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.