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Stranger Things (2016)
Steven Spielberg meets Stephen King
Stranger Things is the newest foray into Netflix's original programming, of which brings us their most impressive- and strange- production to date. When a young boy named Will Byers goes missing, his friends, mother and the town are thrust into a conspiracy involving a mysterious girl named Eleven and something even more sinister hiding in the woods of Hawkins, Indiana.
From the get-go, you can tell this is an homage to classic '80s Spielberg, drawing on E.T. and Close Encounters, as well as JJ Abrams' Super 8. But, as the show progresses, it becomes more and more like a twisted Stephen King story set in a Spielberg movie. It becomes a dark and twisted ride into an even darker and more disturbing world where the stakes feel higher than anything before it.
I can't go into great detail because spoiling even just a bit of the story takes away from the greater mystery, but I can say, it's one of the most thrilling and intense series to be on TV, without being on TV. If it were to continue, they have to pull the same punches they did with the first season, because they took a great many clichés, and somehow made them fresh and surprising, save for just a couple that they purposefully left cliché.
The First Great Video Game Movie, But Only A Good Movie Overall
Warcraft, from sci-fi mastermind Duncan Jones (Moon, Source Code) brings us his fanboy-driven adaptation of World of Warcraft in what is easily one of the biggest movies of the year. When Azeroth is on the brink of collapse from invading orc forces, two warriors from both sides must stand and fight for their families, their people and their worlds.
Duncan Jones has said repeatedly he was a fan of WoW and that this is a love letter to the game, and while I'm no fan of the games, I can definitely see it. This movie is what many fantasy fans have been waiting for after the Tolkien adaptations, because we hardly ever get true high fantasy epics of such scale and scope. Jones' direction was there, and was outstanding. The writing was good, but was where the movie also suffered; it needed to be twenty-thirty minutes longer to get through so much story that they jam-packed into two hours. I think the critical reception would have been better if the movie was longer, but, it wasn't, not to mention some cheesy dialogue, which I personally found refreshing. The CG was dazzling in every way, especially after a couple questionable trailers. The production values and combination of make-up, costumes and CG was incredible. Even the musical score from Ramin Djawadi (known for his work on Iron Man and Game of Thrones) delivers a pulse-pounding fantasy soundtrack. The acting was what surprised me most with Warcraft, with Travis Fimmel being brilliant in the human lead and Toby Kebbel as the emotionally gripping Durotan, and the supporting cast (including the orcs) being very solid. Jones made sure to have those quick tidbits of humor to help balance the dread and warfare, similar to what you'd see in Lord of the Rings or other films where quick, dry wit is used to offer breathing room among intensity (Inception, Interstellar, even Jones' own movies Moon and Source Code).
Overall, Warcraft is what it should be, but not what it could have been. It's still one hell of an epic fantasy, but I can only put it on par with The Hobbit, because it doesn't reach the same level of story-telling and character development Lord of the Rings achieves. Hopefully, Warcraft succeeds at the box office and Legendary Pictures green-lights the sequel, of which needs to be at least two and a half hours. But, please, see this when it comes out if you're into high fantasy or the video game. If you aren't, go on a $5 Tuesday to give it a chance.
Midnight Special (2016)
Atmospheric, Heartfelt and Boldly Brilliant
Midnight Special is the 4th film from writer/director Jeff Nichols. That should honestly be enough to get people excited, for his films Take Shelter and Mud are both considered instant American classics, and Midnight Special has joined the list. Of course, though, the film and Nichols' previous entries aren't for everyone, but as films, they are true masterpieces. What I find hard to describe about Midnight Special, though, is how it's able to weave together multiple genres and sub-genres into one cohesive whole, from a sci-fi conspiracy thriller to a family drama, and a road film mixed with a chase-driven action movie. Midnight Special takes place over the course of a few days, but follows Roy Tomlin, Roy's best friend Lucas, Roy's wife Sarah Tomlin and their son, Alton Meyer, who Roy took back from Calvin Meyer, Alton's stepfather and religious cult leader who believes Alton will save them, all the while the government is also looking to seize Alton from Roy, believing him to be an inhuman weapon.
What I found the most profound and phenomenal about the film wasn't the writing, the direction, the breath-taking visuals or the moody score from David Wingo, but the acting. Was it acting? Honestly, I felt every second of the film to be happening in real time. Even the second time I saw it, I thought that what happened in the movie was the most organic and natural acting of all time. I don't say that lightly, not even a little bit. But, the simple relationship between Alton and Roy was real, the relationship between Alton and Sarah was real, and even the one between Alton and Lucas, a man Alton didn't know until Roy pulled Lucas into their "situation," which is best described in a scene where Alton sees the sunrise for the first time, and Lucas, also feeling like a father figure/friend for Alton, is taken aback by Alton's experience, sadly to the point where Lucas is shot by one of Calvin Meyer's followers when he doesn't check his corners. This isn't just him being stupid, because later, Lucas apologizes to Roy that he "should have checked first." The other performance that made the film real was Adam Driver as Paul Sevier, an NSA analyst brought in to assist the FBI's investigation and apprehension of Alton. You can tell in his mannerisms and reactions to fieldwork that he doesn't get out much, and that the excitement is something he's coming to like. Quite a bit, in fact.
There are a select amount of movies that have not just an immense emotional impact, but a real sense of urgency and reality. Movies are often tense and gripping, with suspense and action, but more times than not is the urgency from what happens in the film. Instead, with Midnight Special, we feel the urgency. We know, for a fact, the entire movie is riding on a father making sure his son is safe. That's profound in its own right, and beautiful. I want to give the movie a 10, but that would be by my strict, personal feelings. I give it a 9 because, again, not everyone will like it. Not all questions are answered, the movie is not fast-paced, and the sci-fi aspect is not full-blown, but is integral to the development of the characters and world they're in. But, in any case, this movie deserves to be seen, and I hope it gets a bigger audience when released on disc. I, for one, side with Mr. Chris Pratt when it comes to Midnight Special: "If you are like me, Midnight Special will be your new favorite film."
Intense and Bombastic Superhero Blockbuster
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. It's the moment many comic book fans have been waiting for- myself included -and while it's far from perfection, it was a good, intense and bombastic ride that I won't forget, with a battle between two iconic superheroes that was actually quite outstanding in itself.
I thought Ben Affleck as Batman/Bruce Wayne was superb. He brought a different kind of gravitas to the role, where in this universe he's more broken, hardened and brutal in his skills, mind-set and personality. He also shows that tragic side we saw with Christian Bale's Batman, but I don't think one did it better than the other (and I do personally think Bale is still #1 for being Batman, but Affleck can be better with more time in the role). Cavill's Superman was good, but I felt he was more a supporting role before the big battle of the movie, which I didn't mind, but felt a little underwhelming, considering this is technically supposed to be the "Man of Steel" pseudo-sequel. Jesse Eisenberg's Lex Luthor, honestly, I thought was really cartoonish and, while not a complete disservice to the character, wasn't good enough; Kevin Spacey's was better in Superman Returns. Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman, on the other hand, was pure brilliance in her short screen time, and I'm dying to see her solo film. Zack Snyder's direction, I personally felt was better here than Man of Steel, but it felt incomplete, which makes sense since there is a Director's Cut coming later this year. The script, too, co-written by Chris Terrio, was solid, but showcased too much content. For instance, Doomsday. The inclusion of this monstrosity was completely unnecessary, as he was wasted in the final act of the movie, being "cannon fodder" for the fight, prolonging the epic conflict. Instead, what should have happened is they should have ended the film with his creation, showing that there will be an even more diabolical and insidious threat on the horizon (even though there still is one, subtly hinted at).
Batman v Superman was a solid action film with some great visuals, stunning musical score to accompany the disastrous destruction and sweeping fight that's gorgeously filmed, and boasts a few great performances amidst a few other decent to mediocre performances. I also have to say, to end my review, critics are being quite foolish and ignorant by comparing this to Marvel's MCU, being too grim and dark instead of "fun" and a little more heart. They aren't movies, but have critics forgotten Daredevil and Jessica Jones? Marvel can do grim, dark and violent, but that's what separated DC from Marvel, the penchant to stick with the truly awful and horrifying forces in the dark. I just hope they can continue an uphill climb, because this is a marathon, not a sprint.
The X Files (1993)
After Two Episodes, General Thoughts...
The X-Files is a benchmark in television. Any and every fictitious television series after '95 took some focus element from this show, big or small, from the format to the style, to the execution. But, that's not what made it great. It was that strange blend of a cop drama mixed with science fiction, horror and thrillers across what could be considered a wild epic of sorts, even with that horrid 9th season. Now, after a 14 year gap, The X-Files is back. What does that mean?
I'm a die-hard X-Files fan. I've been watching it since i was born, and while it isn't the best show of all time, it's one of them. With this pseudo-"revival" series, though, I couldn't help but think, what was Chris Carter thinking? The very first episode of this 6 episode event (if they stick with the story) made the entire 9 season, 2 movie series completely pointless. I've seen horrible writing and direction, and it's not that the episode "My Struggle" was poorly directed and written, but it's the fact that they took an entire series and said, "Let's make it so that the show millions watched, was meaningless. Retcon everything but the characters." Wow. Just, wow. As happy as I was seeing the gang back, I couldn't stop feeling angry and disappointed on a multitude of levels. Also, to address the people calling Duchovny's acting wooden, it was perfect (the guy was isolated from people, living in a rural locale away from general civilization; he's gonna come off as a bit distant). The second episode was slightly better than the first, but they're still with that plot device of pointlessness.
Unless they can pull off the impossible and have something Earth- shattering with the finale, I see this mini-series event as the biggest disgrace in television history. Thanks Chris Carter, for truly ruining your classic series. The show isn't for everyone, but anyone can see how horrible of a move that was to make, even if they wanted to appeal to a new generation (do something original then, dammit).
Childhood's End (2015)
A Dark and Depressing Sci-fi Epic
Childhood's End, adapted from the Arthur C. Clarke novel of the same name, centers on the story of humanity across multiple decades after a visitation from what are deemed "the Overlords," mysterious alien beings that propose an end to suffering, war, disease and all forms of injustice, leading into the Golden Age of Man. Karellen, the supervisor of Earth, appoints Ricky Stormgren as the messenger between the Overlords and humanity, but at the same time refuses to show himself, believing humanity would not "accept his appearance." And, even though this Golden Age does seem to come, there are those who believe it to be a ruse for some more nefarious plan, and events are immediately set in motion that will affect the future for humanity.
Childhood's End, like the novel, is bold and sweeping in scope and scale, asking many philosophical and important questions on life, what it means to be human, what is the soul, and many others. Syfy's adaptation is near perfection, showcasing phenomenal art direction, visuals and the overall production; this is honestly something you'd see if Ridley Scott and Steven Spielberg did a miniseries together. The only big detractor of this epic is the unnecessary subplot between Ricky Stormgren and his love interest, Ellie, which becomes a bit annoying and takes away from the shock and awe of the situation. The performances for the most part are good, with Charles Dance's performance as Karellen being the highlight and show-stopper (just wait till you see his "true" form, which is mostly practical effects). Out of the human characters, it is Osy Ikhile as Milo who brings a stand-out performance as Milo Rodericks, a man who, as a child, was healed by the Overlords. As I said earlier, the visuals and art direction are beyond stunning; it was HBO-level quality what you saw on screen, especially in the third act of the miniseries. Even Charlie Clouser's score helped set the atmosphere and tone of the series, bringing a tragic and somber sound to the mystery and strangeness. The writing and direction are both fantastic, but the script sometimes did suffer from excessive story-telling, focusing a little too much on unnecessary subplots when the epic started to build to something bigger than before. But, there was always a quick recovery.
Childhood's End is a must-see epic. It's long, dark and very depressing, while also being intelligent and intriguing, keeping the same themes and ideals Clarke raised in his book in the miniseries. If you want something with action, look elsewhere. If you want a hopeful story, look elsewhere. This series is an extremely faithful adaptation, and while changing a couple details and adding subplots, was successful in modernizing the tale for today, even though it was written in 1958. Don't miss this. We don't get epics like this often.
The Expanse (2015)
A New Sci-fi Epic That's Basically Game of Thrones in Space...
The Expanse is based on the series of novels by author James S.A. Corey (the pen name of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck), with the first season following the first book, Leviathan Wakes. In it, Detective Miller is looking for a missing girl, Julie Mao, a missing persons case being a very rare occurrence in the Asteroid Belt. Elsewhere in space, Jim Holden, part of the crew of the Canterbury, hears a distress signal calling out near a rogue asteroid, and has a few of the crew- including himself- to investigate, all the while tensions between Earth, Mars and the Belt are headed to a heated stand-off, with terrorist and activist threats continually growing.
The Expanse starts off by throwing the audience into a new futuristic galaxy in the 24th Century, and then slowly showing us the mechanics of how humanity now works, spread out across the system. With this show being on Syfy, I had hopes it would be a good show, also having read the books beforehand, but I didn't expect to be blown away by that premiere (which is available digitally on YouTube). The acting is great, both from the leads and the supporting cast (though Thomas Jane is stand-out as the hard-boiled detective), the direction is superb, showing us a dark and gritty view of the future, hidden behind the facade of lights and clockwork. The writing is fantastic as well, honestly bearing many similarities to Game of Thrones in how the show juggles politics, violence, and sex. Though, what was just stunning and gorgeous, was the production and visuals. If the Syfy logo didn't appear on the episode, you would never have guessed it were Syfy. The visuals are breath-taking, with the scenes involving the Canterbury looking just incredible, and the production values are wonderful, as there is still an abundance of practical effects. Even the music is haunting and beautiful from composer Clinton Shorter, which sounds a bit like District 9 meets Battlestar Galactica.
The Expanse is a huge and bold effort from Syfy that, so far, is paying off. The structure of the show is much like that of Game of Thrones, switching between characters and following different plot points as they unfold, all the while revealing more and more about the characters. If you love science fiction, get on board. If not, give it a shot, especially if you're a fan of GoT, because George R.R. Martin himself praises both the show and the novels, who even compared it favorably to his own work, even saying, "It's been too long since we've had a really kickass space opera."
San Andreas (2015)
Johnson Elevates This Fun and Intense Disaster Film
Whenever a disaster movie is released, it's generally welcomed with open arms as "escapist" fun; a movie that you can just sit back and watch unfold without depth. But, then there are a select few that elevate above your average disaster film. San Andreas is one of those. It's still not without its absurd moments, but there are very few that push believability. The biggest one is actually the opening sequence, of which involves a girl's car flipping down the side of a mountain (repeatedly), and then becoming stuck between rocks, an the young girl survives even without her airbag deploying. After that, things take off in a great way.
San Andreas follows Dwayne Johnson's Ray Gaines, an LA Fire Department pilot who must rescue his daughter after she becomes stuck in San Andreas during a catastrophic earthquake, of which is discovered too late by Caltech seismologist Lawrence Hayes (Paul Giamatti). Surprisingly enough, Brad Peyton's direction here is a superb improvement over the family movie Journey 2 with Johnson, showcasing brilliant effects with heart-pounding disaster sequences that shock and awe. Johnson's performance here might actually be his best, as he offers great dramatic depth as a broken father, haunted by a tragic past. Alexandria Dadarrio was also surprisingly good as his daughter Blake, who had grown accustomed and looked up to her father's life-style, even embracing certain rules and tricks. The script was good, but nothing spectacular, other than Johnson's somewhat clearly deep and thoughtful dialogue (a touching scene between him and his ex-wife, portrayed by Carla Gugino). The visuals were some of the best this year, and never seemed lackluster. Andrew Lockington's score was suitably epic and evocative of a horrific event depicted in-film.
San Andreas is a truly surprising and welcome summer blockbuster that strays away from being generic, but not too inventive either. The movie is greatly saved by strong performances of the main cast and smart direction, of which is a good step forward for Peyton. Certainly a must-see on the big screen, not sure about 3D though, as there weren't many pop-out moments.
A Visually Stunning and Heartfelt Sci-fi Adventure
Tomorrowland is truly Brad Bird's baby, full of intense action, emotional heft and imaginative creativity that only Disney could create. Not the company, but Walt Disney himself, as Tomorrowland is Disney's invention. The film, though, takes the "ride" to unbelievable heights, and I'm curious as to why there's so much hate surrounding the film.
Frank Walker (Clooney), a boy genius, must help a persistent and trouble-making teenager (Robertson) save the world by going to a place called Tomorrowland, where the greatest inventors and creators came together to envision a better world. Brad Bird's direction and writing (with Damon Lindelof) is superb, using some traditional Disney fun, but also by implementing his style in full-form; stylish action, smooth fast-paced sequences and genuine heart, which is shown not through Britt Robinson's Casey Newton, but through Clooney's Walker, but I won't spoil his story; it helps to forward the film. The visuals are absolutely breath-taking, Michael Giacchino's score is one of his best as it compliments each scene with sincerity, and the acting is great from all ends. But, the biggest complaint I've seen so far is the way the film depicts its story. I can understand some criticisms, but to say the film is crap or one of the biggest disappointments ever is just sad. Like the idea of the place, the film doesn't focus on resolution. No, it focuses on tomorrow, what comes after. So, if you think the second act of the film drags quite a bit, it's because you're watching it as a traditional movie with traditional story-telling. This isn't that at all.
I feel the marketing for the film didn't help what the movie was going for, but because of Bird's direction, the heart of the story and strong performances, this film is extremely memorable, even if it isn't ground-breaking. I just hope it's at least successful, since the reviews aren't helping its arrival to theaters, because it really is one to see on the big screen. And looking at how my review is being negatively received, I just pity anyone and everyone who calls themselves a film buff or movie-goer, because Tomorrowland was and is one of the most original films ever made. I'd like to see anyone who downvoted my review to make a bold, original film with important themes and messages.
A Creepy But Just-Decent Remake
If you've never seen the original 1982 Poltergeist, then this movie may be absolutely freaky for newcomers, but for those who have seen the '82 classic, this remake is both fantastic and awful at the same time. Produced by Sam Raimi and Robert G. Tapert, who gave us The Evil Dead films, this reboot and remake is a lot of the same with a couple new twists. When the Bowen family moves into a new home, they discover that their house is atop a burial ground, and is a sort-of conductor for spirits, and in this case, a poltergeist. From here, they're tormented by evil spirits, and it turns into a devilish battle that Eric (Sam Rockwell), the father, must fight to save his family.
The film is largely saved by Rockwell's touching and incredible performance, but there was so much that went wrong. Many of the scares were overplayed or just wanted to be jump-scares, and moments that replicated the original (the infamous bathroom scene) were extremely tame and unimaginative. The visual effects for the most part were believable, and Marc Streitenfeld's score was incredibly haunting and truly brilliant, especially when living up to the masterpiece that Jerry Goldsmith created. Gil Kenan's direction is solid, but the script blows through the material so fast that his vision just doesn't stick.
Poltergeist is certainly an admirable effort, but it needed to embrace the original's roots, scare tactics and slow build instead of sticking with recent horror movie "tropes" like jump-scares and minimal story-telling. If the film were fifteen-twenty minutes longer and had a script rewrite, it could have lived up to the original. But it didn't. See this for $5 if you want a theater experience, but don't expect something mind-blowing. Certainly worth a watch, though.