Category Archives: Coming-of-age

“Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” Movie Review

This may be one of the few films I’ve ever seen that actually doesn’t live up to the description in its title. In context with the story and characters, it makes sense but there is not a single moment here which indicates that it earns it. This biographical crime thriller initially premiered out of competition at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Picked up for approximately $9 million, it also played at the Tribeca Film Festival later in April to similarly mixed opinions. It later received a limited theatrical release on May 3rd, 2019, and landed on the streaming service Netflix the same day. It is believed to have made close to $2 million in specialty markets, although, like all of the distributor’s theatrical releases, there’s no telling the veracity of these reports. It’s also scheduled to make a return to theaters later this fall as a way to provide more visibility for awards season. The film marks the narrative feature debut of director Joe Berlinger, who previously helmed a number of documentaries. This is his second Netflix project focused on the main subject, after the docu-series Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes. There was some initial backlash when the film was first announced at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, particularly over its star’s seemingly problematic casting, and sparked further controversy with its first trailer. Beginning in 1969 Seattle, the true story is told from the perspective of Liz Kendall, played by Lily Collins, a single mother and secretary. Pretty soon, she becomes romantically involved with law student Theodore “Ted” Bundy, played by Zac Efron, who soon moves in and becomes a stepfather to her daughter Molly. However, Bundy quickly becomes accused of committing a number of heinous and disgusting crimes against women, eventually culminating in the first-ever televised court trial. And while all of this happens over the course of more than a decade, Liz struggles to reconcile her love for Ted with the crimes he committed. I’m not going to pretend like I didn’t expect this movie to garner controversy when it first made waves. Like many films focused on the lives and/or exploits of serial killers, it would have to walk an incredibly fine line to really work. I was somewhat worried that it would turn into a voyeuristic or fetishized depiction of what Bundy did to all of those women. Although I haven’t watched Joe Berlinger’s Confession Tapes, I have a pretty good feeling that he’s fascinated with this man. And I was curious to see if he could find a certain wavelength or angle that would serve up a fresh and respectful treatment of the subject matter. And Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile is by no means exploitative or distasteful, it’s just… not that remarkable. In fairness to the filmmakers, the story of Ted Bundy has been covered in so many different views and perspectives. The idea of looking at his decades-long crimes from the P.O.V. of his real-life girlfriend, whose book The Phantom Prince served as the source material, is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because his sickening acts of violence are only heavily implied throughout the film, which also ends with a list of his known victims. But it’s also a curse because Extremely Wicked still feels beholden to stay in Bundy’s orbit constantly. He keeps insisting that he’s an innocent man and it’s not really until the very end of the movie that he finally relents. The whole film is framed with Liz visiting him in prison one last time before his ultimate sentence and for whatever reason, that format just didn’t feel right. For whatever problems the movie has, Zac Efron is practically perfect casting as Ted Bundy. He has all of the confidence, swagger, and deceitful charm befitting of the man, able to swoon entire flocks of people with just a blink. He surprisingly maintains a level-headed composure throughout the film, internalizing his sick thoughts and deeds. And although the film is told from her perspective, I have mixed feelings about Lily Collins as his longtime girlfriend Liz. Don’t get me wrong, she’s great in the role, but her lack of agency and full characterization make her feel more like a sketch of a person than a real individual. Kaya Scodelario turns in surprisingly effective work as Carole Ann Boone, Bundy’s old friend and by far most ardent supporter. She is absolutely devoted to getting Ted acquitted by any means necessary, following him to his various trials and trying to persuade the judge or juries to let him be. Haley Joel Osment and Jim Parsons are pleasant surprises as Liz’s new boyfriend and the Florida prosecutor, respectively, while Brian Geraghty and Jeffrey Donovan excel as Bundy’s failed attorneys. John Malkovich is quite impressive as Edward Cowart, the judge presiding over Bundy’s final trial. Despite the violence and degrading, inhumane crimes described in the case, he offers a bit of empathy to the defendant. “It is an utter tragedy for this court to see such a total waste of humanity, I think, as I’ve experienced in this courtroom,” he says to a full house, deeply disappointed by what has transpired over the trial. And although it’s only his first feature, Joe Berlinger first feature, he shows some promise with the technical aspects of Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile. The film is shot by regular comedy cinematographer Brandon Trost, and his usually dark aesthetic translates rather well here. Much of the film seems desaturated of color to strip away any color or glamour in Bundy’s crimes. Many scenes are done in long takes, with one unbroken monologue that Ted delivers when his final sentencing is announced in court being especially memorable. The editing by Josh Schaeffer, on the other hand, is rather bland and uninteresting in it execution. The aforementioned framing structure makes the story feel more constrained than it needs to be, as the rest of the film is cut together in chronological order. The film frequently cuts between filmed scenes and actual archival news footage, which works to an extent with bringing the historical context full circle. An example of the sum of its parts being better than the whole, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile has a fantastic lead performance that cannot save a middling-at-best film. While not nearly as gross and exploitative as I feared it would be, Joe Berlinger just doesn’t put enough oomph or engagement to really examine its subject matter. Yes, Zac Efron is undeniably great as one of the most reprehensible humans to have ever walked the Earth, but I just wish it had focused more on the intriguing angle it had promised. Unfortunately, it sometimes feels like the movie forgets that.

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“The Lion King” Movie Review

Okay, yes, I am writing a review for this movie because of the impending “live-action” remake next month. However, it also turns out that this movie is celebrating its 25th anniversary this month. This beloved animated musical was originally released in theaters on June 15th, 1994, to overwhelming success. In its initial run, it managed to gross over $766 million at the worldwide box office, making it the most successful film of that year. It was later re-released in 3D in 2011, which brought its total intake to around $968 million. In addition, it remains the best-selling film of all time on home video and the highest-grossing film made from traditional animation. Co-directed by Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff, the story was first conceived in 1988 while Jeffrey Katzenberg and Roy E. Disney were in Europe promoting Oliver and Company. With no less than 17 people credited for the story, original director and producer George Scribner and Thomas Schumacher left the project after constantly clashing visions with Disney. Their departure led to the story being greatly rewritten and reimagined as a musical. Although William Shakespeare’s Hamlet was a big inspiration for the story, it’s also worth noting that this was the first animated film under the Mouse House to be an entirely original property with no pre-existing source material. The classic story follows a young lion named Simba, voiced by Matthew Broderick, who’s destined to rule as King of the Pride Lands in Africa. After his father Mufasa is murdered by Simba’s paternal uncle Scar, he is manipulated and shamed into thinking that the death was his fault and runs away. Years later, Simba is all grownup, living with meerkat Timon and warthog Pumbaa, voiced by Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella, and is completely divorced from any sort of responsibility. But when he gets word of the horrible conditions under Scar’s tyranny, he must rise up to the challenge and reclaim his rightful place as King. This is a film that has been ingratiated into the minds of so many childhoods over the last two-and-a-half decades. If you grew up in the late 1990’s or early 2000’s, there is virtually no way that this movie wasn’t involved in your life. It’s very hard for me to remember a time in my early childhood when it wasn’t around; it just seemed like the movie was always being played in the house. All of that nostalgia initially had me a little hesitant to review the movie now as a fully grown adult. I was worried that it would cloud my judgement on seeing the film purely for its own merits; or worse, that it wouldn’t hold up as well as I remember it. And yet, even without any childhood bias, I can still confidently say that The Lion King is still the peak of the so-called Disney Renaissance. For those who don’t know, the Disney Renaissance was a period of time in which Walt Disney Animation Studios churned out one high-quality movie after another. Other films released during this time included Aladdin, Tarzan, Mulan, and The Little Mermaid, all of which allowed the studio to further establish its worldwide brand. And even since its conclusion, fans such as myself have constantly debated over which one was the best of the all. For me, as you may or not have figured out, it’s no competition; this film contains everything those other films had and more. Memorable musical numbers, awesome characters, fantastic animation, a great sense of humor and heart. If there’s a certain criteria you have for a capital “G” Great animated feature, The Lion King probably has all of it. Matthew Broderick may be best known for Ferris Bueller in the titular movie, but there’s a lot to like about him as Simba. While probably not the most nuanced or complex protagonist in the studio’s arsenal, his struggle to step up and take on a tremendous task is something nearly all viewers can relate to. Also, James Earl Jones is fantastic as Mufasa, Simba’s wise and stern father. A completely different father figure from his turn as Darth Vader, his deep voice resonates with audiences of any age with many sage monologues filled with wisdom. Jeremy Irons also impresses as the voice of Scar, hands down one of the best animated villains ever, Disney or otherwise. His regal voice is one that is built for chewing the scenery and the way his character’s movements are animated makes it seem like he’s acting it out in the recording booth. And of course, we have Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella as Timon and Pumbaa, Simba’s laidback mentors. The comedic timing and slight immaturity in their voices sounds completely naturalistic in their hands, and their timeless number, “Hakuna Matata,” is one for the ages. Moira Kelly, Robert Guillaume, Madge Sinclair, Whoopi Goldberg, and Rowan Atkinson all provide their voices for various supporting roles. It’s quite hard to point out a real weak link in the cast here, as they all contribute something memorable. It’ll be interesting how the new version changes these characters, if at all. And as with most other films of its period, The Lion King still stands as a technical marvel in the genre. Like some of its peers, there are a handful of shots that seem to blend traditional animation with then-burgeoning CGI. And despite being released in 1994, this mixture is not obvious; quite the opposite. It makes for some truly cinematic shots in iconic scenes, such as the heart-stopping stampede scene relatively early on in the film. And even when it’s just purely traditional animation, it’s absolutely gorgeous. The use of colors like orange, yellow, and red is ingenious in creating the atmosphere for the Pride Lands. It helps to deepen the character of the setting and define the characters’ personalities. Every time I watch it, the visuals always pop out, right from the opening shot of the sunrise on the horizon. Hans Zimmer won an Oscar for a reason because his original score here is a true classic of cinema. The soundtrack is just as epic and exciting as the story, utilizing a wide range of instruments and vocals for different tracks. Whether it’s an exciting bit where characters are being chased by the hyenas or a moment where Simba realizes his destiny, Zimmer knows what to do. It goes from being filled with rapid percussion and strings to haunting vocals in an instant and somehow still feels organic. In addition, musician Elton John and lyricist Tim Rice composed several original songs together, many of which have earned a spot in the annals of Disney history. Whether it’s the attention-grabbing, nostalgia-inducing opening number “The Circle of Life” or the Oscar-winning ballad “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?,” those two really know how to play it right. But who are we kidding? The best one is obviously the villain song, “Be Prepared,” in which Scar lavishly talks about his planned coup for the throne. There’s honestly WAY more that I could say about this film. About how it essentially defined a whole generation, how nearly every family had it playing in the house at some point growing up, and son on and so forth. But I have a feeling that everyone reading this already knows that and so, I’m gonna leave it off here. The Lion King remains the undisputed chief of traditional animation and the king of Disney proper. Even with a lean runtime of 88 minutes, there’s so much packed into this film that’s literally impossible to not fall in love with every viewing. I have limited expectations for Jon Favreau’s reimagining next month, but we’ll always have the original. If you ask me, this film was, is, and probably always will be the absolute pinnacle of animated cinema.

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“Game of Thrones” Series Finale Review

All good things must eventually come to an end, whether the corporate overlords like it or not. So if you haven’t yet figured it out from the title, this post is going to be filled to the brim with spoilers for the 73rd and final episode for Game of Thrones. If you are not yet caught up on the show, (Or simply don’t care) do NOT read this any further. Seriously, just stop where you are. Now I won’t hesitate to admit that I came relatively late to the hit HBO show. I had definitely heard about it beforehand, including some major events like the infamous Red Wedding, but I didn’t full jump onboard until about mid-2014. First, I made it a goal to read the existing books in A Song of Ice and Fire, then played catchup with the show itself. And first things first: for the most part, I’m okay with the changes that have been made to the onscreen adaptation. While I think some fans are justified in their frustration with the abbreviation of some storylines, (I really wish they had done Euron Greyjoy faithfully) ultimately the books are the books and the show is the show. And there are some plot points in these last few seasons that I could definitely see happening in The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring. Now onto “The Iron Throne,” the last episode of Game of Thrones proper that we’ll ever get. While I could talk about the eighth season as a whole, particularly waxing lyrical about the sheer magnitude of the Battle of Winterfell in “The Long Night,” this last episode is all I really have time to discuss. First and foremost, I was surprised by how quiet the episode itself actually was. I had expected something of a calm after the destruction of King’s Landing, but the overall lack of dialogue made a certain impact as the surviving characters wandered the ruins. Which reminds me, say what you want about these last 6 episodes, the production value and filmmaking techniques have been so amazing. Whether it’s Ramin Djawadi’s immaculate score or the incredible production design, the below-the-line crew almost never missed a beat. The shot of Daenerys walking down the steps of the Red Keep as Drogon spread his wings was especially beautiful and symbolic. And when she throws Tyrion Lannister in the dungeons, he urges Jon to see what the Mother of Dragons has become and to do something about it. Now for the past three weeks, my friends and I have debated whether it would ultimately be Arya Stark or Jon Snow to deliver the final blow to Dany. Turns out, it was the former; Jon stabbed his love/aunt in the heart with a dagger, both swimming in tears. What really got me emotional in this scene was Drogon’s shrieks; they legitimately hurt and felt like they were in grieving for a mother. Then came something I wasn’t expecting: Drogon not only spares Jon’s life, but he completely melts down the Iron Throne in flames. If Dany couldn’t be able to sit on it, then nobody else could. Now that she was gone, who would rule the Seven Kingdoms? Should they even have a ruler? Well, as Tyrion points out to the remaining lords and ladies of the land, no one is qualified for the job other than Bran Stark. Because he’s essentially the living embodiment of Westeros’ memories, his stories of the past and present may give a good precedent for the future; and who better to serve as his Hand than Tyrion himself? But before any of it becomes set in stone, Sansa Stark asks for the North to become independent once more, thus making her brother Ruler of the Six Kingdoms for the first time in history. And with the brand new Small Council assembled, newly appointed Grandmaester Samwell Tarly presents A Song of Ice and Fire, a text documenting the events of the series in its entirety. Sidenote: I think it’s kind of hilarious that the maesters managed to finish writing A Song of Ice and Fire before George R.R. Martin managed to. We also get to see Sansa being crowned as Queen of the North, with the Lords and Ladies giving her a similar appraisal as they did Jon Snow. The biggest part of the finale I wasn’t too sure of was Arya’s resolution. She decided to give up her lands and titles to go exploring whatever’s west of Westeros, accompanied by a small crew and loads of maps. I don’t know why, but that felt the most abrupt of all the storyline conclusions here. And ultimately, the show ends in the same place where it begins: beyond the Wall. Since they can neither execute him nor let him go for killing Dany, Jon is sent to the Night’s Watch for the rest of his days. After an awesome reunion with Ghost, he, Tormund, and the last of the Wildlings leave for the woods beyond the Wall, presumably to settle back in after all of the commotions the last couple of seasons. And that’s it. 9 years, 8 seasons, 73 episodes, hundreds of hours, all come to a close here in “The Iron Throne.” From what I’ve read, I think one of the biggest reasons why fans are upset about it is because this is ultimately all we get. The HBO bosses have already confirmed that sequel shows are off the table, and I doubt the upcoming prequel show with Naomi Watts will really fill some holes that fans perceive. Personally, I do think that this season was rushed and could have benefited from having a couple more episodes to really wrap some things up. Weiss and Benioff claim to have known the ending for about 5 years now, so they at least seem to know what they’re doing. But I’m sorry, that petition to remake Season 8 is one of the stupidest fan campaigns I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen some really dumb ones in my time. If you genuinely don’t like the last season, that’s perfectly understandable and I get a lot of the hate, but in what realm of reality are fans entitled to dictate how a story should be told? To quote Martin himself, “Art is not a democracy,” so if you don’t like that Azzhor Ahai or Bran warging into Drogon didn’t pan out how you wanted, that’s your own problem to deal with. I don’t run this show and neither do you. And to be honest with you, I was mostly satisfied with where everything and everyone turned out in this last episode. There were a handful of outcomes that I didn’t quite see coming, the biggest of which for me was when Drogon utterly melted the Iron Throne. My favorite development, though, is undoubtedly when Brienne of Tarth became the Lord Commander of the Kingsguard. She has completely and 100% earned it after everything she’s gone through, I’m so proud of her. And if we’re being honest, the overall outcome doesn’t sound too far-fetched from what has been intended by the author. I am genuinely curious to see how different the ending is when and/or IF The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring come out. Regardless of what you thought of this last episode or season, there’s no denying the fundamental impact that Game of Thrones has had on the television landscape. And I think it’ll be a very long time before any show reaches the scope and scale of this magnitude ever again. To quote one of my favorite characters in the show: Valar Morghulis.

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“Shazam!” Movie Review

Alright, not going to lie here: After watching both this and last year’s Instant Family, I’m seriously considering adopting foster children. I had never even thought about it before, but now I would love to give it a try someday. I’m being totally serious. This superhero comedy film was released in theaters around the world by Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema on April 5th, 2019. Made on a production budget of around $80 million, the film has managed to gross over $361.5 million at the worldwide box office. This partially came from a $3.3 million total made from advanced screenings setting up by Fandango two weeks earlier. It has also received some of the best reviews in the franchise and a sequel is already in the early stages of development at the studio. Directed by David F. Sandberg, maker of the horror films Lights Out and Annabelle Creation, the project had initially been in and out of development hell since the early 2000s. After many stops and starts throughout the decade, Warner Bros. finally put it on its release slate in 2014 with Dwayne Johnson attached as the potential villain Black Adam. He eventually departed the project for a future solo film, and remained credited as an executive producer. This also marks the seventh overall installment in the constantly evolving DC Extended Universe. The story follows a young orphan named Billy Batson, played by Asher Angel, who’s been in and out of foster homes for most of his life. After moving into a group home that includes disabled comic book nerd brother Freddy Freeman, played by Jack Dylan Grazer, he later is visited by a mysterious wizard named Shazam. This wizard is looking for someone who is pure of heart to take his place and transfers his immense powers over to Billy, who transforms into an adult played by Zachary Levi. Quickly becoming an internet sensation, his powers and exploits gain the attention of Mark Strong’s Dr. Thaddeus Sivana, who’s been tracking the wizard’s powers for decades. I’ll be honest here, for the longest time I didn’t actually think this movie was going to happen. Sure, there was the persistent news that The Rock was playing the main villain, but that is about as consistently supporting as saying Channing Tatum’s Gambit movie is actually going to happen now. In any case, the film is here in theaters now, and it’s here to stay for at least a little while. The trailers for this movie were very funny and lighthearted, but there was still a skepticism within me about it. Although I haven’t seen Sandberg’s debut Lights Out, I was legitimately creeped out by the short film that inspired it. And while horror directors in the past have adapted well to the superhero genre, such as James Wan or Scott Derrickson, since he only had two other movies under his belt, I wasn’t entirely sure if it would stick the landing. Shazam! is far and away one of the best films in the DCEU and perhaps one of the most fun entries in the genre as a whole. Like some of the best superhero movies, this one is primarily concerned about what it means to be a hero, rather than just big action spectacle. Billy is not pure of heart, so he has to learn how to use his powers responsibly and for the betterment of others. Since he’s only 14 years old, this is hard for him to realize, especially when Freddie helps him become a YouTube star and they initially use the powers for whatever they want. I was actually surprised by how much Shazam! had to say about masculinity and what it means to be a “man.” This is something that Dr. Sivana constantly struggles with understanding because of his very harsh upbringing, and also leads to some pretty terrifying imagery. The film occasionally strains with balancing this delicate tone, but for the most part it’s done pretty well. I can’t think of a living actor better fit to play the adult Shazam than Zachary Levi. As a big fan of his work on the show Chuck, his boyish charm and bumbling charisma make him perfect for the titular role. It star Jack Dylan Grazer is equally perfect as his foster brother Freddie Freeman, a massive comic book aficionado. It’s clear that while he sees the potential good that this can bring about, he also wants an opportunity to do something worthwhile and prove he’s not just a sad kid in crutches. The two of them have incredible chemistry together throughout the film, making for one of the most watchable duos in superhero movies recently. Mark Strong, consistently typecast as villains, is noticeable as the big baddy Dr. Thaddeus Sivana. He’s given a rather disturbing and dark prologue at the beginning, which sets up all of the confusion and obsession his character has to deal with in the story. I had partially expected him to be an intentionally over-the-top villain, but his backstory and characterization surprised me. Meanwhile, Billy’s foster family is filled with both new and familiar talent. Cooper Andrews and Marta Milans are warm and empathetic as the parents, Grace Fulton is caring yet conflicted as the college-bound older sister, Faithe Herman is extremely effusive and lovable as the youngest of the bunch, Ian Chen is honestly hilarious as the residential tech wizard, and Jovan Armand is shy and reserved as the middle child. Each one feels alive and brings a different aspect of the family to like. The technical aspects of Shazam! show that it’s a film which Sandberg has total fun working within. Maxim Alexandre, known mostly for shooting horror movies, handles the cinematography with a rather balanced aesthetic. Whether it’s highlighting the vibrant, popout colors of the titular hero’s suit or the more nightmarish look of the villain’s henchmen, the personality is always definite. It goes surprisingly well with Michel Aller’s editing, which manages to keep both the pacing and tone consistent throughout the 132 minute-long runtime. There’s one particularly amusing “training montage” set to Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” where Freddie takes videos of Billy testing his powers. The way it moves between first-person shots is quite funny and engaging. Benjamin Wallifisch, one of Warner Bros. and Hans Zimmer’s most promising proteges, provides the instrumental score. Much like the rest of the film, it feels like an appropriate throwback back to an era of blockbusters that weren’t afraid of their source material. With jovial bells and percussion, there’s a certain childlike wonder to the main theme. It also helps that horns and strings manage to come in and out of the melodies that makes it sound like a classic. The best way I can describe it is if John Williams decided to compose for his long-awaited Superman follow-up. Shazam! is a colorful and light-hearted dose of old-fashioned superhero fun. Despite his horror background, David F. Sandberg proves that he’s quite capable of making the genre his own. Not to mention the pitch perfect casting of Zachary Levi and Jack Dylan Grazer which makes the connection feel extremely tangible.

“Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace” Movie Review

Alright, I’m going to be completely honest with everybody reading this review. It is May the 4th, and this is not really the Star Wars movie I want to be talking about right now. However, I promised the review for a while and it’s appropriate for the 20th anniversary, so let’s do this. This epic space opera was originally released in theaters worldwide on May 16th, 1999, almost 16 years to the day from the premiere of Return of the Jedi. Widely anticipated from fans and the general public, the film managed to gross over $924.3 million at the global box office. This made it the highest grossing film in the Star Wars saga and the second-highest grossing film of all time at that point. It was also rereleased in 3D in 2012, bringing its total to over $1 billion. Despite this, it had an incredibly mixed reception, with fans and critics saying it was either just fine or a hot pile of garbage. Written and directed by George Lucas, the director had long expressed no interest in continuing the Star Wars saga as he felt it would fade out, even cancelling a planned sequel trilogy. However, after seeing the franchise’s sustained popularity through the Expanded Universe comic books and novels, he decided to move forward. He apparently adapted the screenplay from a 15-page outline he wrote way back in 1976, and took advantage of the then-burgeoning innovations of CGI. It’s also been confirmed that he tried to hand the reigns over to Ron Howard, Robert Zemeckis, and Steven Spielberg, all of whom insisted he be the one to helm it. Set 32 years before the events of A New Hope, Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor star as master Qui-Gon Jinn and apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi, two Jedi Knights sent to try and end a dispute between the Trade Federation and the Galactic Republic. Barely escaping an attempt on their lives, they soon abscond with Queen Amidala just as the Federation launches a full-scale invasion of the planet Naboo. While on the run and trying to make it home, they come across a nine-year-old boy named Anakin Skywalker, played by Jake Lloyd, who has unusually strong powers with the Force. They ultimately decide to take him and a misfit alien named Jar Jar Binks on a quest to prove that the Trade Federation’s actions are completely illegal and under the influence of the Sith Lord Darth Sidious. This is one of those films that’s hard for me to review fairly because it’s such a divisive film among fans and critics. I myself have had conflicted feelings over it for many years. I used to really like it and defend it to death as a kid, along with the other two prequels Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. Now that I’m older, I can definitely understand why so many fans felt burned by it when it was originally released. But is it the intergalactic dumpster fire that a lot of people have continually proclaimed it as? While Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace may be extremely disappointing and subpar compared to the rest of the saga, there are still a handful of things I like about it. I think George Lucas is a very creative person, with tons of different ideas that he wants to get out on the canvas. He wants to make a film about the political and economic machinations behind a galactic civil war? That is perfectly fine by me. What’s so bothersome about The Phantom Menace is that it never really weaves all of these ideas into the story in a compelling or organic way. Sure, we get to see that slavery exists in the Outer Rim and the lightsaber battles are glorious, but it doesn’t really matter when the direction and characterization are so choppy that it feels like they might have been sleepwalking. And I’m not even going to dive into the problematic nature of “midichlorians” and how that alters the Force. The performances, across the board, are an incredibly mixed bag. The impressive ensemble, including everyone from Samuel L. Jackson to Ian McDiarmid, try their hardest with the material given and are occasionally able to power through the wooden dialogue. Liam Neeson and Natalie Portman, as Quin-Gon Jinn and Padmé, seem particularly stiff and uncomfortable, not quite able to make out what to do with their characters. Ray Park and Ewan McGregor are by far the best of the bunch as Darth Maul and young Obi-Wan Kenobi, respectively. McGregor’s interpretation as a somewhat hotheaded Padawan is a neat foil for his later role in the franchise, and while Maul has few lines of dialogue, he left an impression as one of the coolest villains in the saga. Now we come to Ahmed Best and Jake Lloyd. I have no problems with these two personally, and the career-hurting hate they received is wholly unfair. But it’s hard for me to deny that Jar Jar Binks is an annoying character, even though Best is clearly have the most fun out of any of the cast members. And Lloyd does some decent work as young Anakin, setting the groundwork for the character’s tragic arc to come. But because the characterization is all over the place, there isn’t much of an angle that he gets from it. Even when it comes to the technical aspects, The Phantom Menace is still a hit-or-miss. David Tattersall’s cinematography is usually quite flat and uninteresting, opting for dull camera angles and zooms. Occasionally it starts to pick up when something exciting happens, but the film is so focused on expository dialogue that they’re few and far between. It also has a weird and confusing color palette, being bright and gorgeous one moment and absolutely dull the next. For better and worse, it goes hand-hand-hand for the editing by Paul Martin Smith and Ben Burtt. Using classic screen-swipes for transitions, the disparity between what’s convincing practical effects and obvious CGI is too often. While some of the effects still look fine and were probably fantastic for their day, others just have me scratching my head. But it does shine during the pod-racings sequence and the lightsaber duels, which are now much more elegant and choreographed. As is tradition, the musical score is provided here by franchise veteran John Williams. He brings a number of brand new themes to appreciate here, particularly “Duel of the Fates,” which plays during one of the most exciting lightsaber battles in the series. Using a full choir that sings in Sanskrit and backed by a full orchestra, the 4-minute track is beautiful and majestic all the same. Of course, the rest of the soundtrack utilizes Williams’ signature brass horn line, but also incorporates strings in a rather unique way. If for not the sake of continuity, this film is worth watching for Williams’ iconic score, which makes it at least FEEL like a Star Wars movie. I would definitely recommend watching the 2008 CG cartoon Star Wars: The Clone Wars. Not only is it a great series on its own but it also retroactively improves the prequel trilogy and provides even more context to what happens. In that, I can definitely appreciate what they’re going for here even more now and can see its potential. Unfortunately, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace is still a frustrating mishmash of confusing lore and uncertain characterization. I have no doubt that George Lucas tried his hardest to make this film great, and you can definitely see little moments that hint at it. But I truly feel like it would have been a lot better if he had handed the helming duties over to another director. And yet, it’s still not the worst film in the saga; that title still belongs to the Christmas Special and Attack of the Clones. Whether we like it or not, this movie introduced a whole new sect of the universe to explore and devour. And it’s definitely an interesting sect, but the execution of it all is still extremely underwhelming, even watching it now as an adult. May the 4th Be With You, fellow geeks!

“8 Mile” Movie Review

*Insert some unoriginal joke about Mom’s spaghetti somewhere in here* This hip-hop focused drama was originally released in theaters worldwide on November 8th, 2002, having been pushed back from a previous summer opening. It went on to gross over $242 million at the worldwide box office against a $41million budget and set a record for the biggest R-rated opening weekend at the time. The film managed to garner some very positive reviews both from critics and the rap community, even winning an Oscar. It also made over $40 million in DVD sales the first day of its release, a record for an R-rated  film at the time. Directed and produced by Curtis Hanson, the screenplay by Scott Silver is loosely based on the life of its main star. Numerous other filmmakers were in the running for the director’s chair, including Quentin Tarantino who had to turn it down to finish Kill Bill. Much of the rap battles, the centerpieces of the entire film, were auditioned for by various local artists and were given an improvised, one-take only opportunity. There was a bit of controversy when rap producer Buckwild claimed that one of the scenes used an instrumental of his song “Time’s Up” without his approval. Set in 1995 in Detroit, Marshall Mathers A.K.A. Eminem stars as Jimmy Smith Jr., an unhappy blue-collar worker struggling to provide for himself and his family. He harbors a strong passion for hip-hop music, participating in various underground rap battles under the stage name “B-Rabbit.” As he tries to win back respect after a humiliating defeat, he also attempts to look at his world beyond just his dreams. I’ve been a big fan of Eminem’s music for a long time now. Not just because it’s good music, but also because many of his songs are genuinely inspiring and motivational to me. Hell, even if his newer stuff doesn’t measure up to his first few albums, they’re still a lot better to listen to than most contemporary rap artists. Aside from his hilarious one-scene cameo in The Interview, I had always been curious what his leading role in this film would be like. I also adored Curtis Hanson’s film L.A. Confidential, and while this was a sharp departure for him, it still made me curious to see what he could do. And while 8 Mile is definitely rough around the edges, it’s still a very compelling drama with a surprising amount of insight. While yes, the rap battles themselves are gripping and fun to watch, they’re not really the point of the film. Rather, Hanson and screenwriter Scott Silver are far more interested in using them to contextualize the old and decaying city of Detroit. There are numerous empty houses lined up in entire neighborhoods where people go to party and the characters struggle to get jobs better than on the factory line. One of the areas where it falters is that 8 Mile, named after the titular highway separating demographics, can get a little didactic about these issues. There’s even one character who constantly goes on diatribes about the lack of economic opportunities for citizens there. All of this is well and good, but I feel like we didn’t necessarily need this. Eminem might not want to be a big movie star, but it’s impossible to see anyone else playing B-Rabbit. Yes, the character is based on him, but he inhabits such a hidden energy and repressed anger at his social circumstances that we can’t help but root for him. And when the battles in the final act finally come into play, he absolutely explodes in a fury of brilliance. By his side for much of the film is Mekhi Phifer as Future, B-Rabbit’s best friend and host of the rap battles. He maintains an unwavering optimism for his buddy’s talent and artistry, in spite of the problems they face on the daily. The late Brittany Murphy also makes an impression as Alex Latourno, B-Rabbit’s love interest. Although she sometimes feels more like a sketch of a person than an actual individual, she does good work as a woman who sees the potential in the protagonist’s abilities. Michael Shannon and Anthony Mackie also have effective small roles as men Jimmy has to overcome while D’Angelo Wilson, Evan Jones, and Omar Benson Miller chip in as his enthusiastic best friends. The one weak link is Kim Basinger as Jimmy’s alcoholic mother. She felt really miscast in her role, and wasn’t really convincing in her own struggles. Meanwhile, for a studio movie from the early 2000’s, 8 Mile‘s technical aspects are surprisingly down in the dirt and gritty. The cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto, who later shot Silence and Brokeback Mountain, has a dark aesthetic to it. Most of the scenes are shot in a handheld, cinéma vérité style without much flare or fancy movement. The naturalistic lighting and focus create some organically beautiful shots, such as an abandoned house burning down in the middle of the night. The added fact that all of the film was shot on location in Detroit creates a certain level of authenticity and honesty that’s rare in films. It matches up perfectly with Jay Rabinowitz, which somehow feels wise in the amount of shots shown in each scene. Although a number of scenes take place at night, it’s still easy to tell what’s going on. The rap battles near the end of the film are perfectly cut together, especially considering the fact that each one was done in just one take. As could be expected, Eminem also produced and curated the music soundtrack for the film. The vast majority of tracks are essentially instrumental backings from various songs of his, such as “8 Mile Road.” But there a re couple of more obscure songs, mostly by local artists from Detroit. The centerpiece of it all is obviously “Lose Yourself,” which became the artists first song to reach the top spot on the Billboard. With a very consistent beat of pianos, drums, and guitar, the lyrics are a fiery call to chase one’s dreams. He apparently wrote the song’s music and lyrics in between takes during filming. It ultimately went on to become the first hip-hop song to win the Academy Award for Best Original Song, which Eminem ironically slept through. 8 Mile is a familiar yet gritty drama about the trials of achieving one’s dreams. Although there’s nothing particularly revolutionary about the film, it has enough conviction to earn a spot of memorability thanks to Curtis Hanson’s direction. And not only does Eminem surprise with a great lead performance, but also gave us one of the best songs ever written for a feature film.

“The Curse of La Llorona” Movie Review

How exciting! This is my first ever review for a film I saw at a festival! I wish it were a better film, but hey I won’t complain too much. This supernatural horror thriller had its world premiere at the 2019 South By Southwest Film Festival. It is currently scheduled to be widely released in theaters on April 19th, 2019, by Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema. Made for the budget $35 million, given the studio’s track record the last couple years, it should have little problem earning it all back by the end of its theatrical run. But whether its middling critical reception can improve with general audiences remains to be seen. Produced by James Wan and Gary Dauberman, this movie marks the feature-length debut of director Michael Chaves, who previously helmed a number of short films. The screenplay was written by partners Tobias Iaconis and Mikki Daughtry under the original title The Children. Wan and CO. were apparently so impressed by Chaves’ work on the film that they immediately hired him to take over the next Conjuring film, which is supposedly slated to begin production later this year. Set in Los Angeles in 1973, Linda Cardellini stars as Anna Tate-Garcia, a social worker and widow. She’s called to check in on the status of a single mother Patricia Alvarez, played by Patricia Velásquez, who claims to be protecting her two boys from La Llorona, a ghost in Latin American folklore. Also known as the Weeping Woman, the story goes that a young Mexican woman drowned her children in a river after discovering her husband’s infidelity and then drowned herself out of extreme guilt, cursed to wade through the waters for eternity. Now, Anna becomes convinced that La Llorona is coming after her family next and enlists the help of a disillusioned priest, played by Raymond Cruz, to stop the evil spirit. Let’s get this out of the way before going any further: The Curse of La Llorona is the newest film in The Conjuring Universe. While such rumors had persisted for a while, it was always marketed as its own standalone horror flick. I don’t really consider this to be a spoiler because the connection to the other films is extremely lowkey, but take it as you will. To be perfectly honest, I don’t really have that much familiarity with this franchise, other than hearing a lot of praise from horror fans. I enjoyed what Wan did with the first Saw movie, and I like how he’s giving opportunities to newer filmmakers in the genre like Chaves or David F. Sandberg. Being my first experience at a film festival, there was a unique sort of anticipation I had for this film. And while The Curse of La Llorona has its share of fun moments, it just can’t quite rise high enough to separate itself from the crowded deluge of ghost movies. I have no doubt that Michael Chaves has a great career in the genre ahead of him, and he certainly shows some great skill behind the camera. But the issue is that the script he’s working with is so rote that it often feels like he’s fighting off what begs to be a jump-scare fest and dumb character decisions. At the very least, it could have honestly used an overhaul by another writer to make it a lot better. Furthermore, similar to The Cloverfield Paradox last year, I don’t feel like this had to be connected to The Conjuring at all. It’s a very fleeting moment shown in the latter half that doesn’t bear any actual relevance to the plot itself. I understand the desire for brand recognition to increase box office potential, but this could have easily written that crossover out entirely and no one would be the wiser. Linda Cardellini’s built a pretty sweet resume over the last few years with roles in films like Green Book and the underrated A Simple Favor. For her first stab at the horror genre, she does a pretty great job as Anna and exudes a certain vulnerability and strength in a frightened mother. Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen and Roman Christou play both of Anna’s children, Samantha and Chris, respectively. While horror films are often prone to terrible child actors, these two showed a decent range with what they were given. Patricia Velásquez is also pretty good as the petrified mother in Anna’s case while Breaking Bad‘s Raymond Cruz delivers some goods as a man of faith who may be the family’s best hope of survival. While they both did well with the material, their limited screen-time and development makes it hard to become invested in them. Cruz particularly feels underutilized and only really becomes important in the second half, and at that point he feels more like an archetype than an actual character. As continues to be tradition with New Line’s horror films, The Curse of La Llorona has some pretty polished and inspired moments from behind the camera. Wan’s regular cinematographer Don Burgess captures much of the action in darkness, often switching between tight Steadicam and handheld scenes. After a somewhat uneven prologue, the opening scene sees a single shot follow Anna and her children rushing around the house to get ready for school, setting the atmosphere. There are also a number of admittedly impressive bits where a shot seems like it’s following the titular ghost in one area, only for her to come back in the same shot. But the editing by Peter Gvozdas is pretty inconsistent and at times frustrating. While not necessarily choppy, it does feel in favor of creating jump scares with different shots following another. It can be clever sometimes in how it shows imagery, such as highlighting table cloths to imply that La Llorona is there. But the film is already wrestling with a meager script and editing it in such a ham-fisted way felt detrimental. Despite what the tone this review may make you think, I had a decent time with it. This is certainly a leap ahead of other horror movies like Wish Upon and The Bye Bye Man, but it still feels weighed down because of its obligation to the Conjuring Universe. Definitely a better viewing experience with a huge crowd, The Curse of La Llorona is a fleetingly scary flick that muddles a truly terrifying legend in favor of franchise connections. If for nothing else, this film shows that Michael Chaves clearly has a lot of talent and should enjoy a healthy career in Hollywood. His and Wan’s hearts are in the right place, but it just doesn’t make enough effort to distinguish itself from the genre. You’re most likely going to leave the theater having a fun time with all of the other patrons, but won’t remember much of it come the next day. But hey, it was super fun to watch at South By Southwest, so it’s great for that memory.