REVIEW: “Chappaquiddick”

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On July 18, 1969, Massachusetts Senator Edward “Ted” Kennedy left a party on  Chappaquiddick Island with Mary Jo Kopechne. A short time later Kennedy drove his mother’s 1967 Oldsmobile off Dike Bridge and into Poucha Pond. Kennedy escaped but Kopechne was trapped in the submerged vehicle. Kennedy would leave the scene and not report the accident until the next morning after the car and Kopechne’s dead body had been discovered.

“Chappaquiddick” from director John Curran is the latest look into the scandal that was forever a stain on the legacy of Ted Kennedy. Writers Taylor Allen and Tyler Logan scoured over transcripts featuring key players including Kennedy himself speaking under oath. Leaning heavily on court records and testimonies along with the indisputable facts of the case allowed for their script to be more than conspiracy theories and character assassination as a few have claimed.

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Jason Clarke gives not only one of the best performances of the year but one of the most surprising as Ted Kennedy. You immediately notice how distinctly in tune he is with his character. He manages a very measured performance, playing Kennedy in a way that never projects judgement. He portrays Kennedy as a complex man. At times immature and naive. Other times self-serving and calculated. But in the few moments where he is forced to emotionally reckon with what’s happened Clarke doesn’t spell out the genuineness of the remorse.

Curran moves the story along at a good pace, quickly getting to the infamous Chappaquiddick incident then navigating the decisions that immediately followed. You could call Ed Helms the moral conscious of the film. He plays Kennedy’s cousin Joe Gargan who along with US Attorney General and Kennedy confident Joe Markham (Jim Gaffigan) are the first people Teddy contacts after the wreck. They push Kennedy to report the accident to authorities, something history informs us never happened until the next day.

A big hunk of the film focuses on the aftermath, specifically political damage control. As Kennedy wages an internal struggle with telling the truth, or at least their “version of it”, an entourage of lawyers and analysts diligently work to quell any public outrage and protect the family name. There are some really good scenes as they hammer out strategies and navigating Kennedy’s sketchy timeline of events.

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Attempts at empathy can be found in the few scenes of Kennedy family drama but unfortunately these are easily the movie’s weakest moments. Bruce Dern dials it up as Kennedy patriarch Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. who was paralyzed and wheelchair bound following a severe stroke. The filmmakers leave no ambiguity in Kennedy Sr’s lack of confidence in his son and they present the strained relationship as a heavy weight Teddy’s neck. But where most of the film comes across as strikingly authentic, the handful of scenes between Clarke and Dern feel too contrived. One line early in the film is broader but more effective at conveying the tension. An interviewer asks Ted “What’s it like walking in a shadow?” He promptly ends the interview and walks away.

The true cleverness of “Chappaquiddick” is seen in how it moves with Kennedy’s evolving story in a way that by the end of the film we are still unclear on what’s the truth. It also presents a slice of the Kennedy mystique within American culture. When the partygoers on Chappaquiddick Island are told about the accident the next morning and about the death of their friend and colleague, the first words of response are “What do we need to do now? What do we need to do to help the Senator?” It’s as if Mary Jo Kopechne lost out to the Kennedy family name. In a very perceptive way this movie finally gives her a voice.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “ Winchester”

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The Spierig Brothers are perhaps best known for their Ethan Hawke films “Daybreakers” and “Predestination”. They also directed last year’s “Jigsaw”, a rekindling of the tired “Saw” franchise. Now they give us yet another horror entry with “Winchester”, an intriguing concept that amounts to nothing more than another bland processed genre film.

Inspiration for the story came from the popular legends surrounding Sarah Winchester, a wealthy heiress who inherited a fortune following her husband’s death in 1881. She was also left 50% ownership in her husband’s business – the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. It’s believed that at the time she was the wealthiest woman in the world.

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Legends say Sarah believed her family to be cursed by every spirit killed by a Winchester rifle. She purchased a large farmhouse and immediately began spending her inheritance adding rooms to appease the spirits. The labyrinthine house remained in a perpetual state of construction, 24 hours a day, seven days a week until her death in 1922.

The Spierig’s (who also co-wrote the screenplay) begin their story in 1906. Sarah is played by Oscar-winning gem Helen Mirren (I would love to know how she was roped into this). Believing her to be unfit to run the company, her Winchester co-owners demand Sarah be mentally evaluated. They hire a drug-addicted louse of a doctor Eric Prince (Jason Clarke) to assess Sarah’s frame of mind and render the verdict they’re hoping for.

The not-so-good doctor arrives at the seven story, nearly 100 room Winchester estate and over the next several days the skeptical Eric has back-and-forths with the creepy Sarah over the existence of spirits. Aside from that early wrangling we learn they are both grief-stricken souls. Eric aches for his deceased wife while Sarah’s sorrow gives voice to the the film’s bungled gun control message. They are joined in the house by Sarah’s relatives Marion (Sarah Snook) and her son Henry (Finn Scicluna-O’Prey), but they’re mainly just along for the ride and serve as nothing more than plot devices.

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It doesn’t take a Rhodes Scholar to figure out that the house is indeed haunted yet there is nothing particularly haunting about the house. We get dimly lighted hallways and plenty of dark corners but it’s far from spooky. In the place of terror and dread we get jump scares, an endless parade of tired, uninspired jump scares. In one way I found them helpful. After dozing amid the yawn-worthy exposition and lackluster tension-building, they did jolt me awake a couple of times.

“Winchester” ends up a bizarrely unremarkable slog that takes an interesting idea and does absolutely nothing with it. If you’ve seen even a couple of these types of movies nothing here will catch you off-guard. It’s a houseful of bland characters, toothless ‘horror’ and silly attempts at social commentary. The actors give it their all and no one is phoning it in, but it would help if they had something to work with. “Winchester” is a real snoozer.

VERDICT – 1.5 STARS

1-5-stars

REVIEW: “Terminator: Genisys”

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Since its inception way back in 1984, the Terminator franchise has made a name for itself. The first film was an unexpected success but it was the first sequel, “Judgement Day” which arrived seven years later, that launched the series into the upper stratosphere of pop culture. “Terminator Salvation” came out in 2009 and unlike most I thought it was a fun and unique perspective on the series. The film wasn’t as profitable as normal leaving the direction of the franchise uncertain.

But fear not, now we have a fifth installment in the form of “Terminator: Genisys”. It offers up a new  story angle with a completely new set of people playing the same franchise characters. The only familiar face is Arnold Schwarzenegger who returns as the outdated but tough T-800 Terminator. While it does try to do several interesting things ultimately it rehashes too much from its predecessors and nearly all of its attempts at originality fall flat.

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To be honest laying out a story introduction is easier said than done. In the future John Connor (this time played by Jason Clarke) leads a big final assault on Skynet. As victory looks certain it is discovered that Skynet has sent a T-800 back to 1984 to kill Sarah Connor (remember the first film?). John Connor sends his most trusted man Kyle Reese (this time played by Jai Courtney) back in time to protect his mother but during the process the timeline is disrupted. Basically this flubs up everything from the past movies which grants the writers a new canvas to work on.

Once Kyle arrives in 1984 he is attacked by a liquid metal T-1000 Terminator. He is rescued by a young Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke) and her pet…err guardian Pops. Pops (Schwarzenegger) is a T-800 sent back years earlier to protect her. Follow me so far? The rest of the film features the trio setting out to destroy Skynet before it destroys humanity. Skynet is hiding under the guise of Genisys, a popular worldwide operating system nearing its global launch. Infiltrate Genisys, blow it up, save the world. But of course that is easier said than done.

The time traveling hopscotch does offer some intriguing possibilities and the tie-ins with previous films at first are pretty great. But eventually the time element grows convoluted and most of the tie-ins feel more like crutches than attempts at any meaningful continuity. The further the movie went the more disconnected I became. In the end I kept saying to myself “This doesn’t feel like a Terminator movie”. Sure it is playing in the same sandbox, but nearly everything new it offers feels generic. There are some funny moments where they capture some of the charm that first surfaced in “T2”. There just aren’t enough of them.

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And then there is the casting. Arnie is entertaining playing the cold, dry terminator (a mirror to his usual acting ability). He is given more fun things to do than anyone else and he has a blast with it. One the other end there is Emilia Clarke who never offers up a convincing Sarah Connor. Perhaps comparing her to Linda Hamilton is grossly unfair, but she doesn’t come across as genuinely tough or tenacious. Sometimes her performance is just bad. And it doesn’t help that she and Courtney have practically no chemistry. Even Jason Clarke’s scar-faced John Connor felt a bit off.

My problems with the cast could also be due to fatigue. It could be I’m just tired of seeing the same characters constantly being portrayed by new faces. The series has often addressed this issue with age gaps. But now we have had Clarke and Christian Bale as older John Connor; Edward Furlong and Nick Stahl as younger John Connor; Courtney, Michael Biehn and Anton Yelchin as Kyle Reese; Clarke and Hamilton as Sarah, etc. It may be an unavoidable dilemma but if so it stresses the importance of casting the right people.

“Genisys” does have a couple of cool action sequences, some good laughs, and an occasional fun nostalgic nod. And on its own it does make for decent, lightweight science fiction. The problem lies in its connection to a major popular franchise. A ‘Terminator’ film brings with it certain high expectations (from some audiences) and “Genisys” doesn’t meet them. As I said, it doesn’t feel like a ‘Terminator’ movie which in the end is a pretty bad thing.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

2.5 stars

 

REVIEW: “Everest”

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I said this during a recent review – I have a real weak spot for good, thrilling disaster/survival movies. For decades it has been a genre that has constantly found a place for itself on big screens. No catastrophe is too big and no disaster is beyond cinematic creativity. Now of course some of these films have been nothing short of disasters themselves, but still I often find myself captivated by the melding of large-scale peril with human emotion and survival instinct.

Enter “Everest”, the new movie from Icelandic filmmaker Baltasar KormĂĄkur based on the true story of the 1996 Mount Everest disaster. Mount Everest is the world’s highest mountain, ominously standing among Nepal’s Himalayas and armed with some of the most treacherous climbing conditions on planet earth. There is an almost mystic allure that surrounds Mount Everest and it has attracted climbers for years. Documented expeditions dating as far back as 1921 have helped to discover climbing routes as well as shed light on the mountain’s many dangers. Some have resulted in successful summits, but others have ended with disastrous loss of life.

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“Everest” assembles a stellar cast to tell the story of two expedition groups and their attempts to conquer and eventually survive Mount Everest in May, 1996. Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) is an expedition guide for Adventure Consultants. Among his clients are a lively Texan named Beck (Josh Brolin), a meek and timid mailman Doug (John Hawkes), and an experienced Japanese climber named Tasuko (Naoko Mori). They arrive at the base camp where they meet Rob’s team.

Also at base camp is the spirited Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal), a friendly rival of Rob’s who is there to guide a group for Mountain Madness. As conditions deteriorate and the window to ascend to the summit grows smaller, Rob and Scott agree to team up to try and get their groups to the top. But quickly complications mount as the mountain’s wealth of dangers hit the groups head-on. It turns into a man-versus-nature struggle where sheer survival becomes the ultimate goal.

“Everest” is a unique movie with a firm focus. It isn’t a film interested in serving up deep, fully developed characters. Nor is it interested in building layers of drama between its characters. It could be said that this is a weakness. Actually the film does give us tidbits that open up several of the characters albeit ever so slightly. We learn quite a lot about Rob through his reputation and interactions with his clients, co-workers, and especially his wife Jan (Kiera Knightley). There are also interesting glimpses into Beck and Doug’s backstories that help shape how we look at them.

But to my point, none of that is the prime focus of “Everest”. The film sets its sights on the climb. It grants insight into its characters but just enough to help frame its main focus – man versus mountain. The meat and potatoes of “Everest” is strength, endurance, and the human will to live violently clashing with the captivating, beautiful, yet deadly force of nature. Characters talk of accomplishment and fulfillment, but it all ultimately comes down to this conflict. That is what grabbed me and never let me go.

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And perhaps most impressive is the sting of realism we get throughout the story. It doesn’t bomb us with big money moments or action-based contrivances. Everything that happens in preparing and especially during the climb feels organic. At times it is slow and methodical. Other times it is stressful and chaotic. And it is all captured with breathtaking awe. The visuals in “Everest” are stunning with several scenes literally causing me to exhale a deserved “wow”. Whether it’s the sheer beauty of the surroundings or capturing the climb itself, cinematographer Salvatore Totino’s mixture of CGI and on location filming is a sight to behold.

In the end “Everest” felt considerably different than I expected. It isn’t a brash, bombastic popcorn flick. It isn’t a by-the-books ‘real events’ movie. Sure, it has its big name ensemble cast and its share of visual ‘wow’ moments. But at the same time it felt small, concise, and restrained. The performances are exceptional throughout with actors filling in the character gaps and never allowing us to forget the human element. It’s harrowing, tragic, thrilling, and exhilarating. It could have easily been yet another disaster flick. For me “Everest” was much, much more.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Child 44”

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“There are no murders in Paradise”. This is a phrase repeated several times in the period thriller “Child 44”. The line is a reference to the former Soviet practice of denying the existence of murders and serial killings within their Communist model. In the film we see the propaganda machine clash with a series of brutal child murders in Moscow and surrounding areas. The film is produced by Ridley Scott who was originally in line to direct. Instead the directing duties were handed to Swedish filmmaker Daniel Espinosa.

“Child 44” is adapted from British writer Tom Rob Smith’s 2008 novel which was based on the serial killings of Andrei Chikatilo. The film begins by establishing the system and bureaucracy of the Stalinist Soviet Union in the early 1950s. Tom Hardy plays Leo Demidov, a decorated agent from the Ministry of State Security. His main job is enforcing the rigid laws and capturing anyone the government deems to be traitors. And we see their methods of law enforcement as manipulative, suppressive, and sometimes violent.

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Then there is Leo’s relationship with his disillusioned wife Raisa (Noomi Rapace). When out with friends they look like the perfect couple, but she clearly shows a disconnect at home stirring up a number of suspicions within Leo. But in the background of the political and personal storylines, a growing number of murdered young boys’ bodies are turning up. The government wants to cover it up. Families are suffering. And eventually Leo finds himself caught in the middle.

I went into “Child 44” expected a murder mystery thriller. It is definitely that, but Richard Price’s screenplay ventures off into a number of different directions. The marital tensions between Leo and Raisa evolves into a deeper sidestory. A layered political drama builds throughout the film. Then there is the hunt for the serial killer. These and a few smaller subplots are interwoven within the fabric of the film resulting in the vision sometimes feeling clouded.

But the film leads us through this haze and unfolds each story angle, bringing them together in a deliberate, slow-burning method that clearly didn’t work for many. I love the tense political drama and its ominous, ever-present threat which bleeds into ever other facet of the film. There is a tension boiling behind every conversation large or small. There is a proactive paranoia within the bureaucracy which leads to some of the film’s more disturbing moments. And the oppressive nature of the politics hangs over the people like a shroud. It is very well done.

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The same could be said of the strained and uncomfortable marriage between Leo and Raisa. The edge to their story angle gets sharper as the movie progresses and the film does a fine job of giving them moments to flesh out their relationship. A number of outliers and influences play into their angle taking it into some very interesting directions.

That leads to the central storyline – the murder mystery and the hunt for a savage serial killer. At least it appeared to be the central storyline based on the film’s promotion. Actually this story angle gets less screen time than the others which was disappointing. The urgency grows with each grim and unnerving discovery yet it languishes in the shadow of the other stories. It is intensely intriguing yet strangely handled. I mean even with a running time of 2 hours and 17 minutes, it doesn’t feel like the film gives the murder mystery enough time or attention.

Plenty of criticisms were hurled towards some of the performances and particular casting choices. Gripes about the heavy accents and the decision to use predominately non-Russian actors. Honestly I think the film pulls it off nicely. A strong supporting cast features Rapace, Gary Oldman, Jason Clarke, Vincent Cassel, Joel Kinnaman, and a host of others.

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But it is Tom Hardy’s fiercely committed performance that carries the picture. His blanched complexion and weary eyes gel well with his consistently serious and solemn demeanor. In fact I think he may smile once in the entire film and even then the sincerity is in question. Hardy harnesses all of his character’s inner conflicts and various states of mind and presents them all with a robust confidence. Its a great performance.

“Child 44” is considered a bomb. It bombed with critics. It bombed at the box office. But I just can’t go along with the majority of criticisms. Yes, the film is a slow-moving experience. Yes, the film often lacks a clear and specific focus. But never once was I bored by the pacing or lost due to its narrative structure. Clearly the screenplay and direction could have tightened things up a bit, but there is still so much the movie does right. It ends up being a unique and compelling procedural that I found satisfying even in its messiness. I’m happy to go against the grain with this one.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4 Stars

REVIEW: “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”

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While it may have one of the clunkiest movie titles of 2014, that hasn’t stopped “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” from raking in loads of praise from critics and even more cash at the box office. I have to admit I’m surprised at how this franchise has found life again. I love the original 1968 classic, but frankly this doesn’t seem like the type of series that would appeal to the modern movie sensibilities of many of today’s moviegoers. The 2011 franchise reboot along with its $480 million box office grab proved me wrong. And of course when you make that kind of money you know there is going to be sequel.

I liked the first installment of this reboot but I didn’t see it as the gem that many did. This time around we have a new director and an overhauled cast but the writing team stays intact which you can sense from the first act. In what has become a very familiar way to setup these types of films, the movie opens with snippets from newscasts explaining the state of the world since the events of the first film. Human civilization has collapsed, ravaged by the effects of a deadly simian flu which decimated the population and triggered near apocalyptic after-effects. In other words things on earth are pretty bad, that is unless you are an ape.

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Caesar (Andy Serkis) now leads a large colony of apes who live in the forests outside of what was San Francisco. These apes share the intelligence of Caesar which we see exhibited in a variety of ways. Many of the apes believe that humans are now extinct, that is until they encounter a small group of them in the forest. The group turns out to be part of a pocket of survivors living in the city. Their energy supply is almost gone and a hydroelectric dam in the forest could supply them for years. But as they learn, the dam is smack dab in the middle of ape territory which presents a very big problem.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this film are the political wranglings that take place both between humans and between the apes. Internal debates, distrust, and dissensions plague both camps as each try to figure out how to handle the other. Malcolm (Jason Clarke), the head of the small group, recognizes something special about Caesar and tries to form a bond with him. Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) is more skeptical and he prepares the humans for war in case Malcolm fails. Similarly Cesar believes peace is the best option but his second in command Koba (Toby Kebbell) has personal animosity towards all humans and he wants to be proactive.

All of that is constructed in a way that shows the similarities between the humans and apes. In fact, that’s a central theme that runs throughout the picture. Whether it be tender family relationships or fear-driven warmongering, we see it all in both the humans and the apes. But what may be the most amazing feat accomplished by this film is its incredible way of translating emotion from the apes. Every display of love, hate, disappointment, frustration, anger, or sympathy that we get from them is incredibly…well…human. Much of it is due to the brilliant makeup and special-effects. But the true credit goes to the stunning motion caption mastery. I love hearing from people who are finally recognizing the genius of Andy Serkis. But folks let me just go ahead and say it – this is Oscar-worthy work. And Kebbell isn’t too far behind him.

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Now while the story is entertaining and never boring, it still has a few things that keep it from being truly phenomenal. There are so many familiar plot angles that we get throughout the entire movie. Honestly, I was amazed at how many things I saw that I had seen in other films. I don’t want to spoil anything , but it really stood out and it made many plot lines predictable. I also thought several of the emotional tugs were a bit obvious and gimmicky. What’s amazing about it is that they still worked for me. I knew I was having my heart-strings yanked during these instances yet I still went with them. Effective but still obvious.

Despite those gripes “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is still a highly entertaining picture. Regardless of its familiar directions the story still kept me engaged. It easily kept me attached to these characters and the film moved at an almost perfect pace. There is some great action, awesome effects, and the performances are strong (none better than the stunning work of Andy Serkis). This is yet another big budget 2014 blockbuster that delivers. I just wish the story itself went out a little more on its own.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS