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 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.


Maestro’s Marathons: The Ancient Evil Halloween Marathon


It’s that time again! The spooky, spectral time of ghosts and demons and all sorts of frightening beasts from the Beyond…it’s October!

Ancient Evil Halloween Marathon

It could be anything. An ancient monster that just won’t die. An alien infestation consuming your body. The spectre of the night encased in silent, human form. Whatever you fear, it could be anything this Halloween!
This October, The Movie Maestro brings to you 13 nights of terror as the shadows of eons past return to wreak havoc on humankind! From October 19th to the Festival of Samhain on the 31st, you will be witness to ?? films of increasing dread as the forces of pure evil from days gone by lunge for the kill!

Unlike the American Spirit Marathon, the October/Halloween event will be slightly changing with each iteration, presenting a different theme each year. This year, in light of the massive success of the new adaptation of Stephen King’s It, the theme will be Ancient Evil. Everything from alien creatures millions of years old to the Deadites of the Middle Ages, from eldritch monsters beyond our reality to the pure, ageless evil behind the eyes of Michael Myers, all of it will be coming for you!

The Picks:

Salem’s Lot
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We begin the marathon with a tale from the Master of Macabre’s past: Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot. Released in 1979 as a miniseries, like the better-known It, Salem’s Lot presents us with an interesting take on the vampire mythos. Taking place in King’s old standby state of Maine, the small town of Jerusalem’s Lot becomes the modern-day breeding ground for a new and vicious group of blood-suckers, led by the monstrous Kurt Barlow and his sinister assistant, the eloquent Richard Straker . This film is pulling double-duty within our marathon due to its director–the late Tobe Hooper, who sadly passed away earlier this year. Still early in his career, Hooper relishes the chance to create a foreboding atmosphere, infusing Salem’s Lot with an eeriness that persists to this day. While there is a remake with the always perfect Rutger Hauer as Barlow, I’m sticking with the original out of respect for Hooper and the grisly Nosferatu-like visage of this film’s king vampire.

The Evil Dead
Related imageAt once Sam Raimi’s debut and magnum opus of horror, Evil Dead is still enduring in several forms; comics, a Showtime TV series, a remake, and even a musical have been released alongside the two more successful sequels, and Raimi himself has become quite an eccentric and eclectic filmmaker in the decades since. For this marathon, we’ll go back to the beginning, when the demons were first unleashed and the evil in the forest was no laughing matter. Ash, played as always by the immortal Bruce Campbell, and his friends arrive at a secluded cabin in the woods for a carefree weekend away from civilization. Instead, they find a scene of slaughter, and the Necronomicon, a book of demonic spells, wrapped in flesh and inked in blood, which releases a horde of Kandarian spirits, determined to possess the kids through rape and mutilation. Phew, that was a brutal mouthful. And so is this movie, to this very day.

The Cabin in the Woods
Image result for the cabin in the woods posterWhile we’re on the subject of cabins and mutilation, let’s keep this theme rolling with Drew Goddard’s excellent deconstruction of classic horror movie tropes, The Cabin in the Woods. Co-written with Joss Whedon, Cabin explores another group of kids’ run-in with supernatural torment deep in the forest, but with a more funny twist…and a strange little Office Space-style conspiracy running in the background. Did I say Office Space? It’s more like Office Space by way of H.P. Lovecraft, we’ll just say that. I’ll also say that this is how Cabin ends up on my Ancient Evil marathon, but to say more might truly spoil the whole thing, so just pop it in and enjoy a stoner, a jock, a virgin, a slut, and whatever that other guy was stumble through a nightmare scenario of movie monsters, all controlled by two sweaty office workers who complain about their wives’ hormones.

Nosferatu the Vampyre
Image result for nosferatu the vampyre posterFrom pop culture exploitation to art-house cinema we go, with this, probably the most haunting rendition of Bram Stoker’s tale of the ultimate vampire, Dracula. King of the Undead and cursed by God Himself, Count Dracula feeds on the blood of the living to sustain his damned existence, bringing his horror to the shores of England when he sets his sights on the lovely Mina Harker. While any of the myriad versions of Dracula will do here, such as the classic 1931 production starring Bela Lugosi, one of the Hammer films starring Christopher Lee, or the Francis Ford Coppola remake with Gary Oldman, I have decided to spice things up a bit with Werner Herzog’s homage remake of Nosferatu. Not having to worry about copyright enfringement anymore, Herzog has returned much of the original Dracula characters to the fray, but with his hypnotic direction at the helm, Nosferatu the Vampyre makes for an interesting detour in our marathon.

The Mummy (1997)
Image result for the mummy 1997 posterSometimes, you just need some good, fun escapism. After the trance-like Nosferatu, why not take a moment to recuperate with Brendan Frasier as he battles it out with Imhotep, the rotting star of 1997’s The Mummy? 3000 years ago, in the empire of Egypt, Imhotep was the high priest of the dead, the chief holy power in the realm and second only to the Pharoah himself–too bad he and his lady love decided to murder him. So begins an epic, Indiana Jones-like odyssey with Frasier’s Rick O’Connell fighting alongside Rachel Weisz and others to prevent the ancient blasphemer from unleashing the power to destroy the world. While this installment is much heavier on action and adventure, it still has quite a few good scares for the more timid among us. And, let’s face it, it is miles ahead of the new Tom Cruise-starring version, so why not relive old times, when all was right with the world?

The Shining
Image result for the shining posterTime for a break from the ancient evil! Since Stephen King stories seem to be on a roll lately, let’s go back to one of the earliest hits from his bookshelf, this one by one of the greatest filmmakers of them all, Stanley Kubrick. While the menace isn’t quite ancient, it’s still pretty old–the Overlook Hotel, imbued with evil by the spirits of the dead within its walls, be they massacred Indians or axe-murdered twins. Ugh, those twins. Jack Torrence, played both frighteningly and hilariously by Jack Nicholson, is soon under the spell of these ghastly ghosts, and your only hope is….Shelly Duvall and a little kid? Well, take heart, because Shelly is tougher than she looks, and that kid has a little ability that can make or break your chances for survival. So go ahead. Kick back, relax, turn the thermostat way down, and enjoy a creepy night in at the Overlook. Now say it with me…”HEEEEEERE’S JOHNNY!!!”

The Fog
Related imageNope! Break’s not over yet! John Carpenter is a filmmaker you’ll be seeing pop up on my radar a lot, considering, you know, just how good he is. Any genre he works in, be it sci-fi, romance, action, and yes, horror, he just nails with an offbeat sense of coolness, like he can do no wrong. This time, we’ll be taking a look at one of his more dreamlike entries, a film about spooky tales on the water in the midst of the night…The Fog. The Californian town of Antonio Bay is about to celebrate its 100th anniversary when paranormal activity begins to occur at a frightening rate. In the midst of the chaos comes a massive fogbank, bearing down on the town. Within are the restless spirits of a long-dead clipper ship, ready to take six lives in retaliation for a buried secret in the town’s sordid history. Did I mention this movie has Jamie Lee Curtis AND Adrienne Barbeau? For pure, high-seas ghostly terror, sit down with the original Fog.

Image result for it posterYou knew it was gonna end up on the list somewhere. Now the magnum opus of Stephen King flicks, Andy Muscietti’s adaptation of It has, in many eyes, supplanted the old miniseries, taking the number one spot in lists of evil, scary clowns. But It isn’t just a clown; Pennywise may be the physical face of this extraterrestrial terror, but It’s true form may just be too terrifying for we puny humans to behold. Crashing to Earth billions of years ago, It has finally awakened to feast on its favorite meals: fear and the flesh of children. It is the Eater of Worlds; the Sum-Total of Every Nightmare Ever Had; and now It will face its greatest foes: The Losers Club, a group of youngsters with foul mouths and a sense of unity that may be their only weapon to combat this Eldritch beast. While you will have to go out to your local theater this year to see it, if you haven’t yet, It is one hell of a horror film that you will not be disappointed in.

TRIPLE FEATURE: John Carpenter’s Apocalypse Trilogy
apocalypse triple feature smallReady for a long evening? Try John Carpenter’s thematic Apocalypse Trilogy, featuring three films that portray the beginning of the end of the world. Start off with the director’s bonafide classic The Thing, starring Kurt Russell as the manly MacReady as he and the other crewmen of a U.S. Antarctica base face off against an alien creature which can perfectly mimic any lifeform it reaches…even one of them. Continue with Prince of Darkness, a bizarre yet incredibly fun combination of time travel and demonic possession that pits college students and Donald Pleasance as a crusty old preacher against the literal forces of evil: Satan and the Anti-God. Close out the triple feature with In the Mouth of Madness, in which Sam Neill plays John Trent, a private investigator on the trail of missing horror novelist Sutter Cane, who’s new book may spell doom for the human race.

Wes Craven’s New Nightmare
Image result for new nightmare posterMade as an afterthought coda to the main six films of the Nightmare on Elm Street series, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare is actually probably the most creative of all those films. Delving heavily into metatextual territory, New Nightmare takes place in our world, starring the real-life actors who made the Nightmare series playing themselves. Heather Langenkamp is now a mother trying to put her horror movie past behind her, but when her young son begins having vivid nightmares at about the same time her husband begins work on a new Nightmare film. Soon, Freddy Krueger begins appearing in the real world–but it isn’t Freddy Krueger. As Craven himself cryptically explains, long ago a terrible demon was locked away in a story…and it will take a new one to contain him again. Featuring hellish imagery and some of the best dream-scares of the whole series, New Nightmare is a fine addition to this marathon.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
Related imageTaking another detour on our list of ancient evil films, we arrive in the twisted plains of deep Texas, where the meat is much more than just tainted. A horror hallmark, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre should be on everybody’s Halloween viewing lists, even more so after the unfortunate death of Tobe Hooper. A group of teens on a pleasure trip is about to find out the Texas meaning of good eats when they encounter an unsettling hitchhiker and nasty old gas station barbecue. After some choice scares, continue on into the ominous landscape, unaware of the family of psychopaths ready to butcher them all with hammers, straight-razors, and gas-powered chainsaws like prime-angus beef. An uncompromising, gruesome, and at times amusing descent into hellish heat and the stench of the slaughter, TCM provides full-bore slasher scares with none of the camp, and even less of the blood. What? You want blood? Don’t worry; your imagination will fill in the blanks.

It Follows
Related imageNot quite a detour, It Follows occupies an interesting spot on this list, as the main monster of this film’s origin is never revealed. Nonetheless, it is an unsettling thing to experience, and why not include it on the list for that very reason? Jay is your typical teenage girl who has just experienced her first sexual encounter. Depending on the person, she may be receiving either a high-five or a stern stare, right? Who would have thought that she would instead be subjected to the fear of becoming prey when she finds herself relentlessly pursued by a supernatural entity that knows her every sin? Quickly becoming praised by critics, audiences, and horror buffs alike, this film won notoriety for its writer and director David Robert Mitchell, and has probably managed to do for sex what Jaws did for beaches. In other words, the Entity of It Follows has succeeded where Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, and Michael Myers have failed.

DOUBLE FEATURE: Halloween / Halloween II
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Finish off the marathon with a double feature night, containing the only films that should be watched on Halloween night: John Carpenter’s seminal classic Halloween, and its direct continuation, Halloween II! Michael Myers himself may be just a 21-year-old psychopath, but the evil living behind his young eyes is as old as time itself…

And that’s all folks! Once again, feel free to switch out some of these films for others or mix-and-match the order. The point is, this is your ultimate Halloween marathon, so you do it your way!

REVIEW: Zodiac (2007)


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.

New Fan Edit – Godzilla: Resurrection

The time has come, folks! Time for me to embark on my own fan edit!

For my first project, I’ll be tackling a fanmix of The Return of Godzilla and its Americanized recut, Godzilla 1985. While the original Japanese version of the film is still the definitive one, I’ve always held a soft spot in my heart for Raymond Burr’s scenes in 1985, and had always wondered what the final film would have been like had he been present in the Japanese cut.

This re-edit seeks to accomplish just that, while also streamlining the slower pacing of the original cut with suggestions from 1985 to combine the best of both worlds. The film will still be highly critical of both the United States and the Soviet Union, and will work to marginalize the more humorous aspects of the added Pentagon scenes. Finally, this cut will feature a brand new opening to the film, one that seeks to definitely tie the new Godzilla to the original beast in an eerie and unforgettable way.

To read more about the project, please visit my official page on it here, and keep your eyes peeled for a trailer on YouTube and Vimeo, coming soon. Until then, enjoy my custom poster!

Godzilla Resurrection - Coming Soon Poster

Godzilla: Resurrection will be available for viewing and download this fall.

REVIEW: Escape from New York (1981)

escape from new york review

Directed by John Carpenter
Written by John Carpenter and Nick Castle
Starring Kurt Russell, Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine, Donald Pleasance, Isaac Hayes, Harry Dean Stanton, Adrienne Barbeau, Charles Cyphers, Tom Atkins

You can’t get much cooler than John Carpenter. The self-styled rebel of the horror and sci-fi genres, Carpenter’s output from 1974 to 1994 is simply perfect, packed full of interesting and wildly entertaining films that run the gamut from cult gems to full-blown classics. Right in the middle of this period sits Escape from New York, a low-budget futuristic flick that transcends its trashy brethren thanks to thoughtful and tight set design, the reliable combo of Carpenter and Dean Cundey behind the camera, and a then-little-known actor named Kurt Russell.

In 1997, Manhattan has been transformed in the New York Maximum Security Penitentiary, where criminals are sent in life sentence. When the Air Force One crashes in Manhattan with the President of the United States (Donald Pleasance) aboard, having been traveling to a summit with other world leaders, the police commissioner Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) proposes a deal to the convicted one-eyed bank robber and war hero Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell). If he rescues the president and his tape in less than 23 hours, he would be granted pardon. In order to guarantee full commitment, Hauk injects a lethal capsule in his blood that will dissolve in the scheduled time. Soon, Snake is on his way into the Prison, a hellhole of humanity where once you go in, you don’t come out.

If it’s hard for you, my dear reader, to imagine New York, with its over-8 million residents and impressive business infrastructure, being walled off and transformed into a penal colony for the wrecked and crime-infested totalitarian state of America, then my friend, you only need to turn on the news.

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Good? Okay, back to the review.

What’s so great about Escape is that Carpenter’s and Nick Castle’s script is incredibly adept at getting background information across with just a glance by the characters. Just from watching the film and paying attention to dialogue, I can tell you that the United States is now more totalitarian than ever, with a nationalized and heavily militarized police force that operates like an army against the citizens, while the nation fights World War III against China and the Soviet Union with limited usage of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. The crime rate has surged 400%, a surefire sign that the government is cracking down on things and acts that we’re previously non-criminal. All of this can be gleaned by inference from the smart writing and inventive production design by Joe Alves that makes the most of the limited budget, providing just enough to believe in the world without spoon-feeding.

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Opening with beautifully haunting sights of the New York Maximum Security Penitentiary provided by Roy Arbogast’s special effects crew (including matte painter James Cameron), comprising simple yet effective model work and some very crude computer simulation effects, these methods blend seamlessly with location work on Liberty Island, providing one of many ironic digs at authority Carpenter is so well known for, which further blends with the stark and bland sets of the police headquarters to create a vision of the future that is both imaginative and scarily realistic.

Into this hell world walks Snake Plissken, a former Special Forces war hero, now a captured bank robber on a one-way ticket into the Prison. At the time of filming, Kurt Russell was still a relatively little-known actor, having only the television movie Elvis as his big claim to fame. Here, he proves what a powerhouse he actually was, sinking into a pseudo-Clint Eastwood personality with such a contempt for authority and society that he must be literally threatened with impending death to save the President from the prisoners, courtesy of the microscopic charges lodged in his carotid arteries by police commissioner Bob Hauk, the legendary spaghetti western veteran Lee Van Cleef.

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By the time Snake is in the prison, we are just as enamored with him as we are the expansive St. Louis location shooting, standing in for a post-apocalyptic New York with tons upon tons of junk used as set dressing. As Snake slowly navigates the urban decay, his quietly-threatening interactions with everyone from the excitable Ernest Borgnine as the last NY cabbie and Harry Dean Stanton as the Prison’s resident engineering genius further impresses his cynical and world-weary streak of aloneness upon the screen. What I’m trying to say is, damn what a role, and a great performance to portray it.

Just as big a star as Russell on Escape is Carpenter’s direction, which by then was cemented by hits like Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, and The Fog. Working with his best DP, Dean Cundey, early Carpenter films usually featured slow, methodically blocked and shot sequences, many of them single-take camera passes, punctuated by bursts of on-screen action and shock, accompanied by a gruesomely realistic violence. Escape is no exception, and while not descending into slasher film-levels of gore, it can be at times relentless, even by today’s standards. The key to tempering this violent disposition is with Carpenter’s steady metaphorical hand, favoring suspense and low-light imagery as opposed to explosions and all-out general Bayhem. And of course, an atmospheric electronic score at least partially composed by himself. Escape offers yet another of his classic themes.

At its core, Escape is more than thrills and action; it actually joins a prestigious and well-hidden group of radical libertarian examples of American cinema, where authority and government are no less than the ultimate evil, but the heroes are not collectivist idols or even nice guys. Snake is the ultimate individualist hero, caring only for his own neck but displaying a sensible streak of survival, neither aggressive or sadistic. As he makes his journey from one Inferno into another, we see the two nemeses of libertarianism: the rampant state, controlling everything through fear and business, and the immoral anarchy of New York, where human beings are reduced to animals, flocking to another Che Guevara-style revolutionary in the Duke at best, and cannibalizing each other at worst.

Through this reading, which is most certainly the intent of the filmmakers given their past statements on the film and their own personal politics, Escape most certainly deserves to be looked at as more than a simple B-movie. In a way, it might turn out to be prophetic, if the British Trump at the head of the country in this film is any indication. So if you have, pop it in and enjoy. If you don’t, well get going on the hunt for it, because I promise that even on the lightest, entertainment-driven level of viewing, Escape from New York will not disappoint.

Just, for the love of God, stay away from Escape from L.A.

REVIEW: Baby Driver (2017)


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: No Country for Old Men (2007)


Directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
Written by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, Based on the Novel by Cormac McCarthy
Starring Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, Woody Harrelson, Kelly Macdonald, Garret Dillahunt, Tess Harper, Stephen Root

Adapting a novel by an unconventional novel for author Cormac McCarthy into an equally unconventional film for themselves, the Coen Brothers show again how real dual filmmakers get the job done with this uncompromising thriller.

In rural Texas, welder and hunter Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) discovers the remains of several drug runners who have all killed each other in an exchange gone violently wrong. Rather than report the discovery to the police, Moss decides to simply take the two million dollars present for himself. This puts the psychopathic killer, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), on his trail as he dispassionately murders nearly every rival, bystander and even employer in his pursuit of his quarry and the money. As Moss desperately attempts to keep one step ahead, the blood from this hunt begins to flow behind him with relentlessly growing intensity as Chigurh closes in. Meanwhile, the laconic Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) blithely oversees the investigation even as he struggles to face the sheer enormity of the crimes he is attempting to thwart.

The Coen Brothers have always been known for quieter films that, while by no means boring or tame, definitely know how to understate things eloquently. While other, lesser filmmakers go straight for the jugular with deafening blasts of celluloid, the Coens are a markedly-different beast of American cinema, combining the silent soundscapes of a French filmmaker with the uniquely American flair for violence. No Country for Old Men probably does this violence better than any Coen Brothers film.

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Beginning with a short but important and even poignant voiceover by the laconic and grizzled Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, No Country quickly turns brutal with the introduction of its most memorable element, the psychopathic hitman Anton Chigurh. Only described in the book as a “man without a sense of humor,” he becomes a central fixture of the film’s themes of nihilism the uncertainty of human society, and in the Coen Brothers’ repetoire of memorable characters, despite their well-known reliance on dry humor. Instead, the laughs are left mostly with Bell as he stays firmly three steps behind the other two leads.

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The main action of the story line consists of Chigurh’s pursuit of a satchel of Mexican drug money, now in the possession of a retired welder and Vietnam vet named Llewelyn Moss. Moss, despite played as resourceful and determined as can be by Brolin, is simply no match for the invincible Chigurh, who at times appears almost robotic, or perhaps demonic, in the capable hands of Bardem, who’s incredibly creepy voice and thousand-mile stare keep the audience on guard.

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For a film so quiet (and I mean quiet–vast swaths of the picture allow the soundtrack, music and sfx, to drop away completely), No Country is incredibly adept at creating tension, as most of the Coens’ output is expected to be. The difference here is that while in most of their other films the suspense is punctuated by comedy or melodrama, here, it is firmly rooted in reality, juxtaposing everyday 1980 environments with a brutality that would be enough to shake any war vet watching.

The film is not without some signature Coens’ humor, however, mostly exemplified by Bell, but also allowing for Moss and Woody Harrelson’s assassin character Carson Wells to get their laughs in as well. But this film being more of a drama, it mostly excels in the tragedy displayed, presenting a truly shocking turn of events that lead to several twists in the final 40 minutes of the film that lead to perhaps one of the greatest final scenes I’ve ever encountered in all my years of movie watching.

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Even this far into their careers, the Coens’ display a silent confidence with this film, making a suspenseful thriller with minimal action into an end-of-the-year gem that became a formidable presence in the awards circuit. As the years go by, its reputation will only be further cemented as its themes and characters are debated and analyzed.

REVIEW: Armageddon (1998)


Directed by Michael Bay
Written by Jonathan Hensleigh and  J.J. Abrams, Adapted by Tony Gilroy and Shane Salerno, Story by Robert Roy Pool and Jonathan Hensleigh
Starring Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck, Liv Tyler, Billy Bob Thornton, Will Patton, Steve Buscemi, William Fichtner, Owen Wilson, Michael Clarke Duncan, Peter Stormaire, Keith David, Jason Isaacs

I would call Armageddon my greatest guilty pleasure….if I considered it a guilty pleasure. But I don’t. In fact, I am going to go all black sheep on you and say Armageddon is secretly a great film, simply misunderstood by the masses who tolerate unbelievable and trite premises in other films because they simply do not have Michael Bay listed as their director. Indefensible? Misguided? Just plain wrong? Nope, I’ll prove it to you.

With the space shuttle Atlantis’s unfortunate demise in outer space and the devastation of the Eastern Seaboard of the United States by meteor showers, NASA becomes aware of a doomsday asteroid that is on a collision course with Earth. After numerous plans are tabled, it seems that the only way to knock it off course is to drill into its surface and detonate a nuclear weapon. But as NASA’s under-funded yet resourceful team train the world’s best drillers for the job, under the auspices of their boss Harry Stamper (Bruce Willis), the social order of the world begins to break down as the information reaches the public and hysteria results. As high-ranking officials play politics with the effort, the drilling team all faces deep personal issues which may jeopardize humanity’s last chance…

So what makes Armageddon a good movie in my eyes? Well, the first indication is that Michael Bay most certainly has the favor of the cinematic gods when it comes to an eye for composition. Even Bay’s critics have always been quick to point out that his visual style is distinctive and even beautiful at times, and that style is present in force within Armageddon. Every shot is incredibly dynamic, with sweeping camera and character movement that achieves a high parallax, coupled with equally dynamic editing in which the average shot length is about 1.5 seconds. It sounds like a cacophony of undecipherable images, and I grant you, the nameless reader in my head, that in most of his more recent films, like Transformers, this causes quite the headache, but it works for Armageddon, which commands a more J.J. Abrams-esque command of light and color and most certainly doesn’t have to deal with alien shards of sentient metal constantly shifting in the frame.

Still, Armageddon is not for the viewer who is even the least bit slow-eyed, because every one of their senses will be under assault by deafening loudness, both physical and metaphorical. Everything about Armageddon is decidedly unsubtle, and I think this is what works against the film in the eyes of its detractors. Okay, that was a nice way of saying that’s why the film is so hated. But, and let’s be honest here, what other films are like that? If you said just about every superhero film put out by Marvel and Warner Brothers today, than you would be correct. So maybe it’s high time to knock it off with the hypocrisy, shall we?

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What truly works in Armageddon are the characters. Before we even meet our main heroes, we are treated to the denizens of the NASA control room, headed by Director Truman (Billy Bob Thornton), a Texan throwback to the days of the early Space Race, full of Southern charm and fire. He works as an excellent bridge and confidant between the military and scientific elites and the drill team of oilman Harry Stamper, played in the usual lunkhead everyman caricature by Die Hard‘s own Bruce Willis. Stamper’s team are a veritable Dirty Dozen, composed of an array of blue-collar types who range from dependable to shaky to downright crazy. Luckily, some of the best character actors of the decade were assembled to play them, giving us the likes of Will Patton, Michael Clarke Duncan, Owen Wilson, and in a special note, the absolutely hilarious Steve Buscemi.

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All is not well among them, however, as Harry has a daughter (or rather, Steve Tyler of Aerosmith’s daughter, Liv Tyler) who is being courted by none other than Ben Affleck as Harry’s young hot-shot A.J. The less that can be said about this subplot however, the better, because it just isn’t up to scratch with the rest of the picture.

Image result for armageddon aj graceSomewhere out there, a hater is thinking, “The whole picture isn’t up to scratch. WTF are you talking about?”

Once we get off the ground, the full force of “Bayhem,” as his visual style is so often derided or praised as, hits the audience and propels them into satisfying blend of action and disaster genres, throwing our already likeable heroes into intense situations such as the destruction of a Russian space station in orbit or the insanely difficult landing maneuvers onto the asteroid. The script attempts to inject some political turmoil into this script with the President and his advisors deciding to blow the bomb early due to their doubts that the drillers can succeed, and as you would have guessed, it is handled with the subtlety of a nine-year-old who’s found his dad’s gun.

But, again, this is okay. Not every science fiction film can be 2001: A Space Odyssey, and in the case, the farcical and over-the-top nature of the narrative and the people that move it along are a main feature, meant to be enjoyed as spectacle, not nuance. Hell, I’ve even made the argument that Armageddon should be considered a quintessential 4th of July movie, and that allegorical connection is about as unsubtle as a Donald Trump rally. That is the point. America is never subtle. Neither is Bay, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

I hope I’ve been able to get somewhere with this argument, but in the end, I guess it comes down to preferences. Those who prefer their entertainment more simple-minded will love this movie, as will people who are flexible like myself, while those who demand narrative and technical perfection will never listen to a word I say. But for those who may be undecided, I feel that early Bay, from Bad Boys to Pearl Harbor, offered excellent spectacle filmmaking, before he let his juvenile frat-boy streak take over. Since Armageddon fits firmly in the middle of this part of his career, I hope that you will give at least one more chance.


REVIEW: Olympus Has Fallen (2013)


Directed by Antoine Fuqua
Written by Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt
Starring Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman, Angela Bassett, Dylan McDermott, Melissa Leo, Robert Forster, Rick Yune, Radha Mitchell, Finley Jacobsen, Ashley Judd

2013. While to everyone else it seemed that the enormous train of Die Hard clones had long since put into the station, Hollywood had other plans. Hitting theaters within months of each other, Roland Emmerich’s White House Down and Antoine Fuqua’s Olympus Has Fallen faced off with very similar premises: enemies take the White House and the President, good guy must infiltrate and save him. Olympus seemed to be inevitable loser of the fight, as it was a low-budget direct-to-video project that was suddenly bumped to theatrical status shortly before filming to compete with Emmerich’s film, which was big and with its own sizable bank of stars. So, why am I here reviewing this film for the 4th of July instead of WHD?

When the White House (Secret Service Code: “Olympus”) is captured by a terrorist mastermind and the President (Aaron Eckhart) is kidnapped, disgraced former Presidential Secret Service Agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) finds himself trapped within the building. As our national security team scrambles to respond, they are forced to rely on Banning’s inside knowledge to help retake the White House, save the President and avert an even bigger disaster.

To put it bluntly, compared to WHD, Olympus is simply better. It’s harder hitting, it’s grittier where it matters, it takes itself more seriously, I could go on and on. What counts is that at the end of the day, Olympus resides proudly on my blu-ray shelf, while WHD languishes in my bad memories.

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Beginning with a brief prologue at Camp David, Olympus quickly introduces the two men of the piece, President Asher and Agent Banning, and their mutual respect for each other quite handily, enough to make up for the truly terrible CGI depicting the car accident that takes the life of Asher’s wife (Ashley Judd). This becomes a common theme throughout the runtime, as laughable effects which betray this film’s lowly roots are cleanly swept under the rug by superior performances and balls-to-the-wall action. The actors, while all proven talent, aren’t exactly at the top of their game, but they do well enough to make the two hours squeeze by with a maximum amount of fun.

With some exceptions in the forms of the nearly-absent Radha Mitchell and Dylan McDermott’s muddled take on a traitorous Secret Serviceman, all of the main characters are written with a wit and charm that allows the actors to breathe and experiment. Asher is steel-jawed and principled, everything you’d want your cinematic President to be, as is Melissa Leo as his humanly brave Secretary of Defense. Angela Bassett as the Secret Service Director and Morgan Freeman as Speaker of the House Trumbull work with great presences that adequately portray the unfamiliar situations they find themselves in, while Yune is perfect as the film’s villain, a suave and charming reptile of a man known as Kang.

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But of course, you picked up this film (or are considering it) for Gerard Butler. Rest assured, he will win no awards for it, but as Banning, he is bloody good fun to watch. It has kind of become a staple of ultra-violent action films such as these to cheer on a cheesy hero, and while Banning isn’t one to make Superman proud, the way he snarls and spits back at Kang, occasionally slurring into his native Scottish accent, just makes the whole thing that much more watchable. At least far more than the attempts Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx made at humor in WHD.

As I mentioned before, the CGI is downright laughable in some places and only passable in most, but the vision for the action sequences, mainly the main set piece of Kang’s men assaulting the White House itself while an AC-130 gunship unloads on the city from above, is first-rate and well-executed, pulling away from the usual low-budget action drivel and going for the jugular with a more balanced and steady camera by Fuqua. Speaking of which, lots and LOTS of blood. Action fans will rejoice.

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While WHD went for more of spoof feeling whilst also trying to claim the high ground of realism, Olympus stays grounded in tone, introducing more fantastic elements with complete verisimilitude. The biggest comic book-inspired addition, the Cerberus system (a network of self-destruct devices built into the USA’s nuclear arsenal) is handled with the utmost care and belief by the film’s characters, helping the audience ease into the far-fetched idea without too much kicking and screaming. 3 for 3, Olympus Has Fallen.

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As far as cons, I only have one real big one, and that would be the aforementioned McDermott and Mitchell, who just don’t pull off their characters, with Mitchell’s problem being more script-related than McDermott’s simple shitting-of-the-bed. But there is so much to like in this movie that I have to give it a moderately high recommendation. It’s an ugly image with 1998 CGI, but when the action is this brutal and the characters this likeable, who cares that the airplane looks like clay?

REVIEW: Air Force One (1997)


Directed by Wolfgang Petersen
Written by Andrew W. Marlowe
Starring Harrison Ford, Gary Oldman, Glenn Close, Wendy Crewson, Liesel Matthews, Paul Guilfoyle, Xander Berkeley, William H. Macy, Dean Stockwell, Tom Everett, Jürgen Prochnow, Donna Bullock

While in real life it is a recipe for disaster, deep down, most of us would love a President who kicks ass and takes names. A strong man with justice in his heart and a propensity dispensing it with fists and bullets speaks to want in us for a simpler world where problems are easily fixed. And while here in Reality Land that desire has given us an orange TV star with more corruption in his veins than Crisco, in the realm of cinema, that desire fairs better, giving us Han Solo with a submachine gun and one hell of a dislike for Russian terrorists.

After a joint US-Russian raid captures the genocidal leader (Jürgen Prochnow) of a resurgent Kazahkstan, US President James Marshall (Harrison Ford) delivers a stirring speech in Moscow. On the flight home, terrorists take over Air Force One (the President’s official plane) and take the passengers, including his wife and daughter, hostage. The terrorist leader (Gary Oldman) plans to execute one hostage every half-hour unless or until their demands are met. However, the President is a former Medal of Honor winner, so the terrorists may be in for a surprise…

Directed by German wunderkind Wolfgang Petersen, Air Force One is a perennial action favorite, not visually distinctive in any way yet a wildly fun ride on a bullet-ridden Presidential transport. The concept of a world leader taking the fight literally into his own hands isn’t quite original and definitely not believable, but it comes across so easily in this film that the audience never once questions it, allowing for the action to unfold like premium butter.

I credit most of this to the actors involved. Had even a slightly lesser cast been utilized this silly premise would have never gotten off the ground. The effort is led undoubtedly by Harrison Ford, probably the most human action hero of American cinema. While he is more serious than his most famous character of Indiana Jones, James Marshall still embodies the well-worn resilience of that character, and he uses it to great effect in a performance far more authentic than this kind of film deserves.

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Supporting Ford are Wendy Crewson as his wife Grace and a host of familiar Hollywood faces as his Cabinet, including Glenn Close as Vice President Bennett. Trying to hold together the situation from the ground, Close ironically brings the logical realism to the story, acting very much as I would hope a senior government official would in this impossible situation (except for one big exception, but hey, we wouldn’t have a movie otherwise). Paul Guilfoyle, William H. Macy, and Dean Stockwell round out the best of the best on the side of the good guys.

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But the real gem of this film is most certainly Gary Oldman as Korshunov, the leader of the terrorist hijackers. Sinking deep into the nationalistic abyss with a performance that Image result for air force one movieearned him the on-set nickname of “Scary Gary,” Oldman is a presence to be feared. Beginning the film behind a veneer of convincing politeness, he sheds all humanity with ease as soon the shooting starts, assuming a chilling identity that can slither through quietly threatening demands with the Cabinet just as well as he can shout and scream Russian profanities. From out of a film that could otherwise just be yet another action romp, Oldman appears as one of the greatest villains of the genre.

All is not as polished as its cast, however. The weakest link just might be the visual effects, which slide heavily between passable and downright unconvincing, especially in the climactic scene over the Mediterranean. At least the blocking of the action is done in a straightforward style that works, never appearing too flashy or hard to discern.

Air Force One is a film that didn’t seem destined for action greatness, but I’m of the humble opinion that it definitely deserves a spot at the table of the best of the form, along with Die Hard, Speed, and the Bond films. Ford, Oldman, and the rest of the cast really prop up the out-there narrative and Petersen’s competent direction allows for the wrinkles to smooth out evenly across a satisfying two hours. In short, President Marshall has my vote.