14-year old Lewis MacDougall gives one of the 2016’s best performances in a film that is compelling & beautiful. A Monster Calls explores faith, letting go, and the search for healing.
Based on the award-winning book by Patrick Ness, J.A. Bayona directs this drama/fantasy that takes audiences into the unique world of young Conor (MacDougall) who explores life, death, fear, and uncertainty with the assistance of a great and magnificent tree monster (voiced by Liam Neeson). Rogue One’s Felicity Jones and the legendary Sigourney Weaver round out the cast with strong acting and thought-provoking characters.
This is a film that offers deep and rich layers in nearly every aspect of filmmaking. With captivating and stunning music (by Fernando Velazquez), wonderful cinematography, and excellent CGI, this flick also has one of the best set designs and sound designs of any film of 2016.
A Monster Calls provides valuable lessons for living in a world of chaos and rage, for exploring what scares you, and for understanding that even through our most difficult times … we are never fully alone.
“Antman”was incredibly entertaining and offered a pleasant departure from the over saturated superhero film genre. I found myself laughing throughout the film, and was impressed by the honest humor, well-cast characters, and surprising script. For a film that had been on the drawing board for a number of years, my expectations were quite low. But Marvel found a way to reintroduce pure fun into a genre that is sometimes finding itself floating in a sea of mediocrity. There is no film that I enjoyed more during the summer of 2015.
“Bone Tomahawk” is a character-driven horror/western with a great cast, wonderful script and a unique abduction tale from first time feature film director S. Craig Zahler. This is a must-see film for anyone searching for a witty, genre-bending tale of mystery, revenge, and imagination.
“Inside Out” is one of Pixar’sbest (and that is saying quite a bit). It offers an incredibly creative look at the power of emotions, and the fragile balancing act that occurs within our minds on a daily basis. The wonderful screenplay provides fun and touching moments that transports viewers into the depths of what we think and how we feel. It also examines the hurdles we must overcome when challenges and conflicts of the mind arise. “Inside Out” also has amazing voice talent, intoxicating animation, and fascinating characters.
“Mission Impossible: Rouge Nation” brought Tom Cruiseto the big screen for the fifth time as spy Ethan Hunt. With more intense action sequences, breath-taking stunt choreography, and interesting storyline, I found myself asking when the next installment will be in theatres. This was action (and espionage) at its finest.
In “The Martian”Ridley Scott directs this great Matt Damon vehicle that combines “Apollo 13,”“Cast Away,” and “MacGyver.” When astronaut Mark Watney (Damon) is left for dead on Mars, he must discover how to survive on his own in a hostile environment where the smallest of mistakes can cost him his life. It is the story of perseverance, human will, and ingenuity. As rich as the story is here, the set design, sound mix, casting, and visual design make this a complete film. This film transcends science fiction.
It is rare that a movie beckons me to the theatre for multiple viewings, but director J.J. Abramsfound a way. He brought to the screen something familiar, yet new in the absolutely fantastic “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” With storylines, scenes, and concepts borrowed from the original trilogy, I found myself feeling as if I was in a comfortable pair of jeans that somehow felt fresh and clean at the same time. It is unique when I am so taken by a film-going experience, that I immediately want to view it again … and again … and again. But that is exactly what happened with “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” With wonderfully written dialogue, perfect locations, engaging characters (old and new), and award-caliber special effects and musical score, this film was my favorite movie-going experience of the year.
When I first heard at the end of 2014, that the “Rocky”film franchise was getting another installment, I was angered, frustrated, and a bit saddened that the series was being given extended life support. In 2006, “Rocky Balboa” seemed to be a fitting final chapter to this legendary boxing saga, and I felt that the character had stepped into the ring (and on screen for a final time), and I was happy with the way it ended. So you can understand my trepidation when I saw that Rocky was coming back. But, after reading the script concept for “Creed,”I had hope. When I finally got the opportunity to screen this film I was blown away by the new approach to the nearly 40-year old franchise. With wonderful acting by Michael B. Jordan (Adonis Creed), and an Oscar-caliber performance by Sylvester Stallone(Rocky Balboa), this film offers amazing family drama, excellent fight choreography, and an enchanting story of the ultimate battle of man vs. self. And let me say it now, I’d be interested to see what a Creed 2 script would look like.
“The Fantastic Four”– A fantastic chance for a reboot was damaged by a lack of follow through. It offered a welcomed and different take on the origin story for these superheroes, and provided a wonderful back story for the characters, but at the midway point the film fell completely apart, and was so convoluted, that it never found its way back. Promises unfulfilled and franchise destroying are a couple of descriptors for this flick.
“Victor Frankenstein” – Told from Igor’s point of view, director Paul McGuigan couldn’t find the proper steering wheel needed to navigate Mary Shelly’s 200-year old story. It suffered from lack of cohesiveness, murky design, and way too much of everything else.
“Aloha” – This Hawaiian-based film offers confusion, forced character chemistry, and not enough energy to sustain the 105-minute running
time. Here’s to hoping Cameron Crowe’s next project will be closer to the beauty of “Almost Famous”and “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.”
“Joy”– For a film that had the potential of being one of the year’s best, I found the film lacked direction, and purpose. I wasn’t sure if this was supposed to be a comedy, a drama, or what. ”Joy” felt like three different films, all with different directors. There is no excuse for a film with this caliber of talent to end up being what my mother-in-law called “The worst film of the year.” While I don’t think it was quite that bad, it is definitely one of the biggest failures of 2015 for me.
“Manglehorn”– This Al Pacino-led vehicle is a mangled mess (much like his character’s romantic relationships in the film), and it is so sluggish that I found myself looking at my watch at least 5 times throughout this 1 hour 37 minute film.
The story of the mental illness and untamed musical brilliance of Beach Boylegend Brian Wilson, “Love and Mercy” is an absolutely intense love story with incredible acting by Paul Dano, John Cusack, Paul Giamatti, and Elizabeth Banks. It was a flawless tale of a man searching for the best of himself, while attempting to overcome the hurdles of his own mind (while others conspire to take advantage of those very challenges). A wonderful soundtrack is complimented by vivid period set pieces, visual wonders, and an enthralling narrative that takes a different approach to the bio-pic genre. It is truly a loving (and nearly perfect) tribute to the artistic genius behind the best of the “Beach Boys.”
Amy Winehouse was this amazing talent with the type of voice that I could listen to forever and a day. Her struggle between artistry and celebrity and the excesses that followed her lifestyle met with tragic ends when the 27 year-old singer lost the battle with alcohol abuse. In the documentary “Amy” we get a personal view into the life, the love, and the music of the multi-Grammy award-winning artist. It is a compelling, haunting, and powerful portrait of a monumental singer who allowed fame to control her life. This incredible documentary is a true work of art.
Director George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road offers a wild and freakalicious ride
When the world around you goes mad, you have to embrace your inner madness and let it fuel your journey.
It’s hard to believe that George Miller’s original vision for a post apocalyptic story about a cop who has lost everything except a will to survive can still find a place in today’s world of cinema three decades later, yet it does in Mad Max: Fury Road (the fourth installment of the Mad Max franchise).
Miller’s surreal version of a future world where landscapes are barren, and the car shows are on steroids, offers a visual spectacular, death-defying stunt work, sonic wonders, and an amazing soundtrack from Junkie XL. It is a film truly for the ears and the eyes, yet the unique and odd characters, disturbing themes of human trafficking, class warfare, and religious manipulation will turn off some viewers, and maybe even confuse others.
Tom Hardycarries the Mad Max handle this go round (taking the torch from Mel Gibson), and his character is facing a very real post traumatic stress, and a tortured past he may or may not have ever had control over. But this story is really not his, which seems a bit odd given the film’s title. The film is actually carried by Oscar winner Charlize Theron who plays Furiosa, a former slave searching for redemption, freedom, salvation, a bit of revenge, and a place to call home. This is her story, and her journey … and honestly Max is really just along for the ride. A friend and fellow film critic said this should’ve been called Mad Maxine … I agree. Theron is wonderful as an action star in a film fueled by high octane fight scenes, expertly choreographed automotive battles, non-stop explosions, and one of the longest car chases in film history.
It is not a film for the casual filmgoer. It is confusing at times, disorienting, and just plain disturbing in parts … but isn’t that exactly what made the original Mad Max films so intoxicating … they were different, engaging, and uncomfortably inviting. I got the same vibe this time around. Sure, it had it’s plot issues, early sound mix problems, and felt like a strange hallucination caused by some bad sushi … but it was still a wild, crazy, and entertaining ride, and one I was happy to survive.
For many in this generation of filmgoers, this will be their first introduction to the Mad Max universe, and a memorable one it will be. I believe that the original films from 30+ years ago may even gain some new fans for those who don’t get carsick on this Fury Road. But for others, they may leave the theatre shaking their heads feeling as if they’re suffering a concussion from a massive traffic pileup.
Mad Max: Fury Road isn’t for everyone, but if you’re looking for a film offering it’s own brand of crazy chaos and mayhem, set your GPS for this one.
When Story Fails, Action and Entertainment Prevail
When former CIA operative Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) is accused of a murder he didn’t commit, he becomes a fugitive on the run, trying to solve the murder, while keeping one step ahead of the brilliant detective Dotzler (Forest Whitaker) who his hot on his trail. Throw a pregnant daughter in the mix, and some unsavory characters attempting to break up the family (in more ways than one), and you have all the makings of another espionage slugfest in the film “Taken 3”.
This third installment of the successful action franchise rips off the storyline from the popular 1960s TV series “The Fugitive” (which was later made into a blockbuster film with Harrison Ford). 62 year-old Neeson is an action star worth noting, and here he shines again, as a man you wouldn’t want to get angry (a battle between him and “The Hulk”would be interesting). Throughout the “Taken” trilogy, we’ve come to get a closer look at the man behind the guns, fists, and intellect, and at the root of each film, we see a man fighting for his family. While his career path, and particular skills do come in handy in times of dire straits, they also provide reasons for each of the franchise’s antagonists to disrupt Bryan’s life… by any means necessary.
The original film played it simple – a man travels half way around the world to find his kidnapped daughter and take out anything in his path along the way. “Taken 2”flips the story around with Bryan serving as the captive, while this third installment offers a series of subplots, and unnecessary twists that dilute the beauty and simplistic nature of the original. Yet, even with the weak story, this film still finds a way to entertain with excellent action sequences, brilliant fight choreography, and engaging characters and cinematography. It is not the best of the trilogy, but it fulfills a fitting wrap up with the characters we’ve come to know and love over the course of the franchise.
If you’re looking for an entertaining action piece to take you a way from your life’s problems for a while, this may be your remedy. But if you’re searching for originality, and thought provoking cinema, you may want to skip this one.
“Taken 3” is rated PG-13 for action, violence, and language.
Although computers, iPads, smart phones, and mobile communications devices are making it ever so easy to view the medium of film anywhere and anytime one wishes, it is still a packed movie theatre where laughs echo down the aisles and screams of terror shake the rows of seats. It is here within the curtained walls where sights and sounds combine to invite and entertain millions around the globe. Film allows individuals a collective opportunity to experience cultures, explore new worlds, and engage in stories of hundreds of nations all around the world. Even with theatre admission prices rising (especially 3D and IMAX formats), the movie going experience is still considered one of the most affordable entertainment options for consumers (Huffington Post, March 30, 2012).
The name Hollywood itself is synonymous with filmmaking, and while Hollywood may actually refer to a singular location in California, the name has grown to have global connotations beyond the United States west coast filming community.
Historically speaking, the global filming community had long used the Hollywood studios-model as the basis for filmmaking, and in many ways they still do. Yet, when it comes to filling the seats in theatres (especially in the international market), Hollywood execs have had to rethink the way they do business.
According to the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), 1.34 billion movie tickets were sold to Americans and Canadians in 2013. And while those numbers are astounding, the North American region is not the largest consumer of feature films. In fact, India far surpasses that market with over 3.3 billion tickets sold annually, and China is becoming the fastest growing in box office receipts (Huffington Post, March 30, 2012).
The growth in worldwide audiences is not limited to China and India. From the Middle East, to Brazil, to Russia, and nearly every international region in between, the impact of the movie-going experience is making profits for studios in ways they did not predict a few years ago.
Because of this unprecedented growth, in recent years the North American film industry has been forced to adapt to the needs of a global audience, and, Hollywood is having to decide to either embrace the changing landscape, or risk extinction (or at the very least, lost profits). While, many following the global box office wars may find themselves surprised by the US and Canada taking a back seat financially to an industry that was in many ways birthed here, one North Carolina filmmaker is asking the question, “What took them so long to realize it?” In fact, this filmmaker from the North Carolina Mountains actually discovered the power of the foreign film market back in 1973.
Earl Owensby was a former mill worker, industrial tool salesman, inventor, and entrepreneur who had a knack for experimenting (and succeeding) with unique business ventures. One day he decided to go into the filmmaking after watching the financial success of the film Walking Tall. Walking Tall was a low budget action picture shot in McMinnville, Tenn., outside of the confines of the Hollywood establishment. Owensby thought he could follow the same model and logic to success, and decided to build a movie studio in between Shelby and Boiling Springs, North Carolina. His first film Challengewent on to gross over $20 million worldwide, not bad for a film that cost $1 million to make. And nobody was more surprised than Owensby, that this North Carolina film he produced and also starred in, somehow found an overseas audience. In a personal interview, he shared these thoughts with me about the experience.
“I accidentally stumbled into the overseas market. Cinemation Industries picked up Challenge, and paid me a lot of money. They distributed it worldwide, and when they went bankrupted we got Challenge back. And when we got Challenge back, we also got the books and the auditing on it, and that’s how I realized there’s an international market. People over in South Africa paid over $20,000 for the rights to show it, and in Germany, like $80,000. I was like ‘wait a minute, you mean these people are buying it.’ When I first made the movie I was thinking about getting it in Georgia, North and South Carolina, it ain’t going to be New York and Hollywood. But all of a sudden it was there. (After that) I didn’t care if my movies were ever was released here or not, it didn’t make no difference to me. I was like if you want to play it, play it. If you don’t, well, I wasn’t going to worry about it, because I had that cash flow coming from the international market.”
Owensby researched the foreign market, and developed a plan to give global audiences what they wanted. He found a formula that worked, and his films went on to be screened in over 134 countries. “I’m from the backwoods of North Carolina, and I speak country,” Owensby said, “and the foreign audiences didn’t care that I spoke country, they wanted action and adventure, and that’s what I gave them.”
His films would also go on to be dubbed in multiple languages including Russian, Spanish, Swedish, and African dialects.
Foreign audiences also appreciate being “wowed” and Owensby understood that. He became the first filmmaker to make a 3D film in the U.S. in 25 years. He went on to produce six 3D features during the 1970s and ‘80s before 3D fizzled out. As a matter of fact, it was Owensby who inspired Oscar-winning director James Cameron to pursue the 3D market, after he even brought him to the Carolinas and Earl Owensby Studios to film the sci-fi epic The Abyss.
In Asia,3D is the reigning format king. U.S. made 3D films are 80% more likely to find success than the 2D counterparts according to the Owensby, and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) concurs. Owensby said that for 3D, it is all about the “Gimmick” for foreign audiences. But American audiences want the “story” to connect with them as well. That holds true according to the MPAA, as 3D films released domestically only bring in 40%-60% of the U.S. take, and analysts think that number will dwindle. Owensby agrees, and says that has always been the case with U.S. audiences and 3D films. It’s a fickle love/hate relationship.
According to Owensby, before 1998, the foreign markets were accounting for less than half of the total box office for most major studio films. Yet something happened, something clicked, and a growing plan for international markets began to take root. And today, all major studios have international divisions designed to develop foreign release strategies. Today, those plans are paying off, and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) reports that 70% of the total box office receipts come from outside of the U.S. and Canada.
Since the late 1990s, international film piracy has become a major opponent for American studios profits. And that is one of the reasons, according to Owensby, that Hollywood transitioned to a more “global way of thinking.” And in making that adjustment, they discovered dollars that Owensby said were always there. But most major studios were way too focused on the domestic success. It was also during that same time period that growing “middle classes” around the world began searching for affordable entertainment options, and to address that need “emerging economies around the world were building multiplex” cinemas (The Guardian, Phil Hoad, August 2011).
It took just over five years, but in 2004, the global box office became more than an afterthought for domestic film studios. That was the year that international sales “exploded by an incredible 44%” from the previous year. Studios then began an offensive on the global film market, and in the process, closed the doors on its less lucrative Indie/Art House Divisions (or at the very least folded production of those films into other areas). Some companies like Warner Brothers, Fox, and Universal created international arms designed to not only focus on foreign distribution, but local-language productions as well. In 2009 alone, Warner made 40 films specifically for foreign markets, and these were films never seen in the United States or Canada (The Guardian, Phil Hoad, August 2011). According to Sanford Panitch, president of Fox International, sometimes these local-language movies are “outgrossing Hollywood films” in those areas (New York Times, May 22, 2011). The game changed, and studios had to learn how to sink or swim in this new sea of global filmmaking.
This new global-thinking model has also changed distribution patterns, In times past, it was likely that international markets would get American made films weeks, and sometimes months after a U.S release date. But that is no longer the case in some regions. For example, one of 2012s largest hits, The Avengers, had already debuted in 39 international markets before it ever screened in the U.S. and Canada according to an article in USA Today. That is something of a new concept for domestic audiences according to Panitch, “I think this is really just the reality of the international marketplace becoming as a whole more important than the U.S. box office for event films.” Panitch shared these thoughts in a 2011 New York Times article on the Hollywood Global Agenda(New York Times, May 22, 2011).
Special effects driven-films, 3D, action/adventure, science fiction, myth-based stories, and superhero genres are the brands that reach the hearts of international audiences. Owensby discovered that as far back as 1973, and said, “if you want to make money in the foreign market, give them what they want, and you can take that statement to the bank.” Films that are visual in nature and do not rely on dialogue to move the story is the secret to international success according to Owensby. David Hancock, the Head of Film and Cinema at IHS Screen Digest, echoes that films should have “fairly universal ideas and themes,” rather than being “culturally specific” in order to achieve international success (The Reel World, June 20, 2013). That could be why films focused on American culture, and comedies find little profit beyond North American borders.
Earl Owensby was ahead of his time, and had a deep understanding of the global mindset, he knew that just because something may not have tremendous success in your own back yard, does not mean it is doomed. In recent years, there have been some dismal box-office failures domestically, yet, somehow, someway, these films have found appeal internationally and actually turned profit (sometimes major profit). One of 2012s biggest disappointments in the U.S. was a $200 million film adapted from the Milton Bradley board game, Battleship. It only grossed $65 million on U.S. shores, but sailed strong with $238 million in foreign markets allowing hopes for a sequel to stay afloat.
Another discovery American studios have uncovered is that films with foreign stars, and locations add to the appeal for international audiences, and some movies even make major editing adjustments to bring in the overseas dollars. Iron Man 3 for example even added a subplot, Asian film stars, and additional Chinese locations in the Asian release. According to boxofficemojo.com, Iron Man 3 brought in over $800 million just from the international market and an additional $400 million from North American audiences. Not bad, for a $200 million produced film. Other films in recent years to have had success with international casts and mindsets include, Pacific Rim, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, andFast & Furious Six.
As mentioned earlier, it is not uncommon to edit American-made films for successful opportunities abroad, but this might surprise some people. Some films are heavily edited to address morality clauses, and cultural sensitivities’ for certain countries. This is relatively a new concept for U.S. filmmakers, but one they are willing to embrace, understanding the impact that global dollars can have on the success or failure of a film. Film executives are willing to make concessions like cutting love scenes from films like Cloud Atlas or the Titanic.Both Red Dawn and Skyfallmade adjustments to antagonists in order to find a greater success in China according to a nofilmschool.com article. And in 2013s World War Z, “references to a global zombie pandemic originating in China” were cut out of the Chinese version of the film according to Josh Rottenberg of Entertainment Weekly. This approach to filmmaking will likely continue, as studios understand the importance of adapting to the ever-changing global film landscape.
Box office receipts in China were up by $3.6 billion or 27% in 2013 according to the MPAA, and although China is the fastest growing marketplace for film-going audiences (up to 10 new screens added per week), China is limiting American-made film releases. Only 34 films per year are imported from U.S. studios (14 of those have to be in 3D or IMAX formats). Film execs and government officials from both countries are working to enhance the agreement and the benefits for both countries (The Wrap, February 2014, Ira Teinowitz).
And if you play the game right, even a film with America in the title, can find greater success outside of the U.S. than domestically. Don’t believe me? Then take a look at the Captain America: Winter Soldier’s 64% total box office take ($454 million of $712.5 million) from the foreign market as a case in point.
According to Motion Picture Association of America CEO, Chris Dodd, with 2.2 billion American jobs connected to the film industry, studios should continue to take note, adapt and be aware of the global entertainment needs, and find ways to meet them. And as Tom Brook of the BBC notes, Hollywood films can also offer an added benefit for America as a whole in the form of “soft diplomacy” and can present “concepts of success, romance and heroism through stories of individual triumph in the face of adversity, tales of redemption and fantastic battles of good versus evil” (BBC.com , The Reel World, June 20, 2013). But if you believe Earl Owensby, it is all about the business. “You got try to make something you can sell all over the place. I think that you have no choice but to think Global, ‘cause that’s where the business is. This is a big ol’ round world, and it revolves around the sun every 24 hours, and people need to be entertained every second of every day.”