Saturday, December 30, 2017

Movie Review - "Cinema Paradiso" (1988)

"Cinema Paradiso" is, first and foremost, a love letter to the power of movies. It is about the allure of watching larger than life characters go on adventures. It is about how cinema brings communities together by making us all feel the same emotions. And it is about how movies teach us as much about life as life itself. This movie views cinema through classic nostalgia googles, viewing these strengths through the eyes of a little boy that can't stay away from his local theater.

The story is similar to Fellini's "Amarcord" but with a massive focus on movies and the theater. In that this Italian film is mostly told through flashbacks to one character's youth and the town he grew up in. We meet most of the people in his town, but don't really get to know any of them until they get in the movie theater. Each character has a different reaction to their surroundings, including some spitting on those who won't stop talking, or the guy whose seen the movie multiple times and repeats the lines out loud, yet still ends up openly weeping at the ending of the film.

The story almost feels non-existent here, with most of "Cinema Paradiso" focusing on the lives of these characters and how alive they feel while watching movies. These people feel lifeless and bored without cinema in their lives. If they're not watching movies, they tend to talk about how life relates back to something Cary Grant or John Wayne once said. To see that type of journey evolve from childhood into adulthood and still have this wide-eyed optimism about it all certainly makes it a worthwhile journey.

But the real power of "Cinema Paradiso" is how it makes you love watching movies. Even if you're not an avid fan of classic movies, just watch the reactions these people have to films like "Stagecoach" or Kirk Douglas playing Ulysses and you'll see that movies are much more than just pretty faces and explosions. The ending scene in particular is one of the most powerful and heartfelt scenes I've seen in a long time, worthy of being enshrined in a film museum.

Overall, "Cinema Paradiso" is a slice of life Italian film that has a glorious perspective on movies that you don't see very often. It is a beautifully nostalgic score by Ennio Morricone and some heartbreaking performances from it's two main leads. I would highly recommend this to anyone who enjoys reminiscing about older movies, as well as to those who want to gain a deeper appreciation of cinema.

Final Grade: B

Friday, December 29, 2017

Movie Review - "A Star Is Born" (1954)

Hot off the heels of watching "The Disaster Artist," I saw another movie about making movies, 1954's "A Star Is Born," and found myself nearly falling asleep at the monotonous scenes of Judy Garland singing directly into the camera for no other reason than to show that she can still sing. Any joy to be had here from filmmaking is replaced with a cynical attitude about how fame is fleeting and way too many musical numbers than there needed to be.

I would say the cardinal sin of "A Star Is Born" is its runtime - well over three hours with a story that could have been told in less than two. I get that this was a way to give Judy Garland a comeback as an actress, but there are large portions of this movie where the story just disappears and we get tacky, self-important musical numbers.

Garland's acting and singing ability can only take this movie so far, especially when we don't get to see her try to be an actress outside of her singing ability. She rises from an aspiring singer with a band to an overnight sensation, but the finer details of her rise and the movies she makes are glossed over. The only thing we truly learn about her character is that she's a great singer and wants to make it big, so I don't feel much of a connection to this character.

Overall, "A Star Is Born" is a rather forgettable and unimpressive musical about filmmaking. The acting is fine and Garland can still belt out some great tunes, but the story is lacking, the pacing is horrendous, it is way longer than it needed to be, and it puts musical numbers ahead of everything else, including character development. It's not terrible by any means and it looks gorgeous in Technicolor, but this one doesn't have much going for it.

Final Grade: C-

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Movie Review - "High Society" (1956)

I'm honestly conflicted as to whether knowing or not knowing the history behind "High Society" makes for a better viewing experience. On the one hand, if you go into this film knowing this is an musical adaptation of "The Philadelphia Story," then you might only find yourself thinking about how Frank Sinatra's acting compares to that of Jimmy Stewart, or if Grace Kelly's turn as the strongly independent Tracy Lord even stacks up against Katharine Hepburn's role. However, if you went in not knowing anything, you might find yourself enjoying the catchy musical numbers and the strong character progression the young Tracy Lord.

For me, I had only seen "The Philadelphia Story" once before watching "High Society," and only vaguely remember some scenes, in particular being reminded of Cary Grant's sarcasm, Hepburn's stubborn yet feisty personality, and Jimmy Stewart surprisingly acting circles around both Hepburn and Grant. But if anything, watching this musical now has only made me appreciate the source film much more than I already did. "High Society" trades in the screwball comedy-style of "The Philadelphia Story" for a romantic comedy/musical with some great toe-tapping numbers, especially in a jazz duet with Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong.

The story between the two films is the same - Tracy Lord (Grace Kelly) is a well-known socialite from one of the biggest families on the east coast is getting remarried, all the while being in the presence of her ex-husband C.K. Dexter Haven (Bing Crosby), who is still in love with her and will do everything in his power to have Tracy back in his arms. Due to some rather convoluted circumstances, the only sort of press that gets into the party is one reporter, Mike Connor (Frank Sinatra), and a photographer, Liz Imbrie (Celeste Holm), from Spy Magazine, who only make the wedding even more chaotic.

I will say that, while Kelly, Crosby, and Sinatra all do a fine job with their given roles, and Crosby and Sinatra belt out some memorable tunes, the three do lack the spark that Hepburn, Grant, and Stewart had in the original film. Kelly's performance as Tracy Lord feels like a normally quiet and reserved woman trying her best to stand up for herself, while it always felt like Hepburn poured every ounce of her mind, body, and soul into her screams and fierce attitude. Bing Crosby is soft-spoken and smooth, with everything coming a little too easy for him, while Cary Grant loved to cause chaos and manipulate everything from behind the curtain like a puppeteer.

I give Sinatra credit, in that he took his role as the hard-hitting reporter to a much different place than Jimmy Stewart did. Sinatra is charming and charismatic, serving the role of yet another man that Grace Kelly ends up falling for. Both of them do see a lot in the other and they have great chemistry. In "The Philadelphia Story," I never got the impression that Hepburn was falling in love with Jimmy Stewart, just that she admired him while she was getting drunk and made a few mistakes. Sinatra plays Connors as a no-nonsense reporter who likes to call things as he sees them, while Stewart was...well, Jimmy Stewart - kind-hearted, honest, and truthful. Both bring something different to Connors that make each of their interpretations feel unique.

I think the key difference between "High Society" and "The Philadelphia Story" is on presentation versus story. One chooses to focus on visual spectacles, musical numbers and a sense of the elegant lifestyle, while the other relies on the acting ability of its three main leads and the chemistry they have to lead a compelling comedy. In this regard, both films excel at what they set out to do and are individually noteworthy films. I will say that "The Philadelphia Story" is the better film, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't check out "High Society" for yourself and see how a screwball comedy adapts into a musical.

Final Grade: A-


Movie Review - "The Right Stuff" (1983)

Meet the movie that every astronaut training movie aspires to be - "The Right Stuff."

This three hour movie chronicles the life and times from when we first broke the sound barrier to early days of the Mercury astronauts and their journeys around our planet, with a particular focus on the adventurous and wild test pilots the military and NASA used to achieve these lofty and dangerous goals. "The Right Stuff" gives each achievement, each little victory and each leap for mankind the gravitas it truly deserves, letting the audience savor these discoveries as much as our characters do.

While the film feels like a documentary at times, taking its time to accurately show how everything unfolded, the pure joy of the Mercury astronauts get as they see the Earth from a whole new perspective and joke with each other as one has to wait for hours to go to the bathroom is where "The Right Stuff" truly shines. The film doesn't try to show people like John Glenn (Ed Harris) or Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn) as living legends or gods, but as flawed men who made as many mistakes as the rocket engineers and the government that pushed them so that we would compete with Russians and their space race. The moments of levity and awe are a wonderful compliment to the man failures and challenges of doing something that no one has ever attempted.

For people who want to reach out to the stars and see what's beyond Earth, this film feels more human than historical.

"The Right Stuff" does feel much longer than it needs to be, but considering what it is trying to tell and the amount of history it wants to recap, the three-hour runtime feels justified. That being said, it does start out slow and focuses a bit too much on the personal lives of the test pilots than it had to. But once the film starts testing the pilots to become astronauts, around 45 minutes into the movie, things really start picking up and never lets go.

Overall, "The Right Stuff" is one of the more fascinating and humble depictions of the first astronauts. The journey from test pilots to breaking the sound barrier to astronaut training and beyond is an admirable and epic one that takes the proper time to slow down and savor both the little and big moments. Certainly a space epic worth checking out.

Final Grade: A-

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Movie Review - "The Disaster Artist" (2017)

Movies about filmmaking often feel like the most heartfelt and passionate works of art in all of cinema. Any filmmaker will tell you that getting even one movie made is a miracle in and of itself, and it's even more rare that the film turns out exactly as it was intended, and even more rare when the audience will see your artistic vision and point of view. It is my belief that a filmmaker leaves just a little bit of their souls in each of their movies, making their identity and beliefs as ingrained in the final product as the screenplay and cinematography. This is why I absolutely adore movies about movies.

The classic examples that come to mind for these types of films are "Sunset Boulevard" and "Ed Wood," which each show the struggles of filmmaking and how all that pain and suffering is worth it to see your picture up on that silver screen. "The Bad and the Beautiful" takes it in a slightly different direction by showing one man's life in film through different perspectives and can be just as charming and poignant as "Sunset Boulevard." But the newest film that can be added to this small genre is James Franco's "The Disaster Artist," our generation's "Ed Wood."

I would say that "The Disaster Artist" benefits from knowing at least a little bit about the person it is based on, Tommy Wiseau, or seeing the cult classic Wiseau created, "The Room," but honestly this film fills you in on everything and can be enjoyed whether you've watched "The Room" a hundred times or have never even heard of it. I will say that, given my knowledge on the history of Tommy Wiseau and "The Room," I can say that just about every crazy, bizarre, and head-tilting thing Franco does as Tommy is true - He really does act in a way that can only be described as a "unique art form."

Based on a true story, the film follows a young Greg Sestero (Dave Franco), an inexperienced actor who dreams of becoming the next James Dean. While he attends some acting classes in San Francisco, Greg eventually meets up with the absurd yet passionate Tommy Wiseau (James Franco) and the two form a tight friendship. When Greg reveals his dreams of becoming a big actor in Hollywood, Tommy reveals that he has a nice apartment in Los Angeles and suggests that the two of them move to Hollywood to follow their dreams, even if everyone else in Greg's life can sense that Tommy's acting is abysmal except Greg.

I will say right now that I've seen "The Room" about three times and know that the movie is an extension of Tommy Wiseau's personality. He wrote it, produced it, directed it, and is the leading actor. If a filmmaker normally leaves a small piece of their soul in a movie, Tommy put his entire soul into "The Room," leaving us with a movie with is overflowing with passion and energy, but has no sense of talent. "The Room" is one of the best "so bad, it's good" movies ever made that I honestly can't help but admire it because Tommy put everything he had into it. Even if he turned out a laughably bad product, his heart and soul is all over both "The Room" and "The Disaster Artist."

Like "Ed Wood," this movie paints a picture of its main character in loving and passionate detail, giving us both the good and the bad and not painting in any broad strokes. We see Tommy as he truly is, not as just an artist or a terrible filmmaker, but as a man from an undisclosed country, of undeterminable age, and with god-knows how much money. The film offers up the history of the beloved Tommy Wiseau and lets the audience decide if this is a good man, like he believes he is, or a villain like everyone else in the film believes Tommy is.

One of the best parts of "The Disaster Artist" is James Franco's performance as Wiseau. Everyone I hang out with has their own Tommy Wiseau impression, because he is easily inimitable, so I applaud James Franco for portraying this enigma of a man without coming off as just another impression. Franco nails the mannerisms, speech, and child-like behavior that makes this man one of the most bizarre people I've ever had the pleasure of watching. When I was watching this movie, it did not feel like I was seeing James Franco trying to be Tommy Wiseau, it felt like Tommy was really in front of me.

But ultimately, the driving force of "The Disaster Artist" is that same passion for filmmaking that Tommy Wiseau has, but directed in a way that makes you appreciate how strange and chaotic Hollywood can be, especially around the man that gave us "The Room." Little moments like an elderly woman telling Greg why she chooses to act at her age, or the love and admiration Greg has for James Dean, come across as loving and honest, which compliments the many scenes of Tommy's bumbling and terrible behavior. The final scenes during the first screening and the end credits showing the loving recreations of "The Room" are some of the most powerful and memorable sequences in recent years - funny, strange, heartwarming, and full of energy. Scenes like these are why we go to the movies in the first place.

Overall, "The Disaster Artist" takes the unbelievable story of Tommy Wiseau and tells it in a way that would make the man himself proud. The film never feels like it is winking at the audience, but instead shares that same desire to create something unique that Tommy has. I loved this film and highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys going to the movies. Even if you've never seen "The Room," this film will make you appreciate the art form just a little bit more.

Final Grade: A

Friday, December 22, 2017

Movie Review - "Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi" (2017)

If I had to describe the latest Star Wars film with just one word, it would "different." This may rub some diehard Star Wars fans the wrong way, and I have already seen many fans reacting just as negatively to "The Last Jedi" as they did with the prequel trilogy, but at this stage in the game, I feel "The Last Jedi" is a breath of fresh air that isn't afraid to challenge the status quo and show new sides to an old story, while working to create something entirely new.

It does feel like "The Last Jedi" was made as a direct response to the criticisms of "The Force Awakens," which audiences complained was too much like "A New Hope" and didn't do enough to create its own identity. People were afraid that "The Last Jedi" was going to continue this trend and just be a retread of "The Empire Strikes Back," myself included. But the latest entry in the series feels wholly unique from any other film, making the audience question the overall themes and message of the Star Wars films, while still giving us that same Star Wars goodness we've all come to know and love.

This is a difficult film to talk about without spoiling anything, especially since "The Last Jedi" is the first Star Wars film to come out that I didn't know where it was going. There's far more twists and turns that I expected, and it doesn't take any easy outs, making this a movie that you need to see twice before you can fully appreciate it (which is a great marketing tool by Disney, ensuring that the common movie-goer will go see this film multiple times). In this case, I will say that "The Last Jedi" is a great addition to the Star Wars franchise, with a vastly different philosophy and approach, but I'd take the passionate love letter to this series, "The Force Awakens," over this movie in the end.

Set almost directly after the events of "The Force Awakens," the remaining members of the Resistance have now become the rebels and are on the run from the rampaging First Order, led by their Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) and his apprentice Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) leads the last major group of rebels to find a hiding place from the First Order, holding out hope that her brother Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) will return soon to stop this war before it's too late. Meanwhile, the newest Jedi Rey (Daisy Ridley) has found Luke on an island on a planet no one has ever heard of, and begs Luke to return to save the rebellion and possibly train her in the ways of the force, both of which Luke has no intention of doing.

The main theme of "The Last Jedi" is one of burying the past, both literally for its characters moving on with their lives, and for the film as a whole by showing us this bold and brave new direction the trilogy is heading. I love the direction this film takes characters like Luke and Poe Dameron (Oscar Issac) and the journeys their characters undergo, showing a far more vulnerable and imperfect side than I ever expected.

The acting is also a definite improvement over "The Force Awakens," especially from Adam Driver as Kylo Ren. In that film, he always seemed like a whiny, petulant child with anger problems, but now Driver is able show a wide range of emotions that show him as a character going through some conflicting feelings about what is right and wrong and whether he should bury his past or embrace it. Oscar Issac is given more to do than just being the handsome flyer, and turns Poe from just an action hero into a likable yet flawed character you want to see succeed. Of course, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher pour everything into their roles to show us why we loved these characters in the first place.

The cinematography for "The Last Jedi" is a bit strange but beautiful to look at. The finale, which takes place on a salt planet, offers a color scheme that feels wholly unique, appearing like blood on snow. This gorgeous spectacle is one of the highlights of the film, embracing the imagination and creativity of Star Wars, while still feeling like its own thing. This helps to create that identity that "The Force Awakens" never truly got.

However, the film does drag at certain points. There are some scenes that go on much longer than they needed to, especially near the beginning of the second act, and most scenes with the rebels aren't nearly as interesting as the moments with Luke and Rey on the island. For a two and a half hour runtime, this one feels much longer than it actually is thanks to its multiple climatic battles. Then again, "The Last Jedi" feels like an entire trilogy of movies told in one movie, so maybe that's because there's just a lot to digest.

Overall, "The Last Jedi" is a much different Star Wars experience than I ever expected. It takes the simple fairy tale like story of good versus evil and makes it far more complicated than its ever been. This film gives you a lot to think about, while still remaining Star Wars at its core. It doesn't repeat the past like "The Force Awakens" does, but rhymes with the past in a way that feels unique. This is a movie I have to see again to fully understand, but one I don't mind watching again.

Final Grade: B

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Movie Review - "Amarcord" (1973)

If there's one foreign director whose work does nothing for me, well it would probably be Ingmar Bergman's movies, but a close second would be Federico Fellini. Granted, I've only seen his films "8 1/2" and "La Dolce Vita," but both nearly put me to sleep where it feels like they wander around aimlessly with no purpose other than to be artsy. There is little to no substance in his movies that it's hard to find a reason to recommend his movies.

But I will say there were scenes in Fellini's "Amarcord," that I genuinely enjoyed for their laid back, small town approach to it all. The film follows teenager Titta (Bruno Zanin) and his every day life and troubles while growing up in a small village on Italy, surrounded by eccentric and colorful people, in the 1930s just as the Nazis were coming into power.

On the whole, "Amarcord" doesn't do much different from Fellini's other films, since it doesn't have a major over-arching story, just a bunch of small vignettes revolving around the many people in this town and Titta's family. But there's this small village charm that I found adorable about "Amarcord." It starts in the opening scene when everyone comes together to celebrate the end of winter in a joyous bonfire in the center of town. They all have their own unique way of celebrating, especially the teenagers who want to play with the fire and the local motorcycle rider who drives right through it, but it's clear that everyone is having a blast.

This passion and joy for life sticks out above other Fellini films and makes the aimless plot worth observing. Scenes of Titta trying to put the moves on the local town hottie Gradisca (Magali Noel) or watching Titta's father (Armando Brancia) try desperately to control the crazy people around him and failing, put a smile on my face because they feel so nostalgic and vibrant.

"Amarcord" is like listening to a painter as he creates a portrait of his childhood and hearing about all the highs and lows of his life.

If you ever watch one Federico Fellini movie, give "Amarcord" a shot. It never tries to be about anything other than the life of a teenager with a lot to learn, which is so refreshing to see from Fellini. It is filled with colorful characters and equally vibrant comedy that makes it all feel laid back and nonchalant about it all. The film still moves at a slow pace, but gives each scene enough time to leave an impression on the audience.

Final Grade: B-

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Movie Review - "Four Horseman of the Apocalypse" (1921)

Born to a half-French, half-German family, Julio (Rudolph Valentino), the son of an Argentinian cattle baron, is forced to reconsider his decadent and uncommitted way of life with the advent of World War I. "The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse" is a continent-spanning epic that drew in a worldwide audience and was one of the first films to try its hand at the anti-war genre, as well as the anti-German sentiment at the time of its release.

The film established Rudolph Valentino has a bonafide star, giving him the nickname of the "Latin Lover," after his famous tango sequence early on in the film, making Valentino has well known in the Hollywood as other action stars such as Douglas Fairbanks.

"The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse" has a vast ranges of sets and locations, including the high-society Paris and the South American pampas, even a full scale World War I battlefield of a French village being attacked by German soldiers. The visuals truly do compete with anything that D.W. Griffith had created up to that point with "Birth of a Nation" and "Intolerance" helped even further with a booming live soundtrack and orchestra.

With all that being said, "The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse" moves at a snail's pace its interesting scenes are few and far between. While the visuals and color filters are impressive for the early 1920s, the story has not aged as well as one would imagine, but gets better when viewed through the time capsule of World War I. Not a great movie, but one worth checking out just for the history and attempt to make an epic that spans multiple continents in the 1920s.

Final Grade: C-

Friday, December 15, 2017

Movie Review - "Road to Morocco" (1942)

There is an undeniable charm to "Road to Morocco" that I've never seen in any movie before. Maybe it's because of the volatile yet infectious relationship between its two lead characters, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, where they simultaneously love and hate one another, leading some of wonderfully crafted insults. Maybe it's because of how it expertly spoofs adventure tales of the 1930s and 1940s, while still creating its own identity with its self-referential humor. Or maybe it's the opening musical number that perfectly describes the style and tone of the film.

Whether you've seen this movie or not, or any of the "Road to..." movies with Crosby and Hope, you are probably at least familiar with its style of screwball and fourth-wall break humor that is always good for laugh. Many other famous TV shows and movies have done countless parodies of these movies, with the most famous examples being several episodes of "Family Guy." And while many of those parodies are charming in their own right, none of them can really compare to the wisecracks and desperate nature of Hope and Crosby's relationship and their performances.

"Road to Morocco" follows our two "heroes" Jeff Peters (Crosby) and Orville Jackson (Hope) after their freighter in the Atlantic ocean explodes (they were the cause of the explosion) and the two are adrift at sea until they finally land in Morocco. They eventually reach a town, where Jeff sells Orville to some shady man in a bar, saying that they both need the money. After feeling (somewhat) guilty, Jeff eventually decides to track down his friend and learns that he's living in the lap of luxury, having been betrothed and is to be married to exotic princess (Dorothy Lamour). Jeff, of course, cannot stand seeing Orville so happy and has to intervene.

I never thought that two drastically different actors like Bing Crosby and Bob Hope could be the funniest duo since Abbott and Costello, but the two have a zany yet spiteful time together. Crosby is calm and collected and is as smooth as his singing, while Hope feels like a fusion of Charlie Chaplin's facial expressions and Groucho Marx's wit, giving his a man who moves and acts more like a cartoon than a human. Together, the two of them form a foundation that is built on dynamite and marshmallows.

Everyone owes it to themselves to see at least one "Road to..." movie in their lifetime, if only to see the strange yet charming back-and-forth between Hope and Crosby, and "Road to Morocco" is a wonderful place to start.

Final Grade: A

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Movie Review - "Coco" (2017)

2017 has been a bit of a down year for children's animation. While "Despicable Me 3" dominated the box office, that was the only major release that did well with both critics and audiences'. Of course, leave it to Pixar to make yet another classic that children would be enthralled with while adults can appreciate the story and animation with their newest film, "Coco." This is a film that owes a lot to the work of Hayao Miyazaki, in particular "Spirited Away," while still creating its own identity with a rich and deep understanding of the Mexican culture and mythology behind the day of the dead. "Coco" is easily Pixar's best film since "Inside Out" and has their best visuals since "WALL-E," offering the much needed breath of fresh air to animated films this year.

The film follows the tale of little Miguel Rivera (Anthony Gonzalez), who is born into a family of shoemakers that despise music after his great great-grandfather left them all behind to share his music with the world. But Miguel adores music and wants nothing more than to be a musician, especially after he learns that his grandfather that left is the famous Mexican musician Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). After an argument with his family ends with his guitar getting destroyed, Miguel runs away from his family and ends up in a place he never expected to be - the land of the dead.

Miguel meets up with his passed relatives, who want nothing more than to get him back home, and a trickster named Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal) who just wants one last chance to go back to the land of the living to see his family. Due to the rules of the land of the dead, Miguel has until sunrise to get his families blessing or else he'll be stuck there forever and turn into a skeleton, though Miguel is convinced that he must get the blessing of his great great-grandfather so that he can become a famous musician just like him.

"Coco" has the most vibrant and insane color scheme I've ever seen in a movie. There are so many shots of the endless landscape of the land of the dead where it felt like Pixar invented new colors, especially with the bright neon aesthetic of the spirit animals and buildings stacked on top of other buildings. Combine this with some of the best animation Pixar has made up to this point, including the way each skeleton moves and the way every character expertly works the guitar like a real professional, and you get the most visually pleasing experience Pixar has ever made.

I also adore the land of the dead in this film and how it operates. It has tiers and a class system based on how many people remember you in the real world, so of course the celebrities and stand-outs get better treatment than those who have been there for generations. Lots of little things like that and its symbiotic relationship with the real world make it a place that I cannot get enough of.

As I said earlier, "Coco" is filled to the brim with the Mexican culture, but it's never to the point where it feels like the film is shoving it in our faces. After watching this film, I feel like I have a greater understanding and appreciation of the Mexican culture, as it shows a deep bond between the past and the present and how that affects your family. So I applaud "Coco" for taking an entire culture that a large portion of the world probably did not know or understand and making it look and sound wonderful.

If there's one complaint I had with the movie its that the final act feels a bit rushed and keeps having one climatic moment after another. I think the final message of the movie about family bonds and a respect to your heritage is important and well-put together, but everything leading up to that feels like its trying to be more action-oriented than it needed to be.

Overall, I had a blast with "Coco." If it was not impressing me with visuals or the land of the dead, then I was entranced by its exploration of the Mexican culture. Children will love the bright and beautiful colors and its sense of humor, while adults can appreciate its rich story and cultural diversity. It has an interesting perspective on the dead that is both whimsical and grim at the same time that adds a more adult edge to the film while children can still enjoy it. So whether you are young or old or know nothing about the history of the day of the dead, you'll find something enjoyable about "Coco."

Final Grade: B+

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Movie Review - "Justice League" (2017)

I've made it no secret that I do not enjoy the DC Cinematic Universe. With the exception of "Wonder Woman," I've despised every entry in the series for being unappealing to the eye, far too serious for their own good, and above all else, dull and boring. Part of this is because DC wants to establish an identity for their films that is different from what Marvel is doing, by being dark, brooding and serious (in other words, every entry is trying desperately to be like "The Dark Knight" and mostly fails at it). But as "Wonder Woman" showed, you can still make a charming, funny, and poignant super hero movie without doing exactly what Marvel does.

But after watching the latest entry in the DC Universe, "Justice League," I know exactly what's holding these movies back - Zack Snyder. He's directed nearly every entry in the franchise so far, including "Man of Steel" and "Batman V Superman" while also having his fingerprints all over "Suicide Squad." While I think DC had good intentions by having one director for all of these movies, if the director you choose makes everything look like one big dark blurry mess crammed with far too many Jesus allegories, then you are going to be left with a disappointing product.

"Wonder Woman" broke the trend, partially because it had a different director, Patty Jenkins, and Snyder had little to no involvement in the movie's production. With "Justice League," we return to Snyder as director and we get many of the same problems that his previous films had - incomprehensible cinematography, an overbearingly dark and moody atmosphere, and fights that are hard to follow. While there is much more comedy and light-hearted moments than usual, I feel those scenes can be attributed to the films' second director, Joss Whedon, the man who created "The Avengers" and "Avengers: Age of Ultron."

Yeah, DC was so desperate to liven their big crossover movie up that they brought in one of Marvel's biggest directors to fix their problems. If that does not tell you that Snyder is the problem, I don't know what will.

Because of this strange hybrid of DC's atmosphere and characters and Marvel's writing and comedy, "Justice League" is a bit off-putting and strange. It feels like a movie that desperately wants to create its own identity, but is so wrapped up in the previous DC films' attitudes and Marvel's idea of success that it feels like a hodge-podge that doesn't get either side right. I will say it is leagues better than "Batman V Superman" and "Suicide Squad," for having characters that you actually want to root for and enjoy being around, but this film is so crowded that it doesn't give those characters enough time.

Set shortly after the events of "Batman V Superman," the world is still mourning the death of Superman (odd, considering the world didn't seem to give a damn about Superman while he was alive, but whatever), and some heroes like Batman (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) have used this as a new opportunity to step out into the light and make a difference in the world again. But when a thousand year old threat named Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds) returns to Earth with the intention of conquering it once and for all, the two heroes are forced to locate several other super-powered individuals across the globe so that they can team up to fight a threat none of them could take down on their own.

The aspects that I enjoyed about "Justice League" are few, but certainly worth noting, specifically the new super heroes. First is Aquaman (Jason Momoa), a thrill-seeker who isn't afraid to speak his unruly mind and foul mouth. He is a brute and ends up being the least developed of the new characters, since we learn little about Aquaman outside of him being the rightful heir to the throne of Atlantis and that he's an outsider. Other than that, his best scenes come from the pure joy and excitement he gets from a good fight and when he accidentally sits on Wonder Woman's lasso of truth.

Up next is Cyborg (Ray Fisher), the techie with a tragic backstory and powers even he doesn't fully understand. Of the new characters, he gets the most screen time and Ray Fisher's performance sells most of his scenes, especially with his conflicted rage and confusion with his cybernetic body and implants and his fear that he could lose himself to the machine. He comes across the most down-to-earth and logical of the group, even if he never gets a chance to be funny.

Finally, we have the Flash (Ezra Miller), the comedic relief and the best part of the movie. He gets all the best lines in the movie, has great chemistry with Ben Affleck's Batman, and it is refreshing to see a superhero with such a wide-eyed innocence and sense of fun to all of this. Erza Miller's performance gives an honesty to the Flash the others lack - while people like Aquaman and Batman have to put on an act, with the Flash, we get the genuine article, a nerdy kid who likes to talk but has few people to talk to.

One of my favorite scenes in "Justice League" is when Flash admits that he's never fought anyone in his life to Batman, and Bruce simply tells him to "save one life." He uses his powers to do just that, and the reaction on Miller's face feels so satisfying and proud that its infectious. We now share his desire and drive to keep going, to keep saving that one life and strive for more. For a character that was only supposed to be there to bring comedy, Erza Miller's Flash also brings the most humanity and strength to the film.

As for the returning characters, Ben Affleck's Batman is still his stoic statue-like self who only gets a couple of good scenes or one-liners about what his super power is. Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman takes the character that was established in her solo film, of an godly yet innocent warrior turned flawed yet loving human, and adds experience and wisdom.

Finally, we have Henry Cavill's Superman who finally gets a chance to smile and be more than just a reference to Jesus, even if he does get resurrected in this movie. It comes across like he's finally having fun with his abilities and immense power, like in the opening when a bunch of little kids ask him questions and he answers them honestly. His character also ends up having great chemistry with the Flash, since the two consistently go out of their ways to out-do one another. This is certainly Cavill's best performance as Superman to date.

With all of that being said about the characters of "Justice League," because there are so many characters that are new to us, it doesn't feel like any of them get enough time to shine. Characters like Flash and Cyborg were the best part of the movie, but they spend far more time developing the lame and forgettable villain Steppenwolf with his effects that would have looked bad in the late 1990s, let alone compared to today's effects. There is hardly enough time spent on the more interesting aspects to make "Justice League" feel like a satisfying experience.

There is one other aspect I adored about this movie though - the music. Hiring Danny Elfman, the composer of the original "Batman" to do the soundtrack for "Justice League" was a stroke of genius because we got to hear so many classic superhero tunes. Elfman uses his original Batman theme, Hans Zimmer's Batman theme from the Christopher Nolan films, John William's Superman theme, and the new kickass electric guitar theme for Wonder Woman. It's like a perfect mixture of the best superhero music of all time and sells many of the action scenes.

However that's about all I can praise "Justice League" for. The rest of it is your standard superhero-fare, with overly dark and CGI-filled action sequences. It doesn't feel like anything is at stake, mostly because Steppenwolf is a terrible villain with no plans or motives outside of being evil and a desire to conquer. He has about as much character as a Saturday morning cartoon villain, or a monster-of-the-week from Power Rangers and is undeserving of being the threat that brings the Justice League together.

Overall, there are some fun and enjoyable aspects to "Justice League," but I feel like most of those are due to Joss Whedon's influence. The acting from Affleck, Gadot, Fisher and Miller is great, the comedy gives the film a breath of fresh-air, many of the new characters are great additions, and the soundtrack is phenomenal. But the film is overly crowded and too busy for its own good, to the point that nothing feels satisfying. The action sequences are rather forgettable, the effects are laughable, and Steppenwolf is the worst villain in any DC film. This is the superhero definition of a mixed bag.

Final Grade: C+

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Movie Review - "The Dirty Dozen" (1967)

I want to say that "The Dirty Dozen" fits in the same vein as "The Great Escape," except where "The Great Escape" had a certain likable charm to it, where even the sour and down moments were undeniably optimistic, "The Dirty Dozen" is cynical, hardened, and fits in more with the action clichés one would expect from a war movie. "The Dirty Dozen" is the proto-typical war film that would inspire the films of today, like "Saving Private Ryan," "Fury" and "Hacksaw Ridge," trading in charm and wit for realism and big action sequences.

The film follows Major John Reisman (Lee Marvin) being given the impossible task of penetrating an impregnable Nazi fortress with only the help of twelve prisoners condemned to either death row or life in prison, that way if anything goes wrong the military can put the blame on a bunch of criminals. The majority of the film is Reisman establishing trust and honor among these men who have been locked up for years, the prisoners learning to be productive members of society again, and the military watching over Reisman's operation like a hawk.

The best scene in the movie is when Reisman's commanding officer, Colonel Breed (Robert Ryan) makes a deal with Reisman to see if his men could infiltrate Breed's command and capture him without being detected. It shows these men were always more than just hardened criminals, but intelligent soldiers who are quick on their feet. What makes this scene enjoyable is that it comes across like the dozen are truly enjoying themselves, like they take joy in messing their own army's heads, fooling them at every turn.

Still, I only ever felt like I got to know about half of the dozen characters, with the rest filling the role of cannon fodder for the final sequence. It is the typical war movie cliché of building up a straw man character just to knock him down in a storm of bullets.

Overall, "The Dirty Dozen" is a fine war movie, if a bit predictable and cliché nowadays. There are some charming moments, but for the most part this is a cold and sterile look at World War II. Not the best WWII film out there, but certainly not the worst either.

Final Grade: C+

Monday, December 4, 2017

Movie Review - "Ugetsu" (1953)

"Ugetsu" is an odd piece of work that takes two common Japanese genres, the ghost story and the jidaigeki (period drama), and combines them to produce a film that is accessible to a wide audience by giving us a uniquely human samurai tale with a supernatural edge. The film focuses on how war affects the minds of those who cannot fight and the toll it takes on them and their families, both physically and emotionally.

It starts in a small Japanese village during a time of constant civil war between rival clans. The village is populated by farmers and workers trying to make a decent living without getting involved in this conflict. These villagers include the pottery maker Genjuro (Masayuki Mori) who dreams of making it big and living a luxurious life with his wife Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka), and Tobei (Eitaro Ozawa), who dreams of making a name for himself as a samurai. After Genjuro gets a taste of real money from selling his pottery, he becomes obsessed with getting more at whatever cost, even risking his life in the face of the evil clans.

After their village is attacked, the two families leave together and split up at the nearest town after they learn of the threat of pirates, leaving the men to head into town and make as much money as they can. But both Genjuro and Tobei get lost in their own greed and ambition, with Tobei looking for a way to make a name for himself as a samurai, while Genjuro is visited by a creepy princess who wants more than just his pottery.

There is not much else I can say about "Ugetsu" without spoiling the plot and the journey of self discovery and tragedy these two go on. But I will say that, like most Japanese period pieces, pain is a constant companion throughout their trip and the land of Japan has an odd sense of justice. While the film is slow at times, it only helps with the scenes involving Genjuro and the princess and the gnawing feeling that something is wrong with their forceful relationship.

If you are at least familiar with the genres at play in "Ugetsu" then give this film a try and see how they blend together in this sorrowful tale. And even if you do not know about the themes and atmosphere of a Japanese period piece, this is still a great tale about two small men who wish for something bigger in a harsh and brutal world.

Final Grade: B+

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Movie Review - "THX-1138" (1971)

Unless you are a diehard movie fan, the biggest thing to come from this movie is that it gave way to that annoyingly loud introduction to DVDs in the 2000s from THX.

"THX-1138" is George Lucas' directorial debut and is about as minimalistic of a depiction of the future as possible, with lots of empty white and blank landscapes, with every character wearing the same plain jumpsuit and shaved haircut. Set in the far off future, humans now live a robotic lifestyle underground where their given designated tasks, take pills to suppress emotions, and can no longer have sex. Everything is done automatically and mechanically, including the production of offspring, psychological treatment and even a Mecha-Jesus to act as a confessional. People don't even have names anymore, just numbers like a bar code.

Basically, imagine "WALL-E" if we went underground instead of into outer space.

The making of "THX-1138" is the most fascinating part of the movie - George Lucas originally made this movie while he was in college but found the final product unsatisfactory. After he graduated, Lucas was taken directly under the wing of Francis Ford Coppola, the director of "The Godfather" movies and "Apocalypse Now," where Lucas would help Coppola in pretty much every aspect of filmmaking. For one of Coppola's bigger projects, Lucas basically acted as the "assistant to everything," but Coppola couldn't find the best way to pay Lucas for doing all that work. The best thing Coppola came up with was to fund Lucas' directorial debut entirely. Lucas used this as an opportunity to redo and reshoot his final college project, and this time with a nearly $800,000 budget and A-list actors like Robert Duvall and Donald Pleasence.

Lucas made "THX-1138" as a direct response to the rise of consumerism, with television, newspapers, and magazines forcing products and advertisements down our throats, treating us like mindless drones that will buy anything that's put in front of us if it has enough pretty colors. The film is also a slam against then-President Richard Nixon, as the villain of the film takes direct excerpts from his speeches to propagate his evil point-of-view.

And that's about all that's interesting with "THX-1138" - Everything else is pretty standard for a dystopian science fiction film where everything from emotions to duties to society is handled by computers. Maybe it is because of the blank voids this film uses for backgrounds, or the bland designs of the characters, but because everything looks and feels the same, nothing truly stands out. This movie just feels like one giant shade of gray.

If you're curious how the creator of "Star Wars" got his start and the his first attempt at science fiction, then give "THX-1138" a shot. But if you're truly interested in watching a worthwhile dystopian science fiction, look to other more visually interesting tales in the genre and save this one for a rainy day.

Final Grade: C

Friday, December 1, 2017

Movie Review - "Carnival of Souls" (1962)

Imagine if "Night of the Living Dead" was a ghost story instead of the first true zombie film, and you would get "Carnival of Souls."

Except where "Night of the Living Dead" was an exciting piece of horror with startling effects and poignant piece on racism, "Carnival of Souls" is a meandering tease of a movie that only benefits from having odd cinematography. Combine this with the pacing of a David Lynch film and you get a movie that feels like a chore to get through.

"Carnival of Souls" is an independent horror film about a teenage girl who miraculously survives a car accident, and tries to find meaning in her life after said accident. All the while, this girl feels like she is being followed by people who are not there, including a man that no one else can see. She is mysteriously drawn to an old carnival just off the Great Salt Lake, where she continually sees pale people who won't stop dancing.

Watching "Carnival of Souls" is like seeing someone go to a paint store, tries out different samples, literally watches that paint dry, and then leaves the store without buying anything. It comes and goes, but without anything significant or important being accomplished. The characters are dull and lifeless, especially the main female lead, and I routinely found myself checking the clock. Even though this movie is less than 90 minutes, it felt like it was nearly three hours.

Don't bother with "Carnival of Souls," there isn't much to see here outside of how it influences directors like David Lynch and George A. Romero.

Final Grade: D+