Monday, August 13, 2018

A Reel Review: BLACKKKLANSMAN




In 1972, Ron Stallworth, the first African American undercover detective in the Colorado Springs Police Department, infiltrated the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan with a phone call. As a new member, he sent a fellow white (and Jewish) detective to take his place in the face-to-face meetings. It’s a tale that is stranger than fiction, and one that could easily be a barrel of laughs and a comedy of dominos. But to treat the material that way would be a travesty, as director Spike Lee finds a way to make this unbelievable true story one of the most profound cinematic statements America has ever seen.

Stallworth (John David Washington, son of Denzel), overcomes racial prejudice at his own police precinct to become an undercover officer, and manages to become a card-carrying member of the local KKK. To gather more intelligence, Stallworth enlists the help of fellow detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), who attends the face-to-face meetings. The two draw closer to what this local chapter is up to while hiding their identities, and eventually wind up meeting clan leader David Duke (Topher Grace).

BLACKKKLANSMAN is a film that is a web of undercover work, with Stallworth pulling the strings from behind the scenes, and Flip pretending he’s Stallworth as he meets, greets, and plots with the group of racist yahoos who meet in living rooms…who come across as clowns but still with the potential for causing some serious damage. On the surface it’s a police procedural, and Lee checks off the boxes of good cops doing their jobs nicely.

Beefing things up in the meantime is Stallworth’s budding relationship with Patrice (Laura Harrier), who is the president of a black student union who happens to despise the police, and Flip avoiding the suspicions of a clan member (Felix Kendrickson) who is also the loose cannon of the group. There’s a lot of dodging and cat-and-mousing going on, and Lee plays the film like an intricate chess match.

Lee keeps his two main characters of Stallworth and Flip at arm’s reach in the early goings. Their backgrounds and motivations are never explored, and time is instead spent on how this undercover work is affecting the unlikely duo. Stallworth questions if this is just another job or a personal crusade, while Flip, who was never proud of his Jewish heritage, questions his own faith when he is forced to praise the Holocaust in front of his KKK colleagues. The characters come off as cold to us, but what they go through is the connecting thread for the audience.

Lee, never one to hold back, drops us right in the middle of the clan meetings and lets the ugliness of racism speak for itself. From the smugness of David Duke to the casual hate spewed by the chapter president’s housewife (Ashlie Atkinson). There’s some serious material to work with here, and it keeps the film from going into comedic territory. But what really makes BLACKKKLANSMAN soar is the direct line Lee draws from the film’s events in 1972 to today, and also reaches back as far as the Civil War while taking Hollywood to task as well. Throughout the film there are reminders of just how far America has not come in the area of civil rights, and by film’s end no one will see things the same again. It’s not preaching as much as it is revealing.

Acting is superb. John David Washington and Adam Driver make a tremendous team, and one wishes to see more of them together. Laura Harrier is a delight, and Topher Grace shows the ability to play a great villain. Corey Hawkins drops in as a civil rights leader and lights up the screen, and Alec Baldwin provides some real chills as a white racial superiority. The show is stolen by Harry Belafonte, who is at the center of an outstandingly edited sequence which recounts the story of a murdered black boy.

The finale is a thriller which includes a race to keep their identities a secret while trying to prevent a bombing, and while the outcome isn’t quite clear (the result of the final chase is a little muddy), Lee puts a massive exclamation point in the closing minutes to make BLACKKKLANSMAN a powerful statement on race in America. Lee has done this before in his previous films, but not ever like this…and dead silence from audience’s as the credits roll is guaranteed. Lee has delivered a masterpiece; one that thrills, tells the truth, and allows no one to walk away unchanged.

BOTTOM LINE: See it


Wednesday, August 8, 2018

A Reel Opinion: The Best & Worst Films of Tim Burton


Last month, this Blogger’s girlfriend penned an excellent review about The Beetle House; a New York City restaurant inspired by the films of strange and unusual director Tim Burton (read that review HERE). One blog can often lead to another, and that review got this Blogger’s wheels turning towards the career of Burton. The quirky, visionary, imaginative, and frustratingly inconsistent filmmaker has one of the most distinct styles in Hollywood in the last 20 years, and his contributions have altered pop culture and continue to draw people with his name alone. This Blog is a look at his best and worst films in the Reel Speak tradition of a Top Five ranking; using criteria of story, character, visual impact, cultural impact, and personal likes and objective dislikes…along with the tiebreaker of whether or not I ever want to watch it again.
Since this is intended to be a celebration of Tim Burton, this Blogger will spend more time on the good than the bad. Any film that doesn’t appear here falls somewhere between the Best and Worst.
Now, it’s showtime…

THE WORST 


5. BATMAN (1989) 

More like BATMAN: THE MUSICAL with a ridiculous song and dance routine every five minutes; led by a beer-bellied, middle-aged, receding hairline Joker with the dumbest nefarious scheme of all time involving shampoo and makeup. It’s a frustrating film because the first 20 minutes are outstanding, only to fall into cartoonish, meandering, aimless nonsense. 

4. CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (2005) 

Messy and cliché with a story that can’t latch onto any one thing for more than two minutes. Johnny Depp mistakes eccentric for bizarre in his portrayal of Willie Wonka. 

3. ALICE IN WONDERLAND (2010) 

A soulless, joyless bore with a messy narrative and CGI looking like a Looney Tunes flick…topped off with a final battle/war that feels like it belongs in another movie. 

2. MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN (2016) 

Rushed, silly, and pointless. 

1. DARK SHADOWS (2012) 

A dull slog that drags on forever. It feels like 50 episodes of the classic TV series crammed into one feature, and it is capped off by a big stupid final battle with characters pulling shotguns out of nowhere. 

THE BEST 


5. A NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS (1993) 

Even though the poster says otherwise, this is technically not a Tim Burton film as he did not direct it, but instead acted as a producer. Henry Sellick is the credited helmer, but the story, characters, and fantasy world are all Burton’s. It is a clever, and outright brilliant take on our holidays and where they come from, with the main character of Jack Skellington becoming one of the most significant entries in pop culture. 

4. BIG FISH (2003)

Burton’s best films are the ones that he has an emotional connection to, and BIG FISH is the one that he threw his heart into and it shows. A tale of a son searching for his father, BIG FISH combines elements of fantasy with the power of storytelling, and the charming performances from Ewan MacGregor, Albert Finney, Jessica Lange, Billy Crudup, Danny DeVito, Alison Lohman, Helena Bonmah Carter, and Marion Cotillard makes the film a joy to behold. It is one of Burton’s most critically acclaimed films with four Golden Globe nominations and one Oscar nod. 

3. EDWARD SCISSORHANDS (1990) 

Based on his own childhood, this mesmerizing story was Burton’s version of the classic FRANKENSTEIN. The first of eight (!) films Burton would make with Johnny Depp, ED was an exploration of what it is to be human, and was one of the first films where Burton would run with his love for characters who are outcast because they are different. It is a fairy tale reinvented. 

2. BEETLEJUICE (1988) 

This mashup of horror and comedy is the ultimate Tim Burton film and his biggest contribution to pop culture. It is an original twist on hauntings and poltergeists, with an electric performance by Michael Keaton and perhaps Winona Ryder’s most memorable role. When the conversation moves to Burton’s imagination, this is the first film that comes to mind. 

1. ED WOOD (1994) 

Where BETELGEUSE may be his most memorable, ED WOOD is the one film in Burton’s career that feels like genuine cinema. There are movies and there are films, and this is certainly the latter. Once again playing with his favorite themes of rejects and horror, this true-story biopic is a love letter to classic Hollywood while acting as an inspirational tale to any one of us who have been told that our creative works aren’t good enough. What is art, and who gets to say if it is or not is a battle every filmmaker, writer, painter, and sculptor faces…and ED WOOD has a lot to say about that. The cast is inspired, with Depp once again in front…but the towering, Oscar-winning performance by Martin Landau in his role as real-life horror icon Bela Lugosi is one for the ages. Those of us who have followed Tim Burton through his career have a clear love for film, and ED WOOD is an expression of just that. 

THE BEST AND WORST OF TIM BURTON
BEST
  1. ED WOOD
  2. BEETLEJUICE
  3. EDWARD SCISSORHANDS
  4. BIG FISH
  5. THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS
WORST
  1. DARK SHADOWS
  2. MISS PEREGRINE'S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN
  3. ALICE IN WONDERLAND
  4. CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY
  5. BATMAN




Thursday, August 2, 2018

A Reel Preview: The Year in Film 2018 - Episode VIII



With a few notable exceptions, this hasn’t been the most exciting Summers for movies, so maybe it’s a good thing that we’re in the final month of the season…with faint whispers and rumblings of Oscar Season on the horizon. In the meantime, here are the notable releases for the month of August.

CHRISTOPHER ROBIN – This Disney production of live action and animation has an adult Christopher Robin, the little boy from the Winnie the Pooh stories, all grown-up and without his sense of imagination…when he is visited by his old friends. Ewan McGregor plays Christopher, and he is joined by Hayley Atwell (AGENT CARTER). Directed by Marc Forster (FINDING NEVERLAND).

MEG – A group of scientists attempt to stop a 75-foot giant shark from terrorizing a beach. Jason Statham stars. Directed by John Turteltaub (NATIONAL TREASURE).

THE DARKEST MINDS – In this new and original take on the superhero genre, a group of teens go on the run from the government after obtaining superpowers. It stars Amanda Stenberg, Mandy Moore, and Gwendoline Christie (THE FORCE AWAKENS).

THE SPY WHO DUMPED ME – Two best friends, played by actress Mila Kunis and Saturday Night Live sketch-artist Kate McKinnon, are chased through Europe after one of their exes turns out to be a CIA agent.

BLACKKKLANSMAN – Director Spike Lee (MALCOM X, INSIDE MAN), returns with this true story about an African-American detective who infiltrates and exposes the Ku Klux Klan. It stars John David Washington, Adam Driver, and Topher Grace.

SLENDER MAN – This supernatural horror film brings the creepy urban legend of the slender man to life.

ALPHA – Kodi Smit-McPhee (THE ROAD, LET ME IN), plays a young hunter who befriends an injured wolf during the ice age. Directed by Albert Hughes (FROM HELL, THE BOOK OF ELI).

MILE 22 – Director Peter Berg and actor Mark Wahlberg team up for their third film in a year (PATRIOTS DAY, DEEPWATER HORIZON). This time a CIA task force escorts an asset while being hunted by terrorists. It co-stars John Malkovich and Ronda Rousey.

THE HAPPY TIME MURDERS – Brian Henson (son of Jim), directs this puppet-action black comedy where puppets exist as living things. Here, a puppet private investigator and his old partner, played by Melissa McCarthy (the girl who falls down all the time), investigate a puppet serial murderer. It co-stars Maya Rudolph, Joel McHale, and Elizabeth Banks.

PAPILLON – In this remake of the 1973 film, Charlie Hunnam (TV’S SONS OF ANARCHY), plays a safecracker who is unjustly imprisoned. He is joined by Rami Malek and Tommy Flanagan.

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Next month, Reel Speak previews the first month of Oscar Season.




Tuesday, July 31, 2018

A Reel Review: MISSION IMPOSSIBLE - FALLOUT



The MISSION IMPOSSIBLE film series has always taken one important page out of the 1960’s TV series from which it originated; to be full of surprises. The plots have taken many twists and turns to always keep us guessing and more than often sends us down the wrong path before a clever reveal. The sixth film, subtitled FALLOUT…brings us the biggest, and best surprise of all.

IMF Agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), accepts a mission with his colleagues (Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson), to recover stolen plutonium before it can be made into a rogue nuclear weapon by terrorist Solomon Lane (Sean Harris). To complicate things, Hunt is teamed with, and monitored closely by CIA Agent Walker (Henry Cavill), who has orders which differs from Hunt and his team.

The plot of FALLOUT in broad strokes is simple; stop the bad guy from detonating a nuclear bomb (or two). This is exactly what Hunt and his team are doing, but the path to get there is a thick maze of many turns and dead ends. Deception, misdirection, switching allegiances, and entire scenes which are not really what they seem are all over the film…and although it gets a little too convoluted in places (you’ve got to pay attention), things eventually get sorted out.

Hunt is dealing with a lot. His instant rivalry with Walker stemming from political posturing and differences in style (Hunt is a planning operative, Walker is a brute), his grappling with his past, and being framed as the secret leader of the terrorist group at work to blow the bomb keeps him at stress at all times. The weight of the world is literally on his shoulders, and it makes the action all the more meaningful.

And if action is what we want out of a MISSION IMPOSSIBLE film, FALLOUT delivers and delivers big. Director Christopher McQuarrie brings us tension-filled and jawdropping sequences that have to be seen to be believed; car-chases, bike-chases, helicopter-chases, foot-chases, fist-fights, fire-fights, and more HOLY SHIT moments than can be counted; it’s a masterpiece of action with a total commitment to practical effects and stuntwork. There is no green-screen here and very little CGI, making FALLOUT one of the most unique action films in this modern era and its own franchise. The film has breathtaking pacing which pauses at just the right times to reset things, and the end result isn’t exhausting as much as it is thrilling. McQuarrie films a vast, globe-trotting canvas…and the sequences filmed in the glorious IMAX format are eye-popping.

With such a commitment to practical stunt work, the burden was on Tom Cruise to pull it off, and the man rises to the occasion. The physical work he does is most-impressive for the 55 year-old Cruise, as he is required to run (and run, and run, and run…), jump across buildings, dangle below helicopters, ride motorcycles at 88mph sans helmet, and get tossed around like a rag doll in a dryer. It’s an impressive feat and a high mark for Cruise. Henry Cavill is nearly equally tremendous and makes a great foe to Hunt. Sean Harris’ reprisal as the chief villain is excellent. The rest of the cast is very good as well; Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames, Alec Baldwin, Angela Bassett, and Rebecca Ferguson.

After all the twists and turns and a stunning finale involving two ticking nuclear bombs and two helicopters tumbling down a cliff, FALLOUT wraps up with the best surprise of all; it is the absolute best out of the franchise that launched way back in 1996. It is thrilling, meaningful, and one of the most impressively shot and edited films in this era or the action genre.

BOTTOM LINE: See it


Tuesday, July 24, 2018

A Reel 10: THE DARK KNIGHT



“You changed things. Forever.”


This month marks the 10th anniversary of Christopher Nolan’s THE DARK KNIGHT.

THE DARK KNIGHT was the direct sequel to Nolan’s own BATMAN BEGINS from 2005, which re-introduced the iconic superhero Batman to the big screen. BEGINS was the first film featuring the caped crusader in a decade, and the approach was a far cry from the cartoonish versions we had in the late 1980’s and early 90’s. Gone were the dancing clowns, ridiculous vehicles and costumes, and action sequences that looked like they belonged in a Looney Tunes romp. Instead, we were treated to a grounded Bat; one that would and could function in today’s real world, while taking time to strip down the characters we thought we knew so well and build them piece by piece. BATMAN BEGINS was a success, and its final minutes hinted at something bigger on the way.

THE DARK KNIGHT’s journey to the big screen began even before BATMAN BEGINS arrived. Screenwriter David S. Goyer originally wrote a treatment for two sequels which focused on Batman’s most celebrated villain, The Joker, and Harvey Dent, the doomed district attorney who would tragically become Two-Face. Goyer and Christopher Nolan, along with his brother Jonathan Nolan, reached back into Batman’s rich lore and used Joker’s first appearance way back in 1940 as inspiration, along with elements from famous Bat-comics The Long Halloween and The Killing Joke. The concept behind the film would be escalation; how the criminal world reacts to a foe who operates outside of the law.

Where BATMAN BEGINS built a world, THE DARK KNIGHT tore it down and examined it. The Joker would represent the complete opposite of Batman, and the film would serve as a psychological test for both characters. The film would center on Joker, and the all-important role would go to Heath Ledger, who had impressed audiences with his Oscar-nominated performance in BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN in 2005. Ledger would take the clown out of the Joker, and combine the character’s brand of humor with a mass murderer with zero empathy. It was a role that Ledger literally gave his life to. 


Reprising their roles from BATMAN BEGINS would be Christian Bale (Batman/Bruce Wayne), Michael Caine (Alfred), Morgan Freeman (Lucius Fox), and Gary Oldman (Jim Gordon). Aaron Eckhart would take on the role of Harvey Dent, and Maggie Gyllenhaal replaced Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes; the love-interest of both Dent and Wayne.

With minimal CGI and a commitment to the art of practical effects and stunts, filming would take place in Chicago, which stood-in as the troubled-yet-beautiful Gotham City. The world-wide production would also film in London and Hong Kong. Nolan, ever the one to push the boundaries of filmmaking, shot THE DARK KNIGHT in 70mm; the first Batman film to do so. Nolan took direct inspiration from Michael Mann's classic crime thriller HEAT (1995), and fashioned a crime drama of his own. Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard returned to provide the score.

After a successful viral marketing campaign, which included an online fictional political campaign for Harvey Dent, THE DARK KNIGHT was a critical and financial success. It would be the highest-grossing film of 2008, and the first of its kind to cross $1 billion worldwide. It would be nominated for eight Oscars, winning two…with Heath Ledger winning Best Supporting Actor. It would be a bittersweet win, for the actor had passed away in January of 2008. To this day, Ledger stands as the only actor to win an Oscar for a superhero film. His win, and Nolan’s commitment to make a mature and realistic Batman film, elevated the superhero genre to where it could be taken seriously in even the most stuffy of film criticism; it showed that a cape and mask could be true cinema.

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It is rare for this Blogger to write up an anniversary piece to a film that is “only” a decade old, but THE DARK KNIGHT is a clear exception. It set the bar high for superhero films, and changed the way studios looked at a caped property to this day. When this film arrived in theatres, the world was less than a decade removed from 9/11, and everyone was asking who are the bad guys and who could we trust. These are issues that are addressed in THE DARK KNIGHT, (the first of its kind to do so), and even though it doesn’t answer them, it explores them in a way that makes this Batman a true thinking-man’s film. It dove into the psyche of Gotham City, leaving no stone unturned as it flipped over heroes, villains, cops, robbers, and the average citizen (all of us). When this Blogger saw the film for the first time, a midnight show on a warm summer night in 2008 with a packed and energetic crowd, we all felt something special. Where BATMAN BEGINS gave us an ending that guaranteed our return, THE DARK KNIGHT sent us staggering out of the theatre. On that night, and in the decade since, superhero films found a way to rise.

“You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”






Monday, July 23, 2018

A Reel Review: STAR WARS - A NEW HOPE In Concert


 
Earlier this year, this Blogger and his girlfriend were pleased to attend JAWS live in concert; performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra at the Mann Center in Philly. It was fantastic experience (review HERE), as the orchestra played John Williams’ iconic score while the film was projected on the big screen. We were so impressed, that we just had to attend their next performance; the cultural milestone of STAR WARS: A NEW HOPE.

Originally released in 1977, STAR WARS has had a monumental impact on culture and the film industry, and the grand, mythic score by John Williams had a lot to do with that. The wonderful outdoor venue of the Mann Center provided a great backdrop and atmosphere for this performance, and we, along with thousands of fans, were more than ready to soak it all in with the enthusiasm and joy that most of us felt over 40 years ago.

A lot has been written and said about the state of STAR WARS fandom in the past year; as toxic and negative fans have misbehaved to the point of ugliness…but not on this night. The atmosphere here was electric. Fans from all ages were there, showing the multi-generational reach that STAR WARS still has. People arrived in costume, posed for photos, and it all made for a true, communal event. This was the heart of genuine STAR WARS fandom, and a sign that the franchise is a long way from dying. From the seating areas to the lawn, this was a packed house with happy fans.
 

After a quick intro, the orchestra (conducted by Constantine Kitsopoulos) launched into the familiar drum-roll which preceded the traditional 20th Century Fox fanfare. This of course, was followed by the grand blast and thrilling opening sequence…which still brings the chills. For this Blogger, it is always a treat to see STAR WARS on the big screen, and that magnificent opening crawl and space battle was more than enough to bring some tears of joy.
 

The orchestra sounded fantastic, and the mix of music and dialogue/sound effects was perfect. After seeing the film so many times over the years, fans are certainly familiar with the film, and know exactly when music should start and end, and when the best cues should hit. This Blogger is proud to report that the orchestra was perfect every time. While the mix was perfect, there were some areas where the music was a bit louder than when viewing the film at home; revealing some wonderful hidden gems within the score that are usually lost underneath the sound effects. The picture quality in the early going was a bit dim because of the daylight (blast you, daylight savings), but by mid-film it looked great once the sun dipped below the horizon.

As stated, this was a wonderful event that was designed for everyone in attendance to share. Fans applauded, cheered, and laughed together as if we were all seeing it for the first time. When favorites such as Han Solo, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Princess Leia made their first appearances, there was applause and a lot of love. And the iconic scene with Luke Skywalker and the twin suns…nothing short of magnificent.

After the Death Star assault and magnificent Throne Room finale, everyone stayed through the credits to take in the final notes of the score, and to give the Philadelphia Orchestra a mighty standing ovation. STAR WARS provided a lot of joy and thrills on this night, just as it did in 1977. This was a night to be long remembered.

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Next year, the Philadelphia Orchestra will continue their series with THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK.
 
 

Friday, July 20, 2018

A Reel Review: MAMMA MIA! - HERE WE GO AGAIN




Based on the Broadway musical of the same name, and featuring the music of 70’s pop-group Abba, MAMMA MIA was a surprise hit in 2008, and its story wrapped everything up nice and tight with an uplifting and inspiring ending. It didn’t seem like the characters and storyline had anywhere else to go, so to make a sequel, the answer was to begin by going backwards with HERE WE GO AGAIN.

Five years after the events of MAMMA MIA, Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), is running her mother Donna’s (Meryl Streep) villa hotel on a Greek island, who had passed away the year prior. As Sophie prepares for a grand re-opening of the hotel, she discovers more about her mother’s past; explored in flashbacks with Lily James playing the younger Donna.

The first MAMMA MIA may have ended in a storybook finale, so for a follow-up, director Oliver Parker shows us what happens after the happy ending. There are real-life happenings and issues going on in this fairy tale, with Donna’s passing and Sophie’s relationship with her husband (Dominic Cooper) under stressors due to the hotel problems and potential job-relocations. When the film isn’t spending time with our struggling characters, it presents extended flashbacks with the younger Donna and how she came to be the person we saw in the first film. There are strong parallels going on between the younger Donna and her daughter Sophie in the present, and the dual-storytelling works and works well. It’s the younger Donna finding out who she is, with Sophie doing the same in following the footsteps of her mother. HERE WE GO AGAIN often feels like two different films, but the two storylines eventually come together nicely, despite their differences in tone; where Sophie’s world in the present has a hanging melancholy because of Donna’s passing, the scenes in the past have the joy and optimism of the first film.

HERE WE GO AGAIN has a lot of work to do in filling its role as a prequel, and for the most part it does its job well. How Donna arrived at the hotel and why is explored, and even provides the origin of her now famous overalls. Where it stumbles a little is when Donna meets her three lovers (the younger versions of Sam, Harry, and Bill…played by Jeremy Irvine, Hugh Skinner, and Josh Dylan, respectively). What we were shown in the first film about these young men is thrown out the window in favor of new storylines. There’s a break in continuity from film to film that shows just how difficult it is to “prequel” any given story. It’s an annoyance, but far from a dealbreaker.

The music of Abba is once again front-and-center. With most of the group’s major hits played in the first film, lesser known works are used here…although some of the A-list songs such as Mamma Mia and Dancing Queen make reprisals. The musical numbers are fantastic, and a late duet with Andy Garcia and Cher (!) is a showstopper.

Director Oliver Parker keeps the pacing brisk and the balance between laughs and drama on a nice edge. The highlight of the film has to be the transitions between the present and past, which are clever and downright jawdropping. The film looks great, and the cast looks like they’re always having a blast.

Amanda Seyfried is once again like staring into the sun; full of energy and beautiful. Lily James as the younger Donna is also fantastic. Members of the older cast, such as Colin Firth, Pierce Brosnan, Stellan Skarsgard, Christine Baranski, and Julie Walters are fine but amount to extended cameos. The younger cast is perfectly matched with their older counterparts, which makes the flashbacks an amazing watch.

The finale arrives with an emotional gut-punch that most will not see coming, and anyone who doesn’t cry over it simply has no soul. It’s a powerful moment delivering messages of love and family, and more-than makes up for the continuity breaks and the living-funeral vibe of most of the present-day scenes. HERE WE GO AGAIN is a worthy follow-up to the first film, and successfully takes the characters to new, and natural places.

BOTTOM LINE: See it




Wednesday, July 18, 2018

A Reel Review: Beetle House


No other medium has a presence in our culture like film. Great films with memorable characters and iconic visuals can make their way into our everyday lives, and be seen in conventions, businesses, and everyday talk. This week, special guest writer Jessica Petro (this Blogger’s girlfriend), takes a big adventure to Beetle House; a Tim Burton themed restaurant in New York City. 


As a late 80’s, early 90’s kid, one of the most memorable and iconic filmmakers for a young mind is the one and only Tim Burton. From EDWARD SCISSORHANDS to BEETLEJUICE and BATMAN to SWEENEY TODD, each film transported us to different worlds of “pure imagination.” One would expect a restaurant themed after his works to do the same. 

This past weekend I, with three fellow Burton lovers, had the privilege of visiting the Tim Burton themed restaurant in New York City, which has been featured on websites Mashable and Delish for more than a few good reasons. 

As you’re walking down 6th Street, in the NoHo area, the Beetle House sign is clearly visible, with black brick and purple velvet ropes notifying us that we’re in the right place; even though the exterior doesn’t look very different from surrounding buildings. But as soon as we cracked the door open, we were greeted with a surprise sand worm (hate ‘em, right?) and transported into the afterlife.


The interior is a typical Manhattan-sized restaurant: tiny, long and skinny building with only about 10 tables and a 10-seat bar, making this a very exclusive restaurant requiring early reservations. Every aspect of the decor is thought out with precision right down to the dark, mysterious lighting and purple, black and white brick walls. The decor screams BETELGEUSE (just don’t say his name 3 times), with black and white striped accent walls, but take a closer look around to find nods to many Burton films while music from all of his films play while dining. Pictures on the walls range from ALICE IN WONDERLAND to PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE and everywhere in between. An EDWARD SCISSORHANDS sign points the way to the bathroom while Sally from THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, and Willy Wonka entertains patrons at their seats. 



The only thing that compares to the insanely perfect decor is the menu. The most delicious and refreshing drinks are themed with names like Coco Skellington, Fleet Street Martini, and Alice’s Cup of Tea (all taste-tested by yours truly purely in the name of research.) Appetizer and main course dishes have regular and vegan options like the Deetz Cocktail (although this one didn’t jump out and pull your face into the bowl,) Brains and Chips, Vegan Cheshire Mac, Shrimpy Hollow, and Edward BurgerHands. ALL delicious options!


There is not one aspect of this tiny New York City treasure that wasn’t precisely and perfectly thought out. This is the restaurant for a Burton fan! If you get the chance (and make sure to make a reservation) get to Beetle House as fast as Edward styles hair!


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Written by Jessica Petro. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.  

Make your reservation, view the menu, and find out more HERE


Monday, July 16, 2018

A Reel Opinion: The DIE HARD Debate




Is DIE HARD a Christmas movie? That is the question that has fueled endless debates in recent years. The 1988, John McTiernan-directed action-thriller, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this month (read Reel Speak’s blog on the 25th anniversary HERE), was a smash-hit that elevated leading-man Bruce Willis to big-screen stardom…and set the template and the new bar for the modern action film. Despite being a cops vs. robbers shoot-em-up with lots of gunplay and explosions, its Christmastime setting has die-hard fans of the film firmly giving it a label as a holiday film.

But those die-harders were dealt a blow this past weekend, when Willis himself took a machine gun to their argument. At the Comedy Central Roast of Bruce Willis, which was recorded for a future air-date, Willis told the audience that DIE HARD “…is not a Christmas movie! It’s a goddamned Bruce Willis movie!”

The large statement has enraged those who have been pegging the film as a Christmas movie, and certainly didn’t settle anything. The internet and social media channels were ignited like a fuse, with many pointing towards Willis’ often bizarre behavior over the years, and that the former biggest-action-star in the world was simply trolling. But Willis may be on to something. DIE HARD was at the time, and still is, a great film. It is full of excitement and laughs, and the character work makes it far from shallow. It changed the landscape of modern action films, and perhaps Willis was showing frustration that the new DIE HARD legacy isn’t its greatness on the screen, but this ridiculous question. If that be true, then good for Bruce…and it all points towards how fandom can taint the movies; just as we’ve seen with STAR WARS and the DC Comics superhero films.

Fandom may be messing up the legacy of DIE HARD, but this Blogger won’t use that to avoid the question, if it has to be asked. There are strong arguments on both sides. The film takes place during Christmastime, features Santa hats, an office holiday party, sleigh bells, and holiday music. And many point out that Willis’ character’s desire to be with his family is a holiday theme. But on the flip side, the film’s setting of Los Angeles takes away the standard holiday movie requirement of SNOW…and the shootings, killings, bloodspill, swearing, explosions, and nude-girl poster aren’t quite what Dickens ever had in mind. The main theme of the film isn’t a warm family gathering, it’s trying not to get shot. And perhaps most importantly, the film was envisioned as a summer blockbuster in the first place. That’s why it was released in July. And as far as Bruce Willis is concerned, we have to take seriously the words of someone who was actually on set making the film; he was there. We weren’t.

There are several films that this Blogger revisits every December that have nothing to do with Christmas, like THE LORD OF THE RINGS, GANGS OF NEW YORK, the HARRY POTTER series, and STAR WARS. All those films have had release dates in December, and that’s where they feel at home. As stated, DIE HARD arrived in July, but its setting makes it feel out of place for watching on a hot summer night. It’s not really a Christmas film; it’s an action flick that happens to be set during the holidays. It’s a mish-mash of two genres that makes it work in December and July.; similar to Tim Burton’s NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS which works at Halloween and Christmas. Anyone can watch DIE HARD whenever it feels right, but no one should be trying to ruin it for everyone else.  



Thursday, July 12, 2018

A Reel Opinion: The Top 10 Marvel Films




After 20 films in 10 years, Marvel Studios has risen to the top of the superhero film mountain. Their films have been hailed by critics, beloved by fans, and have elevated even their most obscure characters into pop culture and nearly every household. In 2018 they rolled out three of their best, and with a little bit of a break before their next film in 2019, now seemed like the perfect time to judge and rank the series. As always, the Reel Speak criteria of story, character, and cultural impact is at work here, along with the added element of the film’s importance in the overall series.

NOTE: This list only reflects the Marvel films in the Cinematic Universe series which launched in 2008.

Now let’s assemble…

10. THOR: THE DARK WORLD (2013)

The second solo outing for the God of Thunder earns its right to be on this list because it popped the cork on the cosmic side of the Marvel universe for the first time. It explored new planets, introduced vital elements that would pay off in the future, and got audiences used to the fact that not all the action would be taking place on Earth. As a film, it is a high energy adventure with plenty of surprises, and changes the landscape with some major happenings.

9. BLACK PANTHER (2018)

Chadwick Boseman debuted the clawed prince of Wakanda in CIVIL WAR and nearly stole the show, and by the time his solo film arrived, audiences were more than ready. The first black superhero to appear in comics was embraced by all cultures, and the film established more vital elements for future Marvel films. On its own, it was a dose of superhero fun, gave us something different, and did a lot of justice to a popular character.

8. ANT-MAN AND THE WASP (2018)

One of the many reasons Marvel’s films have resonated so well is that they all crossbreed with different genres of film; war, espionage, sci-fi, techno-thrillers, and even horror. The second solo outing for the incredible shrinking hero was the first to serve as a family film, with characters motivated by their families and their desire to stay together. It was new territory for Marvel and the overall superhero film genre.

7. CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER (2014)

The second solo outing for Steve Rogers, the greatest soldier in history, has all the makings of a political cold war/espionage film, which saw Cap caught up in a government conspiracy of the highest levels which he had more than one personal stake in. WINTER SOLDIER had plenty of surprises which changed the landscape of future Marvel films, and set events in motion that were felt for the rest of the series.

6. CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016)

As good as Cap’s second solo film was, his third film was the emotional gut-punch of the series. After spending years getting to know and loving our Avengers, Marvel took the bold step in splitting them up over personal and political differences, and having them slug it out. Seeing characters we love bludgeon each other was like choosing between children, and it was hard to watch.

5. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (2014)

THE DARK WORLD opened the door to the cosmic side of Marvel, and the GUARDIANS kicked it in for good. Funny, adventurous, and an absolute joy to take in, James Gunn’s space adventure elevated minor characters into the upper echelons of pop culture.

4. CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER (2011)

Everyone was apprehensive about the guy who wears stars and stripes fitting into the established real-world setting of the Marvel universe, but FIRST AVENGER took care of that in a hurry. It’s a war film with a dash of sci-fi, and captured the heart and earnestness of the old, WWII-era American spirit. As icing on the cake, the chemistry between Chris Evans and Hayley Atwell provided the overall series with its true heart.

3. IRON MAN (2008)

The very first film in the series still stands as one of the best. Character-driven and classical in its telling, Tony Stark’s journey from asshole to hero mirrored its lead actor, Robert Downey Jr., and elevated Iron Man from nearly obscure to every living room and lunch box in the world.

2. AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018)

After years of foreshadowing and teasing, the arrival of Thanos, the ultimate Big Bad, was worth the wait. A well-developed villain with all the power in the universe was fleshed out to the point of empathy, and was more than a match for Earth’s mightiest heroes. Thanos was what drove INFINITY WAR to its status as an epic and mind-boggling showdown, and to this day has the most shocking ending ever put to a superhero film.

1. AVENGERS (2012)

It was the first of its kind; multiple heroes assembling for the first time on the big screen in a super-sized big-screen spectacle that put characters up front and center. Director Joss Whedon’s knack for razor-sharp dialogue and character- ensemble interactions gave it humanity, and Tom Hiddleston’s second portrayal of bad guy Loki was as charming as it was threatening. It is fun, energetic, a pop culture milestone, and knows what superheroes should be doing; fighting for those who can’t fight for themselves.
Reel Speak's Top 10 Marvel Films
  1. AVENGERS
  2. AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR
  3. IRON MAN
  4. CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER
  5. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY
  6. CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR
  7. CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER
  8. ANT-MAN AND THE WASP
  9. BLACK PANTHER
  10. THOR: THE DARK WORLD