financial crises and the collapse of the housing market? It is a challenge to be sure, but one Adam McKay is up to in THE BIG SHORT. Based on Michael Lewis’ book, it details how a few smart guys saw the bubble (even though as one person says in the film, “a bubble is invisible”), bet against the American economy and made billions. THE BIG SHORT is funny, dramatic and will make you shake your head in wonder and disgust. Were the banks dumb, crooked, blind or a combination of all? That is something you’ll have to decide for yourself after watching the film and doing some research. The film focuses on four groups. Christian Bale is an M.D. with Aspergers who heads an investment fund in California. Steve Carrell is in charge of a very small group that makes up a fund with loose ties to one of the big banks. Brad Pitt advises a couple of young fund managers who are based in Colorado and Ryan Gosling is the head of a department at one of the big banks who sees what his bosses are blind to. The film jumps back and forth between these groups (although Gosling and Carrell are working together). They are as amazed as the audience at what is going on and shocked that no one else sees it. McKay and co-writer Charles Randolph use humor and celebrity cameos to explain how some of these complicated financial instruments work. And for the most part it helps simplify something not many people would get. It also is pretty entertaining to watch Margot Robbie, Anthony Bourdain and Selena Gomez explain this stuff. Gosling’s character narrates large portions of the film and breaks the fourth wall by talking directly to the audience. It sounds like it could be disjointed, but it mostly works. The performances are all very good, but Carrell shines above all others, The easiest comparison to a film currently in theaters is to place THE BIG SHORT side by side with SPOTLIGHT. Both involve crimes that make you wonder about morality and good versus evil and whether there is any good left. The big difference here is SPOTLIGHT touches the heart, guts and head more effectively. That may be owing to the nature of the crime. Massive greed versus massive evil. So I didn’t connect as deeply with THE BIG SHORT, but it is a marvelous film that deserves praise for effective use of humor and creative storytelling to get its point across.

CAROL

by Alan Yudman

At its core, else CAROL is a love story. But I got a lot more out of it than two women falling in love. It is also a commentary on how members of the LGBT community were scorned during the early 1950’s. The luminous Cate Blanchett is Carol, a married woman who clearly does not want to be married to her husband (Kyle Chandler). She meets Rooney Mara’s Therese who works as a store clerk. they first notice each other in that “lock eyes across the room” way. Carol pursues and Therese is intrigued and willing prey. She is not happy about much in her life. Not her job, nor her boyfriend. So the two ladies hit it off, have lunch, a few more meetings before they head off on a drive across the United States. Their bond goes stronger as Carol continues to deal with things at home. Her husband wants sole custody of their daughter because of Carol’s “moral turpitude”. She loves women and doesn’t really love him. She is put through the ringer and looked at with scorn by all involved. She is forced to see a psychotherapist to “fix” her. Therese seem at once confused and intrigued. She asks her boyfriend if he’s ever loved a boy, and he dismisses the notion as outrageous. A sign of the times. Todd Haynes direction is perfect, capturing each moment and lingering just long enough to read faces and what is behind the mask. The production design and cinematography by Judy Becker and Edward Lachman are gorgeous. The look of the film is captivating and every shot of Blanchett makes her look alluring, desirable but troubled. Chandler and Cory Michael Smith (Edward Nygma from GOTHAM) are great. Chandler plays against his nice guy type, but his bad behavior is born more out of confusion than evil. Smith is loathsome as a private detective who spies on Carol and Therese. But this is Blanchett and Mara’s movie. They compliment each other rather than trying to chew the scenes away from each other. Blanchett can say more with a look or a smile than pages of dialogue. Mara is mesmerizing. You feel her tortured confusion, her lack of direction while at the same time she is eager to please. The movie does get a bit preachy, but it’s not distracting and given the subject matter it is understandable. One warning for anyone thinking of bringing a child to see this, it is an adult movie. There is a love scene between Blanchett and Mara. It is not exploitive, but it is graphic. I’m sure both Blanchett and Mara will get acting and supporting acting nods. Both are nominated for Golden Globes and SAG Awards. CAROL will touch your mind and your heart. What more can you ask for.

STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS

UPDATE (12/25/15)

Full disclosure, I am a dork. I admit it, so I had no problems going again to see THE FORCE AWAKENS. This time in 3D. The 3D is great, subtle but immersive. I loved it just as much the second time. Daisy Ridley is more of a star than I noticed on first viewing. John Boyega is a very very tiny notch below. I caught a bunch more easter eggs that I missed the first time. There are scenes and shots that sent chills up my spine and planted a smile on my face. It awakened the little kid in me all over again. That is what this kind of film is supposed to do. I cannot wait until May of 2017 for episode VIII!!!

 

by Alan Yudman

Here is a spoiler free review of STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS: People live. People die. The Force is good & bad. The Empire isn’t gone. The Resistance are good guys. There are droids & X-Wing fighters battling Tie fighters in space. So if you want zero spoilers, stop right there. Thanks for reading. Like us on Facebook.

Okay, now that I’ve gotten that out of the way…

This is a fantastic film. It is funny, dramatic, and edge of you seat thrilling. It will tug at your memories and make you feel warm and full of nostalgia. But, even if you have never seen a Star Wars movie this stands alone just fine. You won’t get some of the inside humor, but overall this is a wonderful reboot to the franchise. Screenwriters J.J. Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt seamlessly weave the old cast and the new. Briefly, the Republic is in danger again from the Dark Side of the Force in the form of The First Order. A message in a droid has to get to the resistance leaders or all is lost. Sound familiar? Yes it is, but the story still feels fresh and exciting. Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac and Adam Driver bring fresh energy and all are fantastic. It’s also great to see Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill and Chewbacca, C-3P0 and R2-D2 all being themselves. Nearly 40 years of technological advances also make all the effects look better. It feels updated without making the original movies seem tired. There are two enormous plot developments that I won’t spoil but I will say that one left my jaw hanging open in shock, the other in frustration. A couple of minor things were slightly head scratching. Rey learning to use the Force seemed to come a bit too quickly as compared to Luke Skywalker’s learning curve. And Rae, Fin and Poe become friends a bit too fast for my liking. One minute they are strangers, the next they are hugging buddies. Like I said, those are minor and did not get stop me from absolutely loving this movie. J.J. Abrams just gets this type of entertainment. First with Star Trek, now with Star Wars he understands how to honor the source material while updating it and making it his own. That is an admirable skill. Abrams also understands spectacle and knows how to pull the audience’s strings just enough to thrill everyone. Episode VII will awaken the Star Wars fan in all of us, and remind us of how we fell in love with this universe… a long time ago in a theater far, far away…

TED 2 (Part 2)

— by Jeff Schultz

I began reviewing this comedy last July, in Milan, where I saw half of it in Italian, without subtitles. Having just watched it again, from the beginning, in English, filled in a lot of gaps and also better explained the tepid Italian audience reaction. Because the pop culture references are front-loaded in the movie, I saw most of them the first time, and in addition to the silence that greeted the previously mentioned “Law & Order” theme music and the Jay Leno cameo, here are some other gags they may not have gotten: “toss a salad” as a sexual phrase, the Electric Slide, “Trix are for Kids”, the sitcom “Sister, Sister”, “[smarter] than the average bear”, and Lauren Sanchez (who admittedly would baffle most American audiences). As for the movie itself, while way too long (comedies should almost never exceed two hours), there’s plenty to laugh at; had a full half-hour been cut, it would have left us wanting more. In that sense, TED 2 is like Seth MacFarlane’s A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST, but better in that it doesn’t waste quite as much time on the romance (here, between Mark Wahlberg and Amanda Seyfried). Amanda, by the way, sings a lovely ballad with lyrics by Seth (Walter Murphy did the music), with an even lovelier version by Norah Jones over the end credits. Best inside joke: Patrick Warburton doing cosplay at a Comic-Con convention — as The Tick!