Category Archives: Favorite

“Lawrence of Arabia” Movie Review

The day that the casual viewer is able to make it all the way through Lawrence of Arabia with little to no guidance is the day that they truly fall in love with this medium. That’s happened to me, and I sincerely hope that that is what happens with other future cinephiles like you. This epic historical drama was first released around the world on December 10th, 1962 by Columbia Pictures. Grossing over $70 million at the box office against a budget of $15 million, it also won massive critical praise and scored multiple award nominations. It ultimately went to win 7 out 10 total nominations from the Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, has been included in several “Best of all time” lists, and- easily most important of all -has been proclaimed by Steven Spielberg as his favorite film of all time. It’s also been rereleased in theaters multiple times in different formats, both digital and celluloid. Directed by David Lean, the long in-development production on the true story marks the second collaboration between him and producer Sam Spiegel, who had worked together on  the war film Bridge on the River Kwai. It took many years to convince the titular figure’s surviving father to sell the rights of several writings collected. Mainly taking inspiration from his work The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, screenwriters Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson traded several drafts, which tried to juggle the study of the main character as well as the more political aspects of the events., but were forced to start filming without a complete screenplay. Based mostly on the true story, Peter O’Toole stars as T.E. Lawrence, a highly educated British Army lieutenant who has the personality of a misfit. During World War I, he is sent to the Arab Peninsula, where Prince Faisal and the gathered Arab tribes are in need of support for their uprising against the Ottoman Empire. To the surprise of pretty much everyone around him, he becomes an important figure for the War to End All Wars in this sector of the world. His accomplishments and exploits turn him into a messianic hero for the cause, but also must contend with the emotional and psychological toll the journey brings on him. It feels cliché to say this, but I’d say that it’s a pretty safe bet that every cinephile out there has at least one film that ignited their passionate love for movies. Some might be seen in the theater, others are probably found on home media. Either way, it must have awoken something deep inside the viewer, an unquenchable thirst for answers on how a motion picture like this could be so amazing. For me, Lawrence of Arabia is that type of movie. For it not only opened my eyes to things once thought impossible on the film canvas, but proves to be a true gem in a seemingly forgotten time of ambitious filmmaking. I can still vividly remember the first time I watched it. It was the first weekend after 7th grade started, my mother suggested we go see it together. It was showing at the Paramount, an old movie theater in the downtown Austin area,  screened in 70 mm with an intermission. It is one of the most memorable viewing experiences I’ve ever had, and the moment that I wanted to fall in love with cinema. What strikes me most is how well-balanced everything is, whether it’s intimate moments with the big or broad themes with character-centric ones. David Lean never gets enough credit, in my opinion. In his first major acting role, Peter O’Toole gives a stunning performance as Lawrence himself. Whilst it exaggerates certain aspects of his character and legacy, the subtlety in his gradual spiral. This is best illustrated in two moments when Lawrence looks at himself in the reflection of a dagger, and the circumstances of both. He also employs a wry sense of humor, as the first thing he tells a soldier after trekking through the desert is, “We want two, large glasses of lemonade.” Opposite him is Omar Sharif as Sherif Ali, the protagonist’s primary Arab guide in the adventure. Far more pragmatic and stern than Lawrence, it’s clear how much he’s willing to sacrifice for the Arab cause. Like O’Toole, he deserved to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, despite not winning. Meanwhile, the technical aspects of Lawrence of Arabia are almost entirely what caused me to seriously examine filmmaking. Freddie Young’s astonishing cinematography brings the Arabian desert to glorious, beautiful life. Gorgeous wides of the vast landscape paint the scope of the story on 70 mm Super Panavision film. With static push-ins and steady shots, this film as some of the most breathtaking frames my eyes have ever laid eyes on. In fact, in many ways, it eclipses the craftwork of other crew members. Which is not at all to bash Phyllis Dalton’s fantastic costumes or the amazing production design of Johns Stoll and Box. Equally impressive is the editing by Anne V. Coates, which is extremely precise and engaging. The now-famous transition from a match flame to sunrise in the desert is so unexpectedly perfect in its simplicity and effectiveness. In many ways, that one transition captures the whole scale and scope of the film, and it’s so simple. Maurice Jarre composes and conducts the musical score, which has become so iconic over the years that it defines multiple film scores’ templates. The main theme, which is used as the backbone for most of the tracks is just like the film itself: huge, bolstering, jaw-dropping, and beautiful. It primarily utilizes a series of elaborate strings to eschew the main melody several times, while also using a number of other great instruments. These include bouncing percussion such as xylophone, timpani, and auxiliary equipment to more harsh brass trumpets. There are even brief bits of marching military snare drums and trills on high-pitched flutes. The theme builds and then drops again constantly, almost like a Shephard’s Tone built specifically for the desert. It’s grand and flamboyant, much like the titular protagonist. And what an accomplishment it should be to all those who can withstand the mammoth task of finishing it all in one sitting. Clocking in at 3 hours and 42 minutes, it may sound like an intimidating commitment of time. But trust me when I say that that running time actually flies by, for it not only engrosses you in the adventure but makes keeps you enthralled by way of all of the stated qualities above. Lawrence of Arabia is an incredible and sweeping epic destined to inspire for eternity. This is the kind of movie that, as you’re watching, feels like the only movie that there was, is, or ever should be. Films like Lawrence of Arabia remind me why I love cinema in the first place, and makes me fall head over heels for the medium every time I see it. And someday, if I ever get to fulfill my dream of becoming a filmmaker, this David Lean masterpiece is the one I’ll watch right before production.

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“Eighth Grade” Movie Review

Full disclaimer before starting this review: If awkward moments legitimately stress you out, this movie might literally kill you. If anything, that should be proof enough that the film did its job perfectly for me. This coming-of-age dramedy premiered as part of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Following a string of screenings at other events such as South By Southwest, the critically acclaimed film received a limited release on July 13th and expanded to more cities and theaters in the following weeks. It has thus far received over $10 million at the worldwide box office as well as some of the best reviews of any film released this year. Written and directed by Bo Burnham, a standup comedian mostly known for quirky YouTube videos, the film was born out of his own anxieties about the Internet and other concerns in the past couple years. He wrote the first draft of Eighth Grade in less than two weeks and was quickly brought to the attention of producer Scott Rudin and distributor A24. According to him, the hardest part was trying to have enough time to work with the child actors- and fighting the R-rating that would ultimately deter their demographic from seeing it in theaters. The 94 minute-long plot follows Elsie Fisher as Kayla Day, a shy and awkward young girl struggling to come to terms with growing up. In her last week of eighth grade, she decides to start making a series of self-help YouTube videos that could hopefully boost her confidence. As she gets more wrapped up in various social media shenanigans, she discovers more about herself and the classmates surrounding her, most of whom seem to spend the vast majority of time on their phones. While I was excited to see Eighth Grade because of all of the extremely positive buzz that it’s been getting, I won’t hesitate to admit that I was unsure if I could relate to it. I’m a (somewhat) grown man with virtually no social media account whatsoever. I’ve never been a 14-year-old girl with long blonde hair and a crush on the popular boys in the classroom. I have never really found the desire to vent a lot of my problems into some social media app like Snapchat or Instagram on my phone. And yet, that probably means that Bo Burnham, a 26-year-old man making his directorial debut, is a lot more informed about our current culture than I am. And that should be the highest praise that Eighth Grade can receive because it’s just such a marvelous film to watch. It’s truly a wonder how well Bo Burnham actually “gets” just how awkward and awful it is to be a middle schooler in the modern era. He has no reservations whatsoever about expressing the pains of growing up as a teenage outsider. That undesirable span of time when it feels like you’re stuck between at least two different worlds, one that wants you to leave as soon as possible and the other that doesn’t want you in the first place. I honestly don’t know how Burnham was able to grasp this world and tone so realistically and beautifully. To the best of my knowledge, he never had the experience of being an adolescent girl growing in the post-Millennial era. But again, that’s what makes it so well-done. Elsie Fisher gives a star-making performance as Kayla, and everyone should be paying attention to this. She’s so naturally shy and dorky as Kayla that it almost seems like the part was written for her. Without any makeup hiding her imperfect skin, and with a real-life age that corresponds with her character, she virtually is Kayla Day. Pretty much all of the supporting cast members are made up of unknown actors, all of whom are age-appropriate for the story. But the one person who can match Fisher is Josh Hamilton as her loving if confused single father. While he doesn’t quite understand what all she’s going through, he tries his hardest to be there for her. He delivers an impassioned monologue near the film’s end about how lucky and proud he feels to be her family. In some ways, he seems, a little too good to be true. But there’s no denying that any child would be lucky to have him there to support them. But what’s also extremely impressive about Eighth Grade is how well-constructed it is from a filmmaking perspective. I had been expecting a lot of shaky, handheld camerawork, but cinematographer Andrew Wehde sidesteps this successfully. The camera is almost always steady as it focuses on different characters when needed. The spontaneity of the shot composition unfolds almost in real time for scenes, which makes it seem as awkward as our protagonist. What’s interesting is that when Kayla’s often with her father, it sticks to static wide shots as if to illustrate the distance between the two of them. The editing is handled very well by Jennifer Lilly, who employs enough cuts to maintain continuity. For example, more uncomfortable moments are drawn out while others are more filled. What’s more is that the actors are all using real Snapchat and Instagram accounts made by the director himself, creating realistic lighting effects. And often it’ll use one of Kayla’s videos as a transition tool between scenes. The instrumental score is composed by Anna Meredith, an electronica artist whose debut album released a couple years ago. Her sensibilities are well-met, as the soundtrack replaces ditzy guitar-heavy pieces commonly found in these films with tracks consisting almost entirely of synthesizers. Most of them are made up of only a few chords and create a certain dissonance that fits the uncertainty of the characters. A select few also include electronic drum kits and melodies that strike a surprisingly effective emotional chord with the audience without having to be overly saccharine. There’s also a great use of the song “Orinoco Flow” by Enya in a montage sequence that feels incredibly appropriate for the tone. Overall, this is a great soundtrack worthy of its approach. In all seriousness, I’m quite convinced that this is the masterpiece many critics and viewers are touting it as. There were a couple of elements in the story that just seemed a little too far removed for me to be able to empathize with completely, plus the lack of rewatchability. I definitely see why it’s been getting all of the hype, but something felt missing- I can’t quite put my finger on it. Regardless, Eighth Grade is an immensely relatable piece on the ambivalence of the Internet. I really emphasize enough how shocked I am to see how complete Bo Burnham’s feature debut is. It makes me eager to see what else he has in store for creative output. It also is anchored by perhaps the best female lead performance of the year so far. Elsie Fisher is a star that deserves love and recognition. Be wary of intense awkwardness, though.

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“Toy Story” Movie Review

In the vast world of cinema, there are game-changers and then there are THE game-changers. Consider this film, dear friends and readers, to be among the latter group. This computer-animated comedy, the first of its kind in feature length, was originally released by Disney on November 22nd, 1995. It made back over 12 times its $30 million budget at the worldwide box office and became one of the highest grossing films of the year. Later spawning a franchise, the film also garnered unanimous critical acclaim, dozens of award nominations usually not considered for animated features, and was one of only 6 films to be selected for preservation by the National Film Registry in its first year of eligibility. Directed by John Lasseter, the then-unproven company Pixar Animation Studios was offered a deal to make a full-length picture after the success of multiple shorts. Written by no less than 8 individuals, including Joss Whedon and Andrew Stanton, the original story reels for the film were so disastrous that Disney almost abandoned it on several occasions. Executive producer Steve Jobs (Yes, the creator of Apple) had such shaky faith in the production that he began thinking about selling Pixar to other rival computing companies. As most people are probably aware of, the high concept story is focused on Andy, a young boy whose various toys come to life whenever humans are not around. On the day of his birthday party, the whole team is thrown off when a new action figure comes in named Buzz Lightyear, who’s actually unaware of the fact that he’s a plastic toy. This begins a rivalry with Woody, a pull-string cowboy doll who has general leadership over the gang. After the two of them accidentally get lost, they must work together to find Andy and the rest of the toys as the family is soon moving to a new home. Hollywood, and the movie industry in general, has a certain pattern that it unintentionally adheres to. There’s a particular genre or style that most studios and filmmakers like to continue or imitate because it’s simply the norm. Any initial attempt to break away from that mold is kind of scoffed at by the larger community. And then comes along a film so original and different that it literally changes everything. I mean, EVERYTHING. Toy Story should certainly be counted among those films, for it not only showed the untapped potential of computer animation, but also revealed Pixar as a forerunner in creative storytelling. And while it may be their first, it’s still unequivocally their best. It’s truly impossible to understate just how impactful this film was at the time of traditional animation being much more acceptable. That’s not to discredit anything that came before this one. (My favorite animated film is still a classic Disney picture) But a bunch of newbies heading up a company that just started as a computing branch for Steve Jobs cut their teeth so effectively. The screenplay was the first one for an animated film to receive an Academy Award nomination, which would become almost precedent for future Pixar endeavors. Witty without being cynical, and heartwarming without being sappy. And the most amazing part is that the film is able to cram so much worldbuilding and plot into just 81 minutes, yet never feels rushed or bloated. Two of their most career-defining roles, Tim Allen and Tom Hanks were practically born to voice Buzz Lightyear and Woody, respectively. The chemistry between them is so natural and on point that you’d swear they’ve been doing this for years. Their comradery provides much of the emotional punch throughout, whether it be touching or hilarious. One of the funniest characters is Mr. Potato Head, voiced by the late great Don Rickles. Despite his mean-spirited nature, there’s just something lovable about his breakable parts that makes him endearing to audiences. Another notable player is John Ratzenberger as Hamm the piggy bank, who would go on to have a role in every single Pixar film. And while Toy Story may have aged in some parts, it’s still a wonderful piece of technical prowess. As the first full-length film of its kind, the animation was extremely revolutionary for the time. The crew use the full 24 frames per second watching it and then walking out wondering how they did it. Admittedly, some of the animations for characters or actions, particularly ones for humans and the dog Scud, look fairly aged on rewatches. But it still holds up amazingly today thanks to fantastic sound design and editing choices by Robert Gordon and Lee Unkrich, who’d go on to direct Toy Story 3 and Coco. Randy Newman composes and conducts the musical score, which perfectly matches the whimsical and childlike nature of the story. He uses conventional strings and bombastic brass during some of the more sweeping scenes for adventurous effect. He also brings his signature jazzy, seductive style to more piano-heavy tunes. Newman lends his sweet voice to a handful of original songs that are performed throughout the film. The most famous and memorable one is “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” which plays during the opening and closing credits. The lyrics are a swell ode to the core themes and motifs of the story, as well as the later two sequels, of friendship and trust regardless if you’re made of plastic or flesh. Packed with unforgettable characters, creative set pieces, excellent quotes, and plenty of heart to propel forward, Toy Story is an extraordinarily realized landmark adventure full of groundbreaking moments. Nearly every frame in this film featured what would come to be expected from a film made by Pixar, and spawned an entire generation of imitators in its wake. Not often can it be said that something has so boldly changed the ebb and flow of a cinematic tide. But Toy Story can lay such a claim, as it still shows how much other companies, including themselves, what can be accomplished in the field of animation.

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“Fargo” Movie Review

And for our next entry in my New Year’s resolution series, we take a look at perhaps one of the coldest, most isolated spots in all the United States. You’re darned tootin’ that things are gonna get ugly up in here. This black comedy crime film was originally released on March 8th, 1996, grossing nearly 10 times its $7 million budget. It was also a part of the Competition for the Palme d’Or at that year’s Cannes Film Festival and went on to win 2 Academy Awards the following February. In addition, the film is one of only 6 movies in history to be selected for preservation in the National Film Registry in its first year of eligibility. Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, who at the time couldn’t be credited together yet, the film claims to be based on a true story. (It’s not, really) The duo had to deal with difficult conditions during the shoot, but by all accounts, the hard work paid off. It also, unfortunately, received bad press after a Japanese woman died trying to find the “real” money buried out in the snow. Set mostly in the titular town in North Dakota, the story follows William H. Macy as Jerry Lundegaard, a down-on-his-luck car salesman from Minneapolis. Swimming in over $300,000 of debt, he desperately hires two dimwitted criminals, Carl Showalter and Gaear Grimsrud, to kidnap his wife and collect a hefty ransom from his wealthy father-n-law. However, Grimsrud and Showalter impulsively kill a state trooper and two eyewitnesses on the side of the snowy highway. This attracts the attention of police chief Marge Gunderson, who is determined to solve the case despite being over 7 months pregnant. I have an odd relationship with the Coen Brothers, almost as odd as the films they make together. Some of their films, like Hail, Caesar! and Inside Llewyn Davis, left me feeling cold and unsatisfied, but others such as A Serious Man, Raising Arizona, and O, Brother Where Art Thou? I really adore. Most of their filmography requires at least two viewings to fully grasp what was being said or done. However, of the ones that I have seen, there are only two films of theirs that I truly love. And honestly, after this rewatch, I’m extremely tempted to say that Fargo is my favorite one. In my lifetime, there have only been a handful of films I’ve seen that I’m willing to call “perfect” without any reservation. Among them: Pulp Fiction. Raiders of the Lost Ark. Moonlight. Singin’ in the RainThe Shawshank Redemption. Casablanca. Whenever I see lists or compilations that countdown feature films with no flaws or issues, I always want to see Fargo make it on there. There is not a single misstep in the plot, not one line of dialogue that feels out of place, no thread left unresolved or a weak link performance. Every time I watch it, I actively look to see if anything stumbles, even in the background. But for such a mundane film, one that only runs at about 98 minutes total, Joel and Ethan have crafted something truly masterful, despite the fact that it takes place in the middle of nowhere. The two show a knack for getting incredible performances out of actors, not the least of which is Joel’s wife Frances McDormand. Deservedly winning an Academy Award for Best Actress, her turn as Marge is so believable and understated that you’d swear she actually lives in the northern state itself. William H. Macy is also excellent as Jerry Lundegaard. Despite his apparent sliminess, he is able to wring out a tiny bit of sympathy as we see just how desperate and pathetic he is. Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare play the two criminals hired for the job, Carl Showalter and Gaear Grimsrud. Whereas Buscemi is playing his typical role of a talkative and deceptive dirtbag, Stormare is more of a quiet, thoughtful man capable of unexpected violence. Either way, it becomes clear how stupid these two really are for taking on the job. Other supporting players like John Carrol Lynch, Steve Reevis, Harve Presnell, and Kristin Rudrüd each provide a neat little addition to the supposedly “nice” environment and leave nothing to complain about. And like many of their other films, Fargo is a secretly brilliant film from a technical standpoint. In the third of what would be an extremely fruitful collaboration with the duo, Roger Deakins uses the cinematography to create a feeling of isolation. The frame is almost always filled with wide shots of the blank, bleak, endless landscape of snow and ice. It’s almost as if they’re reminding us that while it might look unremarkable at first glance, there’s always more than meets the eye to a place set in the middle of nowhere. The Coen Brothers also lend their hands at editing the picture, a common practice in their career. They show remarkable patience with cuts in scenes. Many are drawn out or stalled, as if to elicit more laughter from the audience, even in some really moments. The most interesting ones are when it cuts between the calm, happy nature of certain citizens and the severely sad atmosphere of others. Carter Burwell provides the original instrumental score, who has turned out to give it to 15 of the directors’ films over the years. And it’s a real doozy, somehow matching the winter landscapes of both Minnesota and North Dakota with an almost melancholic whimsy. The opening theme, which serves as the backbone to most of the tracks, perfectly establishes the offbeat tone to be expected from this film. With light flutes and Western-esque violins, the main melody is as simple and elegant as the plot. It also utilizes soft mallet percussion and other plucked strings to great effect. And like other entries in the brothers’ filmography, there’s always something more to take away than just what the plot might be. Whether it’s the nihilistic undertones of No Country For Old Men or the absurdist mind reality of Barton Fink, the duo have quite a bit to say without specifically pronouncing it. In this movie, they look at what it takes to be happy and fulfilled, which very few of the characters are. When Marge finally confronts the bad guys, she lectures, “And for what? For a little bit of money. There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’tcha know that? And here ya are, and it’s a beautiful day. Well. I just don’t understand it.” Despite that relatively sad observation, it does convey how little a normal person should have in order to attain happiness. With fantastic dialogue, beautiful performances, and multiple people working at the top of their craft, Fargo is a darkly hilarious and satisfying meditation on crime and life. I don’t know how Joel and Ethan Coen do it, but they manage to take someplace as mundane as a small snow-filled town and transform it into a tense, unpredictable thriller backdrop. Every member of the cast is perfectly written for their parts while Roger Deakins and others work their behind-the-camera magic. All in all, this might just be the cinematic definition of the word “perfect.”

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“Let’s Do It: My Favorite Movies #40-31

I know it’s been quite a while since I posted the last batch of 10 favorite films. But after preparing for a new chapter of my life, I’m ready to get back to my favorite thing to do on this website: compiling lists. We start with a pretty hot take that I still believe in.

#40: “Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi” (2017)

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Here’s a way to stir the pot: How many readers am I in danger of losing by openly saying that I loved The Last Jedi? In all seriousness, though, I completely get why a lot of fans don’t like this movie, as long as their criticisms are not at all related to diversity or inclusion. Everything that I said in my original review (As well as my spoiler discussion piece) I still stand by wholeheartedly. Few major franchise blockbusters in the last 20 or 30 years have had this much of a shakeup in storytelling and expectations. Emotionally complex characters and some truly surprising turns would have been more than enough for me, even without all of the superb action sequences. But I was totally won over by two words: Praetorian Guard.

#39: “Halloween” (1978)

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The new sequel/reboot, due out in October, is perhaps my most anticipated film for the rest of 2018. I rarely come across films anymore that are successful because of their simplistic premise and effects. And yet, that simplicity is the most important ingredient in Halloween, John Carpenter’s iconic and terrifying horror film. It’s really hard to imagine the full range of impact Michael Myers and Laurie Strode had on the genre, at the time or release or in the years since. And while he may just be wearing a spraypainted William Shatner mask, Michael (Or The Shape) is one of the scariest and most menacing figures ever to surface on the big screen. Now, I’m afraid to go out trick-r-treating on the titular holiday.

#38: “Blade Runner” (1982)

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To be clear, I’m more a fan of the Final Cut than the original theatrical one or the dozens of different versions. A hypnotic, fiercely debated cult classic that was finally granted a sequel just last year, Ridley Scott is a director who makes meticulously beautiful movies. But while not quite my favorite of his, Blade Runner is perhaps his most visually striking and technically complete feature film. Between the mesmerizing world created and the heady ideas that swim around the narrative, it’s not hard to see why this sci-fi noir has impossibly endured for decades. He and Philip K. Dick may have gotten a lot of the future technology wrong, but not a whole lot has changed in terms of human reliance on machines and prejudice against “The Other.”

#37: “Dunkirk” (2017)

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World War II is a haunting, violent period of time that has played the backdrop for MANY, MANY Hollywood productions over the years. However, none of them have been anywhere near as immersive or as immediate as Dunkirk, which is essentially Christopher Nolan’s feature-length experiment in cinematic virtual reality. The fact that the characters aren’t given a whole lot of backstory is almost irrelevant to the feeling of actually being at the insane evacuation attempt, from no less than 3 perspectives. Seeing this on 70 mm is a perfect reason why it’s often worth driving out to the movie theater and experiencing something new on the big screen. And boy, was it an experience.

#36: “Aliens” (1986)

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Sigourney Weaver as a badass. The battle with the Queen. James Cameron. I am wholly incapable of hating this movie. I’m well aware that there are many fans out there who prefer the original horror-centric Alien to this action-heavy sequel, and I can totally see why. But Aliens does just about everything that I want to see in a sci-fi action movie. Amazing effects that still hold up 32 years later, an expertly told story, great characters worth rooting for, memorable action set pieces. You’d likely be hardpressed to find a more complete slice of mid-80’s blockbuster entertainment.

#35: “Saving Private Ryan” (1998)

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It wasn’t until very recently that I discovered that there are a number of people who don’t like Saving Private Ryan. Mostly, the arguments I’ve heard are that the stunning opening 21 minute-long sequence on the Normandy beach landing is the only remarkable thing about it as a whole. The people who tell you that it’s only good for that should not be listened to. While it does occasionally fall for some of Spielberg’s sentimental antics, the way he so realistically strips the soldiers down to their bare essence as human beings contrasts so well with the shocking, disturbing violence of war battle scenes. Also, don’t allow anyone to tell you that Shakespeare in Love deserved winning Best Picture over this film.

#34: “The Departed” (2006)

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The Departed is quite possibly one of the quickest 2 and-a-half hours I’ve had the pleasure of watching, which is an amazing compliment coming from me. Perhaps the most easily accessible film in Martin Scorsese’s career, it seems like a typical story of an undercover cop on the surface. But once you get entranced by the brilliant writing and believable acting, it becomes a blurred tale of morality, identity, and survival. Pretty much no one is given an easy way out, racking up tension and bringing out the best in people like Mark Wahlberg and Jack Nicholson. (In his last great performance, in my opinion) The violence is rough, but not gratuitous. The editing is sharp, but not overly flashy. And the particularly vulgar dialogue brings out the true character of Boston’s criminal underworld and the police department.

#33: “The Matrix” (1999)

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Any film that can force Keanu Reeves to actually act and emote is automatically doing something right in my book. I remember watching The Matrix at just the right time, as a 13-year-old boy. At that point in time, the only sci-fi stories I really knew or cared about were Star Wars, E.T., Jurassic Park, and Star Trek. The Wachowski siblings managed to open up a completely new world of possibilities, one where the rules of physics wouldn’t necessarily have to be applied. While the tech in the movie is a bit dated, the action scenes are absolute eye candy. Sometimes, I genuinely think I might be stuck inside something as unreal as in the film. Give me the red pill any day of the week.

#32: “Back to the Future” (1985)

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My entire life, I have quite literally been unable to find a single living person who even slightly dislikes this movie. That should be testament enough to its quality and worthy legacy, but Robert Zemeckis created an entity that absolutely demands to be seen multiple times over. Not necessarily to figure out the plot threads, but because it relies on old-school simplicity. Rather, the adventure of Back to the Future is so iconic and fun that no amount of rewatches will ever make me sick of it.

#31: “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2” (2011)

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Now this, THIS, is a fine example of how to wrap up a franchise that was 10 years in the making. While I do love all of the Harry Potter films for various reasons, Deathly Hallows Part 2 is really the masterpiece for how it so carefully brings all of the pieces of the series together. Payoff after payoff, one emotional death after another. The filmmakers were actually justified in splitting J.K. Rowling’s final novel into two movies, a strategy that unfortunately spawned several more copycats in the YA genre for the next few years. But when comes to lovable characters and storied mythology, almost none were as comprehensive or worthwhile. The Courtyard Apocalypse is honestly a very charged battle that recounts many elements of the characters’ past experiences at Hogwarts. All is well.

“Unbreakable” Movie Review

Every single film snob out there who posits that superhero movies could never take place in the “real world” clearly weren’t around for the pre-Marvel Studios boom. I’m not just talking about The Dark Knight (Which turns 10 years old this month) but something that was never even based on an existing comic book. This superhero psychological thriller- written, co-produced, and directed by M. Night Shyamalan -was released on November 22nd, 2000. With a relatively small budget of $75 million, the film managed to gross over $248 million at the worldwide box office. It’s somewhat disappointing box office intake, as well as the polite reaction from critics and audiences, were partially blamed on Touchstone Pictures’ marketing campaign. It has since garnered a huge cult following, as well as a recently confirmed sequel due out in 2019. Following the massive, unexpected success of his previous film The Sixth Sense, Shyamalan outlined the film’s screenplay and structure like that of a comic book. With the two lead characters written in mind for the actors portraying them, he decided to turn it into a straight-up hero/villain origin story. The spec script ended up being sold to Disney for $5 million, a record deal at the time, who in turn helped the director form his own production company. Bruce Willis stars as David Dunn, a stadium security guard who is struggling to salvage his marriage and life in Philadelphia. On a train home from a job interview in New York City, the Eastrail 177 crashes- but Dunn emerges the only survivor, without a single broken bone or injury sustained. Getting word of this “miracle,” comic book art gallery owner Elijah Price, played by Samuel L. Jackson, contacts Dunn and approaches him with the idea that he might actually be a superhero. Despite being stricken with Type I osteogenesis imperfecta, which makes all of his bones brittle, Price keeps a watchful eye over Dunn’s actions as they both begin to realize their place in the world. How on earth did M. Night Shyamalan go from being proclaimed “the next Spielberg” to becoming the laughing stock of Hollywood? I’ve made no secret about my hatred for The Last Airbender and After Earth, but that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy his earlier films. For the longest time, I had been dying to see his take on the superhero genre, especially since it came right before the genre had exploded. And now, with Split out and Glass officially coming to theaters next January, I figured now would be as good a time as any to check out Unbreakable. And it is by far my favorite Shyamalan picture. Moreover, it’s a wonderfully original take on the superhero origin story. The marketing campaign sold it as the next supernatural thriller from the man behind “I see dead people.” When in reality, this really is, as director Quentin Tarantino put it, a story in which Superman hypothetically lived on Earth without knowing his full abilities. In fact, in many ways, the film does a better job at deepening the purpose and artistry of comic books than most movies adapted from the illustrated pages. As Elijah Price says, “I believe comic books are a form of history that someone, somewhere felt or experienced. Then, of course, those experiences and history got chewed up by the commercial machine, got jazzed up, made a titillating cartoon for the sale rack.” The opening text, alone, perfectly shows why comics are such a big and important cornerstone in modern pop culture. That, combined with the surprisingly serious tone, makes it feel as though it takes place in a world that you can reach out and touch. It’s easy to see why the main characters were written in mind for the leads because they pull it off so easily. Despite his list of cool roles over his career, I’m fairly positive that this is Bruce Willis’ best performance yet. Like his work in The Sixth Sense, he’s so subtle and quiet for much of the movie, yet you can feel a history of emotional pain. That he never really achieved something truly amazing in his life, that his marriage to the woman he loves is about to fall apart, that he’s disconnected from his own son. Opposite him, Samuel L. Jackson is equally subdued but no less excellent as Elijah Price. As obsessive as he is calculating, his occasional dips into being over the top are perfectly fit for that of a supervillain, especially with his self-given nickname Mr. Glass. Other performers like Robin Wright and Spencer Treat Clark as Dunn’s family, and Charlayne Woodard as Elijah’s concerned mother add something unique to the experience. Meanwhile, Shyamalan shows us that he really does have a wonderful eye for filmmaking techniques. Shot by Eduardo Serra, primarily working with European auteurs, the cinematography is extremely precise and controlled. Most scenes are shown on steady single long takes, which arguably gives the cast more room to breathe. The shot composition is arranged in such a unique way that it actually emulates a real comic book panel. The use of color by editor Dylan Tichenor further illustrates this by assigning certain hues to characters or situations. For example, whereas David Dunn’s livelihood is dominated by shades of green, Mr. Glass is primarily shown in purple. And in certain sequences, a character’s clothes will be highlighted brightly, in contrast to the dreary palette of the real world. For fans of comics, this is certain to be a delightful round of catching homages, especially as Elijah explains specific artistic aspects of the medium. James Newton Howard, the director’s frequent collaborator, composes and conducts one of the best instrumental scores for a superhero film. The main theme song is very singular and unconventional, utilizing an electronic drum kit mixed with different sounds and strings, building up a huge crescendo. Other tracks use simplistic instruments such as minimal trumpets and rousing percussion tools like timpanis and piano. While most of them are made to create a sort of misterioso tone- appropriate as the main hero discovers his own powers -others feel so inspirational and weeping that they feel like they belong in a classic Hollywood epic. And the best part is that they’re all perfectly timed with each moment; the director reportedly showed Howard the storyboards in order to establish what he wanted. And it really shows. Also, I’m really surprised by the generally negative response to this film’s ending. Shyamalan is a director who is famous (Or perhaps infamous) for including a twist in the final scene that shakes up the plot. In his later films, there is justification for this criticism as it felt as though he was just throwing it in for its own sake. I can moderately understand that, as it’s partially wrapped up through epilogue text. I won’t spoil the twist ending in this film, but as with The Sixth Sense, the ending here not only makes perfect sense to me, it also improves a lot with repeat viewings. I’ve watched this film twice within 24 hours, and it only gets better. Unbreakable is a truly inspirational and realistic take on an often disrespected medium. Whatever you may think of his later films, there’s almost no denying that this is M. Night Shyamalan’s true masterpiece. What really makes the film special, aside from everything said above, is that it makes you believe that you, too, might be a superhero. That you have the capacity within to do good work and help people who need it. And for that, I can safely count it as one of the best, and most original, superhero films ever put to the silver screen.

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“Paddington 2” Movie Review

I feel like I’m a little late on this one, but I’m glad I got to check it out. Because, quite frankly, I really needed this movie today. And hopefully, everyone else feels the exact same way. This family adventure film was released in the U.K. on November 10th, 2017, before hitting the United States on January 12th, 2018. It grossed over $226 million, only slightly less than its predecessor, but went on to become the highest-rated film of all time on Rotten Tomatoes. (I’m not even making that up) Following the massive success of the first film in 2015, the sequel was set up for release at the Weinstein Company. Following the sexual assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein, however, both producer David Heyman and British distributor Studio Canal looked for another American studio to handle a movie intended for children and families. Thankfully, Warner Bros. Pictures picked it up for $32 million and the film was officially saved. About a year after the previous installment, Paddington Bear, a kind-hearted anthropomorphic bear from Darkest Peru, has settled with the human Brown family in London. Approaching his Aunt Lucy’s 100th birthday, he desires to get her an old and expensive pop-up book of London. However, the book is stolen by Phoenix Buchanan, a washed-up actor, and Paddington is subsequently framed and wrongfully thrown in prison for it. Now the Browns, Paddington, and his fellow inmates must find the book and clear the bear’s name in time for Aunt Lucy’s birthday. I only watched the first Paddington movie back in December, and I loved it. It was not only one of the biggest cinematic surprises I had in a long while but I genuine regretted missing it in theaters. Even though I wasn’t entirely familiar with the late Michael Bond’s hand-drawn children’s books, it wasn’t hard at all for me to connect with the raincoat-wearing bear who loves his marmalade. Yet again, I missed the opportunity to catch the sequel in January, only getting the opportunity to finally watch it on an international plane. And, hand to God, I totally feel bad about it. Because Paddington 2 is one of the best family films I have ever seen in my life. I’m being completely serious here. And maybe a lot of that has to do with the fantastic timing of this movie’s release. Under normal circumstances, a studio movie about a talking bear acting extremely British would have been simply seen as “cute” and “fun” before being indefinitely put to the cinematic sidelines. But because the last 18 months under a new leader of the free world have made so many ordinary people feel so miserable on the daily, (This critic included) director and co-writer Paul King could not have put this out into the world at a better point in time. We needed a piece of accessible media, cinema, to remind everyone that “If you’re kind and polite, the world will be right.” Granted, they couldn’t have known all of the horrible things that would have been done or said under the Trump administration, but that’s beside the point. It acts as a superpowered antidote to actions such as Brexit and the travel ban, as well as the xenophobia that inspired both. Administering said antidote is Ben Whishaw as the voice of Paddington Bear, whose charm will immediately win viewers over. Think of him like a British version of Mr. Rogers; he’s kind, well-behaved, gives everyone compliments, and never forgets to use his manners. While the two children of the Brown family aren’t particularly memorable, Sally Hawkins and Hugh Bonneville do great work as the parents. Both have their own insecurities but are still caring and try to help guide Paddington through the real world at every turn. Peter Capaldi, Julia Walters, and Jim Broadbent all turn in fun supporting roles that give more perspective to the silly plot. But to me, the true scene-stealers are both Brendan Gleeson as Knuckles McGinty and Hugh Grant as Phoenix Buchanan, respectively. While Gleeson is a rough prison cook with a heart of gold, Grant gives arguably the best performance of his career as a selfish, washed up actor trying to respark his fame. You can tell he’s having an absolute blast hamming it up as the villain, and there’s chatter that he could break into Best Supporting Actor. That’s no joke. And from a pure filmmaking point of view, Paul King is inspired with the way he tells this story. The steady, fluid camerawork by Erik Wilson does excellent work following the ever-moving plot. In fact, some scenes are planted with unique symmetry to highlight what’s important for the moment. Combined with the vibrant and dynamic color scheme, and you’d easily be forgiven for thinking that Wes Anderson made this movie instead. It sure feels like one of his more tame, fast-paced comedies except much more family-friendly. Plus the editing by Mark Everson and Edgar Wright collaborator Jonathan Amos is frenetic but never disorienting. Each cut feels appropriately planned and some shots are even cut together to create a sort of long-take montage. It also helps that the CGI work brings Paddington to life so convincingly. Having been highly prolific yet underrated the last few years, Dario Marinelli comes in as the replacement for composing the musical score. His score is a diverse one, with several tracks that contrast each other nicely yet still retain the innocence of the tone. Case in point, the opening track, when we’re introduced to Windsor Garden, is jolly and filled with life. The composition has upbeat percussion such as xylophones and high-hats running well alongside the strings. Then, another theme is a more serene piano melody that’s calming and nice to listen to but feels less fun or jovial than other tracks. In keeping with the happy spirits of the film, the filmmakers decide to end the film creatively. While a wonderful hand-drawn animation plays over onscreen, Harry Belafonte’s song “Jump in the Line” can be heard and acts as a cute dance number. So yeah, all of that is one long way of saying that we needed this movie now more than ever. In a world where so many awful things are seen happening on the national news on a regular basis, here’s a little bubble of escapism and happiness that reminds everyone to look for the goodness in them. And somehow, it encourages us to find it. Knowing exactly what it needs to do and how to do it, Paddington 2 is a warm slice of feel-good, life-affirming cinema that all families must watch. In essence, this movie is a ginormous bear hug both for our bodies and our souls. We may not deserve it, but it’s what we all require right now, to let us know that it’s not the end of the world.

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