Sunday, November 9, 2014

Movie Review of "Interstellar"

Director Christopher Nolan’s latest film, Interstellar, is an original sci-fi story, and at two hours and forty-five minutes, it’s a whopper! In the film, in an undocumented, seemingly near future, dirt and dust have ruined the planet’s food supply and water, leaving all life struggling to survive during harsh dust storms and long droughts. With this inability to sustain humanity, a now-extremely-defunct NASA (even school teachers believe the original 1969 moon landing was a hoax!) approaches Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a former NASA test pilot and engineer, to pilot a new expedition shuttle with a crew of four to enter a wormhole – located near Saturn – which will lead to another galaxy, and hopefully a new inhabitable world.
The only drawback to Cooper’s mission is having to leave behind his son, Tom (Timothee Chalamet), and daughter, Murphy (Mackenzie Foy), for an indefinite amount of time – if he returns at all. For the sake of his children and the rest of humanity, Cooper embarks on the mission – with his former professor Dr. Brand’s (Michael Caine) daughter, Amelia (Anne Hathaway), geographer Doyle (Wes Bentley), physicist Romilly (David Gyasi) and two robotic assistants, TARS (Bill Irwin) and CASE (Josh Stewart) – to seek out the three possible habitable planets with three different previously-sent astronauts on each.
Cooper (McConaughey) must say goodbye to his daughter, Murphy (Mackenzie Foy) before embarking on his space mission to another galaxy.

In a script by Nolan and his brother Jonathan Nolan (The Prestige, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises), one may think this story is Nolan’s attempt at taking on Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. But they would be wrong. Although Kubrick’s film – based on the 1948 short story The Sentinel by Arthur C. Clarke – is clearly an influence, the story of Interstellar is not quite as divided into parts like 2001. In this film, the human connection is explored with greater story technique than in Kubrick’s film. The story’s overall theme of love and sacrifice packs quite an emotional punch. As a father of two young daughters, to me, the film delivers a heartwrenching decision between seeing the big picture of giving years of your – and your childrens’ – life to save humanity or wanting to be there for your children. It is a dilemma which is brought about with great entertainment value here.

Some may believe the prospect of a situation like the one in Interstellar may be nothing but pure science fiction. However, with news such as the months-long drought in California, and the Kepler Telescope’s recentdiscovery of the most Earth-like planet yet (as seen in the video above), the film’s concept isn’t so much science fiction as the viewer may think. McConaughey does some of his best work here – even much better than his Oscar-winning performance in Dallas Buyers Club (that’s right, I said it). And Jessica Chastain proves once more why she is one of Hollywood’s best new talents. I believe both should be nominated for Academy awards. I was really wowed by young Mackenzie Foy who portrays the smart, rebellious scientific daughter Murphy (named after Murphy's Law). As for Hathaway, anyone who knows me, knows I’ve never been crazy about her. But I had to give credit where credit is due. She did magnificently in Les Miserables and The Dark Knight Rises. However, in this film, I don’t know whether it is her character, but she annoys me. I’d like to think it’s the character, but it’s not. It’s her.
The space station containing Cooper and crew begins to enter the wormhole to take them to another galaxy.
I really enjoyed Interstellar, but that’s not to say it didn’t have its flaws. The film may be a science fiction film, but I love how Nolan made it one of the most believable science fiction films I’ve ever seen. And I’ll stick by that claim – even though the last twenty minutes takes a gigantic leap into extreme science fiction, making the viewer question whether what happens could really happen. But that is the beauty of science fiction. It tests our thinking, our emotional and logistical/mental understanding and allows us to “think outside the box” (so to speak) when it comes to our lives and our place in the universe. Some may be turned off by the last 20 minutes of this film, and I originally did not know quite what to make of it at the time, but, after having time to have digested the material, I liked most of it. There was only one particular aspect at the end which I didn’t agree with – as a parent. But I cannot say it without giving away one of the film’s major plotlines. Yes, Interstellar is long – at 2 hours, 45 minutes, but with films like Cloud Atlas, Braveheart, and Saving Private Ryan, a long run-time is not such a bad thing. And it’s not nearly as trite as films like Armageddon (don’t get me wrong, I like that film), Deep Impact, Mission to Mars, or Red Planet. But, while some critics may think it too emotional, I believe that is one of its best features. If you’re looking for some run-of-the-mill action/romance blockbuster, go rent Transformers 4. With its smart science speak, emotional depth and superb performances, Interstellar is a must-see for any science fiction fan. I think it leaves last year’s Academy Award darling Gravity in the dust. In an age of non-original films based on books, video games, comic books, cartoons, true stories or remakes of older films, Interstellar proves the paramount filmmaking of legendary directors such as Spielberg, Coppola, Lucas, Scorsese, and, yes, Kubrick, lives on in the filmmakers of today.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Movie Review of "Rudderless"

            By this point in this year, I usually would reserve my praise for a film until the end-of-the-year picks for Jay's and my “Top Films” of the year article. However, after viewing the directorial debut from actor William H. MacyRudderless, I can’t withhold such a truly great film from moviegoers any longer! I have not seen such a wonderful, well-crafted film and story centered around music since 2007’s Once. In the film, Sam (Billy Crudup) is a successful advertising executive who is driven and addicted to his job, but loves his son, Josh (Miles Heizer). When tragedy strikes in the form of Josh’s untimely death, Sam is left heartbroken and lost. And, in the usual plot device of these types of films, Sam spends most of his nights in a drunken haze, trying to escape and hide from a past too heart-wrenching to face.

            When his ex-wife, Emily (Felicity Huffman), gives Josh’s music recordings to Sam, Sam takes a trip to the local bar and drunkenly performs one of the songs (“Home”) before a small crowd. The next morning, a young local timid musician named Quentin (Anton Yelchin), impressed by Sam’s song, visits him to try and convince him to play more of Sam’s songs together. Sam reluctantly agrees and the two become a local hit. However, there is more to the story. I could tell you what more there is, but that would be robbing the audience of experiencing the importance of the story themselves. What I can say is that this film (and story) has a lasting effect on the viewer; well, it did on this viewer, anyways! It makes you question people’s (and maybe your own) preconceived notions of judging others.

Sam (Billy Crudup) sings one of his late son's songs to try and find a way of connecting to him.

           The beauty of the story is that it starts off somewhat predictable and light, but then turns into something all the more dire, and the way this aspect is revealed within the film is well done by Macy, who may have a future as a director. The story is a testament to the healing and uniting power of music, and it entices the viewer to want to see how the story of these two misfits will turn out. The acting is very impressive – particularly from Crudup, who proves here why he is one of the best underrated actors today and why he was so damn likeable in the 2000 hit Almost Famous. Yelchin also wows as Quentin, and Huffman takes a role which is small in terms of screen appearance but is paramount to the film, nonetheless. I was not impressed with Selena Gomez as Kate, and felt that any no-name actress could have played that part; although the role is important to the story, I felt like having Gomez play the part was merely a chance to have a noticeable celebrity name on the bill.

The band Rudderless (l. to r.: Ben Kweller, Crudup, Anton Yelchin; and foreground drummer: Ryan Dean) soon become a local hit with the songs from Sam's son.

            Of course, in a film that revolves around music, it is detrimental to the film to have great music, and Rudderless does that in spades. From the original score by Eef Barzelay to the original music as performed by the band Rudderless (consisting of Crudup, Yelchin, Ryan Dean, and real professional musician Ben Kweller), written by Charlton Pettus and Simon Steadman. Songs such as “Stay With You” (featured in the trailer), “Over Your Shoulder,” and “Sing Along” are better than anything I’ve heard on contemporary mainstream radio! The lyrics to the songs also correlate to the plot as Quentin becomes more confident and Sam sings the song as catharsis to deal with the loss of his son.         

Rudderless is in select theaters now and available to rent or purchase through iTunes and Amazon Instant, which means it most likely will not be noticed this year, it won’t win any awards, and it will hardly be noticed by movie audiences. In fact, I doubt most people who see the post of this review won't read it simply because they haven't seen it advertised on TV a thousand times or because they "don't know what it's about" ... because it's not based on a book, “true life” story, cartoon, comic book, toy, video game, etc. (which most major-released films are these days). And that is a real shame because I would take one Rudderless over ten Transformers Part 4s or twenty Hunger Games! I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Sometimes, the best films are the ones where the story is rather seemingly simplistic. In other words, less is more. The original story of Rudderless – no matter how simplistic – is a more welcomed cinematic work in today’s age when all the major film releases that seem to be made are sequels, remakes, and adaptations (as previously mentioned). As this film critic gets older and takes in all the cinema he can (clocking in over 2,700 films), it’s difficult to impress me much nowadays as the films of today’s stories all seem to be knock-offs of other films made 10, 20, 30, 40, even 50 years ago. I hate to admit that I’ve grown rather cynical with mainstream cinema, even though I love my comic book adaptations (as long as they’re good) as much as the next film- and comic book-geek. But with films like Rudderless, there is proof that there are still filmmakers out there whose material can impress a cynic by having great, original material, just yearning to be watched … just so long as it can find an audience. And I’m more than happy to be that cynic who makes that discovery. While the end of Rudderless is not some major revelation or epic closure, what is revealed is one man’s awakening to a journey he had to take and it's that small, simplistic journey the viewer is privy to which definitely makes this one of the best films of the year … if not, at least, of the past five years!

Friday, August 1, 2014

Movie Review of "Guardians of the Galaxy"

The Marvel Films juggernaut does it again. Producing some of the best comic book adaptation movies today, Marvel and Disney know how to make action-packed, emotional, funny films that most audiences enjoy. Their 2012 megahit The Avengers pretty much cemented their status and they could make pretty much any film they wanted to make. So when it was announced they would be adapting the 2008 comic Guardians of the Galaxy (rebooted from the 1969 classic title), most fans and critics asked, "What? Who?" Unless you were a diehard fan, you didn't really know who this group was or their place in the Marvel universe. Well, I too didn't know much about the Guardians and, fortunately, you don't need to know anything about the group in order to enjoy this film.

Tying the film to The Avengers, we get a better look of the villain featured in the post-credits scene of The Avengers -- Thanos. Even though I don't know about the Guardians, I've known a long time about Thanos. Basically, he's the big big bad of the Marvel universe ... and in one of the greatest major comic events of the early 1990s, Thanos obtains the Infinity Gauntlet. In this film, Thanos (Josh Brolin) has assigned Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) of obtaining one of the Infinity Stones (which make up the Infinity Gauntlet) so that he may have the ultimate weapon in the universe.  

Intergalactic thief Peter Quill a.k.a. Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) finds out that destructive things come in small packages!

Enter the ragtag group of outlaw misfits: the thief Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), the assassin -- and adoptive daughter of Thanos -- Gamora (Zoe Saldana), the brutal warrior Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), and the duo of unruly bounty hunters Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel). This group forges an unlikely bond as they reluctantly team up to re-capture the stone and save the galaxy.

The film has a lot of action but also plenty of humor (coming mostly from Cooper's Rocket and Bautista's Drax), with the number of casualties to a minimum; I think the last Marvel film to have a "hinted-at" body count was The Avengers. Marvel does this to keep the kids packing the theaters, but also as not to offend anyone. Also, the soundtrack to Guardians -- as heard through Quill's mix tape -- rocks with a lot of classic pop rock songs. While some may be put off by this addition of safe classic hit songs, they are used in the best way. My only grudge with the film is near the end when the Guardians all finally confront Ronan. Star-Lord's confrontation in particular is what I found unrealistic, but it doesn't take away from the overall quality of the film.

Director James Gunn, who, to me, wrote and directed one of the best contemporary realistic superhero movies -- Super, proves with this film that he can also take the lead on big-budget productions. I'm not sure I liked this film more than X-Men: Days of Future Past, but it was highly entertaining and definitely beat out The Amazing Spider-Man 2! Chris Pratt does a great job of carrying the film, and even though I think she's a bit of an overrated actress, Zoe Saldana is wonderful in this! She's the right mix of kick-ass and vulnerability ... but that doesn't make her some pretentiously tough caricature nor a wilting flower that needs to be saved (even though she is saved at one point in the film)!

Sisters Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Gamora (Saldana) get a chance to work out their sibling rivalry.

For a role that is completely CGI, Bradley Cooper does wonders with Rocket -- a genius albeit rude raccoon who doesn't exactly know he's a raccoon. There were plenty of one-liners of his with which I uncontrollably laughed out loud. Former wrestler Bautista also has decent comedic timing besides his expectant physical presence. All together, this group of misfits makes for a team more likeable than the Avengers, making this a fun film to watch.

Sure, Guardians of the Galaxy fits into the popcorn summer blockbuster fare, but, fortunately, it's not annoying, mind-numbing bile ... like most of the blockbusters have come to be the past two years. If you're looking for a fun, action-packed film -- whether taking your kids or not -- then this is definitely the one to see!

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

8 Great TV Shows You Probably Aren't Watching

I did a list like this last year where I highlighted some of the either lesser known, underrated and/or misjudged TV shows which I thought were pretty darn good compared to all of the usual waste on television nowadays. So I'm here again to point you in the direction of some TV shows which have premiered within the last year that you most likely are not watching. These shows -- whether from a different country or premiering on streaming channels like Netflix -- are some of the best around! First, let me warn you, there are NO reality TV shows on this list! That's because reality TV is uncreative and uninspiring. Please note that these shows (some of which are still on the air) are currently available either to watch on Hulu, Netflix, OnDemand/cable, or on DVD, and they are listed in alphabetical order. If you have watched -- or are watching -- any of these shows, good for you. Here are some more recommendations you may like. I should say that whereas my previous July 2013 list mostly had dramas on it (and I stand by those dramas: Arrow; The Booth at the End; Endgame; House of Cards; Misfits; Once Upon a Time; Orange is the New Black; Sherlock; and Supernatural -- see the list here), this list just so happens to have a majority of comedy on it; it was a good season for new comedies. So, let's get to it:

About a Boy
THE PLOT: Based on Nick Hornby's (High Fidelity, Fever Pitch, A Long Way Down) novel of the same name, the show centers on one-hit wonder songwriter Will Freeman (David Walton) who never has to work thanks to the royalty checks he receives after writing one famous Christmas song. He lives the life of a somewhat selfish man-child, doing what he wants whenever he wants and dating many women. This all changes when his new next-door neighbors Fiona (Minnie Driver) and Marcus (Benjamin Stockham) move in. What starts off as Will using Marcus to attain women transforms into Will actually liking the 11-year-old and teaching him the "guy stuff" his overprotective mom can't teach.

WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH: Unlike most predictable comedy where one sees Will and Fiona getting romantically involved, Hornby's story does not go that route. The two know they are wrong for each other and have no romantic feelings for one another, but their common link is Marcus, played with a funny-but-endearing awkwardness by Stockham. However, this show is not for kids as sexual content is mentioned throughout the show. I have to admit that I read the book a long time ago and saw the 2002 movie adaptation with Hugh Grant, but didn't care much for either. However, this is a comedy that is endearing and full of heart without overloading on happy or coming off as corny.

THE PLOT: This urban fantasy drama has too many twists and turns to give a drawn-out plot summary so I'll simply say the show is about a young girl named Bo Adams (Johnny Sequoyah) who has telekinetic powers (think a very young Jean Grey from Marvel Comics' X-Men) -- and maybe more -- who is being hunted by a wealthy businessman (Kyle MacLachlan). Her only hope are a small group of the businessman's former employees (Delroy Lindo, Jamie Chung, Katie McClellan) and former death row inmate William Tate (Jake McLaughlin), who help her evade an institution which is hellbent on using her powers for evil and greedy purposes.

WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH: First off, the young actress who portrays Bo, Johnny Sequoyah, has a presence that leaves you constantly cheering for and liking this character! The show is produced by J.J. Abrams (Alias) and was created (and produced) by Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity), giving it some heavy creative cred! The show has a basic helping-someone story-of-the-week, but there is also the overall arc of what Bo can do and why she is so important to the evil corporation headed by MacLachlan. The best thing about this show isn't so much the "window dressing" of the powers, or the action, or the drama; it's the overall display of helping people and the kindness which is born from it. I started watching this show at the same time that ABC's Resurrection premiered, and whereas I lost interest with Resurrection, this has kept me coming back for more!

THE PLOT: Kevin Pacalioglu (Tyler Labine) is a honest-to-a-fault slob who is going nowhere -- a deadbeat, if you will. But he has one thing going for him that not many do. He can see and talk to ghosts. With hardly no ambition, Kevin takes on cases to help fulfill a dead person's unfinished business so said dead person can pass on "into the light," and soon figures out -- with the help of his drug dealer (Brandon T. Jackson) -- that he can make some money while doing so. The only thing standing in his way is the greedy Camomile White (Cat Deeley), a famous psychic who is simply a fraud. 

WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH: This may sound serious but it is one of the best new comedies to premiere this season. Labine is used to playing lovable ne'er-do-wells and he has mastered it for this show. Plus, the added romantic interest of Labine's Kevin with Camomile's assistant Sue (Lucy DeVito) is a welcome addition. Fans of the Showtime 2003 cult favorite series Dead Like Me will love this show!

THE PLOT: Ricky Gervais (BBC's The Office) plays Derek, a somewhat “slow” 50-year-old volunteer at a small old-folks’ nursing home. Derek is a kind, forgiving, gentle, easygoing man who sees the good in everyone and lives his life being as positive as possible. Now, this may sound like a goody-goody show, but, with Gervais’ trademark writing on it, the show is realistic, charming and poignant – all without the viewer rolling their eyes in annoyance or disbelief. Derek sees the good in everyone, from his one-time crush, Hannah (Kerry Godliman) – the head caretaker of the home – to the nursing home curmudgeon maintenance man Dougie (Karl Pilkington). 

WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH: I had my doubts upon watching this show, but was taken completely by surprise at how great it is! The characters are all loveable -- even Kev (David Earl) -- and the acting is amazing. I am actually in awe about how convincing Gervais is as Derek. What I enjoy most about this dramedy (drama-comedy) series is that it has more emotionally honest heart than any show I've seen in the past decade! The first season finale is one of the finest episodes of television! The series is shot in the same style as Gervais' Office -- told through interspersed interviews with the camera. The entire first season is already available on Netflix and the entire second season is set to premiere on May 30. 

The Goldbergs
THE PLOT: Adam Goldberg (Sean Giambrone) is a geeky 11-year-old youngest child living in "1980-something" with his family: his father Murray (Jeff Garlin); his overprotective, overbearing (s)mother, Beverly (Wendi McLendon-Covey); his older sister Erica (Hayley Orrantia); his big brother, the desperate know-it-all Barry (Troy Gentile); and his grandfather, Pops (George Segal). The show follows Adam as he tries to brave the pitfalls of living with his loud family and making it through junior high -- overcoming obstacles such as girls, gym class, and getting through each day with as little humiliation as possible.

WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH: Before the series premiered, I had heard comparisons to the classic late 1980s/early 1990s coming-of-age classic The Wonder Years (which took place from 1968 to 1973). I knew Goldbergs could not come close to that show and thought it awfully pretentious of anyone to compare it to such an all-around great TV show. Nevertheless, I tried it and it didn't grab me. But, at the behest of my wife, I tried it again, and, myself being a child of the 1980s, I found myself loving the 1980s references and all-around feel; I also feel a sympatico with Adam (I was the dorky little movie fanatic too!). The fads. The styles. The music. The pop culture. The movies (watch the episode about the video store and you can definitely relate!). It's all in there. While the show is no Wonder Years, it does have an older Adam narrator, played by pop culture geek icon and comedian Patton Oswalt, and the stories are appropriate for a younger audience -- something all too rare nowadays, even on primetime channels and broadcasts. Also, I love that at the end of the show the creator -- the real Adam Goldberg -- shows actual video footage he took in the 1980s, often showing the real characters shown in the night's episode.

Silicon Valley
THE PLOT: Created by Office Space writer, Beavis and Butt-Head creator Mike Judge, this show focuses on Richard Hendriks (Thomas Middleditch), a computer program developer who, while working on his music-matching website called Pied Piper, creates a lossless compression algorithm that could revolutionize the Internet. Joining him in starting his new company are Erlich Bachman (T.J. Miller), owner of a business "incubator"; Canadian LeVeyan Satanist Bertram Gilfoyle (Martin Starr), Pakistani programmer Dinesh Chugtai (Kumail Nanjiani), and business strategist Donald "Jared" Dunn (Zach Woods).

WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH: Taking the internet start-up craze which has sprout up in the real-life Silicon Valley, California, this show takes the idea of the nerds from CBS's The Big Bang Theory -- only placing them without the censoring limitations of being on a primetime channel. Judge's workplace humor and the offbeat storylines, including a spaced-out billionaire venture capitalist (Christopher Evan Welch), make this show fun and leave you with a feel that this show could go anywhere.

Surviving Jack
THE PLOT: Dr. Jack Dunlevy (Christopher Meloni) is a no-nonsense ex-military man who becomes a full-time parent when his wife (Rachael Harris) decides to go to law school, and he uses his unorthodox methods to raise his teenage kids, Frankie (Connor Buckley) and Rachel (Claudia Lee).

WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH: Whereas The Goldbergs covers the 1980s nostalgia angle, FOX's Surviving Jack covers the 1990s, of which I can also relate since I was in high school in the early 90s -- just like the teenage protagonist in this show. The 90s music really takes me back! And I have to admit that the wonderful Christopher Meloni's character seems like a caricature of my own father. This show is based on the book I Suck at Girls by Justin Halpern, who also wrote and created Sh*t My Dad Says, which gives you an idea of the kind of humor you're in store for.

Trophy Wife
THE PLOT: Kate (Malin Akerman) is a young, attractive party girl who marries professional middle-aged lawyer Pete (Bradley Whitford). Little does she know that when she married him, she would be marrying into his family too -- including his two children, Hillary (Bailee Madison; different from the actress in the pilot trailer below) and Warren (Ryan Lee), their mother (and Pete's first ex-wife), the stuffy Dr. Diane Buckley (Marcia Gay Harden); and Bert (Albert Tsai), and his adopted mother (and Pete's second ex-wife), the artsy, free-spirited Jackie (Michaela Watkins). Together, they all form one of the most unlikely-yet-loving family to be seen.

WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH: ABC had already hit a comedy homerun regarding unlikely families with its mega-successful Modern Family. They decided to make another quirky comedy and -- I have to admit -- it works! Akerman's Kate is not some dumb blonde and genuinely cares for her husband's kids -- and even his exes! Watkins' Jackie is hysterical! And Harden's cold Diane is brilliantly portrayed. The kids are all funny too, but what makes this series so watchable is that it has a lovable zaniness to it that makes you care about these characters, taking everyday family issues and problems and putting its own spin on it. In fact, the show is a lot different now compared to the first couple of episodes shown in the trailer below. If there is any episode you should watch, it is the Christmas episode! I promise you've never seen one done like this -- in Hangover-type fashion (every grown-up is hilarious in it)!

Monday, May 5, 2014

Movie Review of "The Amazing Spider-Man 2"

After watching the first Amazing Spider-Man, I believed (and mostly hoped) the sequel would be better. I didn't agree with the writers' and director Marc Webb's idea of making Peter Parker this artsy, skateboarder, almost-emo teenager who has good looks and is more of a loner outcast rather than a flat-out awkward geeky nerd; I write this off as the new filmmakers adapting the "Ultimate Spider-Man" comics, which were released in 2000 and re-imagined the entire Spider-Man universe for a more younger, contemporary audience. But I liked the inclusion of Gwen Stacy -- especially since I like Emma Stone. When I heard the news that the sequel would have more of Spidey's villains in it -- namely RhinoElectro and Harry Osborn/Green Goblin -- I became worried because the last time three villains were included in one film (Sam Raimi's 2007 Spider-Man 3), it flat-out sucked!

With much caution, I walked into the theater tonight and bought my ticket for The Amazing Spider-Man 2, and I was nowhere near as impressed as I've been by Marvel's other superhero films. People can say what they will about Disney and Marvel teaming up, but it beats the hell out of what Marvel and Sony put out! This film doesn't even stand close to other Marvel films such as Iron ManThe AvengersX-Men: First Class (which I know is from the team of Marvel and 20th Century Fox), or Captain America: Winter Soldier (see Jay's review here), which I loved despite finding one slight hiccup in it.

Fortunately, putting in the three aforementioned villains is not what hindered the plot of this movie so much, but I did find the adaptation of Electro (Jamie Foxx) lacking -- from his cheesy autotuned voice to his horrible reimagining to his Joel Schumacher Batman-film-like origin (just take a pinch of Jim Carrey's obsession as Edward Nygma/Riddler and add a dash of Uma Thurman's origin as Poison Ivy and voila!). Even when Electro gains the ability to materialize out of air, I swear the music playing (written by composer Hans Zimmer) sounds just like the music "Pruit Igoe & Prophesies" by Philip Glass used in the 2009 movie adaptation of Watchmen when Dr. Manhattan (also a blue "energy man") is "born."

Oh, look! An outtake from Zack Snyder's 2009 movie adaptation of Alan Moore's classic comic, Watchmen, with the corporealization of Dr. Manhattan Oh, wait ...
What does work for this film is that classic friendship-turned-sour relationship between Peter (Andrew Garfield) and Harry Osborn, played by the impressive Dane DeHaan, who -- let's face it -- was born to play a villain (he's got that look); check him out in Chronicle! One of my favorite scenes in this film is the short scene between Spidey and Osborn, who is asking Spider-Man for his blood. To me, this is one of the best written and acted scenes in the film and I wish it was just the slightest bit longer.

The other thing done right is the relationship between Peter and Gwen Stacy (Stone). Their chemistry is great (which might have something to do with the fact that they're dating in real life), and the film addresses the expected guilt of Peter's dating Gwen even though he promised her dying father (Denis Leary) he would stay away from her. However, there was one scene at the Oxford University New York office they shared which felt awkward and forced. The best thing the filmmakers did pull off was an inevitable plotline that any Spider-Man fan or reader will know. I don't want to give it away but I will say the way this scene was shot, acted and written was very well-done, and it left me wondering where the filmmakers will take the franchise from here. I also liked the addition of Osborn's assistant Felicia (Felicity Jones), who is most likely a reference to Felicia Hardy -- Black Cat in the comics.

My only quip about the very end is -- I have to admit -- on a personal note. The way Gwen's inspiration is conveyed to Peter takes a bit of a rip-off from the end of my book The Midknight between the protagonist Jesse and his girlfriend Vanessa (which I wrote in 2004, long before this film was written or shot). But, that's neither here nor there about the overall quality of this film. With this film, I stand by what I said about the first Amazing Spider-Man: it's a film that is entertaining, but not all that memorable -- which is a shame for a Spider-Man film! This film merely is. I loved director Marc Webb's 500 Days of Summer, but his adaptations of everyone's favorite web-slinger are nowhere near great superhero territory. However, I am excited by the spin-off of this film, which will focus on six of Spidey's notorious villains from his rogues gallery -- the Sinister Six. Even though I am not a big Marvel fan, I loved reading the Spidey comic when this super-villain team came on the scene (I still own the 6-part "Return of ..." run under Erik Larsen'art)! So when I saw Rhino's exoskeleton, Doctor Octopus' arms, and Vulture's wings, it's safe to say I was definitely on-board with that film, which is the next one to be released. Overall, the film was OK (definitely better than the first) and will suffice anyone jonesing for a superhero film until the release of X-Men: Days of Future Past later this month, but I wouldn't rave about or praise it.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

"The Eyes are the Windows to the Soul"

The fresh, salty sea air fills my nostrils as I inhale a long deep breath, leaving a smile on my face. Even from seven miles away, I could still smell the ocean. The town hall I’m walking into looks like a private home rather than an official municipal building, and it serves a small town – approximately 600 residents. It’s been eighteen months since I started my job here and for the first time in my search for a career, I feel as if I’ve found one that fills me with a sense of purpose. Strolling through the “Employees Entrance” located at the rear of the building, I swipe my time-punch card, the digital numbers reading 8:23 a.m. The small, short hallway is dark and cold as I’m the first one to arrive and the weather outside has recently shifted with the fall season. At the end of the hall is a locked door with an office to the left and one to the right.
“Morning, Eric,” I call out to the man in the left-hand office. He is a big man in height and girth, with a shaven bald head, a goatee and glasses.
“Morning. How are you?” he asks through the tobacco chew wedged in his mouth between his cheek and teeth.
“Good,” I answer. It’s the same old, same old.
I turn to the right-hand office, the gold plaque on the door reading Town Clerk in black letters, take my keys out of my pocket and unlock the door. A flick of the light switch brings life to the slumber of my office. No voicemail light on my phone, I turn on my computer and walk out to the lobby to start a pot of coffee, which I’ve recently taken over with my Starbucks Blonde Veranda – a vast improvement compared to the sludge previously provided from some offsite generic coffee company.
The smell of the coffee roasting begins my day and I notice three of the town's volunteers are holding a balance class for senior citizens in our town hall chambers. I walk down a short hall through the foyer and unlock the door for the chamber room so they can get in to immediately set up. When I return to my desk, I sit down and see the first image to catch my eye. Three faces with frozen smiles stare back at me. The largest face belongs to a woman with prematurely graying hair mixed in with auburn brown, making her hair seem more blond than gray, a big grin on her face and gleaming brown eyes. Beside each cheek of her face are two small, round faces – one seven-year-old with long brown curly hair, blue eyes, a slight spattering of freckles upon her cheeks and a smile betraying her desire for adventure and competition; the other a five-year-old replicate of her mother when she was her age, with short straight brown hair, and a dimpled smile not as wide as the other faces pictured, showing her introverted, creative nature. Behind them is the small blue-gray one-story house we moved in after transplanting from Maryland. After living in the busy, hostile urban areas of Maryland most of my life, I promised that if I had my chance, I would find a nice relatively quiet town and spend the rest of my life in peace. It is a warm, cozy home in a comforting, quiet neighborhood, located just ten minutes from my work.
"Could you help me set up the room, Matt?" a female voice asks.
My thoughts are interrupted by one of our volunteers, Susan, who is heading the balance class. The coffee will have to wait. I follow her into the room and can see a small group of the elderly people entering the building. One of them, Mr. Williams, uses a walker. I look at him and can picture him as the once-tall muscular man he once was -- a veteran of the Navy -- now hunched over and suffering from the effects of Parkinson's disease. He is shaky but his wife is by his side to help him -- in sickness and in health. I greet them both with a warm hello, hoping my wife is as caring and patient if we are ever in that situation come our golden years. I walk up to the front of the room and begin connecting the laptop for a PowerPoint presentation -- but failing miserably. Then I hear a slight shuffle and peer up in time to look toward the back of the room and see Mr. Williams lose his footing and fall with full force toward the floor. Everything moves as if in some cheesy slow motion movie effect. I see his feet close together, as if they are bound. The fall is so quick and inevitable; the aging man's Parkinson's prevents him from raising his hands to break his fall. Susan, Mrs. Williams and the others let out cries and yelps as Mr. Williams' body meets the ground with a loud thud, his thin skin showing a ripple as it meets the hard floor. My body takes over from my brain and I'm over to him before I can think of what to do.
Mrs. Williams is already trying to help her husband of 68 years up but her own frailty denies her. She tries a second time as I grab Mr. Williams' other arm, neither one of us noticing the bloody scrapes on his hand and elbows. Mr. Williams appears frail but when I first pull to lift him up, his strong frame makes him heavier than expected. This time, Mrs. Williams' strength kicks in and we carefully help him to a chair.
"Oh, George!" his wife says, almost as if nagging him.
Mr. Williams looks up to me with bewildered blue eyes, the frightened look of a man unable to control his own self, almost unable to comprehend what had just happened. No words come out but merely a struggling, short, whispered moan as if he had just seen a ghost and were unable to speak.
"Are you alright, Mr. Williams?" I ask, looking at his hands and legs to make sure there were no cuts or broken bones. My eyes peruse his ears, the top of his balding head, his wrinkled forehead, noticing his skin as thin as crinkled paper. There is a big red patch of blood on the back of his right hand and a red blossom has spread on his white cotton dress shirt near his lower back. One of the volunteers is told to go get a first aid kit. Then, for the first time, I look into Mr. Williams' haunted blue eyes.
Looking back into those eyes, I feel something so pure and so unreasonably dismayed that I want to shrink down inside myself. Witnessing that moment of vulnerability feels as if I were watching the world beat on a weak person, telling him he was feeble, useless and worthless, and leaving me unable to do anything. His eyes speak to me. They plead.
"I'm sorry," I hear them saying. "I didn't used to be this way."
I can barely keep eye contact with him because his vulnerability is so honest and so disarming coming from an adult so much older than me. He should not be embarrassed or apologetic for anything. His stare quickly turns from embarrassment to gratitude, and I can no longer bear to look him in the eyes as tears sting the corners of my eyes. The unadulterated goodness and gratitude in his eyes troubles me and makes me abashedly cower as the few tears evaporate. I come to think of all the past years and recent days I was impatient and judgmental toward strangers who I deemed weaker than me and those I love because I was judged in the same way by peers most of my early life. His look cuts through me, making me ashamed of this aspect about myself. I know it was not the world that beat on people like Mr. Williams. It was my youthful self.
Even though his gaze is coming from one much older than me, Mr. Williams' stare begins to transform into one which reminds me of a very small child showing a parent or guardian how much they are thankfully dependent on them, how grateful they are when helped and loved. My urge to look away turns from shame into the acknowledgement that we are all one -- our birth, our happiness, our sadness, our death. Despite all of the distractions of politics and religion, or the disguises of difference such as nationality, race, sexuality, wealth, and gender -- which we often foolishly use to separate us -- I truly know we are all one. I think of my children and how one's past can rub off on another's future. Then I think there is no better inheritance to this life than the happiness we leave for others.
His wife thanks me repeatedly but all I can concentrate on are the pair of now-misty eyes directed at mine -- as if we had just shared some wondrous secret. I can see in his gaze the beauty of humanity when we help each other. His gaping, quivering mouth moves as if he wants to desperately say something -- a thank you or maybe a frightened reply -- but his Parkinson's has now disabled him from doing so, and no words come out, just muted breath.
I gently touch his shoulder and say, "It's OK."
The corners of his mouth lift as far as he can move them to show an infirmed smile. I am able to look him in the eyes again and see the tears well along the corners of his eyes for a fleeting moment before they retract.
This is the first time in a job that I have felt as if I'm making a difference in any way. I feel part of a community. I feel I am giving to something bigger than myself. My wife and parents would love for me to eventually become town manager and that may be in the cards for me sometime in the future. But as I part Mr. Williams and his stare remains with me, I know I'm where I need to be right now.

Monday, April 7, 2014

My Top 10 Best Revenge Films

Looking for something to watch? How about a little vengeance? Here are my picks for the best 10 revenge films (in alphabetical order):

The Crow (1994)
Directed by Alex Proyas
Starring Brandon LeeErnie Hudson and Michael Wincott

"Little things used to mean so much to Shelly. I used to think they were kind of trivial. Believe me, nothing is trivial."

Based on James O'Barr's 1989 comic book series of the same name, Brandon Lee stars as musician Eric Draven, who is murdered along with his fiancée Shelly (who is also raped) on October 30 (Devil's Night), the eve of their wedding day, by a group of thugs during a seemingly random home invasion. Because of his anger and sorrow, Eric is given a second chance by a crow (believed to carry souls from this life to the afterlife), being raised from the dead and given invulnerability and a chance to bring to justice all of the thugs who murdered him and Shelly. However, it's not just the fact that Draven is able to kill the guilty which makes this a decent revenge flick; it's the manner in which he does it.

I remember Draven as being the first somewhat superhero who killed his tormentors (the only person in comics who did that at that time was Marvel Comics' The Punisher), and the character became a major influence for a character I created in my writing. Unlike The Punisher, it was the first time a hero had such heavy, strong emotions conveyed to the public. This was captured not only in Lee's performance but also in the writing and production, which included rain and most scenes taking place at night. Also, the soundtrack kicks ass. Sadly, Lee was accidentally killed during the shooting of a scene in this film. However, he left one hell of a legacy in this film alone! This film has reached cult status and has earned its place among top pop culture revenge films.

Desperado (1995)
Directed by Robert Rodriguez
Starring Antonio BanderasSalma Hayek and Joaquim de Almeida

"You know, it's easier to pull the trigger than play guitar. Easier to destroy than to create. They killed the woman I loved ... and ruined my life."

Not many audiences knew when this film was released that it was a sequel to writer/director Robert Rodriguez's 1992 debut film El MariachiAntonio Banderas' "Mariachi" (taking over for the first film's actor Carlos Gallardo and paying homage to "The Man With No Name" series featuring Clint Eastwood) is looking for a man named Bucho, who is the top man responsible for changing his life and killing the woman he loved (Consuelo Gómez). Right from the beginning of the film, there is a major showdown and gunfight, thus cementing Banderas as a kick-ass action star! With a guitar case full of a cadre of weapons, Mariachi cuts a bloody path toward Bucho, while also having to deal with the destructive consequences of his road to vengeance. This is another film where the soundtrack (mostly provided by Los Lobos and Tito & Tarantula) really shines! This film would also establish writer/director Rodriguez as a bone fide talent in Hollywood (his El Mariachi only cost $7,225 to make and would go on to become an international success). The best part of the film are the finely edited sequences -- such as when Hayek's character is serenading to a sleeping Mariachi while killers are surrounding her residence.
Before Rodriguez made spy movies for kids, he created this Latino character who had some actual street cred with his badass-yet-emotionally-deep story. At times, of course, the action is a bit unrealistic, but it's fun to watch -- taking a cue from Quentin Tarantino and old "Spaghetti Westerns" (a la Sergio Leone).

Kill Bill (2003 & 2004)
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Starring Uma ThurmanDavid CarradineDarryl HannahLucy LiuMichael Madsen and Vivica A. Fox

"Revenge is never a straight line. It's a forest. And like a forest, it's easy to lose your way ... to get lost ... to forget where you came in."

I consider this to be director Quentin Tarantino's masterpiece. This revenge film, which Tarantino used to sample -- and pay homage to -- some of his most favorite film genres, is so epic that Tarantino had to split it into two parts. The first film is much more violent and action-packed, inspired by the classic Japanese Toei and chanbara films, Hong Kong (Shaw Brothers) martial arts films, the 1970s girls with guns films, and 1970s revenge films. Part One details protagonist The Bride's (Uma Thurman) awakening from a coma after being shot in the head by her former boss and boyfriend, Bill (David Carradine), who lead the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad (Darryl HannahLucy LiuMichael Madsen and Vivica Fox), of which The Bride was once a member. Part Two is more cerebral and less action-oriented -- instead delving into the details of why The Bride was marked for assassination, and her training as an assassin, as well as having to confront the truth of why she chose to go legit and quit the Viper Squad; this film is inspired by Leone's "Spaghetti Western" and revenge films. Thurman's Bride (or, B******, for those who know) is one of the tough female characters in pop culture today and an awesome force to be reckoned with. I cannot speak enough about how great this set of films are! There was talk of a sequel but Tarantino recently announced that the project was shelved. There was also talk of one long "director's cut" of these two films, called The Whole Bloody Affair, and it was to be released on DVD in 2009, but that project was also shelved. Either way, it does not take away from the impact of this film's greatness.

Leon: The Professional (1994)
Directed by Luc Besson
Starring Jean RenoNatalie Portman and Gary Oldman

"I like these quiet little moments before the storm. It reminds me of Beethoven."

Writer/director Luc Besson had already made his mark with The Big Blue and La Femme Nikita, but it was this story of a professional hitman, Leon (Jean Reno), who takes in a preteen girl Matilda (Natalie Portman in her first role) whose family was killed by crooked DEA agents led by Norman Stansfield (Gary Oldman), who is perhaps one of the best villains in cinema. When Matilda finds out what Leon does for a living, she asks him to help her to learn to "clean" (assassinate) so she can have her revenge on the agents. Against his better judgment, Leon teaches her a little bit at a time. In the meantime, Leon is opened to a whole new world as Matilda teaches him to live and love (in a familial way) -- she connects him to the world. There is plenty of action, but the story also has more of an emotional depth than most revenge films. From first viewing of this film, you could tell Portman was going to be a star as she holds her own with superb veteran actors Jean RenoGary Oldman, and Danny Aiello. This is also one of the few revenge films with a touching ending. Can't recommend this one enough!

Man on Fire (2004)
Directed by Tony Scott
Starring Denzel WashingtonDakota FanningRadha MitchellMarc AnthonyChristopher WalkenGiancarlo Giannini, and Mickey Rourke

"Forgiveness is between them and God. It's my job to arrange the meeting."

Based on the 1987 book by A.J. Quinnell, this adaptation stars Denzel Washington as protagonist John Creasy, an alcoholic former CIA agent and Marine officer who is now a bodyguard, hired to take care of nine-year-old Pita Ramos (Fanning) just until her father (Anthony) can renew their kidnap and ransom insurance. At first, Creasy hates the assignment and often drinks himself to sleep; however, over time, Pita grows on him and the two form an unlikely strong bond. When Pita is kidnapped and is pronounced dead, Creasy viciously attacks everyone involved in her abduction and murder. Out of all the revenge films on this list, I think this one has to be the best when it comes to methodology. And, of course, Washington is at his best.

Munich (2005)
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Starring Eric BanaDaniel CraigCiaran HindsMathieu KassovitzGeoffrey RushMichael LonsdaleMathieu Amalric, and Ayelet Zurer

"We are supposed to be righteous. That's a beautiful thing. And we're losing it. If I lose that, that's everything. That's my soul."

Based on the book Vengeance: The True Story of an Israeli Counter-Terrorist Team, this film is based on the true story of Operation "Wrath of God," which was Israel's "off the books" retaliation for the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre where five Israeli athletes and six coaches were killed by a Palestinian group called Black September. The film follows Avner (Bana) who is hired from Mossad (Israel's version of the CIA) to form a black ops group to kill top leaders and conspirators of the Munich plan. Spielberg uses his usual unique filming style and captures one of the best revenge films ever! There is plenty of tension as the group of ragtag operatives are somewhat making up their missions as they go along, but what is best about this particular revenge film is that it asks the kinds of questions that need to be asked. In one standout scene, Avner asks his handler (Rush), "Did we accomplish anything at all? Every man we killed has been replaced by worse," to which his handler replies, "Why cut my fingernails? They'll grow back." The other crucial scene is where one of Avner's teammates feels he is losing his soul over the revenge mission. On top of it all, John Williams' haunting score is phenomenal! It doesn't get much better than this!

Payback (1999)
Starring Mel GibsonGregg HenryMario BelloDavid PaymerLucy LiuKris Kristofferson, and James Coburn

"Not many people know what their life's worth is. I do. Seventy grand. That's what they took from me. And that's what I was going to get back."

I struggled of whether or not Mel Gibson's brilliant Braveheart should be on this list since his character William Wallace does start his rebellion due to him avenging the death of his wife; however, I decided Braveheart was not applicable to this list because even though there was one scene of revenge, it is not revenge that continues Wallace on his rebellion quest. There are plenty of Gibson films that focus on revenge and are great (RansomThe PatriotEdge of Darkness), but the one that take the cake is this gem from 1999. Based on Richard Stark's (real name Donald Westlake) brilliant novel The Hunter (and one of my favorite series of books), Gibson plays Porter (in the books, it's Parker) who is betrayed by his team of thieves, shot in the back and left for dead. When he awakens, Porter makes it his mission to get the money owed to him ($70,000) and get even with those who betrayed him.  

Revenge (1990)
Directed by Tony Scott
Starring Kevin CostnerMadeleine StoweAnthony QuinnJames GammonMiguel Ferrer, and John Leguizamo

"I killed a man who I hated today."

Aptly named (especially for this list!) is this 1990 revenge romance-suspense film (based on the novella by Jim Harrison) starring Kevin Costner as retired U.S. Naval aviator Michael "Jay" Cochran who wants a vacation and decides to visit his friend Tiburon "Tibby" Mendez (Quinn), a Mexican businessman who is actually a powerful crime boss. Upon arriving to Tibby's hacienda, Jay meets Tibby's young wife Miryea (Stowe) and the two soon fall in love. Unfortunately, Tibby finds out about this and is not too pleased. Events then unfold that send Jay in a downward spiral of revenge. I remember this as being one of the first movies I watched which was clearly about revenge and it captivated me. The direction of Tony Scott (who also did Man on Fire) is wonderful and the world lost a great director upon his death.

She-Devil (1989)
Directed by Susan Seidelman
Starring Roseanne BarrMeryl StreepEd Begley Jr., and Linda Hunt

"I've always found that justice serves those who serve themselves."

Hey, revenge can be funny too! And most people may think I'm crazy for loving this film. But I do. I think it's one of the best revenge films made! Also, before this film, I wasn't too crazy about Meryl Streep. But, after watching this film (based on the novel by Fay Weldon), I thought any actress (who's usually known for serious, dramatic roles) who can make a comedy -- and, in a sense, make fun of herself -- then she's got to be cool. In this film, housewife Ruth (Barr) has a loving family in her husband Bob (Begley Jr.) and their two children. But when Bob leaves Ruth for romance novelist Mary Fisher (Streep), Ruth chooses to get even. And get even, she does! Not just that but she also inadvertently makes a life for herself in the meantime. This film, while a comedy, does go to a few dark places as Ruth simply snaps and blows up her family home. Nevertheless, the film is funny and I have to admit that I never tire of watching it.

V for Vendetta (2005)
Directed by James McTeigue
Starring Natalie PortmanHugo WeavingStephen ReaStephen FryJohn Hurt, and Roger Allam

"People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people."

Based on the revolutionary comic book series by legendary recluse writer Alan Moore, this film takes place in an alternate universe where Great Britain is the main power in the world and almost a fascist state (think of George Orwell's 1984). Evey (Portman) is nearly raped one night by the secret police after curfew, but is rescued by a man in a Guy Fawkes mask (which has since come to symbolize rebellion and revolution of the common man). The man, only known as "V," is somewhat of an anarchist upon first viewing, but it is soon revealed that the men -- including the Supreme Chancellor (Hurt), a bishop, a scientist, a police commissioner, and a news channel talking head (who is uncannily similar to a particular Fox News host who calls people "pinheads") -- who run Great Britain, have wronged "V," and he is out for revenge -- while also simultaneously rebelling against the fascist government. This is not just an entertaining movie but an important piece of writing regarding true freedom and how, oftentimes, the destruction of freedom does not come from an outside threat, but rather from within.

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