"Patriots Day" (2017)

By Reid Ramsey (January 14, 2017)
It never feels like long-form television though, and the action scenes are as intense as any action film that came out last year. 

Peter Berg strikes again with another true story action movie “Patriots Day” (2017). Berg (“Deepwater Horizon” (2016) and “Lone Survivor” (2013)), who has recently developed a reputation of adapting current events to film, returns for his third collaboration with Mark Wahlberg. In “Patriots Day,” Wahlberg stars as a fictional Boston cop who helped resolve and hunt down the terrorists responsible for the 2013 Boston marathon bombing. Wahlberg’s Tommy Saunders not only ties the many narrative threads of Berg’s story together, but also acts as a stand-in for the true heroes of that event: the people of Boston. 

You can question why this movie needed to be made when this was such a heavily documented event. You can question why Berg seems to have tightly cornered himself into this specific genre of film. You can even just decide that this type of movie is exploitative and should never be made (although you’ll have to reconsider some household favorites like “United 93” (2006) and “Zero Dark Thirty” (2012)). The one aspect, however, that you can’t question when watching “Patriots Day” is the craft. 

Berg weaves together an almost unbelievable amount of characters while maintaining a fairly high batting average—a few of the character lines were duds. The film intimately dives into many stories of the heroes, victims, and terrorists with (mostly) grace and aplomb. The opening introduces us to the major storylines including a loving couple preparing to watch the marathon, the humble Sergeant Jeffrey Pugliese of Watertown (a Boston suburb) played by J.K. Simmons, a charming Chinese student, and the two terrorists themselves, among others. The success rate which Berg has while editing the many storylines together is astounding. 

Berg mainly borrows his “Friday Night Lights” (TV 2006-2011) aesthetic with handheld camera, stylishly realistic dialogue, and his commitment to close-ups. Coming from the show, it makes sense that Berg could employ the same shooting and editing style to bring these stories together. It never feels like long-form television though, and the action scenes are as intense as any action film that came out last year. 

All this being said, I myself am still a little resistant to movies of this genre. In fact, I low-key hated the “Patriots Day” trailer even though I maintained excitement to see the movie. The casting is also troubling at times. Alex Wolff (“The Naked Brothers Band”) plays Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and while he actually looks bizarrely like the 19-year-old Chechen terrorist, his casting never quite sat right with me. 

While Berg hits hard with the violence and bureaucratic challenges of hunting domestic terrorists, he pulls back on the aspect that could have challenged viewers the most. For whatever reason, the movie semi-humanizes the terrorists. It could have fully humanized them and challenged the audience with the thought of them being ordinary people, or it could have not given them much story time at all. Instead it swings back to the middle and spends too little time with them to humanize them and too much time with them to do anything but somewhat encapsulate their acts.

People will ultimately leave “Patriots Day” reminded of the courage and love of the Boston community, as speechified by Wahlberg at one point. Unfortunately that courage and love will only be remembered in response to the acts of terror that for a few short days turned Boston and its suburbs into a war zone in April 2013.

RATING: 3/4

"Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids" (2016)

By Reid Ramsey (December 4, 2016)

If the mainstream movie trend of 2015 was exploring rebellion and defeating social norms through a familiar pop-culture lens, then the trend of 2016 has been using the same lens for escapism, or more simply to entertain. Reflecting on 2016 will involve looking at celebrity deaths, a violent political climate, and a society who, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is shrouded in a post-truth media. This is escapist entertainment’s moment. Jonathan Demme delivered the new concert movie Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids earlier this year, and it fits nicely with the other escapist gems of the year, Hail, Caesar!, The Shallows, and Sing Street to name a few.

The title of the film is not misleading. Demme manages to humanize one of the major pop-icons of the century, while also bringing to life his band, The Tennessee Kids. The movie opens with each of the band members introducing themselves, leading up to the pre-concert prayer and huddle led by JT himself. For a concert movie, it has an inspiring emotional core. I was honestly overwhelmed watching this group break their huddle and take the stage for the last show of their tour. 

My favorite moment comes as Timberlake is on the trap door lift about to be raised onto the stage. We hear the countdown and the crowd’s anticipation, but the real joy is watching his anticipation. He paces back and forth and is genuinely excited, making faces at the crew members and showing vulnerability that we don’t often allow superstars. 

The show itself is a wonder (a techie’s dream, or nightmare). The opulent set surrounds the band members, dancers, and JT—all dressed in what might be the best-tailored suits of all time. As a performer, he is generous. Some of the best moments push JT off to a supporting role as a band member steps in to dance or sing a solo. 

It’s also one of the best looking films of the year. Demme does not disappoint. I imagine the concert loses something when watched on a screen, but maybe it gains even more. Demme’s framing and camera choices are enough to bring the audience into the MGM Garden Arena and up close to the icon. 

Having to defend Hail, Caesar! for much of the year to all the skeptics, the other person always says, “Sure it’s funny, but it’s nothing other than entertainment.” When did it suddenly become uncool to be entertaining? Just let yourselves be entertained. Sit back and let Justin Timberlake dance for you for 90 minutes—people loved it when it was Gene Kelly. This year, more so than ever, I’m placing a high price on entertainment.

RATING: 3.5/4

"Hacksaw Ridge" (2016)

By Reid Ramsey (November 12, 2016)
Andrew Garfield in "Hacksaw Ridge" (2016)

Andrew Garfield in "Hacksaw Ridge" (2016)

"The bloodshed is shockingly violent and nearly impossible to stomach, but it’s also largely democratic."

American war films have a long standing tradition of savoring the pain endured by American soldiers—and therefore the glory associated with the pain—and glazing over the complete destruction of the opposing army. There have been notable exceptions, but these are exceptions and not the rule. One glaring example is Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper” (2014). It’s a tense and well-directed movie that takes no time to assess the merit of anyone but the protagonist, and the pain of others only exists to enhance his pain and thus his glory. 

Despite the problems I have with Mel Gibson’s new film “Hacksaw Ridge” (2016) it stands out to me as an exception to this rule. 

“Hacksaw Ridge” follows the truly remarkable story of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), the first Conscientious Objector to be awarded the Medal of Honor by the U.S. military. As is too often the case, Gibson begins his biopic with a series of vignettes of Doss’s pre-war life. He is a young, violent child who's sudden revelation comes when he almost kills his brother with a rock—he walks to the next room and stares at the family’s Ten Commandments poster. The rest of the first half of the film follows him as an older teenager as he builds a relationship with Dorothy Schutte (Terese Palmer). They fall in love quickly. Unfortunately, most of the interactions between Palmer and Garfield feel as if they come from a different, self-aware movie. 

Andrew Garfield and Teresa Palmer in "Hacksaw Ridge" (2016)

Andrew Garfield and Teresa Palmer in "Hacksaw Ridge" (2016)

It’s on the battlefield that the movie hits its stride and I started to understand what Gibson was exploring. The war-is-hell, heavy bloodshed philosophy to war films is not even close to a new idea; but Gibson, with his intense love for glorification through blood and tears, was the perfect choice for a movie as this. The bloodshed is shockingly violent and nearly impossible to stomach, but it’s also largely democratic. Japanese bodies and American bodies tear and fall the same way. We cannot understand what they are saying but we sympathize with their pain as we do with the Americans. As Gibson shows us (maybe too much), the rats do not distinguish between nationality.

The battle scenes often jump back to Doss, who is a medic without a weapon, heroically laying his body down to save his fellow men. He carries the wounded over his shoulder and the strength of Garfield’s performance is his ability to mix both empathy and determination. 

One of my bigger hesitations is the borderline incoherent theology—the film is essentially a grab-bag of pacifistic philosophy, Seventh-Day Adventism, and Gibson’s personal theology. “Hacksaw Ridge” is perhaps Gibson at his most gratuitous—including one shot that I still have to grapple with that somewhat unravels my earlier claims—but it is also Gibson at his most progressive and empathetic.

RATING: 3/4

"Deepwater Horizon" (2016): A Disaster Movie That Understands Stakes

By Reid Ramsey (October 6, 2016)
Those who live are scarred and those who die leave behind loved ones. 

Several times a year I see trailers for “True Story” movies that just make me quietly ask myself “Why do we need this?” Because they make money of course. This makes no sense, though because for those who mainly view film as a method of escapism, movies about real events seem counterintuitive; and for those who want realism, why would you want to watch a fictitious dramatization of previously documented events? I even had this experience leading up to “Deepwater Horizon” (2016) when they showed a trailer for a new movie dramatizing the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombing (“Patriot’s Day” (2016)), which is in fact directed by the same director as “Deepwater Horizon” (Peter Berg) and starring Mark Wahlberg as well. I went into “Deepwater Horizon” with the previously stated expectations. All that being said, we need “Deepwater Horizon.”

The film follows crew members of the Deepwater Horizon, the oil rig that became one of the greatest environmental disasters of all time. The crew members board the rig for a 21 day shift when they realize that corners are being cut, and this time more than usual. The BP executives make decisions to move forward in development without double-checking or running safety inspections. Inevitably the main line ruptures and a fire ignites on board. The last act of the film chaotically follows the characters as they attempt to abandon the rig and make it to the life boats.

The most remarkable aspect of the film is the sense of camaraderie on display as the crew members have a certain banter and realism that infringes more on documentary filmmaking than disaster filmmaking. Mike Williams (Wahlberg) is the rig’s handyman and knows the name and face of seemingly every person on board. Berg subtly enforces the realism by having crew members joke and job at each other while focused on their job. 

In some respects though, Berg pays less attention to realism. Brad Leland and John Malkovich play the BP oil executives Kaluza and Vidrine, respectively. The disturbing result portrays these two less as businessman and much more as southern, white slave-owners. For a movie mostly focused on the glorification of men and women at work, these two corner-cutting executives care little about the value of human life. That carelessness bleeds through every frame of “Deepwater Horizon.”

Despite having such harmful villains, “Deepwater Horizon” does not attempt to single out a hero among its cast. The three main protagonists, Williams, Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell), and Andre Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez), all act heroically; but their heroism and even their doubtful moments exist much more as the point-of-view decision of the filmmaker. 

American disaster movies have a long-honored tradition of the one man overcoming all odds to save the masses. But the claim of a movie such as “Deepwater Horizon” is much more cynical and troubling: with a disaster of this magnitude, no one can win. Those who live are scarred and those who die leave behind loved ones. 

Berg also non-traditionally lets his movie focus on William’s wife, Felicia (Kate Hudson). Felicia and Mike are in the middle of a Skype call when the fire on board the oil rig starts. As participants in the information age, Hudson’s performance smartly presents a troubling fear: not knowing. Instead of frantically crying like this character would do in most movies, Hudson calmly exhausts her resources until she realizes the information is not available. This is Hudson’s most complex performance in years, and yes, it’s in a disaster movie.

“Deepwater Horizon” is not perfect, there are many ways that it bows to the genre rather than subverting it, but it is important. The best aspects make it far more relatable and relevant than most of those movies that will be vying for awards come February.

"Don't Breathe" (2016) Review: Silence is Key

By Reid Ramsey (August 29, 2016)
"...in a cinematic landscape saturated with superhero movies and remake, rehash, whatever nonsense, it is promising to know that there is an audience willing to see weird, gross, and unique films such as Don’t Breathe."

“Silence is your best friend,” said tension to writer/director Fede Alvarez when he was working on his new horror film "Don't Breathe" (2016). I just wished he had taken what is apparently the personification of tension (?) more seriously.

As is the case with horror films dating back nearly a century, many of the most tense and horrific moments happen when the music drops out and all we hear is the character’s breath, or lack thereof. "Don’t Breathe" takes this to a new level as our protagonists, a group of teens (Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette, and Daniel Zovatto) trying to escape their Detroit lives by robbing houses, break into a blind veteran’s (Stephen Lang) home to steal his apparent fortune. When Lang enters the room, a silence persists as his character listens for who is in his house, and our protagonists try to stay as quiet as possible (hence the title). The moments of silence successfully heighten the tension and a sinister fear invades the audience.

Unfortunately, the effective use of silence only accentuates one of the worst parts of the movie: the score. It’s almost as if the composer, Roque Baños, experienced an entirely different movie when scoring "Don’t Breathe". At times, the score adds to the tension, but between some blisteringly loud moments and other moments where the bouncy score feels lifted from an adventure movie, there seems to be a major disconnect between the music and the movie we see. 

One of the other issues I had with the film was the complete monster-ization of the antagonist. While a character remarks early that “Just because he’s blind, don’t mean he’s a saint,” the movie cheaply utilizes his blindness as a vehicle for portraying him as an evil monster of a man. Yes, it is just a genre movie. No, it doesn’t have to use his cloudy eyes as an evil character. However, the premise of the blind antagonist makes for such an interesting and thrilling movie that I think these issues are easy to get past and mostly only arise when thinking about it after the fact.

Stephen Lang in "Don't Breathe" (2016)

Stephen Lang in "Don't Breathe" (2016)

The past few years have been recognized as a “Horror Renaissance” with critical indie hits like "It Follows" (2015) and "The Babadook" (2014). While these films found their own audiences, it’s significant to talk about the mainstream horror hits that present fresh ideas to widespread audiences. "Don’t Breathe" manages to fit nicely into this so-called renaissance on the mainstream side with the likes of "The Conjuring" (2013). Neither of these two films feel as unique or special to me as some of the indie films, including one of my favorite films from this year "Green Room" (2016), but in a cinematic landscape saturated with superhero movies and remake, rehash, whatever nonsense, it is promising to know that there is an audience willing to see weird, gross, and unique films such as "Don’t Breathe."

As is the case with most good genre movies, a fresh and interesting premise goes a long way. With the use of violence and shock as well, I think this film secures a unique place among mainstream horror films. Despite a trailer that gives nearly everything away (avoid the trailer if you haven’t already seen it), "Don’t Breathe" still manages scares and shock even if it doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny after the fact.

RATING: 2.5/4

"Hunt For the Wilderpeople" (2016) Review

By Reid Ramsey (August 13, 2016)
"The film subtly invokes its message of the power of acceptance without ever feeling preachy." 

If you had told me that Taika Waititi would follow up his 2014 mockumentary about vampires “What We Do In the Shadows” with a hilarious story about a foster child and his ex-foster parent living in the New Zealand jungle on the run from Child Protective Service (CPS), I probably would have believed you. Now, if you had added that it was Waititi’s most cinematic film to date and included a heartfelt and honest portrayal of a complicated relationship, I may have doubted you. But that’s what “Hunt For the Wilderpeople” (2016) is. 

“Hunt For the Wilderpeople,” as previously stated follows Ricky (Julian Dennison) a city-kid who CPS places in the care of the unconditionally loving Aunt Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and the callous Uncle Hec (Sam Neill). After a tragedy, CPS offers to take Ricky from Hec. Communication errors and the overzealous social worker Paula, who probably imagines herself as Al Pacino’s Vincent Hanna from “Heat” (1995), incite a New Zealand wide manhunt for Ricky and Hec.

Sometimes I have a hard time telling if I just personally find New Zealand accents in Waititi’s films to be innately hilarious or if he’s purposefully using his deadpan style mixed with the accents to form the comedy. Based on other audience members’ laughter, I lean towards the latter. In this film and his two previous films I’ve seen, “What We Do In the Shadows” and “Eagle vs Shark” (2007), he also uses this same comic technique. 

Sam Neill, Rima Te Wiata, and Julian Dennison in "Hunt For the Wilderpeople" (2016)

Sam Neill, Rima Te Wiata, and Julian Dennison in "Hunt For the Wilderpeople" (2016)

“Oh look, he’s giving a pig a piggyback ride,” an officer calmly and dryly states as Hec ruggedly walks over a hill with a pig on his back.

This film is also one filled to the brim with movie references. This includes more subtle visual references to “Thelma and Louise” (1991) and much more explicit and hilarious references to the Terminator franchise. 

At its core, “Hunt For the Wilderpeople” explores the emotional journey of a young boy figuring out that he not only has a place in the world but also has people in the world that love him. As he continually reminds the audience throughout the film (mostly for comedy), since birth he has been destined to be a statistic to pass through foster homes and end up in prison or dead. The film subtly invokes its message of the power of acceptance without ever feeling preachy. 

One of the key components of the film is Ricky’s dog, who he names Tupac, given to him by Bella and Hec. The joy and responsibility Ricky enjoys while training Tupac can be read as quietly hopeful and cycle-breaking. 

Essentially Waititi has made a referential broad comedy about the strength of acceptance in a child’s life, and it’s one of the year’s best.

RATING: 4/4

 

"The Purge: Election Year" Review: Ineffective Shock Instead of Suspense

By Reid Ramsey (July 4, 2016)
The weird dichotomy between a movie ultimately beautifying the violence it works hard to condemn distances and neutralizes whatever effect the movie wanted to have on the audience.

During “The Purge: Election Year” a character describes a politician as a “devious, duplicitous, bigoted mother f*cker.” At this point during the screening I went to, another audience member yelled a single name: Trump. If ever social commentary and relevance through art is lost on an audience, it is not with “The Purge: Election Year.”

Unfortunately, cultural relevance does not make a film good. The movie takes place in a not-so-distant future where the government, who calls themselves The New Founding Fathers, initiates an annual event called The Purge. Every year when The Purge begins, citizens legally can commit any crime, including murder, with no repercussions for a twelve hour period. The protagonists of this third installment are Senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell) and her security guard Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo). The NFFA targets the senator on the night of The Purge because she is seeking election and vows to rid the nation of the bloody event.

 

Elizabeth Mitchell in "The Purge: Election Year"

Elizabeth Mitchell in "The Purge: Election Year"

Despite the politics being (shallowly) discussed, the filmmakers opt for shock instead of suspense. This may not seem like a big deal, but the unearned jump scares are draining and ineffective. The weird dichotomy between a movie ultimately beautifying the violence it works hard to condemn distances and neutralizes whatever effect the movie wanted to have on the audience. The most memorable moment of this was the slow motion dropping of an anvil on an unknown character’s head. 

The standout of the movie (and the audience I saw it with would agree, I’m sure) is Mykelti Williamson. He plays Joe, a store owner who wants to protect his store on Purge night. He eventually ends up with the Senator, helping protect her and apathetically helping to dismantle the NFFA (year, I know). The screenplay is unforgiving to Joe, giving him some of the worst and most ridiculous lines, but Williamson delivers every absurd line with a hilarious conviction that lit up the screen and kept the audience engaged. 

The third installment in the Purge franchise is the worst but also the most politically engaged. As everyone has been saying since the first one came out: There is a good horror movie to be made in this franchise, but this isn't it. 

 

RATING: 1.5/4

“The Shallows” Review: An Effective and Scary Genre Film

By Reid Ramsey (June 25, 2016)
Incredibly effective and presumptive of the audience’s fear of the ocean, it is a movie that does not go in one ear and out the other.

With a tight running time of 87 minutes, “The Shallows” taps into what is truly terrifying about the ocean. Miles of translucent blue waves, rip currents, jellyfish, blood in the water, and of course, sharks. Director Jaume Collet-Serra recognizes the elements and exploits them in a way only a good genre director could. During the exposition (which at times feels like a YouTube surfing video), he smartly plays house music while showing the surfers and every once in a while the camera dips underwater, the music drowns out, and an ominous score kicks in for a moment until the camera returns to the surface.

Blake Lively plays Nancy, a med-school-dropout reeling from the death of her mother. Even with the impressive direction of Collet-Serra, “The Shallows simply could not work without Blake Lively. She carries the entire production on her shoulders (something men are usually rewarded for come Oscar time, looking at you James Franco). Lively brings an unnecessary but impressive humanity that elevates the film over the normal quality of a shark slasher flick. 

Blake Lively in The Shallows (2016)

Blake Lively in The Shallows (2016)

“The Shallows” also never flaunts its below-the-surface feminism. It is not a feminist film because it isn’t trying to be one. However, the quiet empowerment and embrace of a strong female character who is capable of surviving makes “The Shallows” one of the more empowering recent films.

I cannot help but feel like this film’s main problems come from it being a commercial endeavor. Collet-Serra makes plenty of smart choices when building tension and developing Nancy’s character, but he, alongside the screenplay, make plenty of bad choices too. A few cheap jump scares and moments of bad CGI are mostly forgivable, although those certainly keep “The Shallows” from being great. The purposefully emotional beats, involving Nancy’s conversations with her dad and an unbelievably horrendous epilogue, maybe make it more palatable for a general audience, but they also pull the film away from being one of the best genre films of the year.

That being said, it works best during the tension and shark attacks, and when it works, “The Shallows” is one of the best genre movies of the year. Incredibly effective and presumptive of the audience's fear of the ocean, it is a movie that does not go in one ear and out the other. And it’ll make you stay out of the water as much as “Finding Dory” made you want to jump in the water last week.

 

RATING: 3 stars out of 4.

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"April and the Extraordinary World" Review: An Imaginative Steampunk Romp

By Reid Ramsey (May 23, 2016)

April and The Extraordinary World offers an imaginative, steampunk romp through the streets of France that is an absolute delight throughout the various twists and character moments that drive the film.

A talking cat, a walking house, two Eiffel Towers, and one ultimate serum to make the drinker invulnerable; in most films, these qualities stem from far-off fantasy, but in April and The Extraordinary World these qualities are the natural scientific progression of the world in which April lives. Directed by Christian Desmares and Franck Ekinci and based on the graphic novel by Jacques Tardi, the French film operates under two alternative premises: what if Napoleon never fell from power and what if all the scientists randomly disappeared at the tail end of the industrial age. It’s in this alternate historical timeline that April and her family of scientists try to create the aptly named ultimate serum.

While it’s easy to get caught up discussing the plot of the film, in April and The Extraordinary World, it’s much easier to get wrapped up in the wildly imaginative animation and character detail filling every frame. The hand-drawn animation delivers some of the best non- Studio Ghibli animation since Ernest and Celestine (2013). While the design of the characters is obsessively good, the stand out elements in the film are the characters themselves. Stunning voice work from Angela Galuppo as April, Tony Hale as Darwin the cat, and Tod Fennell as Julius (American version of the film), give tremendous depth to the teenagers and the cat.

April and the Extraordinary World

April and the Extraordinary World

The film foregrounds the motivations of all the characters and makes those motivations not only believable but relatable. Several non-human characters, including Darwin, April’s cat, have clear but fascinating ideologies that allow them to gain as much empathy as the human characters.

April and The Extraordinary World also benefits from an optimism that films focused on science sometimes lack. The characters, trapped in a non-progressive, steampunk 1940s France, maintain a confidence in the science that they continually return too. They believe in a world that will be bettered by their scientific advancements and will rid itself of the cycle of evil that had haunted them for the past decades. This is not a 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) brand of science fiction, but it falls much more in line with Brad Bird’s The Iron Giant (1999) and Tomorrowland (2015). The prevailing boy scout optimism, while detrimental to Bird’s Tomorrowland at times, finds its home here in April and The Extraordinary World

April and The Extraordinary World offers an imaginative, steampunk romp through the streets of France that is an absolute delight throughout the various twists and character moments that drive the film.

RATING: 3.5/4.

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