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Film Review

'Raw' Is Worth Losing Your Appetite

TV/Film ReviewPatricia TancrediComment

Warning: this film is not for the faint of heart. Raw has garnered attention from rumors of audience members fainting and puking during screenings, and while I found myself gagging during some of the most graphic scenes, Raw is much more than blood and gore. It doesn’t rely on carnage for shock value, but instead tells an important story in the process. The 33-year-old French native, Julia Ducournau, steps into the feature film world with this sensational horror film that disturbingly represents a girl’s transition into adulthood.

Justine, a shy and naïve girl played by Garance Marillier, arrives at veterinary school plagued with self-doubt and anxieties. She falsely assumes that her older sister Alexia, played by Ella Rumpf, will help her stay off the upperclassmen’s radar and avoid humiliation, but that hope is quickly destroyed when Alexia forces her to eat a rabbit’s kidney as part of a hazing ritual. While her body first rejects it by breaking out in hives, a need for meat possesses her. Little by little her cravings for animal meat turn into cravings for human flesh, and few things stop her from going into a full feeding frenzy.

There are clear parallels between Justine’s emerging cannibalism and her sexual exploration. At the start of the film Justine is a virgin who is overwhelmed by the debauchery of her first college party, and by the end of the film she scans the party perched up on a countertop, legs spread in search of her next prey. The veterinary students pack into these parties in a way that resembles a slaughterhouse, which is how Justine views them. Her sexual desire, her need for human flesh, and alcohol intertwine for some disastrous consequences.

Her sexual awakening and her evolution from vegetarianism to cannibalism come with a rise in self-confidence and self-awareness without regard for social norms or consequences. The first half of the movie she comes off shy, soft spoken, and doing everything possible to avoid humiliation with little success. At one point she is forced to wear an adult diaper over her jeans for looking at an upperclassman. Later she becomes aware that other people find her attractive and the power she can harness from that. She even seduces herself by dancing in front of a mirror while getting ready for a party. However, she is never truly free from the judgment of other people and the fear of humiliation she carries with her is only ever gone when she is entranced by human flesh. Once she’s done feeding, Justine typically feels guilty mainly because she worries what others would think, but that remorse is never enough to make her stop.

Ducournau and cinematographer Ruben Impens shoot this in a way that allows viewers to sympathize with Justine. She may be doing things that most people would find vile and immoral, but we see her fear, her anxiety, her evolution, and her growth. However, viewers are never truly at ease watching “Raw.” The score sends unnerving chills up and down your spine if the scenes drenched in blood and guts weren’t enough to make you want to hurl. There seems to always be a low hum of buzzing or alarms to make the hairs on your arms stand up.

Raw portrays womanhood in a gruesome way, much like Nicolas Winding Refn’s Neon Demon, but with a much stronger focus and effect. Refn’s film feels pretty superficial in comparison, relying heavily on visuals to mask the many plot holes and unnecessary length. In contrast, everything in Ducournau’s film feels purposeful from the more artistic, dreamlike sequences to the balance between wide shots and close ups. Raw is not an easy watch, but the well-balanced, well-paced horror film leaves you satisfied.

'John Wick: Chapter Two' is Undiluted Action Insanity

TV/Film ReviewEthan WilliamsComment

John Wick: Chapter Two wastes absolutely none of your time in establishing what it wants to be from the very opening frames. On the side of a building, a reel of Buster Keaton plays (a nod to the original stuntman himself) just before a sleek motorcycle comes tearing through, followed by  a black muscle car in hot pursuit. To say things escalate from there puts it lightly, but needless to say there’s about 20 totaled cars and even more bodies piled up before this sequence comes to a conclusion.

The original John Wick was a slow-burn cult classic about a hitman brought out of retirement by the premature assassination of his beloved puppy, a violent romp that found its true audience through the Internet, word of mouth and video on demand. Audiences fell in love with seeing noted Matrix star Keanu Reeves back at his ass-kicking best to take on a gritty revenge tale that knew not to take everything so seriously and to simply focus on making some ludicrously fun action scenes.

And much like the first, Chapter Two prefers the all-killer, no-filler approach to action filmmaking. Director Chad Stahelski and screenwriter Derek Kolstad know exactly how to slim down an action movie to the bare essentials, always opting for a more simple approach in telling a story, whittling it down to something that’s still coherent and interesting, but without overloading the screenplay with anything that doesn’t put the action scenes front and center.

Where the original John Wick explored a simple premise with expert precision and a tongue-in-cheek approach to its own inherent silliness, the second chapter opts for something much bigger and badder, but still somehow never sacrificing the commitment to wildly entertain you or bog the story down with unnecessary fluff. Yes, John Wick is brought out of retirement for revenge once more, but this time Wick has to trot the globe facing off against a diverse set of foes, everyone from a sumo wrestler to the rapper Common.

The criminal underworld hinted at in the first John Wick now becomes the ever-expanding playground full of hitmen and assassins for Wick to face off against, a frankly ridiculous secret society with its own set of rules and codes, giving chapter two an added dose of the fantastical. This is the kind of society where homeless people are hitmen in disguise, two men can try to murder each other in a knife fight on a train without a sign of police, ten henchmen can get their brains blown out on a dancefloor while barely anyone bats an eye… but don’t be fooled, John Wick knows and loves its own inherent silliness and it only invites you to do the same.

But it’s truly difficult not to be won over by the art on display here in John Wick. Much like how one would go see a circus to watch a talented trapeze artist, John Wick is perfectly crafted to showcase the talent of its cast, and especially its star. The John Wick films prefers to shoot close-combat action like a Gene Kelly musical, full of intricate fights choreographed as dances, something best captured in long takes rather than the quick edits we’ve come to expect from so many of Wick’s contemporaries. Reeves executes his brutal ballets with a craftsman’s precision, eliminating rooms of bad guys in beautiful locales, leaving a canvas of blood splatters and a litter of broken arms in his wake.

To go into great detail about John Wick 2’s outrageous setpieces would be to deprive you of some of experiencing their sheer bravado and lunacy, but needless to say it matches the high octane standards set by its predecessor and dare I say exceeds them. There’s hardly any moment of John Wick: Chapter Two that isn’t a delirious amount of fun and it’s better than anything that we really deserved out of a second installment of this franchise. And judging by the packed theater I left this weekend, I think we can all look forward to how another installment could continue to blow our collective mind.

Exciting 'Rogue One' Admirably Bridges Gaps, Fills Plot Holes in Star Wars Universe

TV/Film ReviewWeston PaganoComment

[This review contains spoilers. But, come on, we all know how this one ends anyway.]

You have to admire Star Wars for making an entire film just to fill in a plot hole from 40 years ago.

Why would they make the Death Star with such a obvious and silly weakness? It’s a question Star Wars fanatics whispered (and Star Wars detractors shouted) for years, and now we finally have an answer. Built around the Death Star’s origin and the endeavor of revealing and understanding it, Gareth Edwards (Godzilla)’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story predominately follows the quest to steal and transmit home the battle station’s plans and the surprisingly nuanced dynamics behind them. Without giving too much away, in doing so it includes what might be one of the light side / dark side transitions with the most humanizing depth in the entire series.

Whereas last year’s Episode VII: The Force Awakens at times watched like a tired reboot of Death Star III, Rogue One manages to combine the inherent nostalgia and predetermination of a prequel into something almost paradoxically fresher. You know the conclusion from the start, but the thrill of figuring it out along the way feels new enough to make you forget, and it’s justified by being a clarifying look into the past, not a repetition of the future. The ease with which longtime fans will be able to use Rogue One to introduce younger fans to the original trilogy is also a romantic touch as well, as the films connect nearly seamlessly, and, despite there being not one lightsaber on lightsaber battle in the full 133 minute runtime, and despite stealing a glorified flash drive being a far less explosive end goal than destroying the Death Star, Rogue One undoubtedly does enough to bring in new fans while satiating the old. After all, desperately attempting to connect to a network with which to transfer files is an amusingly 21st century problem for “a long time ago…” 

When discussing the cast it’s important to first note that while Rebel Alliance leader Mon Mothma famously claimed, “Many Bothans died to bring us this information,” when discussing the Empire’s plans for a super weapon in the original trilogy, contrary to popular confusion this actually took place in Return of the Jedi regarding Death Star II, and is not in reference to the trials and tribulations depicted in Rogue One. Therefore, while there is perhaps a disappointingly light representation of non-human characters, the lack of furry spies capable of invisibility that has been bemoaned by classic fans is not actually all that contradictory to whats canon. (New directors and writers have the right to stamp a healthy originality on the project, but come on, it wouldn’t have hurt to throw a few Bothans in there.) These, these are the “rebel spies” mentioned way back in the very first crawl in ’77.

But how do you create character development in a story in which, from the beginning, it’s pretty clear none of the characters will survive due to none of them appearing in any of the four chronologically subsequent movies? Well, in some cases you don’t. Much of the diverse cast, including the blind martial arts master type Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen), the deadly warrior Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen), the Imperial pilot defector Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), and the sardonic reprogrammed Imperial droid companion K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk), are explored or grow very little if at all through dialogue often unremarkable beyond quips, and some (Îmwe and Malbus) die in predictably overdone action movie fight scenes that cheapen their existence even more than their underdeveloped beginnings.

That being said, it’s easy to imagine the film dragging had much more detail been added to people who, ultimately, leave the stage as quickly - and, in the big picture, somewhat insignificantly - as they come. The Force sensitivity of Îmwe, for example, can read as both an intriguing inclusion in a Jedi-purged world that showcases the countless disparate incarnations of The Force beyond its popular lightsaber-wielding polarization, or as a lukewarm substitution for the only film in the entire series that lacks a single Jedi presence and only barely shows any of the Sith at all either. Main protagonist Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), however, does well in following up The Force Awakens’ introduction of strong female leads to the Star Wars universe while rebel assassin Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) offers a strong foil without succumbing to any romantic predictabilities.

Many of the film’s biggest flaws tie into the aforementioned action movie trope traps, but the majority were previously present through the Star Wars universe and are being faithfully continued here. For example, AT-ATs are still entirely inefficient, uselessly lumbering objects that cannot justify their production with a couple cannons on the head of an unnecessarily large elephant body, especially considering they struggle to hit even fleeing soldiers running in a straight line below them. (Also, if X-Wing fighters can destroy them so easily, where were they during the battles on Hoth? But I digress.)

On the flip-side, Rogue One also surprises with one of the most clever tactical moves ever shows in a Star Wars battle, with the Rebels using a ship as a tugboat to push a disabled Star Destroyer into another and, finally, into the shield generating station. Similarly, the detailed destructions of the Death Star’s first targets, merely whole cities on Jedha and Scarif, hit harder than the quick death scene of the entire planet of Alderaan in some ways, much like an intimately visualized paper cut might create a more visceral sensation of pain than a basic gunshot shown on a wide angle. Still, with most deaths coming from blaster fire or only alluded to, there is very little actual pain shown at the scarring levels of writhing under Force lightning or lightsaber lacerations, making the claims of Rogue One being the least child-friendly episode largely unfounded when if anything the opposite seems more true.

Fan service is present in the brief but notable glimpses of C-3PO and R2-D2 (rest in peace, Kenny Baker) and in trivial bits such as with the blue milk first seen on Tatooine and (a deep cut) the reappearance of Ponda Baba and Colonel Evazan, whom extra-dedicated viewers may remember as the bullies who harassed Luke in the Mos Eisley Cantina much like their passing altercation after coincidentally bumping into Jyn and Cassian on Jedha seven movies later. Most impactful (though setting a controversial precedent), however, is the CGI-assisted representations of past faces not as easily replicated; a young-again Princess Leia’s closing words and Grand Moff Tarkin’s (also rest in peace Peter Cushing) several reappearances were crucial to the storyline and benefitted greatly from the unavoidable awkwardness that comes from a different actor taking one out of the magical world created by cinema.

The modern ability to render gorgeous scenes from Scarif’s lush landscape all the way up to the impressive shield setup and space battle above it makes Rogue One a film you can't tear your eyes away from, yet the subtle reminiscence of Edwards pushing extras to grow out their mustaches and sideburns in the ‘70s style of the OT gives the flashy exterior an admirable authenticity. One area in which the film inexplicably misses an easy crowd pleaser? No opening text scrolling through space.

In an age beset by international terrorism and unrest in the Middle East, the depiction of Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker)’s splinter rebel faction veers so close to ISIS or Al Qaeda that it becomes impossible to ignore. The desert setting, guerrilla tactics, Islamic-style attire, and “militant,” “extremist,” and “insurgent” labels forge an undeniable connection, further deviating from a good versus evil simplicity while fueling the devil’s advocate thinkpieces about the Rebel Alliance and the Jedi who fight with them being anti-hero religious extremists within a terrorist organization. With this Rogue One does well to make an otherwise opaque conflict increasingly complex, interesting to dissect, and in some ways, realistically relevant.

Furthermore, the revelation that the Death Star’s planet killing strength is derived from Kyber crystals, the same source used in lightsabers and adorned on Jyn’s necklace, is a powerful poignancy that subtly sums up the duality of the force. That which creates light also fuels darkness and can be exploited by both simultaneously - just like The Force as a whole and, as discovered later on, specifically the Death Star’s plans themselves.

In many ways, being an anthology film unbound by linear trajectories into the unknown or being tasked as the first reboot of familiar characters gave script writers Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy a benefit The Force Awakens didn’t have. That being said, The Force Awakens also has the benefit of the doubt in needing to be judged as a part of the trilogy it has begun, whereas Rogue One was limited to completing its cast’s brief, and comparatively shallower character arcs in just over two hours. Ultimately, Jyn and Cassian will never reach the canonical importance or popular staying power as Daisy Ridley’s Rey or John Boyega’s Finn, but their role in the Star Wars universe may well have proven more important. In any case, Rogue One couldn’t rely on the crutch of uncertainty - it needed an ending. What we get is overall a satisfactory one, not least when considering it begins the most beloved movie trilogy of all time.

'Moonlight' is a Tender and Crushing Film About the Unseen American

TV/Film ReviewPatricia TancrediComment

After an eight-year hiatus from directing feature films, Barry Jenkins returns with his sophomore release, a beautifully executed tale of an unseen American. Moonlight shares the life of a poor, black, gay man, a member of intersecting minority groups often pushed aside and labeled outcasts of society. Jenkins takes a character that feels that he could disappear without a trace and expertly shares his struggle.

Adapted from Tarrel Alvin McCarne’s play In the Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, Barry Jenkins breaks down the evolution of a man’s life into three parts. The film follows Chiron, a black man growing up in a poor community in Miami, as he comes to terms with his sexuality. Divided into childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, we catch glimpses of pivotal moments in Chiron’s life. In childhood, we get our first look at the bullying Chiron experiences and the unstable home life that shapes his future relationships. In adolescence, we see the progression of that bullying and his first and only experimentation with intimacy. In adulthood, we grasp the long term effects of the mistreatment Chiron endured throughout his childhood and teenage years.

The atypical structure of the film hints at its stage influence, but nothing about the film channels over the top theatrics too often found in film adaptions of plays. It is subtle and patient in its delivery creating constant tension throughout. The transitions between the three sections are seamless, and create a true evolution of character. Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders, and Alex Hibbert give jaw dropping performances as adult, teenage, and child Chiron, respectively. Hibbert’s portrayal of six-year-old Chiron has the same depth and pain as Sanders’ and Rhodes’. The consistency in emotion and sensibility is chilling, unnerving, and crucial in understanding Chiron’s lifelong internal torment. The lack of dialogue and human interaction emphasize Chiron’s loneliness and alienation while the dizzying sensations, captured by cinematographer James Laxton, during the rare instances Chiron finds himself surrounded by groups of people highlight his inability to fit into the societal expectations of black men.

Jenkins does an impeccable job of aligning the audience with Chiron. The shots linger on his face capturing every emotional shift in nonverbal communication, all the sounds are subjective and emphasized according to how he perceives them, and the color blue saturates the screen acting as psychological insight into his constant introspective behavior. And while Jenkins touches on universal themes such as solitude and identity that help garner empathy toward Chiron, his story and position in life is unique, a reality unknown to most people.

The criticism of toxic masculinity and the way race, class, and sexuality influence the opportunities presented to men are placed front and center, but their delivery never feels overwhelming or forceful. Jenkins’ film is restrained and silent yet powerful filled with both tender and crushing moments, resulting in a triumphant and masterful stride towards diversifying the storylines we see in media. 

'Spotlight' Offers an Authentic Portrait of 21st Century Hysteria

TV/Film ReviewEzra CarpenterComment

Being quite young during the onset of 9/11 paranoia, my own memory of the world during my adolescence is but a cluttered news reel of towers burning, Scott Peterson testimonies, and pastors sidestepping news crews on courthouse steps. But Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight clarifies this childhood as it authentically replicates America’s unraveling sense of security in the early 21st century. 

Spotlight follows the Boston Globe’s exposure of the child molestation conducted by the Catholic priests of the Boston Archdiocese since the early 1980s, and the Vatican’s subsequent cover-up of a scandal that proved to be more widespread than the endemic it was initially perceived to be. Michael Keaton plays Walter “Robby” Robinson, head of the Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” investigative team comprised of four “lapsed” Catholics: Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachael McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James). 

Upon first impression, the Spotlight team is highly unremarkable – white collar reporters investigating city scandals at a leisurely pace from the confines of a windowless office space saturated with the mundane. But once the air of ordinariness is established, tension persistently intensifies. With each successive step made closer to the truth, Spotlight is increasingly unnerved by its cognizance of the Church’s grave immorality, evident in how Rezendes’s internal torment steers him further and further away from his initial comical vibrancy. 

Spotlight’s cast delivers. Keaton’s rendition of Robinson’s professionalism is unflinching and Leiv Schreiber is uncomfortably distant as the new incoming editor Marty Baron. The cast does not surpass expectation, but it does not need to, since this is a film whose organic complexity and relevance will undoubtedly shake the religious foundations of even its most pious audience.

This film is best described as a white-washed neo-noire, a nice counterpoint to David Fincher’s brand of dark and disturbing. Its camera techniques are engagingly varied and while its symbolism can be as on-the-nose as a shot of a churchyard playground, consideration of that landscape’s normality begs questions of whether such imagery is on-the-nose enough. 

Spotlight captures a complex cultural moment made problematic by how intricately knotted it is in religious, legal, cultural, and economic difficulties. It examines society through every scope, covering ground between institutional responsibility to maintain the communal welfare and the role of faith in a hard knock blue-collar community. This is a film that will rustle inside you at the most unexpected moment, and - I think it is important to note - as I was leaving the theater, every elderly viewer present seemed incapable of leaving their seat.

'Brooklyn' Is a Subtly Sweet Oscar Contender

TV/Film ReviewSean McHughComment

Oscar season is upon us, and so comes the more unique (Anamolisa), unnerving (The Revenant), and unapologetic (The Danish Girl) film releases from studios both large and small, all in hopes of gaining more fiscal and critical glory within Hollywood.

One of the earliest released, small(er) budget Oscar contenders, Brooklyn, is really none of the aforementioned descriptors; if anything it is unassuming – a film that offers no real cultural dissonance, dialogue, or distress – and therein lies the film’s true beauty. It is soft, sweet, thoughtful and tender.   

Brooklyn (adapted from the 2009 Colm Tóibín novel) is a period piece chronicling a young Irish girl, Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan), and her journey emigrating from Ireland to the United States, and assimilating into American society in the early 1950s.

At its core, Brookyln is a coming of age story, in which Eilis is faced with a variety of obstacles, modest in nature, but altogether riveting with their realism. The subtle reality of Ronan’s performance offers much more depth than the average coming of age story:

We witness Eilis learning (the hard way) how to operate on an trans-Atlantic voyage – through a particularly graphic bout of food poisoning mixed with sea sickness, in what will surely be one of the more graphic Oscar-worthy performances in years past.  

Ronan deftly presents courting in 1952 Brooklyn with the same subtle anxiety and palpable emotion not uncommon in today’s dating scene - at a dance put on by the local church, Eilis eventually meets her husband to be, Tony Fiorello (Emory Cohen). Tony, an Italian boy, shows much more interest than Eilis, but chips away at her hardened exterior in hopes of one day winning her heart. They meet every night to walk home from Eilis’ night classes at Brooklyn College, where she studies to become a bookkeeper. Their exchanges become more intimate and earnest, talking about raising their kids to be Brooklyn Dodger fans, as Tony helps Eilis find a sense of belonging in America.

Just when it seems that Eilis has finally carved herself a place in Brooklyn, and life was beginning to look up, there is wretched moment in the film’s third act. Eilis, still working at Bartocci’s Department Store, is informed by Father Flood (Jim Broadbent) and Miss Fortini (Jessica Pare) that her biggest supporter and beloved older sister, Rose (Fiona Glascott), who gave up the chance of a life of her own in order for Eilis to chart a path to America, has died.

Eilis’ sister’s death catalyzes the film’s ultimate dilemma. Being called back to Ireland to put her sister to rest, familiar faces come back with great reverence and regard for the Americanized Eilis, including one Mr. Jim Farrell (continuing an already impressive year for Domhnall Gleeson). For the rest of the film, Eilis is tasked with choosing which life suits her best, framed by delicate moments of painstaking decisions between the familiarity of home or her responsibility for her life lead in America.

More understated in tone than its source material, screenwriter Nick Hornsby and director John Crowley masterfully transport an already charming story to screen in a hyperrealistic manner. Dramatically speaking, the conflict in the film moves at a glacial pace, but therein lies one of the greatest aspects of Brooklyn – the film reflects the subtlety of charting one’s own course in life. An film that is sure to be a career defining moment for Saoirse Ronan, as well as an Academy Awards 2016 darkhorse – Brooklyn reminds us that there is no debt to one’s past, and the greatest moments in life are not owed to others, but rather, shared.

'Steve Jobs' Is Dynamic Fire-Cracker of a Biopic

TV/Film ReviewEthan WilliamsComment

Earlier this year I had the pleasure of reading Walter Isaacson's incredible portrait of the tech icon Steve Jobs in preparation for this very movie and I found myself simply unable to put it down. I had always been fascinated by Jobs as a CEO unlike any other, a man I saw as responsible for products that completely revolutionized how I viewed computers, telephones and music.

But Isaacson's book also helped me grasp Jobs' incredibly difficult nature. He was one of the most stubborn and irritable people to work with and often had fractured relationships with many people due to his arrogant and driven nature. But as insufferable as he was, Jobs was wholly dedicated to creating some of the world's greatest ever products. Jobs didn't believe that art and products has to be independent of each other and in fact considered himself an artist above all, just as his idol Bob Dylan whose music is accurately prominent in this latest attempt to capture Jobs onscreen.

Isaacson's biography is an intricate and intimate examination of a very complex individual and probably comes as close as we'll ever get to knowing everything there was to know about the complicated visionary and the demons that drove him.

So of course something is immediately lost in the translation to the screen as the level of detail that is compiled in such a comprehensive overview of Jobs' life would be impossible. And instead of even attempting to cover such an eventful life in just two hours, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin chooses to focus on three of the most important product launches in Jobs' life: the unveiling of the Macintosh, his NeXT cube after he left Apple, and culminating with the launch of the iMac.

This is certainly a clever idea because if there was anything Steve Jobs’ life revolved around it was the launch of his products, but the fact that Sorkin now must pack in all the drama and relationships formed over a person’s life into three very specific events does get a bit maddening at times. Steve Jobs certainly didn’t have three life-defining conversations with CEO John Sculley, marketing director Joanna Hoffman, co-founder Steve Wozniak, and his estranged daughter Lisa Brennan at each of them, but I can understand why they were all included. This is a biopic after all, and Sorkin needs some human drama at the center of these tech talks. So while the bold new format to this biopic is certainly novel, it does require a bit of truth-stretching.

Luckily though, Steve Jobs is helped massively by scene after scene of predictably zippy and clever dialogue from Aaron Sorkin, all delivered by a massively talented cast. Michael Fassbender proves once again he is arguably the best actor working today, imitating Jobs’ high-pitched nasal voice but still managing to fully inhabit Jobs’ arrogant and calculating nature. Jeff Daniels is also an excellent casting as tepid CEO John Sculley, Jobs’ reluctant father figure in his turbulent time at Apple, and Seth Rogen is surprisingly confident as Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak.

And while the film wants to explore Jobs’ up-and-down relationships with Sculley and Wozniak among others, ultimately this attempt to capture Jobs onscreen is about his fractured relationship with his illegitimate daughter Lisa, whom Jobs famously denied ever fathering for a number of years. It’s a relationship that is of course rife with potential for human drama, and Sorkin chooses to explore it as the biggest contradiction of Jobs’ life: that he himself likely felt rejected by his birth parents, but ultimately it took him a very long time to grasp that he was rejecting his own daughter in a similar way. It’s certainly the script’s most compelling element, even if I personally would’ve liked to see Jobs’ ultimately more important relationships with his wife and other children explored at least to a certain degree.

For such a dialogue-heavy film, Steve Jobs certainly needed some solid direction and Danny Boyle absolutely excels. Though its events take place entirely before the year 2000, Boyle's sensibilities lie fully in the 21st century, full of color and life that give so many scenes of backstage exchanges between two characters a crackling dynamism. Beautifully photographed by Boyle’s former Sunshine collaborator Alwin H. Küchler, Boyle’s direction gives Sorkin’s script the zip that it needs to separate itself from the pack. His use of frame inserts to invoke flashbacks, the brisk but clever transitions between all three acts, and his use of visuals to both convey information and illustrate Sorkin’s dialogue all turn what would’ve essentially been a well-acted stage play into something that’s gripping and totally cinematic.

I recommend that if you want the more real and nuanced portrait of the enigma that was Steve Jobs, pick up Walter Isaacson's excellent biography upon which this movie is supposedly based. But Steve Jobs the film is a vibrant fire-cracker take on the Hollywood biopic. Decidedly brisk but somehow managing to pack in a compelling amount of human drama into product launches, it's easily the most worthy portrayal of Jobs yet and probably the best we're going to get committed to screen. Confident direction from Boyle combined with a sizzling Sorkin script allows sparks to fly, even if some parts fizz out instead.

'Crimson Peak' Proves a Delightful House of Horrors

TV/Film ReviewEthan WilliamsComment

The creak of a wooden stair. The bump in the night. The chill on the back of your neck. As cliche as it sounds, these are the tiny but powerfully unsettling things that master director Guillermo del Toro seeks to turn into your worst nightmare. The most terrifying parts of Crimson Peak are in its eerie silence and candlelit amblings down decrepit hallways, when you never know quite what is lurking around the corner.

Although the fantastic Crimson Peak is being marketed as a straightforward horror film (and it certainly has its scares), Del Toro himself correctly pointed out that this is far more of a love letter to Victorian romance stories and Gothic horror than it is a ghost story.

Mia Wasikowska stars as Edith, an impressionable young American swept off her feet by the dashing Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) after the mysterious death of her entrepreneur father. Whisking her away to his family's estate across the pond where he lives with his colder-than-ice sister Lucille, the ghostly warnings Edith has been receiving all her life begin to come to fruition as she learns to truly "Beware of Crimson Peak."

There are truly very few horror filmmakers out there who can still craft a truly incredible sense of atmosphere, and Guillermo del Toro is one of the absolute greats. His unique style of production design is perfectly suited for a Victorian fairy tale and the incredible set of Allerdale Hall just allows Del Toro's imagination to run wild. Applying his signature creature design to these horrific specters, their bones crack and creak as they loom through the dark hallways and it's simply awe-inspiring.

As A-list a cast as Del Toro recruits here, their commitment to an old-school kind of campiness in their delivery is admirable. Some of what the script gives them could be considered groaners but Hiddleston, Chastain and Wasikowka's delivery is excellent as they are fully committed to the kind of story Del Toro wanted to tell. Particularly excellent is Jessica Chastain as the menacing sister Lucille, perfecting the chill in that deep-seated evil that boils under the surface, and absolutely reveling in the madness that's revealed as the plot unfolds.

In any other director's hands a lot of Crimson Peak probably would've fallen flat, but Del Toro's strength is that he plays all of it completely straight. He fully believes in the power of atmosphere and his attention to detail in his craft helps to fully immerse the audience in some truly fantastic tales. His penchant for gore is certainly still on display, and the fact that Del Toro carefully chooses when to unleash the brutality only makes these moments more powerful, especially in the requisite bloodbath finale

It's an old school kind of horror told with unapologetic camp, and aside from some faulty pacing in the end, it is without a doubt one of the best theatrical experiences of the year, one of Del Toro's finest films, and a highly recommended Halloween treat.

Drug War Epic 'Sicario' Is Gripping and Intense Filmmaking

TV/Film ReviewEthan WilliamsComment

Since making the translation to English-language films, director Denis Villeneuve dropped one of the most viscerally gripping crime films of the past few years with Prisoners and one of the most thought-provoking thrillers starring a Hollywood actor with Enemy. And with his latest, Sicario, Villeneuve brings his excellent grasp of cerebral tension to a very timely drama about the Mexican Drug War. Reuniting with the incomparable Roger Deakins as his cinematographer, Villeneuve tries to dig deep into a struggle that has defined a region for decades now.

Sicario manages a very rare thing in Hollywood in that it happens to be a movie completely of its time. The conflict being portrayed is still very much happening and is still taking lives on both sides of the border. Even though most Americans aren't truly aware of the day-to-day skirmishes, the cartels and the agencies of both governments are still fighting for control.

Our window as an audience into this frankly terrifying new world is Special Agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), newly assigned to a Department of Defense task force to take down some high-level cartel members. But the more she works towards making things right the more she begins to realize that she may be in over her head and nothing is as black and white as she thought.

But if Kate is our protagonist and supposed to be the audience's viewpoint into this unfamiliar world, she is interestingly kept at arm's length from most of the film's action. She is always shown to be at a distance or just out of earshot when her superiors are discussing operations or explaining tactics. Therefore she's kept in the dark and so are we as viewers. It’s more than a little intimidating for both audience and character because if we are kept in the dark, that means we have no idea of the potential danger that lies ahead.

This is the film's way of carefully doling out information piece by piece, and the more that Kate tries to pry into what’s really happening, the more horrified she is to learn of the implications of it all. Josh Brolin plays up his bravado as the DoD man Matt Graver who reluctantly yet unabashedly reveals to Kate and the audience that their view of morality is simply nonexistent in this underworld. And that gray morality comes into full view with Benicio del Toro’s Alejandro Gillick, in a role that has to be a frontrunner for this year’s Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Del Toro is mysteriously aloof for the first hour in the middle of so much mayhem but as the action escalates his portrayal of menace and determination was an absolute revelation.

Boasting setpiece after intense setpiece, the realizations come very slowly and the tension builds to a fever pitch with another wallop of an ending from Villeneuve. It will have you gripping your seat from start to fantastic finish.

But the most important thing is the film doesn't offer any easy answers because there simply aren't any. Morality is a mess of grays; "good guys" and "bad guys" simply don't exist in this universe. Families are torn apart every day by this drug war, and Sicario acknowledges that we are near helpless to stop it as innocent bystanders, as the gut-punch ending makes very clear.

Boosted by a tight script from Taylor Sheridan, a searingly intense score from composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, some absolutely beautiful shots from Roger Deakins(the shot where the assault team disappears under the Mexican horizon as if they are descending into hell is one of the year’s best) and some truly Oscar-worthy performances especially from Benicio del Toro, Sicario is yet another overwhelming experience from Denis Villeneuve and one of the year’s must-see films.

'The Martian': NASA’s Kickstarter Trailer

TV/Film ReviewDanny BittmanComment

When you watch movies like Apollo 13, Lincoln, Argo, or any other movie based on a real event, you always end up thinking, “It’s pretty amazing that this actually happened.” Stories carry a grander emotional weight when you become aware that they’re a part of your own history. But as I watched Ridley Scott’s, The Martian -- a movie about a stranded astronaut who attempts to survive on Mars -- I had to repeatedly remind myself that this story is fictitious.

Thanks to the source novel by Andy Weir, the attention to accurate problem solving alone will have you feeling like you could survive on a foreign planet. But on a emotional level, Ridley Scott’s ensemble directing makes this story not just about isolation, but really a collective of humans working together to achieve impossible tasks. It’s a clear and bright vision of what our space program can become, provided that we continue to fund it. A depressing thought when you consider that we’ve only sent robots to the red planet.

While I enjoyed the emotional pacing of the piece, I thought the filmmakers could have done more with the Martian planet itself. Mars is a place that used to be flooded with water, and might have even harbored organic life. But now it’s clutching to the last of its atmosphere, as if someone left it behind like the stranded astronaut, Mark Watney (Matt Damon). The mix of practical and special effects to simulate Mars makes you feel as if you are there, but the editing during the scenic shots is too quick. The audience isn’t allowed enough time to let their eyes wander in a shot.

The story jumps through Sols (a day on Mars) fairly quickly too, so the pressure of Watney’s time in isolation is minimized. I think by extending these scenic shots, the audience would have more time to stare off into the Martian horizon and think about the planet, exactly as Watney does every Sol to plan his survival. Overall the editing was well executed, it’s just at certain points the planet feels more like a prop than an actual location where Watney is stuck.

I’ve seen this type of rushed editing a lot in recent sci-fi flicks, most popularly in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. Every time they show a shot of Saturn, or any kind of space scenic, they cut to something else. It makes me long for the editing style in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, or the opening shots in The Coen Brother’s No Country For Old Men. I understand the need to keep the runtime low, but adding two minutes of Mars scenic shots would have done the trick. There actually could be an interesting way to link virtual reality (VR) headsets, and movies here. Imagine that every time the movie stops to show you a scenic shot of Mars, you could wander the planet in VR, as if you’re Mark Watney, and this is your free time to explore.

For a survival story that manages to stay light-hearted, Watney's ultimate fate is never made too obvious, which makes the movie extremely enjoyable to watch. The experience is similar to watching Apollo 13 as a kid before any one told you about the outcome of the mission. So go see it, or instead donate your $14 to NASA so you can see Mars with your own eyes in this lifetime. Either way, this movie will inspire you to become a fan of supporting the U.S. space program. #NASAKickstarter