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Score: 4.8 out of 5 

Time to get back to writing reviews more often! Then again I say that every time. You know it’s hard having a ton of things you like to do but not enough time to do them all. Law school takes up almost all my time so when I have free time I have to decide between playing basketball, working out, finally turning my PS4 on again, reading a book, painting, watching tv, watching a move, writing a review, etc. It’s just not right having so many things you enjoy but such little free time but such is life, onto the review.

This time I’ll be reviewing Hell or High Water, a David Mackenzie movie in theaters now. I haven’t seen any of this guys other movies but if they’re as good as this one I’ll have to go back and do that. I have to give my friend Brenn Coyle a shout-out for recommending this one or else I would’ve missed out on one of the best movies of the year. I have to say that it’s been longer than I would like since Liz and I saw the movie so some of the details are starting to fade but most of it is still fresh (at least the most important parts). This movie is easier to review weeks after watching than others because since I watched it I’ve been trying to think of things to complain about during my review and I’ve largely drawn blanks. This was true even immediately after watching, back when everything was fresh. The movie has been on my mind ever since. With that being said, lets get down to the details

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Overview: 

This is a modern western/heist film that takes place against the backdrop of various dusty and sparsely populated cities in West Texas. At the center of the story are two brothers, Toby and Tanner Howard, played respectively by Chris Pine and Ben Foster. The Howard brothers, our thieves, are joined at the center by Texas Rangers Marcus Hamilton and Alberto Parker, played by Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham. In short, the plot focuses on two brothers strategically robbing small banks across West Texas to pay off the bank that screwed over their recently deceased mother and is trying to take the family farm. The two Texas Rangers are hot on their trail, led by Hamilton who is on the brink of retirement. Laid out in this fashion you may be wondering what’s so special about this movie as this is a story that’s been told many times before. You may be thinking there has to be a big twist or something for me to give it such high praise. While there are a few unexpected twists and turns, the story really doesn’t make any major deviations from it’s course. What makes this film great is the subtlety through which it plays out. This movie is polished to perfection with no excess action sequences, no bloated or excessive dialogue, no pointless characters, and so on. To explain what I mean by this let’s jump straight to the details.

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Can we take a second to appreciate how terrible the above poster is? It’s like whoever was in charge of making the ads for this movie realized the day before their assignment was due that they forgot Jeff Bridges was also in the movie and decided to just photoshop his face into the background. But anyway…

The Characters (and Performances):

It’s hard to decide what’s the most impressive part of a film that’s this all-around good. It’s like trying to decide what’s the best part of Steph Curry’s game. Is it his handles? His three-point shooting? His IQ? Who knows, it’s all great! The good thing is that we don’t need to decide. Now if for some reason I was forced to decide I’d probably give it to the acting and the characters.

What makes these characters so great is that we have this situation where it’s law enforcement against criminals and it’s easy to make it so that we’re rooting for either side but here all four of our characters are relatable, likeable, and a joy to watch. Toby is the anti-hero who is doing something bad for a good reason. Tanner is a bit insane and brash but he’s unflinchingly loyal. Marcus may be jaded and too by-the-book but he’s a hell of a cop and can hold his own against anyone half his age. Alberto is too soft-spoken and lets Hamilton give him too much shit but he’s very capable and composed. All the characters are so well balanced that none of them feel unnecessary or one dimensional. This is partly a function of great writing, all four of our characters at the center of attention are really well developed characters, but great acting also plays a part.

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I already respected Chris Pine’s acting before this movie but he tends to play similar characters, the charismatic and good-looking main dude (at least in all the movies I’ve seen him in). In this movie he plays a very introspective and muted role and while he feels like the main character, he’s never thirsting for attention or trying to make himself standout. Part of the reason why that works well is because of Ben Foster, his brother. Pine doesn’t have to be the charismatic scene-stealer because that’s Ben Foster’s role. Foster plays the unhinged Howard brother who seems to relish when things get aggressive and doesn’t mind throwing caution to the wind to a stupidly reckless level. That being said, there is more going on underneath the surface here. The movie never explicitly mentions it but there are hints that Tanner is a veteran. The natural logical leap to make here being that his mental state and aggressive tendencies are at least in part due to his time in the military. This theory is even more likely when you consider his final scene, the decision he makes, and how at peace he looks through it all. Anyway, that’s just my guess and whether that’s true or not doesn’t change the fact that Foster was fantastic as well.

The brothers work because they’re great individual characters but they interact like actual brothers would act. The fierce loyalty, jokes at each other’s expense, affection, and conversations are all natural. And like I said, with this movie less is more. They don’t feel the need to be heavy handed in showing us their bond through flashbacks or anything like that. Instead the scene that stands out to me is them being able to take a break between the craziness of what they’re doing to tackle each other and mess around while the sun sets. No words needed to be said, we could tell there was a genuine bond there.

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Jeff Bridges is my favorite actor in this movie, clearly the man can act and that was certainly on display here. He plays a crotchety old cop on his way out who is dreading retirement because he only feels a sense of purpose while he’s out catching bad guys. It’s a trope that’s been done a hundred times before in movies, TV shows, books, etc. While his character is nothing new, he plays him to perfection. He reminded me of a modern-day, more professional, version of his character from the Coen Brothers’ film True Grit (2010) (another fantastic western). One scene in particular really elevated Bridges’ performance. Late in the movie, during an emotional climax, Bridges reacts with so much raw emotion on his face and in his voice that I felt like I could feel what he was feeling. It was impressive! Like with the Howard brothers, his scenes derive much of their intimacy and power from the great relationship he has with his partner. His partner is played by Gil Birmingham, the actor I know least about in the movie. You’d never notice he has way less experience than the other actors because he keeps up with Jeff Bridges the entire time. His character probably had the smallest role of the main four but that doesn’t mean he has a small impact. Towards the end he’s even a key part of one of the most important scenes in the movie.

The Script:

The characters in this movie are great because their roles are acted well but this would mean nothing without a good script. For how deep and compelling the characters are, they’re still roles that we’ve seen many times before. It’s thanks to the script that the characters are elevated beyond being clichés. Like I mentioned earlier, this is a lean movie. There is no excess of anything here and that goes for the script too. This doesn’t mean that it’s a movie where no one talks or that’s full of silence like Drive (2011). There is plenty of great banter, especially between the two Rangers. What this does mean is that nothing feels out of place or like filler. Everything the characters say, even the ones who are just there to deliver one-liners, has a purpose and fleshes out the story or adds to the atmosphere.

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Again, another scene comes to mind that demonstrates what I mean. Early in the film Hamilton and Parker are forced to pull over on the highway as a group of cowboys are herding cattle across the road to flee from a large fire. After an interaction with them Parker asks something along the lines of, “Should we call somebody?” and Hamilton replies, “No, there’s nothing we can do. Those boys are on their own out there.” I probably butchered that quote as it’s been weeks since I saw the movie and I couldn’t find the quote online but even so it stands out as much now as it did then. I was wondering if the fire or the cowboys would be relevant later on in the film but they didn’t appear again. I realized that that short interaction and comment were actually meant to be symbolic of the Howard brothers and their journey (at least I think). The Howard brothers are two simple, old school guys who were left hung out to dry by the bank. They’ve exhausted their options and, like the cowboys, they’re on their own. It’s up to them to survive and find a way out, no one can or will help them.

Moments like the one I mentioned above occur throughout the movie and I think that’s why I was engrossed in the story from beginning to end even though the plot and characters were nothing revolutionary. It felt like everything every character had to say served a purpose and I didn’t want to miss any of it. This screenplay was penned by Taylor Sheridan, the same guy behind Sicario (2015). There’s another movie that I enjoyed, although not nearly as much as this one. I had many issues with Sicario but I can’t deny that it was a very well-written movie. Sheridan only has three writing credits under his belt and for Hell or High Water and Sicario to be two of the three makes him someone to keep an eye on.

The Cinematography:

Again, as you’ve noticed in my other reviews, cinematography is one of my favorite aspects to talk about. Without wanting to go into a tangent on the difference between cinematography and mise-en-scene, I’ll just say that both are working seamlessly well together here. The framing Giles Nuttgens used throughout the film was masterful. Whether it was a low-angle shot during a robbery, a huge crane shot of the West Texas countryside, or a great side-car shot during a getaway, the framing was top-notch.

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Besides the framing, the color palette was perfect. The entire film has a washed out look to it, as if everything is covered in a layer of dust. This lends itself well to creating a thick atmosphere. By that I mean that you don’t just watch this movie, you can feel it in a way. The impression given is that this is a rough place to survive, either you improvise and toughen up like the Howard brothers or you get burnt to a crisp by the fire. Even the wallpaper and colors of the various restaurants and banks all seem so fitting. From dusty town to dusty town and the large empty expanses in between, this movie makes you feel like you’re watching something authentic. Speaking of large expanses, there are plenty of those. The characters spend ALOT of time driving from city to city and during that time we get these really large scale shots of huge landscapes. Those scenes are beautiful to look at; it’s like looking at a painting. The film also makes great use of the ominous clouds in the sky to indicate a sort of calm before the storm. Additionally, the lighting here was great. Again I’m not saying it was anything revolutionary but it was really well used to create some beautiful scenes. The one that stands out to me is again the scene of the two brothers wrestling, their shadows illuminated by the gorgeous night sky. If we didn’t know any better, they might just pass for two innocent kids messing around in the backyard.

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Lastly, the setting, palette, and atmosphere reminded me a great deal of No Country for Old Men (2010), another Coen Brothers masterpiece. I hesitate to say this because I don’t want anyone to think I just think every movie involving cowboys and set in Texas feels the same but there are some legitimate comparisons to be made here. No Country for Old Men is another movie that creates a similar atmosphere, although much more bleak. There is a similar use of color palette, clouds, broad expanses, and lighting  in both of these movies. Huge credit to Giles Nutgens, he did an amazing job with this one. I haven’t watched any of the other films he’s worked on but this was great.

The Story:

Lastly, I want to talk about the story. The reason I saved this for last was because this was my least favorite part of the movie. Don’t get me wrong, I thought the story was excellent but it was just the weakest part of the film in relation to all the other aspects I discussed above. The reason why I say this is because the plot as a whole was nothing too revolutionary. That being said, this movie doesn’t seek to be something revolutionary and not every story needs to be in order to be a good story. That is, however, what’s holds the movie back from me giving it a perfect score. To get a perfect score I think you need to not only be a very good movie that does everything right like this one does, you need to change the game up at least a little bit.

As I outlined earlier, this movie is about two brothers robbing banks to save their late mother’s home and the two Texas Rangers intent on stopping them. Sounds like a pretty standard setup right? Well, it kind of is. I don’t want to spoil anything but there are a few unexpected twists and turns that make the story more unique but the weight everything has in this movie, at least for me, was largely due to all the stuff I mentioned above (characters, atmosphere, the script, etc.) rather than because the story itself was so engrossing.

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The Verdict:

To conclude, clearly you can tell I loved this movie. I can’t believe I almost missed it! I really recommend this one to anyone who enjoys extremely polished, well-acted, and well-written movies (so like…everyone). Above I mention that the story was the weakest link but even the story was really damn good so what does that tell you? Watch it!!

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Score: 5 out of 5 stars

Let me tell you a little something about the stressful circumstances that have led to this review. This has nothing to do with The Witch so if you’re here strictly for that, go ahead and skip past the next paragraph.

Today started off well enough. My property class was cancelled; I knew that before I woke up. This meant I only had a torts class sitting between me and loads of free to time to study, nap, cook, read, watch basketball, or whatever else. This stream of consciousness thinking about all the possibilities the day was ripe with was enough to distract me from the fact that property was my morning class, not my afternoon class. I downloaded the new Nyck Caution mixtape, Disguise the Limit, to listen to later (and it’s absolute flames, check it out). After a nice shower I hopped atop my bike and peddled towards what I thought was my morning torts class, a class that in actuality is scheduled for 2:00 pm. I even left my house a tad early since I’d been craving some boba. As usual I biked listening to music and sports radio because I live far from campus and rather not think about the distance. After some technical difficulties with the lid machine I got my boba and again worked my way towards school. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a bike cop. I didn’t even know if I was doing anything wrong, in fact I was sure of it, but I was absolutely certain he’d find something to pull me over for. It was like when the professor asks a question and no one raises their hand but you just KNOW they’re going to call your name for the answer. What do you know, as sure as Donald Drumpf is a racist this dude points a finger at me, “Pull over, let’s have a talk.” 10 minutes later I was again biking, milk tea in one hand and citation for biking with headphones on in another. I pulled into campus a bit less cheery than I was when I woke. As the great Marshawn Lynch said, “I know I’m gon get got but I’m gon get mine more than I get got though” so I headed though those doors determined to salvage the morning. That was the exact moment it dawned on me that I didn’t have class for 3 hours, I had confused my schedule. Damn. It’s ok, I already made the bike ride, I might as well sit in the library and do some work for a few hours. I was on a roll 20 minutes into my studies but everything changed when the fire nation attacked, and by the fire nation I mean my allergies. In a city like Davis it was only a matter of time befoe the itchy eyes and sneezing started but I’d been lucky to avoid it up until then. When it rains it pours and today I’ve been rained on enough to solve California’s water crisis. After 3 sneezes I walked out because I knew I wouldn’t be able to sit in there with what was about to happen. As soon as I left the room I sneezed close to 20 times in a row and simply left the entire building. I put on my Indiana Jones cap and went hunting for my holy grail, Zyrtec. Did I find any? Of course not! Utterly defeated I stumbled into Panera Bread, still sneezing, with eyes more red than a college freshman who just discovered the Devil’s lettuce. While pouring my coffee I saw a wheel chaired man struggling with the front doors; I set my coffee down and helped him. The old man looked to me and said, “thank you…fuck doors.” with that thought in mind I took a seat and decided that maybe my day wasn’t as bad as it seemed. That’s the story of how I found myself at Panera Bread with enough free time to finally write another movie review.

Thank you to those of you who read that above paragraph! Ultimately though this IS a movie review blog so let’s get to it.  The Witch (2016) is writer-director Robert Eggers’ directorial debut and damn does he deliver. I came across the trailer for this film a few months back and it was so mesmerizing that I had to watch it two more times to soak it all in. I showed the trailer to Liz soon after and we both agreed we had to watch it as soon as it came out. Here, see for yourself:

See? You can immediately feel that it’s not your standard horror film. There are no jump scares, all the tension stems from the music and drab visuals, you can tell that this is a movie that’s dripping with atmosphere. All of those aspects of the trailer are thankfully highly representative of the film. Too often trailers end up being absolutely nothing like the movie (I refused to be burned by The Purge series again!) but this is not one of those times. This is a movie that is absolutely full of tension but none of the thrills are cheap.

I’ll go ahead and introduce the cast and also praise it. The acting and casting is absolutely one of the best parts of the movie. Everyone involved did a fantastic job and was extremely convincing. This might be due to the fact that essentially the whole cast is relatively unknown. The film’s most well known star is the mother, Kate Dickie, of Game of Thrones breastfeeding fame. The father, William, is played by Jesus Christ look alike Ralph Ineson. And I don’t say Jesus Christ look alike to be funny, I’m pretty sure he was supposed to look like Jesus for symbolic purposes. The film’s best performance comes courtesy of Anya Taylor-Joy, a complete unknown who plays the role of Thomasin, the family’s oldest child. I’m certain we’ll be hearing her name in the future because her performance here surely put her on the map.  Similarly, Harvey Scrimshaw delivers a knockout performance as the second oldest child, Caleb. The rest of the family is rounded out by Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson playing twins Mercy and Jonas. Even these two little ones give good performance in their limited roles.

The story starts with the family on trial and ultimately exiled from their Puritan New England community. They set out to find a new home and settle on a decently sized plot of land by the creepy woods, what could possibly go wrong? Maybe I’m just too used to the city but if you decide to live by the woods I just assume you’re gonna get eaten, killed The Strangers (2008) style, chased by Acromantulas, or face the same dilemmas this family did. But I’ll forgive that because these were different times and settling by the woods just meant easy access to building materials and probably plenty of game to hunt. The family builds a pretty sweet house and farm and everything seems to be going well but then as subtly as a slap in the face everything goes wrong. The family’s newborn baby disappears, the crops fail, the woods end up being devoid of animals, and the family’s faith is repeatedly tested.

One of my favorite things about this movie is the cinematography. Jarin Blaschke nails it in depicting everything that is creepy about the woods. The remoteness and massiveness of the woods is one of the scariest things about the movie. To make it more clear think of those times when you’ve sat up in bed at 2:00 am, unable to fall asleep, thinking “Whoa, we’re less than specks of dust in this massive universe.” For those of you less existentially inclined, an even better example, think of floating over the Mariana Trench knowing that you can only see a few feet below you and also knowing the water stretches far deeper than you can even comprehend. You know you’re probably safe but there are countless of unseen creatures, massive and miniscule, that could end your life. And maybe, just maybe, Cthulhu himself is staring right at you. Similarly, the woods are dauntingly huge and confusing, one wrong turn and you may never find your way back. Beyond the sheer size of the woods is also the fact that the woods hide unseen evil. Every scene in the woods creates the impression that the family is not quite familiar enough with it to be able to wander into it carefree. Speaking of camerawork, I love that the scariness did not come from spastic jump cuts. The scariness came from the camera lingering much longer than you’d like on the same spots, you are powerless to escape from whatever may come. If you were there in person you would’ve turn around and ran a long time ago but here you’re forced to stare into the danger.

The lighting in this movie was also top notch. There wouldn’t be any tension in any of these scenes if it were not for the superb lighting. Given the time period the only sources of light once the sun set were moonlight and lanterns, creating the opportunity for menacing shadows and limited visibility.

I already talked about the acting but all the acting chops in the world wouldn’t have mattered if the story was weak. As you might’ve guessed, I really liked the story. The story was impressive not because it was a masterpiece that blew your mind but because it withholds just the right amount and right kinds of information. This is NOT a movie that tries to explain its entire universe or the mechanisms by which it operates. This is a movie where you observe a family’s faith being tested and struggling against an almost entirely unseen evil they cannot comprehend. You get just enough allusions to classic children’s folktales of the past with the twins’ songs and the imagery of the red cape. You get classic witch lore like the idea of bathing in blood for power and mentions to the book of witches. You get biblical references to things like the Book of Job and how this family feels like they’re being similarly tested. You get references to demonic entities and symbols through exorcisms and the imagery of the goat. All of this and more combines to make you see that this family exists in a rich world and while we may not ever find out exactly how all of it works, we know that it is there. At the end there were a few moments before the actual ending where I thought the movie would just fade to black but I’m glad that it didn’t because the actual ending was fantastic. The ending strikes a great balance between giving closure and leaving enough unexplained to keep you thinking.

I want to make a quick comparison that I have no doubts most people won’t relate to. Watching this movie made me feel a lot like I did playing the video game Bloodborne in the way the story is dripping with atmosphere, tension, and a deep lore that remains mostly unexplained.

Obviously I have nothing but praise for the movie, keep that in mind when I say that the music is my favorite part. That’s how good the music was. Mark Korven truly outdid himself with this one. The music kept me on the edge of my seat from the very opening. This is a movie that would’ve still been great with very sparring use of music and artificial sounds but instead it makes great use of Korven’s work. If I had to pick one word to describe the music it would be unrelenting. The longer the movie went on, the more I was impressed by how sound alone could make me feel so uneasy and tense.

I’m trying to think of things I didn’t like about the movie but there really isn’t much. The thing that bothered me most was the dialect that was spoken throughout the movie because it made it difficult to understand what was being said at times. I could make out more than enough to know what was happening but I undoubtedly missed some good stuff. In the end I don’t dislike the decision to use this type of dialect because it made the movie feel more authentic and it just gives me an excuse to watch the movie again with subtitles.

Also worth noting is that this movie reportedly had a tiny budget. I remember hearing that the whole thing was made for about $1 million. That’s a very low budget for what they accomplished! I know that shouldn’t influence my review but the fact that they put out such quality for that budget is very impressive.

After all the great things I had to say about this movie, I cannot say that I would recommend it to everyone. If you’re the type of person who only enjoys jump scares, a fast pace, a deeply explored story, and horror that really gets your heart racing then I really don’t think you’ll enjoy this movie very much. This isn’t to say that liking those kinds of movies is a bad thing. For every Lupe Fiasco or Kendrick Lamar you’re going to have a Chief Keef or 2Chainz and there’s nothing wrong with liking one style over the other or in liking both. Similarly, for every The Witch or It Follows (2014) you’re going to have a Dead Silence (2007) or Annabelle (2014). While I definitely appreciate both styles, I prefer the former category. I don’t know if it’s a trend or if I’m simply choosing different movies to watch but I’ve seen more and more movies move towards tense atmospheres and sounds to provide scares rather than jump scares and gore. Just this past year alone I’ve seen It Follows, The Babadook (2014), Goodnight Mommy (2014), and The Witch, all of which fall into this category I’m talking about. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that those are some of my most recent favorite movies. I’ll gladly watch the new Insidious or Paranormal Activity but it’s refreshing to see alternative styles of horror. Back to my point though, if you thought something like It Follows wasn’t scary enough for you or if you found The Revenant (2015) boring then you should probably skip this one.

To end my review I just wanted to say happy birthday to Liz! We were unable to watch this movie opening weekend but we eagerly watched it the weekend after on her birthday. For some reason we have a habit of watching some pretty twisted stuff on special occasions. It’s not on purpose or anything, it just happens. I still remember one of our first dates was me getting her to watch We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011), not exactly a heart warmer. Anyway I’m glad I have a partner who has an open mind about watching crazy stuff like this because otherwise I’d be alone in the theater more often than not.

 

Score: 4.0 out of 5

(This review is NOT spoiler free!!!)

Here we are, the big one. I’ve been thinking about writing this review for a few months now, ever since we started this blog. To be honest I haven’t looked forward to writing this one because it’s such a massive series, one that I’ve followed since I was a child. How do you even begin to write about something like that? How do you organize your thoughts? Regardless, for better or worse, here we are.

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), directed splendidly by J.J. Abrams,  is the seventh entry into the film series created by George Lucas way back in the 70’s. It’s hard to imagine a individual series as successful or popular as Star Wars. Star Wars has spawned countless video games, tv shows, documentaries, board games, clothing lines, novels, etc. You get the picture, the series is massive! Needless to say, the pressure was on when it came to making this film. After the abominations that were Episodes I-III, all I hoped for was a decent movie that opened the series up again for future development. I didn’t expect anything too risky or innovative by any means. I’m happy to report that the film blew my expectations away! This movie was so good that I went to see it twice in the same week and it was even better the second time around.

One of the first things that immediately stands out in this movie is the great script, something the prequel trilogy did not have. Let’s face it, no actor in the world could have made some of the lines in episodes I-III work. When you compound that with having wooden/monotone Hayden Christenson as your lead, you’re gonna have a bad time. Luckily the team that put the script together in this newest film did a great job. There was the right amount of fan service with plenty of clever quips and references and it was also the funniest Star Wars movie yet. At some points it almost even felt like it was becoming too comedic like in that later scene with Fin and Captain Phasma but luckily they never really went overboard with it. One thing that did bother me a tad was the amount of moments that felt like pure exposition. Specifically I noticed this in the moments where Kylo Ren and General Hux were talking to Snoke. These dark side conference calls felt like it was just the bad guys monologuing and outlining their plan in order for us to know what they’re doing. I made a point of focusing on these moments more the second time around and they didn’t bother me as much but I still noticed it. Given how sharp the writing was, I’m willing to give these small moments a pass because I’m really just nitpicking here. Han sounded like classic Han (“Move, ball.”), Leia sounded like Leia, and Chewbacca sounded like Chewbacca. None of the heroes we know and love were ruined or said anything that was out of character. As for the new characters, they have their own eccentricities and personalities that felt fresh.

Getting back to the acting, the casting here was spot on. A large part of why the original trilogy is far superior to the prequel trilogy is that Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, and Mark Hamill were all relatively unknown actors when they were cast so they WERE Han Solo, Leia, and Luke Skywalker. Their acting was believable. I hate to beat a dead horse here but the prequel trilogy has incredibly cheesy dialogue and bad delivery which completely breaks immersion and the authentic feel of the original trilogy. Don’t even get me started on the whole, “I hate sand” debacle! Anyway, this new movie is a return to form and whoever was in charge of casting deserves a bonus.

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I don’t know where they dug up Daisy Ridley but she is a straight up gem! Daisy plays the badass female lead, Rey. I’ll get more into characters later but I love the fact that Rey, a woman, is the main protagonist here and yeah, she’s pretty, but she is never sexualized or simplified or inferior. Rey is a well written character who everyone is dying to know more about and she’s a star not just in the context of the film but outside of it because now little girls around the world have a character who they can identify with and look up to and she bucks the trend of what a female character traditionally is in these types of films.

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John Boyega also knocks it out of the park as FN-2187, better known as Finn. I actually watched Boyega’s acting debut on the big screen back when my cousin gifted me passes to a special screening of Attack the Block (2011). I was pleasantly surprised with both the film and Boyega, who certainly stole the show. In the years between then and now I’ve occasionally re-watched Attack the Block found myself wondering if he’d ever make it big or if I’d ever see him again. When I saw his face pop up in the initial trailer for the new Star Wars, I was pumped! He’s a talented and relatively fresh actor who certainly has the ability to fill his big role. He was probably the most innocent and funny character in this movie and he clearly has the heart of a hero. I have high hopes for Finn in the future! I will say that his American accent threw me off the entire first showing because I only ever knew him as having a thick British accent but I got used to it. The same way Ridley is a hero young girls can look up to, Boyega is a hero that young black kids can look up to. I won’t jump into a sociological tirade because I could go on for days but we all heard of the outcry from a certain ignorant portion of the population regarding the “impossibility” of a black stormtrooper. That should be enough right there to show you that there was a need for a character like Finn. Sure, Star Wars had Lando Calrissian and Mace Windu in the past but neither of those two ever took center stage the way Finn did. And to those people out there hating on Finn I say: 1. Brush up on your Star Wars lore because the Empire stopped using clones for their army way before the destruction of the first Death Star 2. Shut the hell up.

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OSCAR FREAKING ISAAC, this is my dude right here! It’s really a toss up as to who my favorite new character is. On some days I might give it to Rey but on most days I’d have to go with Poe Dameron, the best fighter pilot in the Resistance. I’m very biased here because unlike the other new main stars, I’ve seen many of Isaac’s previous roles and I’ve been a fan of every single one. I liked the guy in Drive (2011), he really caught my attention in Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), and by the time A Most Violent Year (2014) and Ex Machina (2015) came around, I was completely sold. Oscar Isaac is one of my favorite actors given his role selection and he kills it as Poe. There will never be another Han Solo but Poe Dameron gives me the most Han Solo vibes of anyone besides the man himself. Poe has the swagger, the charisma, (had) the leather jacket, the piloting abilities, and the one-liners that have me thinking Han Solo 2.0. Not to mention he’s latino! Maybe that makes me more biased but he’s definitely tied for #1 coolest Guatemalan I know (shout-out to Mario Briones).

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Adam Driver as the new red saber wielding bad guy, Kylo Ren, is certainly the most controversial of all the additions. Part of the complaints are that Kylo Ren acts like a spoiled child in some scenes and part of it has to do with his appearance. I’ll get into that former part a bit later but I’ll get the latter part out of the way here. I agree that the reveal of Kylo’s appearance could’ve been handled a bit better. There was a palpably awkward moment in the theater when Kylo first took off his helmet for the first time because we all knew by then that he was Ben Solo, the son of Han and Leia. Everyone in the crowd had expectations as to what he would look like and when he took off his helmet he just didn’t look like what anyone was expecting. That isn’t a bad thing necessarily but it could’ve been done way better. I agree that Kylo looks nothing like Han or Leia but I think he has similarities in likeness to a young Darth Vader aka Hayden Christenson, which is good enough for me. I’ve pictures of Driver with what looks like a trademark goatee and mustache and I would’ve much preferred if they kept that look because he looks a bit more sinister and less like a smooth faced tantrum-thrower. Anywho, I’ve read nothing but great things about his acting abilities and he showcased them well here. His character had some critical moments of internal struggle in the film and Driver handled it very well! With the wrong actor the lines he had to deliver and the pain he had to show could’ve come off as really cheesy but he executed it well. He’s what I wish Anakin Skywalker had been in Episode III. Driver also certainly nails the voice! His deep voice fits perfectly as the villain.

Those are the only new additions I wanted to branch out and discuss because I feel like they were the most important and most talked about. Besides them there were obviously others that are worth a mention at least. Domhnall Gleeson takes over the new Governor Tarkin role as General Hux. I’ve been a fan of Gleeson’s previous roles but here there simply wasn’t enough of him to really say much. His speech to his army before the first firing of the Starkiller weapon was some of the best acting in the movie though and it bought him a pass in my book. Lupita Nyong’o is also in the movie but this was possibly the biggest let down for me. Lupita has all the acting ability in the world and she has a KILLER aesthetic for making a badass Jedi or Sith or something. Instead they used Lupita as the cgi Maz Kanata. Maz is a cool character, she’s supposed to be like the new Yoda or something, but it feels like a criminal underutilization of Lupita’s talents. They could’ve used anyone’s voice for Maz! Save Lupita for something special!

Before jumping in to discussing my thoughts on the events of the film, I want to finish off praising the film’s other aspects. The movie predictably had a perfect score given it was the master John Williams in charge. If anything I think we could’ve used a little more innovation in this area. Again, this just more nitpicking because the classic star wars music was just as fun to listen to today as it has been in every other movie. Williams also brings some solid new sounds. Moving on, the cinematography was also fantastic! This wasn’t the most gorgeous movie of the year by any means but the set pieces were great. The landscape views of Jakku and Takodana were beautiful. If you know me or have at least read some of my other reviews you’ll know I’m a big fan of the tracking shot. There was a phenomenal tracking shot here where Poe takes on about five or six tie fighters that I felt captured the thrill of being a pilot better than any other Star Wars scene before. Back tracking a little bit, I want to say a little more about the locations in this movie. As I was saying, Jakku and Takodana were cool. There were a few more locations that were great as well but overall if you think about it the locations were a bit too familiar. Starkiller Base was essentially Hoth, Jakku was obviously reminiscent of Tatooine, and Takodana was reminiscent of Endor or any other lush, green planet. This wasn’t extremely bothersome but it was something that I was very conscious off both times I watched the movie.

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Now let us get to the heart of the thing here, what we all came for, the STORY! I loved the story of this new Star Wars but it wasn’t perfect.

First of all, let me say that I was disappointed by how familiar the story felt. If you look at the story broadly you’ll notice it is almost step for step the same thing as A New Hope (1977). You have the young force-sensitive prodigy from a desert planet who gets caught in an intergalactic struggle against an Empire-like entity who wields a planet destroying weapon. I said before that I expected them to stay sort of safe with this one and just reintroduce us to the series but that’s different than straight up copying the plot of the original movie. That was a bit lazy in my eyes.

One of my biggest story complaints was HOW THE HELL did Leia and the rest of the Resistance STAY the Resistance?! If you backtrack to Return of the Jedi (1983), the entire point of the movie is that the evil of the Empire is defeated. The Emperor is killed, Darth Vader finds redemption in his dying moments, and the rebels party like crazy with the Ewoks because they did the impossible. We don’t know yet what officially happened in the time between A New Hope and this movie. Since Disney took over the series they’ve undone a bunch of the previously canon storylines. I know there is going to be a series of books that bridges the story between A New Hope and The Force Awakens but until then I’m left wondering how the rebels screwed up so bad that they’re still the rebels. How terribly did they mess things up that with Darth Vader and the Emperor out of the picture, Han, Chewie, Luke, Leia, and the rest of their army still couldn’t finish off the remnants of the Empire?

Another thing that bothered me, what exactly was going on between the Republic and the Resistance? I know it was stated by Hux that the Republic was responsible for supporting the rebels but we didn’t get much more than that. The whole thing just raised many questions that were never answered before the Republic was destroyed. How was the Republic supporting the rebels? Why weren’t they seemingly doing anything about the fact that the Empire was still out there regrouping? Why did they not see giant lasers coming at them from across immense distances? I don’t know, maybe we’ll get some answers some other time.

Before jumping into a discussion on the bad guys, a quick word on the good ones. The cast of characters that form the heroes is fantastic because there are cool and fleshed out people everywhere. I’ve said enough about Rey, Poe, and Finn, you get the picture, they’re all great! I love how they gave Rey the most power or potential for most power, it was about time. I have my fingers crossed that she decides to go with a saber staff instead of a traditional saber when it inevitably comes time for all of that. Anyway, this movie was all about the new faces and passing the torch on while honoring the legacy of the characters that came before. I’m glad they went in this direction instead of trying to make our classic heroes the focal point. How awesome was it that Han could see how talented Rey was that he basically passed on the Millennium Falcon to her?! (Speaking of which, that initial escape from Jakku almost made me jump out of my seat in ecstasy after Rey powered the ship off, Finn got that perfect shot, and then they sped off into space!) We all know how cool Han and Leia are and about the amazing things they’ve done but lets face it, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fischer are old. Maybe being old isn’t as big of a damper on Leia because she’s a general and not out in the field but it was hard for me to imagine them pulling off Han Solo as a hotshot gunslinger for much longer. Note that I didn’t mention Mark Hamill. This is partially because we essentially didn’t see him at all in this movie. On top of that, you can get away with being old if you’re possibly the most powerful jedi master of all time. Actually, being old kind of helps because it just makes you seem more wise and experienced. I definitely had chills seeing Luke at the top of the hill at the end of the movie.

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Now for the bad guys! I don’t know who these people really are, I don’t know if they’re considered the Sith or not. Snoke references the Knights of Ren and the fact that Kylo is their leader but we don’t explicitly hear who they are or what their ultimate goal is. I didn’t like Snoke one bit in this movie. He seems to be the new Emperor type character and he may very well have incredible power but we never get to see it. I assume he can hold his own if he’s training Kylo Ren and is treated as all powerful but again, we only ever see his hologram. I was not in favor of the way they presented Snoke either. First of all, his name is trash. You can’t go from having great sounding bad guys like Darth Vader, Darth Maul, The Emperor/Darth Sidious, General Grievous, etc. to Snoke. Whenever I think Snoke I also think snot and that’s not a good look. Speaking of looks, I didn’t like that either. I don’t want to sound like I just hate cgi characters since you already know I wasn’t a big fan of Maz’s appearance but that was for a different reason. I had no problem with Maz’s appearance itself, I had a problem with them not using Lupita’s appearance as a character of her own. As for Snoke, he didn’t look menacing at all. We only saw his hologram but he looked decrepit and fragile. I’m willing to rethink my stance on Snoke after learning more about who he is and what he’s done or after we see more in future movies but as for now this is all we have to go off of.

I’ll keep my bit on Captain Phasma short, I was disappointed in her character. She has the potential to be great and I’m sure she will be but she wasn’t developed at all and barely made any appearances. I only included her here because I assume she’s special if she’s wearing that special chrome suit which admittedly looks really cool.

Likewise, I’ve said pretty much all I’ve wanted to say about General Hux as well. He has potential and his speech was great but I need to see more of him before I form an opinion either way.

Now, Kylo Ren, the divisive. I already talked about Kylo’s appearance but I’d like to address other complaints people had. The reason I do this is because I think Kylo Ren is the most compelling villain amongst the lackluster “bad” side. The previous movies always had great villains, even the prequels did a solid job of that. You always had a good set of bad guys to keep you interested. If you’re like me, sometimes the villains were even your favorite characters. I think Kylo has the most potential to be one of these great villain. People didn’t like that he seemed to throw tantrums when things didn’t go his way or that his arrogance often times had him do something stupid. Everyone has to remember Kylo is young! He isn’t a master yet, he hasn’t even completed his training. He has so far showcased impressive powers like being able to read people’s minds and being able to stop a powerful blast in mid-air. Think back to Anakin when he first became Darth Vader, he was reckless and arrogant too. His recklessness and arrogance is what ended up getting him into that iconic Vader suit in the first place. What do we know about the dark side of the force? We know that rage and anger are the tools of people who use the dark side. Being able to passionately channel rage at the right moments and being able to control it is the whole point. Of course Kylo is going to be angry and show displays of frustration, he hasn’t learned how to fully control his anger yet. I think it would’ve been a huge misstep and boring if they had made Kylo Ren a master of sorts from the get go. Think about it, have we ever had the pleasure of watching a bad guy really mature? Count Dooku was always quite powerful and so was Darth Sidious. General Grievous seemed to be at the peak of his power as well when we met him and Obi-Wan killed him quickly anyway. We had Darth Maul but he was diced up quickly too. The only bad guy we’ve really seen develop is Anakin/Vader but we only got a real glimpse of that in Episode III and once we’re into Episode IV, Vader is already a master. Give Kylo Ren a chance, I don’t think the people in charge of writing the story will screw him up. Also I think his struggling with the draw of the light side versus the dark side was a nice touch that shows he still has Luke, Leia, and Han’s spirit in there somewhere. To people saying he’s weak because he couldn’t beat Finn and Rey in a lightsaber duel there at the end, remember two things: 1. Rey is obviously some sort of prodigy who tapped into the force to catch an overconfident Kylo off guard. 2. Kylo had just taken a hit straight on from Chewie’s blaster which the movie made a point of showing as being very powerful.

Of course, I can’t write this review without talking about the death of the beloved Han Solo. I was lucky enough to have not had this movie spoiled for me so when this moment happened it really hit me full on. Han Solo is without a doubt my favorite Star Wars character. I know he doesn’t wield a lightsaber and he can’t use the force but he’s undeniably the most cool character and the fact that he’s a legend in a universe where superheroes essentially exist speaks for itself. I won’t say the moment was entirely unexpected when it happened, looking back it was pretty obvious at various points that something terrible was going to happen. For me it went a little something like this: 1. Han and Chewie splitting up had me worried a death was coming. 2. Han approaching Kylo on the bridge made the thought of Han dying cross my mind but I didn’t want to think it was possible. 3. The vagueness of Kylo’s speech when he was talking about Han helping him do what he had to do pretty much gave it away. 4. When the light dimmed I knew it was the end. At first I felt extremely sad and angry that Han died in that way because I couldn’t imagine this great smuggler and survivor taking such a stupid risk but the more I thought about it the more I accepted it as the correct decision. Han wasn’t just a smuggler and escape artist anymore, he was a father. He knew there was a good possibility of death but he used the last minutes of his life to try and save his son. I didn’t know if they’d ever kill Han Solo but I assumed that if they did he’d go out with a bang. He didn’t go the way I was expecting but he went unflinchingly knowing he was staring death in the face and that’s about as cool as it gets. Despite all of this, his death stung. While I saw his body fall into the pit below I still had hope that he was alive and would find a way out. He’s Han Solo after all! You never tell him the odds! I knew it was practically impossible but Han had been in tight situation before. I bet I wasn’t the only one who felt that way either.

After a few minutes I of course knew that was the end of Han but I accepted it. We have to realize that Star Wars has never been about an individual person. No one is bigger than the galaxy itself. Maz said it best when she said she’s been around for a long time and has seen the same eyes in different people. There have been many names and groups, some of which have destroyed planets, but everything balances out and life continues. Over the years I’ve spent many hours on Wookiepedia reading all about Star Wars story arcs that take places dozens of generations before the movies to dozens of generations after and everything in between. Many of those stories are substantially more fleshed out than even the movies are. The story that we all know is but a speck of dust in the overall story of beings throughout space and time. This is one of the biggest appeals of the series for me. We have this epic adventure with huge implications but it is still only the tiniest slice of what is happening in the grandest scheme of things. There will always be people struggling for something or other, when you zoom out far enough the lines of good and bad don’t even matter anymore. The most you can hope for as a character in Star Wars and even in real life is to make an impact relative to your existence. In the incomprehensibly large Star Wars timeline, Han Solo may just be a blimp on the radar but if anyone could have as large an impact as he did in his time and place, then that person is undoubtedly a legend as well. In a universe full of stars, Han Solo’s star will always be one of the brightest there ever was.

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P.S. They better do a hell of a job casting Han Solo for his spin-off because whoever gets the part will have an immense amount of pressure and wild expectations to live up to, mine included.

To close out this review I’m going to mention a few quick things I didn’t find a place for elsewhere. I want to give props to whoever choreographed the fights scenes. The lightsaber duels here were perfect. I’m not going to lie, as a kid I really enjoyed the crazy fights of the prequel trilogy. Once I grew older and was able to appreciate more, I realized that sometimes less is more. The fights here were believable and the tension had me on the edge of my seat without the need for flips and spins. Speaking of the final fight scene, I was disappointed in the way it ended with the Earth splitting to separate Kylo and Rey. Of course I didn’t think they’d kill Kylo Ren then and there, that would’ve really been wild, but there were better ways to spare him. You could’ve had the planet really start to erupt and Chewie show up just in time for them to get on and leave. You could’ve had Rey think she fatally injured him only to be mistaken. You could’ve even had Rey take some sort of pity on Kylo and leave him to die on an exploding planet. Instead we ended up with the earth splitting perfectly to put Kylo Ren juuuuust outside of Rey’s reach. That felt lazy and like a bit of a cop out but it wasn’t a huge deal.

BB-8 was phenomenal! It’s crazy how they can create a droid that communicates in beeps that has so much personality but it was done once with R2-D2 and they struck gold again with BB-8. C-3PO was in the movie for a little too, the line about his red arm was funny. Overall great job on the droids.

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Lastly I want to praise the use of cgi in this movie (not Snoke). That whole thing about less being more applies here even more so than in the fight scenes. I’ve seen the documentaries and read the stories about how George Lucas went from being reined in with the original trilogy to being allowed to run wild in the prequels. Obviously this shows when you look at the prequels and see the overwhelming amounts of crappy cgi that was used for essentially everything besides the actors. This film did a great job of bringing back the feel of the original where cgi was used much more sparingly and in the right places. We aren’t forced to watch entire planets made of cgi, everything looks much more believable this way.

Well there you have it! This was a big review and a bit of a mess of one too. I apologize for the messiness of this review but like I said, I had much to say and no clue how to organize it. I hope I got my general message across though, this movie was a very pleasant surprise for me. I was expecting to like it but I wasn’t expecting that it would have a legitimate case for being one of the best movies of the year. Is it the best movie of the year? No, probably not, but it is one of the best Star Wars movies ever made and that should be enough to excite us all for what is to come.

Omar: 4.0 out of 5

It has been a little over one month since my last review, I swear that wasn’t intentional! Every week I’d plan to write a review only to find myself putting it off for some reason or another (mainly law school). Now that I’ve finished writing my first law school final I am back to hit you with a Spectre review! I am a huge fan of the 007 series, specifically I am a huge fan of Daniel Craig‘s take on James Bond. I’ll be honest, Spectre wasn’t my favorite movie in the series but it wasn’t terrible by any means. Spectre is also one of those films that is worth the price of admission and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend you watch it in theaters.

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Spectre is the twenty-fourth film in the James Bond series, the second directed by Sam Mendes, and the fourth starring Daniel Craig as the main man. That’s quite a bit of 007! Just to make it clear, I have NOT watched all of the previous movies or read the books, I apologize if that offends you. I have watched pretty much all the classic films in the series though. I wasn’t as big a fan of the series before the Daniel Craig era because I grew up watching Pierce Brosnan as a kid and his Bond movies were too ridiculous and comic-like  for my taste. Craig came on the scene at the perfect time when I was old enough to appreciate a more dark and brooding character and storyline. I won’t waste time going too deep into it but Casino Royale (2006) hooked me completely, I enjoyed Quantum of Solace (2008) when factoring in the circumstances surrounding the movie, and I absolutely loved everything about Skyfall (2012). I had extremely high expectations going into Spectre because Skyfall was one of my favorite films of 2012 and Sam Mendes was returning to direct. The additions of Christoph Waltz, Lea Seydoux, and Andrew Scott also had me counting down the days until I could rush into theaters. These new additions didn’t collectively disappoint but they didn’t exactly hit a grand slam either.

As always, I’ll begin with the positives. Spectre is a gorgeous movie. You might think that this isn’t saying much because all four of the last Bond movies have been gorgeous but this movie might just be the prettiest one yet. I was enamored with the cinematography, locations, set-pieces, etc. in Skyfall and I didn’t think Spectre had a chance of topping it. Whether Spectre actual tops Skyfall is subjective but I think at the very least the films are even in this regard. One of the fun things about these movies is that they have specific elements that you look forward to seeing in every movie like when the Bond girl will show up, the opening song, when Bond will say “Shaken, not stirred”, and the opening sequence. There have been many great opening sequences but the one in this film was the coolest and most gorgeous one to date. Maybe I’m biased because dia de los muertos is a part of my culture and I have an obsession with tracking shots but that scene was jaw-dropping from a technical standpoint. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve gone back to watch True Detective‘s stunning tracking shot in season 1 episode 4 and the same is probably going to happen once this film’s opening sequence is on Youtube or I buy the blu-ray. While Mexico City highlights one of the film’s more colorfully eye-pleasing moments, the scene at the Spectre meeting in Rome highlights a different type of beauty. The scene in Rome is gorgeous for its use of shadows, silence, and pauses to create what is likely the film’s most menacing and tense moments. In typical Bond fashion, the cars, locations, and clothing were all beautiful. You get the picture, this is a good looking film.

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The second thing I liked about the film was the script. I wouldn’t say this was a masterpiece script but it was fitting for what it was. Bond was suave and confident under pressure as ever and there was more than enough witty banter to go around. Waltz was clever and cruel, Seydoux was funny and alluring, and Scott was as big a jerk as always. I also want to sprinkle a little praise onto Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, and Ben Whishaw, all of whom were dynamic in their roles. One of the things I hate is when a film focuses too much on developing one or two characters and leaves the side characters feeling flat. Again, the script won’t be winning any Oscars but it was solid.

I’ll give some brief praise for the film’s score. During my very short time double majoring in film sound was always one of my worst subjects. I can’t recall exactly why but I definitely didn’t do those sound chapter readings. Anyway, this movie has an awesome score. It’d be kind of hard to mess this up when the series has such iconic sounds. Think of Star Wars, just recycle those classic Star Wars sounds in the new movies and your job is done. As for the opening song, Sam Smith is no Adele but I enjoyed his rendition.

Onto the action sequences, you can’t review a 007 film without talking about the action. As you might expect, this movie had spectacular sequences! From the opening scene in Mexico to the car chase in Rome to the plane scene in Austria, this is a movie that is worth watching on the big screen.  I like to compare this movie to The Dark Knight Rises (2012) in that it is such a grand movie that you just enjoy it more watching it at least once in theaters with a large screen and great sound system.

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Now for the bad stuff, I’ll carry my Batman comparison a bit further to explain how this movie fell short. At this point I hope we’ve all watched The Dark Knight (2009) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012). I think most people would agree that the former was a near perfect movie (for a comic book movie). TDK introduced Batman’s most iconic enemy in The Joker, had the series’ best acting performance (Heath Ledger), had a fantastic story, and had very few, if any, plot holes that broke immersion. Fast forward to TDKR and we have another great and authentic comic book film with all the series staples. That being said, Bane (Tom Hardy) was never going to be as compelling as The Joker, the story wasn’t as good, and there were many plot holes and moments where you had to consciously suspend your disbelief to enjoy what was going on. In the context of the recent Bond series, Skyfall was my Dark Knight and Spectre was my Dark Knight Rises. This isn’t a perfect analogy because Skyfall certainly had some notable plot holes but they never truly broke my immersion. There were many moments in Spectre where I had to make a real effort to not let a wild action sequence, random sex scene, weird character motivation, etc. break my level of immersion. Specifically (but not too specifically for spoilers sakes), Blofeld’s motivation and Madeleine Swann’s relationship with 007 were highly unconvincing. I wasn’t as upset with the outcome as I was with the way the film got there. The way Swann and Bond developed really cheapened the authentic feeling of Bond’s relationship with Vesper (Eva Green). The results were fine if I look back at them in a vacuum but in the larger context of the film they weren’t convincing enough for me to feel entirely happy with them.

I want to talk specifically about Christoph Waltz now. Waltz is one of my favorite currently active actors. In fact, I like him more than every other actor/actress in Spectre. Christoph Waltz’s name is usually enough to get me to the theater and usually I come out with no regrets. Spectre is guilty of criminally underusing one of the best actors in Hollywood! IT’S CRIMINAL I SAY!! It’s my understanding that Blofeld (Waltz) is supposed to be Bond’s foil, the Joker to his Batman. If that’s actually the case then I think the writers missed a big opportunity with Waltz. I feel that Javier Bardem did a much better job of being Bond’s foil than Waltz did. Bardem was intelligent, physically imposing, flamboyant, and everything you could hope for in a Bond villain. I don’t want to give anything away but Blofeld’s motivations were pretty lame. Hell, even Dave Batista was a more menacing villain! There was one moment when Blofeld finally posed a real threat to Bond, one moment that had me on the edge of my seat, only for it to end in disappointment with another plot hole. Spectre (the organization) was shrouded in mystery and menace for the first three movies, an organization that moved in the shadows and had seemingly limitless power. When this movie revealed the inner workings of the organization it felt like your mom came in and turned the lights on when you were telling a scary story and the whole thing lost much of its bite.

This movie was great for many reasons beyond what I listed above and I definitely recommend watching it while it’s still in theaters but if you go in expecting to be blown away you’ll probably leave a bit underwhelmed. This movie seemed like a return to the older style of Bond film where things were less realistic and a tad more on the ridiculous side. That’s not necessarily a bad thing but it marks a difference in style from the rest of the films in Daniel Craig’s run. I had heard criticism that Craig’s movies were too much like regular spy movies and had lost the flair and wonkiness that were in previous entries into the series but I was a fan of the more serious and brooding style. Maybe that explains why I wasn’t as thrilled with Spectre as I was with Skyfall. All that being said, watch this movie.

 

 

Omar: 5 out of 5

Before I start this review I gotta give a shout-out to Liz because in less than an hour from now we’ll have been dating for 2 years and 2 months. Time flies! Even if it weren’t a special occasion I would have to give her some recognition for recommending this EXCELLENT movie from one of my all-time favorite directors. Paul Thomas-Anderson’s Boogie Nights took my breath away repeatedly and dealt with a subject that I haven’t seen all that much about in film.

P.T. Anderson is an American screenwriter, producer, and director from Studio City, California, known most recently for his adaptation of Inherent Vice (2014). I originally found out about him back in high school when he released the oscar-winning There Will Be Blood (2007). After falling madly in love with the guy’s clear talent, originality, and attention to detail I went on to closely follow his career and watch some of his older works. Despite not liking some of his works (Punch-Drunk Love) and not entirely understanding others (The Master), I’ve continued to admire his vision and ambition. The dude has talent! I always felt that it would take a great effort for him to top There Will Be Blood as my favorite movie of his but the whole time Boogie Nights lingered in the shadows. Boogie Nights, a movie I hadn’t watched that really makes it hard now for me to say what my favorite PT Anderson movie is.

Hey! Here's a pic I snapped of P.T. Anderson and Amy Adams at the 2013 Santa Barbara Film Festival!

Hey! Here’s a pic I snapped of P.T. Anderson and Amy Adams at the 2013 Santa Barbara Film Festival! Sorry for the potato quality, phones weren’t as advanced way back then.

On to the review you’re all hopefully dying to read! BN is the story of the 1970’s Golden Era of Porn, following the lives of porn’s biggest director, Jack Horner, along with many of porn’s biggest stars. This is definitely up there as one of the most star-studded casts I’ve ever seen! Mark Wahlberg, Julianne Moore, Burt Reynolds, Don Cheadle, John C. Reilly, William H. Macy, Heather Graham, and more all star in this film with a young looking Marky Mark taking center stage. Like I said, so star-studded it’s basically a self-sustaining galaxy. And I have to pause here for a second to mention a “joke” I have about Julianne Moore. Is it just me or is sweet Julianne naked and/or making luurrve in almost all her movies? Seriously! The Kids Are Alright, Boogie Nights, Chloe, The Big Lebowski and those are just the ones I can remember off the top of my head. If a movie these days calls for a more mature woman in a nude or sexual position I automatically assume its Julianne Moore and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

But back to the review. As I was saying, this movie is about the Golden Age of Porn. The basic setup is that Eddie Adams (Wahlberg) is an energetic 17-year old with an unusual gift (a giant penis), working at an L.A. nightclub. One night, big-time porn director Jack Horner (Reynolds) spots Eddie and is immediately taken by him. After some convincing and aiding from Eddie’s family woes, Eddie decides to take up Horner on his offer and begin his transition into…DIRK DIGGLER! Biggest porn star on the planet! The rest of the decade flies with Diggler, Horner, and the rest of the cast on the up and up. This level of success can only be sustained for so long before something bad happens and when the First Family of Porn rings in the new decade, things start to go sour. The cool thing about this is that while Dirk and Jack are the clear focus of the film, all the other characters have their own things going on at the same time and it all feels real and interesting. This is of course aided by the all-around stellar acting from all involved. I always thought Wahlberg was a good actor but rarely does he truly wow me, his acting in this film was one of those special occasions in which he did.

Another small break to pour one out for the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman. It’s a real tragedy that he passed so young and this movie is just another on his long list of impressive achievements. His character didn’t have much screen time but his acting was some of the most impressive in the entire film.

So the story was fantastic as I’ve already stated. It was a long film at near 2 hours and 30 minutes but it didn’t feel TOO long. It felt like a fully fledged journey. In many ways the story reminded me of Goodfellas (one of my favorite movies ever) but with an entirely different topic. The story has some really great themes as well! Some of the discussions addressed that I can remember are violence against women in the media (specifically porn), celebrity drug usage and dependence, and how the rest of the world views pornography and its stars.

Besides the acting and story there is no way this review would be complete without mentioning the phenomenal cinematography work by Robert Elswit. In this movie he often uses very long and wide tracking shots that are visually beautiful and technically impressive. I really liked the tracking shots of roller girl and other club-goers in the opening, Dirk Diggler’s first Horner pool party, and William H. Macy walking through the house on New Year’s.

Without going into too much detail, the script was just as good as every other element of the film. The dialogue was very funny, original, and convincing. I laughed out loud repeatedly! This review is getting a little long so I’ll leave it at that for the script.

I have one last thing to mention in closing this review. Maybe I’m just reading into it too much but I noticed repeated Star Wars references and I don’t know why they were there but I loved them. In one scene John C. Reilly claims people say he looks like Han Solo, Don Cheadle is tries to sell the TK-421 sound system modification (TK-421 being a clonetrooper on the death Star), and Burt Reynolds looked STRAIGHT UP like George Lucas! Again, maybe this is just me but I thought these were cool. BUT ANYWAY, this movie was ridiculously good and I’m extremely happy that I finally saw it.

Omar: 5 out of 5 stars

So there are some movies that everyone with even a mild interest in film simply HAVE to watch. This movie is one of them. I’ve known for the longest that I needed to watch Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential (1997) yet I continued to put it off while keeping it a closely guarded secret that I had neglected this classic. Last week I finally shed this secret shade of mine. It was my girlfriend’s turn to pick the film to watch and I’m extremely grateful that she picked this one. 

The first thing you’ll notice about this impeccable noir is the stellar cast. The story follows three L.A. detectives played by Guy Pearce, Russell Crowe, and Kevin Spacey. Along side these three leading men, Kim Basinger plays the femme fatale (and won an oscar for her performance) and Danny DeVito plays a sleazy reporter. So yeah, stellar cast. As you’d expect with a cast like this, the acting was A1.

Usually this is where I would go into some mild detail on what the story was about but if you know anything about the noir genre you’d know that plot lines are intentionally convoluted and meant to confuse. To try and explain what goes on in this movie would be pointless as it would sound too confusing so just trust me on this one, the story is phenomenal!

To earn the coveted 5 out of 5 perfect rating from me a film must do everything or close to everything exceedingly well and this movie accomplishes that. What draws me in most when it comes to noir films is the art direction. I absolutely love the lighting, the darkness and shadows, the angels, etc. Let me show you some examples of what I’m talking about.

…So anyway, I’m a big fan of how this movie manipulates light to create some awesome atmosphere.

Of all the noir movies I’ve seen, this one is what I would describe as the quintessential noir movie (although I’m ashamed to admit I haven’t watched Chinatown yet). One thing that stood out to me in terms of plot that I enjoyed were the three personalities of the detective characters. I enjoyed seeing three very different types of cops at work and seeing how they all came together and interacted. You have Guy Pearce as the young hotshot who works by the book and doesn’t mind throwing crooked cops under the bus on the pursuit of justice. You then have Kevin Spacey, the sort of witty fame-seeking cop who likes the spotlight and wants to do things the easy way and coast. Finally you have Russell Crowe the savvy veteran who doesn’t hesitate to rough people up, plant evidence, sleep with prostitutes, and more. All of them fit their roles well and did a good job of bringing their characters to life. Oh yeah, the music was  great too!

I agree with Liz that Kim Basinger didn’t blow me away enough for me to understand why she won the best actress award but that has more to do with the fact that I didn’t think her character was all that spectacular. She certainly acted the part extremely well but her character didn’t do enough or have enough screen time for an oscar win.

There really isn’t that much to say beyond that! The movie was amazing and I can see why its so highly regarded, a classic by all means.

Omar: 4.0 out or 5!

And we’re back! After an absence of a few too many days, I’m coming at you with another review. A few days ago my lovely James McAvoy-loving girlfriend insisted that I watch Jon S. Baird’s Filth (2013)What got my attention even more than her incessant requests that I watch it was that it took her multiple attempts to actually make it through the whole thing. She kept describing it as quite vulgar yet fascinating. After watching the movie I completely understand what she meant, this movie was homophobic, misogynistic, and straight up filthy (heh) but it was equal parts fascinating, surprising, and ultimately highly enjoyable.

The reason I decided to use the above image instead of any of the many other options is because of the words FROM THE CREATOR OF TRAINSPOTTING. Now if you haven’t watched Trainspotting (1996) pause right here, slap yourself for being so irresponsible, watch it, and then come back. Scottish author Irvine Welsh wrote both Trainspotting and Filth and it shows in the way both movies play out. Both films have a similar aura and while Filth doesn’t quite reach the level of Trainspotting, it’s still definitely worth the watch.

Trainspotting had us following the ridiculous exploits of drug-addicted criminals, Filth has us following the exploits of drug-addicted criminals who wear police badges. In other words, the protagonists are nearly identical morally except they’re on opposite sides of the law. This time James McAvoy is in the starring role as the borderline-sociopathic Detective Sergeant of Edinburgh, Bruce Robertson (quite the mouthful, isn’t it?). The plot follows Bruce as he attempts to win a promotion to Detective Inspector by investigating the murder of a Japanese student. I’m sure this sounds like a fairly straight-forward and standard storyline that has been made and remade countless times. Assuming this movie to be anything close to typical would be a big mistake as the mentally unstable Bruce is plagued by constant hallucinations, mental breakdowns, drug addiction, sex addiction, and much more that leads him to abuse his power and be an all-around terrible person, often times to a comedic degree.

Let me be more specific about the things I liked about this movie; the script, cinematography, plot, and ACTING were all top-notch. I don’t know if there is a name for movies like Trainspotting, Snatch, and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels that offer lightning quick and clever dialogue along with excessive cursing and wild plots but I’d certainly add this movie to that list as well. While the dialogue was often reprehensible, it was clearly meant to be so and executed flawlessly. The cinematography was never stunning or anything like that but I liked the different angles used and I also enjoyed the blue color palette used. Along with that there were many cleverly framed shots and the I liked the surreal nature of the hallucination scenes. The plot was great for reasons that I cannot discuss. I’ll just say there is a very interesting twist that I never saw coming and I’ll leave it at that.

Now on to what was the strengths best strength, the acting! To go even further, it’s not even fair to say the acting in general because the rest of the cast was great but James McAvoy was in a class of his own. I’ll be honest, I was already a fan of his acting coming into the movie but this was some of the best acting I’ve seen him do. Sometimes certain people nail a role so well that you couldn’t picture anyone else in their shoes and this is one of those cases. Some of the things he does and says in this film are outrageous yet I’m entirely convinced because of the way he delivers it all.

As stated above, I give this movie 4 out of 5 stars. My only complaint was the excessive crudeness of the movie and this might be a bit hypocritical because often times it was also one of my favorite parts of the movie but whatareyougonnado?

Keep an eye out for my next reviews, L.A. Confidential and Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation!

Omar: 3.5 out of 5

After I finished watching Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive back when it premiered in 2011 all I wanted was a scorpion jacket, driving gloves, a toothpick, and to drive fast. Since then I’ve bought the movie on bluray and often list it as one of my favorite movies ever. Any movie that reminds me of Drive (or the equally stylish Hotline Miami) tends to instantly make me smile and pay close attention, this is part of the reason why I loved Keanu Reeves in John Wick so much. In these past four years since Drive, I finally found a movie that compares in style in Adam Wingard’s The Guest.

Let’s start with a brief description of what this movie is about. On a seemingly random and unimportant day, the Peterson family is visited by Afghanistan war veteran David (Dan Stevens). Mrs. Peterson, still mourning the death of her son Caleb, is quick to invite David in and offer him a room for the night after he explains that he was a friend of her son. The almost jarringly polite David is readily taken in by the entire family. Within the course of a few days David is picking up the younger Peterson son from school, attending parties with Anna Peterson (Maika Monroe), listening to the Mr. Peterson’s work troubles over beers, and helping Mrs. Peterson with household chores. Everything is not as it seems for the Peterson family and only the smartest Peterson, Anna, is suspicious of David’s story. Without wanting to spoil anything I’ll leave it that.

One of my favorite things about this movie was the cinematography. The style of this film is palpable as it was with the other movies I mentioned in opening this review. That scene near the end of the film at the high school gymnasium has been on my mind since the movie ended. That entire scene and the ones like it that preceded it simply exude coolness.

My absolute favorite thing about the film is the music. The soundtrack is amazing from start to finish and matches the style of the film like a pig in a blanket (yeah, I totally just made that idiom up). As a matter of fact I’m currently listening to the soundtrack loudly on my headphones as I write this. If you want a hint of what I’m talking about here, it is:

Pretty great right?! 5/5 stars for the film’s soundtrack but unfortunately this isn’t a soundtrack review.

My main gripe with the movie doesn’t have anything to do with the over-the-top action or the intentionally ridiculous acting and script. I understand that these things were consciously put into the film to contribute to the overall aura. My main complaint was with the story. The film begins intentionally slow and progresses steadily towards its final loud crescendo but it does so in a way that felt too unbalanced for me. Maybe I’m just nitpicking but I think the film could have been better balanced. To add to that, the movie had so many overly stylish moments that bordered on cheesy. I’m convinced these were also by design but I’m still marking the film down a bit for them. The major thing I didn’t like about the story was simply that it wasn’t all that special. The explanation for what happens in the second half of the movie doesn’t seem as something created for the purpose of writing a good story as much as just an excuse for characters to run wild, have shootouts, and chase each other in cars. I can’t help but return to Drive and compare the two given all the similarities and I know that’s unfair to this movie because it deserves to exist on its own but those are just my own biases. In the end a 3.5 is probably lower than many people would give this movie but the story felt too noticeably weak to me when compared to the excellent style of the film. It was still a highly enjoyable movie and I would recommend it to anyone looking for a fun and stylish movie.

But come on, compare the two and tell me you don’t see the similarities!

Mild Spoiler Warning

Omar: 4.3/5

Here we go, another film I’ve been wanting to watch for the longest time. My desire to watch Marc Forster’s Finding Neverland stemmed from knowing it was supposed to be a good film and from being curious to see how J.M. Barrie’s life was adapted for the big screen. It took my lovely girlfriend Liz’s persistent recommendation to get me to finally watch it. For that I thank her because the movie does quite the job of depicting this story and even though it’s not necessarily anything thrilling it’s just a very well and carefully made movie.

One thing I really liked about this movie that doesn’t necessarily relate to the content is that it has a very strong cast. With Johnny Depp occupying the main role (J.M. Barrie) and Kate Winslet, Dustin Hoffman, Toby Jones, Kelly Macdonald, and Freddie Highmore also involved, the cast has plenty of star power. This ensured that at the very least the acting would be top-notch. Along with the acting being fantastic, the costumes and set design were also great. This all adds to the air of authenticity that this film exudes and allows me to immerse myself in the film’s universe.

The next things I really liked about the film were the score and the cinematography. The music was very grand yet lighthearted and suited the movie well. The cinematography was also great which adds to why I said this was quite simply put, a very well made movie. The camerawork was great but even more than that the colors were very crisp and bright, super playful which goes with the theme of the movie (iMaGiNaTiOn). One scene that really stood out to me as an example of the creative cinematography happened when Depp was playing pirates with the Davies boys and their mother, the animation of the water and ship were superb! I loved how the film constantly showed J.M. Barrie’s creativity at work and alluded to what would eventually become Peter Pan.

To be honest I don’t have any real complaint with the movie. This is a highly polished movie that does a really good job of depicting the real life birth of Peter Pan. You may be wondering why I only gave this movie a 4.3. Well that would be because while the story was great, the cinematography and acting were top-notch, and it was quite polished, nothing ever happened to elevate the movie beyond just very good. That’s not a bad thing either! Sometimes some movies are just really well made interesting movies, not every movie needs to change your life or reinvent the genre.

Mild SPOILER Warning

Omar: 3.0 out of 5.0 stars

Vicenzo Natali’s Cube, now this is one that I had been wanting to watch for a very long time. Many years ago I came across this film online and the premise sounded so great that I could not wait to watch it. Over the years I would occasionally come across it on TV but either missed a portion of it or was only able to start it and had to leave before it finished. I was finally able to watch it from start to finish and I’m glad I did because it proved to be a very entertaining thriller. Of course if you’re looking at my score you can tell that I definitely had my problems with it and despite the entertainment value I feel like the film was held back in a couple of key ways.

This film starts out in an extremely gruesome manner but one that hooks you in right away. The basic setup to the movie is that a group of strangers find themselves locked in a industrial-looking cube-shaped room with doors on every side (meaning six doors per room). Each door can be opened by spinning the latch attached and opens to another seemingly identical room. The only difference being that some rooms are colored differently….oh yeah and some rooms have deadly traps in them that kill you within seconds. Any who, the original group of five strangers (eventually joined by another later in the film) provide more than enough fodder for cube’s endless gory traps as they try to figure out what the hell is going on and how to find their way out.

Lets start with things I liked about the film because I think it did many things very well. What I find to be the strongest point of the movie is the mystery of the cube. The plot and characters were a bit weak but the concept of the cube and the mystery that shrouds it were enough to keep me intrigued. The story does a good job of not telling you too much which keeps you guessing. Another thing I liked about the movie was the atmosphere of tension. When death potentially lurks behind every locked door and the only way to survive is to keep going through said doors there are obviously going to be some tense moments. The movie doesn’t just rest on this inherent tension though and does a good job of elevating these moments with claustrophobic and disorientation camerawork using techniques like zooming in for closeups on characters faces and angling cameras to look up at faces rather than straight on. There is also very limited use of any music except for during the most tense and crucial moments which again serve to elevate these moments even further. I also liked how the lighting worked in the film in that everything was made to feel and look so artificial and industrial, it added greatly to the feelings of claustrophobia and desperation to get out. Lastly, I also loved that the movie was ambitious enough to not be afraid of killing off anyone at any moment.

Now to what I didn’t like about the movie. The story beyond just the concept of the cube was pretty lackluster. The main characters felt flat and I had no reason to like or root for any of them. At the very end I started to pull for some of them but by then the movie was pretty much over. I actually found most characters to be sort of obnoxious to the point to which I felt nothing when they died and really didn’t care if they made it out of the cube or not. The next big thing I didn’t like about the movie was unfortunately the script. Other than simply feeling dated the script was also quite dry, interactions between characters felt stiff and phony. At times I also felt like the movie’s pacing was off, some moments  moved way too quickly and others dragged a bit.

In the end I give this movie a 3.0 out of 5 stars because while the concept was exciting and fascinating, the characters and script (two of the most important aspects to any film) were just too flat and uninspired. I did love how the film reminded me greatly of Portal 2! and I must say that I did enjoy the bit of irony at the end there though where: *SPOILER*  Kazan, the character who was least fit to survive in the real world where he was most likely treated as an outcast and who was most capable of surviving inside the cube, survived while the rest of the cast who was more suited to surviving in the outside world than the cube all died.