Review – Happy Death Day

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Once again, family commitments kept me from catching this one over opening weekend, but I went out of my way on a Monday to try my best to stay current with as many new releases as I can manage.  From the first trailer for Happy Death Day, I thought this Groundhog Day-meets-Final Destination-meets-Scream concept looked fun and the knowledge that famed comic book writer Scott Lobdell wrote the script did nothing to dissuade me from that impression.  I’m always up for new twists on classic ideas and I was also in the mood for some lighter fare, today.  Heavy is hard to do on a Monday, am I right?

Directed by Christopher Landon (Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones), Happy Death Day follows entitled college student Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe.  And don’t name your kids “Tree”, folks.) on her birthday.  Unfortunately for Tree, her birthday is also the day that she dies, murdered by an unknown assailant.  But, surprise!  After Tree is killed, she wakes up on her birthday again, living through the same sequence of events that she had previously experienced, including another grisly death.  After deducing that she will continue to live through her birthday until she successfully solves her own murder and survives the day, Tree sets out to determine who is out to kill her . . . and why.

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I know many will balk at the film simply because it appears to rehash a concept that has been used in many manners across various forms of media throughout the decades.  I don’t buy into that, however, as core concepts are reused regularly in all different types of entertainment.  What matters is whether or not anything new is brought to the (birthday or death day) party and if the end result is worth a new take.

Landon and Lobdell don’t try to insult the audience by pretending that the Groundhog Day gimmick has never been done before.  Rather, they embrace it and inject some vitality into the proceedings by sculpting a murder mystery out of the original clay model.  I have always loved a good mystery and Happy Death Day delivers a satisfying whodunit narrative that is exceptionally nimble on its feet.

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I say that due to the fact that the gimmick could have easily been more of a hindrance than a benefit to the story.  Once Tree catches on to what is happening, the pace truly picks up and never looks back.  At this point, the film could have effortlessly devolved into a nonstop parade of repetitive and meaningless death gags, morphing into a predictable and forgettable one-trick pony similar to Saw but without the ethical implications or longstanding mythology.  Thankfully, Landon and Lobdell are prepared for this and, following a supremely amusing montage, they find a way to make the repeated deaths matter again and ensure that the film retains its sense of urgency.  The filmmakers have enough of an understanding of storytelling to recognize that turning the film into a game of Super Mario Brothers in which the player has unlimited lives would be a massive – and lazy – misstep.

In addition to being more than competently structured, the script also offers up everything one would want out of a film called Happy Death Day.  There are plenty of scares and horror (toned down for the PG-13 rating) but there is also a healthy dose of surprisingly effective humor.  Bringing a cornucopia of life and energy to the proceedings is star Jessica Rothe.  As Tree, Rothe displays a vast range of emotions from horror and terror to desperation to resignation to good-humored acceptance to coldheartedness as well as its direct antithesis in genuine warmth.  Admittedly, Tree’s character arc is pretty standard and predictable, but Rothe is having so much fun in the part and exudes such a vast amount of charisma that it doesn’t even matter.  There are also subtle shifts in her day-to-day choices – both big and small – that communicate a shift in her personality and exhibit growth in the more nuanced ways that many genre films often overlook.

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The whole film is truly about the journey and not the destination.  The viewer might think they know how it’s all going to end, and maybe they’ll be right.  But they won’t be able to predict the events – events that vary from jocular to dreadful – that will get them there.  Yes, the basic premise has been done numerous times.  But the jokes, the narrative twists, the character moments, and all of the other little details that Happy Death Day has to offer are refreshingly original.  The goal of this film is a singular one: have fun.  And this film is the most pure fun I’ve had at the movies since Atomic Blonde.  If the viewer meets the film where it exists by ceasing to take themselves seriously – just as the film refuses to take itself seriously – then it will be tough not to have a blast at Happy Death Day.

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Review – Happy Death Day

#ThrowbackThursday – Minority Report

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Original US release date: June 21, 2002
Production budget: $102,000,000
Worldwide gross: $358,372,926

I actually wasn’t excited about the release of Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report in the summer of 2002.  I liked Spielberg.  I liked Cruise.  But the trailer didn’t appeal to me.  And, even worse, it felt like I was forced to watch said trailer before every . . . single . . . movie . . . that I went to see in the months leading up to it.  I was tired of the film before it had even hit theaters.  Funnily enough, the only reason I even went to see it in the theater was because of another movie trailer.  Fox announced that the trailer for 2003’s Daredevil would be attached to every print of Minority Report.  You see, kids . . . back then, you had to actually go to the movies to see movie trailers.  There was no such thing as online marketing.  No high-speed downloads.  No streaming.  And, being the lifelong Marvel Zombie that I was, I was willing to fork out the money to see a movie I had no interest in just to catch the first glimpse at the trailer for the next upcoming Marvel Comics adaptation.

I’m so glad I did.  Minority Report ended up being one of my favorite movies of the year, to say the very least.  Whenever I recall thoroughly enjoying a film that I haven’t seen in a while, I wonder to myself if I’ll enjoy it as much when I next view it as I did before.  I am very relieved to say that, upon my re-watch for this column, Minority Report easily lived up to the reputation that had been crafted for it in my memory.

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If you haven’t seen the film, based on the short story by Philip K. Dick, here’s the idea: it’s the year 2054.  Certain individuals have developed the ability to precognitively witness murders before they are supposed to happen.  In response, law enforcement officials in Washington D.C. have secured the use of three of these individuals (appropriately dubbed “precogs”) in order to stop murders before they occur.  And it has apparently worked, as there hasn’t been a single murder in the city in six years.  Naturally, this raises ethical questions.  Should someone be arrested for a crime they haven’t committed?  What if the precogs are wrong?  How would we ever know?  And should we even argue if the results seemingly speak for themselves?

No one outside of those who have been arrested due to this system seems to be interested in challenging the process.  At least, no one is willing to challenge the system until top cop John Anderton (Tom Cruise) is named by the precogs as the perpetrator of the murder of a complete stranger, due to take place in approximately 36 hours.  Anderton immediately makes a break for it (“Everybody runs.”), setting out to solve the mystery of the very crime he is supposed to commit and prove his own innocence.

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Minority Report is a story unlike any other that has been translated to the big screen before or since.  And, being the master of his craft, Spielberg nails it on the first try.  On the surface, the film is a fast-paced, nonstop science-fiction thriller that takes its characters and its audience on an exhilarating ride comprised of snappy dialogue, clever uses of technology, unpredictable (yet entirely believable) plot twists, and perfectly staged action sequences.  The film never slows, never slums, and always entertains.  Anderton is thoroughly developed – his every word and action supported by clear motivation.  These characters are all supposed to be intelligent, and they are.  Many viewers want every character in every film to be a supergenius.  They want the fifteen-year-old babysitter being chased by the killer with the hatchet to handle herself the way Amy Adams’s scientist in Arrival would in the same situation.  That’s silly.  But Spielberg knows who should be smart and who shouldn’t and he puts that knowledge to perfect use in this film.

Beyond those obvious characteristics, the film is also an exquisitely crafted mystery.  I actually see some influence from The Ring, which just adds more credibility to the legacy of that film (as if it needs it).  But the way that the detectives analyze the different images from the precogs’ visions and then try to determine from where they originate is very reminiscent of Naomi Watts’s Rachel doing the same with Samara’s cursed video tape.  While I love everything about Minority Report, what I love the most is that when I first saw the film, I never knew what was going to happen next.  Just when one thinks that Spielberg and Dick are all out of surprises, there are two more right around the corner.  And, I’ll repeat: they all make sense.  Not a single one is there without character motivation and storyline justification.

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Spielberg also understands the importance of restraint.  Too often, storytellers ask for too much suspension of disbelief, requiring audiences to buy into ideas such as moon colonization occurring just six years in the future or possibly fully realized human cloning by next March, with everyone simply adapting to it, instantaneously.  While Minority Report takes place far enough in the future to accept some significant technological advancement, the people are still people.  They still drink Aquafina, they still shop at the Gap, and they still watch COPS on Fox (complete with “Bad Boys” theme song).  More importantly than all of that, the people in 2054 all still have the same priority that people have always had: self-preservation.  Minority Report isn’t a film about futuristic people; it’s a film about regular people struggling to adapt to and cope with futuristic technology.

Technically, if one wishes to nitpick, I suppose Minority Report isn’t perfect.  There’s one scene where Cruise’s Anderton pulls himself up from a near-fatal fall without truly having anything with which to gain purchase.  And at another point, he uses a disguise that just looks like poor movie makeup rather than a convincing concealment.  But that’s pretty much it.  That’s all I have as far as criticisms go.  And that’s about as benign as flaws get.  The truth is that Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report is a modern science-fiction classic that deserves much more recognition than it gets in today’s film circles.  I’ll even go so far as to declare it an outright masterpiece.  It’s one of Spielberg’s best films (take that in for a moment), it’s one of Cruise’s best films (maybe his very best), and it’s one of the greatest science-fiction films of all-time.  The brilliant story and script, Spielberg’s flawless execution, Cruise’s charisma and presence, the ethical implications behind the law-enforcement methods, and the always-fun philosophical and logistical conundrums that surround the fate-versus-free-will discussion all combine to deliver a mind-blowing viewing experience that still excites and resonates over fifteen years later.

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#ThrowbackThursday – Minority Report

Review – Battle of the Sexes

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I’m a pretty big tennis fan.  I’m also a fairly new tennis fan.  I became interested in the sport during the 2012 Summer Olympics.  I turned it on for background noise as I did chores around the house, but it kept grabbing my attention.  I couldn’t help but notice how the players’ bodies and minds had to work in such concert – and do so quickly – in order to be even moderately successful.  It didn’t take long for me to begin to understand how much strategy, quick-thinking, and astounding control – both physical and mental – was being utilized by every single athlete out on the court.  I was hooked.  I even flew up to New York for the U.S. Open in the summer of 2013, where I had the distinct pleasure of watching each of my favorites lose in person.

So what I’m getting at is that Battle of the Sexes was a must-see for me.  I’ve heard much talk about this legendary match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs and all of the festivities that preceded it.  Going into the film, I had a pretty good idea of the sequence of events, but that didn’t mean that I wasn’t completely on board with watching them re-enacted by Steve Carell and Emma Stone.

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For the unfamiliar, sexism was rampant in tennis during the early 1970s (and still is today, if to a lesser degree), as multi-time Grand Slam female champion (including the career Grand Slam title, having won the championships at all four Grand Slam tournaments: the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon, and the U.S Open) Billie Jean King (Stone) had risen to superstardom and become a household name.  Despite that, she and the other women in tennis were being paid much less than the men who were competing at the same level.

The go-to excuse for this at the time was that the men were the big-money draw, though there was little to no evidence to support such a claim.  Picking up on the burgeoning controversy, former men’s champion and notorious showman and hustler Bobby Riggs (Carell)  is hit by great inspiration.  If he becomes the face of chauvinism and challenges King to a Battle of the Sexes tennis match, then everybody can get what he believes they want: money.  Of course, for King and her peers, it’s not about the money, but rather the respect and equality that she and the other women have rightfully earned.  If she can help female tennis players make strides in those areas, then she will have felt as though she has truly achieved something worthwhile.  Yet, she can’t help but question if there’s truly something to be gained by accepting the challenge from Riggs or if she would just be assisting him in making a farce out of everything she holds dear.

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As if all of that isn’t enough, King is also struggling with her own sexuality and, as a natural byproduct, her identity.  Though she is married, she feels a strong attraction to her female hairdresser (Andrea Riseborough) and isn’t sure what to do about it.  Her primary professional rival, rising star Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee), picks up on that confusion and, feeling strongly opposed to homosexuality, Court uses that knowledge as a psychological advantage in an effort to bring King down a notch and taker her place as the number one woman in the world of tennis.

The entire narrative is presented honestly and in a streamlined, straightforward fashion.  Co-directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton keep it very simple and focus on the traditional foundations of solid filmmaking: story, character, dialogue, and casting.  All aspects are executed flawlessly and energetically.  The story moves along at a nice, brisk pace, never wasting any of its two-hour running time.  Each principal character serves a purpose and stands out from the rest as unique, complex individuals.  The script provides the cast with sharp, engaging dialogue and they each deliver with excess charisma and compounding charm.  The film never ceases to be entertaining while also carrying weight and relevant subtext that rings as true today as it did in 1973.

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Though supported by a noteworthy cast, the film belongs to Stone and Carell.  As King, Stone brings eternally heartfelt conflict and passion to King’s story.  King finds herself fighting important social and personal battles on every front and also realizes she’s in the unique position to make grounds for all of society on each of those fronts.  She takes her power very seriously and deigns to use it responsibly, even if it means great personal loss for herself.  Carell brings the humor and fun to the proceedings as the fun- (and money-) loving Riggs.  Despite all of the misogynistic quotes that fly out Riggs’s perpetually-running mouth, it’s clear that he believes none of it and is solely out to give the public a show.  His respect for King is evident and Riggs is ultimately as likable as King is, albeit for eternally different reasons.

Forbes film critic Scott Mendelson joked on Facebook that Battle of the Sexes is Rocky IV if Rocky IV hadn’t been a musical.  Funny as that is, structurally speaking, the comparison to Rocky IV isn’t all that absurd.  Battle of the Sexes works as an excellent underdog sports film.  But, as with any truly great sports film, it’s also a great film independent of any sports content.  The movie all at once relates a compelling true story through comedy and drama while also making the case for both women’s and LGBTQ rights, which are both as topical today as they were then, if not more so.  The film never drags, always entertains, and both Stone and Carell are perfectly cast and enormously fun to watch.  Battle of the Sexes has both its heart and its mind in the right places and provides audiences with a light, yet meaningful crowd-pleasing experience that is sure to bring smiles to faces at a time when the world certainly needs them.

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Review – Battle of the Sexes

Review – Blade Runner 2049

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I’m not any sort of lifelong Blade Runner fan.  I saw the original film for the first time about five years ago.  I also haven’t seen it since.  I liked it fine.  I just like many other films much more.  For me, the most appealing aspect of Blade Runner 2049 is director Denis Villeneuve, who knocked everybody’s socks off with last year’s outstanding Arrival.  With other solid films such as Sicario and Prisoners under his directorial belt, at this point in time, Villeneuve has earned my blind patronage and he’ll have it unless he puts out something along the lines of The Happening.

A direct sequel to the original Blade RunnerBlade Runner 2049 takes place thirty years later and follows new blade runner K (Ryan Gosling) as he is pulled down a trail of discovery that leads him to uncover buried secrets and hidden surprises that have profound significance both to the world at large and to him, personally.  I actually hoped to be able to re-watch the original film before seeing this one, but couldn’t find the time to do so.  I did refresh myself by reading a recap, and that helped, but it wasn’t entirely necessary.  Blade Runner 2049 catches viewers up with an opening text, informing both newbies and those who have forgotten the details of the original of all they need to know.  Remembering said details will add an element of weight to the proceedings that may otherwise be lost, but the story can be followed with no issues without having deep knowledge of Ridley Scott’s 1982 classic.

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Before I say any more, I absolutely must remark on how beautiful this film is.  Villeneuve has an unquestionable eye for science fiction – an effortless knack for finding the perfect shot, the most engaging color palettes, brilliantly striking visuals, and the consummate contrast to transport the audience to another time and place without making them feel too removed from their own personal comfort zones.  Both Blade Runner 2049 and Arrival have those qualities about them and I don’t feel like I can honestly say the same about his other, earlier films.  I never desire to pigeonhole a filmmaker, but it seems as if science-fiction might just be Villeneuve’s niche, though only time will tell for sure.

Another technical aspect in which the film excels is the powerful, haunting, and imposing score by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch.  Setting the tone from the very outset of the film, and then stubbornly insisting upon retaining it, the trumpeting blasts and rumbling tones of Zimmer and Wallfisch assault the viewer with pure atmosphere, demanding that the audience bow to the will of the filmmakers and concede control over the direction of the film to them and to them alone.  It’s a commanding accompaniment that sometimes guides gently from the recesses but often takes center stage with a resounding, minor-key uppercut to the eardrums.  Despite the impression I may be giving, it’s not painful in any way, whatsoever; it simply takes control and leads the dance for much of the film’s running time.

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And let’s talk about that running time.  At a whopping two-hours-and-forty-five minutes in length, Blade Runner 2049 confidently takes its time allowing the narrative to unfold.  Mileage is going to vary on that particular decision.  For the diehard longtime fans of the original film, I would imagine that they will enjoy spending all of that time in this world – especially after waiting so long to be able to revisit it.  Others might not be quite so forgiving.  I’m somewhere in between.  I do honestly think the film could have been thirty or forty minutes shorter without sacrificing anything absolutely necessary to the plot.  I felt as though the film was unfolding at about two-thirds of its natural, organic speed.  For example, a lingering shot might last six seconds when four would suffice.  Or maybe an establishing shot of K walking to his next destination runs significantly longer than need be – or perhaps could have been excised entirely.

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The truth is that, once I realized that the film had been running for about forty-five minutes, I also didn’t feel like anything relevant had truly transpired.  The narrative had yet to reach its hook.  Yes, it was extremely nice to look at along the way.  And the performances are fun to watch, as well (Gosling isn’t pushed in any truly meaningful way, yet his demeanor and presence still make him the perfect choice for the role).  But the pacing plays out like that of a long novel, not a brisk, nail-biting science-fiction film.  Even the action scenes lack significant energy for much of the movie.  The scene with K and Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista, Guardians of the Galaxy) at the beginning of the film as well as the climax at the end are exceptions.  But in between those, don’t expect a lot of adrenaline-racing, high-octane set pieces to get your blood pumping.

If you’re okay with that, and are prepared for a slower, thinking-person’s science-fiction movie, then you will likely enjoy Blade Runner 2049.  In fact, the more I reflect on it, the more I like it, myself.  The film definitely gets off to a slow start, but the eye candy makes up for it until things really get rolling.  I was also a little concerned about where the narrative was heading but, without giving anything away, all I’ll say is that, from my perspective,  the story concludes in a satisfying way and, as I alluded to, it also features a uniquely envisioned and excellently staged climax that I think will prove to be rather memorable, despite its relatively small scale.  Arrival is still easily my favorite film from Villeneuve, but Blade Runner 2049 is an overall nice addition to the modern science-fiction lexicon, as well as Ryan Gosling’s résumé.

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Review – Blade Runner 2049

#ThrowbackThursday – The Big Lebowski

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Original US release date: March 6, 1998
Production budget: $15,000,000
Worldwide gross: $17,451,873

Okay, I’ll admit it: this is my first time seeing this movie.  Honestly, it just never appealed to me.  I was under the impression that the film was a litany of drug humor, which is something that has never struck a chord for me, as it’s easy and essentially a form of pandering that lacks any true semblance of wit or creativity.  Over the years, however, I’ve attained a strong fondness for Jeff Bridges, so I figured it was about time to give this one a chance and see if it lived up to the long-standing hype.  The Coen brothers, Ethan and Joel, are hit-and-miss for me (and only Joel receives a directing credit with both he and Ethan being credited ad co-writers), but I’d been stubborn long enough; it was time for me to finally watch The Big Lebowski.

For those like me who haven’t seen the film, The Big Lebowski tells the tale of the Dude (real name Jeff Lebowski, played by Bridges) as he gets mistaken for a millionaire with the same name (David Huddleston).  When the millionaire’s daughter (Tara Reid) is kidnapped and held for ransom, the Dude recruits his bowling buddies (John Goodman and Steve Buscemi) to help him find her and resolve his role in the situation.

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I’m happy to say that my impression that the film was a drug comedy, like some highly-regarded progenitor to Superbad, was way off base.  Yes, the Dude does drugs, but in no way does this permeate the entire film, neither through the humor nor the narrative.  Surprisingly, the drug references are rather sparse and the Coen brothers instead use dialogue and situational humor to earn their laughs, never relying on the cheap jokes and visual gags that drug humor so easily provides.  There’s a little bit of that (including a highly entertaining dance/dream sequence), but most of the comedy is rooted in the script and the performances.  And it’s genuinely funny.

Jeff Bridges turns in a casually endearing performance as the Dude.  The Dude is surprisingly likeable and even more surprisingly level-headed.  He’s a do-nothing slacker, for sure.  And, being perpetually unemployed, it’s not entirely clear how he pays for . . . well . . . anything at all, really.  So, he isn’t contributing to society in any meaningful way.  But it’s clear that he could.  He’s reasonably intelligent and genuinely cares for other people.  It’s difficult to dislike him, even if he seemingly mooches off of society.  Bridges’s performance only compounds the issue as he injects so much sincerity into the Dude’s every line of dialogue and action that one can’t help but feel drawn to him.

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In discovering the character of the Dude, I also discovered that, rather than being the druggie comedy I expected, The Big Lebowski is actually a fish-out-of-water crime caper.  The Dude doesn’t really belong anywhere.  Sure, he’s comfortable with his bowling friends, but – outside of that one particular hobby – neither of those guys are very much like the Dude, at all.  Buscemi’s Dave is a well-meaning, weak-kneed putz who’s lucky to have found anyone who will spend time with him in any capacity, at all.  And Goodman’s overbearing Walter puts all of his energy into himself while positing a love for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (reminding me of half of my current Facebook feed, in the process).

And if the Dude doesn’t really fit in with his friends, he’s even more displaced once he gets wrapped up with multimillionaires and career criminals.  The Dude wants his life to be as simple and uneventful as possible.  This film is what happens when he is forced to live a life that is the very antithesis of simple and uneventful.  Yet, even though these adventures have been thrust upon him against his own will and doing, when he sees that other people are in danger, he never hesitates to try to help.  At the same time, he refuses to allow these societal bigwigs and bullies to steamroll him.  This duality is the heart of the character and why he has resonated with so many people for almost two decades.

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So, I get it, now.  I understand why people still associate Jeff Bridges with this character and this film.  I understand why people still talk about the film and still make references to it in casual conversation or in other forms of media.  While, for me personally, it doesn’t stand out as any sort of an all-time favorite, I can absolutely see why it does for so many others and I’m glad I finally took the time to check it out.  It’s simply not always the best idea to trust our own impressions of a film, especially when so many others love it.  Sadly, this is another in a long line of films that failed at the box office despite it’s superior quality.  If only America could learn a lesson and start supporting these types of movies more often.  Still, I suppose a post-theatrical-run cult following is better than nothing.  So, if you are like I was and you haven’t checked out The Big Lebowski, follow my lead and give it at least one viewing.

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#ThrowbackThursday – The Big Lebowski

Review – American Made

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I like Tom Cruise, but I wasn’t particularly excited to see American Made.  Heist films featuring characters knee-deep in the drug trade are increasingly more and more common and rarely distinguish themselves from each other with enough regularity or creativity to warrant their production.  I was busy with family over the weekend and couldn’t get out to see anything, but knew I would either be catching up on this one or the new Flatliners once I returned home.  Flatliners is much more in tune with my personal tastes and interests but the reviews have not been kind.  At all.  On the other hand, critics seem to overwhelmingly love American Made, so the reviews what swayed me.  I take my own advice and don’t ever try to say otherwise, folks.

To be thorough in my evaluation, I have to say that there are certain ways in which American Made sets itself apart from other films of its ilk.  For starters, it’s based on the true story of Barry Seal (Cruise).  Seal was a commercial airline pilot recruited by the CIA to be a smuggler throughout North and South America.  He’s a little too good at it and things quickly spiral out of control for him and his family.  Being based on a true story isn’t entirely unique for movies about good guys who find themselves turning to crime for an easy buck, but they’re fiction more often than they’re fact.  I don’t know for certain exactly which parts are true and which are embellished for the screen, but even the most basic components of the story make for quite a ride, so that certainly adds a pinch of pizzazz to the narrative.

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There are also little gems sprinkled throughout the picture that contribute to it’s Style Factor.  There’s a line of dialogue here or a crazy moment there that one would be unlikely to see in another film of this type.  Said dialogue is sharp and snappy when the circumstances allow it, and Cruise provides an extra burst of adrenaline from beginning to end.  He’s clearly having fun, here, and this role falls right into his wheelhouse while also giving him the chance to stretch a bit beyond his typical action-hero performances.

Seal also has his toes dipped into many more pools than I can remember seeing in any one single smuggling film in prior years.  He isn’t just a drug smuggler.  He smuggles weapons.  He launders money.  He just wants to be rich and live an exciting life.  Along the way, it becomes clear that he has either been corrupted by his new lifestyle or he was always a criminal at heart and simply never had the opportunity to embrace it.

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Also, without elaborating, the final twenty minutes, or so, refuse to adhere to the typical heist movie formula, throwing some fun surprises and twists the audience’s way.  I think without those last few minutes, Seal’s story probably wouldn’t have even been considered for a film adaptation.  I say this because, up until that point, outside of the relatively minor exceptions that I’ve outlined thus far, the movie is almost exactly what I was expecting and what we’ve all seen from these types of films throughout the decades.

Not only is the overwhelming majority of the film’s running time comprised of the same sorts of scenarios that usually permeate films in this genre (lots of contraband being exchanged, lots of money exchanged in return, a bunch of bad people smiling and reveling in all of it, and repeat) but the lead character in the film is essentially a villain.  This is always a tricky proposition.  If there are no audience anchors – characters for the typical viewer to either identify/empathize with or aspire to be – then the film runs the risk of never emotionally connecting.  I don’t want to suggest that every single film needs a hero.  That would hamper creativity.  But if there isn’t one, then that connection needs to be compensated for in some other way.  I felt no connection to anything happening in this film.  I wasn’t invested in its outcome, nor was I particularly anticipating what was going to happen next.

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There was enough good in American Made that I didn’t hate the film, but the good wasn’t enough to overcome the lack of engagement that I felt due to the plethora of dislikable characters and the insurmountable déjà vu feeling that accompanied the first 80% of the movie.  The cast enjoys themselves, and the movie has its moments, without question.  And the final sequence of events somewhat justifies all that comes before.  But getting there was somewhat of a chore for me.  On the other hand, if you generally love these types of films, you’ll likely love this one, too.  The same goes for the Tom Cruise diehards out there.  American Made is a competent film that doesn’t really do anything wrong; it just wasn’t fresh enough for my personal tastes.

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Review – American Made

#ThrowbackThursday – The Shawshank Redemption

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Original US release date: September 23, 1994
Production budget: $25,000,000
Worldwide gross: $28,341,469

Based on Stephen King’s novella Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, Frank Darabont’s more-succinctly titled The Shawshank Redemption is one of the most beloved films in all of cinematic history.  Released in 1994, and garnering a plethora of award nominations in 1995, over the decades, The Shawshank Redemption has garnered a reputation for being one of the greatest films ever made.  In fact, users of the Internet Movie Database have openly declared it as such, as it currently sits in the number one position of all films according to the user ratings on the enormously popular website.  And it has resided in that spot for a long time.  If only that enthusiasm had been there when the film was originally released; the movie was an unquestionable flop at the box office as moviegoers shied away from the low-budget, thinking-person’s drama with no special effects or (at the time) marquee stars.

The Shawshank Redemption follows two penitentiary inmates (Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman) as they struggle with their imprisonment, their corrupt warden and guards, and their futures (or possible lack thereof).  Long before prison dramas were the cool thing, as they now are, largely thanks to Netflix’s excellent comedy-drama Orange is the New Black, Robbins’s Andy Dufresne and Freeman’s “Red” Redding redefined audience’s perspectives on life in the big house by reminding everyone on the outside that those on the inside are people, too.

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Those who aren’t among author Stephen King’s Constant Readers (and he has lovingly dubbed his loyal fans) are often under the misconception that King writes nothing but horror schlock with no redeeming social or literary value.  That’s as far from the truth as anything could possibly be.  All of King’s stories – even those that feature a strong horror component, such as It, Cell, or The Dark Half – are about the people first and the genre elements second.  But he has also been responsible for many non-horror stories, several of which have been adapted into very popular and beloved films.  Aside from The Shawshank Redemption, both The Green Mile and Stand By Me were originally Stephen King stories.  He’s a tremendous writer with a bottomless pit of imagination.

Helming the film was then-newcomer Frank Darabont.  The Shawshank Redemption was Darabont’s first feature film as a director.  Believe it or not, he’s only directed three films since then, and two of them were also Stephen King adaptations (The Green Mile and The Mist).  He has since also developed a little property called The Walking Dead for television, though he left the show shortly after its debut.  Led by Freeman and Robbins, the cast of The Shawshank Redemption was comprised of respected actors who were fairly well-known and recognizable but lacked true superstar status.  While this was likely because of the film’s modest budget, it also helps keep the viewer invested in the fictional characters instead of on the reputations of the actors involved.

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I like doing these classic films for my #ThrowbackThursday columns but sometimes it can be difficult.  Honestly, what more can I say about The Shawshank Redemption that hasn’t already been said a million other times by a million other people?  This film marks one of those somewhat rare instances where audiences and critics agree: the movie is brilliant.  Everything hits exactly as it should.  Even though the film is relatively long at two hours and twenty-two minutes (counting credits), the script and the performances keep it engaging, never allowing it to drag.  The characters are relatable, believable, and unique unto themselves.  Their arcs play out organically and each character serves a purpose for both the larger narrative and the stories of the two primary leads.

What really hits home is how the themes of the film and the struggles of the characters can be metaphorically applied to virtually anyone.  But few would ever think to apply such ideas to people who have been locked away for years – maybe even decades.  And, often, when considering criminals, those internal struggles can be exacerbated exponentially due to their particular circumstances.  For instance, the very notion of institutionalization would typically be beyond the reach of anyone who has never been incarcerated, but King and Darabont explain it in a way that is not only both beautiful and heartbreaking but also effortlessly accessible.  We see each character wrestling with their own problems and, though we know that most of these men got themselves into the position in which they reside, we also come to understand that people can grow and change.  And maybe some of them deserve another chance at a real life.  But that’s not always as easy as it sounds.

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This story could not be told for general audiences by anyone who isn’t a master storyteller.  I’m not going to go on and on about the film.  If you’ve seen it, you know.  If you haven’t, you should.  It lives up to its reputation.  The Shawshank Redemption is a poignant and poetic story about the strength of the human spirit and the unexpected weaknesses to which it may also succumb.  Though we are often unable to control the events of our own lives, we can still control how we process them and what we do with them in our hearts and in our minds.  And if we are able to maintain and come out standing at the end, we all get our ultimate redemption.

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#ThrowbackThursday – The Shawshank Redemption