Category Archives: Music

“Pulp Fiction” Movie Review

Alright, since Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Tarantino’s 9th and potentially penultimate feature, is being released later this month, I decided it would be a great opportunity to look back at a couple of my favorite films of his. I highly doubt I’m the only cinephile to come up with this idea, but it gives me an excuse to talk about some of them. This neo-noir black comedy premiered at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the prestigious Palme d’Or despite protests from certain filmgoers. It was later theatrically released in the United States on October 14th, 1994, following a length festival run and huge word-of-mouth among critics. It managed to gross $213.9 million at the worldwide box office against a budget of $8 million, far more profitable than the average indie film at the time. It’s marketing campaign and awards season glory, including an Oscar win for Best Original Screenplay, went on to have a fundamentally huge impact not just on independent cinema but the film industry at large. Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, the story was originally conceived as a short by the director and his longtime friend Roger Avary, but it later evolved into a feature with an anthology trilogy. A couple of scenes that made it into the final product were originally intended for Tarantino’s earlier screenplay True Romance. Producer Lawrence Bender originally set it up at TriStar Pictures, who dropped the project after being horrified by its depiction of drugs and violence. The script was later brought to Miramax and the Weinstein brothers, who immediately bought the rights to it, making it the first feature film Miramax ever financed. The film follows various interwoven stories concerning criminal figures in Los Angeles over a couple of days. These include two philosophical hitmen debating retirement, a violent washed up boxer on the run from a mob boss, a Bonnie and Clyde-esque couple holding up a restaurant, and said mob boss’ wife going on a turbulent night out with one of his men. And to make things even more enticing, all of these vignettes are presented out of chronological order, so characters float in and out at various moments. I feel like I shouldn’t have to emphasize how deeply impactful this film has been on the world cinema over the last 25 years. Hell, even the poster for this film has already become a staple of college dorm rooms and cinephile apartments everywhere. Even if you only have a casual or passing interest in movies, this film will always make its way into your orbit one way or another. I was extremely curious to see how well it would hold up on this rewatch, especially after developing his craft further over the years to come. Would it seem obsolete and amateurish compared to the director’s later works? As it turns out, quite the opposite; even after making 8 feature-length movies, Pulp Fiction unquestionably remains Tarantino’s magnum opus. Under most circumstances, no film should be able to keep an audience’s attention through conversations about foot massages and a 5-dollar milkshake. But one of Tarantino’s best weapons has always been and continues to be his masterful ability to write dialogue that feels both cool and natural in his characters’ mouths. He uses these extended diatribes about trivial subjects both to help characterize the individuals on-screen and subtly hint at their interpretation of certain events in the story. Speaking of story, the decision to split the narrative up into different chunks and rearrange them all out of order is kind of an ingenious idea. I’m fairly confident that if this film were told in chronological order, it would not have become nearly as successful as it is now. But thankfully, Pulp Fiction feels like one of those old magazines with different crime stories- unexpectedly interwoven in a really graceful and organic way. Another one of the director’s specialties is getting the perfect actors for various roles and really pushing them to do their best. Two prime examples are John Travolta and Bruce Willis as Vincent Vega and Butch Coolidge, a bumbling hitman and runaway boxer, respectively. Both of these men’s careers were in a rut and yet somehow Tarantino was able to resurrect them by making these two interesting and unpredictable in nature. Another huge standout for me is Uma Thurman as Mia Wallace, wife to an intimidating local mob boss. Even as the literal face of the movie on most of the marketing material, she’s surprisingly in the movie prominently only for one segment, “Vincent Vega and Marcellus Wallace’s Wife.” Despite this, she still leaves a huge impression as a cocaine-addicted aspiring actress who just wants to have fun night out, especially during a dance sequence to “Son of a Preacher Man” by Dusty Springfield. But let’s be honest here, people: it’s Samuel L. Jackson in his star-making turn as Jules Winnfield that really brings the movie to a homerun. The first of several collaborations between the actor and filmmaker, he clearly relishes the role as an efficient hitman who comes into a spiritual crisis. It’s perfectly easy to see why Tarantino wrote the role specifically for Jackson, particularly when he recites a passage from Ezekiel before offing a victim: “The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides y the iniquities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men.” He’s had many great roles since then, but this will always be his defining role. And on a purely technical level, Pulp Fiction demonstrates Tarantino’s early prowess behind the camera. Many below-the-line team members had previously worked with the director on Reservoir Dogs, including cinematographer Andrej Sekula. His anamorphic cinematography creates a wonderful and diverse canvas with a beautiful film stock that leaves no grain. The camera almost always seems to know exactly to keep a focus on and a number of scenes are done in long takes. This is leveraged by the late Sally Menke’s fantastic editing job. Every single scene and shot is cut together to the director’s incredibly specific vision, giving us just what we need to see. It also manages to be a punchline for certain scenes featuring pitch black humor and mystery. Whether it’s the golden gleam from a McGuffin-like briefcase or the sudden cut from a guy accidentally getting shot in the face, the movie juggles a handful of tones that are beautifully interwoven. There is no original score for this film. Instead, we’re treated to a diverse and appropriate soundtrack full of songs from different eras. Starting and ending with surf rock interpretations of various songs, every selection is so obscure yet perfect for the moment. My personal favorite is Neil Diamond’s “Girl You’ll Be a Woman,” another little dance sequence for Mia Wallace. I don’t know how he does it or where he finds these songs, but the director always picks the right track for whatever scene it’s used in. And of course, with such a big, influential film like this, there came a wave of imitators in its wake. You know the types I’m talking about: fast-paced, dialogue-heavy movies with witty criminals as the central characters where violence is often used as a punchline for the humor. And yet, no matter what, none of those are ever able to measure up to what this film did because it simply did all of that right. Pulp Fiction is a cleverly written and highly rewatchable watershed moment for cinema across the board. While he’s made several other great films since this one’s release, Quentin Tarantino will always have to measure his filmography to this early masterwork. The characters and dialogue will far outlast any of the filmmakers and actors involved in this project. It’s rightfully become one of the quintessential films to watch as part of becoming a cinephile alongside Citizen Kane, The Godfather, Star Wars, and more.

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“Apollo 13” Movie Review

Yeah, I know it’s not really the appropriate month, but this coming July 20th will mark the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing. And I thought it would be extremely appropriate to revisit one of the earliest films about astronauts. This space-centric historical docudrama was originally released in theaters on June 30th, 1995. Made for the budget of $52 million, it went on to gross over $355 million at the worldwide box office and brought in a little more when it was re-released in IMAX in 2002. It also garnered some of the best reviews from that year and was nominated for 9 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It ultimately won two in technical categories and scored numerous victories elsewhere. Directed by Ron Howard, the film is adapted from the nonfiction book Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13 by Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger, which had been optioned by several studios. After Universal Pictures got their hands on the rights, the dense script by William Broyles Jr. and Al Reinert had been overhauled as the film was entering production. Many interior sets were built from the ground up, but NASA did allow them to use certain tools for accuracy, such as a reduced-gravity aircraft. Set in 1970, the true-story drama takes place at the height of the Space Race during the Cold War. Following the incredible success of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing, astronauts Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert, and Fred Haise- played by Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, and Bill Paxton, respectively -are assigned to helm the third official trip to the Moon. However, 3 days into the mission, a small technical failure causes an onboard explosion which deprives the ship of most of its electrical power and oxygen supply. Reduced to a lifeboat, the trio of astronauts and the NASA members back on Earth abort the mission and scramble to find ways to get the men back home safely. Let me get this out there so that there isn’t any confusion: I fully believe that the 1969 Moon Landing and all other lunar-based missions were 100% real. I have no interest in the idea that Stanley Kubrick filmed it or if the CIA staged the whole thing or any other conspiracy theories about it being fake. I don’t usually like to get on a soapbox for my reviews, but I just needed that to be known, especially when we’re so close to the anniversary of such a historical human achievement. In any case, I’ve always been fond of movies centered around astronauts, whether they’re laced with science-fiction like Interstellar or recounting history like last year’s First Man. Many of those films partially owe their success and existence to this Ron Howard film, and for good reason. Because Apollo 13 still holds up tremendously well all these years later and leaves me on the edge of my seat the whole time. This movie has been one I’ve seen multiple times at different ages or points in my life. As a child, I was in total awe of the tense adventure and visual effects. Now, as a fully-grown adult, I can understand the very real potential for the human cost this mission caused. Every time I watch it, I appreciate the people at NASA even more for their hard work and commitment to these missions. And while Apollo 13 may not be the most historically accurate film ever made, it does a fantastic job at illustrating that teamwork. Whether you know how the story ends or not, it’s hard not to be drawn into the drama of it all. With a laundry list of incredible roles, it’s kind of odd that his performance here is relatively underrated. He’s great as Jim Lovell, the level-headed leader of the team who’s not only concerned for his crew but also wanting to get back to his family. When the big explosion happens onboard, he utters the famous words, “Houston, we have a problem.” His crewmates Jack and Fred are played by Kevin Bacon and the late Bill Paxton, respectively. Although they have different personalities, it’s clear that their combined expertise will be the only thing that might help them get through the situation alive. The three of them bounce off of each other beautifully as the likelihood of their survival gets les and less certain and they begin pointing fingers at one another. Back on Earth, Ed Harris turns in an Oscar-nominated turn as Gene Kranz, the team’s Flight Director. Although we don’t really get to see his interior life, he absolutely refuses to give up on the Apollo crew no matter what the public or his NASA superiors may think. His dialogue is delivered with the authority of an Aaron Sorkin script, which is probably one of the highest compliments I could give to him. The rest of the cast on Earth does a great job at propelling the human drama and intensity of the task at hand. These include Kathleen Quinlan as Lovell’s optimistic yet concerned wife, Gary Sinise as the deposed original member of Apollo 13’s crew, Joe Spano as the NASA director worried about public perception, Bret Cullen as a Capsule Communicator, and Xander Berkeley as the bumbling yet well-intentioned member of the Office of Public Affairs. Each of them manages to elevate the 2-hour and 20-minute runtime with humanity, even if not all of them get full characterization. Meanwhile, the technical aspects of Apollo 13 show Ron Howard in full command behind the camera. Dean Cundey’s widescreen cinematography captures everything in the mission with exquisite detail. Considering that there are no archival shots from the actual ship in the film, that’s especially impressive. The practical sets make the film feel more authentic, particularly a couple of shots that simply drift through the spacecraft and show the crew. While most other shots throughout the film are static, they work for establishing the enormity of NASA’s hopes and dreams for the future. And the Oscar-winning editing job by Daniel P. Handley and Michael Hill is truly remarkable. Whenever something big is happening, it constantly cuts back between the three men onboard the ship and the people at Mission Control. Not only that, but it doesn’t forget to cut back to scenes with Lovell and Haise’s families, as a way to illustrate the potential cost if this mission doesn’t end well. If this weren’t edited as well as it is, the movie would lose all of its intensity and grip on viewers. The late great James Horner composes and conducts the instrumental film score, which can only be described as Aaron Copland in cinematic form. The use of snare drums is extremely present in many of the tracks as if to keep the intensity of the situation constant. Much like Copland, there’s a prevalent amount of strings and horns throughout the soundtrack, a sound of patriotic optimism in the face of great obstacles. It also makes occasional use of heavenly choruses as a way to capture the absolute God-like nature of the mission. It’s films like this that honestly make me wonder why we ever stopped going into space decades ago. For better and worse, it really is going to be the final frontier for mankind and abandoning it just seems foolish. We’re now wiser and more experienced thanks to the dedication of the people in this film and I think we ought to use it for exploration. Apollo 13 is a gripping and masterful thriller about perseverance and teamwork in the direst of circumstances. Ron Howard’s classic historical drama feels like the type of film that never gets made anymore, and I mean that in the best possible way. Without the needless emotional manipulation, we’re able to get straight to the point; a grand story about one of the greatest rescue-and-recover missions ever attempted.

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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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“Lagaan” Movie Review

Although I’ve reviewed a handful of foreign-language films before, it occurs to me that I’ve never reviewed a Bollywood movie. So what better way to resolve that checkbox than making it a part of my New Year’s resolution? This epic musical sports drama was originally released in theaters around the world on June 15th, 2001. However, per a promise, the producers arranged to have it premiere first in the ancient village of Bhuj where it was shot. Although it was produced on the then-unprecedented budget 250 million rupees, (Roughly $5.32 million in U.S. dollars) it managed to gross over 3 times that amount. It went on to become one of the highest-grossing films in the country at the time, and scored massive critical acclaim across the world. It also managed to become the third Indian film to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Written and directed by Ashutosh Gowariker, the film was partially inspired by the 157 film Naya Daur starring Dilip Kumar. The filmmaker had an extremely difficult time finding funding for the project, so much so that the main star started his own production company just to get it off the ground. While Gowariker and Sanjay Daima came up with the overall story and English dialogue, the dialogues in Hindi and its various dialects were handled by K.P. Saxena. With a grueling schedule that included a year of pre-planning and 6 months of filming, the cast and crew have continually stated that it was one of the most physically challenging films they’ve ever done. Set in the small Indian town of Champaner in 1893, Aamir Khan stars as Bhuvan, a young man devoted to helping his poor village thrive. With the local British cantonment putting their boot further under the neck of the Raj, the cruel leader Captain Andrew Russell, played by Paul Blackthorne, orders the citizens to pay double the tax. However, he makes a deal with Bhuvan to cancel all taxes for the next 3 years if they win a game of cricket against him and his British soldiers. Bhuvan takes up the challenge and with help from Russell’s sister Elizabeth, played by Rachel Shelley, brings along 10 other men to learn the game within the course of 3 months. For years, I had heard raves about the Bollywood film industry, but never had the chance to watch one of its offspring. It wasn’t until a few years ago during a class that I finally managed to watch one; it was this movie. Since then, I’ve watched a handful of others in the genre, albeit more modern ones such as Queen and Dangal. But after discovering that this film, along with other films by Aamir Khan, were available in their entirety on Netflix, I decided to give it another go. Would it hold up on second viewing? And thankfully, as has been the pattern with my New Year’s resolution, Lagaan is still a wonderful movie and actually improves the second time. Don’t let the intimidating runtime of 3 hours and 43 minutes steer you away, though. This is rather typical of big Indian movies, often setting their stories against a massively epic canvas. I actually argue that this is one of the best primers for getting into Tollywood or Bollywood films, as it has all of the essential ingredients the genre has to offer. It really is a huge, old-school crowd-pleaser and it’s honestly refreshing that it does not care what its audience thinks of it. In that, some people might be quick to dismiss Lagaan (or Once Upon a Time in India in some territories) as being too predictable and easy-going, and they would be partially right. And yet, the film has such a strong and engrossing way of immersing you into its world that it’s almost impossible to escape from its orbit. Aamir Khan is one of India’s biggest movie stars (If not their biggest) for good reason; he’s perfect in the lead role. As Bhuvan, he exudes empathy and concern for the people in his village, recognizing both the oppression dealt out by the British regime and their own personal tensions. Opposite him, Gracy Singh is a true talent as Gauri, his longtime love. Not as thankless a role as it may sound, her singing and dancing skills are incredible, especially when she sings a melody about her seemingly unrequited love for the hero. Paul Blackthorne is also delightfully villainous as Captain Russell, without a doubt the main antagonist of the picture. Arrogant and stubborn to a fault, he has no problem making the villagers’ lives a living hell- or for that matter, infuriating his superior officers. The rest of the cast is rounded out by an impressive ensemble of actors with varying roles. There’s Rachel Kelley as Russell’s kindhearted and unassuming sister, Kulbhushan Kharbanda as the seemingly powerless Raja of the region, Yashpal Sharma as a woodcutter jealous of Bhuvan’s heroism, and Raghubir Yadav, Rajesh Vivek, Akhilendra Mishra, Pradeep Rawat, and Aditya Lakhia as some of Bhuvan’s cricket teammates. While these men have many differences and doubts, (Lakhia plays an “untouchable”) the chemistry the hold is key to making the audience care about them. On the technical side of things, Lagaan has so many techniques worthy of the best epics in cinema. Anil Mehta’s sweeping cinematography is a thing to behold, capturing everyone and everything in every frame with perfection. The sweeping shots and predominant colors of yellow and brown help craft a look of a piece of history long forgotten. During musical numbers, like many Hollywood and Bollywood classics, the camera often moves flawlessly between different characters during the song. Meanwhile, Ballu Saluja’s editing job is able to keep the momentum consistently going for the mammoth runtime. His graceful scene transitions and patient cuts make sure nothing is too rushed or drawn-out. The climactic yet somewhat unorthodox showdown between the soldiers and the villagers is cut together in such an elegant and captivating manner that it’s hard to lose attention. And not to mention, his editing manages to do something remarkable: It made me sweat my palms during a cricket match, something that has never happened before. That, alone, is a noteworthy accomplishment. A.R. Rahman, one of the industry’s most celebrated composers, provides the instrumental film score here, which in my opinion is one of the most underrated ones in cinema. For all of the flare, there’s actually only two instrumental tracks on the soundtracks, but they both leave a huge impression. Crescendos aplenty can be heard in percussion and horns especially, and span various different musical styles. There are also six original songs that are a joy to listen to, with extravagant choreography and lyrics by Javed Akhtar. My personal favorite is actually the very first one, “Ghanan Ghanan,” performed by all of the villagers. Concerning their plight of a serious drought, it’s quite hard to get the central melody out of your head. It manages to perfectly illustrate what the movie is all about: unwavering optimism in the face of great trial and adversity. With an incredible soundtrack, characters worth rooting for, and palpable stakes in the rather simple plot, Lagaan is a sweeping musical triumph of epic proportions. Not only is it arguably the most accessible Bollywood movie for Western audiences, but it’s also officially my favorite sports movie of all time. The wonderful costumes, fantastic musical numbers, solid cast, and impeccable finale really help to put it over the top. Please do yourself a favor and seek this gem out on Netflix. And while you’re at it, go ahead and watch any other Bollywood movies in its catalogue.

“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.

“Avengers: Endgame” Movie Review

**While this review will be completely spoiler-free, I’m going to be under the assumption that everyone reading it has already seen Infinity War. Proceed at your own discretion.**

And to think, 11 years ago, this entire saga started in a cave, with a box of scraps. It’s truly jaw-dropping to see how far it’s come since then. But I’m extremely glad to have seen it all the way through. This epic superhero film was released in theaters around the world on April 26th, 2019, a week ahead of its previously scheduled release date. Within its first couple of weeks, it has already grossed over $2.189 billion at the global box office, and is very likely to make it as the highest grossing movie of all time. It’s broken a handful of box office records and is sure on its way to shatter some more in the coming weeks. Numerous movie ticket websites such as Fandango and Atom Tickets consistently struggled to keep their servers operating, and ended up selling the most amount of pre-release tickets for a film within a few hours. Once again directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, the film was shot back-to-back with its predecessor Infinity War. This marks the 22nd overall installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and has been promised to be even more of a culmination than its predecessors. While most all of the MCU films have maintained a certain level of secrecy about the plot, the producers and marketing team for this one went extremely far out of their way to ensure nothing got out. This included filming fake scenes that were purely used for trailers, a practice which some took issue with. According to numerous sources, only one member of the principal cast was given the entire screenplay to read. Picking up 23 days after the end of Infinity War, the remaining heroes of the Avengers are still reeling from the destructive victory of Thanos. Soon, they realize that they might have a legitimate chance to undo the damage done by his snap, which ended half of all life across the known universe. So they set out on a quest to recover the Infinity Stones to hopefully bring their loved ones back. And… that’s it. That’s quite literally all I can get into here without spoiling anything else about the plot. The Russo Brothers actually sent out a joint letter on Instagram asking fans to ruin anything for the people who haven’t seen the movie and out of respect for them, I won’t say another word about the actual plot. Obviously, like so many other fans and cinephiles, I was wondering how Marvel and the Russos could possibly follow up Infinity War, a film I found highly entertaining despite feeling a little unsatisfying. This would arguably become an even bigger culmination than that film, the sum of 22 films over the past 11 years. No other film in history has had such a Herculean task to achieve, let alone take on. Would it reach the stars or crumble in our hands? The simple answer is yes, yes it can; Avengers: Endgame exceeds all expectations one could possibly hold for it. The best way I can describe it is that this feels like the series finale for a T.V. show that I’ve been watching for the last decade. It has a certain sense of finality that most superhero films don’t have, really bringing a lot of character arcs to a strong thematic close. If I were given the job of writing the screenplay, I couldn’t possibly have done a better job at wrapping it all up. Of course, Disney and Marvel still have numerous projects coming down the pipe in the coming years. But as the wrap-up to 11 years worth of stories and characters, Endgame couldn’t have been more fulfilling and awesome. The Marvel mountain will never peak this high ever again. Quite literally everyone who’s ever been in an MCU film to date appears in this movie one way or another. All of them have grown immensely comfortable in their roles to the point where it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing them. Of particular note are the Original Six Avengers- Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, and Jeremy Renner. All of them have gone through incredible journeys since the first installment and getting to see them all reunited is so emotional. The end credits even include the actors’ signatures next to their names. Downey Jr. and Evans are especially amazing as Tony Stark/Iron Man and Steve Rogers/Captain America, respectively. As the defacto leaders of the team, both feel a deep shame from having failed the people they love and struggle to reconcile with the new world. And despite the faith-shattering fallout the two of them had in Civil War, they realize that their mission goes beyond any hard feelings they harbor for one another. Also noteworthy is Karen Gillan as Thanos’ cyborg daughter Nebula. In the previous films, she had never really impressed me or stood out as a character very much. But here, she’s given a full, interesting arc where we get to witness her reckon with past misdeeds and how to try and redeem herself. And at this point, there’s no real need to espouse how Avengers: Endgame is because all parties involved know exactly what they’re doing. Whether it’s lighting, sound design, art direction, or costumes, quite literally everything here works. The visual effects especially, as it took nearly 10 different companies- from Industrial Lights & Magic to Framestore -to bring the complex visuals to life. They’ve already accomplished making a fully CG character like Thanos look photorealistic, but adding more to that and keeping all of the realistic detail is unparalleled. It also has some of the best editing in the franchise done by Jeffrey Ford and Matthew Schmidt. When the mission becomes split up, we are able to cut between multiple scenes of the heroes working on their parts. This keeps the pacing aloft without having to getting muddled by exposition or constant action scenes. But when there are action scenes, they are so beautifully crafted and fluid that you can tell everything that’s happening. Without any. Rapid. Cuts. Once again reprising duties from Infinity War, Alan Silvestri provides perhaps one of the best superhero scores of the last to decades. By calling back to various themes and motifs from throughout the MCU, it feels like it’s really bringing everything full circle. The use of massive choirs, brass, and strings for new tracks is enough to induce goosebumps in any viewer. Of particular mention is the track titled “Portals,” which blends the classic Avengers theme song from the first movie with an exciting intro and outro. I’ve given the MCU heat for not having lots of memorable music, but this soundtrack truly feels like a fitting culmination to everything that’s come before in this franchise. In all seriousness, there is so much more I could write about this movie, that I WANT to write about this movie. But for now, this spoiler-free take is all that’s going to out right now. I’ll wait a little bit longer to write a spoilery review with my thoughts on various scenes or things that happened. Somehow bringing together 11 years and 22 movies worth of stories and making it all meaningful, Avengers: Endgame is an emotionally resonant journey, and one of the most satisfying feature films I have ever seen. This was the epic payoff to an unprecedented cinematic gamble that will rarely, if ever, find its equal. The Russo Brothers truly did the impossible and brought Stan Lee’s unbridled vision to life on the big screen. My only wish is that he had stayed alive long enough for it to come before his eyes like the rest of us. If this truly the endgame for most of this universe, than I am so happy to have taken this road, even through the bumpier installments. I love it, 3000.