2016 movie trailers: The Witch, Green Room, Hail Caesar and Sing Street


Here’s 4 more films worth catching in the next 3 months.

The Witch, releases Feb 2016: A settler family in the early 17th century America believes it is under attack from witchcraft and black magic.

This was one of the breakout films of the Sundance Film Festival last year, apparently a genuinely frightening film that relies on atmosphere and suspense rather than monsters or gore. This falls into the very narrow category of horror that I watch, like The Others (2001) and The Orphanage (2007). Since 2013, we seem to be getting 2-3 of these high quality blood chillers each year – The Conjuring, It Follows, The Babadook, Berberian Sound Studio and Bone Tomahawk. This is production designer Robert Eggers’ directing debut and his ensemble of new faces are a perfect fit for the bleak New England landscape.

Green Room, releases April 2016: A murder takes place during a punk rock concert, leaving the band trapped in the secluded venue.

A bit unusual for me to be highlighting two horror films in the same year, let alone in the same post! Interestingly, both films are released by up-and-coming specialty distributor A24; I’ve really liked some of the recent films they’ve picked up like The Rover, Ex Machina, A Most Violent Year, The Spectacular Now and Locke. The cast includes Anton Yelchin, Imogen Poots and Patrick Stewart.

Hail, Caesar!, releases Feb 2016: A fixer is called in the solve the kidnapping of a famous actor in 1950’s Hollywood.

This is my most anticipated film of the first quarter. I am excited about the Coen brothers’ return to high-concept comedy in the vein of Burn After Reading, Intolerable Cruelty and O Brother, Where Are Thou?. All of them featured George Clooney and clearly this combination works very well. The trailer for the film has been around for a while, but they’ve just released a new one that features a ridiculous exchange between Ralph Fiennes and Alden Ehrenreich; it’s hilarious if you like that sort of thing. Ralph Fiennes has a wonderful knack for comedy as he so ably illustrated in The Grand Budapest Hotel in 2014. Josh Brolin plays the studio fixer who has to find missing studio star played by Clooney. Also in the film are Channing Tatum, Tilda Swinton, Jonah Hill and Scarlet Johansson in a mermaid suit. ‘Nuff said!

Sing Street, releases in the UK in April 2016: A young Dublin boy starts a band and moves to London in the 1980s.

Irish writer-director John Carney is back telling stories about musicians; Once (2007) scored some rave reviews and won an Oscar for Best Song; Begin Again was one of the best feel-good movies of 2014, also Oscar nominated for Best Song. In Sing Street, Carney takes us to the 80’s for a coming-of-age story of an Irish kid who forms a band to escape troubles at home and impress a girl. I’m expecting something feel-good and nostalgic like Pride (2014) which was set during the same period. The trailer promises music from The Cure, Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet and A-ha, which is another good reason to watch it.

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2016 movie trailers: Race, Money Monster, The Wave and Triple 9


As we countdown to the Oscars, the movie business marches on with a bunch of new trailers released in the past few days. In between the serious fare of the awards season and the big-budget movies of the summer, there’s time for entertaining films of different genres.

Race, releases Feb 2016:  The inspiring story of legendary American athlete Jesse Owens’ achievements at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

I think of this movie as a close cousin to 42, the 2013 film which tells the story of Jackie Robinson’s entry into Major League Baseball. Both feature relative unknowns playing iconic sportsmen who had to fight the color barrier on their way to fame. Race is directed by Stephen Hopkins who started his career in the horror, scifi and action genres. In 2004 however, he directed the delightful TV movie The Life and Death of Peter Sellers; so he certainly has the chops for delivering an entertaining biopic. The trailer is a bit too melodramatic for me. I wonder if I am being swayed by recent real-life stories like Spotlight and Steve Jobs in which subtle music, unobtrusive camera work and underplayed dialogue heighten the sense of verisimilitude. Having said that, I guess it’s the done thing for sporting films to feature histrionics. Strong supporting cast includes Jeremy Irons, William Hurt and Carice van Houten.

Money Monster, releases May 2016: A Wall Street-set hostage thriller from Jodie Foster, featuring two of Hollywood’s biggest stars.

Two of Hollywood’s most glamorous exports, Julia Roberts and George Clooney work together for the first time. This tense-looking thriller is the 4th directorial effort from award-winning actress Jodie Foster. With so much star power in front of and behind the camera, one can be sure of a high quality production. Foster has been hit-and-miss as a director, but you can be sure that Roberts and Clooney, along with intense young actor Jack O’Connell will dial up the on-screen fireworks. Finding the right time to release it may be the bigger challenge. Originally scheduled for April, it now finds itself being sandwiched between big budget comic films in May. Not the best time to reach older audiences, who will be its primary target. Also, the strange name may confuse audiences.

The Wave, worldwide release across 2016: A disaster movie made in Norway.

Disaster movies are a genre mostly restricted to Hollywood studios, which have the budgets for the visual effects and the distribution muscle to recover the investment. How cool then to see this coming out of the Nordics, better known for crime thrillers and intense personal dramas. Directed by the wonderfully named Roar Uthaug, this film comes to international markets after riding a wave (ha ha!) of success in its home country Norway and being its official nominee to the Oscars in the Foreign Film category. Worth watching because Uthaug has now been tapped to direct the remake of Tomb Raider.

Triple 9, releases Feb 2016: A heist movie starring Kate Winslet as a Russian mafia moll and an ensemble of powerhouse actors.

If you’re looking forward to seeing Gal Gadot make her debut as Wonder Woman in Batman v Superman in March and you can’t quite remember her from the Fast and Furious films, then you can catch her in this crime thriller next month. This is a surprisingly star-heavy cast for a genre film – Woody Harrelson, Casey Affleck, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Anthony Mackie play cops while Kate Winslet chews up the scenery as the mafia baddie who blackmails a bunch of corrupt cops to pull off a robbery. I have enjoyed Australian music video director John Hillcoat’s previous gritty efforts – The Road and Lawless. I think I will like this one too, but it’s with a small distributor so I don’t expect it to be big at the box office.

And the alternative awards go to…


Since it’s awards season, I thought I would come up with a few of my own.

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts Award

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

A familiar script and conventional special effects would not be a recipe for success these days, but combined with some earnest acting we had the most satisfying movie of the year. Full credit to director JJ Abrams and producer Kathleen Kennedy for figuring out the pulse of the audience.

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Best opening scene

Bridge of Spies

The wordless opening sequence shows Russian spy Rudolf Abel start the day by putting the finishing touches on a self-portrait in his cramped apartment, then step out and walk through the streets of 1950s Brooklyn on his way to a rendezvous. The lighting and composition in those few minutes in the apartment can be a visual textbook for any student of filmmaking. And you already see why actor Mark Rylance deserves that Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

Best ending scene

Youth 

Retired composer Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) conducts a performance of his Simple Songs, sung by Korean soprano Sumi Jo.

Phoenix

Nelly (Nina Hoss) sings Speak Low and her husband slowly realizes who she is; the phoenix has risen from its ashes.

Danny Collins

Danny Collins (Al Pacino) and his son (Bobby Cannavale) wait for the doctor’s verdict.

Infinitely Polar Bear

Cam Stuart’s (Mark Ruffalo) playful emotional blackmail almost works as his two daughters choose a play date over his offer to go boating on a beautiful day

Most disturbing/ unresolved ending

Z for Zachariah

John (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Ann (Margot Robbie) lose their innocence in the garden of Eden

Best post-credits scene

Dope

Shameik Moore shows us his moves to The Humpty Dance by the Digital Underground. Pharrel Williams and Sean Combs were executive producers for this delightful coming-of-age dramedy.

Most horrifying scene

Agu’s (Abraham Attah) first kill (Beasts of No Nation)

Most emotional moment

Rocky confronts his own mortality in Creed

Mark Ruffalo and Zoe Saldanha break down as they try to figure out their lives towards the end of Infinitely Polar Bear

Best dance sequence

Oscar Isaac and Sonoya Mizuno boogie to Get Down Saturday Night in Ex Machina.

Best action sequence

Everything in Mad Max: Fury Road

Everything in Sicario

Everything in The Revenant

Best single shot

Adonis Creed and his team enter the ring for his title fight against Ricky Conlan; the camera follows them from the back room through the corridor into the packed stadium. Goosebumps.

Most disappointing character

Captain Phasma from Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Best (wordless) introduction to a character

Rey (Daisy Ridley) in Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) in Bridge of Spies

Most over-the-top characters

Daisy Domergue played by Jennifer Jason Leigh (The Hateful Eight)

Coma-Doof Warrior played by Australian musician iOTA (Mad Max: Fury Road); check out the montage of scenes below

Best dialogue

Far From the Madding Crowd

“I shouldn’t mind being a bride at a wedding if I could be one without getting a husband!”

“It is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs.”

Best songs

Straight Outta Compton (songs by NWA)

Best color palette

The Danish Girl 

DP Danny Cohen captures the beauty of the Dutch skies and architecture while set decorator Michael Standish, production designer Eve Stewart and costume designer Paco Delgado skillfully coordinate the interior look (all 3 have been Oscar-nominated)

The Man from UNCLE

Costume designer Joanne Johnston and set decorator Elli Griff bring to life a glorious Italian summer by clothing their glamorous stars in 60s’ high fashion

Youth

DP Luca Bigazzi juxtaposes the cool beauty of the Swiss Alps and the opulence of a luxury resort against the barren lives of its residents

Most ubiquitous male actor

32-year-old Irish actor Domnhall Gleeson seemed to be everywhere this year. He played the naïve programmer who stumbles onto a dark secret in Ex Machina, the evil but needy General Hux in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the well-meaning commander of an ill-fated hunting party in The Revenant and the attractive Rugby player who steals Saoirse Ronan’s heart in Brooklyn. He is the son of veteran character actor Brendan Gleeson. Harry Potter fans may remember him as the oldest Weasley son Bill from the last 2 films.

Most ubiquitous female actress

27-year-old Swedish actress Alicia Vikander is one of the most talented young actresses around today. She was an eerily sentient robot in Ex Machina, portrayed British pacifist Vera Brittan in Testament of Youth and played sassy East German auto mechanic turned spy Gaby Teller in the big-budget revival of The Man from UNCLE. She ended the year with an Oscar-nominated performance in The Danish Girl as Gerda Wegener, the Dutch painter who stood by her husband during his tragic transgender journey. She also had a supporting role in the little seen Bradley Cooper flop Burnt.

Important films

Irrespective of the level of critical acclaim, entertainment value or filmmaking quality (all of which are very good), I consider these 3 films to be essential viewing for their subject matter

Spotlight 

The story of how the Boston Globe uncovered widespread cases of child abuse by Catholic priests in the Boston area and the efforts by the Church to protect the offenders. This documentary-style, no frills movie features pitch-perfect acting. The lack of melodrama makes the story even more hard-hitting.

Beasts of No Nation

Set in a West African country torn by civil war, this is a fictitious account of a how a young boy is separated from his family and forced to become a child soldier. Loss of innocence on every level. This movie features mainly non-actors (plus a brilliant Idris Elba) and at times is unwatchable for the real-life horror it puts on screen.

Suffragette

Set in the middle years of the suffragette movement, this is the story of a laundry shop worker (Carey Mulligan) who is drawn to the cause by sheer chance. As her involvement grows, her husband throws her out and she undergoes many physical and mental trials; all of which further strengthen her resolve. Although a work of fiction, it showcases the ridiculous attitudes that existed towards women’s rights in the early 1900s.

QT’s The Hateful Eight: Not perfect but fun for fans and creditable for its ambition


The opening credits for The Hateful Eight inform the viewer that this is Quentin Tarantino’s eighth film; a bit of self-aggrandizement, I thought. But then, he is after all one of the great ‘young’ (born after 1960) American auteurs, along with Wes Anderson, Richard Linklater and Kevin Smith. OK, so maybe not Kevin Smith anymore, as he’s spent the last few years just being a fanboy without actually doing anything critically acclaimed.

The Hateful Eight is technically a Western, set in Wyoming in the late 1800s, some years after the Civil War. But it is also a locked-room mystery, like Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. And although it was shot on 65mm film with Panavision anamorphic lenses to give an ultra-widescreen cinematic experience, it could just as easily have been made into a small play…in fact, Tarantino conducted a public live reading of an earlier draft of the script at a theater in LA.

When you think about a QT film, it’s ultimately all about the ensemble of characters, about their interaction and dialogue. About the “art of the protracted scene”, as one film critic puts it. And blood. Lots of it.

There are 4 actors that really stood out for me in this movie.

Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character Daisy Domergue is easily the most hateful of the eight people stranded in an isolated cabin in the midst of a blizzard. In fact, she could be right up there with the most hated female screen characters of all time along with Amy Dunne (Gone Girl), Nurse Ratched (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), Annie Wilkes (Misery) and Baby Jane (Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?).

Kurt Russell started his career playing squeaky clean teenagers in Disney movies and TV shows (check out The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes from 1969). For me, his most memorable performances have come after the 1980s playing rough-hewn, morally ambiguous characters in Westerns and quasi-westerns like Escape from New York, Big Trouble in Little China, Tombstone, Stargate and more recently in QT’s own Death Proof. His bounty hunter John Ruth (aka “The Hangman”) in The Hateful Eight falls into the same mould.

Samuel L. Jackson has the most screen time in the film. I think back to the first time I saw him, as the chain-smoking chief engineer who “can’t get Jurassic Park back online!”. He was so earnest, serious and straightforward (I hadn’t seen his earlier Spike Lee films yet at that point). He then hit the big time in QT’s Pulp Fiction and since then, has become well-known for his angry, outspoken, over-the-top characters (except for the forgettable Mace Windu in the Star Wars prequels). He continues in the same vein here as an ex-Army Major turned bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren, a man who has spent a lifetime facing racist hatred and has plenty of hatred to give back.

Tim Roth’s plays Englishman Oswald Mobray. His almost-fruity mincing accent reminded me of Christoph Waltz’s over-cultivated manner in Inglourious Basterds. I would’ve enjoyed having more screen time from him.

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The music is composed by 87-year-old legend Ennio Morricone who has partnered with QT for many of his other films as well. In fact, he has a Golden Globe nomination for this film and I would love to see him get an Oscar nom as well for this minimalist composition that almost feels like a horror movie score at times.

I loved many little touches in the film, all of which have been carefully planned and are not there by chance:

  • The credits appear during a single shot of the carriage approaching through the snow, with a wooden Jesus in the foreground.
  • Out of the six horses pulling the carriage, the front right horse is white.
  • While the characters are talking inside the carriage, you can hear the constant yelling of the driver whipping the horses through the snow.
  • The passing scenery seen through the carriage window looks ‘flat’, like it’s been projected on a screen (as it would have been in a cheap 1970s film, which all QT films are homages to).
  • The inside of Minnie’s Haberdashery appears too large in comparison with its appearance from the outside.
  • There’s a jelly bean (yes, they’ve been around since the 1860s) fallen in the gap between the floorboards near the coffee pot; the significance becomes clear later.
  • Kurt Russell and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s characters while eating their stew behave like a long-married couple, which is hilarious considering their actual relationship in the movie
  • Bob plays Silent Night on the piano while Major Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) describes what he did to General Smither’s (Bruce Dern) son; the simple and pious tune makes what Major Warren is saying even more horrifying.
  • The many, many times the front door of the cabin has to be hammered shut.

In the end, all the people who deserve a comeuppance get their comeuppance. Since this movie is called The Hateful Eight, you can kinda guess how the movie ends! Here’s a clue: there’s lots of blood. I’ve discovered through trial-and-error, that I can handle gunshot wound blood better than knife/ sword wound blood. Hence my discomfort watching Kill Bill Vols. I and II.

After the movie ended, a cliché paraphrased into my mind: “QT could film paint drying and I would watch it”. I’m pretty sure he would be able to infuse something interesting into such a mundane event.

This is not going to rank as my favorite QT film (that continues to be Basterds). But full credit to the man for attempting something different and challenging. His attention to detail – both dialogue and sets – is astonishing. Metacritic gives it a score of 69, well below Django Unchained (81), Grindhouse (77), Kill Bill Vol. II (83), Reservoir Dogs (78) and Pulp Fiction (the highest at 94). I believe that as the years go by, the film will rise in the estimation of critics and film historians.

Spotlight – an important film sure to win many awards


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I started reading about Spotlight a few months ago. The film had already made waves on the festival circuit prior to its wide release in November. While reading up on the film, I ‘discovered’ its director Tom McCarthy. I hadn’t realized that I had actually seen a couple of films in which he was a supporting actor. He is completely unmemorable on-screen as an actor. But he is the real deal as a writer and director. He wrote the story for the Pixar classic Up. He has also directed 3 amazing feature films (and one dud featuring Adam Sandler). It turned out I had already seen one of them from 2008 called The Visitor, for which Richard Jenkins received a Best Actor Oscar nomination. It’s not often that senior citizen actors get those sorts of meaty roles. So in the last few weeks, I watched the other two movies – his debut effort The Station Agent (2003) and the high school wresting dramedy (not often you read those 4 words in a single string!) Win Win from 2011. The lead character in The Station Agent is played by Peter Dinklage, who is now very well known as the dwarf Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones. The lead character in Win Win is a high school wrestling coach played by the irrepressible Paul Giamatti.

I started to see a pattern; all McCarthy’s films are about ordinary people living low profile lives, who come across an unusual disruption in their mundane lives. The films focus on how the characters deal with change, overcoming their own fears or helping others overcome theirs. There is always a hint of melancholy in his films, but they are ultimately all feel-good movies with endearing characters and sequences that are eminently re-watchable!

Spotlight however, is a very different type of film. Instead of working with low key character actors, McCarthy goes for some big names this time – Michael Keaton (fresh off his Oscar for Birdman last year), Mark Ruffalo (The Hulk from The Avengers), Rachel McAdams (Irene Adler in Sherlock Holmes), Stanley Tucci, Liev Schrieber, etc.

McCarthy’s other films have been highly acclaimed because they were whimsical, featuring quirky characters in unusual situations. Spotlight is highly acclaimed for other reasons; it is an important film. The subject matter is weighty, based on the true story of how a team of investigative journalists at the Boston Globe newspaper uncovered a systemic cover-up of pedophilia by the Catholic Church in Boston for decades. I was initially quite unprepared for this change of pace. The film runs like a documentary; there are no fancy cinematic tricks; the story follows a linear narrative, there is no fast editing or fancy camera angles or dramatic music. This is a story of some ordinary people just doing their jobs. The full weight of what they achieved comes right at the end – the day after the story runs, the phones in the department are ringing non-stop as other victims call to tell their stories.

Mark Ruffalo brings his characteristic intensity to the role, reminding me of a similar role he played as a police inspector in the serial killer mystery Zodiac (2007). Michael Keaton, Liev Schrieber and Rachel McAdams are effective because their portrayals are so subtle. Special mention of Bryan D’Arcy James, an actor whose work I have not seen before; he plays one of the journalists in the team.

Spotlight will pick up a bunch of awards this season; not because it has broken any new ground in the art of filmmaking, but because it tells an important story in a compelling, believable manner. Be sure to watch McCarthy’s other films as well – The Station Agent, The Visitor and Win Win.