Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Film Review: "Snowden" (2016).

"Freedom fighters. Enemy of the state." This is Snowden. This biographical thriller film directed by Oliver Stone, written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, and based on the books The Snowden Files by Luke Harding and Time of the Octopus by Anatoly Kucherena. Disillusioned with the intelligence community, top contractor Edward Snowden leaves his job at the National Security Agency. He now knows that a virtual mountain of data is being assembled to track all forms of digital communication -- not just from foreign governments and terrorist groups, but from ordinary Americans. When Snowden decides to leak this classified information, he becomes a traitor to some, a hero to others and a fugitive from the law.

In January 2014, Stone began meeting with Snowden. At first, Snowden was wary about the idea of turning his life into a film. In late May, Stone went to meet Snowden two more times, and Snowden finally agreed to the idea. Although he became involved in the project, he was given no script approval, nor did he receive any payment for the film. Snowden had seen a piece of Oliver Stone's Untold History of the United States and was fascinated by it. Columbia Pictures already had the rights to Greenwald's book on the case. In early June, it was announced that Stone and Moritz Borman had acquired the rights to Harding's The Snowden Files, and that Stone would write and direct the film. Eight days later, Stone acquired the rights to Kucherena's Time of the Octopus. In April 2015, WikiLeaks revealed that Sony paid $700,000 for the rights to Harding's book and $1 million for the rights to Kucherena's novel. To ensure that the script would not be hacked or leaked, Stone wrote it on a single computer with no Internet connection. In early November 2014, it was announced that Joseph Gordon-Levitt would star as Snowden. By mid February 2015, Shailene Woodley, Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto, Tom Wilkinson, Scott Eastwood, Logan Marshall-Green, Timothy Olyphant, Ben Schnetzer, LaKeith Lee Stanfield, Rhys Ifans, Nicolas Cage, Joely Richardson, and Ben Chaplin rounded out the film's cast. At the same time, with a budget of $40 million, principal photography commenced, and wrapped in late April. Filming took place in Munich, Germany; Washington, D.C., District of Columbia, U.S.A..; Oahu, Hawaii; Hong Kong; Moscow, Russia; and Geneva, Switzerland. The film was shot digitally on the new 6.5k ALEXA 65 camera, the first for Stone.

The film stars Gordon-Levitt, in the title role, Woodley, Leo, Quinto, Wilkinson, Eastwood, Marshall-Green, Olyphant, Schnetzer, Lee Stanfield, Ifans, Cage, Richardson, and Chaplin. The cast, especially Gordon-Levitt, is by far the film's trump card, bequeathing us with convincing impersonations of the real-life figures, especially Snowden. Sadly, that's all they are: impersonations.

Heavy on detail and melodrama but missing the spark from its remarkable real-life inspiration, Snowden mostly serves as a middling showcase for Gordon-Levitt's remarkable talent. The film hobbles itself by trying to cram in more context-needy material than any single drama should have to bear.

Simon says Snowden receives:

Also, see my review for Savages.

Monday, 26 September 2016

Film Review: "Don't Breathe" (2016).

"This house looked like an easy target. Until they found what was inside."
This is Don't Breathe. This horror film directed by Fede Alvarez and written by Alvarez and Rodo Savages. The film follows a trio of reckless thieves who break into the house of a wealthy blind man, thinking they'll get away with the perfect heist. But they're wrong, now the group must find a way to escape his home before they become his newest victims.

Due to the criticisms received for his previous film Evil Dead (2013), Alvarez decided to make an original story, that contained little blood and more suspense, as a follow up instead of an intended sequel. He wanted to avoid making a film dealing with the supernatural, as he felt that was too trendy. Instead opted to make a reality-based film. Alvarez explained, "Sometimes you naturally give them powers and make them more menacing than a normal person, so we thought what if we do the other way around and take his eyes out and make him a blind person." Alvarez has called the movie "exercise in reversal" noting that the film deliberately subverts tropes such as the fact that the house in question is a " nice house on a scary street" as opposed to the opposite, or that the movie is a home invasion story told from the point of view of the invaders. The film ilm was originally titled A Man in the Dark. The finalised title was not revealed until its premiere at SXSW 2016. By mid June 2015, Daniel Zovatto, Dylan Minnette, Jane Levy and Stephen Lang were cast. Principal photography began in late June 2015. The film was primarily shot in Hungary, even though the film is set in Detroit. This put the film's budget roughly half the cost of Evil Dead and allowed less interference from the studio.

The film stars Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette, Daniel Zovatto and Stephen Lang. The cast gave genuinely intense performances. It is because of this that made it all the more interesting, especially when the roles of love-to-hate burglars and an empathetic victim have been reversed. Where you empathise for the trio and dread the old blind man. Kudos to Lang especially for pulling off an amazingly terrifying performance for a character who is blind. Never in my life have I ever been terrified of a blind man.

It may lack the originality that the marketing campaign had led us to believe, but Don't Breathe  compensates with brutal terror, intense scares, and shocking moments. The film is amazingly intense and fun, as well as terrifying, exhilarating and relentless. It may be the most unrelenting and shocking horror film to come out of a major studio in a very long time. In the end, it may not be wildly inventive nor the best film of the year, but it is certainly effective and it does its job. I love horror films that truly shock, scare and provoke, and this film is one of them.

Simon says Don't Breathe receives:

Also, see my review for Evil Dead.

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Film Review: "The Beatles: Eight Days a Week - The Touring Years" (2016).

The tagline of the film reads "The band you know. The story you don't." This Beatles story is just that. The Beatles: Eight Days a Week - The Touring Years. This is This documentary film directed by Ron Howard. The film is a compilation of found footage featuring music, interviews, and tells the stories of The Beatles' career and their 250 concerts during their touring years from 1962–1966, from their performances at the Cavern Club in Liverpool to their final concert in San Francisco in 1966.

The genesis of the film arose from Ron Howard's association with Nigel Sinclair who'd been an executive producer on Howard's Rush (2013). Sinclair, who produced his share of rockumentaries (Martin Scorsese's George Harrison: Living in the Material World (2011) and others), had been impressed with Howard's music documentary Made in America (2013), "a reflection of the fabric of what it means to be 'Made in America'...", and simply invited him into process. Howard's love affair with The Beatles began at age 10 when he first saw them on The Ed Sullivan Show on 9th February 1964 (ep: The Ed Sullivan Show: Episode #17.19 (1964)). His first fan request was for a Beatle wig. The title of the film was named after the band's 1964 song of the same name. The song was released in December 1964 on the album Beatles for Sale. It went on to become one of the seven Beatles song to stay on top in the U.S. charts for a year. The inspiration of the song is an interesting story in of itself. The song's title was a result of happenstance for which Paul McCartney claims credit. McCartney had been banned from driving due to a speeding violation and while traveling to John Lennon's home in a chauffeur-driven car one day he idly asked the driver if he'd been working hard. The driver responded dryly, "Eight days a week".

The Beatles: Eight Days a Week - The Touring Years is one of the best insights into one of the greatest musical giants, and the moments that defined a generation. The cast honesty contributes mightily to Howard's portrait of a group of artists more interesting than some of us may have realised. Seeing the film is like revisiting an old passion and realising the heat is still there. Despite director Howard mostly focusing on the band and its fans, trying to search for something elusive - something that only comes around once in a lifetime, the film suffers from the standard narrative associated in documentaries. It is a film that sheds a lot of light on its subject but at times can be a little too blissed out for its own good. Even though it's not a film one particularly expected to be made but it's a vastly welcome one. In the end, it is an essential documentary to the annals of music history. It is one of the great documentary experiences that shouldn't be missed.

Simon says The Beatles: Eight Days a Week - The Touring Years receives:

Also, see my review for In the Heart of the Sea.

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Film Review: "Pete's Dragon" (2016).

"Some secrets are too big to keep" in Pete's Dragon. This live-action fantasy adventure film directed by David Lowery, written by Lowery and Toby Halbrooks, and based on the 1977 Disney live-action/animated musical classic of the same name written by Malcolm Marmorstein. When a mysterious ten-year-old boy claims to live in the woods with a giant green dragon, a forest ranger and an eleven-year-old set out to learn the truth about him.

In March 2013, a non-musical, dramatic remake of Disney's 1977 classic was announced with Lowery hired to direct and co-write with Halbrooks. Disney intended to rework the core story as a dramatic story, rather than a musical. It set the new work in the Pacific Northwest of the early 1980s, rather than the Northern New England of the early 1900s in the 1977 film. The filmmakers cited The Black Stallion (1979), The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness (2013), My Neighbor Totoro (1988), Spirited Away (2001), and The Witch (2015), as artistic and visual inspirations. By early February 2015, Bryce Dallas Howard, Wes Bentley, Karl Urban, Robert Redford, Isiah Whitlock Jr., John Kassir, Oakes Fegley, and Oona Laurence were cast. Casey Affleck and Michael C. Hall were originally cast before they were replaced with Bentley and Urban. At the same time, principal photography commenced and wrapped in late April. Filming took place throughout Bay of Plenty, Rotorua, Tapanui, Taupo and Wellington in New Zealand and was shot in live-action using Panavision Panaflex cameras. The dragon, Elliot, was entirely animated by Weta Digital in CGI, instead of the original hand-drawn animation.

The film stars Howard, Bentley, Urban, Redford, Whitlock Jr., Kassir, Fegley, and Laurence. Hats off to the cast, who put the effort in, but the end result remains a surprisingly sticky presentation; slow, stagnant and mysteriously void of charm and warmth.

Beautifully shot, the story, however, lacks any remarkable originality. It doesn't offer anything new and quite frankly, we have all seen this before. The film had potential to pull at your heartstrings like the original and fill your life with pure joy, but the filmmakers' pool of ideas are, unfortunately, just as empty as Disney's creativity vault. For all its wonderful production values and a game cast, somehow lacks the sense of magic that is expected from a movie of this ilk. It may engage adults who have grown up with the original, but for children, it offers very little in the way of fun. If they had a little more vision, a little more courage, it could have been something truly meaningful, instead of just another fuzzy warm journey. While it is very, very far from being the worst or most insipid thing Disney has down with these characters, it puts up a good fight to be the most dull. The script seems to operate on the assumption that if it announces and acknowledges the stale predictability of its character moments, this makes it a postmodern wink rather than a routine bit of fan-service retrieved from a warehouse.

Simon says Pete's Dragon receives:

Also, see my review for Ain't Them Bodies Saints.

Film Review: "Blair Witch" (2016).

"There's something evil hiding in the woods." This is Blair Witch. This found footage supernatural horror film directed by Adam Wingard, and written by Simon Barrett. It is a direct sequel to the 1999 film The Blair Witch Project, and the third film in the Blair Witch series. A young man and his friends venture into the Black Hills Forest in Maryland to uncover the mystery surrounding his missing sister. Many believe her disappearance 17 years earlier is connected to the legend of the Blair Witch. At first the group is hopeful, especially when two locals act as guides through the dark and winding woods. As the night wears on, a visit from a menacing presence soon makes them realize that the legend is all too real, and more sinister than they could have ever imagined.

Since 2009, development on the film began when Ed Sánchez and Daniel Myrick announced their intent to produce a third Blair Witch film. The film would serve as a direct sequel to the first film, it would potentially contain the actors from the first film in some context, and would not reference any of the events from Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (2000). The film ultimately went into development hell. In 2013, whilst promoting V/H/S/2 at the Sundance Film Festival, Myrick and Sánchez ran into Wingard and Barrett, and were asked about the status of the film. Wingard and Barrett were informed that Myrick and Sánchez were asked by Lionsgate to produce the sequel, which they had accepted. The meeting then resulted in Wingard and Barrett being brought on to direct and write the film. By January 2015, a third Blair Witch was still in talks, and Sanchez stated that the film was "inevitable". Casting proved to be a challenge, due to the highly secretive nature of the films creation. The filmmakers are quoted as saying that the actors had "no idea what they were auditioning for." In order to make this sequel as surprising as possible, principal photography was done in complete secrecy in Vancouver, British Columbia as opposed to Patapsco State Park where the original was shot, with the film having been shot under the fake title, The Woods. The first two weeks of filming were rough-going, as Wingard realized they had "so much footage that didn't work." This uncertain feeling was more intense than he'd ever experienced as a filmmaker. In July 2016, the first trailer was then shown at San Diego Comic Con, revealing it as the third Blair Witch film, a mere two months prior to the premiere.

The film stars James Allen McCune, Callie Hernandez, Brandon Scott, Corbin Reid, Valorie Curry and Wes Robinson. Given the fact that the cast are not the usual suspects, there was something refreshing about the film.

A worthy successor to The Blair Witch Project, Blair Witch is economically paced, stylistically clever, and filled with scares, despite the camera work. Despite being set in the woods, the film provides a claustrophobic intensity that makes it chillingly effective.

Simon says Blair Witch receives:

Also, see my review for You're Next.

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Film Review: "Sausage Party" (2016).

One of the film's tagline reads "Not your usual kids movie", which is exactly what Sausage Party is. This adult computer-animated comedy film directed by Greg Tiernan & Conrad Vernon, and written by Kyle Hunter, Ariel Shaffir, Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg. A parody of Disney and Pixar animated films, the film follows a sausage who tries to discover the truth about his existence and goes on a journey with his friends to escape their fate. After South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (1999), the film is the first CGI-animated film to be rated R by the MPAA.

Seth Rogen first developed the idea of the film back in 2007. It was based on something he and Jonah Hill joked around about. While promoting Superbad (2007) and Knocked Up (2007), people would ask Rogen what his next project will be, in which he jokingly replied "It's called 'Sausage Party'". Rogen later described the film as a dark take on Disney films, saying, "People like to project their emotions onto the things around them: their toys, their cars, their pets... So we thought, 'What would it be like if our food had feelings?' We very quickly realized that it would be fucked up." It's because of the dark nature of the story, Rogen worked and fought for eight years to get it picked up by film studios. Until it was finally formally announced in September 2013 as a joint project between Sony Pictures Entertainment, Annapurna Pictures and Point Grey Pictures. The film was finally given the green light with a budget of $20 million, as opposed to most Pixar and other animated movies, this was considered a particularly small budget for a CG animated feature. According to Rogen, the film was intended to be made as inexpensively as possible and the CGI was not supposed to look polished. Like most Rogen-Goldberg films, this film did not come without its controversies. The red band trailer for the film was accidentally shown in a screening of Finding Dory (2016) at Brenden Concord cinemas in Concord, California, horrifying young audiences. The incident occurred only once, and the theater apologized, with Rogen tweeting that the story "made his day".

It stars an ensemble voice cast that includes Rogen, Kristen Wiig, Jonah Hill, Bill Hader, Michael Cera, James Franco, Danny McBride, Craig Robinson, Paul Rudd, Nick Kroll, David Krumholtz, Edward Norton and Salma Hayek. Like This is the End, the film was jam-packed with energetic, hilarious and surprising performances from the cast.

Its jokes are profoundly bold and rude but incredibly funny at the same time. With Sausage Party, you could sit through a year's worth of Hollywood animated features and still not see anything that's genuinely knock-your-socks-off audacious. But the film truly is. It's the wildest animated feature, since South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, that is not afraid to be the most fearlessly audacious and the snort-out-loud funniest. However, the film ultimately fails short for animated greatness due to its lazy, overly gratuitous and ridiculous last 15 minutes.

Simon says Sausage Party receives:

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Film Review: "One More Time with Feeling" (2016).

From the director of Killing Them Softly comes One More Time with Feeling. This British documentary film directed by Andrew Dominik. The film follows the recording of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds album Skeleton Tree, in the wake of Nick Cave's 15-year-old son Arthur's tragic death.

In February 2016, principal production, commenced and the entire film was shot over the course of 10 days with a crew of seven people. The film was shot in both black and white and in color and in both 2D and 3D, with two specialist 3D technicians. Dominik originally intended to shoot the film as "a performance based concept", but it became "something much more significant" as he began conducting interviews during filming. The decision to conduct interviews and introduce non-musical elements was "completely improvised" by Dominik during principal production. Interviews with Cave and Susie Bick were filmed in both London and Brighton. Dominik and Cave had an agreement where Dominik could film at any time and ask Cave any question, provided that "if there was anything [Cave] didn't like he could cut it out". Several "emotional" scenes of the film were edited out due to Dominik's "confusion [on] how to deal with the subject" and for fear that they were "exploitative in some way". The portions of the film featuring Cave's narration and voiceovers were recorded on his iPhone after filming was completed. Several hours of his personal recordings were sent to Dominik via Dropbox; Dominik edited the recordings and "built sequences around pieces" of them. Cave both commissioned and financed the film himself in order to avoid conducting interviews about Skeleton Tree and his son's death with the media. According to Dominik, Cave was not expecting to profit from the film's release and "his best hope [was] to break even."

Despite the shagginess, Dominik mostly stays focused on Cave as a reflection of his family, eternally searching for something elusive - something that only came around occasionally. A film that sheds a lot of light on its subject but at times can be a little too blissed out for its own good. You'd like to think that being one of the Seeds had to be more fun than this long and surprisingly dry Dominik documentary makes it seem. Cave's family's honesty contributes mightily to Dominik's portrait of an artist more interesting than some of us may have realized. This insightful documentary finds that there was more to Cave than his much-touted dark punk side. It's a little long, but it is full of great insight that Nick Cave fans will find fascinating. Its trove of unseen treasures is required viewing for fans, but the majority of time spent on Cave and his personal side for almost two hours leaves viewers with as many questions about Nick Cave as when they came in. The film fits easily into Dominik's body of work, as a study of a complex, sometimes angry figure struggling with his contradictions.

Simon says One More Time with Feeling receives:

Also, see my review for Killing Them Softly.

Film Review: "Sully" (2016).

"The untold story behind the miracle on the Hudson." This is Sully. This biographical drama film directed by Clint Eastwood, written by Todd Komarnicki, and based on the autobiography Highest Duty by Chesley Sullenberger and Jeffrey Zaslow. On Thursday, January 15, 2009, the world witnessed the "Miracle on the Hudson" when pilot Chesley"Sully" Sullenberger glided his disabled plane onto the frigid waters of the Hudson River, saving the lives of all one hundred fifty-five aboard. However, even as Sully was being heralded by the public and the media for his unprecedented feat of aviation skill, an investigation was unfolding that threatened to destroy his reputation and his career.

In 2010, producers Frank Marshall and Allyn Stewart optioned the film rights to Sully's autobiography Highest Duty. They then hired Komarnicki to pen the script. From the start, Sullenberger wanted the film to encompass "that sense of our common humanity", noting that the incident had taken place shortly after the 2008 Great Recession. Komarnicki said the difficulty was not depicting the landing in the river, but the investigation afterwards. By June 2015, it was reported that Tom Hanks was already in talks to play the lead role of Sullenberger. During pre-production, Hanks spent half a day with Sullenberger at his Bay Area house. Sullenberger later expressed how he was impressed with Hanks' portrayal of him. By late September, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney, Anna Gunn, Autumn Reeser, Ann Cusack, Holt McCallany, Jamey Sheridan, Jerry Ferrara, Max Adler, Michael Rapaport, Jeff Kober, and Chris Bauer rounded out the film's cast. At the same time, principal photography commenced, and wrapped in late April 2016. Filming took place in the real locations New York City, as well as Atlanta, Los Angeles, North Carolina, New Mexico, and New Jersey. Sullenberger served as a consultant and was present throughout the production. Ferry Captain Vincent Lombardi, who was the Captain of the first ferry to reach the plane, played himself in this movie. The real Detectives Robert Rodriguez and Michael Delaney from the N.Y.P.D. Scuba Team/Air Sea Rescue Unit re-enacted their helicopter jump in New York City. The film was shot almost entirely with Arri Alexa IMAX 65mm cameras.

The film stars Hanks, Eckhart, Linney, Gunn, Reeser, Cusack, McCallany, Sheridan, Ferrara, Adler, Rapaport, Kober, and Bauer. The film provides Hanks with one of his meatiest, most complex roles, and he flies with it. The film segues into a brave performance by Hanks - one of his very best. Not often does a movie character make such a harrowing personal journey that keeps us in deep sympathy all of the way. Hanks should get an Oscar nod for sure: His performance as Sullenberger was heroically epic.

Eastwood makes another triumphant return to form with Sully, a thoughtful and provocative historical study propelled by a compelling performance from Tom Hanks. The infamous crash depicted in the film is one of the most terrifying flight scenes I've ever witnessed. The film is ultimately a vigorous and involving salute to professionalism and people being good at their jobs.

Simon says Sully receives:

Also, see my review for American Sniper.

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Film Review: "Free State of Jones" (2016).

"For justice. For pride. For freedom." This is Free States of Jones. This historical period war film written and directed by Gary Ross, and based on the books The Free State of Jones by Victoria E. Bynum and The State of Jones by Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer. Set during the Civil War, the film tells the story of defiant Southern farmer, Newt Knight, and his extraordinary armed rebellion against the Confederacy. Banding together with other small farmers and local slaves, Knight launched an uprising that led Jones County, Mississippi to secede from the Confederacy, creating a Free State of Jones. Knight continued his struggle into Reconstruction, distinguishing him as a compelling, if controversial, figure of defiance long beyond the War.

During a meeting with Universal Studios to discussing future projects, Ross was handed a page about Knight and his free state, and he was instantly intrigued. Ross then spent ten years developing the project. Ross was initially drawn to make the movie out of a desire to examine the Reconstruction era south, an era that, according to him, is poorly represented in film, with him giving Gone with the Wind (1939) and The Birth of a Nation (1915) as examples of "the last movies that did it". Ross then spent over two years conducting a "tremendous amount of research", studying not only the Civil War but also the historiography of the war, the latter because he wanted "to debunk a lot of the myths" surrounding the events. Ross finished writing the film prior to working on The Hunger Games (2012), although he struggled to find much in way of financing: he felt that working on that film would help him, and thusly declined to work on the sequels. Afterwards he still had trouble getting the movie made, which he attributes to the fact that "we're in a different kind of a popcorn universe now". In November 2014, it was announced that Matthew McConaughey was cast as Knight. By late February 2015, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali, Keri Russell, Christopher Berry, Sean Bridgers, Jacob Lofland, Thomas Francis Murphy, and Joe Chrest rounded out the film's cast. At the same time, principal photography commenced, and wrapped in late May. Filming took place throughout Louisiana. Angelo Piazza III, Marksville, La. and Jack's Powder Keg Company participated in the production with their cannon and black powder. The film was initially set for a March 11, 2016 release date. However, the film was pushed back to May 13, and finally to June 24.

The film stars McConaughey, Mbatha-Raw, Ali, Russell, Berry, Bridgers, Lofland, Francis Murphy, and Chrest. McConaughey gives his most mature and controlled performance to date. Ali is an actor clearly on his way to major super stardom. As the film unfolds in a succession of often brilliantly realized vignettes tracing the rebellion's organization, training and first experiences. The characters' idiosyncrasies emerge.

Free State of Jones is a stirring and long overdue tribute to Knight, and his extraordinary armed rebellion against the Confederacy during the American Civil War.

Simon says Free State of Jones receives:

Also, see my review for The Hunger Games.