Tag Archives: Future

“BLADE RUNNER 2049” Review (✫✫✫)

SOURCE: Warner Bros. Pictures

Nothing has changed.

Blade Runner 2049 shares the same strength and weakness as its predecessor, and that is it’s complexion. Throughout both films, there is an exploration on the human condition and what it means to be considered alive. They both observe authoritarian societies and the effects it has on those lower on the food chain. They both contort ideas such as memory and artificial intelligence and how they affect our views of personal identity. Blade Runner finds its niche in its concepts, and so too does 2049 best represent itself under the original’s banner, even though it eventually does get drowned out beneath all of its complexity.

Taking place 30 years after the events of the first film, Blade Runner 2049 picks up in a dystopian future where not much has changed. Androids known as Replicants continue to try and blend in with the rest of society, bounty hunters known as Blade Runners continue to hunt them, and they both continue to live in the same dimly-lit, smoke-filled streets and rainy gallows. Except in this future, newer replicant models are allowed to coexist in human society, under the condition that they become Blade Runners themselves to hunt down and “retire” the older models.

LAPD officer K (Ryan Gosling) is one of those newer replicants, hunting down his brethren under the badge of a Blade Runner. While out on an assignment one day, he uncovers a trail leading him to former Blade Runner Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), who made a discovery of his own years ago when he fled Los Angeles with his lover Rachel. As K and Deckard piece events together, they come to a conclusion that will shake the foundation of human and replicant kind for ages to come.

The best thing that can be said about Blade Runner 2049 is that it is an authentic sequel to its predecessor. In Hollywood, most sequels like to cash in on the success of their first entries without offering their own creative input for the provided material (See the Jurassic Park and Alien franchises). 2049 does not fall for this trend. Unlike Jurassic World and Alien: Covenant, which wallow in the clichés of their genres, Blade Runner 2049 fills its frames with its own life and ideas, expanding beyond the questions the original imposed and giving us a wider scope to think about. This makes sense, since screenwriter Hampton Fancher co-wrote the original Blade Runner in addition to its sequel. In 2049, he continues to elaborate on many of its familiar themes, from the existence of artificial intelligence to the barriers between different cultures. However, he also elaborates on many other concepts beyond it, such as internalized racism, love versus joy, and integrated species. This is a film that can easily stand on its own as an original feature, even though its building onto the first’s narrative does make it a stronger film overall.

And as this is a Blade Runner sequel, so too does it make sense that the visual effects would be just as mesmerizing as they were in the original. Even more than the original actually, especially because of how much technology has improved since 1982. The tall, ominous buildings. The sleek, dark vehicles. The bright holographic ads that light up the murky night sky. Everything oozes of detail and assimilation, and even the smaller examples of digital editing do not fail to astound us.

There is one computer construct in the movie portrayed by Ana de Armas, and all of her scenes stand out the most to me. In one of her first appearances, her holographic figure walks out into the rain for the first time, and even though the drops pass through her transparent figure, flickers still pixelate off of her body as if the droplets were falling onto flesh. There’s another scene where her body is mimicking the movements of another human being underlying her, and the way the two bodies moved together were so eerie and interesting that it reminded me of Alicia Vikander’s character Ava in 2015’s Ex Machina. But the image that sticks out the most to me is when an oversized pink variation of her bends down and speaks to her regular-sized lover on a bridge. Was this a metaphor for how small man’s ambition can be to that of an A.I.’s? In any case, cinematographer Roger Deakins captures every scene beautifully, encompassing both the depravity and desolation of a future ruined by mankind’s own misunderstandings.

Two performers that I have to give recognition to are Gosling and Sylvia Hoeks, who play the film’s protagonist and antagonist respectively. Gosling, whose appeal ranges depending on what role he’s given, offers a very thought-provoking performance here as a hero split between the two different worlds of man and machine. I’m not going to give much of his plot details away, but his arc challenges him, his identity, and the convictions he’s held closely to his heart for a long time now. Just to throw a separate example out there to compare the emotions that he’s displaying, imagine if you lived your whole life believing that God was real, only to find out that the Bible was written by only one author and none of the events depicted in it have ever happened. How would that change you? How would that shatter you as a person? Who would you be now after discovering that?

Gosling services that part brilliantly, and Hoeks serves as the antithesis: a woman who knows what she is, what the implications of her culture are and how they would change should one little piece be added to the constantly-shifting puzzle. In the film, I know she symbolizes at least one social idea for sure. I don’t know if she’s supposed to symbolize others beyond that one. All I know is that as a villain she’s cold, calculated, merciless, violent, and terrifying. I would not want to be in the same interrogation room with this woman.

My main concern with Blade Runner 2049 is how overstuffed it is. The film is two hours and 44 minutes long, and it has earned every bit of its screen time with all of the content that is in it. I’m just afraid that it may be too much. It’s been a week since I’ve seen the film now, and I’m still struggling to wrap my head around every character, every arc, every idea, every theme, every point iterated on, every plot twist the film takes you through, and all of the implications that the movie ends on. I know I liked what I saw in Blade Runner 2049. I just don’t know if I understand it. This is a film that definitely requires second viewings, even though the appreciation of it might not improve with each viewing.

Still, viewers such as myself asked for a faithful sequel in Blade Runner 2049. It undoubtedly fulfilled its promises, and it most impressively did it without the help of Phillip K. Dick’s characters. When I finished the original Blade Runner in 1982, I thought endlessly about the relationship between Deckard and the replicants, of the society that mankind created, and the many ways it mirrored our current world. I asked myself the same questions after watching 2049 as I did with the original Blade Runner. How sad is it that we’ve been given all this time to learn, to change, and to grow from where we were, and yet here we are 30 years later, making the same mistakes now as we did back then.

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“BLADE RUNNER” Review (✫✫✫)

SOURCE: Warner Bros. Pictures

Tears lost in rain.

Blade Runner isn’t so much a story as it is a philosophy, an intricate and intelligent observation on life, the perceptions of society, and humanity’s carnal need for dominance. After watching the film, I didn’t think so much about the plot of Blade Runner as I did on its themes. This is a film that asks many questions and then asks its viewers to provide the answers. And the questions Blade Runner poses are irrevocably complex; our answers, even more so.

The story is based on a Philip K. Dick book titled Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? It takes place in an alternate future where flying cars are the primary form of transportation, holographic Coca-Cola ads light up the night sky, and robotic-humanoid hybrids blend in with the rest of society. These hybrids are called “Replicants”, and they are seen as a threat to the human race and are relentlessly hunted by specialists called “Blade Runners.” When a blade runner eliminates a replicant, they don’t even get the courtesy of saying they were killed. Instead, they call it “retirement.”

Our hero Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is a blade runner, and he is tasked with hunting four replicants that arrived to Earth a few days ago. One of those replicants is Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), and his mission is to expand on his replicant bretheren’s short life span and integrate into human society. Both are extremists by every definition. Both are not above taking a life for the sake of their own agenda. And both think they are justified for their cruelty.

Ultimately, Blade Runner is a film about discrimination. Against who, exactly? Doesn’t matter. Pick your minority of choice and fill it inside the replicants, and you have your conflict. Unlike other films that tackle a similar subject matter, Blade Runner isn’t so much interested in the labels as much as it is interested in the actions. For instance, observe the principles of the Blade Runners themselves. They’re a team of bounty hunters tasked with navigating, hunting, and eventually killing (excuse me, “retiring”) a group of individuals they know next to nothing about. They don’t know who they are, they don’t know why they came here, and they don’t know what exactly they’re trying to accomplish. They only know their names and where they came from, and that they don’t belong in the society that created them.

Now tell me: how is that different from the sheriffs that hunted slaves who fled from their plantations during the 1800’s? Or a swarm of police finding and viciously punishing a group of civil rights protestors in the segregation era? Or Nazis searching for Jews hiding out in Poland in the 1940’s? Without directly commenting on these social issues, Blade Runner demonstrates the primal fear that society develops for individuals they don’t understand and the prejudice they create as a response to it. Granted, Blade Runner doesn’t have anything to say about the solutions to such issues: just the psychology of persecution and how that creates ripple effects throughout society.

Take Roy as another curious example. In the context of this film, he is seen as the film’s antagonist. But in his perspective, he sees Deckard as the antagonist. Is either one wrong? Is either one right? They both play to their own extremes and aren’t against violence and killing, but that’s besides the point. Both the humans and the replicants have their guns pulled on each other. Both are in response to violence that was previously perpetrated. Now the question is this: who fired first, and is the other justified in firing back?

As I said before, complicated questions, many of which don’t have easy answers to. Part of that is because there isn’t any neutrality expressed in the film. The character that is closest to representing one is Rachael (Sean Young), a replicant who believes that she is human. Really, she isn’t that far off from any other regular person. She likes to smoke, she exhibits her own feelings, emotions, fears, and she even possesses childhood memories. The memories in actuality belong to her creator’s niece, but does that make her memories any less real? Does it make her any less real?

The film is beautiful to look at and invokes the same aesthetic and nostalgia as those 1950’s Neo-Noir crime dramas do. Using light and contrast as tools to sharpen the images he brings to the screen, director Ridley Scott invokes a dark, ethereal setting that feels downtrodden and slummy, yet inhibits its own spirit and energy where shadowy figures hide around bleak corners, smoking cigars, and maybe downing a drink from the local pub. Bringing on visual effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull from 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner possesses the same edginess and detail to its set design, but it never gets lost in it. It simply lets the setting breathe as it will, and as Deckard navigates through the complexions of a lost city, so do we deconstruct the complicated things going on within it.

Blade Runner is well-acted, morally challenging, and visually absorbing. This much it has going for it. Where it loses focus is in its screenplay, which is so messy and convoluted that it nearly screws up the entire narrative. While I was a fan of the ambitious ideas the film was exploring, I wasn’t a fan of how it was overreaching beyond its grasp. There were many times where the film moved at a briskly quick pace, oftentimes slipping past important details that were essential to later scenes. I didn’t really understand the point of Blade Runner up until its climax, but by that point I was endlessly confused and lost with what these characters were supposed to be doing and why. It wasn’t until after I finished watching the film that I began to piece events together and understand it more efficiently. When it comes to filmmaking, it is the screenwriters job to construct the story and simplify it for its viewers, not the other way around. With Blade Runner, it is much more interested in flashy effects, brilliant concepts, and dystopian scenery than it is in its characters and deeper mythology. In that regard, Blade Runner is just plain lazy.

In hindsight, I find Blade Runner to be strongest as a conversation topic: an exchange of ideas between cinephiles and philosophers on where we are as a society versus where we are going. I don’t, however, consider it quality entertainment or even necessarily fun. I would watch it again to understand it better; not to enjoy it more.

As a film, Blade Runner is confusing and flashy. As a story, it fails to be coherent. But as a series of existential questions that we all need to ask ourselves, Blade Runner is invaluable. I hope you are ready with your answers.

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“MAD MAX: FURY ROAD” Review (✫✫✫1/2)

A lovely day and a flaming guitar. 

I’ve never seen a movie break as many rules as Mad Max: Fury Road does and get away with it. I’ve never seen a movie so loud, obnoxious and over-the-top that still manages to impress me by the time the end credits roll. Previous movies have done the same thing Fury Road has done and failed spectacularly. Transformers. Resident Evil. Underworld. G.I. Joe. Fast and Furious. All of those films are every bit as explosive and stupid as Mad Max: Fury Road is, and yet I don’t love them as much as I do Mad Max. Why is that?

I think its because the movie knows its just that: a movie. It knows that it’s loud, obstinate and stupidly explosive. It knows that its a blockbuster of exceedingly epic proportions that shakes the theater so much, it makes viewers shat in their pants. And more than anything else, it knows it is an action movie, with all of the fun and flaws alike bundled with it.

So what does a director like George Miller decide to do with that, knowing this is the fourth film in his own franchise? Fix the mistakes that are present in all of his predecessors?

No. Instead, he decided to embrace them, like a soldier throwing himself onto a hot grenade.

The end result is exactly how it sounds: bloody awesome.

The plot (if you can call it that) follows Max Rockatansky (this time portrayed by Tom Hardy) after the events of Road Warrior and before Beyond Thunderdome. In this desolate landscape called planet Earth, Max is a survivor of Nuclear war, traveling dry and sandy deserts in silence and solitude. Everyone else around him is either dead or has signed up in the mad crusade of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), a tyrannical warlord who has idolized himself as a god and has labeled everyone under him as his followers. Considering he has control over the only water source over hundreds of miles, the survivors have little choice but to submit to him.

One of these followers is Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a fierce female warrior who is charged with transporting Joe’s water to a nearby town with her small battalion. Little to Joe’s knowledge, however, Furiosa is transporting something else: all of Joe’s wives. Now on the hunt from Joe and all of his maniacal followers, Furiosa needs to team up with Max to escape the desert landscape and free the wives that have been under Joe’s cruel control for so long.

Is the plot as stupid as it sounds? The answer is no, because the film really doesn’t have a plot, only the resemblance of one. The narrative is a weakness all of the films in the series share with each other. While other science-fiction movies have a rich amount of lore and backstory behind them, Mad Max doesn’t have as much to boast about in its own series. Really, as far as story goes, all of the Mad Max movies are kind of weak in narrative scope. Here’s the plot for all of them: a guy is trying to survive against a homicidal maniac in a deserted landscape. That’s it. It’s a big case of “what you see is what you get.”

Here’s where Mad Max: Fury Road is different though: there’s a lot to see. Even though the plot is about as thick as a studio pitch, Miller displays this meager plot in spectacular, stunning, eye-popping action and explosions, and even a few soft moments of short dialogue exchanges between characters.

The stunts are unlike anything you’ve seen in any of the previous movies. The most destruction you found in Mad Max and Mad Max 2 was cars exploding and toppling over into deep sand dunes and rocky road pavements. In this movie, vehicular manslaughter is the least of the destruction found in the film. In one of the first action sequences, an entire armada of Joe’s fleet follows Furiosa into a giant sand storm of extremely windy proportions. In another scene, gang members viciously chase Furiosa’s truck in a tightly-cornered crevice of mountains. In another, a flunkie gets blinded by gunfire, puts cloth around his bleeding eyes, then fires blindly at Max and his gang like a crack-happy trigger maniac. For crying out loud, there’s one underling in the film that uses a guitar flamethrower.

Yes. That’s right. A guitar flamethrower.

It’s obvious that the film is ridiculous and absurd in the most gleeful of ways. Yet, what I like so much is that in between all of the over-the-top and in-your-face action, there’s actually a purpose and a reason for actors being in the movie. Yes ladies and gentlemen: this is an action movie that has actual acting in it. Hardy replaces Mel Gibson’s role with hardened machismo and stiffness to his gesture, and while Max is still mostly a flat character, Hardy portrays him with a sort of intrigue to him that makes you curious about his history, even though we already know most of it. Theron, however, impresses me the most. She’s incredibly versatile in the film, being a firm and uncompromising action heroine in one moment, and an emotionally exhausted and stricken survivor in another. She’s honestly the real lead in the film, with Max being more of a supporting character to Furosia’s rebellion against Immortan Joe. The film is really empowering to females, and that’s an incredibly rare thing, especially for an action movie.

By now, you’ve hopefully gotten the idea of what the movie is like and whether you’d be interested in this sort of thing or not. The film definitely has its flaws, but by God, the movie is just so freaking entertaining. I can’t sum up the film any better than that. Now go get your movie ticket. There’s a flaming guitar that you need to see.

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Top Ten Films Of 2014

Has anyone ever stopped to wonder why all of the best of the year lists have to be in the top ten? Like, what sort of critic was working on his list and thought that ten would be the magic number? Why ten and not twelve? Or fifteen? Five? Twenty? Eight? Why was ten specifically chosen as the big number? Was it chosen at random, or was it actually chosen for some relevant, significant reason?

Regardless of whatever the case may be, I’m choosing to be a little rebellious this year. For the past few years, I’ve seen enough films to make a “Top 15″ list if I wanted to, but if I had done that, my site viewership would go down by about twenty views.

So this year, to battle the preconceived notion that “best of the year” lists have to have ten movies, I’m doing two different things. 1) I’m adding an “honorable mentions” selection that while those films aren’t necessarily in my top ten, they are still significant films that have contributed to the year’s industry regardless. 2) In honor of our first full year without the wise, sometime snarky, words of film critic Roger Ebert, I’m offering a special Grand Jury Prize, which honors a film from the year which has made a notable accomplishment that fits outside of my year’s top ten.

As always, there is a few things you need to know before I get into my year’s best. First of all, I haven’t seen all of the films the year has had to offer. I’ve heard from so many people how Jean-Marc Vallee’s Wild was emotionally stirring, with Reese Witherspoon’s performance being the greatest highlight of the film. I’ve also read from critics that Selma, A Most Violent Year, and American Sniper were great movies as well, but guess what? None of those movies get a wide release until after Dec. 31, so I’m not able to even see those films until after the year anyway. So what am I going to do? Release a revision to my current list, or add those films to 2015 if they’re good enough? I’ll make a decision when it comes to that. It’s the studio’s faults for releasing those movies so late into the year anyway. Blasted film mongers.

Secondly, and perhaps more significantly, this is my list for the best films of 2014. Not yours. There has been high praise from many notable films of the year, including Edge of Tomorrow, The Theory of Everything, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. None of those films will be on my top ten list because I didn’t deem them worthy enough to be on there. It’s nothing against the films or the filmmakers: I just didn’t think they were good enough.

If you’re not satisfied with that, then please, make your own top ten list. I’d love to read it, and if your reasonings are sound enough, I’d like to share it with others.

Now then, let’s hop to it, shall we? Here are my top ten films of 2014:

10. Interstellar 

A mesmerizing, breathtaking, and exhilarating journey that may have only slightly exceeded it’s grasp. Based on an idea by physicist Kip Thorne and directed by Christopher Nolan, Interstellar takes place in the future on a dying planet Earth, where the only source of sustainable food is by growing corn. When former aircraft pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) stumbles upon a secret station that has been hiding NASA for so many years, Cooper enlists in a daring space mission to find a new planet that will be able to sustain and save the human race. A testament to the quality of film that Nolan is consistent in making, Interstellar is a brilliantly woven, thought-provoking plot, invoking the same themes of humanity and identity that Nolan exercises in all of his films. McConaughey reaches an emotional depth much deeper than past “Nolan” actors, and succeeds in making his character more human than hero. This is Nolan’s most emotional movie yet, but it’s also his most complicated and convoluted. But if Nolan’s only real flaw with this film is being overly ambitious, I don’t consider that a flaw at all. Three and a half stars.

9. The Grand Budapest Hotel

A crafty and artsy film that acts as a homage to the early days of cinema. After being framed for a violent murder of one of his former hotel guests, Concierge Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) teams up with his young apprentice Zero (Tony Revolori) to set out and prove his innocence through a series of weird, wacky, and crazy adventures. Written and directed by Wes Anderson, who was nominated for an Academy Award for The Royal Tenenbaums and Moonrise Kingdom, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a peculiar, quirky film, a fun and enjoyable ride in it’s own singular way. Anderson is very specific with the direction of the film, using practical effects and set pieces that gives the film a very distinct visual style and aesthetic. The antics Gustave and Zero go through are the stuff of slapstick gold, with these guys doing silly stunts and chase sequences that reminds me of the silent film days of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. It’s definitely seasoned for the art house crowd, and it’s definitely more difficult to appeal to the masses. But if you allow yourself to be lost in it and have fun with it, you’ll find that it is easily the most unique film of the year. Three and a half stars.

8. How To Train Your Dragon 2

A wildly exciting and entertaining animated ride that appeals to both kids and adults. When a crusade of dragon-hunters reach the land of Berk and begin their hunt for the flying beasts, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) must team up once again with his dragon Toothless to stop the brigade and save Berk’s dragons and dragon riders. Written and directed by Dean DuBlois, who returned from directing the first film, How To Train Your Dragon 2 is a near-perfect follow-up. It hits on every note it needs to, from the comedy, to the animation, to the action, to the emotion. Hiccup is a much stronger, yet more vulnerable, character now, and needs to face more mature situations now as a grown man rather than as he did when he was a boy. In many ways, How To Train Your Dragon 2 is to it’s first counterpart as Hiccup is to his younger self: they both grew. Three and a half stars.

7. Gone Girl

A brilliantly frustrating thriller that exercises themes of infidelity and media harassment. When Nick Dunne’s (Ben Affleck) wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) goes missing, all eyes turn to Nick for what happened to his wife. When clues slowly surface and more details surrounding the disappearance reveal themselves, everyone is asking the same question: did Nick Dunne kill his wife? Directed by David Fincher and written by author Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl is a masterfully orchestrated thriller, equal parts daring, inventive, intelligent, and unpredictable. Fincher propels Flynn’s brilliant plot forward with expert direction, eye-striking camerawork, and a cast that Fincher pulls the best from. This movie is like a game of cat and mouse, except no one really knows who is the cat or mouse. There is not one note in the film that you can guess is coming. Three and a half stars.

6. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

A compelling and exciting survivalist-drama that looks at the human/primate condition as two sides to one coin. After the chemical attack on planet Earth that took place at the end of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes follows the story of Caesar (Andy Serkis) and Malcolm (Jason Clarke), the leaders of the apes and the humans, respectively. As the human-primate war rages on violently, Caesar and Malcolm begin to see that the apes and the humans aren’t so different from each other, and they begin to explore any possibilities of peace between two races. Matt Reeves builds an intelligent, in-depth story around Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and handles its premise with skill and precision.  It surprising that the basis of this film wasn’t grounded in action or ridiculous CGI stunts, but rather in small, intimate moments of conversation and ape-sign-language that characters share with each other. Serkis is a revelation in the movie, and deserves an Oscar nomination for both his physical and emotional performance. Four stars.

5. Birdman

One of the most mesmerizing, unique, disturbing, shocking, and darkly funny films I’ve ever seen. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu writes and directs this ingenious dramedy starring Michael Keaton as Riggan Thompson, a washed-up movie actor trying to escape his image in a former superhero role by adapting his favorite broadway play to the stage. Keaton is a natural in the role, relating his own experience to portraying Batman in order to further authenticity for the character. Cinematographer Emanuel Lubeski contributes to the visual design of the film, shooting and editing it to look like one, continuous shot rather than multiple longer takes. But Inarritu is the most essential storyteller here, making a visual and emotional masterpiece that is so distinct in its own language that it is impossible to define it, let alone replace it. Four stars.

4. Whiplash

One of the most edgy, thrilling, and provocative films of the year. Miles Teller stars as Andrew, an upcoming college student who is majoring in music and dreams of becoming one of the best drummers in the country. A series of events lands him in the top jazz orchestra of Shaffer Conservatory and under the tutelage of Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), a brilliant but harsh and antagonistic instructor who is known to go very hard on his students. Andrew and Fletcher both develop an intense rivalry that both hurts Andrew, angers Fletcher, and yet equally compels them both to become the very best they can be. Writer/director Damien Chazelle conducts both actors through his sophomore effort, and does a great job in producing a tense, electric vibe consistently throughout the film. Teller and Simmons’ chemistry with each other is equally perfect, with the both of them bouncing off of each other’s words and emotions as perfectly as a drum beat. This film is about more than just music. It’s about the human desire to be great and what sacrifices we’d make to get there. Four stars.

3. Boyhood

The most revolutionary film of the year, ambitious in both production and vision. A twelve-year project pioneered by writer/director Richard Linklater, Boyhood tells the story of Mason’s (Ellar Coltrane) childhood, chronicling his entire life from when he was six years old, up until when he turns 18 and leaves for college. The movie isn’t so much a story as it is a scrapbook of memories, and Linklater is pulling each photograph out of it just to show it to us. When he is younger, Ellar isn’t acting but living, behaving like any other child would in the moment because he is in the moment. As he gets older, his performance gets more stagnant and Coltrane becomes more of a surrogate for us to express our emotions through, rather than experiencing his own. In this day and age, it’s rare to find a film as real and honest as Boyhood is. Four stars.

2. X-men: Days of Future Past

The best entry out of the X-men franchise, and the best superhero movie of the year. Serving as a sequel to both 2011’s X-men: First Class and 2006’s X-men: The Last Stand, X-men: Days of Future Past is set in the apocalyptic future where mutants are being exterminated by humanoid robots called “Sentinels”. Having only one chance to go back in time and stop this future from ever happening, Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen) send Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) through time to their younger selves (Portrayed by James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender) so they can stop the triggering event and save the future. Directed by Bryan Singer, who formerly helmed the first two entries in the franchise, X-men: Days of Future Past is a game changer. It is not only a visually-dazzling and highly climactic sci-fi blockbuster: it is a vastly intelligent and contemplative story that focuses on its recurring themes of racism and xenophobia, once again bringing the consequences of discrimination to the forefront. X-men: Days of Future Past is one of those movies that restores your faith in the superhero genre. Four stars.

And finally, my number one film of the year is —

1. The Fault In Our Stars

Surprised? I’m not. The Fault In Our Stars is one of the most magical, heartbreaking, and genuine films you will ever see, and is more than worthy of being called the most emotional film of the year. Based off of the novel by John Green, The Fault In Our Stars follows the love story of two Cancer-stricken teenagers: the shy and book-loving Hazel Grace (Shailene Woodley) and the optimistic amputee Gus (Ansel Elgort). Written and directed by independent filmmaker Josh Boone, The Fault In Our Stars is one of the best stories ever translated from book to film. I initially was skeptical on seeing this film, considering how much it seemed to have been doused in rom-com syndrome. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth. Boone adapts Green’s story perfectly to the big screen, retaining everything in the novel from the visual details to the words that were written. But its Woodley and Elgort that sells it so well, their chemistry that vibrates so wonderfully with each other and leaves such an impression on you. Trust me when I say this isn’t your typical rom-com: it’s a heartfelt drama disguised as a tween movie, and it is the best of it’s kind. Four stars.

And finally, this year’s first Grand Jury Prize appropriately goes to Steve James’ documented biography Life Itself. Following Roger Ebert’s life and career from him growing up in Chicago, to when he got his first reporting job, to when he won the Nobel Prize for film criticism, to when he lost his best friend, to when he got Thyroid cancer, this film is everything that Roger Ebert is: funny, honest, heartfelt, unabashed, unflinching, and real. It doesn’t give you a peppered-up look at his life: it’s whole and accurate, as genuine as any of the reviews he’s written. I’m probably biased towards this subject, but the subject doesn’t count as long as it is handled well. James’ handles this story with respect and humility, and ends up telling a story about life itself rather than just limiting it to Roger’s story. It’s my favorite documentary of the year, and it brings me great pleasure to award my first Grand Jury Prize to this wonderful film tribute.

Honorable mentions include the creepy and morally ambiguous Nightcrawler, the funny yet stylish Guardians of the Galaxy, the humorously innovative The Lego Movie, and the quietly thrilling The Imitation Game, featuring the year’s best performance from actor Benedict Cumberbatch. Not all films can be honored at the end of the year compilations, but this year I was glad to have seen so many films and give each of them a chance to shine in their own way.

All the same, if you feel differently about some of the films on my list, or you have seen another film that deserves to be recognized, please comment about it. Or make your own list. Movies are deemed as great films not from individuals, but from the masses, and the only way you can tell if a movie has truly accomplished something is if it has the same effect on all its viewers.

On that note, my fellow moviegoers, I end with a classic line from my favorite film critic: “I’ll see you at the movies.”

– David Dunn

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“RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES” Review (✫✫✫)

Hey, apes are people too. 

Be honest: how many of you were expecting this one to be good? I know I certainly didn’t. After seeing how poorly the earlier Planet of the Apes movies were faring (I’m looking at you, Tim Burton), here I was expecting another downtrodden experience that was trying to milk whatever it could left from the utters of its franchise. Why wouldn’t I expect that? The same thing has been done with the Jaws series alongside every conceivable Friday the 13th movie ever made. Believe me, I wasn’t expecting a good movie when I heard that this movie was called Rise of the Planet of the Apes. It honestly felt more like it was falling to me.

Here, however, is the rare occasion where a prequel/reboot actually contributes to the franchise rather than taking away from it. Taking place years before the events of the very first Planet of the Apes film, Rise tells the story of Will Rodman (James Franco), a scientist who is developing a potential cure for alzheimer’s deep within his lab. After testing it on multiple chimpanzees and noticing an effect in increased intelligence, one of them goes berserk, attacks her caretakers, then is killed in self-defense. The scientists are ordered to terminate the project and kill any ape left within the vicinity.

It is during his routine inspection where he discovers a small baby chimp deep within the cell of the female ape that was killed earlier. Knowing that the baby would die if he remained there, Will took the little baby home and raised him as his own.

As the years progress, we notice that the baby chimp shares the same characteristics as his mother did when she was in the labs. Both of them displayed feats of great intelligence and memorization. Both developed abilities to read, write and comprehend speech. Both learned the skill of being able to do sign language. Most impressive was their ability to convey, understand and express emotions, almost like they’re human themselves. As the small chimp named Caesar (Andy Serkis) grows out of his adolescence and into adult apehood, he begins to notice a darker side of humanity and plots a way to set himself and his fellow apes free from mankind’s grasp.

Here is a film that, by every definition, should not have been good. It had everything working against it. It’s the prequel to a film series that hasn’t had a good film since 1968. It’s the seventh film in a franchise that has long since lost its influence. And it’s centered around a main character who isn’t even human, an ape who, for more than half of the film, can’t even talk.

Believe me, I went into this film fully expecting to hate it. Turns out that it’s quite the opposite. Rise of the Planet of the Apes demonstrates exactly what a hollywood blockbuster is supposed to be, a smart, involving and intelligently made film that is equal parts exciting as it is relevant. Director Rupert Wyatt, who made the 2008 film The Escapist prior to Rise, is careful and delicate with the pacing of his film. Starting off on a very dramatic and touching note, we go through what can mostly be seen as a science-fiction drama about the relationship between the guy who plays Harry Osborn and his little ape-friend, until all hell breaks loose and the beginning of the human-ape war spawns itself.

I exaggerate a little bit, but you get my point. There isn’t a lot of action in the movie, or at least, not as much as you’d expect it to be Instead, there are a lot of small, intimate moments where Caesar and Will’s beings clash into each other, either bonding in very genuine, heartfelt moments or rubbing off of each other as starkly as their conflicting races are. This is a dialogue-driven movie, with Will and Caesar each questioning the decisions they make and how they should should both respond as the result of it.

A lot of things don’t really blow up in the movie, to be honest. But when it does, ohhhh boy, is it exciting. My favorite scene in the movie had to be when Caesar and his primate army broke out of a preservation facility in new york and pierced their way right through the heart of the city, almost like it’s the American revolution and it’s George Washington leading the charge.

At the absolute heart of this film, however, is Caesar, portrayed here by actor Andy Serkis. If you don’t recognize the name, you don’t deserve to call yourself a cinephile. Serkis is most known for a slew of CGI performances, ranging from Gollum in The Lord of the Rings to the titular ape in Peter Jackson’s King Kong. Great as he was as Gollum, I’m tempted to say that this is his best performance yet. When you watch the film, notice the differences at how he carries himself as an ape and as a slightly-more evolved ape. In early scenes, he’s just walking around like a regular animal, with his elongated arms carrying himself as he “oohs” and “ahhs” while rubbing the back of his head. As the movie continues on, Caesar’s evolvement is apparent, and you notice his regular instinctual appearance has been replaced with a tall, stark, and grim figure, bleakfully looking on at a society that he has lost all faith in. Gollum was a character he concieved entirely from his own inspiration, while King Kong was one he concieved from studying the natural behavior of apes. He does both here with Caesar, and successfully portrays a character who is not just an ape, but a super ape, one who is evolving to something much more dangerous at an alarming and vengeful pace.

The only complaint I will issue with this movie is its ending, which is so melodramatic and sappy that it could have been used for an “Animal Planet” commercial. Why did they have to do this? Who says a movie needs to end on an optimistic note? Why do we need to have a happy ending? Who says we can’t end on a bleak, grim note, foreshadowing on a downtrodden spiral of war, doom and apocalypse? We all know that this can only end one way anyway. The franchise isn’t called “Planet of the Humans”, after all.

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“X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST” Review (✫✫✫✫)

The next stage in superhero cinema evolution. 

X-men: Days of Future Past ranks among the best superhero sequels I’ve ever seen, one I would instantly compare to that of Spider-man 2 or The Dark Knight. There were so many things that needed to be done, so many risks that needed to be taken, and so many ways this movie could have failed. It didn’t. From the opening sequence to its last breathtaking moment, my mind was blown and the comic-book nerd in me was absolutely filled with joy. The movie did more than simply expand the franchise: it redefined it.

We open on a post-apocalyptic future that hasn’t been this catastrophic since James Cameron’s 1984 film The Terminator. Years after X-men: The Last Stand took place, humans are now being hunted by the same weapons they created in the first place: the Sentinels, a coalition of dangerously armed robots who can track and exterminate any mutant they can find on planet earth. Amongst the ruins of battered buildings and fallen icons, the human race has now been collected into a sort of concentration camps: all that’s left for the mutants then is the mass graves filled with the dead bodies of their kin.

Lifelong frenemies Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellan) collaborate on a plan they would like to enact. Besides having the ability to phase through walls and objects, Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) has recently developed the ability to transfer someone’s consciousness into their younger bodies in the past, allowing them to change the future and avoid the unfortunate outcomes that might become of them. Kitty has been able to use this ability on multiple occasions now to save her friends, but now Professor X and Magneto want to go back into the past (1970, to be exact) to prevent the event that triggered this horrifying future and save human and mutantkind as they know it.

Problem is, Kitty can only send someone back a few days or weeks at a time. Any further than that and she risks tearing apart the mind of the person she’s sending back to the point beyond repair. Luckily, Wolverine (played by Hugh Jackman, who else?) has the ability to heal himself at a faster rate. So Professor X and Magneto decide to send Wolverine back into the past to coerce their younger selves (portrayed by James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, respectively) to stop the triggering event and save the future.

Serving as a sequel to both X-men: First Class and X-men: The Last Stand, and incorporating characters and actors from both translations, X-men: Days of Future Past is, in a word, a game changer. It brings in all of its key players, from the original cast members and its most revered director Bryan Singer, to the newcomers who’ve newly defined their roles, including McAvoy as Xavier and Fassbender as Magneto. Everyone meshes so perfectly with each other, especially Jackman once again, who essentially has to react to characters from two different time zones. There hasn’t been a cast this big since Joss Whedon’s The Avengers, and I’m tempted to say the movie is better because of it.

Do I really want to stand here though, and compare Days of Future Past to that of The Avengers? Yes I do. The Avengers was a bold, brave step forward in comic book evolution, combining characters from five different movies to make a superhero epic that hadn’t been tried before. Days of Future Past follows that same model, bringing in characters from six of its movies, but the end result is vastly different. There’s a much deeper plot going on here, a vastly intelligent and contemplative story that elaborates on its recurring themes of racism and, once again, bringing in the consequences of discrimination to the forefront. I loved X2 for this very reason, for it being more than just a comic book movie and focusing itself more as a political thriller with comic book elements thrown into the mix. This movie is that to, like, the tenth power.

Oh yes, this movie will fill comic fans with glee everywhere. Similar to the small little easter eggs that can be picked up in other Marvel movies (Note: The Doctor Strange reference in The Winter Soldier), this movie too has sweet little moments that comic fans can pluck from the ground and take a moment and appreciate the aroma. My favorite had to be a moment where a mutant named Peter (Evan Peters), who can run at supersonic speeds, rests in an elevator with the younger Magneto as he’s helping him escape from prison, and makes a comment about his long-lost father. That’s just the tip of the Bobby Drake-iceberg. There’s so many moments I can pull from that filled me with joy and happiness, while others filled me with dread and angst. The film orchestrates its emotions wonderfully, and in every fabric of the film I felt what I was supposed to feel.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say this is the best X-men movie in the series so far. Bold claim, I know, but it deserves it. From its first moment to its last, Days of Future Past is completely, utterly, fascinatingly mind-blowing and involving. From its quietly hinted-at themes of xenophobia and extermination to its climactic action scenes where we don’t see how on earth our heroes can win, Days of Future Past combines the best parts of all of the movies and makes itself the best entry out of them. Many audiences have recently been experiencing superhero movie fatigue, with movies such as Man of Steel and The Amazing Spider-man 2 recently being met with mixed reaction amongst audiences and in the box office. Days of Future Past is one of those movies that restores your faith in the genre.

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“HER” Review (✫✫1/2)

What on earth did I just watch?

How do you fall in love with a computer program? Throughout the entire runtime of Her, that’s the only thought that was peaking through my mind. I wasn’t thinking about Joaquin Phoenix’s deliberate performance. I wasn’t thinking about how sweet and serene Scarlett Johansson’s voice sounded. I didn’t think about how clever the story was or how passionate Spike Jonze’s direction was. The only thing I was thinking about was how hard it must be to maintain a relationship with a piece of machinery. Can you imagine how awkward those morning encounters must be?

Taking place in the not-too-distant future, Her follows the story of Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), an introvert and manic depressive who writes love letters for a living and has recently gone through a divorce with his wife Catherine (Rooney Mara). Theodore is not in the most stable mindset as the movie begins, and as an effort to feel less lonely, he purchases an artificial intelligence who names herself “Samantha” (Scarlett Johanson) to help him with his everyday needs. What goes from there is a grand journey of self-discovery, identity and romance as these two gradually come closer with each other and eventually fall in love.

For those of you who have seen the movie, does that paragraph just about do it justice? I could go deeper into the plot synopsis, but why would I? From just those three sentences, half of you have already decided whether you would like the movie or not. There are, no doubt, some introspective and provocative thinkers out there who will find joy and enchantment with this story, while other viewers will watch it and ask themselves what on earth they just watched.

For me, I went in an open book. I knew that the movie had an opportunity to woo me, that it was a strange and outlandish idea to begin with, but that the idea doesn’t matter as long as it was handled and carried out well. How did the movie do with that?

Eh. I’d rather watch 1 Night In Paris. 

Like its central idea, Her is a strange movie, a surreal and against-the-grain picture that challenges a lot of misconceptions about love and relationships. While I like that and think it has a lot of great ideas to offer its viewers, I find them so hard to focus on while we’re watching Joaquin Phoenix having sex with a machine.

Yes, there are sex scenes in the movie, although I hesitate to even call them that. There are two that we actually see, but from their conversations we actually infer that there were plenty more.

The first one isn’t really a sex scene, but more or less a copycat of phone sex with Scarlett Johansson’s voice (which I’ll admit, didn’t bother me that much at all). The second one, however, was out of this world weird, with Samantha hiring a surrogate (prostitute) for Theodore to have pretend sex with. They’re trying to justify it by saying that she isn’t a prostitute and that she’s just trying to be a part of their experience, but that argument is null and void. She’s provided sexual services in exchange for something else. She’s a prostitute.

Don’t get me wrong: there are many emotional moments that the movie handled surprisingly well, and there’s an undeniable sweetness and sentiment to the story that can’t help but be noticed. Despite her being a machine, Samantha has a surprising amount of layers to her, being an in-depth and interesting character and love interest in her own right, while the human characters contribute the more grounded relationships that make more sense than that of Samantha’s (Including a recently-divorced Rooney Mara and Amy Adams, who offer very interesting parallels to Twombly’s exotic love story).

Joaquin Phoenix, however, is the flesh and blood of the film. His performance is nothing less than exemplary, playing this shy introvert so convincingly that its hard to imagine that he at one point portrayed Johnny Cash. His character reminds me of many of cinema’s most memorable introverts, ranging from the autistic-yet-brilliant Raymond Babbit in Rain Man to the hyper-obsessive and socially distant Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, or the paranoid John Forbes Nash Jr. in A Beautiful Mind. All of those movies focused on characters that struggled romantically and socially, and how much they struggled with their identity and being themselves. I love it when movies reach into characters that deep and personally, and if the film focused more on Twobly’s personality rather than that of his love and attraction to his operating system, the movie could have ended up being way more successful.

I can’t help but keep thinking about how small Her’s audience will be. In this day and age, art films are getting harder and harder to advertise and appeal to mainstream moviegoing audiences, and this movie is definitely no exception. I know the film’s premise doesn’t matter as much as how well that premise is handled, but there are some movies that just can’t get away from their bizarre ideas. Case in point: did anyone really expect Quentin Dupieux’s Rubber to be a good movie?

I stress this again: the main character is in love with a computer program. If you can buy that and get over that to enjoy the movie, good for you. But there are no doubt others who will not enjoy this picture, and I can’t help but think that they will be a more sane person because of it.

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