Tag Archives: Music

“A STAR IS BORN (2018)” Review (✫✫✫✫)

SOURCE: WARNER BROS. PICTURES

Baby, I was born this way. 

When it comes to filmmaking, art typically imitates reality. But every once in a while in genuinely special cases, reality imitates art. In A Star Is Born, I’m not sure which is imitating which, and I sincerely mean that as a compliment. The story follows an up-and-coming singer, portrayed here by pop artist Lady Gaga, who falls in love, is forced out of her comfort zone, starts performing live, hits the big time, fulfills all of her dreams, and ends up with… nothing. Even though she’s now a big-time singer, celebrity, and star, she ends the film feeling just as broken, helpless, and human as she did when the movie began. I can’t help but feel Lady Gaga is channeling some of her real-life experiences as she portrays her character. Perhaps she’s channeling every star’s experiences?

The singer’s name is Ally, and in A Star Is Born she meets a famous country artist named Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) who is battling his own demons. The first shot we open on is him popping pills into his mouth before going on stage and playing to a crowd of loud, passionate fans. Later on, he jumps into his car, downs a bottle of vodka, and seems disappointed when he notices that it’s empty. He ventures his way into a nearby drag bar, where a passerby tells him that this might not be the place for him. “Does it serve alcohol?” Jackson remarks. “It’s my kinda place.”

It’s at this drag bar where Jackson meets Ally – and just like Jackson, our introduction to Ally sweeps us off of our feet. It was only a few minutes earlier when we saw her frustratingly taking out the trash at her second job as a waitress. To see her on stage now, singing “La Vie En Rose” in front of several cross-dressing attendants, was nothing short of breathtaking. I was reminded of when Edith Piaf sang the song herself in 1946 and found myself completely caught up in the moment. Judging from Jackson’s reactions, I can only reason that he was as starstruck by Ally’s performance as I was.

From there, their relationship grows, and so does our admiration for both of them. One of my biggest concerns going into this movie was how it might sensationalize the experience of stardom. So often do films hold celebrity figures high as larger-than-life superstars, forgetting that there’s a person behind the performance on stage. I haven’t seen the previous adaptations of A Star Is Born, but from my experiences watching other musicals such as Fame and Rock of Ages, I’m used to musicals patronizing the audience instead of simply being honest with them.

Thankfully, A Star Is Born doesn’t sanitize or exaggerate the celebrity experience. It actually does quite the opposite. One of the greatest things about this movie is that when Ally hits the big time and becomes a high-profile superstar, her personality doesn’t suddenly change into this vain, egotistical social maniac. In fact, she’s still very much the same awkward, uncomfortable, and innocently sweet girl she started as in the movie. The only difference now is that she’s singing in front of large crowds with colorful costumes, makeup, hairdos, and backup dancers instead of jeans and a T-shirt. It’s nice to see that type of humanism in a character, knowing that there’s still a person behind all of the bright lights, cameras, and photo shoots.

In that, Lady Gaga steals the show as Ally. I’ll admit I’ve never been the biggest fan of her. Her public antics such as the infamous meat dress have always screamed as attention-seeking to me, and her music video “Judas” was just straight-up reprehensible. Still, you can’t deny the talent Gaga possesses as an artist, and here I’m completely entranced by both her singing and acting abilities. Whenever she sings, she completely transports you to a different place – like you just woke up right in the middle of a concert experience. And yet she doesn’t hesitate in the more emotional moments either, expressing genuine affection, pride, vulnerability, and hurt in the moments where it really cuts you the deepest.

Oddly enough though, I don’t give her all the credit for her performance. I give half of it to her co-star and director Bradley Cooper. Cooper makes his writer and director debut with A Star Is Born, and after watching it, I’m desperately waiting for his follow-up. Not only does he guide Gaga through the emotional range she needs in order to make her character feel believable, but he’s just as impeccable in his own portrayal as Jackson Maine as well. This is a damaged, broken man we’re watching – a person who loves singing his life story to millions of adoring fans, but his story is one of guilt, pain, and regret. You sincerely pity this man and his situation, and you pray that he can lift himself out of it with the help of his love and partner in life. I applaud Cooper’s work here not just in his own performance, but for enhancing Gaga’s as well. If Lady Gaga is the center of the show, Cooper is the man behind it.

I thought long and hard about this movie, whether I found it to merely another entertaining musical drama or something deeper. I eventually found it to be especially profound when I realized just how human the movie felt. Its characters are not larger-than-life clichés, caricatures or satires, and it doesn’t aim for the empty sensationalism that can be entertaining for only so long. Out in the real world, another Ally and Jackson Maine are walking through life together. Their dreams are real. Their problems are real. And their love for each other is real. Yes, they hit some ugly, dark, and tragic patches along the way. But they grow stronger, and shine brighter, because of it.

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“STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON” Review (✫✫✫✫)

The biography of the boyz in the hood. 

Perception is reality.

That’s a motto my newsroom lives and dies by. That’s also a truth that the boys from Straight Outta Compton live and die by. The only difference between us is that we experience it figuratively: they experience it literally.

We witness this early in Straight Outta Compton; as early as the first scene, in fact. Eric Wright, a.k.a. Eazy E (Jason Mitchell) confronts his cousins, who hasn’t paid him yet for the dope that he sold them a few weeks ago. Suddenly, like an Earthquake striking a town, the police ram into the house and start raiding it, arresting any African-American they can find in there. E slips out of the window and onto the roof just in time. He’s survived. For now.

We switch to a less tense scene. Andre Young, a.k.a. Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) is sitting on his bedroom floor, listening to classic funk and R&B records on his record player. Dre isn’t like the others in the streets. He doesn’t want to sling dope or be in a gang. He just wants to produce beats and music: a mozart to his suburbs.

His mother Verna (Lisa Renee Pitts), however, isn’t so enthused about his career path. He has a family and a daughter to care for, and he isn’t going to do it sitting on the floor listening to a record player, DJ’ing for a club at night. Dre, however, has his mind set. His future doesn’t lie in cleaning toilets and taking fast food orders. It lies in a DJ mixer and a pair of headphones. Dre knows what he needs to do.

Meanwhile, on the other side of Compton, O’Shea Jackson, a.k.a. Ice Cube (played by his own son, O’Shea Jackson Jr.) is sitting on a bus waiting to go to school. He sees the white kids in another school yard, all dressed in nice clothes, all with newly-bought school supplies and slick cars. Meanwhile, Cube sits in his creaky bus seat, looking at his clothes he probably wore yesterday, and his worn pencil and notepad, which is the only school supplies he has.

He takes his pencil and notepad and starts writing.

These three men, alongside Lorenzo Patterson, a.k.a. MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) and Antoine Carraby, a.k.a. DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.) make up the notorious hip-hop group N.W.A. The last two words stand for “With Attitude.” You can imagine what the letter “N” stands for.

Here is a film that, by any standards, is morally despicable. I go on and on in some of my reviews how movies are either incredibly violent, shamelessly sexual, or blatantly vulgar. This movie is all of those things and more. F-words fly out of their mouths like bullets in an uzi. Nude and scantily-clad women flock to these rappers in herds. In some scenes, they engage in sexual intercourse with many attendants watching, all with drugs and alcohol present. Police and gang violence is also present in the film, with crips, bloods, and officers shoving, punching, shooting, assaulting, and harassing each other in very violent, confrontational fashions.

Do not be fooled. This is not an easy film to watch, and if you don’t have a strong moral compass, you will get lost in the violent, sexual, promiscuous, profane, and blatantly explicit content you will find in this motion picture. If you hate hip-hop, you will hate Straight Outta Compton.

That being said, Straight Outta Compton is one of the most compelling films I’ve seen so far this year. The movie is more than the problems it poses. In fact, I’m happy that the film shows the content that it does in the film. It shows the destructive lifestyle these people experience, both on and off the streets, and they confront very real issues that hits them hard at home and at heart. The most significant issue that the movie covers is, of course, police violence. In one of my favorite scenes from the film, one of the police officers that was harassing these young men was not white, but black. My jaw dropped as he continued to berate these men as they were walking away: “Listen to your master!” he said, referring to their white manager.

What I love most about this movie, though, is that it isn’t biased. It isn’t pro-police or anti-police or pro-gangs or anti-gangs. It shows the ugliness of every side of Compton, whether it exists on a badge or on a bandana. Police cruelty is an obvious focus of the film, because it’s a recurring theme in hip-hop and rap culture. I was pleasantly surprised, though, to find at how much the film delved into hood culture and how damaging it is to these young men’s lives. The biggest instances of cruelty came from record producer Suge Knight, portrayed here by R. Marcus Taylor, whose business tactics include physical intimidation, humiliation, fear, confrontation, and violence. If the movie is anything to go by on how the real events transpired, Suge is a monster. He is painted as nothing less than the Godfather of suffering in this movie.

The parallels this movie draws on is ingenious, and director F. Gary Gray is exemplary in realizing the African-American struggle in a poverty-stricken neighborhood and in their aspiration to escape from it. Jackson does very well in portraying his father, and demonstrates the same snarl and attitude with such accuracy that it made me laugh at how similar he looked to his father. Hawkins is passionate and driven in portraying Dre, and while he physically looks smaller than the real-life Dr. Dre, his performance and his versatility in emotion more than makes up for lacking in physical similarities.

The greatest performance, however, comes from Jason Mitchell. In hindsight, he is the character with the most problems. He’s egotistical, he objectifies women, he betrays his friends, he resorts to violence, and he flourishes in the most destructive lifestyle as he bathes himself in a plethora of drugs, alcohol, and sex. In comparison to his N.W.A. companions, he is the most flawed character. But with his flaws comes his emotions to those flaws, his own moments of self-reflection that makes him think back at his decisions, his career, and the life that he’s trapped in. E goes through many emotions in this film, from fear, to anger, to happiness, to sadness, to heartbreak, and Mitchell portrays all of those emotions perfectly. If he doesn’t deserve the Academy Award for best supporting actor, he definitely deserves a nomination.

But at the heart of this movie is the struggle, the struggle that these five young men go through together, apart, individually, and inseparably. Their struggle being not having enough money. Their struggle being having too much money. Their struggle of not having a place in the world, and their struggle of what to do after establishing their place in the world. Like hip-hop, this movie will stir some major controversy for its content and for what messages it sends to its younger viewers. But it’s important to understand that this movie doesn’t set out to prove who is right and wrong. This movie sets out to show a reality. This movie sets out to show their reality.

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“WHIPLASH” Review (✫✫✫✫)

You won’t know what hit you.

I was a junior in high school when my dad took me out to a cabin in Montana for a “vacation.” I put “vacation” in quotations because we practiced music for nearly three hours every single day. I was a tuba player back then, and I practiced with my dad so I could make it into the All-Region band. One day, I wasn’t playing a single measure correctly. The notes I was supposed to play were on the downbeat, and I kept playing them on the upbeat. My dad made me play that verse over, and over, and over, and over again. He would get frustrated at me, yell at me, and push me harder and harder until I played that verse perfectly 100 times. I played that same frothy, infuriating verse for all three hours that day.

I say this to show you that the stuff you see in Whiplash isn’t fiction. It’s as feasible as the music you see, as vibrant as the drum beats you hear in a song, and as real as the passion that drives any musician, writer, and aspiring artist out there. Whiplash is special not just because it’s unique, but because it carries an uncanny truth for those who aspire to greatness. Perfection is never good enough. You’re pushing yourself over the edge just as much as the people around you are.

The kid aspiring to greatness in this story is Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), a mild-mannered college musician who aspires to be the next Charlie Parker or Buddy Rich on the drums. The man he thinks can make him great is Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), a brilliant but brash and at times violent instructor who will throw a chair at you if you’re either rushing or dragging the tempo.

If you think I’m saying that figuratively, I’m not. That literally happens to Neiman during his first rehearsal with Fletcher in the movie.

Neiman aims to be the best drummer out in the world. Fletcher aims to be the best instructor in the world. These two men and their intense passions for their goals builds into a riveting, thrilling, and emotionally vigorous journey that is more involving and exciting than most of the year’s biggest action blockbusters. Yes, I am placing this above the likes of Transformers, Godzilla, and Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s that good.

How is it that this movie leaves such a lasting impact, when most people haven’t seen it, let alone heard about it? One of the biggest reasons, I think, is conflict. This is writer/director Damien Chazelle’s sophomore effort into film, his debut feature being the 2009 jazz film Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench. Both films are about jazz musicians, both are about people aspiring to other’s aspirations, and both are about never being good enough for those end goals.

There, however, is a sharp difference in tone between both pictures. One is a romantic drama about two lovers struggling to reconnect after slowly growing apart from each other. The other is an unconventional thriller that poses two musicians opposite one another to build a steady sense of unease and tension between the two. The result is a severely nail-biting, teeth-grating, and heart-pounding experience because of it.

Again, going back to conflict. My college screenwriting professor once told us that conflict is what compels story, and character’s struggling with conflict compels their development in the story. I am reminded of this no better than when I watch Whiplash, and that’s just because Chazelle sets up conflict really well in the movie. In the film, Neiman is desperate to prove himself as a musician. He moves his bed out of his dorm room in the place of a drum set. When he goes to sleep, he listens to the music that he’s practicing in his ipod. When he knows he’s not playing fast enough, he pushes harder until his hand bleeds. When his hand bleeds, he puts a bandaid on and keeps playing. When his bandaid falls off, he presses his hand in ice water, turning the clean liquid into an ugly shade of red.

Yet, despite all of his passion and initiative, Fletcher continues to press him and push him harder not necessarily to make him a better musician, but just because it’s never good enough for him. The level of intensity Fletcher shows in the movie makes you wonder where all of this anger comes from. Did he have his own version of Fletcher when he was a music major in college?

Which brings me to the next point: the performances. Teller and Simmons give two of the best performances out of the year in their roles, fully inhabiting their characters to the point where we become entranced in full immersion. Teller, who before this has starred in a string of bad raunchy comedies (Project X, 21 and Over, That Awkard Moment), re-establishes himself as a finer actor here. He shows that he has more acting chops than he lets on and proves that he’s more than just a pretty face. Simmons is on a whole another level. He was so scary, intimidating and maddening as this arrogant, hard-headed music professor that he made wind ensemble feel like drill camp.

I can only name one moment I didn’t like in the film, and that is that the ending is far too abrupt. It’s a perfect film otherwise. Chazelle wrote and directed this film as a reaction to writer’s block, and while he pulled inspiration from being a drummer in high school, I think the film is universal as far as its language and messages go. We are both Neiman and Fletcher for the things that we are passionate about. We aspire to do great things, and we beat ourselves up when we don’t do those great things. We will push ourselves to and over the edge when we don’t measure up to our own expectations. But what’s the point of doing all of those great things if you’ve lost the joy in doing them? I quote my dad, who has always pushed me in a better way than Fletcher has: “You don’t have to be number one to be amazing.”

Post-script: In defense of my dad, some people might say he was going too hard on me, or that I didn’t deserve all of the strain that he would put me through. You would be wrong. I made third chair in the Texas All State band because he didn’t give up on me.

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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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“THE BOOK OF LIFE” Review (✫✫✫)

book of life

Ay caramba, tu joven amantes.

As children, we were told many fairy tales that filled our young minds with wonder and imagination. We looked at the pictures in our tiny children’s books as our parents narrated the words to us, but did we ever stop to think about where these fairy tales came from? The Three Little Pigs came from England. The Little Red Riding Hood, London. The Fountain of Youth, Japan. The Little Mermaid, Denmark. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Germany. So many stories have come from so many places all around the world that by the time they reach us, we have “cleansed” it of it’s culture and Americanized it for our own comfort.

Here, we have Jorge Gutierrez’s own fairy tale called The Book Of Life, and for the sake of the movie I’m glad it didn’t succumb to mainstream appeal by having it take place in Colonial America. The Book Of Life is splendid, a wonderful, uplifting, joyous, and immensely entertaining animation engulfed and inspired by the culture Gutierrez came from. Think about how quickly you are swept away when you read the fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm, and you can imagine how this film sweeps you up in that exact same way.

Told as a story within a story similar to Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride, The Book Of Life follows a group of schoolchildren through a museum as they are told the tale of Manolo (Diego Luna), a Mexican bull fighter who is fighting for the heart of his childhood friend Maria (Zoe Saldana). His closest friend and rival, Joaquin (Channing Tatum) is also fighting for her love, and when they finally see each other after many years apart, they begin their pursuit for Maria’s love.

Unbeknownst to any of them, however, a heavy secret hides behind their innocent intentions. The spirits of the afterlife La Muerte (Kate del Castillo), who rules the world of the remembered, and Xibalba (Ron Perlman), the one who rules the world of the forgotten, have placed a bet on these three friends. If Manolo ends up marrying Maria, La Muerte wins and gets to rule both the land of the remembered and the forgotten. If Joaquin marries Maria, Xibalba wins and he gets to rule the land of the remembered. The world of the undead is at stake here, and it’s up to Manolo, Maria, and Joaquin to set things right.

What do I say about an animated children’s film that’s based around Mexican fables and customs? The Book Of Life is a wonderful animation: bright, vibrant, colorful, and lively all at once. Writer/director/animator Jorge Gutierrez has a careful eye for detail, and does well in visually adapting to different scenes, settings, and moods.

In one scene, after one of the supporting characters die, the setting suddenly becomes dark. The sun drops. The candles burn out. A cloudy fog envelops in the sky as rain drops pellet onto the ground. In the very next scene, however, we see the world of the remembered from this deceased person’s perspective, and it is lively colors light up with shiny, gold-brick pathways illuminating everywhere and with Churros and balloons floating as far as the eye can see.

This is what I mean when I say the animation is versatile: it’s attentive, eye-catching, and delightful, demanding your attention the minute you lay your eyes on it. But it’s not just the animation that works so well with this movie. The Book of Life is entrenched and inspired in its own culture, living and breathing the Mexican customs though every frame of its run time.  There is one work that Gutierrez did this with before The Book Of Life, and that is the Annie award-winning Nickelodeon cartoon series “El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera.” Now we have The Book of Life, and I feel it will spur on many Mexican children and families to pick up their heritage and be proud to represent it. In a day and age where Hollywood feels they need to Americanize everything, The Book of Life is a Godsend.

Everything else in this film functions exactly as it is supposed to. The story is mostly formula in that there has to be a good guy, a bad guy, a forbidden love, a big fight scene at the end, and a happy ending. The voice cast is solid, and Channing Tatum didn’t annoy the living daylights out of me for a change. And the music by Gustavo Santaolallo is pristine and authentic, with the plucking of the Mexican guitar strings filling your ears with wonderfully harmonic sound.

But make no mistake. The best thing about this film is the inspiration Gutierrez instills in it, the inspiration that his parents most likely instilled in him when he was still just a little boy. I hope there will be a children’s novelization of this film in the future and that it too will inspire children of all ages, regardless of their heritage.

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“CANVAS OF SKY” Review (✫✫✫1/2)

Paul Demer’s Canvas of Sky is a humble little soliloquy, a slight and pleasurable experience that takes you soaring through the clouds, into the heavens and then back to earth with more perspective on things than you’ve had before. It does more than highlight Demer’s talents: it makes him seem ahead of his years.

We open on a track that feels like it could be played in your car as you’re driving with the windows down: “Bound For Home,” which doesn’t waste time as it opens on a jamming rock ballad that just can’t help but make you feel like you’re in the ’90s. When Demer starts singing about a world beyond our own, you instantly know that he’s not regurgitating song lyrics. They’re personal, and they mean a lot to him.

“I still believe it’s true,” he begins at the chorus. “That every day we’re created new, and this life is not our own when we realize we’re bound for home.”

As the album continues, you continue to notice small glimpses of Demer’s values and of the things he holds closest to his heart.

“One year to 20, and I thought things would be different,” he sings in “Birthday.” “But my indifference is still turning a blind eye.” On “Open Your Eyes” he says “It’s hard to see the stars when your head’s down in the dirt, and when your heart’s ajar, the small things start to hurt.” He’s also admitted that he’s afraid of losing the things he values the most, saying “I get so scared of losing all I’ve gained, but the things I cling to keep weighing me down,” in “Soaring.”

The highlight of the album is easily Demer’s talents. If you look at the album credits, you’ll notice that Demer not only wrote and performed all of his own songs, you’ll also notice he did the instrumentals too, credited on most of the album as working on the guitars, bass, drums and even the viola. His voice also has great range, from his regular-pitched Adam Young-like voice to the higher pitches that he gives in the more impressive harmonies. Whether he’s jamming on his guitar or singing one of his own lyrics doesn’t matter. Every moment feels fresh, vibrant and new.

But it’s more than what Demer simply plays in the album, it’s also what he sings about, too. Throughout the album, you hear Demer constantly referring to a higher power that he can’t control, one that no one has ever seen but only some have ever felt.

It’s in “Maybe All Is Not Lost” where we most clearly understand who he’s referring to: God.

“You are turning this world around one day at a time,” he sings. “You are giving us eyes to see so we can find you.” He later says in the chorus that God comes to him when his strength is gone.

This is what I value most about the album: Demer can express his values and beliefs and it not be in your face or ham-fisted. It’s humble, serene and sweet, like he’s talking to a childhood friend and just modestly, but strongly, expressing what he believes in, not lecturing someone because they don’t believe in the same things he does.

There are a few instances where some decisions were made on the production side of things that didn’t quite make sense. In “Bound For Home,” for instance, there’s one moment where his voice track is significantly toned down for effect, and then it just suddenly juts into the regular levels in the middle of a lyric, instead of waiting for the verse to end to make a more effective transition. The album’s last track “Run” is mostly flimsy and forgettable, making me wonder why he chose to end the album on that track rather than “Constant” or “Open Your Eyes,” the album’s stronger tracks. The worst track, however, is easily “Neutrino,” where the instrumental track is as complacent as elevator music.

Overall, Canvas of Sky is a very noteworthy album. The small technical faults are there and the production can be better, but Demer has a gift that most other musicians do not have: genuineness. You can feel genuine passion and emotion behind the things that he sings about, and you can also feel that he genuinely believes in the things that he talks about.

Canvas of Sky does more than give you a good listen: it tells you that everything is going to be alright, and it will be.

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