Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Greatest Movies of the last 20 Years

Mulholland Drive

I've never been that much of a David Lynch fan. My other favorites of his are the rare (semi) normal fare like The Elephant Man and The Straight Story.  But Mulholland Drive has become at this point, his almost unquestioned masterpiece, even over the likes of Blue Velvet.  It is completely deserved.  

It is one of his weird movies.  Which is actually by far the norm, not the exception.  But it is the weird one that seems to justify all the times he swung and missed on a film.  If this is what he was going for, we can forgive him some of the duds.

Now, I can not tell you what Mulholland Drive is about exactly.  It is one of those films that would probably get 50 different answers from 50 different people.  My answer would be, "Yes, I know exactly what its about.  No, I can't put it into words.  Just watch it."  

Inglorious Basterds

The more time passes, the more I have nearly convinced myself that this is Tarantino's finest film.  Pulp Fiction will always have that distinction, but what if this film had been released first?  It is as uniquely fresh and engaging as anything Tarantino has created.  

Previously harsh critic of Tarantino, David Bordwell was astonished by his love of the film.

There is cinema that asks you to empathize with its characters.  Then there is cinema that aims to thrill you with a cascade of vivid moments.  There is "How Green Was My Valley" (1941) and "Citizen Kane" (1941).  I think that Tarantino's films mostly tilt to the vivid-moment pole, seeking to win us through their immediate verve, the way film noir and the musical and the action movie do.

The emotions Tarantino aims for will arise not from character "identification" but from the overall structure and texture of the work.  We are to be stirred, enraptured, astonished by a procession of splendors big and small.  It's the tradition (again) of Eisenstein, particularly in the "Ivan" films, but also of Leone and, in another register, Greenaway. Formal virtuosity isn't necessarily soulless; it can yield aesthetic rapture.

Exit Through The Gift Shop

Bansky is the only street/graffiti artist that is a house hold name or close to it. 

This Bansky directed film, about a friend of his (Mr. Brainwash) who almost immediately became as big as he was, by emulating Bansky's style, is one of two documentaries on my list.  But is it exactly a documentary?  The whole thing, from Mr. Brainwash's comedic antics to the fact we never see Mr. Brainwash actually create anything, is all very likely some sort of hoax or joke put on by the two men.  Which in turn would be a great statement on what people value in art, and why they do.  

One example:  Mr Brainwash was almost a literal overnight sensation.  Madonna had him start designing her album covers.

What Bansky has created is either a deep philosophical look at the art world.  Or just a bunch of fun nonsense.  Most likely, it is both. Certainly, he has achieved a highly entertaining movie. 

The Act of Killing

The second documentary on my list is far more serious, and yet feels no less absurd.  

The Act of Killing documents past perpetrators of heinous war crimes, who now are more than happy to tell the filmmakers what they did.  Even re-enact things for the movie.

We also see them acting loving to their children and grandchildren.  Or going into a "cha cha" dance right after demonstrating how to kill people with as little amounts of blood as possible.  The contrast is striking.  Leading up to one of the best and most profound endings to a film I have seen.  

The Tree of Life

Lost in Translation

I was just talking with a friend about many 80's comedies that are beloved, that neither one of us can really pinpoint as to why.  Ghostbusters. Stripes.  Meatballs.  Caddyshack. Mediocre films at best, that are held in such high regard.

The only thing I can figure is, Bill Murray elevates mediocre movies.  He has been doing it his entire career.  

So when the (all too seldom) occasion arises that a filmmaker wants to give him a movie worth his talent, that can form something truly special.  

Sofia Coppola wrote Lost in Translation specifically for Murray.  And she was not even sure the actor without an agent would show up for filming until the very moment he did. 

What they created was a movie that is just beautiful in its honest emotions.  Murray says it is his favorite film he has ever been in.  The quality of his movies has increased since (thank you Wes Anderson and others).  But the nexus of his entire career was captured in this simple, low budget masterpiece.  

What if one of the most important relationships of your life, lasted only a week?  


Similar in theme to Lost in Translation.  Once is the story of two people finding each other, and how powerful the two right people can be in making each other better.  

Director John Carney recently insulted the acting of his leading lady, Keira Knightley, in his film Begin Again.  In Once, he famously cast two non-actors in the lead roles.  Irish musician and childhood friend Glen Hansard, agreed to write the music.  Then when the lead actor fell through, Carney insisted Hansard play the lead himself.  Hansard suggested Marketa Irglova for the female lead; a young Czech musician whom Hansard had grown fond of through a strong friendship with her father.    

What this wrought for Carney was a chemistry that not even the talents of Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightly could match in Carney's follow up.  Hansard also just happens to have charisma to spare.  Maybe this is why he went back to non-actors for his latest film.

The result was an Oscar for Hansard and Irglova (Best Original Song) two albums together on top of the soundtrack, a tour and a fairly lengthy real life romantic relationship.  And a Broadway play in which they got musical credits.  For Carney, previously a director of no renown, a career to make any film he wants.  Not a bad gig if you can swing it.   

Oh and it also has a lovely Lost in Translation-esque piece of dialogue, that no one ever talks about.  Shot for nothing with friends as the actors and no real plot.  The result is magic.  If only it always felt so easy.  

The Thin Red Line

A Simple Plan

Director Sam Raimi does not get quite enough credit for his skills, outside of Evil Dead or Spiderman fanboys.  A Simple Plan is his best film.  A morality tale that I see now in moments of tv shows; Bloodline and Breaking Bad.

We'd like to think we would always make the moral decision. 

Once Upon A Time in Anatolia

 Tinker Tailor Solider Spy

I'm still upset Michael Keaton did not get the Oscar for Birdman.  Gary Oldman was equally robbed.  One of our very best actors got his first ever nomination in this smart and expertly made movie. 

The One I Love

Just fun and original.  This is what "sci fi" should be more often. 

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

If I was 14 when this movie came out, I'd probably have seen it about 20 times.  Looking at it now you can see how ridiculous teenagers act about everything.  How important the now seemingly silliest things are.  But at the time when our emotions are at peak levels, these things matter more than anything imaginable.     


The best 80's, Michael Mann directed movie ever made, that was not made in the 80's or directed by Michael Mann.  

 Man Push Cart

Director Ramin Bahrini is from Winsten-Salem, NC and it makes me proud that I live near where he grew up.  Any one of his first three films; Man Push Cart, Chop Shop, or Goodbye Solo, is worthy and a highly impressive run of films.  

Today I'm feeling this one.  The one that started it all.  I prefer the NC set Goodbye Solo, but Bahrini asked Roger Ebert to watch his debut movie (Man Push Cart) when he met him in line one day. Ebert did, gave it a glowing review and a career was born.  One in which every time a new Bahrini film is released, it has the potential to be a masterpiece.  

Ship of Theseus

Film critic Jugu Abraham turned me on to this film and I am very grateful.  It is a monster. Just fantastic movie-making.  

The Hunt

Another fantastic foreign film, that makes you want to search out nothing but foreign films. Mads Mikkelsen (Hannibal TV Series) is outstanding.  American critics should have found a way to get him an Oscar nomination.  

Sometimes whether a crime actually happened is not what matters.  


Another performance that should have gotten an Oscar nomination was Tom Hardy for Locke. Save the first scene he is the only person we see in the entire movie.  For an hour and a half, inside his car, talking.  A mediocre actor couldn't pull this off.  Hardy proves he is well up to the task.  

Ex Machina

My favorite film of 2015.  The three main actors should have careers for decades.

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Easily my favorite film of 2014.  If I was a director I would put Amy Ryan in everything.


Kill Bill

I tried not to include this film, and yet there is nothing I have found that gives me more joy in re-watching, for the sheer fun of it.

I argue its a bit deeper than it gets credit for.  But yeah, its just a lot of fun, really.

The Apostle

Maybe Robert Duvall only has one great film in him as a director.  But wow, what a film.  

No Country For Old Men

A movie that is so perfect in every moment, that somehow that actually turned into a criticism. The Coen Brothers almost always make good movies.  But sometimes they make phenomenal ones.

This was my pick for best film of it's decade, and I still stand by that choice.  

Babe: Pig In The City

Critic Gene Siskel's final top ten list, made shortly before he died, contained two movies on this list. The Thin Red Line as his #2 choice.  And his number one pick of 1998 was Babe:  Pig in the City.

This caused snickering, that a dying man would choose the film as his final "best" movie. I would merely switch his #1 and #2.  Otherwise, the man was spot on.

This has to be one of the most criminally underappreciated family films ever made. Superior to the original in nearly every way, Pig in the City is joyous to watch in its art direction and animal/voice performances.


Hanke's best film I have heard is being remade by Scorsese.  Not even Scorsese can better this movie.  

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

The Witch

Buy a goat 


Pan’s Labyrinth

In The Bedroom

The entire film is summed up in this boat scene.

Marisa Tomei proved she is easily an Oscar caliber actress, no matter what anyone
wants to say about her win for My Cousin Vinny 

We Need to Talk About Kevin 



Two films by Lynne Ramsay that prove she is a force of nature.  She needs to get another film out soon.  

The Passion of the Christ

One could make the argument this film was as influential as any made in the last 20 years. Beyond any controversy, one thing gets lost.  Is it any good?

I think it is an outstanding bit of film-making, top to bottom.  I hope one day more people focus on that.       


A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night

The new Tarantino?  At least one critic has said so.  If filming a familiar genre in a fresh way is what that means, then Ana Lily Amirpour might qualify.  Of course she also feels like an artist who is uniquely her own.

Hopefully in a few years people will be asking who the next Amirpour might be.  

The Place Beyond The Pines

No actor of Ryan Gosling's current stature enjoys taking more risks than he does.  He scored with Cianfrance's Blue Valentine and again in his The Place Beyond The Pines. Lars and the Real Girl was not exactly conventional, and earned him an Oscar nomination.  He missed badly with Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn's follow up, Only God Forgives.  Also his directorial debut (Lost River) was largely panned.  But no one could say he played it safe. 

Up soon will be the next Terrence Malick movie.  These are not the kinds of movies or roles, most fans of The Notebook will rush to see.  

Once upon a time, Nicolas Cage and even Johnny Depp were the actors taking these types of risks.  Let us all say a prayer Ryan Gosling keeps up his desire for original films as long as possible.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

On Second Thought

"I like all music.  Except rap and pop country."

That's kind of my stock answer I guess, when I am asked.

But it's not entirely true.  I mean, I grew up listening to Public Enemy and Big Daddy Kane,  So some rap, sure I am fine with.  Poppy country music?  That's even harder.  But that Taylor Swift song, "Mean."  That's just catchy.  I'll admit to that.

It is the same way with movies, as we tend to box ourselves in with genre and saying we like or don't like "this type" of movie.  But I suppose if I have ever been unfair to a genre of movie, "horror," might be my go to stock answer.

I think it is because I grew up in the era of Freddy and Jason.  Not to sound all high and mighty, as I like popcorn movies just fine, but ultimately there is just not much to them.  In order to understand Freddy versus Jason, must you really sit through every film of both series to be up to speed?

But I grew to love suspenseful films.  Some even categorize The Silence of the Lambs as "horror," and I love that film.  I have written a detailed and lengthy analysis of it.

I suppose it has just been for me, rare that I have become truly attached to much of anything in the horror category.

Until very recently.

I do not know if this will be looked at as a type of golden age for scary movies, but I can not think of a time I have encountered more well made, intelligent and rewarding movies, meant to scare or disturb.  Filmmakers working under this genre to make something thought provoking, beautiful and far deeper than those films I grew up on in the 80's and 90's.

Maybe it is not coincidence that these are often films by first time directors.

Each film succeeds to differing degrees.  But they are all ones I thought on, well past my time in the theater. Each had a uniqueness to it, and each showed at least this writer, that you never know where an inspiring film might pop up.  Never go into a movie with preconceived notions.

It Follows:   written and directed by Robert David Mitchell

What follows exactly?  Is it a morality tale about STD's?  You might enjoy getting it.  But you sure will regret it.

As easy as it would be to say the film is only about that.  I think you can take away more.

It's about growing up.

It's about adolescence.  Try as you want, you can not escape it.  Everything that formed us in our youth is forever lurking just over our shoulder.

The Babadook:   written and directed by Jennifer Kent   (debut film)

Loss.  Grief.  Raising a child.  Things that can create a boogeyman.  Sometimes you don't defeat a monster as much as push it back and learn to live with it.

A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night:   written and directed by Ana Lily Amapour  (debut film)

I haven't seen this film in a year or longer, and I might like it even more now.

An effective feminist story.  Our vampire is a woman we can surmise has been abused and mistreated by men, for possibly hundreds of years.  She lectures a young boy to "be good," at the same time she is scaring the hell out of him.  She punishes adult men for their sins.  No male seems immune, until she meets a particular young man walking home from a costume party.  Dressed as Dracula, he is actually kind and vulnerable.

Director Ana Lily Amapour uses her past experience as a DJ to strong effect. (song title:  Death)

Music posters align "The Girl's" room.  Some artists are new.  Some are much older.  Not just reminiscent of a fan, but the various generations she has lived through. 

The Witch:   written and directed by Roger Eggers  (debut film)

The Witch is such a well made film, I have to applaud it, despite the fact it may be one of the most anti-Christian movies I have ever seen. One moment I see it at as this; another moment I see it as something else.  Every viewer can take away something unique.  Either way, it is not soon forgettable.

I have seen multiple film critics dismiss films out of hand for having a message they do not agree with.  This has always bothered me, as I feel it should be a critics job to be above this lack of thinking.

I can not agree with what I believe to be the overall message of The Witch.   But if a film is really not about what it is about, but how it is about it.  Then I can freely acknowledge that the how of this film, is done expertly. 

Who is the Witch of the film?  I mean we see an actual witch early on, in a scene possibly too upsetting to fully describe here.  But is one of the children the or a witch?  The mother?  The father, even?  Is it all just somehow inside their heads?  Starving and ultra religious settlers going mad; just thirty years before the Salem Witch Trials?

Director Roger Eggers uses actual testimony from those trials in the dialogue of his script.

People will ask you what the "scariest movie you ever saw," is.  My answer has always been I have no idea.  Movies don't exactly scare me, literally speaking.  I think what that means to me, is more "disturb."

The Witch, might just be the most disturbing movie I have ever seen.

Black Phillip deserves to become an iconic horror movie character.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Best Movies of 2015

I of course could not see every film released in 2015.  I saw as many ones that I thought would be good as I can, and I have no problem updating this list if I see another one released in 2015 that I feel should belong.  But as of this date here are my thoughts on the year that was...

Overlooked Great Performance

Ian McKellan:    Mr. Holmes

A lot has been made of people not nominated for an Academy Award this year.  For me, this was maybe the most egregious.  A forgotten performance, when if Mr. Holmes had been released during awards season, he would have almost surely been nominated for an Oscar and other big awards.

Honorable Mentions:

The Big Short

Great performances (especially Christian Bale and Steve Carell ).  It drags just a bit, but Mckay does a commendable and comedic job of explaining and making the housing crisis far from a complete snore.

Crimson Peak

It's probably fair to say it is style over substance.  But it is at times a captivating to look at style.

It Follows

Suddenly I am seeing films some would put in the "horror" category and finding them darn captivating.   Last year it was The Babadook as well as A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night.  Two of the best films of that year.  Feel as if  It Follows is a notch below those two.  But I am willing to re-watch it and decide.

The Visit

It is not quite to the level of Shyamalan's best work.  But it is a strong comeback, and the low budget feel might actually be the perfect direction for the hit or miss filmmaker.

Biggest Disappointments

Black Mass

I actually mentioned how much I liked seeing Depp in something good finally.  So yes, it is a good film and he does a fine job.  And yet....I just could never shake the thought it should have somehow been more.  To paraphrase a filmmaker, "It is so good you are angry it's not great."  Even Depp's strong performance seemed slightly overshadowed by his makeup.


Really like Emily Blunt.  I think she is supposed to be a strong female protagonist and yet she comes across as someone who never changes.  I suppose this is because she is the moral center, and yet

the director makes her appear victimized and even weak.  Her final moment is ridiculous.  Blunt deserved more.


This director should get hit upside the head.  Yes Will Smith is good, but blame his lack of a nomination on a film few cared about or saw.  I wanted to scream at one point, when Smith and a complete stranger speak on the phone and hang up with "I'll meet you."  Meet where?  Who are you? What time?  Aren't we past these bad film-making cliches?  The film is full of similar decisions.

Mad Max:  Fury Road

I realize I just lost all credibility with many of you.  And I will admit the 3rd act is great.  Well the last 20 minutes or so.  Just fantastic action.  The rest of it, I found too odd for the sake of being odd. Yes, just about all of the action is impressive.  But I would much prefer to see a making of documentary about this film over the actual film.  Did not resonate emotionally to me like I know it was supposed to.

My Top 10

10.   Amy

The most depressing film I saw in 2015.  Not because, "Oh what a waste!  A talented person throws it all away!"  That is to an extent the truth.   I believe people should be held accountable for their actions.  But also, parents should be held accountable for their parenting skills.  Listening to the words of Winehouse's own parents, you can not help but think, "she never had a chance."

At 14, when your daughter tells you she came up with an effective diet for herself:  "I eat as much as I want and then throw it up."  Shouldn't the mother's reaction be something more than, "I did not take her seriously." 

Winehouse was surrounded by takers.  Of course the takers were the people she loved the most.  Especially her father and her husband.  Knowing your wife is an addict, maybe do not introduce her to crack on your honeymoon; as her former husband has no problem admitting here.  As someone points out, "he could not have her get sober.  Then he might lose the gravy train."

Winehouse goes to the Caribbean for 6 months to escape people, and is semi successful in getting herself together.  Except her father shows up with video cameras to shoot her every moment, for a tv show about himself (cough).  The scene where she is pleading for him to stop, but can not make him, is one of the most upsetting of all.

It is appropriate and telling that Winehouse died alone; her bodyguard being the one that finds her.  A bodyguard that seemed to love her better than her family members.

This story is not tragic because she was a known singer.  Fan or not, her talent was without question. It is tragic because she was a human being.  And the people in her life, without the talent, crave the fame she does not care about.  They take advantage and destroy the person they no longer look at as a person, just a commodity.

Yes, this is not a new.  I remember the story of Janis Joplin quitting the music business because she did not think she could be in it and stay sober.  It was her parents that convinced her to go back into the industry.  History repeats itself and will keep doing so.

The story here is that Amy Winehouse was not just another junkie who pissed away a life of opportunity.  Most junkies are probably not just that at all.  She was not undeserving.  The undeserving people were those she loved unconditionally, when their love back to her had nothing but conditions.

"Love is in some ways killing me."    -Amy Winehouse

9.   The Hateful Eight

This seems to be Tarantino's first legit flop.  Least commercially.  There could be a host of reasons.  A three hour western, with no huge box office draw as a star, might be a tough sell for most people.  Then there was that police union led boycott against Tarantino, for the anti-police rally he showed up to.  While he never said anything as bad as was first reported, cops boycotted the film and encouraged others to do the same.  Did people do as told?  Might be hard to really know.

But ok, is it a good film?  The answer is yes, though once again Tarantino the filmmaker makes the moviegoer work for it.

Though much is made of Tarantino's use of 70mm, most of the film takes place in one room.  We get an Agatha Christie type story unfolding.  As a friend pointed out, it resembled The Thing, in how we get multiple characters together in a small space and wait for multiple shoes to drop.

While most people are armed, people win or lose often with their wits and words here.

While I was slightly annoyed by the obvious portrayal of the former Confederate soldiers at first; I felt Tarantino redeemed himself through one character in particular by the end of the movie.  I won't say more, other than one actor should have gotten more notice for his performance.  All 8 main characters are truly hateful.  Even though this is a Tarantino film, that is rarely the case in his work. Who is really the hero of this film?  What makes that decision more interesting is the idea that the 8 characters make up a representation of America taking form.

The ending is so well written and executed, I had to applaud Tarantino once again.

This is not Tarantino's best film and it will not sway people that dislike him.  It might well be his most divisive.  But it also is another top notch script with some of Tarantino's best directing.  It will increase in reputation over time.

For all the bluster, the film is elevated by his use of a simple letter.

Look real closely at the soldier
Coming at you through the haze
He might be the younger brother who ran away
And before you kill another
Listen to what I say
Oh, there will not be many coming home

      -Roy Orbison

8.  Far From The Madding Crowd

Critics have short memories.  This film came out in the Spring to strong reviews.  Carey Mulligan's strong performance is just one of many.  And do you remember anyone mentioning it during awards season? I barely remember it being mentioned at all, all year.

I don't know if it would have won a bunch of awards, but I'm not so sure it would not have gotten a few nominations if it had been released in late December.

A good story.  Beautiful cinematography.  Great acting.  If you are the type that likes Jane Austen type stories, this should be right up your alley.  Deserves to be discovered.

7.  Creed

In 1976, Sylvester Stallone created an iconic movie character.  What made that underdog story so strong, is that Rocky Balboa is a man over his head that knows he can not win.  The victory is in simply finishing the fight.

That beautiful sentiment evolved into Rocky becoming some amazing all time great fighter, who can take down roided up Communists, and end the Cold War.

While no longer a critical darling, the Rocky films were loved by many, made a ton of money, and helped make Stallone one of the world's biggest movie stars.

Nuance was a thing of the past.  And any notion of Stallone as a strong actor was long gone.

But that might not have been completely fair. Stallone would show flashes.  And in 1997 he gave a performance in Cop Land that is effective and moving.

He to some extent reminded us why we liked Rocky in the first place, with Rocky Balboa.  That film seemed like a proper and worthy end to the series.

Then director Ryan Coogler decided he wanted to make another Rocky film; sort of.  Except it is really the story of Apollo Creed's son and living in a father's shadow.  The Balboa character would now be a supporting one.  And under Coogler's direction and writing, Stallone has given at least the second best performance of the character.  If not the best.  It is not "good for Rocky."  It is flat out good.  Excellent even.  Yes, even Oscar worthy.

As is the whole cast.  Michael B. Jordan has been poised to be the next best thing ever since the last episode of "Friday Night Lights."  It has seemed to get off to a slower start than expected.  But with Creed, we have not only his usual strong acting, but a movie people wanted to see.

The potential Coogler showed with the oh so nearly great, (infuriatingly so) Fruitvale Station, is now fulfilled.  Similar to Star Wars:  The Force Awakens, a story continues in a way we care about again, as it feels for now to be in very capable hands.

This is not a career highlight for Stallone alone.  It is for everyone involved.  And while people might be upset his performance is the only thing acknowledged by the Academy, he did after all, create the character himself.  That's one thing no other actor in the Best Supporting Actor category can claim.

6.     Spotlight

In his previous film, director Thomas McCarthy helmed The Cobbler. Starring Adam Sandler, people were hopeful this would be Sandler doing something different and succeeding.  Like Paul Thomas Anderson accomplished with Punch Drunk Love.  Instead we got a film that made most people's 10 worst list of the year.  Critic's were baffled how nearly every single choice McCarthy made, seemed to be the wrong one.

So it is quite a quick turnaround when his very next film, Spotlight, has him almost pitching a perfect game.  A great ensemble cast gives us multiple great performances.  My favorites being Michael Keaton and Stanley Tucci.  Who did not even get Oscar nominations: those went to Rachel McAdams and the more showy (but excellent as always) Mark Ruffalo.

How the Boston Globe uncovers the Catholic Church protecting and covering up for child molesting priests, is not the pitch one makes for the feel good movie of the year.  But instead of making it too depressing to view or overly self congratulatory to our heroes, McCarthy finds just the right balance.

The reporters (who would win the Pulitzer Prize) do their jobs well, and how they do it is shown in a brisk and captivating way.  But Spotlight is not as self congratulatory to the newspaper as it could be. They admit fault in not moving on the story earlier.  And that helps elevate the film.  We also see the drive of these reporters, destroying their personal relationships, because we see almost no evidence of any.

5.  Brooklyn

My vote for the best lead actress Oscar,  (if I had a vote) would be for Saoirse Ronan.  While I love every performance, I keep going back and forth in my mind between Larson and Ronan.  "Larson's role was more difficult, right?" I kept telling myself.  And maybe it was.  But Ronan's performance had that quality of making it look easy.  She does not appear to be acting, and I think that is what makes her so special.  The entire movie is on her shoulders.  And she carries it, like falling off a log.

4.  Room

So yes, I obviously liked Brie Larson as well.  She is fantastic as is her co-star Jacob Tremblay, who was about as deserving of an Oscar nomination as anyone.  Room is the clear winner as far as number of tears shed from me while watching a movie last year.

The first act ends so beautifully and emotionally, that the rest of the film lags just a bit.  It is difficult to maintain the ramped up emotions of all that came before.  That does not make the rest of the film weak, actually I respect what is done here.  The happy ending of many stories would not be the happy ending in real life.  The makers of Room acknowledge this and go for something more.

"And they lived happily ever after," can be a cop out.

3.  The Revenant

Alejandro González Iñárritu would like you to know you just watched a movie.  In case there could be any doubt.  

While not as close to flawless as last year's Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance), once again we get a movie that feels a bit like no other.

If Mel Gibson and Terrence Malick ever got together and decided to co-direct a film together, I think the result would be very close to The Revanant.

The Malick influence was a bit surprising, but he does once again use The Tree of Life, cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki.  A couple shots look like they came straight out of Malick's storyboards.

Some of the more artsy ideas work and some don't.  But most things do.

Before its release, the movie was already making headlines for its difficult shooting conditions.  Shot chronologically over 80 days, and only able to shoot for a few hours at a time so they could always use natural light.

Tom Hardy butted heads often with Iñárritu, as he felt the stunt work he was asked to do was too risky.  Multiple crew members would leave the production.  Hardy would make t-shirts of himself choking Iñárritu.  This was his gift to the entire production after shooting.

Interviewed for Birdman, Michael Keaton stated it was easily the hardest shoot he had ever done. Leonardo Dicaprio is now saying the very same thing for this film.  I suppose when you are a vegetarian, being made to eat raw bison liver is not preferred.

Could Iñárritu win the Best Picture Oscar two years in a row?  It is possible.  And before he kills an actor or crew member, we should appreciate his craziness for how it translates on screen.

This is a filmmaker in the zone.

2.  Inside Out

One of the best Pixar movies.  It might actually be the very best. Which at this point is saying something.  So much critical love for this film when it came out, but again, critics seem to forget if anything was not released by late November.

Evidence of a great movie, is in what kind of smart ways people are talking about it.  Inside Out instigated some of the very best film analysis of the year.

"There's something very lonely about Inside Out if you compare its external structure and Riley's journey through her physcial world to traditional kids' movies.  There's no Donkey from Shrek or Abu from Aladdin or Timon and Pumbaa from The Lion King cheering her up with "Hakuna Matata."

"The structural decision to do without a villain, and ultimately to do without one of the easiest elements to make entertaining and marketable, means that the process Riley is undergoing-adolescence-is visualized as...normal.  Her mind is not a space that's been invaded by something that must be driven out, but a new environment to be mastered.  And if other kids' stories are there to teach kids how to be brave when they see witches and giants, Inside Out is there, maybe, to teach them how to be brave when there's no witch and no giant, but things can feel broken anyway."

-Linda Holmes        June 19, 2015  

Such a clever and unique script.  Sadness is a positive thing?  In a kid's movie?  That makes me very happy.

1.  Ex Machina

More than any film I saw in 2015, after finishing Ex Machina, I was tempted to watch it all again right away.

Not only am I choosing Inside Out and Ex Machina as the best films of 2015, I believe they are the best scripts.  Both are nominated for the Academy Award, in a move they got correct.

I am often reminded how there are only a limited number of stories. All are retold in an endless loop, in different ways.

Ex Machina's story is familiar, (few parts Frankenstein, maybe a dash of Under The Skin) and yet it feels completely new and original.

Writer and first time director Alex Garland's script is smart and makes you hang on dialogue.  Oscar Issac is fantastic as usual.  Domhnall Gleeson is convincing as an awed programmer that might well be getting manipulated; if not also underestimated.

And Alicia Vikander as Ava is a gem.  If her representatives had attempted to get her a best leading performance Oscar nomination for The Danish Girl, instead of a supporting one, she might have very well scored a dual nomination.

But doesn't she just play a robot?  Yes, essentially.  But the trick is Garland must convince us, through his direction and elements he adds to the script, that Domnhall's Caleb could develop feelings for Ava. None of that matters without a convincing portrayal by a skilled actress.

This is the movie everyone tells me Blade Runner is, but I never found it to be.

Performer of the Year:

Domhnall Gleeson

His 2015

Ex Machina
Star Wars:  The Force Awakens
The Revanant

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

All Dogs Go To Heaven

Dean Koontz is my favorite writer.

That is my stock answer if you were to ask me.   I have never read one of his novels.

When I was engaged to be married  to my wife, she lived in a home out in the middle of nowhere. You had to drive alongside a large piece of farm land to get there.  She had two dogs, Darius and O'Riley.

Darius was actually a female, despite the male sounding name.  O'Riley was the male, but Darius was the tough one.  A half pit mix that got the pugilist build of that breed while also making the argument that dogs are not born dangerous, just made that way.  She was a loving and sweet dog.

O'Riley was all heart.  A wiry haired mix, He was the size of a black lab but with a beard that made him distinguished.  Both were rescues.

On January 3rd, 2009 myself and Christy Ann (then my fiance) were out with friends in Salisbury, MD.  We attempted to go bowling but could not get a lane, so we journeyed on back home.

I did not live with Christy Ann, so we parted ways at my house.  A few minutes later I got a frantic call from her.  Her house was on fire.

Darius would make it out after taking in a lot of smoke.  O'Riley would not.  Though the firefighters would find him and attempt CPR, it was too late.

A week or so later, Darius would pass as well.

Many friends know this story or were there with us.  Robert and Jen let us stay at their house in the immediate aftermath.  Friends from our bible study group at church stepped up with support.

I should back up.  You know those people that treat their pets like they are family?  Like their own children?  They are annoying aren't they?  We are those people.  I have decided to no longer be apologetic about it.

Right before we got married in April, my mother would give us our wedding gift.  We would go with her and my sister and all pick out golden retriever puppies.  Both Christy Ann and I agreed rather quickly on the one we liked the most.  We hoped my sister or mother would not notice we got the best one.  My sister got a sweet light furred girl she named Grace.  My mother got an attached to her and handsome boy she named Wally.  We got our girl, that we successfully had not let out of our sight.  We named her Rory.

Rory was the sweetest, most caring and loving and special dog we could have ever hoped for.  I know you think you had that same dog, but you are mistaken.

There were not many days where Rory was not the happiest creature around.  If you came by our house, whether it be to visit us, or to do some yard work or plumbing, Rory knew the real reason you were there was to see her.  She would wiggle her butt with such fury, her tail could take out anything in the area.

She had many stuffed animals that she loved, and there is a chance if you came to visit she got one out to bring to you as a greeting.  Like people might bring wine to a party, she thought you should have a giant stuffed pig.  It was only polite.

With my family in Virginia before we moved to NC, my young nephew Nathan had a stuffed Saint Bernard.  Rory immediately assumed it was a gift to her and would grab it and snuggle.  As we were in our car about to leave on our move away, Nathan said Rory could have his stuffed dog.  Rory accepted with a giant wiggle.  It would be her favorite toy.  We referred to it as "Baron," after my mother and father's Saint Bernard they had when first married.

After some time of living the life of luxury only a completely spoiled dog can have.  (Sleeping in our bed, getting every waking bit of our attention) Christy Ann felt compelled to get a rescue dog.  A greyhound.

Most all of the dogs I have ever had have been a rescue of some variety.  But I picked up Everett, a little hesitant of how our girl would react to another member of the family.

People do not seem to realize that if you own a greyhound, it is almost for sure a rescue dog.  Puppies are nearly impossible to get.  They are a breed that is bred solely to run in races and if they are not good enough at this, they are put down.  This happens by the thousands.  A lucky few get adopted by greyhound rescue groups.  And then hopefully, get adopted out of there.

The rescue groups do good work of course.  But they have limited space.  Greyhounds are used to being in their crates for hours and hours on end.  Even at these rescue centers.  Only getting out a few times a day to eat and go to the bathroom.

When we brought Everett home, he had never been up stairs before, had never seen or walked on hardwood floors.  Just getting him in my car was a chore as he was not sure how to jump in.  I picked him up like a lamb for quite some time before he got used to it.

Rory greeted Everett like a happy sister meeting her brother for the first time.  She would often put her mouth around his nose as a way to play and greet him, while shaking her butt back and forth as if she was auditioning for a Sir Mix a Lot video.  Everett would seem slightly annoyed by her enthusiasm.  But would tolerate it.  Over time I think he got closer to Rory.  Once they were separated for a length of time and when they got back together, he greeted Rory like a long lost friend.  And long before greeting us.  Slightly offended at first, I was touched how far Everett's feelings for Rory had come.

I would talk like Rory for her.  (I mentioned we are those people)  She would speak in a Southern Belle slipping into an English Lady type accent.  Everett's voice was a little...simpler.  But however they communicated for real, I believe they became very good friends.

Rory was maybe the smartest dog I ever had.  We did that "intelligence test" one afternoon where you put a towel over your dogs head.  If they shake it off within so many seconds they are smart as a "border collie."  So many more seconds later, smart as a ..."whatever."  Rory shook the towel off her head immediately.  Everett would still have that towel on his head today if we did not eventually take it off.

Rory would surprise us with the things she would notice.  I could point and she would more times than not, actually look in the direction I was telling her to look.  Think about it.  That is not an easy concept to grasp.  The first time I remember doing this, I was driving down a country back road with her in the front seat.  I pulled the car over, as very close to us in a field, stood ten deer.  I said, "look Rory," and pointed.  She followed the direction of my finger and got the most excited expression (she had an expression.  I was there) on her face.  She just stared enthralled with the creatures in front of her.  I am convinced that this is why she knew to follow where I was pointing if I ever did it again.  There was the off chance she just might see something as exciting.  Not sure if squirrels or birds or rabbits or friends coming to the door ever quite matched those deer.  But Rory loved every living thing.

The happiest I have ever seen an animal was one day when Rory was outside in our backyard and saw a squirrel.  Squirrels were always a source of happiness, but of course most of them are too fast for Rory to catch.  She would run, they would jump on top of the fence or up a tree and that would be that.  But one day Rory saw a squirrel that did not pass the physical fitness test.  And the question to, "what would she ever do if she caught one," was answered.

The squirrel was too fat to climb the fence properly, and Rory caught right up to the out of shape and probably terrified little animal.  Rory could have easily grabbed the squirrel right up.  Instead, as the scared little creature missed its escape leap time and again, Rory jumped in complete 360 degree spins of pure ejubilation.  I mean complete 360 degree spins in the air before touching back down.  I had no idea she was capable of such agility.

Stuffed animals she would sneak out were often strewn across our yard.  One being a squirrel.  We laughed that in Rory's mind, her stuffed squirrel had suddenly sprung to life right before her eyes.  Elation is not quite the word that captures this moment.  Every animal, human or other, should experience such a moment of complete happiness.

Christy Ann one day decided we needed fish.  I have just about no opinion on fish as pets, but Christy Ann bought a large fish tank and filled it up after a trip to Petsmart.

Having no room in our home for this fish tank, I informed my wife the only place it would fit was our bathroom.  Our bathroom is one of the bigger rooms in our home.  So, odd as it may sound, it was the only option.  The bathroom is right off of our bedroom.  Rory would most nights sleep at the foot of our bed.  And some nights, she would wake up maybe unable to sleep, thinking of stuffed animals coming to life or something, and I would wake up to find her quietly staring at the fish.  At times, it felt like the fish were more Rory's than anyone else.  We witnessed her barking at them one day, while wagging that tail and then going into a play bow, as if to say, "come on guys!  Let's run around!"                

Rory's best friends were Bruiser, my sister-in-law Leigh's and her husband Mark's boxer, (who we called her boyfriend), and her brother Wally.  Wally lived with my mother six hours away so we would only see them once or twice a year.  Every trip home after a year away, as soon as we would get to the stop light by El Maguey Mexican Restaurant, Rory would pop her head up out of a dead sleep.  She knew exactly where she was.

She would pant and wag her tail in excitement to see her brother.  Then when we got to my parents driveway, her excitement level went up even more until we just had to open the door to the car as soon as we stopped.  She would barrel inside my parents house, nearly knocking over people and valuables on her way until she reached Wally and they would play and wrestle.

My sister's dog Grace would join in these visits and seeing three golden dogs playing together is something Michelangelo should have painted.  Pure joy.

Grace would pass away at a young age and I know Nathan took it very hard.  He would always give Rory a lot of attention when we were all together.

On January 9th, Christy Ann and I had to go away for the afternoon, but we noticed Rory did not seem herself.  Just not as bubbly happy as usual.  I always remarked how she always acted the same. She never lost that puppy like enthusiasm, even now at age 7.  But that day she seemed like she ate something that disagreed with her maybe.  So we called our friend Kathryn and asked her to stop by and check on the dogs while we were gone.  Kathryn is also one of Rory's friends.

Kathryn confirmed she did not seem her peppy usual self.  A bit worried, the next day she seemed slightly better,  Then two or three days later she seemed to be over whatever it had been.  She even played fetch with me outside briefly,  Fetch was not something Rory generally did.  We forgot to explain to her she was a retriever early on.  So when we would throw something she generally seemed to wonder why you would keep doing this more than twice.

Then Friday night, Rory did not want to eat her food.  Anyone that knows the breed knows how weird that is.  For any dog, but maybe especially a Golden.


 I called the vet and they were closing.  I said can I bring her in when they opened Saturday morning and they said they were full.  I pleaded and they let me take her in first thing.

They told us Rory had cancer of the spleen.  They would do surgery Monday.  A stressful weekend of worrying about every sound and movement she made, we got her into the vet first thing Monday. The veterinarian operated on her sometime around 11:30am.    It appeared the cancer spread to her liver.  If she made it through the night, we were told, that would be a good sign and then we could figure out chemo.  By 3:30pm we could see her.  She was sleeping, all medicated while getting a blood transfusion.

We both spoke to her and pet her and told her we loved her.  I don't know if she knew we were there or not.  I'd like to think so.  She opened her eyes and looked at Christy Ann at one point.  I thought maybe she opened her eyes slightly for me, but it might have been in my mind.  I told her I loved her and kissed her and to be strong.

We both prayed over her and asked for more time.  But if it was not God's will for more, that above all she have no pain.

At 10:30pm that night, (January 18th) Dr. Crawford called us to say he went by to check on Rory.  She had passed away in her sleep.  She was curled up with her favorite stuffed animal, Baron.

After the fire on January 3rd 2009, I read a book by Dean Koontz.  It had been passed along to me from my mother.  It was not a novel but a piece of non-fiction.  The book was about his golden retriever.  The first dog he ever owned, and not until later in life. After finishing it, Christy Ann read it as well.  We discussed it and then I did something I have never done to an author or anyone famous ever. I wrote Koontz a letter.

I still have a copy of it somewhere but the gist was that we appreciated his book.  I mentioned the fire and Christy Ann losing her dogs and that his book was a sort of comfort for us.

Then I forgot to mail it.

A couple months later, Christy Ann handed me a letter.  It was addressed from the office of Dean Koontz.  She had found my letter and mailed it without telling me.

The letter from Koontz was a kind of form letter.  It was probably typed by his assistant and essentially said, "Dean Koontz gets thousands of fan letters and he can not possibly respond to them all.  But we thank you for your letter very much."  I was appreciative for the response.

Then the same day a package arrived.  This time a book.  With the same return address.  I opened it and inside was a hand written note from Dean Koontz.  It began, "Thank you Matt for your wonderful letter."  Inside was his latest book, again about his dog.  (I think he was now one of "those people" too)

Inside the book he wrote "In memory of Darius and O'Riley.  All Dogs Go To Heaven."  -Dean Koontz

The fire that would take these two sweet animals was January 3rd, 2009.  A day I never thought I could view in a good way.  After getting Rory, we would find that she was born on January 3rd, 2009.

When loved ones were leaving us, Rory was coming along that very day to come and help heal us.

Our last night together.  Sleeping on the floor with her.  

Creatures like her are a reason I believe in a Creator.  Yes, we are those kind of people.  I know we did not deserve her, but I am so thankful for her.  I hope she knows how much

We did not get enough time with her.  If she had lived to 16 or 20, it would not have been either.  But I thank God for the time we had with her.  I truly believe she was sent to us from Heaven.  And now she has returned.  And we will see her again.  Wagging her tail and shaking her butt to greet us.

Rory is survived by two parents that could not love her more, her brothers Wally and Everett, a bunny named Mr. Darcy, her fish, her sometimes care takers Jermaine, Kathryn, Jim and Trish.  Every piece of clothing or furniture she ever got near that forever have "Rory fur." Her human grandparents, Bruiser, Leigh, Mark, friends Laura and Jason and others too numerous to mention.

If she met you, she saw only the very best version of you.

Monday, January 11, 2016

An Awakening

 "At the end of the day, it is about you, and how much you are willing to be a kid."

       -Filmmaker Oscar Boyson

I recently came across a film critic that refuses to see animated movies, much less review them.  As a person who has so many peoples dream job, I find this unfathomable.  Why?  How can anyone feel so superior to a genre, that they miss out on such great works?  And is animation even really a genre?

I understand not generally preferring one genre as much as another.  But to shut out an entire type of film, seems to make for an unworthy critic. 

I can still remember the ride home, as an eight year old, after seeing The Return of the Jedi.  My grandfather had taken myself and my ten year old sister, upon our pleading.  While we whispered our joys to each other in the back seat, the front seat was completely quiet.  Finally, as we got back to my grandparents home and we got out of the car, he broke the silence with, "That was the strangest thing I've ever seen!"

"They are children's movies," George Lucas always has been willing to remind us all.  But if our grandparents were one generation away from "getting it," our parents were not.   I mean someone was driving all those kids to the theater multiple times.  

Then we grew up and the prequels came out.  And I suppose, despite their low quality, some children did enjoy them.

My generation would sound even older than our years, as we said things like, "In my day, Star Wars films were good!"

Most depressingly, the celebrated genius George Lucas lost his touch.  Heck even C-3PO admits he did.   (In one of his 6 Million languages)

“George has changed a lot over the years but I think he finds it slightly hard to collaborate.  He made decisions that I believe might have been better discussed with other people." 
-Anthony Daniels

The magic of the franchise seemed lost.  Until Lucas decided he was willing to give it up, to as he put it, "white slavers."  White slavers being people at Disney willing to pay him merely four billion dollars.

Poor bastard.

Fans have seemed to understand these characters more than the man himself.  Just look at how Lucas famously changed a scene in the first Star Wars.  The entire "did Han shoot first" controversy is a prime example of Lucas being clueless about his own creations.

But what if a talented fan got hold of Star Wars?  Could it be great again?

A little film called Star Wars: The Force Awakens, came out in late 2015.  The movie is everything you might have heard.  From almost anyone.  That is much of its strength and much of its weakness.  Such is how J.J. Abrams revives film franchises.

In his reboot of Star Trek, Abrams started well and then by his second attempt, essentially remade Star Trek II, The Wrath of Khan.  While I found it entertaining enough at the time, it also made me want to re-watch The Wrath of Khan, more than anything.

Even Abrams admitted he went too far in making it nearly a remake of that earlier film; the best of all Star Trek movies.

So what did he do with The Force Awakens?  Well, he nearly did the same thing again, but holds back a bit better here.

The result?  Well you can not satisfy everyone.  Abrams necessity to remake parts of the original Star Wars, is both cool and a bit annoying.

That the rebels must blow up a base, seems downright lazy.  Three movies with the same essential plot?  Out of seven?

But in other ways, Abrams and company are pitch perfect.

Daisy Ridley is a revelation.  You feel you are watching the beginning of a true movie star.  It would take a strong female lead to pull off Rey's badassness, while not feeling forced and overly PC.  She handles it like a seasoned pro.  One of the joys of watching the film is the thought it is in such good hands with the new characters.  John Boyega as Finn is both heroic and comedic.  Adam Driver is as good as I expected as a bad guy.  And we get Oscar Isaac, one of the very best actors working today, and in his prime.

Heck even the new droid is worthy of screen time with R2-D2 and C-3PO.

But none of that would mean anything if the script stinks.

If you were to rank all the actors in the original trilogy versus the prequels, you would likely say the prequels cast the most talent.  And yet only Ewan McGregor seemed to get out of those films mostly unscathed.

But here the clunky Lucas dialogue is largely gone.  A few nods are made to remind us Abrams has seen the previous films.  But mostly the script avoids, "Hold me, like you did by the lake on Naboo," type dialogue.

And yes we do get Han Solo and others to connect the stories and feel nostalgic for how it all began.  Mostly, Abrams finds a good balance.  

A three film story with these characters gets me excited.  But is that the plan?  Being they paid Lucas all that money, probably not.  We know they plan to make way more than three films in total.  Fact is, like The Avengers, there is probably no end in sight.  A Han Solo origin story is already nearly cast.  But instead of getting excited about all the new Star Wars coming our way, I kind of wish they wouldn't.

The original story had a beginning, a middle, and an end.  (least until now)

I enjoyed the first Avengers film I saw.  One of my favorite actors (Robert Downey Jr.) plays my favorite childhood superhero (Iron Man).  Now I do not watch them.  Why?  Because they lack that John Williams score?  That opening scroll?  Or are there now so many stories and characters, I just can no longer keep up?  

Of course Disney is not making an indefinite amount of films and selling an indefinite amount of toys and other products just for me.  As a business, they are rather obligated to do all of it.

But will saturating the market with no break in sight make it less special?  Almost assuredly.

The argument over whether Star Wars ruined the movie business will probably be back loudly before too long.  Is this all that is wrong with Hollywood, or are good movies (4 to 5 of 7 is still a good percentage) that kids and adults both like, much of what is right with the movie business?  It's actually not as simple a conversation as all that.   

Star Wars has been both great and awful for the movie industry. That is a fair argument and one we could have for days.

But Star Wars is also something at its most pure.  A story that began as an homage to movies.  From Kurosawa and Samurai films and to Flash Gordan, Errol Flynn, and Westerns.  Basic "good versus evil," temptation and even romance.  Star Wars celebrates all that we grow up loving about movies and storytelling.  That it would become a problem, and be accused of hurting the industry, is an ironic result of it doing what it intended to do so effectively.

So where does this one rank?

The Force Awakens is a good film.  A legit good film.  And that in itself is worth celebrating.  It is easily the fourth best film in the series.  But then again, it is also only the fourth best movie in the series. So while people are going crazy for it, and I get that completely, let us not forget the original trilogy that started this all, and how genuinely special those films are.

I have great hope for the direction of Star Wars after seeing The Force Awakens.  As a friend said after seeing it, "It is what the prequels should have been."

So I will try not to lament what The Force Awakens is not.  Or Star Wars as a whole for that matter.  And instead celebrate everything that it is.  And once again feel excited for a series of films I loved as a child.

Right up until they make me no longer care, and remind me I am now an adult.

Hopefully that is still far, far away.  

Star Wars:  The Force Awakens

3 out of 4 stars