Monday, October 30, 2017

A Reel Five: The STAR WARS & Disney Anniversary

Five years ago today, the movie world was given the surprise of a lifetime when the announcement was made that famed studio Disney would be purchasing the equally-famed LucasFilm and the STAR WARS franchise. Series creator George Lucas would be retiring, handing the reigns over to long-time producer Kathleen Kennedy, and remaining as a creative consultant for future STAR WARS films, beginning with EPISODE VII in 2015. It was an announcement that sent shockwaves through the long-time fanbase and the industry itself, and debate over the success of the sale rages on today. This Blogger has always said that time is the best test of any film, or films, so on this fifth anniversary of the re-birth of STAR WARS, it is worthwhile to take a look at what’s happened since that October day in 2012.

A long time ago (five years), in a galaxy far, far away (Hollywood), it was a somewhat dark time for the STAR WARS franchise. The galactic, industry-changing series of films, which had branched out into other media and merchandise, was like a sleeping giant…nearly dormant and just waiting for a wakeup. It had been seven years since Lucas’ Prequel Trilogy; three films which take place before the events of the Original Trilogy; A NEW HOPE (1977), THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980), and RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983), and in those seven years casual and diehard fans were still festering over the not-so-good Prequels and the edits that were made in the 1997 re-issue of the Original Trilogy. By 2012 the franchise was quietly coasting with sales from merchandise ranging from books to video games to an animated series (the very good CLONE WARS), and while the giant slept, the lasting memory fans had of their beloved STAR WARS was in the last three films, for the inside of a movie theatre is really where the giant lived.

All that changed with the announcement of the sale, and a new hope was lit. Disney already had a historic reputation over decades of beloved family films, with recent success with Pixar and Marvel. New LucasFilm president Kathleen Kennedy had a series of hits of her own, including most of Steven Spielberg’s films and the INDIANA JONES franchise. The sale included Lucas’ outline for episodes 7-9 (he has since stepped down from his creative consultant role), and STAR WARS seemed to be coming full circle; bringing back the beloved legacy characters such as Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Han Solo (Harrison Ford), and Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia), while fulfilling Lucas’ 40-year dream of a nine-episode saga.

With Disney at the controls, the results have been spectacular. The first film, THE FORCE AWAKENS, which serves as the 7th episode in the saga, was a critical smash, box office monster, and earned seven Oscar nominations. Although criticized in some circles for being too similar in structure to A NEW HOPE (so what), the film returned the energy, fun, and whimsy to the saga that the Prequels had left out. And perhaps more importantly, introduced us to new characters who instantly became pop culture icons; lovable droid BB-8, big-bad villain Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), and heroes Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega), and Poe (Oscar Isaac). The giant had been awakened and was ready for more.

And more came just a year after THE FORCE AWAKENS, when the first spin-off film in the saga arrived in the form of ROGUE ONE. Taking place in-between episodes III and IV, ROGUE ONE was, by admission, an experiment to see if a spin-off film could work. The experiment succeeded by being accepted by box office, fans, and critics, and again, created new iconic characters to be permanently added to history; such as heroes; Jyn (Felicity Jones), Chirrut (Donnie Yen), and K-2SO (Alan Tudyk). The December release dates (the previous six movies were traditionally released in May), allowed the fun of the season to grow; home for the holidays now included new STAR WARS in the theatre…making for re-bonded friendships and new relationships.

The past is prologue, and if the last five years are any indication, then the future, despite always being in motion, is bright for STAR WARS. The first two films from Disney (and the outstanding STAR WARS REBELS animated TV series) have brought the franchise back to the basics that its always thrived on; fun, adventure, and characters, and revitalized the giant for a new generation. In the immediate future we have THE LAST JEDI, serving as EPISODE VIII, coming in December, and next year another spin-off film with SOLO, which will explore the backstory of our favorite smuggler and scoundrel, Han Solo. If these films are done with the same amount of tender loving care that we’ve seen so far from Disney, then the next five years will be like stepping into a much larger world.

Friday, October 27, 2017

A Reel Review: JIGSAW

In 2004, director James Wan had his killer cinematic debut with SAW, in which the notorious Jigsaw placed victims in deadly “games” designed to teach a morality lesson about the value of life. It was a well-needed refresh of originality that the horror genre had been needing. Six convoluted sequels later, and seven years after the supposed final chapter, we come the eighth film in the franchise, JIGSAW.

Ten years after the death of the Jigsaw Killer, a group of victims (Mandela Van Peebles, Laura Vandervoort, Brittany Allen, and Paul Braunstein) with shady pasts find themselves trapped in a deadly maze of horrific traps, designed to force them to confess their sins. As they fail their tests, their bodies are found and investigated by two detectives (Callum Keith Rennie and Cle Bennett), and two coroners (Matt Passmore and Hannah Emily Anderson), and the trail leads them to believe that Jigsaw may not be dead after all…

JIGSAW is a film with two distinct storylines. The first spends its time in the deadly maze, where the group of victims, handpicked because of their sins, make their way through the house of horrors. The second is a police procedural with cops and coroners on the trail of the bodies, with the mystery if Jigsaw really did die five movies ago the connecting thread between the two narratives.

Long-time fans of this franchise will be happy to know that this has all the trademark strengths of a SAW movie, with horrific traps, amputations, bloodshed, misdirection, and plenty of twists and turns. But it also comes with its traditional weakness in one-dimensional characters. As usual, the victims are scummy people who probably deserve their grisly fates, so who cares about them…and the cops/good guys are unlikeable grumps who also deserve a saw-blade to the neck. It’s no fun to be around anyone in this film. As for the famed traps, this time they are bigger (a giant meatgrinder), lazier (a silo filling up with grain and pointy objects), and downright stupid (laser beams). The realm of believability gets hacked up within the first 10 minutes.

Directed by the Spierig Brothers, JIGSAW builds its narrative around misdirection and guess-work. The film may be going one way before veering off to another, and while there are some good surprises, it all feels very basic and been-there-done-that. There are a lot of elements borrowed from previous entries, and the long-awaited big twist ending comes with a shrug. Pacing is brisk and the 92 minutes fly by, and for an R-rated film the gore is on the light side. For a horror movie there is zero atmosphere, no tension building, and is very bland.

Acting is ho-hum. Laura Vandervoort and Hannah Emily Anderson get the heaviest lifting and handle their parts very well, and Mandela Van Peebles (son of Mario) is also very good. Everyone else just grumbles and screams.

It’s no real secret that the Jigsaw Killer does indeed show up and is once again brilliantly played by Tobin Bell, with the mystery of how he’s still appearing the real draw of the film. The ultimate explanation, again, borrows too much from previous films, and there is a lot that could have been wrapped up a lot tighter. This is a needless chapter in an already tired series, which as a film is lazily constructed, and as a horror flick doesn’t offer one goddamn scary moment. And besides the filmmaking flaws, it adds nothing to the overall series. Dumb and pointless.


Wednesday, October 25, 2017

A Reel Opinion: The Top 10 Horror Films

Horror movies are not for everybody. Not only do some people dislike being scared, but the genre as a whole often asks us to buy into some high-concepts, most of which border upon ridiculous. This Blogger has always been neutral on the genre; neither a disbeliever or a die-hard fan…but on occasion we get a great film that can transcend its horror obligations and work as true cinema. And like any other film, a horror flick can be judged by story, characters, acting, and technical merit…with a few added factors such as scariness and re-watchability.

Now, do you want to see something really scary?

This list is a combination of objectivity and of this Blogger’s favorites over the years, and that opens the creaky door for WITCHBOARD (1986). A story about a woman who gets obsessed with a spirit (or two) connected to a Ouija Board, this film scared the pants off me when the ultimate evil baddie, called Malfeitor, shows up out of the shadows in the form of a creepy old guy with a white beard, followed by a bowel-moving evil laugh. Mostly forgotten and basically obscure, WITCHBOARD is a night-terror for me and an easy entry into this Top 10.

Rob Zombie’s THE DEVIL’S REJECTS (2005), is also an easy entry into this list because it is one of the few horror flicks that makes it into my annual October rotation. A gritty throwback to the brutal and bloody 1970’s era of blunt filmmaking and backed by classic southern rock tracks, REJECTS tells the story of a family of serial killers who spend the film becoming some of the most despicable screen-villains in history. And then, in a genius move, the finale suddenly finds a way to make us feel sorry for them. It’s a flip-flop that is effective and makes the film memorable and noteworthy. And the closing scene is the best ever usage of Free Bird in a movie.

M. Night Shyamalan’s THE SIXTH SENSE (1999) gets a little too much attention for its big-wow twist at the end which turns the entire viewing experience upside-down. It’s great, but it often overshadows how good of an old-fashioned ghost story it really is. Heavily influenced by the great Alfred Hitchcock, M. Night creates plenty of scares, and most of all, a mystery…which keeps the audience engaged at all times.

It may not be the scariest film ever made (although it has its moments), but Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (1992) has a lot of strong points as a film. It is visually stunning, beautifully scored, has an iconic look in Gary Oldman’s Count Dracula, and as a Dracula/vampire story it draws heavily and faithfully from the book while also pulling material from nearly aspect of the vampire legend; Coppola did his homework here and it shows. Above all, it serves as a love story…which makes it one of the most unique entries in the genre.

Isolation is a scary thing. But what’s even more scary is being isolated with a killer beast hunting you. And what’s even more scary is being isolated with that killer beast in a place where there is nowhere to run or hide…and that’s makes Ridley Scott’s ALIEN (1979) a perfect horror flick. A nice mash-up of sci-fi and Horror, ALIEN brought about some of the most memorable scares and blood-splashing scenes in history.

Prior to 1984, there was Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy, and the Wolfman…and then the late and great Wes Craven introduced Freddy Krueger to the world in A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET. A killer who only exists in people’s dreams, Craven capitalized on the isolation factor, while inserting some real scares (Freddy’s creepy stretching arms and the body bag moving on its own scared the shite out of this Blogger) and a character which stands the test of time.

Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO (1960) is the great-granddaddy of horror films. Based on the best-selling book, Hitchcock solidified his legend as the master of suspense with some chilling scenes involving a staircase and a shower (simple things masterfully turned frightening), and is the earliest example of the slasher-genre. Coupled with a mystery and some shocking twists and turns, PSYCHO is a scare-fest and an exquisitely crafted movie.

Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of THE SHINING (1980) often gets criticized for not being faithful to Stephen King’s book of the same name and for having an ending which Horror fans and cinema buffs debate to this day. These criticisms don’t mean much, because Kubrick creates an atmosphere which creeps those shivers down the spine at all times. From a creepy little kid, ghostly twin-girls, spectral bartenders, a gut-twisting score…and a performance by a young Jack Nicholson, who exerts pure evil with just one glance, THE SHINING is a finely crafted film which still has a presence in pop-culture.

Pop-culture may have been forever altered by Steven Spielberg’s JAWS (1975) as well, but that’s not the only reason this film, about a killer shark which terrorizes a resort town, makes the list. JAWS is often overlooked as a Horror movie because it takes place during the bright summer and doesn’t involve slashers or any supernatural elements. But the scares are genuine. In 2015 this Blogger celebrated the film’s 40th anniversary by seeing the film on the big-screen, and the crowd, which contained many newcomers, jumped out of their seats in all the places Spielberg intended 40 years ago. JAWS hasn’t aged a day, and longevity is the best test of any film in any genre.

Having grown up in a religious family which truly believed that the Devil existed and could arrive at any moment, this Blogger was not allowed to watch William Friedkin’s THE EXORCIST (1974) as a child, and that was probably a good thing. THE EXORCIST, which tells the tale of a young girl possessed by the Devil and does battle with two priests, taps into that primal fear deep inside…that feeling and knowledge that pure evil does exist. The film takes that feeling and gives it a body, a face, and a voice…making for a frightening experience as good tries to do battle with the ultimate evil. Faith is shaken, beliefs are tested, and pants are pissed in as the scares come in doses. Friedkin somehow creates a film in which even during the quieter times, there is always a feeling of something being off, of something being wrong. It is un-nerving, disturbing, and gets everything right in horror and in film. THE EXORCIST is the top of terror.

  2. JAWS
  6. ALIEN

Monday, October 23, 2017

A Reel Review: A STAR WARS and HARRY POTTER Weekend

“Movies were meant to stay on the screen, flat and large and colorful, gathering you up into their sweep of story, carrying you rollicking along to the end, then releasing you back into your unchanged life. But this movie misbehaved. It leaked out of the theater, poured off the screen, affected a lot of people so deeply that they required endless talismans and artifacts to stay connected to it”

-Carrie Fisher

This quote by the late and beloved Carrie Fisher on the first STAR WARS not only speaks to George Lucas’ 1977 film but to the pop culture phenomenon that it started. STAR WARS began a still-in-effect tradition of films speaking to us so strongly that we find ourselves seeking more of the movie outside of the theatres, whether in be in merchandise, other media, conventions, cosplay, or in various other art forms. Two of the most prominent films to be deeply imbedded in pop culture for the last 40 years have been STAR WARS and HARRY POTTER, and both film-franchises were well represented this past weekend in Philadelphia with two large-scale events worthy of entry in any archives, which this Blogger and this Blogger’s Girlfriend were pleased to attend.

The weekend got off to a magical start with the 7th annual Harry Potter Festival in Chestnut Hill, PA, (and also the inaugural Pitman Potter Festival in Pitman, New Jersey). We were in attendance at Chestnut Hill, in which 12 square blocks were transformed into the HARRY POTTER town of Hogsmeade…where fans of all ages were able to take in vendors, games, and activities all inspired by the POTTER books, and most especially the films.

The bulk of the Chestnut Hill festival took place on Germantown Avenue, which with its cobblestone streets and tight-quartered, old-fashioned shops and stores, made it very much in character for the HARRY POTTER world. Shop-owners and their stores jumped into the cauldron head-first, and transformed their businesses into venues right from the films, and they, along with street vendors, were committed to selling hand-crafted merchandise; everything from brooms, pillows, scarves, art, and clothing…done with a loving hand and far from any corporate meddling. There was plenty of food to take in; including a stunning cake competition and plenty of butter-beer to go around. Fans and families came in costume inspired by the films, dressing as the most popular to the most obscure.

Perhaps the most impressive work was done by the Iron Hill Brewing Company, which transformed into The Great Iron Hall for the weekend. Their main dining area was decorated just like the Great Hall, bathrooms were found by following spiders, and the bathrooms themselves hinted at a certain Chamber now being opened.

Fans of all ages literally came by the train-load to Chestnut Hill, and by the time the hard-played Quidditch tournament had played its final match at Chestnut Hill College, it was clear that HARRY POTTER held a strong presence off the silver screen.

But the fun was just beginning…

With this year being the 40th anniversary of STAR WARS (read more about that HERE), the Philly POPS Orchestra offered two performances entitled A Star Wars Celebration: Featuring the Music of John Williams. The two concerts, held on Saturday and Sunday, featured a piece from each of the eight STAR WARS films, and just for good measure, all five of John Williams’ Academy Award winning scores.

Music Director Michael Krajewski served as not only conductor, but as a master of ceremonies. He guided the audience through each music selection in a way that spoke to STAR WARS fans and any possible newcomers in the audience. He was funny and energetic, and his knowledge of STAR WARS and film lore was most impressive.

The concert began with a medley of some of John Williams’ best scores (including SUPERMAN!), before officially beginning the program with the very first sounds of STAR WARS we ever heard; the famous 20th Century Fox theme followed by the classic STAR WARS opening scroll theme. From there, the music selections outside of STAR WARS included the main themes from JAWS, E.T., and yes, HARRY POTTER. The highlights of this section were easily the theme from SCHINDLERS LIST, and a medley from THE FIDDLER ON THE ROOF…the film which earned Williams his first Oscar.

The main STAR WARS section, after the intermission, had the best of the best, including The Imperial March, Cantina Band, Parade of Ewoks, and Across the Stars. The choral section of the orchestra flexed their magnificent voices on Battle of the Heroes and a selection from ROGUE ONE. The highlight was Duel of the Fates; a piece which has suffered from association with the divisive EPISODE I, but in a live setting proves its worth as a remarkable piece of music. The orchestra overall sounded tremendous, and did a fine job in yanking out every emotion possible; many laughs and tears happened. The lighting schemes were perfectly matched with each piece…adding to the thick atmosphere of sight and sound.

The set closed out with the magnificent The Jedi Steps and Finale from THE FORCE AWAKENS, which as a closing-credit piece featured the best music from the film. After a standing ovation, the maestro returned to close out the afternoon with the Raiders March from RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. Because why not.

By the time we stepped out of the venue, it was clear to us that this was a weekend to be long remembered. It was a statement to the power of film and all of its creativity and ability to leap out of the screen and stick with us, always.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

A Reel Opinion: THE BREAKFAST CLUB Criterion Edition

One of the more interesting debates to come out of the film world this week stems from the announcement from The Criterion Collection, which is set to release a new edition of John Hughes’ 1985 classic THE BREAKFAST CLUB. The release will be a new 4K digital restoration with a truck-load of special features, archival interviews, commentary, and over fifty minutes of never-before-seen deleted and extended scenes. The announcement has sparked some discussion about Criterion going with a popular, mainstream release, as opposed to their usual style of arthouse or rare and obscure films.

Criterion has been in the business of releasing “important classic and contemporary films” in new packaging with hard-to-find extras since 1984, and in recent years has earned a reputation for being the source to discover films that have flown under the radar of the average cinema person. They have also had a focus on international films, and using the best source materials, have been one of the leaders in restoring old movies to pristine condition. For some people, the inclusion of THE BREAKFAST CLUB into the Criterion clubhouse is like letting a guy in flip-flops into an exclusive black-coat-and-tie dinner.

In the past, Criterion has published major mainstream movies as a way to fund their future efforts to publish the obscure titles which require extensive restoration; Michael Bay’s action-flicks ARMAGEDDON (1998) and THE ROCK (1996) come to mind right away. They’ve also done the sci-fi cheesefest ROBOCOP (1987), and Kevin Smith’s goofy CHASING AMY (1997). Every one of these releases can be questioned if they deserve the Criterion treatment, but the company does need to keep the lights on…and if ARMAGEDDON pays for the restoration of high-end cinema, we’re the better for it.

This also comes down to the old question of what is art, and who gets to say if it is or not. Film-snobs seem to think they have the final say on what should get into the Criterion club, and by extension, decide if something is art or not. Maybe Criterion went with those mainstream releases because they see artistic merit and cultural impact in them, and not just dollar signs. The fact that the question can even be asked says there is something to at least be considered. The language of cinema was always meant to explore new territory, and to shut the door on any film without consideration is the opposite of what Criterion, and filmmaking stands for. And from a viewing point, this Blogger has always believed that films play out better for us when we don’t segregate them in our heads.

As for THE BREAKFAST CLUB, it is a film which not only defines the 1980’s, but to this day is the definitive film about life in high school. It may be over 30 years old, but it seems timeless outside of the pop-music selections, and a kid born after 2001 can easy relate to the characters and story. It’s a film that has proven its worth over time, and as this Blogger has always believed: longevity is the true test of any film. And that is the type of product Criterion should always be stamping their name on.


THE BREAKFAST CLUB Criterion edition will be released January 2nd.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

A Reel Opinion: The Top 5 Underrated Movies

Last week, this Blogger posted his Top 5 Overrated Movies, which you can read HERE. The blog was a look at the films that I find to be over-praised during their release and over time. The posting sparked some great discussion, and one loyal reader of Reel Speak suggested that I travel to the opposite end of the Earth and write about my Top 5 Underrated Movies. Never one to back down from a dare, here they are.

Compiling the list, I had to be careful to not make a list of Guilty Pleasures. What’s the difference between a Guilty Pleasure and Underrated? A Guilty Pleasure would be a film that we feel guilty about watching and never admit to anyone. Underrated is a movie that we show no shame in watching or praising, and feel that the world has mis-judged. This is a list of films that I find to be excellent and perhaps sadly forgotten as time has passed. These are the films which not only speak to me below the cockles, but deserve a lot more credit than they do now.

So here we go (again)…

5. THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (1951) – In 1982, horror director John Carpenter (of
HALLOWEEN fame), remade this film into a freaky gore-fest with Kurt Russell, which is now considered to be a classic in its genre. I like the remake fine, but I adore the original more. Directed by Christian Nyby and produced by the great Howard Hawks, it was adapted from a novella and told the tale of a scientific encampment and a U.S. Army flight crew which is terrorized by a brutish alien. It’s a survival tale at its simplest, and today the acting and style may seem dated, but it is still a creepy flick with plenty of surprises, scares, and characters we don’t mind liking or hating. One of Howard Hawks’ favorite types of characters, the good ol’ American boys who use their skills and bravery to overcome all odds, is all over the film, and it’s a comfort to watch. The black-and-white photography adds to the creepiness, and the film has many beats which not only Carpenter used in his remake, but James Cameron would copy in his classic horror film, ALIENS (1986). When classic black-and-white horror creatures are mentioned, everyone gravitates towards Bela Lugosi’s Dracula or Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein monster, and it drives me nuts that James Arness as the Thing is sadly left out of that list of towering horror creatures.

4. THE MUMMY (1999) – Speaking of horror remakes, Stephen Sommers’ shot at the 1931 classic
is probably my favorite on this list, and one of my top films of the 1990’s. It didn’t attempt to re-capture the vibe of a straight-up horror film (although it has some creepy and jump-scare moments), and instead embraced fun and high-adventure in the spirit of INDIANA JONES. It was also made as a love-letter to the Golden Age of Hollywood; with high-energy, fun characters, thrilling set-pieces, and vast desert scenes reminiscent of what David Lean once did in LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962). The cast of Brendan Fraser, Rachel Weisz, John Hannah, and Kevin J. O’Connor always look like they’re having a blast, and Arnold Vosloo has a screen presence worthy of any top 10 cinematic villain list. And the score by the late great Jerry Goldsmith is one of his very best. When Universal Studios began transferring their back-catalog to the glorious Blu-ray format, they took great care in THE MUMMY release, and it really shows. It’s a stunning presentation which this film deserves.

3. THE RIGHT STUFF (1983) – Philip Kaufman’s epic historical drama about the early days of America’s space program was a box office failure in 1983, and also suffered from a political
shitstorm when John Glenn was running for President (Glenn is prominently featured in the film, and the speculation was that the film would give Glenn an unfair advantage). Despite being a box office bomb, THE RIGHT STUFF still earned praise from critics and would win four of its 10 Oscar nominations. Today, it is often overlooked when the discussion moves to the great historical dramas; either because of its hefty three-hour running time, dated special effects, leftover political bull, or overshadowed by APOLLO 13 (1995). But as a movie it deserves high praise; the cast is an all-star lineup, the direction has classical sensibilities, Bill Conti’s score is wonderful, the drama and tension is there, and it has many triumphant moments to earn applause. It is a vastly quotable film, and one of the greatest that no one remembers.

2. THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES (2012) – Derek Cianfrance’s epic family drama, which goes through three generations of fathers and sons, took it on the chin upon release simply because audiences felt duped. The film’s two major stars, Bradley Cooper and Ryan
Gosling, were not in the film very much despite their faces being prominently displayed on posters; Gosling’s character checks out in the first act, and Cooper doesn’t show until then…and then vanishes from the film for stretches in favor of the younger cast. Looking beyond that, Cianfrance has crafted one great film here, one that serves as a grand statement on the Sins of the Father, along with serving as a crime drama; good cops, bad cops, lawyers, and good old fashioned bank robberies. And speaking of bank robberies, the long, unbroken tracking shot of police cars chasing a motorcycle through a cemetery is white-knuckle thrilling. And Mike Patton’s music is hauntingly beautiful. I’ve always been a sucker for father-and-son stories, as I believe they are the most powerful in film, (even more so now), and PINES is one of the best of them.

1. THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU (2004) – Speaking of father-and-son stories, Wes Anderson’s loving homage to real-life ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau boldly sails into that territory and beyond. Anderson’s work often gets dismissed as serious film because of his unique style that he

is locked into; quirky characters and music, bold uses of color, and absolute deadpan writing, acting, and camerawork. AQUATIC does have all that, but the storytelling beneath the style is one of his best. The script is remarkable as it fleshes out characters and situations with the simplest lines in the lightest effort, and each character gets his or her own arc and important moment in the large cast. Bill Murray plays the part of Steve Zissou, the aging ocean explorer/filmmaker who believes his best days are behind him, perfectly with the right amount of vulnerability, and his chemistry with is maybe-son Ned (Owen Wilson), reporter Jane (Cate Blanchett), and wife Eleanor (Anjelica Huston) leaps off the screen. The filmmaking is ambitious with filming taking place underwater (the cast had to learn how to scuba dive), and at sea (an old ship was purchased and re-purposed), and the action scenes (a pirate raid and rescue mission) are better than what many shaky-cam directors are trying to do today. Seu Jorge’s soundtrack of David Bowie songs in Portuguese on acoustic guitar is wonderful, and overall the film has a familiar, classic feel with elements from Moby Dick and The Great Gatsby present. The ending is an emotional wallop that comes in twos and is not easily predicted, and it serves as a sweet, comforting film that does not age at all…and longevity is the best test of any film.


Tuesday, October 10, 2017

A Reel Opinion: THE LAST JEDI Trailer

There is a lot to talk and write about in the movie world right now; Oscar Season is warming up, October has horror fans in full marathons and debate over their favorites, big releases from the two major superhero camps are on the horizon, and there are more than one scandal in Hollywood caused by one big jerk or another behaving badly. All juicy stuff, but all of it gets sent to the back pages when STAR WARS unleashes something new.

Last night, Disney and Lucasfilm presented the first, full-length trailer for the 8th episode in the saga, titled THE LAST JEDI. The trailer (HERE) and new poster (above) is the first look at new material for the highly anticipated film since the short teaser back in April. The trailer is packed with astounding visuals, intriguing dialogue, and big-wow moments from the old and new characters. Here are the highlights:

There is a lot of ambiguity going on with the dialogue we’re given. The opening monologue by the evil Supreme Leader Snoke (voiced and motion-captured by Andy Serkis), which speaks of a person being infused with great power, is presumed to be aimed at his current apprentice, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), but a quick cut to our hero Rey (Daisy Ridley), lets us know that the line was meant for her. This is then driven home by exiled Jedi Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), who expresses fear over the power that Rey has. A stunning revelation in Luke showing fear, for we all know that fear leads to the dreaded Dark Side. With Snoke showing some favoritism towards Rey, we have to be reminded of the old evil Sith trick of replacing each other with new, more powerful apprentices; the “rule of two”, in STAR WARS canon.

Another stunner was seeing Kylo Ren seemingly ready to murder his mother, General Leia (the late Carrie Fisher), which would presumably complete his turn towards the Dark Side…a trip which took a major step forward when he murdered his father, Han Solo (Harrison Ford), back in the 7th episode, THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015). Patricide and matricide in a STAR WARS movie is new territory for the franchise, and reminiscent of a classic Greek tragedy.

Visually, the film is a treat. Rian Johnson seems to have shot one hell of a film, as every shot is downright gorgeous. These two shots are this Blogger’s new favorites in the whole history of STAR WARS:

There is also something to be said about the style of filming, with a lot of extreme close-ups of the characters. This could be a throwback to THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980), which is considered by many to be the best in the series. That film, directed by the late Irvin Kershner, was put together with a lot of similar close-ups, which Kershner always considered to be the most interesting thing to ever be put in a movie frame, for close-ups express the characters. EMPIRE was a character-driven film, and the style seen so far in THE LAST JEDI suggests the same.

Some other great glimpses…

Finn (John Boyega) in combat with Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie)

Rey in agony, being tortured by Snoke.

And the ending, and oh my what an ending, has Rey seeking help to find her place. Her old enemy Kylo Ren extends his empty hand…nearly a mirror image of Rey at the end of THE FORCE AWAKENS when she seeks Luke.

And John Williams’ score is fantastic.

Overall, this new look at THE LAST JEDI is perfectly executed. It offers a lot of new footage and material without giving away too much, and offers enough questions to keep STAR WARS fans busy for a long, long time.


THE LAST JEDI arrives December 15th.

Friday, October 6, 2017

A Reel Review: BLADE RUNNER 2049

In 1982, director Ridley Scott introduced us to a futuristic world in which specialized police officers, called Blade Runners, hunt down and kill, or “retire” synthetic humans known as replicants. Far from just a standard sci-fi action flick, BLADE RUNNER took the time to explore themes of humanity and life, and today is regarded as one of the definitive science fiction films. Thirty-five years later, Scott has stepped aside in favor of a new director, Denis Villeneuve, who takes the story ahead to places that will surprise and impress long-time fans. 

Thirty years after the events of the first film, LAPD Blade Runner/Officer K (Ryan Gosling), is dispatched on an assignment to retire runaway replicant Morton (Dave Bautista). During the job, K discovers a deeper mystery with massive implications, which leads him to retired Blade Runner Deckard (Harrison Ford), and the company now in the business of manufacturing replicants; led by Wallace (Jared Leto), and his enforcer Luv (Sylvia Hoeks).

The first thing that must be said about BLADE RUNNER 2049 is that is impossible to take in without seeing its 1982 predecessor, as it is a direct sequel in every way despite taking place 30 years after. There are several storylines and themes from the first film that 2049 picks up and runs with, and it serves not only as a sequel but a natural, organic extension. A lot of credit right away needs to go to director Denis Villeneuve for not repeating the basic plotline of the first film and having his main character spend all of his time hunting down and blowing away replicants. This time, there is a mystery to solve, and what a mystery it is. The secrets unfold slowly like a great detective novel, and the first five minutes of the film offer the first of many shocking revelations that 2049 is packed with.

There is a journey for K to undertake as he sets out to unravel the mystery, and it takes him to places which has him questioning his own character and past. Villeneuve and his screenwriters do great work in making it feel natural, and several important, if not vital points from the first film are expanded upon in brilliant ways. From the end of BLADE RUNNER to 2049, it is seamless.

Fans of the original will be pleased to see that the unconventional pacing is still there; the film is no hurry to get anywhere as great care is taken to flesh out characters and plot. But there are no moments of boredom here as Villeneuve keeps a sense of forward momentum going, and the buildup towards the action scenes and revelations can be felt in the air. Special effects are stunning and offer some visuals that we’ve never seen before. Roger Deakins’ cinematography is absolutely jaw-dropping; the lighting and uses of color give 2049 a futuristic, yet natural beauty that demands to be seen on the big screen. The score provided by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch is outstanding, and recycles the old Vangelis theme to great effect.

Acting is superb. Ryan Gosling does his usual stone-face but has several moments to break out of it and show some real depth. Harrison Ford steps right back into his old Deckard shoes with ease, and a major confrontation towards the end allows this veteran actor to show just how good he can really be. Jared Leto is fascinating as the eccentric and oddball creator of the new replicant models, and his right-hand Luv, played by Sylvia Hoeks, is also wonderful to watch. Robin Wright comes in as K’s police captain and is very good, and Dave Bautista shows a new set of ranges in a limited role.  The show is absolutely stolen by Ana de Armas, who appears as K’s virtual girlfriend. She is a beauty on screen and gets some heavy-lifting to do while bringing the emotional center of the film; astounding considering her character is an illusion.

With a hefty running time of two hours and forty-five minutes, 2049 is a haul but manages to feel tight, and is good enough to make us want more. There is so much to appreciate in 2049; the story is fascinating and surprising, the characters are well-realized and feel natural, and the stakes are one of the best we’ve seen in science fiction. Denis Villeneuve has constructed not only a great sci-fi tale but a great film; one that can and will inspire discussion, and most importantly, make the events of its predecessor even more important. The world of the Blade Runners has never been better.


Wednesday, October 4, 2017

A Reel Preview: The Year in Film 2017 - Episode X

October, the first full month of glorious Fall, should be a month packed tight with horror films to get us into the (ahem), spirit of the season. But this year we’re (perhaps) treated to a grand milkshake of many genres of film; sci-fi, drama, action, some Oscar hopefuls, and yes, a few horror flicks. Here is a preview for the notable releases in the packed month of October.

It all picks up with…

BLADE RUNNER 2049 – Ridley Scott’s 1982 cult-classic finally gets a sequel, only this time it’s being directed by Denis Villeneuve, who brought us the most-excellent SICARIO (2015) and ARRIVAL (2016). Harrison Ford reprises his old role as Deckard, and he is joined by Ryan Gosling, Robin Wright, Mackenzie Davis, Dave Bautista, and Jared Leto.

THE MOUNTAIN BETWEEN US – Based on the novel of the same name, this romance/disaster/survival movie has Idris Elba (THOR) and Kate Winslet (TITANIC) as the only survivors of a plane crash in the wilderness. It is directed Oscar-nominated director Hany Abu-Assad (PARADISE NOW, OMAR).

THE FLORIDA PROJECT – In this drama, a mother and daughter make the best out of living in a small hotel. Stars Willem Dafoe.

BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99 – In a rare dramatic role, Vince Vaughn (WEDDING CRASHERS) plays a boxer turned drug runner turned convict who finds himself in a prison battleground. Co-stars Jennifer Carpenter and Don Johnson. It is directed by S. Craig Zahler, who brought us the cult-hit BONE TOMAHAWK in 2015.

UNA – Rooney Mara (THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO), plays a girl who hunts down the man who had an affair with her when she was 13 years old. Ben Mendelsohn (THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES) also stars.

GOODBYE CHRISTOPHER ROBIN – Domhnall Gleeson (THE FORCE AWAKENS) plays writer A.A. Milne, the creator of Winnie the Pooh in this biopic. Margot Robbie (SUICIDE SQUAD) co-stars. It is directed by Simon Curtis, who brought us MY WEEK WITH MARILYN in 2011.

BREATH – The directorial debut of Andy Serkis, who has made a career thus far out of motion-capture performance. His first film behind the camera has Andrew Garfield (HACKSAW RIDGE), playing a young man who only has three months to live after becoming paralyzed. It co-stars Claire Foy and Tom Holland (SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING).

PROFESSOR MARSTON & THE WONDER WOMAN – This film follows the life of Dr. William Moulton Marston and the inspirations he found to create the DC Comics legend Wonder Woman. Stars Luke Evans and Rebecca Hall.

GEOSTORM – Gerard Butler (300) plays a satellite designer who tries to save the world from a storm of massive proportions caused by malfunctioning climate-controlling satellites. It is the directorial debut of Dean Devlin, who has acted as a producer on INDEPENDENCE DAY (1996), and the 1998 GODZILLA.

ONLY THE BRAVE – Joseph Kosinski (TRON: LEGACY), directs this true-story drama about the firefighters who battled the 2013 forest fire in Arizona. The packed cast includes Josh Brolin, Miles Teller, Jeff Bridges, James Badge Dale, Taylor Kitsch, and Jennifer Connelly.

THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER – This psychological horror film has Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman as a couple terrorized by a small boy.

LEATHERFACE – The eighth film in the never-ending TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE series acts as a prequel to the original 1974 version. Stephen Dorff and Lili Taylor star.

JUNGLE – Daniel Radcliffe (HARRY POTTER) leads the way in this Australian survival film.

JIGSAW – Just when we thought it was safe to go back to the movie theatre during October, the SAW franchise returns. This eighth film in the franchise picks up a decade after the death of the famous Jigsaw killer (reprised by Tobin Bell).

SUBURBICON – George Clooney directs this crime comedy which was written by Joel and Ethan Coen. It stars Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, and Oscar Isaac.

THANK YOU FOR YOUR SERVICE – Based on the non-fiction book of the same name, Miles Teller (WHIPLASH), plays an American soldier struggling to adapt back to civilian life.


Next month, Reel Speak previews the month of November.

Monday, October 2, 2017

A Reel Opinion: The Top 5 Overrated Movies

This Blogger has always strived to keep things positive at Reel Speak. Sure, bad movies and cinematic assholes do get ripped here, and deservedly so, but despite the many problems mainstream Hollywood may have, I never wanted to jump on the everything-sucks train; that endless black hole of negativity where smart-ass movie bloggers just take a dump on everything, good or bad.

As the years pass, we all come across movies that we love, hate, loathe, and others that we just don’t quite get what all the fuss was about; movies that everyone hails to the high heavens and consider masterpieces or high art. Movies that get heaps of praise upon their release, and then worshipped as time passes. Recent events have prompted me to take a look at the films that I never quite understood where all the high accolades come from, and by keeping things positive, trying to figure that out can become an exercise in film criticism.

This very first edition of Reel Speak’s Top 5 Overrated Movies isn’t a list of films that are necessarily bad as they all have their merits, but they just didn’t speak to me and I’m left scratching my head over their popularity even after repeat viewings. The fact that these films appear on this list is credit to them right away

So here we go…

5. MOONLIGHT (2016) – It may be unfair to include this recent Oscar winner on this list as it’s only a year old and it hasn’t had the true test of time put to it yet, but I’m still fuming over it. Barry Jenkins’ drama about a young, underprivileged black boy coming to grips with his sexuality is absolutely an important topic to explore, but to me the film had no real plot, and with the exception of Naomi Harris, badly acted. There’s no real focus and it’s hard to find something to latch onto. This was the very rare occasion when the Academy really let me down. Again…yes it’s an important topic, but the name of the award is Best Picture, not Best Concept.

4. BLADE RUNNER (1982) – This is a film that I respect more than I could ever love. Ridley Scott’s futuristic sci-fi detective flick in which a cop hunts down a group of rogue androids is a visually stunning piece, supposedly conveying grand messages and ideas of what it is to be human. The ideas are definitely there, but they are not explored as deeply as everyone tells me they are. There have been seven different versions of the film since 1982 (annoying), and I’ve seen most of them several times…just waiting for that moment of illumination when I get it, but I’m still waiting. The film also has terrible, sluggish pacing with no sense of energy or momentum whatsoever. And I know it’s set in the future, but I simply can’t stand movies where characters dress weird for no reason.

3. SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (2008) – This stupid movie, which was one of the other times the Academy let me down, is the only one on this list which I’ve only seen once, because that was enough. Danny Boyle’s drama, which plays out unintentionally as a comedy, asks us to buy into a lot. The plot centers around a young Eastern Indian kid who wins the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire simply by remembering events from his past. Well if it’s that easy, sign me up! I can remember my own past! It was an approach that felt like a shortcut, and the main character spending most of his life chasing one girl became annoying in a hurry. This film was also the beginning of a near-decade of actor Dev Patel staring at the camera with his mouth hanging open; a stretch that he finally broke out of with the far superior LION in 2016.

2. BATMAN (1989) – This is the one film that I loathe the most on this list. Tim Burton’s earnest attempt to bring Batman to the big screen for the first time has many merits; fantastic set design and visuals, a great score by Danny Elfman, and for the most part, a very good cast. It also stepped far and away from the colorfulness of the old TV series and put the darkness back into the Dark Knight; an approach still in effect in today’s Batman movies. The first 20 minutes or so of the film are absolute perfection, but for me it all goes to shit as soon as Jack Nicholson’s character becomes the Joker. From there it turns into a dance-a-thon with a goddamn song-and-dance routine every time Joker appears; so much that it might as well be called BATMAN: THE MUSICAL. On top of that, Joker’s nefarious plot to tamper with makeup and shampoo is one of the dumbest ideas of all time; so dumb that the movie itself couldn’t sustain it with any consistency. This was a sign of things to come; eight years of terrible Batman movies.

1. PULP FICTION (1994) – To be clear, I don’t hate PULP FICTION at all. It is well-crafted, well-cast, well-acted, and the “overdose scene” is one of my favorite sequences ever filmed and edited. My real issue with PULP FICTION is that it’s ground zero for my biggest hang-up with director Quentin Tarantino; that he constantly gets a pass for doing things that other filmmakers get lambasted for. This film is derivative of a dozen or so other movies that came before it, and is basically one long homage to one thing or another; it’s almost like going to see a cover band play, and for some reason QT gets praised to no end for doing it, while guys directing STAR WARS or TREK or James Bond films get roasted for doing the same exact approach. Besides that, PULP FICTION never had much of a plot to me; it’s a movie about nothing, and it always felt like three different films that have nothing to do with each other. And actor Tim Roth just gets under my skin in everything he appears in. PULP FICTION fans have called it transcendent. I don’t think so.