Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Creed Review

"Time takes everybody out; time's undefeated."

Rocky Balboa and Luke Skywalker. Typically you wouldn't associate the two characters, but within the span of a single month the two film franchises made roaring comebacks by following similar storytelling paths. Despite being continuations of old characters while introducing new, fresh faces, many are referring to these new films as "soft reboots" because they use extremely similar beats that worked their magic over audiences oh so many years ago all over again. For some this is a deal breaker, words being tossed around from "lazy" all the way to "plagiarism". For me, much like with Star Wars, it's magic.

Yes, when you watch Creed you may have some thoughts travel through your mind regarding how familiar it feels because it does. The story of a young boxer trying to make a name for himself in a world that simply doesn't take him seriously. An elder, grizzled veteran of the sport taking him under their wing for training, only in this case you sub out Burgess Meredith for the warm bath of nostalgia that is Sylvester Stallone's Rocky. A love interest subplot for the new fighter, a young lady that can't help but look away when the ferocious punches are landing over and over. A finale that, on paper, was never supposed to be so grueling, a champion that walked in brimming with too much confidence only to find out his opponent will not go down without a fight. 

It's been done before. So what? Much like I believe with The Force Awakens, it's been nearly 40 years since Rocky first took the ring. Go ahead and do it again. Deliver those same beats to a new world, a new audience of people including myself that never got to experience such a work on the big screen. Just do it right, make the audience fall in love and feel something all over again, and that is exactly what Ryan Coogler did. 

Not yet a household name (but it's coming and it's well deserved) Coogler was the man who burst onto the scene with his feature length debut Fruitvale Station, a heartbreaking film released right at the onset of an unfortunately real zeitgeist, when the world started to pull back the curtain on the overwhelming, out of control power of the police and the many egregious crimes they have committed against minorities only to barely get a slap on the wrist as punishment. The film tells the painfully true story of Oscar Grant, a 22 year old that would lose his life on New Years Eve 2008, and Coogler demonstrated real, raw skill behind the camera. 

When I heard his follow up to that film would be a sequel to the Rocky franchise, I must admit a part of me was bummed. To go from such an interesting and thoughtful debut to just another tired attempt to bring back a franchise that seemed to have long since passed away, save it. Uninteresting. I was thrilled to be proven wrong. Coogler directed the hell out of Creed, utilizing some nifty camera work along the way that wowed me, including a delicious long take fight sequence that has us zooming in, out and around the ring like we are a part of the action. It's absolutely glorious stuff.

On a performance level, Michael B. Jordan is rock solid in the lead role as Adonis Johnson, the son of the late legend Apollo Creed. Obviously Jordan has developed a strong working relationship with Coogler, being that he starred in his first film Fruitvale Station as well, and sure enough he was the perfect choice to step into this ring. The knock your socks off performance from the film though comes from Stallone, a turn that is not only worthy of an Oscar nomination, it would be criminal not to see his name among the top five supporting actor possibilities. Throughout the film he is wonderful but there is one scene in particular that brought a tear to my eye and left me speechless, an emotional moment that he plays with such measured strength it felt astonishingly real. Not overdone and not under either, just a perfectly honest and authentic look at a man who has fell victim to the inevitability of time, a man who had to say goodbye to the love of his life. 

Creed is a smooth, entertaining ride that knows exactly when to jab you and it hits your hard. A beautifully directed, excellently performed work that not only stands as an excellent piece of cinema from 2015, but leaves you with an irresistible urge to go back and experience the original Rocky again as well.


Tuesday, December 22, 2015

San Andreas Review

Listen, I'm all for watching beautiful people utter some seriously silly, shitty dialogue as they run from the devastation and death brought on from a massive earthquake. In fact I was pretty much in the mood for it when I gave the San Andreas disc a spin, ready to kick my feet up and enjoy a steaming pile of ridiculous. Bring it on.

The people, well, they are indeed beautiful. Dwayne Johnson, known by most as "The Rock", playing the role of a heroic father and ex-husband ready to swoop in and save his family when the world starts to crumble like a dry bundt cake. Carla Gugino as the mother capable of jumping from piece to piece of quickly falling debris and reaching out just in time to pull herself to safety. Alexandra Daddario as the daughter whose first scene in the film is of her in a bikini because frankly, that's why people bought a ticket. It's either for the muscles or the breasts, depending on your cup o' tea. Combine those with skyscrapers toppling over and millions upon millions of innocent people screaming as they die horrible deaths, and the recipe is complete: an achievement in bloated, big budget disaster porn.

The dialogue is silly and shitty, but to a level that was no longer fun anymore. Poor dialogue and performances are funny if they either are derived from trying way too hard or trying not hard at all. Like a fantastically overacting Nicolas Cage delivering a script full of nonsense is wonderful, and a Lifetime Original Film about a teenage girl meeting a bad boy online can also be joyous because of that soulless look in the eyes of a cast just trying to get this over with so they can cash their check. I can watch either end of that spectrum all day. San Andreas is lost in this awkward middle ground of being so bad it sometimes feels like a straight to television feature, like a SyFy channel effort with a lot more financial resources to waste, and sometimes like a serious, trying to be meaningful drama about a father who loves too hard to let even the end of the world stop him. There are scenes early on in the film that, while not winning anyone a statue anytime soon, aren't egregious enough to bring down the experience. Then towards the end of the film there are sequences that feel like characters trying so hard to "act" while in front of a noticeable green screen that it ends up feeling like a cringe worthy Saturday Night Live sketch.

I haven't seen a lot of The Rock as an actor, but I must ask, is he always this bad? I honestly had conceived this notion in my mind that he was pretty solid in front of the camera, but in San Andreas he has a few scenes that seem like he is striving for a Razzie. I didn't really notice until the last act of the movie, which is when the whole previously mediocre at best experience started to really crash and burn. Eye candy in every sense of the word works sometimes, it really does. 15 years ago I would have watched the scenes involving Daddario on repeat and never even bothered to decide if I actually liked the movie or not. Hell, when I was 13 me and my friends once rented a film because it had Elisabeth Shue in it and we literally fast forwarded through the entire thing in search of nudity, only to return it to the video store roughly 30 minutes later.

Adult me isn't some old dusty creature no longer capable of such pleasures. At this stage of my life though, I need more of an out of place and way too talented for this shit Paul Giamatti and less of everything else. Beautiful people are fine, but this is Hollywood. Everyone is beautiful and a lot of them star in great films worthy of a watch. San Andreas is pretty but otherwise without a pulse.


Monday, December 21, 2015

Carol Review

In order for a cinematic love story to work, you need to believe in the attraction and the passion being portrayed. Although many different layers factor into this, from a well written screenplay to romantic cinematography to, obviously, the performances, it really is that simple. Just sell the notion that the love is honest and something we should give a shit about and the journey can feel magical. It doesn't matter that "nothing happens" during the Before trilogy by Richard Linklater because the chemistry shared by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy was out of this world. While so many people were making fun of the affair between Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain, I was shedding tears as Ennis held Jack's shirt so tight knowing he would never see him again. We didn't even need to see Samantha to fall hard for what she and Theodore shared in Her, even if it was an unconventional romance between man and a machine.

It didn't matter what these characters looked or sounded like. We believed in their love because of the freedom Linklater gave to his subjects as they strolled through the streets of Vienna, because of the restraint of the performance of Ledger and the look in Jake's eyes, and because of the compassionate and sexy way a computer spoke to a man who needed to hear exactly what it was willing to say.

The new film Carol from director Todd Haynes has everything you need. The dialogue is exquisite but only delivers half of what is necessary in order to portray love on the screen, and the moment I knew I believed in this story came early when Therese (Rooney Mara) spots Carol (Cate Blanchett) for the first time from across the room. Who needs words when you can exude such intense attraction with your eyes? The photography is simply gorgeous throughout, whether it be of a beautifully framed character in a perfectly lit room or the way snow falls slowly around Therese as she takes pictures with her camera. The performances, specifically from Mara and Blanchett, are more than award worthy and we will likely see both nominated on Oscar night. Their chemistry feels insanely authentic.

The film takes place in New York during the 1950's and Therese is a clerk at a department store when she sees Carol and she cannot look away. Carol is older than Therese and is married and a mother, but it doesn't stop them from beginning a passionate romance. The story is simple but delivered with such grace and elegance that it at times feels extraordinary. The craft of this work is astounding which is not only admirable for obvious reasons but it also allows a narrative that could have easily dragged a bit to flow with relative ease.

What I do wonder is how much a film like this will resonate over time. All of the love stories I mentioned have a certain wow factor that makes the magic of their feelings linger over me days, months, even years after I have seen the films, and I just don't know if Carol has that element. Only time will tell.

If it does end up being the type of work that feels incredible in the moment but fades away down the road, so be it. Carol is still more than worth it because of how impeccably it is made and because it's impossible not to believe in their love.


Sunday, December 20, 2015

Better than the prequels? Droid, please. The Force Awakens is better than Return of the Jedi.

The original trilogy is sacred. I get it. Trust me, I really get it. If you have read my thoughts on the Star Wars universe recently you would know that this franchise is closer to a religious experience for me than something merely worthy of being deemed "movies". I love Star Wars so much that I can recognize that The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones are rather poor films and yet revisit them over and over and somehow have fun doing it. The massive, jarring flaws are something I can laugh about and shake off rather than ruin it for me. Why? Because Star Wars, that's why. 

Return of the Jedi is roughly a top 30 of all time film for me and worthy of the perfect score I give it, so please understand that I am not meaning to throw it under the bus here. I love the damn film so much, it is soaked in nostalgia for me to the point that when I watch it I can practically feel my seven year old self sitting right beside me the entire time. That's just it though, the crucial point I am going to try to make here revolves around a word I just used: nostalgia. 

When I left my first screening of The Force Awakens, I knew I was totally in love with the movie but some little flaws nagged ever so slightly at me. The plot is essentially a rehashing of A New Hope for a new generation rather than anything breaking any new ground. The story has a few rushed moments that, perhaps, should have been given a chance to breathe just ever so slightly more. After literally years of anticipation, what an unfortunate thing, to recognize that The Force Awakens is indeed flawed and not the definition of perfect cinema from start to finish. 

Then I got home, sat down and wrote my glowing review of the film while watching A New Hope again in the background and it occurred to me: nothing about Star Wars has ever been perfect. Nothing. Even the masterpiece (and my second favorite film of all time) The Empire Strikes Back has its tiny details that when held up against The Godfather or Lawrence of Arabia or Citizen Kane won't quite match up. 5 year old me never held the saga to an impossible standard and neither does 31 year old me because they are joyous, amazingly entertaining pieces of cinema that remind me of being a kid. Nostalgia. Soaked in nostalgia. 

As I was chatting online with a buddy of mine discussing the wonderful merits of the new film, I started to fall more and more in love. I kept picturing (don't worry, this will remain spoiler free) that scene on the bridge that is so masterfully handled in regards to emotion and dialogue and in every technical way imaginable. I could picture the way the light poured through the door Rey and Finn had opened and illuminated only the characters that truly mattered in that moment, a shot that could pass as framed art and I would try to outbid everyone in the room to make sure it was mounted on my wall. The absolutely spectacular way that new characters are introduced and fleshed out while so much of the film still felt like a window to the past, with the faces we cherish and the ships we have flown in so many times being featured as well. I mean, I knew I would smile when I saw Han, Luke, Leia and Chewy on the screen again, that was obvious, but I had no idea that I would be totally won over by the charismatic swagger of Poe Dameron. The charming comedic timing and bravery of Finn. The combination of vulnerability and strength on display in the eyes and heard through the words of the gorgeous and admirable Rey, a character that I CAN'T WAIT to introduce to my daughter when I take her to see it in a couple of days. The screenplay of The Force Awakens beautifully showcases the past, present and future, something that is far more difficult to accomplish than I think most will give it credit for. 

Flaws? What flaws? Suddenly I couldn't even remember any little gripe I may have had. All I kept thinking about was the practical effects, the stirring action sequences and the way a lightsaber looks against a backdrop of slowly falling snow at night. And this was all after just one viewing.

The very next day, only hours later, I went to see it again. The second trip to the galaxy far, far away was like I was sitting in church hearing a sermon that made me want to jump to my feet and cheer. I literally couldn't find a flaw if you paid me money to point it out. Nothing. I was lost in the experience, I was melting at the mythology and the worlds being built, the tragedy, the comedy, the spectacular spectacle of it all. I heard every word and I picked apart every sublime shot, the production design, the costumes, the lighting, the framing, and the artistry of the blend of advanced special effects and the old fashioned touches that made the original trilogy feel so real despite obviously being fictional fantasy. The chemistry between Oscar Isaac and John Boyega. The feeling we get when Han and Leia lock eyes, a warmth that turns us into a puddle in our seats. Witnessing the devastation of the Starkiller on display, with the red glow pouring in and reflecting off the mask of Kylo Ren during a sequence I could watch on repeat for the next five weeks and never once get tired of it. 

Theater experiences like this, my second viewing of The Force Awakens, just don't happen very often. The closest comparison I could make this year was the excitement and wonder of Mad Max: Fury Road, but that was derived more from the shock of the films brilliance and the rip roarin' ferocity of the action keeping me on the edge of my seat for two straight hours. Fury Road made adult me giggle with glee but it didn't really have the time machine effect that The Force Awakens does, as while I always enjoyed the Mad Max franchise growing up it was never essential. For the first time in my life, since I was born one year after the original trilogy had completed, a true Star Wars film had been released in the cinema and tears were falling from my eyes at the galactic beauty of it all. I never wanted it to end.

Just days before the release of our new journey, I watched Return of the Jedi again and what a tremendous film it is. Still one of my all time favorites, but I mention this so I can point out how fresh that experience still was and still is now. Okay, here is where I get people saying I am ridiculous, that like a high school boy with raging hormones I am moving too fast. I know it is coming, and I understand it, but hear me out: 

The Force Awakens is a better film than Return of the Jedi.

So you disagree. Fine. Can I ask why? Before you answer, it has to be more than just specific moments that you grew up loving that are more important to you. Jabba's Palace, The Sarlacc pit, the speeder bikes, the attack on the second Death Star and the final showdown between Vader, Luke and the Emperor. I know, I love them all too. They are iconic. All of those moments are why Return of the Jedi remains one of my favorite films of all time. If this were a question of which film means more to people, which film has the more memorable moments NOW, it wouldn't be a contest. It would be absurd to bring it up. No, I am saying it's just a better film all around. The craft of The Force Awakens is more impressive, with camera work and gorgeously lit shots that are probably the best ever done in the series, excluding the Vader and Luke showdown in The Empire Strikes Back that still remains second to none. The acting is across the board better and I don't think this is even debatable, and nothing that happens in The Force Awakens is silly to the point of feeling juvenile. Nothing.

I get the idea of Star Wars being something that should appeal to kids, but I have always been slightly bothered by the fact that after the giant leap up in maturity between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, for whatever reason a regression took place and we suddenly are watching Ewoks climb on top of tree stumps so they can throw rocks at the heads of stormtroopers, which by the way, the fact that such an attack is successful in stopping fully armed soldiers is difficult to grasp. Listen, I love the battle of Endor too, but some of it feels awfully close to the exact same type of material that people complain endlessly about during The Phantom Menace. When we met Jar-Jar Binks, the character was decried for being nothing more than pandering to a single digit aged audience with the intent of selling toys. How are the Ewoks any different? I recall reading that the creatures on Endor were originally written to be very different but were later changed because, essentially, the idea of having adorable teddy bears to sell on store shelves was more profitable and thus a better idea.

This isn't a statement on the concept of greed and the creation of characters in hopes they appeal to kids on Christmas being evil. BB-8 is going to sell like god damn hotcakes and as well he should. He is an ingenious creation, a robot that can convey emotion in a way that would make R2-D2 proud. I hope Disney makes every dollar they can off of toys like him and the films themselves because thus far, they deserve it. All I am trying to point out is that a film like Return of the Jedi is flawed too, no matter how high of a pedestal we want to put it on due to nostalgia.

Again, let me reiterate, this isn't an attempt to tear down Return of the Jedi. I could never do such a thing. This is an attempt to build up The Force Awakens to where it deserves to be talked about. I keep seeing people ask, is it better than the prequels? Droid, please. This is on another level entirely than all three of those films. This is on a level with, yes, the original trilogy. It belongs in the exact same conversation with all three of the beloved entries, and for me it surpasses the final piece. It's a big, bold, beautifully flawed film that resonated with me profoundly, especially with a second viewing. 

I get nostalgia. I love so many films because of it. Someday one of those films will be The Force Awakens, when I look back at the Starkiller, the bridge, the snow and that absolutely perfect ending and smile the way I do when I talk about the crucial moments in the originals. Someday it will feel far less silly and sacrilegious to mention the four films in the same breath. What J.J. Abrams did here is masterful, and that's all I really wanted to say. People can call me a fan boy, say I am just spouting hyperbole here, that I am overreacting early to a brand new film and I will eventually cool down on the experience. 

"Remember when everyone thought they loved the prequels too?"

Yeah, I do. I did. This is different though. It really is. The Force Awakens is something truly special, and if you didn't quite feel that the first time through, watch it again. Just let go and let it in.

"There's been an awakening. Have you felt it?"

That quote says it all. Star Wars is back.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens Review

There was no way I was going to go to sleep tonight without writing a whole lot of words about The Force Awakens. With many films I like to sleep on them, sometimes even go days before I put my thoughts out there. Let the dust settle. Not here though. Not now. I have been waiting literally years to experience this picture, a review couldn't wait even so much as a few hours. So I knew exactly what to do to set the mood.

I'm sitting here watching Star Wars. Episode IV to be specific. With the glorious dawn of a new era of this franchise upon us now, I wanted to glance up from the keyboard and see the film that started it all.

Return of the Jedi was released in 1983, one year before I was born, so what I am about to say isn't even really debatable: there has never been a truly great Star Wars film released during my lifetime. Revenge of the Sith is a really damn good and entertaining movie, the best of the prequels, but it still just doesn't have "it". That quality that is essential to a perfect Star Wars movie that can be difficult to put into words. That feeling of a wonderful balance of warmth and joyous wonder along with the serious space opera drama. That feeling when you reflect back upon the experience and realize that you had a blast and also were moved emotionally. That feeling when you can laugh at the dialogue and fall in love with the charm of the characters, to the point that you actually give a shit whether they live or die.

Never in my lifetime...until now. The Force Awakens is a beautiful piece of cinema that fully embraces everything that made Star Wars iconic while also introducing new characters that will continue to take the franchise in an exciting and fresh direction. The Force Awakens has "it".

It's funny, I loved this film the moment it ended but with each passing moment I am falling harder and harder for it. I had some minor qualms with it during the experience and those issues still technically exist, but they have been pushed to the back burner. I just keep thinking about every single thing it did right, and it did so much perfectly. J.J. Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan know exactly what a screenplay needs to bring fans back to the Star Wars universe after the failings of the prequels and they deliver on every level with a script that is touching, funny, chilling and exciting, all sometimes within minutes of each other like a roller coaster of delicious movie goodness. It's the simple moments, like when the new droid sensation BB-8 drops his head in sadness and you actually feel a bit of pain due to his grief. When a rolling ball robot manages to make you truly feel something during the early portions of the film, you know you are in for something special.

Seeing the old cast reprise their roles was a welcome and intoxicating blast of nostalgia, but where The Force Awakens really impresses on a performance level comes from the new, fresh faces that will continue to carry the saga forward as far as they are willing to let them take it. I have been a big fan of Oscar Isaac for some time now ever since his small but pivotal role in the 2011 masterpiece Drive, so I was thrilled to see him among the new crop of Star Wars stars and his turn as cocky X-wing pilot Poe Dameron didn't disappoint. I had seen John Boyega in only one movie previous to this, the 2011 British science fiction film Attack the Block, and that wasn't enough to sell me on him being the right choice for a lead slot in The Force Awakens. Nothing to question anymore as he delivers a layered and constantly entertaining performance featuring multiple laugh out loud moments. Finn is a character that is very easy to like and root for. Adam Driver steps into the villain role and his menacing Kylo Ren is just flat out awesome, but the best part about him is that he isn't merely pure, one note evil. He is confused and conflicted and full of rage and a deep rooted pain. He is cloaked in the power of the dark side but he is constantly fighting away the lingering push back of the light.

Daisy Ridley. A name I had never heard prior to the announcement that she would be a major character in the film. I love the idea of finding the perfect unknown actor or actress rather than just casting for the sake of selling tickets because when it comes to a franchise as beloved as Star Wars, you don't need facial recognition star power in order to succeed. Just make the best film possible and the people will come, and as it turns out Ridley was the absolutely perfect choice to play Rey. She is beautiful and everything about her, from the expressive way her eyes react with emotion to her spot on dialogue delivery just felt right. The direction they take with her character is not only admirable, it's exciting. I cannot wait to see what is in store for Rey going forward, and I am more than satisfied watching Daisy Ridley be the centerpiece of such amazing storytelling for years to come.

Star Wars is back and The Force Awakens is one of the best films of the year. It might just be the best and I am thrilled to be able to revisit this right away again the very next day to help make up my mind. J.J Abrams delivers exactly what we wanted and needed with this film and hands it off to Looper director Rian Johnson for the next installment, and what a beautiful hand off it is. Abrams directs the entire film with extreme confidence and shows off some wonderful camera work along the way, and the final scene is so beautiful and perfect that it gives me chills just thinking about it now.

To think, I thought the anticipation I felt here was intense. Knowing what I know now, and with that final shot, the 17 months between now and Episode VIII feels like an eternity.

The greatest franchise in film has been rejuvenated and is bursting with life again. What a wonderful feeling, to know that I will wake up tomorrow and have the chance to sit in another theater and really dissect what an achievement The Force Awakens is.

Time to lay down and finish watching A New Hope. When Star Wars is great, its like having a warm blanket wrapped around you on a cold night.

Rest assured, Star Wars is great again.


Thursday, December 17, 2015

Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi Review

Return of the Jedi. The final chapter, or at least that's what I spent my entire life believing. The last piece of a miraculous trilogy that swept me away so many times I lost count before I had even exited grade school. When I was a kid, the fact that the original films were numbered IV, V and VI may have seemed odd but I never considered the possibility of more. Star Wars was three films and honestly, I never clamored for more. Why ask for something that didn't seem possible? Three films, three wonderful, thrilling movies that pushed every imaginative button I could have dreamed of.


April of 1999, the month I turned 15 years old. Nearing the end of my freshman year of high school, and I skipped an entire day of classes to wait in a very long line around the movie theater for tickets to see The Phantom Menace. Sounds boring and in the moment it likely was a bit tedious, but here we sit over 16 years later and I can still vividly remember so much of that day. I said I skipped classes which makes the action sound rebellious, but really my parents were not only aware of my plans but my mother called me in sick so that the absence would be excused. They understood why I wanted to do it, a passion for storytelling that reached far beyond whatever I could have absorbed during that single day of school. An education is invaluable, without a doubt, but this was one day. They allowed me to create memories I would never forget.

The failures of the prequel trilogy are a secret to no one, but I don't look at them with any sort of negativity. They pale in comparison to the original trilogy, for sure. Even Revenge of the Sith, which is far and away the best of the bunch, is missing that magic that made Star Wars great. Jar Jar Binks and Count Dooku. General Grievous and the painfully putrid chemistry between Anakin and Padme. Wooden performances and messy dialogue. It's all there but it's still Star Wars. Even at its worst, I have fun watching it. It reminds me of being a kid, alone in the basement yet in my mind I was surrounded by Stormtroopers. My only way out was to fight. It reminds me of being a teenager and knowing that when I was supposed to be sitting in Math class, I was discussing the possibilities of new adventures with a man dressed in a Jedi costume. Just waiting in line for hours but what waited at the end of it was something I never even asked for, yet I remain to this day so grateful that it happened. I got to see new Star Wars stories on the big screen.

October of 2012. I'm 28 years old, married for 7 of them and a father for 5. Sitting at my desk at work watching the minutes go by, counting the seconds. Just get through another mindless, soulless day. I am browsing online, killing time, when I see a headline that felt like an April Fools joke being played on me 6 months too late. "Disney buys Lucasfilm for $4 billions; New Star Wars Movie Set for 2015". My jaw dropped as I read through the words furiously, pinching myself to ensure I wasn't dreaming. A return to the galaxy far, far away, only this time it would be going forward instead of back. Instead of being limited by knowing where the characters would end, a new filmmaker would have a chance to build upon this world and take the saga in an entirely new direction.

A chance to take my daughter to the theater to see Star Wars.

Here we are. As I write these words, the clock has moved beyond midnight. The date is now December 17th, 2015. The day I get to go see Star Wars: The Force Awakens. In a few hours I will be sitting at my desk at work watching the minutes go by, counting the seconds, just wanting to get through another mindless, soulless day, only this time I will be experiencing the buzz of anticipation and the excitement of expectation throughout. The review embargo has been lifted but I haven't read much. I know it is very well received and that is amazing to hear, but I can't wait to have the magic wash over me without even the slightest idea of what will happen next. I can't wait to meet the new characters and feel the warmth of those that were there for me so many times when I was small.

Ten months ago I requested December 18th off of work, and when my boss politely asked why I was doing it so far in advance, I simply said "Star Wars". Another day off with a chance to make more memories. I already have tickets to see it again during the day on Friday, my second viewing in roughly 16 hours. Once I step out of that pool, I am going to want to dive right back in. I can't wait.

December 17th of 2015. I'm 31 years old, married for almost ten of them and a father for 8. When I was my daughter's age, Return of the Jedi was the final chapter, and what a final chapter it was. A glorious balance of dramatic storytelling, amazing action and delightful whimsy. The last of three films and I never asked for more.

But I wanted more. I will always want more, and now we have seven.



Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back Review

In 1977 the world was introduced to a brand new galaxy. It was exciting and groundbreaking and a whole shit ton of fun. Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope is one of my favorite films of all time, yet amazingly it isn't even the crown jewel of the franchise, defying the concept that sequels are bound to disappoint after being wowed by the original work.

The Empire Strikes Back is a masterpiece.

The way it manages to make our connections with the characters feel more intimate and yet it also so easily builds upon the groundwork set by the first is spectacular. By the end of the second film we are left shaken by the sight of an injured and vulnerable Luke. Our last image of Han is of him frozen in carbonite, carried away with no guarantees that he will ever awaken, but not before the beautiful and heartbreaking moments when he promises his friend that there will be another time and the words "I know" hit with power and carry so much weight. We see the strength and bravery of Leia as she has to overcome the heartbreak of Han and find a way to trust Lando despite the betrayal. The frozen terrains of Hoth. The desolate and putrid yet intricately designed swamps of Dagobah. The wonder of Bespin, a city in the clouds. The locations featured in this film are so starkly different than the time spent on Tatooine during the first film which really provides a glimpse into the expansive nature of the universe. The Empire Strikes Back brilliantly explores setting, character and developing relationships and all in a perfectly paced two hours with absolutely no excess meat on the bones.

Many have been and will continue to nitpick the Star Wars saga, as if exposing flaws and declaring the films to be inferior will prove to the world that with a developing critical eye they have managed to rise above the nostalgia of a childhood filled with a love for all things that now seem silly. I will gladly hold onto every ounce of passion I feel for these wonderful space operas. 

The entire Star Wars journey is one I am always willing to take, and The Empire Strikes Back is the masterpiece.


Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Good Dinosaur Review

At some point while I was watching The Good Dinosaur, it occurred to me that I had a choice. I was either going to be the cynical negative guy who couldn't get past the fact that the plot is pretty much ripped from The Lion King and that it had a pretty simplistic story that felt familiar, or I was going to be the guy who let the positives outweigh all of that. The guy who lets a warm, inviting tale of friendship, loyalty, bravery and love wash over me and be able to say sure, this has been done before, but that doesn't mean doing it again was a poor decision.

The real obstacle that The Good Dinosaur is forced to overcome is living in the shadow of its 2015 Pixar counterpart, the insanely original and smart Inside Out, a work that at the midway point of December remains one of the finest films of the year. It was impossible and implausible for this film to reach those standards but the comparisons were guaranteed to be there, as this is the first time in the history of the studio that two movies were released over the course of the same calendar hanging on your wall.

So I walked in with lowered expectations, asking for entertainment and a fine slice of animation but nothing game changing. I walked out pleased as punch. 

On a visual level The Good Dinosaur is spectacular. It is probably Pixar's finest feast for the eyes since the dawn of the studio, a wondrous blend of gorgeously rendered animated characters moving through landscapes that feel impossibly real. It's like seeing computer animation roam a nature documentary which sounds like it could be jarring yet somehow it all feels strangely perfect. Even when the story lacked any sort of fresh appeal, I couldn't look away from the images on display.

What surprised me most was the ability of the film to strike an emotional chord with me despite suffering from a familiarity complex and having to deal with character interactions similar to those found in WALL-E, where the lack of traditional communication didn't derail any chance of caring deeply and profoundly for the two adorable robots as they are falling in love. Here we have a dinosaur named Arlo and a small, primitive human child named Spot who does not deliver dialogue in the traditional sense and yet he conveys his feelings with surprising ease. Near the end of the film these two characters are faced with an emotional decision and a tear or two fell from my eyes, and in this moment I realized that The Good Dinosaur had accomplished far more than I ever expected. I genuinely cared.

During that same scene, my 8 year old daughter sitting next to me couldn't control the emotion. It couldn't be contained. The tears poured from her eyes in a way that had never happened previously during a film, a little girl moved deeply by the friendship between a dinosaur and a boy. While we were driving home from the theater, my wife and I tried talking but we could barely get a word in, minute after minute, block after block, mile after mile the thoughts spilled from her little mouth as she talked about what she learned from the film and how movies aren't just for fun, they also teach lessons. I proudly listened to every word. I smiled the whole way home.

Then she said, "I know I am lucky because I have a lot of toys and stuff, but I'm most lucky because I have a family."

Cynical? Negative? Not a chance in hell. If this is lesser Pixar, consider us lucky. 


Friday, December 11, 2015

Paper Towns Review

"All the paper kids drinking beer some bum bought for them at the paper convenience store. Everyone demented with the mania of owning things. All the things paper-thin and paper-frail. And all the people, too. I've lived here for eighteen years and I have never once in my life come across anyone who cares about anything that matters."

That quote. Sounds deep and interesting, right? 

Here is the problem I have with both the film Paper Towns and the source material it is based on, the novel of the same name by beloved young adult author John Green: when I hear/read those words, only one word comes to my mind.


It just feels so phony. These are eighteen year old high school students and yet their words feel exactly the way they shouldn't, like they are written by adults trying really hard to make teenagers philosophical and interesting. There is this uncomfortable sheen of artifice hanging over so much of the dialogue that it becomes impossible to connect with these kids or even feel nostalgic about that era of my life. The only possible way I would have been waxing poetic about paper stores and paper people is if I had just smoked enough weed to kill a small horse.

The shame of the film Paper Towns is that there is some stuff to like, aspects that cannot be ignored no matter how stilted the narrative is by the unrealistic dialogue. The performances are all admirable and I actually really like Nat Wolff a lot. He shows that he is capable of being the lead here, compared to his very charming and moving turn in a supporting role in The Fault in Our Stars. Cara Delevingne didn't really stand out but I think it was more due to the awful dialogue she was asked to delivery rather than her performance, so since I don't really know her very well as an actress I will hold off making any judgments until I see her in a couple more films.

The fact that it is the script that kills it for me is ironic because the writers chosen to pen the adaptation were exactly what gave me hope that Paper Towns would translate beautifully to the screen. Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber may not be household names (although to be fair, how many screenwriters are?), but they have quietly put together quite the accomplished resume, writing wonderful films like (500) Days of Summer, The Spectacular Now and The Fault in Our Stars. I can't make up my mind regarding whether it is even fair to blame them for this films failings though. Let's just say they had two options when hired for the gig: a) completely rewrite the dialogue to make a better film, thus angering the many fans of John Green who would look at altering his words as sacrilegious, or b) sticking with the source material and suffering the consequences.

Truthfully, the only reason this film was made was to try to ride the incredibly successful coattails of The Fault in Our Stars the year before, hoping that the popularity of the author of both books would lead to consistent profitability. It proved to be the right decision as the budget of Paper Towns was a meager for these days 12 million dollars and it raked in over 85 million worldwide. On its own merits though, the source material just isn't worthy of being a film and it shows.

A lot of talent tried to make it work here, and certain specific moments and aspects did. It isn't an awful film and perhaps others will be able to take the dialogue seriously. I just keep thinking of that one word.



Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Tangerine Review

I have seen a lot of films in my life, but I feel pretty certain this is the first time I can use the following words to describe a movie to others:

Tangerine is a transsexual prostitute Christmas comedy.

Just typing that put a smile on my face, although not as big as the one I had while experiencing the film itself. Over the course of less than 90 minutes I was mesmerized by the blast of energy bursting from frame after frame after frame. So bright. So hypnotic. Such insanely unique and tremendously realized cinema. 

When Tangerine feels real, it does so with a level of passion that can feel uncomfortable at times, like we are taking a real close look at a sexual subculture that a suburban guy like me simply isn't accustomed to witnessing. When Tangerine feels surreal, it is gloriously strange, a kaleidoscope of warm yellow hues telling a completely unique story by utilizing the confidently bizarre craft of director Sean Baker.

Featuring a cast of inexperienced transgender actresses, Tangerine is the type of picture I will point to when wanting to exemplify how wonderfully different and open and raw independent cinema can be. This film could technically be made as a Hollywood production with a budget, but it would be a phony shell of what was achieved here. Due to financial concerns, Tangerine was filmed entirely using iPhones and yet despite this being a limitation it works as a blessing. It is through this lens that this world feels so weird yet welcoming. The cast list would be made up of recognizable talent playing characters rather than human beings showing the world who they are, and thus it simply wouldn't have the heart. 

Oh and the heart. My goodness does Tangerine have a beating, beautiful heart, which may be hard to believe if you witness some of the more obnoxiously odd sequences of the picture before you get to anything tender and touching. When we do get a chance to see these women share quiet moments together, it's the way they care for one and another that hits home the hardest. Two scenes in particular, one in which Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) tends to Dinah (Mickey O'Hagan) in a restroom, being gentle and delicate with her bruised face as she applies makeup to it has a profound level of power to it for something so seemingly unimportant, and the other being the absolutely perfect ending to the film, a final frame that is so kind despite it being filled with two characters who only moments earlier were moved to tears due to the anger of newly discovered infidelity. 

Tangerine is fiercely funny and the level of energy that pours out of the screen and through the music that pumps extra life into the glow of the sunny cityscapes of Los Angeles is palpable, but it's the heart. It's the beating, beautiful heart that is allowing every wonderfully paced and refreshingly interesting minute of this film to linger in my mind and leave me wanting more.


Monday, December 7, 2015

Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope Review

"The force will be with you, always."

I wasn't born in 1977, nor was I around for 1980 or 1983. I came one year after Return of the Jedi and it wasn't until a new decade rolled around in 1990 that I discovered my passionate connection with a galaxy far, far away. That VHS trilogy box set got a work out over the years and I was at the front of the line for tickets to catch these beauties on the big screen when re-released as Special Editions with extra (sometimes annoying) footage, but I still could never understand what it would have been like to sit in a cinema and watch the ultimate space opera unfold before my eyes for the first time along with everyone else.

What was it like? Could there have been any indication that, almost 40 years later, the world would be counting the days until the release of the seventh film in the saga?

I think a lot of people believe that the only way to appreciate Star Wars is to have loved it as a child, as they claim it doesn't hit with the same strength these days unless the audience is made up of a new crop of younglings eager to get lost in a "silly" world of make believe. I can't say for certain, but I have trouble believing this to be the case. 

Sure, some of my love for Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope is derived from a nostalgic power of it feeling like a time machine to the past, a time when my only concerns in the world were whether or not I could get the whole trilogy in during one sitting and what snacks I could eat during. Regardless, there is too many outstanding characters, too much charmingly fun dialogue, too much wondrous world building, and too many ingeniously designed set pieces for this picture to be merely one that lives on due to nostalgia. 

Two films and ten days to go until I get to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Just typing those words out feels amazing.


Friday, December 4, 2015

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 Review

"I have a feeling that the reception for The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 is going to change drastically once the final film is released, when it becomes apparent that the somewhat methodical pace of the first act was actually a perfect lead in to the chaos and tragedy that rears its ugly head during part two."

Forgive me, I know it's probably lame, but I quoted myself to start a review. After I got back from seeing The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2, the first thing I did was pull up my thoughts on the previous film and read them again. It was this section above that made me laugh a bit and shake my head, because my gut feeling a year ago was technically correct but for different reasons entirely. 

I really enjoyed the first part of Mockingjay and I appreciate it even more now because it pulled off a feat I didn't dream was possible: it took the slow first half of its source material and managed to make it more interesting and exciting than the action packed second half.

To be clear, I liked the final film. I did. I thought it was reasonably good with a lot of positive qualities, like strong-ish performances from segments of the cast and incredibly entertaining sequences that thrilled and unnerved, like a sewer system assault that felt inspired by Aliens. No, it isn't nearly as good as anything in the Cameron classic, but at least director Francis Lawrence had a wonderful handle on allowing tension to build and the claustrophobic setting to sink its teeth into the audience before blasting our asses with chaos.

A bit of a bummer though that the final chapter of a story that seemed destined for an epic conclusion ended up being the worst film of the four. 

How the hell did a film based on half a 400 page novel, not to mention the fact that it is the action packed second half that wraps up the entire saga, end up being kinda boring? It was the one word I never expected to associate with this movie. In fact, I was a tad concerned going in that the decision to split the two pictures would result in a part 2 that was so frenetic and exhausting that it would lack a compelling narrative. There is so much fat that could have been trimmed off the bones here, character introductions that are meaningless and irrelevant and dumb dialogue about the love triangle that unfortunately takes center stage on a few occasions, putting the far more interesting political propaganda and war drama elements on the back burner. Peeta or Gale? Who gives a shit? Give me the media manipulation and political posturing of both Presidents over the romance angle any day.

I was also a tad disturbed by the completely unappealing aesthetic featured throughout every damn frame of this film. I understand and appreciate that a story based on war is meant to feel gritty and dark and cold, as well it should, but couldn't they fit one scene in with a crisp and refreshing appearance. Even when the Capitol is featured before the rebels had arrived for combat, a scene that should feel lavish and pop with color still feels burdened by a sense of grey bleakness, which I guess reflects the mood of the entire film but it could have used a less morose moment or two visually. 

What's weird is that almost this entire review is me taking a shit on a film that I honestly thought was good. The problem is, the stakes were raised with the release of the absolutely great sequel The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, so the closing chapter being merely "good" is a letdown. If the next movie from the Divergent series were as well made as Mockingjay Part 2, I would be over the moon. My score would be the same but the tone of my words would be completely different. The Hunger Games proved they are capable of being better than this. 

Oh, one last gripe: they screwed up the ending. When I finished the books I said, I really hope they don't include the extra ending. We don't need the visual verification of what the future holds. Not everything needs to be wrapped up with a pretty little bow. 

My wife said they would include the extra scene. She was right. 



*This is the last film of the career of Philip Seymour Hoffman, one of the most brilliantly gifted actors of a generation taken far too young. He passed away nearly two years ago already but he didn't really feel gone until now, knowing he will never again steal a scene on the screen. We will always have Scotty J., Brandt, Allen, Phil, Lester Bangs, Truman Capote, and Lancaster Dodd. Rest in peace.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Bless you, National Board of Review - My Thoughts on Their Best Picture Announcement

I absolutely love the Oscars, but I don't rely on the decision making of their voters to make or break my cinematic opinions. No one should. Just because a film is declared the Best Picture of the year by the Academy doesn't mean you have to love it, and if your favorite film of the year is nominated exactly zero times, so what? For me the Oscars are merely a fun spectacle celebrating my favorite medium and, sure, it is cool to see films I love get recognition for their achievements. If Emmanuel Lubezki didn't win his Oscar for Gravity, no big deal, but he did and it put a huge smile on my face, to know that the photography he dazzled me with that brought tears to my eyes was being honored. David Fincher should have won for Best Director for The Social Network, but they gave the award to Tom Hooper for The King's Speech instead. Do I think it was the right decision? Of course not, but I still see The Social Network for the masterpiece that it is.

That word. Masterpiece. It gets tossed around an awful lot for films that seemingly don't deserve it. I think I was guilty of that, busting it out every time I was moved by a picture, but I have learned when something is honestly worthy of such a big, bold label. I am only absolutely certain of one film that I have seen thus far from 2015 being deserving.

Mad Max: Fury Road is a masterpiece. It really is.

I know, a lot of people will roll their eyes at such a statement. That's okay. I am curious though, did you see it? I mean, did you really, truly see the film and admire the chaotic brilliance, the emotional nuance, the astonishing performance from Charlize Theron, the pitch perfect direction from George Miller? The visionary, jaw dropping stunts, the frenetically remarkable editing, the musical score that will pound you into submission? When I left the theater the first time I saw it, I could feel the grit on my body as if I had been there. I could taste the guzzolene in my mouth. I kept thinking about that intensely gorgeous and heartbreaking scene depicted above, when Furiosa is so devastated that she drops to her knees and the wind gusts blow the sand around her. I already can't wait to show my daughter this movie when she gets a little older because it needs to be seen by anyone who wants to see women depicted with a refreshing level of strength and courage rather than the typical wait for Prince Charming to hurry up and save us nonsense. If the world Miller created here was a drink, I would have been beyond intoxicated by the end of these perfectly paced two hours. I would have my car keys taken away from me after throwing up on my shoes and trying to seduce a cactus. 

Today the National Board of Review awarded their finest achievements in cinema for the year and shockingly, they named Mad Max: Fury Road as their Best Picture. If you are curious what this means big picture going forward in terms of Oscar possibilities, the winner of the NBR award has been nominated for Best Picture by the Academy 14 of the past 15 years (the lone exception was just last year when they honored the terrific A Most Violent Year, which didn't make the Oscar cut). Will Mad Max win Best Picture? No, it almost certainly will not, and frankly I don't really care if it does. I just want that damn nomination. I want to watch the beautiful people file into the Dolby Theatre knowing that they are going to acknowledge this film for the completely spectacular wonder that it is. Hell, toss in a director nom for Miller, a supporting actress run for Theron and every fucking technical statue possible.

When they announce the nominations during the early morning hours on Thursday, January 14th, I will be in front of my television watching it unfold and I want them to say Mad Max: Fury Road as being a finalist for Best Picture. I will stand up and scream "WITNESS ME, BLOODBAG!" and spray silver paint into my mouth like a madman. 

Mad Max: Fury Road is a god damn masterpiece, and I think it's delicious that the National Board of Review recognized that today. I'm going to watch it again tonight to celebrate, and you should too.