Friday, July 31, 2015

Pixels Review

No, I didn't pay a cent to see Pixels. It was very much a free experience, financially speaking.

It cost me though. It took a toll on me. 

In reality, when someone writes a screenplay like the one featured in Pixels, they collect a sizable paycheck and giggle their way to the bank. If it were up to me, co-writers Tim Herlihy and Timothy Dowling would be subjected to the shame bell punishment featured in Game of Thrones. 


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Listen, let me keep this simple. Pixels is terrible. It's a comedy that isn't funny, which as you can imagine is a problem. Adam Sandler sucks, but that isn't surprising because he always sucks. Him being in anything not made by Paul Thomas Anderson is likely to be a misguided effort. Kevin James sucks too. Josh Gad? Awful. Peter Dinklage, sadly, is probably the worst thing in this film, although his association with this increases the likelihood of the shame bell punishment I mentioned above. He can probably borrow the bell and the set used in Game of Thrones to dole out what is due to the gentlemen who actually got paid to write this. 

And there in lies the problem with this whole thing: the writing. I feel bad blaming anyone in the cast because they had zero to work with. Peter Dinklage can say these words in a funny voice all he wants, it won't make them humorous. It starts and ends with the script, and the script never had a chance. 

If you look at the career of writer Tim Herlihy, he essentially has fed his family entirely from writing bad Adam Sandler films.


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Thursday, July 30, 2015

The Maze Runner Review

It all starts with a concept. I know that sounds simplistic, but it's true and a shocking amount of films seem to forget that a good one is necessary to tell a compelling story. For example, video games coming down from space and attacking Earth probably wasn't going to be a winner from day one. Then they cast Adam Sandler. But I'll get back to that with my next review...

You need the interesting concept and The Maze Runner has it thanks to a source material by author James Dashner. It's young-adult and it's post-apocalyptic dystopian and those things together are tired to say the least, but at least here the words on the page allowed director Wes Ball and the many others working on the picture to come up with some really fascinating set pieces and the casting didn't hurt either. Sure, not every member of the ensemble nails it, but no one is egregiously bad enough to derail our attention from the good things going on. And yes, plenty of good things happen in The Maze Runner.

While I can't speak for the novel as I haven't read it, the screenplay does fail in regards to characters, all of which are written so paper thin that it is impossible to really give a shit who lives and who dies or even who is in the film at all. On the one hand I want to commend The Maze Runner for not resorting to constant flashbacks to try to provide these characters some depth, as it so often seems that filmmakers feel the way to make us care is to lose all sense of subtlety and repeatedly force us to digest scene after scene after scene of reasons why we should, and it's usually bullshit. I appreciate that the start of this story is so jarring, the ascension of a confused and scared young man towards his fate without giving us rhyme or reason why he is there. In a sense, this makes the audience feel exactly what he is feeling which is a wonderful touch. On the other hand, in order to pull this off the characters need to be written with a measured but meaningful hand to make us truly care, to provide depth through dialogue but this is sorely lacking throughout. 

Also, I couldn't help but feel like The Maze Runner is meant to have some thematic importance yet I couldn't spot it. With The Hunger Games it is clear that the story is a fictional representation of income inequality and our obsession with reality television to an almost deranged level, and while neither of these themes are exactly new or exciting as they have been covered by numerous other previous books and films, at least it did seem to be showcasing a more meaningful narrative than literally what is right in front of us. Is there a point to The Maze Runner? Shouldn't there be a point? Is there one coming in the sequel?

I don't know, I can't quite decide where I land on The Maze Runner. It is a deeply flawed film that at times feels wholly unique and at other times feels painfully familiar, and a whole lot of something felt missing in the end, but I did enjoy it more than the Divergent/Insurgent films. At least I had a bit of fun watching this one, and the ending most certainly left me intrigued enough to see the sequel. 


Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Creep Review

Just when I say I am done with found footage, a new one comes along that is impossible for me to ignore. Positive word of mouth, a short running time that feels like a breeze just in case it goes south in a hurry (as most of them do), and a story co-written by Mark Duplass who also stars in the film. Why not, right? Keep an open mind and consider the possibility that maybe, just maybe, a found footage film wouldn't be a total cringe worthy turd.

The film in question is titled Creep, a brand new horror film and a delightful little surprise. I knew pretty early on that this one at least had some hope to entertain because they actually found a way to make the found footage aspect of it seem at least sort of legit, which is my problem with the whole sub-genre these days. It worked with The Blair Witch Project and it still works with The Blair Witch Project even on revisits because I can still feel the chill I got from it way back when it was released, but now every single one of these releases feels so phony. I end up sitting there wondering, why are these people still filming? Why am I completely not buying into this absurd premise and cheap aesthetic?

Creep pulled me in and at least compelled me into believing in the gimmick because it found a clever way to write the camera and the constant filming as an actual plot point. Duplass plays Josef, a man who puts out a Craigslist ad looking for a videographer for a one day job, to film a video message for his wife and unborn child because he is dying. Aaron (played by director and co-writer Patrick Brice) answers the ad and takes the gig, but to say things don't play out as simple as it sounds and initially seems is an understatement. 

That is the entire cast of the film, those two actors who also collaborated on making the film and it shines in its simplicity. Without giving anything away about the plot and the rather disturbing direction it goes in, Creep is a very appropriate title for the picture and its difficult to not feel a bit unnerved and uneasy along the way. 

I'm still not sold on found footage. Actually, let me rephrase that to be more blunt: I still think found footage sucks, and the next ten I watch will probably be terrible. The biggest compliment I can give to Creep though is that because it was actually, surprisingly good, I will at least give those ten a chance.


Sunday, July 26, 2015

Magic Mike Review

The hypocrisy of it all. I can't understand it and frankly, I don't want to. I have watched so many films or television shows with my wife that practically throw nude women at the screen for the enjoyment of the male portion of the audience and never once does it seem odd or strange that she is sitting there witnessing the debauchery unfold. In fact, if she were to complain about having to see so many naked members of her own gender the world would probably label her a prude or question what exactly the big deal is. It's only nudity, they would say. The human form is a beautiful thing to be cherished.

So let's flip that coin for a second. Let's fast forward to the conversation I had with a woman who expressed her desire to see Magic Mike. When I encouraged her to see it, she laughed, an assumption that I was doing so tongue-in-cheek. "No, seriously, it's a really good movie" I said, because it is and as a film enthusiast I feel it's my duty to be honest about such things. Her smile that had lingered from her laughter disappeared. She acted like I had just confessed to the type of crime that would land me on a sexual predator watchdog website. She looked at another person near and said "Wow, Scott liked Magic Mike." in a rude, harmful tone, as if I had something to be ashamed of.

I am ashamed of nothing. If anyone should be ashamed it is her. Magic Mike is mighty fine cinema.

While the narrative as a whole is not ground breaking, as it apes numerous previous films in terms of structure and the themes at play, I have no trouble enjoying the familiarity of it all as I bask in the warm, golden glow of the Steven Soderbergh cinematography and just go along for the ride. I find the performances admirable and also the willingness of the screenplay to give us very personal, meaningful conversations between different characters even if such dialogue doesn't lead to any grand reveal or typical Hollywood plot twist. At first glance Magic Mike feels flashy and frenetic, a picture that focuses on the dance moves of perfectly sculpted men as we are dazed by pulsing pop music and strobe lights but the truth is, the film is very intimate and feels extremely honest and real in the progression (or lack there of) of the plot. 

Much like Magic Mike itself, the acting abilities of Channing Tatum also gets an unfairly bad rap because of some bad projects he participated in years ago, movies that featured across the board wooden performances yet for whatever reason Tatum carried the stigma of being sans talent with him despite doing everything possible to prove otherwise. Here he is a charismatic and believable lead which makes sense as he is telling his own story, the truth of an 18 year old stripper who got lost in the glitz and glamour of a lifestyle that was never as perfect as it seemed.

Listen up, gentlemen. It's okay to watch Magic Mike. It's okay to enjoy it too. No, really, it is. It's a shame this apparently needs to be clarified. It's a shame that a man like Steven Soderbergh crafts a really good film, shot with confidence and featuring a story that beautifully walks a tight rope between the over-the-top extreme and the authenticity of quiet character development and real, admirable sincerity, and it gets tossed into a category of cinema deemed only appropriate for a ladies night out. 

All that matters for me is whether Magic Mike is a good film. It is. It really is.


Thursday, July 23, 2015

Spring Review

Winter. It makes me envious of animals capable of hibernation. It's cold. No, it's more than that. It's unsettling, unnerving and unrelenting. You look out the window in the morning and the desire to call in sick overwhelms as the world is buried in a sea of white. Can't though. Gotta dig out, and the chill of the air literally hurts your skin. Your breath hangs in front of you just before you ask "When will this shit end?" aloud to yourself. Never, it seems. With every passing minute it feels a bit colder.

Inside it's warm, but it doesn't feel any better. It doesn't get any easier. It still feels cold. It still feels like you are buried and need to dig out, and it hurts. It always hurts. With the weight of the world on your shoulders, you look at yourself in the mirror and ask "When will this shit end?" aloud to yourself. Never, it seems. Time for a change. Time to get away.

Suddenly, one day, there she is. The most beautiful thing you have ever seen. Warm, colorful and alive. Nothing else matters in this moment. You don't feel the pain anymore, at least not when you see her for the very first time. You can't say a word. It all melts away.

Spring. An awakening. A rebirth as you leave it all behind. Nothing seemed possible before but my god, she is so beautiful. Anything is possible. 


Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead are two relatively unknown filmmakers but it's time you got to know them. In 2012 they released their feature length debut titled Resolution, a film so clever and layered that it isn't fair to pigeon hole it into a single genre as most would describe it as a horror film, which would then lead to complaints that it wasn't quite horror enough. It's strange and creepy and brilliantly self-aware, but it lacks the gore and overwhelming terror that many will seek. I loved it for exactly what it is.

Spring, their follow up to Resolution, is a completely different animal but you can feel that same wonderfully measured and patient storytelling touch on both. Where as Resolution felt wholly original, an aspect I admired greatly about the picture, Spring feels both original and yet strikingly familiar in a good way as the structure and atmosphere play like a combination of Before Sunrise by Richard Linklater and a scary creature feature film. Sounds strange, I know, but that shouldn't turn you off from giving work like this a chance. Embrace the strange, we need more of it in cinema.

When I first finished watching Spring I knew I enjoyed the film but something felt missing. Just a different vibe compared to the shocking satisfaction that overwhelmed me with Resolution, and perhaps that is due to knowing the talents of Benson and Moorhead this time around. As we all know, raised expectations increase the likelihood of disappointment. I waited a week to write this review though, to let the experience really soak in and see if it resonates in retrospect. It does. Spring has lingered with me over these past seven days in a really welcome way, and I keep replaying the imagery of the final sequence again and again in my mind.

Spring. An awakening. A rebirth if you leave it all behind.

Anything is possible if you believe in the concept of love.



Tuesday, July 21, 2015

World of Tomorrow Review

"That is the thing about the present, Emily Prime. You only appreciate it when it is the past."

Prior to the first time I watched It's Such a Beautiful Day at the beginning of this year, I was only vaguely familiar with the work of Don Hertzfeldt and by that I mean, I knew he made films involving stick figures and that meant I obviously wouldn't be able to take them seriously.

I couldn't ignore the praise though, the overwhelming amount of seemingly hyperbolic declarations about It's Such a Beautiful Day being a moving, thought provoking, brilliantly unique masterpiece. 

So I sat down and watched it.

It's Such a Beautiful Day is a moving, thought provoking, brilliantly unique masterpiece. That assumed hyperbole? Not hyperbolic in the least.

So when I heard about the new Hertzfeldt short film World of Tomorrow, I was so excited to see it but that flare of enthusiasm was tempered slightly when I noticed that the running time was only 16 minutes. Obviously I was aware this was a short film, but that is short. How could it be as good as everyone is saying? How could 16 minutes of stick figures be shooting to the top of many 2015 lists, surpassing great films literally eight times longer than it? How could such a limited narrative be considered so moving, thought provoking and brilliant?

So I sat down and watched it.

World of Tomorrow is moving, thought provoking and pretty damn brilliant. While the experience didn't quite match the euphoria I felt during It's Such a Beautiful Day, that very well could be more related to my personal expectations being so vastly different as I entered each screening. With that film I expected so little despite the praise, I had no idea what I was getting myself into, and then it hit me like a ton of bricks and I was awed by the imaginative genius of it all. Here, I already knew what Hertzfeldt was capable of accomplishing inside his wonderfully weird and inspiring world of stick figures.

Where as It's Such a Beautiful Day was grounded by the devastating reality of a man named Bill, World of Tomorrow utilizes a science fiction approach to dazzle our senses for those brief 16 minutes. The storytelling is masterful in that in less time than an episode of a sitcom we are left thinking, hurting, and just the right amount of confused by this strange tale of a little girl named Emily being visited by a mysterious but familiar visitor. Films with nine digit budgets and 150 minutes to work with try so hard to accomplish what Hertzfelt manages to achieve in just 16, and rarely are they able to do so with a vision that lingers in our minds like his.

Don't make the same mistake I did with these films and pass them by because of an assumption of silliness about storytelling with stick figures. Open your mind and allow the beauty of these stories in. You won't regret it.


Monday, July 20, 2015

Far From the Madding Crowd Review

I love films so much that they even dictate what I read. Often times if a new movie is due out that is adapted from a novel, I have read that source material at some point during the previous 6-12 months. I don't really know why, but something inside me gets curious about any officially announced cinema that I have elevated expectations for and wants to know more instantly. I find a certain fascination in obtaining a mental image of the characters and their movements, the setting and the set pieces and seeing how closely it matches up with what a filmmaker puts on screen.

Far From the Madding Crowd is not the type of novel that would typically find its way onto my list of what to find at the library, but the name Thomas Vinterberg was attached to direct so it instantly became a must see. If you're unfamiliar with the name, don't worry, as of roughly two years ago I, too, would have said "Who the hell is Thomas Vinterberg?" had it come up. Then I saw his brilliant film from Denmark The Hunt and that all changed, a perfectly assembled and disturbing drama that will leave you shaken in the end. 

I walked to the towering shelves of books searching for the name Hardy, Thomas, the author of Far From the Madding Crowd, a novel published in the year 1874. Look up to the top and there it is, dusty and weird and beaten up like it had literally been present at every historical event since the moment Hardy finished penning it onto a scroll of papyrus with one of those dope feather quill pens. It smelled of death and alcohol and a sweltering summer journey in a horse and buggy, and I couldn't wait to sink my teeth into and figure out what exactly Vinterberg would be dazzling me with in the near future.

Then I read the book. Listen, I don't mean to shit on a classic because it was well written and I'm sure for those many years ago whose only options of entertainment were drinking, sitting at a table staring at a candle or sleeping with your neighbor's wife it was probably a hoot, but damn was this novel boring. Hundreds upon hundreds of pages of nothing but a lady named Bathsheba being pursued by a bunch of hot dudes from the days of yore. It was sleepier than listening to a John Mayer song, but I stuck with it waiting for something awesome to happen. Nothing awesome really ever happened.

So now I was left wondering, why exactly was this something Vinterberg would feel was a worthy follow up to something as chilling and powerful as The Hunt? Despite the failure of the book to capture my attention, perhaps it would shine cinematically, a gorgeous translation from page to screen. My excitement to see it still lingered.

Now that I have done just that, seen Far From the Madding Crowd, the good news is that it does play far better and more interestingly as a film than it did a book for me, but the material was still far too languid and uneventful to knock my socks off. The screenplay is tight and smart but doesn't really do anything to elevate the 140 year old words of Thomas Hardy, but really how much elevation could there have been? If someone is going to adapt such a classic it is because they respect and possibly even cherish the original text, so I knew it was doubtful they would take too many liberties with it and include some sweet machine gun filled action sequences and some line bumpin' lifted straight from the story of Jordan Belfort. Vinterberg does direct the film with class and enough style to keep me invested, and the cinematography is at times lush and gorgeous which, combined with the addition of a perfectly suited musical score, was plenty for me to recognize that the film had far exceeded how I felt as I read.

The problem is, Far From the Madding Crowd had a low ceiling because I knew the material was never going to thrill me or leave me wanting more. I know it is just a matter of taste as I can safely assume many would ingest the sweeping romantic narrative from Thomas Hardy and it would feel like a warm and wonderful blanket to them, and then seeing it performed on the big screen with such grace and beauty by the amazingly talented cast of Carey Mulligan (whom I just love, by the way), Matthias Schoenaerts, Tom Sturridge and Michael Sheen would leave those people feeling intoxicated and wanting more. 

For me, its a story with very little to say but at least it was told here very, very well. I would even watch it again if given the chance, which I certainly cannot say about reading the novel.


Sunday, July 19, 2015

Fifty Shades of Grey Review

"Because I'm fifty shades of fucked up, Anastasia."

Holy shit. I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

I mean, I knew this would be bad. Of course it was going to be bad. I never expected it to be this bad.

I have never read a single page of the trilogy of novels by E.L. James. Well, actually let me go back and be totally honest: I read one page. My wife grabbed the book off the shelf at Target and said I had to read how terribly written it was, and she flipped to one specific sequence. My eyes were instantly drawn to one line right smack dab in the middle.

"That's a butt plug."

Just like that, I was introduced to the wild and wacky world of Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey, which, by the way, are terrible characters names if you are actually writing seriously. Those names belong in either an actual porno or a spoof of one. From what I understand, these three novels are attempting to be literature of sorts.

"That's a butt plug."


So I didn't even really read one page. I just kept staring at the words butt and plug and giggling in the middle of a Target aisle. Why was I giggling? First, because I am 31 going on 12 and butt plugs are funny. Second, because this was an actual best selling book and it contained the line "That's a butt plug." in it. There are so many books out there that are beautifully written and interesting and complex and layered with thematic brilliance, but what grabs everyone's attention and becomes a worldwide sensation?

"That's a butt plug."

So you may be asking, if I already knew the books were nonsense from reading one line in the middle of one random page, why would you expect anything at all from the film adaptation? It's a good question and one I feel I must address. I had very, very low expectations of this movie, but I figured at least someone had the chance to go in and hack the book to pieces while forming a halfway decent screenplay. I hoped that perhaps some stylish direction could distract the audience from the words being said.

Now I am sitting here wishing I had a butt plug.

When they were making casting decisions on this film, what exactly was the criteria? I have a general idea:

Anastasia Steele - Looking for someone with absolutely no talent nor a soul. Must speak in the exact same tone at all times regardless of the circumstances. Try and find the person who seems most dead. No, not like a zombie, just a dead person moving around and saying things. Sort of like a less awesome Bernie from Weekend at Bernie's, but rather than moving around due to music, she should just kinda stand there. Must deliver dialogue like she saw a horrible tragedy recently and is still in shock.

Christian Grey - Looking for a good looking guy, but not too good looking. Like, the 9th best looking guy at a Frat party. Must also have no talent nor a soul and deliver every single line like he is your extremely boring dad who gave up on life after committing wartime atrocities during Vietnam. May also be a dead person, but still has to be in peak physical condition despite deceased condition.

I just finished watching this and I can barely remember what happened? What happened? Does someone want to fill me in? Fifty Shades of Grey is sort of like being really excited to climb into a swimming pool on a hot day, only to find the water is at best lukewarm and mostly made up of urine and the shame glaze of a lonely adolescent male. It's just two hours of bland conversations that occasionally throw in a shocking word like "fuck" to try and trick the audience into thinking something interesting is happening, and also one scene in which they negotiate a contract while sitting in a strangely dark office board room lit with an Oompa Loompa lamp. Why not turn on another fucking light? Wouldn't it be better if you two fuckwads could actually read the stupid let's have funky sex agreement?

Fifty Shades of Grey is one of the worst films of the year. It might be the worst. I need to sleep on it. I wouldn't sleep with it because I could have better sex with an order of Burger King Chicken Fries and a cheese grater for sensation. I get more turned on when I watch documentaries about saving endangered wildlife than I did at any point watching this sweaty turd of a film. Yes, even during the scene in which he rubs her down with an ice cube and she bites her lip for the 45th time in ten minutes. Scandalous!

"That's a butt plug."

I need to wrap this review up now. There is an episode of "Cupcake Wars" on the television and the sound of the blender is making my blood boil to just the right temperature.

It feels good to be alive again.


Saturday, July 18, 2015

Ant-Man Review

The official end of Phase Two is upon us with the release of Ant-Man, a film I became instantly skeptical of the moment when it was announced that the brilliant Edgar Wright would no longer be in charge of bringing the very small character to life on the very big screen. Not only was the loss of Wright a hard pill to swallow, but his replacement Peyton Reed....? Who? The guy who directed Yes Man and The Break-Up? The transition from such a unique and interesting cinematic mind in Wright to such a bland choice was impossible to understand. 

Essentially my expectations went from, this could be the best film from the MCU thus far to I just hope it's fun, and good news, they were not only met but slightly exceeded. Ant-Man is a ton of fun mostly thanks to a very clever script written by Edgar Wright (he still gets credit, not sure how much of his work was actually used), Joe Cornish, Adam McKay and Paul Rudd. At times the writing suffered from the superhero origin story blues, which is to be expected as the generic and far too familiar nature of these films seems almost mandatory, but when things attempted to go more unique and outside the box I really enjoyed what they had to offer. 

What I always have trouble remembering and I need to remind myself is that the Marvel machine will usually make things work regardless of director and I need to stop second guessing them. I did it last year with Captain America: The Winter Soldier as they chose a couple of no name sitcom directors in Joe and Anthony Russo. I rolled my eyes and assumed it would be a silly, poorly made film, and it ended up being absolutely outstanding. I did it again later that same year with Guardians of the Galaxy, not because I wasn't a fan of James Gunn but because he was an unknown and strange choice to me, a name associated with Troma, not big budget filmmaking. What resulted was the only film from the MCU that I have given a perfect score to to this day.

So does this mean I am here to toss bouquets of roses at the feet of Peyton Reed for his brilliant handling of Ant-Man? No, not really, but I am far more impressed than I expected to be. This isn't a Winter Soldier or Guardians of the Galaxy situation where I exited the theater feeling floored by the quality, but Ant-Man is a rock solid superhero origin story that thanks to a very charming and humorous lead performance from Paul Rudd managed to stay afloat even when things did get a little safe and unspectacular.

A film filled with fun and laughs and one that demands you stay until the very end (literally the end, watch out for the two post credit scenes cause they matter), it's hard to not walk out of the cinema eagerly anticipating Captain America: Civil War due out next May. Adding the personality of Paul Rudd into the mix of those huge and heroic personalities can only be a good thing.


Thursday, July 16, 2015

Once Upon a Time in the West Review

"People scare better when they're dying."

The harmonica. Growing up, despite so many different artists utilizing the instrument, I associated its sound with Bob Dylan. "Like a Rolling Stone". "Tangled Up in Blue". "Desolation Row". "Positively 4th Street". "Shelter From the Storm". Even at its most jarring, even when the lyrics were illustrating a morose existence, it was a sound that I found soothing. I remember the long drives to our cabin, hours away from home, waking up way too early, my eyes barely able to comprehend the version of dawn that surrounded me. Real but surreal. I would lay my head down but rarely could I sleep. I just wanted comfort. Everything about Bob and his harmonica felt right.

Harmonica. Charles Bronson. When he plays, it's unsettling. Ominous. The sound gave me chills. Just thinking about it gives me chills. Uncomfortable in the best possible way.

After only a few minutes of Once Upon a Time in the West, I leaned forward in my seat and one thought went through my mind.

Fuck. It's perfect.

Now to be clear, this wasn't my first rodeo with the Sergio Leone masterpiece but any real familiarity with the work was absent nonetheless. So many years ago at such a different time in my life, the last time I laid eyes on this wonder. A previous Scott that couldn't have comprehended the brilliance on display. A previous Scott that would have been distracted by the minutiae of adolescence. A previous Scott that wouldn't have truly felt the sound of a harmonica played by anyone but Dylan. That was the guy who watched Once Upon a Time in the West, and thus everything felt new and exciting and inspiring with this revisit. 

Watching this and his gangster epic Once Upon a Time in America within two days of each other really opened my eyes to the genius of the man in charge. Sergio. His craft is astonishing. I can't believe I spent so much time either avoiding or not fully appreciating the work he did, the impact he had on cinema. 

I can't stop thinking about these memorable characters and the sublime way they are handled through both the magnificent Leone lens and the top notch screenplay, with even the most seemingly unimportant line flowing perfectly. Frank, played by Henry Fonda. Jason Robards as Cheyenne. The beautiful Claudia Cardinale as Jill McBain, and of course Harmonica. Charles Bronson. Iconic. Chills.

Speaking of being iconic and giving me chills, did I mention the musical score by the legendary Ennio Morricone?

Once Upon a Time in the West is a magnificent film and quite possibly the greatest achievement of the western genre. 

Fuck. It's perfect.


Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Once Upon a Time in America Review

"Nobody's gonna love you the way I loved you. At times I couldn't stand it. I used to think of you. I'd think, Deborah lives. She's out there. She exists. And that would get me through it all. You know how important that was to me?"

For years I kept putting off watching the final film from the incredible Sergio Leone, Once Upon a Time in America. I would grab it from the shelf at the library, carry it with me for a few minutes, look at that daunting running time on the back of the case and ask myself, do I really have the time for this? I watch plenty of films, but sitting for nearly four straight hours watching the same one uninterrupted feels nearly impossible these days, and yes, uninterrupted is mandatory for a work considered this epic and essential. 

This scenario always ended the same way: I would put the Blu-ray back where it belongs and move on to something else. I knew eventually it would be seen, but the time needed to be right.

Vacation from work last week. Late on a Wednesday night, nothing to wake up early for on Thursday morning. The time had finally arrived.

What a glorious cinematic experience it was.

Sure, the running time may look intimidating, but the film flows so beautifully I never felt the fatigue of such a length. The storytelling felt epic and yet so constantly intimate that I was pulled into their world from minute one and it simply didn't let me go. The cinematography is lush and absolutely gorgeous even when the characters occupy the most drab and industrial of set pieces, making the shots both aesthetically pleasing but also strikingly authentic. The performances across the board, from the expected greatness of Robert De Niro and James Woods all the way to the kids who play the young versions of them, are just wonderful.

It's a coming-of-age film, a gangster film, and a sublime representation of the power of nostalgia all wrapped into one absolutely spellbinding movie. If you find the time, Once Upon a Time in America is worth the journey.

Sergio Leone left this world far too early at the age of 60, but what a way to finish off a career. Thrilled I finally found those four hours to soak in this masterpiece.


Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Minions Review

I saw the brand new box office smash film Minions on Friday night and I have wrestled with my thoughts on it ever since. I know, seems silly to waste mental energy wrestling with such a movie, but nevertheless, I can't quite piece together how to approach it from a criticism aspect. On the one hand, 90 minutes absolutely flew by with ease like a breeze, and for many of those minutes I was entertained without a doubt. So based solely on that, you would think alright, it was really good, right?

Then I asked myself these questions:

"Was it as good as or better than Despicable Me?"


"Was it as good as or better than Despicable Me 2?"


"Was the plot interesting?"


"Were the other, new characters great?"


"Did anything truly unique or memorable occur during the film?"


"But you enjoyed it?"

Yeah. I did. 

I mean, it isn't some perfect slice of cinema that can challenge Inside Out in any conceivable way. The recent Pixar effort is a masterpiece, and not just on a lesser animated scale. Minions is just a ridiculous, frenetic good time at the theater with the little one. Where the movie suffered, and the reason it fell short of the Despicable Me installments for me is the fact that the minions were in charge of carrying the film rather than being amusing side characters. The emotional connection the audience was able to share with Gru and his newly adopted daughters is totally absent, along with the obvious lack of the talent of Steve Carell, and aspects like that are sorely missed. 

It did a lot right as well though, with really fun and clever ideas and plenty of humor that hit the mark. I appreciated that the filmmakers embraced the era that it takes place in with some solid 1960's related humor and great music that kept me engaged.

At the end of the day though, it comes down to this: Minions isn't really a good movie, but it is a good time at the movies. 


Sunday, July 12, 2015

Pacific Rim Review

Last night I wasn't feeling too great. A bit of a sore throat, extremely tired and the realization that my 10 days off of work was soon to come to an end on Monday morning. I kept thinking about waking up to the sound of an alarm again. Putting on those uncomfortable clothes again. Getting stuck in traffic again. Sitting at a desk listening to the same company controlled pop hits and the rhythmic tapping of keyboards again.

Bummer. I needed a distraction. I needed to watch something fun and entertaining, something big and exciting. I needed something awesome.

"Today. the edge of our hope, at the end of our time, we have chosen not only to believe in ourselves, but in each other."

This was literally my tenth viewing of Pacific Rim. That isn't just a randomly number chosen from thin air, like when people say "I have seen that, like, ten times.". No, this was ten glorious viewings of one of my favorite examples of what defines the summer blockbuster for me. Guillermo del Toro pours his obvious passion for the material into an epic battle between Jaeger and Kaiju and the first time I saw it I was overwhelmed by his vision on a gigantic screen. It doesn't lose any steam at home though, as it blasts through my living room and pulses a rejuvenated sense of enthusiasm into me.

"Today there is not a man nor woman in here that shall stand alone. Not today. Today we face the monsters that are at our door and bring the fight to them!"

Sure, the monsters and the robots and the effects are fantastic and fun, but the true joy I feel from this picture lies with the underrated and under-appreciated screenplay that perfectly melds new and inventive science fiction concepts with a delicious layer of necessary cheese. I admire the way the character of Mako is handled, a strong female role that isn't reduced to sexy outfits and needing a man to swoop in to save her helpless self. Her relationship with Raleigh is also handled with maturity and class, as they share a sort of physical attraction yet their bond is far deeper than that. There is no forced sex scene or even a lame closing kiss. They clearly love each other but it feels platonic in the end, like their minds were meant to meet in the drift and save the damn world.

"Today, we are cancelling the apocalypse!"

Hell yes we are, Stacker Pentecost. Speaking of which, Stacker Pentecost? Gipsy Danger? Herc Hansen? Hannibal Chau? 

Awesome names. Awesome damn film.


Thursday, July 9, 2015

Princess Mononoke Review

I was sitting on my couch watching my brand new Blu-ray copy of Princess Mononoke and I had a thought that filled me with sadness. Hayao Miyazaki is 74 years old and, according to his own words, has retired from filmmaking. While both of these facts are not news to me or anyone else, as his age is public record and his intentions to step away from crafting animated masterpieces were announced nearly two years ago, it didn't really hit me until this revisit.

While I had seen Princess Mononoke a few times roughly a decade or so ago, it had been that long without it and thus its magic no longer resonated with me. Magic. There is no other word to describe it. I sat there in awe of this wondrous, incredible picture, seeing it through fresh eyes and an appreciation for Miyazaki and Ghibli in general that I simply did not have back then. Magic. Fucking magic.

The joy I felt as I recognized the perfection on display in front of me was met with equal parts sadness (Inside Out, anyone?) as the realization that this innovative, brilliant master of hand drawn animation was done. Finished. All we have left are memories and the films that already exist, the work that we can continue to cherish and show to new generations of budding film enthusiasts for decades to come.

Princess Mononoke is an intelligent, meticulously and beautifully animated masterclass in storytelling, using elements of a traditional period adventure drama infused with the fantasy and mysticism typically found in a Studio Ghibli creation. I was thrilled and filled with thought from the first frame to the last. As I said before, I had seen the film before but not like this. I don't remember ever being so in awe of every last detail like I was this time.

Yet despite this exuberant positive response, I am left feeling as if I am mourning a loss despite the man still being very much alive. In terms of creativity and originality and the ability to tell a beautiful, thoughtful story, if Miyazaki is indeed done, it is such a tremendous loss.

All I can do, all any of us can do, is celebrate his work, his achievements. Princess Mononoke is not only one of them, it might be the greatest thing he ever did.


Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Lost Highway Review

July 4th. Here in the United States of America, it is a day that is reserved to celebrate the independence of our nation by eating piles of delicious grilled meats while drinking numerous alcoholic beverages and, eventually, looking up at the night sky as a spectacle of exploding lights illuminate the world and dazzle our senses.

All of those things are awesome, but the most memorable part of my July 4th this year came hours before any of the events tied to the holiday began. I had a hot cup of coffee in my hand and I was dazzled by a spectacle in front of me, one that baffled me, scared me, and reinforced my love for cinema. 

David Lynch.

It seems if I watch one of his films for the first time, I end up saying those words soon after each experience: reinforced my love for cinema. His work never makes a lick of sense to me after one viewing. Hell, they may not after ten. Who gives a shit? It is through his strange, abstract lens and the bizarre methods he utilizes to tell a story, shifting between characters perspectives and tones and settings to the point that no picture he crafts could ever feel tired or mundane. At times Lost Highway terrified me, especially during the first half as the plot involved a shadowy home, a series of mysterious videotapes and a nightmare inducing performance from probably real life murderer Robert Blake. At times I found some uncomfortable humor and delight in the narrative, because it is impossible not to laugh at an enraged Robert Loggia chasing down a man in a road rage sequence. At times the film navigates through the fog of weird to intoxicate the viewer with a sexy and seductive performance from Patricia Arquette, a very different look at her as an actress after my recent love affair with her Oscar winning turn in Boyhood

Regardless of what Lost Highway achieved, it always achieved something. I was in some way moved at every beat, every pause, every turn. The atmosphere is haunting and electric, giving me a fireworks show far earlier than the grand finale that soared majestically over our heads that night. 

Lost Highway, or any work from David Lynch for that matter, isn't for everyone. That is a certainty. 

It certainly is for me though. 


Sunday, July 5, 2015

10 Most Anticipated Films of the Second Half of 2015

I recently put out my list of the 20 best films of 2015 thus far, and it made me wonder...where will these movies land when the year ends? When I put my official best of the year list out next February before the Oscars, will Inside Out still be at #1? Will Mad Max: Fury Road be a top 10 entry? Will the box office smash Jurassic World even be included in my top 50?

I am looking forward to a lot of films released from now until the end of the year, so narrowing down the list to ten proved to be difficult. After careful consideration, here it is, the ten pictures I am hopeful will make a big splash on my favorites of 2015 list when all is said and done, listed in order of release date.

Sicario (September 18th)

The people backing Sicario financially wanted the script by writer Taylor Sheridan to be rewritten in order to change the lead role into a man. Sadly, there is a concern with many people in Hollywood that a film will disappoint financially with a woman as the face of the picture rather than a man. What I love, though, is that both Sheridan and director Denis Villeneuve refused their request. The only way Sicario was going to happen is if they were allowed to make the picture they envisioned, and because of that we have Emily Blunt collaborating with the brilliant Villeneuve. Sign me the hell up, I can't wait to see this one.

99 Homes (September 25th)

No interesting anecdotes with this one. Honestly, I have absolutely no familiarity with the director either, as I have never seen a Ramin Bahrani film. So why am I excited about it? Positive reviews from those who have seen it and the two actors pictured above, Michael Shannon and Andrew Garfield, a couple of my favorites working today. The premise of the film will resonate strongly with many as it deals with the corporate greed and income inequality zeitgeist, telling a story revolving around innocent families struggling and being evicted from their homes.

The Martian (October 2nd)

I didn't even need to finish the Andy Weir novel this film is adapted from to get really, really excited about seeing it on the big screen. As I told my wife, it was written to not only be a movie, but a tremendously good one at that. Then I heard Ridley Scott would be directing, and while his overall career can be very hit or miss with me, when he dabbles in the science fiction genre I tend to fall in love with his work. Then I saw the cast....oh man the cast. Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara, Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean, Sebastian Stan, Donald Glover, Jeff Daniels. Michael Pena, and Chiwetel Ejiofor, among others. The material is suited to be exciting, emotionally draining roller coaster, when the director wants to take me into outer space I always go on the journey and that cast to carry it...this is going to be a spectacular piece of cinema.

Crimson Peak (October 16th)

An old school haunted house style horror effort from director Guillermo del Toro? Yeah, that's all I needed to know for me to get in line for tickets to see Crimson Peak. Another terrific cast here too, with Tom Hiddleston, Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska starring. For what it's worth, legendary author Stephen King got a chance to see the film already at an early screening and he referred to it as "gorgeous and just fucking terrifying.".

Spectre (November 6th)

I have never been much of a James Bond fan, but I felt compelled to watch Skyfall on Blu-ray after the rave reviews and massive success it achieved. I instantly regretted not catching that outstanding film on the big screen, a mistake I refuse to repeat with the upcoming new entry Spectre. Daniel Craig returns as Bond, along with beautiful women, bad guys, gorgeous cinematography and slick direction from Sam Mendes. I watched Skyfall in my living room. Spectre will be on an IMAX screen. 

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part II (November 20th)

I'm sure many see The Hunger Games and cringe, citing that young adult material isn't there thing, but I am certainly a fan of the film franchise and very much looking forward to its conclusion. While still a fan of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part I, it was a step back from the outstanding second film The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, but that was to be expected as the studio pulled the ol' split the final story into two movies to make as much money off it as possible thing. Thus, the first act was far more of a slow building of story leading into the hopefully kick ass action packed conclusion. One more chance to see Katniss Everdeen and the late, utterly brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffman on the big screen. Awesome.

The Good Dinosaur (November 25th)

A rare treat that we get two Pixar films in one calendar year, although the reason for this is a slight cause of concern with the upcoming The Good Dinosaur. The studio had problems with it and had to push back the release, hence this anomaly in their scheduling by having 2 films within 5 months of each other. That being said, I have faith that whatever issues were there have been solved and with the way I fell head over heels in love with Inside Out, the idea of more original work from them so soon after has me extremely excited to spend my Thanksgiving getting lost in another of their worlds. 

Midnight Special (November 25th)

*Update - Unfortunately, Midnight Special has been pushed back to 2016.

Someday, perhaps after people witness his upcoming film Midnight Special, the world will start to finally recognize that Jeff Nichols is one of the most gifted filmmakers working today. When that day comes, and it will...I get to be one of those guys who says things like "Yeah, well, I loved Jeff Nichols before it was cool to do so."

Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter (one of my 20 favorite films of all time) and Mud, the man makes accessible but lyrical pictures that on the surface don't seem to break new ground on a narrative level and yet his method of storytelling feels wholly unique and magical. I know very little about the upcoming Midnight Special beyond that it is described as being a science fiction film and it reunites Nichols with the amazing Michael Shannon yet again, along with Kirsten Dunst, Joel Edgerton and Adam Driver. These aren't ranked in terms of anticipation, but if they were, this would be in the top 3.

Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens (December 18th)

Just above I said if I were to rank these, Midnight Special would be in the top 3. Well, Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens would be #1. I took work off for December 18th to ensure I could see the new film at least once, likely twice by the end of that day. Not only did I take work off, I put in my request for that day in February. I asked my boss "How weird is it to ask for a day off 10 months in advance?". I had to be certain I could have that day to think of nothing but Star Wars.

As if the anticipation wasn't big enough already, the trailers that have been released thus far have me through the roof. In fact, I think I am honestly too excited. I sort of feel like the only direction this can go down, since my current expectations have be thinking anything less than my favorite film of the year would be a bummer. 

The Hateful Eight (December 25th)

I am a Tarantino super fan and he is delivering a (hopefully) wonderful Christmas present for me this year. I don't know a ton about the premise of The Hateful Eight because frankly, I don't care. I heard who was directing and I immediately wanted to see it, and nothing can lessen that desire. A Tarantino screenplay is always music to my ears.

Two films not listed are Silence by Martin Scorsese and Knight of Cups by Terrence Malick. Both would be included if not for the fact that as far as I know, neither has been guaranteed a 2015 release in the United States. 

The ten films I did choose, I hope they turn out to be as great as I want them to be. If so, this is going to be a truly tremendous year in film.