Sorry, I’ve been sick… – Here’s a List of Movies for a Sick Day

I would like to apologize to all the followers as I have been sick for the weekend and still am not feeling as well so my reviews of The Amazing Spider-Man 2The Guest, and Nightcrawler, which were next on the list, will not be done until possibly the end of the week. Hopefully sooner if I can snap out of this fever I seem to be having.

Please excuse my inability to keep up with my usual speed.

In the meantime, I’d like to open up to you guys a few things:

I’ll be opening up on my list of movies that I watch sometimes when I am sick. It’s been a habit since I was young and I still haven’t grown up it seems.

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948/dir. Charles Barton) – The original. When I was a kid I looked damn hard into watching this film and finally got to it around 2007, expecting it to be hilarious and a great treatment of my movie monsters. I enjoyed it as such (even though as I grew older I kind of feel the monsters are still more the butt of the joke).

Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004/dir. Brad Silberling/USA) – For a long was a favorite movie and still one I find impulsively rewatchable, from the Burton-esque dirt design to Emmanuel Lubezki’s sedentary aesthetic as a cinematographer (both color and camera movement wise), to Jim Carrey’s absolutely diabolical shit, to the economy the movie takes with its source material to create both an ambiguous and yet satisfying story (though, I understand a lot of fellow fans of the book series were not happy with that – I was not one of those fans. I thought it was one of the smartest adaptations I have seen for a book series.)

Spirited Away (2001/dir. Miyazaki Hayao/Japan) – Used based on a suggestion from a friend, it quickly became one of my favorite Ghibli. Time flies with this and another Ghibli favorite…

My Neighbor Totoro (1988/dir. Miyazaki Hayao/Japan). Fuck you. You know why.

Gravity (2013/dir. Alfonso Cuaron/USA) – One of the two most recent inductions. I mean, I pop it and feel like I went everywhere without going anywhere.

Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987/prod. Robert Shaye/USA) – The most recent induction solely based on associative thinking I was having while talking about Scary Terry. Definitely not the best of the Nightmare series but unlike the only other two movies of that series that are good (The first and seventh), it is the only one that pulls that off while indulging in a very campy aesthetic. Which is exactly what I look for, just plain fun.

Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006/dir. Scott Glosserman/USA) – This actually could easily just apply for any Anchor Bay home release. They’re just that much “good enough” without being a masterpiece – save for some exceptions (The Wicker Man and Dawn of the Dead being those).

The Host (2006/dir. Bong Joon-ho/South Korea) – When I’m sick, I lack energy. Lacking energy leading to being less inclined to just go “what the fuck” to movies I love anyway and The Host is perfect for this opening (I also need to experiment on Scott Pilgrim vs. the World2001: A Space OdysseySnowpiercerRe-AnimatorThe Abominable Dr. PhibesSuspiriaPhantasmHeaven’s GateDick Tracy, and Batman Returns this way).

And finally…

Batman Begins (2005/dir. Christopher Nolan/USA) – Because he is the night, goddammit.

Thanks for your patience and I apologize again. Should be back to speed hopefully soon.

You Have to Come See the Show – Whiplash (2014/dir. Damien Chazelle/USA)

Ironically, Whiplash is a film that makes me want to react to it the way that J.K. Simmons’ Terrence Fletcher reacts to Miles Teller’s Andrew Neiman. But I realize that would actually make as much a cartoon as Fletcher kind of is and I’d rather just ground myself and take it slow.

Whiplash is not a terrible movie. It’s a great movie. I wouldn’t call it exactly perfect, but in a wide release weekend where nearly every movie that I saw was a thriller that was much anticipated – NightcrawlerBirdmanInterstellar among them – Whiplash is the more tense of the films in that killer’s row.

Which is definitely not on account of its script, but let’s dig into it briefly. Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) is a freshman drumming student at the pretigious Shaffers Music Conservatory (the movie does not specify where it takes place and even though it feels like it really wants to take place in Los Angeles, the appearance of the Orpheum and the Palace Theater betray the shooting location as Los Angeles) who is struggling to be the best. He’s already on the way to dedicating his life completely to focus on the drums – inspired by the greats of jazz drumming (which I can as a drummer insist is the best kind of drumming) such as Don Ellis and Buddy Rich – when Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the big man on the campus who teaches and runs Studio Band, keeps catching his eye and eventually is impressed enough by Neiman to allow him into said class as an alternate drummer. However, for his time as an alternate, Neiman gets one chance at the drums before being pushed back to just turning the page of charts for the primary drummer.

Until after an incident that occurs where the primary drummer loses his drumming charts and claims he can’t play without those charts, leading Andrew to step up taking his place (having memorized all the charts), and becoming the primary drummer for Fletcher’s band. It seems as though his passion is going good until Fletcher gets slowly more and more upset about the tempo Neiman is using…

… to the point of throwing a chair at Neiman’s head without warning and to begin berating Neiman in front of the class in a verbal haze reminiscent of R. Lee Ermey’s savagery in Full Metal Jacket and Alec Baldwin’s command in Glengarry Glen Ross, but all the way hellish for a new kid in a new class.

Now, of course, we get this incident hinted at very early on, as Fletcher tries to bring Neiman at ease by recounting a moment in jazz legend Charlie Parker’s career of Joe Jones throwing a cymbal at his head to shape Bird up after having flubbed up a show. And that’s where the beginning of my nitpicks begin.

I am a jazz enthusiast and I am a drummer. This movie was pretty much perfect bait for me as it caters to two of my biggest interests in this wild world. But it also opened itself up to some nitpicks as I tried to focus in on the content of the film.

Lots of films and television will get historical facts wrong, they just do that for some reason. But if you know enough about jazz, you know that the Jones/Bird incident involved Jones throwing the cymbal to Bird’s feet, not his head. It was an act strictly of public shaming, not a malicious act of physical abuse. But it’s very clear why Whiplash takes liberties with this fact and so the nitpick is only something nagging at my head as one of several things that proves the movie is not so much for jazz fans as it is just for fans of character studies and thrillers.

See, after this initial incident, the whole movie is set to follow Neiman as he tries to get a complete bead on Fletcher as a person with the audience, as Simmons brilliantly places Fletcher somewhere in between a sadistic abuser of power and a man who just is very very very serious about making all of his students succeed and to dig out the genius possibly lying within any of his band members. Simmons is a cruel and volatile source of power for the complete first act of the film, commanding every scene he is in, even into the second act where we’re a bit more conditioned to Fletcher’s attitude and aren’t entirely as shocked as we were the first time around. This isn’t some snapping J. Jonah Jameson wit, this is “if I don’t make you cry, I’ve failed” roasting on a spike that Simmons delivers like a second language in the film. The sort of stuff that would probably earn the worst ratemyteacher score in history.

But the movie is also set to follow the growing sociopathy of Neiman himself, a kid who already neglects social life for the sake of becoming a completely rounded musician. When it comes to the being put under the grill of Fletcher’s instructing practices though, Neiman completely demolishes all possibilities of a life beyond music and begins to twist his own arm just as much as Fletcher does. I wasn’t entirely won over by Miles Teller with the work I had seen him in before, but the self-flagellation we witness Teller put himself through, the complete and utter coldness Teller displays to anything imperative to life that doesn’t regard his practice, the torturous restraint of his cries every time something holds him back from being the greatest, the beads of sweat and drops of blood that shed from his head and hands, but most of all, the fact that Teller is able to carry this performance by still inhabiting a flesh-and-blood human being makes Teller more the star of this film than the already-acclaimed Simmons. It’s clear that Neiman doesn’t want to take this path he has chosen, but that he feels he has to… and yet slowly but surely it seems every step he takes brings him two more steps back in his pursuit to be the next great jazz artist.

The fact that we have two brilliant leading performances in this one movie is most of all what sells a movie with a script by Damien Chazelle that is, frankly, filled with contrivances. The first act of the film leading to Andrew’s rise as a drummer under Fletcher’s tutelage is very organic, but once things start heating up, it’s clear the film is just trying to throw in as much as it can to keep Fletcher seem as off the wall as they can make him. In fact, Fletcher himself balances the tightrope between becoming a complete cartoon (such as him disregarding or neglecting to even acknowledge an incident for Neiman that shows on his appearance) and of being just a man for whom Neiman’s perceptions mean everything.

In the meantime, once the script takes itself back to a zone of normalcy, it’s also slowed down significantly and it’s more heavy lifting from the audience to get involved with the story. But that’s just fine because, like I said, Teller and Simmons’ performances anchor the emotional drama.

There’s also some pretty solid carry of intensity from Chazelle’s direction – utilizing Sharone Meir’s cinematography to send a mixed message of tightened angles on the stressed face of Neiman and the discomforting presence of Fletcher (which takes a brilliant turn in the final minute of the film) and the claustrophobic atmosphere of the rooms in which Neiman pounds his hands to a pound, at the same time bathing the chilliness of the practice rooms with muted greens to show off how much more of a machine Neiman is making himself and then shimmering the stages and the Studio Band class with complete glimmering gold to make it seem like magic is just waiting to happen from the instruments – only more ironic when Fletcher uses that atmosphere to completely destroy his students.

And then there’s also some really amazing sound editing, which most would already associate with films focused on music if they want to treat their subject with half that kind of respect, but it’s more than that. The snare is brought up to 11, making it resemble more of a gunshot next to the ears of the audience than any really harmonious instrument, and almost every time Neiman tortures himself there’s a constant ringing to soundtrack the damage he’s doing to himself to gain true jazz genius. And there’s just the sweeping landscape building of a musical finale, aided by the best crackle, snap-pop editing we see that makes the entire performance seem like a damned gunfight more than anything. It’s easily my favorite moment of the whole film and it has more tension within itself than the rest of the already very intense film.

Like I say, I do have my nitpicks, like the fact that sometimes the visuals do not fully synchronize with the sound when there is drumming going on, the jazz discrepancies, and especially the inconsistencies in tone, but the movie’s full-throttle dedication to its characters and making them feel trapped trying to find that one key to what makes great music the best music in separate ways makes Whiplash a hell of a debut and well worth watching by anyone, jazz enthusiast or not.

Two of my friends made it to the finals of Campus MovieFest. Watch their Short Films (and then some other Short Films).

Yeah, ok, I know it’s weird to do this, but since this is my site, I’m not required to just do reviews. It’s my site, dammit! I wanna give my friends a hand I will give them a hand.

And my friends have just made it to their school’s Campus MovieFest finals. So, from my alma mater, I want to congratulate and give it up to Producer Andrea Camacho, Director/Writer/Editor Fernando Perez, and Company for their Jury Prize winner Last Call.

And to director/co-writer/producer Daniel Escolin, producer Tyler Tang, and Company for their own finalist short Ten Percent

And while I’m in that mood, I want to also note previous Campus MovieFest finalists and winners that were made by my friends for you guys to check out because SUPPORT INDEPENDENT ART, MAN!!!!

Last year, which I competed with two of my friends won Best Drama, Best Actress, and Best Production Design overall, so give a hand to Director/Writer/Producer/Cinematographer Gloria Tello’s short Best Drama and Best Actress winner Last Night – Gotta love that camera flow, it reminds me of Emmanuel Lubezki.

By the way, her end credits heavily inspired the opening credits of my own short submission to Cannes’s Short Film Corner this year Meshes of the All-Nighter (which can be seen here, I’m not embedding it in this post to stay on topic).

And Best Production Design asphyxiating thriller – Director Dallas Campbell’s To Be Clean (which my best friend and Meshes of the All-Nighter DP Dreylon Dupas-Vang was the cinematographer for).

It wasn’t Gloria’s first submission to Campus MovieFest as she also had a finalist in 2012 co-directing and co-writing with my ex-roommate Jim Pagano on a film I was absolutely appalled did not win Best Drama that year. It is one of the best short films I have seen by any of my classmates, Sam & Mia.

Before the next one, I would of course like to state that during my time at Arizona State, I also submitted my own films and none were finalists, but I was at least proud of one such film and it’s among my favorites (the rest are sort of amateured work)… So, I will give you a brief drink of my submission in my final year at ASU with the help of Dreylon Vang again, Malcolm Baity, and my former A Night at the Opera co-hosts Britt Rhuart and Norman West in Probation (at the admittance of poor sound editing by yours truly, rather than any ill practice from CMF, I would suggest you use headphones or earphones).

And finally, I saved this for last because it’s just… what. I didn’t really find a way to wrap my head around it. Really didn’t. But I did of course find it necessary to show at least because this particular movie won the Grand Prize at Campus MovieFest in 2011. So, giving one more hand up to the… wut… but apparently appealing and at least very humorous Pee-ception by Director Brandon Johnson and Writer/Editor Dallas Campbell.

I’m going to be honest, I was ecstatic to end this display of CMF works by my friends with a movie about peeing and Inception. I already decided on the movie being the show-stopper. Drink it in, man.

And remember their names. Hopefully they’ll make it big one day and I’ll be talking about their features.

And it won’t come off as nepotism…

‘Cause this is about integrity in short film journalism!


No, it’s a Bird.

Ok, so I’m going to be upfront.

This weekend the most notable wide release is Dumb and Dumber To, which I can’t think of anyone wanting to see beyond sheer nostalgia. The rest of the possible remaining movies on the marquee are the simplistic Gone Girl (which you probably saw already), the not-for-everyone John Wick, the boisterous Interstellar and some others I won’t list because I’m lazy and want to get to my review.

But last night, from what I understand, Birdman opened in 800 theaters finally. And if I am correct, it will only be in that many theaters for ONE week.

Go see Birdman.

And now I back it up. I honestly did not expect to like Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) – a title that is such an afterthought and too long that I’m only typing it once. In fact, I didn’t even expect myself to go watch it. It’s been a long while since I ended up actually liking the stuff director Alejandro González Iñárritu, I still want my time wasted for Babel back.

I also don’t very much care for one-shot scenes most of the time. They usually call too much attention to themselves, a catch-22 when the original idea is to reel you into the scenario a lot more. I think that idea is largely lost though by the fact that most filmmakers don’t use it as an involvement technique of cinematography, but just to show off “Oh look how much we can get done in one shot.”

Emmanuel Lubezki is in fact one of the few cinematographers I think can actually not call attention to himself. His career is made up of tastefully composed and spread-out one-shot sequences that leave you realizing what they are only after the fact (and he’s usually helped by a fantastic editor who knows when and where to use them – In this particular case, Douglas Crise & Stephen Mirrone, though they are less there as a source of pacing for Lubezki’s beautiful eye and more to very astoundingly work at making the cuts near unrecognizable unless you really look for them; the pace for these moments seems to be granted by the throbbing drumroll of a score by world-class drum legend Antonio Sánchez).

But Birdman’s special form of presenting itself as a one-shot film (not including some semi-avant garde montages, the grand total of “shots” in Birdman is three) for most of its duration is special in not being cinematic. It’s extremely literary. It’s a visual translation to the stream-of-consciousness writing style. It’s why some things in the film don’t make sense, timewise or locationwise, in its presentation. We’re thinking with Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) as he just gathers himself in different places at different times. The movie makes this clear from the very first second it begins… the man is floating in midair, attempting to act serene as he sits on his invisible hand staring at a window, wondering “how did we get here?”

Who is Riggan Thomson, though? An actor once thrust into the limelight for his appearances in the blockbuster Birdman series, before inadvertently making a mess of his career by refusing to do a fourth movie. Now, a significant amount of decades after the fact, he is trying to clean his career back up in a revival at the St. James Theater. The play in question is an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” and Riggan is involved creatively at all points, directing, writing, and having his best friend and lawyer Jake (Zach Galifinakis) produce the production while Riggan himself finances it. He’s put everything on the line for this play, even things unrelated to the play whatsoever like his relationship to his daughter Sam (Emma Stone), who is fresh out of rehab and has a very strained attitude to her dad, threatening to tear them apart.

Also threatening to ruin Riggan’s career and life with it are his actors, such as the last-minute addition actor of Mike Shiner (Edward Norton with a hairstyle that while probably serving as one of many subtle bird images in the film, just reminds me of James Dean. A lot.) who quickly proves himself to be just as much an asshat and a control freak to severe levels as he is an amazing actor, Shiner’s girlfriend Lesley (Naomi Watts) who is looking forward to making it as a actress, and Laura (Andrea Riseborough), who Riggan is apparently sleeping with. The upcoming previews and opening performances are the final time-setter in this bomb Riggan finds himself inside of and he’s hoping to make it out alive.

See, now it’s especially funny that the movie is based on making itself as literary as possible simply through visuals and especially at focusing on a Raymond Carver tale because the movie itself feels like a Raymond Carver tale. Of course, one set in New York rather than the Southwest US and one that has a focus more on the upper class than the middle class, but its thematic appeals, its structure, its emotional focuses, they’re Carver in nature and maybe it’s because we happen to be in the mind of Riggan for most of the film and Riggan quickly proclaims himself a fan of Carver, but there it is – The script by Iñárritu, Armando Bo, Alexander Dinelaris, & Nicolás Giacobo certainly pits a bunch of minds together to try to make the film seem like a singular thought following all the fears and anxieties of a man at the edge, and despite it being an actor on the stage who has the world staring at him, it is surprisingly easy to relate to for any layman, whether at midlife crisis or in the middle of a life crisis. If there is one problem with the writing, it sometimes tangles over itself – for one, constantly we see Riggan as he perceives himself – capable of psychic powers and superhuman displays of strength and flight. It very much cements the fact that we are watching from the mind of Riggan, but the movie constantly parades an ambiguity into these moments that suggests possibly Riggan’s powers are real and it grasps onto this presentation especially to its final shot. I’m sure it’s fun for audiences to ask themselves those kinds of questions, but the problem is that this attempt at ambiguity is weighted towards one side; if the powers are real, the movie loses most of its theme.

In addition, for a movie that is supposed to have a centralized point of view, there are more than a few scenes that Riggan just doesn’t even appear in at all, with only one of them seeming to be essential to the storytelling while the rest are really great, entertaining scenes that still are pretty disposable in regards to the rest of the film. This is Riggan’s world, these are his own shadows he is trying to escape, let’s try to keep it Riggan’s world and let’s keep focusing on those shadows instead. But that’s just me.

Of course, this is the sort of script that is tailored for a certain lead actor to shine in. The kind of movie made for acting. And that actor blessed with this opportunity is Michael Keaton. Ignoring the obvious parallels in career (ironically, Keaton claims Riggan is the furthest character he has ever played from his own personality), Keaton still is at his best form, not only since his obscurity post-Batman, but in his whole career yet. He channels his frenzied stage persona to a tune that the audience can keep up with without feeling alienated (unlike his performance in RoboCop which… ugh), he has an underlaying melancholy that gives so much to the movie’s atmosphere, and especially a constant danger with every twitch of the finger and whisper to himself. Keaton as Riggan is just the cherry on-top of one of the better casts I have witnessed in 2014, even including some surprisingly revelatory performances from actors I was starting to get tired of, Emma Stone, Zach Galifinakis, and Edward Norton all are actors with as much to prove as Riggan and they damn well prove it against me earlier bias. Just Innaritu proves he can still be a fantastic source of comedy and that all his precise work can be used to actually say something than be a pointless display of technique. I have a lot of re-thinking to do about him.

Listen, Birdman is a really funny movie. A surprisingly psychological movie. An unrelentingly dramatic movie. If you’re going to watch any movie this week, watch Birdman. You can catch Nightcrawler, Interstellar or Whiplash next week, you’re not missing much with the others, and if you took forever to see The Boxtrolls, you deserve to miss it.

Treat yourself with Birdman.

Out of the Box – The Boxtrolls (2014/dir. Graham Annable & Anthony Stacchi/USA)

So, I’m very late on this Laika train that has apparently been happening. Very late. I know the company began in 2009 and was just a newcomer, but despite only three features being under their belt, they have some pretty huge acclaim behind them. Since Nick Park had tragedy force him to move apart from the beloved Wallace and Gromit works, Laika’s success Coraline and ParaNorman have heralded them as champions of the animated art form of stop-motion, allowing the company to rival against the powerhouses of Dreamworks Animation, Walt Disney Animation Studios, and Pixar. Which is a lot to do when you’ve only had three movies come out and Coraline didn’t outright make as huge a splash in the animation pool as Shrek or Toy Story before it, but it’s still enough to stand on its own two feet against such hefty competition. The Boxtrolls, the second of these films to be based on a children’s book – this time loosely on Here Be Monsters! by Alan Snow, was the most recent release of theirs and pretty much the weakest, but its absolute enjoyability and astonishing detail work makes it a strong weak link for the line-up.

The script by Irena Brignull and Adam Pava starts upon a hefty knock on a door during a dark and stormy night in Cheesebridge, where a man announces the tragedy of a baby’s kidnapping and end in the digestive tract of the much feared BoxTrolls. These BoxTrolls are constantly a source of horror from the Cheesebridgians for their scurrying about at night, snatching whatever they see and taking them where they will never be seen again, but the demise of the child is the very last straw for the Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris), who is pushed to agree to the terms of the local BoxTroll exterminator Archibald Snatcher (A seriously unrecognizable voice that turns out to be Ben Kingsley) – If Snatcher can find and kill every single one of the BoxTrolls, Snatcher receives a prestigious White Hat, which put him at the tippity-tippity-top of the class system Cheesebridge has set up for their citizens.

This is only the first scene I have just described, but that just about sets up the stakes and the motivations of Snatcher and just on paper it would seem we are meant to be viewing him as the hero, but there’s something off from the creepy phrasings and gleeful smirk and in general the ghoulish nature of both Snatcher’s behavior and his appearance (among the many things that makes The Boxtrolls such a fantastic movie is how exaggerated as a picture it is) that makes us absolutely certain beyond any reasonable doubt that something more is up than he’s letting on.

It doesn’t take long for us to confirm that, well, whether or not Snatcher is aware, the boy has lived long and healthy under the care of the BoxTrolls, themselves accepting the child as one of their own while the child accepts himself as solely one of the BoxTrolls, unaware of his nature as a human. That is until Eggs as the child is called (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) delves a bit more into the mystery of what on earth is making his fellow BoxTrolls disappear more and more and ends up eventually discovered by the first daughter of Cheesebridge herself, Winnie Portley-Rind (Elle Fanning) and has to discover a lot more about himself and the BoxTrolls than he went for.

Now, what makes The Boxtrolls so fabulous to behold if how ugly it is. No, but not in that, this is poorly made, but the cheese is gnarled and looks how it probably smells, the edges of the scenarios are sharper than seems safe, the characters all have a sickly look along them, and so on and so forth, like one of those famous 90s-00s storybooks that have such a DIY yourself look to them that couldn’t possibly be conceived by any child and yet here it is, presented in its abstract form for the children and frankly everybody else to eat up.

This style just invites such a lovely psychological decay to each aspect of Cheesebridge, from their bourgeois folks dismissing even the most dire of circumstances for their casual Cheese enthusiasm to the aware manner of dialogue between two of Snatcher’s more articulate henchmen Messr.s Trout and Pickles (Nick Frost and Richard Ayoade, respectively) and the deranged violence of the less articulate Mr. Gristle (Tracy Morgan in one of the few roles I’ve witnessed from him that doesn’t make me want to beat him with a belt). It’s all so well-crafted, so precisely made, that it gives the colorful designs of Paul Lasaine such a flush life inside their near-morbid design. Despite The Boxtrolls not really rising above its Laika predecessors, it’s still a damn sight of an improvement in the animation styles of the movies – making them that much closer to being just a glide rather than a chop between movements and caricatures. The closest I can recall to these stylizations are The Nightmare Before Christmas, but those styles were kind of forced by the story itself. The Boxtrolls never had to be such a treat and not only presents itself as such, but one-ups The Nightmare Before Christmas with its 3D work. This animation is as good as anything from Pixar at this point, I can tell you that.

The story is the only point where the film loses me. Certainly the story is what leads us to explore more of both the Boxtrolls worlds and the Cheesebridge world, and the script’s choice of lines and even the squeaks the Boxtrolls themselves provide is worth enough of a gander, but the story is just kind of… bland? I’m sure its simplicity will have the kids loving it at least, but to me, all the plot points, all the trends, they were all so generic and predictable… it was easy to map out where the movie was going with each point and I think I’ve been spoiled enough by Laika with their other storylines to have unfortunately pushed myself to idealize something unexpected by like ParaNorman or Coraline. But that’s only the slightest price to pay and still the cast does so remarkably well to sell the plot while the designs just keep pushing and plodding along that The Boxtrolls ended up quite the ingenious invention of a film in itself, even if it wasn’t so ingenious as a tale.

Set It Off

I’m a redditor and a very constant one. So, upon witnessing the hype for John Wick in the weeks of it coming up, despite not hearing about it until those weeks before the movie opened, I figured I’d see what r/movies was talking about and go ahead and check out what the fuss is all about.

I didn’t watch any trailer beforehand and all I knew about it was that it was being directed and written by a pair of stuntmen who had worked with star Keanu Reeves in the Matrix trilogy and that it followed a man who was one-track minded on revenge after the callous murder of his dog. It pretty much sounded like a Liam Neeson adaptation of what happened to Marcus Luttrell after his Lone Survivor incident. No, seriously, Luttrell’s dog even had the same name of Daisy (except spelled “DASY”).

I had absolutely no expectations for the film except that it might be a pretty good action film.

Well, turns out it WAS a pretty good action film, if it was nothing else.

Well, also turns out it was also SOMETHING ELSE. Not much of something else, but certainly enough to note how it expands beyond being a layman action film at least, even if it inherently borrows itself from the style of another better action film that was released this same year.

Basically the eponymous character (Reeves) has almost immediately after the film has started lost his wife to a terminal disease (Wikipedia states that the wife was played by Bridget Moynahan, but I totally never even bothered recognizing the actress she was on-screen for such a short while). Upon her eve of her death, she arranged for John to receive a puppy to help him move on from her passing and it doesn’t exactly work a miracle on him, but it keeps John level-headed. Suddenly a trio of Russian thugs – led by Iosef (Alfie Allen) – break and enter John Wick’s home with the intention of stealing his car after refusing to sell it to them. In the middle of their assault, they murder Daisy in cold blood, inciting John to begin grieving and arranging a proper burial for his poor dog while Iosef and his pals begin to congratulate themselves for their actions. They make the mistake of bringing the car to a chop shop owned by Aurelio (John Leguizamo) and the shitstorm Aurelio erupts in is the first sign that Iosef just killed the wrong man’s dog.

Immediately after John finishes grieving for Daisy, he starts prepping for a remake of Sterling Archer’s classic film Terms of Enrampagement and is going for much more than Iosef himself. Iosef turns out to be the son of local crimelord Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist), who John Wick used to work for. As an assassin. The kind that killed every single bit of competition Tarasov had to get to the position he is now in. And now the previously retired John is going after the entire Tarasov organization.

These are all facts that are introduced within the first ten minutes of the film setting up the hype for what Wick can do much like reddit had to set up the hype for what John Wick would have been like. Brief scenes of establishing conversation between two people like the gossip that spreads all around close friends, cross-cut with moments of slamming sledgehammers sounding off the beats and momentum of the scene where Viggo explains just what kind of hellfire is coming for him, thanks to the drummer-like editing of Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir, knowing just when to speed up and when to slow it down, setting up the tempo for each scene accordingly.

And then the first gunfight scene begins.

A group of Viggo’s hitmen take a siege to Wick’s home and Wick dispatches them in a teasing little sequence using the closed spaces around Wick and the hit team to provide a snapping, exciting dance of fists, feet, bodies, and bullets in brilliant long-takes, with flashy choreography for a gun battle, aware cinematography to set up the environment, and of course, that tempo-ed editing again this time never missing the beat or what’s up with the shot.

Then the movie gets really exciting.

John Wick – [FILMGRAB]

For one, while Wick goes on his rampage, it turns out he’s sort of one in a great big network of hitmen all around the city with their own construct of communities and rules and ethics. It’s nothing too mythic, it’s just organized, and in fact most of the details of this network are completely turned away from the audience in the most frustratingly abstract way. But it’s there and it’s cool and I really hope we don’t need a sequel that tries to expand on this because it won’t live up to how vast it is in my mind. We’ve already got enough bit part roles in the movie as it is made up of familiar faces (none of them I’ll divulge, just because I had no idea who was in the movie besides Reeves going in and if anybody wants to approach the movie that way, by all means), all probably supposed to do the same thing Reeves does of adding presence to the characters without feeling like a need to really force out some dimension to each character. They’re just co-workers, acquaintances, that Wick knows and that we know too. It’s pretty impressive to show such restraint in filling up a world that the characters live in and then still leaving it with this feeling of being such a real environment.

And then there is the piece de resistance for the action extravaganza… The nightclub setpiece where John goes floor by floor duking it out and shooting it out and going after Iosef with a one track mind from the basements to the balcony and so on. As I mentioned, directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski have been stuntmen. So they know exactly how to make stunts and choreography get done as stuntmen, but I did not at all expect them to be able to capture such an ambitious and fluid setpiece so fantastically. The editing punching in and out moment after moment while the annoying techno music just keeps pumping up mechanically to every shot fired, every hit John takes and dishes, and the cinematography just forcing involvement for the audience every single step that John takes into the hot blues and reds that surround these fighters (the cinematographer Jonathan Sela is quite the revelation in the whole movie – the previous sledgehammer hype up I mentioned has such a vast contrast between the cool steel grays of John’s basement and the warm browns of Viggo’s penthouse). It was so boisterously climactic that I expected the movie to be taking place entirely during this shootout.

I won’t go explicitly into the movie’s content any further, but it doesn’t. It avoids that. Which is a shame because from there on forth the movie feels like it has already shot its load and the rest of the film still has some impressive action setpieces and still feels very alive as a world, but it never lives up to its first half. We still have enough story to carry us on, though, and once a movie like John Wick has given us enough momentum to make us want to keep digging into it, it barely has to do anything more than just tell a half-decent story by Derek Kolstad and have the acting done well enough without hamming itself up – which is a mile of a good thing for Nyqvist and Reeves to do, since they are both actors I am hardly ever impressed by.

But what is my favorite thing about John Wick beyond all these other things I love it for: It is pretty much among the cleanest action movie I have seen in a long time, even more than The Raid 2 which is certainly the best action movie of the year so far. See, the world John lives in is certainly depressing and the movie does enough to express that depression in its visual language, a nihilistic fadedness that I feel is almost certainly done in post-production rather than filtering. But it’s not grungy or gritty… it’s very lavish, it’s almost looking like luxury and would trick you into feeling that if Reeves wasn’t just always so sobering, so visually lost in his role as a human being. It would be a James Bond film if Reeves didn’t give John Wick the character it has as a film (and I would never say Keanu Reeves gives a movie something if he didn’t). It’s not brutal or banging, but it’s still very very intense as an action film. It’s sleek. But it’s still affrontive.

And there’s something especially psychologically off about that sleekness. Like everything is as it should be exactly, except all the violence proves that to be wrong and Wick is still missing a wife and a puppy. But by god, is it all very elegant in the end.

I’m very very envious. I haven’t seen a film capable of holding all of these dissonant parts together since Rian Johnson’s Brick but John Wick pretty much is guilty as charged of pulling this. Leitch and Stahelski pull it off and tap into a storytelling style of visual psychology without even acknowledging it and utilize it in a genre that is usually just dismissed as bargain bin cheap thrills. Holy shit, John Wick is not even close to that way at all and I’m glad for it and I suggest anybody who likes comic books should watch it, because John Wick feels like one giant limited series from Vertigo Comics. Like 100 Bullets.

Wow, I should go to movies having absolutely no idea what they are about more often.

John Wick (2014) - John Wick KISSTHEMGOODBYE 28387129 - High Quality MOVIE  SCREENCAPS Gallery

We Can Be… – Big Hero 6 (2014/dir. Don Hall & Chris Williams/USA) and Feast (2014/dir. Patrick Osborne/USA)

There’s something necessary to take note of in the coming years and it is the possibility that Walt Disney Animation Studios has been finding itself in the throes of a second Renaissance since the decade began. After a brief wash-up of hand-drawn animated flops unfortunately as well as some ill-advised attempts to merge animation styles that doesn’t exactly go down so well for most audiences, Walt Disney Animation Studios eventually adopted the computer animation technique and even took John Lasseter from their then-new acquisition of Pixar along for a ride and got their fingers in a lot of project pies.

With these moves, Disney has been able to remain relevant in the world of animation cinema and hasn’t entirely dismissed hand-drawn animation altogether (what with the releases of The Princess and the Frog and Winnie the Pooh) so much as it saw that moving on with the world on computer animated works was what was going to keep the company afloat. But, of course, this is Disney we’re talking about – an animation company that ideally pushed the game of animation no matter what direction it took, and while it has made astonishingly profound leaps in animation during this decade that we’ve never seen before, it has taken its time to make its world more lived-in and filled with character. From the storybook aesthetic of Tangled – its blended animation style of hand-drawn sensibilities applied to the CGI content giving it more volume than we expected – to the frozen surround snowscapes of Frozen, their movies have usually been at least a dazzling vibrancy for two hours in the theater.

Which is why it pains me so much to have seen Big Hero 6 and find it so completely… ordinary.

It’s not a bad film. It’s really not. If nothing else, it is a good movie. One that you’d pop into the tv screen and sit and leave going “ok, that was a nice distraction for an hour and a half.” But it doesn’t really feel like something to stand out alongside the four other great works of this era in the studio’s work. And while it should be very obvious that every work of WDAS is a completely manufactured project done to keep the studio from falling into the dark abyss that Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Treasure Planet live in, Big Hero 6 is the one movie that can’t really hide it.

Let’s start with the story: In the city of San Fransokyo, Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter) is an orphaned 14-year-old robotics genius who lives with his older brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney) under the care of their Aunt Cass (Maya Rudolph). Under his brother’s guidance, he begins to apply his gift into creating a bot for a University that would surely get him accepted and have him join Tadashi’s pals in the program – Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez), Wasabi (Damon Wayans, Jr.), Gogo Tomago (Jamie Chung), and Fred (T.J. Miller). From the actors I named, it should be extremely obvious what personalities these characters have.

Hiro’s project brings down the house figuratively and then a fire brings it down literally and takes Tadashi with it. After grieving, Hiro becomes acquainted with a passion project of Tadashi’s, the robot medic Baymax (Scott Adsit) and the two discover some of Hiro’s applications are being stolen and used for a sinister plot, sending them straight into action.

Very loosely based on the Marvel comic series Big Hero 6 to the point of near loss of recognition, the plot is pretty much lean. Incredibly lean. Like so lean that like the vinyl skin of Baymax, if you press your head into it lightly, you will be able to count all the simple story beats and know that it feels like a hastily constructed treatment of an idea rather than a full-fledged story itself. So lean that with each emotional beat, we only get shown to know the circumstances of what happened and then we get shoved into the next moment in the story without any time to let it sink in with the audience. So lean that you can count back all of the stock characters the Big Hero 6 take up and realize that they never really grow beyond that. So lean that the world doesn’t extend as much as the story itself demands, meaning we don’t get to see as much of San Fransokyo or get any idea how it feels to live within its borders, unlike the Kingdoms of Tangled and Frozen or even the video games of Wreck-It Ralph. The city isn’t even given much of a passing wave as a creation, the work of the designers feels neglected, the work of the actors only coloring inside the lines and leaving still some blank space.

See, story-telling wise, the movie is not a movie, so much as it feels like a pilot episode for some upcoming Big Hero 6 tv series on Disney X D (which I will be very surprised if that turns out not to be the case). After their recent acquisition of Marvel, Disney probably just went digging for a property they thought could appeal to a young audience alongside the constant comic book craze, found Big Hero 6, and screamed “Yes! This is the one! Fast track this, huhuh!” Which is all good and fine and it’s still complete storytelling going in and going out (save for some pretty unconvincing motivations from the villain Yokai), but I might have been spoiled by previous Walt Disney Animation Studios because it still just doesn’t feel like a full-on movie. It feels like that Saturday Morning pilot. It’s too generically attached to its own skeleton of superhero tropes and animation tropes.

Even the voice work is completely dry. The best part of the movie is undoubtedly the character of Baymax, with his cuddly design and amusing attempts to compute with adolescent behavior as the sole anchor of interest to the whole film – Adsit’s robotic and matter-of-fact deliveries of “Ba-la-la-la-la” and “Oh no” have at least kept me smiling, no matter what context or circumstance. But he’s still a robot and Adsit carries that blankness believably in his voice work.

When the empty robot is the only automatic emotional anchor you have, regardless of how well enough the other actors have done (Rudolph herself is a great big ball of energy while voicing her character, balancing between parent-like hysteria and beat generation lax and Miller is just… well, he’s exactly like Miller), you kind of don’t have much stakes to go on. And then, they exhaust those stakes and take them back in the last act of the film, which is one of two sequences that descends into the action-film madness that the Marvel Studios films have kept wrapping themselves up with constantly that we’re kind of used to it. Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if the climax of the film felt like another copy of The Avengers and Pacific Rim. But that’s almost saying too much…

In any case, despite the leanness of the story and the dryness of the voice work, we still have some great looking animation and designs from the animators and the software Hyperion and Denizen utilized to at least fill up the screen with wondrously neon color and life as a picture. There’s a whole lotta Tezuka Osamu in this film, from the first Baymax sunset flight scene that throttles cheers out of the throats of children in the audience to the candy colored suits of each of the Big Hero 6 members. My particular favorite is Fred’s suit – it says a lot that a movie is willing to believably use visuals to make Giant Monsters ridiculous even in a movie with multiple dimensions and lovable squishy medic bots.

But it’s still not exactly anything new. It’s all stuff we’ve seen before from either Marvel or the Disney animated films prior and so it’s just more white noise.

I will repeat one more time, Big Hero 6 isn’t a bad movie. In fact, I’d say it works a lot better inside itself than Interstellar did as a movie. Big Hero 6 is a good movie. But on the lineup of the Disney Animation trend that has been running since Tangled grabbed it out of its dying grave, I really really don’t think it’s anything to write home about.

Of course, I didn’t leave the theater feeling entirely shortened out. As much as I enjoy saying that I at least like all of the Disney Renaissance 2.0 films, I especially feel like it’s worth stating that the short films that precede the features themselves always steal the show…

Feast is no exception. The tale of an (apparently immortal considering the timespan) puppy who is fed generously by his owner (and poorly, but I’m ignoring all these things) as the pup bears witness to the owner’s emotional arc revolving around a woman he is infatuated with is a pretty little ditty that was shown right before the actual film Big Hero 6 and it is adorable.

The animation itself is totally gorgeous seamless in its shadow leakage, the color makes it look like a mix and match of traditional animation color palettes, lending it a stunning believable 2D grounding to view it on… but I could only imagine how wonderful it had looked on 3D.

The story is as simple as it can get, but telling it through the broad point of view of a puppy is just the cheapest way to get audiences invested in the going-ons of the film. But it works. And it works fabulously.

And I also might be biased by how much of an animal person I am.

I really can’t go much further on from that, but I promise you that if Big Hero 6 doesn’t end up being your thing (and I’d at least imagine a great deal of people like it, given it beating Interstellar at the box office), Feast will be a great treat to satisfy your animation jones.

The Original BENEATH THE MARQUEE – The first (but second on WordPress) Double Feature suggestions post

A few weeks ago, as per the 31 Nights of Halloween, I made a variant of this post that started back when Motorbreath was on blogspot – suggesting horror double features that could be tied in via themes or other points of interests.

I did not realize I didn’t add the original Beneath the Marquee post on the WordPress site, so here I am to fix it… bringing in completely unchanged – horrible ghastly non-English speaker typos and all – the original Movie Motorbreath “Beneath the Marquee” post… eventually intending to make it a feature…


… Well, that title was a lame way to incorporate a Red Hot Chili Peppers lyric.

Anyway, to force myself to make more posts during November (totally failed NaNoWriMo already), I’m going to do another post inspired by Lost in the Movies (formerly the Dancing Image). Pretty soon, I’m going to need to come up with my own topics, until then, I have that blog to inspire me. Please don’t kill me, Joel Bocko and/or MovieMan.

Anyway, what I like to do frequently at my house whenever I’m back from college (or sometimes in any home or dorm area that has a big enough tv and will allow me to do so – school or break), is hold screenings. I like to hold screenings of my favorite movies to my friends. It’s a habit that began with, being a  metalhead, inviting friends to my home for a showing The Big 4: Live from Sofia, Bulgaria, a screening that had a grand total audience of… 2.
I guess people really hate Metallica now.

And then I look at Lars’ face and remember why…

But, eventually this audience grew, though. It’s not a large number of people who show up to each screening (and I’d rather it not be), but more so people who can enjoy watching movies and a number enough to make it a sort of gathering and fun for others. It doesn’t distract from what’s on the screen, but it doesn’t discourage commentary neither. I usually attempt to show movies that most of the audience present hadn’t seen before. In fact, last year, among my dormmates, many of whom would see the movies at a nearby lounge at my insistence, began showcasing movies on their own time. I doubt it’s my influence, but it was great to see such an interest in sharing their cinematic tastes.

To my knowledge, the movies I have screened are: Alien (Scott, 1979), Ghostbusters (Reitman, 1984), Re-Animator (Gordon, 1985), Aliens (Cameron, 1986), Akira (Otomo, 1988),Heathers (Lehmann, 1988), Reservoir Dogs (Tarantino, 1992), Pulp Fiction (Tarantino, 1994), X-Men (Singer, 2000), Donnie Darko (Kelly, 2001), 28 Days Later… (Boyle, 2002), Kill Bill, Vol. 1 (Tarantino, 2003), X2 (Singer, 2003), Kill Bill, Vol. 2 (Tarantino, 2004), Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (Black, 2005), Hot Fuzz (Wright, 2007), In the Loop (Iannucci, 2009), Inglourious Basterds (Tarantino, 2009), The Big 4: Live from Sofia, Bulgaria (Wickham, 2010)

There may be more, I’m uncertain… However, I had always played around with the idea of doing multi movie screenings. I had done a Tarantino Day (which took up the ENTIRE day – providing a breakfast and dinner for the attendees and going to Sonic’s for lunch). I had long dreamed of a neo-noir night, but there are so many I love that it’s hard to choose, just three – let alone two. The same goes for horror and classic noir. I’d love love love love to show my friends the Vengeance trilogy by Chan Wook-Park, but I’d have to give complimentary blindfolds for their sensitivities. A lot of my friends would not be able to stomach the experience, I’m certain of it. I wanted to do a screening ofGrindhouse – But I wanted to do it specifically in my garage, projected onto a sheet. I am unable to provide that experience yet, so it’ll wait… one day…

In the meantime, I decided to play around with pairing specific movies in my extensive collection and came to  some interesting ones I liked. They had a small fraction of each movie’s ingredients that connected them, and I liked to juxtapose polar opposites. I also tried as best as I could to consider running times, so if anybody wants to try these at home, they don’t kill themselves but sitting on their ass for too long.
So, sheck out these eight double feature ideas…

Messy Break-Ups

Annie Hall (Allen, 1977)Brick (Johnson, 2005)
I wish I could’ve come up with a wittier title, but I promise it’s more than just a messy break-up. Everything the male lead attempts to do to patch up with their ex makes the situation from tolerable to worse. The problem with both leads is that they’ve had something towards them that forced the relationship to not work out: Alvy being a neurotic mess, while Brendan being a holier than thou bastard. As it turns out, Brendan brings his own ex to (literal) rock bottom early in his picture, which moves the main plot into motion. While Annie Hall is more a viewing of how one can get to a (metaphorical) rock bottom – between Alvy and Annie.

Sympathy for the Devil(s)
Natural Born Killers (Stone, 1994)A Clockwork Orange (Kubrick, 1971)

These two movies have more in common than their title suggests. These are the two movies that after watching I thought ‘Wow, that was fucking great – Am I never going to see that movie again!’. Lo, and behold, both are now among my collection and my favorite movies. They assaulted my morals, they assaulted my thoughts on society and crime and how they work.

But, why group them together? Because they made sympathetic characters out of people who should not be sympathetic at all. Namely, they did it by showing how every other character in their respective movies are worse and just as capable to providing horror to others. Especially with two completely different methods of discomfort to the audience – Stone looking into the usage of pop culture bombardment, soundtrack sabotage and editing/jump cut/subliminal assault and Kubrick, in his Kubrickian fashion, touches on giving us images on the frame that suggest things we absolutely would not want suggested to our minds – and bringing us into the perspective of our narrator/protagonist, Alex.

(Un)Welcome Wagons
The Wicker Man (Hardy, 1973)Yojimbo (Kurosawa, 1961)

I truly fear that Nicholas Cage gave The Wicker Man a bad name with his participation in the horrid remake. I don’t think he’s as bad an actor as people give him hate for, there’s a lot of his performances which I personally enjoy. That said, the original Wicker Man is a great tale, a movie I’m certain Hot Fuzz was remaking. While Yojimbo has a badass action hero waltzing into a town entirely based on Hammett’s Poisonville. The movies both feature a character entering town intending to do the best good, being serviced horribly and attempting to turn the town upside down on its head. The difference being namely in the protagonist, The Wicker Man‘s strict uptight headmaster-like official on business and Yojimbo‘s wandering nameless outsider, sitting and watching others tear the town apart themselves.

NOTE: Other movies I considered for this type of theme are High Plains Drifter (Eastwood, 1973) and the afore-mentioned Hot Fuzz (Wright, 2007).

The Beautiful Purgatories

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (Coppola, 1992)Blade Runner (Scott, 1982)

Alrighty, here’s one that’s going to be quite a joy to watch. It’s going to be like looking at two separate paintings from different eras: One historic and one futuristic – two separate concepts to consider. And they are beauties to see, certainly a hint of the Eastern influence with both pictures. What is more notable is the themes that despite these amazingly wondrous (and practical effects-laden) worlds that the characters inhabit, they simply do not want to be there and its obvious. Bram Stoker’s Dracula holds upon its head a question of heaven with Blade Runner holding a question of existence and purpose – Death being the Sword of Damocles that threatens to cut our ambition for answer short in both pictures.

I love movies that make you inhabit worlds. They cannot tell you how this world works, you just are forced to live into these moments. I rarely like it when a movie spells everything out for you. Half the enjoyment of the storytelling is having your own imagination participate in the construction. Since these two, easily among my top 20 movies, are guilty of forcing this onto the audience, it would really be a trip to showcase both movies together.

Standing Still While the World Turns 

La Haine (Kassovitz, 1995) Do the Right Thing (Lee, 1989)

I know Mathieu Kassovitz is not encouraging of any comparison between La Haine and Do the Right Thing, but I’m sorry, it’s there and it has to be seen. These are characters with revolution and history being made around them and all they can do is sit and talk among themselves and walk around but never really go anywhere while things are happening all over them, issues are rising that they are ignoring or using as a plaything. Both pictures end with a different ultimate reaction on the part of our characters, however. It’s an interesting comparison.

NOTE: An apolitical yet fun version of this type of theme could be utilized via Shaun of the Dead (Wright, 2004), American Graffiti (Lucas, 1973), The Big Lebowski (Coen/Coen, 1998) and Who Framed Roger Rabbit (Zemeckis, 1988). The latter two could definitely be used for a mystery stylization – since the two leads are more wrapped up in their cases than what’s going on in their country/town. Especially noted when what’s going in L.A. happens to be a MacGuffin for Roger Rabbit.
I have not seen The Dreamers (Bertolucci, 2003), but it sounds like it’d fit as well.

Standing Together While the World Crumbles
The Host (Bong, 2006)Akira (Otomo, 1988)

Inadvertently both Asian films, but the best, most entertaining examples I could come up with, we have the opposite of the previous theme. Sure, these characters could’ve just tried to keep their heads down and their ears pinned back, but they were forced to be involved when somebody close to them is brought into the government fiasco of the picture’s focus. This certainly brings out the oncoming (and supernatural at both points) destruction of their setting and town – especially the deterioration of the mass mindset as the world around the characters goes into hysteria.

But these people stand strong, if only to rescue one of their own before succumbing to the pressure of the end of their world. It’s made more strongly bound by the fact that these are groups that could (and should) easily dissolve. Ones an adolescent biker gang (with the inclusion of a revolutionary girl that the leader simply take a fancy to) and the other’s the most dysfunctional family this side of the Bluths and the Tenenbaums.
If you really want to fuck up your audience’s brain afterwards, showcase The End of Evangelion (Anno, 1997), an absolute abstract, no answer to it at all… Except that’s one is more about failure.

The Eighth Passenger
Alien (Scott, 1979)Serenity (Whedon, 2005)
I blame Joss Whedon for implanting this idea in my mind by naming Serenity as an attempt of the ship’s crew trying to figure out if they’re living in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves or Alien. Also, I blame this line for implanting it even harder from Serenity.

The Operative: ‘That girl will rain destruction down on you and your ship. She is an albatross, Captain.’
Mal Reynolds: ‘The way I remember it, albatross was a ship’s good luck, ’til some idiot killed it.’

In both movies, there’s a new burden for an already burdened ship to carry and its brought the eye of the ‘evil’ establishment and their interests shining a light on it. And it’s the crew finding out what they can do about their situation brought upon by this new addition to their lives. Of course, River Tam is nowhere near as volatile and sinister as the Xenomorph, but she’s certainly dangerous and frightening enough to the crew of Serenity. Also, note the familiarity of Serenity as opposed to the dark, frightening and uncertain horror of the Nostramus.

Oh yea, and is Serenity not scary enough to balance Alien? Wait for the Reavers…

The Absolute Western Good
The Untouchables (De Palma, 1987)The Magnificent Seven (Sturges, 1960)

Enough villainy and ambiguous heroes. It’s gotta be a straight up battle between good and evil and it has to be the American way. It has to be us knowing where the villains come from and knowing where to find the good guys at. The old days of chivalry. Of cowboys and of G-Men. The type of stuff that made me want to be a hero in my childhood (Of which Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen’s presence was definitely appreciated – namely Brynner, though. He was so cool!).

And more so, forgive me for this (granted, I’m not even natural-born), but I want them to be just so goddamned fucking American, sometimes.

I want heroes who will never give up the fight even when the odds are down. I want heroes who always have the last line to shut you up, like Malone did. Heroes who will avenge their fallen friends like the Seven or Elliot Ness and Giuseppe Petri.

These two movies are the stuff of straight away good guys and bad guys. There could be better movies to maintain that, but I’m not seeing them yet.

Well, now I (and you readers) got a great amount of ideal screenings… One of these days…

Didn’t Go Gently – Interstellar (2014/dir. Christopher Nolan/USA)

I’m going to be straightforward with my main thesis. If you take nothing else from this here review, you must take this bit of advice: Should you choose to see Interstellar (and I do recommend you do in the end, alongside BoyhoodInterstellar has proven to be THE event movie of the year – quality aside) and if you’re close enough to a genuine IMAX theater (not the fascimiles that have been parading around with the brand), either see the movie in 70mm IMAX or do not see the movie at all. I’m seriously not settled yet from having witnessed the movie as an all-encompassing experience and from what I understand out of how video resolution and aspect ratios work, any other way of watching Interstellar will result in cropped imagery.

Which is a big fucking pet peeve as a filmmaker. Hiding something that clearly is wanted to be seen by the artist.

But don’t watch Interstellar in 70mm IMAX because you’d piss me off otherwise, watch Interstellar in 70mm IMAX because Interstellar is so ambitious of a picture (I believe it to be Christopher Nolan’s most ambitious film yet – edging out The Dark Knight Rises) and large of a beast that you deserve to have it surround you, not in front of you.

That aside, let me get to the real meat of my experience with the movie.

I’m 100% certain I only like Interstellar because I wanted to like it.

Sounds stupid, right? That’s kind of how most people should feel about any movie. Well, I’d think the quality of a movie is what is supposed to provoke your final opinion when it comes to anything and well, Interstellar is not really devoid of quality so much as it is all over the place.

The successes with the films are potent – the visual imagery is astonishing and the main cast is what keeps the movie afloat via Herculean effort.

The failures are however, similar to Nolan’s previous film The Dark Knight Rises (again, also ambitious), a giant wreck rivaling the image Percy Shelley drafted of the Ozymandias ruins. That is to say, they are large. Obnoxious. And clearly the work of a great artist who is losing his touch (and I know there’s a cynicism that runs through me when it comes to talking about Christopher Nolan’s works, but I do feel The Prestige and Batman Begins alone validate Nolan as a filmmaker even if he’s never been one of my favorites).

Those failures are a totally imbalanced, half-unintelligible screenplay by director Nolan and his frequent collaborator and brother Jonathan Nolan (I don’t wanna say nepotism, but… Nolan does have enough clout in Hollywood for carte blanche no matter who he uses), a sound mix that sounds like a very very bad rough cut of a home video, a hamfisted attempt to make emotional beats louder than they actually resonate in real-life (but in honesty, when these beats work, they fucking work, so I guess it’s both a pro and con of the film), and sometimes a very blatantly obvious understanding that the space behind the ships the film takes place in are back-projected.

But, hey, it may seem like the deck of cons is stacked against the the deck of pros for the film, but I swear, when it comes to a movie like this, it doesn’t matter. I mean, half of these cons (the script and the emotional anti-climax) are the case in Gravity (whose visuals are not really matched by Interstellar, but to be fair, it takes a hell of a lot to match up to Emmanuel Lubezki and Hoyte van Hoytema’s work here is impressive in its own way), but we didn’t make any real illusions about Gravity was meant to be and it ended up being praised as one of the greatest movies of the past year on its visuals alone.

I don’t see Interstellar earning that acclaim anytime soon, honestly, but its visual work is absolutely astounding. To begin with the outright tangible, so much has been devoted to the reconstruction of what we know on space travel that it’s more through the believability of the confines of the astronauts that we get grounded into the story than the paper-thin characterizations of anyone who isn’t really either Murphy (Mackenzie Foy, Jessica Chastain, & Ellen Burstyn) or Cooper (Matthew McConaughey). And it’s yet another progenitor of the effort to create on-camera effects when it can be done and only allowing CGI effects as can possibly remain devoted to the actor-involving process of living in the scene itself. It feels real because, unlike Gravity, it is real and, even when Gravity still has been the best visual effects of the decade so far, Interstellar at least one-ups the previous film in being completely devoted to itself as a world that the actors can completely live-in without tricking themselves.

In addition to that, there’s something else I have against some of the criticisms towards Interstellar, which is that expectations were already made for the movie to be compared to the visionary classic of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Which is pretty huge bullshit to me, partly because of the bias it brings out in an audience, partly because that’s a very tall order that few movies can meet, but largely because there was really no basis for this comparison beyond very shallow similarities the two films share. Nolan is not really a cerebral director, as much as laymen audiences like to claim, certainly not as much as Kubrick, who is the most popcorn cerebral director we have had yet. Where Nolan is dedicated to simply straightforward synopses and only gets their complexities in the meat of the storyline, Kubrick likes to communicate themes and ideals before any real plot can tie them together. 2001: A Space Odyssey is way too avant-garde to even be compared to what was expected to be a blockbuster science fiction. That shouldn’t have needed to be said, but there it is.

What does resonate as a comparison to me is how similar Interstellar is to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris – attempting to focus a lot more on the human element as the Nolan trademark of dronely shoveling out exposition after exposition gets in the way of that writing-wise. Emotions are what matter most in the end, not the science, which inside provides an initially sterile backdrop to the vividness of the actors’ expressions before leaking out into more and more sharper and dimensioned imagery as extensions to the uncertain atmosphere and heightened tensions the characters face as they go deeper into the wormhole of the film.

But to further explain that, I’d have to go into the story and try to dig it from the cold corpse of that terrible script. In the first act (a lot of people claiming that it is too long and I personally find it taking longer than it should to get to the main plot of the film, but I at least enjoy how it is the closest the film attempts to world-building before fucking itself up – I later found out the first act was the only thing Christopher Nolan didn’t touch of Jonathan’s draft and that explains a lot to me), the Earth is dying in some way and everybody is helpless because apparently the whole country has gone backwards and archaic, disregarding science for the most arduous labor (there’s some sort of common disapproval of NASA in the film – going so far as to have characters claim the Apollo missions were fabricated – but I can’t really put my finger on it entirely as the movie doesn’t make itself clear on this matter. I totally wonder how Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Brian Schmidt, or David Spergel feel on this movie for this reason.). Former NASA pilot Cooper, his daughter Murphy, his father-in-law Donald (John Lithgow), and his son Tom (Timothee Chalamet & Casey Affleck) don’t really buy into any of that, but they don’t feel able to do anything than begrudgingly wait to die like Cooper’s wife before the events of the movie. Circumstances however lead Cooper and Murphy (it is painfully hilarious to me how Cooper seems to forget Tom exists for most of the movie and that’s one of the problems with the script) to discover a secret NASA base being hidden from the community and run by Cooper’s former mentor Dr. Brand (another father figure role of just explaining the premise for once-great Michael Caine) and Dr. Brand turns out to want Cooper to pilot a mission into space to find another set of Earths through a wormhole.

Problem is, through the relativity of time via dimensions, Cooper knows he will not return to his kids in a timely fashion if he returns at all and Murphy is especially aware of this, later on growing up to become totally resentful of Cooper for going on this mission and leaving her alone.

That’s where most of the emotional center of Interstellar is. How Cooper is only leaving his daughter behind to save her (among others) and how Murphy and Cooper can’t seem to take that separation. That is one of the most unintentional Tarkovsky-ian things I have seen in a film since Tarkovsky has died. I bet Nicholas Winding Refn is jealous. Interstellar does juggle that storyline with the forward attempts to find a new world for humanity to begin again (and several other incidental storylines), but again all of that is totally dismissive to point that Cooper wants to do his job and get back home.

Now the script merely puts this situation forth and hardly expands on it, the Nolans pretending that they have done their emotional growing for the day, but the cast – when given a chance – will give the emotional facets of the arc enough weight. For instance, there is a scene of decision between Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway attempting to be sold as Michael Caine’s daughter), Cooper and company as to the next step in the journey. Brand has some very inexplicable interests that only make me convinced they matter because of Hathaway’s performance and not from the crap about “love transcending dimensions” that she spews out to defend her decisions (I swear to Odin, if I didn’t know better, I’d say Christopher Nolan has never met a person in his life) or a moment that would be impossible to screw up as an actor where Cooper reviews a whole stack of videos from his children that he missed inadvertently that ends up being the best moment in the whole film because of how completely devastating McConaughey’s performance is. Some actors kind of end up not having enough time to be there (like poor Wes Bentley) or just not really being necessary (whatever the fuck Topher Grace thinks he is doing here, it’s little more than a cameo with absolutely no effect on the plot or characters whatsoever), but most of the real players of the film – Hathaway, Foy, Chastain, McConaughey, Burstyn, Affleck, Bentley, David Gyasi – really do enough to make their thoughts apparent and larger than life so that the movie doesn’t come off as fake as it could have been under lesser actors with this screenplay.

And a lot of weight to both the visuals and the moment is given to how well crosscut Lee Smith, a Nolan regular, makes these scenes. I can’t explain too many of these moments without spoiling the movie, but I will say that when the entire third act of the film becomes a jumbled up carnage of moments that don’t know how to present each other juxtaposition-wise, Smith knows exactly how to make the scenes more functional as moments of action. Even a simple moment of looking at an equation on a board ends up feeling like a moment of insurmountable adversity because of how intensely positioned each shot is. But the climax is the true crowning jewel, disregarding the logic of the somewhat unwieldy scene (Kip Thorne was advisor towards the wormhole physics and other scientific topics involved and I hope he feels at least accomplished, because the movie tries its hardest to communicate a diluted form of that science to the audience) to just jump into what Cooper and Murphy feel is necessary to do and making it go as fast-paced as the situation demands without being incomprehensible as a moment.

There are other nitpicks I can make (like how the changing of time is not entirely consistent in regards to what has passed) and there are other strengths I can commend (there’s some pretty satisfying comic relief in the form of TARS – a robot voiced by Bill Irwin who, as an unapologetic Sesame Street fanatic, I identified almost immediately as Mr. Noodles’ brother Mr. Noodles), but in the end the point is clear I hope. Interstellar was a giant conglomeration of brilliance and banality that came entirely from the ambitions of Christopher Nolan and matches the same ambitious jumble done with The Dark Knight Rises. You will notice both what is wrong and what is right while watching the movie and it won’t entirely mesh correctly, but how you react to it in the end is entirely up to you. Go for a good story, you will leave unsatisfied. Go for a visual experience (because audiophiles will be mortified), you will love it.

And you should still see it in IMAX, because with big images comes a big-ass ride. And that’s just what Interstellar works best as. A ride that you only start thinking about after the fact. I almost swore leaving the theater that 500 years have passed – partly because of how overly long the film felt unnecessarily, but gladly due to how much more involving the movie felt than I expected.

Isn’t Life Disappointing?


You know, I have no clue how to address what I feel is one of the greatest films I’ve ever seen. I really don’t. I’m not skilled enough with my English vocabulary to feel I can actively address the beauty that comes through in Ozu Yasujiro’s work, much less the movie I feel is his masterpiece.

It’s the same I would feel about any movie I feel is competently made in any way, whether I liked it or disliked it. Ozu has taken the same amount of care with Tokyo Story as he has with every single one of his films, to a point where you know the distinct signature of every element that can differentiate a work like Late Spring to Ugetsu and help you tell the difference from Ozu and all the other great filmmakers, Japanese or otherwise. When you watch enough Ozu, you know he’s the guy with the level shots from the seated level, the camera joining the family on the tatami floor like its a member too. Paced cuts from close-up to close-up only taken as necessity for knowing how each character feels about the moment at hand. Some of these close-ups featuring very tired smiles while the words from the crescent lips betray the attempts at pleasantry. All of these composed in industry grade 1.37:1, like a little picture box. And he wasn’t as varied with his cast as most directors try to be.

But familiarities are not as damning when done right by a filmmaker and Ozu was damn well the best filmmaker to make something to an audience seem more like a home than a bore. He didn’t base himselves on adventures like Kurosawa Akira or the uncanny like Mizoguchi Kenji. He was based in very personal tales. Very well cushioned in Japanese custom and tradition. On families and friends and localized societies rather than the great big world that Kurosawa hoped for or the beyond that Mizoguchi gave us a look into.

This contentment is what makes Ozu the hardest to approach objectively for me as a reviewer, but Tokyo Story‘s 51st anniversary was a few days ago and as such, as a complete fan of Ozu, I feel compelled to comment on something. So I will comment on the subjective experience of how Tokyo Story makes me feel as a viewer and hope it comes off as best as possible.

The story in the title is quite frankly a simple plot frame in which the complexities come from the characters within themselves. The two people we follow – Elderly couple Hirayama Tomi (Higashiyama Chieko) and Shikuchi (Ryu Chishu) are about to take a trip they finally have a chance to make: to visit their many successful children in Kyoto and Tokyo. They bid the one daughter to stay with them in their little town, Kyoko (Kagawa Kyoko), farewell and head to meet with Koichi (Yamamura So), Shige (Sugimura Haruko), and even their daughter-in-law Noriko (legendary Ozu collaborator Hara Setsuko), wife to their late son Shoji. Ironically, the first son they meet on the way to Tokyo, Keizo (Osaka Shiro), who is stationed in Kyoto, is the last person we meet on their way back.

When Tomi and Shikuchi make it to Tokyo, it’s at first somewhat warm and accommodating. The accommodation doesn’t deliberately falter, but the warmness weakens gently but still noticeably. Koichi and Shige have clearly made their own lives in the new city and have found it a lot more of a burden to make time for their visiting relatives. Noriko is the one person who takes it in stride to simply spend time with Tomi and Shikuchi. As a result of this, the relations turn embarrassing and sometimes extremely hard to handle. It never gets unpleasant  (Not to say the movie is undramatic, but its more meditative than most pictures that come around), but it gets to be more and more of a challenge for the younger generation to entertain their elderly guests and the parents get more and more aware of this.

It’s a story inspired by Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow, regrettably one of my larger classic film gaps that I look to fix as soon as possible (my familiarity with McCarey is instead in his Marx brother vehicle Duck Soup, which always cracks me up). However, from what I understand Ozu hadn’t seen the original when he made Tokyo Story either (and given his death a little over a decade after this film was made, I have no clue whether or not he eventually did)… the co-screenwriter Nada Kogo had made himself familiar with the film and, we are to understan, included the emotive elements of the similarly elderly-focused tale into this Japanese reciprocal of the experience.

But you don’t need to know about the source to feel how much of a dissection of family and how it separates and grows in different contortions Tokyo Story becomes, just as much as it is a tale made to get your sympathy for the two sides of the story. And it is indeed a tale without any complete blame – at least that is how I read it constantly. There’s a reason why, even despite the brilliantly nuanced performances of Ryu and Chieko, the majority of the strife seems to be expressed on the part of dynamic turns by Yamamura and Sugimura. Yes, it sucks that the children do not have as much time and energy to take care of the older Hirayamas’ whim, but that’s exactly it. They DON’T have time. And the film makes certain to showcase that their neglect is a matter of force rather than simple wishes to laze about.

Both Koichi and Shige are married, as the film takes the time to point out, and we especially get an introduction to Koichi’s family with two children that would maybe come off as obnoxious to anybody extremely impatient with sudden or stubborn behavior, very broad expressions, but they are children. They are in need of care and nuture and Koichi’s job as a doctor is just as demanding. Shige as well gets the rotten end of the stick having a particular scene where she receives her father drunk after a night on the town and, after a brief moment of monologuing her frustrations to the unaware Shukichi, takes her time to provide what she can to allow her father a comfortable sleep without disturbing him.

But in the end, this is the first time the elder Hirayamas get to see how their children and grand-children have done for themselves and they barely get to spend anytime at all. In fact, they are practically disposed of, sent to Noriko (who makes the closest thing the movie has to a protagonist from the younger generation, with Hara and Chieko having an especially telling scene late in the film) or a resort with great haste at points.

All generations get the short end of the stick, lives are derailed by the responsibilities that suddenly occur with the Hirayamas’ arrival. It is with this sensitivity that Ozu is known for that Tokyo Story becomes more of a heart-touching movie, there is little solution to the matter at hand when so many interests conflict but we just want everyone to be happy or satisfied by the end of the film. No fistfights, no giant explosions, no lawsuits, no angry arguments even, just a need for simple sophisticated interaction with the people we love most and how sometimes even that can just about leave some bruises in a family. And despite the blatantly Japanese stylization that stamps the nationality and basis of the film more than anything, we recognize this as a universal situation. It’s not that the concept of families being inconvenienced by being a family is just a Japanese thing, but simply that, to carry the theme, it had to be given a spot to call home first.

Which anyway, Japan’s architecture in Tokyo Story is most accommodating for the settling of a ne’er-do-well environment of happy little homes and trees, a nice gracious community of harmony, industrialized to make itself look like a more Westernized spot that even a small Americana from the 60s could become, that allows the subtle dissonance in the family to just bleed into the storytelling without being balls-out jarring like David Lynch. No, this is a far damn sight from David Lynch. It’s when things go too right.

It’s not a particularly judgmental film or even largely resentful, thankfully, but it is a great big sigh of a picture. Ozu’s awareness to present the touching story without bias but also without hiding any of the truths of the scenario from the audience. It is a film that wears its heart on its sleeves and doesn’t entirely have any answers, but never acted like it did and that’s quite a feat for Ozu to do without coming off as an incomplete storyteller. No, Ozu was a master because he saw all of humanity and life’s struggles through to the bitter end and Tokyo Story is the magnum opus, the most able and potent of all of Ozu’s tales to talk about the true human condition.

There have been filmmakers since who have been close to as humanist as Ozu is, but none can match him. Ever. He’s just as replaceable as a parent to any of us, however faulty all will be.