Thursday, December 31, 2015
One of the biggest surprises I have experienced since I started this blog and catalog of thoughts on film, television, etc., is not one you would expect.
Of all the reviews, countdowns, editorials and ramblings I’ve posted in the last few years, the one that has had the most longevity and some of the most views is not my revelation on Godzilla, or my favorite films countdown or even some of my early reviews. It is the countdown of my 10 favorite episodes of "My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic."
I post my reviews and editorials on multiple sites, and on one of them (World Of Entertainment) that particular countdown is in the top ten in terms of viewing in 2014 (though the highest viewed article from that year was my fan reaction to Gareth Edward’s "Godzilla"). But more surprising is that it is the most viewed article on the entire site for 2015.
I am beyond words. I knew there were bronies and pegasisters all over the internet, but damn.
Well, if that’s case, why not do another one? There has been a whole new season of "My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic" since the last article I published on the topic, and well over 30 new episodes.
As such, I will be counting down my top ten favorite episodes of "My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic" since my last countdown. Like the previous one, these are the episodes that have stuck with me the longest after watching them. The ones that I felt best personified this creative, funny and thought-provoking show made for both children and adults.
For those MLP fans out there, this will include every episode between "For Whom the Sweetie Belle Toils" and the end of season five, "The Cutie Re-Mark."
Number Ten: "Tanks for the Memories" (Season Five, Episode Five)
Quick back story for this episode - Every one of the main characters has their own pet. Twilight has an owl (named Owillicious), Pinkie Pie has a baby alligator who has no teeth (named Gummy), and Fluttershy has a bunny rabbit that seems set against ruining her life (named Angel). But the best pony-pet dynamic is Rainbow Dash, the speedster who is always up for a race, and her pet turtle, equipped with a magic propeller, named Tank.
Tanks for the Memories" is as close as MLP will ever get to the death of a pet. Since this is a show aimed for little kids, they would never be allowed to kill off any character, so they come up with the next best solution - Have Tank enter hibernation during Rainbow Dash’s favorite time of the year.
And of course, Rainbow Dash has an over-the-top reaction that would make even the Grinch feel jealous, by stopping winter from coming. Rainbow Dash would rather stop the time of year that makes her feel the most alive than lose her pet turtle for six months.
The first half of the episode is Rainbow Dash being unwilling and stubborn about losing her pet and that she can stop it. The second half starts with Rainbow Dash taking drastic measures to stop winter, including a "Mission: Impossible" style break-in to a weather factory. But what propels this episode further is the ending, with Rainbow Dash realizing that Tank will be gone and there is nothing she can do about it. A hard truth that any kid with a pet has to learn eventually.
This one was a touching episode with lots of funny bits scattered throughout. Plus Equestria looks beautiful in the winter, especially when it all plops down at once. Thanks for that Rainbow Dash.
Number Nine: "Inspiration Manifestation" (Season Four, Episode Twenty-Three)
Imagine a magic spell that could bring everything you ever wished to life. Everything you ever want to create, your hopes and dreams met with just a thought. Would you be consumed by this spell? Would all your generosity to help others turn into a lust to perfect everything in your own image?
This is what makes "Inspiration Manifestation" so great, as Spike finds a spell book to help out a stressed, overworked and under-appreciated Rarity. It is something so very rarely seen on this show, in a world full of magic, both good and bad, there is a spell that can be taken as a good thing, but can corrupt the user. But the strange thing is that, even as Rarity descends into madness, she still feels like she’s doing the right thing. Being the element of generosity, Rarity puts others and their well beings above herself, so the interest of others is in her mind. So if that means replacing all of their chariots with "Rar-iots" because these ones are better, then so be it.
Of course, this is an episode that focuses primarily on the relationship between Rarity and Spike, who has always had a crush on Rarity but has never reciprocated those feelings. Spike, in a desperate attempt to keep Rarity happy, agrees with everything she says even if the spell is beginning to take her over. But once he puts his foot down and steps up for himself, telling her that what she is doing her is wrong, the real Rarity comes back. A good lesson for anyone who has ever had a crush on someone else - they’re not perfect, so don’t treat them like they’re royalty.
Number Eight: "Do Princesses Dream Of Magic Sheep?" (Season Five, Episode Thirteen)
MLP seems to follow the "Mystery Science Theater 3000" style of comedy - These jokes are made, not for everyone, but for the right people. And this title, for those that get it, will find it hilarious.
One of the more mysterious and tragic characters in MLP is Princess Luna, the magical pony that controls the moon and the night. Her sister, Princess Celestia, controls the sun and day, and is often beloved by all of Equestria for providing life and happiness, while Luna’s work is overlooked. After years of being treated badly, Luna fought back and became the terrible Nightmare Moon, threatening to plunge Equestria into eternal night. But Celestia used her powers and the Elements of Harmony to trap Luna in the moon for a thousand years. After that time expired and the new Elements of Harmony forced the evil out of Luna, she returned to her princess duties and a protector of the night.
But not without punishing herself.
We find out in this episode that Luna put a spell on herself and created a nightmare creature that feeds off of her bad dreams. Now she has the same dream every night, of our main characters destroying Nightmare Moon, so that Luna would never forgive herself for what she did as Nightmare Moon.
And now that creature, called the Tantabus, has escaped from her dreams and is finding new ponies to unleash their worst nightmares on.
This the episode that best explores the character of Princess Luna, as a tortured soul who is filled with nothing but regrets and wants nothing more than to forget past, but is unable to.
Combine that with an imaginative story of exploring every main characters dreams, including Rainbow Dash fighting off Changelings, Twilight being in a never-ending library and Applejack with an apple that is ten times her size, and one of the biggest nods to previous episodes in the entire show in the final confrontation with the Tantabus, and you have a wonderfully beautiful and entrancing episode.
Number Seven: "The Lost Treasure Of Griffonstone" (Season Five, Episode Eight)
If there’s a theme throughout season five of MLP, it is redemption.
One thing that MLP has always done in the past is to convert old enemies into new friends, like the malevolent Discord and the phony "Great and Powerful" Trixie. Because locking up the bad and evil characters isn’t going to solve anything, and often times they’re misunderstood rather than evil. Especially in the case of our returning "villain" in this episode - Gilda the griffon.
Early in season one, Gilda was cast out of Ponyville by her former friend, Rainbow Dash, after she was an ungrateful and unpleasant bully to Pinkie Pie. Someone who was once seen as a one-dimensional villain is now shown to be a complex character that has been shunned her whole life for looking different, except by Rainbow Dash, her only true friend. Rather than despising her for what happened, Pinkie Pie welcomes Gilda with open hooves (or claws in Gilda’s case). And as Rainbow Dash reopens to her friend, so do we.
We are also given a history lesson about Griffons in the world of Equestria - a once proud race who lived together in harmony, until they were split apart by greed and selfishness. Which is what we see now - a once-mighty city on the verge of collapse, full of creatures that are too full of themselves to notice that everything they’ve stood for is falling apart.
This whole episode is one great reason why I love this show - Detailed world-building, heart-felt moments of kindness, and giving old characters new opportunities to become better characters due to quality writing. Throw in two of the best characters, Pinkie Pie and Rainbow Dash, going on an adventure through this city, and you get some of the best comedy and character moments of the season.
Number Six: "The Cutie Re-Mark" (Season Five, Episodes Twenty-Five and Twenty-Six)
The redemption train keeps on rolling.
Certainly the most complex new character to come out of season five was Starlight Glimmer. She was introduced in the first two-parter to open up the season, "The Cutie Map." Our cast of characters travel to a small town that she ran, where every pony had the same cutie mark. In Starlight’s words, this is her version of a utopia, where no pony is judged for being different and everyone is treated equally.
After her plans are thwarted and the town returns to normal, Starlight escapes into the mountains. Only to make her return here in the two-parter to end season five. Now she seeks revenge on Twilight for ruining her dream of a perfect world where other ponies would never be hurt by a cutie mark. Her plan of vengeance? To go back in time and prevent Rainbow Dash’s Sonic Rainboom that caused all of the main characters to get their cutie marks, thus separating their special bond.
What Starlight could never have predicted was what this event meant to the safety of Equestria. Twilight and Spike attempt to stop Starlight Glimmer, and fail every time, always returning to the "present," with each one getting progressively worst, as a former villain throughout the show succeeded in their plans to conquer Equestria. From Nightmare Moon unleashing eternal night, to King Sombra using the forces of the Crystal Empire to unleash a never-ending war, to the Changelings draining all the happiness out of ponies and forcing the survivors into the forest and always judging every newcomer that might be a Changeling.
This is, without a doubt, the darkest and most disturbing episode of MLP. We watch as Equestria falls apart, the lives we’ve witnessed over the past five seasons be destroyed by war, chaos and cruelty. In one timeline, Rainbow Dash has lost one wing and has it replaced with a metal one. While in another, Fluttershy, the element of kindness is ready to viciously kill Twilight because she might be a Changeling.
And all because Starlight wanted revenge on Twilight. Revenge, the most worthless of causes.
The second half of the second episode is dedicated to why Starlight would do all this and how she got to where she was. Twilight then realizes that she can’t beat Starlight. There’s no way she can stop Starlight from her plans and that the two could be at this for all eternity if they wanted to. But it would never solve Starlight’s problem - her inability to trust others and see that a cutie mark should be cherished, not mocked.
I won’t spoil how this one ends, since it could mean big things for the future of MLP. But let’s just say that, like when Twilight became a princess, this could have big implications for the next season.
Number Five: "Amending Fences" (Season Five, Episode Twelve)
But the theme of redemption is not limited to minor characters. In this case, Twilight is the one seeking to redeem herself in her first full episode about the newly crowned princess since "Magic Duel."
Twilight, now dubbed the "Princess of Friendship," has a realization one day - Before the events of this show started, she was a terrible friend. She was always reading a book or studying, never paying attention to her friends from Canterlot. And when the show started, she ditched everything there to move to Ponyville, never saying goodbye to anyone. Now she wishes to make up for this by returning to her roots and making amends to her old friends. What she finds out is that most of her old friends never thought badly of her, that this was who she was and just enjoyed her company. That is except for one friend, Moondancer.
In a call-back to the first episode of MLP, which was more of a throwaway line at the time, we find out that Moondancer was having a party, something she never did since she was an even bigger bookworm than Twilight. But Twilight, her best friend, couldn’t make it because she had "lots of studying to do."
And now Moodancer does nothing but studying for the sake of studying. Her journeys take to the library and back to her rundown cottage in the woods, far away from every pony. She has given up on socializing, because she knows that it will only end in misery when they have to leave or become too important for you.
This is a great example of how the writing on MLP is improving, giving us glances at these characters that make us question if they’re doing the right thing, while still being accessible for children. An episode like this would have been impossible in season two or three, but we see Twilight has a character who has made mistakes and wants nothing more than to make up for it.
Number Four: "For Whom the Sweetie Belle Toils" (Season Four, Episode Nineteen)
I mentioned in "Do Princesses Dream of Magic Sheep?" that Princess Luna is in control of the night, but she also has the ability to enter other ponies dreams and talk to them through their visions. We saw Luna do this with each of the Cutie Mark Crusaders, first with Scootaloo in "Sleepless in Ponyville" back in season three, and early on in season five with Apple Bloom in "Bloom and Gloom." This is Sweetie Belle’s turn and it is the best of the trilogy.
With "Sleepless in Ponyville" and "Bloom and Gloom," those were dealing more with Scootaloo and Apple Bloom’s fears of being rejected by Rainbow Dash and what it would mean to get a cutie mark, respectively. This one delves, not into Sweetie Belle’s fears, but the fact that she always feels overshadowed by her sister, Rarity. When she makes an entire play, including the set and dialogue, all any pony could talk about afterwards was the customs, designed by Rarity. Even when she tries to do what she loves, it is always about Rarity.
What follows is a "Christmas Carol"-like story, as we see the past, present and future of the relationship between Sweetie Belle and Rarity through dreams, while Luna puts a new perspective on what Sweetie Belle sees of her older sister. That when she made a fool of herself at her fifth-birthday party, Rarity was the one to turn the party around by making every kid happy, or that Rarity spent endless nights getting the costumes for the play ready, pushing aside all her other projects to do so.
This takes the amazingly creative dreamscape of the previous episodes and gives it a touching character piece about two sisters who now see more than just themselves in each other.
Number Three: "Crusaders of the Lost Mark" (Season Five, Episode Eighteen)
Yeah, yeah, stupid pun title. I know, but the importance and execution of this episode cannot be denied.
There’s no other way around it. This episode makes the list for a good reason - The Cutie Mark Crusaders finally get their cutie marks. And it was done so well.
For five seasons, this moment has been building up. Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo’s adventure began in early season one, when they found each other and decided to try to find something they were all good at and find their cutie marks together. Since then, they’ve strayed far from getting into dangerous situations to get their marks and instead found out more about themselves, like the previously mentioned "For Whom the Sweetie Belle Toils." They also learned what it means to have a cutie mark that it is not just a sign of maturity but that you have found your place in the world.
Now it all comes together perfectly, as we have one last tale of redemption with the one character every fan thought was unredeemable - the bully of the Cutie Mark Crusaders, Diamond Tiara.
For as long as the Crusaders have gone on their escapades, Diamond Tiara has been there to scoff at them, always calling them "blank flanks" and getting every kid in the school to laugh at them. As it turns out, her cutie mark allows her to persuade others into doing her bidding, which she has always used for her selfish and greedy purposes. She is, in every sense of the word, a bully. Until this episode, and we learn about how her parents don’t see her as their daughter, but as a way to climb the social latter faster.
Diamond Tiara has been misled and confused her entire life that she needs to block out anyone less than her and treat them as filth. When she learns what the Crusaders do outside of school, she says they are very lucky to be able to explore and learn about themselves. Diamond Tiara had this lifestyle thrust upon her and didn’t know any other way to take out her anger and confusion on the world.
The moment the Crusaders realize that Diamond Tiara has potential to help others, rather than hurt them, they help her realize her potential and what her mark truly means. They not only earn a new friend, but get their marks as well. They have found their calling - To help other ponies earn their cutie marks and help them realize what their marks mean.
The crusade comes to an end, but begins all over again.
Number Two: "Brotherhooves Social" (Season Five, Episode Seventeen)
And now we reach a new type of story for the final two episodes: Minor character theater.
If there’s one thing I loved above all else in season five, it was the world and character building. Not just what was done with the main characters, especially the Cutie Mark Crusaders, but the characters that normally don’t get the spotlight. It comes across like the show’s creators are aware of how popular this show as become, and that many fans’ favorite characters are not the main ones. Sometimes they’re background characters, ones who have never said a word or have less than a few seconds of screen time per episode, yet they pack so much character into those few seconds.
"Brotherhooves Social" is one of best examples of that, as the only main character in this episode is Applejack, for about two minutes. The focus of this episode is Applejack and Apple Bloom’s big brother - Big Macintosh, or Big Mac for short. A character that is known for his unbelievable strength, and his limited vocabulary of "E’yup!" and "Nope!" He is shown to have an impressive vocabulary and has even joined a barbershop quartet in one episode, but he chooses to stay with those two words most of the time.
In this episode, Applejack and Apple Bloom are excited for the upcoming Sisterhooves Social event, which they dominate every year. But when Applejack is called away due to a problem in Manehattan, Apple Bloom is crushed. So, Big Mac, in an attempt to please his baby sister, dresses up in drag, going by the name Orchard Blossom, so that he and Apple Bloom can compete in the event.
This is one of the funniest episodes of MLP, because of how different Big Mac and Orchard Blossom are. Orchard has a massive southern vocabulary, taking every opportunity to use the most fancy words imaginable. Orchard is extremely social and wants to get to know every pony, while Big Mac is content to himself and only talks to others if it is absolutely necessary.
And of course, no pony buys the disguise, they all know it is Big Mac dressed as a woman.
The final event of the social really highlights the comedy, as Big Mac desperately tries to win one event for Apple Bloom, and his strength breaks the entire course. The sight of an angry Big Mac in drag running right at Rainbow Dash is a sight that needs to be seen.
But what makes this episode stick with me is the ending, where Big Mac opens up to Apple Bloom. We learn that, even though he may not say much, doesn’t mean he isn’t feeling anything. That he feels like he’s being left behind, Applejack has a big role in Equestria and he stays on the farm doing his job. And yet, all Apple Bloom ever seems to talk about is Applejack. He can live with being on the farm all day, but it upsets him that his sister thinks so little of him.
"Brotherhooves Social" is a wonderful character building episode, with a touching ending, great comedy throughout and character building on someone that deserves more attention.
And the Number One best new episode of "My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic" is (Say it with me, pony fans)...
"Slice Of Life" (Season Five, Episode Nine)
This was the episode that fans have been waiting years to witness - a celebration of everything that is wonderful about MLP.
"Slice Of Life" is the 100th episode of MLP, a massively impressive achievement no matter what your show is about, and the creators of MLP have dedicated this one to the bronies and pegasisters, because they know this show would never have lasted five seasons and over 100 episodes without their support. So the creators give us a love letter to everything that fans have been asking for, to the background characters.
Outside of the final line of the episode, none of the main characters say anything or are featured here. This is an episode entirely about the characters who never have had an opportunity to shine and their "normal" lives in Ponyville. From the fan-favorite cross-eyed and clumsy Derpy, to the completely self-aware and hilarious Doctor Whooves (yes, they make every possible joke they can about that), to the "Lebowski" ponies that look and behave exactly like their counterparts in "The Big Lebowski," to the odd-yet-captivating relationship between DJ-PON3 and Octavia, one pony that is obsessed with modern techno beats and another that masters in classical cello music and share a house together.
Every major character that fans have speculated for years is given an opportunity to shine in this episode, as the town prepares for a wedding while our normal cast of characters are off fighting a monster. Derpy is as dim-witted as she is kind, the Doctor is obssessed with science and technology (what little there is in this world) while making as many "Doctor Who" references as possible, and the two musical ponies compliment each other nicely as they support each other in their endeavors to make better art.
But my favorite in this episode, by the slimmest of margins, is Lyra and Bon Bon. These two do everything together (In "Do Princesses Dream of Magic Sheep?," there is one scene where we see their dreams, and they have joined into one creature, similar to Nickelodeon's "Cat-Dog"). But when Bon Bon finds out about this monster the main characters are fighting, called a Bug-Bear, her cover is blown and her secrets have been revealed.
I won't go into too much detail, but let's just say there is often confusion about Bon Bon, especially in marketing and toys for MLP. Sometimes she's Bon Bon, other times she's Sweetie Drop, and every time she's spoken on the show she has had a different voice actress. The way it is handled in this episode is unforgettable.
And that's how I would describe "Slice Of Life" - unforgettable. Every scene is packed with references and jokes, each character is wholely unique and it wonderful to see a new perspective on MLP that has never been explored before. This episode gives us exactly what the fans wanted out of a tribute episode and I loved every second of it.
Tuesday, December 29, 2015
I was deceived.
Much like "The Secret Of Walter Mitty" from a few years ago, the trailer for David O. Russell's "Joy" made the film look and feel far different from what we were given. And just like "Walter Mitty," the product we got was a massive disappointment.
With Ben Stiller's comedy, the trailer made it look like the tale of a man who has a vivid imagination living his normal everyday life. A simple yet possibly entertaining film through how they would obscure point-of-view between reality and imaginary, especially since a lot more can be shown in a day-dream. What we got was a half-assed love story we've seen a million times with some admittedly beautiful cinematography and weird day-dream sequences that often felt out-of-place.
With "Joy," I was hooked by the trailer. To be fair, anything that stars Jennifer Lawrence has my attention, but then you have her play quite possibly her most realistic yet traumatized character so far and show us only a glimpse of her breaking out of that shell, and you have a film that I will see opening night. Throw in Robert De Niro, Bradley Cooper and the director of "Silver Linings Playbook," and you get something I can get excited about.
But what we got was far from anything I could have expected.
Joy (Lawrence) is a struggling mother of two, has her divorced parents living in her house, as well as her ex-husband, works a dead-end job and always seems to be behind on her bills. This upsets her further since she was told at a young age that she would live a beautiful life where she could create things. But it seems Joy wants to work towards that dream, as she begins to build something useful - a mop.
I wish that I could make that plot synopsis more glamorous. After Joy has a revelation that her life sucks, she literally spends the rest of the film trying to make, sell and fight for her mop. This goes on for what seems like an hour and a half, and has about all the excitement of mopping.
Lawrence never raises her voice above a bored and uninterested tone, a far cry from the bombastic and lively performance we usually get out of her. It's like someone drained all the energy out of her, and this is the husk that we're left with. I understand that she's been worked to death by her so-called "unhappy" life, but if this is supposed to be her rebirth and new chance to live again, you'd think she'd display a bit more emotion than beige vagueness.
Honestly, I can't blame Jennifer Lawrence though, because the script gives her so little to work with. Like I said, most of "Joy" is about her making a mop and the trial and tribulations that come with creating such a product. There is no drama here, no reason to be invested in these characters or what happens to them.
Joy already had a pretty good life before all this - a family that would do just about anything for her, friends that were always looking to help and comfort her, even an ex-husband that refused to leave her side and looked for nothing in return. It wasn't a perfect life, but then again what is?
Throwing all that away at to make a mop is a waste.
Everything that had gone on before Joy's revelation, her struggles, her relationships and even her job, disappear once she begins working on the mop, so that we can see every excruciating detail of how it is made and nothing gets in our way of it. For crying out loud, Joy has a little boy, yet we never see his face or hear his name once she begins working on her project. Why even have him there if you're not going to do anything with him?
"Joy" is based on of the true story of Joy Mangano (though you wouldn't know it by the film, since they never tell her last name or mention her in the credits). And while Mangano did have a son and would help bring about the rise of the Home Shopping Network and QVC with her creations, that is inconsequential to this film. Unless you are going to make your film true to the smallest detail, like "Spotlight" did, then your story is going to be partly fictional, and thus should be judged on its own merits, not whether it actually happened.
I'm sure that Joy Mangano is a lovely person who had a long and difficult struggle to get where she is. I just wish this film reflected that struggle.
And overall, "Joy" is boring, uninteresting and loses its focus after the first third of the film. Lawrence looks bored throughout most of the film and is never given a chance to do anything with this character. The writing feels like something out of a documentary informing us about how this mop was made, not a major motion picture. The pacing goes from lightning fast at the beginning to introduce all these new characters who want a say in Joy's life, to a snail's pace as it progresses.
For a film starring Jennifer Lawrence by the director who gave Lawrence her best performance yet, "Joy" is a massive disappointment.
Final Grade: D
Monday, December 28, 2015
I despised this film. Every excruciating second of this abomination was like a dagger into my love of Christmas and my thirst for new horror. Never funny, nor scary, "Krampus" half-asses everything in trying to please everyone and ends up making no one happy. This trash-heap was mean-spirited, unclever and lacks any worthwhile characters or moments. Instead of any characters redeeming themselves, "Krampus" seems to go out of its way to make its characters the biggest assholes that never learn anything, including a moral about Christmas.
The lesson audiences' are supposed to learn from "Krampus," I assume, is to never tear up your letter to Santa Claus, or else an evil-shadow-Santa will come down, kill your family in terrible horrifying ways, and stuff you in a snowglobe where you will be stuck in an eternal Christmas. I'd like to say it is something far more simple to comprehend, but I'm at a loss for words on this one. "Krampus" had nothing going for it, and is one of those films we hide in a box and pretend doesn't exist.
Final Grade: F
Thursday, December 24, 2015
At this point in time, I have only seen the first "Rocky" film. I'm unsure if I have talked about this, but sports films tend to bore me. At best, they're predictable tales of underdogs overcoming all odds and winning the big game in a heroic fashion. At worst, you get films like "Southpaw," which are a pain to sit through.
But "Rocky" was certainly different. Not only had the cliché of rags to riches in boxing not been fully utilized yet, but the film was less about boxing and more about second chances. About giving everything you have to reach your dreams, all driven by a performance that Sylvester Stallone has never topped.
Well, except for maybe his newest role in "Creed."
Stallone is a one-of-a-kind actor. Maybe attempt to imitate him, but few have ever reached the versatility and longevity of a man who has been an action star in three long-running franchises and other classics like "Demolition Man." He has seen his share of failures and ridicule, but anyone who can make a success in cinema and keep making people want to come back to see you nearly 40 years later gets nothing but respect in my book.
If there was one role that Stallone was born to play, it was Rocky Balboa. A man that he not only brought to life on the screen, but also created on paper by writing the screenplay for "Rocky." Like Stallone, Rocky has evolved over the years, from the underdog, to inspiration, to champion and back down again. Now he can add mentor to that list.
"Creed" follows the young life of Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), the son of the late Apollo Creed, as he attempts to make it into the boxing world. Not wanting to have the stigma of his father attached to him, he takes on the name of Donny Johnson, and pleads that he will make his own name in boxing. But now trainer is willing to take Adonis under their wing in Los Angeles, thus causing him to move to somewhere he could find someone - Philadelphia, the home of Rocky Balboa.
Rocky taking on the role of mentor and trainer to a new and upcoming boxer is good on its own, since he now becomes his trainer from the first film, Mick (Burgess Meredith), and pass on that knowledge to a new generation. But what elevates this even further is that Rocky is training the son of his rival and his best friend.
We're given several reasons about why Rocky would train Adonis, since Rocky is given plenty of opportunities to train arguably better boxers. Perhaps it is because he wants to keep the name of Creed alive. Or it could be redemption, since Rocky partially blames himself for Apollo's death in "Rocky 4." But by the end of the film, we know why he chose Adonis - because this kid motives him to be a better man.
We learn that everyone Rocky cared about, including Adrian and Paulie, have been dead for some time. His son has moved far away and doesn't want to be associated with him. He still visits the grave of his wife every day and reads her the newspaper. This is a man who lives in the past, but has taken the punishment that life has dished out to him and can't take anymore. Boxing is the only life he knows now. It might have been the only life he ever knew.
And with the arrival of Apollo's son, Rocky is once again given another chance, just like in the first film. Not just to fight, but to live again. To find a purpose in world and realize that even an old man make a difference.
Stallone's performance speaks volumes of the torture that Rocky endures, being separated from Adrian, Paulie and his son, unable to box, unable to live. And in turn, the chemistry between Michael B. Jordan and Stallone speaks beyond generations and to one of undying respect. Adonis adores Rocky for his skills and unbreakable will, while Rocky sees a man dedicated to a cause worth fighting for.
This is Stallone's best performance since "Rocky," and is amplified further by an equally great performance by Jordan.
Combine this with wonderful cinematography during the boxing sequences, including one fight done entirely in one shot while showing both sides of the fight, and the impact of the sports world like that of "Trainwreck" from earlier this year, and you get the best sports film in a long time.
"Creed" certainly wipes the bad taste of "Krampus" out of my mouth and has given me plenty to think about.
Final Grade: A
Wednesday, December 23, 2015
If there's one thing that the phenomenon of Star Wars has captured so brilliantly, it is a grand universal scale and size. The weight of these imaginative worlds coming together and their conflicts has always been massive, and the mythology of the force, the Jedi and the constant battle between the dark side and the light takes this beyond a war and into the realm of epic fantasy. Above all else, Star Wars is the definition of a cinematic epic.
This is why I adore J.J. Abrams addition to this universe, with "Star Wars - Episode VII: The Force Awakens." Unlike the prequels, this film feels massive, covering not only vast distances of space, but also time and the legacy of both good and bad people. This film is not just an excuse to show flashy effects and have lots of fights, in fact there is very little of that in this film, but to tell a tale that we're all familiar with and in a new way.
Set roughly 30 years after the events of "Return Of The Jedi," the remains of the Galactic Empire have now reformed into the First Order, still bent on ruling the galaxy and eliminating anyone who stands in their way, including the Rebellion. The greatest weapon of the rebels, Luke Skywalker, the last Jedi, has disappeared. But when a map to the location of Luke has been discovered, it becomes a race between the Rebellion's best pilot, Poe Dameron (Oscar Issac) with his droid-buddy BB-8, and the First Order, led by the dark force user Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), to find Luke.
Along the way, we meet new players like Rey (Daisy Ridley), a young scavenger stranded on the planet Jakku, filled with decaying Star-Destroyers and relics of a war fought decades ago. Rey struggles every day to make ends meet, stealing parts from the broken-down ships and using those to buy food, always looking to the horizon as if she is waiting for someone.
Another new character is Finn (John Boyega), or FN-2187 for short. Finn is a Storm Trooper, having been trained his entire life to become a ruthless killer. But after witnessing the atrocities that the First Order is capable of, Finn takes the first opportunity he can to run and get away from the grasp of these savages.
Through a strange set of circumstances, Rey, Finn and BB-8 end up on an adventure that takes them through the heart of the galaxy, as they fight off the First Order and meet some old friends.
If there's one thing I loved the most about "The Force Awakens," it was the characters. Every new character that was introduced is lovable, sympathetic, or fun to be around. Finn was an especially great addition, as he often brought the comedy up and offered a neat perspective on the villains, that not all of them are evil and wish to make a difference in the universe. This is the kind of guy who loves exploring these planets while still enjoying the thrill of the hunt, especially when it involves destroying TIE-Fighters.
BB-8 is the cutest film character since WALL-E. Little to no CGI was used with this guy, as he rolls around like a soccer ball that somehow became sentient. Yet he is still so expressive, like when he gets lost in the deserts of the Jakku, afraid that he might never find his master again. BB-8 even gives a thumbs up at one point, despite not having any fingers or arms, so he gets points for being creative.
Rey, as previously mentioned, has been stranded on a desert planet since she was a little girl, but has fought and scrapped her way through it all. She is certainly more tragic, as she clings to the hope that whoever it is she's waiting for will return soon, but in her more quiet moments, she seems upset as if she knows the truth. One of the first scenes with her shows a massive wall of tally marks, to show how many days it has been since she was left here. The screen could not even show the full size of those tallies.
Like Luke in "A New Hope," Rey is stuck in this wasteland, but is fully aware of the galaxy around her. She strives to make something more than the life she has, and jumps at the first opportunity to try something different - even if that means getting involved in a galactic war.
Finally, we have our new villain - Kylo Ren. It is difficult to talk about this guy without spoilers, but let's just say that he is conflicted between the dark side and the light. He is bound to the First Order, despite what he may wish, and is looked down upon by his master for not being as strong as he can be. He aspires to greatness, taking it upon himself to keep the legacy of Darth Vader alive. Ren idolizes Vader, but only as a sign of strength and loyalty to the dark side, unaware of what we know about him (yes, I'm saying that is a positive of the prequels, though I can't think of many others).
Without giving too much away, Kylo Ren is a sympathetic villain that sees the sides of the Rebellion and the First Order, but can't do anymore than what he is told to do.
To be honest, there was not a single character that I hated in "The Force Awakens." Every new character was a wonderful addition, they all had chemistry that made them work well off one another, and they gelled fantastically with the returning characters, especially Han Solo (Harrison Ford). Each of these characters has a distinct relationship with Han - Rey knows how the Millennium Falcon works without being told how, and Han can tell Finn is hiding something but trusts his intentions.
Han Solo was always that necessary character in the Star Wars films that made the universe feel so expansive, that not every human had a connection to the force. Han always thought it was a stupid religion and was all superstitions, until he was proven otherwise. In "The Force Awakens," we see a man who has been through hell and back, and wouldn't mind doing it all one more time.
Some similarities have been drawn between "The Force Awakens" and "A New Hope," and I do think these similarities are unavoidable, but every time this film does something like they did in Episode IV, they add just enough new elements that it is forgivable. The two film are similar, but not identical.
These new elements, like these characters, their relationships with one another, the mystique of the First Order while still keeping the size of the Empire, give "The Force Awakens" is own unique atmosphere and vibe that is unlike any other Star Wars film. It is fun without losing its edge. The film can easily switch between an action-packed sequence of the Millennium Falcon begin chased by TIE-Fighters through a Star Destroyer half-buried in sand, and funny moments with BB-8 and Finn being unfamiliar with such an old ship.
Yet it never stopped feeling like Star Wars. I don't know if it was because of the sound effects, John Williams' score, the return of classic characters, the mythos of this universe or a combination of all these, but this felt like the logical continuation of this story - a more personal tale of how both light and darkness is reborn after so much destruction.
Like the great Star Wars films before it, "The Force Awakens" tells its story through visuals and not words. Many of the early scenes have little to no dialogue, especially the ones with Rey. So much it explained without ever saying anything, like the destruction of the Empire on Jakku and the world these scavengers now live in. "The Force Awakens" understands the power that cinema can have through the use of editing, juxtaposition and atmosphere.
"Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens" is the most fun I've had in theaters since "The Avengers." J.J. Abrams has created a work that not only honors the legacy started by George Lucas, but adds on to it. Each sequence stands on its own and there were so many moments that made me want to get out of my seat and cheer. It perfectly captures the size and scope of the Star Wars universe while making our connection to these characters feel more personal.
Final Grade: A
Tuesday, December 22, 2015
Within the first five minutes of the most recent adaptation of Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein," the mad doctor has removed Igor's hump, has him in a walking brace and helping his master use Star Trek-like techno-babble to reanimate the dead.
If that doesn't turn you away from "Victor Frankenstein," then you will probably enjoy this film. If you think this film is straying far too much from the source material, like me, then you are in for a long and irritating ride.
The problem with "Victor Frankenstein" is that the film cannot make up its mind on whether it wants to portray its protagonist as a hero, villain, anti-hero or something in between. He helps turn Igor into a civilized man, but he does that without asking Igor if he wanted this and keeps hammering this into Igor's mind throughout the film, as if he created him.
In fact, they use that line several times throughout the film, "I created you." No, Doctor Frankenstein did not create Igor. He saved Igor from being treated unfairly at the circus, and took him to a rundown factory where he would be treated unfairly and hunted by the police. I get that Frankenstein is egotistical, you have to be when you attempt to bring the dead back to life. But this is a man who continually ruins the lives of perfectly good people, while parading around town like he's a good but misunderstood man.
There is an attempt to give him a presence similar to that of Benedict Cumberbatch's Sherlock Holmes - an intelligent gentleman who lacks social skills but is ultimately trying to do the right thing. That's all well and good, but when you have your main character killing people who get in his way while he attempts to reanimate corpses, that attitude can turn your hero into a terrible person.
This certainly is not helped by James McAvoy's performance as Victor Frankenstein, as he screams nearly every line at the top of his lungs and we watch every drop of spit come flying out of his mouth. McAvoy's performance takes scenery chewing to a whole new level. I was afraid McAvoy was going to jump out of the screen and attack us for not loving his performance.
If there is one redeeming quality to "Victor Frankenstein" it would the other similarity to "Sherlock" - actor Andrew Scott (who played Moriarty in the show) as the inspector in charge of tracking down Frankenstein. His character is given several other cases throughout the film and is told to stop the hunt for the doctor, but he never stops, always with the same intensity in his eyes. As if the inspector takes offense to what Frankenstein is doing, much like the audience takes offense to this film.
As the film progresses, we find out about the inspectors past and his devotion to Christianity. He believes in his religion above all else, and what Frankenstein is doing here goes against everything he stands for. Some might say this is someone so blinded by religion that he can't see progress, but this is a man who comes from a tragic background and is desperate to make sure more lives are not ruined like his.
Scott plays the role like someone who is confused by all of this, unsure what to do and how to stop of, but will not waste a moment until this offense is dealt with. The film portrays the inspector as the villain, but I was far more sympathetic to him than I was for Frankenstein or Igor. The only shining point in an otherwise unworthy film.
Overall, "Victory Frankenstein" is far more concerned with current trends of shows and movies, like the sociopathic Sherlock Holmes and tragic-yet-comedic movies, that it so far removed from Mary Shelley's vision.
Final Grade: D
Friday, December 11, 2015
Every once in a while, perhaps once every five years, there comes a film that I do enjoy to some degree, but that I end up respecting more than anything else. These typically end up being the most important films of that age. A movie whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and challenges our ideas of what a film can and cannot do. By the end of these, you are left baffled and wondering, "Did I just watch a movie?"
A perfect example of this is "Citizen Kane." To be honest, I'm not the biggest fan of Orson Welles' first outing into the world of cinema, but the impact of the film cannot be ignored, nor can what it was able to accomplish in 1941. Welles' egotistical fingerprints might be all over the film, but it changed everything that we know about cinema today. If nothing else, I respect it more than most other films.
These are the intelligent films that are wise beyond their years, and don't try to gloat about what they can accomplish, merely allowing their actions to speak for themselves.
A new film has joined this category, "Spotlight." A film that is meticulous yet honest, unyielding yet kind, enlightening yet jarring. It follows the true story of a group of reporters and writers for the Boston Globe in the early 2000s that uncover a well-kept secret of Roman Catholic priests that molested children that dated back as far as the 1970s. Despite the backlash among the church and city of Boston unwilling to allow this to come to light, the reporters (played by Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and John Slattery) never stop to hunt down the truth about what happened, because they know it is what the people deserve.
The highest compliment I can give "Spotlight" is that it never felt like a movie. I don't mean that I had an out-of-body experience, but that it didn't seem like I was watching actors trying to fit into their role, or that the director was manipulating the audience to feel a particular emotion. It felt like I was watching these real people doing their best to bring a terrible crime into the light despite all the people being against them.
This is because the film is based on of true events, but even then those types of films often manipulate the situation to make everything feel more grand and cinematic. "Spotlight" never goes out of its way to do that, seeing that as distorting the fact and turning it into fiction.
My belief is that film is one of the greatest illusions an artist can pull, and that can be true for any piece of fiction. You are making an audience of millions believe that everything you just showed them actually happened, and that they get emotionally invested in it because they thought it was real. If you do something jarring or off-putting that reminds us we're watching a film, you break the illusion. But what do you do when there is no illusion to begin with? With a movie like "Spotlight," you stick to the facts and make the audience think they're apart of cracking this case along with the reporters.
To my recollection, two other films have done something like this and pulled it off spectacularly - "All The President's Men" and "Zodiac." Both of these films were about breaking the most difficult cases of their time, the Watergate scandal the Zodiac killer in San Fransisco respectively. Neither film was shy from telling the truth and the attention to detail was as close as it was for the reporters.
These films, along with "Spotlight," are shining examples that film can be more than entertainment and art, but a time capsule to those who persevered and conquered a system that was bigger than themselves. That journalism is more than reporting the news, but it gives a voice to the voiceless. It reminds establishments, like the government or the church, that we will notice when they become corrupt and commit crimes, and that we will not stand for it.
Overall, I respect "Spotlight" more than any other film in the last five years. It is a shining beacon for the power of journalism and that you don't need an exciting climax or expansive fiction to tell a fascinating story. I may not have always been entertained by "Spotlight," but I appreciate that it stays true to the "Based On True Events" statement at the beginning of the film.
Final Grade: A-
Monday, December 7, 2015
Imagine a world where the meteorite that wiped out the dinosaurs missed the planet. What would change about the landscape of our planet? How would the dinosaurs evolved? Could you see dinosaurs becoming farmers, while some species like a T-Rex turn into cattle wranglers?
Yeah, me neither. But that's what we get out of Pixar's "The Good Dinosaur."
Of all the angles to take with bringing dinosaurs back to life, what Pixar did was off-the-wall crazy and borderline tedious. In fact, this story did not need to be told with dinosaurs at all. Our main character, Arlo, being a dinosaur never seems relevant to his journey of getting back home while overcoming his fear of anything that might spook him.
Perhaps "The Good Dinosaur" felt underwhelming because it came out so close to one of the best Pixar releases in a while, "Inside Out." But another reason might be that the film does nothing with its wonderful set up. Rather than seeing how much the world would change if velociraptor, Triceratops and T-Rexs' still existed in the world, we got a western that plays like an episode of "Gumby." At times, this film feels like a watered-down version of "The Land Before Time," while other times are straight out of "The Good, The Bad And The Ugly" or "Shane." This was jarring to say the least.
But, to the films' credit, when it's good, it is impressive. The animation for the landscape is something I have never seen before in an animated film, where every tree feels like I could reach out and touch it, while the mountains and river look calming and dangerous all at the same time. Any time the sun sets, the sky looks though it is exploding with purple and orange.
When "The Good Dinosaur" wants to be a western, the cinematography puts Sergio Leone to shame. But what really sold me was a scene in which Arlo and the T-Rex wranglers talk about their scars and how they each got them. One dino got the tip of her tail torn off by a boulder, while another was attacked by a gator and had his face disfigured. They all wear their scars with pride and wouldn't change a thing about themselves.
Arlo comments about how fearless they are, but the lead Rex (voiced by Sam Elliot) says he was terrified while having his face ripped apart. He comments that it is perfectly normal to feel fear, and that we cannot stop it from happening. That fear is like a storm - it will come for you and you will notice it, but how you adapt to it is what makes or breaks you.
I've never heard it put quite like that, and it is not overblown or exaggerated. This is a message simple enough for children to understand, without dumbing anything down.
Outside of these elements, "The Good Dinosaur" tries way too hard to be every genre imaginable that it is hard to fully enjoy. It wants to be a coming-of-age tale, a fantasy, family comedy, tragedy, adventure, western, cartoon, a boy-and-his-dog story and epic quest all at the same time. Does it pull this off? Most of the time it doesn't, but a few quiet moments between Arlo and his human pet Spot that make the journey worth it.
Final Grade: C+
Wednesday, November 25, 2015
"Always make the audience suffer as much as possible." ~Alfred Hitchcock
Watching a Hitchcock film is like being dangled over the top of a twenty-story building - nerve-wracking, irritating, intense and nothing else like it in the world. Hitchcock is the one forcing you to look over the edge of that building and he enjoys every second of our torment.
The film to best personify that vision is Hitchcock's "Frenzy," a movie that came near the end of his career and saw him return to his British roots. By this point, the code of filmmaking that had been in place since Hitchcock arrived in America had been removed and replaced with the beginnings of the MPAA ratings. So Hitch took full advantage of that and that he was only bound by British filmmaking rules. He didn't seem to care if "Frenzy" got an R-rating, as long as it meant he could do anything he wanted, including opening his film with a naked dead body floating through London.
"Frenzy" is Hitchcock at his most barbaric, not afraid to pull any punches as to what can be shown on-screen. He'll show violent acts of passion and have the next scene be about the terrible cooking of a police chief's wife (which she never eats until the end, always forcing it on her husband). This is what makes "Frenzy" so endearing, the lighthearted nature of a serial killer on the loose in London and it works brilliantly.
"Frenzy" immediately differs itself from any other Hitchcock film with the amount of horrifying imagery throughout. Grotesque moments are implied in films like "Rear Window," "Vertigo" and "Shadow Of A Doubt," but we never see it in action. In the famous shower sequence in "Psycho," the knife is never shown cutting into the victim's skin and Hitchcock lets the audience paint the picture.
But with this one, nothing is left to the imagination and Hitchcock becomes brutal yet honest with the lengths this killer will go to.
The first half of "Frenzy" is spent following Richard Blaney (Jon Finch) and his unfortunate luck with women, jobs and race horses. Blaney becomes desperate for money and goes to his ex-wife for help. She is sympathetic but won't tolerate his anger and drinking habit, so she slips him some money and pushes him away. Not too long after that though, she ends up murdered by the "Necktie Killer" and all the signs point toward Blaney as the suspect.
In a way, the plot of "Frenzy" reminds me of "Psycho." The first hour of both films are drastically different from the second hour, always keeping you on your toes, never too sure what will happen to any of the characters. I can say I was pleasantly surprised by the final fifteen minutes of "Frenzy," because I did not see any of it coming. This film does a wonderful job of breaking away from the Hitchcock formula, while still having the flare of a Hitchcock masterpiece. Combine that with a great sense of humor and unforgiving cinematography, and you have the most underrated Hitchcock classic.
Final Grade: A-
Tuesday, November 24, 2015
And so the games come to an end. Not with a bang, but with a dream.
There has been a running theme throughout the previous "Hunger Games" films - being used by more powerful people to achieve their goals and collect more power. To be pawns in someone else's "games." Since the beginning, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) has been a tool for President Snow (Donald Sutherland) to keep his seat of power and control over the land of Panem, to remind the people who his way of life is what makes everyone else safe. But even when Katniss seems to break free of Snow's control, she falls into the palm of President Coin (Julianne Moore), and acts as the figure-head of her rebellion. Katniss thinks that she's fighting to take down Snow, when she's merely propagating Coin's agenda.
In the final installment of this franchise, "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2," Katniss finally realizes that she is caught in the middle between the game of Snow and Coin, and wants to be able to think for herself. This makes the film less about ending a war, and more about finding yourself when all you've known is what someone else told you.
In this respect, Jennifer Lawrence nails her role and might have given her best performance in this franchise yet. While at times, Lawrence looks bored and uninterested, that might be on purpose. This is someone who had the role of "savior" thrust upon her, against her will, has seen thousands of people die for a cause that she doesn't fully believe in, and has been beaten down by the agenda of multiple presidents. This is a destroyed woman, who wants nothing more than to find a way out of all this, and the only way is to break free of all systems.
I've said in the past that the sole reason I was interested in the "Hunger Games" franchise was to watch Jennifer Lawrence continue to do what she does best - teeter on the edge of professionalism, eccentricity and insanity. I also said that this franchise was made to showcase Lawrence's talent as an actress.
While I still stand by that, the last film had me intrigued by the story more than anything. By this point, I already knew that Lawrence was going to astound me with her acting abilities. What I did not expect was the methodical disregard for sympathy, as Coin and Snow use every last drop of blood to play their chess game. It comes across like both had every last move planned out to the most minute detail, including the use of poison in flowers.
As always, Donald Sutherland as President Snow captures the duality of a man who takes pleasure in the pain of others, while always remaining composed and proper. Normally, this would be a role that was one scar away from being a Bond villain, but instead we get a man who has imposed his will upon others while making them think it was their thoughts. There is a point in this film that summarizes up Snow perfectly, coming near the end of the film, and we finally seem him cackle, as he believes the game has been won.
With all of that said, "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2" has some problems.
The previous two films have built up this final act as an all-out assault, trying to take back the world and free it from the clutches of the evil Snow. Yet, there are roughly three sequences that make the film feel like a war. Outside of those scenes, this feels small and uninteresting.
At about the halfway point, our motley crew of teenage heroes have to fight a hoard of "Mutts," though they might as well be straight out of a zombie movie. While the build-up to this scene was fine, with nice pacing and atmosphere in the cramped sewers, the pay-off was severely lacking, as the action sequence that follows is blurry, dark and far too fast to keep track of that it is impossible to tell what is happening. While this might have been a pivotal scene in the book, it was an unimaginative and poorly executed scene in the movie.
Overall, I was impressed by the "Hunger Games" film franchise. Going into each of these films, I did not expect other than to make us lose our minds over Jennifer Lawrence losing her mind. But each film in this series has been wonderful at messing with my expectations and giving us something a bit removed from the Hollywood formula.
When the weakest film in your series is the first movie, you know that something went right.
Is this a perfect ending to the "Hunger Games" franchise? No, but it was certainly a satisfying one that may or may not have been left up to interpretation on the fate of Katniss. Like the previous two films, this one has terrifying performances from Lawrence and Sutherland, Kubrick-ian production design and cinematography and a gripping conclusion to the story of Katniss' fight to find herself in a world of lost people.
Final Grade: B-