Prison Without Prison Bars (Prisoners, 2013)

prisoners-posterIn this compelling, but bleak, tale Hugh Jackman is Keller Dover.  His Daughter and her friend have disappeared and he is working aggressively to find them.  As he feels the police are not working hard enough, he opts to kidnap the lead suspect.  He tortures the young man, Alex, who is mentally about ten.  And the deeper it all goes, he becomes more and more obsessed.

But there becomes question on whether Alex is truly guilty.  The downward spiral of Keller as Detective Loki tries to solve the kidnapping is frightening.  He becomes that thing he is seeking to stop.  The film ends on a truly dark note.

Visually, it is every bit as colorless and gloomy as it’s story.  You hope for a resolution and finding Dover’s daughter and her friend.  And yet, even the resolution of the film has a futility.  This is not to say it is a bad film.  But you don’t walk out with a sense of hope, that is for sure.

We Belong To The Night (Nightcrawler, 2014)

nightcrawler-posterJake Gyllenhaal is lowlife Louis Bloom.  He makes his living stealing and pawning stuff.  He is also not above harming people to get out of situations.  One night he discovers Joe Loder…a camera man who patrols the night for accidents, murders and other tragedies so he can sell the footage to television news.  This ends up to be a perfect job for Louis.

A lot of films are about an arc…a good character being corrupted…a corrupt character finding redemption.  That is not this film.  Louis is soulless, lacking any compassion.  This serves him well as he starts excelling at the exploitation of people’s pain and suffering.  Gyllenhaal is intense and frightening in the role.  He is a sociopath, filming the suffering of even people in his own life.  The footage is what matters, not the people.

In spite of the darkness of Louis, this film makes it hard to look away and draws you in, hoping for that moment where Louis might show a spark of humanity.  But Louis is cruelly satisfied with who he is.  Nightcrawler is a good and effective film, but also unrelentingly dark.

Fear of Growing Up (The Edge of Seventeen, 2016)

edge-of-seventeen-posterThe Edge of Seventeen opens…well, over-dramatically.  Nadine sits before her teacher, telling him she plans to kill herself.  She simply felt  an adult should know.  The response is…unexpected.  This leads to a recounting of Nadine’s life.  She has always felt in the shadow of her brother.  Kids in school were mean to her.  She met her best and only friend in second grade.  And then, one night her family is ripped apart.

The film has a slew of cliches.  The seemingly indifferent teacher who secretly cares about his student.  Nadine is misunderstood by her cold and distant brother and her flaky mother.  She swoons for an over romanticized boy.  She has a good friend who is totally into her, yet she is uninterested in.  And yet…

This movie does it all so very, very well.  Nadine is, at times, absolutely insufferable.  She is traumatized by the idea of her best friend Krista dating her brother that she cuts Krista off.  She shares with her brother a moment after their father died she saw him weeping…and turns it into a knife to stab him with.

But Nadine is also painfully sympathetic.  Her heartache is real.  She is self absorbed not because she is a narcissist who thinks she is special.  Maybe I am a sap.  Maybe it is because these characters connect for me on an emotional level.  I have walked in friend Erwin’s shows.  A cartoonist longing for the attention of someone who does not seem interested.  And one of the things I like about the character is, he never whines about the “Friendzone”.  The idea of just being friends does not repulse him.  He still wants to be her friend.  There is one scene where he is embarrassed and hurt, yet it is understandable.  And he takes being mocked in stride.  I also understand the feelings Nadine expresses about herself.  Looking and the mirror and hating yourself.  Nadine and Erwin actually embody my early years quite well.

The performances are fully engaging.  The snarky interplay between Nadine and Mr. Bruner is nicely played.  All the performances fit exactly what the story needs.  The story does not justify Nadine’s negative traits, but rather bring her towards expanding her world.  This is the directorial debut of Kelly Fremon Craig, who has a whopping previous two credits.  She also wrote the film and has woven a heartfelt exploration of growing up and facing the seemingly insurmountable hammer blows life can throw at you.

Food and Family (Chef, 2014)

chef-posterJon Favreau’s directorial career has managed a fair number of big budget hits.  He set the tome for the Marvel Cinematic Universe with the first two Iron Man films, and earlier this year wowed viewers with the Jungle Book.  After the failure of Cowboy’s and Aliens, Favreau directed a string of episodes of high concept TV shows before returning to the screen with Chef.

Favreau plays Carl Casper.  Carl is a gifted Chef who was a rising star.  But he finds himself feeling trapped, unable to truly work his creative juices.  His boss does not share his culinary aspirations.  He wants Carl to stick the script they have had for years.

Karl is struggling personally, trying to be a dedicated father, who is also not really over his Ex-Wife.  They have a friendly relationship, and she is actually very supportive of him.  But she also wants him so be better at being in their son’s life.

When they find out that a renowned food critic is coming to town Carl and his boss have an argument over what to serve…and the meal Carl is forced to make is panned by the critic.  Carl has a meltdown that goes viral.  Karl’s son introduces him to Twitter…which turns out to be a bad idea in that time.  Carl lacks the emotional strength to not lash out at every insult.

Karl finds himself so humbled that he finally caves in to the suggestion of his wife to buy a food cart from her ex-husband (the guy who came after Carl).  What follows is an emotional journey for Carl and his son. With the help of his chef friend Martin, they revamp the food truck and travel back home serving Cuban sandwiches.  Carl shares his favorite foods along the way with his son as they bond.

Chef is a delightful film that touches the heart (and stomach, I was totally hungry by the end of the film).  Favreau’s both frustrating and yet likeable.  You want him to figure it all out, to get out of his rut.  To reconnect with his son.  Repair the damage done to his relationships.  Emjay Anthony is terrific as son Percy.  He and Favreau connect wonderfully.  This is a really terrific little film, I genuinely loved and recommend Chef.

Suitcase Packed (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, 2016)

fantastic-beasts-posterIt was not long after the Harry Potter series came to a close, we got the fairly expected announcement of a new movie that would be set in the magical universe of Harry Potter.  This was certainly enough to get fans excited.  It was then announced it would be a story set before Harry or Voldemort were walking the earth.

Earlier this year they said it would be a trilogy.  A few weeks back?  It became a …uh…Fivology.  And so, this new beginning for the wizarding world is meant to kick it all off.  Set in 1926, we find that the world of Wizards is not idyllic.  There are issues with the possibility of exposure.  The Dark Wizard Grindelwald has gone missing.  Disgraced wizard Newt Scamander has come to New York and finds a problem when his suitcase full of magical beasts gets switched with aspiring baker Kowalski’s suitcase of pastries.  This forces their lives to be intertwined, but things get even more complicated when former Auror Tina tries to take Newt in.

Instead of a coming of age tale focused on friendship, sacrifice and so on, Fantastic Beasts is more focus on political thriller territory.  This is not inherently bad, but it is all pretty light in how it is handled.  There are good ideas at play, but one big twist is absolutely no surprise at all.  While the film explores surface issues such as the rules of the Wizard world and the conflicts between the various Wizarding communities.  At this time, no muggles  (or No-Maj as they are called in America) were allowed to be aware of the Wizard world.  Wizards are not allowed to have friendships with muggles, even.

The film is a bit stuffed with characters who feel like they are important.  There is  the creepy anti-magic “family” led by Mary Lou.  Her use of children to disseminate her ideas is never deeply explored.   Then there is publisher  Henry Shaw and his sons Henry Jr and Langdon Shaw.  Langdon is intrigued by the claims of Mary Lou, but his father is more concerned with his brother’s political campaign.  And yet, these characters do little to the point of barely feeling necessary.

On the other hand?  I really liked Newt and Tina.  Both are simply trying to do the right thing, and both are thoughtfully compassionate and, a little clumsy.  I found Kowalski an enjoyable presence.  He is at first stunned, but then takes great joy in his discovery of the world of wizards.  Rather than be frightened of Tina’s psychic sister Queenie, he finds it exciting.  The four make a fun team.

It is fun to revisit the Wizard World of J.K. Rowling, really, it is.  I enjoyed the character moments (especially between our four heroes).  Remember how I said there were going to be five films?  Well, as the film built up, I was finding myself looking forward to the story of these four going forward.  Except, really?  The film ends in a way that makes it clear this was originally going to just be one film.  Everything gets neatly tied up and everything is fixed, making much of the film feel rather meaningless on its impact on the world of wizards.

This will be fun for those who simply miss getting to revisit the Harry Potter Universe.  I had a nice time watching it, it is just that it ends somewhat…anti-climatically.  It is passable entertainment, but it is not quite a triumphant return.

Serial Killers With No Victims (the Confessions of Thomas Quick, 2015)

confession_of_thomas_quickThe Confessions of Thomas Quick is the story of Sture Bergwall, Swedens most legendary serial killer.  He was quick to tell authorities, under the name Thomas quick, he was guilty of multiple boy’s deaths occurring between 1964 and 1993.

Coming from a tough childhood (compounded by realizing he was gay, and to cope, he opted to self medicate), Bergwell took his mother’s maiden name Quick.  There were four boys he molested early on and then had stabbed a man.  There was no real punishment, they just kept him under psychiatric care for a little longer.  In the late 80’s he ended up in a psychiatric clinic for a vicious armed robbery that included holding a bank manager’s family hostage.

It was there he started to confess several killings of young boys.    Quick was certainly disturbed, once calling one of his brothers on the eve of heart surgery telling his brother he hope he died on the table.

The documentary is both disturbing and frustrating.  Seeing how excited the press and police became at the idea of Sweden’s first serial killer.  The doctors were not better, as they quickly took to trying to expand their own careers with his therapy, exploring the heart of a serial killer.

One of the disturbing aspects is how politely Quick describes his acts.  His confessions went beyond rape and murder…he also claimed to have cannibalized his victims.  And yet, he was embracing his celebrity, taking advantage of the doctors’ excitement with each confessions.  The police were thrilled to close cases.  But as his stories continued, he was confessing to young boys, women, couples and so on.  He seemed to be having grand problems requiring more and more medication.  And the doctors were telling him how brave he was to be helping people.

And then it all stopped.  A doctor came to the clinic who cut off his medication.  And as he dried out, he stopped claiming victims and cooperating with police.  And then…he withdrew every confession.  There were those who had questioned his confessions, but so often, people argued that the court system could not have falsely convicted him every time.  Yet, Quick later confessed he got much of his ideas for his story by reading books such as American Psycho.

Using interviews with Sture, doctors, journalists and researchers, home movies and recreations, The Confessions of Thomas Quick assembles a story that exposes a dark side of humanity.  From the police investigations to his doctors to the media, there was an excitement over this sensational killer, and nobody involved even seemed to pause to question any of it.  And it appears a very lonely man saw his opportunity to be known.  To be impressed in people’s minds.

The documentary is chilling in it’s exploration of the story, and they pack a lot of information in an hour and a half.  This is a film that will make the viewer uncomfortable and even angry, but it is an important exploration of humanity’s penchant for giving celebrity to people for sickening acts.  And how one man can manipulate others for that fame.  In the end, this is a tragic story, because the crimes he confessed to?  They will never be solved.


Something Strange Going On That Wasn’t Here Before (Doctor Strange, 2016)

doctor_strange_posterEvery now and then, Marvel Studios opts for a riskier venture for their tent-pole pictures.  In some cases, such as Thor, the risk is levied by the Avenger’s Connection.  But sometimes, that connection is much thinner.  Guardians of the Galaxy and now Doctor Strange.

And what we have here is another Guardians of the Galaxy result.  Doctor Strange is an exciting, emotional, funny trip of a film.  Benedict Cumberbatch carries an arrogance early on in the film.  Stephen Strange is a truly prideful man, but he has very carefully crafted an image.  When that is all taken away, at the end of his rope, he finds a man that had, similarly faced bodily destruction and appeared to have fully recovered.  He is pointed towards Katmandu and a place called Kamar-Taj.  There he encounters the Ancient One who, with her followers Mordo and Wong, begin to train Strange.

Meanwhile, the rebel Kaecilius and his disciples are trying to for ever alter reality.  Doctor Strange finds himself in the “New York Branch” which leads to battles with Kaecilius and his minions.  With Strange Mordo and Wong coming to a final fight with Kaecilius.

The movie manages to skirt the line of seriousness, but an undercurrent of humor.  The humor is dryer than other Marvel films, but it works, as often Strange finds his attempts at humor falling flat with Wong.  There is a fun payoff with that one.

It is hard to ignore the impressive visuals.  Early trailers made things look like it was ripping off Inception.  But Derrickson and his team actually gave us much more.  The film brings to life those trippy multidimensional visuals that Steve Ditko drew in the 60’s with a beautiful and lush feel.

There has been a lot of controversy over the issue of Tilda Swinton playing the Asian One.  In the comics the character was Asian.  And yeah, it was a pretty blatant “Mystical Asian” stereotype.  Which is what resulted in the choice to cast Swinton.  The film does overcome this.  But as written?  They easily could have cast and Asian actor in the role.  There are not a ton of major roles for Asian actors.  Avoiding stereotypes is done in the script and performance.  And I believe this film would have successfully avoided the stereotype, without making one less role for Asian actors.  I do not believe racism was at Derrickson and his casting teams heart.  I suspect it was an attempt to avoid the very issue of racism.  I think they made a choice I would not.  But Swinton is entertaining in the film.

Doctor Strange is one of Marvel’s strongest entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  It is certainly yet another origin story, but it is handled so very well.  It also has no requirement that you be familiar with the character.  You can enter the film with zero knowledge of the character and fully enjoy this film.

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