Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (2016)

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Now that we’ve all moved on from the height thing—Jack Reacher is 6ft. 5in.; Tom Cruise (who plays him) is not—we can finally focus on the film series itself and ask ourselves, do we really need another franchise with a tall-ish vigilante drifter cracking heads? The short answer is probably not: as realized on screen there’s nothing particularly fresh or interesting about author Lee Child’s former Army Military Police Corps major who flits about the U.S. doing odd jobs while encountering sickos with penchants for genital mutilation. But I didn’t doze off watching Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, even late into the night, so something must have held my attention, and not just Cobie Smulders (and how!) of TV’s How I Met Your Mother, who plays Major Susan Turner with whom Reacher has worked, remotely, and whom he finds suspiciously imprisoned on espionage charges when he returns to Washington, D.C. after busting up a human trafficking ring (on his own dime of course). Not only that, but Reacher also discovers that, at the advanced age of “42” (Cruise gains a foot and loses a decade!), he may be Dad to an adolescent girl, Samantha (she’s played by Danika Yarosh) so soon he’s lugging around twice as many women as he did in the first film (the lone Rosamund Pike) as he goes about the business of figuring out who’s framing Turner and why, pursued by Patrick Heusinger’s stock assassin—so much for Reacher’s discrete vigilante drifter cover. It’s hard to recommend a film as formulaic as this one, with absolutely nothing we haven’t seen before, but director Edward Zwick (who previously worked with Cruise on 2003’s The Last Samurai) keeps things hurried and intense and even though the film clocks in at a little under two hours it only feels half that long. I dunno; maybe I did fall asleep after all.


(c) 2017 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Hell or High Water (2016)

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West Texas. Not quite New Mexico, the Land of Enchantment. Crappy sedans, dust-bowl diners, Shiner Bock in long-necked bottles, bum steers, and few jobs to speak of, a hell of a hole to call home. But home it is to brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) Howard. Well, Tanner’s just back from a ten-year stretch in the county lock-up, so he’s not seen much of the place lately. And Toby’s separated from his wife and two young boys, although he swears he’ll do right by them, come Hell or High Water. As David Mackenzie’s modern-day Western kicks into gear, the brothers are already knee-deep in a lawless effort to reclaim the family farm from the Texas Midlands Bank, eager to foreclose. Enter Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his long-suffering partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), a mismatched pairing at the best of times—Marcus likes to taunt Alberto on his Mexican-Comanche “half breed” ancestry—but one that’s promised to bring the boys to justice. Happy endings, it seems, are not something West Texas is known for. Pretty Pine presents well as usual, and I’ve always liked Foster, who seems drawn to these kinds of projects, or at least to the kind in which he gets to play deep-end crazy. Bridges himself secured a seventh Academy Award nomination for his fine supporting role here, even though the statuette ultimately went to Moonlight‘s Mahershala Ali.  Hell or High Water might not offer the most original plotting of the year, but Sicario scribe Taylor Sheridan’s peckerwood dialogue and sharp characterizations more than atone. Coupling that with strong performances and a stellar score—from bad seed Nick Cave with collaborator Warren Ellis—makes the whole trip out West worthwhile.


(c) 2017 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

The American Side (2016)

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A Polish P.I. A raven-haired femme fatale. A suicide at Niagara Falls (or was it?). A conspiracy to exploit Nikola Tesla’s unrealized designs. These vintage elements form the satisfying core of The American Side, a hard-boiled film noir from writer/director Jenna Ricker and writer/star Greg Stuhr, who shuffles in as low-rent Buffalo, New York detective Charlie Paczynski. Despite his shabby appearance and questionable tactics, Charlie makes for an enigmatically-likable antihero in the film, never once at a loss for a pithy aside—that Polish sausage crack regarding a belligerent cop’s nearest and dearest is pretty caustic for starters. Most of the dialogue crackles, in fact, evoking those classic gumshoe dramas of the ’40s and ’50s while evincing Hitchcock and Bogart and Chandler. Like most films of its type, The American Side—the title refers to the part of Niagara Falls that’s not in Canada—is convoluted beyond comprehension, but it delivers on the look, feel, and sound of the genre, with cinematographer Frank Barrera capturing the dramatic architecture of Buffalo’s seedy rust-belt in dramatic browns and grays and veteran David Shire (“All the President’s Men”) providing the breezy score. Rounding out the central cast of unfamiliar names (Stuhr, Alicja Bachleda, and Camille Belle) are Matthew Broderick and Janeane Garofalo, as well as ’70s throwbacks Robert Forster, Harris Yulin, Joe Grifasi, and The Man from U.N.C.L.E.‘s Robert Vaughn. Some roles, like Vaughn’s outraged neighbor, are little more than cameos, but the support of these familiar faces lends the film a certain legitimacy. Kudos to Ricker and Stuhr for a thoroughly entertaining tribute to the bad old days.


(c) 2017 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Beauty and the Beast (2017)

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“There may be something there that wasn’t there before.”
     With Disney’s live-action revamp of its 1991 animated classic Beauty and the Beast, that something, first and foremost of course, begins with three-dimensional flesh and blood actors, even more so if you catch the 3D presentation. And they’re as solid as rocks: Emma Watson as the outspoken and bookish Belle, Kevin Kline (wearing well) as her fanciful father Maurice, Luke Evans as Belle’s supremely ill-suited suitor Gaston, a blunderbuss of a man if ever there was one, and Josh Gad as Gaston’s squirely sidekick, the foolish Le Fou.
     But wait, there’s more!
     What wasn’t there before includes a few additional musical motifs, which composer Alan Menken and lyricist Tim Rice (Howard Ashman, Menken’s original writing partner, passed away in ’91) weave seamlessly into the existing soundtrack of popular showtunes: “Belle,” “Gaston,” the aforementioned “Something There,” “Be Our Guest,” and the title track. This time around we’re treated to some fabulous outfits, by costume designer Jacqueline Durran. I can’t say I typically notice costumes, but I did here, right on down to the little ties on the shoulders of Belle’s blue peasant apron. Once the spell was broken in the original film, the animated objects—Lumiere the candelabra, Cogsworth the mantel clock, Mrs. Potts the teapot, Chip the teacup, and the Beast himself—all morphed into humans, albeit animated humans. Here they turn into actual humans, in the relative guises of Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson, Nathan Mack, and Dan Stevens, all of whom provide their characters’ voicework prior to the transformation.
     Director Bill Condon (Dreamgirls, parts 1 and 2 of The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn) keeps things surprisingly aligned with the original film, but since it was the first animated feature ever nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, why the heck wouldn’t he? I remember being thoroughly bummed when The Beast finally changed back into The Prince in the first film though; Belle was way better off with the hairier version. Condon keeps things so faithful to the original, in fact, that the disappointment of that big “reveal” carries over too!
     Princely quibbles aside, 2017’s Beauty and the Beast maintains all the elegance and the enchantment of its predecessor with lavish production design, a stalwart cast, and r but, thankfully, there’s also plenty that was.


(c) 2017 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

The Dressmaker (2016)

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Here’s a recipe you can really sink your teeth into: Take a pair of Academy Award-nominated actresses (Kate “free the nipple” Winslet, who’s actually won one, and Judy Davis who, incredible though it may seem, has not). Add a hunky Hemsworth (Liam) and a womanly Weaving (Hugo). Blend them thoroughly into a spicy, revengeful mix (taking Rosalie Ham’s best-selling Gothic novel as your guide) and bake for a full two hours. The result: The Dressmaker, a tasty concoction our chefs left in the oven just a wee bit too long, but not long enough to spoil.
     At the tender age of ten, Tilly Dunnage—great name by the way—was run out of her backwoods Australian town under the suspicion that she murdered a schoolyard bully. As Jocelyn Moorhouse’s film opens some twenty years later, Tilly is back, hoping to build bridges with her “mad,” reclusive mother Molly while exacting revenge on “the barstards” who exiled her. Key to this sexy Singer wrong writer’s arsenal are the killer dressmaking skills she honed while crossing The Continent—London, Milan, Paris. For with the ability to dress the prim and improper ladies of Dungatar comes a power Tilly wields to devastating effect.
     Winslet and Davis are formidable in The Dressmaker, the former voluptuous and menacing, with the merest hint of an Aussie accent, the latter snaggle toothed and haggard yet singularly graceful. It’s a joy watching these women take command of the material, no pun intended. By contrast, Hemsworth, the town pretty boy supporting a developmentally-challenged brother, is all eye candy, but does a fine job in that department. Weaving’s role, as a finery-fancying policeman, is a little precious, but the star of The Matrix manages to keep his character from skittering into caricature. The assorted townsfolk, however, are precisely that—broad and cartoonish and indifferently drawn.
     Despite hopping the rails in its final showdown, The Dressmaker manages to be a gorgeously-photographed charmer with plenty to recommend it, with both Winslet and Davis outstanding. That “R” rating, though—”for brief language and a scene of violence”—is just plain ridiculous.


(c) 2017 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Get Out (2017)

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There’s something not quite right about the Armitages. They seem pleasant and accepting enough, friendly and hospitable on the surface, yet there’s something… just odd about them. The hired help—a standoffish gardener and a stiffly-courteous maid—are definitely off, their clipped conversational styles especially awkward.
     Rose Armitage (Allison Williams, channeling Amanda Peet) is bringing her boyfriend Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) to the family homestead for the first time. What she hasn’t told her well-to-do parents—played by Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener—and spaced-out brother (Caleb Landry Jones, channeling Brad Dourif) is that Chris is black. Rose’s family isn’t.
     “Do they know I’m black?” “Should they?” “You might wanna… you know?” “Mom and Dad, my black boyfriend will be coming up this weekend. I just don’t want you to be shocked that he’s a black man. That?”
     What Rose has neglected to tell Chris is that her parents—psychiatrist Mom and neurosurgeon Dad—have African-American servants. Does it matter? Well, it makes for an uncomfortable dynamic, certainly. And things are about to get a whole lot more uncomfortable in Get Out, Jordan Peele’s striking directorial debut.
     Peele, half of Comedy Central”s successful Key & Peele, wrote as well as directed Get Out, a smart and well-crafted psychological horror film with an underlying and unusually powerful social critique of modern American racism. The film pays homage to such classics as The Stepford Wives, The Shining, and Night of the Living Dead, slowly building the viewer’s creeping suspicion that Something Is Not Right. Key & Peele fans have come to expect a lot of silly humor underscored by sharp satire, but in this film Peele shows his true metal with a few genuine laughs, a fair number of scares, and a boatload of dark, disturbing realities. Lil Rel Howery, who plays Chris’s dog-sitting best friend, TSA agent Rod Williams, provides most of the much-needed humor, and Betty Gabriel is especially effective as the delicate family housekeep Georgina—there’s one scene in particular in which she does a remarkable job, in full close-up, of revealing her character’s impossible internal conflicts.
     Get Out succeeds by taking a fairly-standard horror format and invigorating it with a visceral social element. Add to that uniformly strong performances, keen writing, and surprisingly assured direction and you’ve got a doozy of a motion picture.


(c) 2017 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

ABCs of Death 2 (2014)

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2013’s The ABCs of Death was an anthology film in which 26 aspiring directors were asked to crank out a horror film with a running time of under five minutes. As expected, some of the shorts were really good, some were really bad, and most fell somewhere in between. For a 2014 follow-up, creator Ant Timpson has opted for… ABCs of Death 2! Not alphabetical appreciations of, say, life, or love, or even happiness. Just more death, a second opportunity to shuffle off this mortal coil courtesy some two dozen international artists. It’s a sick and twisted world we live in, is it not? Based on a so-called “franchise dream” by Timpson, ABCs of Death 2 picks up where the first compilation left off by starting all over again at the beginning (with one of its finer contributions, E. L. Katz’s darkly humored Amateur). Robert Morgan’s stop-motion Deloused is wonderfully creepy, as are Knell (by Kristina Buozyte and Bruno Samper) and Youth (Soichi Umezawa). Larry Fessenden, one of the few “name” directors in the mix, provides a fun Halloween treat with Nexus while Juan Martinez Moreno’s split-screen Split plays with the medium itself. And off-the-wall cartoonist Bill Plympton’s Head Game’s is one of the few animated entries, equally inventive. The format is perfect for gorehounds with short-attention spans, of course, providing endless opportunities for snack and bathroom breaks. Overall, the sum of its parts is an improvement over its predecessor, and it’s not surprising the end credits promise ABCs of Death 3: Teach Harder coming in 2016!  (What came was ABCs of Death 2 1/2, which pulled together the best of Part 2’s runners-up; it premiered on Vimeo in early August of that year.)


(c) 2017 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com