Monthly Archives: February 2017

“Moonlight” Movie Review

With the Oscars on the horizon, why not review some of the Best Picture nominees? Seems like the only logical thing that every other critic is doing. This captivating coming-of-age indie drama- written and directed by Barry Jenkins -premiered at the Toronto Film Festival before its nationwide release on October 21, 2016. Earning back $23 million in profit against its $5 million budget, it also was host to overwhelming acclaim, awards buzz, and was listed as the 4th highest rated film of all time on the website Metacritic, and for good reason. Based on the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney, which was also supposedly taken from his own real life experiences, Moonlight is the story of Chiron. Chiron is a black gay kid who grows up in a rough neighborhood in Miami, tracing his life over the span of 3 decades. Like a play, it is split up into 3 separate acts, each of which is given a name that Chiron associates himself with and focuses on 3 pivotal moments in his complicated life. Being a reviewer, I try not to use the word “flawless” in the description of a movie’s nature. But in this case, there is no other adjective that can be used to accurately describe this film. Moonlight is, indeed, a flawless movie- on every level imaginable. Where to begin? How about the outstanding, entirely African-American cast? Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes all take on the daunting task of portraying the main protagonist at the different stages of his life. Each one has bright future ahead after the attention this film has gotten. Naomie Harris plays his crack-addicted mother Paula so convincingly. Although she was apparently hesitant to play a crack addict, being a black woman, her portrayal of this troubled single mother was an excellent adversarial element against the 3 actors playing Chiron. Her bickering and yelling are utterly realistic- to the point where it borders on being difficult to watch. And although his only around for roughly a third of the 110 minute-long running time, Mahershala Ali’s performance as the drug dealer/father figure Juan is especially powerful. Completely deserving of a Best Supporting Actor nomination, while he may appear intimidating and stereotypical at first, it’s shown how much he and his girlfriend genuinely care for Chiron as a child, or “Little” as many call him. On a technical scale, this movie is nothing short of breathtaking. Filmed on a widescreen CinemaScope digital camera, the cinematography by James Laxton is beautiful. Each act is kept distinct by a different film stock, with certain colors being saturated and wonderful contrasts. Specifically, the colors blue and red appear often throughout the film and are especially present in the final act. Many of the scenes are shot from the first-person perspective, really putting us into the shoes of Chiron. What makes it more effective is the fact that many of this respective shots are shown in 48 frames-per-second. But unlike other films that use this format like The Hobbit or Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, it isn’t nauseating. Rather, it enhances the realism of the moment, bringing to light more intensity and more subtle details like skin tone. As for the music, it’s excellent. Nicholas Britell eschews the standards of regular soundtracks instead giving us a beautiful score that is unlike any other last year. The score is very string-heavy, with one particular piece early on in the movie evoking the talent and complexity of legendary composers like Johann Sebastian Bach or Ludwig van Beethoven. It is also accompanied by a consistent bass playing up in the background that adds an almost melancholic atmosphere. The number one thing that Moonlight should be commended for, though, is how there is little verbal exposition. Almost everything major in the plot is given to us in subtext, like when a teenage Chiron’s first kiss on a moonlit beach is cut away to a shot of him grasping the crunchy sand. Or when Little has an intensive stare off with his mother before she returns to her room, where a man is waiting for her. The beautiful themes of Moonlight– such as masculinity, race, identity, and sexuality -are explored in a tender, completely empathetic manner. By the third act, Chiron is an almost completely different person than he was when we last saw him. But underneath all of the tattoos and hardened, muscle-heavy exterior is a fragile soul who just doesn’t know exactly how to fit in. Whether you’re gay, straight, black, white, or otherwise, we can all relate to this story because growing up, we struggled to really find our place in the world. Hell, it took me until the latter half of high school to truly find mine own. A carefully handled, layered emotional drama, Moonlight is a beautifully relevant film that forces us to question who we are as individuals. Hauntingly powerful performances give this deeply human narrative much more believability, making this otherwise small indie film a hugely successful tour-de-force that all human beings need to be watching.

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“Once Upon a Time in the West” Movie Review

It’s February, the beginning of a new year. I want to get reviews of older movies. Return of the Jedi will get it’s time soon enough, as will The Terminator, I SWEAR my life on it. But ever since the Red Dead Redemption 2 reveal, I’ve been in a western mood. Let’s start with a true classic. This epic spaghetti western was released on December 21st, 1968 when it barely broke even with its $5 million budget. Though not as popular as his acclaimed Dollars Trilogy in the U.S., acclaimed director-writer Sergio Leone gives us another memorable epic in the mythical period of the Old West, sans Clint Eastwood. After a recent wedding to a kind landowner, former prostitute Jill McBain, played by Claudia Cardinale, returns to her new homestead to find that her husband and 3 step-children have all been murdered. Seeking vengeance against the railroad tycoon that orchestrated it all, she hires the bandit Cheyenne, the prime suspect who was framed for the massacre, and a mysterious harmonica-playing gunman played by Charles Bronson to track down his whereabouts. All the while, they are hounded by a violent mercenary named Frank, whose bloody reputation proceeds him. For the past couple of decades, there has been an ongoing battle between lovers of cinema. Which is the best Western of all time? Once Upon a Time in the West or The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly? As proven with my post on Marvel vs. DC, I tend to stay out of those types of arguments. But I do have an opinion on the matter, which I will mention at a later review for another time. For now, let’s divulge everything that’s great about this film. For the most part, the whole cast gives a round of great performances. Jason Robards is great as Cheyenne. As one of the finer character actors of the last century, he appears to be enjoying himself in the role of a scoundrel with a heart of gold. By his side, before he was slaughtering suburban goons in the Death Wish franchise, Bronson is excellent as a mysterious gunslinger, a trait common in Leone’s films. He is out to kill Frank, whom he feels robbed him of all he held dear before he was even an adult. Even though little is known of him, his devilish charm makes him a likable guy to root for in the ambiguous American West. And while Claudia Cardinale is great in her role as the reluctant protagonist, it wasn’t so memorable like the rest of her co-stars. However, Henry Fonda steals the show as the villain Frank, in a role that cast him against type. Up until this point, Fonda had been primarily known for portraying everyman heroes, like the one man in 12 Angry Men that fought for a convicted man’s innocence. Or when he captivated millions with his role as Tom Joad in the acclaimed 1940 adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath. But now in this movie, he is a violent and selfish mercenary who will kill anyone involved with the job at hand. Let’s move over to the technical scale of everything; it’s breathtaking. Although it was primarily shot and produced in Italy, the beautiful mountain landscapes look like perfect renditions of the canyons from states like Utah or Arizona. Many static, anamorphic long shots from a distance are nicely contrasted by a number of close-ups. This is especially present during confrontations between the characters in the final act. And yes, like The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly before it, Once Upon a Time in the West features a climactic Mexican standoff that’s presented as a duel. Though not as tense as that movie, the one here still keeps viewers on the edge of their seats thanks to nothing but the amazing score by Ennio Morricone. The beautiful theme song, mixing harmonica, electric guitar, and violins, is extremely memorable. Any time I start to feel confrontational with someone else, this will be the song playing in my head when it all goes down. Hell, I might even drop a hand to my hip in an attempt to draw my 6-shooter out to trade some fire. In an age where characters have to constantly do some worldbuilding via clunky expositional dialogue, Sergio Leone bucks this trend. There are long periods of verbal silence throughout the movie, without a single word spoken aloud. This, rather ironically, speaks more volumes to its sophistication and requires the viewer to remain fully engaged. Unlike the Dollars Trilogy, this is not a sardonic look at the Old West with in-jokes to sprinkled everywhere. Rather, it’s a more serious but still fun Western that acknowledges some of the darker aspects of that mythical time period. And, like the Dollars Trilogy, that means sitting through its entire runtime, which clocks in at about 2 hours and 55 minutes long. I have no problem with a movie being long as long as, in the end, I can walk out of it feeling that it was completely warranted and justified by the story. While I have this feeling overall, I feel like some parts of it could have been trimmed down just a bit. Despite that, Once Upon a Time in the West is an effortlessly sprawling Western epic that stands up even today. Beautiful, tense, and intriguing, this has to be one of the best of the genre that comes highly recommended from damn near any critic you’d find on the internet.

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“The Lego Batman Movie” Movie Review

There is a common belief in the world of cinema that if you put Batman into anything, then it’s bound to be good. That is a completely correct statement, and movies like this are why. This animated superhero action-comedy was released on February 10th, 2017, grossing over $90 million in the first weekend alone. With the unexpected success of 2014’s The Lego Movie, Waner Bros. quickly announced its plans for an expanded franchise of films set in this buildable universe, including The Lego Ninjago Movie, which is set for a release in September. Set 3 years after the adventures of Emmet Brickowsky wrapped up, the titular hero returns to Gotham City. After their latest battle against one another, his greatest enemy The Joker is heartbroken when he realizes that Batman doesn’t think much of him- or anyone, for that matter. So he formulates a plan to take the Dark Knight, and his sidekick Robin the Boy Wonder, down in a blaze of glory. When I first saw the trailer for The Lego Batman Movie, I didn’t know what to think of it, primarily because spin-offs that focus on supporting characters have had a bad track record.. However, that fear was completely gone during the first 5-10 minutes of this movie, when I couldn’t breathe because I was laughing so hard. It set the tone for the rest of the movie, and for the remainder of its 104 minute-long runtime, it’s line after line and quip after quip of Batman spoof comedy. I’m telling you, it was exhausting. Though it does take a slight dip about halfway through, finally giving audience members time to catch a breath. It’s at that point when we start to see the family dynamic flourish, which really works for the title character’s nature. And in the lead role, Will Arnett is brilliant and hilarious in his voice role. Mimicking the rough, throat cancer-laden voice of Christian Bale from the Dark Knight trilogy, this is perhaps my second favorite on-screen portrayal of the character. Let’s be honest: There was a point where Batman could not be taken seriously anymore. *cough Save Martha cough cough* And considering the extensive lore from both the comic books and movies, there’s a lot of material to draw from and parody regarding this character. Opposite him, Zach Galifianakis brings his awkward nature to The Joker. He’s not up in the annals with Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, but he is a perfect villain for what they were going for. It’s just so fun to watch him unfold his master plan, regardless of what media he’s in, and The Lego Batman Movie is no exception. He takes the help from a multitude of villains from the Batman rogues gallery. From Harvey Two-Face and Bane to Z-List villains like The Condiment Man and Mr. Pokadot, (Who, to my everlasting shame, do actually exist) chances are every Batman bad guy you can imagine is here. In the supporting cast, all the actors and actresses seem to indulge themselves in their roles. Ralph Fiennes as a wise, loyal and somewhat sarcastic butler father figure in Alfred Pennyworth, Michael Cerra reunites with his Arrested Development co-star as orphan Robin/Dick Grayson, Rosario Dawson is the strong-willed Barabara Gordon, Channing Tatum as Kryptonian goody two-shoes Superman, and Jonah Hill as the impeccably dumb guardian Green Lantern/Hal Jordan. Even without a microphone, there are still probably a dozen cameos in this film. Not just limited other DC properties like the Justice League, The Lego Batman Movie incorporates characters from all sorts of different media franchises, mostly those owned or distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures. This includes Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Doctor Who, Godzilla, and The Matrix references any fan is sure to have a field day watching. So seeing Batman and Robin throw down with multiple clones of Agent Smith while the Eye of Sauron tracks their every move is one of many scenes that is impossible not to smile at. I have to give the studio credit because it just feels like something special when they can be willing to let filmmakers make fun of their franchises, especially with all the rewrites, reshoots, and other things we’re dealing with in the DC Extended Universe. Although I probably won’t be clamoring to Best Buy to purchase the soundtrack, Lorne Balfe’s musical score is exciting and matches perfectly for the action sequences. Like The Lego Movie, the soundtrack also contains at least one original song that will keep infecting your brain and keep your foot tapping fo a while. They’re not as political as “Everything is Awesome,” but they’re definitely memorable. Overall, while it may not be as surprising or ambitious as the original, The Lego Batman Movie is still a wicked-fast and hilarious superhero romp that the genre needed like last year’s Deadpool. Like it’s predecessor, it’s beautiful and original style of computer animation, matched with a top-notch voice cast and awesome action, make it a family-friendly blockbuster adventure for all ages- something that seems too rare these days. The fact that this had a stronger opening than Fifty Shades Darker restores my faith in humanity just a little bit.

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“Hunt for the Wilderpeople” Movie Review

If this movie proves anything in life, it’s this: Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy was not the only awesome film to come out of New Zealand. This adventure comedy-drama landed a limited release in North America on June 24th, 2016, following a lengthy festival run after its premiere at Sundance. It has since gone on to become the highest-grossing native film in New Zealand, with a box office take of about $23 million. Based in part on Barry Crump’s book Wild Pork and Watercress, the story is set against the extensive wild bush of New Zealand and follows a juvenile delinquent named Ricky Baker, who has recently been adopted by a farmer couple. After a tragic happening, Ricky resolves to run away from his home into the bush, only to be found by his foster uncle Hector. When a nationwide manhunt ensues, they reluctantly have to work together to survive the wilderness. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is brought to us by writer-director Taika Waititi, who also gave us hidden gems such as the moving drama Boy and the hilarious mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows. He will also be moving to the Hollywood blockbuster environment this November with Thor: Ragnarok so it would be wise to keep tabs on this one. His trademark quirkiness for characters and dialogue is ever-present in this latest effort, which may be his best work yet. His script is injected with immense heart and poignancy, contrasted by scenarios so absurd that it’s almost impossible to not laugh out loud. During one particular scene, the situation was mirrored to and alludes to The Fellowship of the Ring, something even the characters address. As a fan of the series, this made me chuckle. As for the cast, veteran Irish character actor Sam Neill gives us a performance unto itself completely different from his stint as a paleontologist in Jurassic Park. He’s gruff and occasionally closed off but shows a tremendous capability for compassion and care as a father figure. By his side is a breakout performance from the newcomer, native New Zealander Julian Dennison as Ricky. Even at the age of 14, this kid does a fantastic job with his lovable, yet deeply troubled character. You get the idea that Ricky has had a rough life up to this point, and it also becomes clear at a point that he wouldn’t last 2 seconds out in the wilderness without Hector. These two bounce off of each other with ease, as their relationship is a very believable one. Hector has to show Ricky various tactics for survival, such as building fires and hunting for food with a rifle. But it’s also their less stressful and quieter situations that make for some of the most human moments. Whether it’s when they’re both sitting by the campfire sharing their own painful pasts, or when they’re quietly sitting in the woods looking at a thought-to-be-extinct bird, it’s actually quite impressive how well these scenes were put together. However, we can’t talk about any movie set in the wilderness without discussing the look and aesthetic of it all. In a sense, Hunt for the Wilderpeople has the feel of a modern sitcom because it was almost entirely shot on a single camera. Even with that, the locations in the film look absolutely beautiful. There are so many aerial view shots of the lush green landscape that are immediately edited into quick cuts across the dense forest. This gives the film a feeling that puts it on level ground with the characters. Of all the places in the world that I would like to visit before I die, New Zealand is at the top of that list. This is the final proof of that goal. Commentary should also be given to the music. There is a very minimalist score from Lukasz Buda, Samuel Scott, and Conrad Wedde, mostly just background guitars. The soundtrack itself is comprised mostly of folk songs, all of which perfectly match the tone of the story. And now for the big negative of the movie: Regret. I regret not seeing this film in theaters in 2016 because it would have easily appeared somewhere on my Top 10 List by the end of the year. So please don’t let its seemingly foreign nature dissuade you; Hunt for the Wilderpeople is an irresistibly quirky and touching dramedy about the sacred bond between father and son. (Or in this case, uncle and nephew) A poignant yet hilarious showcase for great, lesser-known actors, it’s appropriately restrained in its direction. And for that, Hunt of the Wilder people absolutely deserves more recognition from American audiences.

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“Mass Effect 2” Game Review

*WARNING: I’m going to review this game under the assumption that you’ve beaten Mass Effect. If you haven’t, there’s a lot that you’re missing out on.*

Talk about stepping it up on every level imaginable. Bioware’s second installment in its trilogy of epic sci-fi RPG was released on January 26th, 2010, on the PC and Xbox 360 before coming home to the Playstation 3 a year later. So at the end of the first game, a few variables could have happened. In a nutshell, it was revealed that Saren Arterius was indoctrinated by a massive Reaper named Sovereign, who you beat after he unleashed an attack on the Citadel. The Reapers are a race of ancient sentient machines that purge the organic population of the Milky Way Galaxy every 50,000 years as a cycle. In the beginning of Mass Effect 2, Commander Shepard has been decommissioned by the Alliance for a little while. You’re out on your mission to discover more about the Reapers when, all of a sudden, the Normandy gets destroyed and you actually die. That was one of the coolest and most cinematic intros to any game I’ve ever played. 2 years after that, Shepard is revived and recruited by Cerberus, a shadowy organization that advocates human blackened supremacy over the Galaxy. They were more or less the villains of the first game, but you work for them now because they saved you and are basically the only ones aside from your crew that do acknowledge the Reaper threat. Entire colony populations are disappearing without a trace, and you’re tasked with finding the cause. I mean it when I say they improved it over the first game in every way. To start, the gameplay was simplified to perfection. The bloated and cumbersome weapon system was fixed to accommodate for several guns, both for you and your teammates. While some of the RPG aspects are gone, I felt this added to the fun of the experience. The less time you spend micromanaging, the more you spend it doing anything else. Also, the Mako is gone, and for good reason. Now, whenever, you’re investigating a planet, you can just launch a land probe to pick up everything. The mediocre graphics from Mass Effect were significantly beefed up, so all of the planets, locations, and character models look stunning. When it comes down to the gun battles, the cover system has been improved immensely. And whenever you’re running, the over-the-shoulder camera gets shaky, adding to the realism and intensity of the moment. The Powers menu is easier to access, and the biotics to use against enemies is just so fun. In terms of storytelling, Mass Effect 2, has one of the best narratives in gaming. Again, your choices make a big difference in character interactions. Not only that, but the choices you make in Mass Effect will carry over into the next 2 games. This keeps each play-through a unique experience. The main reason why the beginning was so good is because you’re playing as Commander Shepard; he/she is the greatest soldier in the Galaxy. To see them brought down in such a humanizing way is just so astonishing. Your crew is almost entirely different than it was in the previous game. But they really grow on you, and you grow to care about them. That’s because one of the big additions to Mass Effect 2 are the loyalty missions, where each member of your team is given a chance to be fleshed out and gain your trust. My two new favorites were Mordin Solus and Thane Krios. Both of them were just fascinating characters to see, both with interesting backstories and unique story arcs. There’s one moment where Mordin is singing Gilbert and Sullivan; every time I play it, it’s just impossible not to smile. And upon all that, even the voice acting is stupendous. Considering the fact that, reportedly, 20,000 lines of dialogue were written for the game, that is an impressive feat that deserves to be commended. Veteran actor Martin Sheen voices the Illusive Man, the mysterious leader of Cerberus. The type of character that plays for both sides of the conflict, don’t ever trust this man, no matter how charismatic or smooth-talking he may appear. And the final mission in Mass Effect 2 was so intense and amazing, you almost feel exhausted. What makes it so gripping is the fact that anyone on your crew can die based on your decisions. There’s even an extreme possibility where everyone, including YOU Commander Shepard, can die during this climax. I was fortunate enough to make good calls and get all of my teammates out alive, but I shudder to think how that would affect Mass Effect 3. Never in all of my life have I been so scared for the well-being of a group of fictional characters- let alone video game characters. Slick gameplay, intelligent dialogue, intriguing characters, and a completely engrossing story come together to make Mass Effect 2 not only the best game in the trilogy, but also one of my favorite games of all time. And it is up there, in cinematic quality with any sci-fi space epic that you’ve seen. You could give away many hours reading through all the rich background of this universe in the Codex alone. There’s enough rich lore and emotion-filled moments in all 3 games to rival even that of Star Wars and Star Trek. Go out and play this game RIGHT NOW!!

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