Friday, February 28, 2014

Movie Review: "The Wind Rises"

How do you even begin to talk about the final film from one of your favorite filmmakers to ever live?  Japanese animation maestro, Hayao Miyazaki, has made some of the greatest animated films ever.  From My Neighbor Totoro to Spirited Away, Miyazaki's imagination seemingly knows no bounds, so when he announced last Fall that The Wind Rises would be his last film before retirement, I immediately knew I had to see it on the biggest screen possible, no matter what.  The Wind Rises is simply put, another Miyazaki masterpiece.  If you are already a fan of his works, then you will love it, and even if this is your first taste, this very well might be the best place to start.

The film tells the slightly fictionalized life story of one of Miyazaki's personal heroes, aeronautical engineer, Jiro Horikoshi.  While Jiro is now more famously known as the man who built the Zero Fighter that the Japanese used to bomb Pearl Harbor, the real Jiro was a pacifist who only wanted to build something beautiful.  The film follows Jiro from 1918 all the way through the start of World War II and details the sweet, yet tragic love story between him and his ailing wife, while also showing how Jiro was inspired to create the Zero Fighter.

Upon seeing The Wind Rises, it's obvious why Miyazaki chose this particular story as his swan song, it features every major thematic idea of his various works all compiled into one narrative, and yet it is very different from any of his other films.  Could Miyazaki have created another lavish fantasy adventure as his final film?  He could have, and all of his fans would have watched it, but there's something special about The Wind Rises that makes it worth every ounce of salt in the world.  Miyazaki's pacifism, his eccentricity, and his optimism are all on full display throughout the narrative, all represented through the eyes of Jiro and how he processes everything through vivid daydreams and his own quiet optimism.

As far as the animation goes, the folks at Studio Ghibli have all done another marvelous job.  The dream sequences, where Jiro envisions planes, are all some of the most gorgeous images Ghibli animators have ever drawn, and the way that the animators use wind, especially when dealing with any outdoor scene between Jiro and his wife, Nahoko, is simply stunning.  There is an expressionistic flair to the wind that is very reminiscent to how Studio Ghibli approached the water in Ponyo.  The wind feels alive and almost becomes a bit of an invisible puppeteer, often working as hard as the music to cue you into the emotions of the story.  Speaking of the music, Miyazaki's longtime collaborator, composer Joe Hisaishi, has delivered another breathtaking score that manages to defy expectation with the Italian-inspired theme juxtaposed against the Japanese setting.

I really can't say enough about The Wind Rises.  Perhaps the film has so much resonance for me because I am such a huge Miyazaki fan (he ranks behind only Steven Spielberg in my book of favorite directors of all-time), but The Wind Rises truly is a sensational film as well.  This is quite possibly the most romantic film Miyazaki has ever made, turning paper airplanes into a new form of love letter, while also delivering some of the most fully fleshed out characters Miyazaki has ever committed to film.  Like all of Miyazaki's works, the characters are all slightly eccentric, funny, and extremely lovable, even in all of their flaws, but there is a depth to every character and their motivations, in particular Jiro and Nahoko, that is deeply moving.

While The Wind Rises is not typical Miyazaki, the spirit of invention is still there in every frame, where you feel as if you are discovering a long lost epic from the Golden Age of Hollywood or something.  That's actually how The Wind Rises feels to me.  The Wind Rises is so simple, yet complex at the same time, and is consistently entertaining while being a movie you'll definitely want a hankie for.  Thank you, Miyazaki-san, for this film and for a career that has inspired me so much.

I give The Wind Rises an A+!

Thursday, February 27, 2014

If I Could Vote for the Oscars

Everytime we get close to Oscar night the big thing critics love to do is state who they think deserves to win the awards, rather than who will more than likely win.  While this post is not my predictions, I don't want to say that the films I will be highlighting in this post are the films that deserve to win more so than any other nominees, because when you get to this point where about every contender is quality work, it's all subjective as to what you liked most.  In essence, that's what this post is, it's me stating what films I would vote for if I were a member of the Academy.  As I am not, this ballot wont count, but it's always fun to play what-if games.  Now, since I have not been fortunate enough to see any of the short films, documentaries, or foreign language films, I feel it would be wrong for me to cast a vote on those categories.  As for every other category, I have seen enough of the majority to have an opinion.  So I hope you enjoy this fun little excursion, and for a full list of nominees check out this link.

Best Sound Mixing - Gravity
Many often get this award confused with Sound Editing, but they are two different entities that work towards the same goal, the soundscape of the film.  Gravity had the most impressive sound work of any film this past year, and the sound mixing was a huge part of that success.  Sound mixing is awarded to the production sound mixers and re-recording mixers, these are the guys that aren't creating the sound effects, but are rather making sure we can hear the dialogue and are mixing that in with the sound effects and music to hear what we need to hear most prominently at which moment.  It really is an art and one that shouldn't be misunderstood.  As far as the artistic process of sound mixing, Gravity utilized surround sound in the most remarkable way I think I've ever heard.  The way the sound felt as if it was jumping all around you in the theater really created this feeling of actually being there with Sandra Bullock and George Clooney and made the experience of the film all the more immersive.  Truthfully, the only other film I would have considered would have been Inside Llewyn Davis for the way they mixed live musical performances onset with the stuff done in the recording studio, but Gravity trumps it just slightly.

Best Sound Editing - Gravity
As I've already said, Gravity had the best sound work of last year and a large part of that was because of the sound editing.  This award is given to sound editors and sound designers, because those are the guys that actually create and capture the sounds you are hearing.  If there is a gunshot or an explosion, they created it.  Where Gravity really stole the show this past year was in the absence of ordinary sound.  There is no sound in space, so the sound designers for this film had to create noises through what Sandra Bullock's character is hearing inside her space suit when she bumps into something or grabs hold of something.  It's a different way to think of sound and one that is highly effective.

Best Makeup and Hairstyling - Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa
I hate to say it, but Bad Grandpa is who I'd cast my vote for if I could.  It was by no means the best makeup and hairstyling of last year, but it is the best makeup and hairstyling that is nominated.  Dallas Buyers Club will more than likely win due to its higher prestige cache, but majority of that work, beyond Jared Leto, was actually Matthew McConaughey's real-life weight loss.  As for The Lone Ranger, I personally found the old man Tonto makeup on Johnny Depp as very fake, almost wax museum looking, and when you compare that old age makeup to the work done on Johnny Knoxville in Bad Grandpa, it really is no contest.  Knoxville actually looks like an old man in that film and it's why it would get my vote.

Best Costume Design - The Great Gatsby
We all know what costume designers do, and for that reason it is one of the easiest technical categories for the average moviegoer to critique, because most people have their own ideas on fashion.  I for one was not all that impressed with the costumes in American Hustle, finding them to be more over-the-top Seventies than anything else.  While the costumes for The Great Gatsby were fairly extravagant themselves, the film also didn't try to be as real in tone as American Hustle did.  Gatsby's costumes benefit from the films' dream-like tone and are more what our dream version of the Roaring Twenties is, rather than what they actually were.

Best Production Design - Her
A production designers job is simple, they create the world in which the actors inhabit.  They are the ones who build the sets, who dress real-life locations to look like whatever type of world the film is trying to convey, and when you look at this criteria, no other film did that better out of the nominees than Her.  Looking at the near future design of the LA represented in this film, you can seriously buy that this world being shown before us is actually one that we might be living in by 2020 or something of the sort, and that's why it would get my vote.

Best Visual Effects - Gravity
Seriously?  Was I going to vote for anything else?  When there is a film that comes along and completely revolutionizes the the realm of effects, how can you vote for something else with good conscious?  Stealing a phrase from Stan Lee, "'Nuff said."

Best Film Editing - Captain Phillips
While I love Gravity, that film has so many long shots, the editing is not really a factor.  On the other hand, Captain Phillips is one of those films that was shot in such a naturalistic, documentary style, that the editor really had to work to shape the film.  Not only did the editor have to choose the best performances from the actors, they had to create the tension of the film, because there is very little music, and if it was poorly edited, we wouldn't know how to feel.

Best Cinematography - The Grandmaster
Another category where it's hard for me to award Gravity, purely because I don't think that films that are 90% visual effects and crafted in a computer should be eligible.  Here's the thing, there should be another category separate from Cinematography and Visual Effects to award films like Gravity, Life of Pi, Hugo, and Avatar, but calling what those films do cinematography is stretching it, because very often there isn't even a camera involved in creating the pretty images.  While I do agree that lighting, coloring, and creating computer generated cinematography is an art, I still think of this category as what's actually captured onset through the use of lighting, colors, and focus, to create emotions in the audience.  That is why I would spring for The Grandmaster.  Director Wong Kar Wai has always had a distinctive approach to color and lighting, and every cinematographer he's ever worked with has managed to create some of the most gorgeous images I've ever seen, and The Grandmaster is no different.

Best Original Song - "Let It Go" from Frozen
When you start going through the list of songs nominated, this is not only the most traditional song up for the award, but it truly is the best.  For me, I think the nominated song should be integral to the film, and that's the case here.  Frozen would not have the same emotional punch that it has when Elsa runs away without this song, and the mere fact that it's also one of the best Disney songs in almost two decades doesn't hurt it either.

Best Original Score - Gravity
Typically I look for recurring themes and motifs in film scores (aka the musical soundtrack), funnily enough though, the film I'd vote for doesn't really have any of that.  Steven Price's music for Gravity is more about creating atmospherics through the musical accompaniment than it is anything else.  Without sound in space, the filmmakers utilized the music in a way to give a crash to that explosion or to represent the space debris whizzing past.  Then there is the finale where Price goes into full Hollywood mode with the music, telling us how to think and feel, and it feels completely earned.

Best Animated Feature Film - The Wind Rises
 This gets my vote purely because it is director Hayao Miyazaki's final film.  Miyazaki is retiring and for one of the most important figures in animation history since Walt Disney, I have to spring for his final film.

Best Adapted Screenplay - Captain Phillips
For me, considering Captain Phillips adapted and American Hustle original is a strange classification.  Both are based on true events, though I guess the real difference maker is that there is a book that the real Captain Phillips wrote that informed the film.  Personally, I found the script for Captain Phillips original, which is why I went through all of that, because the film was written in a very un-Hollywood way.  There is nothing that feels overdramatized here, it's all just a lot of well constructed moments that feel real, and anyone who has ever written anything will tell you how hard it is to write something and it not feel fake.  Billy Ray, the screenwriter, would definitely get my vote.

Best Original Screenplay - Her
This was a difficult category for me to call, because most of my favorite screenplays of last year were snubbed, but to make a long story short, that's how I arrived at Her.  While Her often falls into some of the traditional cliches of romance films, as a whole the film is fresh and innovative, primarily due to the complexities of the film's central premise.  Not to mention the near future vision that this film represents, being quite possibly one of the most realistic depictions of what our future might actually be like a decade down the road.

Best Supporting Actress - Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine
It's true that you can vote for somebody in a film that you do not like, as is the case here.  The truth of the matter is that I just like Sally Hawkins as an actress so much, and in my opinion, where Cate Blanchett was chewing scenery in this film, Hawkins was bringing reality.  Sure, Hawkins' character is little more than a blue collar stereotype played to juxtapose her against her socialite sister, but Hawkins relishes in the role and manages to give it a little extra dimension.

Best Supporting Actor - Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips
Perhaps not the finest performance on a technical level, but Abdi would get my vote.  Now let me clarify by what I meant.  When it comes to traditional acting craft, someone like Bradley Cooper or even Jonah Hill does better work, but it's the raw, untrained nature that Barkhad Abdi brings to his performance in Captain Phillips that makes it way more emotionally powerful than any other nominee.  Here's the thing, had it been a movie star working opposite Tom Hanks, I wouldn't have believed the character, but by having Abdi there, I did.  Besides, I am always all for, not only honoring older people who may not have another shot at it, but also honoring newcomers if they do a phenomenal job, and Abdi did just that.

Best Actress - Sandra Bullock, Gravity
How can you watch Gravity and then not say that Sandra Bullock was the best actress of last year?  It's a one woman show for the most part and that's why she would get my vote.  It's hard enough in say Avatar to act to a CGI character that isn't there yet, but when you literally are the only character onscreen for most of the film and you keep us riveted for the full ninety minutes, that's the mark of a great actor.

Best Actor - Bruce Dern, Nebraska
Look, let's be honest, with Matthew McConaughey's current career trajectory, he's going to get nominated again, probably in the next two or three years, the same goes for Leonardo DiCaprio and Christian Bale.  For those guys, with Bale having already one Oscar, it's not a matter of will they ever get nominated again, but when will they actually win it.  With Bruce Dern, it's the complete opposite.  While Dern's work in Nebraska is not flashy, it's clearly a lived in portrait of this man that truly believes he's won a million dollars.  Sure, McConaughey lost all this weight and Christian Bale found it, and perhaps Leo shows more charisma than he's shown in years, but it still doesn't change the fact that this very well might be Bruce Dern's last shot ever at an Oscar.  Let's not repeat Alfred Hitchcock or Peter O'Toole all over again.  That's all I have left to say on the matter.

Best Director - Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity
Pretty much copy what I said about Visual Effects and put it here.  Without Alfonso Cuaron, there would be no Gravity.  It was his intense adherence to his vision that led to the technological breakthroughs, but it was also his vision that managed to make the film more than just a special effects' showcase.  Cuaron managed to draw humanity out of Sandra Bullock and George Clooney in their performances to where there is actually a heart in the midst of all the machinery.  In my book, that's the definition of a director.

Best Picture - Gravity
Come on, did you think I'd vote for anything else?  This was my favorite movie of last year, and it's a rare year where not only is my favorite movie actually nominated, but it has a legitimate shot of actually winning the award.  This might be the first time since I've been watching the Oscars that this exact thing has happened, and for that reason, and for the fact that it's my favorite film of last year, Gravity gets my vote.

So if you go by my voting, I would grant Gravity 7 Oscars out of its 10 nominations, and surprisingly enough, give Her, 2, and Captain Phillips, 3, with the rest of the field being made up by one Oscar winners.  Tune in on Sunday to see my actual predictions for the big night!

Friday, February 21, 2014

The Death of the Fantastic Four

We all know how superheroes are currently all the rage when it comes to Hollywood.  Everytime you turn around there is a new superhero being brought to the bigscreen.  For a huge comic book fan, such as myself, this is a dream come true.  The problem is that for every Batman Begins and The Avengers, there are at least two or three films like Green Lantern and Jonah Hex.  After the reveal of the cast for the new version of the Fantastic Four the other day, I must say that I think this particular superhero film is leaning more and more towards the latter two examples I offered up rather than the former.

As is par for the course with everything in Hollywood these days, 20th Century Fox is rebooting the Fantastic Four for a June 19th release date in the Summer of 2015 being directed by Josh Trank (Chronicle).  With filming set to begin shortly, the reveal of the cast was inevitable, and finally, just the other day many of the rumblings we have been hearing for months were finally confirmed and boy has it left me feeling like I'm in a lurch where this film is concerned.

Playing the role of Mr. Fantastic will be Miles Teller (The Spectacular NowProject X), with Kate Mara (House of Cards) as the Invisible Woman, Michael B. Jordan (Fruitvale StationChronicle) as the Human Torch, and Jamie Bell (The Adventures of TintinBilly Elliot) as The Thing.  Here's the thing, I actually like all of these actors individually, but I don't like them for these roles.  I always hope that I'll be proved wrong by the filmmakers, but from what I've heard about the script in rumors and whatnot, I'm not sure that will happen.

The new FF:  Miles Teller, Kate Mara, Jamie Bell, and Michael B. Jordan
For those who may not remember who the Fantastic Four are, here's a brief recap.  The Fantastic Four are a group of astronauts, who on a mission into space are hit by a cosmic cloud that forever changes their genetic make-up, giving them super powers.  There is the leader of the group, Mr. Fantastic, aka Reed Richards, a genius scientist who has the ability to stretch his limbs like Stretch Armstrong.  Then there is Reed's girlfriend and eventual wife, the Invisible Woman, aka Sue Storm, who has the ability to create force fields and turn invisible.  As well, there is Sue's hotheaded brother that she half-raised, Johnny Storm, more commonly known as the Human Torch due to his ability to encase his body in flames and fly while spouting out fireballs.  Which finally brings us to Reed's best friend, Ben Grimm, aka the Thing, whose body is encased in rock, granting him super strength and a grumpy attitude that contradicts his soft center.

Now, most people know of the Fantastic Four because of their previous two movies, starring most notably Jessica Alba as Sue Storm and Captain America, Chris Evans, as the Human Torch.  The previous two Fantastic Four films are by no means unwatchable, and in my opinion, the first film does a more than fine job at delivering a fun live action incarnation of these characters, but there is no denying that the films left a lot to be desired for a fan of the FF.  However, this post is not about the previous bigscreen adventures for the FF, but rather is about the reboot, its cast, and how I'm just unable to buy into it yet.

First thing is first, almost all of the actors in the reboot are the same exact age, contradicting much of how the FF have always been represented.  Miles Teller, Michael B. Jordan, and Jamie Bell, are all 27, with Kate Mara being the oldest at 30, turning 31 in a week.  Traditionally, Reed Richards and Sue Storm are close in age, with Johnny about ten or more years younger, and Ben about ten or more years older than Reed and Sue.  Not only are many of these actors too young, their age will drastically alter the relational dichotomy amongst the team.

Reed and Sue have always been a bit of a father and mother type figure, where as Johnny has always been like the rambunctious teenager that they have to rein in.  While they can still try and play that, it might feel odd with all of them being the same age, begging the question as to why Johnny should respect Reed and Sue if he's the same age as them, and I haven't even addressed the big elephant in the room.

How will Sue and Johnny be brother and sister?  There is no denying that Michael B. Jordan is African American and Kate Mara is Caucasian.  I'm sure they'll make up a way to explain their relation, such as different fathers or mothers, or they were adopted, but was this the right way to go?  The thing is, Michael B. Jordan is exceptionally charming, charismatic, and funny, and Kate Mara is a talented actress (though she doesn't necessarily exude the warmth I'd want out of Sue Storm), but I think Fox is making a big mistake here.

Personally, I've been hearing that Michael B. Jordan was a lock for the Human Torch role for nearly a year now, and I've been thinking all along that if they were to cast him, they should also change the race of Sue just for it to make more sense.  Alas, no.   I'm all for casting the right person for the parts, but if they really were dead set on Jordan for the role, then they should have cast an African American actress for Sue.  Even with all that said, I think casting Jordan just shows a  disrespect on the behalf of the filmmakers to the source material.

Comic books are a visual medium.  You can try for political correctness all day long, but it doesn't change the fact that Johnny has always been Caucasian with blond hair.  Now, let me reiterate that I really like Michael B. Jordan, and there are countless superheroes I'd love to see him play that are African American, but he shouldn't be playing the Human Torch.  Jordan would make a fantastic Static, if WB and DC ever got all their ducks in a row, but the Human Torch just isn't the right part for him.  It would be like if whenever Marvel finally makes a Black Panther movie, they cast a white actor in the role of T'challa, rather than a black actor.  It wouldn't work and people would go ballistic, just as they're going ballistic over this, and the bad thing is that saying anything to this effect makes people call you a racist, but it's stating facts.

Getting out of the realm of fantasy for a moment, imagine someone decided to make a movie about MLK starring George Clooney as MLK.  People would freak, right?  The same goes if Abraham Lincoln was played by Denzel Washington.  Just because the Human Torch is a literary character, it doesn't give filmmakers the right to change them to however they see fit.  That to me is the more terrifying prospect that this represents.  With rumors persisting that they're possibly changing Doctor Doom into a girl, it looks as if the filmmakers aren't done with their insane disrespect to the source material anytime soon.

As for Miles Teller as Mr. Fantastic, he is a very fine actor with a great sense of charisma, but I just can't help but feel his casting means they're going to try and make Reed more hip and cool than he needs to be.  The thing about Reed Richards is that he's about as straight-laced as anyone can get, and he gets more excited by science than he does about anything else.  Teller is awesome in the arena of humor and charm, but that's not who Reed Richards is.

Then Jamie Bell as Ben Grimm?  I made that a question for a reason, because the guy is about my height at 5'7", is super skinny, and he's going to be playing The Thing, one of the few Marvel characters who can stand toe-to-toe with the Hulk in a fight.  Perhaps he'll be doing motion capture work rather than prosthetics to create The Thing, and maybe Bell can ditch his British accent for a Brooklyn one, but I'm not entirely convinced when there were rumors of Bruce Willis and Terry Crews being mentioned at one point or another for Ben Grimm, both far better options on paper.

All in all, I'm just perplexed, and a good bit infuriated by this spate of casting.  Here's the thing, I love the Fantastic Four, they are often called Marvel's first family because they quite literally were.  The Fantastic Four were Stan Lee's first major creation in the early Sixties, before Spider-Man, before Iron Man, and before the Hulk, alongside so many others.  The thing that's really sticking in my craw is that we have never really had a definitive version of the Fantastic Four onscreen before, and rather than trying to make the best, most faithful version of the material possible with this reboot, they're making all sorts of changes that are unnecessary.

I'm beginning to wonder if we ever will see a definitive version of the Fantastic Four up on the bigscreen.  Probably not until Marvel gets the rights back to the Fantastic Four, which is not going to happen anytime in the next decade.  That's the whole reason as to why this ghastly reboot is happening.  In order for 20th Century Fox to retain the rights, they had to make a new FF film.

Back in the Nineties when Marvel was going bankrupt, they sold off all of the film rights to their properties to get back on their feet.  Well, it resulted in their getting the money to start their own studio and get back many of their properties that they had to sell the film rights off to, but 20th Century Fox has still never relinquished the rights of the FF or the X-Men back to Marvel, the same with Sony and Spider-Man, this is why you'll never see these characters fighting alongside the Avengers.  It's all business and politics, and rather than trying to make the best Fantastic Four film that they can, 20th Century Fox is merely seeing it as a bunch of potential dollar signs and they don't care whether or not who they hire to bring the FF to life have respect for the material.

As is always true when I rant like this, if the movie comes out and I love it, I'll eat crow.  Not literally, but you understand the expression.  I mean, I'm wrong a lot of the times.  My knee jerk reaction to Man of Steel was very premature, because the film was different from what I was expecting I didn't give it a fair shake when it was in theaters, but now I love it after having gotten accustomed to its different vision.  Perhaps the same might happen with this reboot of the Fantastic Four, but right now, I am not very confident and all I can do is dream about what I'd do if I could make a Fantastic Four movie.

Friday, February 14, 2014

My Favorite Remakes

You know, I am usually very vocal whenever I hear that a classic film is being remade, and then I think about all the times where a remake actually bettered the original and it doesn't annoy me nearly as much.  In all honesty, there are a good many remakes that are actually great films.  While these remakes aren't always better than their original counterparts, they don't disrespect them either.

What really inspired this was the fact that three of the four major films hitting theaters this week are remakes:  About Last Night, Endless Love, and Robocop.  Whether or not any of these remakes (or even their original incarnations) were any good, isn't what really struck me, it's the sheer novel fact that three remakes are being released the same week.  Sure, I am always the first to advocate for original ideas rather than sequels, prequels, remakes, and reboots, but I am not sure there has ever been this many remakes in one week before, so for that alone this is intriguing.

As for the reason of this post, I decided that now was as good a time as I'll ever have to list my 10 Favorite Remakes.  As I said above, not all of these remakes are better than the original, but a good few are, so without anymore pomp and circumstance, let's get to it.


10.  Angels in the Outfield
You know, this is a remake that I am often torn on as to which is better, the original or the remake?  Both are equally good, and both have elements that tip the scales for me.   The 1951 original was a black-and-white film from Old Hollywood starring Janet Leigh.  Automatically I'm fascinated by the original purely because I love films from that time period.  Where as the 1994 Disney remake was the first time I ever saw Joseph Gordon-Levitt, portraying the kid who saw angels, Roger.  Both versions of the film follow basically the same story, a kid who can see angels befriends the manager of a major league baseball team being helped by angels to win, but one thing that does help the remake is that we actually see the angels rather than the original where we just had to take the little girl's word for it.  Plus, how can you beat that cast of before they were famous actors in the remake?  Matthew McConaughey, Adrien Brody, and, of course, JGL himself.


9.  Ransom
Admittedly, I have never seen the original version of Ransom from 1956, but I know the 1996 Ron Howard remake quite well.  This is a case where the individual film on display is just so good, it doesn't matter to me how well it followed the original or didn't.  This is just a really good thriller, with Mel Gibson in top form as the rich dad whose son is kidnapped and held for ransom, hint the title.  The twist is that Gibson's character isn't going to take this lying down, instead taking to TV to offer the ransom as a bounty to anyone who can catch who took his son and rescue him.  Few films are this intense, and what makes it great is that Howard doesn't feel the need to always bombard the viewer with intense music to tell us what to feel, he often uses silent moments to create the tension, which really draws you in at key moments in the story.


8  3:10 to Yuma
I am being honest when I say I'm not always the biggest fan of Westerns, but the 2007 remake of 1957's 3:10 to Yuma was a Western I really enjoyed.  In all honesty, the only real difference between the original and the remake is that the remake has a little more grit and features Russell Crowe, Christian Bale, and a younger Logan Lerman, in the main roles, marking this as a film that cannot be missed for the performances alone.  Bale and Crowe fill their roles with so much depth, you really grow to care for them over the course of their story and hope that they both succeed in their endeavors because of it.  Director James Mangold also proves that he's the real deal here with some beautiful imagery accompanying the strong performances he managed to get from the actors, marking 2007's remake of 3:10 to Yuma as one of the finest remakes ever done.


7.  Insomnia
This is another film remake that I have not seen the original version of, but this 2002 remake of the 1997 Norwegian film of the same name is so good on its own merits it makes the list.  This was director Christopher Nolan's first major studio film with Warner Bros., which eventually led to his making The Dark Knight Trilogy, Inception, and the upcoming Interstellar.  For that reason alone, this is an important film, but it's also just a taut and surprisingly intense thriller, following an FBI agent trying to track down a killer in a part of Alaska where its day for months on end.  The film features an all-star cast, ranging from Al Pacino, Hilary Swank, and an uber creepy Robin Williams.  There is no denying that this is probably Pacino's best performance since the Nineties, and you can never go wrong with Robin Williams, especially when he's playing the killer.  However, as with all of Nolan's films, Nolan himself is the star.  Fresh off of making Memento, Insomnia is rife with many of Nolan's trademark flairs, and it was his atypical, more Hitchcock-styled approach to suspense, rather than the traditional Hollywood bombardment of cheesy music and cheap thrills, that makes Insomnia a spectacular film.


6.  The Departed
The Departed is perhaps the only remake on this list where I truly like the original more than the remake, and yet that is not taking anything away from The Departed, it's just my pointing out how phenomenal 2002's Hong Kong cop drama, Infernal Affairs, is.  Both films feature the same basic story.  Two cops, one working undercover for a gang lord in the precinct, the other working undercover for the cops in the gang, and the intense cat-and-mouse chase that ensues.  What really gives Infernal Affairs the edge is that it's just a lot less bloated than The Departed, being almost a full hour shorter than Scorsese's Best Picture winner.  The Departed spends more time developing supporting characters, where as Infernal Affairs keeps the film focused squarely on the two cops, and when you have talents like Andy Lau and Tony Leung in the leads, you can't go wrong with this approach.  However, let me reiterate that The Departed made this list because I also think it's a phenomenal film.  While almost too long, when you have Matt Damon, Leonardo DiCaprio, Martin Sheen, Mark Wahlberg, and Jack Nicholson, all in the same movie, you're doing something right.  Not to mention the fact that there is a reason Martin Scorsese won Best Director for this film.  The Departed features Scorsese's trademark kinetic flair, and it manages to give The Departed such a different voice from Infernal Affairs that it's almost like comparing apples to oranges.


5.  True Grit
Sometimes a remake is less about reimagining the original film, and more about reimagining the book upon which that original film was based on.  That was the case with the Coen Brothers' 2010 remake of True Grit.  The original version from 1969, starring John Wayne, netted Wayne his first Oscar, but was not very faithful to the book.  The Coens, fans of the book, wanted to change that.  For starters, the Coen version featured more period authentic language and clothing than the '69 film did, but most importantly, they made heroine, Mattie Ross, the driving force of the film, and portrayed her age appropriately.  No one believed that Kim Darby was a teenager in the original True Grit, but by casting a teenager in Hailee Steinfeld, the Coens made you believe in Mattie Ross.  Plus, you can't go wrong when Jeff Bridges is cast as Rooster Cogburn, with the combo of Bridges and Steinfeld giving the film an emotional core that one doesn't typically find in Coen Brothers' films.


4.  The Mummy
On the surface, both 1932's version of The Mummy, and 1999's version starring Brendan Fraser, are fairly similar.  Both versions are about an Egyptian priest who was mummified for trying to resurrect his dead lover, now brought back to life to finish the job, but that's where the similarities really stop.  The original starred Boris Karloff as the creeptastic Imhotep and was more in the style of the Universal horror films of the Thirties and Forties, like Frankenstein and Dracula.  For me, personally, I love what director Stephen Sommers did with the 1999 remake.  He took the basic premise and turned it into a pulpy, Indiana Jones-styled adventure film starring Brendan Fraser, painting Imhotep as a much less graceful figure than when he was played by Karloff.  There is still a bit of a horror element in the remake, but it's all in service of the adventure we are going on.  Filled to the brim with humor and thrills at all of the right moments, with plenty of action and likable characters, this is a remake I find myself watching almost everytime I catch it on TV, and as often as that is, it should tell you what I think of it.


3.  War of the Worlds
As anyone who knows me will tell you, I am a huge Steven Spielberg fan.  He is my favorite filmmaker of all-time, which is why I love his 2005 remake of War of the Worlds so much.  Forget the fact that it stars Tom Cruise, it's just a great thriller.  What really makes this iteration of War of the Worlds so different, and so much more superior than its 1953 counterpart, is that Spielberg doesn't focus on the large scale alien invasion from the view of the government, but rather from the point of view of the Everyman.  We don't know what's happening at large across the world, we only know what is happening to Tom Cruise and his two kids as they try to survive, which makes this experience all the more harrowing when you realize how helpless they are in their inability to fight back.  Featuring some of Spielberg's most hauntingly beautiful imagery ever, with more faithfulness to the original H.G. Wells' story than the '53 original by having the alien tripods actually being tripods and the aliens being defeated by germs, make this a perfect example of how a remake should be done.


2.  King Kong
Another perfect example of how a remake should be done is Peter Jackson's 2005 remake of King Kong.  Jackson is reportedly a huge fan of the 1933 original, which makes it kind of strange that he remade it, but I'm glad that he did, because his version of King Kong is the best one ever done, period.  The original King Kong is quite simply a run-of-the-mill adventure story featuring a large monster, with all of the human characters merely being traditional archetypes for such films of the era.  While the stop motion effects were cutting edge at the time, the film really seems dated by our modern blockbuster standards.  Enter Peter Jackson, fresh off of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and say what you will about the CG technology utilized to bring Kong to life in this remake, Peter Jackson instilled King Kong with a soul that he's never had before.  A large part of this is because Jackson and his fellow screenwriters added a lot more depth to the cast of characters while also making you care for King Kong.  For once, Kong is not the bad guy, but merely a misunderstood animal that actually has a gentle soul and will do anything to protect Ann, portrayed beautifully by Naomi Watts.  The two develop almost an understanding, a sincere form of pseudo-friendship where she actually feels sorry for him, and therefore we do as well, so that when he tragically dies trying to protect her, we are legitimately saddened by his passing.


1.  The Man Who Knew Too Much
This may be one of the most unique remakes of all-time, because it was the filmmaker remaking his own film from twenty-two years earlier.  Alfred Hitchcock must have not accomplished what he wanted to in his 1934 original, because he remade The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1956, and if War of the Worlds and King Kong were perfect examples of how a remake should be done, Hitchcock wrote the book.  The biggest difference factor between the remake and the original is merely the fact that the original was made when Hitch was first getting his start in England, and the remake was made at the peak of Hitchcock's American career, with the Fifties often considered Hitchcock's most prolific decade.  It also doesn't hurt when the remake has a far larger Hollywood-sized budget to make the scenes, like the climax at Royal Albert Hall, all the more gripping, as well as benefitting from two of the biggest movie stars of all-time in Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day.  While both versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much are good, suspenseful films that feature the same characters and storyline, you just really feel like the remake was the version Hitchcock wanted to make the first go around but didn't have the time or money to do it.  Thankfully, Hitchcock did remake The Man Who Knew Too Much, and generations of moviegoers will forever be grateful, because it truly is a classic of cinema.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Movie Review: "The Lego Movie"

Everything is awesome in the new film, The Lego Movie.  The film is exactly as it sounds, it's a film about Legos, set in a world made entirely of Legos.  It's quite simple in all honesty, but it's in the satire and the surprising depth that this film has that makes it awesome.

The Lego Movie follows Lego construction worker, Emmett, who is as normal as anyone can be.  Emmett always follows the instructions, until one night he comes across this thing known as the relic, and the relic is the only thing that can stop the evil Lord Business from using Krazy Glue and gluing all of the Lego pieces of the world together.

The film is a very witty satire in the way that it pokes fun at just about every movie convention you've seen in major Hollywood blockbusters over the past 10-20 years.  There are pointless prophecies, chosen ones, evil world-ending machines, even a character who is Good Cop and Bad Cop.  When Good Cop-Bad Cop spins his head, the back of his head has a different face, and depending on which side he is showing, he is either good or he is bad.  There is a lot of ingenious humor in the film, even if every joke doesn't always land because there are just so many packed in there.  However, what really impressed me with this film was the thematic depth it has.

Anyone going to see The Lego Movie is expecting a comedy, and the film is that, even in its more serious moments, but there is a very clever twist in the final third of the film that really makes this a unique, one-of-a-kind animated film.  It is this twist that really gives the film weight.  While the traditional idea of being an individual and not always following the traditional flow seems to be the big idea that the filmmakers are wanting you to believe in at first, once this twist occurs, you realize that the film is saying something even deeper than that.  I'll say no more, other than the fact that Will Ferrell, who voices Lord Business, really shines in the final act of the film, shedding his manchild persona to adopt one of seriousness.

Overall, The Lego Movie is about as good of a time as you can have with any movie out there.  It's like a weird blend of Pixar meets Monty Python and Mel Brooks.  The CG animation replicates the look of those stop motion Lego cartoons you can find on YouTube, but better.  I am not gonna lie and say my jaw didn't drop a few times at the technical perfection on display here, but it's the humor and the heart that really makes The Lego Movie an awesome experience.  Even when the film has a slight case of ADD, you are still charmed.

I give The Lego Movie an A-!

Friday, February 7, 2014

How to Fix the Moralistic Decline of Modern Storytelling

You know, it's not uncommon in a PG-13 film nowadays to see a sex scene, have at least one or two uses of the f-word, along with countless other cuss words and innuendos, and tons and tons of violence.  It's kind of just become the norm of Hollywood movies and primetime television.

In just my twenty-three year lifetime, I have personally noticed a serious change in the way that Hollywood portrays moral issues, and not in the direction for the better.  The past decade alone has shown a change so big, that even on major network television, we are seeing and hearing things that used to only be relegated to the likes of HBO.  I mean, over the past year alone, there have been more PG-13 movies that used their token one or two uses of the f-word than I can count.  Even ten years ago, that would have been unheard of, but it's now considered normal.  Why is that?

For me, I really feel like all around the world, moralistic integrity is just falling by the wayside to make way for people doing anything that they want, whenever they want, without any regards as to whether or not it's the right thing.  We live in a world of grey areas, nothing is clear cut black-and-white anymore, and if you think that way, then you're old-fashioned.  Maybe I am old-fashioned, but I honestly believe in the morals I was raised with through church and my parents.  It's who I am.  Now, that's not to say choices aren't easy to make, and you may not make the right one all the time, but there needs to at least be some core value system in place that lists out what's right and what's wrong.  The thing is, there is no such value system in most circles anymore.

Now, I don't think Hollywood is to blame for everything that's wrong in the world, that's not how I want what I'm saying to be interpreted, but I do think Hollywood, and storytellers in general, play a large part in how people think and feel towards certain thoughts and ideas.  When it comes to moral issues, storytellers can greatly influence the thought process of the audience, especially on impressionable viewers like kids.

If everything you're seeing or reading is telling you in your formative years that it's okay to live and sleep together without being married, then when you become an adult, it's your status quo, it's just what you do.  The same goes for the casual slipping of the tongue with innuendos and cursing.  It's become so common place in film, television, and literature, that a lot of people in my age range and younger, use words like the f-word as a noun, verb, adjective, adverb, and anything else inbetween.  They don't think twice about cussing because it's become the norm in their entertainment.  If it's okay for people that you look up to and idolize to do and say these things, then it's okay for us to do them too, right?  That's basically what this boils down to.

The thing is, I don't think people blindly follow through on the actions of their favorite films and TV shows, because if they did we'd be a world full of serial killers, but I do think when people see something that used to be taboo for film and television -- like cursing, marijuana use, or sex -- treated in a casual manner, people seem to think it's okay for them to treat these things casually as well.  Truthfully, there are far worse things that people can be doing than any of the aforementioned things, but where do we eventually draw the line?  The line has to be drawn in the sand somewhere, or else we'll eventually just let more and more morals go in the name of "progress."

What really inspired all of this was when I realized how almost every film to win the Best Picture Oscar over the past two decades was rated R.  Then I looked at the films that were nominated this year, and noticed that majority of the films nominated for Oscars were rated R as well, with a few PG-13 films sprinkled in, and the G and PG stylings of the Animated Feature race being the only real saving grace for innocent filmmaking.  It just got me thinking, can a live action film be taken seriously anymore if it doesn't include all of the things that grant these films R ratings?  The sad truth is, perhaps not.

Almost every comedy nowadays features tons of inappropriate humor and innuendo, ranging from drug use to excessive violence, all in the name of comedy.  Since when did shocking the audience with outrageously perverse things become funnier than a well timed joke?  Maybe I am too old-fashioned, but I often find myself pining for the days of Arsenic & Old Lace and Harvey.  Those were the good old days, the days where movie comedies weren't about how many innuendos and cuss words the filmmakers can throw at you, but rather it was about how funny they could be through the absurdity of seeing eccentric people in situations that we don't ordinarily go through.

Now, one thing I want to clarify, is that I am not attacking all R-rated films.  Sometimes a film needs to be rated R in order for its subject matter to feel realistic.  If you are making a film about drug addiction, or war, it would feel odd to water it down to a PG or PG-13 rating.  Saving Private Ryan had to be R-rated, so did Requiem for a Dream, or even The Godfather.  The thing is, not all films are justified like these films are.  Many films nowadays just include tons of violence, nudity, cussing, and naughty parts all simply because they can.  It doesn't matter to these filmmakers whether or not it's necessary to the story being told.

A perfect case and point for my argument is the newest film from writer/director, Spike Jonze, Her.  The film is nominated for a good many Oscars, and will more than likely win Best Original Screenplay, but to me it takes far more originality to write a film without innuendo or curse-filled dialogue than it does to write one with it.  Personally, and I know I'm in the minority here, I think Her could have been recut to be a PG-13 movie, and I think I would have liked it so much more than I did.  This was a story that could have been simple and innocent, because the cussing and innuendo isn't what makes the story original, it's the idea of a man falling in love with his computer's operating system.  That's original, so why mar it?

Personally, as a writer, I've often struggled with the best ways to write films and stories without any of this sort of stuff.  Sometimes I've even caught myself including these things purely because my mind is so inundated with it from the films and TV shows that I watch, it feels awkward to not include them.  However, I am making a vow to never succumb to what is the standard film practices of our time again.  I feel compromised when I do and I don't want to do that anymore.  From now I am going to try to write films that only jive with my moral sensibilities.  The thing is, if I don't, then these films and stories aren't me.  I want who I am to come through in my stories, because I am truthfully not ashamed of who I am, and I still think I can create entertainment that upholds what I believe to be right and wrong.

The bottom line of this is that, as a storyteller, you are subconsciously rewriting the thought processes of your audience.  What do you want your children's children to think is right and wrong?  Don't write something just because it's easy.  That's one of the important things I've realized about the profession I've chosen to pursue.

As a writer and a director I've often struggled with the question of why is this job important?  The idea that we need entertainment in order to have momentary escape from our day-to-day lives works for some stories and films, but it doesn't encompass all of them.  Why do we watch films we know will make us cry or get tense?  Is it to have an experience, like a roller coaster ride?  Perhaps, but I think the real job of a filmmaker is to show who we are through our work.  Let me expand upon that idea.

Sometimes you set out to write a story simply because you love the plot, and other times it's because you actually want to say something subliminally through the actions of the story.  For me, I've often asked myself why am I writing a certain story when I don't think the story really says anything, there is no message to it, it's merely entertainment.  Of course, if I write the film with my moralistic values at the core, then am I not saying something?  While there may not be a deep underlying message, and all the story has is pure, innocent fun at its core, it does not mean that an audience cannot take away something from the film or story.

I'm going to get into some corny territory here for a moment, so indulge me.  The only way to change the world is to not beat people over the head with a message, but to show them what you believe.  If more and more writers stick with their moralistic integrity in their stories, rather than succumbing to the traditional moors of Hollywood, then you will have something that speaks differently than anything else out there right now.  Of course, that also doesn't mean you should just adopt a, "I'll just take my ball and go home," attitude and make films for only a small niche market that thinks exactly as you do.  If you really want to fix the problem, then you have to weather the storm to make good, old-fashioned Hollywood entertainment.  If you just decide to go the complete opposite and not find the middle ground, then you are missing the opportunity to fix the moralistic decline of modern storytelling.