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For the Love of Spock

Documentaries– films that give the viewer insights into real life –are one of my favorite genres. A good definition of documentaries is that as movies tell good fictional stories documentary tell good non-fiction stories at their best. We as a species tend to think of fictional characters as real people; maybe this is because stories mean so much to us. One of the stories that has meant a lot to a lot of people is that of Star Trek. These stories of adventures in space following a crew of adventurers with a strong moral code inspires many to this day including this author.

For the Love of Spock is about Leonard Nimoy, the man behind one of the show’s most beloved characters: the pointy-eared, logical, green-blooded Mr. Spock,. The film is directed by Adam Nimoy, who gives us a glimpse into his father’s life and career. It also has insights from those who loved him best. It shows Leonard Nimoy as the real, fascinating and very human person that he was in life.

A documentary is always somewhat invasive. It includes candid interviews from all his fellow Star Trek cast members; archival interviews with the relevant players, footage from his other TV work and the special recollections of his wives and children. A high point are the interviews with his devoted fans and how the character he played meant so much to them. This documentary is a loving and candid tribute. We see Nimoy the man and not the character. We his struggles, his woes and his failings,  but also his compassion and his deep passion for life. We get to see Leonard Nimoy and remember his immense talent.

In the end, when we see a good biography on the screen, we think to our own lives and seek to better them through loving more and daring to dream and act. I recommend you see this documentary. It’s playing on Netflix.

Posted in All Reviews, By Courtland Hopkins.

Swiss Army Man

The first few minutes of Swiss Army Man are, taken by themselves, a perfect little short film. A man (Paul Dano) stranded on an island is in the process of hanging himself, when he sees something wash up on the shore in front of him. It’s a man (Daniel Radcliffe) – the first human being he’s seen in who knows how long. But the man is dead, so Dano goes back to ending his own life. And then the corpse becomes… flatulent.  Violently. And an idea strikes Dano. In triumph, he rides the flatulent corpse like a jet ski across the ocean and back to civilization.

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Posted in All Reviews, by Will Krischke.

Don’t Breathe

It’s nice to come across a horror flick that isn’t supernatural or science fiction, that isn’t a psychological metaphor, that is just content to create a tense situation and then milk it, one minute at a time, for all its worth.  “Don’t Breathe” has a pretty simple premise.  Three kids in Detroit break in to a blind old man’s house, because they’ve heard he has a fortune stashed away in it. If you’re a horror fan like me, that might make you think of the 1967 film “Wait Until Dark,” where Audrey Hepburn plays a blind woman terrorized by three men looking for a doll stuffed with heroin they believe she has.

But “Don’t Breathe” turns that premise on its head.  From the beginning, we are encouraged to root for the three kids — which is discomfiting; they are robbing a blind man, after all. But this blind man (played with chilling precision and ferocity by veteran character actor Stephen Lang) is no easy target, and he has a few secrets in the house he’s very motivated to keep secret.  He clearly has the upper hand in his own house, which he doesn’t seem to have left for years. By the time the film is in full swing, he seems more like a force of nature — a monster, like an alien or a velociraptor, terrifyingly strong and fast, operating on instincts and apt to come out of nowhere at any second — than a blind old man.

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Posted in All Reviews, by Will Krischke.

The LEGO Batman Movie

By my count, there have been 8 Batman movies since Michael Keaton donned the cowl in 1989. In addition to Keaton, George Clooney, Val Kilmer, Christian Bale, and now Ben Affleck have all played the dark knight. Do we really need another Batman movie?

If the new movie stars Will Arnett (Arrested Development) as the caped crusader, Zach Galifianakis (The Hangover) as the Joker, and is made entirely of tiny plastic bricks, the answer is resoundingly “yes!”  Yes, we do need this movie, because it sends up all those other movies, as well as a million comic books (DC hardly has a title these days that isn’t in some way connected to the world’s greatest detective) and that campy TV show in the ’60s (which also produced a movie.) Along the way, LEGO Batman pokes fun at just about every entry in our current superhero cinematic craze, and most especially the tendency of certain directors to think that the grimmer the characters and the darker the movie, the better it is. (Anyone seen Logan yet?) This particular bubble really needed to be burst.  Thank God LEGO was on the scene to burst it.

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Posted in All Reviews, by Will Krischke.

Great Movies Roundtable: The Sixth Sense

#88 on AFI’s “100 Movies, 100 Years – 10th Anniversary Edition is “The Sixth Sense.”

 

This month we welcome Cameron Mooney (CM) to Great Movies Roundtable.

The Sixth Sense was the surprise hit of 1999, the second highest-grossing film of the year, behind Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. And yet it almost didn’t get made. David Vogel at Disney was fired for buying the script for the high price of $3 million and promising M. Night Shyamalan that he could direct his own script. Bruce Willis was cast in the principal role because he was cheap – in fact, he was free, having settled a lawsuit with Disney over a film he was supposed to produce by promising them three films without compensation. It was dumped on the market in late August, not an ideal time for a supernatural thriller with Oscar aspirations. It received six nominations anyway.

The story of a child psychologist’s (Bruce Willis) attempt to help a troubled young boy (Haley Joel Osment) who sees ghosts, its surprise ending is perhaps the most well-known and famous since the ending of Psycho. It established M. Night Shyamalan’s reputation for eerie, mysterious films with twist endings – a reputation he would ride into the ground in the next decade, creating universally hated films like The Happening and Lady in the Water.

General Thoughts?

WK: I’ll admit I came to this one with some skepticism. I remembered it being a good movie, but there are so few horror movies on AFI’s list, and I can easily think of 5 that ought to be there. I mean, who really thinks The Sixth Sense is better than The Shining? But as I re-watched it, I realized it’s not really a horror movie at all. There isn’t a villain, or really any evil presence. And there are only 2 or 3 jump scares. I’m not sure what to call it except a ghost story: it’s eerie and creepy, but ultimately life-affirming and even teary. The music playing over the end of the film would be perfectly at home in a Hallmark drama (you can’t say that about most horror flicks,) and if you don’t get misty-eyed in that scene between Osment and Collette in the car, I think your heart is two sizes too small.

CM: You know, the same goes here for me too. I also had some skepticism coming into this film. I believe the last time I watched it was when I was of the impressionable age where I thought Spy Kids 2 was my favorite movie. Needless to say, I think my movie taste has changed a little and now I can tell a good movie from a bad one. I feel like M. Night Shyamalan is the Hollywood embodiment of Korean cinema; incredibly intentional visual storytelling combined with expansive 3rd act exhibition. Knowing how the movie ends and then watching it again gave me a great chance to pick out the nuanced details. It’s neat to see shot-by-shot the story the film is telling but not saying if that makes any sense whatsoever.

CRH: Spy Kids 2? Ew. I also was pleasantly surprised by The Sixth Sense. This is the kind of movie that is excellent in theaters but tends to get butchered by watching it on TV. It wants you to be patient as it lays out the mystery and the characterization. M Night Shyamalan really hit the mark here by deciding to make this a simple, quiet film and slowly unwrap it, concluding strongly with the twist at the end. It’s a sad methodical story of a kid who is trying to make sense of his world after his father split on him.

WK: I think it was a smart move to never show the father – you feel his absence more because you never see him on the screen.

What Works?

CM: Each shot in this movie is carefully is expertly done. This is one of those movies where every frame matters and has something specific to convey to the audience above and beyond visualizing the narrative. I think specifically to scenes where you can see the breath of the actors against the cold air. It’s small details like this which really build the visual storytelling I was talking about earlier.

WK: The Sixth Sense was a reminder that, at least at this point in his career, Shyamalan was a master of formal composition. There are so many shots in this movie where you can almost see the storyboard drawing that came first. And his trademark reveals are all over the movie, and masterfully used – Shyamalan essentially replaces jump scares with these reveals, where the thing he wants you to see was there the whole time, you just didn’t see it.

CM: I think that Shyamalan also uses suspense masterfully. Whenever Osment encounters a ghost, the buildup to it is something I remember down to the very details – the changing of the lighting, the overt soundtrack mixing, the camera frame choices. These scenes get my heart pumping however, while the suspense is good the surprise that it leads up to is oftentimes wasted. I suppose that might be what Shyamalan was going for though, trying to show that the ghosts aren’t inherently evil they just need help moving on.

CRH: This is a classic ghost story told for a modern context. It has all the hallmarks. The scary things behind the curtain, the human drama and the sense of tragedy and ultimate resolution. At the end of a ghost story justice is done or a wound is healed and a soul is free to fly. In these sorts of films the visual storytelling must be spot on for repeated viewings. You have to be able to watch it again after knowing the twist and see how clever the filmmaker was and how he fooled you. Its delightful. When done right this thrills and satisfies the audience: but if done poorly, (I’m looking at you The Village!) it’s infuriating.

CM: I’m still upset about The Dark Knight Rises to this day.

CRH: I liked that movie but I’m usually in the minority, ha!

WK: I also really like Toni Collette in this movie. I like Collette in almost every movie I’ve seen her in; I think she’s a seriously underrated actress. But here, especially, I think she carries the emotional center of the movie. At first look, this is a movie about a kid who sees ghosts, and the ghost who tries to help him. But upon closer examination, you realize it’s about our struggles to communicate with the people we love, and even to protect them and take care of them. Collette conveys that theme so well, playing the overworked, stressed out single mom who loves her son to the world and back but seems doomed to watch helplessly as his struggles destroy him.

What Doesn’t Work?

CRH: My only complaint was when the camera went to handheld mode a few times in the story like when they are in the apartment after their trip to the hospital. Steadicam was invented for a reason.

WK: The handheld shots stick out like a sore thumb when everything else is so carefully composed. They were definitely distracting.

I only have minor complaints. I think Bruce Willis is miscast; it’s kind of weird to watch the actor famous for Die Hard, Twelve Monkeys, and Armageddon play a thoughtful, internally tortured child psychologist. He does the best he can with it, and is entirely sufficient, but it’s really beyond his range.

CM: The beginning scene does not work well for me. It’s hard to believe that after Dr. Crowe is shot at the start that he would be alive in the following scene. For continuity sake, I appreciate the match cut from the gunshot at the beginning to his realization while walking up the stair that he is dead. Personally, I want to believe that there might have been a chance that Dr. Crowe would have survived the gunshot. Rush him off to the hospital and have him die there. Have him pass out surrounded by paramedics. Give me something! At least I would believe the reasons he gives behind his failed relationship with his wife, because that was the hardest part to comprehend for me. I want to believe the breakdown of the marriage without guessing that there might be something fishy going on, like being an aloof ghost husband.

WK: It does break down at points. For instance, if ghosts only see what they want to see, why does Willis keep seeing his wife flirting with another guy?

CRH: I think him dying at home is the classic ghost story motif; that’s why his presence haunts his house. The event that forbade him from moving on was in his home so he could not leave. I do think Bruce Willis is sufficient: sadly, it wasn’t a career changing role.

WK: You don’t like Bruce Willis? I think he’s very good at what he does – this just isn’t what he usually does. But in movies like Looper and Bandits, he’s great! It’s hard to imagine anyone else in Die Hard. (Which, by the way, is another movie that should be on this list, and isn’t.)

CRH: I do love Bruce Willis. For the reasons described. He does okay here but imagine Hugo Weaving in this role.

CM: I too liked Bruno in this one. I thought he showed some great softy moments, like when he tells Osment how he has to work on his own family situation and essentially gives up. While it wasn’t his forte, I think he did a great job. I mean seriously, The Fifth Element was only a few years prior. He can do some different characters for sure.

CRH: Agreed, but his best character is the man of action, not necessarily the tormented intellectual.

Favorite Scenes?

WK: I already mentioned the tearjerking scene at the end; that’s a favorite. Also, the earlier scene between Osment and Collette, at the dinner table; the conversation about the grandmother’s pendant. The boy so wants to be honest with his mother, and be believed; she so desperately wants to be a good mother, both loving and not putting up with excuses and fibs. It’s a very moving scene.

CM: I’m going to say my favorite scene is when Osment and Willis have their first formal meeting. The “mind reading” game stuck out to me, the frame showing the slow, cautious footsteps of Osment. The reaction of Osment at the beginning is that of bewilderment as Willis guesses the broad details of the boys behavior. The scene and likewise the reactions shift halfway through the scene while Willis begins to look dumbfounded and then Osment controls the conversation. Brilliant.

WK: That scene is a great illustration of how to create stakes/suspense in a movie. You are totally drawn in, sitting on the edge of your seat, over a pretty simple concept.

CRH: I wanna give a shout out to the funeral scene. I think it stands out because it is a classic part of the ghost story where a ghost comes back to see justice done. The best line is where the little girl asks if her sister will still be around, like any grieving child would, and Osment replies “not anymore,” so softly and kindly. He saved this girl’s life but he giving comfort to her soul as well. Good stuff.

WK: Hey Courtland, I have a crazy theory for you. What if The Sixth Sense is actually about Native Americans? The boy sees ghosts, and repeatedly, knows the history of a place – especially his school – because of it. He lives in the midst of history that most people are not aware of. Because of that, he is often afraid, or distracted; all of that history all around him has a serious emotional impact on him. And all the people around him see him as a freak. The resolution of all this comes when he starts bringing messages from the past to people in the present. This brings him some degree of peace, but I’d imagine it is also its own burden. Do you see where I’m going here?

CRH: I think that is a valid application to this story. It is not enough to merely know the facts one must act and respond correctly. That is the point of ghost stories; to infuse tragedy with a touch of supernatural intervention. It reminds me of Chaucer: “Murder will out! ” Yes it will, but only when the dead are at peace. It reminds me of Frank Herbert’s novel Soul Catcher, which I really like and I think is one of the best novels about Natives written by a White guy which has a similar theme.

Buying or Selling?

CRH: Buying. It’s a great ghost story and it should remain on the list..

CM: I’m buying on this one. This is an amazing film and an overall hallmark of films containing huge twists. I’d say this is definitely within the top 100 films of all time, and belonging somewhere lower on the list. It’s by no means a perfect film, but fits as a memorable and timeless movie. It’s one of those films that stick with you as it definitely has with me.

WK: I’m feeling really torn on this. Shyamalan’s reputation has taken a pretty serious hit since the list was last updated (though it’s beginning to recover.) I still wish there were more classic horror movies on the list. Come on, it doesn’t bother you guys that The Shining isn’t on the list?

CRH: It does bother me a great deal because The Shining is one of my favorites. I hope the AFI will rectify this point. The list definitely favors drama but I like a good horror movie any day.

CM: I will say though, the AFI is bonkers for Kubrick. I think I saw like every single one of his other movies on there. Maybe there’s some secret set of rules for horror movies? Who knows.

Posted in All Reviews, By Courtland Hopkins, by Will Krischke, The Classic Movie Series.

Don’t Think Twice

I was briefly part of an improv comedy troupe when I was in college. I was pretty terrible; I have never been very good at getting on the same wavelength as other people quickly — I tend to live in my own little world — and matching another person’s vibe is the essence of improv. But I loved the experience, and have loved improv ever since. There’s nothing quite like that sense of creating something on the spot — a joke, a premise, a little world — something funny and interesting, and then changing it, tweaking it, and then letting it give way to the next thing, and the next. It’s exhilarating to be a part of, and entertaining to watch.  And even when it’s over, the bond you’ve formed with your fellow players is still there. It’s unlike any other art form, even other forms of theater.

Mike Birbiglia’s indie comedy Don’t Think Twice is about a improv troupe, and the way it falls apart. A lot like Sleepwalk With Me (but better,) it’s a sad movie with lots of funny bits, or a funny movie with a melancholy theme. The troupe has existed for several years, and bonded so tightly together that they’re hardly ever apart.  They eat, sleep and watch Weekend Live (a slightly veiled version of SNL) together. But as close as they are to each other, they are very different people, and want different things from life, and from their careers.

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Posted in All Reviews, by Will Krischke.

The Great Wall

Here is a guest post from Cameron Mooney, who I’m hoping will become a regular reviewer for the website. 

I have become ambivalent about international blockbusters in recent years. Much like any seventeen year old, a common feature of these films is high ambition and poor self control. Like the strange child produced in a marriage between the production design of Lawrence of Arabia and the campiness of Starship Troopers, The Great Wall is a film birthed into this blockbuster trend.

Matt Damon plays the European mercenary, William, (I should tell you that I had to look that name up because I don’t even think I ever heard it out loud) who travels to the Far East in search of the legendary black powder weapons. William and his trusty Spaniard sidekick, played by Pedro Pascal, end up getting captured by the grotesquely large garrison at the Great Wall of China. The heroes become embattled in the struggle between the valiant forces at the Great Wall and the monsters which threaten the destruction of China and the rest of the world.

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Posted in All Reviews, Guest Posts.

Logan

X-Men movies – the good ones, anyway – have almost always functioned as broad political/social metaphors. They’re about the minority – the “freak,” the outcast, the outsider. They’re about how society treats them, what that does to them as people, and how they respond. They’re about what kind of future we want, and what kind of future we’re actually building, sometimes in spite of what we want. In the midst of all that symbolism,  understandably the individual characters and their stories get lost – the X-Men themselves can feel interchangeable, even disposable. It doesn’t help that there have been so many of them in so many movies.

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Posted in All Reviews, by Will Krischke.

Hell or High Water

Hell or High Water opens with a West Texas bank robbery. The robbers know what they’re doing; it’s first thing in the morning, the bank is empty, and they make sure only to take small bills and leave behind ink bags and marked bills. One of them, though, isn’t exactly professional; he looks like he’s having a little too much fun, and might end up shooting somebody just for insulting him.

That would be Ben Foster. He’s fresh out of jail, and you get the feeling he’s more comfortable behind bars — he walks through the world with a kind of nervous energy, like he knows that at any time, something is bound to happen to land him back behind bars, and he’s just wondering what it is and when it’ll be.Chris Pine plays his brother; he’s definitely the smart one, and also the straight-laced one. He has planned a series of small bank robberies to raise money for a good reason. His logic is air-tight, and if everything were to go according to plan, you’d decide he was the good guy in all of this.  Of course, everything doesn’t go according to plan, and that leaves the question about good and bad, black and white, pretty open to interpretation.

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Posted in All Reviews, by Will Krischke.

Get Out

If “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner” took a wrong turn, passed through Stepford, and found itself in a really dark place, what you’d have is Jordan Peele’s directorial debut, “Get Out.”   Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) and Rose (Allison Williams) are at the meet-the-parents stage of their relationship, and what do you know, Rose’s parents (Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford; Keener is especially good) are having a shin-dig at their place in the countryside. Chris is nervous, because Rose says he’s the first black man she’s ever dated, but Rose says don’t worry, my dad would have voted for Obama a third time, if possible.

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Posted in All Reviews, by Will Krischke.