Monday, July 10, 2017

Let's Do It Again: My 100 Favorite Films of All Time #90 - #81




Moving on to the next set of ten films, these being my 90th through 81st ranked movies of all time. What will become clear as you look at what makes the cut to be one of my favorites is that I don't have a specific genre that dominates my attention or my heart. I will fall in love with anything, whether it be a comedy, animation, science fiction, drama or something completely surreal lacking a traditional narrative. Some of all of those things are found throughout this list.





90. Rope

When the fabulous career of Alfred Hitchcock is discussed you rarely hear about the film Rope, an overlooked masterpiece. Of course, it isn't just the viewing public that is to blame for Rope not getting the acclaim it deserves, as Hitchcock himself referred to the picture as "an experiment that didn't work". Oh but I think it did work, I think it worked wonders. The film is shown as if it has no cuts at all, but it is through editing trickery that this perception exists because there are plenty of cuts in Rope, but to the naked eye the experience feels like one giant long shot featuring handheld camera work that weaves throughout the room and it is something to behold. 




89. Anatomy of a Murder

I love a great legal courtroom drama, and one of the finest examples of such a film is Otto Preminger's Anatomy of a Murder, nominated for Best Picture in 1960. Terrific performances, perfectly made and filled with the expected tension as evidence unfolds in a courtroom, I am completely drawn in by every second of this movie.





88. The Neon Demon

From a Hitchcock film from 1948 and a courtroom drama from 1959 to The Neon Demon, a 2016 Nicolas Winding Refn movie about the ruthless nature of the modeling industry, a surreal nightmare starring beautiful people doing absolutely horrific things. This isn't the last of the recently released Refn films to make my list. 





87. Dazed and Confused

This is a film that I have always loved but my reasons why have shifted over time, starting when I was a teen and I thought of it as nothing more than a loose, fun stoner teenage comedy and now with my deep appreciation for the work of Richard Linklater, I see it as a loose, fun stoner teenage comedy with also a ton of nuance bubbling up with a lot to say. Some movies I loved 20 years ago now seem so hollow or meaningless upon reflection, but Dazed and Confused only gets better with age.





86. Mulholland Drive

The first time I watched Mulholland Drive, I had no fucking idea what was happening, but I loved it.
The second time I watched Mulholland Drive, I had no fucking idea what was happening, but I still loved it. The third time I watched Mulholland Drive, I had no fucking idea what was happening. but I loved it even more. The fourth time I watched Mulholland Drive, I started to form my own opinion about what was happening, had no idea if I was even remotely on the right track, but who gives a shit, I loved it more than ever. I even wrote a paper about it for school.





85. Predator

A lot of people my age have nostalgic memories towards the Disney films from our childhood years, but I don't. Funny enough I didn't love most of those movies until I got older. For me, there were a bunch of movies I probably shouldn't even have been watching at a single digit age that make me feel all warm and sappy when I think about them, remembering a time when I would spend my summer avoiding the heat with alien creatures and galaxies far, far away. One of those films is Predator, a glorious action spectacle that is perfectly paced, incredibly memorable and scary as hell for an 8 year old to witness. I loved it then and I love it now.






84. Toy Story

Sometimes I wonder if the Toy Story sequels and also the numerous other terrific Pixar films since have managed to overshadow just how perfect of a movie the original is. Briskly paced, moving, brilliantly innovative and fun, I will always hold the original in high regard.





83. Scarface

I don't know what lead to me believing for roughly 20 years that the film Scarface was not good, because it turns out giving it a chance in my early 30's made me recognize that it isn't good, it's flat out great. I think I always was turned off by the way the character Tony Montana was glorified by our culture as some sort of iconic hero when in reality he is anything but. I should have had more faith in Brian De Palma. 





82. The Raid

One of the greatest action films I have ever seen, The Raid is an Indonesian masterpiece directed by Gareth Evans, and despite its relative popularity I'm sure many of you out there have never seen it. If you don't mind some pretty grotesque violence or dealing with the feeling that you are having a panic attack because of the sheer ferocious pace of the action, I cannot recommend this movie enough.




81. Spirited Away

Already my second Miyazaki to make the list, a man in a class by himself in regards to animated brilliance. Spirited Away is unbelievably haunting and beautiful cinema, a hand drawn master class that belongs on any Mount Rushmore of the genre. The intricate details, the concepts, the ability to deliver a story filled with meaningful themes, the pitch perfect musical score. Incredible.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Let's Do It Again: My 100 Favorite Films of All Time #100 - #91




Let's do it again.

A couple years ago I put together a favorite films list, 100 movies I cherished that I felt compelled to rank. The thing about lists regarding personal taste is that taste changes day by day, week by week. month by month, year by year. Something I may have listed in my top 50 previously may not even make my 100 this time around because perhaps I had just recently seen it back then and was still caught up in my own personal hype machine, the best of the work dancing through my mind as I found it a spot on the list, but I haven't seen it since. Haven't thought about it since, at least not as much as I assumed I would.

My logic behind putting this list together during the middle of the year was, frankly, based on the fact that nothing released during the first half of 2017 was going to threaten their way onto my all time list, so I knew I wouldn't have clouded judgment involving something brand new. So even my favorites of last year, I have at least had quite a few months to let the movies resonate and revisit them and truly decide if my love is as high as I once thought. My top 2 of 2016 do indeed make the cut here.

So here we go, starting with number 100 and working my way down, my favorite films of all time:





100. In The Mood For Love

A gorgeous, sexy, vibrant piece of filmmaking from Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar-wai, In The Mood For Love is one of those films where every frame feels like its own individual piece of art, filled with color and contrast, expertly lit and shot. 





99. Pan's Labyrinth

Not the only Guillermo del Toro film in this specific list of ten, and yes many people will roll their eyes at the one I have listed higher than Pan's Labyrinth. Frankly, I don't give a damn, but let's stay on topic with this movie because it deserves its moment. Pan's Labyrinth is creepy, fascinating and beyond beautiful, a fable that is pure, spectacular cinema. 





98. There Will Be Blood

I know plenty of people will not accept what I am about to say, because he is considered a modern cinematic god (and rightfully so), but this is the only Paul Thomas Anderson picture that makes my list. I know, I know, it's a damn shame but it isn't that I don't appreciate the man or his work, I most certainly do, but typically I can completely admire his brilliance while also never truly loving the stories he tells on a personal level. The one exception to this is There Will Be Blood, a bold, odd, stunning masterpiece.





97. Inception

This is one of those films that I will never forget seeing it for the first time in the theater because the experience was bigger than the movie itself. My daughter was born in 2007 and because of the chaos that goes with raising a newborn and toddler, along with the differing work schedules of myself and my wife, it was basically impossible to get out to a theater. My return to the cinema occurred in 2010 when Inception was released, and it was quite the blockbuster experience on a huge screen. I had viewed the trailer maybe 100 times before actually seeing the film, and despite the hype it didn't disappoint.





96. The Thin Red Line

Somehow a Best Picture nominee managed to fly under the radar in terms of recognition, mostly because it was labeled the second best movie from its own genre the year it was released. That's the problem with being nominated in the same categories with Saving Private Ryan, but count me among those that actually feel The Thin Red Line is the better film and one of the best war pictures ever made. This isn't the only appearance of a film by director Terrence Malick on the list, but you have to wait quite some time to get to his next picture. 





95. Warrior

Never would have believed you had you told me prior to my first viewing of the film Warrior that it would make a favorite movie of all time list. Not only did I not have any interest in MMA fighting then, I remained uninterested now, but that's the thing about Warrior, it isn't an MMA film, it is a powerful, emotional character driven drama that happens to revolve around the MMA world. I am a mess every single time I watch this beauty, destroyed by the relationships and the devastating performances. 





94. Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids

Thought Warrior was a surprise? How about a Justin Timberlake concert film making the cut? The Netflix original concert documentary Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids is an incredible experience, directed by the late great Jonathan Demme of The Silence of the Lambs and, more appropriately for comparison here, Stop Making Sense fame. So many would view this as "just a concert", but the way Demme focuses not just on Timberlake but every single piece of the band around him, along with the way each moment is framed to capture the relationship Timberlake forms with every single person on and off the stage is something to behold. I watched this for the sixth or seventh time just the other night and it gets better each time. 





93. Pacific Rim

I warned you that Guillermo del Toro would make another appearance on this list of ten, and here we are, and hell yes it is Pacific Rim. Action packed, colorful, inventive, exciting fun that is so perfectly, delightfully cheesy in the best possible way. This is a Kaiju film made by a filmmaker who understands exactly what makes such experiences great, featuring characters with absurd names and silly nonsense scattered throughout, but balanced out by real relationship and the strong desire to watch robots kick the shit out of monsters. I can't get enough of Pacific Rim.





92. Whiplash

Now known for his follow up feature to the critically acclaimed and Oscar winning Whiplash, a little brilliant beauty called La La Land (which you will absolutely be seeing later on this list), it might be easy for some to forget about the movie that put Damien Chazelle on the map. Don't. A masterful example of frenetic editing and what true electricity feels like in cinema, Whiplash is dynamite with a final sequence that is pitch perfect. 





91. Princess Mononoke

I love animated films but so many just feel like lazy cash grabs filled with bright colors and characters with silly voices made my studios that know they will put butts in seats solely by kids begging their parents to go see it. It is with this in mind that I try to make sure I never take Hayao Miyazaki for granted, a true master of animation and a man who filled his work with so much meaning and depth and important messages about humanity, complicated emotions and a love for planet Earth. Princess Mononoke is the first Miyazaki on this list, but it certainly won't be the last.



Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Small Screen: The Leftovers Final Season Review




It's funny how some movies or television shows are highly anticipated for quite literally years prior to their release, and other things sort of sneak up on you and knock you off your feet. Game of Thrones is a show that the moment the screen went dark on the sixth season, I wanted to know when the seventh would debut and I have been ready ever since. Mr. Robot, I could use that third season now please. Pretty please? I love been in love with Star Wars: The Last Jedi ever since roughly 10 minutes into The Force Awakens, knowing I was ready for deeper exploration into characters new and old, fresh stories to expand the universe.

As of only just a few months ago, I had no interest in diving back into the world of The Leftovers. I watched the first season, I thought it was okay but absolutely nothing that compelled me to come back for a round two, especially because at least the first was adapted from a source material that I found somewhat interesting. Allowing storytellers to go down their own path away from the book can be exciting, but The Leftovers didn't grab me and I figured nothing could be down to pull me back in.

I was so, so wrong.

People love to point fingers and rage towards websites that display critical assessment and consensus of art, like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, and I have always found that hatred so silly and misguided because it's merely just a database of opinions for audiences to refer to. You, the viewer, still holds the right to watch the work and determine for yourself whether you enjoy it or not. No one can take that away from you, no matter what number appears next to the name of the film or series. When I watch a Nicolas Winding Refn or Terrence Malick film, the furthest thing from my mind are what other people thought of the movie, whether they are the guy sitting next to me or the most revered critic on the planet. That isn't to dismiss a critic or their job, hell, that's exactly what I do here on this site as a hobby, but all I am doing is sharing an opinion and possibly, hopefully, providing some insight as to why I feel that way. My goal is never to make it seem like others have to agree with me, and I am not even remotely upset if you don't. In fact, let me know just how much you disagree with me, I welcome it and would love to find out why.




I bring up those sites like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic because without them I don't know if I ever would have given The Leftovers another chance. I not only didn't watch season two despite its critical acclaim, I pretty much blocked it out of my mind because I honestly don't remember when it was originally on, who was saying what about it and so on. All I remember was positive reactions and me rolling my eyes and thinking nope, can't get me back that easily The Leftovers. Too much to watch, still not interested. That changed when I saw the truly remarkable reviews of the third and final season and I finally considered the possibility that I was intentionally missing out on something special. I quickly ran through the second season and loved it, and the third season turned out to be worthy of all those high scores awarded by critics.

I have come to the conclusion that besides sitcoms, I typically despise the traditional 22+ episodes a season format of network shows. What always happens with this format when it comes to dramatic storytelling is that there is way too much fat and they aren't allowed to trim it, with mandatory 42ish minute episodes edited specifically to fit with commercial breaks. I like the show Gotham, for example, but it has become a background watch while I play my Nintendo Switch, because I can pretty much skip entire episodes without feeling like I missed anything all that important. That should never happen. Therefore, while others see short episode amounts of series like Legion, Stranger Things, or Game of Thrones and complain that they are getting so little, I applaud the creators for focusing on quality over quantity. The fact that The Leftovers closed out the series with 8 wonderfully crafted installments rather than tried to stretch anything out is a great thing, and it shows from the finished work.




All performances in the show deserve recognition and admiration but for me the highlight of the whole thing, and more specifically of the final season was Carrie Coon, an incredible turn while the camera and story were so often fixated on her, and for good reason. If Coon isn't at least nominated this year at award ceremonies like the Emmys or Golden Globes, it better be because the field was so crowded there just wasn't room, but I don't see how that is possible. Being the best thing about one of the best shows of the year seems to be good reason to receive award attention in my book.

What I loved about The Leftovers was the balance the series was able to strike while successfully including so many different tonal shifts, from the bits of comedy needed to add a lightness to the darkness that otherwise surrounds these people and their lives, to the intensely personal drama that both moved and disturbed, to the absolutely surreal moments that felt like creators Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta were tapping into their inner David Lynch-ian sides of themselves. Well, okay maybe not that weird. If you are watching the new run of Twin Peaks episodes, nothing in The Leftovers even comes close to that level of bizarre, but you get the idea. The Leftovers had everything and I am so glad I gave it another chance after almost 3 full years between watching the last episode of the first season and going back and seeing what all the buzz was about regarding seasons 2 and 3. Who knows, I might just go back and watch it all over again in the near future. It's that good.




Season Grade: A+

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Wonder Woman Review




A few hours before I took my seat for Wonder Woman, I revisited Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, as it just felt right to transition right from the last DCEU film to the newest addition. No, don't correct me by pointing out that Suicide Squad was released in between the two films. I don't think I can ever bring myself to sitting through that again. I continue to be a defender of Batman v Superman, especially the extended cut, but the issues I have with the film only weigh heavier on my experience with each watch. I'm not screaming about the lack of joy, but without question it could have had a dash of lightness and warmth mixed somewhere in the three hour running time. I love the idea behind the Lex Luthor character, but I still can't watch the film without cringing at the way Eisenberg delivers his lines and the mannerisms that only distract rather than sell his insanity.

I never want to spend my time writing a review for one film while harping on the flaws of another because the work at hand deserves its own time and attention, but I felt the need to address this here because being able to watch the movies back to back only made me bond with Wonder Woman more. Patty Jenkins, who inexplicably has not directed a feature film since the Oscar winner Monster back in 2003, absolutely knocks it out of the park here with the the help of great performances and a dynamite screenplay that allows these characters to showcase their chemistry, charm, flaws, emotions and bravery. Wonder Woman is paced beautifully, shot gracefully or explosively depending on what the content of the scene dictates, and made with love. You can't ask for anything more than that.

There was a certain palpable feeling of excitement walking up to the theater, and I took notice of a few girls pulling out their phones to take pictures of the giant words plastered across the marquee above the cinema outside: WONDER WOMAN. I have gone to see an awful lot of films during my life, but I don't know if I had ever seen that before, those excited to attend stopping just to take a photo of the title. Sure, it is possible that this was nothing more than an opportunity to send the picture to a friend who couldn't attend, but it felt like more. A group of teenage girls so noticeably enthused and ready for a superhero movie that they felt taking such a picture was worthwhile, the first time they were able to go see a female hero be the absolute star of the work rather than just a member of a powerful ensemble mostly filled with men. I hope they weren't disappointed. I'm sure they weren't. Lord knows I wasn't.




The beautiful and talented Gal Gadot takes the lead in Wonder Woman after her somewhat brief role in Batman v Superman still managed to be one of the brightest pieces of that film and she does really good work here, believably bad ass with a spectacular presence that makes every frame feel more alive. Chris Pine is superbly cast as the main supporting character, Air Force pilot Steve Trevor who had gone undercover as a spy in Germany to observe how powerful of an operation they were running during World War I. The lives of Diana (Gadot) and Trevor collide when Trevor's plane crash lands just off the coast of the island Themyscira, the home land of Amazon women who have lived for a long time peacefully yet always prepare for battle just in case. With Trevor comes the German army that pursues him, thus bringing war and the tragic repercussions of it to the gorgeous paradise.

Unlike the previous DCEU efforts, Wonder Woman has such a warmth and an ability to make an audience laugh and smile and this bleeds over into the rest of the film, making the stakes raised when the lives of characters are in jeopardy because we actually give a shit whether they make it out alive. The film suffers from a very common syndrome that plagues many superhero pictures, the one where the villain is rather shitty and not nearly as interesting as it should be, but I was able to forgive Wonder Woman in a way I can't other films because I fell so hard for Gadot and Pine and the other "good guys" throughout. Also, the final battle sequence felt reminiscent to the ugly CG display of the Doomsday sequence in Batman v Superman which was disappointing considering the rest of the movie looked so fluid and natural.

Nevertheless, Wonder Woman is a treasure and the No Man's Land scene in the film is truly something special, a top notch moment directed and performed so perfectly I was actually moved by what I was seeing. I hope this universe learns a thing or two from this moving forward, because this is a superhero film should be done. I must admit, I didn't know much about the Wonder Woman character prior to seeing this. Now I am in love.




4.5/5

Friday, June 2, 2017

War Machine Review




The problem with David Michôd's new film War Machine, a Netflix original picture, is that it never really knows what it wants to be. At times a military satire, aided by an often absurd performance from Brad Pitt that feels more like a person doing a mediocre impression of a general than an actual general, but then in an instant we are supposed to be emotionally moved by the harsh realities of war and the erroneous narrative that the United States can fix a war torn foreign country and push them on a path towards greatness solely through military intervention.

I think I know what Michôd was going for here, basically an Afghanistan U.S. military clusterfuck version of The Big Short, but that film was so effective in its tonal balance that by utilizing comedy it actually made the dramatic truths of the story hit even harder, like a shock to the system. War Machine simply doesn't get there, it never earns any lasting resonance desired from its message because the comedy and the earnest attempt at sadness and honesty don't mesh well.

As for performances, I was completely unable to take Pitt seriously in the lead role as General Glen McMahon, with his sincerity and growing realization of just how little he could accomplish in a misguided war effort being his best moments but they are completely hampered by his cartoon like General portrayal hanging over every serious interaction or moment of self-reflection. The rest of the cast is fine, good even, and there are plenty of solid scenes here to elevate the overall film to decency, but it just doesn't do enough to be good, and I also really didn't care for the artistic choice of having a voice-over fill in some of the empty moments with unnecessary explanation of exactly what the General was thinking or wanted to believe.



2.5/5

Monday, May 15, 2017

The Small Screen: Master of None Season Two




It's still only May and living in these peak TV days of having different shows being released by different formats quite literally every weekend, it is impossible to make any guarantees of what might be my favorite show of the year so early. All I can say is this: the second season of Master of None is exquisite, a brilliant blend of perfect comedy with a melancholy pall looming over moments at just the right time, a heartfelt episodic television masterpiece that starts off in black and white with a gorgeous ode to the classic film Bicycle Thieves with the episode titled, appropriately, "The Thief" and ending with an ambiguous final shot at the end of the tenth installment titled "Buona Notte" that will leave anyone with a pulse begging for more, wondering whether what we just saw is or isn't reality.

It isn't just about the start and the finish though, with everything in between being such a smooth and easy watch, with my wife and I plowing through all ten episodes in two days this weekend and we could have watched even more had they been available. What is truly remarkable about the deft creative touch of creators Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang is the way they play with tone not only from episode to episode but moment to moment, knowing just when those watching at home need a laugh and then suddenly we will all stop smiling because of something powerful, something insightful and something moving. Ansari and Yang have stories to tell and by god, tell them. I will listen to them all.

The thing about this show that may throw some off is that even though it does run in a cohesive linear pattern from point A to Z in terms of storytelling, Master of None is more than willing to get sidetracked along the way with one off episodes and I love it. Not every character has to pop up in each one, not every set piece has to be utilized over and over, and while a romantic arc does begin in the first episode and become the major plot mover to close out the season, it isn't our one and only emotional piece of the puzzle, say like a typical sitcom and the way a budding romance is teased and yanked away from us as a means of "will they or won't they?" every single week for years. Master of None has now hit us with two pretty big "will they or won't they?" moments but during the journey we see other character's stories told and the results are extraordinary.




Those that loved the first season of the show and specifically were big fans of the parents in the series, played by real life parents of Ansari (Shoukath and Fatima Ansari) and Clem Cheung as the father of Kelvin Yu's character Brian, will be happy to hear they are all back and used in terrific ways, like the third episode titled "Religion", but the standout family episode of the season has to be "Thanksgiving" which revolves around Denise and her family, watching the way things change from one Thanksgiving to the next starting when her and Dev (Ansari) are in middle school, with the main conflict around the table for dinner is Denise finding her truth with her homosexuality and being willing to come out to those she loves but knows won't accept it. It's honest, painful, raw, real stuff, and it is also unafraid to be really, really funny without damaging the importance of the message.

The best episode of the ten though is titled "New York, I Love You", a standalone piece that barely features a familiar face at all, instead following different people with completely different stories to tell as they all wind up in the same place. It's ingeniously plotted and structured and is willing to go in traditionally uncomfortable places in order to portray realism, like when we are following a deaf woman and absolutely no sound of any kind is used during her entire segment. We are in her shoes, seeing the world through her eyes and more importantly not hearing a thing much like she cannot, and it is really fascinating to recognize exactly what is taken away from an experience when it is delivered in silence. It isn't that she is doing anything particularly remarkable, in fact her day is completely unremarkable, arguing with her boyfriend over their stale sex life and joking in a store about buying an ugly scarf, but that's what makes it such a personal and revealing thing to witness: imagine your day, a fun day shopping and spending time with a loved one. Now imagine that same day but you're deaf. Obviously ten minutes of watching a show without sound cannot truly replicate what it is like to live as a deaf person, but it's still a viewing experience I won't forget, and I am proud of Ansari and Yang and anyone else writing for or contributing to Master of None in any way for trying something so interesting.




The first season of Master of None was awesome, a special slice of television, but they have truly stepped up their game with season two, and considered it was 18 months between the two seasons I have to wonder if more shows should be willing to take their time and really pour their minds, hearts and souls into the work to get it right rather than rush the product to meet deadlines and pull in ratings. I don't care how long it takes before Aziz sits back down and starts crafting a third season, as long as he keeps making such extraordinary entertainment.

Okay, I care a little bit. Please make a third season and don't take too long. I already want to know what happens next right now.

Master of None is a Netflix original series, and if you have Netflix you absolutely must watch it. If you don't have Netflix, you absolutely must order it and watch it. Even if it's just a free month trial thing. Shh, I won't tell.




Season Grade: A+

Friday, May 12, 2017

The Small Screen: The Leftovers




This isn't so much a review of anything specific regarding the HBO Original Series The Leftovers, as writing such a thing randomly for the first time after watching the fourth episode of the the third season is a strange place to start. It's the fact that I just watched the fourth episode of the third season that inspires me to write something. anything about this series because it wasn't smooth sailing for me to become a fan of the show.

Prior to the release of the first season I read an article about the production of it and decided to give the novel it is adapted from a read, and I'll be honest, I had a very mixed reaction to the book from author Tom Perrotta. Brilliant in concept but the read left me a little cold, my expectations dashed, I still was geared up and ready to go for the television series because I figured HBO so consistently produced quality programming, surely it would be the type of material that would translate really well to the screen.

Then the first season hits and...eh. Pretty good. Not great. Just wasn't floored, despite the excellent performances and top notch production value I was still left cold, wondering why a story about a fascinating event like the rapture and the aftermath of it wasn't grabbing me emotionally like I had hoped. I hung around for the first eight episodes of the season, pessimistic that the show could go anywhere else after the already laid out plot from the source material and I ended up not even watching the last couple of the first season. Figured I knew what was going to happen and between the many other television programs and films I planned to watch, no need to waste another two hours on it. I moved on.




Fast forward to the following year and the second season of The Leftovers is due to be released, no where even close to my radar but I happen to catch some reviews that were filled with extreme enthusiasm for the direction the series had gone, and I was stunned. Not so much that others could fall in love with the show, one person's trash being another's treasure is true of any art and lord knows I respect the hell out of that, but it was the level of praise being heaped toward the show that caught me so off guard. Despite the weekly excitement and reactions to another great installment, I continued to avoid the show although I'm really not sure why. Every time I considered going back and just picking up from where I left off, I would find something else to watch and push The Leftovers to the side.

Finally it was announced that the third season would also be the last of the show, which intrigued me enough because I knew catching up on it would also mean getting to see how they could end such a story, and then I saw the reviews of the third season and holy lord were they through the roof. I knew it was time, and boy was it time. What a brilliant, perfectly constructed series The Leftovers has become, constantly intriguing and bizarre and shocking fashion, always keeping me on my toes episode after episode and now that I have caught up I would imagine week after week. Sort of sad that I have finally opened my eyes to just how spectacular a series this is with only a few weeks left to go, reminding me of the way I went about seeing Six Feet Under, easily one of my favorite programs of all time. I had not seen a single episode until the final season was underway, scooping up DVD box sets (the only way one could binge watch back in 2005) until I was able to watch the final few installments on the night they aired, including what is still the greatest series finale of all time.

Which leads me to the question that keeps flying through my mind since I watched the most recent episode last night: how will they end this show? How the hell do you conclude such an odd, unique show with such a chilling and thought provoking premise? With most shows I can form a guess, even if I end up being proven wrong (I formed a guess with Six Feet Under...boy was I wrong there). I can't even come up with a shot in the dark theory, although I am sure creators Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta had a pretty clear plan in their minds, and I hope it is just as rewarding and intelligent as the last season and a half have been, and I also hope it is unconventional because that is exactly what a show like this not only deserves, but needs. It is essential The Leftovers goes out in a fashion that will leave a memorable taste in viewers mouths, even if it is polarizing rather than universally appreciated.




To sum up this post: basically, I haven't been writing as much lately nor watching as many films in general because the news is an endless shit storm circling around a President I am ashamed of and embarrassed by, and to distract myself I have been watching a lot of stand up comedy specials and reliable favorite television series from years ago that put a smile on my face, all while playing endless amounts of my Nintendo Switch. Despite this, I knew it was time to put down the games for an hour a night and really devour The Leftovers (<<<this was unintentionally when I wrote it, I swear). What a delicious dish the series has turned out to be (okay, this time it was intentional). Being challenged to actually absorb the nuance and admire the complexities of such a narrative has brought my desire to shift back to normal and watch more great films and write a bit more about them. Television series as well, of course. There is a second season of Sense8 waiting for me on Netflix and a new season of Master of None dropping today after all, so lord knows I will be consuming plenty of episodic television but I won't be distracted, I won't be looking away. The world sort of pushed me away from my love of these arts, but I think it's time to welcome them back in again, mostly thanks to a single show that reminded me how great it feels to dig deep into storytelling and think about the world and the scary shit in it rather than try to block it out.

If you were like me and abandoned ship early, or never watched The Leftovers at all, do it. Just do it and get ready for an absolutely masterful second season and the first four of the third and final season being just as remarkable, maybe even better. It is so, so worth the journey.

I will hold off on a score of any kind because, like I said at the beginning, this isn't a traditional review. Not yet. I will write a bit more thoughts after the show wraps up, and that thought is bittersweet because with only four more episodes to go, I don't want it to end, but holy shit I can't wait to find out how it does.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Casting JonBenet Review




I want to be upfront with a warning regarding viewing the new Netflix original documentary Casting JonBenet: it takes some time before you can really make sense of what the picture is trying to do, and I'm sure many will still be left cold even after it ends because the film doesn't provide a single answer. It's not looking for answers. I have seen some clickbait headlines about how the film presents a new theory on the murder of young JonBenet Ramsey, it doesn't and director Kitty Green never sought out to solve the notorious cold case. What she does do is focus her microscope on a very specific and well known case to explore bias and obsession with such cases, and the way the film is structured makes for a fascinating watch.

Casting JonBenet is presented as a series of interviews, which normally would scare me off a bit with a documentary because I have grown a tad weary of the talking heads telling a story that lacks footage of its own style, but what transpires her is different because Green is reliant on this method to make a statement. The subjects being interviewed are under the impression they are auditioning for a role in a new film based on the JonBenet Ramsey story, each person there to try to play a member of the family or a key other piece to the puzzle, one that has never and unfortunately may never be solved. Each subject in Casting JonBenet is a resident of the Boulder, Colorado area that the murder occurred in, many of them residing nearby when it happened and the perspective they share along with their deep rooted beliefs on what happened that night prove to be illuminating as to how each person sees things differently and form bias in their own way.

The surprise of these interviews is that through discussing the case and the way each person sees it, some of the subjects end up opening up about their own tragedies and traumatic experiences, as if trying to fill the shoes of a member of the Ramsey family has created an almost therapeutic channel for the pain they either push down or bottle up. From a woman reliving her own molestation to another who experienced the murder of her brother when she was a child, a man who was once briefly suspected of foul play after the unexpected death of his girlfriend before the evidence cleared him, these people aren't merely looking into a camera trying to win a part, they are looking into a mirror and exposing how each can relate to what happened to JonBenet Ramsey on the night of December 25th, 1996.




Kitty Green isn't looking for the truth, she's looking to dissect the concept of truth and the way we form our own opinions and conclusions. As a result she has crafted a terrific documentary.



4/5



Thursday, April 20, 2017

Kong: Skull Island Review




Kong: Skull Island is dumb, predictable, and often times feels recycled from previous big budget blockbusters. It's also a ton of fun.

It's impossible not to land on Skull Island and think you are about to embark on a journey through a Jurassic Park sequel, as the mix of characters from military meatheads to fish out of water scientists stranded on a dangerous, isolated island full of creatures feels all too familiar. What Kong does well though to make it stand out from the work that director Jordan Vogt-Roberts and writers Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly clearly ape (pun intended) is their dedication to embracing the time period it takes place in, utilizing a Vietnam war atmosphere and a clear nod to Apocalypse Now to bring some batshit crazy awesome visuals to life, so vibrant and ridiculously cartoonish that it's impossible not to grin.

You don't typically buy a ticket to a film like Kong: Skull Island for the performances and that stays true here, although no one is by any means poor in the picture. Lead by Tom Hiddleston and the wonderful Brie Larson, they do what is expected in a movie where the real stars are the action sequences and visual effects, and the supporting performances from brilliant veteran actors like Samuel L. Jackson (although his character is the biggest cliché of the whole movie as he plays military guy who has his own violent agenda on the island that endangers them all) and John Goodman are rock solid but again, you won't walk away from a film like this talking about which actors were the best. You will be talking about Kong and the other creatures and the big, awesome action spectacle moments and the post-credit scene that builds a big monster universe whether you like it or not (I like it).




I can understand and appreciate every different opinion imaginable in regards to Kong: Skull Island, ranging from those that believe it is a terrible disaster to those that had an absolute blast with it on the big screen. I could see all the warts while watching and yet I cannot deny I enjoyed the experience, one of those movies I would turn on years from now in the middle of the night when I just want to lay down and look at something pleasing and fun for a couple of hours.



3.5/5



Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Win It All Review




I can find power in all kinds of stories involving addiction despite never suffering from all but one of them. Did I drink a fair amount on weekends in high school? Sure, but I also would volunteer to be designated driver and serve the position with ease, and now in my 30's I literally drink maybe 6 beers a year. I smoked a whole ton of weed during those days too, but I stopped without issue and despite the "gateway drug" claims, a door never opened for me to anything more destructive. Cigarettes? Tried one, what a waste of time. Probably helps I had already smoked a whole ton of weed at that point so the appeal of smoking something bad for my health with no potential to get high wasn't there.

I had one addiction though, one that brought me a fair amount of pain and watching it depicted in cinema still bothers me all these years later, probably because I don't think I will ever truly be "cured" of it. I was a gambling addict, technically probably still am.

Now I know this is going to sound like denial from an addict, but it was never about playing cards and I will continue to play when I get the chance. I love poker and I am good at it, and over the course of my many years playing it I almost certainly have come out in the black. I also always knew my limits while playing No-Limit Hold'em, an ability to recognize when it wasn't my night and walk away from the felt without losing it all. Oddly, while that is quite obviously gambling, I always maintained a calm, focused demeanor when around the game, always thinking and processing everything around me and I believe it is because I love it so much. Playing poker is never really about the money for me, it's just an added bonus.

My descent into gambling addiction hell came around 15 years ago and some colleagues at the time had a bookie. I caught wind of their conversations about what bets they were planning for the night and I thought, I have money and I love sports, I should give this a shot and initially started with 50 bucks here and there, win some and lose some, no big deal. Before long I was up all night wondering if my parents would lend me money because I had lost my entire paycheck and I was supposed to take my girlfriend out the next night or had a bill due soon. I would bet on a game being played at noon, lose and my entire day was ruined, sitting in misery wondering why I was doing it to myself when I experienced so little joy, but there I was the next day desperately trying to win it back, desperately playing catch up yet digging my hole even deeper.




It is with this personal experience that I enter films or television storytelling with a bit of trepidation but also curiosity over how genuine the portrayal would feel to me. The new Netflix original film Win It All, directed by Joe Swanberg, gets two essential aspects right: the lead performance of Jake Johnson and the screenplay, co-written by Johnson and Swanberg. Throughout the entire film I could feel the pain from those days when I struggled so deeply resurfacing because of the realism portrayed by Johnson, as I started to recall the times I would be talking to myself aloud, sorting out a plan to get it back or coping with the reality that there was no path forward until the next payday. I started vividly seeing the times when I would lose everything on a brutal beat but have to put on my best face to go out that night, pretending to listen to a conversation when in reality my entire thought process was consumed by what were the best lines to play the following day. Johnson is great and the script works completely, and on that level Win It All is a success.

The problem with the film is despite all it does right, even with the deeply personal way I can connect with the narrative, it still has a stale fog that hangs over the whole thing because the plot has been done to death before, the lead with the gambling addiction, things crumbling around him as he tries to maintain a new relationship with a love interest kept in the dark regarding the demons that haunt him. If you want essentially the exact same film as Win It All only with even more stakes since it is based on a true story, and an extraordinary performance from the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman, check out Owning Mahowny.

On its own terms and merits though, Win It All works because it's a smart film, one that portrays poker and addiction with realism whereas so many other films fail to do their research and feature cringe worthy scenes in which characters literally don't even play by the damn rules (if I see one more film with a character who says "I'll see your bet and then raise you..." I will throw my shoe at the screen). Jake Johnson gives a funny performance portraying a deeply flawed man that you can't help but root for, and for a film that runs less than 90 minutes, you won't regret watching it. I just wish it didn't feel so recycled in the end.



3/5

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

The Discovery Review




"Faith. Oh, God. I have such contempt for that word. Show me someone who relies on faith and I'll show you someone who's given up control over whatever it is they believe."


Early on during The Discovery there were some hiccups in the script that made me cringe a little, and I thought I was taking a dive into a film with a fascinating premise that would fail to appropriately execute it. I was so drawn into that premise though, one that tickles me in just the right spot in regards to what is quite possibly the greatest mystery our world will ever know: what happens when we die?

It's a mystery I struggle with on a somewhat regular basis, to be honest. I love being alive and the idea of a complete lack of existence is haunting. I want to believe in something greater than me, whether that be a deity or a powerful energy that connect us all or perhaps something else entirely that no one has even been able to conceive of as of yet. I look for proof of this throughout the world around us, as a beautiful day, a remarkable and deeply personal bond or the birth of a child serves as a far more profound message of something else guiding our world than a book could ever deliver for me. I want to believe and I desire to know the truth, but I don't have faith.

I have read various studies and the resulting theories regarding an afterlife or lack thereof, but I have always wondered, what if actual proof of an afterlife was attainable? On the one hand, finding out another plain of existence is undeniably awaiting us would provide me with some comfort, knowing I could live out my days with a peace of mind that something awaits. However, it is safe to say that such an enormous and world changing revelation would not lead to only smooth sailing for everyone, and the brand new Netflix original film The Discovery delves into that territory.

With an extremely talented cast made up of Jason Segel, whom had stepped away from the acting spotlight for a couple of years prior to this, the brilliant Rooney Mara, the legendary Robert Redford and great supporting work from familiar faces Jesse Plemons and Riley Keough and of course the always lovely Mary Steenburgen, The Discovery is not lacking in terms of performances and after those rough bumps I mentioned early, the screenplay really settles in and delivers some intriguing and meaningful dialogue as the story progresses. The film really takes off for me during a scene when a test is being done during the quest to find the definitive proof to back up the public claims made by Thomas (Redford), a scientist who made the public declaration that an afterlife and as a result millions have taken their own lives in order to reach the next chapter of existence. His son Will (Segel) continues to be skeptical of his findings, and such skepticism presents two utterly fascinating questions that I continue to think about long after the film ended: what if the initial claims were wrong and so many people died as a result of them, but perhaps even more of a mind fuck, even if it's true, who's to say what happens next is actually better than what we have today?




Directed by Charlie McDowell, son of Malcolm McDowell and Steenburgen whom appears in the film, and co-written by McDowell and Justin Lader, The Discovery has a heavy vibe to it due to its premise but that's exactly the tone I am looking for when seeking out films covering such subject matter. I want my own mind to be challenged during and after the picture with the questions it presented, and this has proven to be the case with The Discovery. Various scenes like the one I mentioned earlier that allowed the movie to really take off continue to dance through my head, and I have no complaints. A few steps short of anything masterful, but Netflix has offered plenty of meat to chew on here, a welcome original film only a few clicks of the remote away from the comfort of your own home.



4/5


Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The Small Screen: Planet Earth II Review




I'm not a religious man and no church service can make me believe with any level of certainty that a God does in fact exist, but a series like Planet Earth II makes me wonder and want to believe there is something behind the scenes that crafted the incredible beauty our world has to offer.

A sequel to the series Planet Earth released in 2006, Planet Earth II utilizes 4K cameras to take us to some of the most remote places in the world and capture nature like never seen before, and it's truly a remarkable thing to behold. The 6 main episodes are titled for what each installment covers, "Islands", "Mountains", "Jungles", "Deserts", "Grasslands" and most interestingly "Cities" with a focus on how animals are living in a world that is being taken over by man and the structures we occupy. There is also a seventh episode titled "A World of Wonder" which showcases how the series was made, and the all too real danger this filmmakers and crew members put themselves in is unnerving and completely awe inspiring.

With our world changing seemingly every single day, and mostly for the worse rather than the better, it's fascinating to get an update a decade later after the first series to highlight the wonders of nature and how things might have adapted as a shifting climate continues to be a terrifying concern. Not everything is so serious with Planet Earth II though, although trust me, be warned that there are some really sad and hard to swallow moments as the series doesn't turn a blind eye to the hard truths that go along with the cruelty of nature (the most devastating moments arrive in the final "Cities" episode, especially a sequence demonstrating the damaging effects the bright lights of our world are having on a specific species). There are plenty of adorable moments and laughs to be had, with narrator Sir David Attenborough bringing an essential balance of lightness, darkness and comedic playfulness to the various moments they capture throughout.




Planet Earth II is the best show of 2017 thus far, an incredible non-fiction event that absolutely has to be seen, although if I can make a suggestion to those that didn't catch it on television but do want to watch it, perhaps wait for it to be streaming on a service like Netflix because of their abilities to properly stream native 4K, if you have a 4K television of course. Because my cable provider isn't able to broadcast at that level, I fully plan on watching this show all over again on there when the time arrives and explore the world all over again the way it is truly meant to be seen.



Series Grade: A

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Beauty and the Beast (2017) Review




A word that will be used a lot to describe the new, live-action retelling of the 1991 Disney animated classic Beauty and the Beast is "unnecessary". It's the most commonly tossed around word when one is judging a remake of any kind, specifically when the original film is so acclaimed and cherished, and while I can't disagree in the sense that of course the film doesn't need to be made, my general opinion on the matter is, why not? I know, I know, less retreads, more original ideas. Celebrate bold and daring cinema rather than business as usual projects that are made with the goal of printing money. Here's the thing though, remakes and sequels are going to happen. They are a part of the cinematic landscape whether you like it or not, and while the concept of don't pay for a ticket and then studios will learn their lesson is accurate, in the words of Terence Mann from Field of Dreams, "People will come.". 

I walked into a nearly sold out IMAX screening of the new Beauty and the Beast, people crammed into the seats like sardines excited to experience a story they love told in a new way. The box office numbers this weekend will be astronomical because people want the familiar along with the new, they want the nostalgia pouring out of the words they know with a dash of original content to mix things up a bit. They want characters that they have loved since their childhood played by Hermione Granger and the dashing actor from Downton Abbey (although for me it's Legion and The Guest that make Dan Stevens a familiar face).

When I say they, that includes me. Sure, I want more original cinema. I want more innovative storytelling and unique concepts and bold, memorable work. I also love the animated Beauty and the Beast and am more than willing to pay for a ticket to see if the magic translates to a live-action canvas, and while perhaps it has a bit of a pacing issue with some new content included that extends the length beyond the brisk, tight 80 minutes of the original, overall the good news is it does translate. The new Beauty and the Beast is a winner.




The single most important aspect to get it right was casting, specifically Belle because without the right beauty, no one would care about a beast. Emma Watson is perfect in the role with a look that glows and the essential touch to both charm and inspire empathy for Belle and her plight. To put it simply, if Watson was in the frame, that scene was better for it, and while it may prove hard to look away from her at times it's also mandatory in order to fully appreciate the artistry that went into the various elaborate set pieces and costumes, the way the castle is so perfectly lit to make one room inviting and the next ominous and unwelcoming. I previously mentioned Dan Stevens and he proved to be a good choice to play The Beast, while throughout a vast majority of the film you wouldn't know who was playing the role nor may you care to find out. Stevens' face was digitally imposed onto the Beast with motion capture technology so he is always playing the character, but what he is tasked with here doesn't inspire a level of praise that someone like Andy Serkis gets and deserves for his work in the new Planet of the Apes trilogy, although honestly it's not fair to hold anyone to those lofty heights and expect similar results. For what Stevens was asked to do here, he did it well.

As for side characters, Luke Evans embodies everything that is needed out of a live-action Gaston, the good looks along with the smug arrogance that makes him so unlikable. Nevermind the absolutely absurd controversy surrounding the film and Josh Gad's take on LeFou, with a blink and you will miss it "gay moment" that honestly is so tame and run of the mill it actually makes me cringe a bit that this film was being praised in the other direction for having taking such a progressive stance by introducing an openly gay character because now having seen it, can we really call him openly gay? I expected a far more inclusive and heartwarming statement about love and equality, but I digress. I won't judge the film because of hype but rather what the film itself actually achieved, but I figured it was worth mentioning. The only actual issue with Gad's LeFou is that not every joke lands, especially early on in the film during his follow Gaston around and idolize him portion, but as the story unfolds his material feels less forced. Kevin Kline is solid as Belle's father Maurice, and Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Stanley Tucci and Audra McDonald all do great vocal work as the various household items in the castle that are brought to life because of the curse.

Perhaps it doesn't run as smoothly as the 1991 animated feature and of course since the material has already been done, this retelling was never going to feel as fresh as that once did, but it was easy for me to get lost in the songs I know and love, the intricate detail that went into crafting the village and the castle, the precise choreography that made big musical numbers feel joyous and effortless and the performances by a gifted ensemble, lead by a beauty that was born to play Belle.



4/5

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Logan Review




"So, this is what it feels like."


For years now I have heard the calls from many for an R-rated superhero film, and I will be honest, I was pessimistic. Not opposed to it but also not calling for it myself. My concerns stemmed from the idea that once the green light for such a project was given, the content that would ultimately earn that rating would feel forced, plugged in for the sake of shock value and grabbing headlines rather than flowing naturally with a great story. While I very much enjoyed Deadpool for what it is and am not afraid to admit laughing quite a bit while watching it, that film did step in the trap I feared a bit, with a screenplay that is steeped in dick jokes yet conventional in its origin story foundation, willing to step over the line to make the audience blush but unwilling to have the balls to put care in the right places in order to make a good film great.

For all of you who were calling for the R-rated superhero film, congratulations. Logan is the blueprint of exactly what you were hoping for and exactly what I doubted could happen, a story not bogged down by an overwhelming desire to prove just how R-rated it is but rather one that feels totally natural using the freedom it was given. That's the word that kept coming to mind as I watched the film last night: freedom. Director James Mangold litters his film with brutal violence and plenty of foul language but it all feels right in this painfully honest, desolate vision of an aging mutant long since past his prime, hiding in the shadows under an alias trying to make an honest living just to be able to afford the life he envisions for his remaining years.

Without question Hugh Jackman does his best work of the entire franchise here and it can be hard watching a hero fall apart before our eyes, but it's a beautiful thing when the actor brings so much passion to the role. His chemistry with Patrick Stewart reprising his role as Charles Xavier is top notch, sharing plenty of frustrating, pain and love on screen that makes their briefly used ruse in the film in which they pretend to be father and son feel so real. The breakthrough aspect of Logan though is the introduction of young Dafne Keen as Laura, a young mutant whom shares the same abilities as Logan, being pursued by a group of men who clearly have ugly motives behind their desperation to put the girl back into captivity. The trio effectively form a family during the film and their bond blossoms despite limited dialogue thanks to performances and a screenplay that understands that the most important thing about this story isn't visual effects or constant battle sequences but rather a shared humanity between people who feel isolated and alienated because of who they are. Some of the quieter moments of Logan proved to be my favorite scenes.




My only real issue with the film is a somewhat lackluster villain, and by that I don't mean the entire group, what they did or their motivations going forward because all of that worked and made total sense, but rather the leader of the group specifically, Dr. Rice (Richard E. Grant). Starting with the only scene that made me cringe, taking place when Logan is watching footage taken in secret and Dr. Rice is heard literally instructing people to remember that mutants are not people, they are things, which for such a well written film felt so forced and unnecessary. It's quite evident and easy to understand that what we are seeing is evil and wrong, so having it spelled out with poor dialogue was basically on the same level as just flashing THIS IS A BAD GUY across the screen over his image. Even beyond that, I just felt this character was very underwritten and nothing more than a cliche, which stood out during a film that was anything but.

As this is the last time we will see Jackman portray this character on screen, it's hard to believe looking back that it has been 17 years since the first X-Men film when we were introduced to his take on Wolverine, and now it is difficult to imagine anyone else stepping into those shoes for future projects. What a fitting way for his run to end here, a punch to the gut and certainly not a colorful blast of fun some are looking for when taking their seats for a superhero movie, but the tonal balance achieved in Logan is remarkable and creates a beautiful, heartfelt and devastating story that finds a certain grace and delicateness despite the stellar action sequences that produce piles of bodies that met their demise in rather graphic ways. Throughout the film I found myself laughing, caring, and nearly crying but it never feels jarring, nothing beyond a little quibble here or there feels out of place.




Logan is a dark, hard hitting comic book film that explores the human condition and the universal desire to find ones "Eden", whether it be to reunite with people whom you can share yourself with or to disappear on a boat away from shore in search of a personal peace. It's haunting and powerful stuff and might just be the best X-Men film of any kind to date.



4.5/5