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: “The Martian”

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Ridley Scott’s filmography has been pretty amazing. A quick scan shows it to be littered with cult classics, blockbuster favorites, and Oscar winners. But over the last several years many have hit Scott’s films pretty hard. Personally I have disagreed with the many. I loved the slower, character-driven approach to “Robin Hood”. I don’t think “Prometheus” was nearly as bad as many do. And despite its noticeable flaws, I thought “Exodus” was a pretty grand spectacle.

But now the 77 year-old Scott has once again caught the attention of his critics with “The Martian”, a brainy and somewhat observational  science fiction flick based on Andy Weir’s 2011 novel. Scott has long enjoyed delving into the science fiction realm, yet with “The Martian” he has managed to create something unique. This entertaining mixture of striking visuals and patient, methodical narrative has little in common with Scott’s past sci-fi experiences. “The Martian” is a much different movie but it still spotlights Scott’s talents as a filmmaker even though it may not sit among his best.

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“The Martian” plays out like some type of love letter to science and space exploration. There are A TON of science-heavy back-and-forths between the film’s large cast of characters and science is the centerpiece for nearly every scene. In many ways it was captivating to watch and listen to these people speak 10 light years over my head – bouncing around theories, equations, and analyzing data. At the same time it left two-thirds of the film feeling too emotionally dry. Drew Goddard’s script nails down the science but sometimes misses the human element.

The story hops into gear quickly when the Aries III Mars mission is hit by a brutal storm. They are forced to prematurely leave the surface and in the process astronaut and team botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is presumed killed and left behind. Actually though, Mark miraculously survived and wakes up to find himself alone and stranded on the red planet. Armed with more scientific knowledge than a stack of college textbooks, Mark determines to use his science knowhow to survive. That starts by figuring out a way to communicate back to Earth.

For me Matt Damon is the epitome of the ‘reliable actor’. He is always solid and you know what you’re going to get. Here he handles his alone scenes well often talking to only himself of a computer screen. Many scenes require him to carry them ala Tom Hanks in “Cast Away”. He doesn’t exhibit the charisma or charm of Hanks but he more than gets the job done and you never doubt him or his predicaments.

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The film’s second setting is on Earth. Upon discovering that Mark is alive, NASA sets out to find a feasible rescue plan. To accomplish this the movie introduces us to a host of characters many of which function solely to toss around their own scientific solutions. An interesting ensemble is put together for the NASA scenes. On the better side of the group is the rock-solid Chiwetel Ejiofor who plays Mars Mission Director Vincent Kapoor. In much more curious casting, Kristen Wiig feels terribly out of place as NASA’s chief spokesperson. And while Jeff Daniels certainly wasn’t “bad”, he was a bit hard to believe as the “Head of NASA”.

But there is a third setting and I would argue that it contains the more compelling and entertaining characters. It takes place aboard the Hermes where Mark’s crew is making the long trip back to Earth after losing one of their own. Or so they think. It’s here that the film gives us a better mix of science and human emotion. The casting is also stronger featuring Jessica Chastain, a reserved Michael Peña, Sebastian Stan, Kate Mara, and Aksel Hennie. I loved spending time with this group.

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“The Martian” has wonderful visuals but not strictly in the way you might expect. There aren’t a lot of eye-popping visual spectacles. It’s more subtle and calculated, concentrating on gorgeous, slow-moving panoramic shots and unique, strategic camera angles that highlight the spectacular space settings. The storytelling is somewhat similar, at least until the last act. Most of the movie has the feel of a smaller more intimate picture despite its grand size and scale. I really appreciated that. It lasts right up until the finale. The ending felt much more studio polished and traditional.

Many people are heralding “The Martian” as a return to form for Ridley Scott. I would argue that he never lost his form but that is another discussion. Instead I’ll just say “The Martian” is another fine movie on a truly great filmmaker’s filmography. It’s not without its flaws. There is some questionable casting and some characters are woefully underdeveloped. Some of the humor doesn’t quite land (including a 70’s disco gag which never ends), and the ending was a bit too by-the-books. But none of these things keep “The Martian” from being a standout motion picture experience. It does several things we aren’t used to seeing from blockbustery type movies and it does them really well. And for me it is another reason why Ridley Scott remains a top-tier filmmaker.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4 Stars

REVIEW: “Fantastic Four” (2015)

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I doubt many people initially thought rebooting the Fantastic Four series was a great idea. Even though the previous two films made decent money, the cast has clearly moved on and calls for a third movie have been nonexistent. But that didn’t stop 20th Century Fox. Desperate to revive one of their lone Marvel Comics properties, the studio went ahead with their shaky venture. They compounded skepticism with some questionable casting choices and statements made during production that gave comics fans cause for concern.

Director Josh Trank was handed the reins and $120 million to bring his vision to the movie. Trank made a surprising splash with his 2012 debut film “Chronicle”, a movie loved by critics and audiences but one that I found to be inconsistent and predictable. We see these same issues fester up in “Fantastic Four”, but this film’s problems stretch much, much further (horrible pun intended) and the resulting mess of a movie is pretty tough to endure.

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Sleep – Prepare to fight it.

The decision to completely rewrite the superteam’s history proved to be a bad one for a couple of reasons. First, I’m not convinced moviegoers really want to sit through another origin story especially about this group of heroes. Second, when you make the decision to rewrite well known characters and their history you better make sure you have a good story to tell. Unfortunately this is an painfully long and dull origin story and not a single new element offers anything of value.

When I say this is a long origin story I mean it is a LONG origin story. The film starts with Reed Richards meeting Ben Grimm in elementary school. The two build a close friendship around Reed’s garage-based teleportation experiments. Next we jump ahead seven years to Reed (Miles Teller) and Ben (Jamie Bell) showing off the experiment at a high school science fair. They are approached by Professor Franklin Storm (Reg Cathey) of the Baxter Foundation who recruits Reed to help work on a dimensional portal called the Quantum Gate. Reed joins the research team consisting of Storm’s daughter Sue (Kate Mara), his rebellious son Johnny (Michael B. Jordan), and a disillusioned young protĂ©gé Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell).

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I had the same reactions…

The film then lumbers through the completion of the Quantum Gate giving us loads of monotone exposition. It takes a few breaks for personal exchanges meant to add some life and emotion to these characters. It doesn’t work. Not one single relationship feels authentic and the emotionally inert characters are void of any compelling personality. Trank and Company want us to believe that Victor has a thing for Sue. They want us to believe that Sue and Johnny are actually brother and sister. They want us to believe in the inevitable team camaraderie that we get later on. But that’s tough to do when the characters are as interesting as tree stumps.

It’s a full hour into the movie before we get to the experiment that grants them their powers. With the evil U.S. government and specifically scientist and government liaison Dr. Allen (Tim Blake Nelson) breathing down their necks, the team decides to use the Quantum Gate and stake a claim on their discovery. Obviously things go terribly wrong. Each are imbued with unique powers but their reactions to their new abilities fractures the team. It’s only when they face a powerful and unexpected threat that they realize the strength they wield as a team. Blah, blah, blah.

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Mara’s expression…through the entire film.

It doesn’t help when the performances are as drab as the story. People are high on Miles Teller but here he flatlines and is embarrassingly bad once the action ratchets up in the final act. Jordan doesn’t offer an ounce of charisma or good humor vital to his character. Cathey’s ultra-serious monotone dialogue is robotic. Mara is strikingly mundane. Yet it’s Tim Blake Nelson who gets the ‘prize’ for the worst performance. He constantly flashes this odd snarky smirk meant to show he is the man in charge. He actually looks like he just sucked on a dozen lemons. In his defense he does get some of the worst lines of dialogue. On the other hand they all get crappy dialogue yet no one is able to rise above it.

Trust me when I say this – reading about the movie is a lot more fun than watching it. You don’t always expect these types of films to be narrative masterpieces, but you do expect them to be spirited, whimsical, and energetic. “Fantastic Four” is a lifeless bore, devoid of any of the ingredients that make these pictures work. Trank has already started pointing fingers at the studios and the studios are already bracing for what looks like a big loss at the box office. I can’t say I’m surprised. Simply put, this is a bad movie and 20th Century Fox should be on the phone with Disney making a deal and getting whatever they can from this now dead-in-the-water franchise.

VERDICT – 1.5 STARS

1.5 stars

REVIEW: “Transcendence”

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On paper “Transcendence” sounded like a sure thing. It had an intriguing science fiction premise. It had a fabulous cast featuring Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Morgan Freeman, and Cillian Murphy. It was the directorial debut from one of my favorite cinematographers Wally Pfister. But as with anything you can have some great pieces but that does automatically equal a great whole. That’s certainly the case with “Transcendence”.

Without question “Transcendence” is a film with loads of ambition and some good things to say. It gets off to a good start and lays an interesting foundation. Dr. Will Caster (Depp) is a renowned scientist working on the creation of a sentient artificial intelligence. His devoted wife Evelyn (Hall) is a strong supporter and organizes the funding for his research. His best friend Max (Bettany) is a fellow scientist and an important contributor to Will’s work.

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After speaking at a science and technology convention Will is shot by an anti-technology extremist. The act is part of a series of attacks by a terrorist group known as R.I.F.T. That stands for “Revolutionary Independence From Technology” and if you need something else to make you laugh, one of their weapons of choice is a poisonous birthday cake. Oh, and the bullet used on Will is radioactive. It poisons his blood and with no cure available he is given a month to live.

Desperate to hang onto her husband, Evelyn uploads Will’s consciousness to a super computer. He soon dies but is revived within the computer. Hunted down by R.I.F.T. and their dogged leader Bree (Kate Mara), Evelyn uploads Will to the internet giving him freedom and access to all the web’s information. As with any A.I. (or so we’re told) they survive by getting more information. With Evelyn’s help Will grows more powerful and soon crowds the line between helping the world and overtaking it.

This collision between mankind and technology does provide for some good conversation. There is also a compelling unconventional love story buried within this material. Unfortunately to get much of either you have to navigate through a litany of cavernous plot holes and inconceivable stretches of our imagination. As the movie moves forward we are constantly asked to overlook numerous gaps in logic and in the story itself. The film ends up smothering all of the interesting elements with one narrative blunder after another.

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It also doesn’t help that some of the film’s plot machinations are so incredibly preposterous and implausible. This is frustrating because once again it overshadows the intriguing concepts that do have a lot of promise. We just can’t buy into it all and at times it looks like the cast doesn’t either. I wouldn’t say that they are phoning in their performances. There are moments where they are trying to salvage something from the ramshackle script, especially Hall and Bettany. But no one feels thoroughly engaged or convinced in the material.

Again, “Transcendence” looked good on paper but not in execution. It has so much going for it but it lacks one vital component – a competent script. There is a good story to be found here and I got just enough to be annoyed by the mishandling of it. It did engage me at first and I really liked what the film was going for with its ending. It’s the rocky road in between that makes this a tough movie to recommend. And that’s a shame because this should have and could have been better.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

K&M Commentary : Questionable Casting

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Over the past few weeks several bits of big blockbuster casting news has made headlines and stirred up a great deal of discussion. One of the last commentaries I posted looked at movies and the books they are based on (you can find that post HERE). I talked about creative license and the space that should be given to a filmmaker when adapting a novel, comic series, etc. But I also talked about what I feel is the filmmaker’s responsibility to respect the source material and its spirit. These two particularly bits of casting news has me questioning just how much respect there is for the comic series’ they are based on.

Jesse Eisenburg as Lex Luthor

JESSEThe Superman/Batman film has ran the spectrum of fan reaction. I started off absolutely thrilled with the idea behind the project. I was also just fine with the announcement of Ben Affleck as Batman. But since then there have been little comments here and there, especially from Zack Snyder, that has me a bit worried. Then came the news that the iconic villain Lex Luthor had been cast. He would be played by Jesse Eisenburg – a good actor who mainly excels in specific types of roles. While I can see him playing Lex in a Smallville type project, I have a hard time seeing him embodying what has made Lex Luthor such a classic DC Comics villain.

What is more worrisome are statements made by Snyder surrounding Eisenberg’s casting such as taking the character in “unexpected directions”. Then there were the rumors (and I do emphasis rumors) of the character being a streetwise young man. Lex Luthor is an accomplished corporate tyrant and was never the geeky neurotic type that Eisenburg is good at playing. Snyder has hinted at completely changing up the character and his origin which doesn’t seem a bit necessary. I’m still anxious to see this picture but a hint of skepticism has certainly surfaced.

Michael B. Jordan & Kate Mara as Johnny & Sue Storm

Michael B. JordanThe other casting news surrounded 20th Century Fox’s reboot of the Fantastic Four franchise. Let me be honest, none of the four who were announced excite me at all. But there is one glaring problem that seems to stand out beyond the others. It’s the casting of Michael B. Jordan and Kate Mara as Johnny and Sue Storm. Now some will automatically assume that any criticism over this will either be normal fanboy rage or it will be because of race. To no surprise I’ve already read countless defenders of the casting pointing racially judgmental fingers at those of us who think the casting is bad.

maraSo what are my problems with the casting? First off I’ve never fully understood changing the race of a known character who is being borrowed from the original creator. That being said, if there is a better actor or actress who can strengthen the role on screen then race doesn’t matter at all. But in the Fantastic Four its quite different. Johnny and Sue are brother and sister with a rich background. By casting Jordan and Mara together the filmmakers are tossing that history aside to create their own. It’s a pointless and unnecessary change.

Between the two, Jordan intrigues me a lot more than Mara. So why not cast one of several talented black actresses to play Sue Storm and keep that defined brother/sister connection as a key part of their story? Look, I know there is adoption and biracial families which can explain away the differences. But frankly, I won’t be watching the Fantastic Four reboot for its deep and intellectual social and family commentary. This seems like a silly and unneeded move as well as a missed opportunity.

Obviously these are just first impressions. The filmmakers do know the story they are telling and maybe it will work out fine. But both of these castings look to be taking mammoth-sized creative liberties that really seem unnecessary. Are there attention-getting motivations behind them or are the filmmakers throwing aside the source material that made these characters worthy of big screen treatment. Time will certainly tell and regardless of my hesitation maybe these choices will work out.

THE END