Sunday, November 30, 2014

Rattle and Hummmmmmmm: The teaser trailer for STAR WARS EPISODE VII: THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015)

Has there ever been a movie trailer that has sparked more conversation, outrage, and all around hubbub than the one for STAR WARS, EPISODE VII: THE FORCE AWAKENS? According to TheWrap.com, the 88 second long teaser trailer was viewed (cue Dr. Evil) 20...million...times - and that's just on YouTube! In the three days since Black Friday - black as in Darth Vader-black - the clip was been dissected and replayed more than the Zapruder film. Of course, it was going to be a big deal no matter what but the level of anger and skepticism towards the J.J. Abrams directed reboot (read: resurrection) has been nothing short of staggering.
While the overall impression seems to be positive, the fanboys and Jediphiles among us have their Skywalker Underoos in a wad over a very specific detail: the electric hilt on the lightsaber of a shadowy figure lurking in a dark wooded environment. The way many of these fans are reacting you would think Harrison Ford appeared onscreen as Han Solo wearing a pink negligee. Articles have since appeared both refuting and affirming the notion of a lightsaber hilt.
To that I think I speak for many a viewer when I say who gives a Tauntaun's furry ass? I'm sure the movie will illustrate the necessity of a lightsaber having that particular feature so RELAX, my nerdy brethren. By next Christmas, fanboys both young and old will want lightsabers with hilts under their Christmas tree.
Another sticking point with the cogniscenti is the absence of footage of favorites like Luke, Han, and Leia. Anyone with a pulse knows that original cast members Mark Hamill, Ford, and Carrie Fisher will all be reprising their characters in older form and the lack of any clips of them in the teaser was seen as a huge disappointment. Myself, I think it was a brilliant marketing decision as Abrams and (sigh) Disney will be rolling out more and more footage over the next eleven months like freshly churned butter.
It's why it's called a teaser, kids.
As of this writing, some articles have been posting about controversy stemming from the very first shot of the trailer: a young black actor (John Boyega from ATTACK THE BLOCK) dressed sans helmet in a Stormtrooper uniform. Honestly, I don't even want to go there as that sort of reaction really has nothing to do with the Star Wars universe. Suffice it to say, you can't please everyone and what is the Internet but one giant forum for everyone and their brother to opine about what is irking them at that particular moment. It's the written form of white noise and often times it's best to just turn the damn thing off.
I totally get that a lot of this sturm und drang is coming from a bunch of cry babies who had their pristine Star Wars memories besmirched by the evil known as The Prequels (cue "Vader's March" theme.) Yes, they weren't as good as the first ones - how could they be?? Yes, Jar Jar sucked. Yes Episode III was a downer but that was a given from the word jump. But The Prequels have come and gone and now it's time to look ahead, yes with a new hope, and try not to judge the movie based on a mere 88 seconds of new stuff.
For this dyed in the wool fan/nerd, the teaser did exactly what it intended to do - it made want to see the movie. I can't to see the Millennium Falcon evading TIE Fighters on the big screen. I can't wait to see my old friends, both human and otherwise. I can't wait to hear John Williams' thrilling score blast throughout the theater as the familiar Star Wars logo is emblazoned onscreen.
I can't wait.
I. Can't. Wait.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Strangers on a Really Big Train: SNOWPIERCER (2014)

What is it about trains that make them so inherently cinematic? From the dawn of cinema where audiences were literally bracing for impact when the titular vehicle from THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY (1903) barreled onscreen toward them to Hitchcock's deliciously macabre thriller STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (1951) to Andrei Konchalovsky's superb existential adventure RUNAWAY TRAIN (1985) trains have held filmgoers, as well as some famous actors, captive aboard steel locomotives which, like sharks, stay in constant motion merely because that is what they are meant to do. In that respect, trains are like movies - they must continually moves towards a destination, either predestined or unknown, or else risk blowing a gasket and breaking down.
Joon-ho Bong's (2006's THE HOST) sublimely offbeat thriller cum social treatise SNOWPIERCER earns its place among the best films that use the claustrophobic mileu to peak effect despite its wavering sense of tone. Set in a semi-distant future in which Earth has frozen over and nearly all human life has gone the way of the dinosaur, the film takes place on the Snowpiercer - a miles-long train - or rather, a microcosm of society complete with deluxe amenities for the luckier citizens - that is carrying dozens of grimy, downtrodden survivors, who are constantly being inspected by an itinerant (and armed) security team straight out of the recent ROBOCOP reboot.
Amidst these forgotten souls is Curtis (Chris Evans aka Captain America) a scruffy, pissed-off, prisoner who is constantly eyeing the timing of the automatic doors whenever the guards come in for roll call. It's clear Curtis has a plan and sure enough, he and fellow captives Edgar (Jamie Bell) and Tanya (Octavia Spencer) are helping him lead a mini-revolt and escape the filthy confines they have called home for the past fifteen years.
Joining them along this grease-stained yellow brick road (yes the OZ allusion is intentional) are the father/daughter team Yona and Fuyu, both Chinese and both drug users addicted to an amalgam of "industrial waste" known as Kromole. The Wicked Witch in this journey is Mason, an androgenously-named caricature of Margaret Thatcher played goofily to the hilt by Tilda Swinton. Speaking in clipped British through cartoon-like fake chompers, Mason is at once quite congenial to the unwashed masses in the caboose to demeaning and cruel when it comes to making the underlings more socially acceptable.
It's the scenes featuring Swinton's absurd overacting (director-approved no doubt) where both the story and the suspension of disbelief start to come off the tracks. In a film so bleak, tense, and yes, dystopian, the comic scenes don't serve as relief but rather Terry Gilliam-inspired buffoonery. Ok, we get it, the authority figure is a stooge, but does the movie need to suddenly feel like a Three Stooges short?
So yes, our not-so merry band of heroes will indeed find The Man Behind The Curtain, the steam inside the engine if you will, and without ruining the surprise, it's a humdinger of a cameo that leads to a satisfying and poignant conclusion. Like Neo in THE MATRIX films, Curtis finds himself holding the keys to an uncertain future...or is it a preordained destiny with doom?
You'll just have to take the ride to find out.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Kiss Means Kill: The Paranoid Pleasures of PONTYPOOL (2008)

If you're looking for a Halloween treat in your voluminous Netflix library, look no further. PONTYPOOL is one of the most original, offbeat, and peculiar horror films in quite some time. This Canadian gem largely takes place inside a talk show radio station recording studio (claustrophobia alert!) located in the titular unincorporated town in Ontario on a blustery cold Valentine's Day. The haggard host of the show, Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie from 300 and A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE) trudges into work looking like a hangover in a cowboy hat. Having just encountered a strange woman mumbling inaudibly outside his car, Grant is in no mood to deal with his micromanaging producer Sydney (Lisa Houle) whose incessant attempts at making him conform to radio standards bugs the hell out of him (if he is Howard Stern then she is his Pig Virus.)
Also just outside the recording booth is the perky and pretty Laurel-Ann (Georgina Reilly) who, having just returned from a tour of duty in Afghanistan, seems to regard Grant as personal hero.
Grant dutifully reads news copy, cuts to the chopper-in-the-sky traffic reports, plays pre-recorded ads, weather reports, and even conducts an on-air interview, albeit one that ends ominously and forebodes much doom. Whenever Grant goes offscript, Sydney barks at him through her microphone while Laurel-Ann attempts to conceal her admiration for the rebel host.
All of this is mere prologue to a story that becomes more and more eerie and yes, claustrophobic, as eyewitness reports from the field indicate something truly bizarre is occurring in Pontypool yet no one seems to know exactly what that is (hence the oddball encounter at the film's start.)
Houle and Reilly are both good in their respective roles but like the radio show itself this McHattie is the star all of the way. His nearly skeletal visage, so frightening in A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, is obscured somewhat by an unkempt, salt and pepper, beard, but the actor anchors the film with such a wizened, cool-as-a-cucumber, character that it becomes even more enjoyable as Grant becomes completely unhinged.
To reveal the mystery that lies at the heart of PONTYPOOL would spoil the pleasure of feeling the movie's grip slowly but surely tightening all around you. Like the best horror films, it forces its viewers to employ their imagination as rampant paranoia gives way to fear and then ultimately true terror. Think of the film as something of a cross between the best elements of Oliver Stone's TALK RADIO and David Cronenberg's VIDEODROME and you will have an idea of the grisly fun that awaits the discerning horror fan as they experience this unique and uniquely horrifying tale.

FURY (2014)

"Ideals are peaceful. History is violent." - Don "Wardaddy" Collier
FURY tells the story of five soldiers battling fiercely during the final days of World War II inside a tank nicknamed "Fury" (thank God it wasn't named "Nazi Killer" or the marketing department at Columbia would have really had an uphill battle.) The soldiers are led by the aforementioned Collier, played with weary determination by Brad Pitt. His tactical team, usually referred by their nicknames, are the taciturn Bible (Shia LaBoeuf, nicely underplaying) jokester Gordo (Michael Pena) Southern wild card Coon-Ass (Jon Bernthal) and the wet-behind-the-ears typist Norman (Logan Lerman, the Charlie Sheen of this platoon.)
The film is nearly non-stop action as the men inside Fury encounter one firefight after another. Director David Ayer (TRAINING DAY, END OF WATCH) puts the audience inside the tank and lets them witness the frantic procedures that go into firing a single missile. Easing the tension somewhat is the camaraderie amongst the men who refer to Fury as their home and behave like fraternity brothers.
Just when you think FURY is going to be one long battle, Ayer takes the men out of the tank and into the home of two German woman, one older, one much younger, where Collier and Norman bring them contraband goods in exchange for a meal and a place to a enjoy a brief respite from the sturm und drang It is easily the best scene in the film, as language remains a constant barrier for Norman and the younger, fresh-faced, Emma who slowly develop an attraction for one another. Ever the itinerant sergeant, Collier goads the virginal Norman into cutting to the chase as it were by curtly telling him," If you don't take her to the bedroom, then I will."
This extend moment of good will and reverie is eventually interrupted by the arrival of Collier's tank-mates and the peaceful mood cracks like a delicate eggshell. Just like Fury itself, the soldiers must constantly push forward, as war has no time for idleness.
The climactic battle of FURY is quite spectacular, and much like SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, the horrors that the men encounter make the survivors envy the dead, as they at least won't be left with permanent scars.
It's quite a good film, but far from perfect. Pitt is good but not INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS good and some of the tragic moments are a bit arch. The Nazis are generally faceless targets in a shooting gallery but there are so many arresting moments, that the less successful scenes don't take away from the fact that FURY is an exciting, disturbing, yet poignant film, aggressively told by a director that has made his best movie to date.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

AMERICAN SNIPER - the first great movie of 2015?

2015 is already looking like a promising year for movies considering that Clint Eastwood's latest film, AMERICAN SNIPER, opens a mere three weeks into the new year. Based on the 2009 autobiography written by Chris Kyle, AMERICAN SNIPER concerns his career as a U.S. Navy SEAL and, with 160 confirmed kills and nearly 100 more unconfirmed, his ensuing notoriety as the deadliest sniper in U.S. history. Sadly, after a career that included four tours of Iraq and more medals and commendations imaginable, Kyle was gunned down at a shooting range in Chalk Mountain, Texas just four years after being honorably discharged from the U.S. Navy.
Judging by the just-released trailer, Eastwood has crafted an extremely tense but thoughtful film that chronicles the hard decisions combat soldiers must make when caught in a moral quandary. Bradley Cooper plays the intensely focused but conflicted title character and Warner Bros has wisely chosen to feature a continuous but agonizingly suspenseful scene from the movie instead of the usual "sizzle reel" approach.
AMERICAN SNIPER looks to be the perfect marriage between director, leading actor, and subject matter and January 15th can't come soon enough!

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Greatness in Waiting: David Fincher's GONE GIRL (2014)

GONE GIRL is perhaps the most anticipated movie of the Fall season and early reports are confirming that the wait is well, well, worth all the hoopla. Based on former Entertainment Weekly staff writer Gillian Flynn's terrific best selling novel, GG stars Oscar-winning writer Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne, a feckless husband whose wife Amy goes missing. Having read the book and skimmed the early reviews, that's all anyone should know going in because the story takes turns that you will not see coming. GONE GIRL isn't so much of a whodunnit as it is a whydunnit. It's a tense, fascinating, exploration of marital vows taken to the nth degree and despite the rather odd casting of Tyler Perry as a smarmy divorce attorney, I'm bee-lining for the nearest Alamo Drafthouse when it opens this Friday. Check out the early review blurbs: GONE GIRL is...
"The best movie David Fincher has ever made." - Jim Hemphill, American Cinematographer
"A high-quality mainstream crowd-pleaser in the best possible sense of the phrase." - Scott Mendelson, Forbes
"A work of chilly wit and bleak metaphor, an artifice that invites the kind of analytical response where we pull on our chins and discuss how other people, more naive than we, will receive it." - Andrew O'Hehir, Salon.com
"Everything the book was and more - more, certainly, in its sinister, brackish atmosphere dominated by mustard-yellow fluorescence, designed to make you squint, recoil and then lean in a little closer." - Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune
And to be fair, here is one of the few stinker blurbs:
"Fincher's chief delight seems to be in playing with genre conventions: what looks like an especially moody whodunit morphs first into a psychosexual thriller and then into what might just be straight-faced satire."- Matthew Lickona, San Diego Reader
GONE GIRL opens Oct. 3rd.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977)

My first selection for the CP blog is the very first movie I ever rented on VHS. Granted I had already seen it on the big screen (the way it should only be seen imho) but when this seven year old walked into the Eroll's Video store somewhere in the suburbs of Virginia, his mind was completely blown when he learned that he could actually RENT MOVIES and take them HOME and PLAY THEM on his family's woefully inadequate television (back in those days, a flatscreen was exactly that - a flat screen.) Aspect ratios and screen dimensions be damned, my parents, my brother, and myself were just as captivated watching Spielberg's tale of alien contact on Earth at home as we were at the local moviehouse. I've seen it countless times since, most memorably at the Cinerama Dome in Los Angeles. More recently, I caught an outdoor showing of it here in Austin, and despite the occasional chatter from the other patrons camped out on the lawn of The Long Center, I was once again transported to a pre-E.T. scenario in which the prospect of alien sightings was absolutely terrifying. The movie posters themselves summed up CEOTTK'S one-liner plotline: We are not alone. What kid wouldn't be scared senseless reading that? What struck me most this time around was how much the film is not so much about extra-terrestrial encounters so much as it is about obsession. Richard Dreyfuss (an Everyman if there ever was) has a truly frightening close encounter out in the boondocks where he is sent to fix an electrical grid - we all know the images: the classic Spielberg joke set-up and punchline delivery with the dual headlights only the audience recognizes as otherworldly; the shaking mailboxes; the spotlight over Roy's clunky red pick-up; the loose contents of the truck's cab levitating along with Roy himself; and then a most unsettling darkness and quietude - and Roy returns to his wife and three kids forever changed. He becomes casually distracted by his encounter at first, then when he has his second encounter that confirms his sighting ("Ice cream!" yells the young boy, Barry) he starts having visions of a dirt mountain. Roy sees it everywhere - pillowcases, plant dirt, and in a very iconic scene, mashed potatoes. This is where Roy's beleaguered wife, Ronnie (Teri Garr, excellent as always) realizes her husband has lost the plot and leaves him with their anguished kids in tow. Of course, the rest of the movie isn't about Roy trying to win his family back. Rather, it concerns him pursuing his obsession further, despite the eerie intrusion of sinister government officials. The destruction of his family unit doesn't seem to faze Roy; in fact, he soon bonds with Barry's mother Jillian (Melinda Dillon, quietly marvelous.) After Barry is abducted, their shared mission becomes personal, and ultimately (spoiler alert) Roy achieves perhaps the one thing that has eluded him in life: the third encounter - contact. His actions lead him to a seemingly impossible choice: stay here or go boldly into the unknown. It's his lack of hesitation that sometimes riles viewers - "What about his wife and kids? What an arrogant bastard!" Yes he is, but obsessions blind its beholders, and, not to defend the feckless man-child husband, you have to ask yourself: how far would you go to achieve the unattainable? There is no easy answer. That's what makes obsessions so personal. Now, given that CEOTTK is the sole screenplay that Spielberg has full credit on (quick: can you name the one he shares credit on?) one can't help but wonder if Roy's obsession with UFO's is a subconscious metaphor for filmmaking. Anyone knows that the life of a film director, especially one with Spielberg's pedigree, is rife with chaos. Divorces, career turbulence, substance abuse, second divorces, etc., etc. Yet the best filmmakers usually tend to endure because they seem to be driven to tell stories, personal or otherwise. Spielberg himself is actually a child of divorce so that aspect playing the elephant in Roy's house isn't a real surprise. It's the chase, the pursuit, that seem to keep our finest directors (Scorsese, Soderbergh, The Coen Brothers, etc.) on their path to their own Devil's Tower.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Welcome Back, Blogger!

Greetings! I was going to post my first blog on my newly revamped site Oct. 1st but got so excited (read: bored at work) that I decided to just launch the darn thing already. Welcome to Cinematic Prozac, a site that will focus on what enthusiasts of all stripes refer to as "the good sh*t." These are the films (past, present, and even future) that captivate, move, inspire, haunt, and invade our hearts and minds - or at least aspire to but still succeed even as their good intentions self-immolate. This doesn't have to be THE SOUND OF MUSIC feel-good fare, but the films that rewire our brains, much like the cranium candy the blog title suggests. The movies that we would run into the burning house to rescue like cherished photo albums. Anyone who knows me knows I love STAR WARS but what really is left to be said about it? I'd much rather discuss my pal Jim Hemphill's exquisite movie THE TROUBLE WITH THE TRUTH (2014) and why it kicks MY DINNER WITH ANDRE's ass (well, there went half my potential readers.) Really, though, I want to talk about not just what's on my movie-addled brain but also what's on yours. So email, text, comment, tweet (@WardOnTheStreet) your lattest gems for the CP diamond mine and let the good sh*t reign supreme. Again...welcome! "