Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Movie Review - "The Best Man" (1964)

"The Best Man" makes me so glad that I'm not a politician and never will be one.

According to this film, politics is a cut-throat competition that will stop at nothing to defeat the opposition just to get a better chance at more power, only to have your beliefs, ideals and personal life scrutinized and deflated by the entire nation. It's a area where honesty and trust goes to die, and the only thing that truly matters is not the values of the nation, but looking out for number one.

I respect "The Best Man" for not pulling any punches and showing us two men (Henry Fonda and Cliff Robertson) who believe they're good people that have what it takes to be the next president of the United States. But ultimately resort to every dirty rotten trick in the book to gain the upper hand over the other, exposing the underbelly and nasty side of politics that most believe is necessary to achieve success. Henry Fonda in particular feels authentic as always, as a man who wants to be more than he is, but has a hard time dealing with shadier side of politics, feeling that he shouldn't have to resort to such low tactics to win the heart of the nation.

This is a film with no easy solutions and presents the ever-evolving world of politics as a chaotic, greedy one that hides behind empty promises, television interviews and smiles. It is based off the stage play by Gore Vidal and it often feels like a play, most of the film taking place in two or three interchangeable locations and relies heavily on the flowery speeches of politicians and its leading performances. It has just enough going on to keep you invested in the struggle for power between these two men, so it is certainly worth a watch.

Final Grade: C+

Monday, February 26, 2018

Movie Review - "Black Panther" (2018)

What better way to start off the films of 2018 than with Ryan Coogler, Michael B. Jordan and Marvel?

The newest addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, "Black Panther," is very much a departure from the style that we're used to, where one-liners and snappy comebacks are the norm, while still allowing the filmmakers to explore these long-established characters in creative and imaginative ways. Unlike films like "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2" and "Thor: Ragnarok," this film doesn't feel like a popcorn blockbuster, but an exploration of a diverse and fascinating culture and a serious socio-political piece about what it means to be a king and to remain a good man.

This is certainly Marvel's most serious-minded film since "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," with very few jokes and filled with actors who expertly handle their craft like seasoned veterans. For once, this doesn't feel like a Marvel film aimed at kids, but rather those who understand or appreciate diverse cultures and attitudes.

"Black Panther" picks up where "Civil War" left off, with the leader of the fictional African nation of Wakanda, King T'Chaka, dying in an explosion and his son, Prince T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) being the next heir to the throne and taking up the mantle of the legendary Black Panther. But T'Challa feels conflicted, wanting to be a great king like his father, but quickly becomes aware that the world is rapidly changing and might be a better place if the mysterious nation of Wakanda revealed its true self to the rest of the world. Meanwhile, a blood-thirsty thief (Andy Serkis) is set on stealing more of Wakanda's most valuable resource again, only this time he's working with an elusive and ruthless partner (Michael B. Jordan).

What I enjoyed the most about "Black Panther" was the vast lore, aesthetic design and culture of Wakanda. In the richest country in the world, the people are noble and honest, deeply devoted to their culture and heritage while still being the leader in technology that outshines all the tech we've seen in these Marvel movies. I especially like that the women are often shown more respect and honor than the men, since they make up the most elite guards in the entire kingdom. But at the same time, the weakness of this place is always on full display - its isolation from the rest of the world, with everyone outside of Wakanda believing it is a third world country that has nothing to offer.

This ends up becoming one of the main conflicts of the movie - Does T'Challa preserve the purity of his people's culture and continue to keep the secret? Or does he share the knowledge, wealth and technology of his people with the rest of the world that could desperately use it? Which comes first - his duty to his people or his duty to the world? Do you stick with traditions or evolve with the rest of us?

Every frame of this movie is filled with a rich and vibrant culture, from clothes, to building structure, to ancient traditions and everything in between. Even their legend of the Black Panther comes from their beast God and watchful protector. Coming from my perspective, it makes me appreciate the diversity of other cultures and how there's a lot more in the world that connects us than divides us.

But the glue that holds "Black Panther" together is its many wonderful performances. Chadwick Boseman brings a quiet humanity and kindness to the role to go along with his fierce strength and passion for his people, while Michael B. Jordan steals the show every time he's on screen, commanding attention with his odd charisma and how much he loves what he does, like he's Alex DeLarge at the beginning of "A Clockwork Orange." Lupita Nyong'o plays a Wakandian spy who serves as T'Challa's bridge between his two worlds, while Danai Gurira plays the head of the elite all-women special forces that always demands authority while still being very proud of her country. But most importantly, there's Letitia Wright as Shuri, T'Challa's teenage sister and the tech genius of Wakanda who is an absolute joy as she bounces around with excitement and child-like innocence to all of this. All of these performances come together to make the best ensemble casts in any Marvel movie.

Overall, "Black Panther" is a wonderfully unique super hero film that prides itself on diversity and cultural heritage. The world building in this movie is phenomenal, making Wakanda feel less like a dream and more of a flawed yet beautiful city. The cinematography and art direction is superb, making every little detail stand out. The actors are all used well to help deliver one of Marvel's most imaginative yet serious stand alone entries to date.

Final Grade: B+

Friday, February 23, 2018

Movie Review - "The Pianist" (2002)

Making a film about the atrocities of World War II is like walking a tight rope - one false move or overplayed gesture could cause everything to go wrong, but if you play it expertly and with grace then it is a work of art. This is especially true with portraying those affected by the ruthless and beyond barbaric acts of the Nazis. While there's a certain strength to a film that doesn't shy away from the terrible things that happened throughout Europe during that time and that is absolutely something to respect, there does come a point where it is too much and enters the realm of depressing and almost unwatchable.

Take for example films like "Schindler's List" and "Life is Beautiful," both films that put themselves in the thick of the struggle and show every excruciatingly painful and horrifying things the Nazis would do to any one they considered less than superior. But at the center of it all, there's a heart to these films - a reason to life beyond the struggle to survive. The main characters in these films put everything they have on the line so that others will live on, because they realize that people should live and not just survive.

To me, that makes those films watchable. They're not just gruesome tales about those who lived through the war against the Nazis, but morality tales about how the good and kind in men will always outshine and prevail over the evil and darkness. If you take out that moral center and leave only the fight for survival in the face of these monsters, then you're left with "The Pianist," an unbelievably depressing movie that I respect but would never watch again.

The film is based off of the memoirs of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Polish-Jewish concert pianist at the beginning of WWII. Szpilman (Adrien Brody) lives in Warsaw with his family as the Nazis invade their country and delegate a specific ghetto area of town for the Jewish, as he and his family fight to stay together and survive despite everything the Nazis throw at them, while Szpilman never gives up on being the best pianist he can possibly be.

"The Pianist" is unforgiving, unflinching and honest about the fight Szpilman had to contend with for over six years. Every violent act is given the stunned silence it truly deserves without anything ever losing its weight. But as Szpilman witnesses all these horrible acts and merely does what he can to survive, that tight rope walker starts to overplay his movement and starts to fall off that rope.

Watching a man hopelessly cling to life while it is being extinguished around him is only watchable for so long before it becoming daunting. Watching this for over two and a half hours, like all faith and hope is gone from the world, makes it a bleak and unpleasant experience. Even though Adrien Brody's performance is hauntingly beautiful as he just gets more desperate and ragged over time, the film doesn't give us anything to grab onto. While I don't think that hurts the film, it does hurt the experience.

I would recommend "The Pianist" to those who are curious, but only believe it is worth one viewing. It is a respectful film for its brutal honesty and is worth watching for Adrien Brody's performance, but the onslaught of bloodshed is a massive weight to carry without some form of morality and humanity.

Final Grade: C+

Monday, February 19, 2018

Paul's 2018 Academy Award Predictions

It's that time of year again, where Oscar season is upon us and everyone is guessing who they think will be taking home the big awards this year. As I recall, last year I got most of my predictions right, although I'm still blown away how the awards ended last year with the mix up on Best Picture. I want to say that this year doesn't have as many obvious picks for awards as last year, where many were guaranteed their award before the show even started. This year, it honestly feels like many of these awards deserve to go to many of the nominees.

But let's see if I can get as many right this year as I did last year. As always, I'm skipping the Shorts, Documentaries and Foreign Film awards, since I've never seen any of those nominees, so my predictions would just be a random guess.

Best Visual Effects:

Who Should Win: "Blade Runner 2049"

Who I Want to Win: "Kong: Skull Island"

Who Will Win: "War for the Planet of the Apes"

Lots of monkeys and apes in the visual effects category this year. The most visually stunning film of the year was certainly "Blade Runner," but in terms of effects created for the screen, it's hard to go against the one that made an entire army and civilization of apes. This award usually goes to the film that creates an entire world out of CGI, and even though I didn't care for the film, the one that did this the best this year was "War for the Planet of the Apes."

Best Costume Design:

Who Should Win: "Phantom Thread"

Who I Want to Win: "Phantom Thread"

Who Will Win: "Phantom Thread"

I feel like this one is a given. The whole film is based around costumes and clothes, so of course it has to have the best design award locked up. Even though I don't know the first thing about fashion, I do know that if this award goes to any film other than "Phantom Thread," it'll be a travesty.

Best Makeup and Hair:

Who Should Win: "Darkest Hour"

Who I Want to Win: "Darkest Hour"

Who Will Win: "Darkest Hour"

Another given. Gary Oldman's performance as Winston Churchill wouldn't have been half as good if the make-up on him wasn't convincing. He disappeared in that role, and a lot of that is thanks to the make-up.

Best Original Song:

Who Should Win: "Remember Me" from "Coco"

Who I Want to Win: "Remember Me" from "Coco"

Who Will Win: "Stand Up for Something" from "Marshall"

"Remember Me" is the song I heard in a movie in 2017 that really stood out to me, and it really left an emotional impact every time it was used in "Coco," so I honestly hope that it wins this award. That being said, they really love to give this award to big-name musicians and Common wrote "Stand Up for Something," so I can see it winning this award.

Best Original Score:

Who Should Win: "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri"

Who I Want to Win: "The Shape of Water"

Who Will Win: "Dunkirk"

This one is a bit trickier than I thought. One the one hand, the scores of "Three Billboard" and "Shape of Water" truly compliment the actions and mood of the film perfectly, but "Dunkirk"'s score added the emotional and dramatic punch that the otherwise silent film needed. "Dunkirk" wouldn't have been half as powerful if the score wasn't there to amplify the visuals. So, for me at least, I think that'll give "Dunkirk" the win here.

Best Production Design:

Who Should Win: "Blade Runner 2049"

Who I Want to Win: "The Shape of Water"

Who Will Win: "Blade Runner 2049"

I honestly want "Shape of Water" to win everything that it's nominated for, but there's no doubt in my mind that "Blade Runner" will walk away with this one, for making an fully convincing depiction of the future in all of lavish and grotesque details.

Best Sound Mixing:

Who Should Win: "Dunkirk"

Who I Want to Win: "Baby Driver"

Who Will Win: "Blade Runner 2049"

For the award given to the best creation of its sound effects, I would love to see "Baby Driver" walk away with some kind of award after how well it used its sound effects. But I can see "Blade Runner" winning many, if not all, of the technical awards this year much like "Mad Max: Fury Road" did a few years ago.

Best Sound Editing:

Who Should Win: "Dunkirk"

Who I Want to Win: "The Shape of Water"

Who Will Win: "Blade Runner 2049"

As for the best use of merging those sound effects into a convincing and artistic film, I stick with what I said above and say that "Blade Runner" will win this one as well. Although, I would like to think that "Dunkirk" has a better chance of winning this award than Sound Mixing.

Best Editing:

Who Should Win: "Baby Driver"

Who I Want to Win: "The Shape of Water"

Who Will Win: "Dunkirk"

This might be the one I've hard the hardest time deciding, because I can't think of a whole of outstanding achievements in editing this year. "Baby Driver" does come to mind, but I don't think it was popular enough to get the win here. If I had to pick one though, I do think "Dunkirk" would be the hardest of the nominated films to edit, so I'll pick that to win.

Best Cinematography:

Who Should Win: "Blade Runner 2049"

Who I Want to Win: "The Shape of Water"

Who Will Win: "Blade Runner 2049"

Roger Deakens finally wins the award for Best Cinematography on his most visually stunning film to date. The award has alluded him after creating visual masterpieces like "No Country For Old Men" and "Skyfall," but there's no doubt in my mind that "Blade Runner 2049" is the most visually pleasing film of 2017 and that he deserves to win this award.

Best Original Screenplay:

Who Should Win: "Three Billboard Outside Ebbing, Missouri"

Who I Want to Win: "The Shape of Water"

Who Will Win: "Lady Bird"

Tons of great original ideas and screenplays in 2017, with just about all of them being true stand outs, which makes it hard to pick just one. My gut is telling me to stick with "Lady Bird" though, since it felt the most authentic and natural of all the nominees, especially when it came to the dialogue.

Best Adapted Screenplay:

Who Should Win: "Logan"

Who I Want to Win: "The Disaster Artist"

Who Will Win: "Molly's Game"

I'm not entirely sure about this one. I really want "The Disaster Artist" to walk away with the award, especially since this is its only nomination, but its not mainstream enough to get it. The voters will immediately be against "Logan" for being a super hero movie, so it won't win. That leads me to believe that Aaron Sorkin will get the award again for "Molly's Game."

Best Animated Feature:

Who Should Win: "Coco"

Who I Want to Win: "Coco"

Who Will Win: "Coco"

It's Pixar...and one of the few good animated films of the year...and I'm upset that "The Lego Batman Movie" didn't get nominated for this one. Does the Academy just despise these Lego movies, or do they just not see them as animation?

Best Director:

Who Should Win: Greta Gerwig for "Lady Bird"

Who I Want to Win: Guillermo del Toro for "The Shape of Water"

Who Will Win: Guillermo del Toro for "The Shape of Water"

And so we come the biggest awards of the night. Best Director really comes down to either Greta Gerwig or Guillermo del Toro, for different reasons. This is Gerwig's directorial debut and she really knocked it out of the park on this one. While del Toro created this stunning fantasy exactly the way that he wanted to make it. I will say that I've read articles about how everyone's convinced that del Toro is going to win this award, mostly for being snubbed back when "Pan's Labyrinth" came out, so it makes me very happy to say that I think Guillermo will win this one.

Best Supporting Actress:

Who Should Win: Laurie Metcalf for "Lady Bird"

Who I Want to Win: Laurie Metcalf for "Lady Bird"

Who Will Win: Laurie Metcalf for "Lady Bird"

Really the only obvious choice out of the acting categories this year. While I think there's a slight chance that Allison Janney for "I, Tonya" could win this award, Laurie Metcalf was the stand out performance in a film full of stand out performances. She wins from sheer honesty alone.

Best Supporting Actor:

Who Should Win: Christopher Plummer for "All the Money in the World"

Who I Want to Win: Sam Rockwell for "Three Billboard Outside Ebbing, Missouri"

Who Will Win: Sam Rockwell for "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri"

Sam Rockwell is one of the most underrated yet passionate actors in Hollywood and I would love for him to keep getting more recognition. His performance in "Three Billboard" was one of the most mesmerizing roles I've ever seen, simultaneously making me love and hate this man. That is an unbelievable accomplishment, and he deserves the award for that alone.

Best Actress:

Who Should Win: Frances McDormand for "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri"

Who I Want to Win: Sally Hawkins for "The Shape of Water"

Who Will Win: Frances McDormand for "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri"

This is the most difficult award for me to pick for this year's Oscars, because I want Sally Hawkins to win with every fiber of my being. Everything is telling me that she deserves to win for giving honestly the best performance I've seen in the last five years from anybody. I would love it if she won...but I don't think she will, not when Frances McDormand is her competition. I think it'll come down to those two, but in the end, McDormand's role speaks to the current state of our world and that's going to play a big factor for the voters.

Best Actor:

Who Should Win: Daniel Kaluuya for "Get Out"

Who I Want to Win: Gary Oldman for "Darkest Hour"

Who Will Win: Gary Oldman for "Darkest Hour"

Much like what Eddie Redmayne did in "The Theory of Everything," Gary Oldman disappeared in his performance as he portrayed one of the most famous and well-known Englishman of the all time. While I think Daniel Kaluuya and Daniel Day-Lewis have a chance to win, it's going to be very hard to compete against Oldman's performance as Winston Churchill.

Best Picture:

Who Should Win: "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri"

Who I Want to Win: "The Shape of Water"

Who Will Win: "Lady Bird"

And so we come to the biggest award of the night...hopefully there isn't another screw up like last years' awards.

Honestly, there are plenty of reasons to say why films like "Call Me by Your Name," "Dunkirk," "Get Out," "Lady Bird," "The Shape of Water" and "Three Billboards" should walk away with Best Picture, so that makes picking a clear winner very difficult.

I'll start by saying films like "Darkest Hour," "The Post" and "Phantom Thread" are just happy to be included. I don't think any of those three have a chance at winning Best Picture.

"Call Me by Your Name" is vastly different from any other film nominated as well as any other coming-of-age tale I've ever seen. It has a chance, but a slim one, since I don't think the Academy would have two films about homosexuality win Best Picture in back-to-back years (since "Moonlight" won last year).

Everyone loves a good war film, and "Dunkirk" might be the best war film since "Apocalypse Now." But the Academy has yet to recognize Christopher Nolan as anything more than a big-budget popcorn filmmaker, so I think that'll hurt "Dunkirk" for this award.

While I think "The Shape of Water" is the best film of the year and one of the best theatrical releases in many years, I don't think the Academy shares my enthusiasm. The Academy rarely goes for fantasies, and it's even rarer when they go for a horror film. So one that combines those two genres is even less likely to win. It would be stellar if it won, and I would be cheering all year if it did, but I just don't see it happening.

"Get Out" has a real chance of winning this award and it would not surprise me if it did. But if there's any mark against "Get Out," it is the February release. If "Get Out" came out in October or November of 2017, I think it would absolutely win Best Picture. But because it was released in February of last year, most of the voters will have forgotten about it by now. I think it has the best chance of any of the films I've covered so far, but it's just barely edged out by the final two films - "Lady Bird" and "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri."

"Lady Bird" is here because it is the most authentic, honest and respectful film of 2017, while "Three Billboards" is a fiery passion piece that, at times, reflects the mood and anger many people in this country have right now against their freedom of speech and law enforcement. That makes this a very difficult choice between the two. I can see both of them winning Best Picture over the other, but my gut is telling me that "Three Billboards" might have rubbed some people the wrong way and that might hurt its chances. Therefore, I think this years' winner for Best Picture will be "Lady Bird."

Honestly, this has been one of the better years for cinema in a while and many of the films nominated for these awards absolutely deserve to win, which makes the competition for these awards to great this year. I eagerly wait for this years' Academy Awards and can't wait to see how my picks and predictions compare to what actually happens. Here's hoping that the ceremony itself is as memorable as last years', just not quite in the same way.

Movie Review - "Dersu Uzala" (1975)

This is another case where the story of how the film got made is better than the film itself. Even though we now praise Akira Kurosawa as the greatest Japanese filmmaker of all time, and one of the most inspirational filmmakers ever, that was not the case when he was making films in the 1960s and 70s. For the most part, Kurosawa's films were hated in Japan because they were "too western," which was really made worse when his previous film, "Dodes'ka-den," was a flop with both critics and audiences. After it failed, no Japanese film studio wanted to work with Kurosawa, basically blacklisting an amazing filmmaker.

At this point, Kurosawa entered a very dark and terrible portion of his career, even attempting suicide at one point because he couldn't make his movies. But eventually, Kurosawa was approached by Mosfilm, a Russian film studio, to do an adaptation of the famous 1923 memoirs of a Russian explorer, Vladimir Arsenyev, as he charted the Sikhote-Alin region in far east Russia and the native trapper he met and befriended along the way, named Dersu Uzala. Kurosawa happily took the job, saying that he had wanted to adapt the memoirs since his career started in the 1930s, but felt it could only work if he could film it in Russia.

The only way Kurosawa could continue to make movies at this point was to work out of a different country entirely and make a film in a language he didn't speak. To me, that speaks volumes of how much Kurosawa loved making movies and his dedication and passion for his craft.

The result is "Dersu Uzala," which adores the vast emptiness and wilderness of the Russian landscape as "Doctor Zhivago" did. Every shot in this film is breathtakingly beautiful, especially when the sun is setting over the cold frozen tundras, showing us how stunning this part of the world can be but also how deadly and unforgiving, which is why these explorers keep coming back.

Other than that, the story is fairly generic as an ongoing tale of survival and exploring the wilderness, though it is not helped by the rather slow pacing at points later on the film as Dersu starts to lose his touch. Supposedly, the role of Dersu was originally offered to Toshiro Mifune, which I think would have made Dersu's strength and resolve far more fascinating. Instead, we get a quiet and subdued Maxim Munzuk, who isn't bad but leaves no impression on me either.

Overall, "Dersu Uzala" is worth watching to see Kurosawa recreate his style and visual storytelling in a vastly different environment and language, but the story itself is rather unimpressive. It is visually rich and surprisingly vibrant, but that's to be expected from Kurosawa. If you're curious to see the type of film Kurosawa made in the darker point of his career and what a Russian-Japanese co-production looks like, "Dersu Uzala" is worth checking out.

Final Grade: C+

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Movie Review - "In Cold Blood" (1967)

Imagine if "Psycho" was shown entirely from Norman Bates' perspective, going into excruciating detail about the mental trauma he was going through and how it messed with his sense of right and wrong, and you'd probably get something like "In Cold Blood." This film adds to this perspective by giving it all a distinct documentary feel, by casting actors with little to no acting experience, and filming everything on location, including the actual house in which these terrible crimes took place in.

"In Cold Blood" is based off the book of the same name, written by Truman Capote, which itself was based on real events, chronicling the tales of Perry Smith (Robert Blake) and "Dick" Hickock (Scott Wilson), two ex-convicts that learn of a easy way to make lots of money by invading an ordinary suburban home. Things go horribly wrong, and a family of four is murdered, while Perry and Dick hit the road to hide from these crimes, all while feeling no remorse or regret for what they did.

Part of the reason I feel "In Cold Blood" worked as well as it did in 1967 was because it hit on the paranoia, fear and lose of innocence that America was feeling at the time when this news really hit. Not that there weren't murders before this time, but rather senseless, violent killings that had no motives or logic to any of it, just death to innocent people for no good reason. The movie touches upon the fear that this could happen to anyone in our country at any moment, meaning no one is truly ever safe.

"In Cold Blood" is unsettling, to say the least. It portrays Perry and Dick as men who could snap at just about any moment, from little moments like the two of them picking up glass bottles on the side of the highway with a little boy and his grandfather, to quiet moments with just them talking about how they won't go back to jail. It takes the time to delve into their psyche, trying desperately to explain what makes them do it, without ever giving a definitive answer, leaving these men shrouded in enough mystery that you don't truly relate to them. That being said, the only reason this film works is because of the manic-depressive performances of Robert Blake and Scott Wilson that make each scene a wild, unexpected ride.

Overall, I respect "In Cold Blood" for taking so many chances for a film in 1967 and telling an authentic tale that is often very hard to sit through. Having the main characters of your film be murderers with no remorse is one thing, but to do so in such a brutal, documentary-like style makes this an unforgettable film. Any film about a serial killer, or tries to get into the mind of a criminal, owes everything to "In Cold Blood."

Final Grade: B+

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Movie Review - "Black Narcissus" (1947)

There's something a tad odd that happens near the beginning of "Black Narcissus," as our main character, Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) is told by her sister superior that she will be leading a team of nuns from their home in the United Kingdom into the Himalayas where they will set up a hospital and school for the natives. From that description, you would think this film would be about a culture clash and both sides ultimately learning to respect one another's values and backgrounds, but it is anything but that. Especially when one of the opening scenes include a very ominous, dimly-lit room, while the sister superior talks and moves like the Emperor from "Star Wars."

What makes this so odd is that, from a certain twisted perspective, the actions of the nuns throughout the rest of the film supports this point of view. They go into this foreign land with the intent of "helping" it, by teaching them morals and lessons that oppose their world view, destroy many of their ancient relics and throw away their societal beliefs in favor something "better." One nun even admits at one point that she has a hard time telling them all apart.

"Black Narcissus" portrays the Anglican organization of nuns as a self-absorbed, petty and sometimes ruthless group that wishes to make the rest of the world like them. Honestly, I had John Williams' Imperial March going through my head throughout most of this movie, imagining Sister Clodagh as Darth Vader and having a blast with this movie.

I think the charm of this movie is that it knows the nuns aren't doing this for the greater good and are, in some ways, making things worse with their actions with how little they understand this different culture. They stick so close to their orders from higher up that it does make them seem like the villains.

Or at least, it does that for the organization itself. Over the course of the film, we see how the ideals and standards of being a nun effect these sisters, both physically and psychologically, to the point where some of them feel like they don't have any identity anymore. These women try to act without emotion or weakness, and it feels like this is slowly killing them. They're no longer act as individuals and are little more than a cog in a much bigger machine, when they want to be much more than that.

I've never seen a film that handles Anglican nuns with such open contempt, while also making them feel so human and relatable, which makes "Black Narcissus" such an odd film.

Outside of that, this is a gorgeous movie, with beautiful, stunning back drops and paintings that make you feel like this is set in the Himalayas. It might be one of the best uses of Technicolor while still having a distinct dim-light feel to it, making it feel atmospheric and moody while still having wonderful visuals, especially when you realize this came out in 1947. For these reasons, I find "Black Narcissus" to be a film that has only gotten better with age.

Final Grade: B+

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Movie Review - "Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle" (2017)

I'm not entirely sure if I should consider "Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle" as being nostalgic or not. While it is a sequel to the 1995 film with Robin Williams, outside of a few minor references here and there, it doesn't really feel like a sequel since it takes everything in a vastly different direction. The original film brought the game to the real world and treated its massive epic scale as if it had no consequences. The new film is less about the game and more about trying to turn make a video game story into a movie plot.

Strangely enough, I remember watching "Jumanji" plenty of times when I was a kid, but never really liking it. The film was just something that could be put on in the background and was sometimes enjoyable because of Robin Williams, but that was about it. So even if you could consider this movie nostalgic, it didn't work on me at all. "Welcome to the Jungle" did not make me pin for the old movie, nor did it harken back to my childhood, because both films don't feel connected at all.

"Welcome to the Jungle" picks up right where the first "Jumanji" left off, as someone discovers the haunted board game on the beach. The father gives the game to his son Alex, but is turned off by it being a board game and not a video game. But it turns out Jumanji is a vengeful and all-knowing piece of wood and magically turns itself into a video game cartridge that sucks Alex inside the game.

Cut to present day when four vastly different teenagers are sent to detention and find the Jumanji video game. Not knowing what awaits them, they all select their avatars and get sucked inside as well, turning into their selected characters, including the muscle-head Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), the tiny yet intelligent Franklin "Mouse" Finbar (Kevin Hart), the cartographer Professor Shelly Oberon (Jack Black) and the commando dance fighter Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan). Together, these four have to overcome their differences and personal problems to make it out of the video game before they lose their three lives and get a game over.

The best part of this movie is watching actors like Dwayne Johnson and Jack Black act like teenagers in their own bodies, always astounded at the things they can or cannot do. In the real world, Dwayne Johnson's player is a guy afraid of everything, always letting that fear consume him. So it's pretty good seeing someone the size of the Rock always acting like the tiniest animal is a tiger ready to pounce. But the best one of these is Jack Black, whose player is a self-centered teenage girl. Not only is it hilarious to see Jack Black acting like a girl who loves her body, but this leads to some of the best jokes when she has to learn to go to the bathroom as a man. She also goes through the most personal growth, learning that life shouldn't just be about looking beautiful and her phone, so that's a big plus as well.

Other than that, "Welcome to the Jungle" is all about mocking and adapting to the many tropes of video games. From in-game cut scenes, to extra lives, to character attributes and weaknesses, to everything being broken up into separate missions and the non-playable characters only having a few dialogue options, this movie goes all in on video games. Though I do find this odd, considering that the Jumanji cartridge was untouched since 1995 when the most complex games were "Super Mario 64" and "Street Fighter II," yet this game has as many intricate parts and choices as games like "Skyrim" and "Grand Theft Auto V."

And if that last paragraph scared you off with all my video game lingo, then just know that "Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle" certainly isn't for you.

In any case, this film is a fine piece of dumb mindless action with some decent comedy mixed in. It really isn't anything special, but I don't regret seeing it. The film looks nice with its jungle backdrop and makes you feel like you're going along on this video game adventure. The character development for these teens feels natural and the whole body swap angle is used well throughout the film, especially with the teenage girl being in the body of Jack Black. This was a fun ride, but probably not one I'll be checking out again any time soon.

Final Grade: C+

Monday, February 12, 2018

Movie Review - "The Flight of the Phoenix" (1965)

It is fascinating that I saw "The Flight of the Phoenix" shortly after watching "Lord of the Flies," and seeing how both have very similar situations, but each takes a vastly different approach, with each leaving little to no moral gray area. Both films concern the survivors of a plane crash and the inhospitable environment they now find themselves in. While "Lord of the Flies" gave in hostility and a loss of ethics, "The Flight of the Phoenix" bravely asserts a strong sense of morality and the need to be civilized above all else. Even as these men slowly lose their minds from the exhaustion and lack of water, the refuse to give in to temptation and turn on their fellow men.

In "The Flight of the Phoenix"'s case, our group of survivors find themselves trapped in the middle of the Sahara desert after their plane crashes, with no hope of anyone coming to rescue them. They come up with all sorts of plans to get out of this, with some saying they should just try to walk out of there, but the craziest yet sensible plan is devised by a German plane engineer - take the working parts of the crashed plane and construct a new plane to get them out of there.

Part of the reason "The Flight of the Phoenix" works as well as it does is because of its small cast of proud yet strong characters. They all come from different background and cultures and, for the most part, none of them get along at all as they always butt heads and act like they're the only ones doing all the work. James Stewart plays the pilot of the cargo plane, and he adds his always amazing style to this performance that adds some humanity to the role. Richard Attenborough plays his drunk co-pilot who learns a lot about himself and his quiet strength over the course of the film. Hardy Kruger plays the German engineer, who is a proud yet stubborn man who thinks of himself as being better and more deserving than anyone else there, which makes for a great foil to Jimmy Stewart. Even minor roles from Peter Finch and Ernest Borgnine leave memorable impressions in the same way all the minor roles in "The Dirty Dozen" did.

I would describe "The Flight of the Phoenix" as "Lord of the Flies" but with the ethical and moral sense of "The Poseidon Adventure" while also having the same style of sense of humor and danger as "The Dirty Dozen." Survival is the focus, but done so without removing the human desire for power and control over any given situation, even if life and death is on the line. I had a lot of fun with "The Flight of the Phoenix," whether it was because of the well-rounded performances, the slowly poisonous atmosphere, or the many twists and turns throughout the story to keep everything fresh.

Final Grade: B+

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Movie Review - "Rififi" (1955)

Sometimes all you need is one terrific scene in a movie to make it truly memorable or worth-noting. "Rififi" is one such film, one of the few French film noirs (even though the term "film noir" is French in origin, it's more of a Hollywood phrase) that is highlighted by one of the greatest heists in film history and is otherwise are rather unremarkable movie. That being said, it is still worth checking out "Rififi" due to this thrilling heist, even if the rest of the film is fairly standard.

The film follows a group of gangsters, including one who just got out of prison after several years when his girlfriend ratted him out, as the four plot and plan an impossible jewelry heist on one of the most protected and secure vaults in all of France. The entire building is built around its sophisticated security system, to the point where even the slightest bit of noise will set off the alarm. Thus, the men come up with a convoluted and well-choreographed plan to dupe the system, and break into a heavily guarded vault without ever making any noise.

The heist itself takes up nearly half an hour, and it is one of the most heart-pounding, nerve-wracking scenes that literally had me chewing my finger nails. This entire sequence has no dialogue, music and very few sound effects, but each time a noise is made, your heart rate is guaranteed to pick up as you wonder if this is the one that'll set off the alarm. In this film, sound becomes the enemy of both our characters and the audience, growing attune to how sensitive and deadly it can be, with that fear of sound growing as the film progresses. This also makes the planning stage of their heist just as valuable the job itself, like the start of a roller coaster before the inevitable drop and the twists and turns that are sure to follow.

However, outside of these thrilling sequences, "Rififi" doesn't have much else going for it. Before they start planning the heist, the film moves as slowly as molasses and has about as much urgency as a Sunday driver. And once the heist is over, it feels like its retreading the same ground has any other heist movie, like "The Asphalt Jungle" or "Heat" when the chase to be free following their crimes begins. It makes the rest of the film feel uninspired and average, as it goes about its usual business without any flavor to any of it.

Overall though, "Rififi" is still worth your time because of its one-of-a-kind heist and one of the most tense 30 minutes in all of cinema. This film pays close attention to detail to help make its great idea stand out even more, pushing it far passed any other crime thriller in this regard. It is both brutal and stunning in a way that American films at the time couldn't be and takes a lot of chances Hollywood wouldn't dare, so at least "Rififi" never plays it safe.

Final Grade: B+

Monday, February 5, 2018

Movie Review - "All the King's Men" (1949)

"All the King's Men" tells the tale of Willie Stark (Broderick Crawford), a honest and kind man from the fictional state of Konoma who wants to make his town a better place, especially since it seems to be run by gangsters and corrupt politicians. A reporter from a big time newspaper, Jack Burden (John Ireland), writes several articles about Willie that get him noticed across the country, to the point that the political machine wants him to run for Governor of the state to turn the tide of a split vote. This leads Willie down a path of no return when the people fall in love with his ruthless yet powerful words and becomes just as corrupt and crooked as the politicians he originally hated.

I won't dwell on how this was done better in films like "A Face in the Crowd" and "Citizen Kane," but I will say that "All the King's Men" overstays its welcome about halfway through the film and ends up repeating many of the same beats and points many times. The first half of the film is enjoyable due to Crawford's performance as Willie Stark and how it truly feels like a man who wants a better group of people in the government, while John Ireland plays a reporter who falls in love with those ideas.

But a little bit over halfway through the film, it gets off the pleasant highway and gets stuck on a horse-racing track where it keeps going in circles for far longer than it needed to.

After a certain point, these characters just feel like a bunch of brick walls that refuse to learn or change their stances, even as many events happen that should change them. Willie remains a brute, Jack stubbornly stays by his side even though he really shouldn't, and ultimately neither of them really learn anything. It's like watching a toddler who refuses to play with more than one toy, except now that toddler is a gangster politician, and now it becomes infuriating.

Overall, while there's a strong message absolute power corrupting, "All the King's Men" could have stand to lose some repetitive scenes, especially in the second half. It gets to the point where all of these characters, that started out likable and relatable enough, become irredeemable pricks that have lost all heart and meaning. As a result, it often felt like this film had no soul.

Final Grade: C

Friday, February 2, 2018

Movie Review - "Lord of the Flies" (1963)

There's a fine line when it comes to watching the savagery of man unfold before your eyes. Films that dance this line are some of the best tales of morality and what it means to be a human and not an animal. But films that cross this line are the ones that over stay their welcome and just become grotesque tales that are more depressing and tiresome as they go on. Peter Brook's 1963 "Lord of the Flies" crosses that line.

That's not to say "Lord of the Flies" is a bad film, but that it left a bad taste in my mouth and not for the reasons it was supposed to. The film chronicles the tale of three dozen or so little boys surviving a plane crash in the Pacific and being stranded on a deserted island with no adult supervision. While the boys start out civilized enough and try to come up with rules so they can survive, they quickly devolve into a tribe-mentality who act more like animals than humans. The film is extremely minimalistic and has an almost-documentary style to its filmmaking, like we're watching a real tribe of all little boys.

The main reason I feel "Lord of the Flies" doesn't work as well as it could is because of these actors and their uninvested performances. Nobody here feels truly genuine, especially the leader of the group Ralph (James Aubrey), who just looks bored throughout most of the film. Most of the kids look like they don't know what they're doing or have any direction to go.

Director Peter Brook was known as an improvisational filmmaker, simply putting the camera in front of the actors and seeing what they came up with. This style often has the benefit of making everything feel more authentic, but only works if the actors can roll with the punches, which these little kids cannot. It's like watching an episode of "Whose Line is it Anyway?" being performed by people who have never done improv in their lives. While they are children and don't have as much experience with acting, their performances still bring down this movie.

"Lord of the Flies" is a tale about how we all have this savage instinct inside of us. That if we remove the morals of society, we're all eventually resort to cruel, beastial acts to survive. The film does a fine job of showing this, especially since this is done using little kids, but that same strength is also a weakness. Moments like Ralph standing up to the hunters has about as much menace as an episode of "Rugrats," so any moments of savagery just feel out of place for these uncaring children.

In other words, while "Lord of the Flies" has a great message, the execution of said-message leaves a lot to be desired.

Final Grade: C+