Monday, January 30, 2017

Movie Review - "Hoop Dreams" (1994)



There is a moment in 1994's "Hoop Dreams" that turns this documentary from a tale about dreaming for the NBA into a story about finding a relatable middle ground between your dreams and reality. It comes about halfway through the film when it becomes clear to one of the two high school-aged boys that he cannot continue on this path, due to a lack of money, and thus will not get into a proper school that will be noticed by the NBA.


At that point, you think the rest of the movie is going to be a downer as we watch his dreams fall apart and everything unravels. But he loves basketball so much that he will not let a little thing like that stop him. If anything, it motivates him further to stand out even more.


"Hoop Dreams" is a documentary that follows the lives of William Gates and Arthur Agee, both aspire to become the best basketball players they can be and be in the NBA. Gates and Agee both live in small poor neighboorhoods just outside Chicago, but they manage to join St. Joseph's high school, the premier basketball school that can serve as a jumping off point to any major college they want to attend. The film chronicles their four-year journey through high school, their ups and downs, steps forward and their mishaps, whether that is a insufficient income, a fractured knee or losing power at home.




Part of the reason I had little interest in seeing "Hoop Dreams" was because of my knowledge of sports, yet never hearing the names William Gates and Arthur Agee associated with the NBA. But as I watched the film, I realized it was not just about these kids but the almost impossible journey one must take to get into professional sports. It's just being the best you can be, nor is it being the best player on your team, but being the best out of a million people trying get into a professional sport. Whether that's the MLB, NFL, or NBA, you have to stand above literally everyone else trying to get in.


And that's just to get in the door, let alone staying there and making an impact. Everyone trying to get into a sport thinks they are the next Michael Jordan, Peyton Manning or Babe Ruth, but the truth is a player like that only comes along once every decade.


This makes "Hoop Dreams" a cautionary tale about the consequences of setting your dreams for an impossible goal, and the inevitable fall. But what gives the film its heart is how these two get up from that fall and find new ways to pursue their passion and love of basketball. They learn to translate that joy for sports into their lives, and to watch these real boys go through that transformation is one of the most uplifting experiences I've seen.


Final Grade: A-

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Movie Review - "Moonlight" (2016)



Cinema tends to exaggerate some aspects of reality, even in some of the better movies. We see this all the time in science fiction when asked what makes us human, or in romantic dramas related to the need for love and companionship. But then a film like "Moonlight" comes along that handles the weight and complexity of reality in just a way that doesn't feel ham-fisted or over the top and makes for one of the closest experiences to reality I've seen in a long time.


"Moonlight" follows the life of Chiron, an African-American boy growing up in a poor drug-filled neighboorhood in Florida, as he deals with bullies, his addict mother (Naomie Harris), and a budding realtionship with his friend Kevin. The film is told through three different time periods, with Chiron as a little boy (Alex Hibbert), a young teenager (Ashton Sanders) and as an adult (Trevante Rhodes), while he finds out who he is and what he wants.


"Moonlight" reminds me of "Boyhood" in some ways, especially the on-going story of one persons' life told throughout the years, but takes it in an entirely different path. Mason from "Boyhood" was a simple boy with familiar problems that most people have. Chiron, on the other hand, comes from a world that never really cared about him, outside of a drug dealer and his girlfriend who showed him kindness, and slowly learns to build his identity, as well as learning that he's gay.



But Chiron never complains that he doesn't know who he is or what he's achieved in life, most of that goes unspoken. As a child and teenager, Chiron remains quiet and observant, taking in the world around him until others force him into action and his true feelings are revealed. As an adult, the only world he has known of violence and hatred has shaped him into a different man than he wanted to be, and his identity has been muddled.


When an adult Kevin asks Chiron who he is, Chiron responds with, "I'm me." But even he doesn't know "me" is. He just throught that would come naturally, when it most certainly does not.




This makes "Moonlight" the most personal film of the year. It is quiet on the outside, but speaks volumes about experiences and acceptance through its wise yet mellow performances. The great thing about "Moonlight" is it does exactly what films are supposed to do - open audiences to vastly different views and realities we so rarely see, and make us appreciate, understand, and empathize with them.


Final Grade: A-

Friday, January 27, 2017

Movie Review - "In the Heat of the Night" (1967)



I would like to take a moment to address some glaring mistakes I've made in the past, in particular to my review of "Selma" and the terrible things I said. In that review, it came across like I said racism doesn't exist and shouldn't be an issue that is discussed when that shouldn't be the case. It came across like I was speaking from a white priveledged perspective and as someone who has never seen racism, which made me look insensitive and, for lack of a better term, racist.


While this is long overdue, I do apologize for what I said in that review and any other time I've said something that you have taken as offensive. While it was not my intention to come across that way, it was clear that my perspective was skewed, unfocused, and selfish. While my opinion of "Selma" has changed very little since my initial review, I should have made it clear that I respected the film for its brutal honesty and being unrelenting in the face of the truth, much like Martin Luther King himself, which certainly does strengthen the film and its history.


For without the fight for equal rights and treatment from heroes like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, the world would be much darker and prejudiced place.


This is what makes 1967's "In the Heat of the Night" one of the most important movies of all time. While this film claims to be a murder-mystery, the true star of the film is prejudice and intolerance, set in a hot small town in Mississippi after the one man who make this town big is murdered, and the police officers begin throwing around suspects like they were tickets to the state fair, including to a visiting African-American, Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier). The sherriff, Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger), quickly learns Tibbs is a homocide detective from Philadelphia and is given this murder case by his superior.



The film is less about solving the crime and more about Tibbs and the sherriff fighting and clawing at one another, in the hope of recognition and respect - Tibbs to show that any man, no matter his color or creed, can achieve any job they want to, and the sherriff to show he is worthy of being in charge of the law in this town.


They both just want to be created as equals, whether as a man or as an officer.


This is compliemented perfectly by Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger's performances. Poitier is unflinching and unforgiving, and goes into the case expecting nothing but to prove his worth. Without scalding or hardly raising his voice above a whisper, he proves he is louder and stronger than anyone else.


Steiger, on the other hand, plays his role as a man who has laid back most of his life and let the answers come to him. This case is the first time he has been challenged, in more ways than one. He is quick to assume because it is easy, but he learns that police investigations are anything but easy. He comes across as a conflicted man, who wants to trust Tibbs but is torn by his prejudice.


Any scene between these two is racked with tense dialogue, each trying to dig in to the other. Any moment of silence is deadly as the two stare each other down, like a old western showdown.


I adore "In the Heat of the Night" for its timing, commentary on recognition and the tense atmosphere. The pacing moves just well enough to keep the mystery compelling, yet slow enough to let the quieter moments sink in. This is a quintessential picture for anyone who wants to understand and appreciate the evolution of mankind, myself included.


Final Grade: A

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Movie Review - "Dodes'ka-den" (1970)



"Dodes'ka-den" left a strange taste in my mouth, where I appreciate making the best out of a bad situation but truly despised the way this film turned out in the end.

This is the newest Akira Kurosawa movie I have seen in years, and it came at a time when Kurosawa was about to be let go by Toho Studios, for continually making films that were far too American for Japanese audiences to appreciate, yet "Dodes'ka-den" might be his most Japanese-rooted film.

The film is set in a makeshift garbage town on the outskirts of Tokyo, and it follows dozens of people who live in trash and burned-out houses when the biggest and brightest metropolis is just out of their reach. The connecting thread among these stories is a young mentally-challenged boy who wants nothing more than to be a tram conductor and so he goes around the town in an imaginary tram, with him making all the noises and complaining about the service team not keeping it in good shape.

There are loads of characters this film follows, including a young girl working herself to death when her aunt gets sick and her uncle begins to mistreat her when she gets tired, a silent man with the eyes of a dead person and his lost love, a business man with a strange tick and his obnoxious wife, a father and son living in a burnt out car who dream of a owning a massive house, and two couples that regularly switch husbands.



What I appreciate about "Dodes'ka-den" is that you see the humanity and kindness in all these people, but you also understand why they are in this terrible place. Some make bad life decisions, others have crappy judgment, while a few were just dealt bad hands and have always been dealing with hard times. Most of these characters are either working their best to get out of this place, or have come to enjoy their new homes. The boy in the imaginary tram never seems like he wants a different life, despite children picking on him and his mother, and is genuinely happy to be where he is.

One might think the message of "Dodes'ka-den" would be to love the life you are dealt with, not the one you want.

But then we get to the ending of some of these stories and they take a sour turn. Like dropping a lemon and a bunch of sour patch kids in a carton of milk that is about to expire - that's how sour this movie gets.

Without spoiling how some of these tales end, especially the girl working too hard and the father and son living in the car, their resolutions come far too quickly or suddenly and seem to oppose the overall message of the film. What could have been a happier tale about finding the best in a bad situation turns to disturbing mess that ends abruptly.

Overall, I enjoyed parts of "Dodes'ka-den" but the ending makes me question the journey I just took. Not the best outing from Akira Kurosawa, but I appreciate this look at a world I would not have considered otherwise.

Final Grade: B-

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Movie Review (?) - "Of Mice and Men" (1939)



It's Mick from "Rocky" and the Wolf Man paired up in the wackiest roadtrip movie you've ever seen! From the zany writer who brought you "Grapes of Wrath" and "East of Eden," John Steinbeck spins a yarn that'll leave you in stitches, as two rough-and-tough loners try to make in sunny California. But, uh oh! Looks like they cannot help but get into trouble, those crazy guys! Can they make it big while moving some hearts? Will George make his dreams come true? Will Lenny finally get his rabbits? Find out that and more in Lewis Milestone's most hilarious tale yet "Of Mice and Men," coming to a theater near you. *


*Disclaimer: "Of Mice and Men" is not actually coming to any theater close to you, unless you developed a time machine and went back to 1939. In which case, why are you going back in time to see a movie when you can kill Hitler? Like, seriously? Time and space are bendable and mean nothing, and you go back to watch a Burgess Meredith and Lon Chaney Jr. flick? Not stopping the assassination of Lincoln or go roam with dinosaurs? You literally have the power of "Back to the Future" and "Doctor Who" and this is what you choose to do? Not that we are judging you or anything, it's just that there are certain things one must do when discovering time travel. In fact, why are you keeping time travel to yourself? We think that's the worst thing you can do. Come on man, give us some of that! You're lucky we don't come after you and steal that "magic" time machine from you for not using it properly. **


**Disclaimer: On behalf of the staff, we would like to apologize for that outburst. We don't condone that kind of behavior here. We got a bit anxious at the excitement of your time machine and only wished to see the creation of the firework. I mean, who doesn't love fireworks? It's like watching God cry explosions of fire and awesomeness. Anyway, what were we talking about? Oh yeah, "Of Mice and Men." You should go check it out if you like classic American tales about hard work and overcoming your personal flaws, with good performances from Burgess Meredith and Lon Chaney Jr. Boy, this promo got weird, didn't it? Time machines and fireworks will do that to us. So, where you going with your time machine? Can we come? We promise not to bug you about going to see "Of Mice and Men" even though you should. ***


***Disclaimer: Give us your time machine!


Final Grade: B-

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Movie Review - "In the Mood for Love" (2000)



Love and loneliness often walk hand-and-hand with one another, and it is impossible to fully appreciate one without the other. They are also concepts that break cultural boundaries, as seen in Wong Kar-wai's Hong Kong 2000 film "In the Mood for Love."

The film is set in 1962 in a Hong Kong apartment complex, when two tenants move in on the same day, both young married couples but all of them devoted to their work. The wife of one couple, Shu Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung), and the husband of the other, Chow Mo-whan (Tony Leung), have jobs close to home, but their spouses' careers lead them overseas to Japan, leaving them alone most nights in a town that doesn't speak their language. Chow and Shu become friends and see a lot of each other, especially when their significant others are out of town an increasing amount. The two slowly begin to realize their spouses are out of town at the same time and piece together that they are having an affair with each other.

"In the Mood for Love" excels at creating an atmosphere of isolation and the need for companionship and understanding. Shu and Chow go about the same daily routine, avoiding contact with foreigners as much as possible, only to return to an empty tiny room to eat the same noodles, day in and day out. Their only comfort comes when they get to be with each other, as they talk about writing a script for a marital arts television program and their spouses. The two discuss having an affair of their own, but Shu becomes skittish and shuts down the moment romance is mentioned.



The film portrays Shu and Chow as being entirely alone in the world and are looking for some sort of acceptance in the world, but both are doing it in different ways - Chow wants to be with Shu, but Shu might hope to get back with her husband. It delves deep into the unspoken rules of marriage in China and Hong Kong and how society treats those who cheat and go through divorce, mostly through Maggie Cheung's repressed emotions and reserved nature around Chow. She hates her husband for what he did, but she doesn't want to be an outcast.

But I will remember "In the Mood for Love" for its color palette and cinematography. The colors are stylized yet tasteful, subtle yet bold, where every room, outfit and camera angle has an impact on an emotional level. From the billowing red curtains to a jade-green dress, the look of this film is breath-taking and supremely beautiful.

Overall, "In the Mood for Love" is a subtle, somber film about two lost souls longing for acceptance in different ways. It is deeply enriched in the customs of the Chinese culture and the diversity of Hong Kong in the 1960s, so be aware of the cultural differences. But if you ever see a Chinese film that doesn't have to do with martial arts, be sure to check out "In the Mood for Love."

Final Grade: B

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Movie Review - "La La Land" (2016)



I have noticed most people have two basic reactions to musicals - They either love them and are saddened that there are not enough of them, or groan in frustration because musicals are so boring. When I went to see the latest musical, "La La Land," one kid, probably around 14 or 15, was laying on a bench outside the theater and waited until the last minute to go inside, and did so stomping his feet in frustration. He clearly did not want to be there.


Why is this one of the general reactions to musicals? Why are there people who roll their eyes at song and dance numbers? It might explain why musicals are so scarce and why they seem to be a dying artform. As someone who previously hated the concept of musicals, this hatred towards them probably comes from a lack of action or reason to care about the music. When films like "Moulin Rouge!" did their musical numbers, the film would come a screeching hault and the plot did not seem to matter anymore.


But another reason could be that musicals are not grounded in reality. Who breaks out into song when they are happy or sad? What kind of person can come up with an impromptu musical number with nothing more than their wit and emotions?




I felt that is what made musicals so unappealing for a long time, with the only exception being "Singin' In the Rain." Then I realized what made that Gene Kelley movie so admirable and so much fun - because it was not grounded in reality, just history. The appeal of the musical is they are not supposed to be about how people really act, but a visual display of individuals raw and uncut emotions using song and dance. Those who say musicals lack action are missing the point, the elaborate sequences using thousands of people and moving parts is the action.


Musicals are beautiful pieces of art that speak their minds through choreography, vibrant colors and long takes.


And I would love to thank "La La Land" for making me realize all this.


"La La Land" is the most whimsical film experience of 2016 that doesn't pull any punches. It balances a harsh reality and playful nature perfectly. It shows the lives of people who moved to Los Angeles with bigger than life dreams, attempting to conquer the world in their own way, but ultimately realize this world is unforgiving and full of too much talent.


Set in modern day L.A., Mia Dolan (Emma Stone) is an aspiring actress working at a coffee shop on the Warner Brothers lot, and is constantly turned down from audition after audition. But when Mia has a chance encounter with struggling pianist Sebastian Wilder (Ryan Gosling), the two form an immediate connection, and try their best to help each other, Mia with getting her acting noticed, and Sebastian to get his jazz career off the ground.



From the first few moments of "La La Land," I was entranced by the surreal combination of reality and fantasy, as hundreds of people stuck on an L.A. freeway break out into song and dance around like they don't care about anything else. There are people breakdancing on top of their cars, skating down this long road and a band playing inside of a truck. But the best part is that it is all done in one continuous take, uncut by editing so we can appreciate every single person on this bridge, even the ones you can see dancing a mile down the road.


There's another long take sequence between Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling as they tap dance with increasing vigor and excitement, like something right out of a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers film. In fact, there's many neat touches to older musicals, with the Cinemascope introduction to a fantasy sequence later in the film reminiscent of Broadway Melody from "Singin' In the Rain."




Yet the film is unapologetic when it comes to the harsh reality of trying to make in Hollywood. Thousands of people flock to L.A. every year to become famous in one way or another, but it ultimately leads down a long and disappointing road, as Mia and Sebastian learn throughout the film. This leads to best song in the film, "City of Stars," with its melancholy lyrics and pitch-perfect tone from Ryan Gosling.


Overall, everyone should go see "La La Land" because it is the reason films are made. A story that can only be told through cinema, while giving us a reason to love musicals again. Don't wait for this to come out on DVD either, this is a grand experience that needs to be seen on the big screen. This is the most personal yet elaborate movie of the year and you don't want to miss it.


Final Grade: A

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Movie Review - "Moana" (2016)



It is odd how susceptible we are to suggestion as we watch a movie and how one little thought before or during a film can change your entire outlook on the picture you're seeing. Perhaps it is a difference in perspective, like realizing that "Iron Man 3" is a Tony Stark movie instead of Iron Man, or maybe a snide comment from a friend about how ridiculous the plot was even though you were taking it pretty seriously. And it doesn't take much either.

When I went to see "Moana," there was a brief introduction from the directors, Ron Clements and John Musker, who proudly say they directed other Disney-animated films like "The Little Mermaid," "Aladdin" and "Hercules." At the time, I didn't give it much thought, but as this new Disney feature progressed, I began to realize something - "Moana" takes the best elements of those three movies and rolls it into one personal journey of self discovery.

In the beginning, the earth is only ocean until the goddess Te Fiti used her powers of creation to bring life and beauty to the world, creating many islands that her people can live upon. But one day, the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) steals Te Fiti's source of power and darkness erupts from the ocean, as well as the lava monster Te Ka. The two fight to a standstill, but Te Fiti's mystical heart is lost in the ocean depths, until a young girl, Moana (Auli'i Caravalho) is given the heart by the ocean.

Moana is the daughter of the chief and will someday run their island, but she is only interested in exploring the ocean, which her father forbids her from doing. She becomes confused about her purpose on the island and wants to know what is beyond this tiny island they stand on. She is given a new purpose, though when darkness and death begin reaching the island and realizes that she must take Te Fiti's mystic heart back to where it belongs, with a little help from a demigod.



Moana's character is a strange mix between Aladdin and Jasmine. She loves her people and cares for them, but she wants to know how the world works outside of the little spot of land she calls home. Her crazier antics involving the ocean are shunned by the village elders and she is sometimes seen as an outcast - a street rat, if you will. She is adventurous, witty and independent, while also happily taking the title of princess.

As for the one other main character, Maui, I wanted to say he reminded me of the Genie, with his phenomenal cosmic powers and selfish sense of humor, but his otherworldly powers are mostly limited to his fish hook. Instead, Maui feels like a Polynesian version of Hercules, with his unrivaled strength and need to constantly prove himself, both to the gods and to himself.

We're told that Maui is responsible for many of the things humans take for granted, like the wind, coconuts, the sun being up long enough to enjoy the day and pretty much every enjoyable aspect of nature. Anytime Maui performs a good deed, a new tattoo is magically given to him (cutie marks, anyone?). But all the work he does never seem to be enough, which might be why he stole the power of creation. He treats everything like a trial of strength and might, when all he really wants is acceptance.



"Moana" certainly has the smallest main cast of any Disney movie, since the majority is Moana and Maui at sea. The two spend most of their time learning from the other and singing some pretty good musical numbers, like Maui's "You're Welcome!" which is basically one massive ego-trip, which makes the Rock such a great choice to voice Maui. So don't expect a diverse cast in this film, but be ready for lots of mythology about the sea, like you would get in "The Little Mermaid."

In other words, "Moana" is the tale of Aladdin/Jasmine teaming up with Hercules in the world of "The Little Mermaid." And I mean that in the best possible way.



Like any other Disney-animated movie, "Moana" is beautiful to look at, even if it is mostly at sea. The way the water lights up and night or reflects the sunlight is gorgeous and there are some creative characters these two come across, like a band of coconut pirates that outnumber our heroes but are ridiculously small. The ocean becomes its own character with its vast shades of blue and green.

Overall, "Moana" is best Disney-animated film since "Tangled." It is filled to the brim with mythology, has a great message for both children and adults about being who you want to be instead of what others think you should be, and what it lacks in diversity it makes up for in sheer fun. There is enough in this film for both adults and kids to enjoy it, so this is one you don't want to miss.

Final Grade: B+

Monday, January 9, 2017

Movie Review - "The Time Machine" (1960)



The second film by George Pal adapting an H.G. Wells novel, the first being "War of the Worlds," "The Time Machine," falls into many of the same categories as the other adaptation - Good effects, lousy characters, but a great job adapting Wells' message about the strengths and weaknesses of mankind.

H.G. Wells was way ahead of his time, coming up with ideas for science fiction stories in the 1800s and developing the blue print that every alien invasion and time travel story comes from.

"The Time Machine" follows inventor George Wells (Rod Taylor) who has developed a machine that allows him to travel through the fourth dimension of time. He demonstrates the device to his colleagues, but they can't believe in such a contraption. When George gets fed up with living in the present, he uses his machine to travel into the future and see how far mankind has come in the year 802,701 A.D.



The film takes a while to get going, since George spends the first third of the film contemplating what the future will be like and why he has no interest in going into the past (even though he built in that function), as well as going into the future by just a few years. It doesn't help that George comes across as the typical action hero who has to save the day.

Overall, I enjoyed "The Time Machine" for its unique approach with time-lapse photography and how far mankind will have come in thousands of years, whether that is forward or backwards. The pacing isn't anything to write about and I don't remember anything about the characters. This is worth checking out to see where time travel got its science fiction roots.

Final Grade: C+

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Movie Review - "Limelight" (1952)



If you love the tone of a Charlie Chaplin film, you'll appreciate "Limelight." Chaplin's films are as sentimental as they come, always about finding hope, love and joy in the most unlikely of places and this is the first two-thirds of "Limelight," as Chaplin plays an aging stage comedian, Calvero, and saves a young dancer (Claire Bloom) who attempted suicide and helps give her a new purpose in life. Calvero is unable to find work in London, due to his reputation, and has to hide behind pseudonyms and booze.

I found the memorable parts to be Chaplin's inspirational speeches to Bloom, about how man is the most fascinating creature in the universe and we shouldn't throw that majesty away. For a man who spent most of his film career in the silent era, refusing to adopt sound pictures even years after they were created, Chaplin is one of the most simple yet eloquent individuals I've seen in movies. Of course, after Calvero experiences his own setbacks, the dancer turns it around and brings him back from the brink.



But the problem with "Limelight" come from the lack of comedy throughout this two-hour film. For being a Charlie Chaplin film, this is lacking in physical comedy, which mostly doesn't come until the end. There is so much focus on the heartfelt moments that the comedy is scarce. Sometimes Chaplin gets a funny line, but his delivery isn't as good as it use to be.

Overall, the sentimental side is a bit too much in "Limelight" without a good amount of Chaplin comedy to balance it out. As a tribute to Chaplin's stage days in London, the joy of being at the theater shines through and the story of two people learning to love again through the stage is heartwarming. But this one goes on a bit too long at points and ends up repeating a few scenes.

Final Grade: C+

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Movie Review - "Nanook of the North" (1920)



A long time ago I said that unfunny comedies were the hardest films to review, since there was little to say outside of how the jokes didn't work. That was before I realized that documentaries could be reviewed as well.

 

I find films fun and harmless to review and talk about, because they are recreations of life, but not perfect replicas of reality. Most of the time, movies are imaginative attempts to make the impossible seem like they could happen and not meant to be taken too seriously. But documentaries are the exact opposite of this philosophy - it takes the possible and makes it seem like it could never happen.

 

There is little to say about a documentary outside of "Yup, that sure happened," without repeating exactly what the movie already said. But then a review becomes a written transcript of the film.

 

So bare with me while I take a look at the first documentary, "Nanook of the North."

 

Released in 1920 by Robert J. Flaherty, a man who fully admitted he had no filmmaking experience prior to making this film, "Nanook" follows a family of Eskimos as they do their best to survive the harsh arctic climate and make a living of the little food and supplies they have. Flaherty had been making this film for years and took several trips up through the northern most parts of Canada, after spending a lifetime fascinated by the lives Eskimos lead.





Since this is the first feature-length documentary, the rules of filmmaking had not been established yet. Since documentaries as supposed to be as close as possible to reality, the filmmakers are to do as little as possible with their environment. But Flaherty openly admitted that many of the scenes in "Nanook" were staged, like the opening scene were Nanook and his family come into port and five family members, including a baby and a puppy, are all laying inside their small canoe.

 

As such, it is difficult to call this a documentary when so many scenes were done for dramatic effect, rather than what Eskimos would actually do.

 

There's also a strange shift in narrative near the end of the film. The first fifty minutes follow Nanook and his family (though most of them were not related, these were just the most photogenic Eskimos), as they fish, hunt for walrus and build igglos. But suddenly, there's a fight among Nanook's dogs for dominance and there is a focus on the dogs from that point on. While Nanook skins a seal, they continually cut to the dogs who are growling for some of the seal meat, leading in to another fight amongsts the dogs that delays the Eskimos and gets them caught in a big snow storm. The title cards even admit that it's the dogs fault.

 

For a film that wants to show all the hardships of living in the arctic, there is a big focus on dogs by the end of the film.

 

Overall, "Nanook of the North" is a strange documentary that would set the ground work for every documentary to come. It's like "Birth of a Nation," which took the many aspects that filmmaking had established up to that time and combined it, giving us the best that film could bring us up to that point. For 1920, "Nanook" is a massive achievement, even if many scenes were staged. For that, it earns my respect.

 

Final Grade: C+

Friday, January 6, 2017

Paul's Top Five Films of 2016



In my look at the best of 2016, I mentioned there were about four films that stood out to me as truly great movies. These are movies that I will happily come back to years from now and look back on them with fond memories. But, to round this out, I will be doing my top five best films of 2016.
Keep in mind that I have not seen every movie of 2016 that I wanted to see, including "La La Land," "Moonlight," and "Manchester by the Sea" so this list might have some other films added to it later on. But for the time being, these are the five best movies that 2016 had to offer.


At the end, I'll also be including an honorable mentions list with films there were good, even great in some ways, but did not make the list for one reason or another. I will also be linking each pick to my original reviews, to offer a more expansive opinion on each pick.





Number Five: *Tie* "Deadpool" and "Captain America: Civil War"


Okay, I'm cheating with this one by making it two movies, but I honestly could not pick which was the best superhero movie of 2016. Two vastly different movies with entirely different agendas, yet weirdly enough they are equally entertaining.


"Deadpool" takes what Marvel has been making superhero movies for the last eight years and turns it on its head and gives it a good kick in the nuts. While not deep or complex on any sort of level, the raunchy humor, over the top gore and action and a quirky Ryan Reynolds that never lets up make "Deadpool" one of the most unforgettable experiences of 2016.




"Captain America: Civil War" on the other hand is the most complex and character-driven Marvel film yet, where we see these heroes at their most vulnerable. We see the guilt and regret everyone goes through, in a world that demands this type of power be put on a leash. This is a story driven by revenge, while also giving us some down-to-earth performances from the entire cast. Not to mention, when this movie wants to be entertaining it pulls out all the stops and gives us some of the greatest sequences Marvel has filmed yet.


I honestly cannot choose between the two, so I'm just giving the number five spot to both movies. Both films are a sign that the superhero genre is evolving and still capable of thrilling us in whole new ways.





Number Four: "Don't Breathe"


While this is the most simplistic movie of 2016, it was also a rewarding one. Set in a small yet high-tech house where nearly every appliance or object comes into the plot, we witness a home invasion tale involving two equally guilty parties, while sympathizing with both sides. Each side takes violent actions, mostly out of fear and confusion, but all they want is a fulfilling life that they are not getting and this is the only way they know how to live. Always smart and atmospheric, constantly building up the tension with great camerawork and music, "Don't Breathe" is one of the more underrated classics of 2016.





Number Three: "Hell or High Water"


The more I thought about this modern western, the more it grew on me. This is one of the more subtle films of the last few years, where little is explained and more is shown through the acting of Chris Pine and Ben Foster. The environment is also key to "Hell or High Water," as we see a starving Texas that is slowly being killed by the bank. Some of the more beautiful shots in this film are of the lives either being destroyed or what little remains of life, like the cattle farmers running from the flames or the vast empty planes with rusting trucks and tractors. This makes Pine and Foster's journey less about revenge and more of redemption. Certainly worth checking out.





Number Two: "Shin Godzilla"


I adored "Shin Godzilla" from start to finish. A new take on Godzilla, both in terms of character and concept of the monster that makes this one fresh and intelligent. This Godzilla is a terrifying creature that is always evolving, and we see a world that is unprepared for such a creature become paralyzed with fear and indecision, caught up in the bureaucracy of minutiae. Every scene with Godzilla utilizes his size and mass to great effect and leads to the best cinematography of any Godzilla movie. The film is also unbelievably nostalgic without ever drawing too much attention to it, with its use of music, sound effects and Godzilla's evolution. What "Shin Godzilla" lacks in characters, it easily makes up for it in style, atmosphere, and tone. Even if you're not a fan of Godzilla, this is a smart, well-shot monster movie that anyone can appreciate.





Number One: "Arrival"


For my number one pick, I went with the most important and relevant movie of 2016. A movie that is akin to others like "Contact" and "The Day the Earth Stood Still," while showing us the strength in kindness, understanding, and communication. But the timing on "Arrival" was everything, coming at a time when the future looked bleak and in pieces, this film reminded us of hope and faith in all of mankind.


If there is a common theme among my top five films of 2016, it would be smart, well-thought-out movies that consider every scene, action, and line of dialogue important to the story and how the movie is effected by the world around us. Whether that is two brothers looking to redeem themselves in a forgotten land, a democracy responding to a living monstrosity, or how the entire world would react to aliens and their message.


If 2016's year of cinema was anything, it was smart.


Honorable Mentions:


"Kubo and the Two Strings"


"10 Cloverfield Lane"


"Hail, Caesar!"


"Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them"


"The Accountant"

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Best of 2016 - Was 2016 a good year for movies?



As a year, 2016 was sometimes painful to get through, with all the celebrity deaths and the political turmoil everyone was forced to endure. But I think we came out of this year with a better sense of identity and where we want to go from here. We're learning from our mistakes and want a better future for everyone. It might take a while to get there, and it won't be easy, but someday we'll get to the place we all want to achieve.

Now let's talk about the 2016 for cinema and ask the same question we ask every year - Was this a good year for movies?

Traditionally, I say it is a good year for movies if there are three or four memorable or worthwhile films. Any fewer, and it was a bad year for movies, any more and it was a great year. Ones that you can watch over and over again, ones that stick with you long after you watched it, or movies that made you think or feel a little bit more than usual. Basically, the movies that will last beyond the first few months of being released to DVD.

I'll get into exactly which films did that for me in my look at the top films of 2016, but I feel there about four movies that have stuck with me since I saw them, and most of them have been out since August.



I thought 2013 was an okay year for movies, with the ones I remember loving being "her" and "The Wolf of Wall Street," while 2014 had definite improvements with movies like "Nightcrawler," "Gone Girl," "The Lego Movie" and "Birdman," but 2015 was the best year for movies in recent memory, giving us movies like "The Force Awakens," "Inside Out," "The Martian," "Creed," "Spotlight" and of course "Mad Max: Fury Road."

But 2016? With four initial standout movies, this has been a good year, but not a great year. There were a ton of good, but not great movies this year - "Ghostbusters," "Star Trek: Beyond," "Finding Dory," "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story," "Sully," "The Nice Guys," "Zootopia" and "Kung Fu Panda 3" were all within the C to B range. They were all fun or considerate when they needed to be, but they were flawed and didn't have much staying power. A couple of weeks after I watched these movies, I had forgotten about most of them. They were not bad experiences, just not necessarily memorable ones.

Keep in mind, I'm saying all this without watching films like "La La Land," "Manchester by the Sea," "Moonlight," "Lion" and a few others, so this is an incomplete analysis. But, for the time being, I felt 2016 was fine. It produced more than enough servicable movies, which might explain why most of the highest grossing films of the year were animated films meant for children, like "Finding Dory" and "The Secret Life of Pets."

But now let's take a look at the best (and worst) that 2016 had to offer. As always, here are the categories, starting off with...



Biggest Surprise - "10 Cloverfield Lane"

When I heard that "Cloverfield" was getting a sequel, I brushed this film off as nothing more than a stupid cash-grab of a fairly pretentious monster movie and didn't give it another thought until I read some reviews and realized it was worth checking out. And what I witnessed was one of the most claustrophobic experiences of the year that consistently racked up the tension through excellent camera work and a terrifying performance from John Goodman. This one is less about the monsters and more about what humans become in the face of monsters. Or perhaps there aren't any monsters at all. That's what gives "10 Cloverfield Lane" its staying power - how vague and ambigious it is about the aliens.

Granted, the ending does ruin that a bit by giving us a solid answer, which marked down the film a bit for me, but there's no denying the creepy factor to the first hour and a half of this great thriller.



Most Technologically Impressive - "Kubo and the Two Strings"

This year has been a bit of a downgrade in terms of techonlogical advancements. 2015 gave us a superhero that could shrink to the size of ant, BB-8, this most vicious bear attack of all time, and sent us to Mars. And while there some great sequences involving CGI in most of the major blockbusters of this year, films like "Ghostbusters" stumbled throughout.

So this year, I'm giving it to the most beautiful movie I saw, "Kubo and the Two Strings." Sometimes the most impressive movies are the ones that pour everything into their craft while making it look easy. "Kubo"'s backgrounds and use of paper are still stuck in my memory and gave us some haunting yet stunning visuals. Above all else, I will remember the style of "Kubo and the Two Strings."



Most Fun in Theaters - "Captain America: Civil War"

Marvel does it yet again. While this one is heavier on quieter moments and character-building scenes, the titular battle at the airport is the best sequence in any Marvel movie so far, blending together action and comedy perfectly, playing to the strengths of each hero involved, whether those are physical strengths or character strengths. I had a gigantic smile on my face throughout this sequence and if it weren't for a certain climax to a certain monster film, the airport fight would have been the best scene of 2016. But we'll get to that.



Sleep Inducer - "The Girl on the Train"

Looking back on this one, the mystery of "The Girl on the Train" is so forgettable that its hardly worth mentioning. Add in the lazy pacing, the uncaring performances and the lack of any real sense of danger, and you get probably the most boring movie of 2016.



Film I Need to See Again - "The Witch"

I didn't write a review of this one, but it certainly deserves another chance on my part. When I went to see this, I had overworked myself by putting too much on plate and forced myself to see it when I clearly wasn't ready for it. As a result, I fell asleep while watching "The Witch."

But it wasn't the movies' fault. It was my fault.

From the bits of the movie that I remember being awake for, I did enjoy the otherworldy atmosphere and the setting. So this is one worth checking out again and giving a fair shot.



Funniest Film - "Deadpool"

I think everyone can agree on this. Superheroes + Constant fourth-wall breaking + An R-rating + No fucks = A laugh riot. "Deapool" was a breath of fresh-air in the superhero genre, while mixing it up and giving us some of the best raunchy comedy since "The Wolf of Wall Street."



Biggest Disappointment- "The Magnificent Seven"

With the many big name actors involved in this film, especially Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt and Ethan Hawke, I expected better from "The Magnificent Seven." I thought it was going to be a film that would honor the legacy of the original film, as well as "Seven Samurai," and show that they are films worth checking out. Instead, we got a film so full of western cliches that it is impossible for it to have any unique character or identity. There really is no reason for this movie to exist, and that's the biggest disappointment of all.



Most Forgettable - "Suicide Squad"

I realize there are plenty of people who either loved or hated this film, but I went in to "Suicide Squad" with zero expectations, and had a bad time where I didn't remember or care about anything that happened. If it weren't for the many complaints towards "Suicide Squad" and my review of the film, I would have completely forgotten about this one.



Most Overrated - "Doctor Strange"

Usually, this spot is saved for the film generating the most Oscar buzz that I feel doesn't deserve it. But considering I haven't seen many Oscar films yet, I'll go with the film that got way too many positive reviews.

"Doctor Strange" and "Zootopia" both did well with critics and audiences, but didn't always click with me. "Zootopia" was fun at times and had a bit more creativity, which puts it ahead of "Doctor Strange" for me. While the newest Marvel film isn't bad by any means, it is the most forgettable movie Marvel has come out with since "Thor: Dark World." There's a lack of comedy and the most memorable character, for me, was Doctor Strange's cape.

That's not a good sign when people like Benedict Cumberbatch and Mads Mikkelsen are being outdone by a piece of CGI clothe.



Most Underrated - "Don't Breathe"

I've talked to several people about their feelings on "Don't Breathe" and they have always been less than my own. Part of this might be due to the simplistic nature of the plot, while another part is probably the strange turn the film takes near the end and makes it all feel a bit comical.

But I had a blast with "Don't Breathe," and for a while I had considered putting this as the best film of 2016. It is the most basic movie of the year, but due to that simplicity it is also the most terrifying. This takes what "10 Cloverfield Lane" started and makes the stalker more intelligent and logical, but also at a disadvantage by being blind. It is wonderful to see that get turned into a strength throughout the film and watch as despicable people get hunted down by a twisted man.

 

 



Best Performance - Jeff Bridges in "Hell or High Water"

The best example of perfect casting in 2016.

Bridges plays a Texas Ranger who is about to retire and is looking for one last chance at glory, and sees that by stopping a series of small bank robberies. He is fully of bravado and ego, while still being intelligent and calm about his plans that it is impossible not to like him. Additionally, of all the characters in "Hell or High Water" he goes through the most change and realizes that life is more than just a series of accomplishments.

Bridges disappears in this performance and gives us a Texan that is keen on the old ways, but recognizes the changing winds. He may not like them, as with most people in this dying south, but he learns to bend with them without breaking.



Most Anticipated Film of 2017 - "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2"

Lots of big name films coming out in 2017. We'll see DC spread its wings and try out different genre pieces with "Wonder Woman" and "Justice League," Spider-Man returns to Marvel, King Kong comes back to the big screen and we'll be getting a new rendition of the Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers, just to name a few that stick out to me.

But if I had to pick one, seeing more of the Guardians will be a blast. The trailer alone has me convinced that this will be just as much fun as the first one, except now more outlandish and expansive. You can't go wrong with that.

 


Best Scene - Yashiori Strategy/Climactic Battle from "Shin Godzilla"

This is a new category for 2016, but one that I had to bring in just to talk about how much I loved the ending to "Shin Godzilla" (again).

If there was one scene that I kept playing over and over again in my head from 2016, it was Japan's final stand against Godzilla from the most recent entry in the series. In most Godzilla films, the military throws bombs and missiles at Godzilla aimlessly, hoping that one will somehow leave a mark and bring him down, but we all know how well that works. It often gives off the impression that the military is useless in Godzilla movies. This is made even worse in "Shin Godzilla" with them fighting the most terrifying incarnation of the King of the Monsters to date, as well as a creature that is constantly evolving.

So imagine my surprise when this climax occurs and we get a military unit that is not only capable of keeping up with Godzilla, but utilizes his weaknesses and everything they've learned about him to their advantage. The military also uses the environment around them well, planting bombs in light-rail trains and dropping massive buildings on top of Godzilla. This is the most intelligent and strategic plan to stop Godzilla yet and it is glorious to witness, especially in a film that makes the country of Japan its main character.

Add in the classic military march by Akira Ifukube that kept my toes tapping the entire time, and you get the most action-packed sequence of 2016 that never gets old. I really wish a DVD would come out for "Shin Godzilla" quickly so I can watch this scene again.

This scene was triumphant, while still remaining terrifying like the rest of the film, to make for the most exhilirating scene of 2016.



Worst Film - "Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice"

By far, the most insulting movie of 2016.

It almost feels cliche to pick on "Batman vs. Superman" at this point, since my inital review ripped the movie to shreads for being a boring, dull, non-sensical and off-putting mess. The film doesn't understand what makes Batman or Superman the endearing characters we all know and love and does whatever it wants with our "heroes" by making them idiot meat-puppets who are obsessed with either trivial matters or looking good for his girl. Outside of a few laughably bad moments (Bat Jesus, anyone?), "Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice" is best just forgotten and never mentioned again.

And that's it for my look back on 2016. If you're wondering what are my picks for the best overall films of 2016, stay tuned because in the next few days I'll be posting my top movies of the year and wrap up my look at 2016.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Movie Review - "Stage Fright" (1950)


"Stage Fright" is one of the forgotten Hitchcock films, and usually for good reason. While the film has its share of twists and turns, the plot is something you'd see in a comedic Jane Austin novel and ends up being forgettable by the end, though is saved by some abstract cinematography and a performance from the always charming Alistair Sims.

Set in London, struggling actress Eve Gill (Jane Wyman) has to hide her crush, Jonathan, (Richard Todd) from the police after he is convicted of murdering his lover's husband. Jonathan is convinced that his lover, the famous actress Charlotte Inwood (Marlene Dietrich) actually killed her own husband and is framing Jon, so Eve sets out prove his innocence along with the help of her eccentric father (Alistair Sims).

The main theme of "Stage Fright" is to prove who the best actress is, as both Eve and Charlotte continue to hide behind the many personas they've built and how well they can keep up these lies with an active audience - the police. Eve continually has to create characters to gain information from a detective, the maid who supposedly witnessed the murder, and Charlotte herself by taking over for the maid. Charlotte, while being a world-famous actress, never seems bothered by her husband's death and has no problem framing her lover for the murder. Perhaps she never loved him and was only using him as a tool get out of a loveless marriage?



To prove Jon's innocence, Eve must continually show she is a better actress than Charlotte. In the end, it'll be the better actress that will prevail.

Unlike most Hitchcock films, "Stage Fright" opens up with the crime being committed, and the film convincing us there was a double-cross. Yet, there is room for doubt. We see the crime through a flashback from a man who is blinded by his love for Charlotte. But Eve is convinced that Jon is telling the truth, so we spend most of the movie believing that he is innocent and justice must be served.

It is too bad that most of the film is spent on the budding relationship between Eve and the detective investigating the murder, because any chemistry between the two comes off as forced and contrived, added to give "Stage Fright" a romantic side.

But the best part of "Stage Fright" is Eve's father and the performance by Alistair Sims. He starts off as this hardened sailor who doesn't take crap from anyone except his daughter who he would do anything for. This leads to a performance that is both stubborn yet caring, sarcastic yet loving. He gets sucked into his roles just as easily as Eve does and he has a blast solving his murder case.

Overall, while there are some original ideas for Hitchcock in "Stage Fright" the story is far from compelling and most of the side characters, outside of Eve's father, are forgettable. The cinematography is the usual-fare for a Hitchcock film, with some great manipulations of perspective and deep focus, but it does little elevate the plot. This is a pretty standard Alfred Hitchcock film.

Final Grade: C