Thursday, December 29, 2016

A Reel Review: LA LA LAND

There is a lot that can go wrong when bringing a musical to film. One of the many problems the genre has had is putting the forward motion of the story on hold while characters sing and dance around for ten minutes. There are ways around it, and for director Damien Chazelle and his original romantic musical LA LA LAND, the solution came down to one word; pathos.

Mia (Emma Stone) is an aspiring actress who longs to be a star, and spends her days flunking auditions and struggling through her job as a barista. She meets Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), who is an aspiring jazz musician who longs to open a traditional jazz club, and spends his days going from one odd gig to the next. The two meet and begin a love affair, while trying to keep their dreams in sight.

Pathos can be defined as an appeal to the emotions of the audience and drawing out feelings that already exist inside them. It is essential to all stories, especially film, where drawing an emotional connection from the audience to the characters is what drives a movie. LA LA LAND goes through great lengths, nearly the entire run of the film, to make us feel for the two characters as they pour their heart and soul into chasing their dreams, and crash and burn and rise again. Things take an even deeper turn when their relationship actually gets in the way of their respective goals; stay together and fail, or split up and achieve…and the hard choices they have to make are very grounded and real-world, which makes the film very relatable.

As grounded as the film is, it completely soars as a musical. It is saturated in classic film and jazz lore; tossing in references and winks and nods to the most recognizable moments in the respective genres. The musical numbers are scattered here and there and come at just the right times (there’s more than enough dialogue in-between), and many of them are presented in some unbelievable, long unbroken tracking-shots which have to be seen to be believed. The film pops off the screen with color and energy, and director Damien Chazelle keeps the pacing tight and the humor well-timed.

Chazelle gets tremendous performances out of his two leads. Ryan Gosling finally breaks out of his goddamn blank-stare routine and is purely charming, and his actual piano playing is a delight. His singing tends to lean towards a whisper but it works. Emma Stone is equally wonderful and fares better when having to stretch her pipes, and her third-act solo is a heartbreaker. The supporting cast of John Legend, and J.K. Simmons are very good in their limited use.

Famed author Truman Capote once had a great quote about how achieved dreams can be more painful than ones that are lost, and that seems to be what LA LA LAND is channeling, especially in the last 15 minutes in which Chazelle takes his characters, and the film into a startling and emotional musical sequence which elevates the film from very good to flat-out greatness. LA LA LAND accomplishes a lot by the time the credits roll; it is a love-letter to the arts and a message about chasing dreams…but most of all it works as a film in which everyone can relate to and really hope for a happy ending.


Wednesday, December 28, 2016


All stories have characters who are trying to achieve something; a goal which we the audience can get fully behind, so when the end comes and our hero has hopefully made it, there is satisfaction to be had. In Morten Tyldum’s PASSENGERS, the main character is literally stuck with a decision of moral and ethical implications which effects his end-goal…and what that character does with it determines if this ship sinks or sails.

The starship Avalon is transporting over 5,000 colonists to inhabit a new world in a journey that takes 120 years. When the ship is struck by a meteor, Jim (Chris Pratt), is woken out of hyper-sleep 90 years too early, and with no way to go back to hibernation, is stuck on the ship alone with just a robot-bartender (Michael Sheen), for company. After a year alone and desperate for company, Jim decides to wake up another passenger; Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence), and the two begin a romance…

Character motivations go a long way in telling a story. It’s not what a character does as much as why, and PASSENGERS is a film which rests upon the shoulders of two of Jim’s decisions. His first big call is to break Aurora out of hyper-sleep which essentially condemns her to an imprisoned life aboard the ship (she later calls it murder), and his second major decision is to lie to her…when he tells her that she was knocked out of hibernation because of a ship malfunction. Although the early goings of the film takes a lot of time to show us Jim’s desperation and loneliness, it’s still difficult to get behind his decisions…which come off as self-centered and greedy. There’s certainly a question of “what would you do in that situation”, but the question doesn’t even get asked as everything that follows starts with Jim’s deception and selfish act.

On top of the questionable character motivation, PASSENGERS spends its final act in a run-of-the-mill sci-fi predictable snoozer. The ship begins to have serious malfunctions and the two must go into oh-my-god-we’re-gonna-die-if-we-don’t-work-together mode, and the ironic situations they both get put into can be seen coming from a light-year away.

Perhaps the most frustrating thing about PASSENGERS is that the dumb plot and characters are inhabiting one of the most gorgeous production designs ever put to film. The Avalon is a luxury ship complete with a bar, swimming pool, stores, restaurants, and comfy suites. The design is stunningly beautiful, and everything right down to the little robots who clean the ship is a joy to watch. Director Morten Tyldum has no issues with pacing, editing, or framing a shot…and Thomas Newman’s score is very good.

Aurora’s goddamn namesake is way too on-the-nose.

Acting is another highlight. Chris Pratt does some heavy-lifting and handles it well, and his chemistry with Jennifer Lawrence makes things sizzle. Lawrence has the most work to do as a woman who feels like her life was taken away from her, and the scene where she finds out the truth behind Jim’s story is where she does some of the best acting of her career. Michael Sheen is an absolute joy as the robot-bartender, and there are a few other surprise cameos here and there…

By the end of PASSENGERS, Jim does indeed achieve what he wanted from the beginning…but despite all he and Aurora go through, it’s difficult to get behind him or feel good about it. It’s as if Ralphie from A CHRISTMAS STORY got his coveted BB-gun by murdering his friends. It doesn’t work, and makes PASSENGERS one flight worth missing.


Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Carrie Fisher 1956-2016

Carrie Fisher; actress, author, screenwriter and cultural icon…has passed away at 60.

Born Carrie Frances Fisher in Beverly Hills, she was the daughter of singer Eddie Fisher and actress Debbie Reynolds. Surrounded by the lights of Hollywood from the start, she starred in the Broadway revival of IRENE alongside her mother at just age 15…and in 1973 would study at London’s Central School of Speech and Drama. She would make her film debut in 1975 in SHAMPOO alongside Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, and Goldie Hawn.

In 1977, she would explode onto screens and into permanent cultural icon fame at just 19 years old when George Lucas cast her as Princess Leia Organa in STAR WARS. With her trademark hairstyle, flowing white robes and dedicated passion…Leia would instantly become the heart of the franchise; displaying a perfect balance of wide-eyed innocence and lion-sized bravery which would define the female hero for our age. She would reprise the role in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980), where her fiery chemistry with Harrison Ford would add new depth to the series. In THE RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983), the final film of the Original Trilogy, she would bravely don a revealing slave outfit while retaining her heroic poise; once again striking that balance which seduced men and inspired women. Over thirty years later, she would revisit the character in the 7th Episode, THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015)…this time adding a motherly instinct, and will appear one last time as Leia in Episode VIII in 2017. Her likeness was recreated for the spin-off film ROGUE ONE in 2016.

Outside of STAR WARS, her notable on-screen roles would include THE BLUES BROTHERS (1980), UNDER THE RAINBOW (1981), THE MAN WITH ONE RED SHOE (1985), HANNAH AND HER SISTERS (1986), THE BURBS (1989), WHEN HARRY MET SALLY (1989), HOOK (1991), CHARLIE’S ANGELS: FULL THROTTLE (2003), and FANBOYS (2009). Off the screen, she would find success as one of the top script-doctors in Hollywood, working on the screenplays of other writers. George Lucas would use her to polish scripts for his TV series THE YOUNG INDIANA JONES CHRONICLES, and on the big-screen she would work on the screenplays for Steven Spielberg’s HOOK, along with MADE IN AMERICA (1993), LAST ACTION HERO (1993), THE RIVER WILD (1994), OUTBREAK (1995), and THE WEDDING SINGER (1998), among others.

She would also find success as an author, where her sharp wit and unfiltered speaking would pour onto the pages and she would become another icon for speaking our minds. She would adapt her own novel, POSTCARDS FROM THE EDGE, into a film in 1990…which was a critical and box office hit while earning two Oscar nominations.


Long-time readers and friends of Reel Speak already know the impact STAR WARS has had on this Blogger’s life; it was the film which put me on a career and life path…and Carrie Fisher’s character, Princess Leia, was a huge part of it. As a wee-lad, nearly every playtime would be STAR WARS, and in those backyard games with classmates and cousins, every boy was a Luke and every girl was a Leia. It was then this Blogger’s honor to meet and chat with Carrie Fisher at Star Wars Celebration II in Indianapolis in 2002, get an autograph, and to even make her chuckle with a bad joke.

That day in 2005 was a great moment which capped a lifetime’s worth of admiration for the character and the actress who gave her life. We all knew even as kids that Leia was something different and special; where other characters cowered before Darth Vader, Leia spat back at him and stood her ground. Princess Leia could not only run with the boys, but pass them and blast them into oblivion. She was indeed the beating heart of STAR WARS, and saying goodbye to her is like saying goodbye to the last 40 years of the dreams and joy she brought to the galaxy…both fictional and real. The opening crawl of STAR WARS in 1977 referred to Princess Leia as a custodian of hope…and as Carrie Fisher now races home aboard her own starship, she does so as a custodian of our hearts.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016


This month marks the 15th anniversary of THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING.

The release of FELLOWSHIP, which was the first chapter in Peter Jackson’s trilogy of Oscar-winning films, was a dream come true for us book and film geeks. Deemed as “un-filmable” for over fifty years, seeing the characters and fantastic environments come to life on the big screen was an unforgettable experience. But what also happened on that night was quite unexpected.
On a cold night in December 2001, under a very Tolkien-esque sickle-moon, this Blogger and a group of friends gathered together at the magnificent confines of Cinemark theatres in Northeast Pennsylvania to view FELLOWSHIP for the first time. We had all been friends and colleagues prior to that night, but what happened after walking out of that theatre was something that not even The Wise could have foreseen.
Our own Fellowship was born. It was a term that we all latched on to. As in the film, we all connected with the theme of “fellowship”; where several individuals out of several backgrounds and beliefs came together and stayed together. We referred to ourselves as The Fellowship from that night on; it was a term built out of friendship, brotherhood, and love.
Over the next two years, the FELLOWSHIP film and the following two films played a major part in our geek-lives. The films stayed in the theatres until the spring, the summer brought along the first peeks of sneak-previews and trailers, and fall delivered the DVD’s and eventual next theatrical chapter. We scoured the internet for glimpses of the next film, collected memorabilia, re-read the books and lived the films throughout the course of the year. It was an experience we had not lived through since the early days of STAR WARS. And through it all, Our Fellowship grew stronger. What made it all the more special is that we all came back together each year, at the same place to see the next film; the same company, at the same place, for the same thing…three years in a row.

Our Fellowship proved to be strong outside of the ring of movies and geek-stuff; we gathered for libations, helped each other out through unexpected changes, and never let one another fall into shadow. Over the winding road of time there have many comings and goings, but the core of it endures. This Blogger remembers his Fellowship in his own way every year in a vigil-like day; watching the three films only once a year…only and always in December.

Today, as in the films, Our Fellowship stands separated by time and distance. And just like in those movies, stands strong and steadfast despite the passing years, increasing miles, and life-altering changes. It is something we were never able to wrap our minds around and define, which is perhaps the way it should be; for the most powerful and special things in life should not be answered easily. It is this Blogger’s hope, even if it is a fool’s hope, that Our Fellowship one day overcome time and distance to be together again. One stage of our journey is over; another is just beginning. But in a wider view, FELLOWSHIP was a film that was released at just the right time; arriving in theatres less than three months removed from 9/11. The world needed a film like THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING at the time, and 15 years down the winding road…seems to need its message of enduring friendship more than ever.
Merry Christmas, and may the blessings of Elves, Men, and all the Free Folk go with you.

Monday, December 19, 2016

A Reel Review: JACKIE

The assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 was an incident that shook America down to its foundations, and one could argue that the effects are still being felt today. For over 40 years, the incident and the many people it affected has provided cinema with prime material; often mined by biographers, conspiracy theorists, and historians. For Chilean director Pablo Larrain, who was born 13 years after the assassination, finding a fresh new angle in this tragedy was simple; explore the person who was closest to the incident and lost the most.

Weeks after the assassination, the now widowed Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman), invites a journalist (Billy Crudup), to her new home…where she seeks to provide the public with her own version of the weeks after the killing, including her dealings with new President Johnson (John Carroll Lynch), a priest (John Hurt), and JFK’s brother Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard).

Set within the framework of Jackie’s conversation with a semi-fictional journalist, JACKIE plays out like one of those unconventional stoner flicks where characters just seem to hang around talking, not doing much, and just letting their own stories and ramblings fill the time. A good eighty-percent of the film is told in flashbacks, beginning days before the assassination and following the difficult days and weeks afterwards. There is a gritty realness to the film, as the script follows the new widow as she must face the real-life tasks of planning funerals, breaking the news to her children (a heart-ripping scene), finding a new place to live, and the grim task of picking out a burial spot. It’s a series of difficult scenes to watch simply because we have to experience it through Jackie…who is now a devastated woman.

Pablo Lorrain uses the long flashbacks as opportunities to explore Jackie, and he uses them very well. Each scene reveals a little bit more about her, and the deeper he digs, the more profound the character becomes. There’s a difficult juggling-act that Jackie has to pull off; mother, widow, funeral-planner, and a reluctant un-official bearer of the entire Nation’s grieving. Jackie’s story is certainly a tragic one, but watching her get through it makes for a fascinating film.

Lorrain does a marvelous job in bringing 1960’s America back to life. The old interiors of the White House are recreated in stunning detail, and the recreation of Jackie’s historic TV tour through the White House is breathtaking. Some clever usage of stock footage is implemented, giving the film a very authentic feel, and the actual assassination of JFK is done tastefully…but is also given its horrific due. The score by Mica Levi is hauntingly beautiful.

Natalie Portman is outstanding as Jackie Kennedy. The accent and mannerisms are perfect, and beneath that plays the part of a woman who is coming unraveled underneath but must remain strong on the outside. Her scenes with Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) are wonderful, and Sarsgaard does his best to keep up with her. John Hurt is his usual magnificent self, and Billy Crudup is very good in his limited time.

JACKIE mainly deals with love and loss (mostly on loss), and doesn’t take much time to provide any laughs. This is one tragic and sad movie, and maybe that’s the way it should be. This is an American tragedy that not only rattled a country, but a wife and mother…and that should be the biggest takeaway when we thumb through the history books. In the grand scale of the JFK story, the intimate story is the most important.


Friday, December 16, 2016


In 1977, when STAR WARS (later sub-titled EPISODE IV, A NEW HOPE) blasted its way onto screens, it dropped us into the middle of a battle; a chase, in which the evil galactic Empire gunned down the freedom fighters known as the Rebel Alliance…who had just stolen the plans to the dreaded superweapon known as the Death Star. It was a hot-start to the story and the saga, and the events that led up to that chase are finally told in ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY.

Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), is orphaned by the Empire when Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), forces her father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) into service to complete work on the planet-killing weapon, the Death Star. Years later, Erso reluctantly falls into the Rebel Alliance, including Cassian (Diego Luna), and a reformed droid known as K2SO (Alan Tudyk), where they seek out Clone Wars veteran Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), who has kidnapped a former Imperial pilot (Riz Ahmed), with inside information on the Empire.

Cinema has never shied away from telling a story where the ending is already known; every WWII and biopic on a historical figure has faced the challenge of making the journey more interesting than the destination. In ROGUE ONE, director Gareth Edwards, working from a screenplay by Tony Gilroy and Chris Weitz, go through great lengths to establish the desperation in achieving the goal of snatching those coveted plans, which rumor has it, reveals a flaw in the Death Star’s design. The galaxy is portrayed as a rough place; people are oppressed, worlds are ravaged, and Stormtroopers go door-to-door like Nazi SS squads demanding to see identification. Rebelling against this is our small band of freedom fighters, with Jyn eventually in the lead. Her and her eventual comrades are rounded out well enough, and the desperation they all feel in accomplishing their mission, and surviving it, can always be felt.

The film takes a good portion of the first act in introducing characters, places, and getting things moved into position, but once that’s done, ROGUE ONE evolves into a full-blown war movie. Battles are fought on the land, sky, and space (sometimes all at once), and are a thrill from the first fire to the last boom as Edwards drops us eye-level into the action. This adds to the high-stakes drama and makes ROGUE ONE a white-knuckler on more than one occasion. There are some brave decisions made throughout the film with characters and places (there are some dark moments), and it makes ROGUE ONE a true standout of the overall saga.

More than anything else, this is a STAR WARS movie, and Edwards treats it as such. Although ROGUE ONE is telling a new story, there are still important pieces that have to fall into place, and each one of these pieces fits perfectly. Items from A NEW HOPE are given more weight and meaning, and the behind-the-scenes troubles that both the Rebels and the Empire are having gives their later existence a new light. In fact, most of the entire saga can be now viewed differently, making ROGUE ONE a true rebirth of STAR WARS. Familiar places are lovingly reconstructed, and through the manipulation of stock footage or CGI wizardry, characters from the 1977 film return to the screen in stunning and jaw-dropping fashion. But nothing can prepare anyone for the return of Darth Vader (once again voiced by the great James Earl Jones), who returns in a menacing spectacular fashion. The dark lord has a scene of true HORROR; once again establishing himself as the greatest screen villain of all time.

The film looks gorgeous with every planet, sky, vehicle, and laser-blast popping off the screen. The vehicles and sets have that lovely worn-out look, making a nice consistency with A NEW HOPE. Pacing is brisk once we get past the first act, and the humor bits gives us some of the best laughs ever heard in STAR WARS. Composer Michael Giacchino recycles a few of John Williams’ classic bits, and does an admirable job in re-capturing the old STAR WARS spirit with his score.

Acting is very good. Felicity Jones proves that she is one of the best actresses in the galaxy. She plays her part not as a woman with manly qualities, but deep and layered and is very effective. Diego Luna is equally good and a good foil to her, and Forest Whitaker plays the part of troubled mentor very well. There is an argument to be had if the show is ultimately stolen by the sarcastic droid K2SO (Alan Tudyk is brilliant), or the monk-like, Force-believing warrior Chirrut (martial-arts expert Donnie Yen), and his big-ass gun carrying companion Baze (Jiang Wen). Ben Mendelsohn is fantastic as an Imperial commander with the uncommon bad-guy goal of glory, as opposed to just another baddie who wants to kill everyone.

As promised, ROGUE ONE wraps within minutes of the beginning of A NEW HOPE, and just for an exclamation point, adds on an emotional cameo/moment which is sure to have long-time fans either weeping or clapping or in flat-out galactic bliss. It is a powerful moment which sums up ROGUE ONE, which fully re-captures the fun, magic, whimsy, adventure and daring that STAR WARS originally embraced. ROGUE ONE makes 1977 seem like it wasn’t so far away or so long ago.


Wednesday, December 14, 2016

A Reel Preview: Everything You Need to Know About ROGUE ONE - A STAR WARS STORY

In 1977, the original STAR WARS (later sub-titled EPISODE IV: A NEW HOPE), literally exploded onto screens in one of the greatest openings in cinema history. It began right in the middle of a battle; with the evil galactic Empire chasing down a Rebel ship which was carrying stolen plans…technical “blueprints” to the Empire’s dreaded new super-weapon, the Death Star. The film began at the tail-end of a heist, and the story of that heist will now be told with the newest addition to the growing STAR WARS universe with this week’s highly anticipated release, ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY. Here is a preview of this new galactic adventure.

What is this all about and when does it take place? – For the sake of simplicity, feel free to call this Episode 3.5, as it takes place between EPISODES III and IV. Specifically, ROGUE ONE takes place in the years, days, and hours before the very beginning of A NEW HOPE, and focuses on the stealing of those coveted plans…which the Rebels hope will reveal a weakness in the Death Star.

Who is in this? – The lead role belongs to English actress Felicity Jones, who in 2014 was nominated for an Oscar for her performance in the most-excellent THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING. Her other credits include BRIDEHEAD REVISITED (2008), and this year’s crappy INFERNO. Jones’ character, Jyn Erso, is the daughter of the man responsible for building the Death Star, Galen Erso…played by the great Mads Mikkelsohn (TV’s HANNIBAL). The rest of the most-impressive cast includes Ben Mendelsohn (THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES), martial-arts expert Donnie Yen, Riz Ahmed, and Diego Luna. Alan Tudyk (SERENITY) provides voice and motion-capture work for an enforcer droid, and Forest Whitaker (THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND), appears as a veteran of the Clone Wars.

Who is behind the scenes? – ROGUE ONE is directed by Gareth Edwards, who directed the critically acclaimed MONSTERS (2010), and the so-so GODZILLA re-start in 2014. The script is written by Chris Weitz (ABOUT A BOY) and Tony Gilroy (MICHAEL CLAYTON). All these gentlemen are overseen by parent-company Disney and executive producer Kathleen Kennedy…who has massive producing credits including INDIANA JONES and last year’s 7th episode in the STAR WARS series, THE FORCE AWAKENS.

Random and Interesting Facts – The story of ROGUE ONE is co-credited to John Knoll, who has been a Lucasfilm visual-effects master for over 20 years. He is also one of the creators of PhotoShop * This is the first STAR WARS film without music from the legendary John Williams, who had scored the previous seven episodes. Those duties have fallen to Emmy and Grammy winning composer Michael Giacchino, whose credits include THE INCREDIBLES (2004), RATATOUILLE (2007), STAR TREK (2009), UP (2009), and last year’s JURASSIC WORLD and INSIDE OUT * Forest Whitaker’s character previously appeared in the animated TV series, THE CLONE WARS * Speaking of animated TV series, ROGUE ONE takes place five years after the currently-running REBELS * James Earl  Jones returns to provide the voice of Darth Vader, who makes his first full-bodied return to the big screen in over a decade * Actress Genevieve O’Reilly reprises her role as Mon Mothma, whom she previously played in REVENGE OF THE SITH (2005), however her scenes were cut. The character first appeared in RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983) * This is the first STAR WARS movie not to feature Obi-Wan Kenobi in any form.

What to expect? – Starting from the top-down, there is no better working studio these days than Disney. Their track-record over the past year, which includes THE FORCE AWAKENS, FINDING DORY, THE JUNGLE BOOK, ZOOTOPIA, CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR, DOCTOR STRANGE, and PETE’S DRAGON has been near-perfect with classical and effective storytelling. Disney are definitely acting as overseers here, and that is good news for director Gareth Edwards, whose last film, GODZILLA, had some great ideas and moments but ultimately finished as dumb and forgettable. Edwards is a fan of STAR WARS from the early days, and he seems to have put a lot of loving care into ROGUE ONE; he doesn’t want to mess this up, and Disney wouldn’t let him if he tried. The cast is impressive enough, and Felicity Jones is a great pick to be the first female in a lead role in a STAR WARS film. The oddest part about ROGUE ONE is that it’s the first film in the series to not be centered around the Skywalker family, and maybe that’s a good thing…for this is a galaxy full of possibility outside of family drama. We can expect fun and adventure…which is what the whole idea was in 1977.


ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY opens in full on December 15th, with early showings on the 14th. It is available in 2D, 3D, and IMAX 3D.

Monday, December 12, 2016

A Reel Opinion: The Christmas Spirit Awakens

A long time ago (actually, a few years back), when Lucasfilm and parent company Disney announced that the 7th episode in the STAR WARS saga, sub-titled THE FORCE AWAKENS, would be released in December (2015), as opposed to the traditional month of May (all six films prior were in that month), there was a great disturbance in the hardcore fanbase. Millions of voices cried out in terror; blasphemy they said, it’s not right, they said. And Disney’s billion-dollar investment seemed to be getting off to a start that wasn’t entirely stable.
In the end, it didn’t matter…for THE FORCE AWAKENS wound up being one of the biggest box office draws of the year and in all-time history (which means, a lot of people showed up anyway), and most of those angry voices were suddenly silenced. But with the rest of the STAR WARS films slated for December for the foreseeable, always-in-motion future (including this year’s first spin-off, entitled ROGUE ONE), those familiar cries are rising again. Geek-culture, especially long-time STAR WARS fans, can be an oversensitive lot; and after all, the six STAR WARS films which were released in May basically rewrote the rule-book for blockbuster films as a whole, and the month is still considered to be an un-official STAR WARS month in pop culture.
But as a First Generation fan, this Blogger can argue that STAR WARS is right at home in the month of December. As a young Padawan in the late 1970’s and 80’s, December always meant Santa would be bringing new STAR WARS toys; new figures, ships, playsets…and maybe an inflatable lightsaber to bop the little brother with. For years, Christmastime always meant STAR WARS time, and Lucasfilm knew it from the start. The franchise was one of the first, if not the first to market itself on the toy market. With a universe filled with likeable heroes and spaceships, it practically sold itself and it changed the toy industry forever. Even during years when there was no new film in theatres, there was still that hope of finding a new planet, hero, or spaceship under the tree. For kids, Christmas means toys, and no other toy in the galaxy came close to the fascination and magic that a STAR WARS toy would bring, and to this day this Blogger’s family still manages to sneak in at least one STAR WARS-themed gift every year. 

But the firm foothold the franchise has on the holiday season isn’t limited to just marketing and selling toys. Cable stations began running marathons of the first three movies over 20 years ago during the holidays, and would eventually add the second trilogy to their programming. STAR WARS-themed decorations and greeting cards are easy to find, and John Williams’ magnificent music has a whimsical, holiday feel to it. Even the very early days of the franchise knew it had a holiday connection; the well-intentioned, yet ill-fated STAR WARS HOLIDAY SPECIAL aired on TV in 1978.
So in a way, STAR WARS is truly home in December. For the first generation of fans the holidays can trigger an asteroid-field’s worth of childhood memories to fly through; memories of new toys on a Christmas morning which would inspire their imaginations to revisit their favorite scenes or to create new ones, and memories always awaken the holiday spirit in everyone. They remember the term, “let’s play Star Wars”, which became a battle-cry for a generation of kids, and in the end, the young are what STAR WARS is all about. On the original production notes for STAR WARS (1977), series creator George Lucas quoted from the preface Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote for his non-Holmes novel, THE LOST WORLD:

I have wrought my simple plan
If I give one hour of joy
To the boy who’s half a man
Or the man who’s half a boy.

Merry Christmas, and may the Force be with you.

Friday, December 9, 2016

A Reel Review: MOONLIGHT

Telling a story in an unconventional way is a healthy thing for the film industry. Everyone loves something different once in a while, but filmmakers still need to strike a balance between the familiar and the alternative ways. After all, veering far off the course of traditional storytelling can lose an audience in a hurry, and staying tried-and-true can become dull and predictable. Such is the task for Barry Jenkins and his MOONLIGHT.

Chiron (played by Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders, and Andre Holland through three different decades of his youth), grows up in a tough Miami neighborhood where his diminutive size makes him an easy target for bullies. He struggles with his drug-addicted mother (Naomi Harris) and befriends a couple (Mahershala Ali and Janelle Monae), and eventually lands into trouble which sends him far from home.

MOONLIGHT does not have much of a plot in the traditional sense, and instead plays out like a series of episodes in Chiron’s life. The film is divided up into three stages (with each one named after one of his nicknames that he picks up as he grows up), featuring him as an elementary school student, pre-teen, and then in his twenties. Each episode which sees him getting bullied, berated by his mom, and learning life lessons propels him to the young man which he will become, and the dots are not difficult to connect.

The film is different, in fact so different that it’s tough to find anything to hang our hats on. There’s a lack of focus as the so-called story meanders from one place to another, and even though director Barry Jenkins is playing with solid themes such as growing up in the projects and struggling with sexual identity, the episodic nature robs the movie of any meat. On top of that, MOONLIGHT is presented in a very real fashion, with scenes taking a long time to unfold…and the commitment to being real makes any real drama hard to come by.

Jenkins still crafts a fine film. It looks beautiful and the transitions between each era of Chiron’s life are well-timed. Music choices from the three different decades are well-chosen, and Nicholas Britell’s score is hauntingly beautiful. Pacing is an issue however, as the film feels much longer than its 110 minute running-time.

Acting is superb. The three actors portraying Chiron are excellent, with Ashton Sanders, playing the character as a pre-teen, having to do the most and best work. The highlight of the film is definitely how the three actors were able to mimic each other; looking a Chiron in his twenties, we can still see him as a little kid as the little ticks and mannerisms are there. Mahershala Ali and Janelle Monae are also excellent, (although Ali's character vanishes without explanation), but the show is absolutely stolen by Naomi Harris…who as a drug addicted mom goes through a lot of emotions and inner turmoil.

By the time the credits roll, there’s a “that’s it?” feeling, as MOONLIGHT has no climax…which is fitting since it doesn’t care about any semblance of story either. It seems Jenkins was too pre-occupied with being different to give us something to chew on…and the result is an empty stomach. MOONLIGHT is nice to look at and full of awesome performances, but sorely needed a traditional story to tell.


Wednesday, December 7, 2016


“Every gun makes its own tune.”

This month marks the 50th anniversary of Sergio Leone’s THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY.

THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY was the third and final film in Italian director Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy, following A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1964), and FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE (1965)…and would take place before the events of the 1964 installment; acting as a “prequel” of sorts. Set during the American Civil War and centered around three gunslingers competing to find a treasure of Confederate gold, it would be the latest entry in the often scoffed-at sub-genre of the Western, nicknamed “the Spaghetti Western”, meaning, a movie about the American Old West made by Italian filmmakers.

Having already starred in the previous two entries in the Dollars Trilogy, Clint Eastwood, who was already a bankable American movie star, signed on to reprise the role of the mysterious “man with no name” for a third time. He was joined by Lee Van Cleef (the bad), and Eli Wallach (the ugly), and a host of Italian actors. Leone and screenwriter Luciano Vincenzoni would work on the script with the idea of showing the absurdity of war, and filming would take place in Rome, Spain, and Almeria. The production was difficult, with problems ranging from Eastwood clashing with Leone (they would never work together again), and several injuries to Wallach. With an international cast, the actors spoke their native languages, and the lines spoken by Eastwood, Van Cleef, and Wallach would be dubbed to Italian for the debut release and in the American version, the Italian actors would be dubbed to English. Leone would put the film together with his trademark signature of tight close-ups and sweeping long shots, and composer Ennio Morricone would add one of his greatest scores.

THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY would premiere in Rome in 1966, but would not come to the United States until the following year, when all three films in the Dollars Trilogy would be released in America. Upon that release, critics were harsh on the film, as the sub-genre of the “Spaghetti Western” was not a popular one in America. Decades later, the film would be regarded as one of the greatest Westerns of all time, and would appear on many lists of all-time great films. Clint Eastwood would be cemented in American culture as one of the best to ever wear a cowboy hat, and his classic look with the off-shoulder poncho would be one of the most iconic and most referenced look in pop-culture…from Boba Fett to the Oscar-winning RANGO. The title of the film itself would be a permanent entry into pop culture, with many using the three words to title articles (and blogs), to describe a situation. Morricone’s soundtrack, which would be inducted into the Emmy Hall of Fame in 2009, would forever be associated with Westerns, and heavy metal group Metallica would use his powerful track, The Ecstasy of Gold, to open their concerts for over 30 years.


The legacy of THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY can still be seen in film today. Big-name filmmakers Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino to this day draw heavily from it, and their influence has already trickled down to a new generation of filmmakers, including Clint Eastwood himself; whose Oscar-winning Western UNFORGIVEN seemed to carry lessons and themes learned from Leone’s film. Eastwood and all directors who came after him recognize the film as a study in filmmaking. After all, one of the best storytelling techniques is having a trio of characters; one a believer, one a non-believer, and the other neutral. That is the foundation for all great films, and although Leone wasn’t the first to ever do it, he set the standard for the next half-century. THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY isn’t just a great Western, but a great movie which still acts as the launching point for modern cinema.

In this world there’s two types of people my friend. Those with loaded guns and those who dig. You dig.”

Monday, December 5, 2016


How do we define drama? Years ago, master-storyteller Alfred Hitchcock once said that drama is life with the boring parts taken out. Over the years, many filmmakers have wrestled with finding the balance between realism and drama; keep it too real, and it’s dull. Keep the drama going for too long and it steps away from the real world. Such is the task for director/writer Kenneth Lonergan’s MANCHESTER BY THE SEA.

Lee (Casey Affleck), a grief-stricken janitor, reluctantly becomes the sole guardian to his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges), after his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) passes away. Unwilling, and perhaps unable to take on the responsibility, Lee faces his past and the reasons for his grief, which includes his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams).

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA does not have much in terms of plot in the traditional sense. Much of the film deals with Lee and Lucas dealing with mundane, every-day tasks in the wake of Joe’s passing. The movie is packed with real-life situations like speaking with doctors, undertakers, and lawyers, along with unclogging toilets, shoveling snow, and having difficult conversations about living arrangements. Things are kept so real and tempered, that MANCHESTER BY THE SEA often feels like a reality-TV show, where hidden cameras just happen to catch everyday people doing everyday dull things.

But director and writer Kenneth Lonergan is working on a deeper level here. The real-life happenings are made interesting thanks to the characters; each one harboring some sort of grief. The great tragedy that sent Lee into his stoic state has already happened, and the pieces come into view through some clever and well-timed flashbacks. Lee in turn handles things like shoveling snow with the same type of numbness that he has when dealing with now parent-less nephew. The realism offers Lonergan opportunity after opportunity to showcase and explore his characters; the way they react to any given scene and situation is what drives the film…and it is a fascinating watch.

Lonergan films the city of Manchester in such a way that the tiny port-town becomes a character of its own. It’s a vital point for the people in the story, as the cold winters and hard-living up there develops his characters even further. Pacing is very steady, and Lonergan shows the directing-maturity in not letting scenes get over-dramatic or come close to soap-opera level. Lesley Barber’s score adds to the melancholy atmosphere.

Above all else, MANCHESTER BY THE SEA is an actor’s workshop. Casey Affleck puts on the best performance of his career; not only nailing the New England/Boston accent, but powerfully going through the many stages of grief. He shows great chemistry with Lucas Hedges, and the scenes between the two are mini-powerhouses. Hedges in the meantime also has to do plenty of heavy lifting, and he does it very well. Michelle Williams is used sparingly, but she ultimately steals the show in a tearful confrontation with Lee; she basically breaks hearts with a single line. Kyle Chandler is excellent as always, and Matthew Broderick pops in for a hot minute in a bit of a wasted role.

Lonergan’s commitment to keeping things real also means that a not-so-happy ending is presented, but smartly plants the idea (and hope) that the characters at least have a light at the end of their tunnel. That light is a long ways off for them all, and part of the impact of the film is that we would love to revisit these characters again in a few years time just to see if they progressed. MANCHESTER BY THE SEA is a quiet and subtle powerhouse; capable of drawing tears and provoking thought about our own lives, and leaving one mighty impression.