film

Old School Review: Stalker (1979)

 (As this film is more than thirty-five years old, there will be spoilers. You have been warned)

Written and directed by Andrei Tarkovsky with screenwriting cowriters Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, who also wrote the novella “Roadside Picnic” on which the film is based upon, “Stalker” is the final film that Tarkovsky made under the banner of the Soviet Union. It’s quite the meditative quest with dashes of science fiction amid the philosophical and theological musings that the three main characters debate about throughout their journey. In this indiscernible future of a post apocalyptic scenario there lives a Stalker (Aleksandr Kaydanovskiy), the main characters of the film are known only to us through their occupations, a man that specializes in the freelance guiding of various clientele into the mysterious and dangerous “Zone”. The Zone is an uninhabitable area near the cityscape that the remainders of humanity avoid, the heavily armed military guards the entrances to the Zone and stalkers must navigate past them in secret to gain access to the untouched land. Although nobody seems to know the truth of its origin, the urban myth surrounding the Zone cites a meteor that crash landed near there causing chaos decades earlier. Curiously the military sent in brigades of soldiers and armament to investigate the situation and were never heard from again. Hence the containment of the dangerous area. This time around the Stalker plans to transport two men, The Professor (Nikolay Grinko) and The Writer (Anatoliy Solonitsyn) into the Zone.

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So, you might ask, “Why would people want to go to the Zone if it’s so notoriously dangerous?” Well, word has it that within the Zone there lies a structure forgotten to the world, decaying and deteriorated, yet within that old building lies a specific room that supposedly grants the deepest desires of all who dare to enter. The Professor wants to win the Nobel prize while the Writer has lost his inspiration and wants to rid himself of his writer’s block.

As the journey goes along, and it is a journey- a slow one at that, the film is full of incredibly long takes and shots of the three characters traversing the dangerous cityscapes, the railroads leading out of town, and the vast and green wilderness of the Zone. Anyways, as they travel about the Writer and the Professor wax poetic and casually lob sardonic insults at each other and their proposed fields of work while the Stalker constantly checks the landscape for danger. Much of the film inserts a mysterious tension brilliantly played on by Tarkovsky by alluding to the Zone as a nonlinear force, traps can ensnare unknowing people that traverse blindly into the tall grass, and the Stalker talks of the Zone as something that is in constant flux. Traps that used to exist are now safe paths while other routes that had been impassable before become the only ways through. He evens goes so far as to say that people bring these changes with them as they enter, its not that the Zone is actually changing at all, but that it is shaped by the intentions and thought patterns of those who enter it.

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At nearly three hours, this is a beast of a film to get through if you’re an impatient viewer. There are no real actions sequences here friend, this is a different sort of film where a calm imagination and an adoration for dreamy visuals will do you some good. It’s also notorious for it’s incredibly long takes, “The film contains 142 shots in 163 minutes, with an average shot length of more than one minute and many shots lasting for more than four minutes.” While there are definite allusions to theological yearnings, I feel that this is a film where, much like the Zone itself, you bring most reflections of who you are to your understanding of the film and it’s story. I can understand where someone might see that the Stalker’s pains at the end of the film could be an expression of Tarkovsky’s feelings on a world without religion and hope, without people that believe in something greater than themselves. Though for myself it felt more along the lines of an allegory for the allure and humility of mystery versus the arrogance of believing that you know how the world works and that there are no such mysteries left to be discovered. There is some overlap in the ideas in a macro sense, but that’s just what I felt from my viewing of the film.

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The production of the film sounds like a disaster three times over if you know the details. Tarkovsky shot the entirety of the film on three separate occasions. The first failure was due to a Russian film studio not properly converting the film’s stock as Tarkovsky used a brand and type of film that they weren’t fluent in. I believe the second effort was mostly due to shooting location concerns and the hurdles of laws under the pressure from the Soviet Union’s specific requirements of art during that time. Over the course of the production they shot an alarming amount of footage, “..consuming over 5,000 metres (16,000 ft) of film.” There’s also the fact that this was the last film Tarkovsky made before leaving the Soviet Union, and through the main character of the Stalker we can see Tarkovsky’s torment over the notion of wanting to leave. To create, and live, more freely, or to stay with what he knows. Stalker even says that back home in the sepia tones of the city (versus the color footage of the Zone), he feels as though he is incarcerated throughout his everyday life. “Almost all the dreams recorded by Tarkovsky in the period 1974–77 seem to have been about being in prison—in one case, being in prison, escaping, and wanting to get back into jail again: 

     ‘At last, to my joy, I saw the entrance to the prison, which I recognized by the bas-relief emblem of the USSR. I was worried about how I was going to be received, but that was as nothing compared with the horror of being out of prison’ .”

Getting even more meta about the topics in play, in the film the Writer and the Professor never even enter the room once they finally reach it, for the Stalker has warned of what happened to his former mentor, another stalker nicknamed Porcupine. Our main stalker tells us that while stalkers are forbidden from entering the room, Porcupine eventually did so after the death of his brother. He went and asked to reverse his brother’s death- but the room saw through to his subconscious desire to be wealthy and instead granted him wealth beyond reason. Porcupine hanged himself a week after this. Another analysis dives into this theory of deeper hidden desires within Tarkovsky about wanting to leave Russia. “Stalker at some level (pos­sibly even at the level of “deepest desire”) is about the wish to leave Russia for good: the first twenty min­utes enact a very recognizable Cold War fantasy of breaking through bar­riers. At the same time, there is the corresponding feeling that it would be impossible, and actually wrong, to do this. Thus, all the time that Tarkovsky was fretting against the “unbearable restraints” of the socialist bureaucracy he was fated to serve (and thinking that, perhaps, there might be a way out—for example, by accepting the invitation to come to Italy that had been sent by his friend Tonino Guerra), he was also “digging in,” preparing to stay.

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Allegories and musings aside, this is a very beautiful film to watch. If you are a viewer more inclined towards the visual arts over dialogue and actions in your storytelling, then this film may have something for you. Since my viewing of another Tarkovsky film in “The Mirror”, I’ve come to notice that the Russian filmmaker has a unique tendency to fill the screen with the natural world with a specifically unique voice. You might get the feeling that Tarkovsky himself was more at home in the forests and fields of Estonia rather than the bustling streets of Moscow. Though, he may have unintentionally sealed his, and other crew members’, fate while shooting on location for this film; “Several people involved in the film production, including Tarkovsky, died from causes that some crew members attributed to the film’s long shooting schedule in toxic locations. Sound designer Vladimir Sharun recalled:

We were shooting near Tallinn in the area around the small river Jägala with a half-functioning hydroelectric station. Up the river was a chemical plant and it poured out poisonous liquids downstream. There is even this shot in Stalker: snow falling in the summer and white foam floating down the river. In fact it was some horrible poison. Many women in our crew got allergic reactions on their faces. Tarkovsky died from cancer of the right bronchial tube. And Tolya Solonitsyn too. That it was all connected to the location shooting for Stalker became clear to me when Larisa Tarkovskaya died from the same illness in Paris‘ .”

This definitely falls more on the art-house side of cinema, but I think it’s good to constantly challenge your palate when it comes to the films you watch. How would you ever know whether or not you would enjoy a film such as this if you never give it the opportunity to challenge your assumptions? Stride towards a greater variety of art in every direction, besides, its more fun that way!

Final Score: 2 Elitists, 1 Stalker

(sources) The quotes I have inserted into this review came from these three articles on the film and I found them to be quite interesting, click the links and give them a look!:

https://www.vox.com/culture/2017/10/7/16418780/movie-of-week-stalker-tarkovsky-blade-runner

https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/4739-stalker-meaning-and-making

http://sensesofcinema.com/2013/cteq/stalker/

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film

Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Written and directed by Martin McDonagh, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is a black comedy wrapped in a seething drama set against the backdrop of small town Americana. Seven months after the death of her daughter Angela, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) rents out three billboards on the outskirts of town lambasting the local chief of police Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) for the lack of any real progress in solving the brutal murder. The small town life is portrayed effectively here as its filled with an odd cast of characters that all know each other, which also means that they have to live with each other and that comes with its own set of juggling eccentricities and tolerating ideals. This is a foul mouthed film about grief and sadness, when anger can be useful or harmful, and how assumptions about a person can be misguided, incorrect, or just plain insulting.

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Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes is a fantastically multifaceted character. She’s justifiably angered by the police station’s failing efforts in solving the case of her daughter’s horrific murder. She’s justice incarnate when she decides to go on the warpath against certain individuals. Though as the film progresses she’s shown to be vulnerable, at times physically, but emotionally as well. In a couple moments when the anger has quelled and her fists uncurled, she’s even portrayed as a quirky but caring mother. Woody Harrelson’s police chief Bill Willoughby may seem like a caricature at the outset of the film, but Harrelson goes a long way to imbue the small town chief as a man of many layers. He may seem brash and eccentric, but once the film digs a little deeper into who chief Willoughby actually is we find a far humbler and complex individual lying underneath those immediate projections. Peter Dinklage’s character also poignantly reflects the idea that assumptions, at face value, can be wildly misinformed and he checks Mildred on her own biases later in the film which only continues her path towards a softening of her reactive and violent grief.

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While reading reviews and articles on the film after viewing it, I came across the supposed controversy surrounding Sam Rockwell’s character Dixon, a neanderthal of a police officer with a penchant for racial biases and poorly thought out reactions. If you watch this film and believe it to be racist in nature because of this character’s arc, then you haven’t been paying attention. Dixon is repeatedly beaten, mocked by his peers and others, and is never given redemption for his generally awful behavior and actions. In the second half of the film this character is given an acknowledgement from Chief Willoughby that sets him on the path towards becoming a better person, but Dixon isn’t forgiven, he’s simply given a chance to do the right thing, this does not mean that he’s the ‘hero‘ of the story though if that’s what you’re thinking.

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I was particularly impressed with how well the film balanced it’s dark material with comedy through the consistently realistic tone and each character’s reaction to tragedy. This wouldn’t have been possible if the humanity of these characters hadn’t been depicted as efficiently as they were. Just as we each harbor the light and darkness within ourselves, these characters are fallible and just, righteous but selfish, reactionary and meditative all the same. This film showcased a genuine humanity that is seldom seen on the silver screen, and its that much better for it.

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The whole point of the story is that while anger has its place, it can only accomplish so much. Mildred’s cathartic anger from the grief she’s still experiencing after her daughter’s death may have launched the story and gotten the police to reopen the case, but it cannot heal you or cure your grief. Chief Willoughby plants the unexpected seeds of love in the characters that need it most and it is through his actions and acknowledgements that they slowly begin to realize that love and empathy might just be a better outcome than directing our anger at the problems in our lives. The film begins by showing Mildred’s righteous anger as completely justified, and even a bit intoxicating, therefore putting us on her side, but later in the film when Dixon lashes out in anger from his own grief we witness the ugly side of that same dichotomy. This is kind of brilliant because it makes us question what we previously rooted for. After Dixon’s outburst the film puts an emphasis on loosening the grip that anger can clasp so firmly in people’s hearts. Chief Willoughby even acknowledges that the most irredeemable characters can be salvaged if given the right motivation and opportunities through love. This is a powerful message to have in a film at this time. The film isn’t arguing that righteous anger cannot be useful or that it isn’t justified, but that progress cannot be made if you never let go of your anger. Understanding and empathy are the ways forward.

Final Score: Three Billboards, Four Molotov Cocktails 

*The independent article on the “controversy” surrounding Sam Rockwell’s character is linked below and I suggest giving it a read if you’re still unsure of the film. However, there are spoilers within, read at your own caution:

http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/three-buildings-outside-ebbing-missouri-racism-row-twitter-martin-mcdonagh-oscars-frances-mcdormand-a8178861.html

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Review: The Shape of Water

Written by Vanessa Taylor and Guillermo del Toro and directed by del Toro, “The Shape of Water” is a superbly dark fairy tale submerged in science fiction sensibilities with romantic shades throughout. I may have wrote my ‘Favorites of 2017‘ piece before seeing this movie, but trust me when I say that this would definitely have been included. This is del Toro’s most visually arresting film since Pan’s Labyrinth and will likely be a favorite among cinephiles for years to come. So, how did a story about a woman falling in love with an amphibious creature end up working so well?

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The film’s opening evokes Andrei Tarkovsky’s dreamlike imagery from The Mirror of a woman sleeping suspended above her bed, but here it is with Sally Hawkin’s Elisa dreaming undisturbed in an underwater version of her apartment. This was an excellent indicator going forward of the love that this film has with cinema itself. Guillermo del Toro himself describes the film as a love poem to cinema, and this is doubly evident throughout the film’s runtime. Creature from the Black Lagoon, King Kong, even E.T. all feel sampled from in this story, but never in a way that feels like a tired pastiche or an endless homage to other movies. No, while this film is in love with other movies, it is definitively telling it’s own story.

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The quick and dirty premise of the film is that Elisa, a mute, and her coworker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) work at a government research facility in the early 1960’s as part of the cleaning crew during the night. Soon after we’ve been introduced to the characters and the world that they live in, we’re introduced to the secondary lead in Doug Jones’ amphibious river god dragged from the Amazon for research purposes. One thing leads to another and the two voiceless leads soon fall for each other and plot an escape.

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The entire cast gives memorable and impressive performances throughout. Even the smaller characters like David Hewlett’s corporate underling working for Michael Shannon’s villainous Strickland has a specific anxiety and tone about him that makes his character stand out. Speaking of Strickland, Michael Shannon gives us one of his best villains to date with this character. We’re introduced to Strickland while Elisa and Zelda are cleaning the men’s bathroom and from this scene we discover everything we need to know about how he functions within the story. He’s a determined, narrowly focused, and arrogant man with a penchant for cruelty.

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The heroes of the story, though, are all societal rejects. Elisa’s a mute woman, Zelda’s a black woman in the early 1960’s, Giles (Elisa’s neighbor and friend) is a gay artist, and a Russian spy who cares more for an innocent creature than his own national allegiances. The most impressive of the bunch however is Sally Hawkins as Elisa. She gives the performance of a lifetime in this film. She has to emote, communicate, and convey not only her character’s inner feelings, but also her intentions to other characters within her world. This film isn’t afraid of itself, or of any kind of expression. It is bold in its’ time spent with Hawkins’ Elisa, we get to know her on a very intimate level as we’re the quiet observers of her daily routines and who she values in her life.

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While the film does hold many dreamlike and fantastical sensibilities, it definitely earns it’s R rating. Del Toro expertly balances this shifting of tones between the romanticism of Hawkins and Jones and the volatile hatred within Strickland resulting in a clear and present danger for the heroes involved. The tension is perfectly held taught by these real possibilities of violence, and the editing is also cleverly stitched together for maximum momentum. The American and Russian officials involved are invested in the asset as they find that it can communicate without language while also having two sets of breathing apparatus for functioning in both water and air. They want to find any and all information that could lead them to winning the space race.

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The score goes a long way to infuse the feeling of the film with dreamy ethereal tones that wouldn’t be out of place in a romance set during the 1920’s in Paris. The production design is a fully realized world set in a fantasy version of 1962 America during the height of the Cold War, it enlargens and emphasizes the military might funding the facility. There are large winding pipes criss-crossing  nearly every set in the facility, while Elisa and Giles apartments look authentically lived in trading the banal whites and steel grays of the research facility for more earthy and warm colors. Not to mention that they live above an old theater with a gigantic marque outside lighting up the rainy streets below. The color palette as a whole is drenched in every possible shade of green. It almost feels as if Guillermo created new shades of the color just for this film-it’s quite the visual feast of colors.

The story is in love with art and cinema, that much is clear. I’m betting this will only ensnare more minds and eyes into a love of film and filmmaking. The film even ends with a poem. Romanticism is boundless within this picture, and I loved every minute I shared with it, go check this one out if you can find it- it’s one of the best films that 2017 had to offer!

“When I think of her, of Elisa, all that comes to mind is a poem, made of just a few truthful words, whispered by someone in love, hundreds of years ago: ‘Unable to perceive the shape of you, I find you all around me. Your presence fills my eyes with your love. It humbles my heart, for you are everywhere.’ ”

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Final Score: Two lovers, One mute and One fish

 

 

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Movie Pitch: The He-Man and The Masters of the Universe Live-action Reboot

Sony Pictures is currently in pre-production (hell) for the live action reboot of the He-Man and the Masters of the Universe property. There have likely already been major choices made and machinations in place by now, but for the fun of it all here’s some of the major ideas I would pursue if given the reigns to a project such as this.

1. Cast Terry Crews as He-Man

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First and foremost, I would immediately seek out Terry Crews for the lead role in this film. From The Expendables to Brooklyn Nine-Nine Crews has the acting experience behind him to advance onto a leading role, and this property is one where I think he would excel in, not only for the look of the character, but also in the nature of the content. This is a fantasy/sci-fi adaption that can hardly be taken seriously, so why do so? I would expect a certain amount of serious threat to raise the stakes and conflict in the story, but there has to be levity here. Much like the recent Thor Ragnarok film from Marvel Studios, this should be a property that embraces the weird and hilarious nature of what’s happening onscreen, and I believe Terry Crews has what it takes to provide us with a compelling hero, but also, can you imagine him screaming “I HAVE THE POOOOOOOOOOOOWWWWWEEEEERRRRRR!” in a big budget Hollywood movie? I want that more than I should.

2. Cast Bryan Cranston as Skelator

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Bryan Cranston has the perfect blend of gut-busting comedy chops paired with deadly serious threats. Just look at Malcom in the Middle and Breaking Bad if you have any illusions as to his ability to perform in either category. Cranston has experience in major Hollywood blockbusters and television alike that hearken all the way back to his days voicing costumed villains in Saban’s Power Rangers. I strongly believe that Bryan Cranston would be the perfect Skeletor in this adaption, he’s funny, he can be immeasurably menacing when he needs to, and he can pull off the specific kind of goofy interplay that could work in a film such as this.

3. Get Taika Waititi to direct

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Now that he’s proven himself as a capable big budget filmmaker with Thor Ragnarok, after his smaller but seriously grand films What we do in the shadows, Hunt for the wilderpeople, and Boy– Waititi should get more opportunities to handle larger productions if he so chooses. I think this property presents a great opportunity for the kiwi director as it’s similarly a blend of fantasy and sci-fi genres like his recent success, but also because he might have even greater control with He-Man. I doubt there would be riots over departures from the source material here and he could take the ideas in play to greater rewards thematically and financially, he’s got the Marvel (magic) touch right now and a great sense for what works in good storytelling.

4. Be self aware of the inherent silliness of such a property

My last suggestion for this adaption is one that can be applied to the film as a whole. If you’re going to craft a film about a character that’s the most powerful man in the universe and have him battle a skeleton sorcerer with his giant green-striped battle tiger at his side, well, you should have fun with it. Embrace the oddities that made the cartoon ridiculous but fun in the first place. Also, as always, I would hope for practical effects, real costumes, shooting on location etc you’re making a movie not a video game- embrace it!

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Review: Grabbers

Written by Kevin Lehane and directed by Jon Wright, “Grabbers” is an Irish horror comedy about a small Irish Isle besieged by tentacled aliens that harbor a thirst for blood. I didn’t watch this film with the aim to write a review about it, but I enjoyed it so much that I thought it would be good to spread this title around and get more eyeballs on it. The premise of the film is simple enough, the small island has a police force of two and when the captain goes on holiday for two weeks a rookie from Dublin signs up to fill his shoes for the duration of his vacation while the second in command, Ciarán O’Shea (Richard Coyle), is a washed up  drunk who doesn’t take kindly to the newcomer. Lisa Nolan (Ruth Bradley) is the workaholic to O’Shea’s alcoholic and they awkwardly go about their duties once she’s settled on the isle. They quickly come across a bunch of beached whales with strange deep cuts all over them, the local scientist Smith (Russell Tovey) notes that they died at sea, curiously.

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One of the local fishermen, Paddy (Lalor Roddy) traps one of the strange creatures while out on a trawling run and brags about it to O’Shea while at the pub. One thing leads to another and the odd couple police force brings the captured squid-like creature to the local doctor (Pascal Scott) to find out what it might be, but even he has no idea forcing a return to Smith’s laboratory where they discover the creature’s weakness despite its unknown origin. Alcohol. Since the creatures need water and blood to thrive a victim with a high enough blood alcohol concentration causes the aliens to foam at the beak and writhe to death. With a particularly nasty storm coming making evacuation off the island impossible til the morning the ragtag group assembles the island residents to the pub to last through the night.

 

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The film gleefully embraces the cliches of its setting and the genre mashup tropes of Irish drunkenness, small town life, and the briny fishermen known to own their rebellious spirits while enjoying a pint or two more than is recommended. The film may be somewhat predictable but the actors leading the charge are effectively charming enough that I personally was having enough of a good time that this was less of an issue for me. The CGI for the creatures was effective in that they never seemed too goofy looking and once they start to grow, they’re malice enlarges with them. If you enjoy a good horror comedy, I suggest seeking this one out, it playfully acknowledges itself and the common tropes of similar movies, but it’s unique enough to stand out from the crowd.

 

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Final Score: Two cops, a scientist, a doctor, and a pub

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Review: Logan Lucky

Written by Rebecca Blunt and directed by Steven Soderbergh, Logan Lucky is a comedy heist film in which the Logan brothers Jimmy (Channing Tatum) & Clyde (Adam Driver) aim to break the Logan family curse by robbing a high-stakes NASCAR raceway during the busiest weekend of the year. This film brought Soderbergh out of retirement to direct as he was initially sought out to give a recommendation for applicable directors, but he ended up enjoying the script so much that he chose to direct it and simultaneously use it as a test subject for an independent distribution model of his own design, “Fingerprint Releasing”. Which turned out to be the right choice as Logan Lucky is a no frills, charming, and surprisingly intelligent redneck MacGyver version of Soderbergh’s past heist films like Ocean’s Eleven.

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Jimmy Logan works construction at the Charlotte Motor Speedway- that is until he’s fired by unseen insurance bureaucrats who spotted his limp and found him to be a liability. Choosing to find solace in brotherhood Jimmy soon makes his way to his brother Clyde’s bar where we first hear Clyde rambling off superstitions about the family curse. Given the brothers’ apt nature towards bad luck, with Clyde missing an arm- sorry- a hand, in the Iraq war and Jimmy’s leg injury keeping him from his youthful ambitions at national level football, the curse could have merit from this perspective. We soon meet Jimmy’s daughter Sadie who’s working hard to win a local beauty pageant, and through Jimmy’s estranged ex-wife we learn of her plans to move with her new husband out of state and away from Jimmy. Thus, our motivation inherent. From here the movie picks up its pace as the pieces begin to fall into place for the eventual heist. The Logans know of an infamous local safecracker named Joe Bang (Daniel Craig) whose been imprisoned. They go meet him and they unveil their plan to entice him into helping them break into the vault under the speedway. He isn’t too keen on the idea as he only has five months to go until his release, that is until they tell him that they plan on sneaking him out for the job, but then also sneaking him back into the prison without anyone knowing he was gone in the first place. Bang only has one condition, the Logan brothers must enlist his own two brothers to insure his interests until his sentence is up. The Logans’ also enlist the help of their sister (Riley Keough) as a transport driver during the shuffle of retrieving Joe and Clyde (his incarceration is also part of the plan) from the prison during a planned riot.

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This film was an absolute joy from start to finish. The characters are never portrayed in a demeaning light and they all have an earnest sensibility about them as they go about their illegalities. Soderbergh brings a specific framing and polish to the film that may have been mishandled in another’s stead, while also crafting an edit that fills in the details as soon as you begin to question the choices certain characters make. It seems the director has cemented his return to filmmaking through this release and his upcoming film titled Unsane, Soderbergh’s first dip into the horror/thriller genre, which he also plans to release independently through Fingerprint Releasing and Bleecker Street once again. I know I’ll be looking forward to it based on how good Logan Lucky turned out. Soderbergh and his crew brought together an excellent cast and drew out some truly memorable performances from his actors while keeping everything light and fun. We can only hope for the success of more independent features like this!

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(Adam Driver & Daniel Craig pose with director Steven Soderbergh while on production)

Final Score: Three Lucky Logans & One infamous Joe Bang!

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My favorite films of 2017

Say what you will about 2017 as a whole, but the films released this last year were a good harvest of cinematic entertainment. I’ll refrain from any sort of top ten lists of the best or worst variety and simply talk about the movies that I saw and enjoyed. Below are the films that evoked the most powerful responses from me, be it slow and meditative science fiction, excellently choreographed action and fight sequences, or simply the films that gave me the largest laughs and the most to dwell on afterwards. As most years there are almost as many, or more, films that I missed due to one reason or another and will likely catch up on later. So if you see a popular film missing I either didn’t think it did enough to merit being on the list, or I didn’t see it. Here’s to hoping that 2018 continues this trend and gives us more quality films to soak up and revel in.

 

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Blade Runner 2049

While this was a good year at the theater, for myself there was no film that surpassed the cinematic glory that was Blade Runner 2049. A sequel releasing thirty-five years after the original film might seem like a detractor for most films, but not here. Director Denis Villeneuve and Cinematographer Roger Deakins (along with cast and crew) have spun a transfixing web of powerful and immense sights and sounds across this science fiction epic. Harrison Ford returns to his lesser known sci-fi icon Rick Deckard and gives us one of his best performances in the last ten to twenty years. Meanwhile Ryan Gosling’s K, the new Blade Runner of 2049, sets out to track down the crimes and mysteries left behind in Deckard’s wake. This film is a slow burning science fiction epic that rapidly escalates the scale apart from the first film’s relatively smaller set of events in the best ways possible. I cannot recommend this film enough, though I know it won’t be every audience’s favorite flavor.

 

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John Wick Chapter 2

Forced back into the world of cordial killers that he left behind ages ago, this sequel brings back Keanu Reeves’ latest hit character John Wick and throws him into a gauntlet of violence and feigned civility. Rarely giving the audience time to soak into Wick’s brooding life after his successful revenge in the first flick, Chapter 2 quickly forces Wick’s hand into fulfilling a blood oath after blowing up his house a few scenes in. This film is a continuation of the surprise success of the first film by allowing what worked there to be thoughtfully expanded upon here. The legend of John Wick hinted at in the first film is realized here by having Wick operate in Italy for his mission, thereby having many people quickly recognizing, and fearing, him. This film cracks open the doors to his old community of killers that was merely peeked at before and it’s a joy to watch Wick do what he does best. If you’re looking for near relentless and creative gunplay in a refined atmosphere then you can do no better than John Wick Chapter 2.

 

KONG: SKULL ISLAND

Kong: Skull Island

As a fan of the giant monster movie sub-genre, I always look forward to new and evolving versions of old favorites, and this interpretation of cinema’s most well known giant ape may well be my favorite. The largest Kong yet towers above the rivers and peaks of Skull Island set during the waning days of the Vietnam war in which a few madcap scientists talk their way into a military escort onto the isolated and volatile isle of legend. Once they arrive their suspicions of the giant ape are confirmed as Kong is quick to prove who is King in this untamed land. I love the adoration this film has for it’s monstrous locales and unique creations-this is a film that knows it is first a foremost a creature feature. It doesn’t hurt that the cast involved knew how to embrace the tone, some particularly fun additions were John Goodman as the conspiratorial lead scientist, Samuel L. Jackson’s cynical and bombastic Major Packard leading the military support, and John C. Reilly’s wary but good-hearted WW2 fighter pilot who crash-landed on the island when an aerial dogfight went awry. It’s also worth mentioning that director Jordan Vogt-Roberts maintained his sense of style and kept his cinematic voice intact in a major studio release, that’s no small feat and deserves some recognition.

 

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Get Out

As someone who isn’t all that in love with horror movies, this year gave us two absolutely stellar additions to the genre. The first of which was the outstanding directorial debut of Jordan Peele’s Get Out. What makes this film so magnetic is the way it plays on the real world anxieties that still thread through American racial relationships to this day. Peele slowly settles the audience into unease with his clever use of pacing and throwbacks to some of his most adored film inspirations from the likes of Guess who’s coming to dinner?, The Stepford Wives, and The Shining. This is my preferred style of horror, it never relies on jump-scares or cheap thrills, instead the film unnerves you with each passing minute until the spellbinding hypnosis scenes begin-then the film accelerates the madness only hinted at before. This psychological thriller will likely be among many favorites lists for years to come, and Peele has earned every second of adoration for it.

 

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IT Chapter 1

The other surprise horror hit last year was IT Chapter 1. This latest rendition of a Stephen King classic rose to legendary horror movie heights as the highest grossing R rated movie of all time earning close to 700 million worldwide on a budget of only 35 million. With only another lackluster Saw comeback to challenge it’s box office reign roughly a month after it’s release, the film about a killer clown dominated the silver screen for weeks on end. What really made the film stand out from the crowd though wasn’t the scares-which were plentiful and effective, but rather the chemistry of the Losers Club and how they not only interacted with each other, but how they dealt with the overwhelming presence of Pennywise the evil shape-shifting clown. The film was funny, charming, creepy, and intense. If you (somehow) missed this one at the theater, then check out the video release-it’s definitely worth your time!

 

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Wonder Woman

Ladies and gentlemen, they did it! DC films finally made a great superhero movie. Wonder Woman did what neither Batman, Superman, or Will Smith could accomplish- a truly wonderful superhero story. Gal Gadot and Patty Jenkins deserve a hell of a lot of credit for infusing some heart and empathy into this dour and sour universe of grisly and uninspiring superheroes. Gadot and Chris Pine shared an excellent onscreen chemistry on their journey through worn torn Europe, they evolved as characters and weren’t used for glamour shots or crude humor. Wonder Woman is the shining light of the DC film universe and I can’t wait to see how Jenkins and crew return to the character in her untitled sequel, best of all though, we can rest assured that she’s in good hands until then!

 

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Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2

I wasn’t sure how the sequel to Guardians of the Galaxy would fare for me, the first was a surprise hit and became an instant pop culture icon. How would James Gunn handle these characters’ evolution and what kind of madcap adventures would they tumble into next? They may not have been chasing a macguffin stone this time around, but we did get a compelling story that dug into some deeper character work for a few of the characters on the team, and they had a far more interesting villain this time around in Ego the Living Planet, who just so happens to be Star Lord’s father.. Kurt Russell, because of course he is. Everything about this film was amped up from the last installment and the world building for the greater cosmic side of the Marvel universe was stepped up in scale as well. This was a visual feast of colors and special effects and the comedy (a detractor for some this time around) worked for me just as much if not more this time around. This was an excellent addition to not only the Guardians story but the greater web of MCU storylines as well!

 

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Spider-Man: Homecoming

This was my favorite superhero movie of the year, and that’s saying something because this year had some of the best offerings from Marvel and DC yet! Even the Justice League was an improvement overall (though it’s not on this list as it didn’t quite reach the mark for me). Introduced in Captain America Civil War this newest incarnation of the web slinger may be my favorite version yet! Tom Holland’s Peter Parker is the youngest web-head thus far and he’s got an innate natural sense of the big-eyed wonder that a younger Parker would have, especially since he’s the rookie in a world of Avengers now. Placing Spider-Man into the MCU allows him to be positioned into storylines and arcs that would have been impossible before now, a feat realized through the perfect use of Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark as the guiding hero and moral compass (Something Stark could only accomplish after years of being Iron Man). This was a wonderfully small scale super hero movie and I loved it all the more for keeping things grounded, lighthearted, and funny. There’s also the great benefit of having Michael Keaton playing the Vulture, a C-class villain from the comics that he made all his own resulting in one of the best villains of the MCU since Tom Hiddleston’s Loki. I can’t wait to see how this latest version of the Wallcrawler’s story evolves after this!

 

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Thor Ragnarok

Taika Waititi threw out the rulebook with his Thor film and it was all the better for it! I was incredibly excited for this movie since hearing the rumors surrounding the creative team involved and the stories that they were going to adapt with Thor’s third MCU film. Soaked in neon colors, a synthy score crafted by Mark Mothersbaugh harkening back to his Devo days, and paired up with Mark Ruffalo’s Incredible Hulk, with a cameo from Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange-this film had a lot going for it, and everything worked beautifully! Plus, Jeff Goldblum! My ticket was sold to this film the moment I saw that first trailer (Although truthfully I would have seen it without the extra hype anyways). Waititi combined elements of the Planet Hulk storyline with Asgard’s apocalyptic Ragnarok event, all while serving up jokes and surprising character development from our recognizable favorites. This might be Marvel Studios’ strongest year yet, these three entries were the hat-trick of risky features and each of them paid off marvelously!

 

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Baby Driver

As a fan of every film that Edgar Wright has directed I was ecstatic about his next release after his fallout with Marvel Studios over creative differences on the Ant-Man film. This choice ended up being beneficial for everyone involved anyways. The Ant-Man film we got was a small (pun intended) and charming heist film with lovable characters introduced into the constantly growing Marvel movie machine. However, while Edgar Wright’s next project would also be a heist film, that’s where the similarities end. Baby Driver is a fast paced crime flick with music in it’s soul, but more than that the film is intelligently written and Wright’s whiplash editing is as fresh as ever and particularly important to this film. Each scene is dictated by the music that Baby’s listening to at that time resulting in eclectic shootouts set to everything from Run the Jewels to Brighton Rock by Queen. Full of blink-and-you-miss-it easter eggs and populated by an excellent cast firing on all cylinders, Baby Driver stole the summer for me.

 

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War for the Planet of the Apes

The final installment in the prequel trilogy of The Planet of the Apes franchise follows our main ape Caesar as he leads his clan of apes towards finding a peaceful territory all their own. However the ghost of Koba still haunts Caesar as the remainders of Koba’s faction work for the remnants of the humans’ military forces. This is my favorite of the Apes newest series of movies, the film showcases the most impressive visual effects I have ever seen onscreen with the performance capture of the apes- who we spend a majority of our time with this time around. The story simmers in a sense of ever present dread and tension as the apes must strive against the paranoid and ramshackle remains of humanity. This story depicts more of the brutality of war than an all out assault, though in a delightful turn of events this film accomplishes more in its quietest moments than most blockbusters ever do throughout their run-times. This completes an incredibly strong trilogy that every cinephile should watch at some point, especially if you have a fondness for thought provoking science fiction.

 

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Valerian and the City of a Thousand planets

Despite having a vague science fiction subtitle and lacking some chemistry between the two leads, Valerian and the city of a thousand planets is a colorful and fast paced sci-fi flick that dazzles with spectacle. Directed by Luc Besson, of The Fifth Element and Leon The Professional fame, Valerian (and Laureline) stumble upon a conspiratorial plot aboard the infamous space station “Alpha” and have to traverse it’s many layers, regions, and sectors to find the answers they seek. While this film may be no Star Wars or Star Trek it is a unique enough offering to engage and entertain with its effective world building and absurdly fun technologies in play. If you’re looking for some science fiction fun but don’t want to go see The Last Jedi another time, Valerian should be able to sate your sci-fi needs this winter.

 

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A Ghost Story

This one caught me off-guard. Nearly devoid of dialogue and cosmically melancholy, A Ghost Story is about a young couple in love when tragedy suddenly strikes the man and he dies. We spend the rest of the film with the departed musician as he wanders the earth incomplete in the, literal, sheets of his ghostly form. The film’s aspect ratio, a squared 1.33 Academy ratio with curved corners, add to the nostalgic and intimate nature of the film as the ghost experiences time and space becoming slippery and unrecognizable. This is the shortest film on the list and if you have the patience for it’s slower parts I would highly recommend giving this unique film a chance.

 

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Fast and Furious 8

The Fate of the Furious is on this list because of the pure enjoyment I had with this movie. At this point, I know what I’m getting with this series- cars, explosions, heists, one-liners, punching, and a set-piece that’s slightly more ridiculous than the last installment in the series. It’s a long running series of Saturday morning cartoons for adults, and I’m okay with that. I had a theory with these movies that every other one was going to be not quite as good as the one that preceded it. For example: the first film was (and probably still is the best of the bunch as far as films go) pretty good entertainment, the second I enjoyed but it wasn’t quite as good. Tokyo Drift was excellent- but I wasn’t as impressed with Fast 4 the reboot of the series, while Fast Five was my personal favorite of the series. The sixth was a let down for me while the seventh was pretty good dumb fun. However, this eighth movie in the franchise was another solid entry for me-the curse of the even numbered Fast and Furious films was broken! I quite enjoyed the prison escape sequence between Jason Statham and Dwayne Johnson, the spy stuff with Kurt Russell and Scott Eastwood as the newbie was jovial, and the twist with Vin Diesel being the villain this time around wasn’t as cheesy as I expected. I don’t know if each new episode will stay as fresh or exciting as the best of the series, but hey, I never expected perfection from my guilty pleasures before-why start now?

 

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Logan

Finally unleashing Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine for his final performance, Logan was a different kind of superhero movie. I’ll admit, while I did enjoy this film, it never quite reached the heights for me as it did for so many audience members out there, though the opening and closing scenes were near perfection in execution. Years in the future an old and battered Logan strives to make money as a chauffeur for young rich assholes as he secretly cares for an increasingly unstable Professor X. Things go awry once Laura, his biological daughter created in a lab, comes into the picture. The performances were solid and the action was grisly and entertaining, although personally there were a few too many adamantium claws lodged into people’s faces for my liking. It was a solid film, an ode to Westerns and the Wolverine alike, and a good finale to one of the longest running character performances from comic book adaptions.

 

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Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

This was the last film I saw in 2017 and it was surprisingly good! This film is a sequel to the Robin Williams led original film from 1995 and I enjoyed the fact that this film didn’t bulldoze over the original but took cues and inspiration from it while crafting a new adventure to enjoy. This time around it is four teenagers that all end up in detention with each other a la The Breakfast Club but instead of talking through their problems together they get sucked into the game reassembled as a cartridge based video game from the mid 1990’s. Each character is put into the body of their chosen avatars, Kevin Hart, Dwayne Johnson, Karen Gillan, and Jack Black. Each has three lives and they must solve riddles and best challenges in the jungle to win the game. It was a joy to watch Johnson and Black play against their type while Gillan and Hart were solid in their roles they didn’t have personas quite as large as the other two, though there is some great character work between Hart as the former football quarterback quarreling with the studious nerd within the hulking body of Johnson. This was a welcome surprise and a fun way to end the year at the theaters.

Listed below are the films that I wanted to catch at the theater, but never got around to:

Disaster Artist, The Shape of Water, Lady Bird, The Big Sick, Dunkirk, It comes at Night, The Florida Project, Colossal, Good Time, Logan Lucky, Detroit, Lucky, Phantom Thread, The Post, Dave made a Maze, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, Brawl in Cell Block 99, Call me by your name, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, & Wind River

P.S. Yes, I too saw Star Wars Episode 8 The Last Jedi, but I felt that this wasn’t the proper place to pile onto that film as it was/is one of the most talked about films of the year. This post is more about the year as a whole and Star Wars gets most of the limelight when it is released anyways. If you want to know my thoughts on that film I have posted a review on the blog as well. Enjoy!