Tag of the Month: Super Heroism (March 2018)

It’s March 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.

March’s Tag: Super Heroism

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While comic book and superhero movies have no doubt been a fixture of my reviews for awhile, I decided to make them the focus for this month. This is not only to allow myself the means to catch up on the MCU Marathon, but also to examine the DC offerings in greater depth, as well as some other comic-based and inspired flicks that deal with larger-than-life heroes. Films like Flash Gordon, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, even Birdman will make appearances in my reviews this month as I examine all facets of the superhero, both good and bad.

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

THE REVIEWS SO FAR:
I’m gonna do something a little different here. Since I’ve already been doing a lot of superhero reviews, why don’t I collect them here to give y’all something to read while I’m not posting? Collected below will be all the MCU and DCEU films I’ve reviewed, as well as some other super-heroic flicks.

MARVEL CINEMATIC UNIVERSE (#MCUMarathon)
Iron Man
The Incredible Hulk
Iron Man 2
Thor
Captain America: The First Avenger
The Avengers
Iron Man 3
Thor: The Dark World
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Guardians of the Galaxy
Avengers: Age of Ultron
Ant-Man
Thor: Ragnarok
Black Panther

DC EXTENDED UNIVERSE:
Man of Steel

OTHER REVIEWS:
Batman Returns
Flash Gordon
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Innocence)

Last Month: Love Conquers All

Last month, I took a look at several films examining love that conquers all barriers and hardships, romantic, familial, platonic, and otherwise. If you missed the reviews, you can check them out here.

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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
monthlytag - February 2018

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.

November at The Movie Maestro

Now that Halloween is long behind us, it’s time for me to refresh myself with some of my favorite films and film franchises! Until the end of November, I’ll be reviewing a wide array of entries from the Star Trek series to Indiana Jones to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, all just in time to read while you stuff your face with Thanksgiving turkey! Also on the plate will be a complete review of the Star Wars saga to prepare for the December 15 release of The Last Jedi.

Stay true, believers!

REVIEW: Zodiac (2007)

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Directed by David Fincher
Written by James Vanderbilt, Based on the book by Robert Graysmith
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Edwards, Robert Downey Jr., Brian Cox, John Carroll Lynch

David Fincher just can’t seem to get away from the morbid and disturbing. Beginning his feature-film career with the much-maligned Alien 3 and continuing through with Seven and Fight Club, even his more fun films deal with the darker shades of human nature, usually ending on some dour note that wrecks a fragile faith we as a society has come to hold dear. Zodiac certainly fits neatly into this reading of Fincher’s work, as its structure more befits a political procedural with no clear ending than a typical serial killer film.

Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a cartoonist who works for the San Francisco Chronicle. His quirky ways irritate Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), a reporter whose drinking gets in the way of doing his job. The two become friends thanks to a shared interest: the Zodiac killer. Graysmith steadily becomes obsessed with the case, as Avery’s life spirals into drunken oblivion. Graysmith’s amateur sleuthing puts him onto the path of David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), a police inspector who has thus far failed to catch his man. Graysmith’s job, his wife and his children all become unimportant next to the one thing that really matters: catching the Zodiac.

The Zodiac Killer was a serial killer who operated in Northern California in the 1960s and ’70s, and originated the name himself in a series of cryptic letters and ciphers he sent to police and newspapers in the San Francisco area. Beyond this, not much is known about him, since he was never caught. Using this mystery, David Fincher’s film follows not the killer directly, but three people with whom the Zodiac would become a lifelong obsession: detective Dave Toschi, newspaper crime writer Paul Avery, and political cartoonist Robert Graysmith.

In this approach, the film does for serial killer flicks what All the President’s Men did for political thrillers; by taking a less-is-more, from-the-outside kind of mentality, Zodiac becomes a different breed of thriller, one that feels efficient and pulse-pounding despite the near-three-hour runtime and lack of on-screen scenes of the killer’s rampage. In a way, Fincher’s film seems to perfectly capture both the cultural shock of Zodiac himself as the fear of his presence pervades San Francisco and the cyclical feelings of discovery and frustration that each of the three leads experience.

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Zodiac begins not with the killer’s first confirmed attacks, but with the second, a choice that only becomes fully coherent with the very end. Taking place the night of July 4th, 1969, we follow Darlene Ferrin, a married woman, as she drives down a picturesque dusk neighborhood, fireworks exploding in the distance, arriving at one house in particular to pick up her secret lover, Martin Mageau. As night descends, the beauty of each shot begins to betray a creeping sense of unease as they pull off to a secluded couples spot, where they are stalked by a mysterious car. When the unseen occupant exits his vehicle and proceeds to riddle both of them with bullets, you know you are in for a spine-tingling time.

Much of the film seems to be made of build-up to these moments of shock, but is never filler. Weaving in and out of the different arenas of Zodiac’s cat-and-mouse game with society, the film gives us an intimate view into the newspaper media of the time, the law enforcement bureaucracy, and how neither seem to ever congeal into a coherent force working together to catch the psycho. For an uncommon procedural, Zodiac nails just why men like the killer are sometimes never caught.

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Shot on digital Thompson Viper cameras, Zodiac achieves the now-signature 21st Century Fincher look–low contrast, smooth details, and a diffuse look that almost emulates faded 1970s film, but without the dirt or scratches. I usually don’t prefer this look, gravitating more towards a more authentic filmstock appearance, but Fincher’s eye wins me over, imbuing even the mundane scenes with the unease of the time which makes the viewer tremble a bit inside.

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What really propels the film into classic territory, however, is the acting. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Graysmith, the man who would eventually write the book upon which this film is based. Displaying an aptitude for puzzles early on, he quickly becomes attached to the Zodiac case despite not being taken seriously by his colleagues. He is, after all, a cartoonist. Gyllenhaal can have some detractors with regards to his abilities, but anybody who doubts his Graysmith has a serious screw loose. Graysmith is likeable yet single-minded in his obsession, wholly convincing. So too is Robert Downey Jr. as Paul Avery, the crime writer who seeks the glory of catching Zodiac, as if he’ll become Bob Woodward before Bob Woodward. With his career-defining role as Tony Stark just under a year in the future, RDJ gives us a preview of that character, with a smug confidence that erodes into horrific substance abuse after he receives a letter from Zodiac himself.

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Probably my favorite performances in the film are Mark Ruffalo and John Carroll Lynch. Ruffalo plays Toschi, the San Francisco detective who worked the longest on the Zodiac case. From his first scene, he exudes a proficiency with his job unmatched by other detectives, but begins to crack under the pressure of this seemingly-unsolvable case. Lynch plays Arthur Leigh Allen, the prime suspect for Toschi and many other characters in the film. Lynch is unsettling in many ways, but never tips his hat too far as to unequivocally paint himself as the Zodiac, only allowing the audience to form a tortured “maybe.”

And therein lies the biggest strength of Fincher’s Zodiac, one that still defies explanation as to how the film received such mainstream acclaim: it doesn’t truly end. After Allen’s suspicion falls apart due to lack of evidence, the film begins to trail off, briefly picking up pace when Graysmith takes over the investigation as part of his book, but never arriving at a clear answer as to who Zodiac truly is. Indeed, by the end, when Mageau returns to the narrative to point out from a photo lineup the man who shot him in 1969, he seems completely sure–and then halfheartedly suggests that he had features from another man in the lineup, casting doubt on his memory. Like the 70s themselves, Zodiac drifts into nothingness with no payoff, no closure, just unanswered questions and the gut-wrenching feeling of letting a killer slip away unscathed.

REVIEW: The Fly (1986)

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Directed by David Cronenberg
Written by Charles Edward Pogue and David Cronenberg, Based on the Short Story by George Langelaan
Starring Jeff Goldblum, Geena Davis, John Getz

Was there any filmmaker quite like the 1980s David Cronenberg? Making a series of films that were at once grotesque and physically horrifying yet deeply intimate and human, Cronenberg brought a strange, gothic heart to the horror and thriller genres that I don’t know if I’ve ever encountered since. Right smack in the middle of all of this is The Fly, the remake of the 1958 Vincent Price hit that blows all comparisons to that work out of the water.

Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum), a brilliant but eccentric scientist attempts to woo investigative journalist Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis) by offering her a scoop on his latest research in the field of matter transportation, which against all the expectations of the scientific establishment have proved successful. Up to a point. Brundle thinks he has ironed out the last problem when he successfully transports a living creature, but when he attempts to teleport himself a fly enters one of the transmission booths, and Brundle finds he is a changed man.

I remember first seeing The Fly on late night cable, and being utterly repulsed by its extreme gore. And I still couldn’t look away. Sure, part of it was my adolescent curiosity, but even then, there was something about Cronenberg’s shocker that was more than cheap blood and goo. Since then, I’ve become a fan of Cronenberg’s work, and have always attributed that to The Fly, his most commercial and successful picture.

Much of the film’s success comes from three people: Cronenberg himself, and the two leads: Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis. Goldblum, a master of performance and subtlety, dives deep into some of the best work of his illustrious career. Goldblum’s Brundle is eccentric and insecure; hiding behind a boyish shyness is an altruistic need to create, and create he has, probably the most important invention of the human race: the telepod. Davis is the hot journalist who at first seems mildly amused by the young genius, only to find herself falling for him as they document his successes and failures with teleportation.

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Themselves a couple at the time, their on-screen chemistry as first scientific partners and later as lovers is wholly believable, and genuinely touching. There are times when I want to rate them as one of the ten best movie couples ever. You know what, I am going to rate them as one of the ten best movie couples ever. Which one would they be? I don’t know, but it’s up there.

And therein lies the genius of Cronenberg’s script rewrite. Charles Edward Pogue’s original draft (which is included on the excellent Fox blu-ray), is much more flowery and sweeping, playing more like the 1958 original, and places more emphasis on the scientific aspect of the film. Cronenberg aimed for a more concise narrative framed around these two doomed lovers, and in doing so, imbued this film with a bleeding heart that far outshines the scares.

But the scares exist, and while it takes awhile to get to them, they do not disappoint. The first forty minutes or so are consumed with Brundle’s attempts to correct a major flaw in the telepod–it can only teleport non-living material. His first teleportation of an animal, a baboon, results in the film’s first horrific set-piece as the poor creature is turned inside out upon reintegration. After correcting the issue, Brundle succeeds with another baboon, but soon, his idiosyncratic insecurities rear their ugly head, and he drunkenly enters the machine…not noticing the fly that has made inside with him.

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At first, the changes are positive: Brundle can perform feats of physical prowess and seems to be wired all the time. But as the film goes on, his appearance and demeanor changes, frighteningly. His body becomes sensitive to food and external stimuli; strange, insect-like hairs sprout from his back and later his face; even his personality shifts, revealing a new Seth Brundle that is dodgy, arrogant, and all-too-willing to demonstrate his abilities, to the harm of those around him.

At about the hour-mark, the film starts to take on a more familiar sci-fi edge as Seth’s body begins to deteriorate, the fly genes manifesting in cancerous legions that tear his visage apart. Major props to Chris Walas and the rest of the makeup department, who create disgustingly logical appliances that allow Goldblum to change before our eyes into a true monster but allowing him enough freedom to create a performance. Their work is honestly second only to Rob Bottin’s creations on John Carpenter’s The Thing. All through this, Veronica is forced to watch him slowly fall away into a new, terrifying form, showcasing the quiet torment that Geena Davis so effortlessly portrays.

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The Fly is a clever bait-and-switch to armchair fans of gory horror flicks. As I did years ago, I’m sure many people tuned in or bought the DVD to see the excellent makeup effects that still make me cringe, and slowly discovered the tender undercurrent of melancholy inherent in the film. In fact, I’d go so far as to say this is one of the most depressing films I’ve ever seen. It certainly is not for everyone, and I wouldn’t begrudge someone from disliking it after a viewing, but for those that can weather the storm, David Cronenberg’s The Fly is a unique remake, taking only the barest premise and treating(?) us to a darkly humorous and sad meditation of disease, deformity, the perils of scientific progress and the tragedy of doomed love.

REVIEW: Mother! (2017)

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Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Written by Darren Aronofsky
Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer, Brian Gleeson, Domhnall Gleeson

Darren Aronofsky is no less than a visual genius, this much is certain. From the gruesome displays of addiction in Requiem for a Dream that strike at the heart like a sledgehammer, and the logical-yet-dreamlike qualities of Noah and The Fountain, to the dark, organic psychological horror of Black Swan, this fact is in no need of further evidence. His narrative skill, however, has been called into question with this film, which is already considered his most controversial. What do I think? I wonder if you can guess.

In a far off paradise, a husband (Javier Bardem) and his wife (Jennifer Lawrence) exist peacefully in a rebuilt mansion. But soon uninvited guests arrive and shatter their tranquil lives. The wife is particularly distressed, as her husband seems to not only share a different view of their presence, he revels in the attention. As more and more strangers pour into their remote home, the wife begins to realize that things aren’t what they seem.

Mother! is the kind of film I can get behind. It may not present its story in a decidedly-subtle manner, but the passion in its poetry and impressionistic style is endearing, to the point of greatness even. When it comes down to it, marketing is what killed this film. Instead of being sold as what it is, an arthouse film in the vein of The Holy Mountain or Koyaanisqatsi, it was presented to audiences as a horror film, and while I would argue that it counts as one, I can see why most would at first disagree.

It features several conventions that I know I enjoy: a singular, but interesting, location, nameless characters portrayed by top-rate actors, and heavy allegorical and metaphorical visuals. Like It before, Mother! is the kind of film I would imagine myself doing and not changing a thing, a perfect sync of taste and tact between myself and the filmmaker. Aronofsky employs a heavy grain field over the 16mm negative, so wildly creative a choice of stock that I wonder if imdb.com lied and it was really 35mm. So vivid is the image, whether centering on the earthy browns of the megalithic house or on the spectacular precious metals of the final act, that my brain refuses to believe it was shot on such a puny material.

The performances are a sight to behold. Jennifer Lawrence slams another one out of the park, portraying a fair harvest goddess of a wife, her hair seemingly flowing back from her perfect body, a mask for the frustration of a woman who just wants to be everything her husband needs. Bardem as that husband proves to be a disappointment for her, as he is a writer–you see where this is going. Dealing with a forceful bout of writer’s block, the husband proves to be disturbingly naive when he allows several rude and destructive strangers (Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer) into their home, forever upsetting the quiet status quo the wife worked so hard to accomplish.

What is so striking is how the film builds and uses tension to progress the plot. Through the first and second acts, the film is an exercise in discomfort, with silent embarrassment on the part of the wife, and by proxy the audience, mounting into confusion, then frustration, then desperation as both she and you want it to end. From the 20 minute mark, I knew this film would never be for anyone. It takes a keen, or at least an open, mind to be able to sit through a film so uncomfortable to watch to reach any kind of payoff. What is more incredible is how uncomfortable it was without being gory, shocking, or gratuitous.

As the story moves into the final act, the visual metaphors increase exponentially, with a particularly crucial sequence depicting a chaotic apocalypse as the house is destroyed taking center stage. In it, the wife stumbles through the packed house as it begins to devolve into anarchy, containing such sights as police lines meeting rioting protesters, combat soldiers raiding hostile areas, and the rituals of a decidedly Judeo-Christian sort permeating the climax of the film. Throughout, tiny objects of significance to the plot are depicted with subtlety and grace, never overpowering the story with unnecessary baggage. It’s a right balance of surrealism and logical storytelling, almost to the point of journeying into meta-textual territory as a stage play on film.

(Now I’ve never done this in one of my reviews, but consider this paragraph a spoiler warning. If you haven’t seen the film, skip ahead past the picture.) This film’s allegorical clout is huge, albeit obvious. Having come off of similar theistic themes in Noah, it seems Aronofsky decided to marry that film’s heart with the aesthetics of The Fountain and Pi, almost creating a successor to Lars Von Trier or Alejandro Jodorowsky. My quick and dirty reading of the film on the spot would be one reflecting the Earth as Gaia, represented by the wife, and by extension the house, the two of which are intrinsically linked. Married to a mysterious and tumultuous figure in the husband, who could represent either the concept of the One True God or the toxic masculinity of the male gender, she is subjected to the same torture and injury we as a race so illogically inflict on our own mother, the Earth itself. Short (and barely right) answer: Mother! is about pollution and global warming. Slightly longer and more accurate answer, Mother! presents a dreamlike encapsulation of the destructive power of the human race upon its creator.

As I said before, this film is not for everyone. Being first and foremost an arthouse film, its audience is already disparate and narrow, and when taking into account the rather disturbing and distressing events and imagery of the final act, its failure to find success seems in hindsight to be inevitable. But I predict good things to come for Mother!, as its potential to be a cult hit for decades is quite high. If you want more traditional (but still great) scares, go see It. If a more esoteric and mythical take on horror is appealing to you, then give this one a whirl. To put it bluntly, as a fellow critic has already said, “the next time a film gets an F from Cinemascore, I’m gonna be hella hype.”

REVIEW: E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

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Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Melissa Matheson
Starring Dee Wallace, Henry Thomas, Peter Coyote, Robert McNaughton, Drew Barrymore

There are a few perfect films out there, not just for me, but for most of cinema-goers. Taxi Driver. Raiders of the Lost Ark. Star Wars. It’s a Wonderful Life. Blade Runner. These films are cherished and revered, often imitated but never fully copied. Steven Spielberg, probably the most recognized filmmaker in history, has had the fortune of making not one, but several perfect films in his career, with E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial probably being the best of the best.

After a gentle alien becomes stranded on Earth, the being is discovered and befriended by a young boy named Elliott (Henry Thomas). Bringing the extraterrestrial into his suburban California house, Elliott introduces E.T., as the alien is dubbed, to his brother (Robert McNaughton) and his little sister, Gertie (Drew Barrymore), and the children decide to keep its existence a secret. Soon, however, E.T. falls ill, resulting in government intervention and a dire situation for both Elliott and the alien.

Right away, from the strangely ominous drones over the black-screen credits, you know you’re in for something memorable. As the opening titles give way to the familiar sight of a shooting star against a calm night sky, we are treated the arrival of an alien spaceship in the woods. But unlike the at-times frightening appearance of the visitors in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, these creatures are decidedly more benevolent; they waddle under the handicap of their comically-undersized legs, their hearts glow brightly to signal startlement, and their childlike curiosity of the new world before them is charming. And then the humans show up. Dark, silhouetted figures of meddling humanity who give chase to one of the visitors in particular, who misses his ride home and begins a trek down the wooded hill to find shelter on an unfamiliar planet.

So begins Spielberg’s E.T., a film that I discovered I am still absolutely in love with to this day. Like his immediately previous efforts in Jaws, Close Encounters, and Raiders, E.T. is a technical and storytelling marvel, with little-to-no faults to be had. Everything about this movie is just perfect. Tired of that word yet? Perfect, perfect, PERFECT!!!

Spielberg has longed dismissed the film’s ostensible genre as science fiction, and prefers to think of it as a family drama, with Elliott’s family straining under the still-fresh injury of their father leaving. It’s a theme that Spielberg often comes back to, a real part of his life that he finds therapeutic release in portraying on screen, either as part of the background or as the main focus, such as right here in E.T. Together with Close Encounters, this film is his most personal, presenting the children, Elliott, Mike, and Gertie, as struggling with the hurt of divorce and finding comfort in this diminutive creature from the stars who needs their help.

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In any film involving child actors, there’s the risk of the whole endeavor falling apart because of their inability to understand the work. That simply doesn’t happen here. Henry Thomas as Elliott is one of the greatest child performances around, as he exudes incredible chemistry with his on-screen siblings and mother as well as convincingly acting alongside the E.T. puppets. While McNaughton isn’t as large a factor, his role as the older brother Mike is still a source of much of the film’s comic relief and is such a valued member of the trio. Rounding them out is young Drew Barrymore, who doesn’t so much as act as she does truly converse with E.T. as a real being. Reportedly, at several points in production, she became convinced of E.T.’s reality, which isn’t too hard to believe considering how young she was and how good the on-set effects were.

Portrayed with a combination of various suits and animatronic puppets, E.T. is a fine example of the life a piece of latex can take on with the right design, execution, and tender love and care. From the design, evoking the old, wisened eyes of Albert Einstein, to the performance of the various instruments belaying a younger sense of wonder, E.T. is one of the best non-human characters ever realized. Such is his authenticity that, like the Yoda puppet from The Empire Strikes Back, never once do I look upon the old botanist’s face and see a high-tech gadget, but a living alien deserving of friendship.

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But E.T. isn’t the only technical marvel of the film. In what I assume was an attempt to create an ethereal, dreamlike atmosphere to the idealized suburbia of Elliott’s neighborhood, many scenes are filled with whisps of vapor, allowing the light in the nighttime scenes to really pop as well as shrouding E.T. with an air of mystique, as any alien being should have. This mist of the unknown also percolates around the adult characters, who in Spielberg fashion, are concealed in silhouette until the final act, further slamming home that this story is of children, told from their point of view. (This also places a lot of the slack onto Dee Wallace, who as the children’s mother is the only adult consistently portrayed in full.)

And let’s not forget another rousing score from the master, John Williams. Alternating between quietly beautiful themes for E.T. and Elliot, and grandiose, adventurous pieces that elevate the small town setting into a mythical quest, Williams’ has delivered another score for the ages. This is how film scores are meant to be.

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In 2002, for the film’s 20th Anniversary, Steven Spielberg decided to re-release the film in cinemas for a limited exhibition. Unfortunately, a little golem named George Lucas must have been sitting on his shoulder, because Spielberg decided to emulate the Star Wars Special Editions and significantly alter E.T., replacing almost all of the on-set puppetry with CGI, adding two unnecessary deleted scenes back into the film, and in the most asinine change, digitally alter the guns of the government agents chasing the children into walkie-talkies. This version was also released onto a special DVD set along with the original version.

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Luckily, Spielberg has changed his tune over the years. He admits that these alterations were a mistake, and in each subsequent re-release onto home video, he has left the Special Edition in the dust and focused solely on the original cut. If you still wish to view it however, track down the 2-disc DVD from 2002. I trust that’ll be the only viewing you have of it before you come to the same conclusion as Spielberg did.

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This review only came about because I finally had the pleasure of reintroducing E.T. to my video collection after it being absent for a decade. I’d almost forgotten how good of a film it is, how touching, how funny, how relatable. Even the “evil” government agent played by Peter Coyote seems to revel in the magic of E.T.’s presence on Earth during his talk with Elliott in the emergency tent. He displays a kind of childlike wonder and gratefulness to having this experience, even though he has tainted it with his government alignment. Needless to say, I was filled with that same wonder, even fistpumping the air as the kids made their escape on bicycles, with John Williams’ excellent track blaring in my living room. So many wonderful memories, so many happy tears. Thank you Steven Spielberg. It’s always nice to live that again.

REVIEW: The Lion King (1994)

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Directed by Roger Allers and Bob Minkoff
Written by Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts, and Linda Woolverton
Starring the Voices of Matthew Broderick, James Earl Jones, Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Jeremy Irons, Rowan Atkinson, Nathan Lane, Ernie Sabella, Robert Guillaume, Whoopi Goldberg, Cheech Marin, Jim Cummings, Madge Sinclair

Made in the heydey of the ’90s Disney renaissance, The Lion King represents one of the finer moments of the studio’s creative vision and occupies a high stature in the eyes of the fans, who consistently keep coming back to it, whether in the form of this original film and its sequels, the Lion Guard television series, or the acclaimed Broadway musical.

A young lion prince is born in Africa, thus making his uncle Scar (Jeremy Irons) the second in line to the throne. Envious and devious, Scar plots with the hyenas of the shadowy outlands to kill King Mufasa (James Earl Jones) and Prince Simba (Jonathan Taylor Thomas), thus making himself King. Soon enough, Mufasa is killed and Simba is led to believe by Scar that it was his fault, and so flees the kingdom in shame. After years of exile with a carefree pair (Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella), the now-grown Simba (Matthew Broderick) is persuaded to return home to overthrow the usurper and claim the kingdom as his own, thus completing the “Circle of Life”.

Despite being mired in the controversy of whether it lifted its storyline and main character from the Kimba the White Lion anime, The Lion King is much more indebted to the classic play of William Shakespeare, Hamlet. The major beats are all there: the King is murdered by his jealous brother, who usurps the throne; the King’s son is forced to choose between avenging his father or allowing that crime to go unpunished, thereby sparing his own life of the responsibility. Simba’s arc through the second half of the film is a precise mirror of Prince Hamlet’s, insomuch that The Lion King becomes, in my mind, the only adaptation of a Shakespeare tragedy to successfully end happily.

But before that arc can begin, The Lion King first treats us to two similar perspectives on the mighty throne of Mufasa: young Simba, and Scar. The youthful cub is anxious to be King, believing that simply because he was born into the line, he will get a free pass to use the power any way he wants. Just like every kid out there who wants to rule the world. As Simba endures his growing pains under the fair and loving guidance of his father, his uncle Scar broods. Played in cunning manner by Jeremy Irons, Scar’s desires aren’t too far from Simba’s–his are just hidden under the lies of adulthood, as he believes his rule will automatically bring about a golden age. Like every dictator that has ever come to power, Scar’s delusions bring about misery and sorrow, like every good villain’s plan should.

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Throughout the first half, we get some wild song sequences, like the tribal-influenced “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” and Scar’s dark “Be Prepared,” and of course, the ever popular and beautiful “Circle of Life.” Each song, some with input from the great Elton John, is bolstered by terrific visual sights of the plains and jungles of Africa, as is the story by each amazing voice actor, led by such talents as James Earl Jones as Mufasa, Jonathan Taylor Thomas as young Simba, and Robert Guillaume as my personal favorite, the wise and wacky witch doctor of a baboon, Rafiki. There is also the incredible attention to detail displayed by the animators, who slip in subtleties of performance into the characters that correspond to their actual animal inspirations.

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The pivotal moment separating both halves is the death of Mufasa, a moment which I’m sure traumatized a lot of kids back in the day (and probably still does). By showing this moment which was only referred to in Hamlet, The Lion King eschews intrigue for sheer pathos, and propels Simba into a life of hedonism with the film’s best comic relief, Timon (Nathan Lane) and Pumba (Ernie Sabella). Out in the jungle, the now-grown Simba (Matthew Broderick) gets to live out most of our most wonderful and illogical fantasies away from the responsibility of life, before reality comes crashing back.

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I could go on and on about the thematic and narrative depth of The Lion King, but since this is a review, I’ll just end on my most basic, unfiltered thoughts on it: I still love it. Far and away, the only film that comes close to it from the Disney renaissance is Aladdin, and that’s mainly due to Robin Williams. This film, while still boasting big names, doesn’t really have one major player that carries the film effortlessly; instead, the strength of the plot and the visual majesty of its setting is what makes The Lion King stand apart from its colleagues.

REVIEW: It (2017)

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Directed by Andy Muschietti
Written by Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman, Based on the Novel by Stephen King
Starring Jaeden Lieberher, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer, Wyatt Oleff, Bill Skarsgård, Nicholas Hamilton

I’ll never forget the autumn of 2000. For whatever strange reason, my mother wanted to watch the 1990 miniseries of Stephen King’s It, which was re-airing on the Sci-Fi Channel that particular night. I decided to watch along, thinking at first that this was going to be some John Wayne Gacy-type serial killer thriller. By the time Part One was over, I knew different. It quickly became a standby favorite of myself, my brother, and our closest male cousin, who along with our other cousins, formed a sort of Loser’s Club of our own. So forgive me if I gush all over this review, but It is a story near and dear to my heart, and Andy Muschietti’s film has further enhanced that connection I have to King’s tale of adolescence and trauma.

In the town of Derry, Maine, children disappear at a far worse rate than the national average. What’s worse, the adults don’t seem to care too much about it. It’s as if something haunts the small town, creeping below it for centuries. In the summer of 1989, a group of kids known as the Loser’s Club, bound together by the bonds of friendship and their shared experiences with a terrifying force in the shape of a clown (Bill Skarsgård), will venture into the sewers beneath their home and face their fears in a battle to destroy a creature they know only as It.

Let me preface by saying that while I am a horror fan and truly enjoy the genre, I feel that it has been in something of a death spiral until recently. A decade of bad, gimmicky flicks and lackluster Syfy original pictures have taken their toll, and because of the exploitive nature of the genre, it’s timelessness no longer seems to be a factor. Luckily, this year seems to be reversing that trend, with Jordan Peele’s Get Out and M. Night Shyamalan’s Split earning critical praise as well as monetary success, and Muschietti’s film now rightly joins that small pantheon of greatness.

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What seems to separate It from those other films, however, is that it isn’t just a horror film. What the Fukunaga/Palmer/Dauberman script preserves perfectly from King’s novel is the essence of the turn of childhood into adulthood, a point in our short lives as human beings that everyone remembers vividly, be it fondly or reluctantly. At many, and I mean many, points, It more closely resembles a coming-of-age film of children uniting to embark on a great quest, much like The Goonies or Stand By Me. But even moreso than those classic movies, It nails feelings that we all can relate to.

Take Ben Hanscombe (Jeremy Ray Taylor) for example. While the book makes it plain that he is a bigger kid, so to speak, and the miniseries portrayed him as appropriately husky, this film gives us a Ben that is very round and decidedly childlike, obviously having not hit puberty yet. He’s an awkward bookworm with no friends and a love for Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis) that is destined for disappointment and heartbreak. I don’t know about any of you, but Ben reminded me a little too much of myself at that age, which made the film end up tugging at my heartstrings. (Luckily for me, I am now with my own Beverly Marsh, and I’m never letting her go.)

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This dynamic of truly understanding the traumas and pressures of childhood and how we deal with them saturates the amazing script, allowing for any member of the audience to relate to any one of the Losers. Been a target for racists because of your skin? Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs) has you covered. You were the sickly kid, or the one with domineering parents? Eddie Kaspbrack (Jack Dylan Grazer) should bring back memories. Ever hung out with the kid who could make Deadpool blush? Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard) sure reminds me of him. Every character is so freshly realized by the writers that if It is not nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay, I’m flipping my desk. Even better, the actors mentioned here are so flawless that It should serve as an example of the benefits of casting child parts with age-appropriate players. Wolfhard Is Richie Tozier with his mad mouth, as much as Grazer Is Eddie, constantly warning of the dangers of germs. Even Stuttering Bill, a character with a resourcefulness and bravery beyond his years, is still played beautifully by Jaeden Lieberher as wholly authentic, enough that I wished I had a friend like him growing up.

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One aspect I’m already beginning to see trashed, however, is Beverly Marsh–specifically, some have charged the filmmakers with over-sexualizing her, an especially touchy subject when the character is only 11 years old. But before you let that pepper your enjoyment of the film, you must consider both context and the extent to which the filmmakers drew back. At some points, yes, Beverly is presented in a slightly-sexualized light–Bill sees her strolling in a cliche beam of heavenly light towards him. The boys of the Losers Club stare when she sunbathes. Yes, I know she’s only 11, but so are the boys. That’s what boys do. What is important here is that the screenwriters and Muschietti had the good sense to keep what King did right, which was that the Losers accept her as more than a piece of ass, and jettison what King did wrong, which is the infamous orgy scene. In the end, this film ended up mending a huge mistake King originally made with the character of Beverly, and in doing so, has earned immunity from any such complaints a so-called social justice warrior might reap upon it. (Note–before you attack me in the comments, no I’m not a Trumpet or a conservative.)

But what am I talking about? You came into the film to watch a horror movie! And boy oh boy, does It deliver. Relishing the chance to truly bring King’s sick imagination to the screen with an R-rating, Muschietti infuses his film with carefully-revealed gore and some truly frightening apparitions that at times appear more practically-realized than the CGI I know it is. Certain scares, like the Leper, are faithfully translated from the novel, while others have been modernized in effective ways. Some scares seem to be natural evolutions of certain 21st Century horror tropes, most notably the projector scene, which feels like a better upgrade of 2012’s Sinister.

Again, acting as the nightmare-fuel glue that binds it all together, is Pennywise, the clown that It loves to be, here played by Bill Skarsgård. Skarsgård’s Pennywise is a different beast than Tim Curry’s and this helps him establish himself outside of that impossible-to-top legacy. This Pennywise is so inhuman, so monstrous that it isn’t hard at all to see the monster underneath as he slithers toward his young prey, at times cracking jokes that would make the Joker shiver. This film has given us the Christopher Reeve of Pennywise, ensuring that Skarsgård’s performance will be remembered for years to come.

As I finish up this review, I already know two things: I’m going to be seeing It again very soon, and I will be writing about It a lot more. What I’m beginning to suspect about it is that it may be my favorite horror film in no time at all. Is It truly better than The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, or The Thing? I still don’t know, but neither of those films made me tear up at memories of my adolescence or feel intense hatred for the monster for killing such an adorable kid as Jackson Robert Scott’s Georgie Denbrough, and that’s saying something. If you are one of the few who hasn’t seen It, I encourage you to get out to your local cinema ASAP. Even if you don’t do horror movies or are as terrified of clowns as Richie, the rewards of the human story far outweigh the risk of nightmares.

REVIEW: Dunkirk (2017)

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Directed by Christopher Nolan
Written by Christopher Nolan
Starring Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, James D’Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branaugh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy

Nolan’s first war film, and the first removed from the realm of science fiction and fantasy since 2002’s Insomnia, Dunkirk is no less experimental and thought-provoking than any of his other works, and also like the rest of his filmography, is so good that I can’t choose exactly what I think is his best.

The dramatic and true story of the Dunkirk evacuations from a war torn beach and harbour in France, following the seemingly doomed plight of Allied soldiers in World War II. As the enemy forces close in it seems the troops have nowhere to go, but help is at hand and a fierce battle ensues.

While comparisons to Saving Private Ryan aren’t entirely unfounded,  Dunkirk is a wholly-different kind of film than Spielberg’s opus. Indeed, both aim for an immersive and pulse-pounding ambiance that places the viewer the thick of World War II, Private Ryan had a dirty, shaky documentary-type of feel, drained of almost all color in a successful approximation of black-and-white photography that saturated the immense sadness of the plight its characters found themselves in. Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, on the other hand, is a wide, sweeping cinematic experience, clear in both its cinematography as well as its goal of being a very different breed of war film.

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By now, Nolan is a star unto himself. Having reinvented the superhero myth with the Dark Knight trilogy and electrified the summer blockbuster field with mind-bending films like Memento, The Prestige, Inception, and Interstellar, his name is enough to sell a film on, and that is exactly what happened with this one. There are more than a few famous faces in Dunkirk–Kenneth Branaugh, Tom Hardy, James D’Arcy, and musician Harry Styles, to name several–but their characters are mere figureheads, and second to the plot of the film itself. Beginning in the streets of the Dunkirk commune in France in the latter half of 1940, the picture quickly introduces us to three sets of characters, all of whom receive little-to-no development or elaboration, with some lacking even names. This allows for the film to become an extension of the audience’s feelings and emotions during the viewing, encouraging us to impress our own traits onto the characters in a more involved humanization.

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This allows Nolan to focus all of his energies as writer-director on the triptych-structure of the story. Told from three perspectives, The Mole, The Sea, and The Air, Dunkirk eschews omniscient storytelling for sheer disorientation in its narrative–not unlike the kind of confusion a retreating British soldier would have felt during the actual event. And then, Nolan hits us over the head with his screenwriting hammer. Each perspective is told at a different pace: roughly one week’s time for The Mole, one day for The Sea, and one hour for The Air. They are then shuffled into a non-linear narrative that rewards active participation in a viewing.

The Mole features three army soldiers, Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), Gibson (Aneurin Barnard), and Alex (Harry Styles), as they attempt, over and over again, to escape the beach port of Dunkirk, only to meet with failure several times as different ships that they board are sunk by German war machines. It’s a methodically thrilling story that puts these men into impossible situations and really tests their resolve to survive. Kenneth Branaugh and James D’Arcy also factor into this storyline as Commander Bolton, the pier master of the British evacuation, and Colonel Winnant, who serve as the melancholic counterpoint to the soldiers as they watch ship after ship founder with precious lives aboard.

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The Sea depicts the efforts of civilian sailors and yachtsman who answered the Naval call and rescued soldiers directly from the beaches, centered mainly on Dawson (Mark Rylance), an old fisherman, and his son Peter (Tom-Glynn Carney) and his friend and deckhand George (Barry Keoghan). As they take their small vessel out into the waters surrounding France, they first encounter the sole survivor of a wrecked destroyer (Cillian Murphy), hopelessly crippled by shell-shock. This segment serves mainly as the philosophical core of the film, with questions of heroism and duty in the face of certain death clashing with the reality of the bloodiest war in human history.

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The third segment, The Air, focuses on a small squadron of Supermarine Spitfires, Farrier (Tom Hardy), Collins (Jack Lowden), and their squadron leader as they head toward Dunkirk to provide aerial support. Encountering several German planes along the way, the film reaches some its most dizzying heights of tension during the dogfights of this slice, peppered with the element of suspense in Farrier’s broken fuel gauge.

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As these subplots continue on, Nolan brings back what is now his trademark, the manipulation of time in narrative structure, to both weave these disparate storylines in and out of each other, and to create tension and dramatic progression where there originally may not have been. As the last third of the film brings all of these characters together spatially, the emotional crescendo builds and builds, eclipsing most other war epics by throwing manufactured sentimentality and sappy cliches to the wayside in favor of stark, steady realism.

Of course, this wouldn’t be a Nolan film without complete technical perfection, and his crew helps him accomplish this in spades. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema returns from Interstellar to paint a cold blue picture that precisely emulates aerial stock footage from inside the cockpit as well as it apes the vast crowd productions of silent cinema on the ground. Lee Smith works once again with Nolan, creating an editorial collaboration that just may be the best this critic has ever encountered, and Hans Zimmer provides his most experimental score yet, a literal ticking time bomb that steals from the best of the horror tradition during the most tense moments, and ends with a haunting final track that stirs the emotional climax without becoming hokey at all.

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Christopher Nolan was perhaps born in the wrong time. His films all operate on a technical level unseen since Kubrick, and share more than one of his artistic quirks. Nolan would have perhaps felt more at home during the auteur days of the 1960s or the impressionistic cinema of the silent era, but I for one am glad to have him here in my time. He’s always a breath of fresh air, even when he’s pulling from centuries-old material, and Dunkirk continues this proud tradition. With an uncommon narrative, independence from sanctimonious character milking, and reliance on the grounded reality of in-camera effects and 70mm film, Dunkirk is a true work of art floating in a sea of dime store merchandise.