Boardwalk Empire: Season 5 Review

            Boardwalk Empire has never been one of the great shows of our time.  It sure had great moments (there were plenty) and even great seasons (season three is a master class in constructing a period drama), but as a whole it didn’t amount to something completely great.  However, having just aired its series finale this past Sunday, it’s clear to me that Boardwalk Empire will be missed.  It has been a sturdy presence on television’s most competitive night, Sunday, and the show’s final season was another fine example of how reliably good this show has become after a disappointing first season.

            The final season of Boardwalk Empire followed Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) as he continues to expand his empire into Cuba while facing even more threats at home including turbulent times in his relationship with the Chicago crime empire led by Al Capone (Stephen Graham) and the threatening ambitions of Charles Luciano (Vincent Piazza).  Like most seasons of Boardwalk Empire, the final season starts off with a little bit more than it can chew resulting in a show that feels bloated without really going anywhere in the plot as the first few episodes are all setup.  Yet the pace of the plot undeniably quickens at a much faster rate than any season of this show before.

            It’s when the pace of this season quickens and major actions are taken in the homestretch that the show finds itself in an interesting dilemma.  Since the show has always used major historical figures and tried to stay as historically accurate as possible, the show has to wrap up the plot of the fictional characters (which are most of the major ones) while also staying true to history.  You can feel this relationship straining a lot in the final half of the season, and the results are very mixed.  The closure of the Chicago arc works so well because the work of the actors behind the historical (Stephen Graham) and fictional (Michael Shannon and Shea Whigham) characters are so great that you believe that plotline no matter how wishy-washy it gets.  On the other hand the rise of Charles Luciano doesn’t work quite as well because Vincent Piazza doesn’t have the charisma or the performance that the fictional characters he’s defeating have.

            However, I think most of the faults of this season are covered up by the show giving its main character, Nucky Thompson, the character arc and attention that he deserves for once.  This is the most Nucky centric season yet, and the show’s exploration of stained innocence and redemption through him are done incredibly well.  Steve Buscemi and Marc Pickering (as a younger Nucky) do exceptional work with the character this season.

            Boardwalk Empire debuted to much anticipation as it was supposed to give birth to a new era of HBO.  Instead it disappointed almost every one and watched as Game of Thrones became everything that it was supposed to be.  Now with many of its original viewers looking away, Boardwalk Empire has become that show that it was always supposed to be.


Fury Review

            Fury is a balls to the wall war film that finds every opportunity it can to show you that war is hell.  That is a portrayal of war that we have seen numerous times before and in a less blunt fashion than on display in Fury.  Yet at its heart, Fury is really a film about manhood and what it means to be a man during the Greatest Generation.  This too is done very bluntly throughout the film, and that is a very dangerous game to play.  Furycertainly stumbles along the way due to this, but at the end this is a film you can’t help but like despite its many flaws.

            Fury follows the crew of a tank in the final stages of the Allies’ campaign against Germany in World War II.  Crew leader Wardaddy (Brad Pitt) is not happy when a new recruit (Logan Lerman) is forced upon him just as they are about to go on a perilous mission to provide a safety net to the supply lines.  The plot is really nothing special.  It’s something we’ve seen time and time before (a lot of the film is very reminiscent of Saving Private Ryan), and director David Ayer tries to make up for this by ramping up the violence.  I understand that one of the themes that this film is using is that war is hell (another theme that has been done way too often in war films), but a lot of the violence in the early sections of this film was over-the-top. 

            The film’s near fatal flaw occurs in the mid-section of the film as it tries to hone in on its other major theme, manhood.  As soon as female characters enter the film, the film’s blunt use of its themes gets to be very dangerous with what message the film is trying to send.  While the events that unfold in the mid-section’s breakfast sequence may be realistic, the film gives you the sense that some of the atrocities that are committed during the sequence are okay because the female character may have liked it and that there are more dangerous people out there in the world.

            Yet somehow the thing I take away most from this film are not the faults of the first and second act, but how incredibly well done the final act is.  The momentum and character arcs of the film all perfectly crescendo into a stunning final battle sequence that will give any war sequence in film a run for its money.  It’s here that the performances of Brad Pitt, Logan Lerman, and (the highlight of the supporting cast) Shia LaBeouf really shine, and it is also here that David Ayer reveals why this is a film worth making.

            A stunning final act outshines the many faults of the first two acts in Fury.


Foxcatcher Review

            The quest for the American dream has been a theme that films have covered almost since they were invented, and in this time of political uncertainty it seems like it has been a well that filmmakers have turned to over and over again during the past few years.  Whether it was Spring Breakers, Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby, The Wolf of Wall Street or even the TV series, Breaking Bad, the American Dream has been depicted onscreen at an almost monthly rate.  So it’s not like Bennett Miller (who last somehow found a way to adapt one of the most inside baseball stories about baseball into an interesting film with Moneyball) is offering anything unique thematically with his latest film, Foxcatcher.  Yet this wrestling film, like the best films about the quest for the American dream, offers an interesting look at and critique of Americana while also delivering a thrilling storyline.

            Foxcatcher follows Mark Schultz (the real-life wrestler played with a striking amount of physicality by Channing Tatum) as he becomes more frustrated being stuck in his brother (an almost unrecognizable Mark Ruffalo)’s shadow in the wake of a Gold Medal winning performance at the 1984 Olympics.  When multimillionaire John Du Pont (an even more unrecognizable Steve Carell) calls to offer Mark a new way to continue his wrestling career, Mark accepts.  However, Mark and John’s different methods to achieve a similar goal becomes more and more dangerous as their relationship continues.

            This film is American to its core.  The problems at the heart of the script by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman are problems that America has been facing for generations.  Whether it’s how to best present America on foreign soil or how to deal with our mental health crisis, America’s challenges are brought up over and over again to the main storyline while still feeling organic in its insertion.  The later is really brought to realization by Steve Carell’s performance.  Carell’s transformation into the mentally challenged John Du Pont could be considered hammy but the performance is anything but as it so subtly handles the character’s many oddities.   It also seems like Bennett Miller finds a way to include an American flag or eagle in almost every scene, and all of it is perfectly shot by Greig Fraser.  Fraser’s work also does a great job of capturing the impending darkness with the help of a foreboding score and one of the best sound mixes you will witness in film this year.

            Despite being a common theme, Bennett Miller turns Foxcatcher into one of the most darkly mesmerizing depictions of the American dream ever, and this is never better depicted than with its closing scene.  As the film closes to chants of “USA, USA” we are left to watch Channing Tatum’s Mark Schultz once again reinvent himself without even giving off a hint of whether he is wondering if the greatness he achieved in his last reinvention was worth the pain and death that came with it.  Just like America.


Gone Girl Review

            David Fincher (celebrated director of Fight Club and The Social Network) may have just released his biggest film yet as Gone Girl was released to much fanfare and solid reviews.  Upon actually seeing the film it’s easy to see why Gone Girl achieved this much success.  The film might be Fincher’s best film (who too often gives a dark sheen to an interesting story that is not written by him yet is given credit for) as it brings together one of the best casted ensembles in recent memory with the perfect combination of darkness and self-aware humor.

            Gone Girl is based off of the best-selling book from Gillian Flynn about Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) and whether or not he killed his wife (Rosamund Pike).  Gillian Flynn adapted the novel to the screen herself, and for once this actually feels like one instance in which David Fincher actually adds to the screenplay.  Gillian Flynn’s writing has some genius stuff (it has some biting commentary about women in the modern world that is done in an extremely effective and interesting manner) within it and does find the opportunities to add in some genuinely funny moments in an other wise serious film filled with dread.  However, the script is not perfect.  There are definitely some soapy moments that the script almost pleads with the audience to go with.  Luckily, some fantastic editing, and of course, David Fincher’s directing do a great job in masking these faults.  Also, for those worrying about this being a film just about a twist, I found myself buying into the commentary and the intensity of the film despite knowing the big twist and the ending before watching it.  The only place in which this film truly falters is with the final moments, which never find a place to really end while also not giving any of the extra reveals time to breathe.

            Fincher and the film’s casting directors also do an exceptional job at finding the right actors for each part.  The two leads are quite effective as Nick Dunne only requires the strengths of Ben Affleck, which might be his most charismatic performance yet, and Amy Dunne allows Rosamund Pike (who is too often cast in one-note roles despite obvious potential) an actual character and performance to really showcase all of her acting abilities.  The supporting cast is just as effective as Carrie Coon as Nick’s twin sister and Kim Dickens as the lead detective on the case are the clear highlights.  Carrie Coon is having one of those “where have you been all of my life” years as she hits this performance as well as her performance in HBO’s The Leftovers out of the park while Kim Dickens is so stoic and charming in a role that easily could have been one-note.  Tyler Perry (in a somewhat serious role as a lawyer), Patrick Fugit (the Almost Famous star all-grown up as a police officer), Casey Wilson (as a gullible neighbor), Emily Ratajkowski (as a college student of Nick’s) and Scoot McNairy (in a small role as a former lover of Amy) are all perfectly cast as well.

            If Gone Girl is a sign of what’s to come for the fall movie season, we are in for a fantastic fall.


A Walk Among the Tombstones Review

            The best part about Liam Neeson’s new starring vehicle, A Walk Among the Tombstones, is the song that plays over the closing credits.  It’s a beautiful cover of “Black Hole Sun” by Nouela, and it perfectly captures the quietly tragic atmosphere that the film wallows in.  That is not to say that A Walk Among the Tombstones was so bad that the closing credits were the best part about the film.  It actually has a bunch of great components, but we are still left waiting for another film to accompany The Grey among great latter day Liam Neeson films (although I will hear arguments for Unknown).

            A Walk Among the Tombstones is surprisingly not your typical action film that Liam Neeson has been doing lately.  Instead it’s a detective film that features only two major action set pieces.  The film follows Matthew Scudder (Neeson), a retired police officer and recovering alcoholic working as an under-the-table private detective in New York City.  When Scudder is called in by a drug dealer (Dan Stevens) to find out who abducted, ransomed and then killed his wife, he reluctantly agrees and begins the long journey to finding the perpetrator.  At almost two hours in length, A Walk Among the Tombstonesfills its plot with many things, and it’s probably too much.  There are a lot of interesting ideas presented in this film (redemption, the lack of veteran care in this country, the mishandling of the War on Drugs, etc.), but many come across as half-baked with so much going on at once.  However, the most half-baked component of the film might be the actual mystery.  The fate of the drug dealer’s wife and who took her is rather uninteresting and you just wish the film would go back to studying its interesting set of characters.

            It’s the characters that make this film tolerable.  Matthew Scudder falls right into the wheelhouse of Liam Neeson’s best acting attributes, and the darker tone of the character allows Neeson to give his best performance since The Grey.  Additionally, Dan Stevens is completely unrecognizable as the drug dealer.  I don’t know if his accent is authentic but it certainly is something and very consistent.  Even the weaker characters get solid performances out of their portrayers.  Brian “Astro” Bradley’s TJ comes across as a desperate attempt to inject some humor into this film, but Bradley is able to bring some humanity to the role, while David Harbour and Adam David Thompson play some of the weakest villains (not really a spoiler as the film oddly decides to reveal the identity of the killers as if it’s not some big secret) I can remember seeing in a film due to the clich├ęd writing of the characters but they try their hardest and that at times shines through.

            A Walk Among the Tombstones gets by with an interesting set of characters even when the storyline falters.


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