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Friday, October 30, 2015

HypeCast: Goosebumps, Crimson Peak, and Netflix Picks for Halloween

        Hello, and welcome back to the HypeCast, a film-centric podcast hosted by Collin Sherwood Elwyn and Tyler Mitchell. It's the night before All Hallows' Eve, and we've got you covered when it comes to the frightening flicks both in theaters, and available on Netflix Instant Watch. Both Collin and Tyler haven't lost track of their inner child, and thereby felt compelled to see Goosebumps, the Jack Black-starring adaptation of kid's-literature horror franchise that dominated our youths. Neglecting the warning featured in the film's trailer, Collin refuses to 'beware of Crimson Peak,' and pays dearly for it. Finally, Tyler suggests a slew of scary movies that are available right now with a simple click of the 'play' symbol on your Netflix Instant Watch account. Just to make the show extra creepy, computers make unexpected noises, children run and scream right outside the door, and when the podcast is all said and done, Tyler solemnly admits that he "saw this going better." Warning: a few naughty words are contained within. Continue at your own risk. Here We Go!

Podcast Itinerary:
3:48-17:00---Crimson Peak
42:22-1:14:30---Netflix Instant Watch picks for Halloween

Monday, October 26, 2015

Steve Jobs (Limited Release Date: 10-9-2015)

        Film protagonists come in all shapes and sizes. They can be brave and heroic, timid but kind, or even egotistical monsters. Steve Jobs, as portrayed in the Danny Boyle film of the same name, certainly belongs in that last category, but the depths of his rottenness almost demand a subsection all to themselves. Many of the best movies of the last several years, including The Social Network, There Will Be Blood, and The Wolf of Wall Street, focused on an individual who proved easy to revile, but for my money, this is something different altogether, a brand of sustained, unstoppable meanness without peer. As such, Steve Jobs becomes a litmus test of sorts, seeking to discover just how awful you can paint a protagonist before an audience simply loses interest.

        Michael Fassbender stars as the movie's namesake, and plays him as a whirling dervish of entitlement and spite. As penned by Oscar winner Aaron Sorkin, the flick is divided into three distinct acts, each lasting about 40 minutes, and all taking place backstage during a new product launch. We meet the Apple founder in 1984, as he frantically attempts to perfect the presentation of the Macintosh 128K while a plethora of personal matters seek to derail him. Next, we're off to 1988, where the recently disgraced mogul launches a new brand all his own, and is forced to suffer through a nearly identical parade of interpersonal drama. The film's final chapter features the introduction of the imac, and while things have changed at Apple, our 'hero' still struggles to muster anything resembling heroics.

        Steve Jobs has two very obvious, very recent spiritual filmic siblings, and neither comparison is flattering. The intensely claustrophobic setting of behind-the-curtains mania immediately calls to mind last year's Best Picture winner Birdman, and while it would be unfair to expect any modern cinematographer to reach the dizzying heights of visionary cameraman Emmanuel Lubezki, the film suffers from such a clear parallel in the field of backstage visual zest. The other, of course, is The Social Network, both films having been penned by the unmistakable Sorkin, and boasting prickly main characters responsible for some of the most popular technological creations of the internet era. The issue here is obvious; The Social Network is a masterpiece, and Steve Jobs... well... isn't.

        To my mind, much of the blame rests at the feet of the director. Boyle, a hugely talented, Oscar winning filmmaker in his own right, makes for a strange match with this source material. His films tend to lean heavily on surrealism, mania, and a kaleidoscopic array of colors, and while Steve Jobs occasionally permits the auteur to employ many of his favorite tricks, the film at large is essentially one endless conversation. The moments that include literal motion prove genuinely exciting, but whenever characters are locked in a room for an extended period, Boyle and cinematographer Alwin H. Küchler start to feel out of their depths, and often turn to Daniel Pemberton effective score to communicate the intensity of the moment. It doesn't help that Elliot Graham's editing is almost always just a beat too slow; sequences stuffed with rapid-fire dialogue often trail off at their conclusions, various jokes miss that could have hit with the aid of a sharper cut, and the scenes that employ cross-cutting between multiple time periods are frequently confusing.

        It's easy to understand why any group of filmmakers would have such a hard time adapting the virtuoso verbiage of a Sorkin screenplay, but David Fincher certainly knew how when he made The Social Network. That film was mercilessly fast, propelled by the miraculous work of editors Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall, and yet none of the individual story elements ever got lost in the shuffle. All of this to say, Fincher and his team are much better suited for this type of thing, which would seem like a random and pointless statement if it weren't for his previous attachment to this very project. Some of the demerits must be assigned to Sorkin, whose script both fails to elaborate on what exactly makes Jobs so special, and mismanages the film's emotional fulcrum, but I can't help but think Fincher would have figured out a way around those problems. Boyle treats his words with too much reverence, and seems to take his hands of the wheel where Fincher would have been more likely to hone in on the important details, and craft the film beyond what was on the page.

        What he wouldn't have been able to do, however, is get a better performance out of Michael Fassbender. A mortal lock for a Best Actor nomination at this year's Academy Awards, Fassbender morphs both his voice and movements into the perfect visage of the late icon, and rattles off Sorkin's words with dazzling aplomb. If there's a better english-speaking thespian alive in the world today, I have yet to encounter them. His work absolutely towers over his co-stars, who offer surprisingly mixed results from scene-to-scene; Kate Winslet struggles to maintain her accent, Seth Rogen is both stiff and underutilized, and Jeff Daniels, as always, is Jeff Daniels. It's the lesser-known actors, such as Michael Stuhlbarg, Katherine Waterston, and all three actresses who play Jobs' daughter Lisa, who manage to escape Fassbender's enormous shadow, and deliver memorable performances.

        As such, the flick is not without its merits, and many individual scenes stand on their own as some of the year's best filmmaking, but there's an unescapable feeling of wasted potential. At one point in the movie, Jobs remarks that every product launch seems to include a slew of individuals letting him know how they really feel, and he's not half wrong. While the movie's triptych structure ensures that we're not slogging through another run-of-the-mill biopic, it also renders it repetitive, and makes Jobs' nastiness even more difficult to abide. He certainly doesn't commit atrocities on the level of two out of the three protagonists listed in the first paragraph, but he lacks the emotional complexity and occasional merriment that made the others easier to stomach. Much like the Macintosh 128K, Steve Jobs is a good idea in need of a tune-up, and perhaps a little more time spent in the development stage. Nearly every thought the film has is inspired, but just as many feel only partially formed. Fassbender is worth the price of admission by himself, but in the words of Winslet's Joanna Hoffman, "I'm begging you to manage expectations."

Grade: B

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

HypeCast: Beasts of No Nation, Bridge of Spies, and Everest

        Hello, and welcome back to the HypeCast, a film-centric podcast hosted by Collin Sherwood Elwyn and Tyler Mitchell. In today's episode, we discuss a slew of new releases that run the gambit from heartening to harrowing. The guys both catch the first-ever Netflix original movie, Beasts of No Nation, and, in a shocking turn of events, largely disagree about the merits of the film. Before that though, Tyler offers some deeply unenthusiastic praise to Everest, and Collin finally likes a Steven Spielberg drama! The podcast includes a Taylor Swift song that Collin absolutely did not approve, a mini-debate over the attractiveness of Emily Mortimer, and the new scientific break-through that Russians don't need Oxygen. Bonus: Collin recently re-watched both The Social Network and In Bruges, and manages to only mix up Beasts of No Nation with Beasts of the Southern Wild once! Warning: a few naughty words are contained within. Continue at your own risk. Here We Go!

Podcast Itinerary:
0:00-3:59---The Social Network
4:00-9:21---In Bruges
23:42-39:20---Bridge of Spies
39:21-1:04:00---Beasts of No Nation
1:04:01-1:07:17---Podcast Recap and Preview of Next Week's Episode

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Bridge of Spies (Release Date: 10-16-2015)

        For the last 30 years or so, Steven Spielberg's filmography has been a tale of two divergent directors. Already a soaring, generation-defining success after crafting such instant classics as Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and E.T., Spielberg first tried his hand at 'serious filmmaking' with 1985's The Color Purple, a flick that was rewarded with 11 Oscar nominations (and a still-infamous zero wins). While the commercial, popcorn-friendly side of the filmmaker was still at large as recently as 2011 (The Adventures of Tintin), the last three decades have seen a pretty even split between Steven Spielberg-King of the Blockbuster, and Steven Spielberg-Master of the Prestige Picture. The divide has proven strikingly absolute; the auteur's fluffier stuff has possessed little room for real-world allegories or political point-making, while the more straight-faced affairs hardly ever crack a smile. His latest, Bridge of Spies, almost demands that you show reverence while buying a ticket, barring its 'Message Movie' identity almost as blatantly as its desire to win golden statues.

        National treasure and awards season heavyweight Tom Hanks stars as James Donovan, an insurance lawyer in mid-50's Brooklyn who, in the film's opening passages, is tasked with a doozy of a case; defending known Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) in a court of law. After several meetings between the two, Donovan's initial reluctance turns into empathy and intrigue, prompting the lawyer to focus his considerable energy and intellect on saving the man's life. The American public is appalled by his efforts, but in helping Abel avoid the electric chair, Donovan wisely foresees an opportunity to save a captured American in a civil hostage exchange. His prediction comes to fruition in the form of downed spy pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell)... as well as mistakenly detained American economics student Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers). Negotiations for a two-for-one swap begin immediately, with Donovan suddenly finding himself firmly entrenched in the Cold War conflict.

        The trailer for Bridge of Spies covers all of its standard Academy Award aspirant bases; serious, real-life subject matter, a gorgeously-rendered depiction of yesteryear, household names in front of the camera, and a legendary filmmaker behind it. What they fail to convey, however, is just how fun the film is to watch. Bucking the previously described binary that's come to define his recent work, Spielberg is clearly having a blast here, relaying a simple, inspiring story of wit and bravery under extreme circumstances. Compare this to his recent attempts to tell the story of our country's most iconic president (Lincoln), and portray the vast entirety of WW1 as a lyrical John Ford film (War Horse), and this is a decidedly smaller undertaking.

        Shedding some of that weight has enlivened every facet of the helmer's work, from the engrossing pace established by editor Michael Kahn, to the immediately believable production design of Adam Stockhausen, to Matt Charman and the Coen brothers' ceaselessly engaging script. Even cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, whose previous collaborations with Spielberg have born one sedated, over-saturated image after another, sends his camera flying around the room, capturing the proceedings with zest and visual curiosity. This is undoubtably a 'Serious Steven Spielberg Movie,' but they must have finally snuck an espresso machine onto the set; for the first time in years, there's a real sizzle to the industry titan's work.

        The humming of the engine isn't regulated to the production department. Rylance is almost assured an Academy Award nomination for his deft, stoic, chuckle-worthy turn here, though his involvement in the film's proceedings lessens in the movie's second half. Hanks' role never wains even slightly, Donovan proving the lone constant in a tale chuck-full of moving parts. Like Matt Damon in The Martian, this is the kind of performance that's exclusively suited for a legitimate Movie Star, immediately and consistently attaining audience sympathy and trust with his warm familiarity. In fact, the comparison to The Martian works all the way down the line; both are feel-good films positing an idealized civility between all humans, starring an iconic thespian, and directed by highly-regarded individuals who haven't seemed this clear-eyed and invested in years. Spielberg might still be two filmmakers rolled into one, but in Bridge of Spies, we finally get to see them work in concert with one another, and the results are vivacious and heartening.

Grade: B+

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

HypeCast: The Martian, Ridley Scott, and the Alien franchise

        Hello, and welcome back to the HypeCast, a film-centric podcast hosted by Collin Sherwood Elwyn and Tyler Mitchell. Today we discuss the #1 movie at the box office for two weeks running, Ridley Scott's The Martian. It's a fun, energetic, and hopeful film, and we celebrate its release by discussing all of the times that Mr. Scott as a total pessimistic downer. Tyler is understandably disgusted to learn about an under-discussed aspect of Prometheus, Collin doesn't know how to silence his phone, and a house cat runs buck wild. Warning: a few naughty words are contained within. Continue at your own risk. Here We Go!

Podcast Itinerary:
0:00-31:40---The Martian
56:36-1:06:47---Blade Runner and wrap-up

Monday, October 12, 2015

The Martian (Release Date: 10-2-15)

        Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, Sigourney Weaver, Ben Kingsley, Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, Penélope Cruz, Charlize Theron, Guy Pearce, Russell Crowe, Cate Blanchett, William Hurt, Leonardo DiCaprio, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Josh Brolin, and Denzel frickin' Washingston. What do all of these Hollywood stars have in common? They each starred in a Ridley Scott flop... and all within the last decade. The director of such classics as AlienBlade Runner, and Gladiator has fallen on hard times, and we're not talking about a two or three movie slump here. With the exception of the aforementioned Swords and Sandals epic, the auteur has hardly made anything of note since the turn of the century, and yet his latest feature sees the stars aligning once again, as The Martian can boast of a cast featuring Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, and a slew of other faces familiar to the big screen. It's probably not random that only two of the thespians listed in this paragraph's opening have gone on to appear in additional films from Mr. Scott, but hey, the Cubs might win the world series, so why can't Ridley get back on the horse?

        Damon stars as Mark Watney, the botanist of a six-man crew conducting scientific experiments on the surface of Mars. A devastating storm forces the crew to leave the planet, but the red sphere isn't the only thing in their wake; left for dead amidst the chaos and carnage, Watney awakes to find himself all alone, 54.6 million kilometers away from the orb he calls home. NASA director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) announces the tragic, misinformed news of Watney's death to the press, only to have his information refuted by a series of curious satellite transmissions. With the public clamoring to bring the ill-fated astronaut home, Watney sets to the business of surviving, relying almost exclusively on his knowledge, irrefutable can-do attitude, and a few scraps left behind by the crew.

        The first and most obvious observation one could make about Ridley Scott's latest is that it feels absolutely nothing like a Ridley Scott movie. Sharp, snappy, and containing nary a wasted moment in its 144 minute runtime, The Martian almost argues against some of Scott's most impactful filmmaking, which tended to favor slow-bore movements and imagery that almost hypnotized his audience. His latest would rather keep your pulse running, and, in an even bigger surprise, your knees slapped, and your sides in stitches. It's not that The Martian is gut-bustingly hilarious or anything, but it's consistently jovial and snicker-worthy, which is worlds removed from not just Scott's filmmaking canon, but the 'isolated individual' genre in general. Movies like Cast Away, Buried, 127 Hours, and Gravity allot hefty portions of their runtime to showing both the panic or mental deterioration of their protagonist. The closest The Martian gets to that sort of existential crisis is forcing Watney to endure entirely too much ABBA. Positivity and intellect are this character's driving forces, and those two pillars of stability leave precious little room for doubt or despair. This is, of course, unrealistic for a man marooned on a foreign planet, but wholly in keeping with the film's larger argument.

        There is a moment, when Daniels' character is first confronted with the news of his error, in which you fear some nefarious intent on the part of those on the ground, and in power. It comes, and then it goes, replaced by sweaty-palmed, all-hands-on-deck approach to saving our protagonist from the depths of space. My single favorite aspect of last year's Big Hero 6 was the film's setting of San Fransokyo, of futuristic melding pot of a city that abided by any gender, color, or creed, and celebrated, above all else, the beautiful possibilities man is afforded by their dazzling intellect. The notion was a breath of fresh air in a movie landscape choked-out by a misery-mongering view of the future, and while this summer's Tomorrowland continued Disney's side of the argument, it's The Martian that posits this notion most effectively. When Watney's old crew hears that they may be able to help, everyone agrees to take action almost immediately. When the U.S. questions how such an elaborate feat could be accomplished, China is there to help. A young female intern has her profile boosted because of her outstanding output at the NASA control center, and a young black physicist, for all intents and purposes, offers the single best solution to the narrative's problem. It's a gorgeous, hopeful take on the future, one that will doubtlessly attract naysayers who decry the film's lack of realism, but I for one was completely taken by the movie's dedication to portraying the very best in people, and doing so in an all-inclusive manner.

        Yes, having Matt Damon, one of cinema's foremost depictions of white privilege, star in a film about how the whole world should just get along already, seems problematic on paper. Thing is, this very well might be the role he was born to play. Charming, self-aggrandizing, and self-depreciating in nearly equal measure, Damon doesn't embody a real person (or Watney, for that matter) so much as he conveys Matt Damon: Movie Star. If the film at large plays like a Frank Capra film, believing in the best side of people and affording them autonomy at every turn, then Damon is its own personal Jimmy Stewart, an 'ah-shucks' good guy whose real-life star power influences nearly every frame. You've seen him as 'the kid' swimming with the Big Boy con sharks, an endlessly lethal and wounded super agent, and a smarmy double-agent to boot; The Martian is fully aware of Damon's pre-existing filmography, and embraces audience awareness at all times. The allure of his star-power and sure-handedness are too much to resist, even his barrage of eye-rolling 'dad jokes' working in the movie's favor. As strange as this is, I would wholly welcome a Best Actor nomination for Damon despite believing that you could hardly call this acting. Plenty of folks can bring characters to life in convincing fashion; it takes a special talent to 'perform' so little, and yet accomplish so much. 

        There are other accolades to hand out, ranging from Drew Goddard's lively script, to Pietro Scalia absolutely electric editing. But in thinking about the film, I keep coming back to Scott, a director who I personally had completely given up on, crafting one of the very finest films of his illustrious career, and reinventing himself along the way. A few f-bombs keep this film from being rated PG-13, but the truth of the matter is that this is a family film at its core, inviting at every turn, and with its heart always in the right place. In as far as pure entertainment is concerned, you could hardly do better than The Martian, one of 2015's best films to date.

Grade: A-

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

HypeCast: Sicario, Black Mass, and revisiting The Visit

        Hello, and welcome back to the HypeCast, a film-centric podcast hosted by Collin Sherwood Elwyn and Tyler Mitchell. In today's episode, the guys rejoice; the long, arduous, and intrigue-free months of August and September are finally over, and 'prestige movie season' is just now getting started. In celebration, we discuss a pair of Oscar aspirants; Sicario, wherein Emily Blunt is surrounded by a bunch of gun-toting psychopaths patrolling America's southern border, and Black Mass, in which Johnny Depp plays a gun-toting psychopath himself. One may or may not be a whole hell of a lot better than the other. Collin also sings the praises of an under-seen Redbox gem named The Overnight, a one-crazy-night movie that possesses the not-so-rare ability to male grandmas queasy. Before all that though, Tyler has to bring up The Visit, probably just to troll Collin after last week's podcast. Warning: a few naughty words are contained within. Continue at your own risk. Here We Go!

Podcast Itinerary:
0:00-12:38---The Visit
25:38-47:48---Black Mass
47:49-1:01:15---The Overnight

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Sicario (Limited Release Date: 9-18-2015)

        The films of Dennis Villeneuve are not for the faint of heart. His directorial debut, 2011’s Best Foreign Film nominee Incendies, dealt with atrocities of war and unspeakable suffering. His follow-up, Prisoners, is a child abduction epic that refuses to bat an eye even when things get grisly, and last year’s Enemy provided a cryptic puzzler about identity and self. But despite their consistent level of intensity, the thing that truly ties all his pictures together thematically is their exploration of how far a person will go to find the truth. His protagonists, always less than self-assured as their journey begins, can’t help but become so engrossed in the narrative’s central mystery that the world around them begins to fade away, taking the character’s very soul along with it. Sicario marks his third feature in as many years, and asks Emily Blunt to look down into that same dark, infinite abyss where all of his lead actors have eventually found themselves staring. Young as his career may be, there’s little use in denying that Villeneuve is the modern day poet laureate of the Rabbit Hole.

        Blunt stars as Kate Macer, an FBI Special Weapons and Tactics officer with a reputation for never batting an eye, even when things get gruesome and/or violent in the bleached-out Arizona desert she calls home. Her proficiency in even the most horrific of events catches the attention of Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), a Department of Defense adviser (by way of snake oil salesman) who wants to recruit Macer into help bring down a higher-up in the ever-escalating drug war taking place on the border between Texas and Mexico. She agrees despite receiving minimal intel on just what the mission will come to involve, and is further perturbed by the presence of Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), a weathered warrior who serves as Graver's partner despite a lack of any real professional title. And down the war-torn, savagery-abiding Rabbit Hole they go.

        The less you know about Sicario going into it, the better, but I will say this; Villeneuve wastes no time in ratcheting up the tension. These are two of the most intense consecutive hours of filmmaking in recent memory, and while the story it tells undoubtably takes place in the realm of reality, the merciless tension and expert craft involved relay the tale as a fever dream, or terrifying hallucination. Cinematographer Roger Deakins (again at the top of his game, because when isn't he?) undulates between unnerving close-ups and uncompromising explosions of color. His camera fashions the world as painter's canvases do; with emotions and sensory overload working together to create a space that is at once recognizable, but also captivatingly surreal. Composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, Villeneuve's previous collaborator on Prisoners, is also responsible for the light sweat you feel in your palms from first frame to last, trading out his normative eerie beauty for something raw, primal, and foreboding.

        As most great filmmakers in history would likely attest, much of Villeneuve's success comes from surrounding himself with talented individuals, and while the last paragraph sings the praises of those involved behind the camera, those in front of it are performing just as brilliantly. The obvious accolades go to del Toro by simple virtue of having the meatiest role, and between Traffic, Escobar: Paradise Lost, and this, the thespian has clearly established himself as the most important actor in American cinema's depiction of The War on Drugs, having now played a character stationed at nearly every side of the fight. For my money though, the film's stand-out supporting turn is contributed by Brolin, an actor most familiar as a stoic sort rather than the smiling sleaze he inhabits so naturally here. His performance would almost make you sick if it weren't so devilishly delicious. Then there's Blunt, who, despite being the film's avatar for the audience, has the least involvement in the events on screen, and yet still manages to be the stand-out. Those who loved her violent, futuristic Joan of Arc in last year's Edge of Tomorrow would be wise to curb their expectations. She's certainly still a badass, but is subject to a tremendous amount of abuse, both physical and emotional, from which she suffers deeply. She's no slouch when it comes to dialogue delivery, but it's what her face does in moments of silence and intent observation that make her a likely Best Actress nominee at this year's Oscars.

        If you're looking for a review that offers more concrete information and elaborate description of Sicario's plot and the arguments made during its runtime, you'll have to click elsewhere. If it's not perfectly obvious by now, I was blown away by this film, and out of respect, my write-up will be free of any spoilers, or hints that might have you resolve the movie's twist before it arrives. And yes, I did just give away that there is a twist; the movie offers up that information on a silver platter, del Toro even saying to Blunt in the early goings, "Your American ears won't understand, your eyes will see things that make no sense, but in the end, you'll understand." This is certainly true of Kate Macer, who is shown the light by Taylor Sheridan's twisty, unpredictable script, but perhaps more so by the awe-inspiring talent of her director. It's difficult to put a finger on exactly how Villeneuve elevates this film to the lofty tier where it resides simply because every single aspect is brought to life with such mesmerizing aplomb. Dennis Villeneuve is one of the finest filmmakers currently at work, and Sicario may very well be his best work to date. If gore, intensity, or pessimism are deal-breakers for you, I'd pass on this. For literally anyone else, this is must see cinema. Go watch it on the biggest screen you can find.

Grade: A