The Coens are Back with Goofball Antics

by Noel T. Manning II

Hail, Caesar! offers fun and quirky characters, humorous dialogue & creative set pieces in a mystery/comedy set around a classic Hollywood movie studio.

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The story itself is a simple hostage return for ransom theme, but it is the multiple intricate set pieces and cameos that provide the entertainment value. Channing Tatum as a singing sailor & Scarlett Johansson as a mermaid offer some memorable moments, as well as my favorite character a singing cowboy played by Alden Ehrenreich.

The Coen brothers films are not for everyone and can be an acquired taste – this one is no different. There are certain threads throughout the film that seem thrown in for the pure sake of the fun, with very little connection to the actual storyline. But, for me I still found myself laughing throughout.

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This is not going to be classic Coen in the vein of Oh Brother Where Art Thou, but no one can mug overacting goofball comic faces with the Coens better than George Clooney … and that makes this worth a view, if for nothing else. This will not be one I’ll revisit over and over agin, but I’m happy to have caught it once. This film earns a C+on the Cinemascene scorecard.

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The Best Films of 2015

by Noel T. Manning II

Best ComedyMV5BMjM2NTQ5Mzc2M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNTcxMDI2NTE@._V1_SX640_SY720_

“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.

Honorable Mention: “Grandma”

 

Best HorrorBone-Tomahawk-kurt-russell

“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.

Honorable Mention: “It Follows”

 

MV5BOTgxMDQwMDk0OF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNjU5OTg2NDE@._V1_UY1200_CR90,0,630,1200_AL_Best Animation

“Inside Out” is one of Pixar’s best (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.

Honorable Mention: “Shaun the Sheep” & “Minions”

Best Action Filmmission-impossible-rogue-nation-poster-141476-655x560

“Mission Impossible: Rouge Nation” brought Tom Cruise to 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.

Honorable Mention: “Furious 7”

Best Drama

In “The Martian” Ridley Scott directs this great Matt Damon vehicle that combines Apollo 13,” Cast Away,” and “MacGyver.” When astronaut Mark Watney (Damon) 75is 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.

Honorable Mention: “Infinitely Polar Bear” & “Brooklyn” & “Carol”

Best Sci-Fi

It is rare that a movie beckons me to the theatre for multiple viewings, but director J.J. Abrams found 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 Star-Wars-The-Force-Awakens-posteroriginal 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.

Honorable mention: “Mad Max: Fury Road”

Surprise of the Year

635712538022292039-XXX-CREED-SNEAKPEEK-MOV01-DCB-74168494When 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.

Disappointment of the Year

When I typically mention names like Jennifer Lawrence, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Bradley Cooper, David O. Russell, Isabella Rossellini, Cameron Crowe, Emma Stone, Rachel McAdams, James McAvoy, and the Human Torch – it is usually is a good thing. But this is not the case this year. These individuals are main ingredients to my biggest disappointments of 2015. Five films have vied for the coveted dud of the year, and I’m honoring each of them with the dishonor.

maxresdefault“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 bposter-largeeauty 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.

Best BioPic

61i-pmABkoLThe story of the mental illness and untamed musical brilliance of Beach Boy legend Brian Wilson, Love and Mercyis 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.”

Honorable Mentions:

“Trumbo”

“Spotlight”

“Straight Outta Compton”

“Steve Jobs” 

Best Documentary800px-Amy_Winehouse_f4962007_crop

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.

Honorable Mention: “Finders Keepers”

The Inner Child is Awakened

It is rare when a movie beckons me to the theatre for multiple viewings, but director J.J. Abrams found a way. He brought to the screen something familiar, yet new in the absolutely fantastic “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”  image_60d589c5

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.

In this seventh installment of this Star Wars series, a young orphaned  woman Rey (Daisy Ridley) stumbles into a storyline of espionage, war, evil sprouting from the seeds of the finn_450f054bhistory, and a mystery concerning her very own back story. When the monstrous military Nazi-like   First Order seeks to destroy the New Republic and all that is good in the universe, only a hero of the past, a droid with a secret map, and a new hope for the future stands in their way. Rey finds herself teaming up with Finn, a former First Order stormtrooper (John Boyega) who leaves the military power because he realizes “it’s the right thing to do.” Together they ultimately embark on an adventure to save the New Republic from total destruction. Somewhere along the way they come across a Wookie and a smuggler (guess who); a band of misfits at a cantina; space battles galore; a small Force-Sensative enigmatic creature with a wealth of wisdom and secrets; and one big bad masked dude dressed in black, and wielding a nasty light saber as a weapon.
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Star Wars: The Force Awakens provides a full balance in a film by providing wonderfully written dialogue, a flawless blend of action, adventure and humor, 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.

While so many of these scenes and themes were familiar to me, somehow if felt right… perfect. It was as if I was viewing something that reminded me of why I’ve always loved going to the movies in the first place. At the very core of reviewing films, I seek to be entertained above all. After all, that’s why my parents first took me to films when I was a kid. So when a film like this comes along that can transport someone back to that first joy, it is truly something remarkable and worthy of
respect.force

Star Wars: The Force Awakens has earned a Cinemascene score card rating of “A+” and it has  the potential of being one of the largest box-office draws of all time.

You can guarantee that I will go back to the theatre and pay mucho bucks to see this film on multiple viewings 🙂

The film is rated PG-13 and introduces new actors to the Star Wars universe with Oscar Isaac, and Adam Driver it brings back Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Peter Mayhew, Anthony Daniels and Mark Hamill to the screen. 

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Jan. 2, 2016 update: I’ve now seen this film four times and it keeps getting better for me. #loveit

Humanity is the Beast

 

Netflix Delivers Film Targeting Year-end Awards 

by Noel T. Manning II

When the world around you falls apart, and the life you know and love is ripped from underneath your feet, how do you survive? You either find a way to adapt, surrender, fight, or die. That is the story we find unfolding in Netflix’s “Beasts of No Nation.”

“Nothing is ever for sure and everything is always changing.”

 

beasts-of-no-nation-1140x641Caught between warring factions in an African Civil War, a young orphan teen, Agu, reluctantly joins forces with a rebellion leader and discovers a different type of family. Agu finds a world where violence, suffering, anger, and the thirst for power provide the main courses for each day. He finds that leadership and authority is never guaranteed, even for those who assume the power.

This film is a painful journey into the darkness of the soul, and one in which making one wrong choice can send you to a point of no return. It is a film filled with life questions, and challenges the viewer to examine consequences of actions and inactions.

“I am like old man, not baby, because of my experiences.”

web-beastsCapturing elements of man v man, man v society, and man v self, “Beasts” is a fascinating story exploring lost innocence and the collateral damage associated with trauma through violence. Watching Agu fall deeper and deeper into a life thrust upon him, one wonders, what happens when you become the very evil you hate?

“When you become the Devils pawn, and find yourself doing his bidding, can you ever find redemption… and do you even deserve it?”

e649f612a135cf3f08bbfe300dfea38aAgu also abandons his empathy and compassion along this journey, and yet viewers catch a fading glimpse of it when Agu loses a friend to the violent path he is on. Agu is faced with this: once you’ve travelled so far down a dark and evil road, can you ever find humanity again? Although going back to what you once had is not an option, is there another way forward? Is it even worth the chance?

With an amazing companion score by Dan Romer, the film was well-shot, it offered wonderfully gritty set designs and locations, and provided great performances by newcomer Abraham Attah (Agu) & Idris Elda as the rebel leader. “Beasts” was a powerful story written & directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga and based on the 2005 novel by Nigerian-American author Uzodinma Iweala.

UnknownYet with all that went right with the film, it still had its flaws. It lacked overall balance for me. It had an extremely slow start, intense 2nd act, and an incredibly sluggish 3rd act, and that imbalance combined with the too-long 2 hour and 17 minute runtime detracted from a film that could have been great.  There was also voice over narration that I found disruptive to the story, and it interrupted the flow of the film as a whole. Better editing choices, and 30 minutes shorter, and this could’ve been on my top ten of the year.

commandant-idris-elba-beasts-of-no-nation-assetThe story is still one worth telling, and the film is worth watching. If “Beasts” is any indication, the potential of the Netflix movie studio machine looks promising. While I have no plans to nominate this film this year, I do look forward for what else the studio has in mind for the future.

Cinemascene Score Card = C+

Matt Damon Shines 249 Million Miles From Home

In “The Martian” Ridley Scott directs this great Matt Damon vehicle that combines Apollo 13,” Cast Away,” and “MacGyver.” When astronaut Mark Watney (Damon) 75is 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, and is much more drama than science fiction, yet should appeal to audiences of both genres. Damon’s character provides elements of comic relief in the midst of utter chaos. Audiences witness a character at war with nature, the unknown and himself in a film that earns a solid “A” on the Cinemascene scorecard.

The Martian is rated PG-13 for language & disturbing scenes, and brief nudity. It is distributed by 20th Century Fox. 6-ways-mars-could-kill-matt-damon-in-the-martian-475703

Johnny Depp in the Master of Black Mass

by Noel T. Manning II

Johnny Depp shines in a role a bit different from what we’ve seen in the past. No wacky Mad Hatter, insane pirate, demon barber, out of place vampire, or Frankensteinian hedge-clipper here. This time, Depp stars as true-life Boston mobster, James ‘Whitey’ Bulger.377203-black-mass

I’ve seen so many mob films over the years, that it is difficult not to compare on-screen characters in films of the past (biopics or originals). But in Black Mass, Depp brings a character to life who is familiar, yet original at the same time. In many US mob films, you will find a typical rise and fall of a character and a twisted search for their interpretation of the American dream. Most of the time tragedy befalls anyone standing in the way, with the kingpin mobster finally meeting the grim reaper as a result of the battle with self. These are the very stories that would make Shakespeare proud.

In this film, Depp’s character is truly focused on power for the sake of power much like Heath Ledger’s Joker was serving up violence and mayhem just because he could. This mob picture is filled with FBI double-crosses, unholy alliances, mob wars, & family dysfunction. I did find the story to be less compelling than it should’ve been (or than I’d hoped for), and it felt like it was trying to copy the Scorsese formula, and that was my biggest imagesproblem, it was an average copy at best. The absolute best part of this true-crime story was the casting. Depp continues to show he’s able to be versatile and do what Depp wants to do within any role. Johnny Depp is not just a movie star, he’s a top rate actor as well. And because of him, Black Mass gets a B- instead of a C+. I’ve seen plenty of mob movies over the years, and as a whole, this one will be forgettable, even if Depp’s performance won’t.

If you’re interested in some better gangster flicks, I’d suggest checking out Goodfellas,” “The Godfather,” “The Departed,” “Scarface,orReservoir Dogs.” 62951

A Mountain of a Film Challenges the Very Idea of Man vs. Nature

By Noel T. Manning II 

“Everest” is a disaster drama that literally took my breath away. This is a fascinating true-story of survival in the midst of insurmountable odds on a peak known as Mt. Everest. This film captures the fear, suffering, challenges, and the real-life conflicts of man vs. nature, and man vs. self, in a way I haven’t seen on film in quite some time. Based on the books “Left for Dead” and “Into Thin Air,” “Everest” is visually stunning, and captivating.

Everest-Movie-2015-Jason-Clarke-Rob-HallThe film starts off with a slow how-to story filled with some methodical character development, but at the midway point launches into a different kind of film altogether. It is a conflict of landscapes as well with grand magnificent snow swept mountain vistas combined with the claustrophobia of being trapped under those same mounds after devastation hits a climbing party attempting to scale the monstrous peak.

Everest-Movie-2015-Jake-Gyllenhaal-Scott-FischerA film of three acts, we see the challenge to survive dominate act three. It is not a film that is primarily a character-driven piece, it is more about the story of nature, and it’s power – and the reality that sometimes conflicts can, and will overcome the character.

From a visual perspective, this is a film that should be watched on the big screen if at all possible (and the bigger, the better). If you have a chance to catch this in Imax – do it! The richness of the cinematography, the power of the story conflicts, and the raw realism of the mountainous scenes shine without flaw.

Josh-Brolin-as-Beck-Weathers-Everest-Movie

The stellar cast features  Josh Brolin, Robin Wright, Sam Worthington, Keira Knightley, Emily Watson & Jake Gyllenhaal. “Everest” runs 121 minutes & is Rated PG-13 for intense peril & disturbing images

I’m giving “Everest” an A- on the Cinemascene report card. It is a feast for the eyes.