The setting is what attracted me to Frontier. A story about the 1700's Canadian fur trade, involving The Hudson Bay Company, and starring Jason Momoa of Dothraki fame—what could be better than that?
The reviews were mixed. I understand why. Parts of this project were done well, but others were clearly affected by what must have been a very limited budget. The characters, as written, are mostly engaging. Much of the casting is excellent, including Momoa, and especially Alun Armstrong who excels as Lord Benton, the antagonist.
However, the locations are very limited. What results is drama that seems forced and repetitive at times. The story lacks the expected grand XXL shots of the Canadian wilderness, and much of any sign of large amounts of money spent on sets and locations. This is unfortunate.
But there was enough there to intrigue me. I'm definitely going to tune into Season 2, and hopefully, there will be the expanse of locations that will allow the writers more latitude to play with the story. The six episodes of Season 1 effectively established the main characters and their goals/obstacles. The setting, though limited, felt authentic. And we got of glimpse of what will be the inevitable love stories. There was enough in the first season to hook me.
I have to wonder, though, if the budget was grander, how much better that first season would have been? I think much. I can only hope more money is put up on the screen for Season 2.
My rating: 7.0/10.
I've been in a documentary state of mind of late. Today I watched another classic doc, Project Nim, made by James Marsh, who is probably best known for his 2008 doc, Man on Wire.
The 2011 film documents a project led by Herbert Terrace in the early 1970's at Columbia University, involving teaching sign language to a chimp named Nim Chimpsky. Many assistants come in and out of Nim's life, all of whom become very attached to the chimp as its ability to communicate grows. However, after a few years, chimpanzees become too dangerous to keep as pets. After Nim becomes too aggressive, the doc follows the mostly sad tale of what happened to him post-Columbia.
The story will make your eyes moist, though it's not as tragic as you might think going in. This film hits a very important topic, though, as Nim became the first animal to be able to communicate with humans with something close to structured sentences. Moral issues abound, The film does a good job at hitting on the complexities of thoughts, feelings, and greed with regards to both humans and chimps and their interaction with each other.
One of the most touching moments to me is when one of the assistants was recalling the time he spent with Nim, over thirties years ago, and stated that it was the absolute best time of his life. The strong bonding between the species was pretty amazing.
The doc would have benefited from a bigger budget and more time spent describing Nim's last five years. But, as is, I enjoyed it, though at times it did make me sad. It's a very unique topic, and through the human interaction with this very special chimpanzee, we inevitably learn more about our species than our very close Earthly relative.
My rating: 8.2/10
HBO's critically acclaimed documentary: Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills came out in 1996. I'd never seen it, but often heard about it. There were two sequels: Paradise Lost 2: Revelations, which came out in 2000, and Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, which came out in 2011. I recently decided to watch all three of the much-hyped films.
The story is of the trial and conviction of three wayward teenagers, known as the West Memphis Three, accused of murdering three eight-year-old boys in West Memphis, AR, and dumping their bodies into a creek bed. It was a brutal, sadistic killing. The first film does a good job of immersing the audience into the rural setting and showcasing how devastating the events were to the community. The accused, a group of social misfits led by a blood-drinking Satanist, clearly had an uphill climb in their defense, not only given the religious climate of the area, but the great amount of evidence against them as well.
The filmmakers, like those of Netflix's Making of a Murderer, play fast and loose with the facts in order to portray the accused as innocent. Unfortunately, the producers of Paradise Lost go even further down that slanted trail, accusing not only one, but two of the parents of the murdered boys of actually committing the crimes. It was one of the most vile, dishonest, atrocious claims I've ever seen in a documentary.
So it's hard to rate this HBO trilogy. It's well crafted. It's very interesting. It does give a stark glimpse into the lives of the community members who have had to deal with such evil. But it's so extremely unethical in its nature, that I can't strongly recommend it.
If you liked Making of a Murderer, and understand that the purpose of these documentaries is to let people guilty of murder walk free, I think watching Paradise Lost would be worthwhile. Outside of the disgusting dishonesty, it's a fine documentary. The characters alone are fascinating, as is the trial, and the bizarre celebrity-fueled cult following of the imprisoned, post-trial. If you're looking for a non-biased look at the incident, however, I'd look elsewhere.
My rating: 2.3/10
I had a mild interest in a game that was released on Tuesday. Ubisoft Montreal had been working on For Honor for several years. It's not exactly my cup of tea, since it's a third-person game, but it does happen in the Middle Ages, of which I'm a big fan. The trailers looked good, and the Beta went over okay. But...
Ubisoft refused to allow reviews before the game's release. In fact, the reviewers didn't even get advanced copies. To me, this is just absolutely unacceptable.
There is one, and only one reason why you wouldn't let advanced copies get into the hands of reviewers: you think the advanced reviews won't be good, and that they'll tank sales.
So now most game sites have reviews-in-progress for the title. My chances of purchasing the game dropped from about 40% to 5%. In fact, if those reviews aren't 9.5's, I'm not spending the $65 to purchase it. I'd rather protest Ubisoft by not buying it at all.
There's an ongoing online movement to not pre-order games that don't have reviews out. I'm solidly in that camp. If I can't get multiple reviews of what I'm buying, then I'll pass on the sale. It's that simple.
I think the only exception to this rule would be a game the magnitude of Red Dead Redemption 2. Rockstar, unlike Ubisoft, has a long history of ridiculously high-quality releases. Their reputation speaks for itself.
This was a horrible move by Ubisoft, which I'd bet cost them more sales than it gained. Whether it's a video game, TV show, or film, give us reviews. Otherwise, don't expect us to pay for the product.
I recently watched two films that had to do with prisoners escaping. Both were done well, but one was done much better than the other. I think it's a good case in film study.
The first film was The Great Escape, the 1963 star-filled movie which follows the true WWII story of a mass escape of Allied soldiers from a gulag in Poland. The iconic scene we all remember is Steve McQueen jumping his motorbike over the fence attempting to escape Germany to get into Switzerland. But the bulk of the 172 min. movie is about the planning of the escape, which gave the filmmakers time to well develop the multitude of characters, something they decided not to do.
I feel the script, based off of the 1950 Paul Brickhill book, spent far too much time during the first two acts on the minutia of developing the escape plan, at the expense of deeply developing the characters. This is compounded by the fact that the Nazi Commander seems far too light-hearted about the multiple escape attempts. This is a classic case of a too-reserved antagonist, which hurts the entire story, because the stakes never feel as high as they should.
I enjoyed The Great Escape. Though each of the three acts dragged far too long, it was mostly engaging from beginning to end. But if the characters, both Allied and Nazi, had been better developed, the film would have worked at a much higher level.
The second film I watched is the much beloved The Shawshank Redemption, the 1994 Frank Darabont film based off of a Stephen King short story. It seems eternally stuck on the top of the IMDB250. You rarely hear a bad word about it, except from the extreme film snobs who dislike it because of its popularity.
What Shawshank does so much better than The Great Escape, is it focuses heavily on character development. It's able to do this because there are few main characters to develop. Though we remember Andy and Red, perhaps the most important character is the antagonist, Warden Norton, who we quickly come to hate. The prisoners suffer greatly, and because of this, the stakes are sky-high for the escape.
I believe both of these films are slightly overrated. I enjoyed both, but not as much as most people. Shawshank is clearly the best of the two, for many reasons, but mainly because of character development, which becomes evermore important as audiences become more sophisticated.
My Great Escape rating: 7.5
My Shawshank Redemption rating: 9.0
With a 98% RottenTomatoes rating and an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture, I was looking forward to seeing Hell or High Water. I hadn't heard a negative thing about it, but unfortunately wasn't able to catch it during its short run in theatres. After all, who could pass up seeing Jeff Bridges play a Texas Ranger in West Texas? That alone sounds like a formula for great success.
The story covers two very seasoned Texas Rangers, one played by Bridges, the other by Gil Birmingham, who chase a couple of young bank-robbing brothers played by Chris Pine and Ben Foster. The relationships between each pair of partners is what makes the film. The brothers, in dire straights, have nothing but deep, open love towards each other. The Rangers, coming from a more reserved generation, show their fellow admiration through more strained methods. Bridges, as we would expect, is absolutely terrific in the role. We feel his pain as he nears the end of a career that is the prominent part of his life, in a vast, barren world that doesn't seem to give a damn.
The open plains of West Texas are the perfect landscape for this story, and DP Giles Nuttgens captures them well, allowing the film to play much bigger than its meager $12M budget. But, this movie isn't at its best in the grand exterior scenes. Where Hell or High Water really shines is in the confined hotel room, where the two Rangers have to indirectly discuss life, or in a backcountry steak house, where they have to show ultimate respect to an old, ornery waitress who commands nothing less.
If I had to nitpick the movie, I'd point to the soft ending, which I'm sure many people found underwhelming. It was a creative choice that plays on the long, slow life of the Rangers in that part of the country. It's delivered with a little tack hammer that I'm afraid will keep this movie from having a chance of winning Best Picture. But I was okay with it.
The four leads did a fantastic job. However, I feel that if a bigger name was attached, the movie would have had better success at the box office. This is a modern Western, and any Western tends to run into trouble with the international box office. Having a not-too-successful domestic release, the foreign release was very limited. When a critically-acclaimed Western sputters with movie-goers, that doesn't bode well for green-lighting future pictures in the genre.
Yet, I still loved this film. Yes, a greater punch in the gut at the end would have made me love it more. That being said, I do feel Hell or High Water is very deserving of its Best Picture nomination.
My rating: 9.1/10
Jon David Rosten, author of
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