Saturday, October 31, 2015

Halloween II Review

The monster Michael Myers is back and with him comes the impossible expectations of living up to the iconic and damn near perfect first film. I remember the first time I saw Halloween II, I was far more critical of its missteps then I am today. Part of the problem for me was that this serves as a direct continuation of the events of the original, literally starting off with the previous ending unfolding all over again, so I felt like I should judge it as almost another act of the same product rather than what it is: an inferior sequel that wasn't even directed by the same man, John Carpenter. 

Sure, he wrote the film and he did a fine job, but it was obviously going to be an extreme challenge to try to match or improve upon such a tremendous achievement in horror. I don't know this to be fact, but I assume even Carpenter would have recognized those impossible odds and perhaps that is even why he didn't return to helm the picture. 

Something about the tone of Halloween II was both fitting for this film and what it was trying to accomplish yet still lacking a bit of what made the first so memorable and brilliant. Despite all the terror going on in the shadows of night during the original Halloween, the scenes that haunt me more than anything are the moments Myers stalks Laurie during the day time after school. There is something about having the epitome of evil lurking outdoors in plain sight in the middle of the afternoon that I found to be so ingeniously handled, and that is missing here but with good reason. In Halloween II it is more about the aftermath of the killings, what a small quiet town would look like once it becomes clear that a murderer is on the loose. Fear and chaos rather than the calm that comes with the assumption of safety. 

So after repeated viewings it became obvious that in order to enjoy Halloween II I would have to accept that it never had a chance to truly feel like a direct continuation of the first in every way. From Donald Pleasence seeming a little more hammy and ridiculous with his performance to the setting, characters and circumstances being a bit less compelling this time around, the sequel just isn't the masterpiece that Carpenter had crafted to kick off the franchise. It never had a chance to be.

What it is, at the end of the day, is a really good and enjoyable film involving my favorite horror villain of all time. Had a blast sitting down on a rainy Halloween afternoon and soaking in the blissful bloodiness of a hectic Haddonfield, Illinois. 


The Cabin in the Woods Review

I have encountered a fair amount of discussion regarding what genre The Cabin in the Woods files under. Is it a horror film for obvious reasons? Is it a comedy, as the scares and the gore are framed inside a comical deconstruction of the cliches of horror, so the self-awareness of the picture is meant to elicit more laughs than jumps? Do the science fiction elements outweigh them all?

When I come across these discussions and/or debate, I always wonder the same thing: who gives a shit?

It isn't that I don't care about the film. Quite the opposite actually. The Cabin in the Woods resides comfortably in my Blu-ray collection and I knew I had to bust it out when the clock flipped the calendar from October 30th to 31st. It's such a god damn great film, and that's why I can't comprehend the genre debate and using such information as a means to slight the picture. "It isn't really a horror film, it's comedy." is said in a tone meant to degrade the achievements of Drew Goddard and Joss Whendon. The ironic thing is, the fact that such a conversation can happen in the first place is the biggest compliment you could give the filmmakers. 

See, for me it is a truly terrifying horror film and a laugh out loud ultra clever comedy with a delicious twist of science fiction, and when this concoction is blended together the end result is fucking delicious. The most challenging thing isn't merely including all of these elements, it's finding such a wonderful balance that makes me want to buy everything the film is trying to sell me. I shouldn't get freaked out because the goal of The Cabin in the Woods is to mock the predictability and staleness of the horror genre, and yet it happens, even during a revisit. I shouldn't laugh so much during a movie that is so horrifying and gruesome and yet here I am, chuckling away at the reactions of two men (Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford) as the pretty blond girl Jules (Anna Hutchison) removes her shirt, or the scenes when they flat out discuss the tired tropes that are so obviously about to happen, and we know they will because we have seen horror films before. Yet when they do happen, the smile washes away and there I am again, invested in the fates of these young people trying to survive everything that is thrown at them. 

Horror? Comedy? Sci-fi? 

Yes please. I will have them all.

I wouldn't have it any other way.


Friday, October 30, 2015

Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith Review

By the time Star Wars: Episode III: Revenge of the Sith was released, I had processed my true feelings towards The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones and was able to admit to myself that in comparison to the original Holy trilogy, those films were a lot closer to turds than triumphs. I still recall going with a buddy in May of 2005 and walking in with vastly lowered expectations compared to what the hype produced the first two times around. 

Sometimes lowered expectations is precisely what you need.

I walked out of the theater that night feeling a wonderful rejuvenation of my Star Wars admiration as Revenge of the Sith felt like a massive bounce back from the failings of the films released in 1999 and 2002. Is this a perfect film? Heavens no. When held up against the original trilogy it still suffers from some of the same egregious errors that weighed down the prequels up to that point. Rather than break down every nuance I can sum up the overall difference between these three films and the three that had felt like another member of my family growing up: a loss of magic. It just isn't there in these movies.

So why did I experience the rejuvenation? Because in a world of Star Wars diminishing returns, the level of entertainment in comparison is through the roof here. So much of the silly is put aside for the cold darkness of the chosen one turning evil, and thank goodness for that. The performance issues of Hayden Christensen are still present but they are balanced out by Ewan damn McGregor not only taking his role as Obi-Wan Kenobi seriously, the dude is trying to win a damn Oscar here and I love him for it every time I watch.

(Note: I said trying to win an Oscar. I didn't say he deserved it. When compared to the rest of the cast here he deserves a lifetime achievement award)

Lucas came through enough to end his career with the Star Wars franchise on a high note, and unlike many I refuse to hate the man for the mistakes he made altering the original films and for misguided ideas throughout the prequels. He brought so many wonderful memories to my childhood by creating this universe and these characters, and it is because of him that I continue to watch all six of the films and I have already watched the trailer for The Force Awakens probably 30 times. 

No, his stamp isn't on the new films coming from Disney, and it's a good thing it isn't. I look forward to fresh cinematic minds handling the material and the potential of them embracing what made the first three films so, well...magical. 

Still though, without George there would be no awakening of the force to begin with. I am forever grateful.


Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Martian Review

If you have ever read any of my thoughts on films involving space exploration, you probably know what I am about to say. Here it goes: I love science fiction cinema and the way it can seemingly sweep me away from my seat and take me to worlds I otherwise would never see. So yeah, I'm probably a broken record when I review movies like The Martian.

Does this mean I am predictable?


Do I give a shit?


The reason I am predictable is because I am just being honest and I have no other or better way to express the way I feel when I witness the beauty of science fiction done right. I live my life in a very safe fashion, moving from point A to point B and back again with little room for discovery or excitement. I know that sounds like I am complaining, like I am itching to burst the bubble of routine and leave the norm behind for new experiences, but honestly I'm not. I don't want that bubble to burst. I love normalcy. I'm not looking for new.

That's where cinema comes in.

I want nothing more than to stay grounded and yet I am fascinated by the grand vastness of space. I look up at the stars and wonder just how far one would have to go to see it all. Perhaps there isn't even an "all" to see. Perhaps the journey is never-ending. Whether blatantly fictional or at least presenting a story that could conceivably be based on fact, Ridley Scott has taken me to places I could only have hoped to dream of without the magic of cinematic storytelling and I am forever grateful. The Nostromo and the horrors taking place inside it. In space, no one can hear you scream. A mission to meet our maker and discover the origins of humanity in Prometheus. Now, in comparison, a relatively short trip to Mars, the crew of the Ares 3 forced to cut their time away short as they evacuate due to a powerful storm. Not every member makes it back alive. Mark Watney has died.

Or has he?

The Martian, based on the remarkably entertaining novel of the same name by Andy Weir, absolutely nails the tone of its source material as the screenplay by Drew Goddard, the performances by the outstanding ensemble and the direction by Scott work together perfectly to present the type of picture that serves as a reminder of why I and so many other people love movies. Two hours and twenty some minutes of smart, stylish fun featuring multiple moments that are so clever it is impossible not to laugh aloud but then before you know it, a tear may well in your eye thanks to real and raw emotion.

This is a movie with Oscar written all over it and I expect to see Matt Damon in the lead actor race when all is said and done. So funny and heartfelt, a man trying to stay optimistic and find the humor in a situation seemingly devoid of hope. The story of Mark Watney is fascinating and inspiring, and for over 140 minutes my eyes were glued to the screen and I can't recall a single moment that I didn't find compelling, and the fact that I had already read the book and knew exactly what was coming at every turn makes this an even bigger compliment. A brilliant adaptation that I can and will watch again and again.

One scene in particular in The Martian caught my eye and made me smile, and I would imagine for a majority of others it was a forgettable blip rather than a favorite moment. Beth Johanssen, played by the beautiful and talented Kate Mara, is running on a treadmill while aboard their spacecraft and the ominous backdrop of infinite darkness is right outside the windows. It was such a gorgeous and unique shot, watching someone run while the room they are doing so in spins through space. I don't know why but I can't get that very brief and seemingly unimportant moment out of my mind. 

I don't envy those who get to go up there and actually experience it. Just the thought of it is terrifying, but hot damn am I thrilled I got to see it on the big screen. If you haven't yet, do so. 


Monday, October 26, 2015

The Conjuring Review

When I walked into the theater to see The Conjuring for the first time, the only thing that made me optimistic about the experience was the shocking critical acclaim it had received. Some people get really excited for every new horror film that is released. I don't. While many have fallen in love with franchises like Insidious or Paranormal Activity, I felt lukewarm on the original of each and couldn't even muster the motivation to watch the subsequent installments. Typically horror and I just don't click.

Something clicked here though, and I knew it early. I could feel it as soon as the title of the film crept slowly onto the screen with the unnerving music blasting my senses, and while the rest of the picture certainly isn't perfect, it had a hold on me and it still hasn't let go. I scooped it up on Blu-ray as soon as I got the chance and watched it instantly at home, and the atmosphere crafted by James Wan actually made my skin crawl even more there than it did at the theater. Sitting alone in the middle of the night made the dark corners of the room feel darker and the creaks of the attic sound louder. When surrounded by an audience, it is hard for me to feel the intended sense of dread from a haunted house story. The irony is that it took being the only person in the room for me to feel like I was surrounded by something unpleasant. 

I know the goal of announcing that a film is "Based on a true story" is to escalate the authenticity of the scares, because if it really happened to someone then it could really happen to me, but honestly I find the "truth" of the story The Conjuring is based on to be irrelevant. I don't need to dig through the details to decide if the movie is scary, I feel it because of the accomplishments of the team that put this all together. The set pieces, the characters, the way Wan uses light (or lack there of) to deliver the terror rather than resorting to tropes like a cat jumping out of a closet or a ridiculous looking creature chasing people around. There is one scene in particular in which one of the daughters in the family says she sees something behind her bedroom door that is handled with absolute perfection. I kept waiting for it to be ruined, for the typical thing that I don't find scary to rear its ugly head, but it never happened. Instead I was left peering behind my own doors late at night wondering what could be looking right back at me. 

The spin-off film Annabelle was terrible and I believe they are making a sequel to The Conjuring as well, but who knows if the magic of this first film will ever be recaptured again. I may end up sitting down for number two with actual expectations and excitement and end up rolling my eyes at the silly, predictable horror movie playing out in front of me. 

It won't matter. I will always have The Conjuring.

Now who wants to play some hide and clap?


Saturday, October 24, 2015

Winter on Fire: Ukraine's Fight for Freedom Review

The protests start off small, but their voices echo throughout an entire country. The government had rejected an opportunity to make a free trade deal with the European Union and the people had had enough. The message grew along with the crowds of people: their President, Viktor F. Yanukovich, had to go. What was once a student demonstration had transformed into a revolution.

Their fight for freedom became just that, a fight, as the police fill the streets and the blood of Ukrainian citizens begins to spill onto the concrete. The atmosphere is electric for both the right and wrong reasons, as it is inspiring to see everyday people rise up in order to change the world and yet devastating to see their bodies go limp and the tears rain down from those still breathing. 

The part that makes Winter on Fire: Ukraine's Fight for Freedom so haunting is that it is all real. It all really happened over the course of 93 days starting in 2013 and carrying over into the following year. Knowing this makes the absolutely amazing imagery seen throughout the picture that much more memorable, as a flag flapping in the wind through a cloud of smoke projects so much more power when you know it flies for fact instead of fiction. 

A camera crew is right there during this revolution, documenting the chaos and carnage happening literally feet away from them and the claustrophobic nature of this type of filmmaking is jarring and unforgettable. I felt like I could feel the heat of the fire. I experienced a lack of comfort as if the bullets could somehow hit me all while sitting on my couch, which made the realization that my safety was a luxury others clearly aren't always afforded that much more nauseating. 

This is a Netflix original documentary much like a film from 2013 titled The Square, and the subject matter is extremely similar. It should come as no surprise that Winter on Fire is now my favorite doc of 2015 since The Square took that title two years earlier, as I find films like this to be riveting and not just while I am watching. The horrors of war taking place in front of my eyes linger with me long after I have moved on to other things. 

No matter how hard of a pill this film is too swallow, it's too mesmerizing and important to ignore. 


Friday, October 23, 2015

Sicko Review

When my daughter was born in 2007, the pregnancy and process of child birth didn't exactly go swimmingly. After 14 hours of labor, little to no progress was made and the doctor informed us of the damage that was being done to the top of our soon to be born little girl's head. Trying to get out but no where to go. 

So, obviously, to protect her from further damage, my wife had a C-section done and there she was, that beautiful bundle of joy. All was right in the world.

When we got the bill for the entire experience, the total amount was astronomical but what we owed was not. Huzzah for health insurance and the good ol' U.S. of A. Living the dream.

I know you are probably waiting for this to devolve into a health care horror story that left my family broke and helpless, but it doesn't end that way. It could have though. We still only have that one child, but like most people we at least entertained the idea of expanding our family. That is, until we found out that our health insurance company wouldn't cover it if we did. Why not?

Because my wife would have to have another C-section, and that, of course, was a preexisting condition.

I have seen the documentary Sicko by Michael Moore a few times prior to this and I have always held it in a very high regard, but it was even more fascinating to watch it again now in a post-Obamacare America. It serves as a alarming reminder of just how much better things have already gotten, the fact that we can no longer be rejected for something as absurd as a preexisting condition is a major step in the right direction. The system is still so flawed and broken though. It isn't that Moore is interviewing the wrong people or manipulating the footage to present lies, it's the honest to goodness truth: other countries with universal healthcare, countries that are smart enough to not demonize the concept of socialism, are laughing at us.

This has been and continues to be my favorite work by Moore as I feel it is the most honest and powerful story he has told. Say what you want about the man and whether you agree with his political and societal opinions, but he has a way of making a documentary extremely humorous and entertaining, and Sicko is no exception, yet what hits the hardest and elevates this work up so high are the emotional tales from people who were mistreated and lose either their livelihood or the actual lives of loved ones due to an insurance company pulling the rug out from under them during their most desperate hour. 

If I were to criticize any aspect of Sicko, I would say that the way the information is presented can tend to feel a bit scattershot at times as he jumps from the very sobering moments of heartbreak to others framed very comically and then back again before you can even collect your thoughts, but this is a very minor criticism. Moore crafted a tremendously compelling and important documentary that just makes you shake your head at how the United States can rank dead last in regards to health care performance among all industrialized nations in the world. How is that possible?


Thursday, October 22, 2015

A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors Review

Growing up I was never really into horror films, and thus I have always been playing from behind in regards to even some of the most famous franchises from the genre. I haven't seen all of the kills from Jason, Freddy or Michael, although from what I gather based on reactions of others at some of those sequels, I don't really think I have been missing much. 

Just last year I finally saw the second film from the A Nightmare on Elm Street series, Freddy's Revenge, and my goodness what a turd of a picture. The original and I go way back and I have revisited it multiple times, so I was in shock that a second installment could be that terrible. I mean, sure, maybe number 7 or 9 from a franchise that has gone on far, far too long, you can walk into that with zero expectations and maybe laugh at the ridiculousness, but a direct sequel of a classic? Shockingly bad. 

So you can understand and perhaps even appreciate my fleeting desire to move on to the third film, right? Freddy's Revenge isn't even fun bad, it's just bad bad, the type of time spent with a movie that I wish I could have back. Why waste even more of it on another silly Freddy fest?

Multiple voices in my ear, including my wife and buddy, kept hyping up A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, telling me it was a delicious bounce back after the misguided second film. Alright, fine. Let's give it a shot.

Success. Those voices ring true. Dream Warriors is a dark, delightful, and appropriately silly in a good way movie that kept me engaged and entertained throughout. What a refreshing surprise when I had given up any hope of appreciating a Freddy flick after the first one. Sure, it's cheesy and the dialogue isn't anything to write home about and the effects are cartoonish, but at the very least they got the tone right and it felt like the type of 80's horror I would have embraced as a kid rather than a grossly unfunny comedy like the film before it.

There is a fourth one of these, right? Should I go ahead and give it a shot? I feel like I have to now, but I still have reservations...gut feeling without doing any research, it's bound to be a turd.

Then again, it could be another Dream Warriors situation. This one wildly exceeded my expectations. 


Monday, October 19, 2015

Goosebumps Review

At times, I can be a weepy, nostalgia filled man whom is capable of connecting numerous dots between the present and the past I can't leave behind, even if they are rather random and seemingly inconsequential. A colorful, majestic tree covered in the brilliant hues of fall will take me back to a specific trip to the family cottage in Wisconsin, a place that will forever live in my mind but in reality we no longer own. As a baseball romantic, watching these Cubs playoff games recently almost function as a time machine to the day of coming home from school and instantly flipping on the television to catch the last few innings of a day game at Wrigley. 

I appreciate the now, but I always revert back to the past. Well, almost always. For some reason despite the fact that I was a huge fan of the Goosebumps book series growing up, I didn't feel the emotional strings of days gone by being pulled at my heart as I watched the new film. The screen was littered with characters and creatures that kept me up in my adolescence and yet at no point did I crack a smile thinking about those restless nights. 

My daughter was the one twitching with excitement to experience Goosebumps at the cinema, but I walked in with a sense of anticipation as well thinking of all of those books lined up in my room. The power of the past didn't cast a shadow over this new feature like I had hoped, which was a bit disappointing.

What turned out to be even more surprising though is that despite this, the actual film based on its own merits really wasn't disappointing at all. Goosebumps is a decent, pretty fun time at the movies. Far from perfect and probably not memorable in the long run, but you can do far worse than taking the family out for a night at the movies here.

Jack Black may be the star of the group and might actually be the reason for a few extra tickets sold at the box office, but his performance as R.L. Stine was one of the weaker aspects of Goosebumps for me. Even though the picture is clearly meant to be silly and cartoonish, the way he plays this character took it even farther in those directions than I had hoped as I found his delivery and demeanor to be rather funny and I was only mildly amused by his antics from time to time. The rest of the cast, however, served as the heart and soul of the film, with Dylan Minnette in the lead as Zach, Odeya Rush as literally the girl next door Hannah, Ryan Lee as the enjoyably ridiculous new best friend Champ and the always terrific Amy Ryan as Zach's mother, Gale. These other characters do enough strong work here to make you care about their fate.

Goosebumps won't even make my top 50 of the year when it is all said and done, and yet I can't help but recommend it for anyone looking to take their kid to the theater and watch them jump out of their seat a few times. It's not outstanding cinema, but it sure ain't bad either. Just wish it had scratched that nostalgic itch I was feeling.


Beasts of No Nation Review

Do you avoid cinema that is difficult to watch? A lot of people do. I want to talk them out of that approach and try to explain the level of artistry they are missing out on, but for some it is simple: movies are meant for entertainment, for fun and escapism, and there is nothing fun about honest and disturbing stories baked in a haunting level of realism.

I watch movies for entertainment, fun and escapism as well, but I find those things in other places beyond the story. Don't get me wrong, the story is typically vital and is what draws me in and holds my attention, but even when what is depicted on the screen is nauseating and brutal, a great film will make it impossible for me to look away. 

I am entertained by a director delivering his vision with a masterful hand. I find it fun to consider the large amount of extremely talented people pooling all of their resources together to make even the most subtle imagery or piece of dialogue feel memorable and profound. I escape from my own reality by transporting myself into a world that feels unfamiliar, by reminding myself that being scared of a suburban routine and a nine hour work day feels quite silly when you witness fictionalized horrors that are unfortunately pulled from fact.

It's safe to refer to the new film Beasts of No Nation as groundbreaking because such a label was applicable regardless of it's quality. A Netflix original feature that became available to stream the very same day it was released in theaters, millions of people were legally given access to a brand new film without paying an extra cent beyond the monthly fee for the streaming service, which is what separates this story from the now extremely common VOD releases throughout each year. Sure, it can make financial sense to pay the 8 or so dollars to watch a movie on a Friday night at home through your cable company rather than the cost of tickets and soda and popcorn and the eternal struggle of finding a babysitter, but as a Netflix subscriber with no plans to unsubscribe, Beasts of No Nation truly feels free. 

It's almost too good to be true that it also happens to be brilliant. A remarkable, Oscar worthy film that is accessible from my couch, snacking out of my own refrigerator and the option of hitting the pause button to use the bathroom that sits 10 feet away. I had October 16th circled on my calendar for some time, the exciting potential of taking in a new release to start a weekend while not having to change out of my pajamas, and my enthusiasm shot through the roof with each passing expertly crafted minute.

A dramatic war film that takes place in Africa, which part I don't recall being specified but frankly, it's irrelevant. What matters is the devastation of the combat and the effect it has on both the region and the people that occupy it. The story revolves around a young boy named Agu who finds himself separated from part of his family and horrifyingly having to watch other members being shot before his eyes. Suddenly he finds himself face to face with a militia known as the NDF, and he isn't so much recruiting into their ranks as he is forced to join the fight. 

The group is lead by a warlord played masterfully by Idris Elba, who should get serious consideration here from the Academy and he isn't alone. In my world we would hear Beasts of No Nation called as a nominee in multiple categories like Picture, Director, Screenplay and also for its stunning photography. What I can't help but wonder is if the Netflix streaming release method will hurt the films chances of being considered award worthy, not so much because it won't be taken seriously but because of the backlash of moving away from the traditional theatrical release. It would be a shame if Beasts of No Nation gets snubbed for reasons beyond its own quality. I don't give a shit how I saw the movie the first time. All that matters is how it moved me, and lord help me I was moved.

Cary Fukunaga, who became a popular name after the roaring success of the first season of the television series "True Detective", wrote, photographed and directed this picture and across the board he knocked the ball out of the damn park. I have no experience in filmmaking myself, but I always assume that the most challenging aspect of writing hard hitting material like this is finding a balance between demonstrating enough brutality to get the point across without going overboard and desensitizing the violence. You can only punch the audience in the gut so many times before we get sick of it and those blows lose the value of their impact, and this is where Fukunaga succeeds so admirably. Sure, Beasts of No Nation is an extremely difficult pill to swallow, but that is a compliment to what it achieves rather than a reason to stay away and avoid seeing it. When I got hit, I got hit really, really hard, and those punches will hurt for a long, long time.

I want them to hurt. I want to revisit the pain again. I want to watch the decent of Agu as we watch his sense of humanity come crumbling down, but not revel in it. No, what Beasts of No Nation does so incredibly well that officially convinced me that it is one of the finest works of 2015 is that it somehow feels hopeful and optimistic after surviving the fog of war that clouds a vast majority of the film.

"I just want to be happy in this life."

As the credits rolled, my stomach hurt and I was exhausted emotionally, and yet I was smiling. Beasts of No Nation did it all for me, an extraordinary piece of cinema that can be viewed today from the comfort of your own home.


Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones Review

The hot prequel debate rages on.

I almost couldn't type that with a straight face. Honestly, does anyone give a shit about the prequels anymore? I know I do, but it seems like the goal is to simply forget about their existence rather than discuss them.

For the sake of this review, let's go back to this hot debate I mentioned: which film is worse? The Phantom Menace or Attack of the Clones?

The Phantom Menace seems to get the brunt of the hatred and mockery due to Jar Jar Binks and the terrible script and the constant stream of silly nonsense, and at the end of the day I would vote it as the worst installment of the Star Wars saga, but...

Nothing, I repeat, nothing is worse than the romantic sequences between Anakin and Padme in Attack of the Clones. Nothing. Unintentionally funny and yet so cringe worthy that it is hard to watch. Rolling around on the grass laughing with abysmal chemistry between Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman. Sitting next to a fire on a bear skin rug, forcing their uncomfortable sexual frustration upon each other and the audience when none of it is believable. 

On the other side of the spectrum, absolutely nothing that occurs in Attack of the Clones is as awesome and exciting as the Darth Maul lightsaber sequence at the end of The Phantom Menace. So the highs aren't as high and the lows are the lowest of the low, yet despite this I find myself enjoying enough of Episode II to forgive its many failures. 

I'm increasingly having trouble coming up with specific moments I like, but trust me, there are some. I just keep thinking about the romance. It haunts me.

"I don't like sand. It's coarse and rough and irritating and it gets everywhere. Not like here. Here everything is soft and smooth."


The hot prequel debate rages on...


Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Love & Mercy Review

"I want you to leave, but I don't want you to leave me."

During last year's award season, I was the guy who was mostly underwhelmed by biopics. I typically am because they tend to feel so familiar, bowing down to every imaginable trope rather than pushing the envelope and doing something inventive and unique. While most of the world was falling head over heels in love with Benedict Cumberbatch as the brilliant and troubled Alan Turing in The Imitation Game, frankly I was doing my best to keep my eyes open during the second half. A movie that did absolutely nothing to hold my attention and ended up being my least favorite of the eight Best Picture nominees.

While a little more rewarding and interesting than that film, I was in the very good but not great category when it came to The Theory of Everything, a picture that thrived because of the astonishing performances from Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones but fell a bit flat for me on a technical and narrative level. I wanted a lot less of the central love story and a lot more of the remarkable history of Stephen Hawking. 

Brilliant but troubled. Seems like the pretty standard formula for the subject of a biopic, and in 2015 we have another perfect example of this with the story of Brian Wilson from The Beach Boys. The film is Love & Mercy, but the good news? There is very little standard or formulaic about this work.

I admit to entering this experience with a bit of a bias simply because of my history of being underwhelmed by these type of films, but Love & Mercy broke through that mold for me and kept me glued to the screen and completely enamored thanks to the tight and focused screenplay from Oren Moverman and Michael A. Lerner and I love that they, along with director Bill Pohlad, decided rather than following a traditional narrative outline of a point A to point Z life story they would pinpoint two major moments from Wilson's life and focus in on their profound impact. It's a filmmaking choice that pays off in spades.

The young Brian Wilson is played by Paul Dano, an actor who doesn't get nearly the credit nor attention he deserves because his talent is undeniable. We follow this stage of his life as he is working on the musical masterpiece "Pet Sounds" and the lost but eventually found album "Smile", and what is beautifully portrayed here is just how difficult and damaging it can be to struggle with your craft when you feel you are on the cusp of doing something masterful but your peers are standing in the way of its full realization. Wilson is on the verge of creating art but is being asked to stick with what is proven to work, and the process and the conflict is slowly but surely literally testing his sanity. 

The older Brian Wilson is played by John Cusack, a man that is a shell of his younger, ambitious self. He is cared for by his manager Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), but it becomes clear that the treatment plan is actually doing more harm than good. At this point in his life, Wilson isn't merely struggling or damaged, he is broken and the challenge of putting his pieces back together falls on a woman who can't help but be in love with him, warts and all, Melinda (Elizabeth Banks). It's hard to believe this is the same man who is iconic for what his genius created. 

It's hard to watch yet it is exciting and compelling on a cinematic level, so it became impossible to take my eyes off of Love & Mercy. It is edited in a way that makes both stages of his life flow together in a seemingly effortless and fluid way, and knowing where Wilson came from and what it would eventually lead to makes each story all the more heartbreaking. 

This is a biopic that absolutely cannot be missed or dismissed, a piece of cinema that vastly transcends the limitations on display during those two acclaimed pictures from a year ago. Love & Mercy is one of the better movies of 2015 thus far.


Monday, October 5, 2015

Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace Review

It was 1999, but I still remember it like it was yesterday. My freshman year of high school. I was planning on ditching school, a rebellious moment in a mostly un-rebellious life, but I couldn't even do that cool. My mom became aware of my plan to do so and called me in sick instead. An excused absence.

A necessary absence. A day that was far more important than anything I would have learned in a textbook. It was the day tickets went on sale for Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace.

I grew up in a galaxy far, far away, a child who found no salvation in the Bible but rather cherished the holy trilogy instead. To say I loved Star Wars is a massive understatement: I memorized every moment of the three films from the opening crawl to the closing credits. The idea of being able to see a brand new installment on the big screen was almost too much to handle, and it was mandatory that I did so at least once on opening day. It ended up being twice.

Looking back on it, it was impossible for me to find flaws in the film even though they were not only there, they were fucking everywhere. I was 15 years old and I refused to believe a new Star Wars film wasn't the greatest piece of cinema ever created. I was so thrilled by the final saber battle between Qui-Gon Jinn, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Maul that I was blinded from the truth. I pushed all the terrible from my mind.

Terrible. So, so much terrible.

So the journey through the six films is beginning to prepare for Star Wars: The Force Awakens which is due to be released in the United States on December 18th, a day which I took off of work ten months in advance for that very reason. Not kidding, ten months in advance. I had to be sure. My daughter has already seen all of the films, but only once each and over a year ago, which when you consider that she is only now about to turn eight means that a lot has changed since then for her mentally. Stuff she may not have picked up on at six may click now. 

I have noticed recently that she tends to be swayed by my opinion on things rather than form her own. She may love the movie and I may mention in her general vicinity a gripe of mine, and suddenly her own hype level has cooled a tad. I don't want this to be the case. I don't want to spoil her beautiful little mind with my own adult pessimism and deeper analysis of cinema. I want her to be the type of kid who just watches and loves whatever the hell she wants to develop the passion for the medium the way I did. 

This leads me into Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace, a film she loves and she should. She is seven and things like Jar Jar Binks and a poor performance from Jake Lloyd are going to be embraced by an audience such as herself where as I will cringe every time either opens their respective mouths. I love that she loves it. So roughly three minutes into the film during the ridiculous opening involving the weird Asian stereotype Trade Federation officials and their cringe worthy broken accents, the dialogue is so freakin' atrocious that I literally dropped my head in disgust and muttered "God it's so awful..." to myself.

My daughter turns to me, her huge Star Wars induced smile ever so slightly fading away, and she says "What's awful?". I knew I had to put on the performance of a lifetime and not complain anymore about all of the bad on display. I couldn't ruin this for her. 

"Nothing, something about work." I said, which is a brilliant move by me because she knows I associate work and the word awful quite often. She accepted this and went back into The Phantom Menace zone. I think she still loves it. I know she still loves Jar Jar. She sees nothing wrong with Jake Lloyd. 

Bless her, I wish I could flip a switch and ignore it all and blindly love it, but I can't. Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace is a bad film.

Now, that being said, it is a bad film with some truly terrific and entertaining sequences. While not perfect on every level, the Podrace sequence is exciting and an absolutely sublime example of how sound mixing and editing can elevate the stakes and ramp up the energy of a movie, and of course the final battle with Darth Maul is electric, pure and simple. It is beautifully choreographed and a wonderful way to make a new villain legendary, even inside an otherwise regrettable cinematic experience. 

For the most part though, Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace is misguided and strange and frustrating for fans of the original saga, and yet despite this I find myself willing to revisit this and the other prequels often and without hesitation because, well...Star Wars. It just has a hold on me, a feeling of nostalgia even in regards to the newer entries that I don't think I will ever be able to let go of. When I hear the words Star Wars I think of the way my imagination would soar and I would waste away afternoons and weekends as a kid playing those VHS tapes over and over and over again. 

I never once thought about flaws or dialogue missteps or racial stereotypes or less than stellar performances back then because why would I? I was a kid and I would buy in early and never skip a bit until the credits rolled. I want the same for my daughter. I don't want to plague her young, enthusiastic mind with all this nonsense that rolls through my own.

I want her to love The Phantom Menace, and I think I did a pretty good job of making sure she still does. I still remember walking out of that theater 16 years ago and believing I did too. It hurt too much to admit to myself that something I had hoped would be great could turn out to be such a turd.


Friday, October 2, 2015

Gravity Review

"Listen, do you wanna go back, or do you wanna stay here? I get it. It's nice up here. You can just shut down all the systems, turn out all the lights, and just close your eyes and tune out everyone. There's nobody up here that can hurt you. It's safe. I mean, what's the point of going on? What's the point of living? Your kid died. Doesn't get any rougher than that. But still, it's a matter of what you do now. If you decide to go, then you gotta just get on with it. Sit back, enjoy the ride. You gotta plant both your feet on the ground and start livin' life. 

Hey, Ryan? It's time to go home."

It's been two years since Gravity was released. I can still vividly remember how I felt sitting in my IMAX seat that day. I remember wondering if it would still hold its cinematic power at home on my television screen, a less immersive experience. It does. All of the same words that came to mind when I lost my Cuaron metaphorical space odyssey virginity still apply today.

Dazzling. Thrilling. Brilliant. Beautiful. Inspiring. Emotionally devastating.

Too much time has been spent analyzing the realism of the plight of Ryan Stone in space. Too much time questioning her odds of survival. I have spent too much time defending the film that I believe isn't merely the finest work from the year it was released, but one of the most profound achievements I have ever witnessed. 

"So, what do you like about being up here?"

"The silence."

Just another disaster film? Style over substance? Why must this work of art be painted with such a vanilla brush? Style, sure, Gravity is a technical masterpiece of the highest order, the type of visually stunning, perfectly photographed and sublimely directed picture that deserves every damn award it won and then some. The substance though, that's what made those tears pour from my eyes. They still do. On a metaphorical level, these tense, beautifully paced 80 some odd minutes manage to simultaneously wreck me and yet build me back up stronger then ever by the mesmerizing and fiercely empowering final shot. The style may be the first thing people talk about when this movie gets mentioned, but the substance is why I find the experience to be unforgettable. 

"I know, we're all gonna die. Everybody knows that. But I'm going to die today. Funny know, to know. But the thing is, is that I'm still scared. Really scared. Nobody will mourn for me, no one will pray for my soul. Will you mourn for me? Will you say a prayer for me? Or is it too late...ah, I mean I'd say one for myself but I've never prayed in my life. Nobody ever taught me how...nobody ever taught me how..."

As the father of a beautiful little girl, my best friend in this world, I don't understand how people do it. I can't comprehend how they go on. I wrap my arms around her at night and I never want to let go. When I am at work, I sit and wonder how her day is going. I always hope she is happy. I always hope she is smiling. I look at the clock and realize that in just a few minutes she will be walking out of the doors at her school and I wish I could be there to greet her. Every minute after I simply wish I could go home. I don't understand how people do it. I can't comprehend how they go on.

Despite it being the setting of the film, space is irrelevant in Gravity. The soul of this picture is not the space stations or the debris that destroys it. The beating heart of this movie is Ryan Stone and the crippling, devastating loss she suffered that fateful die when she was driving and got the call. Space is a brilliant place to be when you want to leave the world behind. It's dark, it's cold, it's vast and it is unforgiving. It will kill you in a moment's notice. It feels like death. The Earth that gorgeously glows throughout the film, filling the backdrop of so many frames like a silent character that effortlessly steals the show, it is bursting with life. 

If you let the grief consume you, define you, destroy you, leaving you unable to move forward, then the cold, dark silence feels comforting. If you want to find the strength to wake up each day and face a world that could be cruel enough to take everything from you, a world that at the best of times can feel Utopian and at the worst can feel like Hell, then you need to find a way back home. It's time to go home.

Just when you think you fought hard enough to start over, it hits you. It hits you again and again and again, and it hurts. It feels impossible to keep going, to keep trying, to find a reason for hope and optimism when the weight on your shoulders feels hopeless. It's not impossible though. You can keep going. You can keep trying. You can keep fighting. 

Ryan Stone considers giving up as we all would. I know I would. She doesn't though. She keeps going. She keeps trying. She keeps fighting. Sandra Bullock gives one of my favorite performances ever in a role that drained me of my tears yet filled me with so much inspiration and perspective on what truly matters in this world and what is just noise. What matters is that little girl that I can wrap my arms around and I should cherish every chance I get to do it because nothing is guaranteed. I hope she is happy. I hope she is smiling. The world is so much more beautiful with her in it. 

"Hey, Matt? Since I had to listen to endless hours of your storytelling this week, I need you to do me a favor. You're gonna see a little girl with brown hair. Very messy, lots of knots. She doesn't like to brush it. But that's okay. Her name is Sarah. Can you please tell her that mama found her red shoe? She was so worried about that shoe, Matt. But it was right under the bed. Give her a big hug and a big kiss from me and tell her that mama misses her. Tell her that she is my angel. And she makes me so proud. So, so proud. And you tell her that I'm not quitting. You tell her that I love her, Matt. You tell her that I love her so much. Can you do that for me?"

Don't worry about the realism. Don't question the odds. Just imagine the thing you love most in this world being taken away from you and then root for Ryan Stone. 

Two years ago I drove home from the theater feeling forever changed by a single trip to the cinema. Absolutely nothing has changed.

Gravity is one of my favorite films of all time. 

It's time to go home.