Dunkirk/Baby Driver (Double Feature)

Okay, so now that I’m back from my double feature, I’ve got a few thoughts for those interested:
1. ‘Dunkirk’ (Christopher Nolan)
We all took US history in high school and/or college, and we all know the story of World War II. What if I told you the most important moment of the 20th Century had nothing to do with atomic bombs or computers, and told you that it was about a daring last-ditch effort by Great Britain to save their army (and the French and Belgian ones to an extent) before America even had a chance to get in the fight? Well good news ladies and gentlemen, because now you can watch it in glorious high definition in a comfortable chair.
Christopher Nolan’s work and skill as a filmmaker needs no introduction, so I won’t bore you. I really enjoyed ‘Dunkirk,’ but not necessarily as a narrative piece. What Britain called “Operation Dynamo” was an attempt to evacuate over 400,000 soldiers from the northern shore of France and across the English Channel with as few casualties as possible, mobilizing hundreds of civilian and merchant boats to rescue over 330,000 troops between May 26th and June 4th 1940. For whatever reason, Hitler gave the order a few days prior to not pursue the retreating troops and pin them in at Dunkirk.
Had this mishmash of civilian ships not come to their rescue, certainly the face of the world would look much different than it does today.
Historical background aside, I enjoyed ‘Dunkirk’ not so much for a film narrative and more erring on the side of a really elaborate historical re-enactment. I’ve heard some criticism leveled about the lack of character development or having a weak plot, but the fact of the matter is that for me, that wasn’t the point.
The fear of soldiers, sailors, and pilots that as each large destroyer or medical frigate departed, there was a strong chance it would get torpedoed by a U-Boat or bombed by a Messerschmitt. Hans Zimmer created a masterful soundtrack and manages to create a lot of tension in a story where as the audience we already know the outcome (spoiler, the Allies won WWII). I found myself on edge throughout the film, constantly wondering when a boat would be sunk, or an airplane shot down.
Using multiple perspectives to tell the different stories is really important to how this piece is set up. We get the perspective of a civilian boat owner, a pair of pilots, and the troops on the beach going through living hell wondering how and when and if they would die. Occasionally, we see the same events in the movie repeated from different perspectives when our characters cross paths. We’ll see men swimming from a sinking ship, and then switch to the fighter pilot trying desperately to protect said ship, and occasionally this jump is jarring and awkward.
I did feel that the film had issue with making the audience connect to anyone but the civilian characters. We were obviously meant to be rooting for the British and against the Germans, but beyond that, the only real emotional beat of the film happens aboard the small civilian boat.
This film like a few other works really bridges the gap between my History and Film degrees. But remember, it’s still a Hollywood movie.
2. ‘Baby Driver’ (Edgar Wright)
I’m going to say it. ‘Baby Driver’ is one of the best (if not the best) movies for sound I’ve ever heard. I mean this both in the literal sense of ambient sound and use of music. You’ve probably heard of diegetic vs. non-diegetic sound, I’m in awe of how both are fused flawlessly in this film.
I will also say that I absolutely, vehemently hated ‘Drive’ (2011, Nicolas Winding Refn). This movie is the what-if of Edgar Wright taking ‘Drive’ and giving it a full overhaul from engine to detailing and making it not totally suck. (Me hating ‘Drive’ is a rant for another day.)
‘Baby Driver’ does well walking the line between humor and gravitas demonstrably well. Kevin Spacey brings his usual intensity and charm as the financier and master planner of a series of robberies. Like many great heist flicks, this one is about the “one last job” of our intrepid hero, Baby (Ansel Elgort). When things go south (like we know they have to), they do it ways that while expected, are still satisfying to watch. Baby is a quiet young man who loves music, and nearly always has his headphones in blaring some surprising tunes while whipping myriad of vehicles around town at speeds faster than Brian May’s fretwork on his signature Red Special. He’s in debt to Doc (Spacey) for a past misdeed, and in order to make amends, acts as the getaway driver for the heists (sound familiar?).
I will say, while I really enjoyed it, the plot of the film is nothing special, it’s just that nothing feels frivolous or bloated about it. As I mentioned above, we eventually learn something about Baby that us what’s with all the music, and why sound is so important to the movie.
A Best Picture-nominee it isn’t, but if ‘Baby Driver’ doesn’t win an Academy Award for Sound Design, I’ll eat my hat.

The Messenger

I’ll always remember July 20th.

It was my day off from work. I slept in late, talked with my mom on the phone for a minute, and browsed Facebook for a few moments before I planned to fire up another session of Fallout 4.

And then I saw it.

One of my friends shared a post announcing Chester Bennington was dead, an apparent suicide.

I didn’t believe it. I scoured social media, searching for the revelation that it was some internet troll’s tasteless joke. I never found it. Eventually, his bandmate Mike Shinoda confirmed the news about an hour later via Twitter.

Three days later, I still don’t really believe he’s gone. I remember back in 2000, one of the first CD’s my aunt ever bought me was ‘Hybrid Theory,’ and I absolutely adored it. I was eight. As I went through middle and high school, Linkin Park evolved as I did. Growing up listening to their music and hearing them evolve their songs in much the same way as I grew and became more mature over time helped me through a lot of rough times, and still does.

When they first came onto the scene of rock music, their signature sound was a mass of angst and rage, bundled into a hit album. My teenage self identified with that a lot, as did many of my peers. I never really felt that I fit in with any one social group, and for years “Somewhere I Belong” was my secret favorite song.

As LP’s sound grew up, so did I. You could tell that their music was becoming about more than just being an angry outcast, especially starting with ‘Minutes to Midnight.’ They sang about moving past things they used to think were holding them back. They sang about politics. They sang about lost love.

As their repertoire evolved and grew, I was experiencing many of these things for the first time. One of my all-time favorite rap tracks is still “Hands Held High.”

Over time, more people complained with each new album that the band had sold out. I began to be less public with the fact that they were (and remain to be) one of my favorite bands. I’ll admit, oftentimes it took me more than the first listen to love some albums, but something I always really appreciated about Linkin Park was that each album of theirs is a little different, and you can see how they’ve grown as a band and as individuals over the nearly 20 years they’ve been putting out music.

I always wondered how it felt to music lovers when icons like Jimi Hendrix, Randy Rhoads, Tupac, or Jim Croce died. They were all musicians who died long before their time, and I’m a big fan of their work. Before July 20th, I was grateful I’d never had to experience the premature death of a musician I adored. Until I did.

I felt the need to write something longer than a short social media blurb in a more formal manner because of how much this celebrity death more than any other (besides maybe Robin Williams) has affected me. Music, movies, and a solid group of friends and family have never failed to pull me through my rougher times, and so like Robin, it really distresses me that someone I admire had also wrestled with the idea that for whatever reason, they weren’t good enough.

My favorite Linkin Park song is one I listen to whenever I have a difficult day, and don’t feel like reaching out to someone to brighten my own mood. It’s the last track off their album ‘A Thousand Suns,’ titled “The Messenger.” I always took listening to it to be like Chester and the band speaking out to me, and telling me what I needed to hear in that tough time, because as the Messenger Chester Bennington reminded me:

“Remember you’re loved, and you always will be.”

Thanks for the years of music and memories. I won’t forget you.


Review: The Human Race (2014)


“Follow the yellow brick road.”

An exhausted pregnant woman sits in a dank hallway, telling the tale of the “Wizard of Oz” to her unborn child in a weak attempt to make a metaphor about a happy group of friends that help one of their group go home. And then some dude runs by, and the woman’s head explodes. That’s just par for the course in writer/director Paul Hough’s (The Angel, The Backyard) The Human Race. In a horror flick by way of Edgar Wright’s The World’s End (you’ll see–and not because it’s funny… it’s not), it’s probably a good idea to give a little more context for why your characters are in the situation they’re in. Consequently, the feature is an awkward foray into horror that fails to build any suspense or connection with the audience.

The Human Race is a wannabe horror film in which eighty competitors are pulled from their daily lives and placed into a nightmarish urban race track in which there are a few simple rules; don’t step off the track, or you will die; don’t get lapped twice, or you will die; don’t touch the grass, or you will die (I’m picturing some old man brandishing a cane at “those damn kids” and threatening death if they don’t get off his lawn). We follow disabled Army veteran Eddie (Eddie McGee) through the race with his best friend and old Army buddy Justin (Paul McCarthy-Boyington), and together watch the two try and rally their fellow competitors to stop the madness of the disembodied voice counting down the deaths of the others. Other characters include a bike racer who doesn’t speak much English, and a pair of deaf friends who communicate in sign language.

Beyond the story of the race, you get a handful of barely-relevant backstories for some of the characters. In fact, while giving . You could cut those entire parts out of the movie and save everyone who watched the film those twenty minutes of their life. Literally the only one that does anything for the plot is Justin’s backstory of working with disabled children, because it shows that he knows sign language in order to communicate with the deaf people later on.

It’s a pretty basic plot, to be sure. Unfortunately, there’s not much else to talk about, and the ending makes me think of Giorgio Tsoukalos (this guy) sitting at a computer trying to think of an ending and finally saying “Aliens!” to no one in particular. It’s kind of like the end of Wright’s The World’s End, but without easing the viewer into the absurdity.

Each character fails to beyond one-dimensional, and the handful of attempts to make the viewer connect emotionally with a character are met with the abrupt kill of that character, severing any sort of emotional bond they might have with the film. For instance, the first eight minutes of the film are spent setting up the story of a girl who watches her sister suffer and die from an unnamed disease. Fast forwarding, the girl ends up diagnosed with the same disease, and does a montage of the girl getting healthy and finding out she’s in remission. …And then she is the very first person to die in this mysterious race, and not mentioned again in the film. It’s fine if the objective of the filmmaker was to simply show the triviality of a death in this film, but it’s another thing entirely to make this the first part of the film and waste the viewer’s time. Yet another nearly-successful attempt to get us to empathize with the film is by including a pair of children. They’re literally only in two scenes with some hackneyed dialogue, but by this point, it doesn’t really matter, because you’ve probably already checked out because of the cheesy head-exploding special effects.

In short, The Human Race is an awkward film that suffers from a lot of glaring problems in writing. The acting isn’t entirely unconvincing, if that’s something you really care about, but it’s far from enough to save the whole feature.

But it is enough to make your head explode.

Check it out on Scene-Stealers! http://www.scene-stealers.com/reviews/print-reviews/kickstarter-project-the-human-race-suffers-from-weak-script-not-budget/

Review: X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)

X-Men-Days-of-Future-Past-Cast-poster-570x829 It’s that time again, when the latest installment of the X-Men movie franchise, X-Men: Days of Future Past, takes over many of the discussions in my circle of friends for a couple weeks. They’ve ranted and raved about how awesome it was, about how they like this character over that character, or what their favorite moment was, all while shaming me for not having seen the film–until recently. Imagine their disappointment, then, when I came out of the film notably underwhelmed and somewhat disappointed.
In case you’ve been living under a rock, Bryan Singer’s (X-Men, X-Men 2) latest foray into the Marvel universe takes place after the events of, well, the other X-Men movies. The mutants are on the run from nonmetallic robots called Sentinels, designed to locate and kill mutants. Only Wolverine, Magneto, Professor Charles Xavier, and a handful of other characters we haven’t really spent any time with have survived at the film’s beginning. In order to save themselves, one of the mutants (Ellen Page) uses her powers to send Wolverine’s consciousness back in time to try and stop the creator of the Sentinels, Dr. Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) from being murdered by Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence).
In theory, that’s all well and good. When you’re trying to do a large ensemble movie like X-Men and involve that ensemble in plots that mean life or death for them, it’s important to build up an emotional connection for the audience. This never really happened. It’s assumed that you’ve seen all the other movies, and short of that, you at least remembered what happened in them. For me, it’s been a long time. The only character I actually felt myself actively rooting for was Wolverine, and not even until the last five minutes of the film. Sure, I know all the baggage that Wolverine carries with him, but it doesn’t matter so much for this film. Just because it’s a sequel doesn’t excuse the filmmakers from not giving us the experience of knowing our characters. Another big example of this, for me, is that of Trask, our villain. We never really figure out why he hates the mutants so much, and so his entire evil plan of creating the Sentinels is baseless because he feels “threatened” that the mutants will “wipe out humanity.”
I’m sure it’s fleshed out in the comics somewhere, but that doesn’t matter because the film needs to stand on its own two (or more?) feet.
Additionally, you don’t get much into the story of how the war between the Sentinels controlled by the government and the mutants started. As far as I can tell, the whole thing started when Wolverine went back in time and pissed off all the bad guys… but that doesn’t explain why he had to go back in time in the first place. So the mutants are on the run, which is fine, except there’s no context. Incidentally, something else I noticed about this dystopia is that during the beginning of the film, it appears that all the non-mutant humans are in what appear to be oppressive work camps not unlike a Russian gulag. To channel my friend Ron Burgundy for a moment–something must have escalated quickly, and we never learn what.
Finally, the last big issue I had with the film was the wasted of opportunity of a couple big set pieces. If you’re going to have Magneto rip an entire baseball stadium out of the ground and plop it down around the White House, what’s the point of not using it? Sure it serves to isolate the area from the police, but you’re creating an arena and the expectation of a big, physical confrontation, and they don’t deliver on that? I hope I’m not along in being disappointed, there.
It’s clear by the end that this film is meant to provide an entire reboot of the X-Men film franchise, and I’m not totally sure how I feel about that. Recent films have been better than some of the first ones (*cough* Last Stand *cough*), but then again, do we really want to rehash everything again with our cast ten years older? But on the other hand, this film also set up some characters with awesome powers (that girl thinking with portals, anyone?), but failed to mention half of their names or give us any reason to care about them beyond appreciation of their combat prowess.
So I’m torn. On the one hand, I was vastly underwhelmed with the movie itself, thinking there’s some wasted opportunities and feeling a bit bored by the whole thing, but on the other hand, I see potential for where the franchise is headed in the future.
Let’s just not hope it’s not a future past.


Final Thoughts: Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn (2010-2014)


DISCLAIMER:  This is meant to more of a “here’s my thoughts” rather than a formal review.  Frankly, the series was quite convoluted at times, and I’m sure it’ll take a few more viewings for me to work everything out.  There’s a lot of changing sides and traitors and all sorts of crazy stuff, especially in the last episode.

The latest installment in the popular Mobile Suit Gundam anime series, “Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn” debuted its seventh and final episode on May 17th, and after having rewatched the entire series over the past few days, I’m ready to give a handful of thoughts on the series.

Unicorn continues with the Universal Century (UC) timeline, a la the original Mobile Suit Gundam, Zeta Gundam, ZZ Gundam, Char’s Counter-Attack, et al.  In this era, the Newtype, an evolved version of humanity, is the sought-after standard of humanity, and in pilots of the huge war machines, “mobile suits.”  They’ve got better instincts and reflexes, they’re smarter, and they can project their consciousness throughout battles in ways that aren’t always entirely understandable to the viewer.

The first take-away from Unicorn is simply the fact that the mobile suit designs and animation have never looked better than they do in the slick style of Unicorn, reminiscent of the Gundam 00 series from 2007-9.  The franchise has come a long way from the fuzzy art style of the original Mobile Suit Gundam series in 1979.

Second, the Gundam franchise needs to decide if it’s ever going to do romance properly, or else drop the “romantic” subplots all together.  The melodramatic middle school-level gloves-on approach to romance in wartime is a recognized trope that can add a lot to a series when done well, but constantly dancing around the concept of a Gundam protagonist having some sort of romantic entanglement seems to be the most common and infuriating trope of the entire franchise, regardless of the series in question (with the refreshing exception of The 08th MS Team).

Finally, Unicorn, and Gundam in general, have never been good at giving information to the audience without long-winded monologues.  This is something I think Japanese writers can learn from American writers.  When your episode is an hour long and 45 minutes of it are spent in lengthy discussions about politics and the implications of one action over another because of XYZ personal philosophy, your plot slips through the cracks.

Overall, I really enjoyed the series, though I wasn’t totally satisfied of the conclusion.  I kept this post as spoiler-free as possible, but would I recommend it?

You’re goddamn right I would.

If you’ve got a spare 7.5 hours in time over a week or two, give Unicorn Gundam a shot.  The first six episodes come in at an average of 55 minutes, with a seventh 90-minute finale to top it off.  Very do-able.


Review: Godzilla (2014)

As Dr. Ichiro Serazawa (Ken Watanabe) discusses the plan to get rid of the two MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms) that threaten the western United States, he says, “Let them fight.” There’s not much else you can say going in to a film like Godzilla, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Godzilla is one of those film franchises that needs no introduction, enduring various iterations over the years. Directed by Gareth Edwards (Monsters, future director of an unnamed Star Wars project), Godzilla carries on the tradition, never failing to satisfy with eye-popping visuals and intense drama.
Going in, everyone knows that ultimately, this film is about a giant monster fighting other giant monsters. You don’t need much more than that as far as plot synopsis goes, because 90% of moviegoers already know that’s what they’re in for, and the other 10% don’t want to see it anyway. What is warranted to be said about the most recent Godzilla excursion is that it does drama and suspense better than any blockbuster in recent memory, and certainly better than most other kaiju (Japanese for “strange beast”) films.
When you think “Godzilla” tons of things come to mind. If the first thing isn’t “giant lizard crushes city” and probably some Asian man yelling “It’s Gojira!,” I’m not sure if you’ve heard of the franchise. Part of what makes this film work so well is that about half the time you see either Godzilla or one of the MUTOs, you see them indirectly–be it through a television broadcast, binoculars, or a reflection off of some glass from a car window. Additionally, about 90% of the time a monster is onscreen, it’s not directly with a human actor. This works for two main reasons; first, it keeps the emphasis on the monsters, and not on the men; and second, it helps to heighten the sense of sheer scale when the monsters ARE compared in-frame with a human. When the monsters are framed with the actors, it’s nearly always in a way that accentuates just how massive the creatures really are. A personal favorite shot of the film (no spoilers, I promise!) was when Godzilla swims underneath an aircraft carrier in a top-down shot. Aircraft carriers are among the largest vehicles built by human hands, and seeing Godzilla underwater, swimming under this steel behemoth is nothing short of jaw-dropping.
Now, when I say Godzilla does suspense better than most recent blockbusters, it might seem odd. How do you add suspense and believable drama to something where everyone pretty much is certain of the outcome? Simple. Remember when I said that the monsters are shot in a way that emphasizes their scale? It’s a combination of that stylistic choice, and usage of perfect audio cues. Where most modern blockbusters would ramp up the music at this point (looking at you, Transformers and Pacific Rim) to make it feel epic, Edwards does just the opposite. He cuts most of the audio, creating a tense atmosphere that inspires awe time and again. There’s an excellent moment where the main human character Lieutenant Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is walking in full combat gear, and virtually makes eye contact with the great beast. Edwards pulls back to a long shot and lets the moment sink in virtually in silence, before Godzilla disappears again into the smoke. Spooky.
Finally, any film review would be remiss in not mentioning the themes of environmentalism and nuclear war that the original 1954 Gojira contained, and Edwards’s modern take is no different. In the recent Godzilla excursion, the MUTOs feed off of excess radiation, in places like underground uranium deposits, and Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Depository. They literally consume the radioactive mess perpetuated by mankind in order to grow stronger and reproduce. It’s a strong theme throughout the film that nature has a way of balancing itself against the terrible things humans put the earth through, and Dr. Serazawa stresses this to the military trying to control the monsters. His point is eventually proven: man does not control nature–nature controls us.
The Godzilla name brings with it a base level of expectations of awesome fighting monsters and tons of action and this recent excursion into the franchise delivers on all that, and more. With a sequel already announced so soon after the film’s release, I’ve got to agree with Dr. Serazawa: Let them fight, indeed.


Review: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)

“The beautiful things never ask for attention,” photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) remarks on a mountaintop to photo-processor Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller). In much the same way, the viewer learns to appreciate the mousy Mitty and his work, his life, and his wants and needs. In an enchanting film like The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (Directed by Stiller), it’s plain to see: there is beauty in the mundane, and life is about much more than work.
Daydreamer Walter Mitty has worked in a dark corner of the Life magazine headquarters processing photos day in and day out for sixteen years. After he discovers the magazine is to be discontinued and turned into some “dotcom” and many workers will be laid off in the process, Mitty is given the last roll of negatives from legendary photographer Sean O’Connell (Penn) and told by O’Connell in a note to select a certain print for the cover, because he thinks it’s his best ever. The only catch is that Walter can’t find the negative. What follows is a quest upon which Mitty embarks, finding not only the negative, but himself in the process.
Under the experienced direction of Ben Stiller, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is based on a short story written by James Thurber in 1939, and is considered one of the best pieces of mid-twentieth-century American fiction, showcasing the power that imagination can hold over humans. Though Stiller’s film is the second film adaptation, it shares little in common with the previous version, starring Danny Kaye in 1947. Stiller’s Mitty evokes a modernized version of Thurber’s character, a man who often drifts into daydreams in the middle of a conversation. The only difference is the context in which the daydreaming is placed, and what Walter does.
Much of Walter’s life is spent falling in and out of daydreams, like some sort of white collar version of JD from NBC’s “Scrubs.” In these daydreams, Walter imagines sweeping his charming co-worker off her feet, experiencing extreme environments, and lives his life vicariously through the photographs lining the walls of the Time office. What Walter finds is a message that we must all take to heart–that there’s truly nothing better than a good old dose of “carpe diem”–seizing the opportunities that present themselves each day and living life to its fullest extent.
It’s a different kind of movie for Stiller to take on, to be sure. It evokes images of Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, or Adam Sandler in Punch Drunk Love, wherein actors known for their comedic exploits take on serious roles, and do them quite well. It’s clear that Stiller has the capability to take on a more humor-less role, and excel. The film is largely focused on his character, and Stiller expertly takes on the load. Not to say the film is without humor, but The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’s tone is that of a more serious film, much like the other examples mentioned.
Excellent as ever, Sean Penn plays the sage photographer Sean O’Connell, doling out life wisdom on a mountaintop like some sort of present-day Yoda. Kristen Wiig plays Cheryl Melhoff, a new worker at Life magazine, and the object of Mitty’s affection. Wiig is charming as ever, and despite the more serious film, still allows her quirky and tongue-in-cheek humor to emerge during the film.
Filled with wonderful, evocative environments, an excellent soundtrack, and a heartwarming message, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a thought-provoking work of art, the likes of which I honestly wasn’t expecting. Gathering from the previews, I went in not knowing what to expect, and came out a better person for the experience. Ben Stiller reminds us all that often what we seek for so long and in the most roundabout ways is often right where we never thought to look, and in doing so, climbs his way into one of the slots I reserve for “favorite films of 2013.”


"I'm not great at the advice… Can I interest you in a sarcastic comment?"

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