I think I see your problem. You have this list. It’s a list of people you need/want to buy a Christmas gift for. The trouble is that they’re into home theatre, and you don’t know Star Trek from Star Wars. You couldn’t tell a Wolf Man from a Wolverine. And you always thought that Paranormal Activity was something too kinky to talk about. Fortunately, Upcomingdiscs has come to the rescue every Christmas with our Gift Guide Spotlights. Keep checking back to see more recommendations for your holiday shopping. These gift guides ARE NOT paid advertisements. We take no money to publish them. Lionsgate has given us a lot of content this year. They also gave us the best film I’ve seen all year. That would be Mr. Holmes. From television to theatrical releases to direct to video. Lionsgate has something for you to put under the tree this year.
It’s hard to imagine that one could drop nearly all of the detective’s iconic features and be at all successful. I mean, really. Can you have a Holmes story without the word “elementary”? Thus bringing up yet another modern version of the man. What about the pipe and deerstalker cap? What if our dear Watson were reduced to a mere 2-3 minutes of film time without ever hearing his voice or seeing his face? What is it that really makes the man who he is to generations of fans? Ah, it’s his mind, you might say. What if we even took that away…to a certain extent. Would you…could you still have a Sherlock Holmes story? Add Ian McKellen to the mix and a brilliant screenplay based on the novel A Slight Trick Of The Mind, both written by Mitch Cullin, and the answer is a resounding yes. Yes, you can. Yes, they did.
The story takes place in 1947, and it has been 30 years since Sherlock Holmes last took up a case. There was something about that case that drove him from the profession and away from the world. He’s 93 now and suffering from what we today would call Alzheimer’s disease. He’s retired to keeping bees, attended to by a housekeeper (Linney) and her young son Roger (Parker). He knows something went wrong with that case, but he can’t quite remember what it was. He only knows it must have been something horrible and that his companion John Watson must have gotten it wrong when he wrote of it being a success.
As brilliant as the story might be, Ian McKellen brings life to this role like no other he has delivered before. This is easily my early favorite Best Actor performance for 2015. McKellen has the unenviable task of portraying a man known for his mental prowess at a time it is failing him. It’s sad to see anyone suffer from this particular affliction. I’ve seen it up close, and it’s heartbreaking. Imagine how much more heartbreaking it would be for a man who is most identified by his mind. Well… you don’t need to. McKellen has done it for you, and the results are an emotional rollercoaster you will not want to end. It’s accomplished with the most subtle of nuance possible. McKellen need only offer an agonizing look of frustration for a second to get the point across effectively. Perhaps it really is elementary after all. In addition, McKellen plays Holmes in flashbacks with his mind still fully intact. Here he bears an uncanny resemblance to the late and very great Peter Cushing, who also played the role in the iconic Hounds Of The Baskervilles (1959). Both in appearance and his approach to the character the resemblance is rather haunting. His performance alone is worth the price of admission.
I know that Sherlock Holmes was/is a fictional character. It seems silly that I feel as if I’ve just seen a bio-picture on an actual historical man. There’s nothing of the fantastic here, and Sherlock Holmes has never been more human. Mr. Holmes makes you believe. There isn’t much more that any film can do. I’ve seen the movie twice now. After attending a press screening I paid to see it again and share it with my wife for her birthday. I do that rarely, these days (pay for movies, that is). I already want to see it again. I could have never imagined that anyone could deliver a new perspective on Sherlock Holmes, and I have a very good imagination. Not as good, it seems, as the team on Mr. Holmes. This is as perfect a movie as I’ve seen in some time. Do I still believe that no one going forward could put a unique spin on Holmes? It seems whatever direction the character goes in the future this performance will have a lasting influence. “Always leaves a trace”.
“You wanna see something cool?”
If you’re old enough to remember audio tape, you might be old enough to remember Memorex. If you remember Memorex, you should recall their popular slogan: “Is it live or is it Memorex?”. Of course, the idea was that the tape quality was so good you couldn’t distinguish it from the real thing. What if robotics and artificial intelligence reached that same plateau? The point where you could not tell the difference between an actual human being and an artificial one. The threshold is determined by something called a Turing test. And that’s exactly what writer/director Alex Garland presents you the audience with in Ex Machina. The question is, did it pass?
Like most films, it all begins with the cast. Most people likely know Domhnall Gleeson from his role of Bill Weasley on the Harry Potter films. I fell in love with his talent in About Time. There was a film filled with atmosphere and emotion. Apparently, it’s the kind of film Domhnall is particularly adept at. This is another performance where nuance in the performance is the difference between an OK performance and a captivating one. Then you place him opposite the young Alicia Vikander as the android Ava. It’s another crucial decision that will make or break the film. It’s good that Garland found an actress who was not terribly well known but had the kind of skills that will make her well known in the future. She has to sell this performance with just the right kind of movement that flows naturally enough to convince you of her human ability, but awkward just to the point of keeping the action realistic enough. She has a dance background, which must have helped immensely, because even the simplest of gestures or movement here had to be just so. It’s a choreographed performance, but it can never feel choreographed. Vikander pulls it off flawlessly. Casting the unrecognizable Oscar Isaac as the enigmatic Nathan fills the trio nicely. His character remains a bit of a mystery. Is he really this incredibly cruel person, or is it an act intended to manipulate events to their rather obscure conclusion? I’m still not sure, and I think that’s how it was intended.
These three actors make up pretty much all of the performances. There are a couple of very minor roles, with the possible exception of Kyoko, played by Sonoya Mizuno. It’s best that you discover this character and her arc for yourself, so I’m not going to say anything about the performance other than it reveals what you need to know when you need to know it.
You can’t escape the larger philosophical questions here, and the film doesn’t shy away from them. The script is loaded with the conversations that Garland expects you to continue to have. Likely you will. And you’ll find yourself fascinated by what you see. The running time isn’t padded; it’s a pretty solid job of telling the story by providing only what you need. The pace is perfect. If there is any flaw it comes at the film’s conclusion. I’m not a fan of the way it all ends, but I can at least see that particular point of view. You’ll have the perfect opportunity to decide for yourself, because you just can’t afford to pass this one up. If you do, you’ll be sorry. “When you discover what you missed out on, in about a year, you’re going to regret it for the rest of your life.”
by John Ceballos
Maggie is a slow zombie movie. You might assume I’m describing where this film falls on the fast zombie vs. slow zombie spectrum. (For the record, the monsters in Maggie do move at a decidedly deliberate pace.) However, the deliberate pace also applies to the way first-time director Henry Hobson unfurls his story in this bleak zombie drama. Everybody in this film — including a playing-against-type Arnold Schwarzenegger — shuffles and lumbers their way through their lives, whether or not they’ve been infected with a lethal virus. In other words, this is pretty much the last thing you’d expect from a movie that has both Schwarzenegger and zombies…and that’s a big reason of why I dig it.
Schwarzenegger is pushing 70 now. (He’s 67, to be exact.) So despite his best efforts, Arnold’s days as an action movie superstar are numbered. Wade is the most human character Schwarzenegger has ever played, which is fitting because the drama in Maggie stems from how much humanity is left in the title character as she slowly transforms into a monster. Being a mid-apocalyptic drama, the viewer is left to fill in some blanks in the story. (Why is Wade seemingly afforded special treatment by both the local sheriff and a kindly doctor?) The movie is most effective when it’s at its most ordinary. (When Wade tells Maggie to “stop picking” at her fatal bite wound in a fatherly tone, he could just as easily be talking about a pimple.) Two of the best sequences involve people chatting and hanging out: Wade and Maggie reminiscing about her late mom and Maggie enjoying a temporarily carefree outing with her friends…for what is probably the last time.
It’s no spoiler to say there’s no miracle, 11th hour cure for the Necroambulist virus, so the ending is a downer. Then again, so are the beginning and middle of the film. If you’re looking for head-bashing zombie thrills…well there’s a new Walking Dead spinoff premiering soon followed by the original flavor. Maggie offers a smaller-scale, more openly emotional take on losing a loved one and trying to hang on to your humanity. I like brain-splattering action as much as the next guy, but I’m also excited to have this thoughtful alternative from a most unexpected source.
Last Knights is an ambitious direct-to-video production. It sports a rather elite class of actors headed by Morgan Freeman, who adds a ton of gravitas to any role he plays. The sets and computer-generated extensions provide the film a rather stirring environment in which to tell an epic tale that owes more than a little to the classic Ronin 47 story. The snow-driven locations in the Czech Republic provide that final sweet element that takes this film far above the usual kinds of films we find in the direct-to-video market.
“Honor is something that all men are born with. It cannot be taken from you, nor can it be granted. It must only be not lost.”
I love that quote. It might have become my favorite film quote of all time. I can picture the words coming from my own grandfather. It’s a classic idea and a classic story told many times and in many ways. Lord Bartok (Freeman) has been a loyal nobleman to the empire for years. His family has held the position for nine generations. His loyal resident and general is Raiden (Owen). He is one of the few remaining adherers to the ancient code. He would do anything Bartok commanded him to do. But now the Emperor’s Minister Geeza Mott (Hennie) is demanding ever-increasing bribes from the noblemen, which in turn requires them to tax those living on their lands. After 30 years of corruption, Bartok decides to make a stand. He is summoned to the capital where he deliberately insults the Minister with a cheap gift and ends up in a Mexican standoff with swords at many throats. Bartok’s is at the throat of Minister Mott.
The best decision made on this movie was the incredible mix of cultures and geography. The movie isn’t really set in a time or place that you could completely nail down. I love that mix of cultural elements that makes this story its own kind of thing amid all of the familiar elements. It was done with every aspect of the movie from the location, costume design and the cast itself. This is quite the international cast, to be sure. We have actors from America, Japan, Korea, Mexico, Iran, Canada and Britain. The crew contains just as many nations represented in the mix from Italy to Japan. It’s a perfectly brilliant combination that gives us something we haven’t quite seen before. It’s that unique atmosphere that makes this worth watching even through its muddling middle.
Mad Men The Final Season:
by John Ceballos
“I want to have my performance reviewed. I’ve had quite a year.”
Those last few story beats I mentioned are exceedingly familiar to anyone who ever watched Mad Men for an extended period of time. It’s tempting to rail against their redundant nature and chalk it up to the show having nothing new left to say after seven seasons. But creator Matthew Weiner has turned the cyclical nature of life into high art. The season premiere re-deploys two Weiner staples: Don’s infatuation with Damaged Dark-Haired Women (this latest one is a waitress played by Elizabeth Reaser, and the character is easily the most tedious part of the show’s swan song) and dream sequences (Weiner co-wrote “The Test Dream” episode of The Sopranos with David Chase). However, “Severance” also features a tragicomic subplot in which Ken Cosgrove (Aaron Staton) — who literally gave his right eye for the sake of the agency — has a chance to start his life anew…but can’t quite pull the trigger.
But even with their “the more things change, the more they stay the same” vibe, these last episodes still definitively feel like the end. Beloved characters pop by for final appearances — hello Rachel Menken, Bert Cooper, and Lou Avery (ok, fine…Lou’s clueless brand of dickish-ness was only beloved by me) — while others stayed on the sidelines (sorry, Sal Romano fans). There are also some effective send-offs, even for some of the show’s more maligned characters. While Don’s most recent ex-wife Megan (Jessica Pare) is gone by the end of Ep. 2/“New Business”, it’s his first wife Betty (January Jones) who gets a the most powerful and affecting departure. Betty’s always been a hard character to embrace — her people are Nordic — and some of that distaste spilled over onto Jones and her performance. Simply put, the actress is awesome in the relatively limited screen time she gets in these episodes. Jones says more with a pained reaction shot than actors on other shows say with multi-page monologues.
“You don’t have character…you’re just handsome.”
Speaking of people who are awesome on this show, Hamm finally won his long overdue Emmy for playing Don Draper. I can’t say his work in these episodes was the best or showiest he’s ever done. In fact, Weiner masterfully subverts our expectations in Ep. 4/“Time & Life”; just when Hamm stands up in a boardroom to deliver a classic, Emmy-bait “Don Draper speech”, he is gently silenced before he can even get going. Hamm’s performance in the final couple of episodes — as Don reckons with the “wasted life” he snatched from a dead man — is exemplary. We also get reliably excellent work from Vincent Kartheiser as ascending accounts man Pete Campbell and Moss as Peggy. Each of them gets a surprisingly happy/romantic ending. (And Peggy actually gets a badass entrance at the end of “Lost Horizon.”) However, the season’s overriding theme makes us wonder how long their “happily ever after” will last.
Finally, one of the underrated pleasures of Mad Men is how consistently hilarious the show was. I counted at least two classic Pete Campbell hissy fits (“The king ordered it!” is fun to yell out at random times), while Slattery’s Sterling delivers more chuckles-per-line than almost any non-sitcom character I can remember. Even if he didn’t have his transcendent mustache for these final few episodes, a character’s departing words to Roger still would’ve rung true: “you’re very amusing.” Heck, even a bit player like Don’s sweet, dumdum secretary Meredith (Stephanie Drake) is so dim, Don seemingly can’t muster the libido to bed her.
Manhattan Season 1:
It’s one of those dramatic stories where mankind is altered forever. If it weren’t absolutely true, someone would have had to make it up. Every child in schools around the world knows about the atomic bombs that ended World War II. We’ve all seen the terrible destruction that exceeded even the expectations of the scientists and engineers who designed and built these bombs. We all live in the aftermath of these events. Yet little is known about the people who devoted their lives to making it a reality, not only those directly involved, but their families and the support network necessary to bring them all together. Enter WGN America, and the tale is finally told. Now the first season of Manhattan, spelled as Manh(a)ttan, is available on Blu-ray.
Manhattan was, of course, the code-name of the project that developed the bomb. It was so secret that even Vice-President Truman was left in the dark until the death of FDR placed the decision to use it squarely upon his broad shoulders. The workers and the support staff were housed in a small community where secrecy was the number-one priority. Manhattan explores all of the side effects of that secrecy. People live with paranoia and constant supervision. Their calls are monitored, and their mail is censored. Supplies are scarce. Women can be bribed into working overtime for a pair of nylons. Families have no idea what work their husbands, fathers, and even wives are doing. The series explores their experiences as much as those of workers on the project.
This is very good stuff here. There’s a real eye for detail and authenticity. While these stories are largely fictional, they play against a significantly historic background. While the Soviets were our allies, you can see the birth of what will become the Cold War with a West Wing favorite Richard Schiff as a government interrogation master, there to uncover spies and communists. Naturally, he was brought there by Thomas Schlamme, who pretty much made his mark on The West Wing. He brings that talent for creating wonderful character interrelations, and they abound here. The performances are all quite compelling. Still, the series is most effective when it takes us inside the heads of these complicated characters. That’s where the bird’s eye view of a particular moment in history becomes the most revealing. It also manages to keep us thoroughly engaged without the payoff of the bomb itself. We’re being taken on a slow ride here, but you’ll enjoy every minute of it.
I love how the show captures the psychological aspects of these characters. It’s really fine work by writers, directors, and particularly the actors themselves. They were living with the largest secret on the planet, and many of them knew the ramifications for the world. It was the stuff of nightmares, and most were reluctant to do it. The only thing worse, for them, then creating this awesome weapon was the idea of Hitler getting there first. “Ever hear of Pandora’s Box?”