Thursday, November 21, 2019

Movie Review - "Dolemite is My Name" (2019)

There's a moment early on in "Dolemite Is My Name," where Rudy Ray Moore (Eddie Murphy) explains how he ran away from his backwards unapologetic father to get to Hollywood. Moore explains that his father would always tell him that he'd never be as good as him and that he'd never amount to anything and should just settle on falling in line. This is a man who has been told to settle his entire life, to fall in line and accept that he isn't destined for greatness, if not by his father than by those trying to put him down. And yet, being surrounded by all these great artists that Moore looks up to, it is impossible for him to understand why he can't have that same greatness. Even if he's been told "no" his entire life, he refuses to let one word get in his way.

This is the emotional core of "Dolemite Is My Name," and a brilliant one at that. Whether trying (and failing) to invent himself as a singer, a shake dancer, or a comedian, Moore takes each step in stride and with a positive spin on each career attempt. He is so intoxicated by the hope of Hollywood that he refuses to let a little thing like failure get in his way. And as Moore's career finally starts to take off with his own unique persona of Dolemite, something he can claim as his own, people start to finally notice him to the point that he goes on tour and even plans to make a movie, even if he has to do everything himself.

Some might describe "Dolemite Is My Name" as a black "Ed Wood," and that would be an apt description. Both films have a love for cinema and its worldwide appeal, and feature an optimistic protagonist that wants nothing more than share his love with others. But what separates "Dolemite Is My Name" from "Ed Wood" is that search for an identity near the beginning of the film, something that turns Rudy Ray Moore into Dolemite that gives this film an even greater punch. Moore doesn't just believe in the magic of cinema, but in the magic of creation. In his eyes, that is a gift that only few people ever get, and its a gift that must be shared.

"Dolemite Is My Name" is the most uplifting movie of the year, giving everyone who has ever been silenced a voice. Eddie Murphy is brilliant and honest in every scene, nailing every comedic moment as well as the dramatic with just enough ego to be charming. Despite being as much of a blaxploitation film as the original "Dolemite," this is one that transcends the cultural barriers with its comedy, honesty and hunt for identity in a difficult world.

Final Grade: A+

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Movie Review - "Pather Panchali" (1955)

Much like "Rashomon" opened the world to Japanese cinema, "Pather Panchali" introduced the rest of the world to Indian cinema, showing a vastly different and unforgiving look at the world from the innocent perspective of a child that would otherwise probably go unlooked. Films like "Pather Panchali" are the reason to watch foreign movies, the entire world is filled with as much wonder as there is tragedy. Every type of people has a story to tell, and film offers quite possibly the most human way to experience those stories.

The film follows the Roy family, who lives in a run down shack of a home, where the father (Kanu Banerjee) is not making ends-meet and only has a slim hope of success as a writer, but only if he leaves his family for several months. This leaves the mother (Karuna Banerjee) to fend for her children, Durga (Uma Dasgupta) and Apu (Subir Banerjee), with nothing but her wits and will, all while the rest of the village is convinced that Durga is thief and her aunt (Chunibala Devi) leeches off her very little food and supplies.

Yet under all of this, there is a honest sense of hope and optimism that permeates throughout the movie. The children take ever opportunity to savor every moment of innocence, while the parents seem to genuinely enjoy watching their children grow and enjoy themselves despite their less than ideal home. This is certainly helped due to most of the actors being a real family who live in similar squalor when the cameras aren't rolling. It paints a harsh but uplifting view of India that was daring and bold for 1955. Hell, it would still be bold if it was filmed today.

"Pather Panchali" is certainly the most important Indian film of all time. Its honest depiction of the impoverished is striking and soulful. It is one of the rare films that transcends cultural and language barriers and speaks to anyone on a loving, passionate level.

Final Grade: A

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Movie Review - "Terminator: Dark Fate" (2019)

The Terminator franchise really should have died after the second film. Not because they could never top "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" (even though they haven't yet), but because they haven't can't come up with anything new and end up redoing the same things again and again, only getting worse with each entry.

If you've seen or even heard of a Terminator film, you can guess the plot and most of the twists - in the future, mankind is fighting a war against an A.I. that became self-aware, who sends an unstoppable killing machine back to our time to kill an important member of the human resistance, while mankind sends someone else back to protect this important person from the Terminator. That idea hasn't changed at all since the first film, only a new person, a young Mexican woman, Dani (Natalia Reyes), and her protector Grace (Mackenzie Davis). And despite the inclusion of Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) to give her hardened, unwelcomed advice, she offers nothing to the plot, nor does she offer any real fan service and comes across as a forced, useless character, much like Arnold Schwarzenegger's part in the movie as a old T-800 who joins their fight.

Everything about "Terminator: Dark Fate" feels forced and repetitive, like they had to use the same plot points of saving the messiah or a good Terminator or else the movie wouldn't work. Even though we have a new protagonist, she has the exact same message about the how the future isn't written in stone that John Connor had. For a film franchise so fascinated with the future, it really has been stuck in the past since 1991. There are endless possibilities with a self-aware A.I. sending machines back into the past, like sending one back to protect a founding member of the A.I. while the humans send someone to kill him, but producers are so focused on the one idea of killing one person to stop the future that it has officially lost its luster.

Anything that could have been new or original about "Terminator: Dark Fate" is left vague or unexplored. Despite having all three main characters be female, it never does anything with that. They attempt to get Dani from Mexico City to America, and yet there are little to no comments about immigration and any scenes of Dani leaving her family behind are pushed aside when you realize her family is already dead. What could have been a better concept to explore was what the T-800 did after it fulfilled its purpose, but instead that's summarized in a couple lines about "adopting" a family that has no clue that he's a robot. Even the comedy is uninspired and lackluster, most of the jokes being so predictable or cringe worthy that it makes me wonder why they tried to be funny in the first place.

"Terminator: Dark Fate" is not worth anyone's time or money. It is a sad attempt to cash in on nostalgia and shows that the franchise hasn't changed in nearly thirty years and certainly hasn't improved either. It is predictable, boring and even questionable at times with decisions regarding the T-800's inclusion and the Terminator hunting down these women. Save yourself the effort and just watch "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" again - despite what "Dark Fate" tried to do, that film is a timeless sci-fi action masterpiece.

Final Grade: D

Monday, November 18, 2019

Movie Review - "The Fog" (1980)

"The Fog" was John Carpenter's first big budget release following his smash hit, "Halloween." Many of Carpenter's staples are on display, a seemingly unstoppable slasher, the past haunting the innocent, and Jamie Lee Curtis. But the larger budget helps to create an even greater atmosphere and lore as the town of Antonio Bay is haunted by the ghosts of hundred-year old shipwreck, seeking vengeance on those who wronged them, using the haunting fog as a means to get what they want. Now the citizens must piece together what is happening to the town and how they can save everyone from a grizzly fate.

Carpenter takes what he started with in "Halloween" and presents it on a much grander scale, with a whole town caught in the middle of a supernatural curse, and multiple characters working in their own ways to fight it. This includes a radio DJ (Adrienne Barbeau) who reports where the fog is headed, a fisherman (Tom Atkins) and his new girlfriend (Lee Curtis) using what they've learned from a boating incident to help the town, and the local priest (Hal Holbrook) learning why this happening to the town and realizing their doom. Most of these groups rarely meet up or have little communication with one another, so it does often feel like a whole town of people working together.

Still, the intimacy of "Halloween" is gone and so is most of the fear. The ghosts are more mysterious than terrifying, since we never really get to see most of their carnage. Outside of killing some people who step into the fog, the worst they do is mess with some appliances and windows, something that the gremlins would be doing. This doesn't diminish "The Fog," but it does make it more atmospheric and creepy instead of a horror movie, where the mystery of how they'll solve this is more interesting than what the ghosts are doing.

Final Grade: B-

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Movie Review - "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" (1970)

I love Roger Ebert more than any other film critic. But "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" proves he made the right choice by picking film criticism over screenwriting.

Let's be honest, the only reason "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" is still remembered today is because it was written by Roger Ebert. It wasn't the only musical about sex, drugs or Hollywood at the time, and beyond those elements, this film has more in common with a porno than a Hollywood production. The whole thing is supposed to be a satire of Hollywood and its superficiality and the dirty side they only talk about at parties, but its all so over the top goofy that the satire loses its meaning. One minute our three main female leads are having a blast as the next big musical hit, and then the next minute one of them is sleeping with her uncle, another has her boyfriend get beat up by a boxer, the other is sleeping with her friends boyfriend, while that same boyfriend tries to kill himself in front of both of his former lovers.

It all screams of a desperate, almost laughable, soap opera that can't make up its mind about being a drama or a comedy and doesn't so either very well. What should be funny is murdered by all the sudden drastic shifts in tone, especially near the climax, while the serious moments are so poorly performed that you'd think it was done by a comedy troupe, or porn stars who can't emote to save their lives. Any attempt at subtlety is ruined by the ending, when a narrator we've never heard before gives us the moral each character was supposed to learn (including the dead ones), though the film never indicates if those characters learned these lessons (especially the dead ones).

"Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" is everything ridiculous about the 1960s and early 70s rolled up into one movie - drugs, hippie music, sex, struggles for individuality, sending a message to "the man." Except that everything is dialed up to its most extreme that it all comes across as obnoxious, making it impossible to take any of this seriously. In that regard, this is certainly a porno comedy that speaks to its time. Beyond that, just be glad Roger Ebert didn't write more movies like this one.

Final Grade: C-

Friday, November 15, 2019

Movie Review - "The Lighthouse" (2019)

Robert Eggers has certainly established that he is a master of establishing creepy moods. Moods that are engrossed in their mysterious style that they're almost inviting, like you want to know why this world is as weirdly fascinating as it is. I had no clue what was happening during Eggers' "The Witch," but its world was so unique in its old fashion archaic style that I didn't really care about the plot and wanted to explore more of this subtly haunting world supposedly filled with witches.

Eggers newest film, "The Lighthouse," works much in the same way, but is certainly bolstered by a pair of strong, raw performances from Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe. The mood is palpable, set on a small island surrounded by a restless ocean and fog with only a worn-out lighthouse and a fog horn that sounds for sailors that never come, all photographed in beautiful black-and-white cinematography with an aspect ratio that makes everything feel a little more cramped. What follows is a slow descent into madness, where Pattinson and Dafoe exchange old timey sailor yarns and attempt to show their authority over the other, often leading to disastrous results where the other lashes out like a frightened sea creature caught in their lobster trap.

Eggers' mood remains the driving force though, as if the fog and blinding light of the lamp is playing some sort of spell on these two men, bringing out the worst in them. What starts out as simple attempts to not give in to loneliness turns into a power struggle, the two fighting over who does the chores and who gets to watch the lighthouse at night, the thing both of them were sent here to do. This transition is slow but not without its own rewards along the way, as hallucinations and possibly powers beyond their mortal control start to plague their minds, as if we're going mad along with these men. That maddening mood of repetitiveness and isolation on this rock, serving no real purpose, is brilliantly captured by Eggers.

Overall, "The Lighthouse" is a beautifully and uniquely captured look at madness and paranoia. The cinematography is like nothing I've seen before, the chemistry between Pattinson and Dafoe is volatile in all the best ways and Eggers' world is so perfectly sculpted that it drives the whole picture, answering all the necessary questions while still making you question reality and fantasy.

Final Grade: A

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Movie Review - "Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell" (1968)

"Goke, Body Snatcher From Hell" intrigues me more than it entertains me. The film follows the survivors of a commercial plane crash (after a supposed bomb threat). As we learn more about the survivors, including one of the passengers being the assassin of a recent deceased politician, they learn they were followed by an alien spaceship, helmed by blob-like goo who possesses the assassin and goes on a rampage, trying to suck the blood of all the survivors.

But what's more fascinating is "Goke"'s view on the world - political assassinations, the Vietnam War, pollution at an all time high, greed and ignorance causing men to turn a blind eye to all the horrors being committed. In the filmmaker's eyes, the world is hell and we're probably better off by having aliens come to end our suffering.

"Goke, Body Snatcher From Hell" is a Japanese horror film released in 1968, during the height of Japan's special effects boom, in particular the daikajiu genre and the Godzilla films. While I wouldn't describe this as a kaiju movie, it does seem like a direct response to Ishiro Honda's uplifting, positive Godzilla films. In those movies, mankind often puts their problems and differences aside to help solve a much bigger crisis, and emphasizes that we're all one people and should identify by that rather than our nations. But "Goke" almost seems insulted by that philosophy, and instead shows that mankind will never truly be at peace, as long as we remain prejudice and fearful of others, as shown by our numerous characters and their own pride or paranoia getting the best of them. And rather than mankind triumphing over evil aliens in Honda's movies, the aliens take advantage of evil mankind to conquer our world.

As someone who worships the Honda Godzilla films, I'm intrigued to see such a dramatically opposing view point. More than anything else, at least "Goke, Body Snatcher From Hell" makes for a fascinating companion piece to the Godzilla films at the time.

Final Grade: C+

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Movie Review - "Zombieland: Double Tap" (2019)

The name of the game in "Zombieland: Double Tap" is pandering. Nearly every joke is a rehash from the first film, or a not-so subtle wink at the camera moment for those who loved "Zombieland." This includes mocking of many tired catch phrases, including loads of jabs at "Time to nut up or shut up," parodies of their own characters, and going through all of Columbus' (Jesse Eisenberg) rules of survival over again, just in case you forgot them. Oh, and of course there's a big reference to Bill Murray.

This would be a problem if the plot actually made sense, but it all falls apart if you give it even the slightest bit of thought, especially in the third act. The majority of the film revolves around the four main leads from the last film trying to find some place to call home, and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) finding it in the form of a hippie community that melts down all weapons and guns and literally sings pacifist songs despite the zombie horde outside that they attract with fireworks.

How these pacifists survived in a world overrun by zombies for this long is infuriating, but what's worse is that the filmmakers side with the hippies and that they shouldn't be killing the undead that are impossible to reason with and won't stop until they've devoured you. The main characters don't try to argue with the hippies either, they just seem to agree that they live better lives because they destroyed their only form of protection.

"Zombieland: Double Tap" is stupid. All the best parts are taken from the first film and the characters act like morons who just so happen to get everything to go their way. Any ounce of humanity from the first film has been lost to pandering.

Final Grade: D+

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Top Ten Favorite Films in My Lifetime

Today marks my thirtieth birthday, a day that I've been giving a lot of thought for quite some time. Despite my youth supposedly coming to an end as I make the march towards middle-age, I can't help but feel young. Maybe it's because I live my life without regrets, or because I always do everything in my power to make the most out of each day, but I'm at the point in my life where age is a good thing, like I'm maturing like wine.

But I certainly feel like part of this perspective comes from watching movies and gaining new perspectives on life and myself through a camera lens. Cinema has played a massive role in my life so it's only fitting that I take a look at some of the films that have come along since I've been alive. This works out almost perfectly to encompass three decades of cinema (1990s, 2000s and 2010s). With so many films that have left an indelible impact on me as a person to choose from, I've decided to keep this to just my personal favorite ten that have left the biggest marks on me, the ones that I'll always come back to and remind me of what it was like when I was thirty.

Number Ten - "Adaptation." (2002)

It pains me to admit that I've rarely talked about how brilliant "Adaptation." is on so many different levels and how it perfectly captures the crisis that comes with creativity. The film is a biopic about its own writer, Charlie Kaufman, going through the most difficult experience of his life as he attempts to adapt an unadaptable book and to make a story where there is no story, and the story he creates is him trying desperately to create a story about the book he's trying to adapt. No one could ever attempt something like this besides Kaufman, and it's brought to screen with that same love for passion, uniqueness and originality through the confused and fun performances of Nicholas Cage and Meryl Streep. It is the prime film example of life imitating art imitating life imitating art that still blows my mind just thinking about how everything comes together.

Number Nine - "Goodfellas" (1990)

Gangster films are the ultimate tragedies, with the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. Martin Scorsese has always excelled at making those highs as enthralling and mouth-watering as possible, like being a gangster is the greatest thing in the world, while never detaching itself from reality so far as to sympathize with these criminals so that there ultimate fall hits even harder when they do crash back to our reality. "Goodfellas" is the greatest gangster film of all time because that power is lavishly explored through multiple decades of long takes and loving narration. At times, it almost feels like we're watching aliens with no empathy or understanding of humans other than greed and power, especially Joe Pesci's foul-mouthed trigger-happy gangster that only loves his mother, which only makes the more human moments of realization and betrayal stand out so much more.

Number Eight - "her" (2013)

More than anything else, I adore "her"'s depiction of the future. Sterile, but imaginative. It is distant enough from our own world to wonder how we got here, while still innovative enough to create a fun world with endless possibilities. In a time where every depiction of the future is grim and desolate, "her" is a shining example of how A.I. can be just as witty and passionate as us. It is comforting without every losing its joy for life, showing our evolution as a charismatic love to learn more about ourselves, captured perfectly through the love between a man and an A.I.

Nubmer Seven - "Shin Godzilla" (2016)

I couldn't help myself, this is everything I wanted in a modern-age Godzilla movie. The monster is not only terrifying, imposing and captured in the best possible light, but the worlds' governments react with the chaos and confusion that would come with a giant monster rising from the ocean. It is both parts political thriller and kaiju film, bolstered even further with its sense of national identity so that it's not just a few stuffy politicians reacting to Godzilla, but all of Japan. Even if it didn't have loads of call backs to the Showa series through its music and sound effects, "Shin Godzilla" would still be the best monster movie in the last decade because of its love of monsters and the modern bureaucratic response to such an abomination of life.


Number Six - "The Lego Movie" (2014)

Who would have thought a brand-name movie about yellow bricks would hit me this hard? I can't think of another movie that makes me feel like a kid again quite like "The Lego Movie." It is one of the most creative, witty and bizarre movies I've ever seen, but then again you have to be to have your main characters be Batman, a pirate, an astronaut and a cat-unicorn-hybrid while fighting Will Ferrell. Just thinking about how everything unfolds so perfectly makes me giddy, while the comedy still makes me laugh to this day. Everything about this movie still feels fresh, certainly helped by the unique look and design that makes "The Lego Movie" timeless and forever relevant, especially with that twist ending.

Number Five - "Nightcrawler" (2014)

As time has passed, I've fallen in love with the brutal honest of "Nightcrawler"'s depiction of success. Where "Adaptation." was hopeful and passionate, "Nightcrawler" is desensitized to the American Dream, where success only comes to those who want it hard enough, especially in an endangered profession that is journalism. The film is often disturbing, but always rings true to its message of how "Man Bites Dog" is a far more alluring headline than "Dog bites Man." Jake Gyllenhaal has never been as commanding or sinister as he was in "Nightcrawler," always coming across as a man who'd do whatever it takes to succeed in a world that does not care for him.

Number Four - "Ed Wood" (1994)

On the opposite end of the spectrum from "Nightcrawler," we have "Ed Wood," the greatest film about filmmaking. There's a contagious love for life and movies throughout, all perfectly captured in Johnny Depp's charismatic performance as Edward D. Wood Jr., a man so blinded by the spectacle of cinema that he thought it (and he) could do no wrong. Yet beyond a love for movies, there's a genuine optimism that permeates through Depp and Martin Landau's role, both making the most of the time and opportunities they have, a passion that all artists can truly appreciate. It speaks to me, not just as a love letter to one of the best worst filmmakers of all time, but also of how to face the challenges that come with any passion - with an open-mind and a kind heart.

Number Three - "Fargo" (1996)

If I could have, these last three films would all be tied for first place. They are not just perfect movies, but timeless classics with characters that have helped shape my own personality. Take for example, Marge Gunderson from "Fargo," the contemplative, curious, feisty cop who will stop at nothing to make a better world for her child, even if it means copious amounts of fast food and a cute Minnesotan accent. The framing of Marge within the world of "Fargo," filled with greedy, ugly, weak men clawing for something they can call their own and watching them fail due to their own incompetence, makes Marge and her husband sharing little moments of love and affection the most heart-warming and uplifting experience in the last twenty years. The balance of dark comedy, authentic Minnesota charm and Marge's determination despite everything going against her makes "Fargo" not only the Coen brothers' best film, but one of the best films of the last few decades.

Number Two - "The Shape of Water" (2017)

When I think of fantasy, "The Shape of Water" is now the first thing that comes to mind. It is filled with wonder and awe, without ever losing an ounce of humanity, taking the good people with the bad people. It makes the more fantastical moments far more breath-taking, and the moments of quiet realization and love so much more touching, while the angry outbursts of men losing control over something they never had so much more satisfying. It certainly helps that this film boasts the best performance of the decade with Sally Hawkins giving the most raw, passion performance without hardly uttering a word. Guillermo del Toro's sympathetic re-imagining of "The Creature from the Black Lagoon," has a tremendous love for the beauty of life that is hard not to love every affection moment of this wonderful fantasy.

Number One - "WALL-E" (2008)

"WALL-E" is one of the best examples of science fiction, a quiet, contemplative look at where mankind's over-reliance on our tools would eventually take us and how much our own tools would start to mimic us. Some will see this as Pixar's cute take on sci-fi, but I see it as their masterpiece, a visually breath-taking film with a joy for life, all while the silence is even more powerful than words could ever be. Not a single moment is wasted in "WALL-E," whether its exploring a world filled with trash as a single robot tries to find meaning to it all, creating a wonderful companionship between its two robot leads that becomes (oddly enough) the emotional core of the film, showcasing the vast beauty of the universe, or building off the themes of "2001: A Space Odyssey" in the most touching way. I love everything about this movie, and it only gets better every time I watch it.