Tag Archives: Romance

“STAR WARS: THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” Review (✫✫✫✫)

The Galactic rebellion intensifies.

How do you improve upon perfection? The second installment in the Star Wars series, The Empire Strikes Back, answers this question with profound confidence, wiping away any doubt with the swift of a lightsaber and the influence of the force. It’s hard to imagine that at one point, creator George Lucas doubted the impact his series would hold. And now here stands The Empire Strikes Back, not only every bit as strong as its predecessor, but also cementing its influence on cinema forever.

Taking place a few years after the events of Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back follows its core characters as they continue the intensified conflict against the empire. Darth Vader (James Earl Jones) is viciously in pursuit after Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). Han Solo (Harrison Ford) has a debt he desperately needs to pay off from a criminal overlord. Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) has a war she’s still trying to fight. And while all of this is going on, Luke receives a message from his long-deceased friend, Ben Kenobi (Alec Guinness), telling him to go to the Dagobah system to train with the only Jedi master left in existence. Now all on separate paths towards their destinies, these rebels and friends must complete their own journeys as they continue to fight the empire and save the galaxy from its evil clutches.

After the massive success of Star Wars, you’d wonder how on Earth George Lucas would be able to provide a follow up to his science-fiction saga. Yes, he had created these wonderful characters, but character appeal can only last for so long. You have to give them something to do to test the strength of their resolve and the changes that they go through. For the sequel to work, Lucas needed to not only reproduce his memorable heroes: he needed a story just as compelling to allow them to grow and evolve.

Thankfully, Lucas delivers just that alongside director Irvin Kershner and screenwriters Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan. One improvement that The Empire Strikes Back has upon its predecessor is in the scope of its storytelling; in the stakes that it sets up and in the challenges it pits against its characters. That’s perhaps the most noticeable way in how this movie excels, is in its buildup and anticipation.

Take, for instance, the dynamic that pits Luke Skywalker against Darth Vader. As the movie builds, you quickly realize how similar Luke and Vader are to each other, and how dangerous of a path Luke is on if he isn’t careful. Luke is training to become a jedi. So was Vader, at one point. Luke is very strong in the force. So is Vader. Luke wants to get powerful fast so he can protect his friends. So did Vader, before he turned to the dark side. The parallels this movie draws on its protagonist and antagonist are very strong, and Kershner is effective in highlighting the conflict going on inside of Luke. It shows that if Luke isn’t careful, the greatest thing he will lose is not his friends, but his soul.

The other characters are just as great as they were the first time we became acquainted with them. Han Solo is still the smug, over-confident rebel, Leia is still the stubborn and headstrong leader that gives a good name to female protagonists. Darth Vader, however, is just as imposing and fearful as he was when we first met him. I would argue even more so, given more of the history we learn about him in this movie. When listening to him, I had forgotten how pivotal James Earl Jones was in his character conception, how his voice lends so much to his performance and his agony. It isn’t just the deepness of Jones’ voice that perfectly encapsulates Darth Vader: it’s in the sincerity of his words, how he says some lines with intensity and quietly utters others in softness. In the first movie, we got a great introduction to Darth Vader as a villain. Here, we’re beginning to understand him as a character, and Jones continues to be pivotal as that comprehension continues to be constructed.

What of the technical elements? Read my first review. You know what I think of its technical elements. The landscapes are vast and barren, contributing to a deep sense of loneliness and vulnerability. The action is exciting and suspenseful, teaming our heroes up against near impossible tasks, then having them find solutions in the most creative and dynamic ways possible. John Williams’ score doesn’t even need any elaboration. Can’t you remember the emotions you felt the first time you saw the words “Star Wars” on the screen and heard the horns blasting proudly in harmony?

This movie is just as strong as the first film was in its production value. Yet, production value means nothing without a strong arc for our characters to go through, and The Empire Strikes Back has that in spades. On the surface, it’s another sci-fi action blockbuster not too dissimilar to its first entry. In deeper insight, it’s a character conflict on how these heroes and villains react to stakes rising and how similar they are in their struggle and in their pain.

There are other characters and story elements that I would like to talk about, but doing so would cheat you of the experience and take away the enjoyment of seeing it for yourself. Star Wars was a masterpiece. The Empire Strikes Back, even more so.

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“STAR WARS” Review (✫✫✫✫)

The force is strong with George Lucas.

What is your favorite piece of science fiction of all time? Nine times out of ten, most people’s answer will be Star Wars. Not Star Trek. Not Terminator. Not Alien, or Blade Runner, or Metropolis, or 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s always Star Wars. Why is that?

I think it’s because, unlike Gene Roddenberry, James Cameron, Ridley Scott, Fritz Lang, and yes, even the great Stanley Kubrick, George Lucas succeeded in making characters that were not only believable, but loveable. We didn’t just accept them. We embraced them as we found a piece of ourselves in each of them. If I bring up the name David Bowman, many of you might ask “Who?” If I mention Nyota Uhura, most of you would stare at me in puzzlement. But if I mention the letters and numbers of C-3PO and R2-D2, your ears would most likely perk up in excitement as you realize I’m talking about Star Wars.

That’s what happened to me in my small living room in Brownsville, Texas when I was just a little boy. When the opening credits and theme song for Star Wars opened up, my attention was immediately caught. When the vast imperial fighter boarded the small rebel ship and the tall figure of Darth Vader (James Earl Jones) entered the deck, I stared at the screen in bewilderment and amazement. But when those two geeky droids entered the frame, as R2 slid around beeping and 3PO clumsily blundered about, I knew I had found something special, as we all did when Star Wars hit the theaters in 1977.

The droids escape the rebel ship and soon land on the dusty planet of Tatooine, where they are soon captured and sold to a small plantation family outside of the city. It is here where we meet our hero Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), and we watch as he grows from being a desert farmer to a jedi warrior.

After spending years apart from this picture, I wondered if its appeal would still hold up to today’s standards. Yes, I had grown up with the characters, but that was when I was a child. I had grown away from many things as I grew into adulthood. Would I grow away from Star Wars too?

The answer is no, I didn’t, and I don’t think anyone can grow away from Star Wars. Star Wars appeals to a very specific part of the moviegoing experience: imagination. Yes, plenty of science-fiction films existed prior to the release of Star Wars, but none left the impact on the genre that Star Wars did. And every time I view Star Wars, watching as the droids beep and the aliens groan and the stormtroopers march, I ask what was it that this movie had that all of the others didn’t? My answer is the same every time: George Lucas.

From the writing to the visual design, George Lucas was heavily involved with the film’s concept and creation. How could Lucas come up with such creative and dynamic characters? From the droids to the humans, every character is completely fascinating and appealing, reaching a deep part of our mind from when we were excited at those swashbuckling serials we read when we were kids. It’s almost childlike in its appeal, and its heroes and villains alike are people we learn to root for not because we are asked to as viewers, but because we want to as fans.

Luke is the well-intentioned hero of the story, the knight in shining armor so to speak that is looking for his own adventure out there, all while trying to help anyone he can along the way. 3PO and R2 are the Abbott and Costello of robots here, and provide some of the more comedic moments of the picture without trying too hard or seeming exaggerated. Then there’s Darth Vader, whose visual scope and deep, imposing voice sets a new standard of villainy altogether. James Earl Jones wasn’t a relatively popular actor before Star Wars’ release. Yet, when Star Wars hit the theater, Jones’ personification of the character summoned such a powerful sense of intimidation for Darth Vader that it emboldened his status as a movie villain forever.

In retrospect, these characters don’t do anything in Star Wars that other characters haven’t done in other movies before. A princess is captured, a dashing hero (or two) comes in to save her, a climactic duel builds between its two leads, and somewhere, in one place or another, an explosion happens.

Doesn’t that sound like something you’ve seen before? Indeed, in most classic westerns and swashbuckling pictures, this was the template for your typical motion picture. What places Star Wars above the standard is its characters, in their funny, witty remarks, their moments of lighthearted comedy, and their deepened sense of adventure that survives past the stars and beyond. Yes, the cast gets credit for servicing their characters well, but not as much credit as the man who created the characters.

The other technical elements of the motion picture are astounding and contribute to the overall vision of this science-fiction fantasy. The visual effects were groundbreaking for its time, its elaborate art direction, set design, costuming and make up creating this authentic and aged environment that makes it feel like an age long lost. The technology and the weapons they use make for some of the most exciting action sequences, with one light saber battle between two jedi in the movie serving as one of its high points. And the musical composition by John Williams is simply beautiful, with the horns and the strings switching from moments of ease and reflection to moments of excitement and anticipation. Williams demonstrated his mastery of handling different aesthetics from his Academy Award-winning score for Jaws. Here is another film where he arguably contributed just as much to the film as its creator did.

But a film can be technically well made and fail on the whole. What makes Lucas’ work stand out is, once again, his characters. We share the young farmer’s dreams as he wants to travel to different worlds and become a jedi. We share the droid’s frustration at each other as their situation quickly crumbles into shambles, and we share the rebel’s fear and gloom as the shadowy figure of Darth Vader approaches them. This is a film that is strong in both production and concept, as it makes us deeply care for the characters that exist from a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

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“SPECTRE” Review (✫✫✫)

Back to Bond, baby.

The opening tracking shot in Spectre is masterfully filmed and beautifully consistent, following our subjects smoothly through the chaos of a celebratory crowd like an artist’s hand running down his sculpture. What follows after that is a film less consistent, less smooth, and less artistic, but to hell with being artistic. This is a fun movie.

Following up a few months after Skyfall, Spectre places our hero, James Bond, a.k.a. 007 (Once again portrayed by Daniel Craig) in the middle of a hidden conspiracy of overthrowing the world government and taking over the planet. We can’t go a few decades without Bond dealing with one of those every once in a while, now can’t we?

This time, Bond is after the villainous organization called S.P.E.C.T.R.E., which we’re never told what it stands for in the film (Although in Dr. No, it stood for Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion). At first, Bond doesn’t know exactly what he’s looking for, only having a clue by the deceased M (Judi Dench) to go by. But as he continues to investigate the organization further and further, he finds deeper connections to S.P.E.C.T.R.E. in his enemies from the past, until finally, he finds the deepest connection to S.P.E.C.T.R.E. of all: himself.

What do you think of when you think of James Bond? When I think of Bond, I think of a movie icon who is the penultimate vision of masculinity. He’s physically astute and sexually appealing. He’s smooth, suave, and has a way with words that is both comforting and edgy. He drinks a lot, but he can hold his liquor. He can fire a gun better than any marksman, a punch better than most fighters. He dresses up in nice suits and bow ties, although he does a great job at mucking them up on missions. When I think of Bond, I think of a character that men secretly idolize and women not-so-secretly desire. If he were any more larger than life, he would be a superhero.

Spectre continues the trend of Bond being a stylish action hero, and it continues the trend well. I mentioned in my lead that the film isn’t very artistic. That’s because it doesn’t need to be. After the impressive tracking shot at the beginning, Bond gets into a firefight, dodges a falling building, chases a suspect through the streets, gets into a fist fight, then highjacks a helicopter after it flips over on its axis in the air. And it’s not even the first 15 minutes.

This is something I’m impressed by in a lot of Bond movies, which is the action sequences. Minus the mediocrity of Quantum of Solace, the most recent Bond films have always found new ways to make old conventions interesting. For instance, how many times have you seen Bond take a sip of a martini? How many times have we seen him charm a young woman into the bedroom? How many times have we seen him get into chase, fighting, and action sequences involving all sorts of weaponry and vehicular manslaughter? You think we’d get sick of it by now, and yet, the series has lasted past 24 films. The series is doing something right.

I think part of it is because of how well Craig inherits the role of of James Bond. Sean Connery is always going to be regarded as the most significant Bond actor, because he was the first to take on the role and the one to exemplify most of Bond’s characteristics. Yet, Craig is nearly equal in iconic status because he too portrays Bond with multiple layers, and he does all of those layers well. He’s charming and sincere when he needs to be, manipulative and deceptive when otherwise.

Most impressive to me is that, even in the action sequences, the biggest thing I notice is Craig’s mannerisms. Not the explosions. Not the gunfire. Not the people he’s punching in the face. I’m noticing Craig. Why? Because I’m buying him as a character, not as an actor. I see the anger in his face when someone hits him and he’s getting ready to hit back. I see the cold calculation in his eyes as he’s deciding which targets to shoot first. I’m noticing the surprise on his face as his eyes widen, the panic that sets in when he’s discovered, and the fear piercing through his body when someone he loves is in danger. It’s hard to notice someone’s performance in the middle of an action sequence. Craig makes it seem like a cakewalk.

Of course, director Sam Mendes is also credited for the style of the film as well, with the action and the incredible set pieces making up for most of the excitement of the film. Yet, I’m a little disappointed that, after making one of the most definitive Bond films ever in Skyfall, Mendes reverted to a few conventions of the franchise that worked against it.

Take the characters as a primary example. Who do we have here? A secretive baddie hiding in the shadows, a big, burly baddie that walks and fights like a tank, a mentor figure of Bond’s that ushers him a profound warning, and the Bond girl, who is as beautiful and visually striking as ever. Their actors deliver just what is expected of them and what has been delivered before. The secretive baddie hides in the shadows, the big, burly baddie beats up Bond before he is killed, the mentor dies, and the girl hooks up with Bond. Not very original, now is it?

And this isn’t a criticism so much as it is a notice. Casino Royale and Skyfall were significant entries to the series because they saw Bond not as an action hero, but as a human being, dealing with his own hurts and pains by taking it out on the mission and his enemies. Here, Bond goes back to hero mode while we just tag along for the ride. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but when you’re used to seeing one thing, it’s a little bit of a let down to see the franchise take a step back on itself.

In the end, Spectre is like Bond’s rebuilt Ashton Martin after it blew up in Skyfall. It may have the same frame, but it doesn’t have the same ride.

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“MISSION IMPOSSIBLE III” Review (✫✫✫)

Your mission, should you choose to accept it. 

Finally, we can forgive Tom Cruise for the disaster that was Mission Impossible II. This is the perfect example of a solid action movie, a film that has suspense, excitement, romance, and intrigue: a Hollywood blockbuster that has a nice balance of everything you can ask for. There is a moment in Mission Impossible III where we feel for Ethan Hunt not as another movie action hero, but as a human being, who has emotions and worries that any other normal human being would possess. The way Cruise portrays him in this movie is very realistic. Think about it: if you were out there, stealing nuclear devices, kidnapping black arms dealers, and saving the world every ten seconds, wouldn’t you be worried about your wife who knew nothing of your double life back at home?

Apparently now retired, we catch former IMF agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) as he is happily engaged to Julie (Michelle Monoghan) a nurse who is studying to be a doctor. For once, Ethan is experiencing a sense of normalcy. He’s experiencing what it is like to be a husband, and what it is like to love. No explosions, no excitement, and no lives at risk. Ethan, for once, is just a normal guy who is in love with a beautiful woman. He is experiencing happiness.

Happiness for Ethan, however, doesn’t last long, and he soon finds himself shoved right back into the profession he wants to retire from. When told by his superior, John (Billy Cudrup) that Ethan’s apprentice, Lindsey (Kerri Russell) was captured and tortured by criminals while spying on black arms dealer Owen Davian (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), Ethan feels that he has no choice but to go back into the field so he can save his friend from certain demise.

This film, like the other Mission Impossible movies, sports strong performances. The cast is just as strong as any other movie, and I think you can argue that they are the strongest in this one. Cruise, for instance, doesn’t play a paragon of an action hero. Here, he plays a human being, flesh and blood, emotion for emotion, merely molded to look like an action hero. Despite his skills and experience, he can’t be everywhere at once. He can’t be with his wife and take care of her and go off to save the world at the same time.

At some point, whether he’d like to or not, he has to leave one world in order to take care of the other.

I however, wouldn’t leave Julie alone with a creep like Davian for a second if I had known he would pay her a visit. This dude seriously scares me. Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who is a very skilled actor, is perhaps the subtlest in this movie, and plays a ruthless criminal who is just plain mean, evil, cruel, and antagonizing. I have met few antagonists who are as patronizing and as threatening as this guy is. Here is a guy that puts many other movie villains to shame, including those in the first Mission Impossible. Here is a guy who scares you just by staring bleakly into your eyes. He doesn’t need to speak to you: his eyes do all the talking, the eyes that say that he’s going to kill the person you love most, and he’s going to do it in front of you while you’re watching.

This film doesn’t go as deep into those politics of things as some may like it to, but I don’t think it is necessary. Mission Impossible III is fun. I say that as a simple statement, but there is nothing simple about this movie. This movie has earned the title of Mission Impossible from the stunts and visuals alone. I can easily name eight scenes on the top of my head that truly impressed me. Perhaps the most memorable moment for me was an assault between IMF agents and trained ex-military assassins on a bridge near New York. This scene was nerve-wracking, exciting, and worrisome for multiple reasons. Perhaps the biggest is because everything was happening all at once.

Cars were blowing up. Pieces of the bridge were falling apart. Innocent people were caught confused and afraid in the crossfire. Agents were getting shot. Assasins were breaking a prisoner out of an armed jeep. And here is Ethan, running around, avoiding gunfire and explosions, trying desperately to grasp the situation and take control of it. The reason this movie is so successful is because, like the other movies in this series, they push the limits of what they can achieve. There is not a single moment in this film where a thrill is wasted. It’s all there, and it is just as effective as it was in the first Mission Impossible.

The action overwhelms the plot a little bit in the third act of this movie, but other than that, the film is almost perfectly balanced. Director J.J. Abrams and screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman have found a nice combination involving stellar action sequences, funny dialogue, memorable characters, and heartfelt emotion. Have I mentioned before how I hate emotionless action movies? I have no complaint with Mission Impossible III. Its heart is in the right place, and it knows its characters as well as its action. That’s a rare treatment for action movies. It’s a treatment that should be given to them more often.

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“MISSION IMPOSSIBLE II” Review (✫✫)

So ridiculous, it can only happen in a movie.

I wonder what it would be like to write action scenes in a screenplay. Not briefly, mind you, but over an extended period of time. We are so used to these action movies that contain nothing but wall-to-wall action, violence, exploding, shooting, stabbing, kicking, punching, and body-dropping all over the place. Few of those movies have worthwhile plot or dialogue to them, which are the main tools a screenwriter uses when writing their screenplay. I imagine writing an action movie for them would be a nightmare. There’s nothing interesting to write about except for who dies next.

I feel especially sorry, then, for screenwriter Robert Towne, who is normally known for his smart, driving plots found in movies like Chinatown, The Firm, indeed, even the first Mission Impossible, now stuck to writing about nothing but explosions, gunfire, broken bones, ribs, limbs, and jaws, with a little twinge of intrigue placed somewhere in this muck of explosions and action. Mission Impossible II is not the movie that the first Mission Impossible was. The first Mission Impossible had memorable characters, iconic situations, and an in-depth and mysterious plot that kept your interest for every second of that movie. Its sequel Mission Impossible II has nothing the first one had except for its action. The characters, while likable, are also disposable, and lack any emotional conviction to make me really care for anyone for a long period of time. The plot is utterly pointless. Like this movie, it exists only to provide reason for the action, rather than the other way around.

MI2 follows agent Ethan Hunt’s (Tom Cruise) pursuit of an ex-IMF agent named Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott), who is impersonating Hunt through the same face-masks from the first film. What is Ambrose after, and what does Hunt’s identity have to do with it? He is after a harmful chemical known as “Chimera”, a terrible virus that infects the host in a matter of hours, takes his cells, eats them, and kills the host as slowly and painfully as possible. The doctor who made this is named Vladmir Nekhorvich (Rade Serbegija), and he has been a close friend of Hunt’s for some unknown period of time now (Although he keeps calling him “Dimitri”, for some  reason).

This film is directed by John Woo, who is mostly known for his ridiculous, overly-long, overly-explosive action scenes in his movies. His action scenes are so ridiculous, that he makes Michael Bay shrivel up in his seat. This movie is no exception. Mission Impossible II is just as explosive, outlandish, insane, exhilarating and visually stellar as any other John Woo movie is, and that includes movies such as Broken Arrow and Face/Off.

On one hand, this is a good thing, considering Woo makes some incredible action sequences at some moments in this movie. I remember one scene where Tom is fighting off countless professional assassins in a chemical building while trying to destroy a sample of “Chimera” in the process. That gunfight was insane. Cruise was fighting off countless assassins with grenades, Uzi-Subs, and M-104’s, and what does Tom have to fight off against them? A pistol. It is these impossible odds that stacks up the action scenes to incredible heights, and makes for very entertaining, exciting moments in this movie.

Unfortunately, Woo focuses too much on the action. The difference between this film and his earlier film Face/Off is that Face/Off had a smart, original, and fascinating plot, while Mission Impossible II just copies elements from other action films. Stop me if you’ve seen any of this before: A) A Bond-type action hero that beats bad guys to a pulp and always gets the girl, all while looking incredibly sexy to the female audience with his long hair flowing freely in the wind, B) The hero falling madly in love with a woman who is just as sexy to the male population as the hero is to the female, C) The hero eventually having to rescue the damsel from distress, D) The sinister villain is introduced and narrates a plan so ridiculous, it can only happen in movies, E) An excruciating length of a 40 minute action sequence takes place, F) The villain dies at the end of the movie, and G) The hero and his lover kiss at the end of the movie and walk into the sunset in a “Happily Ever After” kind of concluding tone.

Could that entire paragraph be technically considered a spoiler? No, it can’t, because we’ve all seen that movie before. Is it really so surprising that the villain dies, and the woman is saved from danger at the end of the movie? Is it really so shocking? You might enjoy seeing the same thing over and over again, but I can’t stand it. I can’t stand movies that have a method to it. I can’t stand movies that follow formulas. Granted, I don’t want a movie where the villain lives and the hero dies with his love next to him, but geez, throw something unpredictable in there. Action without point is no action at all. It is just headaches.

That’s not to say that the strong points still don’t hold up to what we expect them to be. I already said the action is amazing, and it is. The music has definitely improved from the last movie, and Hans Zimmer inserts a nice rock twist to the famous theme that made the series iconic by right. Cruise especially shines in this movie just as much as he did in the first movie. In the first sequence he’s introduced in, Cruise makes an impossible rock climb over a canyon in nothing but a sleeveless shirt and a waist pouch with gripping dust in it. Remember something here: that’s not CGI, and that’s not a stunt double. Cruise is doing his own stunts, meaning he actually free-climbed up this deathly-high slab of rock. I think he secretly has a death wish for pulling off stunts as stupidly risky as this, but I hold my respect to him for having the audacity to even think about pulling off a stunt like that. It is moments like that that really impresses the audience, and what I think, makes Cruise a very credible and successful actor. He’s willing to pull off whatever he can in order to impress the audience.

But the strong points of this film pales to the weaknesses. Mission Impossible II is all style, and no substance. It has plenty of action, explosions, and body counts to overwhelm you with, but it lacks interest and consistency in between the action scenes with its stupid dialogue, and its plot that is as incredulous and predictable as any other action film can be. I’ve said before that I don’t mind action films as long as they are good ones. This is an ambitious one, but it’s too similar to other action movies to say it’s a “good” one. In the end, this movie to me is like a magician trying to con you at the circus. He shows off its tricks to you, but when he’s done, he turns and says to you “Sorry kid, no refunds”.

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“TRAINWRECK” Review (✫✫✫1/2)

Trainwreck-Amy-Schumer-and-Bill-Hader 2

Not as much of one as you thought.

I wonder how many women will look at Amy Townsend in Trainwreck and relate to her from personal experience. If any of them do, I question how they are still breathing, or speaking in coherent sentences. Amy is the opitamy of a disaster in this movie. She’s a woman who drinks a lot, smokes a lot, lies a lot, and has sex a lot, with way too many sexual partners for comfort. If this woman was an airship, she’d be the Hindenburg.

There’s only one person to blame for Amy’s behavior besides herself: her father Gordon (Colin Quinn), who humorously compares sexual partners to toy dolls while explaining to Amy and her sister Kim (Brie Larson) why he’s getting divorced with their mother. He tells them to repeat after him as if he’s conducting an orchestra: “Monogamy isn’t realistic! Monogamy isn’t realistic!”

Twenty years later, Amy is practicing her father’s advice. Our first glimpse at seeing Amy Schumer as the character involves her making out with a man and taking her clothes off, only to see him take his pants off and realize she’s taking on too much for her own good. This isn’t Amy’s first rodeo. She’ll hit-it-and-quit-it with guys like she’s skeet-shooting clay at a shooting range, and she’s an expert marksman. Once she’s had her fill, she dumps them quicker than Sunday’s recycling. Her excuses after being asked out: “Oh, I’m sorry, but I have plans!”, “Sorry, but I don’t think you’re my type.”, and “Sorry, but I’m not really into that.” That last one is true.

Suddenly, she meets this one guy that seems completely different. Aaron Conners (Bill Hader) is a sports doctor who tends to players such as LeBron James and Amar’e Stoudemire. Amy gets assigned by her magezine to write a profile on Conners, but she ends up taking Conners home instead. But when she does, she also does something she never does with another guy: she stays the night. Now questioning her own lifestyle and what she really wants, Amy decides whether or not she wants to remain a trainwreck for the rest of her life.

I’ll start with the best thing about this movie: Amy. No, not the character, the actor. Amy Schumer not only portrays the lead role in the film: she wrote her. Schumer is credited for the film’s concept just as much as she is for the film’s character. In a way, I think she wrote this film for herself. The script is written with an honesty and integrity that is rare with most of Hollywood’s screenplays, but with a humor and lightheartedness to it that is equally as rare and refreshing. I asked a friend of mine what the movie was about before going in to see it. Was it a love story? Was it a cautionary tale about substance and alcohol abuse? Was it about the struggle of being a middle-aged woman in America?

My friends response was “Yes.”

Oh, don’t get me wrong. The movie is incredibly profane and inappropriate. It deserves it’s R rating in every sense and fashion of the word. F words fly out as frequently as oxygen does. Drug use and excessive drinking follows Amy everywhere like a bad, never-ending hangover. Cleavage is the movie’s guilty pleasure. Sex, even more so.

If this were any other movie, I would knock off points for this movie’s unabashedly loose image and dirty humor. I do the same thing with excessive, over-the-top action and unnecessary violence. Yet, I raved about Mad Max: Fury Road a few months ago for the very things I usually hate in films. Here is another movie subverting my expectations and surprising me in ways that I wasn’t expecting.

How exactly does it do that? Well, the language is bad, definitely, but it’s honest. It’s reflective of this day and age’s mentality, and the clever and genuine dialogue shows that the script is smart enough to substantiate the bad language. The drugs and alcohol usually imply a bad mentality, but does it really when it shows us how much of a toll it takes on its main character? Other movies use drugs and alcohol for offensively comedic effect: this one uses it to show another side to it that is less funny. And the sexual content, while inappropriate, also has something important to say about human relationships. I.e. what would you rather have: multiple temporary romances, or one lasting affection?

This is what is so special about this movie: it pretends to be dumber than it actually is. It disguises itself as a stupid and obnoxious comedy, like The Change-Up or The Hangover, but then you watch it and you see the many truths that it carries with it. It’s not only funny and entertaining to watch: it’s also morally and emotionally binding. To me, that’s the most important kind of entertainment out there: the kind that leaves an impact.

This is, of course, a romantic comedy. What’s all in romantic comedies? Cheesy endings, that’s what. And just like all romantic comedies, this movie is just as guilty for having one as well. But the movie itself is not cheesy, and it’s main star carries the weight of the film well all by herself with both heart and humor. Trainwreck is a good title for this movie. Beautiful disaster would be another.

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“PAPER TOWNS” Review (✫✫✫1/2)

Just a paper boy living in a paper town.

The frames we see in Paper Towns are the stuff of fantasies, the kind that we think about and dream of late at night in our bed while staring at the ceiling. It’s hard to look at this movie and not relate it to our own experiences in high school, in first love, in friendship, and in self-discovery. At one point, I was watching the movie and wondering if I was watching someone else’s story, or my own.

If we are watching someone else’s story, that someone is Quintin “Q” Jacobsen (Nat Wolff), a regular high school student with regular friends, regular parents, regular life, and regular post-graduation plans. Just about everything is regular to Q except for one thing: Margo Roth Spiegelman (Cara Delevingne), the girl on his block that he’s been in love with since they were kids.

Q and Margo are the epitome of opposites. Q is shy and introverted. Margo is confident and extroverted. Q likes to play it safe. Margo likes to take risks. Q likes to look ahead and plan for his next step. Margo thinks not knowing where you’ll end up is the most fun part of anything.

One day, Margo completely vanishes. Her parents, her friends, nobody knows where Margo may have gone. As time passes, however, Q discovers clues Margo left behind for him to discover. A piece of paper in his door. A page torn out of a map. Writing on an old gas station wall that reads “You will go to the paper towns, and you will never come back.” Now convinced that Margo wants him to find her, Q starts piecing all of the clues together to find out where she has gone to convince her to come home.

The second of John Green’s novels to be adapted to film (with the first being last year’s The Fault In Our Stars), Paper Towns is a truly unique and invigorating experience, refreshing in its comedy, in its drama, and in its truth. It reminds me so much of The Fault In Our Stars, and yet, it’s so different from it too.

I’ll start with the best thing from both movies: the characters. Green’s novels have such a unique way of making ordinary characters extraordinary, and that’s just as true with the movies as it is the books. Margo is a spur-of-the-moment, lively and rebellious teenager who serves as more or less an enigma of what adventures high school students fantasize about and aspire to. She’s almost too ecstatic to be believable as a character, and that’s exactly the point. As Q says it best in the movie, “It’s so silly, it can only be true.”

The moments where she takes Q on her midnight adventures are probably some of my favorite scenes in the movie. While Margo was pushing Q to get out of his comfort zone, I was reminded of a scene between the two leads from Martin Scorsese’s 2011 film Hugo.

Isabelle: We could get in trouble.

Hugo: That’s how you know it’s an adventure.

Every other supporting character is just as interesting and likeable as Margo is, however less mysterious. Q’s friends, Radar and Ben (Justice Smith and Austin Abrams), are the mischievous sort that talk about high school rumors and made up sex stories just like immature high school students do. Halston Sage portrays Margo’s best friend Lacey, and while she’s convincing and bubbly in the role, she’s a little too old to convincingly look like she’s still in high school. Most of the younger cast is ages 18 to 20. Sage is 22.

The one that most impresses me is Nat Wolff. Originally a supporting character in The Fault In Our Stars, here Wolff transitions front and center as the lead role in Paper Towns. His versatility as an actor is pitch-perfect here, portraying all of the joy, excitement, angst, ambition, and confusion a teenager has during his high school years. Actors in these roles tend to overplay them, either with an over exaggeration of joy or sadness. Not Wolff. Hearing him crack his voice or watching his eyes tear up gets more of a reaction out of me than the overabundance of tears and sobbing we get out of actors who overdo it in other movies. Wolff plays his role convincingly without overdoing it. He doesn’t miss a note.

Everything else in the movie is primed to near-perfection. The comedy is fresh and wholehearted without being on-the-nose or over-the-top. The drama is grounded and believable, and hits on issues that most teenagers experience on the verge of growing up and moving on to college. The only minor complaint I would have with the movie is that some of the plot elements seem so out there for teenagers under 18, but the movie addresses that near the end of the third act.

All in all, Paper Towns does what its supposed to and when its supposed to do it. It made me laugh abundantly and uncontrollably. It made me choke up and quiver. It made me intrigued and interested. And it made me eagerly happy and excited, not unlike the excitement these characters experience with each other throughout the film. I may have been too much of a romanticist while writing this review, but I’d like to think Green was one while he was writing the book. The movie delves into both the truths and fantasies of growing up. Just because not everything happened, doesn’t mean it’s any less real.

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“THE AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON” Review (✫✫✫1/2)

The Avengers face judgement day. 

We are now nearing the end of Marvel’s phase two of its cinematic universe. Before Age of Ultron, we’ve seen ten of these movies now. Iron Man. The Incredible Hulk. Iron Man 2. Thor. Captain America: The First Avenger. The Avengers. Iron Man 3. Thor: The Dark World. Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Guardians of the Galaxy. You would think that by now, we would be sick of watching these movies. I know I normally would. It only took three Transformers movies for me to get sick of that franchise.

Yet, the people over at Marvel continue to find new ways to surprise me and make me once again believe in its cinematic universe. Avengers: Age of Ultron is its most recent example. The film had a near impossible task: outdoing its 2012 predecessor, which was a brilliantly woven and executed superhero masterpiece in its own right. After succeeding on a grand project that big and combining five multiverses into one fluid narrative, how are you expected to measure up to that in the sequel? Luckily, writer-director Joss Whedon is no fool. He knew what expectations were going to be had for his highly-anticipated sequel. He could have sold out and let the anticipation from the first movie roll in the bank for this one, but Whedon instead did the one thing that most filmmakers are too afraid to do nowadays: he set out to make it better.

Take the movie’s villain as Whedon’s prime example for improvement. Ultron, voice and motion performance by James Spader, is a trash-talking super-intelligent humanoid A.I. created by Tony Stark, a.k.a. “Iron Man” (Robert Downey Jr.) to protect the Earth from supernatural threats. Shortly after his creation, however, Ultron goes rogue and concludes that in order for true peace to be obtained, humanity needs to be wiped out and reborn like the animals from the dinosaur age.

On the surface, this seems like the same story for every robot-rebellion premise: a machine was created to do good, it becomes self aware, and in turn does the opposite of good. And in a sense, this is the same story for every robot-rebellion premise.

The key, however, lies in execution, and Spader as Ultron is the best super villain performance I’ve seen in a Marvel movie to date. Ultron doesn’t behave or talk like other androids. He isn’t stiff, rigid, or robotic like other mechanical characters in film are. Like any of the other live-action actors on screen, Ultron is a fluid, life-like being with his own personality and morals. He’s chaotic and radical in his thinking and behavior, acting more like a psychotic child rather than a logic-driven artificial intelligence.

Considering his creator is the egotistical Tony Stark, I can’t say I’m surprised that his personality is the same. Every Avenger in this film is just as great with each other as they were in the first Avengers movie. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is just as machismo and uncompromising as he is in any of his movies. Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) is equally as earnest and straightforward, with a few secrets that surprised even me in the theater. Steve Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America (Chris Evans) continues his rivalrous dynamic with Stark from the first movie, their contrasting personalities rubbing off of each other so viciously that we can see how it builds up to Captain America: Civil War.

The two Avengers that have the greatest dynamic, however, are Bruce Banner, or the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and Natasha Romanoff, the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). Here, their relationship expands from the first movie into a conflicted romance between the two. Romanoff is a master assassin with a past she’s neither proud to have nor able to escape from. Banner is the feeble scientist with a monster inside of him that he’s not proud of either. The two don’t feel like they can have a relationship with each other because of their different personalities, but Whedon puts them together with tragically heartfelt honesty here. He finds a connecting theme between the two, themes of loss and regret that makes them turn to each other and rely on each other. I didn’t think it was going to work when I saw these characters at first, but Whedon makes it so compelling that now I can’t see it any other way. Romanoff asks Banner a question in one scene that I think is reflective of their relationship: “Do you still think you’re the only monster on the team?”

Everything else in the movie lives up to the expectations you had in the first movie. The action is unique, visually complex, and eye-popping. The story is layered, intelligent, and dynamic, with characters bouncing witty and thought-provoking dialogue off of each other perfectly. The villain is one of the best and most unique of the Marvel universe, and there’s a few new characters introduced in the film that are done just as well as the superhero team’s main heroes.

Here’s the worst thing I can say about the movie, and really the greatest danger to the Marvel cinematic universe: I’m getting used to it. This is the 11th movie I’ve seen in the Marvel universe now, and I almost know what to expect. I know that I’m going to be surprised and shocked at some of the twists and turns. I know I’m going to enjoy the heroes and villains alike. I know that there’s going to be a lot of action with a noteworthy plot behind it. And, more than anything else, I know the movie is going to expand upon itself and its multiple follow ups.

Marvel has 11 more movies to produce after this for their phase 3, and there’s no telling how many more movies they plan to do after that. With Whedon going on record saying this is his last Marvel movie, I question how well they will be able to continue expanding this universe and doing it well. How much longer can Marvel keep pushing the envelope? I hope I don’t find out soon.

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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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“BIRDMAN” Review (✫✫✫✫)

The artist’s struggle, all in one take. 

Birdman, or otherwise known as The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance is one of the most mesmerizing films I’ve ever seen. It is also one of the most unique, disturbing, shocking, and confusing films I’ve ever seen too. That’s okay. This film was reaching for a specific vision, and director Alejandro Inarritu has expanded beyond it. I admit I don’t know what to expect as far as the public reacting to this, and I also don’t know how accessible it is to non-film aficionados either. But I have seen the movie frame by frame, and I think it’s one of the best films of its kind. On the surface value, it’s about the struggles of Broadway theatre. In deeper insight, it’s about ego and the obsessive human condition.

The film stars Michael Keaton as washed-up actor Riggan Thompson, who has been forgotten by his adoring public after portraying the lead role in a series of superhero films titled Birdman. This is ironic, because in real life, Keaton portrayed a superhero in Tim Burton’s 1989 film Batman. Desperate for a comeback, Thompson sets out to write, direct and star in his favorite Broadway play: What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver.

Things immediately hit the fan during the week of their first preview. One of Riggan’s actors gets a head injury from a loose light on the set. His replacement, Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) is a talented but brash and arrogant actor who sees himself as Riggan’s superior. And, as he faces personal problems with his estranged daughter Sam (Emma Stone), Riggan begins to feel the closing pressures of Broadway when a malicious theatre critic tells him she’s going to “kill his play.” Now Riggan is trying to keep the play and his sanity afloat, and he will make whatever sacrifices he needs to make sure both happens.

Written, directed and produced by Inarritu, Birdman is the first black comedy made by the filmmaker, his most successful films to date being Oscar nominees Babel and Biutiful. Now he has made Birdman, and I am tempted to say it’s the best film he’s made yet.

What worked so well with the film? The first thing is the editing and the cinematography, which was shot so wonderfully by Oscar winner Emmanuel Lubezki that it places you in the moment, in the reality of the film, not making you watch it from a cushion seat on the eighth row of a dark movie theater. Lubezki, who worked with Inarritu on short films in the past, decided to shoot the film and edit it into a continuous fashion, giving off the illusion that the entire film was filmed in one take. Even though the movie wasn’t filmed in one shot, the feeling it gives off makes it feel alive and moving, not unlike the world of theatre that Riggan is trying to prove himself in.

I wonder how much effort this takes, not just from the cinematographer and director’s point of view, but from everyone else involved in the film as well. How many hours did the actors need to rehearse their lines in order to get their roles right? How much pressure was the tech and lighting crew under while they were filming, knowing that if they screwed up, everyone would have to start back to square one? How many hours did film editors Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione have to sit in front of a computer, making sure the shots transitioned so well that you couldn’t even see the transitions? The illusion not only worked because of the idea that Lubezki and Inarritu offered, but because of the commitment it received from everyone involved with the film. In many ways, their efforts were all worth it: the camerawork here expresses more of the story than the character’s dialogue does.

The parallels in this movie are also ingenious. How does Keaton feel playing as Riggan Thompson in the movie, knowing that he reached international fame as Batman earlier in his career and having since then never been able to match a more recognized role? How does Inarritu feel, going through all of the production pressures Riggan did in making the play as he himself did in making the movie? Did he intend this movie as self-reflection? Is he telling the audience what he goes through daily as a filmmaker? Or is he using his struggles as a platform to tell a much deeper, more important story to the audience?

For me, I don’t get as much joy out of interpreting as much as I do out of experiencing. And make no mistake: Birdman is an experience, surreal, tantalizing, and thought-provoking all at once. I’m still sitting here, hours later, not quite fully realizing what exactly Inarritu was trying to portray in this film. Is he commenting on the artist’s struggle? Commercial vs. independent film? Fatherhood? Friendship? Family? Lost love?

I think it’s all of the above. Or maybe none of the above. I honestly don’t know. In the movie, Inarritu battles labels that are placed on artists and on the art that they produce. Is Riggan Thompson a superhero, or an actor portraying a superhero? Is he a former shell of who he is, or a flower that has yet to bloom? We see in this film how these labels influence his life and how much stress and anxiety it presses upon him. To put labels on the movie would contradict Inarritu’s intentions. It would be offensive to the film.

My bottom line: Birdman is a masterpiece. It is so distinct in its own language and style that I think it is impossible to define it, let alone replace it. Critics will applaud it for it’s technical and emotional achievements. It will definitely garner some Oscar nominations. It’s a sure contender for visual effects, cinematography and editing. It is also sure to confuse certain people, to which I would recommend stop trying to understand it. Birdman is not meant to be understood. It is meant to be experienced, and if you can help it, interpreted.

Post-script: A thought I had after seeing the movie that I think viewers will also have. Because of how profoundly his role as Birdman affected Riggan, is Inarritu attacking the superhero genre of film? I believe he is, but I choose not to acknowledge that. After all, for every time a superhero film was called too simple, couldn’t you call any art film too complicated? I quote Mark Twain: “Too much of anything is bad.” 

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