October 10, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Usually after watching a movie, I spend some time thinking about the story, the performances, the visual effects, the music, the sets, the costumes, and any other piece of the puzzle that makes up that particular movie going experience. However, Oscar winning director Ang Lee’s (BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, LIFE OF PI) new film creates a challenge. In addition to those previously mentioned factors, the ground-breaking new technology must also be addressed – both separately and in conjunction with how it works in the movie.

If you’ve seen the trailer, or even the poster, you know that there is an “old” Will Smith and a “young” Will Smith. The basic story is that Henry Brogan (old Will Smith) is a retiring DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency) assassin who is being hunted by his own government. The one doing the hunting is Junior, a “young” clone of Henry Brogan. What you may not know is that this is not accomplished through the typical de-aging process that has become so popular in Hollywood. Nope, this Junior is actually digital animation from Weta Digital in New Zealand. It’s not even really Will Smith – it’s a digital creation that looks almost identical to the Will Smith from “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” (1990-96), minus the wide grin and funky clothes. It’s very impressive technology, but not yet to the point where it can replace living, breathing, emoting actors. However, it’s pretty obvious that day is coming.

What’s also obvious is that this script is a mess, and despite the new generation of technology, this film seems dated … well at least the story seems that way. Darren Lemke (SHAZAM!) first published the screenplay in the mid-1990’s and it has “almost” made it to production on a few occasions. Writers David Benioff (THE KITE RUNNER) and Billy Ray (CAPTAIN PHILLIPS) are credited on this final, mostly disappointing version. The dialogue is lame and character development is non-existent. We are never provided a reason to give a hoot about old Henry. Junior is never more than a video game creation. And DIA Agent Danny Zakarweski (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) seems to be an afterthought when someone realized the film needed a female presence. Clive Owen plays Clay Verris, the mastermind/mad scientist with little more than a scowl, though Benedict Wong brings a jolt of life to his Baron role as a pilot friend of Henry.

We do get to see some of the world. The initial sequence takes us on Henry’s final mission. It’s his 72nd kill, and it occurs from a grassy knoll in Belgium through a window on a bullet train going 228 mph. Henry heads back to his isolated lake cabin in Buttermilk Sound, Georgia where his peaceful retirement lasts about 3 scenes. Soon, we are headed to Columbia for a crazy motorcycle chase, and then on to the catacombs in Budapest – an idea that provides a welcome dose of inspiration.

High-speed parkour, blurry close-up fight scenes, rooftop shootouts, and a hyper motorcycle chase through town all have an air of familiarity, which is something this type of film should strive to avoid. Rian Johnson’s LOOPER toyed with us using a young and old version of the same character, and though that was time travel and not cloning, the ideas are too similar for this one to come across as unique. Oscar winning cinematographer Dion Beebe (MEMORIES OF A GEISHA) delivers the shots – down to the crystal clear logos on beer and soda – but we never really experience the thrill that new technology should deliver. It should also be noted that no theatre in America is equipped to show this in the way Ang Lee filmed it: 4K 3D 120fps HFR format … leaving us wondering, what’s the point?

watch the trailer:


November 17, 2016

billy-lynn Greetings again from the darkness. “Thank you for your service.” For those of us who have never served in the military, we say the words because we don’t know how else to show our appreciation. Do the words ring hollow to those in uniform? Maybe. Probably. But how else can we honor these brave souls? What if we have them share a stage with a pop singing group during halftime of a football game? It’s this line between honor and propaganda that takes up much of the new movie from two-time Oscar winning director Ang Lee (Life of Pi, Brokeback Mountain).

The story is based on Ben Fountain’s 2012 novel, and revolves around soldier Billy Lynn’s and his fellow “Bravo” squad members as they make the rounds back home (in 2004) for publicity after their intense battle sequence is caught on camera. There is much at play here: how the soldiers interact with each other, how they are treated by the general public, how they are used by the team’s owner and the Army for self-serving reasons, and how Billy juggles the stress of war, the spotlight of heroism, and the demands from his family.

Director Lee opted to experiment with the ultra-realism of the new 120 frames per second in 4k 3D, rather than the standard 24 fps. Though this may seem like a minor detail that shouldn’t be addressed in a review of the movie, it’s impossible to ignore this impact. Technical advancements in film and digital have resulted in some exciting new effects for movies, but this high speed approach creates a soap opera look and feel that will likely be disorienting to many viewers. Although the full effect will only be available in New York and Los Angeles (due to shortage of projectors), the clarity on the close-ups is distracting, while leaving the background quite fuzzy and out of focus. Many will find this new look to be “not right” for a movie, and prefer the traditional look. Others may embrace the heightened sense of reality … of being right there with the characters. Of course, this is Ang Lee’s film, so there is no shortage of stunning visuals and expert shots.

Beyond the technical aspects, this movie is simply a bit clunky to watch, not very well written (screenplay by Jean-Christophe Castelli), not very well acted, and has an overall awkward and unfinished feel to it. Kristen Stewart plays Billy’s sister, and her limited screen time is the best part of the movie. Newcomer Joe Alwyn makes a decent reluctant (and lucky) hero in playing Billy, but he doesn’t have the chops to overcome the script weakness and the burden of carrying so many scenes. This is especially obvious in his unrealistic bonding scenes with cheerleader Faison (played by Makenzie Leigh). Their scenes together are nearly unwatchable.

Supporting work comes from Vin Diesel as Billy’s philosophical officer in recurring flashbacks to the war, Garrett Hedlund as the current squad leader, a miscast Steve Martin as team owner Norm Oglesby (a Jerry Jones type), and Chris Tucker as the incessantly yammering agent/producer trying to put a movie deal together for the soldiers. Other minor contributors include Tim Blake Nelson, Bruce McKinnon (in horrible make-up), Ismael Cruz Cordova, Deidre Lovejoy, and a couple of All-Pro players in Richard Sherman and JJ Watt.

Since there are some interesting and important elements to the story, the assumption here is that most effort went towards the experimental technical aspects. More attention to scene detail could have more effectively contrasted the soldier’s take on war versus the never-ending inclination of Americans to turn most anything into more and bigger entertainment … even Destiny’s Child isn’t enough. The questionable filmmaking decisions leave us with the shell of a good story, and too many sappy close-ups of actors emoting directly to the camera lens. The soldier vs hero debate deserves better, and the propaganda aspect deserves a more critical eye.

watch the trailer:



LIFE OF PI (2012)

November 26, 2012

Greetings again from the darkness. Every now and then we are reminded of just how stunning movies can be. Periodically a filmmaker proves to us that pushing the envelope of creativity still drives some auteurs. James Cameron brought us Avatar, which demonstrated that 3D technology could be beautiful and breath-taking. As beautiful and new as Cameron’s breakthrough was, it lacked a story worthy of it advancements. Now, we get director Ang Lee’s vision of Yann Martel’s worldwide bestseller, and we are left gasping at what happens when you combine a fantastical story with technological advances and perfection.

Ang Lee has provided us with a varied selection of films including Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Brokeback Mountain; and Sense and Sensibility. He refuses to be limited by genre and takes a global and philosophical view of filmmaking. He wants us to think and discuss and think some more. His Life of Pi film purposefully leaves many scenes, events and thoughts open to interpretation. You can see as much or as little of humanity in this story as you like.

The brilliant opening depicts real animals in the real zoo located in Pondicherry, India. The colors, sights and sounds are dazzling and give us an immediate sense of the area and culture. We meet young Pi and his family. Pi is inquisitive and ingenious from an early age. His father imparts such wisdom as “If you believe in everything, you believe in nothing“.  This comes as Pi is absorbing multiple religions and considers himself Hindu/Muslim/Christian. At an early age, he seeks answers and meaning.  Events transpire and soon enough, Pi and his family take their most valued animals and board a ship to Canada to start a new life. Disaster strikes when a storm capsizes the ship and Pi (Suraj Sharma) is the lone human survivor. He finds himself in a small lifeboat with a hyena, an orangutan, and a huge Bengal tiger. Yes, that sounds like the first line of a bad joke, but here it’s the beginning of a remarkable journey.

The developments need not be discussed here, but rather the focus of the story is the spirit of survival that Pi possesses. His ingenious methods of learning to coexist with the ferocious tiger force us to consider what the human race has done to nature in our attempts to gain  control. Pi’s religious spirit and insightful ways, coupled with a very fortuitous and specific survival guide, lead him to maneuver 227 days adrift in the Pacific. In the process, we are treated to some of the most spectacular visuals ever seen on screen. At times the sea, and its sea life and sky, are phosphorescent. The story (screenplay by David Magee, who also wrote the underrated Finding Neverland) is so amazing that we find ourselves not caring how much is real and how much is caused by Pi’s hunger and thirst. Some of the visual effects are tranquil, while others are quite violent. A sequence featuring flying silver fish is something to behold.

The structure of the story is such that an adult Pi (played by Irrfan Khan) is re-telling the tale of survival to a Canadian novelist (Rafe Spall). While this is a traditional story-telling device, it takes nothing away from the anything but traditional story of Pi and Richard Parker (the tiger’s name). We are told “This is a story that will make you believe in God“. Whether it does or it doesn’t, it certainly makes us believe in the magic of movies.

Some will compare to Castaway, while others will think of 127 Hours. My best advice is to let go and give yourself to the story and the film. There is always time afterwards for debate and discussion. Instead, enjoy the moment and be thankful that a movie like this can get made … it will lead the industry to even more creative productions down the road. So, just this once, forget what I have said many times, and go see this one in 3D. Allow it to take you away.

**NOTE: Suraj Sharma, who plays Pi on the lifeboat, is a remarkable first time actor.  Irrfan Khan, who plays the adult Pi, is known for his excellent turns in Slumdog Millionaire and The Namesake.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are interested in it or not OR you have doubted whether 3D technology can enhance the movie going experience

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you don’t care to see the year’s most remarkable combination of story and visual

watch the trailer: