The other day I watched the film for the first time since I was a kid. The 1973 Western was directed by and starred Clint Eastwood. I had forgotten what a good film it was.
We see few Westerns made today because they tend to do horribly at the international box office. I think High Plains Drifter could be made today and could probably see profit. The beauty of the film is in its simplicity. It's based on character much more so than plot.
Clint plays a stranger who rides into a small Western mining town, gets into immediate trouble at the saloon, proves his skills at shooting a revolver, and is then hired to defend the town against a gang who will be coming to cause havoc. What makes the film so interesting is the cast of characters that inhabit the town, and their interaction with the stranger who has them do outrageous things in preparation for the final showdown. It's that simple. They prepare for the gang, and then the gang rides in at the end.
The film ends with an ambiguous/supernatural tone that isn't needed at all. It tried to go a bit too far. But besides the over-the-top reveal, it worked well throughout, and in very limited locations. Ninety percent of it takes place in a small town, one that was obviously built for the shoot. There are the scenic shots of the vast plains of the American West to add cinematic value, all of which looked to be simple, easy-to-shoot setups.
Fascinating characters who are well cast are what makes High Plains Drifter work. It is in some ways the anti-Western with a true anti-hero. It relies on character to make up for the limited space in which it takes place. It hits its notes well, and besides the disappointing try at the end, it doesn't attempt to be more than it should.
It's definitely worth the watch.
I'd never seen the classic film before watching it last week. Having watched it almost 70 years after its release, I had problems with it that I'm sure no one sitting in the theatre in 1953 had.
The story is about a princess, Ann (Audrey Hepburn), who is visiting Rome. Ann is tired of her structured routine, so she sneaks out of the embassy at night to explore the city. She meets Joe (Gregory Peck), an American reporter who works for the American News Service. Joe shows Ann around the town, secretly having a friend photograph them so he can sell a story about her, behind her back.
The problem that I had, even though it's kind of a romantic comedy, is it's very hard to accept Gregory Peck as such a fiendish character because he's so imprinted into our brains as Atticus Finch. To Kill A Mockingbird came out in 1962, nine years after Roman Holiday. But being so many decades after both films, it feels like Peck is miscast in Roman Holiday. That's the downside of having a performance for the ages—it's hard to accept your acting as anything else.
Roman Holiday was one of Audrey Hepburn's early films, and she won the Academy Award for Best Actress for it. It was obvious from her performance that she would go down in history as one of the greatest actresses of all time. She lit up the screen unlike few people ever have.
I feel the film deserved its Best Picture nomination. It's a very good film. I'm sure Peck played fantastically to that 1953 audience. I'd certainly like to have seen Robert Mitchum in the role of Joe, though. It's just too hard to hate Gregory Peck. It would be like putting Tom Hanks (or Audrey Hepburn) in a bad guy role. Too hard to buy.
I definitely recommend watching the film, however. They're both outstanding, iconic actors doing their thing with a fun script, with the beautiful backdrop of Rome behind them. It's classic through-and-through, and if you can buy Mr. Peck as something far less likable than Atticus, I'm sure you'll even love it more than I did.
This is full of spoilers, so please don't read on if you haven't seen the movie.
Kenneth Lonergan wrote an incredible script. However, I'm not satisfied with his ending. This is the second fantastic movie from 2016 (the other being Hell or High Water) that went with a soft ending to the detriment of the film. This is breaking with the tradition of having a climax, and then a denouement to finish the story.
Manchester by the Sea ends with Lee, sitting at a dinner table, telling his teenage nephew Patrick that the family friend George will adopt him so that he can stay in Manchester. In the following scene, Lee and Patrick walk down a road, bouncing a ball. Lee tells Patrick that he can't stay in Manchester because he "...can't beat it," meaning he can't beat the bad memories of the place, and that he'll look for a two-bedroom apartment so that Patrick can visit him. The film closes with the two going out on the boat to fish.
The reason why this ending is so unsatisfying is because it ends with a reveal and not a completion of Lee's character arc.
A much better ending would have been: Lee drops off Patrick at George's house. They hug and hold back the tears outside of the house as Lee hands Patrick off to his new family. Let gets in his car, turns it on, and starts backing out of the driveway. He stops at the end of the driveway. He contemplates. A tear drops down his face. We see a CU of his hand fumbling around the keys near the ignition. The hand shakes. He turns off the car. Cut to Black.
This would have shown that Lee finished his arc: that he had grown to a place where he'd be willing to face all of his demons in order to honor his dead brother and take care of the nephew who he really loved.
I can't argue with Lonergan's decision. He made one of the best films of recent memory. However, I'm sick of these soft endings attached to otherwise fantastic films. This devastating film would have been so much better by alluding to greater hope for Lee's future. It would have made all the pain that we suffered while watching through the incredible sadness dissipate away in a most satisfying way.
Pop the balloon. Don't let the air squeeze out of a pinhole leak. That's no way to end a great story.
Unfortunately, I didn't get to see the film in the theatre, so like most of the world, I waited around for it to get to Amazon Prime. I'm not sure why, but for some reason, I didn't believe I'd like this film as much as the critics. Maybe it was the Matt Damon connection, not sure.
Turns out, I was wrong. Manchester by the Sea is one of the best American films in recent memory.
For a sub-$10M picture, this film is extremely well-crafted. Yes, there's the occasional poorly framed shot, or cut that doesn't work as well as it should. But for every one of those instances, there are many compositions and sequences that blow you away. There are scenes that are fantastically well done, like a funeral scene without dialogue. It's done entirely in slow motion (and I usually detest slow motion) under music, and all you can do is read the actors' lips, but you don't need to, because the performances are so strong, you understand what was being said.
I now understand why Casey Affleck won that Academy Award. This is a performance for the ages. Kyle Chandler and Michelle Williams are superb as usual. And Lucas Hedges kills it as the teenager trying to deal with the death of his dad. But the excellent casting doesn't stop there. From top to bottom, this film is solidly acted.
Yes, this movie is heartbreaking. It's so emotional, it's hard to sit through at times. But it's so well written, acted, and directed, it's something to be appreciated. The nuances in the relationships are absolutely incredible. It makes this story believable. The scenes ring so true, it's almost as if the film bar has been raised.
There are two minor problems with the film. First, it pushes too far in some instances. A bit of restraint would have been more effective. And second, (minor spoiler alert), I'm not a fan of the soft ending.
That being said, Manchester by the Sea is a prime example of storytelling done right. You could teach a semester-long filmmaking class on this movie alone. So if you haven't seen it, grab that Kleenex box, and turn on your Amazon Prime.
One last note: thank God that Matt Damon had to drop out of the lead because of scheduling. Without Casey Affleck, this wouldn't have been half the film it turned out to be.
My rating: 9.8/10.
I jumped online last night to play some Titanfall 2. The new DLC just dropped, and I hadn't played the game for quite awhile, for a few reasons. I've been trying to study chess almost every day, the pool at my complex is warm enough to use, and I've been playing the new Xbox version of Skylines. So, not much time for Titans or blogging.
Since I just regened for the 8th time, I decided to finally start learning how to use the Scorch Titan. It is by far my least favorite Titan, but I see so many people using it, it's about time I put some hours into it. Tone & Ronin are my favorites by a long shot. I also played the first few games with cannons. I don't have a lot of weapons left to regen, and I want to get the pro-screen on all the weapons, but I'm horrible with the slow cannons (as everyone else must be since they're rarely used).
The result? Being rusty and using weapons & a Titan that don't fit my style caused me to go severely negative for the first handful of games.
I'm not a great gamer. But I'm pretty decent—definitely good enough to have a positive K/D with the better weapons, and well into positive territory with the best weapons.
The problem, at least for me, is when I'm not really helping my team, the game becomes a lot less fun. And that got me thinking: what's going to happen when my skills inevitably decline?
Being in my mid-40's, I can compete with the 12 year olds. But at some point, I won't be able to. These little runts will be able to kick my ass. And my fear is that at that point, my love of the first-person shooter might decline. It's a scary thought.
Gen-X grew up with the advent of video-gaming, so along with me there will be millions that will have to deal with it at the same time I do. It'll be uncharted territory. I think 10-20 years from now, publishers will have to include separate servers for the people who have aged to the point that their skills aren't competitive anymore.
Some of my other hobbies won't be affected as much. As a writer, I only intend to get better. With reading, I can just adjust the font size on my Kindle. Chess matches take rating into account. But with something as reflex-intensive as first-person-shooters, the downhill will have to start at some point.
This is a topic I don't hear many people talking about. You do hear about research that proves that video-gaming helps keep the mind sharp. But what about the depression that comes as one's skills decline? The industry needs to start thinking about that.
I watched a fascinating documentary yesterday called The Fear of 13. It follows, almost completely via monologue, the story of the probably wrongly convicted death-row inmate Nick Yarris.
Nick's story is unbelievable at times, but we know at least most of it is true. He started out as a young car thief, got mixed in with the wrong characters, was sentenced to death for murder, and then DNA analysis was founded, and the absurd story of him trying to get the crime-scene evidence checked for DNA is absolutely incredible.
Nick tells his story brilliantly. From the dark tales of abuse in prison, to self-teaching himself to read (he read over 1,000 books in just a few short years), to the fight for his life on death row, it's hard not to feel for the guy. The beauty of the documentary is in its simplicity. There are some minor reenactments, but the bulk of the film is just Nick, sitting down, telling his horrid tale.
There are times when Nick sees positivity in situations where no normal human being ever could. His story isn't just that of a man going through the trials and tribulations of death row, it's the story of man who somehow finds a way to mature within the confines of a prison, all while sentenced to death.
I give this documentary high marks. Definitely, check it out.
My rating: 8.8/10
I've been severely congested the last couple of days and have had a sore throat and a cough. I think I may have picked up a bug while down in Hollywood late last week. It's always frustrating getting sick, but for me, since I sleep with a nasal pillow C-PAP mask, any congestion and I'm not getting good sleep for days on end. I hate it.
As a writer, there is little that is worse than lack of sleep. You can't concentrate. Writing & reading are completely out of the question. I can't even play chess because I'm so tired and miserable. Can't exercise either.
I was hoping to catch the opening day Detroit Tiger's game, and that got rained out. So in-between my 5 minute naps (which is about as long as I can sleep without my CPAP), I've been playing video games, just wasting time. The 2015-remaster of Bethesda's Dishonored is on sale for $20, which includes all the DLC. I'm not big into stealth games, but because Dishonored 2 got such rave reviews, I figured I'd try out the first one. A few hours into it, and I'm liking it so far, even though graphically, it's showing its age (the original was released in 2012 on the previous gen consoles).
Luckily I rarely get sick in Southern California. In my home state of Michigan, it's a regular occurrence. That's one of the many reasons why I live here in Los Angeles.
I absolutely hate not being productive for more than a day or so. I think that's the worst part of getting sick.
I've been playing chess on and off for as long as I can remember. I always fell in the habit of getting into it for a year or so, and then not playing for several years. I used to belong to the Internet Chess Club, and found it to be a lot of fun. But I haven't had the chance to join a physical chess club because of my work schedule.
Since we now have three Americans in the World Top 10, and two very strong contenders to compete for the International Title next year, I decided to get back into it. It's always a great distraction from writing because it takes total concentration.
I decided to join Chess.com, which is the big alternative to ICC. And wow, am I impressed.
I pay the most expensive dues, which are about $100 a year. But you can play on the site for free if you want, and they have cheaper subscription packages as well.
I pay for the top package because I've found that their learning tutorials are excellent. They have tons of them, covering every aspect of the game. They give you a lessons rating that dips over time if you don't take more lessons or do tactic puzzles. This gives you the incentive needed to keep learning.
The best feature of the site is their analysis computing. They have a motto: There is no losing if you're learning. I love it. After every match, whether against a human opponent, or the computer (whose rating you can set), you can choose an analysis depth (the more in-depth, the longer it takes, but they only take minutes), and the computer will go through the entire match and show you your mild discrepancies, your errors, and your blunders. It will tell you what the better moves are, and show you why as it'll explain the lines of play. It's absolutely fantastic for learning.
The site also does an excellent job at broadcasting tournaments. I watched the final round of the Pro Chess League, and I'm now watching the early rounds of the U.S. Chess Championships. They have chess analysts that discuss the moves in depth. It's very fun to watch, and much more professional than I would have expected it to be.
I hope that my work schedule will someday allow me to join the local West Valley Chess Club. But, for now, I'm very happy with Chess.com, because I feel like they have the tools to not only make me a better chess player, but to allow me to understand the game at a deeper level so that I'll gain a better appreciation of watching the Grandmasters play.
If you haven't played chess in awhile, I highly recommend checking out Chess.com. It's a terrific place to learn.
It's been a couple of years since CD Projekt RED released The Witcher 3, a game which won multiple Game Of The Year Awards, and was my favorite video game of 2015. I still play it regularly.
There's a card mini-game within The Witcher 3 called Gwent. It's an outrageously fun game that is a bit more complex than similar card games because players utilize three ranks: a close combat rank for swords, pikes, etc, a ranged combat rank for archers and such, and a siege rank for catapults, ballistae, etc. Players can gain weather cards that affect different ranks, use leader cards that can give bonuses, and start the game with one of five different decks, each based on a group (like a kingdom or monster) each of which has unique abilities. There's a nice, but not an overwhelming amount of complexity to it.
It's a tremendously well-thought out game that is very fun to play. Once you sink a hundred hours or so into The Witcher 3, you kind of run out of challengers to play. Thankfully, CD Projekt RED announced that they were going to make a stand-alone Gwent game, that would have a free-to-play aspect to it. It was supposed to come out late last year, but was delayed. This week, the closed beta came out. When I first tried to play it, I was able to get through the tutorial, but it would lock up every time I challenged someone to play. Today, I tried again, and was able to play a few people.
CD Projekt RED has taken an excellent game and has expanded on it, making it even better. There are many more types of cards. So when you first start playing, it goes a bit slow, as each new player has to figure out what the cards do. I'm sure that after playing for a few days, the cards will be thrown down at great speed. Overall, it works smoothly, and it's fun to see the strategies that actual humans use when playing a round or two.
I can't overstate how fun this card game is. I can't wait for the actual game to come out. I'm assuming you'll be able to win better cards and buy packs of superior cards. I'm probably going to be one of the guys forking down a little money on this one.
The beta is cross-play between Xbox, Playstation, & PC. They have to bring this to Android soon. It'll be a blast of a game to play on a tablet, or even a large phone. I'll definitely write another post once the final product comes out. But, by the looks of the beta, CD Projekt RED doesn't have much polishing left to do before releasing what should be a huge hit with the Hearthstone crowd.
The history of weapon balance in video games has been fascinating to me.
In the early days, there were large variations in the balance of power and effectiveness of weapons. Think Counter-Strike. From its inception in 2000, there were ridiculous differences in the various guns—so much so that the vast majority of players only used the slight few of them that were most effective. As video games evolved, more balance was found, and guns started to become adjusted after the game release to find what developers considered to be the sweet spots.
After several years, as people got better with sniper rifles, it became harder to keep a good general balance. The problem with sniping is that a small percentage of gamers got really good at it (including quick-scoping), so it worsened the flow of games, because it was too easy to die quickly after respawning. Nerf the sniper rifles too much, and they're of little use to people who haven't sniped for years.
Although I loved sniping in the first three Halo games, it wasn't until Black Ops 2 that I started pouring dozens of hours of sniping into a current-day-themed first-person-shooter. That was in 2012, which was many years after most gamers fell in love with the sniper rifle.
Fast-forward to today, and I really love what Respawn has done to weapon balance in Titanfall 2. The main guns are more or less balanced. But the sniper rifles are slightly weaker and/or slower compared to other games. Since you unlock a pro-screen (which shows lifetime kills with the weapon) once you regen it, you still want to attempt to level up every weapon. But since the sniper rifles are much harder to use effectively than the regular guns, it's never a snipe-fest, so the flow of the game isn't negatively affected often.
This also goes for the Titanfall 2 cannons (which they call grenadiers). They're powerful, but they're unGodly slow. It's almost impossible to get the first shot off. But, this lack of balance creates a challenge for the better players, who are going to sink hundreds of hours into the game, and who are going to want to regen every weapon at least once.
I see a sniper rifle maybe every two rounds, and a cannon maybe every ten rounds that I play Titanfall 2. I've regened all of the guns except for a couple of the sniper rifle and cannons, which are a fantastic challenge at this point. I love the fact that they're so hard to compete with.
So we've come full circle. At first, pure weapon balance wasn't important in FPS'ers. Then it became too important. Now we're settling into a time where the longer-range and the more powerful weapons have to be nerfed or slowed down so that they're underbalanced. It's been a fascinating history.
The Hemlok BF-R, to me, is by far the most effective weapon in Titanfall 2, like the M-16 was in so many FPS'ers. But, to my surprise, it isn't used much more than the other weapons. I think gamers have advanced too. As K/D ratios become ever less important, and as developers work on giving us nice goodies for regening weapons, variety of weapon use is alive and well, and that's great for gaming. The overall gameplay of FPS'ers keeps advancing, and weapon balance is a huge but oftentimes understated part of that.
I'm glad developers have gotten it right over the twenty-five-year history of the first-person-shooter. For all that I loved about Counter-Strike, all those hours that I sunk into it, it got to a point where I never wanted to see an AK-47 or a Desert Eagle ever again. Thankfully, in modern games, we rarely run into that problem.
When I think of my favorite songs of all time, they all tend to have a few things in common:
1. A relentless beat.
2. A mighty guitar riff.
3. Dark, powerful lyrics that tell a narrative.
In my previous post, I mentioned some of my favorite Metallica songs. They tend to all have the above attributes. Whether its Creeping Death and its dark tale of ancient Egypt, or Blackened and its frightening tale of nuclear war, for some reason, these types of narratives tend to really engage me when incorporated in music.
I'm not a fan of happy, pop music at all, especially that which has a weak or missing narrative.
Every now and then, a rockish song that is far from being metal, does hit those requirements. Usually it's something that has lyrics which aren't easily understood by most people listening to it. Third Eye Blind's Semi-Charmed Life is a good example. I don't think most people listening to that song realized what it was about.
Another good example is Weezer's Hash Pipe. It has some of darkest lyrics I've ever heard. That wasn't a song about a Hash Pipe. It was about a Crack Pipe and some horrible stuff going down on Santa Monica Blvd in West Hollywood. What a bold narrative to hide in a top 40 hit, though.
Watch the video below, then click HERE to read the lyrics, and see if you'll ever hear the song the same way again.
There are numerous 'Best of Metallica' lists on the internet, and they are all utter crap. Every single one of them.
So I thought I'd take the time to write the real-best-of-Metallica list, once and for all, including music off of their latest album. Here is the only definitively true Best Metallica Songs Of All Time list that exists:
15. Broken, Beat, & Scarred
14. Moth Into Flame
13. Spit Out The Bone
12. Invisible Kid
11. Atlas, Rise!
10. Welcome Home (Sanitarium)
9. Fade to Black
5. Leper Messiah
4. Creeping Death
3. Master of Puppets
1. Disposable Heroes
And that is the definitive list of best Metallica songs that currently exist. Notice that there isn't any off of their off-track The Black Album, Load, Re-Load period. Thankfully, they're back in true form, and we should expect more absolutely fantastic classics off of future albums.
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
M. Night Shyamalan, after getting caught up in a near historic downward spiral since 1999's The Sixth Sense, finally started a reversal in terms of quality with 2015's The Visit, a $5M horror film which had mixed reviews but was actually a darn good flick which grossed $98M worldwide. To keep creative control on his next project, M. Night agreed to make The Split for just $10M for Universal, and it opened to generally positive reviews and a $40M weekend.
The Split, it turns out, is a pretty fantastic & smartly written horror film that combines the right amount of humor, jump scares, psychological horror moments, and plot complexity to make it a film well worth watching.
The opening series of scenes, excellently crafted, set the dark tone. It is clear from the beginning that this is the role that James McAvoy was born to play. He kills it as Kevin Wendell Crumb, an out-of-control person with an extreme multi-personality disorder. It's when the evil people inside of him take over, that you have to watch out.
Though not perfectly cast throughout, most roles are cast damn well. Betty Buckley does a fantastic job as Wendell's psychologist, a very difficult role to play. Anya Taylor-Joy plays the lead, a young girl named Casey who comes with a very troubled past. She weirdly relates to Kevin in a way that others can't. Taylor-Joy plays this complex role fine at times, and terrifically in some of the more emotional scenes. These three main characters are so well written, so well established, and so well acted, that the others pale in comparison. I think M. Night would have been better off playing some horror story stereotypes (more than he did) just give some flavor to the minor characters.
By far the worst casting misstep is the role that M. Night chose for himself. Although brief, it was more than enough to kick me completely out of the movie—something that happens every damn time I see him on screen. He's far too recognizable, and just not good enough of an actor to pull it off. Like Tarantino, every single time he casts himself, it's a monumental error of judgment.
I was enthralled throughout the movie by how it was written so effectively to be shot on a low/medium-sized budget. M. Night accomplished this by writing fantastic characters and putting them in extreme situations. His directing is phenomenal. The blocking and lighting are excellent. The compositions are what we expected of M. Night when he was in his prime. He now has fallen in love with the slow XXL zoom, but smartly doesn't rely on it too heavily.
And the ending...oh that ending. I'll try not to ruin it, but I will mention that instead of a hardcore M. Night twist, he relies on a couple significant reveals, and the last one is a doozy. Of course, some will love it, some will hate it. Either way, you'll be thinking about long after you leave the theatre. And that's always good.
I really like this film. It's better than the critics state. And thankfully, we now have hope for a full M. Night Shyamalan resurrection. Thank God, he's back.
My rating: 8.9/10.
I recently rewatched The Sixth Sense for the first time in years. I remember seeing it in the theatre in 1999 and being absolutely wowed. I've seen it several times since and have read the script more than once. I still absolutely love this movie. Everyone raves about the twist, but I love everything else about it as well: the pace, the dialogue, the compositions, the acting—it's all fantastic. It's one of my favorite films of all time.
Although officially M. Night's third film, I feel to most of us, it feels like it's his first. It gave us enormous expectations for his future films. They came, and each one, unfortunately, seemed to be a little worse than the previous. For every person that loved Signs, a few less loved The Village, and a few less loved Lady in the Water.
None of M. Night's movies resonated with me nearly as much as The Sixth Sense, but I found some amazing quality in all of them (I didn't see The Last Airbender or After Earth). I did see The Visit, M. Night's 2015 low-budget return-to-horror flick, and liked it a lot. I'll go see his upcoming film Split as well. I think for too long he was far too intent on smacking us with a twist ending. None could ever live up to The Sixth Sense reveal.
M. Night comes out with a new film about every couple of years. That means that he's probably only taking six months or so to write each script. I wonder what would happen if he took a couple of years to write each script and came out with a new film every 3-4 years. I'm not sure he could afford to do it, but I bet it would increase the quality of his films dramatically.
I'm still an M. Night Shyamalan fan. I hope he ends his career with films that are his best yet. That will be tough to do. A good sabbatical might do him well in the mean time.
My rating for The Sixth Sense: 9.7/10
It's been awhile since I finished watching Westworld, and I wanted to process it a bit before writing down my thoughts. Here's what I think (spoilers included):
The series is very ambitious. That I like. A lot of people that I've talked to thought the first few episodes were too slow. I had the opposite impression. Though the pilot was a hot mess (it truly needed a better director), I was hooked early on. The concept is terrific: a Wild West theme park filled with robots playing humans. Guests can do whatever they want with the robots. The twist is that the robots' memories are wiped clean after every visit. However, some old memories happen to remain, causing the robots to be confused about their own existence.
I did have a few problems. First and foremost, the characters didn't wow me enough to allow me to remember their names (outside of just a couple of them), so I often got lost in conversation. I also got slightly bored in parts, which is not a good thing in such a complex narrative. I thought there were far too many twists, which cheapened the narrative. And finally, the biggest reveal (Teddy standing at the train station amongst the bodies) was something I didn't even understand when watching it. After talking to a coworker who explained it to me, I realized it would have been very impactful had I understood it. Zoning out due to boredom during long parts of the series certainly didn't help.
I also don't believe the casting was top-notch throughout. Some parts were exceptionally cast: Ford, Dolores, Man in Black. Others were not.
When Westworld works well, it is fantastic. It does stuff at a deep level that we're not used to seeing on TV. But at times, it gets too deep for a first season. It tried too hard. I wish Jonathan Nolan would have scaled back the ambition and depth. I felt like it was Game of Thrones giving away who Jon Snow's parents were in season 1. It's too much. Restraint would have been beneficial.
So will I watch Season 2? Yeah, I will. I respect the ambition. But, like Season 1, if I get bored, it'll be weeks before I get to the next episode. And honestly, since so much reserve was given away in the first season, I have no idea what they're going to do from this point forward.
This is a hard series to rate. When it works, it works terrifically. It just has a hard time consistently staying on the rails. Yet, it is still leagues above the average TV fair.
My rating: 9.0/10
The Crown, Netflix's story about young Queen Elizabeth 2, is Netflix's most expensive series so far, with a budget rumored to be north of $100M. Having won the Golden Globe for Best Dramatic Series, it seems the gamble paid off.
You can definitely see the money up on the screen. I'm not a royal expert by any means, but whatever castles they shot this series in played true to me. Rarely did any scene play too small, and never in the interior scenes. The shots were gorgeous, often with striking symmetries. Sure some of the exterior shots were cheated to the small side, but never too small.
The drama runs thick, as a young and naive Elizabeth tries to do the job she has been handed while dealing with enormous personalities, like that of Winston Churchill, Phillip her husband, Margaret her sister, the Queen Mum, and the various male chauvinists who advise her. Claire Foy handles the role well, as do almost all of the main cast. Matt Smith shines in his role of Phillip, who struggles to maintain any resemblance of manhood while his wife takes in the entire spotlight. The vast halls of Buckingham Palace can be a very lonely place.
The Crown's main focus is Elizabeth's arc, and it's a fascinating one indeed. How does she balance doing her job as a monarch when doing said job often conflicts directly with being a decent mother, husband, sister, and daughter? She quickly learns that she's being used by people in power to advance their own interests, and how will she grow to the point where she can stand up to those often monstrous personalities? It is her personal growth in such extraordinary circumstances that makes The Crown so intriguing.
Though the pacing may be too slow for some, if you're into well-crafted historical dramas, The Crown will probably be for you. It's a beautiful, well-acted series, that deserves a spot in the top-tier of the Netflix offerings.
My ratings: 9.3/10
This morning I rewatched Rogue One, this time in 2D on a normal=sized screen. In my previous review, I pointed out the two biggest flaws I found with the film: weak character development and an almost complete lack of LS's. Since 3D tends to make big shots look small, I was interested to see the film in 2D to see if it played larger.
During the second viewing, I had the exact same problems I had during the first. The character development was thin. Who the hell is Saw Gerrera? Why is he in this film? Cassian Andor? What's his backstory? At least we learn a little about Jyn, but not enough to make her as satisfying as she could be. Bad-Guy Orson? Why wasn't he developed at all?
Seeing the film in 2D did very little to hide the fact that besides the large XXL CG shots, 90% of this film is shot too close.
When low-budget indie filmmakers shoot their films, they often rely heavily on MCU's in order to hide the fact that they can't afford extensive sets to paint the background with. It makes the film feel low-budget. There is never an excuse to do this in any large action film that you don't intentionally want to feel cheesy.
An example: what does Saw Gerrera's HQ's look like? We only see tight shots of it, along with terrific XXL's when it comes crumbling down. But we never get a feel of size and shape like we did inside of Jabba's chambers.
This is most noticeable in the first two acts. By the third act there are so many CG shots, it covers it up some. Having to squeeze in a big Walker does force the LS. But in crucial moments, the MCU's are used as cheats and it's very annoying. One example is when Jyn jumps onto the data storage tower. We correctly start with a LS of her jumping, and then cut to a MCU of her arm and head as she grabs the tower. This is a cheat. They then do it correctly with Cassian, showing his whole body make the jump. It's much more satisfying.
If 20% of the shots were shot too close or too zoomed in it would be annoying. But with a Rogue-One, it's the vast majority of shots. I guess the director, Gareth Edwards, and the cinematographer, Greig Fraser, have to share the blame. There just isn't any excuse for a movie with a $200M budget to be shot like this.
I still loved that third act though. And of course I still loved Felicity Jone's performance.
Although a very good film, with an outstanding third act, Rogue One has some serious flaws. But I guess with the subpar quality of the last few Star Wars films, we should be happy with the greatness that does exist within it.
Two viewings of Rogue One is satisfying. A third would be too many. That puts the film close to Return of the Jedi quality, and a huge notch below New Hope and Empire Strikes Back, yet far above the other films.
Now, this is very interesting. Look at the complete setlist for Metallica's Jan. 11th concert in South Korea:
They played five songs off of the new album! That's fantastic. They opened with Hardwired and Atlas Rise!, two songs that were certainly expected. They also played Now That We're Dead, a terrific song, Moth Into Flame, another single we'd expect, and the slower epic Halo on Fire.
I'm floored that they played that amount of new material. That's exciting. I guess the only disappointment is the one they didn't play: Spit Out The Bone.
The biggest classic from yesteryear that they skipped over, in my opinion, is Creeping Death. I'd certainly like them to keep that on the setlist, but you've got to get rid of something. There are now whole albums that aren't represented, which I guess comes with the territory of being around for so many decades.
I can't wait to see them play new material live. I'm thinking that the Dead and Halo slots will probably be rotated with more new songs. It'll be interesting to see the next few setlists.
It's great that the band is so proud of their new stuff that they're willing to squeeze more than the typical one or two songs of it into their concerts. You gotta wonder though—at what point are we going to hear the first live performance of Spit Out the Bone? That is what everyone is going to be waiting for.
The classic Rogers and Hammerstein play is concluding its run in Hollywood to glowing reviews. It was my first time seeing the production, which has been running on and off in some form since 1951.
The story is that of an English widow who travels to Siam to work for the King to teach English to the children in the royal palace. She soon finds out the King is a true male chauvinist, and a battle of wills ensues, to great comedic effect.
Yul Brynner had owned the role of the King of Siam for years. The key to any successful revival was to find an actor who could fill those gargantuan shoes, and the current production certainly did with Jose Llana, who excels in the role. Llana commands the stage and his comedic skills are terrific.
The downside of having someone so talented and powerful in the role is that every scene that he's not on stage feels like mere filler. But when the King does take the stage, struggling to get this strong-willed English woman to understand his need of having to control everything, it's a blast.
The set design is rather minimal. Many of the stronger songs are classics, though some are not as memorable as others.
The ending, though satisfying, is certainly not predictable, and that I like.
The King and I holds up well in its current incarnation. Though not as consistently funny as something like Book of Mormon, it gives plenty enough laughs to make it worth the admission price.
My rating: 8.1/10
Jon David Rosten, author of
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