Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Pawn Sacrifice (2015)

Let's see what we have here. A movie about a guy with deep mental health issues, who's also a master at a game I've never been particularly interested in, or even played (honestly, I think I've played chess once in my life). Sounds perfect, right? Also, and maybe this is just me, or hasn't there already been a good amount of movies about Bobby Fisher? Well, fortunately Pawn Sacrifice a movie that's still interesting enough even if you know nothing about Bobby Fischer or chess.

As far as biopics go, it's pretty standard as far as how it's setup and plays out in the beginning. You get some glimpses of the man Fischer is going to become and the issues facing him, Where is gets interesting is once we advance a few years to where he's an adult trying to become the best chess player in the world. You get a view of a very disturbed man dealing with worsening mental health. An interesting thing they hint at, but don't dive into enough for my liking, is whether or his disturbed mind is what made him so great at chess, or does trying to master the game slowly drive you mad. Does it simply attract that type of person?

It's also a little frustrating to watch as his paranoia makes him harder to deal with and pin down. His friends try their best, but there's only so much they can do. Pawn Sacrifice also plays up the US vs. the Soviets at the height of the Cold War. It seems as if they weren't sure what kind of movie they wanted to make, so they just threw a little bit of everything in there. The film could have used some focus. Oddly enough, they spend almost no time at all explaining the game or the rules of these chess tournaments, but I get the feeling that's probably a good thing.

Tobey Maguire was pretty great. It may be his finest performance to date. I honestly can't thing of anything he's been better in. I also enjoyed Peter Sarsgaard and Michael Stuhlbarg as part of Fischer's team, watching how they take different ways of dealing with Fischer, while playing off of each other. My only real disappointment is that Liev Schreiber didn't have a more prominent role. More Ray Donovan is always a good thing. I thought he nailed a Russian accent though.

Pawn Sacrifice is a well-made, well-acted film that doesn't tread any new ground as far as biopics go. While there are some interesting ideas and threads, it suffers from too many of them, and ultimately plays it safe with all of them. Not bad, but nothing you need to rush out and see.

3 (out of 5) Death Stars

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Grandma (2015)

I guess calling it "Bad Grandma" would have been a little too obvious, and just a bit hackish. Actually, I wouldn't call her bad as much as I would call her surly. I'm sure we all know the cranky, outspoken grandparent, only it's funny to watch when they aren't yours. I'm already surly and cranky now, so I can only imagine how I'll be 30 years from now. There's a part of me that looks forward to the day when I stop giving a shit and just say whatever the hell I want.

Grandma is a good example of limited story telling. The film plays out over just a single day, but you get everything you need to know from the dialog and interaction. They don't waste time with pointless exposition or explaining all the relationships. It's all there on the screen if you pay attention (and it's not like it's hard to figure out). Depending on your political or religious views, the ultimate goal of this film might upset some of you, but I didn't have an issue with it. I wouldn't get hung up on that though, as the movie is funny and light.

Despite being a limited story, they don't rush things and the relatively short running time is tight and effective. It's refreshing to see a movie that doesn't pad it's runtime. Just put what what needs to be in the film, and if it ends up being just 88 minutes, then so be it. I wish more filmmakers would realize this. Grandma is the kind of movie where at the end, I wouldn't have minded seeing another ten minutes or so. I enjoyed watching the characters and how it all played out.

Lily Tomlin is great, and I'm already hearing Oscar buzz around her performance. I almost forgot we are approaching Oscar-bait season, but this isn't as in your face as maybe other offerings around this time of the year are. Tomlin really is fun to watch, and not just because of her general attitude. There's a wisdom there, but doesn't hammer you over the head with it. I also enjoyed an engaging performance from Julia Garner. She's a relative newcomer, but she has such a distinctive look that she's hard not to notice even in limited screentime. I can see her becoming the next indie queen and seems a likely candidate for playing the manic pixie dream girl type. Marcia Gay Harden is also great. They do an interesting thing with her character where they build her up, and you think she's going to be someone you're going to hate, but when you're finally introduced to her, she comes off as the most sympathetic and relatable. In a weaker movie she would have been a caricature of an overbearing mother. All of the characters in Grandma are more complex than on the surface and aren't perfect people. You know, like in reality.

Grandma is a funny, well-written and heartfelt character story that's driven by an Oscar worthy performance from Lily Tomlin. Since this is smaller release, most won't be able to see this in the theaters, but it's definitely worth checking out.

4 (out of 5) Death Stars

Everest (2015)

Beware of a movie that begins by telling you how difficult it is to climb Everest and how many people have died trying to do it. You actually want me to watch this movie, right? Throughout they continue to hammer home how dangerous it is and how things can go south quickly. Are you sure you want me to sit through this whole thing? Guess how the movie plays out?

Everest is rough to watch at times. You're seeing a group of people struggling with this feat, and then it continues to get worse and worse. It's no surprise that it's not going to end well for a lot of them. If you like seeing lots of people die or frozen solid, then this is for you. Joy and triumph are not words I'd use to describe Everest. I get the whole man against nature element, but I can't help but wonder why anyone bothers with such an extreme. Why not just do those Spartan Races, and I don't even like those things.

Ultimately. the biggest problem with the movie is that it's hard to feel sympathy for the characters. They never give much more motivation than, 'because it's there'. Nobody's making them do this. It's not like anyone's got a gun to their heads, and they are offered multiple times to turn around when it looks like it's going to be too risky. At the end, I was as cold as as Everest.

Just like how Black Mass shows you pictures of the real people involved, Everest does that too. Normally that helps me connect to the characters, but even seeing them I still couldn't. I also found it a little funny that the makers of the film weren't as concerned for nailing the look. Aside from being much better looking, most of the actors looked nothing like their counterparts. It's kind of irrelevant though, since most of the actors are unrecognizable through much of the film. If it's not their facial hair, then it's the layers and layers of clothing and facial covering obscuring their identity. I was usually confused as to who was who most of the time, unless they had a really distinctive voice. They could have cast a bunch of unknowns and gotten the same effect. Having said that, the performances are good even though it seems like a waste of a lot of big names. I thought Black Mass underutilized a great cast, but in Everest they are completely wasted. Jason Clarke and Josh Brolin stand out for the most part, but I think in her limited screen time I think the only performance I connected with was Keira Knightley's.

Great, great cinematography. Everest is a gorgeous film, even when it's at it's most perilous. I know there was some CG used, but it was used to good effect. I saw it on IMAX 3D. While IMAX was a good format for the film, the 3D did absolutely nothing for it. If you're gonna experience this on the big screen, opt for a larger format, but see if you can avoid 3D.

Everest is a great looking, well-made movie, but it's ultimately a downer. This is one of those movies you'll put in that category of a good movie that you'll never want to see again. I can't recommend anything above a matinee.

3 (out of 5) Death Stars

Friday, September 25, 2015

Black Mass (2015)

Black Mass is one of those movies that I really look forward to. Even from the trailer, you can see it checks all of the boxes: movie about a real gangster, set in the 70's, a great cast and great actor diving deep into the main role. Black Mass delivers on all of this. Mostly...

Black Mass, from this point in the review will be abbreviated to BM, which will certainly not cause any confusion with anything else, starts off with great dialog and a compelling story. I had no familiarity with Whitey Bulger before seeing BM, but it took no time at all to get into it. The story builds and builds, but then due to the nature of how the real life events played out, it loses steam towards the end. I won't spoil it here, but if you're familiar with Whitey Bulger, you might already know what I'm referring to. It doesn't necessarily ruin the movie necessarily, but it's an unsatisfying climax.

Welcome back, Johnny Depp. We missed you. After a series of shitty movies and silly roles, it's nice to see Depp return to serious acting. He's freaking fantastic and unrecognizable at times. Colored contacts usually weird me out, but here they were used to great effect. It really made his performance of Bulger that much more chilling and creepy. Don't be surprised if gets nominated come awards time. Joel Edgerton is great as well (supporting actor nod?). Just when I thought The Gift was the best I've seen him, he takes it to another level here. Jesse Plemons also really surprised me at well. The cast overall is fantastic. It's so stacked that there just isn't enough time to dedicate to everyone. How often can you say that guys like Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon and Corey Stoll were underused?

BM also does one of my favorite things where at the end they show you pictures of the real people, and in some cases you'll see how much they really nailed the casting and look. They also use this to wrap up the loose ends to the story that they don't show you in the film.

Overall, Black Mass is an entertaining gangster drama and worth watching just for Johnny Depp's performance as Whitey Bulger. It's nothing you haven't seen before, but totally worth a matinee. If you wait for video, it would make a good double feature with The Departed or The Town.

3.5 (out of 5) Death Stars

Sicario (2015)

Has anyone been watching Narcos on Netflix lately? If so, Sicario will fit right in with all the talk of cartels and hitmen on that show. Sicario feels like a distant, spiritual sequel to Narcos.

Sicario starts off with a bang, literally, and never lets up on the tension. It's so tense that I realized towards the end that I was actually sweating in my seat a little bit. There's a sense of dread that permeates the film. This is accentuated by the haunting soundtrack. I couldn't help but feel that something awful was going to happen at any moment. In a lot of ways, especially with the body count, it's a horror film. It's scarier than most modern horror films anyway.

It's super dark, complex and plays with moral and legal ambiguity. Sicario toys with you. Until I realized Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners) directed, I thought I was watching a David Fincher movie. He certainly seems on a similar career path as Fincher.

The cinematography is beautiful as well. There are multiple shots where you're just following these guys speed through the border and Juarez, and it's oddly hypnotic. Then, there's some of the best use of heat and night vision I've ever seen in a movie. I don't play a lot of first person shooters, but someone should make a video game out of this if it doesn't already exist.

The cast is great and you'd have a hard time finding better performances from Josh Brolin, Emily Blunt and Benicio Del Toro. I was hoping for a little more Full Metal Bitch from Blunt, but she plays a little more vulnerable here. Still, she gives a great performance. Del Toro just kills it though. From the moment he shows up on screen, you know there's something up with him. I'd love a sequel just to see what he's up to after the events of Sicario.

Sicario is one of the best movies of the year and one of the most intense movies I've seen in a long time. It really sticks with you, and I haven't been able to stop thinking about it. I can't recommend it highly enough. Put it on the top of your list of things to see in the theater. I can't think of anything wrong with it, so you know that means...

5 (out of 5) Death Stars