Tag of the Month: Love Conquers All (February 2018)

It’s February at The Movie Maestro, and that means it’s time for a new Tag of the Month!

What is the “Tag of the Month?”

Every month, in between my regular reviews, I will be viewing films pertaining to a certain theme, be it seasonal, holiday, or otherwise-oriented. Examples: “Twisted Xmas” for December, something scary for October, etc.

February’s Tag: Love Conquers All
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Yeah, I know. A romantic tag for the month of Valentine’s Day. How original. But we all need stories of love at least every now and then to revitalize our tired old hearts, so this is as good a time as any. But, to put a little spin on the proceedings, I’m going to focusing more on the kinds of love stories that make us root for the underdog; tales of unlikely love mixed in with the usual to remind us that there just may be a soulmate for everyone out there.

Keep a look out for the tag #LoveConquersAll on my Instagram and Tumblr reviews, and check back here each week for links to them all.

THE REVIEWS:
50/50
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Purple Rain
The Shape of Water
The Sound of Music
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World
August Rush
Lady Bird

Last Month: Visions of the Future

Last month, I took a look at various futuristic films, ranging the gamut from post-apocalyptic to urban dystopia. If you missed the reviews, you can check them out here.

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REVIEW: The Lego Movie (2014)

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Directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller
Written by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, Story by Dan Hageman, Kevin Hageman, Phil Lord, and Christopher Miller
Starring the Voices of Chris Pratt, Will Ferrell, Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett, Nick Offerman, Alison Brie, Charlie Day, Liam Neeson, Morgan Freeman

Hey guys, did you know that everything is awesome? That everything is cool when you’re part of a team? Everything is awesome, when you’re living the dream! Indeed it is, especially when that dream is turning the bastard child video series of a multi-million selling construction toy into one of the greatest movies to be released in recent memory.

Emmett (Chris Pratt), a completely ordinary LEGO mini-figure who lives his life like everyone else–according to the instructions–is identified as the most “extraordinary person” and the key to saving the Lego universe. Emmett and his friends go on an epic journey to stop the evil tyrant, Lord Business (Will Ferrell), whose evil plans to ensure order in his world with a powerful weapon threatens to freeze the entire LEGO realm in place–forever! As a prophecy about ‘Special’ comes true with the discovery of ‘Piece of Resistance,’ Emmett must tangle with the likes of Bad Cop (Liam Neeson), Micro managers and ‘Man from upstairs’ during his journey to save the world.

I both love and hate the reactions I get when I list The Lego Movie as one of my favorites. I love feeling like Emmett by the end of the film, with my mind opened to a knowledge and understanding that some people haven’t reached by embracing it as more than a fun time for kids, and I hate it as well, because people just need to recognize. The Lego Movie has everything any moviegoer would ever want: hella good performances by established and seasoned actors, beautiful animation, tons of laughs, and well-plotted story that sinks its teeth into the biggest philosophical questions there are.

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The secret to the film’s incredible fortitude is the creative talent behind the “camera,” namely producer Dan Lin, who originally conceived the project, directors Christopher Miller and Phil Loyd, and animation supervisor Chris McKay. Together, these four men were able to push a corporate-driven production into realms of storytelling bliss that is becoming harder and harder to find among tentpole cinema.

Taking place in a Lego world that is as complete as it is imaginative, the animation appears incredibly lifelike–to the point where most viewers don’t realize they are watching something that is totally computer animated. Everything on screen is composed of virtual Lego blocks, from the buildings and vehicles to even the water, fire, and clouds. Every character is an authentic Lego figure, only able to move in ways the actual toys can, a stark contrast to the cheaply-produced straight-to-video entries from the decade prior, where everything moves in bizarre, rubberized ways. This is all thanks to the creative team, who sought to harken back to most well-known Lego fan films of the 20th Century, like Journey to the Moon or The Magic Portal.

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It is in this homage to the most small-scale, independent filmmaking possible that The Lego Movie shows its true heart, by turning what has always been a business model, or in the sad case of The Magic Portal a corporate shutdown of the little guy, into a deep tale of the relationship between freedom and order. As McKay explains,

“We wanted to make the film feel like the way you play, the way I remember playing. We wanted to make it feel as epic and ambitious and self-serious as a kid feels when they play with LEGO. We took something you could claim is the most cynical cash grab in cinematic history, basically a 90 minute LEGO commercial, and turned it into a celebration of creativity, fun and invention, in the spirit of just having a good time and how ridiculous it can look when you make things up. And we had fun doing it.'”

Emmett’s journey through the narrative only heightens this, weaving threads of Joseph Campbell’s analysis of heroic myths into a film that projects the age-old conflict of the freedom of chaos versus the social contract, represented in bombastic, childlike form by the likes of Morgan Freeman’s Vitruvius (literally the Renaissance Vitruvius), and Will Ferrell’s Lord Business (subtle). In addition, Emmett’s vision of the outside world and the “Man Upstairs” is highly evocative of Plato’s cave allegory, and when Emmett finally reaches the outside, the meta-textual nature of the film really takes off.

Of course, the philosophizing is sandwiched into a film who’s first priority is entertainment, and watching the filmmakers play in several sandboxes worth of sets, haphazardly yet intelligently weaving together everything that makes the Lego toyline so unique and fun is quite the treat. The actors take their cues from the filmmakers, injecting whimsical spontaneity into their performances that always has me grinning from ear-to-ear. Who wouldn’t be giddy at the prospect of Will Ferrell playing the ultimate universal evil, or Morgan Freeman as blind wizard who’s sensitive about being called old?

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When it comes down to it, The Lego Movie is one of the best films of the 2010s already, by far. It’s sheer entertainment value props it up above the usual summer drivel, and its themes of cosmic purpose and the value of personal liberty manage to stick it to the man while he simultaneously makes money off of the message. If you still can’t make it through a whole viewing, maybe it’s time to leave adulthood in the trash can and give it another go, because if Lord Business can be stopped by the wonder of a child(man), than you can too!

REVIEW: An American Tail: Fievel Goes West (1991)

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Directed by Phil Nibbelink and Simon Wells
Written by Flint Dille, Story by Charles Swenson, Characters Created by David Kirschner
Starring the Voices of Phillip Glasser, James Stewart, Dom DeLuise, Amy Irving, John Cleese, Jon Lovitz, Erica Yohn, Cathy Cavadini, Nehemiah Persoff

One of the many VHS tapes I wore out as a child. An American Tail: Fievel Goes West may have been the animated cinema equivalent of blasphemy–a sequel to a Don Bluth film made without his presence–but it still holds a special place in my heart for sentimental reasons. It’s actual merits are a little harder to defend, but not impossible.

Some time after the Mousekewitz’s have settled in America, they find that they are still having problems with the threat of cats. That makes them eager to try another home out in the west, where they are promised that mice and cats live in peace. Unfortunately, the one making this claim is an oily con artist named Cat R. Waul (John Cleese) who is intent on his own sinister plan. Followed by their true cat friend, Tiger (Dom DeLuise), the Mousekewitz’s travel west, where Fievel must team up with his Old West sheriff hero, Wylie Burp (James Stewart), to stop Waul.

Bluth’s original film was made towards the beginning of his remarkable directorial career, after he had left Disney and set up shop with Universal studios and Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment. While that relationship would soon end, An American Tail was the result of that pairing. With Bluth out for the sequel, Spielberg proved to be the guiding influence that saved this sequel from complete ruin, bringing on board two likewise former Disney animators, Phil Nibbelink, and the grandson of the great H.G. Wells, Simon Wells.

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Picking up where the original left off with Fievel’s family having settled on the East Coast of America, the film quickly glosses over any and all continuity hiccups quickly, showing that their “land of opportunity” wasn’t all it was croaked up to be. After an attack by a vicious cat gang drives them underground, they are duped into heading west to start yet another new life by the villain of the picture, Cat R. Waul, played with eloquent viciousness by John Cleese, easily becoming the best voice of the film.

Out west in the town of Green River, the mice are again lured into becoming the workforce for the cats building the town, who plan to then feast on the mice as a celebration. Fievel goes to the town’s canine sheriff, the old and tired Wiley Burp, for help, who then enlists Fievel’s cat friend Tiger for a vigorous training and showdown with Waul’s gang. James Stewart, in his final role, voices Burp with all the Western movie star swagger he has left, becoming an excellent compliment to the wild antics of Dom DeLuise as the cowardly Tiger.

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Despite Bluth’s absence, animation technique and style remain mostly consistent with the first film, even in the face of design changes to several characters. In fact, the only real minus I can give to the animators is that the color palette of this film seems a bit bright compared to the rusty bronze of the first, but then again, this could be a consequence of the change of setting to the sandy western deserts of America. The film’s score is as proficient and moving as the original, with the new song, “Dreams to Dream,” as good as “Somewhere Out There” was.

If there’s a major flaw to Fievel Goes West, it’s the story. Clocking in at 76 minutes, it’s shrimpy compared to An American Tail, seemingly missing an entire act before Fievel goes to Burp for help, and spending much of its early minutes establishing yet another “Fievel gets separated from his family” subplot. Even his father doesn’t seem to worried about him after he is lost, considering that this a movie that steals just a bit too much from its predecessor.

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Opening the same weekend as Beauty and the Beast, Fievel Goes West was destined to be smashed by that superior film, even without its narrative deficiencies. However, this said, it tends to be an overlooked piece in early ’90s animation, worthy of just as much praise and attention as any of Bluth’s films from the same period. I just wish there was more of it.

REVIEW: This is Spinal Tap (1984)

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Directed by Rob Reiner
Written by Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, and Rob Reiner
Starring Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, Rob Reiner, June Chadwick, Tony Hendra, Bruno Kirby

I grew up under the watchful eye of a father with a heavy love of rock and roll. I always love to say that I developed in the womb listening to Rush and Pink Floyd, and the only genre of film I consumed more than sci-fi pictures were rock concerts and music documentary films. Needless to say, my long-belated first viewing of This Is Spinal Tap stirred some dormant childhood memories. In between the laughs.

In 1982, legendary British heavy metal band Spinal Tap (Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer) attempt an American comeback tour accompanied by a fan (Rob Reiner) who is also a film-maker. The resulting documentary, interspersed with powerful performances of Tap’s pivotal music and profound lyrics, candidly follows a rock group heading towards crisis, culminating in the infamous affair of the eighteen-inch-high Stonehenge stage prop.

From the get-go, I’d say Rob Reiner’s ambition with this film wasn’t just to revive an old ABC comedy sketch, but to prove that the documentary is the most perfect form of comedy. Capturing the sense of humorous unity in its fictitious band played by three veteran comedians who’ve had time to cement their comedic camaraderie, Reiner’s film is probably as gut-busting as it is subtle, enough to fool those who don’t know of the monumental(ly bad) rock legends of Spinal Tap into believing this is a real doc.

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Starting with most of its humor contained within the “behind the scenes” segments of the film, Spinal Tap slowly picks up pace, revealing a band in its death throes–but the band doesn’t know it yet. Their music (while catchy to my Iron Maiden-loving ears) is juvenile at best and hopelessly pretentious at worst, their interviews are stuffed with brainless drivel and politician-level evasion, and their interactions with management and the filmmakers contain a terrifying amount of stupidity. In a scene that sums up the entire affair, Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest), the lead guitarist, takes Reiner on a tour of his workshop, littered with far more guitars and amps than even the greatest guitarist of all time would need, capped off with a special amp with dials that go up to 11. Why 11?

With logic like that, who needs the Stones?

As the show goes on, Reiner’s sensibilities stay square on target, punctuated by bursts of dry, out-of-control insanity. The diva-like complaints on backstage food, the slapstick stage malfunctions, and the arrival of lead singer David St. Hubbins’s (Michael McKeen) Yoko Ono-like girlfriend are works of genius, and when filtered through the high-contrast filmstock so evocative of actual rock documentaries, it comes across as incredibly subtle, even during the zanier moments.

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This is as much owed to the main stars of McKeen, Guest, and Harry Shearer in full Lemmy Kilmister-mode as it is to Reiner. Having played the roles before in an ABC pilot sketch, they obviously have had time to perfect their stagecraft in ways that blows the mind. Nothing feels forced or scripted between them, and they effectively disappear under the hair and makeup of bad ’80s rock.

From cross-eyed manager with a cricket bat to the perpetuation of nature’s hatred of drummers, This Is Spinal Tap is shrewd comedic perfection at every turn. It’s funny and authentic at the same time, and hits quite at home when one knows exactly how the brains of rock stars work. It’s a world of egotism, disconnect, and buffoonery, and Reiner’s film is quite simply the best at showing that.

REVIEW: The Interview (2014)

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Directed by Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg
Written by Dan Sterling, Story by Seth Rogan, Evan Goldberg, and Dan Sterling
Starring James Franco, Seth Rogan, Lizzy Caplan, Randall Park, Diana Bang, Timothy Simons

Remember December, 2015? When North Korea threatened global thermonuclear war over a comedy film? When cinemas were pulling it from bookings nationwide, and frat boys declared their uber-patriotism by downloading a movie? Remember when that was the craziest the news got? Those were the days.

Dave Skylark (James Franco) and his producer Aaron Rapoport (Seth Rogen) run the popular celebrity tabloid TV show “Skylark Tonight.” When they discover that North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un (Randall Park) is a fan of the show, they land an interview with him in an attempt to legitimize themselves as journalists. As Dave and Aaron prepare to travel to Pyongyang, their plans change when the CIA recruits them, perhaps the two least-qualified men imaginable, to assassinate Kim Jong-un.

The Interview, originally conceived as both a satirical attack on shallow late night television and probably the most monstrous dictatorial regime currently on the face of the Earth, was obviously meant to be no more than a spiritual successor to the efforts of Trey Parker and the South Park creators, whilst staying firmly rooted in the metatextual comedy of Seth Rogan’s work. What it ended up becoming was an even bigger and more controversial piece than Rogan or Franco or co-director Evan Goldberg ever imagined. All because of the very man they were “killing” in their film. The resulting firestorm is worthy of a film story in of itself, interesting and funny in ways I still can’t believe, and that’s even after the bag of poo-fire we as a nation have suddenly found ourselves in by electing our own whiney man-child.

But this isn’t an editorial of the effects of The Interview, this is a review, and while I can’t gloss over the impact it has already had, I can place it on the back-burner and return to why I’m typing this out in the first place.

Rogan and Goldberg, along with screenwriter Dan Sterling, pull no punches from the very beginning with an incredibly anti-American song sung by a beautiful young voice on the eve of yet another nuclear missile test in North Korea. It’s a scene that seems wildly over-the-top and unrealistic, but given the hermit-like nature of North Korea and the oppression of the Kim family that makes Orwell’s corpse wish he’d thought of it, the whole sequence could very much be true. It’s a strange world we live in, is what I’m trying to say.

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After a barrage of serious news coverage documenting the strike, we slam-cut the opposite end of the media spectrum: Dave Skylark, a narcissistic party boy who somehow found himself on television, then proceeded to rape the very concepts of integrity and importance by doing nothing more than interviewing celebrities about their, frankly, worthless quirks. The only thing worse about Skylark than his null contributions to humanity at large is that he truly thinks he’s the greatest thing since sliced bread, pulling down his producer Aaron Rappaport, an excellent journalist whose potential is being wasted on Rob Lowe’s bald head. Right away, The Interview establishes itself as a very in-your-face brand of comedy, and while Franco’s endless monologues that elevate himself to godhood in his eyes come close to annoying the audience as much as the characters surrounding him, Rogan is there as his trademark straight man, showing us just how insane our priorities as a society are.

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When Dave becomes determined to book an interview with the infamous Kim Jong-un after hearing how much of a fan he is of the show, Aaron is forced to the dirty work, and before they know it, they have their scoop locked and scheduled. Then Lizzy Caplan shows up, representing the CIA with a push-up bra, fake glasses, and a smile, aiming to “honeypot” the two into assassinating Kim with a poison strip during the interview. It’s classic American shadiness filtered through Rogan’s raunchy style, and they accept, with Aaron thinking about the contribution to human history they are undertaking, while Dave can only ponder what gun he will use and what title his tell-all book will have.

From here, the film gets even more meta, possibly explaining what exactly happened to Dennis Rodman during his visit; Dave and Aaron are shown facade after facade of lies pertaining to Korea’s welfare, and Dave is further seduced by the familiarity of Kim, played hilariously as an immature idiot with daddy issues that he buries with margaritas and women by Randall Park, an actor with already limited masculine charisma who nonetheless comes across as way more manly than the actual Kim. Through all of this, we still get the steady diet of Rogan and Goldberg raunch and poo jokes, which ends up tying together nicely with the satire in a climax that is incredibly fantastic, bloody, and over-the-top (more so than even the opening), but not entirely unexpected, given the nature of the film.

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So how did a film like this become way more than what it should have been, which is good, but not news-worthy? Because the world is a hellfire of insanity, ladies and gentlemen, which was proven in sweeping form by theaters pulling the film from their bookings before its release date, fearful of provoking a war with Korea. Somebody should have told them that North Korea threatens war every weekend as a hobby, but the message was eventually received, sparking off as opposite a response to the pullings as Skylark’s hollow charm is to the grave situation of North Korea’s citizens. Art-house cinemas and smaller theaters began pledging to show the film, streaming and download services began offering it, and couch patriots the nation over declared it our duty as citizens to watch and disseminate a run-of-the-mill comedy film. I told you, the world is weird.

In the end, we did get an entertaining and funny film, one that plays around with genre, society, and politics in enough measure to counterbalance the juvenile nature of its core comedic content. I don’t know if it was worth an international incident, but I’d be more than willing to go back to that “simpler” time.

REVIEW: Baby Driver (2017)

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Directed by Edgar Wright
Written by Edgar Wright
Starring Ansel Elgort, Jon Hamm, Eiza González, Lily James, Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx, Jon Bernthal

Despite only having six films now in his catalog, Edgar Wright is one of the most popular filmmakers currently working. With an extremely British sense of humor and an electric style that infuses all of his films with an energy all his own, pretty much almost anything Wright touches these days turns to box office gold. Baby Driver is no exception.

Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a young and partially hearing-impaired getaway driver who can make any wild move while in motion with the right track playing. It’s a critical talent he needs to survive his indentured servitude to the crime boss, Doc (Kevin Spacey), who values his role in his meticulously planned robberies. However, just when Baby thinks he is finally free and clear to have his own life with his new girl friend, Debora (Lily James), Doc coerces him back for another job. Now saddled with a crew of thugs too violently unstable to keep to Doc’s plans, Baby finds himself and everything he cares for in terrible danger. To survive and escape the coming maelstrom, it will take all of Baby’s skill, wits and daring, but even on the best track, can he make it when life is forcing him to face the music?

Playing to genre stereotypes is nothing new for Wright, although the way he employs them is always interesting. Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz were very much parodies of zombie flicks and buddy cop film, respectively, and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World was an incredible ride into a terminally-Canadian 8-bit world of classic gaming and young love. With Baby Driver, Wright goes a little bit more subtle, but don’t worry. It’s still as out there as anything else he would concoct. This time he tackles the heist film, specifically, the classic getaway driver story.

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Yes, it’s been done to death in everything from Vanishing Point to Drive, but Wright’s style and flair are kicked into overdrive to compensate for the more down-to-earth narrative he is telling, resulting in one slick picture that is as pleasing to the ears as it is the eyes. Wright tells us that he conceived the film as far back as 1994, while listening to the titular song by Simon and Garfunkel. Lucky for us he got to make it, because Baby Driver is one of the most perfect meldings of soundtrack and visuals I’ve ever come across. The film’s vantage point is exclusively Baby’s, as he weaves in out of lanes on the road and pedestrians on his daily coffee walk, set to any number of classic pop and rock songs. Almost everything with a beat, whether it be the footsteps of the robbers or the reports from their guns, is synced perfectly to the beat of the current song, and when the music drops away, we are greeted with the persistent ringing of Baby’s ears. Wright’s attention to detail is exquisite, and the many easter eggs to be found among the periphery should make repeat viewings as fun as the first go around.

Another usual with Wright are his characters, and Baby Driver doesn’t slouch. Beginning with a bank robbery crew of married couple Jon Hamm and Eiza González, and typical-to-form hothead Jon Bernthal, pulling off their latest heist, the film centers on Baby, the music-loving, scar-faced-yet-handsome getaway driver, played silently by The Fault in Our Stars’ Ansel Elgort. His face may be pretty, but he is force to be reckoned with behind the wheel, a fact for which the crime boss Doc (Kevin Spacey) keeps him around. But Baby isn’t satisfied; he is only pulling the jobs to pay back a debt to Doc, and his good heart is spiraling him deep into worse trouble, with his reluctance to kill or harm anyone on a job, and his budding romance with a cute little waitress named Debora (Lily James). While both can come across a little naïve, they fit snugly into the Wright canon of irreverent lovers with quite a few quirks all their own.

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Their relationship allows for even more pop culture references to float to the surface as they talk song names and the like, but it’s all done with the standard Wright style, never forced or faked. Baby’s happiness doesn’t last long, however, as he is forced into another job with Hamm, Gonzalez, and a loose cannon named Bats, in a hilarious and unsettling performance by Jamie Foxx. Here is where the stakes start to rise, and continue to climb as the job goes slowly wrong, and Baby finds himself in more than one terrifying situation. The tension in this middle act is incredibly palpable, and left me falling off the edge of my seat more than once with still enough time to laugh at the still-flying jokes. Perfect Bathos, Wright.

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When the heist finally happens, everything that was building for the past hour-and-a-half reaches a boiling point, and Baby makes a run for it, turning the film into a chase movie for the rest of its runtime. Here is where Baby Driver might stand to lose viewers, as the story takes more than one fantastical or whimsical turn that leaves plot holes aplenty. But knowing Wright, I submit that this is intentional, a way to resolve the story in a more dreamlike state as to leave the audience with doubts as they question whether Baby can truly have a happy ending to his journey. In other words, it’s the Three Flavors Trilogy or Scott Pilgrim all over again, only a little less wacky, and what’s wrong with that?

If you like Wright films, jump on this one; you won’t be disappointed. If you’re on the fence, I say give it a try anyway. You may end up being put off by the nonsense logic of its climax or the irreverent humor sandwiched into all the bloody violence, but if not, Baby Driver is quite the rewarding bit of action cinema, definitely a step above the rabble. With pulse-pounding chases, gut-busting performances, and a soundtrack that expertly plays with music and sound, I guarantee this film will be another surefire cult hit.

REVIEW: Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

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Directed by Jon Watts
Written by Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley, Jon Watts, Christopher Ford, Chris McKenna, and Eric Sommers, Story by Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley, Based on the Marvel comic book by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
Starring Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Robert Downey Jr., Marisa Tomei, Jon Favreau, Zendaya, Donald Glover, Jacob Batalon, Laura Harrier, Tony Revolori, Bokeem Woodbine, Gwyneth Paltrow

And here we are, 16 films in and Marvel finally has back one of its most popular and iconic characters, Spider-Man. While Spider-Man reboots are now a running joke in today’s cultural climate, Tom Holland’s brief introduction in Captain America: Civil War spiked audience interest in seeing the character helm another film. So how does this third go around hold up?

Thrilled by his experience with the Avengers, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) returns home to New York, where he lives with his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) and attends high school with friends Ned (Jacob Batalon) and Liz (Laura Harrier). Under the watchful eye of his new mentor Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr), Peter tries to fall back into his normal daily routine, but is soon distracted by thoughts of proving himself to be more than just your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. But when a new villain emerges to terrorize his city, everything that Peter holds most important will be threatened.

In the opinion of this critic, Spider-Man is in very good hands with Marvel Studios. After an extended introduction to Adrian Toomes and his crew as they embark on a life of crime after losing their Avengers cleanup work to the Feds, and a fun and inventive look back at the airport scene of Civil War from Peter’s phone, the first 20 minutes or so of the main plotline honestly had me a little bored and somewhat on guard. What with the repeated male gawking at Aunt May (yes, I know Marisa Tomei is a looker, I agree, but you can only make the same joke so many times before it gets old and kinda sexist) and what I thought were some odd casting choices (The Lobby Boy from Grand Budapest Hotel as Flash Thompson? Really?), the film really pulled through in short order, and delived on the tried-and-true Marvel formula of aping other cinematic formulas–in this case, the John Hughes high school movie.

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Director Watts apparently made his cast and crew embark on a Hughes marathon before beginning the shoot, and the effort shows. From the traditional Hughes school-hall situations to the young, hip soundtrack, Homecoming oozes this proud heritage. There’s even a scene of Spider-Man blazing through backyards like Ferris Bueller that’s so on the nose that any audience member will recognize it long before he webslings past an inexplicable outdoor TV playing the film. It’s all done so earnestly that it never feels like a rip-off, more like a loving homage that fits the character. After all, Peter is a sophomore in high school.

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Speaking of high school drama, Homecoming manages to pull off this super-important viewpoint way better than any of the previous films. Whereas the Sam Raimi trilogy rushed Peter out of high school in the opening act of the first film and shifted focus to more generalized, adult drama, Marc Webb’s Amazing Spider-Man films went even darker, opting for a Dark Knight-esque melancholy that rightfully turned off moviegoers in the second film. Homecoming keeps its approach light, but that isn’t to say that the film is all cheese and laughs with no substance. There is a whole lot of teenage angst to chew on, with a climactic decision of Peter’s resulting a truly heartbreaking throwback to Tobey Maguire’s Parker walking away from Mary Jane, but done with much more care and subtlety. I don’t want to go too far into it and spoil the whole ending, but I’ll just say this: it’s already one of the MCU’s finer moments, and we’re only one year removed from the gut-wrenching ending of Civil War.

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In every role, from the main characters down to the bit players, the cast is sparkling bright. Tom Holland expands on his already-great intro as the Wall-Crawler with much more sauce for the goose, playing off of characters his own age with authenticity just as well as he portrays the star-struck kid around the great Tony Stark. The rest of the high-schoolers are just as true-to-form as Holland, blowing away the cheesy, 30-year-old jocks of the Raimi and Webb films. Even Zendaya, who most feared would pollute the story with Disney girl diva antics, is funny as hell as the school’s resident light emo. The best of the teens, however, is Peter’s best friend Ned, played brilliantly by Jacob Batalon. An almost wholly-original creation of the filmmakers, I forsee the loyal and nerdy Ned becoming a huge part of Spider-Man canon in the future.

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On the other side of adulthood, the actors stay in good form. RDJ returns briefly as Iron Man yet again, and shows us an interesting side to his character we haven’t seen until now: fatherhood, in the form of his mentorship to Peter. Jon Favreau appears frequently as Tony’s driver and assistant Happy Hogan, playing it a little more stern this time around, but it is understandable as his character spends most of the screentime with Peter, and he is most likely not a kid person. The real standout among the grownups is most definitely Michael Keaton’s Adrian Toomes. While Homecoming may have had more screenwriters than a red-headed stepchild’s biopic, one of the many areas they came through on was The Vulture, taking a second-rate thief with wings in the comics and actually giving him a sympathetic motivation that truly pays off with a tense third act. Keaton then injects his crazy eyes and wild gesticulation into the role, making it as much his own as he did with the Batman. In all honesty, I felt like I met Toomes before in one of many trips with my dad to CB radio user hangouts. That’s how good of an actor Keaton is.

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Spider-Man: Homecoming has earned quite a bit of praise from critics and audiences, just as pretty much every comic book film released this year has. I don’t know if it’s as good as Guardians 2 or Logan, but it feels pretty damn close considering how well it carves out its niche and sticks with it. While I am bothered by the portrayal of Aunt May as a more oblivious parent in this one, or the complete lack of anything related to Uncle Ben (seriously, not even a mention of his name. I know this isn’t an origin story, but at least let me see Peter and May break down once like they actually miss him!), these concerns feel trivial by the credits roll. Homecoming is top-tier Marvel, and I stand by this assessment.

REVIEW: Smokey and the Bandit (1977)

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Directed by Hal Needham
Written by James Lee Barrett, Charles Shyer, and Alan Mandel, Story by Hal Needham and Robert Levy
Starring Burt Reynolds, Sally Field, Jerry Reed, Jackie Gleason, Mike Henry, Paul Williams, Pat McCormick

While George Lucas’ Star Wars appears in hindsight to have been the most popular film of 1977, before its release, many feared it would be creamed by another film, this one much less spacy and more, shall we say, homespun. And while the Wookiee did indeed take the prize of the highest-grossing film of the year, stuntman-turned-director Hal Needham’s pet project, Smokey and the Bandit, came in a comfortable second, and today still carves out its own sizable piece of pop culture history,

In the summer of 1976 “Big Enos” Burdette (Pat McCormick), a flamboyant Texan millionaire, needs a vast quantity of beer for a rally, but the brand of beer he wants is Coors which at this time cannot be legally transported across the Mississippi. To get this job done, Burdette recruits modern day moonshiner Bo Darville (Burt Reynolds), nicknamed Bandit for his previous exploits, for a hefty six-figure payment–if he can complete the task in the span of twenty-eight hours. Darville in turn recruits his pal Cledus Snow (Jerry Reed) and his eighteen-wheeler for the job, with himself driving blocker in a hot Pontiac Trans-Am, to draw off any police interference. The trip to Texas and loading of beer goes without interruption, but the trip back to Georgia begins to pick up complications when Darville is encounters a runaway bride (Sally Field), the wacky Texas Sheriff (Jackie Gleason) hot on her tail, and multiple police agencies dead-set on apprehending the legendary Bandit.

Now I admit here, like my reviews for Alien and Blade Runner, that I am incredibly biased towards Smokey and the Bandit. There isn’t a whole lot I can find wrong with it, and the reason for that is two-fold; yes, I grew up on this film, so the nostalgia factor is high, but it is also, simply, a really well done piece. There is no denying or marginalizing it, no matter how much one might not care for southern culture or light comedy.

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Why is it so good? For three reasons named Hal Needham, Burt Reynolds, and Jackie Gleason. Beginning as an idea born out of drinking Coors beer on the set of Gator, Smokey and the Bandit is very much the baby of Needham, who at the time was a legend in his own right as the highest paid, and most well-known Hollywood stuntman in the world. Needham’s and fellow writer Robert Levy’s premise was as simple as it was Related imagecharming: a truck-driving legend, very much based on Needham himself, must complete a bet of smuggling Coors beer across several state lines in just over one whole day. It very much turns the film into one long chase, playing to Needham’s strengths as a stunt coordinator. He employs the tried-and-true locked-down camera, opting to let the impressive vehicular stunts speak for themselves as the Bandit careens down back dirt roads and wide open highways with sometimes as many as a dozen police cars on his tail. The studio suits may have had little confidence in Needham’s ability to helm a film, but he sure showed them.

As the second and just-as-vital piece of the trinity, Burt Reynolds shines. Taking the picture as a favor to his friend and roommate Needham, Reynolds dumps out his more theatrical and esoteric acting ambitions and settles into a charming Southern character with a love of fun and an even greater love of authority-defying thrills. He also is afforded many opportunities to flaunt his natural comedic talent, whether he is poking fun at Carrie’s discomfort in a 110 mph romp or simply smiling at the camera like the cinematic forefather of Deadpool and Ferris Bueller.

The third leg of the veritable bar stool that makes this film such a delight is undoubtedly Jackie Gleason. While not involved in the creative process to the extent of Needham and Levy or even as much as Reynolds, Gleason’s character of Buford T. Justice, the film’s bumbling villain, is decidedly all his. Reportedly, all of Gleason’s dialogue was thrown out before filming began, leaving just about every moment of screentime he inhabits to be shaped and molded by his considerable talents. And boy, does it pay off. With Mike Henry playing an incredibly effective straight man at his right hand, Gleason pulls off some of the best work of his already by-then long career, and conceives a character that is even more recognizable than the Bandit himself.

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Not to leave out Sally Field or Jerry Reed, however, as their contributions also elevate the picture past drive-in trash and into mainstream fame. Field, who by then was known as a more serious actress, enters Reynold’s fun-loving world with relative ease, and becomes quite the sex symbol without ever having to kick off a single piece of clothing. Okay, I lied–she did lose the wedding dress, but that was under a sheet, so it really doesn’t count. And what can be said about Reed’s Cledus “Snowman” Snow other than, well, he’s Jerry Reed? He really needs no introduction or acting to speak of, he just plays himself as he always has, and is great fun to watch. His songs are also a highlight of the production, becoming as beloved as the images on the screen. And you know you can make good music when I find myself singing along to ‘Eastbound and Down.’ And I don’t like country, so there’s that.

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A word of note to those seeking the film out to watch it: while there is only one version of the film, its soundmix has been substantially tampered with in recent years. Originally released in mono, most DVD, Blu-ray, and high-definition television releases have used a new surround remaster, which replaces almost every single sound effect used in the film, from the Trans-Am’s iconic engine roar to Fred the Bassett Hound’s barking. While this won’t bother most, to some like myself who consider Smokey and the Bandit a precious heirloom, this is downright heresy. Luckily, the latest Blu-ray includes the original mix in DTS 2.0, and this is what I used to write this review.

If you are one of the few who hasn’t seen Smokey and the Bandit, consider yourself a deprived human being. Even painted-blue city dwellers seem to gravitate to and eat up this film, and it’s no surprise that they do. When something like this is so well done and so fun (and funny!) to watch, it easily strikes the right nerves. And considering how much a pure and easygoing image it paints of the American South, it has become a sort of poster child for Southern culture that stands above the rest of its easily (and most of the time, rightfully) savaged kin. What I am trying to say is…

Get the hell off the couch and go get this movie, you sumbitch!

 

REVIEW: The Princess Bride (1987)

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Directed by Rob Reiner
Written by William Goldman, based on his novel
Starring Robin Wright, Cary Elwes, Mandy Patinkin, Chris Sarandon, Christopher Guest, Wallace Shawn, André the Giant, Fred Savage, Peter Falk

Childhood is a wondrous time to experience the cinema. Without the pretentiousness of “critical perspective” or “knowing how narrative and editing work,” we were able to simply sit down and enjoy the relative miracle of the moving image in front of us. Now, some films we watched in youth were truly utter crap, there is no denying that. But then there are some which still bring out the kid in me. The Princess Bride is most certainly one of them.

A kindly grandfather (Peter Falk) sits down with his ill grandson (Fred Savage) and reads him a story, one that has been passed down from father to son for generations. As the grandfather reads the story, the action comes alive: a classic tale of love and adventure as the beautiful Buttercup (Robin Wright), engaged to the odious Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon), is kidnapped and held against her will in order to start a war. It is up to Westley (Cary Elwes), her beloved, to save her from her captors, a thief (Wallace Shawn) and his hired helpers, an accomplished swordsman named Inigo Montoya (Mandy Matinkin) and a huge, super strong giant named Fezzik (André the Giant), both of whom later become Westley’s companions in his quest to save fair Buttercup.

Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride is probably one the best film adaptations out there. The original novel by William Goldman, who also wrote this screenplay, is a joke in of itself; presented as “good parts” abridgment of an earlier work by a nonexistent S. Morgenstern, with all sorts of hilarious commentary by Goldman as if he was cataloging and critiquing every little out-of-date nuance of this Renaissance romance. Given the epistolary nature of the book, Goldman had his work cut out for him in translating the story into the cinematic medium without losing the wonderfully funny tone he created. His solution was simple and elegantly ’80s: frame the story as a book read by grandfather Peter Falk to his sick grandson, the then-everywhere Fred Savage.

Image result for princess bride fred savageIf you’re asking who Fred Savage is, then I know you’re young enough to Google him.

Savage takes the role of Goldman in the film, stopping the story at certain moments to comment (or complain) about what he’s hearing. On paper, this may sound like it dates the film considerably, but that just simply isn’t so. In fact, the moments with Falk and Savage are just as charming as the main storyline, and help ground its pervasively cheesy and young-at-heart nature. In fact, it filters into the metatextual nature of Goldman’s book as a continuation of the very oral traditions that formed these traditional fairy tales in the first place.

So, how is this particular fairy tale? Readers, it is a marvel within a children’s book. While the structure mainly follows your typical damsel-in-distress gets saved by her knight-in-shining-armor, Goldman and Reiner bring the tired old tale into the Twentieth Century with a self-deprecating sense of humor that is so disarming that it is actually charming. Hey, a rhyme! (sorry, Fezzik stole my keyboard for that last sentence.)

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Two characters in particular, while neither are the titular Princess Bride, hijack the film with their exceptional realizations: Westley and Montoya. Westley, easily the best role Cary Elwes has ever played, is full of sharp wit and even better emotion. Every challenge he faces is met with a serene calm that masks a mind so intricate that he dwarfs every heroic prince to come before him in the fantasy tradition, from Flynn to Fairbanks. Patinkin’s Inigo Montoya, however, has become an even bigger pop culture icon, and that has to be attributed simply to the authenticity Patinkin brings to his performance. Montoya, while honorable, is a decidedly one-dimensional kind of character, with a mind dead-set on revenge for the murder of his father when he was a child. Despite playing the part at the age of 34, Patinkin is able to convey the young boy within Montoya’s broken heart, making his quest so satisfying that it’s easy to see why he became a fan favorite. It also helps that he had the best line in the whole film.

The rest of the cast, parts both large and small, revel in the freedom that this more comedic and theatrical take on fantasy offers, with Wright, André and Sarandon feeling right at home in cheesy-land, while Christopher Guest leers convincingly while he suavely speaks evil as the Six-Fingered Man. And let’s not forget the maniacal Wallace Shawn, who owns a good 95% of the laughs of the first act. Each and every one of them own their anachronistic New York player-affectations well enough to carry the nested storyline on light shoulders.

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Continuing the theatrical theme is the production design, with sets built to look artificial and hokey, and visual effects kept to a minimum with mostly on-set and small model work, all in keeping with the nature of the film being a story being read to a restless little boy. Reiner reigns it all in effortlessly, proving that even when he doesn’t write the picture, it is still his, through and through.

I wouldn’t say The Princess Bride is completely perfect, however; it tends to sag at its midpoint, when Montoya and Fezzik exit the narrative and Buttercup is returned to Humperdink. The slowdown does make the second act a bit tedious, but it lightens up quickly once Montoya and Fezzik return, and take Westley to meet the Miracle Man, the film’s other gut-busting cameo by Billy Crystal, who’s stream of thought tangents slam the film back into meta-mode and into relevance again.

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If you’re one of the few who hasn’t seen The Princess Bride, then by all means, stop reading this and go watch it already before Hollywood screws up the eventual remake/reboot/pointless redo. It is especially recommended if you’re partial to nostalgia or youthful stories of adventure. I’ve been finding myself drawn to these kind of flicks a lot recently. E.T., Close Encounters, Indiana Jones, I guess I’m getting tired of growing older. With The Princess Bride, I’m able to stop that terrible feeling for a good hour and a half, and I get a damn good movie out of the deal, too.

REVIEW: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

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Directed by James Gunn
Written by James Gunn
Starring Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Sylvester Stallone, Kurt Russell

Within the confines of the superhero sub-genre, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is probably the most diverse set of films out there. And standing out from traditional superhero flicks, war and espionage thrillers, cosmic adventures and even heist films, is Guardians of the Galaxy, a Star Wars-esque space adventure crossed with ’80s pop music video sensibilities. And now, it gets a turn at a Part 2.

After saving Xandar from Ronan’s wrath, the Guardians are now recognized as heroes. Now the team must help their leader Star Lord (Chris Pratt) uncover the truth behind his true heritage. Along the way, old foes turn to allies and betrayal is blooming. And the Guardians find that they are up against a devastating new menace who is out to rule the galaxy.

Before I begin, I want to make it clear that I was always partial to the first Guardians film. Taking my love of space-based sci-fi and melding it with music from the era I was raised on, and you guarantee my undying love. So you’ll understand if you don’t agree with me, but I think Guardians 2 is in the top 5 of the MCU output. Everything works in this film, the cinematography, the acting, the lighting, the music (of course), the plot, the editing, simply everything. That is not to say that it is the perfect film or even among the best films ever made, no, that is not what I’m saying. All I’m saying is that it knows what it wants to be, and accomplishes that in spades.

Related imageWhile the rest of the MCU is primarily concerned with overarching stories and large-scale world building, Guardians 2 is happily unaffected by this main Marvel mandate, giving James Gunn room to breathe in ways even Joss Whedon wasn’t afforded. Mull on that injustice all you want, but I’m here to talk Guardians, and it pays off for this film. Setting the story a mere three months after the first, Gunn finally answers the biggest questions leftover from that film: who is Peter Quill’s father, and why didn’t Yondu deliver Peter to him? In steps the legendary Kurt Russell, with his trademark swagger finally on full display after momentarily losing it in Furious 7, as the human form of Ego the Living Planet, revealing to Peter his inherited godhood. It’s a great new-age approach to cosmic Marvel, one that bears slight similarities to cosmological mythology. This allows Gunn’s art team to conjure some truly memorable sights and sounds, propelling this weird little superhero flick into Jodorowsky territory.

The image is a melange of visual candy, saccharine-sweet but never reaching sugar headache levels. This balance is key, and for every incredible visual effects-laden action piece starring Rocket and Yondu, there is lovely, quiet moment between Peter and his father that reminds just how good Chris Pratt really is. I mean, after all, he’s standing next to Kurt Russell and not losing it.

But everybody else isn’t to be forgotten: nearly every character is afforded the chance to shine, from Bautista’s obvious improvement and growth in the role of Drax to what is probably Michael Rooker’s finest hour as an actor. Former one-dimensional figures like Nebula and Kraglin are afforded new depth. Just about everything Gunn does with his actors eclipses even Whedon’s character juggling on The Avengers, tying it all together with this one, paramount theme: true family. Yes, it’s been done to death, the notion that your family is the one you choose, not the one you’re born into, but Guardians 2 has a lot of help with its blunt approach to the material in the form of monster laughs, superheroic thrills, and one ungodly adorable Baby Groot.

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Tyler Bates returns to provide another A-grade score, although this time his work takes more of a backseat to the Awesome Mixtape, incredible as that may seem. I’m not quite sure if I prefer this tracklist to the original, but it’s still, well, awesome! Cinematography and visual effects take another fusing step together, with the realization of Ego’s Planet, recently revealed to be considered the largest CGI creation ever made, at over a trillion polygons. I’m more of an analog guy when it comes to special effects, and I find that hella impressive.

If you’re wondering whether or not anything could top the original Guardians, quit wondering and just go watch this movie already. Even if you don’t agree with me, you’re still in for one wild ride, and an emotional roller coaster that brought Pratt to tears reading his script. Trust me; you’ll be happy you did.

But for Ego’s sake, it’s a Marvel movie. Stay during the credits.