Movie Review – “Crimson Peak” (2015) – Gothic Horror At It’s Finest

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One of the great points of living in the 21st century is having the widest range of learning and listening to other opinions and voices than any other point in history. Normally, you’d have to read about what others thought about a movie through your local newspaper or by reading a critic’s book.

I bring this because I learned something about Guillermo Del Toro’s most recent film “Crimson Peak” that I would not have known otherwise – That it is an homage to Italian horror cinema from the 1960s and 1970s. From the gothic landscapes, to excessive violence, to even outlandish plots that normally involve ghosts and spirits, “Crimson Peak” was meant to be a modern-day addition to those classic horror films.

Outside of Quentin Tarantino, it comes across like Guillermo Del Toro is the biggest movie buff in the film industry. Each of his films pay tribute to a genre that he adored, like “Pacific Rim” and the giant monster genre. His films emulate what makes those genres so great, while also making it accessible to those who may know nothing about these films. And “Crimson Peak” is no different, as long as you don’t mind lots of violence and disturbing plot lines.

Set in the early 1900s, Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) is a budding young writer in Buffalo, New York, but is haunted by the spirit of her mother, constantly warning her about “Crimson Peak,” even though she’s never heard of it. But when Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddelston) visits, inquiring about funds for a project he is constructing back in England, Edith is infatuated by him and the two hit it off. After some strange looks from Thomas’ sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain), it seems like Edith will do anything to be near Thomas, even move back into his slowly disintegrating mansion across the pond.

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If you’re going to watch “Crimson Peak” for anything, watch it for the visual style. Once the film reaches the mansion, the house takes on a life of its own. The house rests on top of a fine red clay, but this monument to time long since passed is so far gone that it is sinking into this muck, as if the house is bleeding. With every step these characters take, the clay oozes from underneath, and can almost always be seen coming out from a nearby wall. Anytime the water is turned on, the first bit of it is red.

It is as if the house has seen too much and is crying out in agony.

There is a gigantic hole in the middle of this mansion, where the seasons pass on the ground. Leafs fall below, even though there are no nearby trees, and a fine snow collects during the winter months. There are many scary aspects to “Crimson Peak,” but the atmosphere alone is to die for.

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I’m reminded of Tim Burton’s “Sleepy Hallow,” which was another tribute to a group of horror filmmakers – in that case, England’s Hammer brothers. Both “Crimson Peak” and that film share a similar color palette, most characters and backgrounds are desaturated and look either pale or bleached, as if it had been out the sun too long.

But one color remains untouched – red.

“Crimson Peak” loves red and wants to showcase how bright and colorful it can be. Not just the clay or blood, but the many ghosts throughout the film are stained in red. Because everything else is so bland to look at, anything that is red stands out so much more. In a way, this is Guillermo Del Toro’s most beautiful film so far.

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Like I said earlier, “Crimson Peak” is not a film for the faint-of-heart. They go into graphic detail on each ghost and how it got to looking like it did, and many of the characters do some despicably violent acts, with Lucille being the biggest culprit of them all. I won’t go into detail, but let’s just say I still feel dirty even after watching it. So if that makes you sick, this is not the film for you.

But if you like gothic horror tales of ghosts, ghouls and haunted mansions, as well as passion projects to a long forgotten form of cinema, then “Crimson Peak” is right up your alley. Though the film is short on story and does take a while to get going, there is no denying this is a visual thrill ride.

Final Grade: B

 

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Movie Review – “The Martian” (2015) – Best. Mars. Movie. Ever.

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Much like Woody Allen, I have a love-hate relationship with Ridley Scott.

The problem with Scott is that he is inconsistent in his direction. One moment, he’ll make a science fiction classic that took full advantage of its space horror scenario with “Alien,” but then ruin it with “Prometheus” by wanting to be sophisticated, only to have it ruined by dumb character writing or logic gaps that make the audience question everything that has been built up.

I’ve made it no secret that I do not care for “Blade Runner,” as that film has put me to sleep on more than one occasion. I also do not like “Gladiator,” “American Gangster” or “Black Hawk Down,” and despise Scott’s version of “Robin Hood.”

Part of the problem with Scott is that he seems to take a lot of fun out of going to the movies. His films are often visually stunning and go by the epic style of classic directors like Cecil B. DeMille and D.W. Griffith, but there is a general disconcern in his films. That everything is set up for one gigantic action piece, but never bother to ask how all these people got to this place and what their stake is in all of this.

In other words, Scott’s films are all style, and no substance.

Which is why I adore Scott’s newest film, “The Martian.” While Scott does not diverge from his roots of making impossible landscapes feel so close to home, he does something that I have never seen out of Scott before – Telling an optimistic tale without any sort of violence or action set piece.

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At times, “The Martian” feels like a fusion of “Gravity” and the worthwhile scenes of “Interstellar,” where space is unforgiving and we are fools for trying to explore it. But then there are moments in “The Martian” that remind us why we explore space and the lengths we will reach to survive. That even in the face of overwhelming adversities, we will fight to see the sun rise one more day over that horizon. Even if that horizon is another planet.

On the space mission Ares III, one of the first missions to put astronauts on Mars, the crew encounters a large dust storm which forces them to abort the mission and leave the planet. Unfortunately, Mark Whatney (Matt Damon) is struck by debris on the way back to the ship and is declared dead by the crew, as they leave Mars without him.

As Earth and the crew of Ares III mourns the loss of Whatney, he awakens to find a piece of debris lodged in his chest and alive. After some surgery, Mark begins to realize his situation – Stranded on a deserted planet, with the closest rescue team being four years away, no way to contact NASA, and only has enough oxygen and food to last him a few months.

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What I love about “The Martian” may seem rather simple, but is what makes going to movies so much fun. Mark, and not giving in to the inevitable and assuming that death will happen to him on Mars, decides to go against every odd and obstacle so that he will not die here. He is aware of the fact that everything seems against him, especially since no food grows on Mars and his rover can only go 30 minutes from base before needing a recharge. But that does not stop him from finding a solution to suit his needs.

All while, and this is the biggest reason this film works, Mark never once stops being positive about his struggle. He has his share of setbacks and fumbles along the way, but every day he finds a reason to smile and keep on finding a way home.

One of my favorite examples of this is after digging up a radioactive isotope, so that he can run the rover longer at night without using up the heater, Mark has found a song left by his commanding officer (Jessica Chastain) that is “the least disco,” which is “Hot Stuff” by Donna Summers. He complains about how the only music he gets stuck with is crappy disco songs and still looks disapproving when the best song is still from the 1970s.

And yet, Mark grooves to the song anyway.

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To be perfectly honest, “The Martian” is not a complex movie about loneliness or the inevitability of death, though those are reoccurring points in the film. This is a survival film, about how we will not take something lying down and fight to survive anything that comes our way. It just so happens that Mark needs to survive on a planet that will kill you the moment your back is turned.

Matt Damon’s performance as Mark Whatney is pitch perfect, as he captures both the highs and lows of a man being left for dead and refusing to take no for an answer. From cherishing the first time his potato crops grow in, to screaming at the top of his lungs when his bio-lab is destroyed by a breach in the tent, to posing for a picture like Fonzie from “Happy Days.” Damon keeps this film grounded in reality, without ever going overboard on melodrama or psycho-analysis.

Mark is having a blast on Mars, because he loves the challenge of surviving something no one else has ever done before. He cracks his biggest smiles when he realizes that he colonized Mars and can add the title of “Space Pirate” to his list of accolades.

“The Martian” is one of those reasons why cinema is so much fun. It reminds us that the little moments of happiness can go a long way. That sometimes all you need is to be heart-warming, funny and strong-willed in order to be a beautiful film. Ridley Scott certainly surprised me with this film, but I am not complaining at all with the results.

Final Grade: A

 

Movie Review – “Goosebumps” (2015) – You beware, you’re in for a scare

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Let it be known that I have never read a single Goosebumps book, nor have I watched a full episode of the television show. As a kid, the concept did not interest me, as I hated being scared as a kid. I was your typical fraidey-cat that liked to play everything safe. Which is why I watched lots of Godzilla films instead.

But as I’ve grown older, I began to appreciate shows like “The Twilight Zone” and how an anthology horror/sci-fi show could have some of the best writing self-sustained writing on all of television. This made me rethink shows like “Tales From The Crypt,” “The Outer Limits,” “Are You Afraid Of The Dark?” and of course “Goosebumps.”

The difference with the last one is that episodes were based off already established novels by R.L. Stine. Though “The Twilight Zone” and “Tale From The Crypt” would occasionally delve into adaptations, this was “Goosebumps” bread-and-butter.

My point is this While most people are attending the movie adaptation of “Goosebumps” for nostalgic reasons, whether they read the books or watched the show (or both), I have no ties to R.L. Stine’s work.

So why did I watch this Jack Black family friendly-friendly horror-comedy when I could have gone to see “The Martian”? Well, one, I couldn’t work any other film into my schedule. Two, the trailer was enticing. A hodgepodge of R.L. Stine’s work as they attack a small town, with Jack Black playing the creator of all these books sounds like a film that could be a lot of fun. If there was ever going to be a movie adaptation of Stine’s work, without focusing on just one book, this is how you would please every fan of the books by including everything.

In the town of Madison, Delaware, a young family has just moved from New York City so that the mother may pursue a new career opportunity at the local high school. Her son, Zach (Dylan Minnette), doesn’t seem to get along with anyone until he meets his next door neighbor, Hannah (Odeya Rush), though their meeting is cut short by Hannah’s father (Jack Black). After her father forbids her from seeing Zach again and locking her away, Zach attempts to break her out, only to find a wall of Goosebumps manuscripts, each with a lock on them. Things only get stranger when he opens the lock and a Yeti breaks free.

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When I walked away from “Goosebumps,” I thought about how most of the jokes fell flat and that it was not scary without resorting to jump scares. This soured my experience of the film, until I realized that if it were truly a horror film, it could have gone full-blown horror by making R.L. Stine creepy instead of a shut-in goof that means well. The same can be said for the comedy aspect by making the villain of the film, Slappy the ventriloquist dummy (voiced by Jack Black), less psychopathic and more of a wise-cracker.

“Goosebumps” wanted to find a middle ground between horror and comedy, while still appealing to those that liked R.L. Stine’s work, and still be something that kids could enjoy. In this case, I think the film nailed that aspect perfectly. This is all tied together by Jack Black’s performance.

Black’s portrayal of R.L. Stine feels like a combination of his roles in “School Of Rock” and “King Kong.” He has his subtle and quiet moments where he resents the path his life has taken, but these could be followed by scenes of tremendous outburst where he screams at the top of mountain for his love of writing. In the end, he comes across as a man who does not quite understand the gift he has been given, nor does he know where he got it, but that he accepts full responsibility for these monsters.

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That even though he created these creatures, he refuses to turn into one. To be consumed by them.

However, the writing of other characters outside of R.L. Stine ranges from annoying to cliché. The main character, Zach, lacks any sort of personality that makes him stand out from your average teenager. He lost his father for some unknown reason and shuts his mother out of his life, like most teenagers do. His aunt is always looking for a new ex-husband and doesn’t seem to care for her family, but feels obligated to be near them. It comes across like she’d rather be bedazziling something or chasing after men while making terrible jokes.

But the worst culprit is Zach’s “best friend” Champ (short for Champion). First of all, it is clear that no one likes being around him, including Zach. His goal in the film seems to be whining and pointing out the obvious about the monsters they meet, but never being the one to do anything about it. No one invited Champ to be here (Zach only needed help rescuing Hannah, and he didn’t even do that), he is not the one to come up with a plan to stop the monsters and does not contribute to their plans at stopping them. Champ is a pointless character.

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Overall, when “Goosebumps” focuses on the monsters, the film is captivating and it is neat to see the variety of these abominations. The effects are decent enough so that you’re not questioning whether these monsters are real or not, but nothing too spectacular. The story is fairly weak though and the characters are not intriguing in the slightest, outside of R.L. Stine. This is a good family-friendly monster film that was not a waste of time.

Final Grade: C+

 

Movie Review – “Hotel Transylvania 2” – The Trouble With Animated Sequels

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Second verse, same as the first.

In an age where sequels to well-received animated movies seems to be more common, it is a bit disheartening to find these sequels only strive to be like the first film. Movies like “Despicable Me 2,” “Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs 2” and “Rio 2” might have done well at the box office and were hits with children, but these films basically amounted to a repackaged version of their predecessor, with many of the same jokes, character development and lessons. We do get the occasional sequel from Dreamworks or Pixar, like “Kung Fu Panda 2” and “Toy Story 3,” that exceed our expectations and make us realize that the animation industry can be insightful as much as it is colorful, but those seem to be the rarity these days.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you liked the first film), “Hotel Transylvania 2” does not try to do much else other than recapture the fast-paced humor and quirky horror characters of the first film.

Don’t get me wrong, “Hotel Transylvania 2” is not a bad film by any stretch. The jokes are still lightning fast and the motion of the monsters as they are set on fire or thrown off cliffs is always good for a laugh. Many of the characters see improvements over the first film, especially Dracula’s daughter, Mavis (voiced by Selena Gomez). In the first film, she had no character other than being a shut-in and serving as the inspiration for Dracula (voiced by Adam Sandler). This time around, Mavis is an over-protective mother who knows about the outside world and wants nothing more than to explore it, even if that means getting caught out in the sun.

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While the first film had Mavis pinning to explore the world, in this film we actually get to see her explore California and fall in love with the simplest of things, like a 7/11-type store open 24 hours a day and kids playing in a skate park. Her enthusiasm for slushies and extreme sports is contagious.

Other characters that see more significant roles include Frankenstein (voiced by Kevin James), who has a nice bit early in the film, as he attempts to wear Dracula’s cape, only for the cloth to strangle him.

Dracula is unchanged from “Hotel Transylvania.” Still overprotective, proud of his heritage and just a bit goofy. Sandler still does a wonderful job as the prince of darkness, practically disappearing in the role. If you were uninterested in seeing either of the “Hotel Transylvania” movies due to Adam Sandler being in the lead role, know that this is an exception to Sandler’s suckage as of late. He has very little creative input in these movies, and only serves as the role of Dracula, making the best use out of Sandler’s comedic talent and proving that he can be funny, given the right direction.

Dracula (Adam Sandler), Frank (Kevin James), Wayne (Steve Buscemi), Dennis (Asher Blinkoff) and Griffin the Invisible Man (David Spade) in Columbia Pictures and Sony Pictures Animation's HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA 2.

However, like the first film, “Hotel Transylvania 2” has many of the same problems as the first film. The human characters are rather annoying or uninteresting, including Mavis’ husband, Johnny (voiced by Andy Sanberg). Johnny comes across like a slacking surfer dude without the water or the surfboard. I’m still not sure what Mavis sees in him.

Johnny’s family is even worse though, especially his mother, who makes every single statement as if it were a back-handed insult towards vampires and monsters. When you portray your world as free of prejudice against monsters and being far removed from the “old days” of burning monsters, it comes across a bit strange when Johnny’s mom keeps being disrespectful, whether that is on purpose or not.

“Hotel Transylvania 2” also loves to blast modern music, like the first film, which seems at ends with the atmosphere and old-fashion attitude of Transylvania. It is very off-putting to have a serious moment between Dracula and his grandson, only to have it broken up by a musical number to a song I still hear on the radio, while Dracula break dances.

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But the biggest waste in this film has to be Dracula’s father, Vlad (voiced by Mel Brooks). Not only do we not see or know anything about him until the last twenty minutes of the movie, only to find out he is extremely old-fashion and despises his son for opening up a hotel, but that is ways of living for the past couple hundred centuries can be easily broken and convinced to run any other way. By the end of the film, Vlad is convinced of the power of love and family, and that humans aren’t all bad. I understand this is a kid’s film, but that is contrived and bad writing for the sake of a happy ending.

Part of me thinks Vlad’s character would have been so much better if he was a stubborn rock about everything, unwilling to see anything other than his way. It has worked for the past 10,000 years, so why should he change now? Vlad should have been all about the purity of monsters and that any other creäture of the night that doesn’t see like this are not worth prowling the dark corridors.

Instead, all he needs to hear is one speech from the son he supposedly disowned about how awesome his new great-grandson is and that he should love his family, and he is convinced to love humans. Weak.

Overall, “Hotel Transylvania 2” has many of the same good points as the first film, including the animation, voice acting, humor and atmosphere, but it falters on writing, consistency and character development. At times, it feels like a carbon copy of the first film, but other times it feels a bit weaker, especially near the end. But ultimately, “Hotel Transylvania 2” is a harmless, cute film that is fun for both children and adults, and proves that Adam Sandler and company can still be funny in the right conditions.

Final Grade: C+

 

Paul’s Favorite Films – Common Themes

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This final entry in my favorite films countdown is going to be different from the others. I would like this one to be as interactive as possible, because I want your input and thoughts. If you have extensive film knowledge, or even if you don’t and only know about these 25 movies I’ve mentioned simply through my reviews, I want to hear what you have to say.

 
The question I’d like to ask is – what do you think are the common points that connect these films together? What do any of these 25 films have in common, if anything? You don’t have to relate all 25 together, but I would like to see what you think even two of these films share. This could be anything from common plot points, to characters, themes, atmosphere, message, tone, production values and anything that you can think of.

 
And, for those that do have a massive film knowledge, there is an optional question – With these common points in mind, what other movies can you think of that also share those points? Just to give myself some recommendations for the future or to possibly rethink another film in a whole new light.

 
I’ll give this a starting point and talk about the most common type of story throughout my favorite films – the misfit in a world of misfits.

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There are several of these twenty-five films that focus on a particularly strange character, for one reason or another, in a world that is either full of characters that are strange of a different variety or characters that contrast the protagonist. At times, his/her behavior is not so different from a passionate and driven individual, but in a world where that is frowned upon, this character is seen as an outcast.

 
Jefferson Smith was ridiculed by the majority of Congress in “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington” for staying far too close to the ideals of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, just like Edward D. Wood Jr. was never taken seriously in “Ed Wood.” Both of these characters stayed true to their passions and outlook on life, even when everyone seemed to be against them. In a way, they are both films about fighting the system for ones’ beliefs.

 
Other examples include Marge Gunderson and her husband Norm being the only competent and intelligent people in “Fargo,” Tobey Maguire and Resse Witherspoon being literally from a different time in “Pleasantville,” WALL-E being the only creäture to have come in contact with Earth for over 700 years, and of course Kanji Watanabe in “Ikiru” daring to challenge the bureaucratic symbol of Japan when he realizes that he has so little time left to live.

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We also see this go to opposite extremes with characters like Bruno Anthony in “Strangers On A Train” and Reverend Harry Powell in “The Night Of The Hunter.” Two characters that have a lot in common, but are also radically different. They are in love with themselves more than anything else and love what they do. They both have silver tongues, but to varying degrees. Harry Powell can convince just about any body to join his side by using religion and God to his evil benefits, while Bruno is more crazed and people are merely fascinated by his theories.

 
Characters like Kanji, the Tramp in “City Lights,” Marge and George Bailey in “It’s A Wonderful Life” are not afraid to challenge what is expected of people. One could say that they live in a world separate from the one they inhabit, and wish to show everyone else the benefit of this other world. One free of hate, greed and selfishness, and instead replaced with self-less passionate people.

 
Which brings me to the next common theme throughout most of these films – hope.

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Perhaps there is a subconscious reason why I chose “Son Of Godzilla” and “Mothra Vs. Godzilla” of all the films in the series to be on this countdown that even I wasn’t aware of. Not because I think they’re the best Godzilla films, but because they are the two most optimistic of the series. For a series that includes nearly thirty movies of a giant monster destroying Japan, those are the two that choose to show mankind battling these monsters in a whole new way and focus on making a better world for the future.

 
“Son Of Godzilla” does this through not only the human endeavors to perfect a weather machine and make lands in Africa and South America fertile, while “Mothra Vs. Godzilla” has a theme of removing distrust in the world for the sake of protecting humanity. That a world divided is much more easily conquered and that the biggest threats can only be taken down together.

 
We see hope shine in so many of my favorite films. Hope for George Bailey and the struggle of man against the industry in “It’s A Wonderful Life,” hope for the Tramp and to not judge others by their status in life in “City Lights” and hope for the survival of the human race “WALL-E,” so that they can understand there is a lot of world out there.

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To opposite ends of that, we have films like “Apocalypse Now” and “Ran,” which were founded on pillars of hope and kindness, only to watch it all turn sour and rotten. In the case of “Ran,” Lord Ichimonji was blinded by pride and love for his sons to see that they were greedy selfish people who wanted nothing more than control over the entire kingdom, even if that meant destroying everything their father worked for. “Apocalypse Now,” has hope in the characters that travel down this navy patrol boat, as they want to get this done and over and move on to the next mission. But as they travel further down to the river and into the maws of hell, we see them turn to desperation and drugs, in trying to hide from the tragedies they’ve witnessed.

 
But if there was a common type of story told throughout my top 25, it would the tale of a “loner,” like Kanji Watanabe or Marge Gunderson, as they put their beliefs and morals on the line, against a threat that is not uncommon. It could be something as simple as cancer or their own greed, like “The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre.” And as the film progresses, we learn this loner is not unlike us and their struggle is just as simple.

Or, to put it in the terms of one of my favorite quotes, these characters are realizing they don’t want to merely survive, but to live.

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Some of these characters knew from the beginning what it meant to live, like Marge, and is content with her life with Norm, despite everyone else in the film trying so hard to get “a bit of money” and failing at it. Others realize it over time, like George Bailey, who is so caught up in his work that he never realized just how big of an impact he had on Bedford Falls until he saw what the town would be like if he never existed. There are even characters that try their best to live, given their surroundings, like L.B. Jefferies in “Rear Window,” as he makes up names and back stories for every one of his neighbors.

Then you get characters like Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard” who is merely surviving, but lives in her own twisted world where she is the living the dream and can’t wake up from something that has since turned into a nightmare.

But these characters are fighting for something the chance to live, and to give this chance to others as well. Whether they are running from giant monsters, hiding from a shape shifting alien or loving every second of the gangster lifestyle, there is something worth fighting for in all of their minds.

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Anyway, those are the common threads I noticed between most of my top 25 favorite films. There are a few more obvious ones, like how James Stewart is in four of these films or reoccurring directors like Alfred Hitchcock and Akira Kurosawa, but I decided to go with something a little more interesting.

What do you think my 25 favorite films have in common? I would really like to hear what everyone has to say and I cannot wait to see the varying responses. And remember, if you think there are any other films that aren’t mentioned in my countdown but you think I might enjoy due to those commonalities, be sure to mention those.

 

 

Best Of 2015 (Thus Far)

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It baffles me that we are hardly ten months into 2015, and it already feels like a full year’s worth of great movies have already been released. If we are judging 2015 based solely on the films that have been released since January, I might say this year was better than 2014.

But we’ve still got three months to go, where we will see the end of Katniss Everdeen in “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2,” Daniel Craig turn into James Bond again with “Spectre,” Jennifer Lawrence attempting to win her second Academy Award in “Joy,” and Alejandro Inarritu and Leonardo DiCaprio team up in “The Revenant.”

Yet I still feel like I’m missing something. Something important.

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Oh yeah, that one too.

But for now, let’s focus on the films that have been released in 2015, instead of what is about to come, and ask – Has 2015 been a good year for cinema thus far? Was it a good summer blockbuster season? What were the best films up to this point?

While asking these questions, I’ll be looking only at the films I have seen up to this point, all of which you can find on my blog. This means I won’t be ignoring movies like “Black Mass,” “Everest,” “Hotel Transylvania 2,” “The Walk” and “The Martian,” even though I intend to do reviews on each of those in the near future (that will happen when you start working two jobs – you have far less free time to go see new movies).

As I mentioned before, 2015 has been a massive surprise for me up to this point. While the year started off shaky with films like “Jupiter Ascending” and “Project Almanac,” the ball quickly got rolling with fun entries like “Kingsmen: The Secret Service.” In a way, that blast of a film encapsulates the joy of film this year – It comes out of no where, while still having a great deal of focus on effects and action, but still having a level of competence that makes it a bit more than bright flashes and loud noises.

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Take for example “Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation.” That was a spy film that took itself seriously during each stunt sequence to give us some suspenseful moments. You hardly even noticed the effects, because the stunt choreography was so captivating. There were few cuts from the action and the camera was positioned so that you could see every thing. “Rogue Nation” was the spy summer blockbuster to get excited about.

Were there bad films that came out in 2015? Absolutely. Aside from the previously mentioned “Project Almanac” and “Jupiter Ascending,” there was also the supremely incompetent “Terminator: Genisys.” In an age where movie franchises are all the rage now, especially to remind us of nostalgia, “Genisys” proved that it does not work for all franchises and that some should just stay dead. What was intended to be the start of a new Terminator trilogy instead became one of the lowest rated films of the summer (aside from “Pixels” and “Fantastic Four”).

There were certainly bad ones, but there are terrible films released every year. It is better to focus on the positive, rather than the negative anyway. And the good in 2015 certainly outweighs the bad.

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Even the films that I found to be the middle of the road, like “Avengers: Age Of Ultron” and “Jurassic World” still found ways to be extremely entertaining and worth the price of admission. The Hulkbuster sequence in “Age Of Ultron” managed to recapture the fun of “The Avengers,” by being both exciting, full of good character moments and most importantly funny. While the climax to “Jurassic World” made no sense whatsoever, it brought me back to my childhood of playing with dinosaur toys and it was amazing to watch that unfold on the big screen.

So to answer two questions at the same time – 2015 had one of the best summer blockbuster seasons in recent memory. There was a fantastic range of highly entertaining films, including thrillers (“The Gift”), animation (“Shaun The Sheep”), comedy (“Trainwreck”), science fiction (“Ex Machina”), spy (“Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation”) and mystery (“Mr. Holmes”).

Now to address some stand out films of 2015. These are my picks for the five best movies thus far. I’ll admit that my picks are quite different from others, though I’m sure the number one and two picks will no surprise anyone, as these were the two films that everyone seemed to agree on.

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Number Five: “Ant-Man”

The more I thought about “Ant-Man,” the more I realized how subtle most of the film was, and how rare it is to see that in superhero film. Usually a genre filled with the most over the top extremes you can imagine, now we get a film about a crumbling father-daughter relationship and relies more on slapstick hijinks instead of elaborate action sequences. All tied together with a well-rounded performance by Paul Rudd to bring everything together, and “Ant-Man” is the most unusual Marvel film to date.

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Number Four: “It Follows” and “Unfriended”

The biggest surprise in 2015 has to be the amount of great horror movies coming out, with “Unfriended” and “It Follows” leading the way.

In a genre that seems to thrive on jump scares and excessive blood, it is refreshing to see horror films that focus on relatable characters fighting to get out of this supernatural situation. “It Follows” was memorable for its monster and methodical pacing that begged you to take your time, while “Unfriended” had one of the coolest framing devices in recent memory that gave the movie an atmosphere that is unmatched.

Together, they give the horror genre hope for the future and us a chance to see how the world is still ready to be scared.

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Number Three: “Spy”

I might have loved this movie more than I should have, but I can’t help it – It feels like it has been an eternity since a fresh comedy was released.

“Spy” takes every opportunity to throw jokes at us, whether those are slapstick, insults or through editing. While some don’t always work, it does always feel organic due to the world they have created using Melissa McCarthy. This was her best performance to date, because her brand of insult comedy while taking a bunch in return works to her advantage in the spy world. I still get both chills and uproarious laughter when she stands up for herself.

Throw in Jason Statham for good measure, who is always good for a laugh or two, and “Spy” manages to be the funniest film since “The Wolf Of Wall Street.”

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Number Two: “Inside Out”

Pixar does it again. They make a timeless film that appeals to both young and old, about something we can all understand – our conflicting feelings.

Aside from the imaginative use of the mind, subconscious, dreams, etc., it was the relationship between all the emotions that made “Inside Out” so wonderful. Their only interest is for Riley, but they all have different ways of going about it – some for protection, others for being assertive and even for empathy towards others. The challenge comes from those emotions working together to become a better person.

“Inside Out” is Pixar’s best film since “Up” and might even be better than that. It was funny, heart-warming, thought-provoking and all while having a child-like wonder of the world.

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Number One: “Mad Max: Fury Road”

What can I say about this film that hasn’t already been said? “Fury Road” is the best summer blockbuster to come out in the last decade and is one of the most entertaining films of all time.

Without saying many words, without using much CGI, we get this rich tale of redemption and hope in a world where those words have been lost in a storm of madness and heart-pounding action that never gives up. From the first frame to the last, there is this incredible atmosphere of adrenaline and excitement, a sense that at any moment everything could be lost. While the film is effectively one long chase sequence, it is the most well-executed chase sequence in cinema history, so I have no complaints.

To top all of this off, “Fury Road” seems so simple in its execution. The film does not necessarily try anything special. It is just a chase sequence through the post-apocalypse. But each sequence has its own unique feel, as if we are watching an extended Wile E. Coyote/Road Runner cartoon. Who needs dialogue, when the visuals speak for themselves? Who needs CGI when that can look so fake, and you can do it using real cars and explosions? That is the attitude of “Mad Max: Fury Road,” and I love it.

Normally, “Inside Out” and “Mad Max: Fury Road” would be enough to make 2015 a great year for cinema, but with others like “Spy,” “It Follows” and “Ant-Man,” it gives the year a nice variety of enjoyable films that makes it worth going back to the theaters over and over again. And with even more worthwhile movies coming soon, it is sure to make 2015 even better.

 

Paul’s Favorite Films – Number One!

“I’ve seen horrors. Horrors that you’ve seen. It is impossible for words to describe what is necessary to those who do not know what horror means. Horror has a face. And you must make a friend of horror. Horror and mortal terror are your friends. If they are not, then they are enemies to be feared.”

Horror resides in all of us, whether we like to admit it or not. Sometimes it comes out in force, like in war and politics, while others keep it quiet and subtle, like a shark lurking behind the water waiting to pounce. We all give in to our selfish desires and passions, fight for an unworthy cause or harm others to get ourselves further in life.

This brings out all our hearts of darkness.

After our journey through so many great entries in cinema, it is fitting that we arrive at my favorite film and the most poignantly beautiful movie in this countdown – Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now.”

You might be wondering why, after so many films with positive and uplifting outlooks on our existence, like “It’s A Wonderful Life,” “City Lights,” “WALL-E” and “Ikiru,” I would have a movie about mass amounts of destruction and death as my favorite of all time. To tell you the truth, I’m as confused as you are. A movie that seems to have little regard for human life, and this is the one I pick above the thousands I have watched in my life.

Then again, perhaps “Apocalypse Now” values life more than most others on a larger scale. Of all the films on this countdown, this one certainly has the biggest scale, practically covering the full range of the Vietnam War, while taking nearly two years to film everything in the Philippines. We witness an air strike on a large Vietnamese village, see a group of soldiers lose their sanity at the sight of women during a USO show, and men devolve into madness when the chain of command is broken. All leading up to the reveal of a man who has seen people at their best and worst, and wishes to harness the worst of us.

So why is “Apocalypse Now” my favorite film? Because it has everything that I adore about cinema.

In the middle of the Vietnam War, Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) has finally been called upon for a mission, one that no one else was crazy enough to take. Willard is briefed on a decorated military officer, Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), who had gone rogue in the jungles of Cambodia, and was now leading his own personal military that worshipped him like a god, killing anyone that Kurtz saw fit. Willard’s mission is to take a navy patrol boat up a river that snakes through the war, find Kurtz and “terminate with extreme prejudice.”

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“Apocalypse Now” is based on a Joseph Conrad novel, “Heart Of Darkness,” but changes the setting from the rough and rabid Congo jungle to the Vietnam War. What we get is a film with two distinct morals about the world. One is rather simple – war is hell. The other moral comes from “Heart Of Darkness” as well, that the way we live our lives is fragile and insignificant compared to what nature is capable of.

We are a tiny bird sitting atop the maw of a massive crocodile, that could strike us down without any remorse or consideration and without any notice. Nature is cruel and inconsiderate, and living our normal lives is merely a reprieve from that information.

In many ways, “Apocalypse Now” is like “The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre,” with both having a loose main plot thread holding the film together, but the majority of the movie is taken up by smaller bits that reveal much about our characters, and in turn about our darker side.

While Willard spends the first two-thirds of “Apocalypse Now” traveling up the river, only sometimes mentioning Kurtz, we get to spend this time watching our characters struggle to understand what it is we are doing in Vietnam, and how to handle a war.

One of the biggest examples of this comes in the now famous “Ride Of The Valkyries” sequence, where a flying cavalry unit, led by the blunt yet dedicated officer Kilgore (Robert Duvall), decide to attack one of the hottest Vietnamese villages in the area, just to claim the only spot in Vietnam that has good waves to surf. They blast loud classical music from their helicopters, while they decimate this village and burn it to the ground in a sea of napalm.

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This is the scene that people point to when talking about “Apocalypse Now,” and I cannot blame them. One of the crowning achievements of this film is the cinematography, with this scene standing out above the others, as we watch the helicopters rise out of the jungle and into the morning sun. Or watching the copters fly just inches above the large surf they are fighting for, while “Ride Of The Valkyries” is blasted for all to hear.

However, when I think of “Apocalypse Now” there is one scene that sticks out above the others. It is similar to the famous helicopter sequence, but has a bit more subtlety to it. The Navy patrol boat escorting Willard up the river has come across a suspicious looking Vietnamese boat and decide to stop and inspect it, much to the dismay of Willard and most of the other soldiers. They viciously pull the family from the boat to inspect, tearing their fruits and vegetables apart, in the hopes of finding something illegal. When Chef (Frederic Forrest) reaches for one corner of the boat, one of the women rushes beside him, and the crew opens fire on the family. Afterwards, Chef checks what she was reaching for – her puppy.

In each case, you cannot blame either party for how this went down. The patrol boat was merely following orders and was to check this family could have smuggled weapons or soldiers for their enemy. They attacked the family because they had witnessed that she could have had an explosive hidden in their and planned to blow them all up. Yet the family remained civil and orderly about all of this and only cried out when another of their family might have been injured.

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Yet the result is still the same – War has trained men to be killers and not lovers. To take matters into their own hands and treat everyone they see as the villain. There is no room for compassion, only the interest in what we are fighting for.

As Willard proceeds up the river, we begin to learn this, as well as how fragile we are out in the jungle. During another short sequence, Willard and Chef search for mangos in a large forested area. In this place, the roots of the trees dwarf our characters, and the leaves on nearby bushes are bigger than them as well. We are dwarfed by nature.

As we learn these truths about the war and what we are doing out here, so does Willard and his journey up to Kurtz. As he reads more about how a high-ranking official would go totally insane, and he sees innocent people die by machine gun fire, fighting for worthless causes like surfing and nature towering over us, Willard begins to see how Kurtz got to this point.

This makes the build up to Kurtz’s reveal all the more menacing and suspenseful. Like I previously mentioned, Willard doesn’t arrive at Kurtz’s camp until two-thirds of the way through the film. Every once in a while, Willard talks about the missions that Kurtz was sent on and his slow realization of corrupt system he works for and his need to get away from it.

One of the greatest villain portrayals to me is Shere Khan in Disney’s “The Jungle Book.” Not because Khan is that powerful or possesses that big of a threat, but because we do not see him for the majority of the film, only the legend of Shere Khan. We hear these tall tales of what he did and how everyone is terrified of him, even when he isn’t around.

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Colonel Kurtz works in much the same way.

Instead of showing us what Kurtz has done, we watch others react to the knowledge of what he’s done. We listen to these men that once respected Kurtz for his loyalty to his country, now realizing that he works for no one and could turn on anyone if Kurtz felt like it. We watch as the legend of Colonel Kurtz becomes a reality, and we are terrified by what we’ve witnessed.

One of the generals Willard talks to in the beginning of the film summed it up best, “There’s a conflict in every human heart, between rational and irrational, between good and evil. And good does not always triumph. Sometimes, the dark side overcomes what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature.”

In effect, Kurtz has decided that those “better angels of our nature” are small and insignificant compared to the nature of the world. Kurtz does not see it as evil overcoming good, but trusting his instincts to guide his actions.

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This leads into one of the greatest monologues, where Kurtz talks about how Willard has the right to kill him, but Willard (and the general back in Vietnam) have no right to judge him. In this Shakespearian soliloquy, Kurtz talks about an encounter he had with a village, where he inoculated the children from polio, and the elders wanted no part of that in their children. That something had to be done about it.

And then I realized they were stronger than we,” says Kurtz. “Because they could stand that these were not monsters, these were men. These men who fought with their hearts, who had families, who had children, who were filled with love. But they had the strength to do that. If I had ten divisions of those men, our troubles here would be over very quickly. You have to have men who are moral and at the same time who are able to utilize their primordial instincts to kill without feeling, without passion, without judgment. Because it’s judgment that defeats us.”

Through the build-up to Kurtz, Willard’s slow realization that Kurtz may not be wrong, Willard witnessing the same atrocities as Kurtz, and this monologue, Colonel Kurtz has become my favorite film villain. Because he is not someone attempting to thwart our heroes, but someone whose morals contrast with that of others and upsets the system. It is less about a battle of strength and intelligence, and more about what is right and wrong.

Kurtz has certainly gone mad, but then again, we all go a little mad sometimes.

It also certainly helps that Kurtz is played by Marlon Brando, who is great at everything he does.

What pushes “Apocalypse Now” above all other war films is that it does not shy away from what war does to men’s souls. It is less about the Vietnam war, and more about the dark points of human behavior. This could have been set at any time period and any location in the world, and the message would have been clear – those “horrors” are not caused by nature, but by our own selfish desires and the destruction we cause to get them.

Whether those desires are to protect our country, to preserve one’s integrity, or to surf, war drives man to an ugly place where right and wrong are blurred and the instinct to survive and thrive precedes all others, even if that means whipping out your fellow-men.

“Apocalypse Now” is the epitome of what I love in cinema – A journey on a grand scale that never skips on the visuals, beautiful cinematography that is eye-popping at almost every opportunity, every scene standing out for one reason or another, having plenty of memorable moments and characters, including the greatest villain I have seen, and a timeless message about war and nature.

That is why “Apocalypse Now” is my favorite film of all time.

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