“Isle of Dogs” Movie Review

Those dogs did NOT deserve the treatment they received. As the owner of a boxer, seeing anything like that portrayed on the big screen makes me uncomfortable. Acclaimed writer-director Wes Anderson’s stop-motion animated picture first premiered at the 2018 Berlinale in mid-February, where Anderson won a Silver Bear award for directing. After closing out the 2018 South by Southwest Film Festival, the film entered a limited American release on March 23rd, 2018. It has done rather well in its run thus far, grossing over $39.6 million at the box office and should perform even better once it releases widely on April 20th. Anderson’s ninth overall feature and his second using stop-motion animation, the story apparently was born out of the auteur’s obsessive love of the films from legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. It’s also said that he was heavily influenced by holiday specials by Rankin/Bass Productions as well as the exploits of Mecha-Godzilla. Set in a dystopian future, canines have not only grown to epidemic levels but have also contracted a new flu virus. Fearing transition to humans, Mayor Kobayashi of Megasaki City, Japan, banishes all dogs to Trash Island, where several of them form tight-knit packs. The mayor’s young ward and nephew Atari travels to the island in an effort to find his lost dog Spot, all the while civil unrest is becoming more apparent in the city. I’m a big fan of Wes Anderson and his works, some better than others. His previous film, 2014’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, was one of the earliest reviews on my Blog and is perhaps one of my favorite comedies of the decades. So the prospect of him writing and directing another stop-motion picture 9 years after the wonderful Fantastic Mr. Fox? I’m already signed up before I read the plot synopsis. Well, I’ll say that Isle of Dogs is a lower-tier film coming from the American auteur, and certainly is no modern masterpiece. But still, that shouldn’t necessarily deter you from watching it because I had a fun time watching it. However, I’m unfortunately inclined to agree with a recent controversy that has arisen regarding this film. Specifically, Anderson and studio Fox Searchlight have been accused by a number of critics for misappropriating Japanese people and their culture. While there are a number of things that it does get right, it ultimately does succumb to certain Hollywood stereotypes. Moreover, some of them were played for laughs, a large amount of which I actually partook in. Among these was the language barrier between the Japanese, the dogs, and the Americans. While dog barks have been happily translated into English for us, the Japanese characters are often speaking without any subtitles, only aided by a running gag of a television translator. The concept was initially amusing but definitely stretched to the max. The hugely stacked ensemble voice cast does extremely well at almost every turn, especially some of Anderson’s regular collaborators. Including *deep breath* Edward Norton, Bryan Cranston, Koyu Rankin, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Yoko Ono, Courtney B. Vance, Liev Schrieber, Akira Ito, Harvey Keitel, Ken Watanabe, Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand, F. Murray Abraham, Tilda Swinton, Fisher Stevens, Akira Takayama, Greta Gerwig, Anjelica Huston, and co-writer Kunichi Nomura. With the possible exception of Gerwig, all of their characters feel like a worthy addition to the tight, almost flight-footed plot. Most of the dialogue is delivered in an extremely deadpan way, almost as if they’re all aware of the fact they’re in a movie. While there is an apparent melancholy to what everyone’s saying, the manner in which it’s said is nothing short of hilarious. And from a purely technical standpoint, Isle of Dogs is a Wes Anderson movie through and through. All of his distinct trademarks are in place, not the least of which includes the cinematography by Tristan Oliver. Capturing a certain color palette between gray and red, there are a number of static wide shots and close-ups. We also get to see his perfect symmetry where literally everything onscreen is shown in an exact order, from character arrangements to everyday items in the background. The differences in animation between this picture and Fantastic Mr. Fox are astounding with the improvements. Freezing just a single frame would be worth extensive analysis on its own with all the details on the figures and environments. What’s more impressive is that even something like explosions or fight scenes are put together with puffy clouds of cotton, not CG. Plus the editing by Ralph Foster and Edward Bursch is frenetic. Often, something serious or drawn out will be punctuated by an abrupt cut, eliciting real laughter out of my audience. In his 4th collaboration with the director, and the umpteenth in his seemingly endless cinematic hot streak, Alexandre Desplat composes the musical score. One of the most obvious instruments heard here is traditional taiko drums with deep impacts and pulsating rhythms. It is frequently accompanied by ferocious work from auxiliary equipment such as steel pipes and cowbells, which maintain the craziness of this story. Meanwhile, Desplat also manages to incorporate a set of bamboo whistles into perfectly idiosyncratic melodies. In all of this effort, he totally succeeds in making a Western film sound as foreign as possible to audiences while still making it not sound too alien to enjoy. With some truly stunning stop-motion animation, an appropriately self-aware cast, and a compelling story that flies by through its 101 minute-long runtime, Isle of Dogs is a whimsical adventure that occasionally gets bogged down in politics. Fans of Wes Anderson will certainly have a lot to chow down on repeat viewings, even though this definitely isn’t measured up to his finest work. One last thing: If you say the title fast enough, you’ll begin saying, “I love dogs.” And this movie might just convert you to a lover, if you aren’t one already.

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Let’s Do It: My Favorite Movies #60-51

Alright then. After a tumultuous period of academics and life plans, I now find myself with some unusual amounts of spare time on my hands. Don’t know about the rest of you guys, but I find this a most wondrous opportunity to crank out another batch of ten movies as we proceed closer and closer.

#60: “Schindler’s List” (1993)

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We start off with a film that, while great, wouldn’t be the first thing that comes to mind on many “favorites” lists. For some reason, though, I frequently find myself drawn to Schindler’s List time and again, particularly when my faith in humanity needs a little shakeup. With the exception of the end, Spielberg offers almost no room for Romanticism here in an extremely personal film about a former Nazi who decided to do good for the Jewish people during the Holocaust. And considering recent events in the United States, I can really only think of one thing: Screw Nazis.

#59: “Titanic” (1997)

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Eff all y’all, this movie is amazing. I don’t think a lot of people will fully understand the genius of James Cameron until long after he is gone. More than just a doomed romance, Titanic is a visceral exploration of what of humans do when confronted with their inevitable death. In fact, that big pivot is perhaps what makes it such an emotional and captivating film to watch, despite its three-hour runtime. And of course, I cried. A handful of times, actually.

#58: “Interstellar” (2014)

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If for nothing else, I admire Christopher Nolan for having the balls to actually go through with this movie. In an era where we are literally surrounded by superhero franchises and IP recognition in the studio system, he and his brother Jonathan set about crafting an original sci-fi space epic. It was always bound to probably be divisive, but I honestly love every second of Interstellar. Hans Zimmer’s ethereal musical score is one I regularly listen to for when I’m studying or working. The visuals prove that A) IMAX tickets are actually worth it every once in a while and B) Practical effects are almost always preferable to CGI. This is the kind of movie that makes me wish that N.A.S.A. would have the funding to go explore the cosmos once more.

#57: “The Wizard of Oz” (1939)

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How can you possibly argue with a classic? The main reason why The Wizard of Oz isn’t any higher on my Top 100 is that, from a perspective on both dialogue and storytelling, it has noticeably aged. And yes, it does take considerable artistic license from L. Frank Baum’ original book. But all of the beautiful Technicolor visuals and costumes still look amazing today. In fact, I’d argue that it’s the most important American film in history, but probably not the best one.

#56: “Vertigo” (1956)

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Gotta love some Alfred Hitchcock shenanigans every now and then. The late English auteur made so many masterpieces in his lifetime that saying he’s the most influential director in all of cinema isn’t so far fetched. In fact, depending on what time of year it is, I might actually tell you that my favorite of his was North By Northwest or Psycho or maybe even Rear Window. But it’s unlikely I’ll ever change my mind about how much of an unprecedented experience it was for watching Vertigo for the first time. I felt so warm from the anxiety and tension and spent weeks thinking about it afterward.

#55: “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” (2002)

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And we start with what is, in my most humble opinion, the greatest and most awe-inspiring film trilogy ever conceived. We’ll get to the other two entries later on in this Top 100, but one shouldn’t forget to admire the second installment. The image above is from one of my favorite scenes in cinema. I’ve seen all of these epics enough times to put it on in the background while I’m doing something mundane, but I literally drop everything when it comes to the jaw-dropping Battle for Helm’s Deep. What really impresses me is how well The Two Towers flows through without a real end or beginning to the story; it’s a literal midway point.

#54: “The Truman Show” (1998)

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One of the signs of truly great sci-fi satire is when you can honestly take the film’s concept and apply it to multiple different sociopolitical fields. In the case of The Truman Show, a wholly original and beautiful film, it has reached topics such as politics, media consumption, and even religion. It all works, from Andrew Niccol’s fantastic screenplay to Peter Weir’s direction to Jim Carrey’s career-best performance. At its basic core, though, we have a really dark and emotional story about the world’s obsession with celebrity and one man’s search for happiness and freedom.

#53: “Drive” (2011)

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I’m in awe of this film. It might seem like a stereotypical action-packed, Fast and Furious ripoff, but Drive is a whole lot more. The visuals, Cliff Martinez’s score, Ryan Gosling’s nameless antihero. Sure, its artistic flourishes are sure to send some people scratching their heads or even rolling their eyes. But for me, watching this hypnotic crime thriller for the first time was a real experience. Proof that action thrillers don’t have to all have a number pinned to them in order to attempt to stand out. And “A Real Hero” by College and Electric Youth is possibly one of the best song uses for any modern motion picture.

#52: “Annihilation” (2018)

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It may have only been released in the last few months, but Annihilation has stayed with me ever since leaving the theater. What Alex Garland did here with just the backbone of VanDerMeer’s novel is something that only comes once a blue moon in science-fiction and actually challenged its audience to think. Paramount handing off the international reigns to Netflix is about the dumbest thing they could have done from a viewer’s perspective. To me, they should have gone full steam ahead with this and not looked back, seeing Garland for the wizard that he is. I just pray that more people will watch this movie now and in the future; we can’t have yet another Blade Runner 2049 or Edge of Tomorrow on our hands again.

#51: “Jaws” (1975)

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I had already love Jaws the first few times I had seen it, but watching it at a Movie-on-the-Water event hosted by the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema enhanced my love for it even more. Most people might just remember that the shark looks really fake, but that’s beside the point. 43 years on since it began the modern blockbuster, and this film hasn’t aged a day. And it likely never will. That’s the beauty of Steven Spielberg back when he was in his prime; while his pictures always had groundbreaking visuals he never forgot to accompany them with compelling characters and stories.

“Game Over, Man!” Movie Review

Fancy a drinking game much? Take one shot every time a joke involving dicks is spouted out in this movie and I swear you will die of alcohol poisoning before the halfway mark. And frankly, that wouldn’t be such a terrible thing. The latest low-brow comedy from Netflix premiered on the streaming service on March 23rd, 2018. The film, directed by Kyle Newacheck, received an onslaught of terrible reviews, with many citing it as something even Adam Sandler would pass on. The film was produced and co-written by the same team behind Workaholics, a show on Comedy Central that was similarly raunchy and juvenile. The script was supposedly taken from their collective love of the 1988 film Die Hard, and it really shows. But somebody apparently saw the appeal and both Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg boarded as producers, thus giving it real life. Adam Devine, Anders Holm, and Blake Anderson star as three down-on-their-luck friends who work as housekeepers at a hotel in Los Angeles. The night that they seem close to funding their video game, their potential financier and a host of other celebrities at a lavish party are suddenly taken hostage by terrorists. Now the housekeepers- Alexxx, Darren, and Joel -must use their knowledge of action movies and video games to save the day. Even with such a terribly derivative and predictable plot, there was some potential here for a good parody. Although I haven’t actually watched any of Workaholics, I have seen Devine in the first two Pitch Perfect films as well as some episodes of the sitcom Modern Family. At first, I thought that he was a pretty funny guy who was able to churn out some naturalistic dialogue in most scenarios. I also watched another Netflix comedy earlier this year starring him called When We First Met, which was watchable but showed a bit that he’s wearing off rather quick. And now with Game Over, Man!, it’s becoming clear that he and his buddies are a lot like Adam Sandler; this is one of the worst movies of the year. Generally speaking, I consider myself a supporter of Netflix Original films. In an age where studios are increasingly defined by watering down projects to appeal to the lowest common denominator, here’s a service that offers a great leash on creative control. No reliance on franchise names or IP recognition is usually found in their library. *Cough Cloverfield Paradox *Cough A lot of films that they release are ones that normal distributors wouldn’t even consider touching, and sometimes that’s to Netflix’s benefit. But ever since the start of the new year, it has become increasingly hard for me to keep defending their original content. It just seems like they’re getting desperate to hit that 80-movie mark they promised last year, and there are bound to be a lot of stinkers on that list. Say this for Devine, he’s grown to be comfortable with his usual shtick, and apparently so have Anderson and Holm. However, within the first 6 minutes, these friends- who we’re supposed to be rooting for -are introduced as some of the most insufferable, annoying and obnoxious individuals to surface in modern comedy. Their needless vulgarity makes it hard to care about them, especially in the second half with an unexpected barrage of homophobic jokes. However, the film is somewhat boosted by good work from familiar faces like Neal McDonagh and Home Alone‘s Daniel Stern. Most of the rest are just F-list celebrity cameos, many of whom this generation probably hasn’t even heard of. Donald Faison, Flying Lotus, Shaggy, King Bach, Joel McHale, Fred Armisen, and Jillian Bell all show up for a few seconds, with Shaggy getting the most screen-time. Why they had him perform a song, I’m still wondering. And there really isn’t anything to talk about from a behind-the-scenes perspective because the filmmaking aspects are unimpressive. Loads upon loads of unconvincingly fake blood, CGI or cheap squibs, feel gratuitous at best. It mostly is reserved for gross-out killings of the terrorists and even party guests, along with obviously rubber cut-off genitals. The lighting feels far too overly flashy for this kind of plot if only used to heighten the glamour of L.A. nighttime party life. Plus, the camerawork by Grant Smith always feels so unnecessarily glossy and way overdone. It does a mixture of slow motion and hanheld shaky cam for the uninspired action scenes and (Unfortunately) lingering static shots for some of the more obscene jokes. And… that’s it. I have nothing else to add. It’s all just a bunch of hogwash and terrible mishmash of vastly different tones and ideas. The score just sounds like a lot of leftover tracks from Steve Jablonsky’s other films, there’s no clear direction, and everyone is either trying way too hard or not trying at all. Admittedly, there are far worse options to watch before falling asleep and forgetting about in the morning. But that doesn’t change the fact that Game Over, Man! is an overly juvenile excuse for a comedy loaded with unlikable characters. If for nothing else, this movie exists to provide Netflix naysayers new evidence at the overall lack of quality in original content the streaming service pumps out. I’ll keep trying to defend them whenever I have a chance, but now I’ve become more tempered on it. Damn you, Workaholics crew.

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“A Quiet Place” Movie Review

Watching this movie in a packed theater at the Alamo Drafthouse was a truly surreal experience. Seriously, even with their strict etiquette of behavior, that auditorium was ridiculously silent. That added to the experience. This near-silent horror thriller premiered as the opening night picture at the 2018 South By Southwest Film Festival, where it received a standing ovation and rave reviews. Internationally released on April 6th, 2018, the film had a huge opening at the box office, raking in over $71 million against a $17 million budget. Directed by John Krasinski, the spec script by Scott Beck and Bryan Woods was inspired by various silent films they watched in college and was tossed around Hollywood for a number of years. According to the two of them, many studios were scared by the prospect of something so different and unique. When producer Michael Bay got a hold of it, the project finally got traction at Paramount, thus giving these Iowa boys their dream some life. The story is set in an unspecified future where society as we know it has broken down following a mysterious invasion. Krasinski also stars opposite his real-life wife Emily Blunt as two parents trying to keep their children alive in an extremely survivalist manner. They are constantly living in complete silence in order to avoid a set of violent creatures that are hypersensitive to sound. And for the next 95 minutes, we watch them deal with this peril as the monsters slowly start creeping in on their secluded farm home. If I’m being totally honest, I didn’t really have much initial interest in this film. Jim from The Office directing a straight-up horror flick? Seemed doomed from the start, but I became more enticed upon hearing the driving concept. It’s always nice to see filmmakers, and especially major studios these days, trying something new that we haven’t seen before. I had just barely missed its premiere here in my hometown but was encouraged by the positive response coming out the gate. Thankfully, A Quiet Place is exactly what I had been hoping for. Better yet, Krasinski is able to fully flesh out Beck and Woods’ screenplay to the max with uncommon originality and pulp. With a couple of exceptions, it’s pretty clear that everyone on board knew exactly how to “Show, don’t tell” the story and build the world. Although there is some dialogue present, the characters mostly interact through American Sign Language. Everything feels so lived-in and confident and thought-out that it resonates directly with the audience. It may be only his third feature, and his first one for a major studio, but he shows a considerable grasp on the plot and structure throughout most of the runtime. It’s lean and mean, gets right to the point, and doesn’t waste any time with narration or on-screen text. The man is also really good in the lead role as the survivalist father. He is willing to go to some pretty extreme lengths to keep his family safe, but never loses sight of his humanity with some moments of genuine heart-to-heart. Noah Jupe and Millicent Simmonds play his son and daughter, respectively. While both offer up great performances in their roles, Simmonds steals the spotlight frequently for her strength and determination. Not to mention the fact that she’s actually deaf in real life, which adds another layer of realism to this world. Emily Blunt, meanwhile, is fantastic as the mother of the family, who’s never content to just lay low at home. This may be a horror film released in late Spring, but her work here is honestly Oscar-worthy, especially a scene where she has to climb into a bathtub. Late in the picture, defeated and tired, she softly inquires, “Who are we if we can’t protect them?” Meanwhile, on a purely technical scale, Krasinski & Co. have put together a handsomely-produced film. Charlotte Bruus Christensen uses the widescreen format to her full advantage with numerously well-planned shots. Virtually everything seen in a frame can be used to help advance the story (Occasionally to a silly degree) and almost nothing is handheld. The practical sets, such as the cornfield littered with noise-reducing grain, are all caught on camera and make it feel like we’re actually there. Moreso is the pitch-perfect sound design by Erik Aadahl and Ethan Van der Vyn. With the minimal amount of spoken dialogue, so many diegetic background noises are allowed to be heard in increased volume. If you see this film in theaters, it’s a special treat; little details like the snapping of a twig make it all the more immersive. But also, the editing by Christopher Tellefsen is very clever. Like how it cuts to complete silence when the perspective shifts to Simmonds or amplifies when a creature comes on-screen. Horror veteran Marco Beltrami composes and conducts the evocative musical score for this film, which may be my favorite that he’s done. There are a handful of tracks that are meant as jolting violins for jumpscares, though they’re surprisingly effective. But the best ones are low-key bits of plucked electric guitars and subtle yet repetitive piano melodies. Also worth mentioning are a handful of low strings that either delve deeper into the intensity of the thrills or the emotions. Either way, it works to get to the emotional core of the family drama. While it was a truly visceral theatrical experience, the film, unfortunately, gets a little hampered by the end. One of the most annoying things in horror movies is watching main characters make really dumb decisions solely to keep the plot going. While this film is mostly successful in avoiding that, the last act came fairly close to dropping some of the logic- such as how much sound the family is allowed to make. Also worth noting is that the creatures themselves felt like they were scarier offscreen. While their overall design is pretty cool, it definitely felt heavy on CGI. You can’t help but feel it would have been better with something a little more practical to witness. But taken as a whole, for a first-timer in the horror genre, John Krasinski shows a knack for telling a tight, resonant story that is sure to please crowds. A Quiet Place is a tautly accomplished thriller that truly lives up to its title. It’s films like these that give me hope for the future of mainstream horror cinema. Good PG-13 flicks in this genre are a rare breed, but this might be an exception to the rule. I would definitely encourage seeing this in a packed theater, especially something like the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema like I did. No one will make a sound.

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Let’s Do It: My Favorite Movies #70-61

Another batch of ten, another step closer to my absolute top picks of all time.

#70: “Birdman (Or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” (2014)

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There’s always bound to be some backlash against any film that wins Best Picture, with arguments positing that it was “overrated” or not deserving of the award. While we could debate about that topic, I see Birdman (Or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) as a film worthy of that top honor. Yes, Emmanuel Lubezki’s technique of manipulating the whole picture to look like one continuous shot is cool and Michael Keaton is amazing as a caricature of himself. But the most impressive aspect, to me anyway, is how Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu managed to craft a compelling mouthpiece for the argument of theater vs. cinema without taking one side. I have rarely hated myself for laughing at some seriously dark moments.

#69: “The Martian” (2015)

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Ridley Scott can usually be hit-and-miss, but he’s almost always at his best when working with science-fiction. His adaptation of Andy Weir’s The Martian proves as much, which expertly balances legitimate stakes with unexpectedly hilarious dialogue. Matt Damon turns in one of his best performances as an incredibly smart and likable guy stuck in a situation where he has to science the shit out of it to stay alive. Think Cast Away meets the urgency of Apollo 13. Not to mention that it has a genuinely positive message about humanity’s need to help one another, which feels all the more pertinent in a time where tragedies feel all too frequent on daily news.

#68: “Inside Out” (2015)

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Yet another swashbuckling entry from Pixar, Inside Out is important for a couple different reasons. For one, it reaffirmed many people’s faith in Pixar creating original, highly entertaining animated films- including me. But it also came at a perfect time in my life when I needed to get my emotions out and, in some ways, I was not wanting to grow up just yet. Pete Docter perfectly and gorgeously visualizes these feelings.

#67: “Pan’s Labyrinth” (2006)

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This is hands down, my all-time favorite foreign language film. I just love how Guillermo Del Toro is aware of how fairytales are generally supposed to work and then deliberately defies all of these rules. It is a dark, thoughtful, terrifically original fantasy film that proves that even a film with subtitles can still grab a hold of English-speaking audiences. Visually stunning and terrifying both in its human and fantasy characters, nothing is held back here. Hopefully, this teaches studios that you don’t have to pick up the most obscure dimestore paperback to create something truly great from the genre.

#66: “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly” (1968)

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Movies like The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly make me wish that Sergio Leone had made more films in his lifetime. Better than anyone else in the business of spaghetti westerns, or westerns in general for that matter, he understands the importance of visual storytelling and character intros. I’m not even going to attempt to argue what’s the greatest western of all time. It just seems redundant, especially thanks to the glorious final Mexican standoff that’s sure to remain in the history books. Plus, is there really anything better than Ennio Morricone’s legendary score?

#65: “Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi” (1983)

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Spoiler Alert: This will definitely not be the last entry in the Star Wars Saga that you find on this Top 100. While Return of the Jedi is admittedly my least favorite of the Original Trilogy, there’s still plenty that I love about it. In fact, if my memory serves correctly, this one was actually the first live-action movie that I ever watched. In that sense, it always plays to the little kid in me on every single rewatch, even if the Ewoks get in the way occasionally. But hey, the epic Battle of Endor more than makes up for that.

#64: “Hugo” (2011)

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The movie that wants to be a loving ode to early cinema from 2011 that should have won Best Picture in The Artist‘s place. Martin Scorsese flexes his knowledge as not only a brilliant filmmaker but also an eclectic film historian for this Brian Selznick adaptation. It’s truly rare in this day and age for live-action family films to actually be appealing to both parents and children at the same time. But Scorsese brings Hugo to passionate life with wonderful visuals and an all-in cast. I can still remember after watching it for the first time, I actually researched a lot of the silent films referenced in it, just so I could learn more about the history of cinema.

#63: “Inglourious Basterds” (2009)

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Is there any tradition in cinema or pop culture more American than killin’ some Nazis? While I wait for an answer, I can describe my love for Quentin Tarantino’s 6th feature film. Surprisingly, Inglourious Basterds is probably one of the director’s tamest and most grounded pictures to date. But it also shows his understanding of the power of language, with his signature dialogue being given to us in no less than 3 other spoken tongues than English. Plus, Christoph Waltz is positively despicable and terrifying as the Jew Hunter, perhaps one of Tarantino’s best characters. With his new film coming out next year, I eagerly await to see his stylized take on Hollywood whereas this one dealt with European cinema in a distinctly obscure way.

#62: “Apocalypse Now” (1979)

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Vietnam was a troubling time for both the American military and public, and the late 1970’s saw a wash of films try to capture that. But nothing even came close to Apocalypse Now, a loose adaptation of Heart of Darkness that trades in any notion of romance for stark realism. It’s hallucinatory and befuddling, constantly blurring the line between civilization and savagery. Sanity and madness. With both a haunting opening and ending, Frances Ford Coppola immerses us in the thick jungles of ‘Nam while refusing to lose sight of humanity. Very few antagonists are as menacing as Colonel Kurtz, and the scariest part might be that he’s actually right.

#61: “12 Years a Slave” (2013)

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Rarely will you ever watch an American film that approaches a harsh topic with such horror and sophistication as 12 Years a Slave. Rather than lecturing the audience on how terrible slavery was in the 1840’s, Steve McQueen makes us observers to the disturbing true story of Solomon Northup. There were moments I wanted to look away, but neither McQueen nor the brilliant Chiwetel Ejiofor would allow it. Easy to watch? Hell no. In fact, it’s clinical direction could be infuriating to some people. But the more I’ve thought about it since first watching it, the more I’ve come to appreciate the restraint. And at the end of it all, we see a man who keeps the hope of wanting to live, even in a degrading and shameful part of our national history.

“2001: A Space Odyssey” Movie Review

Oh boy. It’s that time, ladies and gentlemen. This moment is one I’ve dreaded ever since starting my Blog on WordPress. The so-called “Sacred Cow” conversation of cinema simply cannot be avoided any further. And what better way to embrace it than in its 50th(!) anniversary? Stanley Kubrick’s epic science-fiction drama was originally released in the United States on April 3rd, 1968. While it turned out to be extremely profitable with a box office take of $190 million against a budget of $10.5 million, critics and audiences were entirely split on what to make of the film. While Roger Ebert hailed it as one of the greatest films of our time, others like Pauline Kael threw words such as “pretentious” and “boring” at it. Today, the consensus has generally fallen over to the positive side of reception. Co-written by the acclaimed sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clarke, the movie was written in tandem with his titular novel. Kubrick was supposedly less interested in the book itself and instead drew from 6 other short stories by Clarke for inspiration. This is a commonality in his oeuvre,  as he really just wanted to explore the concept of extraterrestrial life and our relationship with the stars. The plot is very hard to explain without delving into speculation. On a literal level, the setting is the year 2001 where human beings have mastered both artificial intelligence and space travel. (Note: None of this came to life) After a mysterious black monolith is discovered buried on the Moon, two astronauts, Dr. David Bowman and Dr. Frank Poole, are tasked with tracing its origins all the way to Jupiter. They are assisted by HAL 9000, the world’s most advanced computer, and unexpectedly embark on a journey concerning evolution and what it means to be human. I think. As said before, even trying to discuss this film is bound to be controversial. For those who aren’t familiar with the term, “Sacred Cow” is an idiom usually referring to a piece of art that is held above criticism, sometimes to a ridiculously unreasonable level. There are many people who will likely murder me if I even dare to say anything negative about the film. In fact, I’m going to put something forth that may anger them even more- I’ve been somewhat lukewarm to most of Kubrick’s features. While I do “get” a lot of things he’s trying to say and absolutely understand his importance to cinema, most of his pictures are ones that I respect and appreciate more than I actually love. There are two exceptions to that rule, and the best one is 2001: A Space Odyssey, one of the boldest films ever put on the silver screen. This is not going to be a review in which I try to analyze every frame of this movie trying to search for the hidden meaning. There are already plenty of essays, dissertations, and YouTube videos covering that area. Rather, I just wanted to break down the fact that this movie is so beloved for that exact reason. A whole lot of movies, whether they be effects-heavy blockbusters or ambitious indies, almost always try to relay information to the audience and leave little breathing room. It’s certainly common among today’s cinema but also prevalent in several films from years ago. The beauty about someone like Stanley Kubrick is that while his narratives are well-told and satisfying, it’s the themes that make him a true auteur. There are only a handful of living filmmakers that can reach that level of profundity and ambiguity. One thing a lot of people don’t really talk about when reviewing this film is the acting. Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood both do fine work in the roles of human doctors, Bowman and Poole. While the film is famously minimal on dialogue, the two of them are able to deliver the technobabble with a surprising sense of naturalism. But both of them are outdone by Douglas Rain, the voice of HAL 9000. Even with such a monotone voice, this robot is able to convey more emotion than either of his human colleagues during the entirety of their cosmic journey. Late in the plot, when he decides to defend himself against deactivation, he menacingly tells his creator, “I’m sorry, Dave; I’m afraid I can’t do that.” Aside from them, Daniel Richter is also notable as the chief of the man-apes in a surprisingly haunting prologue. Using nothing but a suit, primate vocal sounds, and a large bone at his disposal, he leaves a lasting impression for the remainder of the film. Meanwhile, on a purely technical scale, 2001: A Space Odyssey is an unprecedented achievement even now. Geoffrey Unsworth’s cinematography does some incredible shots of both the African landscape in the prologue and of space itself. Kubrick’s signature tracking shots and static wides are all present here, and looks especially impressive if you can see it on 70 mm film. What’s really impressive is how scientifically accurate much of the film is, especially the scene set on a lunar base. The director spent months consulting with NASA to ensure that everything would be plausible, including his use of silence and slow movement in space travel. The sets and costume designs are all entirely practical, built with hands and shot with pure celluloid. Compare the effects, spaceships, and costumes with any sci-fi movie going into the early 2000’s- it really holds up. In fact, a lot of CGI fluff we’re getting today pales in comparison. Similar to most of Kubrick’s other works, this is not a film meant for everyone. While several film fans will be completely immersed in the glorious spectacle of it all, just as many will proclaim it to be the most boring motion picture of all time. There are no concrete answers to everything on-screen and moves at an unusually slow pace. Plus, it contains one of the most ambiguous, head-scratching, straight-up WTF endings in the history of cinema- even to this day. I totally get why I lot of people don’t like this movie, and it actually took a rewatch for me to truly appreciate it. But for those with the patience to go on the journey, those who will dare to keep an open mind to all that comes forth, 2001: A Space Odyssey is a peerless cinematic embodiment of sheer visual poetry. Every science-fiction film in the last 50 years has been influenced by it in one way or another. And hopefully, it will do so for at least 50 more.

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“Ready Player One” Movie Review

Y’all are talking about all of the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it references abound in this movie, but NONE of them made me feel more warm or nostalgic than seeing the Amblin Entertainment logo at the beginning. Only a true follower of 80’s pop culture like Halliday would probably get that same feeling. This dystopian sci-fi adventure from director Steven Spielberg held a surprise premiere at the 2018 South by Southwest Film Festival, where it debuted to positive critical response. Originally scheduled release in theaters on March 30th, the producers saw the potential of the Good Friday weekend and it arrived a day early. Raking in over $109 million worldwide in the first few days, it is now projected to become the director’s highest-grossing film in years. Based on Ernest Cline’s book of the same name, who also co-wrote the screenplay, the adaptation wallowed in development hell for a few years primarily due to securing rights to all of the references in the book. After Spielberg came aboard, it was only a matter of how many they could actually keep, with his public proclamation that many of his own movies would be avoided- with a few exceptions. The 2-hour and 20 minute-long story takes place in the dystopian future of 2045 when reality has become such a resource-depleted place that most of them retreat to a virtual reality called The OASIS. One of those people is Wade Watts, played by Tye Sheridan, whose avatar Parzival is something of a loser obsessed with pop culture from the 1980’s. When the creator James Halliday dies with no heirs, he creates a contest: Whoever can find an Easter Egg in his game first will inherit his entire fortune and control of The OASIS. Soon, Parzival grabs the first clue and finds himself thrust into a situation rife with allies and players who are literally willing to kill to get the Egg, all while learning the difference between the real world and the virtual one. Full disclosure before going on further: I’ve read the book by Ernest Cline numerous times before they even announced the cast. While the plot sometimes felt overwhelmed by the nostalgia and references, I was constantly wowed by the epic adventure. Hearing that Steven Spielberg, the man behind many of the book’s influences, would be directing the adaptation felt like a cinephile’s wet dream, especially after the epic first trailer. While news that the movie deviated heavily from the source material created great skepticism among many, I still remained the optimist. That optimism paid off dearly because Ready Player One was a blast for me to watch. I can see, however, that a lot of people are going to be turned off by the wave of pop culture references. In fact, the amount that can be found in the movie is practically exhausting. To me, this wasn’t really window-dressing so much as a look into someone like Wade, whose fanboyism has almost divorced him from the real world. Honestly, it could have gone a little more in-depth about the subject, but for the most part, the movie is able to walk the line. It’s not really about condemning or advocating fandoms of any kind, but rather asking what they do for the individual and where they lead to. The cast is well-aware that they’re in a Spielbergian adventure and are reveling in every moment of it. Tye Sheridan plays the part of Wade Watts like a classic hero as if he were convinced that he was a lovechild between a superhero and a John Hughes protagonist. While some of the dialogue is corny and exposition-heavy, he convincingly plays a kid struggling with identity. Opposite him are Lena Waithe and Olivia Cooke as Aech and Artemis. They both elevate beyond the archetypes of “best friend” or “love interest” and are given full personalities and concerns. Mark Rylance and Simon Pegg play James Halliday and Ogden Morrow, the two creators of The OASIS. While their screentime is limited, we get to see both ends of the VR argument; Morrow is concerned about the substitute for reality while Halliday just never fits in anywhere else. Other supporters like Philip Zhao, Hannah John-Kamen, Win Morisaki, and T.J. Miller add interesting extras to the package but aren’t given a whole lot of room to develop into full, interesting characters. Biggest surprise goes to Ben Mendohlson as Nolan Sorrento, head of the nefarious corporation I.O.I. While he initially seems like a generic big-suit bad guy, we later get to see how little value he sees in The OASIS beyond money. The fact that his avatar is completely uninspired is a rich rip on his lack of imagination in a world full of it. And the director proves once again that even 32 feature films into his career, he’s still got it behind the camera. Most of his regular collaborators return with him. Janus Kaminski’s fluid camera movements? Check. Michael Kahn’s clever editing between both reality and The OASIS? Check. Adam Stockhausen’s brilliant, grungy production design of the Stacks and other places? Check. The big winner here, though, is Industrial Lights & Magic with their glorious visual effects. Even with nearly 317 movies under their belt, the motion capture work done to bring The OASIS to life is magnificent, some of the best done in the movies yet. Each avatar and location is crafted with care and craft. The climactic battle sequence is one of the largest-in-scale I’ve ever seen in a movie theater, but nothing felt hard to follow in the slightest. The amount of references they were able to pack in here warrants a rewatch alone. This is one of the only Spielberg films in which John Williams did not compose the musical score, instead taken care of by Alan Silvestri. And he does a fantastic job, giving us a soundtrack worthy of the films that it wants to pay homage to. The main theme is like a clever homage to several “heroic” musical themes of the past such as Indiana Jones, employing all sorts of different classic styles. You’ve got your Williams with piercing horns, James Horner with epic accompanying vocals, a bit of dynamic percussion like Jerry Goldsmith, and beautiful swelling strings like Silvestri himself. They all come together to create an eclectic and genuinely original soundtrack, on top of some of the most recognizable songs from 1980’s played just for keeps. At this point in his career, I don’t think it’s possible for the director to make a terrible movie. Not even if he tried. There are definitely quite a few people who aren’t going to be won over by this one, either because of its overwhelming nostalgia, strong deviations from the book, or clear messages. Though its character development leaves something to be desired, for me, Ready Player One is a really fun adventure with loving homages to its influences. It’s certainly no masterpiece, but beyond anything, it shows that the 71-year-old still knows how to craft an enthralling adventure, even if it feels like cruise-control sometimes. Doubting Steven Spielberg’s ability to entertain audiences always makes you look like an idiot, even if the results aren’t always amazing.