Every Little Piece

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Money — it corrupts everyone, from womb to tomb, in some form or another — someone who lives in the lap of luxury, the breadwinner who lives from paycheck to paycheck or the destitute who dream of their next dollar bill. Such is the motivation behind All The Money In The World, a surefire awards season contender and, in my opinion, the best motion picture of the year.

Based on the true-life chronicle of the 1973 kidnapping of John Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer, Lean On Pete), his mother, Gail Harris (Michelle Williams, My Week With Marilyn) is issued an incredible ransom for her son’s life, and attempts numerous times to bring her former father-in-law, John Paul Getty (Christopher Plummer, Nicholas Nickleby) — famed oil tycoon and grandfather of the kidnapped — to pay the ransom and save her son. Her cries for mercy unheard, the elder Getty’s head of security, Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg, The Fighter) volunteers his service to help find her son, the two fighting against the time to save her son and the tight fists of her avaricious relation.

A thousandfold of kudos are in order for director Ridley Scott (Gladiator, The Martian) and Christopher Plummer — after the film wrapped with Kevin Spacey portraying Getty, he was found to be a sexual predator, and in an unprecedented move, Scott replaced him, with a little over a month left until release, with Plummer, his first choice for the role (Plummer was initially refused as Sony’s studio suits demanded a “big name.” Pah!) assuming command. Reshoots took place over the week of American Thanksgiving in a litany of locations, and the film was, by and large, refinished on time, and was able to screen for Golden Globes consideration! There are few in filmmaking today as principled and daring as Scott to reshoot a movie on moral grounds, and that alone has earned him another Oscar nod for Best Director, but the film’s tautly-engineered sense of dread and fear is what gives it the winning marks in my eyes — the scene where the kidnapped Getty is subjected to the removal of his right ear is what one would expect from the creator of the Alien franchise, and the disbelief and raw terror of his mother is something well-felt by the audience. Only a handful of directors can do that, and most of them are already dead! Scott is quickly proving himself the new Alfred Hitchcock without a shred of imitative behavior, and more power to him!

The actors at Scott’s command are in as fine a form as I’ve ever seen them — Christopher Plummer had reportedly already memorized the script — like a stage play — before being asked to replace his predecessor! At 88, there’s no one else like Plummer in the actor’s craft today, working at a pace that would tire out a thirty year-old and still bringing out a performance that brings us closer to avaricious darkness than his previous villainous roles ever could; this performance will be remembered regardless of the Oscars — but another win couldn’t hurt, right?

Now the elder Plummer may be the target of attention, but equally brilliant work is present among his co-stars; Michelle Williams, as I said previously, makes her emotions and words palpable to the audience’s senses and never stoops to a cacophonous show of tears and anger. Mr. Wahlberg gives his finest to his role as well, offering a light in a dark, terrifying world that we are offered, and the balls to stand up to his corrupt employer. Charlie Plummer, unrelated to Christopher, is central to the stakes of the film, and a lesser actor would make us yearn for his execution — and yet, despite his lavish lifestyle portrayed early in the film, we see in his eyes a lost child who just wants to go home to his family. We can certainly all relate to that; we’ve all been in tough situations as children and as adults that make us yearn for the gentle embrace of a loving parent, and Plummer shows that exceptionally well.

All The Money In The World is a paragon in suspense and drama in its delivery and, in its making, an example for Hollywood, the city of smiling cobras, in morality. Watch it in a theatre soon, and watch for it when the nominations are announced on January 23rd!

Rating: 5/5

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The Bad In Every Man

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It’s been a banner year for spectacle films, with Dunkirk delivering on the war picture, Beauty and the Beast an unquestionable musical smash hit, Thor: Ragnarok undoubtedly the best blockbuster of the year, and a litany of independent critical darlings peppered throughout. Often overlooked in trade papers and festival buzz was the resurrection of the whodunnit mystery, in the form of Murder on the Orient Express. A paragon in Agatha Christie’s repertoire and another daring project from Kenneth Branagh (he of 1993’s full-text version of Hamlet), the film is simply amazing, but like its famous detective, we must go further into the who, what, when, where and why.

After an impressive case in Jerusalem, and now in Istanbul, renowned private detective Hercule Poirot (Branagh) seeks a holiday away from the crime scene. Already travelling back home, he is persuaded by a close friend of his, Mr. Bouc (Tom Bateman, Da Vinci’s Demons) to travel with him by rail on the Orient Express — first class, all expenses paid! Quickly, the lush scenery and amenities do not justify the means when duplicitous passenger Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp, Black Mass) is found dead in his cabin, and so, for the greater good, Poirot must discern a killer from a motley crew of passengers-cum-suspects — among them, governess Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley, Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi), Doctor Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom, Jr., Red Tails), automotive dealer Biniamino Marquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, The Magnificent Seven) missionary Pílar Estravados (Penelope Cruz, Volver), Professor Gerhard Hardman (Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project), widow Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer, Dark Shadows) and the butler (Derek Jacobi, Anonymous) and bookkeeper (Josh Gad, Beauty and the Beast) of the recently deceased.

Star-studded this may be, but this film does not get lost in starpower like so many ensemble pieces do over the years — everyone gets their moment in the spotlight, and not one suffocates the other, not even Poirot himself! This is also firmly grounded as a murder mystery, first and foremost, and you will be shocked with how things play out — I’ve never read the book on which this is based, but by all accounts, there are numerous differences between the book, Sidney Lumet’s adaptation and Branagh’s, and that has drawn much ire and anger from critics and authors alike; I regard that as a great thing, because in a day and age when anyone can look up spoilers from classic novels via a smartphone, turning one such novel on its end only helps to surprise filmgoers and book-lovers. Rest assured, this film has a twist, and it is the most daring I’ve seen in a long, long time.

Branagh’s regular cinematographer, Haris Zambarloukis (Cinderella), returns for this film, and masterfully shoots it — on 70MM film, no less! Using the last four Panavision-made 70MM film cameras, the film’s native 8K image shines, even on a digital screen as I saw it. Despite the bulk of 70MM cameras and close quarters of a train cabin set, Zambarloukis manages to impress a wide viewing area, making the viewer feel that terror can come from anywhere, not unlike a horror film. My only gripe with said cinematography is that 20th Century Fox, the film’s distributor, opted for a Los Angeles/New York-only 70MM release, which I feel was stupid, given the amount of money Dunkirk made exclusively from said film showings. Still, it’s been a great year for movies photographed on film, and here’s looking to more!

Another returning Branagh regular is composer Patrick Doyle (Thor), bringing the requisite suspense and awe to a mystery picture, but also great moments of humility and drama at the appropriate times. He also co-composed an end credits song, with Branagh providing the lyrics (as they did on Cinderella), that is sung by co-star Michelle Pfeiffer, who carries the ballad with grace and heart.

In a cover story for Entertainment Weekly, the producers of Murder on the Orient Express spoke of sequels based on other Poirot mysteries if the film did well. The film has already outdone expectations at the box office — third place is nothing to sneeze at for a film like this — and I only hope that Kenneth Branagh and Company will be able to top the absolute perfection they have done with this film. As Poirot says, “there is good, and there is bad… and then, there is you.” We’ll see you at the Oscars, Monsieur.

Rating: 5/5

Thunderstruck

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Not many people would care to say it, but Marvel Studios’ 2011 effort at bringing Thor to the screen was a big friggin’ gamble, after the earthen adventures of the first two Iron Man films and The Incredible Hulk. Its final result, however, was masterfully helmed by Sir Kenneth Branagh was nothing short of amazing — thus, the God of Thunder quickly became my favorite Avenger. The second outing is well chronicled in the backlogs of this blog and was, I regard, the first big misstep from the House of Feige. Still, I held out hope for the third outing, but worries beset me when I heard the newly-announced director, Taiki Waititi (What We Do In The Shadows) said he was “going to take the second Thor movie and add more jokes.” Jokes, I regard, were what killed Thor: The Dark World, but having seen Waititi’s effort, I feel nothing but giddiness and contentment with what I saw!

The film opens with several king-sized bangs, as Thor (Chris Hemsworth, In the Heart of the Sea) claims the life of a gigantic monster and finds a new threat awaiting him, in the bloodlusting form of Hela (Cate Blanchett, Cinderella), the Goddess of death. Destroying his prized hammer, Mjölnir, Thor barely escapes to distant planet Sakaar, where the Contest of Champions awaits, an old friend lies captive, and old wounds look ready to burst.

Hemsworth is in better comedic form than I have ever seen him! While I stand by my comment that dedicated comedies are not for him, this is a superhero film in the hands of a sharp, talented comedic director, and that same talent only helps our hero. Tom Hiddleston (I Saw The Light) is in equally fine form, returning easily to the black wig as Loki and never once stooping to the suffocating caricature he was in The Dark World. Finally returning to the MCU is Mark Ruffalo (Begin Again) as Bruce Banner/The Incredible Hulk — the latter of whom now talks! There is no better heir to the legacies of Lou Ferrigno and Bill Bixby than Ruffalo, bringing the brawn and brain in both sides of his character! A surprising return comes in the form of Heimdall (Idris Elba, Star Trek Beyond), the Asgardian gatekeeper who has a lot to deal with this time — his return is surprising given his well-publicized disdain with the franchise, but is all the more welcome, as he’s integral to this story and the franchise’s future.

Newcomers to the franchise also shine — Tessa Thompson (Creed) does her first accent role as Valkyrie, the last of an elite Asgardian platoon, and she is fierce as can be, with a smoothness comparable to crystal rum! That being said, lots of female roles in blockbusters these days like to emulate Star Wars‘ Rey, but apart from being a scavenger, the same can’t be said of Valkyrie — she’s got a vocabulary like an acid-soaked whip and fighting skills to match, no matter how smashed she gets! Jeff Goldblum (Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom) is in fine, debaucherous form as The Grandmaster, he who pulls the strings in the Contest of Champions. You really want to smack him in this, because he’s a perverted jerk, but then you want to kiss him, because he’s Jeff Goldblum! Karl Urban (Pete’s Dragon) provides a comedic edge to his work as Skurge, an executioner under our villain’s payroll, and almost makes us root for said boss! Finally, Cate Blanchett — she takes another grand, villainous turn that most would be chewing the scenery in, but she manages to bring a level of humanity to such a horrid creature, one that suggests an abandoned child whose mind has filled with thoughts of vengeance. Bravo, Blanchett. Here’s hoping you make Dame by next Christmas!

The crew behind Ragnarok are integral to the films’ success — the film is brightly colored and peppered with detail, evoking memories of Mad Max: Fury Road, truly looking like a comic book without falling into the self-parody that Ang Lee’s Hulk did; see it in IMAX or IMAX 3D! The music is something else, too! Legendary composer and former Devo frontman Mark Mothersbaugh brings a score together that suggests the best of Patrick Doyle’s work and also Daft Punk’s score for TRON: Legacy (sidenote: fellow TRONiacs will surely appreciate the gladiatorial battle midway through the film!)

To clarify Waititi’s earlier statement, he did add more jokes, but the juvenile nature of said gags is toned down immensely — while there is one truly juvenile joke in the film, which you will surely recognize, the suddenness of its appearance actually makes it funny! The Dark World was inundated with them, so what could have remained the superhero equivalent of a Three Stooges comedy becomes that of a Marx Brothers satire, and it’s all the better. Waititi brings a comedic flair to the film reminiscent of James Gunn’s efforts in Guardians of the Galaxy, and as such, he’s not afraid to go serious when the need arises, and rest assured, there is as much at stake as there is in one of those films — one of the best examples of that is in Thor’s continued attempts at bringing Hulk back into the form of Bruce Banner, which starts off as a lighthearted gag, but evolves into genuine pathos by the time Banner becomes himself again. Also, Waititi isn’t afraid to linger with story elements — one of my biggest complaints with The Dark World was its glossing over the story in favor of naked actors, but though jokes may run deep in Ragnarok‘s DNA, it is still a film, and most great films have a narrative to follow with characters you care about! Here’s hoping Waititi is signed for more Marvel Studios ventures!

Let me reiterate, Thor is one of my favorite movies — I saw it five times in the theater! — and, until now, my favorite film in the Marvel Studios pantheon, as it has been gleefully upended by Thor: Ragnarok, one of the greatest trilogy-makers since Toy Story 3. Lusciously photographed, brilliantly scored and joyously written without a shred of fear in taking its time, this has all the makings of a classic.

Rating: 5/5

The Greatest Show On Earth

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…spoilers await below…

Slowly, but surely, I am beginning to tolerate select horror flicks — thus far, I’ve been able to withstand the shocks of Sleepy Hollow (1998), The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2, but when I see a horror movie, it has to be more than blood and gore. What I look for are relatable characters and a solid story. The aforementioned three had all that, and so does 2017’s feature film remake of It, the Stephen King story that terrorized a generation.

This iteration moves the year to the 1980’s, remaining in Derry, a New England hamlet, where horror besets its children. Kids of all ages go missing unexpectedly from an unknown menace, and the adults in the community don’t give half a damn, so a group of kids, rejects from their school and families, take it upon themselves to defeat this threat once and for all — but can they confront what they fear in the process?

To those who don’t know, the titular “It” is commonly shown in the form of the utterly terrifying Pennywise, the dancing clown — straight out of the pages of your deepest nightmares and masterfully portrayed by Bill Skarsgård (True Blood), this is a villain like no other, and easily ousts Tim Curry’s portrayal from the 1990 miniseries. True, while Skarsgård owes his character to Curry’s portrayal, the former plays him in a less wordy manner – he speaks with his actions more often than his voice, which is higher than Curry’s, giving him a persona akin to a child molester; quite apropos for the role. Further, the design for Pennywise is also strikingly different — gone is the Bozo knockoff of the 1990 version and instead is one akin to a Victorian court jester. Some would say that contradicts the resetting to the 1980’s; I think it only helps the nightmarish, otherworldly look of Pennywise — a child’s fears usually are of things before their time. Speaking of, also amazing are the child actors, most of them newcomers, all of whom are fantastic as the members of the Losers’ Club. What I found fascinating about their characters is that they each have something that they’re scarred by — Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) lost his brother to Pennywise and has a stammering problem; Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor) is bullied for being overweight; Beverly (Sophia Lillis) is suspected as a child prostitute and under the control of a molester father, and so on — not one of these characters is innocent, but it only makes them stronger and deeper in their convictions, and they’re all played as human as possible, and that speaks volumes of their acting talents.

The film’s director, Andy Muschetti, famed for having directed the surprise 2013 horror hit Mama, has truly reinvented the crowded field of Stephen King adaptations, most of them beneath contempt. Unlike this year’s first King “adaptation,” The Dark Tower, Muschetti fought tooth and nail, with the aid of this film’s producers, to include more of the novel verbatim in this film. In spite of the loss of the famed “Ritual of Chüd” sequence, this movie still soars, and earned the admiration of Stephen King himself — such praise is very rare for obvious reasons.

It should be noted that the movie doesn’t end here. Those familiar with the novel and/or miniseries will know that the story has two parts to it, and this film is no different. At the end, though the opening title card reads “It,” we are shown the film’s full title before the end credits: “It: Chapter One.” A daring move, to be sure, and no sequel was greenlit at the time of completion, but judging by the Thursday numbers as of this writing, our heroes will rise again to destroy the proverbial “It,” once and for all. I, for one, can hardly wait for Chapter Two to release. Welcome to the Losers’ Club!

Rating: 5/5

Like A Bolt Out Of The Blue

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While Marvel Studios has been, on average, going strong in the feature film market, television is another matter – Agents of SHIELD has become little more than The Marvel Easter Egg Hunt, and the Netflix shows amount to an R-rated version of the former. Agent Carter was fabulous, but as it was cancelled in its second season, we will likely never know its full potential. That being said, Marvel’s latest venture, Inhumans, holds great potential for both their life on the air and the future of television.

On the hidden lunar kingdom of Attilan, the race of Inhumans have made their home, ruled peacefully by a watchful king, Black Bolt (Anson Mount, Hell on Wheels), and loving Queen, Medusa (Serinda Swan, TRON: Legacy). However, insurrection becomes the order of the day when Black Bolt’s jealous brother, Maximus (Iwan Rheon, Game of Thrones), leads a coup for the throne. With the aid of Princess Crystal (Isabelle Cornish, Australia Day) and her teleporting giant dog, Lockjaw (work with me), they escape to Hawaii, where they find themselves ill-equipped to Earth’s limitations, all while being hunted by the illegitimate occupant of their throne.

Even though it began as a feature film — a release date, an attached star (Groot himself, Vin Diesel, as Black Bolt) and everything — Inhumans works well as a series thus far, with a very early 90’s feel to it, reminiscent of the first two seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation, but its first two episodes move slowly as a feature, something that will surely flow better on the small screen in installments. Whether this is a result of padding a feature film script or standard operating procedure at ABC (the answer is yes), it’s a minor gripe compared to its two big advantages.

Number one is its cast, led by Anson Mount as Black Bolt — to play a literal strong, silent type could be suicide for an actor, but Mount’s characterization of Bolt is resilient, yet charming — at least, for a character whose voice can level cities. In truth, he isn’t entirely silent — Mount, the showrunners and several ASL experts concocted a sign language that he uses to communicate, something not even thought of in the comics. I look forward to seeing the King of Attilan learning actual ASL, if for nothing more than awareness’ sake! Medusa, on the other, a source of fear for comic devotees due to visual effects seen in the trailers, needn’t worry about the effects, nor Serinda Swan’s portrayal of the Attilanian Queen. She’s not a standout performer just yet in the series — not all shows start off on the best foot — but the romance between her and Black Bolt is palpable; beautiful, even. By the end, you’ll be a shipper. A surprising addition to the cast is Ken Leung (Keeping The Faith) as the royal visionary, Karnak (“Zim-Zallah-Bim,” Johnny Carson) — I knew he was cast, but his powers are impressive and, in this fan’s eyes, may tie into the MCU at large sooner than we think. I mean, is it any coincidence that his powers bear a design similar to spells in the Mystic Arts (see also: Doctor Strange)? We shall see.

Number two is the technical merits behind the show — famously billed as the first show filmed with IMAX cameras and showing only in IMAX theaters ahead of its debut on ABC, this is the most polished and gorgeous show I’ve seen produced by network television! Visual effects, particularly Lockjaw himself, shine with no trace of green screen or cut corners — are you watching, Once Upon A Time? — and in an IMAX theater, sound is bounding — every crash, every stab and every slam of a hoof is amplified with gusto in IMAX Sound. Bravo; can we have more network shows in IMAX?

Yes, the show is bogged down with some gripes — everyone above the pay grade of an extra has to be pretty as per ABC tradition — even people in the lower caste of Attilan are pretty, which kind of defeats the purpose, story wise. ABC, please hire actors with less than perfect teeth, facial deformities and Autism in all your roles with no corrections. Call yourself inclusive, eh? Minor gripes include Isabelle Cornish, a bit of a teenage weak link thus far as Crystal, but I hope I’ll be proven wrong as I was with Agents of SHIELD‘s FitzSimmons, and Iwan Rheon is a bit dry as Maximus, but I’ve never seen his work on Game of Thrones, or any episodes of the aforementioned, but again, let’s let these actors find their groove in the MCU.

Thus far, Inhumans is imperfect, but few shows are right out of the gate. Heck, Star Trek: The Next Generation took three seasons to kick it into gear, and with any luck, Marvel’s Royal Family will triumph before its eight episode limit! To your health, my King & Queen!

Rating: 3/5

 

 

Keep Calm & Carry On

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Now that he’s done with his The Dark Knight trilogy, Christopher Nolan has been knocking it out of the park with original cinema – Interstellar brought a Kubrick-level odyssey to revitalize the new space race, and with the newly-released Dunkirk, he has brought one of the greatest war epics ever made.

The movie is not dependent on star power or acting in general — true, while English stars like Kenneth Branagh (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit), Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies), Tom Hardy (Bronson), James D’Arcy (Cloud Atlas) and Harry Styles are in this film, they are mere faces in this sprawling landscape, and that’s 100 percent how it should be. This is all about emotions in the heat of escape while the enemy surrounds you like a massive Wolfpack. The script, also written by Christopher Nolan, portrays this accurately, but those fearing it is a drawn-out affair needn’t — this is his second shortest film (next to his debut, Following), running about 1 hour, 47 minutes. Nothing is stretched for dramatic effect; if you were in this moment, this is how those around you would act.

In addition to writing and directing, Nolan proudly shot the film entirely on Kodak 70MM stock, with some shots filmed in IMAX 70MM film, and when seen in either format on a curved screen, the film is engrossing, practically enveloping you in the flying bullets, the rising seawater and the bombs hitting the sand — and they say film is dead! Composer Hans Zimmer (The Lion King) also puts pedal to metal and brings an enthralling score that incorporates sounds akin to airplanes and air raid sirens — he’s leagues above the “bwaaaaaaahm-BWAAAAAAAAAHMMMMMM” of The Dark Knight Rises. Be forewarned, though — you may never hear the ticking of a watch the same way again.

Dunkirk is more than one of the best films of the year so far, it’s one of the finest made about World War II, ranking alongside Hacksaw Ridge, They Were Expendable and Schindler’s List. Herein, haste is the order of the day and survival is victory. However, in the hysteria of war, there is a prevailing message the film sends, one of putting service before self. There truly is no hiding from the horrors of war, and as such, I do hope that Dunkirk does well, from this summer to the Oscars. Hell, I say show it to the U.S. Congress!

Rating: 5/5