Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru Review

I think the problem with a lot of the anger we find in the rhetoric on either side of any coin these days is the inability for a person to think and rationalize with nuance. It's all centered around what does this mean to me, what do I believe without anyone stopping to think, what does it mean to others? Why do people feel differently than me? We need to step outside of our bubble, our comfort zone for just a minute and look at the big picture.

I am not going to be a hypocrite and claim I have always had the ability to do this myself, it isn't the case. Just a few years ago I would have taken one glance at a seminar hosted by Tony Robbins and written off anyone who would spend the significant amount of money to be a part of it as crazy. As it starts the attendees rise to their feet. They dance and they cheer and some shed tears instantly, and I would have walked the other way and quickly. I would have judged them all.

As I sat and watched the new Netflix documentary Tony Robbins: I am Not Your Guru, I pushed all of that aside and I truly took in the experience. I still judged, but not so much the attendees but rather Tony himself because I couldn't help but wonder about his motivations, whether they are truly born of decency and kindness or manufactured as an act, a gimmick for fame and wealth. I found myself empathizing those that threw down the cash to try and have their lives changed by this one man and his seemingly powerful words.

I was moved to tears by a beautiful young woman in the crowd who was willing to admit to a room full of strangers that she was suicidal because of a tremendously dark and heartbreaking past, a life she was born into that promoted the sexual abuse of a child as a way of connecting with God. I stopped looking at these people as strange and started to see the world through their eyes, at least as much as I possibly could since I could never fully understand their pain. Of course these words would mean something to a soul so vulnerable, so desperate for answers when no one else would take the time to listen to their cries. The old me would have rolled my eyes at Tony Robbins and his pseudo-therapeutic "performance". The new me at least connected with how important he was and likely continues to be for many others.

What I can judge, however, are the merits of the documentary itself and this actually proved to be quite difficult. Directed by Joe Berlinger, a man who is likely not a household name in most places but is in mine thanks to his Paradise Lost series regarding the wrongful convictions of the West Memphis Three, took on the challenge of filming Tony Robbins during a huge event in California, allowing the world to see behind the curtain of what makes Robbins such a draw, and on that level the film is a success. As I said before, I now understand why so many people would pay so much for short term salvation, and I say short term because that brings up another problem I have with Robbins himself. I feel like his brand devalues the importance of seeking actual regular therapy from a professional, because anyone who believes pain that deeply ingrained in someone for months, years, even decades can be wiped away after 4 days of dancing and words is simply flat wrong. Perhaps this is an unfair criticism for me to make because maybe his team of employees do go deeper behind the scenes, connecting the patrons with recommended places they can go to continue treatment, but if he truly holds their head and says some inspiring things only to turn away from them, it would be tragic.

Where the film fails is in the way it portrays Robbins, and how Berlinger feels about him personally may have played a role since I have read he is a fan. There is absolutely no attempt to dig deeper into his character beyond softball questions and reflection upon the rough upbringing Robbins faced at the hands of his mother, which is inspiring and important, yet to accept it as the one and only thing that drives him without even a sniff of trying to question his reasoning for charging such desperate people a price of $5000 each seems misguided. I'm not oblivious to the fact that putting on such an event with entertaining production values, a full crew and whatever other expenses can add up, but I would love to hear to what extent greed plays a role in his drive to help people. The one woman I mentioned earlier apparently sold all of her belongings to pay for the opportunity to have Tony Robbins motivate her. I can't be the only person of which that doesn't sit right.

Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru is a tough nut to crack because it fails as a documentary but completely succeeds as entertainment. If it were on cable in the future, I would probably sit through it again just to take in the way those that believe in his message look at him, like he walks on water and will truly change their lives for the better. It's fascinating, but knowing Berlinger is capable of such comprehensive and nuanced non-fiction work and yet he essentially crafted an infomercial is disappointing.


Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Small Screen: Stranger Things

Bear with me here, as I have never written about the medium of television until now. I watch plenty of shows and yet I have always resisted the idea of treating them the same as films and I think it's because I used to look at the two experiences differently. A movie feels like something that is meant to be studied, broken down and discussed where as I have viewed television as an escape from such analysis. Even the most fascinating and complex shows, the best of the best that still made me think days, months, even years after they aired, I would let simmer in my brain rather than actually putting the words together to express how I felt. Trust me, I have plenty to say regarding Breaking Bad and Six Feet Under, my two favorites of all time. Simply never felt compelled to.

It isn't that Stranger Things is the first series worthy of finally putting those words down. It's just the show that inspired to do it. I felt something special and wholly unique while watching the Netflix show, which is a bit ironic considering a lot of what invoked those feelings centers around the brilliant way the creators of the show paid homage to the films that inspired them. Like a wonderful hug from 1980's Amblin Entertainment, the Spielberg influence is obvious, but if you look closely you will also see John Carpenter, Wes Craven, David Cronenberg, Stephen King, and perhaps even a bit of Richard Kelly's Donnie Darko, not the mention the spellbinding musical score that plays like an amalgamation of the work of Cliff Martinez on the film Only God Forgives and Disasterpiece's perfect score for the movie It Follows.

Yes, Stranger Things is both utterly familiar and yet completely fresh. How is that possible? Ask Ross and Matt Duffer, or as they are credited on the series, The Duffer Brothers. I am not afraid to admit that I had to Google these two when I saw the names and even after finding the results they remained unknown to me, but they are not only on the map now, anything they touch will be can't miss going forward. I am not overstating this: Stranger Things is that good. It's great. It's can't miss television dripping with nostalgia and yet completely modern, a series that I somehow both loved in the early 90's and again in 2016 because I could feel the kid in me that was drawn to my then favorite show The X-Files screaming with joy over what I was watching now.

The cast of this series features Winona Ryder, Matthew Modine, David Harbour, and then the insanely impressive collection of young actors that have previously done little with their careers and yet every single one shined during Stranger Things. Charlie Heaton as Jonathan Byers. Noah Schnapp as his little brother Will. Finn Wolfhard (what a fucking name that is) as Mike Wheeler. Natalia Dyer as his older sister Nancy. Gaten Matarazzo as Dustin, who is a small child that has played two roles ever including this one and he stole so many scenes here, eliciting actual loud laughter from me with his timing and delivery of dialogue. Caleb McLaughlin as Lucas and last but certainly not least Millie Bobby Brown as the mysterious young girl known as Eleven. So little experience between them all and yet this show proves how irrelevant that can be as long as the talent is there and the showrunners know what they want and get the most out of their cast. It's not only fair, it's only natural to think of The Goonies as you are watching Stranger Things because the chemistry between the kids is similar and equally as noteworthy.

Alright, so just some basics on the series. Nothing more because spoiling anything doesn't help anyone. The less you know as each episode unfolds the better because the title is apt. The story just keeps getting stranger and stranger as the pieces of the puzzle start being put together. At the start of the first episode, a young boy named Will (the aforementioned Noah Schnapp) disappears and his family, friends and the community around him try to cope with their grief and also make sense of what may have happened to a young child in such a quiet town. Winona Ryder plays his mother and when signs of government conspiracies and supernatural forces start to appear before her eyes, she continues to fight to find the child she lost, even as everyone around her is ready to assume that he has died.

I could go on and on with everything that I loved about Stranger Things, but I want to single out one aspect now because I think it's important: the first season of this series is only 8 episodes long. Why is that important? Because God bless those that recognize the importance of pacing and telling the best possible story rather than filling their material with filler and fluff in order to extend a show and earn more money. Some of the dramatic series' on network television have exciting premises but they die under the weight of 22 or more episode seasons because staying compelling and within the frame of a streamlined narrative is virtually impossible when asking writers to cook up so much content. When the announcement regarding season 7 of Game of Thrones came recently, that it would only feature 7 episodes, many cried out for more where as I wanted to applaud HBO and those in charge of the show for being willing to admit they need to do less. Earlier I mentioned my two favorite series of all time, Breaking Bad and Six Feet Under. What do those shows have in common? Both lasted only 5 seasons and only 12 to 13 episodes per. They ignored the popularity of what they had created and the size of the checks rolling in as the ratings increased because going beyond the potentially perfect conclusion merely for money would kill what had been achieved thus far. If you want a negative example of what I mean, go watch Dexter and try to endure seasons 5 through 8.

Because of the desire to tell this story in only 8 episodes, the Duffer brothers managed to create a show that is literally always entertaining. Always. I was never once even the slightest hint of bored, always invested in the characters and the relationships and the horrors they are forced to face. There is no filler present on any piece of the series and they left the perfect amount of loose ends that still need to be sewn up without being annoying and unfulfilling. I am already so eager for a second season and yet I am more than willing to wait because I know what matters most is the team of people that need the proper amount of time to be creative and come up with the best possible next chapter to this story.

Over the course of only a few days I managed to sit down and take in all 8 episodes of Stranger Things and if it were up to me I would have watched them even faster than I did (being a husband and father and having a full time profession hampers the ability to binge an entire series as quickly as I wish I could). I want more so badly I will likely revisit this first season from the beginning and this is unusual for me so it speaks volumes. When I love a film, I will sit down and screen it 10 times within a two year span and the way it speaks to me somehow never feels redundant, and yet with television no matter how much I love a show I rarely feel compelled to start over and relive the whole thing again. Stranger Things will get a second viewing because each frame is so creatively ingenious and imaginative that I couldn't have possibly appreciated every nook and cranny like I want to.

I keep thinking about the fun, the fear, and even a few tears that were shed as I watched Stranger Things unfold. It's tremendous entertainment and should be able to connect to viewers from multiple generations. Those that are too young to understand the magical storytelling abilities of artists like Spielberg and Stephen King can experience a similar feeling today by watching this series by the Duffer brothers. Those that love the influences of this show can connect the dots and appreciate just how comfortably these 8 episodes meld together the warmth of familiarity with something new and inviting.

Stranger Things is right up there with House of Cards as the best two series thus far from Netflix. Watch the first episode and see if you can stop yourself from turning on the second. For me it was 3 before I even realized how long I had been sitting there.

If you don't have Netflix, order it. Hell, ask a friend for their login information and watch it for free, and don't you lecture me on stealing. Just find a way to enjoy Stranger Things.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Ghostbusters (2016) Review

2016 has produced some truly outstanding films, but it's safe to say the summer tent-pole slate has been lackluster. Captain America soared but other seemingly safe bets in terms of entertainment level like Batman v Superman and X-Men: Apocalypse failed to leave a lasting impression. While a rebooted Ghostbusters doesn't exactly sound like a fresh idea, writer/director Paul Feig wanted to put his own stamp on the franchise by bringing it back with something interesting to say in terms of gender roles, but a new spin on things doesn't necessarily mean a quality picture and the first trailer released by Sony Pictures was rather poor and made me assume the worst. Expectations lowered but still more than willing to give the movie a chance, I took my seat.

The result was a somewhat funny and pretty decent film, certainly not Feig's finest work but more than enough to give an audience a reason to smile for roughly two hours. The jokes are hit or miss but some that hit really work, and it isn't the fault of the cast when some attempts at laughs don't land. Kate McKinnon is very talented and has her moments in the film, but much of her humor hinged on the far too simple concept of weird equals funny and I wasn't buying a lot of it. Kristen Wiig is fine but her performance felt very familiar, and the same can be said of Melissa McCarthy but thank god Feig was smart enough to avoid any weight related gags that have become low hanging fruit material for an actress who can do so much more. My personal favorite was Leslie Jones who much like everyone delivered a few duds, but completely won me over during a scene taking place at a concert that was probably the funniest bit in the film.

The nods to the original film were fine and clever enough but I didn't find any of them to really add anything to the experience either. Basically just there to give people a reason to give the person next to them a quick grin only to forget about it later. The visual effects were occasionally awesome but it's a shame how much movies in general these days rely on such obvious CG without an ability to make it blend seamlessly. Where the original film made everything feel organic, even the most supernatural of entities, the contrast between human and green screen creation was apparent throughout.

I was asked today by someone whether I am leaning a bit more positive with Ghostbusters because of personal bias, and I think it's a fair question considering I do root for more female driven productions with the hope that as my daughter gets older it won't be such a surprise or noteworthy aspect to cinema if women are running the show. The ability to show a movie like this to her does make me smile, and I really appreciated Feig flipping the gender roles not only in terms of the ghost busting itself but the clever idea of making the sexy and vapid secretary role be played by Chris Hemsworth (who much like everything involved was hit or miss), so yes, it is entirely possible that I view something like this with a glass half full mentality.

Regardless, the new Ghostbusters is neither a roaring success nor the total disaster that a dark and creepy corner of the internet wanted it to be. It's just a fun time at the movies, which compared to much of the comedy being released, that's a pretty huge endorsement.


Sunday, July 17, 2016

First Half Best Films of 2016 - 5 through 1

The five best films of 2016 thus far. That simple. The movies that moved me the most, whether it be through laughs, violence, information, beauty or the chill of true dread, these five films are those that are most likely to stick near the top come year end. Why? What separates the best from those that finish just short?

I can only answer that question for myself. You are the only one who can answer for you. It's how art makes you think, reflect and feel. For some the movie I hate most this year will be their favorite, and that's okay. Embrace it.

I will sit here and talk about cinematography and lighting and performances and editing and writing, and I do that because that is what makes me think, reflect and feel. Well, that and telling a great story of course. The point is, I write about what I find to be objectively and subjectively important, whether it be something we can all see like a usage of color that is thematically relevant or something only I can feel, something that is speaking to me and tapping into a profound place. When I tell you a movie is the best, it's my best and the most I can do is hope that it will be yours too. If you loathe every moment of one of these films, I hope at the very least the fact that you hate it makes you think.

On that note, here are my 5 favorites so far this year:

5. Everybody Wants Some!!

Linklater does it again, another beauty from the man who demonstrates over and over just how intelligently he is able to capture the transformative stages of adolescence. Where as with Dazed and Confused he covered high school and Boyhood essentially covered it all, Everybody Wants Some!! has its focus on college, specifically centered around an incoming freshman baseball player days before classes begin. With brilliant dialogue that oozes with humor and heart, don't miss out on this wonderful film.

4. Green Room

In case I had any doubts (I didn't) regarding how much I love the new film Green Room, I went and grabbed the Blu-ray this past Tuesday when it was released and gave it a spin, a highly anticipated revisit. The bold and brutal genre film didn't disappoint. In fact its cuts may have sliced deeper. Director Jeremy Saulnier wowed me with his previous film Blue Ruin, and I think his maturity as a filmmaker shows with an tighter and more technically impressive effort this time around. If you can stomach this one, it will taste delicious.

3. The Neon Demon

So I included the "if you can stomach this one" disclaimer with Green Room. Let me take it a step further here: if you could NOT stomach that film, don't watch The Neon Demon. Just don't. If you had no issues with Green Room and want more challenging, violent and frankly bizarre cinema, you've come to the right place. Don't fall for the widely spread idea that this Nicolas Winding Refn picture is guilty of misogyny. See through that false accusation. What he created here is a criticism of the world that has placed such horrible and unhealthy expectations on women and the importance of physical appearance, and he perfectly puts the modeling industry specifically under the microscope. There is some other, far more hard to explain stuff going on too, including necrophilia and cannibalism (I'm not kidding). I loved this film so much and I can't wait to watch it again.

2. The Witch

Take my word for it when I tell you that a horror film that was released in February being in my top 2 so far for the year is a bit of a surprise. Typically this is a genre that doesn't quite reach such heights and especially not one put out early in the year during the dog days of winter. The Witch is something extraordinary though, a film that checked every box for me when it comes to what I am looking for. Thank goodness for the intense attention to detail from first time director Robert Eggers, a man who put a premium on atmosphere and the slow build up of dread through performance, setting and a pitch perfect musical score. I am not afraid to bust out the word masterpiece when discussing this terrifying film, so I had assumed this would comfortably be my favorite still at this point, but then a funny thing happened...

1. O.J.: Made in America

...I happened to watch the single greatest documentary I have ever seen. That's not hyperbole. O.J: Made in America is a revelation, the most comprehensive and brilliantly assembled doc I have ever witnessed. Clocking in at 7 and a half hours and I honestly wanted it to be longer, this film covers everything, and I do mean EVERYTHING, yet I wouldn't cut anything. Each piece of this puzzle matters, and the finished product is eye opening even for someone who was decently familiar with the infamous murder trial. Prior to watching this film I had always wondered how he got away with the crime. Now I know there was never a chance he would be convicted for what took place on that tragic, horrifying night. 

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

First Half Best Films of 2016 - 10 through 6

Let's move into the top 10 films of 2016 released during the first half of the year. This portion of the list is probably the most interesting to compare when I post my 50 favorites early next year because there is still a fragility to those ranked 6 through 10. I love these movies, don't get me wrong, but with so many potentially great pictures still due out over the next 6 months some of these could easily drop down pretty far when all is said and done, where as the top 5 is far more likely to hang on and stick near the top.

10. Zootopia

While Pixar typically gets all the attention, Disney Animation has released some really terrific films as well and Zootopia is an absolute winner. A fun cartoon featuring furry animals, sure, but this is a movie with a whole lot to say, the type of material that sparked an actual important conversation between my daughter and I on the way home from the theater. Combine the thematic weight of it all with a perfect vocal cast and a well crafted film that pays homage to the classic noir cinema from decades past, you can't go wrong with Zootopia, and it's a great thing to have a movie challenge kids into actually thinking rather than just frenetically throwing colors at the wall to create the illusion of fun.

9. Knight of Cups

If you have never seen a Terrence Malick film, don't jump into Knight of Cups blindly. You will likely say the words "What the hell am I watching?" and turn it off halfway through (if you make it that far). After debuting over 40 years ago with Badlands, Malick has had a fascinating career considering Knight of Cups is only his 7th film despite such a long span of time because of a 20 year gap between Days of Heaven in 1978 and The Thin Red Line in 1998, and it was when he came back that his work started to be more abstract in nature. 

My favorite film is The Tree of Life, a Malick picture from 2011 that when I watched it for the first time, I said "What the hell am I watching?" and turned it off halfway through. It took me revisiting in order for the point behind it all to click and ever since his style has played like pure magic. Knight of Cups isn't quite up to the level of his masterpieces, but it's hard to duplicate perfection. 

8. Midnight Special

The crazy thing about writer/director Jeff Nichols is that being ranked #8 for the first half of a year is a disappointment. When a man is capable of making such masterful films as Take Shelter and Mud, Midnight Special felt like an ever so slight step down, and yet I also can't praise the film enough. From most filmmakers a work this great would be a major moment for their career but Nichols is on a different level, a superhero story of a different variety about a boy with strange powers on the run with his father as both the government and a group of religious extremists pursue them. The movie serves as an allegory for parenting, the profound love a dad can have for his child and the pain that comes with potentially having to let go.

Expect two Nichols films to be on my top 50 by the end of the year because his other 2016 release Loving is supposed to be something extraordinary. I can't wait.

7. 10 Cloverfield Lane

This right here would be the biggest surprise of 2016 for me had it not been for the film that occupies my top spot, but I will get to that later. 10 Cloverfield Lane defines the word surprise since no one other than those involved in the production knew it even existed until earlier this year, when the studio dropped a shocking trailer on the world a mere two months prior to release date. The word Cloverfield being included had everyone guessing how it would be connected to the previous film released 8 years ago, and finding out the answer is a terrific experience. Carried by best of the year thus far level performances and a first time director in Dan Trachtenberg who showed an outstanding understanding of how to build and maintain tension throughout a thriller, this movie just plain works from start to finish.

6. Captain America: Civil War

The spectacle of the summer arrived early in May and it didn't disappoint. The same directing duo who brought us the fantastic Captain America: The Winter Soldier returned again for this one and they nailed the material yet again, delivering fantastic action and utilizing the characters and their already well defined chemistry beautifully. The challenge here was trying to introduce new members to the team as well, with Chadwick Boseman playing Black Panther and Tom Holland is our new Spider-Man. Both were perfect choices for the roles, and while the inclusion of Spidey felt a bit forced simply to set up his place in the universe, I can't complain. What they did with him, with everything really, is create something entertaining, compelling and fun.

Next up, the top 5! The best of 2016 so far! Stay tuned...

Monday, July 11, 2016

First Half Best Films of 2016 - 15 through 11

The list goes on. Still so much to be released in 2016, still so much to see that is already out from the first half of the year. Even at 56 films thus far I have only scratched the surface of all the movies thus far, but of those 56 I have formed a top 20. This is the second part of that list, 15 through 11 of my favorite films of 2016.

15. Deadpool

2016 has been the year of the disappointing super hero fare thus far, with only half of the releases from the sub-genre being worthy of inclusion in this list. Deadpool did not disappoint. So graphic, so vulgar, and so much fun, Ryan Reynolds was the perfect choice to play the lead and what most impressed me about the film was its ability to still occasionally take itself seriously and sell it too. One would think with all the jokes it would be hard to pump the brakes during the story and actually care, but thanks to strong writing and performances it works. 

14. The Jungle Book

A live action remake of the classic Disney film didn't seem like something I would be interested in when the new take on The Jungle Book was first announced, but Jon Favreau brought some unexpected magic to the story that, combined with spectacular visual effects, made this an exciting, compelling and moving watch. The terrific vocal cast made up of Idris Elba, Scarlett Johansson, Bill Murray, Christopher Walken, Lupita Nyong'o, Giancarlo Esposito and Ben Kingsley along with a good enough performance from newcomer Neel Sethi as Mowgli doesn't hurt either.

13. The Conjuring 2

When I first saw a preview for the original The Conjuring prior to its release, I was certain I would dislike the film. I loved it. When I heard they were making a sequel, I thought, oh boy. Horror sequels are usually a disaster. This is going to pale in comparison to the original.

Well, the original is better but not by much. The Conjuring 2 is still a hell of a film and it certainly benefited from director James Wan staying on when normally the names switch from one film to the next. I found the family at the center of the possession story to be less compelling this time around but lord have mercy is this still a scary treat.

12. Finding Dory

Much like the previous film, a Pixar sequel is typically a step down from the original (with the exception of the Toy Story trilogy of course, which all three are outstanding) and Finding Dory is as well...slightly....maybe. Honestly, it's close. It duplicates much of the heart and charm of the original while adding a great slate of new characters to the mix. Touching and tons of fun, Finding Dory is a great Pixar film even if it doesn't have the originality factor of some of the studio's best.

11. Hail, Caesar!

The Coen brothers delivered a comedy earlier this year that at first glance appears scattershot on a narrative level, but don't be fooled. These filmmakers don't typically dish out a messy plate, there is always a meaning to their madness. The side stories during Hail, Caesar! aren't meant to give us a resolution because they are all a part of a day in the life of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) and the result is a hilarious and surprisingly deep story that plays both as a love letter and spoof of 1950's Hollywood.

Next I will most this list into the top 10. Join me, won't you Mr. Bale?

Saturday, July 9, 2016

First Half Best Films of 2016 - 20 through 16

Halfway through the year, halfway through 2016 in film. It has been an interesting first half to say the least, a lot of good and an awful lot of bad which is to be expected. I have seen a few films which are pretty much locks to be top 10 of the year no matter what hits, even with Oscar season coming, but I can promise that a lot will change between now and when I post my 50 favorites list early next year. Last year I had films at my top 20 at the halfway point that didn't even make the cut of 50, so time will tell with what sticks around and what falls out. For now, these are the best movies I have seen thus far:

20. The Fundamentals of Caring

Paul Rudd wins me over every time. I can't help it, I see him and I expect to be amused and charmed regardless of the material he is dealing with. Good thing The Fundamentals of Caring is pretty strong material. A new Netflix Original film that is based on the book The Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Evison, it's a sort of predictable and familar feeling tale that still manages to smell fresh thanks to performances and clever and funny dialogue. Paul Rudd plays a writer who quits his craft after a tragedy strikes him personally and he decides to take a gig as a disabled teenager's caregiver. The chemistry between him and the teen, played by Craig Roberts, is outstanding and the film even manages to comfortably fit in a pretty decent performance from Selena Gomez. If you have Netflix, give it a stream.

19. The Shallows

I have seen a fair amount of "the best shark movie since Jaws" when it comes to The Shallows, which I assume is a tad tongue-in-cheek considering the competition isn't exactly fierce among the sub-genre. Still, it's a fact. The Shallows is intense and thoughtful and scary and wonderfully paced at only 78ish minutes. If you have no interest in brutal shark attacks and just want to watch it because you find Blake Lively attractive, you will get your money's worth. If you love a good thrilling survival story cleverly constructed by a director who knows what he is doing, go buy a damn ticket now and take a seat. The Shallows is worth it.

18. Jim: The James Foley Story

One day earlier this year, I came home from work and my wife was on the couch watching a documentary that had just started, like literally 30 seconds into it and I asked what it was. Jim: The James Foley Story, a look at the life of a man who did what he loved, being a war correspondent/photo journalist who put his life on the line on a regular basis and eventually he was captured and executed on video by ISIS. It's a powerful and moving portrait of a life worth your time.

17. The Nice Guys

You might not believe it with the duo of Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling at the top of the bill, but The Nice Guys is so damn funny, mostly thanks to the latter. Gosling kills it with his comedic performance here, exactly what this old school noir buddy comedy directed by Shane Black (director of Iron Man 3 among other films) needed. I'm already looking forward to revisiting this one because look out for it definitely sticking around for my top 50. I think I will appreciate it that much more when I admire the chemistry and nuance of the performances all over again.

16. Hush

I don't do well with home invasion horror films. I feel so uncomfortable watching them, which doesn't sound like fun (and it isn't really) but it also means the movie is doing its job. Hush did its job really, really well. I was unnerved and freaked the fuck out from early on until the very end, and despite a hiccup here or there with the narrative losing its steam, overall this is a horror film that lingers with me and makes me paranoid all over again when I start to think about it. A deaf woman living alone getting stalked around her own home by a deranged killer in a mask. Damn it, just typing this is making my skin crawl again. Time to close the blinds.

Speaking of horror, the image above comes from a film that will appear on the 11 through 15 list of my favorite films thus far from 2016. Stay tuned...

Everybody Wants Some!! Review

No one has the ability to capture the essence of transitioning between the stages of adolescence with such heart, humor and honesty like Richard Linklater. Two years ago, the Best Picture winning (fine, it didn't win, but I am still in denial) film Boyhood showed a boy named Mason experiencing the entire process of growing up between the ages of 6 and 18, and the authenticity of the story felt extraordinary due to the narrative decision to use the same actor (Ellar Coltrane) throughout and shoot over the course of twelve years. Despite Boyhood being my favorite of his films, the one that most will come back to and revisit time and time again is the classic Dazed and Confused, and who can blame those that do? It's an iconic and vital film, hysterically funny and shockingly deep under the subject matter of teenagers moving forward with their lives even if they would rather stay put.

Hysterically funny and shockingly deep? A similar serving of just that has returned as another delicious Linklater dish, this time with his self-described "spiritual sequel" to Dazed and Confused titled Everybody Wants Some!! and it's another winner from the man who simply gets how to tell stories like this. Rather than be centered on the lives of high school students, this time we get to focus on college, specifically an incoming freshman highly touted baseball prospect named Jake (Blake Jenner). What's really interesting is that this manages to be both a great film about college and a top notch baseball movie and yet almost all of it takes place in the days leading up to college and barely shows any actual playing of baseball at all. The setting of the film and the game they love are everything, yet they do not need to be seen in order for us to understand their significance to each of the characters.

The casting of this film is absolutely spot on, with every single member of the ensemble making their presence felt either in big or small ways. On the surface, much like with Dazed and Confused, this is a movie that feels simple and breezy and it plays that way wonderfully, but I was completely taken in by the intellectually rich and meaningful dialogue as well, words that almost feels as if Linklater himself is speaking through the characters he creates. Much like the ending of Boyhood, what we hear feels wiser than what is possible given the ages of the characters delivering these words and they feel baked in the nostalgic afterglow of a man who looks back at different periods of his life and means to remind others to enjoy them. Embrace them. Truly live them.

Put simply though, Everybody Wants Some!! is an absolute blast and much like Dazed and Confused I don't think I have really even scratched the surface of what makes it so great. Time will tell if it lives on as a classic like the former film. I feel good betting that it will.


Tuesday, July 5, 2016

2016 First Half Oscars - Best Director

My favorite category at every Academy Awards is Best Director. Well, that and Best Cinematography. I'm a geek, I know, but it's the truth. There is something about the recognition of the craft of a film, the vision of the man or woman who was in charge of it all that thrills me. It feels right up there with Best Picture in terms of significance and while those two awards used to go hand in hand with each other on a consistent basis that just isn't the case anymore. Alfonso Cuaron was recognized for the spectacular achievement Gravity but Picture went to 12 Years a Slave. Ben Affleck's Argo won the top prize but he wasn't even nominated for the personal award. It went to Ang Lee for Life of Pi.

Thus far in 2016 there have been some incredibly well made films, and of my five nominees for the award two of them are first time feature directors, one is still new to the scene and unknown, another gets booed at the Cannes film festival every couple of years and the last has been making beloved cinema for decades...and yet he still is somehow underrated when it comes to mass appeal from audiences.

Richard Linklater, Everybody Wants Some!!

Dazed and Confused. Before Sunrise. Before Sunset. Before Midnight. Boyhood. Just a sample of what Linklater has brought to the world and yet for most people, the name elicits a question back: "Who?". Well, if you loved the first film I mentioned, Dazed and Confused, you need to see Everybody Wants Some!!, the spiritual sequel to the former and you can feel the same delightful charm and essential grasp of adolescence during a specific era and the crucial moments of transition in a young person's life. Linklater just gets it and his movies are joyous. 

Dan Trachtenberg, 10 Cloverfield Lane

I really don't know much about Dan Trachtenberg except for two things, and they are pretty important: this is the first film he ever directed, and that means I need to keep an eye out for his next project because the man clearly has a terrific eye for entertaining and tension filled cinema. On separate lists I gave both my actor and actress top prizes to Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Goodman for 10 Cloverfield Lane, and behind those amazing performances is a director who knows exactly what he wants and is leading the way. 

Nicolas Winding Refn, The Neon Demon

I'm not the type of guy who likes to play the role of contrarian, so don't misunderstand me when it comes to Nicolas Winding Refn. Some may roll their eyes at me when I praise the man's work despite a mostly negative response to it otherwise, but I am just being honest. I fucking love his movies. I find them stylish, fascinating, meaningful and important, and while some see a vapid example of style over substance, I ask them to dig a little deeper and give the man more credit than that. His movies are absolutely swimming with substance, it's just not all right there for the world to see with ease. This very much applies to The Neon Demon and the screams of misogyny can be heard from every direction, but his statement on gender in society isn't criticizing women but rather the shameful expectations when it comes to appearance that the world of modeling has placed upon its victims. Refn should have actually been nominated for the Oscar for Drive, and while he was never going to get recognition for Only God Forgives I certainly wish he would have. The Neon Demon will go down a similar path but who cares? In my heart, Refn is a Best Director caliber filmmaker every single time out.

Jeremy Saulnier, Green Room

You may not believe it from looking at him, but Jeremy Saulnier directs some mean, vicious, bold cinema. Blue Ruin made the revenge thriller feel alive again and Green Room put a new spin on a survival story by utilizing a completely unique setting and terrifyingly brutal circumstances. The late great Anton Yelchin, Imogen Poots and other members of a strong cast give outstanding performances but the star of the show here is Saulnier. Every frame feels so moody, unsettling and real.

My winner for the 2016 First Half Oscar for Best Director is...

Robert Eggers, The Witch

As of the start of 2016, I couldn't even form a guess as to who Robert Eggers was. Now, I am eagerly checking on a regular basis to see what his next film will be. That's because The Witch is everything I want from a horror film and it all starts with Eggers. What a tremendous understanding of mood and pacing and lighting in order to build dread rather than cheap tricks to make an audience jump. Over the last few years I have been rejuvenated by the possibilities of the genre thanks to directors like James Wan, Jennifer Kent, David Robert Mitchell, but what Eggers achieved here is the best of the bunch. A horror masterpiece and his direction is pitch perfect.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

2016 First Half Oscars - Best Actor

First was Best Actress and now it is time to shift the attention towards the leading men who have showcased their talents for the world so far this year. There have been some fascinating and, upon reflection, heartbreaking performances from actors early in 2016.

Ryan Gosling, The Nice Guys

I am a believer in Ryan Gosling. Ever since I laid my eyes on Drive, I have been a huge fan. I even joke with my wife that if he pulled up to our house in that scorpion jacket and asked me to go with him, I would have to. It's the only choice that makes sense. That being said, I never thought he could be this damn funny. He is laugh out loud hilarious in The Nice Guys through his dialogue, mannerisms and even utilizing a gift for physical comedy that in a scene or two feels like something that could have come from the silent era and been just as funny back then. 

Ralph Ineson, The Witch

I nominated Anya Taylor-Joy for her lead performance in The Witch and I will extend the same accolades to Ralph Ineson for his powerful and haunting turn as the patriarch of the family being torn apart by the devil. Ineson is so believable and convincing playing such a role during these puritan days and watching his anguish and confusing as the world around him begins to collapse is terrifying stuff. 

Anton Yelchin, Green Room

A few weeks ago, the life of 27 year old Anton Yelchin was tragically cut short in a freak accident. This is not a pity pick or merely a way to honor him. Yelchin is absolutely deserving of any and all recognition he receives and if you are unfamiliar with his work and want to understand why the world of cinema is grieving such a loss, check out Green Room. That is, as long as you have the ability to stomach this intense slice of genre filmmaking that is brutal and unflinching. This was the moment when I saw something more, something truly special in Yelchin, and then just like that only two months later he is gone. Heartbreaking and his passing will add a new layer to a film that already portrayed him as terrified and fighting for his life.

Anton Yelchin, rest in peace. You will be missed. You already are.

Josh Brolin, Hail, Caesar! 

It takes a special actor to be able to deliver Coen brothers comedy with perfection and that's what we got this year from Josh Brolin in Hail, Caesar!. The film has a lot going on and at first glance it seems like a bunch of stories messily told without resolution, but really the movie is about Eddie Mannix and Brolin plays it with ease. A unique brand of comedy and Brolin was an essential choice for the role. 

The winner of the 2016 First Half Oscar for Best Actor is...

John Goodman, 10 Cloverfield Lane

10 Cloverfield Lane is two for two with my awards so far as the performances delivered the tension of the film which is exactly what made the experience so great. John Goodman is so damn great here, every look, every word, every little twitch of his body is so scary and real. The combination of Goodman and Mary Elizabeth Winstead makes this movie a must watch picture from 2016. I would love to believe Goodman will have his name called in the supporting category when the real Oscar nominees are announced months from now, but I doubt it. It seems like the type of performance that will be ignored by those who make such decisions but trust me, I won't forget.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

2016 First Half Oscars - Best Actress

I mean absolutely no offense to anyone listed, but suffice it to say the following names are not ones I would have mentally associated with awards prior to the beginning of this year. Well, one name I at least knew had the potential but considering I didn't even know the film was going to exist until 2016 had already kicked off, hard for me to pretend I saw that performance coming.

Yes, amazingly it is already early July and thus half of the year is over. Figured it would be fun to put together some lists of nominees and a winner from each category and be able to compare it to early next year when the actual Oscars role around. See if any of my summer nominees are able to stick around all the way through the fall and winter award season releases that typically dominate the attention.

I have seen 50 films released in 2016 so far, and these are my five favorite performances by actresses from those films:

Anya Taylor-Joy, The Witch

I caught wind of the buzz that surrounded The Witch when it premiered last year at the Sundance Film Festival, but I never expected the film to floor me like it did. A horror masterpiece and the star is an actress I had never heard of prior to this performance. Safe to say she has found her way onto my radar for the long term. Anya Taylor-Joy is the centerpiece of the disturbing events that occur in the film and she nails every moment. 

Imogen Poots, Green Room

After seeing the amazing Blue Ruin, I pretty much knew I might love anything that director Jeremy Saulnier did next. His ability to utilize mood and atmosphere in order to deliver something wholly unique and intense could have easily stole the entire show for me with Green Room, but turns out a couple of top notch performances would linger in my mind as well. I have seen Imogen Poots in a few other films prior to this but I was never all that impressed to be honest. Color me impressed now. She is absolutely perfect for the setting and circumstances that surround the characters in this film, a ferocious turn by an actress perfectly cast in an amazing film.

Blake Lively, The Shallows

Totally unexpected. I have never thought of Blake Lively as a terrible actress, but I also have never considered her to be a good one either. So when I heard she was asked to basically carry an entire thriller almost alone on the screen, I was skeptical. I apologize for my pessimism. Lively is terrific as a surfer who is forced to fight for her life when a shark attacks, and I officially believe. Give her the right material and I'm completely on board, and considering she is only now 28 years old, Blake might be ready to take off and show the world her talent for years to come. 

Elle Fanning, The Neon Demon

Nicolas Winding Refn doesn't really deliver cinema that bring the performances to the forefront as his vision usually glistens with style and a sublime understanding of framing, lighting and color, while the dialogue is typically not exactly complex or in the case of his previous film Only God Forgives, hardly there at all. That being said, knowing what to expect from The Neon Demon, Elle Fanning was the essential choice to play the lead role. She carries herself so perfectly throughout in order to deliver the thematic weight of the picture, at first selling us on her doe eyed innocence and kindness, a fragile young girl entering a dangerous and demeaning world, but when the lights and attention and run of success go to her head we see the transformation and it feels real against a surreal backdrop. 

The winner of the 2016 First Half Oscar for Best Actress is...

Mary Elizabeth Winstead, 10 Cloverfield Lane

Without a doubt one of the surprise films of the year so far, especially considering the studio, filmmakers and cast managed to keep it a total secret until only two months prior to its release, an unthinkable marketing home run at a time in which we are seeing trailers for films a full year before they premiere. The lead of the film is Mary Elizabeth Winstead as a young woman named Michelle who is run off the road by another vehicle one night and wakes up chained to the floor of a room inside a doomsday prepper's shelter and she is told she is lucky. The rest of the world is dead and they must stay down there until the dust settles above. 

John Goodman will steal the headlines for his outstanding turn in this film, but don't ignore what Winstead brings to the table here. It's pure excellence and true nuance from start to finish, which is why for me she is the best actress of 2016 thus far.