Hail, Caesar! (2016)

The Coens are back!

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After three years, Joel and Ethan Coen have returned with a lightweight look at a bygone era in Hollywoodland.  A mystery/comedy with hysterically dim characters engaging in a variety of conspiracies and double-crosses against the background of a meticulously re-created and reimagined world…which is always the case with the Coens.  With Hail, Caesar!, they take us to Hollywood in the 1950s.  Released this weekend, the film has a runtime of 100 minutes, and accompanied by a PG-13 rating for some suggestive content and smoking–but truthfully could have easily passed for PG.

Theatrical Trailer here.

My history with the Coens doesn’t go that far back.  I’ve seen the vast majority of their work, and am quite pleased with their filmography overall.  The highlights: True Grit being their best, No Country For Old Men coming in at a close second (a movie I originally didn’t care for), Fargo, and The Big Lebowski.  The dismissals: O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and The Ladykillers (obviously).  I like their unique perspective, coal-black comedy, complex character idealism, and so on and so forth.  They really deserve a book about them.  Or a least an extensive blog entry (*glares in mirror*).

Although Caesar did not bring anything new to the table as far as plot or story, it did present ample opportunities for laughter and nervous chuckles.  The Coens deliver a nostalgic, witty take on L.A. movie-making in the 50s, with reverence to the sentimental methods to filmmaking nowadays.  The ensemble cast is entertaining to watch and play-up, yet again, the old-fashioned role models in the entertainment magazines and pulps.  I especially enjoyed George Clooney’s overacting, cheesy character that he has played more than once before, and Tilda Swinton’s twin-set reporters.  It is evident that the Coens were conscious of casting actors and actresses that fit “the look” of the golden age, and spread them out accordingly.  Channing Tatum’s dance scene was a great nod-to some of the classic dance numbers from movies like Anchors Aweigh, On the Town, and Singing in the Rain.

I won’t spoil, but the only fault I had with Caesar was the random “twist”, or random nature, of the plot near the end of the third quarter.  They have it in most of their films, specifically their comedies.  And although I enjoyed the film, I found it lacked some minor elements that would make it a home run.  Still enjoyable, mind you, but a movie I could have waited a few months to see on DVD.  Although it stands above Burn After Reading, it falls just below Barton Fink.

Still, there is a lot to be had from this flick.  So I do recommend it, especially if you are a fan (or are at least aware) of the Coen Brothers.  They are something of an acquired taste, so to the movie-goer who is not privy to their nature, start with…eh…I would recommend True Grit.  But if you’re brave enough…or patient enough…go for Fargo or The Big Lebowski.

The reviews for the movie have been favorable from critics.  Rotten Tomatoes wrote: “Packed with period detail and perfectly cast, Hail, Caesar! finds the Coen brothers delivering an agreeably lightweight love letter to post-war Hollywood.”  But the movie is struggling to connect with audiences.  However, the movie opened reasonable against a $22 million budget, making nearly $4.2 million on its opening day (February 5, 2016).

I caught the movie with my #moviethunderbuddy , and we both decided to give it a high B-.  It’s nostalgic, it’s a black comedy, and it’s the Coen Brothers latest entry.  Fun fact, they have a routine of writing two scripts simultaneously, selecting the first one to film and jumping right into pre-production of the second one not long after the initial film in the duo runs its course in the theater.  So although not much details have been given yet, their next movie has been announced as Black Money, a new crime/drama from their collective canon.

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22 Jump Street Brings a mixed bag to the table

*Notice*

Even if you did not enjoy 21 Jump Street, 22 has the funniest end credits I have ever witnessed. Do yourself a solid and check it out.     😀

 

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22 Jump Street brings back the fantastic buddy cop chemistry of Jona Hill and Channing Tatum and was directed by Phil Lord and Chris miller.

 

Ahhh Hollywood, perpetually shoving sequals, remakes, prequals, and anything you can bring out of the grave that reminds us of our childhood nostalgia is far too common. The alure of cash is far too great to refuse. If people liked it, 8 times out of 10 there will be another one, that far too often destroys the entire intent of the first. Lets take a moment to examine a popular franchise, Taken.

I will just point out the elephant in the room. Why the $%@# did they make three of these movies, aside from cashing in on the popularity of the first one? While imperfect, the first movie had interesting characters with familiar motivations, but exploring a dark topic; the sex slave market. This film could have easily been dark and brooding, but witholds its hands, giving the feel of what director Pierre Morel wanted the audience to experience, without shoving their heads in the mud. However, the other two movies (Taken 2 and Taken 3 respectivly) offer nothing more simple as a retread of the basic motivations of the characters while giving us summer action flick fodder.

Thus, like most of my friends, I was skeptical of 22 Jump Street, especially when the trailer revealed the plot followed almost exactly the same line as the original. However, I was happy to find that 22 holds up on its own weight, even if it does tread the same plot. In fact, the film makes a point to reference how close 21 and 22 actually are, but keeping the jokes fresh and the antics increasingly over the top. However, Unlike the first film, the action sequences in 22 feel less stylized and more impossible, due to the physique of certain characters. While played off for laughs, this left me more puzzled why they would expect the audience to suspend disbelief for something as impossible as jumping off of roof tops to helecoptors that are much to far away for even an athlete.

22 also does not take enough risks. While Ted 2, as compaired to Ted 1, feel completely different in tone and plot, although the same joke material was used, I believe that it payed off, creating a hillarious sequle that managed to feel fresh, even if it was imperfect. I wish another crime was commited, such as kidnapping, hell, even test answer sheets.

In the end, I felt satisfied with 22 Jump Street. For about 2 hours, I could enjoy a comedy without feeling like I wasted my time. If you liked the first, you will love the second. If you didn’t like the first, well, I am sorry for you

 

My final verdict for 22 Jump Street is a B

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Flurries: Snow in Movies

I had a chat with an enchanting friend earlier today.  We were sitting in her kitchen and looking outside at the bird feeder and watched the cardinals swoop down from their perches and quickly but carefully pick up the seeds.  The dusting was still fresh and the sun was just peaking out from behind the clouds at the white landscape.  She leaned over and smiled.  “Snow is a gift,” she said.  “It’s always a gift.”

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Now I sit at my own window and look outside at the winter wonderland.  My part of the midwest is seldom hit with this many inches of joyous white, and I intend to enjoy it as much as I can before takes its leave.

But while I was staring at my window, I started to get various images flash through my head.  They were memories of film, which is not much of a surprise when I am talking about my mind.  These images, however, were filled with…you guessed it…snow.  A pleasant surprise.  I happened to finally catch a showing of The Revenant (2015) at the local theater, and was blown away by the snowy vistas (and countless other vistas) that were projected on the big screen.  They were just so gorgeous.  They were flooding back into my head and I started to think about other winter-like images from movies.  Although I do not have an adequate list–this post being written in less then fifteen minutes with no references to boast of–I thought I would give a handful of movies some honorable mention for their snow-filled scenes.

The Telegraph and The Huffington Post wrote good articles on snow scenes in movies and art.  Here are the links respectively.

The Shining.  What a cinema-charged movie to begin with.  But one of the many things we associate with when we relive this movie is the climax at the end, as Jack Torrance struggles through the hedge maze with an axe and his limp, hot on the trail of his son, Danny.  If the movie did not chill you before leading up to the maze scene, you were definitely feeling something afterwards.

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Fiddler on the Roof.  Perhaps not as visually stunning as it is thematically moving.  One of my favorite musicals, and probably one of my favorite movies of all time, Fiddler makes a severe transition midway through the three-hour piece.  What was light and charming becomes cold and gloomy.  It is a mere change in the season, as far as the story is concerned, but to me, it reflects the power of the shift in the story in a convincing way.  But you could argue this motif for countless movies.  The parallel change in mood and season has become just as predictable as any other cliche in the movies nowadays.

Road to Perdition.  Something different from Fiddler, this masterpiece opens with a snowy backdrop, and as the movie moves along, the screen and the story become darker by taking away the snow and adding rain.  Maybe I just love this movie too much that I just had to find some way to share it.

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Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back.  Okay.  You were probably thinking this too.  So…do I need to make an argument for it?  It is very iconic.  So much so, that we probably forget that the rebel base is under the snow in the caves of Hoth half the time.  Lucky for us, we are more focused on Luke, Han, Leia and the story more than the locale.

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Any-who, this post was not meant to be long.  Just a shoutout to those beautiful or tragic or moody or gorgeous places or scenes that have stayed with us.  Snowy images are powerful and can leave a profound effect on people.  But so do movies.  All the time.  What are some of your favorite snow-ridden scenes that I have (obviously) forgotten?

If it is snowing where you are at, take a minute to sit back and look out and enjoy nature.  Or better yet, get off your tushies and go out and play in it.  Remember to dress warm.

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Films of 2015, in Review

A Happy New Year and best wishes to everyone.

This past year was outlined to be a busy year for cine-maniacs and film-buffs and movie theaters all around.  2015 turned out to be the strongest film box office wise in the last few years, crossing over $11 billion in worldwide theaters.  Dozens of old records were shattered and new ones made and we move into 2016 to top off the previous year with the maelstrom of awards season.  In leu of that, I wanted to do a recap of 2015’s releases and share some brief thoughts on them.

I noticed this time last year that my list of “must-sees” or “hope-to-sees” was incredibly long, and I am currently still catching up.  I was absent from the movies for the first four months but luckily got back into the swing of things in the mid-summer.  I did a post called “Catching Up, 2015) in July (read here: https://mhmovies.wordpress.com/2015/07/11/catching-up-2015/), and I am being true to the title of that post.  I am still catching up.

Here’s a list of films I wanted to see, planned to see, missed, or still have to catch up on: Ex Machina, A Walk in the Woods, Morteci, Brooklyn, Mr. Holmes, Focus, The Water Diviner, Tomorrowland, Youth, Macbeth, Southpaw, Terminator Genisys, Everest, Anomalisa, Black Mass, Steve Jobs, Legend, Pawn Sacrifice, Trumbo, Pan, The Good Dinosaur, In The Heart of the Sea, and Bone Tomahawk.  The films in bold are the ones I was really bummed to miss and are the first on my catch-up list.

The ones seen: Cinderella, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Mad Max: Fury Road, Inside Out, Sicario, Jurassic World, Ted 2, Ant-Man, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., American Ultra, Hitman: Agent 47, War Room, The Martian, Crimson Peak, Spectre, The Peanuts Movie, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2, Sisters, aaaaannnnndd Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

From the ones I had to chance to see, I’m going to give a brief top ten list and a brief review to cap off the movies I missed to fully review in 2015.  I’m crossing my fingers in changing that this year…again.  So, in no set-stone order, but what I was impressed with, here’s the list:

10. Crimson Peak – A surprise for this list?  I was not intrigued with the general premise or genre of the film, but I was curious as to the overly-delighted cast and their admiration for Guillermo Del Toro’s work and the “clever twists” they promised would be included in the feature.  My recent fascination with Del Toro sparked enough gambling itches to try it out.  I left not disappointed.  Although there was nothing new under the sun to explore with the plot, Del Toro led his actors to deliver a good nod to the old haunted house story, and also brought back a certain sense of classic horror and gothic suspense to the movie.

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9. The Peanuts Movie – I’ve been a fan of Peanuts for a long time.  The movie did not disappoint.  I saw it with my mother and we were tickled by it through and through.  Very family-friendly, very honorable to Charles Schultz and his cast of characters.  I was humming the theme song for days after seeing it.

8. Mad Max: Fury Road – Initially after seeing it, I gave the film some bad reviews to my friends.  I didn’t quite get it.  Back I watched it for a second time a few weeks back and liked it a great deal more.  Although I think it’s overrated, it is a very well put together action, shot-’em-up movie; a two hour long car chase scene, more or less.  The visuals are breathtaking.

7. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. – A shot in the dark for me.  I’ve been impressed with Guy Richie’s filmography for some time but had mixed feelings about the film adapted from the old television series.  I was totally caught off guard.  It stole the old-fashioned spy genre and texture in full, bringing along a great chemistry between the co-stars and the leading lady.  I hope they leave it alone and don’t try to do sequels.  On the other hand, I wouldn’t be opposed to it if done right…

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6. Jurassic World – Never a huge fan of the originals, but still enjoyed the Spielberg-dinosaur action story.  I was uncertain as to how they were going to do a reboot and sequel to the first three, but the relatively new director Colin Trevorrow accepted the challenge immensely well.  There was the same feeling of wonder at the beginning, the same aroma of danger and horror in the middle, and the sigh of relief and beg for more at the end.  It makes me very excited to see him tackle Star Wars IX.

5. Inside Out – Pete Doctor, Pixar, Amy Poehler, Bing Bong, Five Emotions in the mind of a 11-year-old girl moving from Minnesota to San Fransisco?  I mean, what’s not to like?

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4. The Martian – Thoroughly enjoyed the book.  Watched the casting and viral advertising with great intrigue.  The movie was very strong.  Although not amazing and nothing we have not seen before, it can stand on its own two feet for some years to come.  But my biggest outcry is to the Golden Globes of 2016: how is this a Musical or Comedy nomination??? It can’t just be because he listens to friggin’ disco music and tell us a few jokes!

3. Cinderella – I really like Kenneth Branagh’s work.  Both in front of the camera and behind it.  He is a gifted director.  I’m open to real-life portrayals of originally animated Disney films due to Maleficent (2014), so Cinderella seemed like a good one to tackle.  It turned out to be a surprisingly good movie on top of being both loyal and independent enough from the original.  An excellent surprise.

2. Sicario – I may rethink the order of this later, but wow.  Sicario was another marvelous surprise.  Emily Blunt showed, I believe, a new side to her and delivered, with a great job from Benecio Del Toro who gave such a powerful and subtle performance.  Gorgeously dark.  The cinematography was quite possibly the best I have seen since The Master (2012) or Skyfall (2012).  Although not filled with as many twists and surprises one would expect from a thriller nowadays, it offered up other dark tokens that excelled.

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And lastly, and you guessed it…

1. Star Wars: The Force Awakens – The most highly anticipated movie of the decade, quite possibly.  When it was first announced over two years ago, I was so, so skeptical and negative at the prospect of a new trilogy set after the originals.  But slowly that blanket lifted and by Christmas of this past year–I hate to admit it–I was stoked.  I did everything I could NOT to be spoiled.  Then I saw it the day after Xmas and was blown away.  Although I should save heavy details for another post (after I see it a third time), J. J. Abrams has solidified himself on a list of directors who can reboot or revamp a franchise.  I won’t call The Force Awakens as “perfect”, like my friends say.  But it was darn great.  Very impressed and very satisfied.  It is promising big and mighty things for Episode XIII and IX, I can tell you that.

So that was the year in a nutshell.  Strange, wasn’t it?  And it flew by like that (*snaps fingers).

Well, 2016 also promises big things.

I’m off to see The Hateful Eight this week.  Then The Revenant.  What other big things lie later in the year?  Here’s a handful: The Jungle Book, Hail Caesar!, Deadpool, Zoolander 2, The Witch, Knight of Cups, Midnight Special, Batman v Superman, Captain America: Civil War, The Nice Guys, X-Men: Apocalypse, Finding Dory, The BFG, A Monster Calls, Ghostbusters, Star Trek Beyond, Suicide Squad, (Untitled Bourne Film), Pete’s Dragon, Doctor Strange, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Tarzan, and the list goes on.

What are some movies you are looking forward to this year?  Let’s make up a list and cross them off one by one in 2016, why don’t we?  Good luck.

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Take the Good with the Bad: The Star Wars Prequel Trilogy

Note from the writer: To those of you who are still reading at this point, I warn you my stance on the prequel trilogy differs somewhat from the general consensus, and I would not be hurt if you decided to turn away from looking at the trilogy through my eyes.  If, by some chance, you have been living under a rock and have never seen Star Wars, please turn away and come back once you have returned to the world of the living.  However, if you love Star Wars for what it is as a whole, please continue with me.

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens comes out one month from now.  Can expectations get any higher?  At this rate, only if J. J. Abrams decides to give us a few more teases.  (Did anyone watch the trailer that was released overseas?  It showed a ton more than any stateside).

But as we look forward, we tend to look back.  At our faults and failures—more precisely—George Lucas’s faults and failures of the prequel trilogy that had wrapped up ten years ago.  With such huge hopes for success in Disney’s first massive galactic endeavor, we pray nothing but the best and greatest from our Lost creator and Star Trek reviver, J. J.  It’s 2015.  What could possibly go wrong with The Force Awakens?

About twenty years ago, Mr. Lucas decided it was high time to go forward with those other three movies he had been planning on making down the road.  He initially asked his friend Steven Spielberg to jump on the band wagon and direct the new epics.  Spielberg, however, told his pal that only the original Star Wars director could successfully take the world to new stars and planets far away.

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Begrudgingly, George Lucas went to working on the story leading up to A New Hope.  And what came out in 1999, 2002, and 2005?

The majority of family, friends, pals, fans, acquaintances, etc., say the prequels suck.  Plain and simple.  A few say there are elements of good, but about 99% of them will say how much they hated Jar Jar Binks.  Although I do not like Jar Jar, I do not think that justifies to hate on the prequel trilogy—especially The Phantom Menace—whatsoever!  Can we please look past the movie-comic-sidekick that could have been?

Anyways, in looking at the trilogy as a whole, is there good reason for hating on it so?

Let us start by examining selected cons of the trilogy, beginning with The Phantom Menace:

A) Jake Lloyd

jake-lloyd-as-anakin-skywalker-in-star-warsAlright.  We’ll tackle the bad casting decision straight out of the gate.

Before watching The Phantom Menace…and assuming the general fandom watched the originals first…we all knew what was what: Anakin = Darth Vader.  Nothing shocking there.  But we all wondered where he came from and how he evolved.  And there is very little to be found wrong with Anakin Skywalker as a character in the film—but our friend Jake Lloyd did not help matters at all.  It is evident in scenes that he is having trouble repeating his given dialogue, does not like Natalie Portman, and is consistently sitting or standing with a scowl or…frown?

In his shoes, could any of us done differently?

Perhaps if the casting of young Skywalker had been altered to someone who was not stiltered on screen, we would have been a lot more forgiving of the character.

B) Obligatory Screenplay

This point does not cover the entire story.  However, there are definitely forced scenes (no phun intended) throughout the movie.  If not the scene entire, the extended moments.  Jar Jar is an example of this, being provided to us as the comical goof that will journey through the movie with us.  But Jar Jar, as we know, fell flat on his face and did not straighten it out.

The obligatory screenplay is more evident in two and three, in my opinion.  But some of the scenes with Anakin, Padme, Naboo, even some of the battle near the end just seem like they were trying too hard.

C) Bad Guys

star-wars-villain-chartThe villains were not very threatening.  Although Maul was really cool with his dual lightsaber, there was nothing exceptional about him other than his horns.  The main antagonist of the movie seemed to be the Trade Federation, being the ones with the army holding our heroes at bay.  The Sith were more hinted at than shown.  So, it was heavy tease, but nothing special outside of the Dual of the Fates.

I will not bash this movie hard for that, though.  Plot-wise, it makes sense.  There was no reason to throw both Sith lords at the good guys.  That would escalate things way too fast.

Moving into The Clone Wars.  And I have to share this review from imdb.com, by bigstonemonkey, from July 2, 2002.  Bigstonemonkey, from me to you: Thank you.  Here’s a snippet of his review:

The movie flows like a frozen sewage runoff. It goes from high speed, high altitude car chases, to boring, forced angst by the fireplace. To say that Christensen and Portman have no chemistry is to say that the Middle East might be facing some political problems. Their romance is about as believable as grass growing on the moon. Maybe they could have done better if the script hadn’t been written with crayons.

I thought these prequels were about Anakin’s spiral downward from the path of balance into the Darkside. Is that ever going to happen or are we going to be forced to watch a third episode of video game previews for the Game Cube? We were given a lackluster hint with the slaughter of the Sand People but that barely cuts it. It wasn’t even shown, thereby castrating the power of the scene. We just have to hear Anakin whine about it for about three seconds. Usually, when someone butchers a whole village of men, women, and children there’s a whole lot more soul searching going on afterward. Of course, Lucas goes the pansy route and glosses over the whole thing. Most people I’ve talked to didn’t even remember the scene until it was brought up to them.

I’m probably one of the few people completely disgusted witht the Yoda fight at the end with the unimpressive Darth Sarumon (Lee plays the exact same character in LOTR: former wizard turned evil lackey=former jedi turned evil lackey). It’s almost as if instead of a hand being up Yoda’s posterior they’ve inserted a heroin suppository. Lucas has, in a brief half-minute, meaningless fight scene, destroyed the mystery of Yoda. The entire fight was unwarranted. If Yoda can raise ships from swamps and hold big chunks of pillar in the air, why can’t he just pick up Count Poopoo and bang him against the wall a few times, soften him up a little, so to speak. Why? Because Lucas has toys he must abuse, that’s why.

The real star of this movie is the CGI. And CGI doesn’t make good film. CGI is a support for a movie, that’s it.

Thanks, bigstonemonkey.

D) Hayden Christensen

Okay.  Another casting flaw.  Major flaw.  Episode II was bad for Christensen on so many levels…and whatever he brought with him for the CGI-layered sequel, he attempted to revive in Revenge of the Sith.

I honestly have no idea what George was thinking when casting Hayden.  Did he have the look?  Did he have this annoying boyish attitude we just could not escape?  Was that what you were going for, George?  In linkage to the next point of this blog entry, George Lucas said this in the video below in concordance to Hayden’s performance of Anakin: “…He does have a sort of edge.  He’s like a James Dean…solemn edge to him.”

George, George, George…I think not.

More directly hurtful to Christensen’s acting chops is his chemistry with, well, everyone.  Portman specifically, but even his behavior with his master, Obi-wan is awkward.  A little more painfully obvious than Hayden’s predecessor, Jake Lloyd.  I hate to bash him, but he was definitely a weight that pulled Attack of the Clones down in a bad way.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iTpjVf0lk5Y

E) Love Story

Ah, yes.  One of the biggest flaws in the entire Star Wars Universe.  One of the main reasons some fans despise the entire prequel trilogy.

Episode II had high hopes as far as subplots go.  The majority of them I was okay with.  The public seemed pretty intrigued with the political arch the trilogy was taking us.  However, what the original Star Wars trilogy lacked in the romance department, Lucas and friends decided to make up for it all in Attack of the Clones with teenage Anakin and wooden Padme.  Taken directly from thegeekblock.com’s entry over this love story, Wesley Williams writes: “This stylized and formal form of romance is exactly what George Lucas was trying to depict in Attack of the Clones. Everything from the dialogue, the setting, to the visuals were carefully selected to fit this literary tradition of courtly love that I’m afraid was lost on much of the modern audience. George Lucas himself says in his commentary of the movie, “It’s intended to be overly dramatic, even overly operatic.” The tragic and forbidden love affair of Anakin and Padme is told in the same tradition as other tragic couples with forbidden loves like Tristan and Isolde, Lancelot and Guinevere, and of course Romeo and Juliet.”

star_war_anakin_skywalker_padme_amidala-HDI will jump into defend Lucas for a minute.

Our idea of love, romance, and sexual content in the Star Wars galaxy was expounded and limited to the chemistry between Han Solo and Leia.  It was an implied romance that was mainly teased throughout The Empire Strikes Back, then gently continued in Return of the Jedi.  The significance of Han and Leia’s love story compared to the one at hand: two totally different stories.

I believe we love the subtle flirtatious nature in Empire compared to wincing at the bad Shakespeare in Clones because that was what we were first introduced to in the saga.  It was too much of a jump or our expectations were radically different.

This is not to dismiss the love story of Anakin and Padme.  Their scenes together are incredibly uncomfortable and cheesy to watch.  But when we cross-examine it with Han and Leia’s budding romance, one has to note the significant difference between the two.

If I had the time to review their love story on its own, I would.  Another day, another blog entry.  But in case you are further interested to explore the relationship of the tragic couple, here you can find the rest of the thegeekblock.com’s entry:

http://www.thegeekblock.com/455/

Episode III and the prequels in general are summarized in this point:

F) Inconsistent Screenplays

The first ten to fifteen minutes of Revenge of the Sith is all over the map.  Not plotline, just sheer chaos of where the screenplay is going.  I admit that I enjoy it, but I am still confused to this day if it is meant to be funny, scary, thrilling, or Star Wars.  Here’s some of the scenes that did not make the final cut that just prove what a ridiculous amount of fluff and filler remained in the film (if not on the big screen):

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ICsryK_w9P0

The first half of Episode III is, much like II, a filler to what is inevitably coming: Anakin’s turn to the Dark Side.  It was what we went to the cinemas to see.  We wanted him to break out the Darth Vader mask and see him unleash hell.

And although Revenge of the Sith showcased a good turn of events for the Republic and the fall of the Jedi, it did not use its first hour very well.  We were reintroduced to Padme and Anakin’s love—need I go on describing what a marvelous cinematic relationship that is?—then we were reminded of Hayden’s upset tummy—I mean, disgruntlement with the Jedi not making him master and using him to get close to Palpatine.  Although we got to see some of the galaxy at war, none of it really mattered, so much as General Grevious’s decommission.

Episode I was intended to remind of us the galaxy we knew and introduced it before the fall of the republic and the rise of the empire.  A new set of characters were inducted into the Star Wars realm, and you either agreed to follow along with them, or not.  Then Episode II’s purpose was to set up the Clone Wars and moonlight the conception of Luke and Leia.  Episode III topped everything off with the decline of the Clone Wars, the rise of the Sith, and the collapse of the republic, “handsomely” leading us into A New Hope.

Pretty simple, right?

It is an ambitious project, to follow-up to three of, considerably, the greatest movies of all time.  It shakes the foundation of the story and characters and galaxies we had grown to care for and love.  Is showing the beginnings of the Skywalker family a bad move?

There is a heck of a lot more to the prequels than given credit for, that much is for sure.  A number despise ’em, others love ’em, and some are very indifferent.  But we should take the good with the bad, right?  So let us shed away this dark curtain of negativity and make way for the light.

I will narrow it down to three points:

A) CGI

maxresdefaultOne of the strongest reasons for doing the prequels, George Lucas was not wrong when he said the CGI had caught up with his imagination.  Even after fifteen years when the technology has evolved far past The Phantom Menace, we can still marvel at the pod race, the battle in space, and the Gungan war to this day.

If the prequels had been made in the eighties, we would be examining films totally different from todays gemstones.  The bulk of the movies would have been unfeasible and downright impossible to shoot!

We should note a couple of flaws in the special effects, though.  More specifically, CGI characters.  Jar Jar and Yoda (Episode II) were not good for computer effects, and they should have stuck with their original ideas with puppets.  They even filmed Jar Jar as a puppet and had to paste the computer image over every shot!

One more flaw is that weird sphere Anakin levitates in Episode II.  I mean…what the foxtrot?!?  It is almost as awful as Logan’s claws in the bathroom scene in X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009).

B) Score

john-williams-4e633e208d78cWhat more needs to be said than John Williams is a modern-day music master!

If you found nothing redeeming about the prequel trilogies whatsoever, you can at least appreciate the resonant power and consistency Williams’ brought back to the table when crafting the new films.  There is enough of the old, but enough of the new!  A nearly pitch-perfect balance to the saga.  Period.

C) Strong Cast

Yes, even all those things said about Hayden and Jake, I still rate these films with a stellar cast.  Huge, ambitious cast, actually.

Who could argue with the return of some of the originals, newbies like Natalie Portman, Ewon McGregor, Christopher Lee, and most importantly, Liam Neeson as Qui-Gon Jinn.  Oh how marvelous a cast it makes!

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star_wars_ring_theory___Mike_KlimoSomething that should be said in overview of the entire saga is something called The Ring Theory.  Heard of it?  Concerning our beloved Star Wars?  Here’s the link to the website: http://www.starwarsringtheory.com/

More or less, George Lucas had a vision.  A similar story arch for series of movies.  He focused on the last three and spent a lot of time honing in on the story and the characters, then with the first three he expanded the universe and led up to the characters in the last three.  Make sense?

Naturally, nothing will be able to trump the Original Trilogy.  But at the same time, nothing can trump or forgive or remake the Prequel Trilogy—right?

You guessed it.  Now we look to the future trilogy.  The Third Trilogy.

The Force Awakens is nothing short of ambitious.  I like to think of it as Lucasfilms’ most dangerous project yet!  So much is at stake.  There is an opportunity to mix great storytelling and memorable characters with an enormous universe and great special effects.  But will become mere eye-candy?  Or will it become something engrained within our hearts and minds akin to the Original Three?

There is a lot of money riding on The Third Trilogy.

But looking back over the last six movies, can we be fair and say they all stand together as much as they stand alone?  The prequels in comparison to their brothers is easy to rate as “less great”, but if we looked at them on the own—outside the universe—I think we would be looking at some priceless movies.  I think we are!

As Christmas, and the future of the Star Wars multiverse enters our world, let us not forget the fairness we should put on each and every episode entry in the saga.  It is a grand, epic space opera, after all.

My letter to Disney will be only six words in total:

Dear Disney, Don’t Crush Our Dreams.

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Once Upon A Time In The West (1968)

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FADE IN.

A makeshift door squeaks open to a ghostly wind.  An old man scratches the train delay on a blackboard as he turns wide-eyed towards the camera.  A boot closes the door.  Camera pans up a figure…gunbelt…rifle…the long, heartless stare of a gunman.  Two more gunman appear, all in dirty dust jackets…

The opening credits span over the next ten minutes while the three dusters wait for the train to arrive.  We have long stares, a pesty fly, a constant windmill; elements you would not expect in the opening of an epic western.

All this leading up to the entrance of our (alleged) hero, played by Charles Bronson.  What’s he doing here?  What’s with the harmonica?  “You brought two too many”?  Then BOOM BOOM BOOM!–The movie could end there and we would have as many answered questions as unanswered.  Well, actually no.  But we’d still have a great spaghetti western scene to take to heart.  All in beautiful 2.35 ratio, 35mm anamorphic, technicolor.  And only ten minutes later, director Sergio Leone executes one of the biggest no-no’s of Hollywood cinema: he kills a kid on screen.  And not just one.  But three.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lyuwBW9lNa8

Our Italian artist at hand had already had a love affair with the genre of American westerns for the past few years leading up to this mammoth project.  His Dollars Trilogy was completed and his name was procured to last in cinema for some time to come.  Although his last western project, The Good The Bad And The Ugly (1966) was not a box office success in the USA, it managed to find an audience in Europe, and eventually secured a reasonable to out-of-this-world respect stateside over the years.

I feel cheated.  What a glorious thing it would have been to see this on the big screen back in the day.

Once Upon A Time In The West is a 1968 epic Spaghetti Western film directed by Sergio Leone. It stars Henry Fonda cast against type as the villain, Charles Bronson as his nemesis, Claudia Cardinale as a newly widowed homesteader, and Jason Robards as a buffoon bandit. The screenplay was written by Sergio Donati and Leone, from a story by Dario Argento, Bernardo Bertolucci and Leone. The widescreen cinematography was by Tonino Delli Colli, and the acclaimed film score was by Ennio Morricone.  (Running Time: 165 minutes)(Rated PG-13 for western violence and brief sensuality)

After Good, Bad, Ugly, though, he said he was done making westerns.  “Say what?”  But somehow or another, Paramount Pictures managed to convince him to take the helm of directing a desert-bound epic once more…also swooning him to film in the States for the first time.  In case you didn’t know, Leone had to film all his American tales in Europe–primarily in Italy.  You can probably look up interviews of Clint Eastwood’s complaints of filming so far from home…having to share a bed with co-star Eli Wallach for a time.

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Sergio Leone and his screenwriting team had the challenge of condensing a 400 plus page script down to a tolerable length–which to Leone’s standards would still be a novel of a movie screenplay.  Leone changed his approach over his earlier westerns. Whereas the “Dollars” films were quirky and up-tempo, a celebratory yet tongue-in-cheek parody of the icons of the wild west, this film is slower in pace and sombre in theme. Leone’s distinctive style, which is very different from, but very much influenced by, Akira Kurosawa’s Sanshiro Sugata (1943).  Since Good, Bad, Ugly, which originally ran for a whooping three hours, Leone’s films were usually cut (often quite dramatically) for box office release. Leone was very conscious of this film’s length as filming commenced and later commissioned Sergio Donati to help polish and trim the screenplay, largely to curb the length of the film towards the end of production.

The cast is one of the splendid things about this movie.  Originally, Fonda didn’t take the initial offer to play Frank, so Leone flew to New York to convince him, telling him: “Picture this: the camera shows a gunman from the waist down pulling his gun and shooting a running child. The camera tilts up to the gunman’s face and…it’s Henry Fonda.” After meeting with Leone, Fonda called his friend Eli Wallach, who had co-starred in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Wallach advised Fonda to do the film, telling him “You will have the time of your life.”  Fonda grew more and more enthusiastic over the project and even arrived in Italy for one of his first visits wearing brown contacts and a full mustache to impress the director and his crew, but the filmmaker immediately called for them to be removed, saying he wanted the audience to immediately recognize Fonda as the villain.

Secondly, we got the archetypical tough-guy Bronson–who I have loved since The Great Escape (1963) and The Mechanic (1972).  Although the role of Harmonica was originally meant for Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson was actually the first choice to play The Man With No Name in A Fistful of Dollars (1964).  He’s got the look, he’s got the harmonica–what else does he need?  For Leone, I think it was a good change to move on from Eastwood, as much as we are entertained by his enigmatic drifter character in the Dollars Trilogy.

Claudia Cardinale and Jason Robards bring it in full circle, the right amount of humor, horror, and tension to balance out the main storyline.

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I love the Sergio Leone style.  It has captivated me in the last few years.  After finally watching Once Upon A Time in America (1984), I dubbed him (probably) my favorite Italian filmmaker…but that’s coming from an ignorant critic to the Italian cinema.  Long takes, wide shots, little dialogue; slow and steady wins the race, I think is what he was going for.

There is a fantastic book by Christopher Frayling called “Sergio Leone: Something to do with Death”, which talks a lot about the man, his style, and his films–quite heavily on this particular one.  But I’m gonna take the opportunity to fill this blog post with a passage from one of the first pages from the book:

Sergio Leone once said “I was born in cinema, almost.  Both my parents worked there.  My life, my reading, everything about me revolves around cinema.  So for me, cinema is life, and vice-versa.”  He first wandered into a sound stage at Cinecitta in 1941, at the age of twelve, to watch his father shooting a film.  And he died watching a film on television in Rome, at the age of sixty.  As we will see, for Leone, the passionate experience of movie-going, the ideas and sensations it unleashed in him, informed us of his work in cinema.  Leone was the first modern cineaste to make really popular films: films that nevertheless remain personal to him.  In the words of philosopher Jean Baudrillard, he was “the first postmodernist director.”

I like to think that Once Upon In The West was his most personal piece.  Although we could argue the same for Once Upon A Time In America (1984), he spoke of America, and the outlaw American West, in a very beautifully dark, dangerous, dream-like way.  On the good ol’ US of A, he once said: “In my childhood, America was like a religion. Then, real-life Americans abruptly entered my life – in jeeps – and upset all my dreams. I found them very energetic, but also very deceptive. They were no longer the Americans of the West. They were soldiers like any others…materialists, possessive, keen on pleasures and earthly goods.”  He spoke of the West in a way that made it sound like a long-lost love.  A place he strove for in film…Shane (1953), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), High Noon (1952), and Vera Cruz (1954) were some of his favorite movies of all time.

The choice to pull back on the none-stop action from his previous three westerns and conduct a piece of visual art in a slower, tenser style was a brave thing to do.  Although maybe not accepted at first, we hail his choice today.

One of the scenes that sells me on this magnificent western is the scene that Leone sold to Fonda all those years ago.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ptjc9Vono4

The entrance of the dusters.  Epic.  Just at that point you say to yourself, “Things just got a little more interesting…”

The music buildup, the dusters slowly stepping out of the foreground onto the big screen, their guns resting at their sides, Henry Fonda giving a crooked look at the boy who looks over his murdered family.  There’s a good tension right at the forefront of our story, and immediately we know our villain is actually an evil man.  One who is downright dirty and merciless.  Gotta love it.

We could break down so many scenes–and I encourage you to while you watch the movie–but we better move on.

The music.  The music was written by composer Ennio Morricone, Leone’s regular collaborator, who wrote the score under Leone’s direction before filming began. As in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, the daunting music adds to the film’s grandeur and, like the music for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, is considered one of Morricone’s greatest compositions.  Morricone’s music is usually considered to be a vital part of Sergio Leone’s western films. During the beginning of the film, Leone instead uses a number of natural sounds, for instance a turning wheel in the wind, sound of a train, grasshoppers, shotguns while hunting, wings of pigeons, etc.  But while it’s there, we eat up every second of it!

To assist me with my summary, I pull part of a review from the vast imdb.com, with a movie review by slaforce in 2006.  It reads:

“I thought I knew westerns, I’d seen John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Glen Ford, Audie Murphy, Richard Widmark, Alan Ladd, all of them save the day many times. I was wrong, I was 14 yrs old when I went to the local movie house to see this movie in 1969. My grandmother took me, she had always been a huge fan of Henry Fonda’s, and even though she didn’t care for western’s, she dragged me to this one. I’ll never forget how engrossed I was from beginning to end. And this one movie was the basis for all my future wish’s to have been born a cowboy. Everything about this movie impressed me one way or the other.  Simply put, this movie is the most visually stimulating and engrossing movie I have ever watched.  I have seen plenty of great movies in my in my fifty years of life, but this one, is in my opinion more than a movie, it’s a piece of history unfolding in front of your eyes with no censorship or BS added for flavor. True, the movie has been chopped up some for TV and other forms of presentation, but when I was in that theater in 1969, the movie was, to use a semi modern term “AWESOME”.  No one, not even if you dislike westerns, should pass on this one.”

So…do you think you know westerns?  Think you can just live off of John Wayne?  C’mon!  Time to shake it up with this artful classic!  Is it some of the bad lip dubbing that dismays you?  The intense wide shots?  Morricone’s haunting score?  Please give it a shot.  Leone knew what he was doing at the time, and now, we can appreciate it as a masterpiece…at the very least.

The American Western is a dying genre in film.  Hollywood has had very little “use” of it in the last fifteen years.  Although there have been a small handful of good westerns made, none of them have brought home the bacon, so to speak.  But that may be because all of the action audiences demand nowadays.  I could go on a long tangent on Westerns and the modern day cultures’ reaction to one of my favorite genres…however, I’ll save it for another day.

If you feel an outlaw tugging the lasso around your heart, mayhap you will consider this epic for a weekend watch.  It’s honestly worth it.

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Batman (1989)

Joker: Tell me something, my friend.  You ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?

Bruce Wayne: What?

Joker: I always ask that of my prey.  I just…like the sound of it.

Batman is an American superhero film directed by Tim Burton and produced by Jon Peters, based on the DC Comicscharacter of the same name. It is the first installment of Warner Bros.’ initial Batman film series. The film stars Michael Keaton in the title role, and Jack Nicholson as the main villain The Joker. Kim Basinger, Robert Wuhl, Pat Hingle, Billy Dee Williams, Michael Gough, and Jack Palance. In the film, Batman deals with the rise of a costumed criminal known as The Joker.  (Running Time: 126 minutes)(Rated PG)

It’s hard not to talk about Batman without mentioning where you first met him.  In my case, I met him in comics.  Although I primarily read Marvel, Batman was my reason number one love in the DC universe.  So there was the comics, and there was Adam West on the TV show and the movie from the ’60s.  For a kid, Robin’s “Holy Torpedoes, Batman!” was the bomb-diggidy.

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I remember when I was little, I looked up at the tall movie shelf and could make out the bat symbol silhouetted in cartoon yellow, with a plain black background draped behind.  I had seen it maybe once before.  I was five, maybe six.  But the images stuck to me like glue. Sadly, my mum–being the protective woman she was–said we couldn’t watch it anymore. She said it was “too dark” for little kids to see.  It also didn’t help that my brother made a poor judgement when Batman enters the scene for the very first time.  He turned to my parents and asked, “Is that the bad guy?”

Last year, my brother and decided to re-watch Batman, barely remembering what it was like for us the first time.  We recalled images and that was primarily it.  Our love for Batman erupted like a volcano when we saw Batman Begins.  Oh!  Then The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises to top that trilogy off?  I can speak for myself when I say that Nolan’s trilogy of Batman is by far some of my favorite movies of all time.  You will see them on my top ten list.

So, pulling the dusty VHS off the shelf was a daring action to say the least.  I didn’t expect it to completely change our view on the caped crusader or the Nolan films.  I just didn’t know what to expect.

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We laughed through most of it.  Paused and noted some of the elements that rinsed over into The Dark Knight Trilogy’s world…but only a few.  It was fun to compare.  And, I enjoyed it.  Keaton wasn’t the Batman of my generation, but we can recognize his portrayal–as well as Tim Burton’s take–on the hero from a comic book-ish, entertaining, spooky, Burton-darker style as a win.

Your six-year-old viewpoint of one of your favorite superheroes on the big screen (or medium-ish Zenith television set) makes Bruce Wayne’s dining room table seem longer, the Joker’s laugh more menacing, the crooks in the beginning were uglier, and so on and so forth for two-plus hours of comic book wonder.

I’m not a Tim Burton fan.  I’m just not.  Looking over Batman, the only one of his movies that I actually enjoyed was Sleepy Hollow (1999).  But Batman came when he was still a young and slightly stuiod-obedient director.  His dark tastes did not linger too long in the shadows–or in the light.  Although it still has all the “color” a Burton movie would have, it is not as prominent, therefore, making it more tolerable for moviegoers like me.

He did well, overall.

The Joker is a mad hatter.  It wasn’t the time to see Heath Ledger’s take on the murderous clown.  As much as The Dark Knight (2008) rates so so so high on my list–a lot for the reason for Ledger’s Joker–I still like Nicholson’s take.  Benign and wicked, like a sick clown.  He can make it funny and make you laugh.  It’s totally a Jack Nicholson transformed character…and you are always entertained by Nicholson.  At least I am.  “Never rub another man’s rhubarb.”

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Danny Elfman’s music is good.  It stands on its own, once again, for the time and place of this movie and its release.  I’m confused by the random songs by Prince, though.  The art direction is spectacular.  The Gotham we know from the old comic books comes to life and it looks like such a real city in several scenes.

I mean, overall, I can’t put this in the same ballpark as The Dark Knight Trilogy.  I just can’t!  So when the argument is presented to me on which ones do I think is better?–well, I admit, I say Nolan’s Batman is the best yet.  But I do not dismiss this version (tied in with the darker Batman Returns).  Different people, different tastes.  Do you lean more towards Burton or Nolan?  Keaton or Bale?  Or…God forbid…Kilmer or Clooney?  Bah!  We will not speak of such things.

If you’re in the mood for a comic classic, a killer clown, a dark hero, and a city full of peril and adventure, try Batman.  He’ll give you a good show.

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