[#2018oscardeathrace] The Greatest Showman (2017)

Director: Michael Gracey

Cast: Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron, Michelle Williams, Rebecca Ferguson, Zendaya

Screenplay: Jenny Bicks, Bill Condon

105 mins. Rated PG for thematic elements including a brawl.

  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures (Original Song) “This is Me” [Pending]

 

Musicals are getting a comeback recently thanks to La La Land. In 2017, the same lyricists contributed to The Greatest Showman, a musical biopic based on the life of P.T. Barnum. So can the film stand up to meet the music?

Phineas T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman, Les Miserables, Logan) came from nothing. When his father died, he was forced into a life of stealing bread and selling old newspapers just to survive, but his hard work and determination to give his beloved Charity (Michelle Williams, Manchester by the Sea, All the Money in the World) the life she deserves brings him to the creation of P.T. Barnum’s Museum, a building of curiosities and unique people. When Barnum’s successes lead him further away from his family, he is forced to confront what is most important in his life.

Okay, so the music is incredible here. I could not stop tapping my foot all throughout the film, and I did actually enjoy myself. The best songs in the film are the opening number and, of course, “This is Me.”

The biggest problem with the movie is that the story hits familiar beats all too often. There is a lot in P.T. Barnum’s life to cover, but the screenplay focuses on some paint-by-numbers plot points like the way Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, The Snowman) influences the plot and the love story between Philip Carlyle (Zac Efron, High School Musical 3: Senior Year, The Disaster Artist) and Anne Wheeler (Zendaya, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Zapped).

Hugh Jackman is, thankfully, a tremendous force in the film. In prepping for his role as Barnum, he read over 30 books on the famous showman. His role is joyful, emotional, and full of life. The Greatest Showman has been a passion project for Jackman since 2009, and his passion shows through here.

I left the theater with a big damn grin after The Greatest Showman ended. Much like The Disaster Artist, the film is about the need to perform and create, and in that way, Jackman’s performance shines through. He and the rest of the cast give their all in their acting and singing, but the screenplay hits a few too many beats. That being said, this is still a lovely time, especially in the theater.

 

3.5/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

 

 

For more Almighty Goatman,

[#2018oscardeathrace] Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi (2017)

Director: Rian Johnson

Cast: Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis, Lupita Nyong’o, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Gwendoline Christie, Kelly Marie Tran, Laura Dern, Benicio del Toro

Screenplay: Rian Johnson

152 mins. Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action and violence.

  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Achievement in Visual Effects [Pending]
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures (Original Score) [Pending]
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Achievement in Sound Editing [Pending]
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Achievement in Sound Mixing [Pending]

 

I guess it’s true. No one hates Star Wars more than Star Wars fans. This movie was divided as hell, but does The Last Jedi deserve the hate or is it missing the praise?

Picking up moments after the events of The Force Awakens, Rey (Daisy Ridley, Murder on the Orient Express, Only Yesterday) has found Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill, Brigsby Bear, Bunyan and Babe) on Ahch-To to discover that he has abandoned the Jedi code to live out his days in quiet solitude. Meanwhile, General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher, Maps to the Stars, TV’s Family Guy) leads the resistance forces away from D’Qar as a First Order fleet arrives to take them. Now, they are on the run from First Order forces. Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac, Ex Machina, Suburbicon) makes a costly mistake in the defense of the convoy and falls into a path of mistrust when Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern, Wild, TV’s Big Little Lies) assumes command of the Resistance forces. Now, as the First Order closes in, Finn and Poe attempt to save the convoy, Rey finds herself drawn ever closer to Kylo Ren (Adam Driver, Paterson, TV’s Girls) and the truth about her past.

Okay, so I’m not a Star Wars apologist. I find the prequels to be extremely middling in quality, and even though I love all the Star Wars films, I’m not above finding glaring issues that stick out. That being said…

I loved The Last Jedi. It completely changed the game and added so much to the mythology by driving the film forward rather than looking to the past. This is an incredible addition to the Star Wars Saga. Rian Johnson (Looper, The Brothers Bloom) came to the table and took what J.J. Abrams created with The Force Awakens and pushed it further. It’s definitely not like its predecessor in that it isn’t how I expected it. In fact, that’s what I love most about the film. I walked into it with all these preconceived ideas about how the movie has to go, and I would say just about all of them were wrong. I love The Last Jedi because I was shocked and surprised when I watched it, and that hasn’t happened since The Empire Strikes Back.

The film’s performances and cast are top-notch yet again, particularly leads Hamill and the late Carrie Fisher, this being her final Star Wars outing. Hamill could easily have been nominated for Best Actor at the Oscars with his most subtle and tortured performance in his entire career. Skywalker is broken by his failure to save Ben Solo.

There’s also some really great work from Ridley and Driver, especially in their shared scenes. We see some darkness in Rey and some potential good in Kylo. It’s clear that these two have not fallen into their roles as enemies yet. There are some nice flaws showcased on both sides here.

I also have to say some about Andy Serkis (War for the Planet of the Apes, The Adventures of Tintin) as Supreme Leader Snoke. He doesn’t get as much to do in this new installment, much like The Force Awakens, but the way he is utilized in this film is far superior to Episode VII. Unfortunately, Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave, Queen of Katwe) and Gwendoline Christie (The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2, TV’s Game of Thrones) feel shoehorned in as Maz Kanata and Captain Phasma, respectively.

But the film was always going to be divisive. I just wasn’t prepared for how divisive it would be. Even Mark Hamill expressed concerns to Johnson about the direction of the film, but after seeing the finished product, it sounds like he has since been won over.

And there are things I take issue with in the film, but they are merely nitpicky things like a particular Leia scene that comes across a little silly. There’s a moment early on with Luke that could have emotional impact but instead falls to cheap comedy. These are mere nitpicks and, in the scope of the film, this being the darkest film in the saga, I can understand the reliance on some levity.

The Last Jedi honors what has come before while also paving the way to what’s yet to come. It’s a unique Star Wars film, and it’s the best in the series since The Empire Strikes Back. Rian Johnson’s attention to detail and the film’s connective tissue with the rest of the sage, including Rogue One, is just another reason that this film works as well as it does. With this film, Anthony Daniels (The Lego Movie, The Lord of the Rings) becomes the only actor to appear in all the Star Wars live-action releases. I unabashedly loved the theater experience of seeing The Last Jedi, so much so that I saw it an additional two times. See this movie. Three Times.

 

4.5/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

 

 

For my review of George Lucas’s Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, click here.

For my review of George Lucas’s Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones, click here.

For my review of George Lucas’s Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith, click here.

For my review of George Lucas’s Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, click here.

For my review of Irvin Kershner’s Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back, click here.

For my review of Richard Marquand’s Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi, click here.

For my review of J.J. Abrams’s Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens, click here.

 

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[#2018oscardeathrace] Phantom Thread (2017)

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Lesley Manville, Vicky Krieps

Screenplay: Paul Thomas Anderson

130 mins. Rated R for language.

  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Motion Picture of the Year [Pending]
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Achievement in Directing [Pending]
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role [Daniel Day-Lewis] [Pending]
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role [Lesley Manville] [Pending]
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures (Original Score) [Pending]
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Achievement in Costume Design [Pending]

 

Phantom Thread came highly anticipated. After all, it isn’t terribly often that a performer considered one of the greatest of all time unexpectedly announces his retirement. As it happens, in 2017, Daniel Day-Lewis (Lincoln, Nine) did just that. It was only expected that Day-Lewis would get an Oscar nomination for his currently final film role, and as usual, he earns it. But what of director Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood, Inherent Vice)? This writer has a love-hate relationship with the director of Phantom Thread. Which way did the finished film sway me?

Phantom Thread is a 1950s-set film about fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis) and the strained relationship he has with Alma (Vicky Krieps, Colonia, The Young Karl Marx), a young waitress he meets. After all, he has a very particular way he likes things done. His working relationship with sister Cyril (Lesley Manville, Another Year, Rupture) proves that. Alma doesn’t want to live like that, but she cares for Reynolds very deeply, as he does her. Can they find a way to overcome their differences or are they doomed to drift apart?

Daniel Day-Lewis is incredible in his performance of Reynolds Woodcock, a brilliant but flawed lead. I do not think he will walk away with a statue at the Oscars for Reynolds (that lies with Gary Oldman’s Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour), but he is brilliant nonetheless. He is matched quite capably by Lesley Manville as Cyril.

My issues with the Phantom Thread? I just flat out didn’t care much for the movie. I thought it was overly pretentious, the film was boring and uninteresting for long stretches and no one in the film is all that likable. Day-Lewis and Manville are interesting, yes, and that makes up for some, but I didn’t care for Alma as a character at all. She is the one we are supposed to connect with, to strive for, and I found myself not caring what she did.

That being said, from a technical standpoint, the film succeeds gloriously. The visuals are often stunningly prepared, the lighting is great, and the sound production works well. As problematic as I found the rest of the film, I cannot fight how well-crafted it is.

Phantom Thread is pretentious, at times boring and its characters didn’t work well in bringing me into the film. I found the general plotline to be confusing in its tone and display. I flat-out didn’t enjoy myself in the theater like I have with some of Paul Thomas Anderson’s previous films, and that’s really too bad. One cannot argue about the incredible career of Daniel Day-Lewis, and he certainly goes out on a high note with Reynolds Woodcock.

 

3/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

 

 

For my review of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, click here.

 

For more Almighty Goatman,

Moonlight (2016)

Director: Barry Jenkins

Cast: Mahershala Ali, Duan Sanderson, Trevante Rhodes, Andre Holland, Janelle Monae, Ashton Sanders, Jharrel Jerome, Naomie Harris

Screenplay: Barry Jenkins

111 mins. Rated R for sexuality, drug use, brief violence, and language throughout.

  • Academy Award Winner: Best Motion Picture of the Year
  • Academy Award Winner: Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role (Mahershala Ali)
  • Academy Award Winner: Best Adapted Screenplay
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role (Naomie Harris)
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Achievement in Directing
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Achievement in Cinematography
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Acheivement in Film Editing
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Achievment in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Score

 

Don’t get upset. Moonlight won Best Picture and La La Land did not. Don’t be angry. I foresaw the win (but not the controversy) but needed to see the film before making my own judgment call. I needed to see for myself what the hubbub was all about. I’ve now seen Moonlight several times, and it’s one of the best and most important films you will ever see.

Moonlight’s storytelling technique is a little complex, so I’ll explain. Moonlight is in three pieces, each showcasing a different period in the life of Chiron. In each of the three key pieces, Chiron is played by a different actor of course. There is Little (Alex Hibbert), Chiron (Ashton Sanders, Straight Outta Compton, The Retrieval) and Black (Trevante Rhodes, The Night is Young, Open Windows). The narrative explores Chiron’s upbringing, his relationship with drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali, TV’s House of Cards, Free State of Jones) and his mother Paula (Naomie Harris, Skyfall, Collateral Beauty), and the themes of sexuality and identity that run through Chiron’s blood. It is an elegant and powerful tale.

The strength of Moonlight comes from the incredible ensemble both in front and behind the camera. The performances from Ali and Harris first spring to mind, but all three actors playing Chiron are just incredible.

Director Barry Jenkins (Medicine for Melancholy) put together a great team from a technical standpoint, bathing each stage of Chiron’s life in a different color tone. The film is gorgeously shot and expertly edited into a tight runtime that leaves little out of place. In fact, each piece of the story has its own musical cues and moments to play with. It almost feels like you could watch any one part of the story as a short film and be quite satisfied, but in the grander scheme, Chiron’s life comes into full view.

Moonlight is damn impressive, and very deserving of the Best Picture Oscar it took back from La La Land. I love both films, but I think Moonlight is exactly what it sets out to be and narrowly edges out La La Land. This is impressive filmmaking at its core, and I highly recommend you see it immediately.

 

5/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

[#2017oscardeathrace] La La Land (2016)

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Director: Damien Chazelle

Cast: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Rosemarie DeWitt, John Legend

Screenplay: Damien Chazelle

128 mins. Rated PG-13 for some language.

  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Motion Picture of the Year [Pending]
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role (Ryan Gosling) [Pending]
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role (Emma Stone) [Pending]
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Achievement in Directing [Pending]
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Original Screenplay [Pending]
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Achievement in Cinematography [Pending]
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Achievement in Film Editing [Pending]
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Achievement in Production Design [Pending]
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Achievement in Costume Design [Pending]
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures (Original Score) [Pending]
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures (Original Song) “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” [Pending]
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures (Original Song) “City of Stars” [Pending]
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Achievement in Sound Mixing [Pending]
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Achievement in Sound Editing [Pending]

IMDb Top 250: #41 (as of 2/5/2017)

 

Now we get to the biggie. La La Land matched the record at this year’s Oscar nomination celebration with 14 nominations. Now, it technically could only win 13 because of its double nomination for Original Song, but all the same, it looks to be a possible sweep of many awards on the upcoming awards night.

La La Land (2016) Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone)

Sebastian (Ryan Gosling, Drive, The Nice Guys) is a jazz musician looking to start his own club when he meets Mia (Emma Stone, The Help, Aloha), an aspiring actress currently shuffling coffee on a set while searching out her big break. The two are initially at odds, but their friendship soon blooms into romance as they discover a passion for the art within each other, but they soon find that the path of the artist is a narrow one and there isn’t always space for two to walk it together in the newest film from writer/director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench).

La La Land is a film that takes everything learned from Whiplash and uses it to push the boundaries of filmmaking, and Chazelle is an amazing artist who has crafted a modern musical masterpiece. The film also displays a common theme in Chazelle’s work, a dour but realistic representation of the costs to being an artist. It is a prevalent theme in Whiplash and only further pushes in La La Land.

Gosling and Stone have terrific chemistry, having worked previously together in Crazy Stupid Love and Gangster Squad. These two are destined to be one of the great romantic duos of our age. Their performances together are brilliant. Gosling also gives great work with John Legend (Soul Men, Loverboy) who appears in the film as colleague Keith. Gosling learned piano for the film while Legend learned guitar.

The difference here from, let’s say, Fences, is that La La Land is focused on the relationship but has the style to elevate the film to another level, whereas Fences only focuses on the relationship. Chazelle’s direction is almost another character, aided by top-notch cinematography, set design, and film editing.

Chazelle also takes the risky route with his finale, presenting a unique and interesting twist on this love story that may not win everyone over, but I love how it presents an ending that felt authentic but also hit on everything my inner romantic wanted from this film. The ending has its roots in the musical community and is nothing we haven’t seen before, but it just works so damn well here.

Lastly, I need to touch on the music, particularly “Audition (The Fools Who Dream” and “City of Stars,” both songs very worthy of their nominations. While I loved the opening number, it doesn’t have the emotional hit that these two songs have. I personally have my vote down for “Audition” but I wouldn’t mind a win for either.

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La La Land is going to take the awards this year, but I’m not certain about Best Picture just yet. Even so, it is a powerhouse film destined to be a classic for years to come. Even if you don’t love musicals, give it a try.

 

4.5/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

 

 

So have you seen La La Land? What did you think? What was your favorite number? Let me know/Drop a comment below!

 

 

For my review of Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, click here.

[Oscar Madness] Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me (2014)

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Director: James Keach

Cast: Glen Campbell

116 mins. Rated PG for thematic elements and brief language.

  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Song (“I’m Not Gonna Miss You” by Glen Campbell, Julian Raymond)

 

Here’s a truth for you: I’m not a fan of country music for the most part. Southern rock, certainly, but country music is a no-go. As far as Glen Campbell went, I knew the big hits, the ones that defined him as a performer. Then last year, I heard the song “I’m Not Gonna Miss You” and found it to be tragic and beautiful. It took some time longer for me to come across the film, Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me, and it was worth the wait.

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Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me is a film about, you guessed, it, Mr. Campbell and his farewell tour. Director James Keach (Waiting for Forever, Blind Dating) followed Campbell and his family as they experience the trials of the tour life. But the film is about so much more than that. I’ll Be Me is the story of a man inflicted with Alzheimer’s Disease and trying to cope. It becomes all the more taxing for a man who must remember his presence on a stage in front of thousands.

On the surface, the story feels simple enough, but as Campbell’s family unfolds the difficulties, not only for the famed singer but for them as well, the doc evolves into one of the most tragic and heartening experiences I’ve ever seen. Keach knows how to configure the narrative nicely to challenge the means by which we see Alzheimer’s. It isn’t just an ice bucket challenge or a novelty. Alzheimer’s is made all the more saddening in the film as Campbell’s family recalls all the memories that he has no knowledge. All the life he has saved being taken away from him moment by moment. The only real flaw of the film is the running time, which feels like it could be shortened to more accurately feel the impact.

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Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me is a very interesting and thought-provoking documentary. It’s a wonder it was only nominated for Best Original Song at last year’s Academy Awards (though, to be fair, the song is phenomenal). Check this one out as soon as possible.

 

4.5/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

[#2016oscardeathrace] Spectre (2015)

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Director: Sam Mendes

Cast: Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Lea Seydoux, Ben Whishaw, Naomie Harris, Dave Bautista, Andrew Scott, Monica Bellucci, Ralph Fiennes

Screenplay: John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, Jez Butterworth

148 mins. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action and violence, some disturbing images, sensuality and language.

  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Song (“Writing’s on the Wall”)

 

Well, let me assure you by saying that Spectre is the third best Bond film…featuring Daniel Craig (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Adventures of Tintin). Okay, I’m playing now.

Spectre opens with one of the single most impressive shots and sequences of the entire Bond franchise, due in large part to the masterful directing of Sam Mendes (Road to Perdition, Away We Go). Sadly, it is the film’s best moment, and while the rest of Bond 24 is exciting, it is missing something.

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James Bond has lost someone very close to him. In her place, he now has M (Ralph Fiennes, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, The Invisible Woman), who has bigger fish to fry when MI6 comes under political scrutiny. While M and Moneypenny (Naomie Harris, 28 Days Later…, Southpaw) try to protect the organization, Bond is off to discover the mysterious plans of the criminal syndicate known as SPECTRE, and his connection to its apparent leader, Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained, Big Eyes). There are a lot of spoilers to stay away from, so I’ll just leave it at that.

Sam Mendes described Bond’s dedication to uncovering SPECTRE as a more focused passion, and if that is the intention, I did not see it. Daniel Craig feels bored in this entry.

Christoph Waltz brings a healthy dose of fear to the villainous Oberhauser, and his henchman Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista, Guardians of the Galaxy, Riddick) feels nicely reminiscent of Oddjob from the glory days of Goldfinger, a much better version of homage than the way Die Another Day beats you over the head with it.

Fiennes, Harris, and Ben Whishaw (Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, In the Heart of the Sea) as Q do their collective day’s work nicely, but the film rests far too much on a personal story for James, and Craig’s best work is when he is being tortured.

Director Mendes gives us a gorgeous Bond film, even after losing the incredible Roger Deakins to other projects. In his place, we get Hoyte van Hoytema, who does some better than expected work but fails to properly convey his visual medium to the story correctly. It isn’t easy, and he certainly tries.

In Bond girls, we get some of the most well-crafted Bond girling from Lea Seydoux (Blue is the Warmest Color, The Grand Budapest Hotel) and some of the most underutilized work from Monica Bellucci (The Matrix Revolutions, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice).

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Maybe that’s the problem with Spectre. It’s just so uneven. There are some truly incredible sequences, and there are some snoozy moments. It just didn’t keep me the way previous entries have. Not a bad Bond film, but a step down for the franchise, its director, and Craig (who gave us better work this year in Star Wars: The Force Awakens; oh, you didn’t know that?).

 

2.5/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

 

So what did you think of Spectre? What’s your favorite James Bond movie? Let me know!

[#2016oscardeathrace] Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (2015)

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Director: J.J. Abrams

Cast: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Lupita Nyong’o, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew, Max von Sydow

Screenplay: Lawrence Kasdan, J.J. Abrams, Michael Arndt

135 mins. Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence.

  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Achievement in Editing [PENDING]
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Score [PENDING]
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Achievement in Sound Mixing [PENDING]
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Achievement in Sound Editing [PENDING]
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Achievement in Visual Effects [PENDING]

IMDb Top 250: #74 (as of 1/24/2016)

 

I’m still a little shocked that I’m sitting in my chair writing a review for a NEW Star Wars film, here in 2015. It’s a strange feeling knowing that the stories that inspired me to tell stories are back and big and (hopefully) glorious. Well, I won’t waste time covering all that I love about this franchise, and I’ll leave that to the previous reviews that you can check out below. Instead, let’s just focus on the elephant in the room: Is The Force Awakens any good?

Happily, yes.

It’s been thirty years since the destruction of the second Death Star and the death of the villainous Emperor and his disciple Darth Vader, and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill, Scooby-Doo! Moon Monster Madness, Kingsman: The Secret Service), the face of the rebellion, is missing. In his absence, the Empire has reformed into the First Order, and new evils Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Avengers: Age of Ultron), General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson, About Time, The Revenant), and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver, TV’s Girls, Frances Ha) have brought their special form of tyranny to the galaxy. Leia (Carrie Fisher, Maps to the Stars, Sorority Row) has dispatched rebel pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis, Ex Machina) to find her missing brother. As Poe finds new allies in ex-stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega, Attack the Block) and scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley), they begin to uncover the mystery of Luke Skywalker’s location.

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I’m going to leave the plot details to this, which is probably too much already, but you probably should’ve seen the film by now. Where have you been?

So let’s look to our director, J.J. Abrams (Super 8, Star Trek Into Darkness). While the film has been criticized as being too similar to parts of the Original Trilogy, I found it to be more of an homage of where we’ve come in this franchise and where we are going. The Force Awakens is a transitionary film, and a lot of that can be credited to Abrams, plus most people forget about all the new elements to this film.

The film relies a lot less on the seasoned performers than I’d thought. Instead, we meet so many colorful characters to liven up the franchise and move it forward. Daisy Ridley is the most impressive to me as Jakku scavenger Rey, who finds herself in a much lonelier place that Luke Skywalker did at the beginning of A New Hope. She lives a solitary life on the planet of Jakku, where she steals from the relics of the previous Empire and uses it to survive on the desolate desert planet. Her emotional resonance as a forced heroine is astounding and impactful and her character is the strongest female we’ve seen in this franchise so far.

Also throw in John Boyega, who provides a nice amount of true terror and comic relief without becoming a stock character. Finn has to deal with a life he learns he doesn’t want, and while I feel like the start of the film doesn’t do him justice, he grows to be lovable by the film’s climax.

Oscar Isaac and Adam Driver aren’t novice performers even if they aren’t exactly household names, and both turn out incredible performances as Poe and Kylo, two opposite ends of a spectrum. Poe could be a repeat of Luke but becomes something entirely different. Kylo Ren could just be Darth Vader 2.0, but the film is as much his origin story as it is Rey’s, and Kylo Ren is no Darth Vader. He is angry, spiteful, emotionally unstable, and mentally broken, which makes his character’s evolution something very interesting to see in the film.

Now, our returning actors are top notch as well, and of them, this is Han Solo’s (Harrison Ford, Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Age of Adaline) film. It’s nice to see Ford really giving it all to this franchise again, and even his relationship with Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew, Killer Ink, Dragon Ball GT: A Hero’s Journey) has grown and changed in the past three decades. On that note, Chewie gets a lot more development in this film than I expected.

Abrams isn’t afraid to bring something new to this franchise (and I don’t mean lens flares, though there are a few), and that can be seen from his choice in cinematography and editing. Though this feels like a Star Wars movie, it has a lot of updated choices to its camera movement and pacing that add to the excitement.

John Williams returns to the franchise, too, and his score, which has been nominated for an Oscar, is astounding. I was taken aback by the sheer amount of new music Williams created for the film, which has its cues in the themes we’ve had before, but so much more, and it makes him deserving of the gold statue.

From a production standpoint, it’s easy to see the attention and care given here by the use of practical effects, which also elevate the visual effects and style of the movie throughout.

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens is an awakening to the entire franchise, bringing us back to that childhood wonder of the original film while scoring a path to future adventures. It angers me that I find myself more excited for the next installment because of how much I enjoyed this one. Now, the film is imperfect in a few ways. I didn’t feel like every new character landed the way they were intended to, and some of the film’s most climactic moments (in the spoilery territory) faltered and their impact lessened. That being said, I found myself nitpicking Episode VII because of how much fun the movie was. Why haven’t you seen it yet? If you have, why haven’t you seen it again? Go. Go now!

 

4.5/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

 

For my review of George Lucas’ Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, click here.

For my review of George Lucas’ Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones, click here.

For my review of George Lucas’ Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith, click here.

For my review of George Lucas’ Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, click here.

For my review of Irvin Kershner’s Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back, click here.

[#2016oscardeathrace] The Hateful Eight (2015)

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Director: Quentin Tarantino

Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Demian Bichir, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern

Screenplay: Quentin Tarantino

167 mins. Rated R for bloody violence, a scene of violent sexual content, language and some graphic nudity.

  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role (Jennifer Jason Leigh) [Pending]
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Achievement in Cinematography [Pending]
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Score [Pending]

 

What happens when eight morally ambiguous humans find themselves snowed in for the weekend? You get The Hateful Eight, the newest film from writer/director Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction, Django Unchained). We are first introduced to Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Chi-Raq), a famed bounty hunter known for his past transgressions in the civil war. He is out amongst the snow when he is met by John Ruth (Kurt Russell, The Thing, Bone Tomahawk), a fellow bounty hunter known as “The Hangman” who is delivering the notorious Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Machinist, Anomalisa) to the proper authorities in Red Rock. Along the way, the three come across the new sheriff of Red Rock, or so he says, Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins, TV’s The Shield, American Ultra), and the group make their way toward Red Rock before being stranded at Minnie’s Haberdashery in the blizzard. Now, John Ruth is under the impression that one amongst the group snowed in is out to free Daisy and kill anyone in her way in this thrilling whodunit.

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There’s no way to get this film confused with the work of any other filmmaker. This is pure-laced Tarantino from its deepest core. There are all the stylings of this one-of-a-kind director like the gripping dialogue, the extreme violence and Samuel L. Jackson, who eats up the screen. He is matched in prowess with Kurt Russell, who proves to be perfectly matched for our director in style and wit. Jennifer Jason Leigh also steals her scenes as the morbidly chilling Daisy, but to be fair, everyone is playing their A-game here, from regular performers Tim Roth (Reservoir Dogs, Selma) and Michael Madsen (Kill Bill vol. 1, Hell Ride) to Demian Bichir (TV’s The Bridge, The Heat) as the hilarious Bob and the Bruce Dern (Nebraska, Twixt) as the racist General Sandy Smithers.

Then there’s the cinematography, expertly handled by DP Robert Richardson. The film, if you hadn’t heard, was shot using an Ultra Panavision 70 and projected in a 70mm cut, which is absolutely excellent. The frames are stark and beautiful and rich and actually help to drive the story even if a large amount of it takes place in a single shack. If you didn’t get the chance to see it in 70mm, let me assure you that both cuts of the film are terrific, so don’t feel too bad.

I also fell in love with Ennio Morricone’s original score, the first original score from the famed composer in decades. He is almost ensured to win the Oscar for it.

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The Hateful Eight could have been shorter, but I really loved the feel and grandeur of such a simple and intense whodunit like this. After two viewings, the film has continued to grow on me, and while it isn’t top-tier Tarantino, it certainly is still one of the best films of 2015.

 

4.5/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

 

For my review of Robert Rodriguez, Frank Miller, and Quentin Tarantino’s Sin City, click here.

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