Tuesday, December 30, 2014

2014, A Year in Review

The poster for my first movie!
The end of every year always brings out the reflective side of me, where I think more about the past than any other time of the year.  I think that's because with the start of every new year it feels like a new beginning when in truth it's simply changing out one calendar for another.  As it is, I see each year more like another chapter in a book, rather than another book entirely.  Each new chapter brings forth its own triumphs and complications, and 2014 was no different than any of the previous 23 chapters.  Simply put, the 24th chapter of my life was one that was filled with tons of great moments, from the completion and premiere of my first feature length film, to discovering that I am going to become an uncle!  2014 was a year to remember personally, however it was slim pickings in the world of movies.

The movies of 2014 were very lacking in general.  There were maybe four or five genuinely great movies and a handful of good ones, but the rest all left me fairly indifferent.  Great movies were just hard to come by this year, with there being lots of movies that had great moments, but as a whole failed to bring all of those great moments together.  There were even a few movies that were great 90% of the way through and then fumbled with a weak ending or something of the sort.  Then there's the typically annoying fact that all of the movies that have received the greatest reviews are still just playing in limited release and have not become easily available in my neck of the woods.  This makes it to where I probably wont see most of those movies till after Oscar nominations in January and by that point they'll be 2015 movies for me.  The only great solace that really comes from this year of movies is knowing that 2015 is right around the corner.

While this was a not so stellar year for the movies released in 2014, it was a really crazy fun year if you follow the behind the scenes shenanigans of movies coming out a year or two from now.  From all of the rumors for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, to the myriad of Marvel and DC rumors, all the way to new movies set in the world of Harry Potter, there has never been a better time in history to be a geek.  We are currently being catered to by those that make the movies and TV shows, so I plan on enjoying it while it lasts.  I mean, this Fall saw the likes of Gotham and The Flash gracing television screens, the latter of which being one of the entertainment highlights of the entire year for me.

The most spectacular thing about The Flash is that it does what not a lot of movies have done as well for me this year, it allows me to have fun and care deeply for a set of characters while delivering great thrills.  Grant Gustin nails the sweet geekiness of Barry Allen, making the Flash not just another muscle bound superhero, but more of a Peter Parker with brains and humor.  While each episode is like a 40-minute superhero movie, with me often wondering how the CW is producing this show's epic action scenes on their limited budget, it really is the characters that keep me coming back to the show.  As annoying as the soap opera elements of shows like this can be, I really do care if Barry winds up with his crush since childhood, Iris West (and if you've read just about any DC comic you know the answer to that), just as I care about Barry finding the person who really murdered his Mom to clear his Dad's name.  Then there's the great comic relief of Cisco, the mystery of Dr. Wells, and the warm comfort of Barry's adopted Dad, Joe.  The show just works on a great many levels that a lot of the movies this year could not quite tap into, and that's because before this show does anything really cool, they place the characters first.  With my public profession of love for The Flash behind me, I must clarify that there were movies this year that I loved as much, if not more than The Flash, I just wanted to illustrate how things were more skewed than usual in 2014.

For the first time ever, TV was where I found more consistent entertainment than with theater screens, and I think a large part of that is because TV has drawn more big name movie talent in recent years due to the creators having more creative control than in movies.  Maybe this year was just a fluke, because I don't want movies to get to a point where staying at home and watching a TV show is more entertaining than paying to see a movie, but 2014 was one such year.  Of course, one reasoning for this is I was unable to get out and see as many movies as I normally do because I was busy making a movie of my own.

Since the Fall of 2012 I have been directing a documentary about a non-profit, faith-based horse therapy barn in Leeds, AL, called the Red Barn.  The documentary really started to take its shape over the past year, causing me to quickly realize that this was not going to be a 15-20 minute movie like I initially thought, but something much larger.  The final documentary, titled The Red Barn: A Legacy of Love, is an 80 minute long, feature length documentary.  That is still crazy to process, because when me and my parents (who produced the film) first started work on it, I don't think we had any idea that it was going to be what it is and have a screening of 1,100+ people at the historic Alabama Theatre in downtown Birmingham, AL.  In my fledgling career as a filmmaker, that is definitely the career highlight, hopefully with many more to come.

Currently, we have submitted the film to our first film festival and plan on submitting to many more, with a focus primarily on the faith-based film crowd because that is what this movie really is about.  This is a movie that shows how the faith of the people who not only operate the Red Barn, but inspired it, continue to make an impact on people, hopefully for a great many more generations.  To be a part of such a larger than life story has truly been an honor and the journey is far from over with for this film.  Sure, we've screened it for everyone who was involved in the movie as well as their family and friends, but we want everyone who desires to see our movie to eventually see it on some sort of platform so that they can experience what inspired us to make this documentary in the first place.  That is why we're going to play the film festival circuit, because that's our best place of finding someone who will be willing to distribute our movie and take it to the next level.  Here's to hoping.

In summation, 2014 really feels like a whirlwind of a year with all of the work that went into making this documentary a feature length reality.  While money has been hard to come by this year in the freelance video business, I have a feeling that things are going to soon change for the better, and I believe this documentary is the first step in that direction.  So in a lot ways I am not sure if I care all that much if 2014 didn't have a whole lot of great movies.  If I'm making my own movies, no matter how big or small they are, that's all that really matters.  With that all said, if you frequent this site, you know me and you know that I am addicted to movies in general.  Down year for Hollywood movies or not, I am going to honor the great work that did crop up in the few superb movies that came out this year, because I just love movies and all great movies and moviemakers deserve some recognition for their hard work to make us laugh, cry, and be entertained.  Tune to the Unicellular Review in the coming days to see my annual year end lists!

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Top 5 Film Scores of 2014

Joe Hisaishi Conducting

So 2014 has nearly come to a close and that means it's time to honor the best in film from 2014.  On a whole, 2014 was a fairly weak year of movies, as is evidenced by this list of what I believe to be the best film scores of the year.  Last year I did a top 10, this year I was only able to come up with 5 film scores that I was comfortable with including on a list such as this.  That just speaks to how this whole year of film has been for me.

There have been a lot of movies that came close to greatness, but just missed the mark by rushing the ending or leaving in one tiny plot hole that sucked all of the awesomeness out of the experience.  The film scores of this year have been fairly similar.  I am a big fan of strong, thematic work with very hummable themes recurring throughout the movie.  There wasn't a whole lot of that this year, with most scores feeling more like mood music than anything else.  That's a personal gripe, and most wont mind that or notice that, but I do.

The 5 film scores that made my list this year are good representations of strong thematic work, perhaps the only really good representations from this year.  Now,before I start, I'm going to point out that unlike most professional movie critics, I am an amateur, therefore I was only able to review the movies I could:  a.) afford, and b.) see, so that means I only reviewed movies that were in wide release.

****

5.  Alexandre Desplat, Godzilla
(Last Year:  Ramin Djawadi, Pacific Rim)
The craziest thing about my relationship with Alexandre Desplat's music is that I ordinarily find him overrated, but not this year.  I have included him twice on this list, and justly so.  As a matter of fact, his score for Godzilla would have probably made it even in a more competitive year.  He managed to come up with a theme for Godzilla that could be played many different ways, whether it was intense and scary, mysterious and quiet, or even noble and heroic, the theme could be done in a great many variations.  That to me is the mark of a great film score, and it's why Godzilla is on this list.



4.  Alexandre Desplat, Unbroken
(Last Year:  Steven Price, Gravity)
This particular film score is one of those that usually isn't my cup of tea, but I felt like it did its job so well I had to honor it.  While there is a theme that occasionally recurs, the real strength of Desplat's score for Unbroken is how powerfully the score, the picture, and the performances all work together in concert to convey the strong emotional moments of Louis Zamperini's story.



3.  Michael Giacchino, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
(Last Year:  John Ottman, Jack the Giant Slayer)
Giacchino is one of my favorite composers out there, and it's funny that his score for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is what I would consider one of his weakest scores, and yet that goes to show how good he always is.  If there is a natural successor to John Williams, Giacchino is it, often mimicking the trailblazers like Williams and Jerry Goldsmith with his use of thematic material tying into each set of characters.  In particular, Giacchino heavily channels Goldsmith's score for the original Planet of the Apes in a lot of action moments with this score.  His heavy use of the xylaphone really helps to bring this franchise around full circle.



2.  John Powell, How to Train Your Dragon 2
(Last Year:  Randy Newman, Monsters University)
John Powell's score for the first How to Train Your Dragon was my favorite film score of 2010, and is easily one of my 10 favorite film scores of all-time actually, so no pressure.  The truth is, nothing could ever truly match the score of that first film, and the great thing is Powell doesn't really try.  He brings back all of the same themes and uses them again when needed, but once we're into the story, he focuses primarily on the darker nature of this sequel with the music, utilizing new themes that are equally as beautiful.



1.  Joe Hisaishi, The Wind Rises
(Last Year:  Michael Giacchino, Star Trek Into Darkness)
This is it, the last time Joe Hisaishi will score a Hayao Miyazaki film, with The Wind Rises being the famed Japanese animator's final film.  Joe Hisaishi is easily up there with John Williams for me.  He's just a master of the craft who understands how music and film go together to create maximum emotional impact, and he does that in The Wind Rises to perfection.  The most unique thing about Hisaishi in contrast to folks like John Williams, is his music is all about the subtlety.  Rarely is it loud and bombastic, it's usually soft and speaks of the character's emotion rather than the spectacle onscreen, thanks to his favoring of the strings and woodwinds over the brass and percussion.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Movie Review: "The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies"

Did The Hobbit need to be turned into three movies?  No.  Does The Battle of the Five Armies feel like it's stretched thin?  Yes.  Does that mean it's a bad movie?  No.  What you get with The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is exactly what you expect, a big battle between five different armies, while wrapping up the final few chapters of The Hobbit book in a two plus hour movie.

As far as the action goes, this is top notch action moviemaking.  By this point, you like all of the characters, and Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins is so good, that you wish there weren't so many subplots going on that he gets a bit of the shaft (it is called The Hobbit afterall).  Of course, the greatest thing that this movie does is that it never lets off the gas.  It's always going somewhere and doesn't feel as if it's spinning its wheels.  While that somewhere is probably another action scene that might have been better served for the eventual extended edition, if you're a fan of Middle Earth you wont care, and that's really all that matters at the end of the day.

If you're a fan of these books and movies, you'll see this movie and you'll enjoy it.  Is it the crown jewel of the franchise?  No, as a matter of fact, from a filmmaking standpoint, it's probably the weakest film of the six Middle Earth movies, but the weakest film in this franchise is still better than the strongest film in most other franchises.  There is a great thematic undercurrent about the destructive power of greed that runs throughout this movie, as all of these different forces are vying for the treasure in the Lonely Mountain, and it's when this theme is in play that many of the strongest scenes occur on an emotional level.

It was really nice to see Peter Jackson work in a little something on the human side of things to keep this from feeling like a two hour brawl, but that's really what he does best.  He finds the humanity in the largeness of his vision, and that's why he's such a great filmmaker.  The only thing I feel like Jackson fumbles is the ending, by trying to tie everything back into The Lord of the Rings, rather than ending happily as the book does.  The Battle of the Five Armies ends kind of mysteriously with suspicion about Bilbo's ring, and that kind of dampens the impact the ending could have had.  While I know that this is a prequel to The Lord of the Rings, the movie might have been better served as a movie had it not tried to foreshadow what's to come and just embraced the sentimental emotion of the farewells between Bilbo, the dwarves, and Gandalf.  That's just my personal feeling, and it's kind of a sour cherry on top of what was a pretty good hot fudge sundae at the movies.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Top 7: "Star Wars" Movies


It is exactly a year from today that Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens hits theaters.  We are entering into a whole new era of Star Wars, the post-George Lucas era.  Whether or not you like everything the man ever did, George Lucas created this vast enterprise that still inspires so much insane loyalty, so much so that Disney is making new Star Wars films to capitalize off of that loyalty.

I am personally a little worried about the post-George Lucas era, because his hand has been so actively involved in everything Star Wars for so long, the change is definitely going to be felt, and if you start up a prequels vs. originals argument from this, then you obviously have no respect for the man that created the very thing that you are so passionate about.  However, I am not wanting to waste time talking about the love/hate George Lucas argument, nor am I wanting to talk about The Force Awakens, but rather take a look back at the seven existing Star Wars films that received theatrical release and take stock of where we are in the galaxy far, far away.

Now, in my personal opinion, there has never been a bad Star Wars movie, and that is something that I want to clarify before I start this list, but there are Star Wars movies that I prefer to others.  Bottom line is, ranking the Star Wars movies is an almost impossible task, because the list could change based upon my mood on any given day.  With that said, I've gone with what is usually my consensus feelings about these movies, rather than the off day where I like one over the other that I normally always like more.  If that makes sense, let's get started with a year of Star Wars celebration by honoring the past.

****


7.  Star Wars:  The Clone Wars
This is the Star Wars movie that most tend to forget about, and in truth that's because this movie was not intended to be a movie in the first place.  After Episode III, George Lucas started working on two Star Wars TV shows to continue the story.  One was a live action show that never came to fruition, the other was a CG-animated show for Cartoon Network that would follow the Clone Wars that took place between Episode II and Episode III.  This is where this movie came into play.  

Released in 2008, this movie was essentially the first three episodes of The Clone Wars TV show edited together to make a movie.  George Lucas liked what Lucasfilm Animation was doing so much, that he thought it should get the treatment it deserved.  The problems that the movie faced when it was released in theaters was simply the fact that it was a TV show being projected onto the big screen.  The animation did not have the level of detail that the average Hollywood animated movie had, and it was also poorly marketed due to the last minute decision to release these first three episodes in theaters.  In truth, this movie might just be some of the weakest storytelling in the entire Clone Wars series, but it's still a really fun and enjoyable Star Wars adventure.

Series director, Dave Filoni, really understood what made Star Wars so beloved, not with just this movie, but with the show that premiered mere weeks after the movie was released.  As a matter of fact, the birth of The Clone Wars TV show, and the introduction of fan favorite characters like Ahsoka and Captain Rex, are the main reasons this movie is so awesome.  In the grand scheme of the Star Wars saga, this movie really doesn't add much to the overarching storyline other than introducing the idea that Anakin had an apprentice of his own that he was training during the Clone Wars, but it's that idea, and the chance to see Anakin in a more heroic light, that makes this movie, and The Clone Wars TV show, such a delight.  Honestly, if I could rank the TV show as a single entity, it very well might steal the number one spot, but I can't, therefore this will have to suffice.


6.  Star Wars:  Episode II - Attack of the Clones
There will always be fan controversy over the prequels.  Adult fans had two whole decades to dream up the first three Episodes in their own minds, that by the time they all finally saw what George Lucas always envisioned, they were upset because it wasn't what they saw in their heads for all those years.  That's the sad truth, and that's why the prequels never stood a chance with the fandom, and it's the same reason the sequel trilogy wont stand a chance with those same fans.  I for one am a believer in the prequels, and it's because they are as much a part of the reason I love Star Wars as the original trilogy are.

Attack of the Clones was in many ways the polar opposite to the lighthearted adventure of The Phantom Menace.  In the larger context of the saga, this movie was all about planting the seeds as to how Palpatine manipulated the political arena to eventually create the Empire, and it's also the movie that creates the reason as to why Anakin goes to the Dark Side, because of his love for Padme and his fear of losing that love.  This is some pretty heavy stuff for a swashbuckling space opera, and it's what makes this particular entry in the saga so special.  While Attack of the Clones may favor romance or political intrigue above comedy or action, these moments are so crucial to the large story, simply put, there couldn't be any of the subsequent Episodes without this one.

One thing that I think so many fans often forget about Attack of the Clones, is just how forward thinking it was.  This movie once again pushed the limits of what CGI could do, and while it does look dated nowadays, at the time it was cutting edge.  Then George Lucas, ever the innovator, shot on video and not film, signaling the rise of the digital vs. film debate we are currently living in.  Sure, the romance between Anakin and Padme starts out a little more creepy than sweet, and the movie as a whole could use an added dose of adrenaline, but that doesn't take away all of the amazing moments that Attack of the Clones delivers.  From Jango Fett, to the slaughtering of the Tusken Raiders, all the way to the Battle of Geonosis.  And who can forget Yoda vs. Count Dooku.  If you can say that your jaw didn't drop the first time you saw Yoda draw his lightsaber and duel, then you really are the world's biggest liar.


5.  Star Wars:  Episode III - Revenge of the Sith
Finally, this was the moment that every fan had been waiting for ever since the prequels were announced.  Fans finally got to witness how Anakin Skywalker turned into Darth Vader, and while some fans may have been disappointed by what George Lucas cooked up, this fan wasn't.

The greatest thing about what George Lucas did with Revenge of the Sith, was him not having Anakin turning to the dark side and slaying the Jedi as an act of pure evil, he was doing it to obtain the power he needed to keep the ones he loves from dying.  When you think about it, while Darth Vader is very cool and detached by the original three films, he wasn't born that way, no one is, and as we knew from the original films, Anakin Skywalker was once a great hero.  So how does a hero turn into a villain?  By making a wrong decision that brings about personal tragedy, therefore stripping the man of his humanity.

In a lot of ways, Revenge of the Sith is the closest you'll ever see George Lucas come to adapting Shakespeare.  The fall of Anakin Skywalker is so tragic and emotional that it trumps most literary tragedies for me, but I admit that I am biased.  Of course, the biggest thing that differentiates this movie from Shakespeare is the loads of action packed into just a little over two hours.  There are nearly half a dozen lightsaber duels in this one movie alone, and that first thirty minutes is just pure Star Wars magic.  From the moment Obi-Wan and Anakin fly through the battle above Coruscant, all the way to them having to crashland the gigantic space cruiser, it's actually the highpoint of the whole movie for me.


4.  Star Wars:  Episode IV - A New Hope
This was the one that started it all.  Originally known as Star Wars when released in 1977, it did not come to be known as A New Hope until it's re-release in 1981, after George Lucas realized he was going to be able to make more Star Wars movies.  The thing that makes A New Hope still the best place to start when introducing new people to Star Wars, is because the formula of this movie is what every Star Wars movie has tried to capture again in some way, shape, or form.  There is a proper balance between humor, drama, science fiction, fantasy, and action, that marks this as one casserole dish that I enjoy.

Personally I do not like casseroles.  I hate all of my favorite foods being put together, but when it comes to movies, I like having a little bit of everything in one package.  That's why I love blockbusters, because the best ones typically aren't just sci-fi, fantasy, or action, they're also comedy, romance, thriller, and drama.  While Jaws is credited as being the first real Summer blockbuster, I don't think it was until A New Hope that we got the real definition of what a blockbuster is, and it's exactly what I just mentioned.  It's something that delivers a little bit of everything to satisfy every member of its potential audience.  The fact of the matter is, as a fan I could go on all day about how great A New Hope is, and how it introduced all of the characters we know and love while also telling one of the most energetic and gleeful stories of all-time, but that doesn't explain why it's only number four on my list.

The truth is, compared to all of its sequels and prequels, A New Hope is the simplest of all of the Star Wars movies.  The simplicity is why I love it, because there really is no need for any thought whatsoever when watching this movie, you can simply experience it.  The only negative is that when you start thinking about it too hard, you start finding yourself asking:  Would the Rebel Alliance really let a young man, who is still unable to grow facial hair, lead a group on an attack run that hangs all of their fates in the balance?  Presumably they'd have let Biggs or Wedge lead their group, rather than Luke?  But Luke is the hero, and that's one of those things that you just go with when it happens, because as I said, A New Hope is an experience.  If you aren't feeling the Force by that moment, then Star Wars just isn't for you.


3.  Star Wars:  Episode VI - Return of the Jedi
For a long time this was the end of the saga, for nearly two decades in fact.  Return of the Jedi is the textbook example of how you do the third movie in a trilogy and do it right.  This movie ties up all of the loose ends from the first two movies while constantly ratcheting up the stakes and action, culminating in the heroes victorious and a big bow on top.  For me, the thing that I love the most about Star Wars is that it brings out the kid in all of us, and I think that is why I tend to gravitate to the more lighthearted films in the saga, because that's exactly what Return of the Jedi is.

When you essentially have an array of teddy bears as primary characters, you have to be in touch with your inner child to find them awesome.  I am not going to lie, I have always loved the Ewoks, and have always been so sad when so many of them die in the battle at the end.  Alas, the Ewoks wind up being victorious alongside the Rebellion, so the sting of seeing many of them fall in battle is softened.  If you find it hard to love the Ewoks, then you might be too cynical for Star Wars, because Star Wars as a whole is full of funny characters who are cute.  I mean, if you hate Ewoks, but love R2-D2, you're just being difficult.  They're both short, funny, full of personality, and exceptionally cute.  Without characters like this, you would not be able to connect with that sense of childlike innocence.  It is that sense of innocence that marks Return of the Jedi as unique in the Star Wars saga.

Return of the Jedi is completely unpretentious.  It wears its heart on its sleeve and it knows it.  This is a movie that doesn't try to be high brow, it simply is what it is.  There are jokes going along with all of the spectacle and genuinely heartwarming moments, making this one of the ultimate feel good movies.  Everything winds up alright in the end, and that is something that I hope The Force Awakens doesn't completely undo when it comes out next year.  Return of the Jedi is such a joyous ending, I really don't want us to just be told that everyone's lives went to crap after that celebration on Endor ended.  I worry that with the more post-apocalyptic style that The Force Awakens has, it will be that way, but maybe not.  Besides, as with everything, if the movie makes me believe that this was how everything was supposed to go down, I'll be cool with it, but J.J. Abrams and company need to make me buy into it if they're going to cheapen the ending of Jedi.


2.  Star Wars:  Episode I - The Phantom Menace
My brothers will think I have completely gone insane for placing this movie so high on the list, but I am tired of hiding it.  So what if you don't like the prequels?  Stop whining.  You are never going to erase them from existence, they are canon and they have a whole legion of fans, which I am one of, so let us just enjoy the movies that we love.  Getting off my soap box now, here are just a few of the reasons that I love The Phantom Menace:  young Obi-Wan Kenobi, Qui-Gon Jinn, Darth Maul, John Williams, the Jedi Order, and podracing of course.

The Phantom Menace really is a picture perfect adventure story in the classic vein of fairy tales and myth.  A Queen (Padme) has a problem and a hero (Qui-Gon) has to protect her as she tries to solve that problem.  Along the way they meet a Chosen One (Anakin) who can change all of their fates, as well as countless archetypes, from the Shapeshifter (Palpatine) to the Jester (Jar Jar Binks).  These are just a few of the Joseph Campbell archetypes displayed in The Phantom Menace.  So yes, Jar Jar does fit into the mythic idea of Star Wars, or have you never read King Lear and come across the Jester character?  He's pretty much Jar Jar, just speaking in verse.  Just saying, it doesn't make it any different.  I do all of this to point out that The Phantom Menace is so often slighted as being stupid, when it's really a clever working of literary tropes as old as time itself, but seriously, that's not the primary reason this movie makes the number two spot.

In a nutshell, The Phantom Menace is just fun to me.  I laugh at every joke, I get tense and excited at all of the right moments, and I feel sad or happy when I am supposed to.  If that's not a perfect movie, then I don't know what is.  Plus, the action in this movie is bar none.  Podracing is arguably the second coolest thing in all of Star Wars behind the Jedi Knights themselves (yes, I went there).  Not to mention the fact that the duel between Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, and Darth Maul, is still the most exciting and emotional lightsaber duel in the whole Star Wars saga.  Granted, John Williams' music might have something to do with it.


1.  Star Wars:  Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back
Anyone that knows me had to know this one was going to be numero uno.  This is my favorite movie of all-time, how could it not make the number one spot on my list of favorite Star Wars movies?  Simply put, I believe The Empire Strikes Back to be the most perfect movie ever made.  The pacing of the script is just right, with the story never feeling rushed or slow, the direction is clear and concise, with you never wondering what is happening onscreen, and the movie is just a marvel of believable special effects that continue to fool the eye even 30 years later.  Then there's the simple fact that, not only do I believe this to be the funniest of all the Star Wars movies, while also being one of the darkest, this movie also features so many of my favorite moments from the entire saga.

When Yoda lifts Luke's X-wing out of the swamp using nothing but the Force, it's one of those movie moments that can be described as true movie magic.  Then there's the climactic lightsaber duel between Luke and Darth Vader on Cloud City, which is one of the most visually striking sequences of personal conflict ever captured onscreen, culminating in the ultimate movie twist, with the villain revealing that he is our hero's father.  "No, that's not true, that's impossible!"  There is just a lot to love in Empire, from every quip that Han Solo makes, to every humorous whine of C-3PO, all the way to the eccentricity and nobility of Yoda, you can't find a serious movie that is more intentionally hilarious to alleviate the tension.

Wrapping up this look back at all seven Star Wars movies, Empire really is the crown jewel of the saga that the sequels are really going to have to contend with in every fan's mind, and that's not an easy feat to accomplish.  No movie has ever matched Empire in my books, and I am not sure any movie ever will.  This is in many ways the quintessential blockbuster, and yet it also completely defies every expectation that a blockbuster has in telling its story.  The biggest action sequence is within the first thirty minutes of the movie.  The moment that is usually saved for the climax is the first thing out of the gate, and from there the movie goes from being a war epic to being an intimate character journey, with the real climax of the movie being a personal one, rather than one that's played on a grand stage.

Many movies have tried to emulate the formula of Empire and have failed drastically.  They think that just by making the second movie in a trilogy darker and letting the bad guys win will make their movie just like Empire, but they miss the thing that makes Empire so special and my favorite movie of all-time.  Not only is it unconventional in its storytelling, not only does it feature the best cinematography, writing, and directing, in movie history, but it is a movie that just has a huge heart.  You love every single character in this movie.  You cheer them on, you sympathize with them.  These characters do not hide their feelings, they let you know what they feel, and it's that honesty that allows you to connect with them on all of the base human emotions, even all of the aliens and droids.  While Empire is the movie that transformed Star Wars from a simple Saturday matinee serial into the grand mythical epic that it now is, we must never forget that Empire is what it is because of its heart.  Movies just aren't made this way anymore.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Movie Review: "Unbroken"

I am always worried for actors when they try their hand at directing.  For every Mel Gibson, Emilio Estevez, or Kevin Costner, there are countless others that try and just never seem to get a good handle on it.  The biggest misconception that I think a lot of actors make is that since you're an actor you can direct actors better, and while that may be true, they're ignoring a lot of the other elements that make great directors.  A director needs to not only be able to work well with actors, but they also need to have an ability to lead, to be able to see the bigger picture, and most importantly, to create the visual language of the movie.  It's this last one that I feel a lot of actors trying their hand at directing struggle with the most.  Fortunately for Angelina Jolie, she manages to prove that she is a very adept director with a strong visual style to go with her ability to work with actors.  Her second film as a director, Unbroken, is as good of a film as any other director could make.

Unbroken tells the amazing true story of Louie Zamperini, an Olympic track athlete who was a bombardier in World War II.  When his plane crashes in the Pacific Ocean, his arduous journey begins.  From being adrift at sea, to being a POW in a Japanese prison camp, Louie's journey is one of discovering extreme inner strength, perseverance, and ultimately the ability to forgive through faith in God.  Simply put, this is the type of film that is rarely getting made anymore, and it is the sort of movie that even 15 years ago would have swept the Oscars, but cynicism and political correctness rule today.

What strikes me most about Unbroken is just how powerful it is through showing us very little about Zamperini other than his service in World War II.  While there are a few flashbacks highlighting his childhood and his accomplishments in the Olympics, probably 95% of the movie is all about his experiences lost at sea or as a prisoner of war.  It is through this crucible that we learn more about who Zamperini was, tying into the best line of the whole film, "If I can take it, I can make it."  In so many ways, that's one of those sayings that perhaps everyone should live their life by.  Louie did, while he had his moments of doubt and fear, he ultimately remembered those words when times were at their worst, and he managed to come out the other side.

The cast of up-and-coming actors all deliver exceptional performances and really dedicate themselves to these roles to make this film believable.  Japanese pop star, Miyavi, is malicious and so perfect as, "The Bird," the officer in charge at Louie's POW camp, and it's a shame that a year after Barkhad Abdi managed to find critical love for a similar type of role, Miyavi doesn't seem to be having as much luck with awards.  Of course, a film like this needs actors you can root for if you are to buy their struggles, and more importantly, actors that go that extra mile to sell the reality of a true story such as this.  Jack O'Connell and Domhnall Gleeson, respectively playing Louie and his friend Phil, both lost tons of weight to make the impact greater when they are forced to strip down in front of Japanese soldiers and you see their sunken stomachs and sallow cheeks.  That type of actorly commitment only comes when you have a director you can trust and when you know you are working on a great story, and that is exactly what Unbroken is, it's a story that anyone who is a human being can relate to and be moved by.

I often think of watching movies as therapy.  A good movie is always therapeutic for me, whether it's a story that makes me think differently about a particular subject like friendship or war, or whether or not it's simply a movie that makes me laugh or feel good.  Movies are great for when I need inspiration to go do something, or reminders of the important things in life.  Unbroken is one such movie that is a therapeutic experience.  It is expertly crafted and superbly shot.  Cinematographer Roger Deakins utilizes natural light in some truly stunning ways, and the shot design that Angelina Jolie employs in a lot of the action scenes had me thinking that she should make an action movie, her direction was that clear and concise.  It's PG-13, so it's a little bit more tame than a lot of similar movies.  Now that doesn't mean it is not rough, but a lot of the worst stuff is more implied, making this a great film for families of high school kids and above.  Simply put, Unbroken is one of those movies that I just think everyone has to see, because if you walk away from it and haven't been moved, then there might be something seriously wrong with you.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Movie Review: "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1"

Continuing the trend of Harry Potter and Twilight, the third and final Hunger Games book, Mockingjay, has been split into two movies because it's, "So much story to be told in only one movie."  Yeah, I'll let the filmmakers live with that explanation as long as they make Mockingjay - Part 2 as good as they have Part 1.

Picking up literally right where Catching Fire left off, Mockingjay - Part 1 very quickly dispenses any pleasantries and jumps right back into Katniss's struggles and psyche, with Jennifer Lawrence once more proving that Katniss may just be her role of a lifetime.  Katniss is now in the long thought destroyed, District 13, and is being used by their President as a figure to rally all of the other districts to rebellion against the Capitol.  With war almost all but a certainty, Katniss still finds herself unwillingly thrust in this larger than life game for not only her life, but the lives of all those she cares for.

This is a film about war, not only the costs and horrors of war, but also the way that media and propaganda are used in war.  Watching Katniss being directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman's Plutarch Heavensbee for a propaganda video they are making -- which is ridiculously stupid, yet authentic in the way our own media represents figureheads -- is one of the few genuinely funny scenes in what is a very tense two hour movie.  As it is, what keeps you trucking through some of the horrors that these characters go through is the humanity of the characters and their little quirks that often lend themselves to a little laugh here or there to alleviate the tension happening all around them, because as I've already mentioned, this is a war film.

Mockingjay - Part 1 harbors shades of some of the great war films of the past few decades, with one scene in particular that reminded me of Zero Dark Thirty.  These scenes, while being played out in a science fiction world, feel startlingly real because of the similarities that are easily seen between the world of Panem and our modern day world with all of our wars and injustices.  However, this isn't an anti-war film, nor is it pro-war, it just shows the harsh realities of the world.

Sometimes we have to fight for the things that we cannot afford to lose.  While peace is a great ideal, as long as there are those who are causing unrest and want to kill all who do not bow to their whims, wars will be fought.  It was that idea that I thought was the most poignant thing about Suzanne Collins' book when I read it, and that is an idea that director Francis Lawrence and his screenwriting team of Peter Craig and Danny Strong have managed to keep intact for the film.  If The Hunger Games crew can continue to build off of the ideas presented here and deliver a moving finale next November, we may be looking at something genuinely special with Part 2.  As for now, Part 1 is definitely worth the time of any fan of these books, films, or good science fiction stories in general.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Movie Review: "Interstellar"

Director Christopher Nolan's new film, Interstellar, examines the macro-size of the universe by observing the micro.  Having more in common with works like 2001:  A Space Odyssey and The Tree of Life than the works of Steven Spielberg, or even Nolan's previous films, Interstellar is a film that takes you on an interdimensional journey across the stars.

Matthew McConaughey portrays Cooper, an ex-pilot/engineer, who is now reduced to being a farmer on a not too distant future Earth, that is slowly dying.  Basically think of the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression times ten and you get the idea of Earth at the start of Interstellar.  However, while the film is about the dire straits Earth is in at the start of this movie, we never see the global impact of this almost apocalypse.  Told entirely from the point-of-view of Cooper and his family, in particular his relationship between his 10-year-old daughter Murph (played exceptionally by Mackenzie Foy), the film relays the larger story of what's happening on Earth through the microscopic lens observing this one family struggling to survive.  When Cooper is eventually recruited by NASA to pilot a last ditch effort to find a new habitable planet out in space by traveling through a wormhole by Saturn, Interstellar maintains its macro through micro approach by keeping the story firmly engrained within Cooper and his relationships, and that is where the bulk of this movie transpires, in deep space with five astronauts and two robots.

Interstellar plays a lot with the theory of relativity, so it should be no surprise that there is a little bit of time manipulation that goes on in this story with Murph aging on Earth, while Cooper stays the same age.  This is probably the most unique aspect of the movie, and it lends itself to some of the more emotional moments of the film when Cooper gets video messages from his adult children who are filled with a lot of resentment at his having left them to more than likely never return.  It is these emotional aspects of the film that keep Interstellar from feeling too much like a physics class and being human.  As a matter of fact, while this film deals heavily with exploring the cosmos, it's pretty clear that the film is more about exploring ourselves than it is in what lies all around us.

The two human concepts of love and truth are probably the most prevalent themes in a film that has a great many themes that it is juggling at all times.  Even when you get lost in all of the science mumbo jumbo, that often goes beyond simple theorizing to just pure science fiction itself, it is these themes that keep you watching, even if it feels a little like a chore.  

The biggest thing with Interstellar is just that it's so darn serious.  There is very little levity, and not a whole lot of fun going on, which makes it more of a $200 million art film than a blockbuster.  I don't know what the box office prospects for this film will be, but I can say that most average moviegoers should probably just skip this one, because this is a long movie that favors talking over action (though the few action scenes we do get are some of Nolan's more thrilling).  If you are a moviegoer that loves films like 2001, or the work of Terrence Malick, where you have to think about what's transpiring onscreen, then you will more than likely love Interstellar.  I am in a camp somewhere in the middle.  As a fellow filmmaker, I can appreciate everything here that Christopher Nolan has done with Interstellar, but I really have no desire to see this one again, because it just doesn't do for me what I tend to want out of the movies I see, which is allow me to escape from my reality and have fun for a few hours.  

This is a movie that is constantly reminding us of our reality, and you couple that with the beautiful, but overbearing organ music from Hans Zimmer, and you can very easily get antsy and nervous before all is said and done, and not in a good way, but in an oppressive one.  So it's safe to say this is not my favorite Christopher Nolan film, in all actuality it's probably my least favorite of his films, but with that said, this very well may be his most ambitious and thought-provoking film he's ever done.  As far as my recommendation goes, go see Interstellar if you love your sci-fi as realistic and thoughtful as possible.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

What is the Purpose of a Film Review?

What is the purpose of a film review?  This is a question that I have actually pondered for a long time.  Why should pretentious people, with their own moral and political ideas on what is good and what isn't, dictate whether or not a movie is worth seeing?  The truth of the matter is that I think film reviews should not be merely summed up in a score or a grade, or even in the number of thumbs up you give it.  Now, this is something that I am personally guilty of as an amateur film reviewer myself, but it is something that I want to change from here on out, and to understand why we must breakdown what I believe the true purpose film reviews are meant to have.

Why do we read reviews of movies before they come out?  It's simple, because we want to know if the movie is something that we will like or not.  I think reviewers often get too caught up in the breaking down of the acting or the direction, that they never really stop to actually dissect the movie and what it is about.  Reviewers tend to spend more time spewing their own personal opinions, rather than focusing on the things that most moviegoers want to know, and no it's not whether or not the movie is good, but whether or not the movie is for them.

One thing I want to know more often than not, that I don't get in most film reviews, is not if so-and-so actor is amazing in the movie (though if I'm a fan of that actor it can make me more interested in seeing it), it's more me wanting to know what the thematic focus of the movie is and what the content that relays that focus is.  So many movie reviewers just merely scratch the surface of a movie when they review it, they never delve beneath the surface to say why someone should see this movie.  A perfect case-and-point is a movie like Gravity.

You can tell me all day long how brilliant Sandra Bullock was in that movie, but what I really wanted to know from the review is why I should see that movie beyond the actor or the director.  Very few reviews actually delved too much into the meaning of the movie.  The idea of choosing to live again is a very strong idea that I found the most impactful thing about Gravity, but it's one that is just a simple blurb in most reviews (if it even exists in a reviewer's review).

This type of more in depth analysis is why reviews exist, because it is through this analysis of the film and the scenes within it, that those of us reading these reviews can start to form a picture of the movie in our minds and decide if that is something we'd be interested in seeing or not.  Of course, how do you do this as a reviewer without sharing your own personal opinions from time-to-time?  In truth, you can't.

A film reviewer, no matter how good they are, will have to share their own personal opinion at some point in their reviews, otherwise it's just a synopsis or summary of the movie that they just saw.  Besides, we often read certain reviewer's reviews because we agree with their opinion a lot of the time, and that gives us a source we can trust before seeing the movie.  It is also through this sharing of personal opinion where moviegoers can glean more about the content of the film, whether or not it includes a political idea that they just don't agree with and they should stay away from this film for that reason, or it's a moral issue like excess violence or nude scenes.  I for one will often skip a movie if I read in a review about the vast amounts of gratuitous nudity or violence in a film, and the only way to usually glean these things in a review is via that reviewer's opinions on those subject matters.  Of course, there is one more element to a good film review, and it is the one where the actual critique should occur.

A good film reviewer will not just break down what the movie's themes are and how they feel about those themes, but they will also break down how successful the movie is in conveying those themes.  Sometimes, no matter how much a movie tries to be fun, it just never succeeds.  Other examples are when you see a movie that's trying to convey a certain idea about love or friendship, and one scene can often muddy that whole idea and make it more confusing than it needs to be.  As much as I love the movie Braveheart, I have never understood the need for William Wallace and the Princess to have a romantic relationship when the whole movie is spurred on by William's love for his dead wife.  This tiny little subplot, in an otherwise perfect film, muddies the emotional resonance.  That is not to say that the film is still not a powerfully moving experience, but it's one that I think would have been even more potent had William remained devoted to his wife like he said he would and like they still try to make us believe when --  two decades old spoiler alert --- he's executed at the end of the movie.  Finally, the most important thing that a film review should do is clarify who this film is meant for and adjust the score accordingly.

If you are reviewing a Sylvester Stallone action movie, rather than stating how stupid you think all of the insane action and testosterone-fueled dialogue is, you should be placing yourself in the shoes of the men and women who like movies with insane action and testosterone-fueled dialogue.  In short, does this movie deliver what the audience for this movie want, or does it falter in some areas that keep it from being a great experience for the people who like those kinds of movies?  Kind of think of this as grading on a curve, because a 2 out of 5 from one reviewer might be a moviegoer's 5 out of 5, and vice versa.  It shouldn't be the film reviewer's job to say how much he or she hates this sort of movie, but how well this movie works for the audience in which it was intended for.  If it's a kid's movie and all of the jokes and characters work for kids, then does it matter if you were bored during the movie or thought it was stupid?  No, because you, Mr. Reviewer, were not who the movie was made for, and it's your job to let the parents of those children know that it will delight their kids and check his sour attitude at the door before he writes his review.

So I've gone on a bit longer than I originally intended, but I think that this is an important thing as an amateur film reviewer myself to dissect in order to change my own practices.  Personally, I often will see that a movie has a 56% rating on RottenTomatoes and think that this movie is bad because only 56% of film reviewers like the movie.  That often isn't the case.  A movie may be a great movie to you, just because it got a 2 out of 5 rating from the guy at The New York Times, that doesn't mean that his 2 out of 5 rating is in anyway how you would rate the movie after seeing it.  This is where we need to start training ourselves as we read film reviews, not to just skip to the score and stop reading, we need to see what the reviewer actually thinks about the film rather than looking at a number that means nothing.

I have read negative reviews before for films, where reviewers critiqued something in a movie that actually made me want to see the movie.  A good example is when a reviewer harps on a movie's sentimentalism.  That reviewer might be a cynic and finds sentimentalism repulsive, but for me that's a positive.  It's all relative to each person, and had I stopped at that reviewer's negative score and read no further to understand why he gave it that score, then I would have never gone to see that movie.

In closing, I am going to no longer place a score or grade my film reviews here on the Unicellular Review.  Saying a movie deserves an A+ rating or an F doesn't accurately reflect the picture of what a movie actually is.  A review needs to be read in order to understand how a reviewer felt about a movie and why.  Just checking the score doesn't give readers any clue as to the movie they're wanting to see, and so the score is pointless.  If I liked the movie, you will be able to tell through what I write, and not by whether or not I gave the movie an A+ or a B+ rating.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

My First Feature Length Movie!

I genuinely feel that change is just around the corner.  I think it is no understatement to say that these past few years have definitely had their ups-and-downs for me.  Medical and financial woes, coupled with the destruction that nature can wring, it's probably been some of the more difficult things I've ever had to go through in life.  With that said, this period in life has also been extremely good to me, for I discovered the Red Barn and met Joy O'Neal, the Executive Director of the Red Barn.

The Red Barn is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization in Leeds, Alabama, that specializes in horse related therapy for children and adults with physical and cognitive disabilities, as well as those with special circumstances.  A few years back I was hired by Joy to make a short three minute video for the Red Barn.  In the process of my first meeting with Joy, she told me that she had always wanted a documentary made about the Red Barn.  To make a long story short, here we are two years later, and we are less than a month away from the premiere of the finished film.

Produced by my parents, Rick & Sheila Sutton, and directed by me, this film really has been a passion project for us all.  At first, I thought we'd just make a 20 minute documentary that we'd do in a couple of months and that would be that, though as I got more involved out at the Red Barn, and learned more of the story, particularly behind its inspirations, I knew not even 40 minutes could fully cover it.  The documentary is now a feature length film, running 80 minutes in length.

Through the process of making this film, I feel as if I have received therapy as well.  Emotional, psychological, and spiritual.  I don't think I am necessarily the same person now as the one who started out making this film, and in many ways I think that's what all good films are supposed to do for those who make them.  The truth of the matter is, there are a lot of better avenues to make money through than making films.  If I didn't get something out of the process, I wouldn't be doing it, I'd go get an ordinary 9-to-5 job somewhere.  It wasn't until I got deep into the process of making this particular film that I realized why I do this.

Films are a way for me to heal on an emotional, psychological, and spiritual level.  No film is worth making if you cannot connect on one of those levels with the story in some way shape or form, and that's why I sometimes shelve a project after years of work, because I just can never find that reason for me to tell that particular story.  So not only does making films help me in a therapeutic way, it also allows me to take words that have been placed in me by God, and hopefully provide therapy to someone else through that story.  Whether it just makes someone feel good, or it means something to someone on a deeper level that causes them to think, all of my favorite films are therapy when I watch them, and hopefully this film about therapy will provide some to others.

So I do feel that change is just around the corner.  Now, that's not to say that there hasn't been push back from unseen enemies, because there has been, a lot.  Of course, that push back only further cements this feeling inside of me that something good is going to come of this documentary for myself and many others, because if it were not a threat to the Enemy, why would he try to create self doubt, arguments, and stress?  I've always felt that making movies is what I was placed on this Earth to do.  Whether or not this is the film that jumpstarts my career as a blockbuster filmmaker, or simply gets me enough notoriety to raise money for my next film, I know that after the premiere on November the 23rd, my life will never be the same from that point on.

Maybe that sounds corny as all get out, but sometimes being corny is okay.  Being sentimental and emotional is fantastic.  We don't always have to be cynical and closed off.  Films don't always have to be vulgar to be art or to simply be entertaining.  And so hopefully we have made a film that will be something that is positive and affecting, and proves, without a shadow of a doubt, that there is always a plan bigger that is no one's business but God's to see.

As I said, we're still nearly a month away from the premiere (which is being held at my dream theater, the historic Alabama Theatre in downtown Birmingham, AL), but I cannot say enough how thankful I am to have had the Red Barn in my life.  From Joy to everyone who works there, you guys have all helped make these changes in my life possible, like you do for your students every day of every week.  Then there's my parents, who I would have never gotten this far with this film without.  I doubt myself all the time, and I am not always the most outgoing person, and with their help I feel, that while I am not completely there, I am getting better at those things.  And finally, there is Anita and John Cowart, two fantastic people that I never got to meet, but feel as if I know so well.  To make this short and sweet, if it weren't for them, there would be no film.  Enjoy the trailer for the film, and I will keep everyone updated as we go along.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Film School of Life - Chapter 2

My childhood hero:  Harrison Ford
It's been a busy few weeks since I posted the last chapter of my book, The Film School of Life,  but I've finally written down the second chapter.  As I was starting on this second chapter, I realized that the last five or six paragraphs of the first chapter should actually be in the second chapter, so I edited the original Chapter 1 and have added that part to Chapter 2 at the beginning.  I am going to try and not do this kind of thing too much in writing this book, but this book is a bit of a work in progress, so I may edit and proof things from time-to-time.  With that said, Chapter 2 picks up right where Chapter 1 left off, dealing with my childhood dreams of what I wanted to be when I grew up.  I hope you enjoy this latest chapter in this experiment.



****

Chapter 2
“What Do I Want to Be When I Grow Up?”

Having been born in 1990, I was not alive when the original Star Wars trilogy hit theaters, nor when the first three Indiana Jones movies were released, however I quickly discovered Harrison Ford through home video.

You never forget the first time you remember a movie star's name, or at least I haven't. I was three when my Mom's best friend, Ms. Rachel, bought us what was purely called the Star Wars trilogy at the time (because there was no inclination of the prequels then). We watched all three of the movies, and I wish I could honestly say the movies themselves blew my mind, but that wasn't the case. Sure, I loved Star Wars, I got as many of the toys as I could, and I would often pretend I was Han Solo or Luke Skywalker when playing, but the most indelible impression those three movies made on me was that Harrison Ford was the coolest thing since sliced bread.

From watching these movies, I remembered Harrison Ford's name. Maybe I asked my Mom who he was, or I actually read it in the credits, I don't know and I don't care, because I was hooked, I wanted to see every Harrison Ford movie.

Soon after, we got all three Indiana Jones movies that had been made at that time, and I was even more fascinated by Mr. Ford. However, unlike Star Wars, with Indiana Jones, I had discovered a character who would go on to be bigger than the actor playing him. While I was still mad about Harrison Ford, Indiana Jones was the first time a movie character really leapt off the screen for me and became my go to person of choice to play make believe as.

Using my older brother's bag for his Sega Gamegear as Indy's satchel, and my Granddad's old brown fedora, I ran around the house as Indiana Jones. I would climb the stairs, imagining they were a cliff with pillows as falling rocks. I would swing from the top bunk of our bunk bed to the bottom bunk, like Indy would going down to the lower level of an ancient temple. I would even crawl across the couch, pretending that there was a ceiling caving in right above me and I had to wriggle my way through before I was crushed.

For a three-to-five year old kid, this was serious stuff. Sure, did I get away with seeing a good many movies that I shouldn't have seen at that age because I secretly watched them with my older brothers (Batman Returns and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, I'm looking at you)? You bet, but if it weren't for those secret movie sessions, would I have said at my Kindergarden graduation that I wanted to be Harrison Ford?

You know, in my five-year-old mind's logic, when I was asked before graduation what I wanted to be when I grew up, well I thought the answer was simple, I wanted to be Harrison Ford. Okay, so I now know how stupid it is to want to be another person, because that is impossible, but at five it seemed reasonable. He was my two favorite movie characters of all-time. If one person could be both Han Solo and Indiana Jones, then isn't he a person worth wanting to be? At least, that's what I thought anyways.

So then came the time for me to get my actual diploma. Decked out in my white cap and gown, with my front tooth chipped and blackened from an incident falling face first in the church gym, I went down the aisle as my name was called and climbed the steps to the stage, receiving my diploma. As I took hold of that tiny rolled up piece of paper, they announced that I wanted to be Harrison Ford when I grew up, exactly what I had told them earlier. Safe to say, I felt completely unstoppable. While I look back on this moment now and kind of just hang my head, wondering how I could have been that gullible, I think it also goes to just show how much movies influenced my earliest years.

Over the next few years, my ambitions changed, but I still loved Harrison Ford, and I still loved movies, I just no longer wanted to be Harrison Ford.

As far as most of the usual occupations that children want to be when they get older, I never really had a desire for the norm. I never wanted to be a doctor, an astronaut, or a fireman. Those sort of jobs seemed boring to me.

You've got to understand, I was the kid in elementary school who spent my days writing stories and drawing whatever I imagined instead of actually doing my school work. Even when we got out of the classroom and onto the playground, rather than playing sports or whatnot, I spent almost all of my time on the swingset pretending I was piloting an X-wing starfighter into battle.

On top of that, from about first to fifth grade, I was often a compulsive liar, making up stories about myself and my family in order to make others believe that I had this crazy, awesome life. I can vividly recall making up stories about my family spending vacations in Japan at the height of the Pokemon craze, or even touting that my Dad worked on the crew of Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, creating the special effect when Darth Maul was chopped in half by Obi-Wan Kenobi. Sure, I look back upon my propensity to lie at those times with regret now, but I also have come to appreciate the imagination that I had to concoct such wild and random stories. Without imagination, I really don't know where I would be.

For as long as I can remember, I have just had a desire to create things. I have been fortunate enough so far to be able to see things vividly in my mind's eye that do not exist. While this has led to its fair share of disappointment over the years -- realizing that things can never be as I imagined them in my mind -- it also gives me something to aspire toward.

The things I used to draw and write in school were highly imaginative for a kid of my age. They were riffs on all of the things I loved, mainly Star Wars. I wrote and drew stories about space cowboys and penned epic fantasy sagas that ripped off a lot of my favorite video games during those years. Perhaps one of my personal favorite stories I ever wrote was simply titled, “The Avenger.” It was the tale of a teenaged secret agent who fought evil in a sky blue windbreaker, with matching pants. While there wasn't a lot to these stories or their characters, they were some of the very first story ideas I ever remember coming up with. As a matter of fact, in a bid to be more like my older brother, Jonathan, who made a cherished home movie classic called Catzilla, I often busted out the home video camera to make home movies myself.

I made a sequel to Catzilla, and even used the same cat to star in a movie I made with my babysitter, called Kung Fu Kitty. In that, I played Kung Fu Boy, a boy who could talk with a magical cat that knew kung fu and fought crime. I even did opening credits for Kung Fu Kitty by writing them out onto a sheet of paper and scrolling past them while singing a song that had only three words, “Kung Fu Kitty,” in a style reminiscent of Danny Elfman's theme for Batman. I know, original. Right?

Another movie I made, or attempted to make, was a film version of, “The Avenger.” I cast myself as the titular hero, and my next door neighbor as the evil villain with a cybernetic claw for an arm (bought at Toy's-R-Us, of course). For the film, I changed the costume for the hero from a windbreaker to a black sweatsuit, probably because that's what I actually owned as opposed to the other costume. Of course, before I go too much further into the tale of this adaptation, I must point out that I never wrote a script and that I only ever shot one scene for the film because we were called for dinner before I could shoot anymore.

Like a lot of kids, writing a script seemed too time consuming. I knew where I wanted the story to go, so what was the point? The story was going to start with the Avenger infiltrating his archnemesis's lair, discovering that he had a super laser death ray built in a space station orbiting the Earth that he was going to use to destroy the world. Why destroy the world? Because that's what I thought all bad guys wanted to do at the time. Suffice to say, the film would wind up on the space station, where the Avenger and his nemesis duked it out as the clock was ticking down, me and my neighbor even rehearsed a bit of this climactic fight scene on the trampoline in the backyard, but it never went on camera.

You see, I had no desires to be a moviemaker yet, I was just making a movie because it was a spur of the moment impulse that an eight or nine-year-old child has from time to time. My older brother, that was my personal hero at the time, had made home movies with his friends, so I thought I should do the same. The fact is, I half-baked the whole idea. I had this crazy idea that we didn't need sets or even extras, my Dad would be able to add all of that in with CGI, which was just starting to really be a common staple in major Hollywood movies back then.

On the evening when we shot the only scene that was ever shot, my brother and sister operated the camera as I ran through our backyard, fighting invisible bad guys that were not there (the ones that would be added digitally later). I charged from our dog's pen in the very far corner of the yard, all the way to the fort, storming up the steps and kicking a non-existent bad guy down the slide before sliding down the slide myself. I called cut, and I thought it was brilliant. Why would a suburban backyard with a child's play fort be the hideout for an evil mastermind? You've got me, but the movie didn't go any further than that, because my Mom called us and said that dinner was ready, and my next door neighbor had to go back home, so that was that. The impulse to make this movie dissipated by the next day when something else popped up to preoccupy my time. As I said, I did not want to make movies at that time, I just saw it as something I should do. If I am being entirely truthful, the very first thing I remember actually wanting to be when I grew up was a cartoonist.

Around second grade, I had become fascinated with those books that you could buy at school book fairs that collected the works of say a year's worth of newspaper comic strips into one book. I remember getting Garfield at Large at a school book fair, and I was hooked. I mean, I already loved Garfield from his brief stint on Saturday morning television, but I think what really appealed to me about this collection of comic strips, was that they were fun, funny, and they seemed like something I could do.

You see, my very favorite thing to do when I was little was to draw. More so than writing stories or even playing make believe or watching movies, drawing was sort of my first real love, and so for years I told everyone that I wanted to be a comic strip cartoonist when I grew up. This desire was only bolstered by the school career day when one of my classmate's grandfather, who was a comic strip cartoonist, came and talked to the class. I just thought it was the coolest job in the world, so like everything I said that I wanted to do, my Aunt Jane went out and bought me a lot of the stuff for it. I got tons of sketchbooks, how-to-draw cartoons manuals, and art supplies.

Eventually my artistic ambitions went from comic strips to comic books and manga. For the rest of elementary school, and most of middle school, my ambition was simple, I wanted to write and draw stories. It just wasn't possible for me to simply write without seeing the story visually. When I wrote and drew stories, I saw how everything was supposed to look. The setting, the costumes, the characters, the colors of everything, and the angle upon which we were watching the events unfold, I just could see it in my mind's eye. I was certainly on the right track to achieving my dream, there was only one catch, I couldn't draw.

No matter how much I drew and wanted to be a good artist, I just simply didn't have the gift. My best work was amateurish at best, and I think deep down I knew that. Even when I was challenged to a draw off in fifth grade between a popular kid and myself, where fellow popular kids chose the winner, I knew I wasn't going to win (sure, the deck was stacked against me, but he was also just a better artist than me). However, I kept trucking on thinking that if I just continued to draw, that I would be the next great comic book artist.

My middle schools years was when I really first discovered comic books. I was buying collections of old comic books at Books-a-Million, buying old comics off ebay, and purchasing the new issues on newstands. I had become obsessed with Stan Lee and wanted to be the next great, just like him (it doesn't hurt that the first Spider-Man movie hit theaters around this time to bolster my interests). During this time, I tried to create my own catalogue of characters, just like Stan Lee did at Marvel in the Sixties. Suffice to say, all of my creations were basically knock offs of Stan Lee's best characters, but hey, some of them were actually passable for a twelve-year-old kid.

I remember creating the Blue Scarab, a Batman rip-off who had no super powers, protected the grimy, eternally dark city known as Sobian City, and used a utility belt and his blue cape and cowl (shaped like a scarab beetle's head) to fight crime. Then there was the Jumper, a superhero who's only sole power was that he could jump really high, and kick, that was it. Of course, my favorite hero I had created during this period was the Phantom.

The Phantom was essentially Spider-Man, just with ghost abilities. He was a high school geek who was involved in an accidental chemical spill on the streets of New York City, granting him the ability to turn invisible, walk through walls, and be super strong and acrobatic. He was the hero I cared the most for, and was the one I did the most work on. I even made half of a full issue once, I was so jazzed about him, but I think the thing I loved the most about the Phantom was that I could see all of his villains so clearly.

There was his archnemesis, Rocket, a man in a Boba Fett-styled suit with jetpack and gauntlets that fired rockets. Then there was the Juggler, a disgraced baseball pitcher who masqueraded as a circus juggler committing crimes. However, my two personal favorites were Mirage and the Absorber. Mirage was a man who could create false images in the minds of his enemies, while the Absorber had the ability to absorb any element, such as water, fire, and rock, to strengthen his own body. With all of these villains and a crackerjack hero, I thought I had come up with my Spider-Man, alas it wasn't meant to be.

Toward the end of my eighth grade year, I was home watching TV one night, and on came a preview for a new cartoon that was about to premiere on Nickelodeon called Danny Phantom. I was completely gobsmacked. The premise was so similar to the one of my own comic book Phantom, that I was heartbroken and furious at the same time. In the mind of a thirteen-year-old kid, I felt as if my idea had been stolen, which in fact I learned quickly thereafter that it was more that the Phantom I had created wasn't really that original of an idea to begin with. After this whole fiasco, and the continual realization that I just wasn't as good of an artist as so many other people in my school, my dreams of being a comic book writer/artist just dissipated. I didn't want to just be the writer and not draw my own stories, so I was in limbo, with no real dream to pursue.

During this time, I toyed with a great many ideas of what I wanted to do instead of writing and drawing comic books. I thought of being a video game creator or being an actor, since I had just really gotten into theatre at school. While I loved both of those things, neither of them were truly me, and that was when a school assignment changed my life.

It was my Freshman year of high school and I was tasked by my history teacher to do an oral report on a modern historical figure. We went to the library to look through the biography section to find our subjects. I personally had no clue who I wanted to do my report on. Most everybody was either doing athletes or politicians, but neither of those kinds of people interested me. That is when I saw it, the biography of George Lucas on the bookshelf.

Throughout the fourteen years of my life up to that point, there was only one constant, it was that I loved movies, and more particularly, loved Star Wars. See, I was the one in my family who obsessively tracked movies online and knew the release dates of all the major blockbusters. If you wanted to know when a movie was coming out, I was the one to ask.

So here I was in the school library, checking out the bio of George Lucas. I had found my modern historical figure and had gotten him approved by my history teacher, so now all I had to do was read the book and give the report.

Over the next few days, I started reading the book whenever I get some downtime in classes (cause who is going to read at home). As I got further and further into the story of George Lucas, the more I realized that me and George had a lot in common. We were both small for our age, we were both introverts with very few friends who favored TV and movies above playing outside, and we both wore glasses. I saw so much of myself in his story, and I just sort of got lost in his biography. When I started to get to the part where he went to film school and learned to make movies, and read about the process of how he made all of these classic movies like the original Star Wars, I was fascinated.

Now, while the process of video and moviemaking was not new to me – with my Dad having been a videographer and producer for my entire life – this was the first time I took an active interest in it. All of a sudden, it was like someone flipped a switch inside my brain. I wanted to make movies. I already knew how to run and operate a camera, having professionally operated a camera for my Dad since I was twelve, and I already had a myriad of stories in my mind and how I visually wanted them to look, so it was a no-brainer. I was going to be a moviemaker.

When I nervously gave my oral report, I got an A, and more importantly, I had finally figured out what I wanted to be when I grew up. Now, while I wasn't without the usual teenage act of changing my mind from time-to-time, wanting to be a playwright or be a musical theatre actor yet again, I always came back to movies. The movies were very much my first obsession, and I just never could let them go.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Movie Review: "Get on Up"


The James Brown biopic, Get on Up, is an okay movie that paints enough of a picture to give those, who don't know James Brown, an idea of the man, but not enough to really satisfy or make this movie feel like it had to be made.  The movie is constantly jumping back-and-forth in time, going from old James Brown, to little kid James Brown, to Sixties' James Brown, and then to teenage James Brown, back to kid James Brown again.  It's a confusing plot device that I guess they used to try and tell the emotional story rather than a straightforward linear story, but it often detracts more than it adds.  While a lot of the musical numbers are very lively, and there are some humorous scenes here and there, the movie itself feels disjointed and confused on what it really wants to be, rather than feeling like a window into the life of James Brown.  The thing that saves this movie, for the most part, is the performance by Chadwick Boseman as James Brown.  He gives it his all and should get an Oscar nom for his work.

I give Get on Up a D!

Movie Review: "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles"

The heroes in a half shell finally return to the bigscreen, and while Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is probably the weakest of all the TMNT movies made thus far, there is a great deal to enjoy about director Jonathan Liebesman's movie.

This Turtles movie is basically another retelling of their origin story, with a greater focus than ever before on the human characters, like news reporter April O'Neill, rather than the titular turtles themselves.  Megan Fox is fine as April, though her acting chops aren't quite sharp enough to always sell the CGI turtles that she is supposed to be acting with.  While I personally would have liked to see the Ninja Turtles themselves actually get more to do in the plot, their personalities were spot on, save for the too mean Splinter.  I just wish less of the focus had been on the not so interesting human characters (sorry, but that's how it's always been with this franchise).  Even with the villains, Shredder has less to do than the white guy villain played by William Fichtner, who is the real mastermind of the evil plot.  With that all said, I kind of liked the revisionist angle that this movie took on the traditional Ninja Turtles origin story, having April's past being intrinsically linked with that of the turtles.  Add on to that the heightened comic book style that this movie oozes (no pun intended) and you have the ingredients for a movie that will delight the targeted audience.

If you have a kid, in particular a young boy, they'll love this movie.  While there is a little more innuendo and cussing in this movie than there was in any previous Ninja Turtles movie, most of it is subtle enough to where it will go over most kids' heads.  I mean, when you hear reviews from the kids leaving the audience in front of you, like, "Best Movie Ever!!!"  You know that the movie works for who it's intended for.  As an adult fan of the series, I know I am not the target audience, so that's why I'm a lot more forgiving of a lot of the shortcomings of this particular movie, because while it isn't the TMNT's finest hour, there is a lot of fun to be had here.

This is the kind of movie that if you check your mind at the door, anyone will probably have a good time with it.  The action sequences are top notch and imaginative, with the car chase down a snowy mountain being one of the most silly, yet fun sequences of action I've seen in a while.  Plus, while so many complained about the giant size of the new Ninja Turtles and their super strength, they do look really cool when onscreen beating up the bad guys.  I for one would not mind a sequel to this particular movie to see if, with the origin story out of the way, the filmmakers can root their feet more firmly into this world and give it another go, because this is the first Ninja Turtles movie series where I could imagine seeing some of the weirder TMNT villains popping up.  If you ask me, bring on the Kraang and explain the secret of the alien ooze that created the Turtles, similar to the current Nickelodeon TV show.

I give Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles a C+!