Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016): Fun Supporting Cast but Narrative Doesn’t Quite Work

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    “Fantastic Beats and Where to Find Them,” could have been a really good film. It wasn’t a bad film, not by a long shot…but there were so many narrative issues and plot holes that took away some great chances for drama and character as well as world development that just hurt the overall story. These are my non-spoiler thoughts going in, also I kind of hate that they are turning this into a Franchise as the film’s story feels done after this film, but I guess post-Marvel everybody wants to be a Franchise.

      The film was directed by David Yates, written by J. K. Rowling who was one of the producers along with David Heyman, Steve Cloves and Lionel Wigram.

     The story involves Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) arrival in NYC in order to release of the animals he’s been studying when he’s pulled into a wider plot as the evil wizard Grindelwald has gone missing in Europe and mysterious attacks are happening all over NYC making Scamander a suspect.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: The World – The world is fantastic, though not fully fleshed out. One thing in the Potter Books is that real life events in our world are tied to events in the Wizarding World. In this that is dropped completely as we have anti-wizard organizations in the muggle world and much more moments of the two worlds knowing one another. Not to mention Newt being made to be a bigger deal than he ever was in the Harry Potter World. This is still a fun world though and I enjoyed visiting it again.

The Soundtrack – James Newton Howard hits all the ques. This is the Harry Potter Universe and the magic and music working together to illustrates scenes is on display here.

The Support Characters – The support characters are the best part of this film, and really should have been the focus. There was no reason to pull in Scamander and Hogwarts beyond references. Hell, Grindelwald didn’t even have to be the baddie, America could have it’s own Nazi Wizard. Still, if they have to Grindelwald the support characters were more than enough to carry off the mystery and fight.

Gnarlack – This guy is a goblin who owns a jazz club. He was a cool looking character and I wanted to learn more about him…He was clearly doing well even with wizards looking down on all those who weren’t wizards.

Tina – Tina is the disgraced auror who is seeking to redeem herself through the film. The reason she’s disgraced is because she protected Credence from his abusive anti-witch mother. In the end she nearly saves him again before the aurors kill him when he is coming back down from turning into a Obscurus. She also has a thing for Newt but we never fully get why as Newt never listens to her and just does his own thing.

Queenie – Queenie is so much fun! she is a Witch who can read minds and is one of the liberal witches as she likes the muggle Jacob and doesn’t get the prejudice going on around her. She was one of my favorite characters and she shows how smart she is when she sneaks all of them out of the Ministry before they are executed. It is also implied she gets her happy ending with Jacob. Alison Sudol is fantastic.

Jacob – Dan Fogler is really wonderful in the role as the muggle in over his head but who deals with the unknowns and magic with respect after the shock goes away. He is an all around good guy and vet from the war. I’m really glad that even though his mind got wiped it is assumed he kept the memories from before as the Eagle Monster only wiped away the sad memories from the city.

Okay: Credence – This guy is the plot device of the film as it is his extreme power that turns him into an Obscuro and has him reek havoc through NYC. Grindelwald and Tina are the ones fighting for his soul but no one really wins as the Ministry kills him…and it’s never brought up again. He’s abused by his adoptive Mom and could have been so much more in the plot. He’s a plot device that works but fails to elevate the plot.

Newt Scamander – Newt is a mystery and Redmayne does a fine job with that but a character needs to be more. We never know why he went into protecting creatures, we don’t know why he’s cut off from people or even why he knows so much. He’s enough of a person though that I won’t call him a “Knock-off” Doctor from “Doctor Who,” though I get why some people would think this. He has enough there to be his own person but not enough to draw me in like the supporting cast.

Graves/Grindelwald – Grindelwald has Newt’s problem but at least his motivation is there as he hates the wizarding laws that hide them from humans as he sees it as protecting humans when wizards should revel in their power. For much of the film he is Agent Graves, an Auror who works for the Wizarding Government in the U.S. Why he was acting alone this entire time was stupid though, if you are Wizard Hitler, you should have followers. So of course he gets caught at the end, even Voldemort didn’t act alone…he at least had Quirrel in Book 1.

The Cons: Creating a Franchise – Rowling should write books first so there is a justification for all of this. There is no reason for Franchising a series that only has Pottermore to go on. It feels like a blatant cash grab and super cynical and dirties the waters of what could be a great Franchise if it happened naturally. This film shows the studio just wants some of the “Game of Thrones” and “Marvel” action.

Plot Holes – Why is Grindelwald alone if he has a movement at his back? What brought Newt into studying creatures? How do relations between the Wizarding Governments work? (we see a council but no follow up). What is Grindelwald doing beyond terror attacks? There were more as well but these are some right off the bat that I noticed while watching the film. Rowling had this problem in her books too.

The Right to Memory – This is a hole in Rowling’s universe too. Wizards wipe human minds so many times and that is never addressed. This is a huge moral issues, hell they wipe the memory of an entire city and things just return to the status quo. Wizards and humans eventually should interact with one another, groups remaining isolated leads to terms like muggles, etc. This is never addressed but this mentality is what creates Grindelwald’s and Voldemort’s in the Wizarding World.

   This was a film that really excelled when it was doing the Grindelwald plot, but fell apart when Scamander had to “Catch em’ all.” The creatures are all very cool and I get that it is his job but that is even never fully explored but it takes up so much of the plot that the much more interesting mystery of why Grindelwald is in America get’s sidelined until the very end. This was a tragic waste of what could have been a wizard noir! A lot of these cons are cons the books and films have too. Rowling is a great idea writer and she is really good at characters when she focuses on them but in the process her world and stories end up being full of plot holes, even if they are a fun ride. I’d still recommend this film, just know it is flawed going in.

Final Score: 7.3 / 10

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Kung Fu Panda 3 (2016): A Solid Part of the Series and Becoming a Teacher

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     Dreamworks has two great Franchises that still manage to put out great animated films. Those Franchises are “How to Train Your Dragon” and “Kung Fu Panda.” These are series that take inspiration from their worlds (fantasy, Kung Fu films) and keep the characters and plots real and at times deep, while still managing to have a sense of humor. “Kung Fu Panda 3” is no different, though I think “Kung Fu Panda 2” is the better film, which I’ll go into at another time when I go through the first and second film.

      “Kung Fu Panda 3” was directed by Jennifer Yuh Nelson and Alessandro Carloni, written by Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger and produced by Melissa Cobb.

    The story involves Po (Jack Black) being found by his father Li Shan (Bryan Cranston) and returning back his father’s village to learn the art of chi when Kai (J.K. Simmons) breaks free from the Spirit Realm and is seeking to consume everyone’s Chi. Po must learn the art before all fall before Kai and the Masters whose chi he possess and now controls.

SPOILERS ahead

 The Pros: The World – The world is a fantastic fantasy world populated by humanoid animals that live in China. We have far off villages like the Panda one that are almost Tibetan in theme and also the main city with the Jade Temple which is reminiscent of Beijing. The world feels lived in too and the heroes who walk among the people are celebrated as such, like celebrities.

The Animation – The animation goes between classically inspired painting in telling back stories or montages, to the flowing 3D that makes up most of the film. It truly is beautiful.

The Soundtrack – Hans Zimmer creates an amazing score and pulls on classical Chinese music for a lot of his score. It is wonderful and pulls on the heart strings and elevates the action when it needs to, but I wouldn’t expect any less from Zimmer who is a master of his craft.

The Characters – The main characters are fantastic and have great moments that give them complexity and reason for their actions. This is a character driven story and it is the relationships that inform the action, like any good action movie.

Li Shan – Bryan Cranston plays Li Shan (Po’s Father) and does a great job as a man who lies to be with his son again as he says the Pandas know the art of Chi (even though it has been lost to time) and spends time connecting with Po’s adoptive father Mr. Ping and in the process helping Po realize that he isn’t alone, which saves his son multiple times.

Mr. Ping – James Hong is an amazing voice actor and I’ve loved him in his role as Po’s adoptive father Mr. Ping. We see him go through jealousy when Li Shan finds Po but also him get over it as he becomes a part of the Panda Village and gets the chance to be a father again to all the baby Pandas as well as council Po in the coming battle when Po feels only alone.

Master Shifu – Dustin Hoffman is a great actor and he has the chance to shine here as the one challenging Po to be better and that he still has much to learn. Sadly we don’t get to see him at his height as Kai consumes his chi, leaving it up to Po to rescue him. In the end he has humility though and asks to learn the art of chi from Po after the final battle.

Grand Master Oogway – Oogway’s chi is consumed in order for Kai to enter the mortal realm and through it all he is the one guiding all of them as it was the Panda’s of old who made him realize that it would be there that that the Dragon Warrior (Po) would be born. In the end Po gets to say good-bye to him too and we see how much of Yoda type figure Oogway has always been.

Kai – I liked Kai and not just because J. K. Simmons voiced him. This is a character who felt left behind as he watched his friend who he saved found peace…and he couldn’t stand that. He was a general so to him power was things and this what leads him to take chi from others. In the end his greed consumes him though as he misses the point of what power really was.

Po – This is the film of Po not only getting comfortable in his skin but becoming a teacher of others as he realizes it is playing to peoples’ strengths that can help them master themselves. He also is saved by the village when Kai nearly consumes his chi as it is in him realizing all his different identities that he realizes how he is the Dragon Warrior and uses his infinite chi to explode Kai as Kai’s body is unable to contain it all.

Finding Self – Finding self is a major theme of the the film as Po doesn’t really know who he is beyond being a warrior who cares about his friends. It is only after he becomes a teacher that he begins to realize how much he doesn’t know again and that who he is, is a part of everyone else. It is this individualist yet collectivist belief that he becomes the Dragon Warrior.

Power in Community – Kai is alone and uses others as slaves in order to take more. Po is someone who is dependent fully on others and it is in that difference of the many versus the one that his full power is unlocked. One stick can break easily, but it is harder to break a bundle.

Taking v. Serving and Enlightenment – The other theme of the film involves taking versus serving…all the characters who grow are those who learn to see outside of themselves and their own selfishness. Li Shan tells the truth, Po serves others, Oogway defeats Kai the first time by protecting others. This is where true power is unlocked in the film.

Family is Greater Than Blood – Mr. Ping is not Po’s blood and the movie makes a point of that, and it also makes a point of showing that Mr. Ping is Po’s second father and that he needs both of his fathers and it is because of both of them he lives and has grown to be who he is. This is an awesome message that really illustrates that family is greater than blood.

Okay; The Other Masters – Master Mantis, Monkey, Snake and Crane are all comedic relief and Master Tigress is relegated to action hero who doesn’t get to make any choices. This is sad as they got some great exploration over the last two films. They aren’t ever annoying but this was a missed opportunity.

The Pandas of the Village – There is a line between comedic village and real people and I don’t know where the Pandas fall on this line. So I’m putting them at okay.

Kai’s End Game – Was he going to conquer the world after consuming everyone’s chi or did he plan to just consume forever? I wish this had been set down a little better.

      This was a really good film, for me it was “Finding Dory” levels of enjoyable, though it didn’t reach original Pixar quality like “Inside Out” or even touch the perfect film of “Kubo and the Two Strings,” but it worked for all that it was. This is Dreamworks paying tribute to Kung Fu films and taking the philosophy into the film while giving us fun and comedic characters…as well as drama and family. If you haven’t seen it or any of the films in this Franchise, go and check them out. If you have kids they will love it and the world is so much deeper that it appears at first glance, just like the Kung Fu films it draws inspiration from. The action is used to make a larger point and tell the drama of people who show us the ways we can grow as well.

Final Score: 9 / 10 I’d rate it higher if Kai had been explored better and if the other Masters had been treated better and not just played for comedic relief.

War Dogs (2016): A Good Idea Not Fully Explored

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      First I have two things I have to admit up front. Great comedies are hard to come by for me, I can’t think of many modern comedies that I’d say are truly amazing, most comedies I have watched in recent time have been overrated and not funny or simply decent. A movie needs more than jokes and setup, it has to have a larger point if the jokes and narrative can’t carry the film. The second is that I haven’t seen any of “The Hangover” films so I don’t know if this direct has other stuff or if his style is to ignore larger points and just got for large character stuff that lacks any sort of point. This movie was still enjoyable, but it was forgettable and it isn’t something I’d watch again for the non-spoiler thoughts before I jump into the review.

      “War Dogs” was directed by Todd Phillips who also was one of the writers and producers with the other writers being Stephen Chin and Jason Smilovic. The story is also based off the book “Arms and the Dudes” by Guy Lawson.

    The story involves David Packouz (Miles Tiller) who is miserable in his life as a massage therapist in Miami until his friend from Middle School Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill) pulls him into the arms business. All is not as it seems though as he begins to live a lie with his wife and finds that Efraim is hiding things from him.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: The Premise – The premise of two friends getting into the arms business, one of whom is anti-war is such an intriguing premise. There is so much you can do with this…from buyers and ending the war, to the reasons to and not deal with certain groups. None of that is done though…

The Soundtrack – The soundtrack has some great classic songs through the film that have some pretty cool war scenes. It helped make the experience of the film enjoyable.

Henry Girard – Bradley Cooper plays this dealer related to the Albanians who our protagonists deal with. He’s on a terrorist watch list and is in control of everything through most of the film, even though he’s a side character. If the film had been about him I have a feeling the film would be a 7 or 8 at least, Cooper does an amazing job in this role.

The Ending – David is given a choice to go back into the business as he covers for Girard and has the choice to take his money and the connections that come with it after it seems he’s moved on with his life. It’s powerful but the journey to get there takes away from it.

Okay: David – David is bland, you get he’s fed up with his job as a massage therapist and later selling sheets and that he loves his wife Iz…but she only exists as motivation for him and his relationship with Efraim never feels fully formed. We see his rise happen way too quickly and his heal turn is abrupt. It was predictable in the end and his character could have been played by anyone.

Efraim – Jonah Hill is fun but he is in a malformed character who we are supposed to sympathize with but at every opportunity we see he is only a selfish character out for himself. Even Hill’s charisma can’t make this character anything more than passable fun.

The Cons: Iz – She is there to motivate David’s actions and his eventual turn back to good. She has no motivation outside of their kid and David…she isn’t really a character just a plot device.

Morality is never Confronted – They sell weapons when one of them is supposedly anti-war. There is moral dilemma and confrontation right there…but we never get the why and David just goes along with everything.

Lack of Complexity – David is along for the ride of this very weak script, the film wants to be smart and humanize the Middle East but everyone in Albania and the Middle East are like Iz, they are plot devices to advance David and Efraim’s plot and from that what chance there was for complexity and tragedy is forgotten.

Lack of Consequence – Our protagonists don’t really face any consequences. David ends up back with his wife after she leaves him and even though Efraim goes to prison for 7 years, he is shown to be so wealthy and we never see him beat…so chances are he’s fine, 7 months in prison did nothing to David considering Girard’s cash.

What was the Point? – You have a gun about people selling weapons in the middle of a war. How can a film have a chance to explore morality, mortality and choice and forget about all of that…the comedy isn’t enough to make this film good or even great and the drama is predictable…What was the point?

  This is a movie that couldn’t tackle the big question. It never dealt with the wars in the Middle East even though our characters were right in the middle of all of it, David and Efraim face no consequences beyond a light sentence (months in prison for David, only 7 years for Efraim). The jokes didn’t really work either because we were never given reason to like Efraim, the guy is selfish from the beginning and never shows himself to be anything more than a selfish guy only out for himself, so his betrayal and somewhat fall had no feeling behind it. It wasn’t two friends falling out and that is what the film could have been. This lack of purpose and point when dealing with some pretty hardcore moral issues hurt it and the comedy wasn’t strong enough to make up for the lack of point to the drama. Still, this is a fun film if you don’t want to think…those are just the kind of films I don’t see again.

Final Score: 6 / 10

Doctor Strange (2016): Fantastic Universe and Protagonists With Sadly Forgettable Villains

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      “Doctor Strange” is a really fun, this is a film that would have easily gotten into my Top 5 if it had managed to get over the hurdle that most Marvel Cinematic Universe films face…as in having a compelling villain who exists as more than just a hurtle to be defeated and if the love interest had actually been more than a plot device. These are problems that this film has right off the bat and I’ll get into more details with the spoilers below. Suffice to say, this is still a great film you should see…the protagonists are all fantastic and the world is a compelling one that I can’t wait to return back to.

     The film was directed by Scott Derrickson who co-wrote the screenplay with C. Robert Cargill and was produced by Kevin Feige.

       The story involves Doctor Strange, a famous surgeon whose world is thrown upside down when after a car accident he can no longer use his hands, which forces him to seek out help leading him to the Ancient One and a universe full of dimensions, magic and threats.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: The World – The world is amazing! This is a world where other dimensions and being exist, where people can create magic from energy from those worlds and the limits of imagination are explored (something I wish we could have got more of in “Inception”). The World is easily the biggest reason to see this movie.

The Special Effects – How the world is visualized is through the magic of special effects and these are the best ones I’ve seen and unlike “Inception” which sticks with the grey of the city this one embraces the acidic trippy roots of “Doctor Strange” and does in fact go “Far out.” It’s a trip and a good one.

The Action – The action is wonderful largely due to the effects and how magic is visualized in this universe. It takes the idea of energy and uses it to empower artifacts and to create weapons and gateways. This leads to some fantastic sequences as reality, time and dimensions are twisted in quite a few fantastic fight sequences.

The Protagonists – I’m not including the love interst in this because she’s a disposable prop like the villains, but the sorcerers are amazing and compelling, each in their own ways.

The Ancient One – Tilda Swinton does a wonderful job as this complex master of Celtic origins who is of unknown age. She manages to show compassion and also bluntness and vulnerability and strength, be old and young and appear genderless. She is the Ancient One and her relationship with her pupils is compelling in how those relationships grow or fall apart over the course of the film. One issue that the film tries to skirt and never addresses is the fact that the Ancient One was was originally Tibetan. They attempt to skirt this with an endogenous female Ancient One in Swinton, and she does a good job in the role but it does white wash a group (Asian Americans) who are rarely represented in Hollywood and rarely represented in this film though the location of Tibet is still used as the home and Headquarters of the Ancient One and her organization.

Wong – Benedict Wong plays my favorite character in this Universe. We are introduced to him as the new Librarian after Mads Mikkleson (villain name is irrelevant and he isn’t compelling enough to call him by his name) kills him so he’s strict about the rules of the Library. Over the course of the film we see that he has a sense of humor, such as when Strange reverses time to save him and the world and he embraces it showing living matters more to him than any rules and he loves the fight.

Mordo – Mordo is a Paladin, he’s all about the rules and what is right and when he finds the Ancient One was bending the rules and dealing with the Dark in order to fight it it leads to his loss of faith, especially after Strange also makes a deal with the Dark as he leaves them deciding that there are too many magicians and that he needs to reestablish the Natural Order that they are all upsetting.  Chiwetel Ejiofor plays the fall so well and I can’t wait to see him as an antagonist in future films. He was my second favorite character in this film, the third being Doctor Strange.

Doctor Strange – Doctor Strange is an arrogant dick who using the loss of his hands was the best thing that happened to him since it offered him to see beyond himself and his ego. This is his arc and what separates him from Tony Stark is he comes off as a much bigger dick than Tony even in “Iron Man 2.” In this way his bending the rules even after he’s learned makes sense and why he’s willing to face eternal pain to save the world. He realizes just how much of a monster he was and makes amends. Benedict is great in this role and I can’t wait to see more of this character.

The Ending – Strange crosses into the Dark Dimension to make a deal with the Dark One Dormammu and gets killed many times before Dormammu makes the deal Strange has been offering the entire time. It is humorous and fitting and I really like that it wasn’t a fight scene. It showed that Strange is a mind based hero and sometimes you can’t beat the big bad you can only keep it away or outsmart it.

The Cons: Disposable Characters – The villains could have been anyone and Rachel McAdams’s character could have been played by anyone. These characters exist as props to advance the plot of Doctor Strange, nothing more.

The Love Interest – She saves his life and makes him realize he cares about people….that’s it. What is her family life like? No idea. We here about when her and Strange hooked up….Why? We never find out. Why does she like Doctor Strange? No clue. She is a plot device and the plot didn’t need her which is a shame because McAdams is a great actress.

The Villains – Mads Mikkleson is an evil wizard who wants to bring the Dark One to Earth and have immortality. Beyond that and his falling out with the Ancient One it is never explored further. Dormammmu is just kind of there, an evil Special Effect and together they could have been any Villain of the Week (Like Mads’s character). There is no reason to care about either of these characters and neither of them ham it up like Ronan enough to make it interesting. But you are seeing a Marvel Movie, you got to go into knowing they don’t know how to make good villains usually and this film is a shining example of it.

    This was a great film but the problems that underwrite it as a Marvel Film that doesn’t take risks keep it from becoming more. This is a film that if the villain had been more humanized (as Mordo is leading to his fall) or the love interest had been more than a plot device would have elevated it into my Top 5. For now I’d say it’s below “Ant-Man” for sure but above some of the sequels like “Thor 2” and “Iron Man 2,” as it could have been so much more if characters had been disposable in the plot, be they the antagonist or lover. You should still go see this film, just know these problems going in and you’ll have a better experience all the more for it. This is a film that is standing proof of just how well the Marvel Model works and I can’t wait to see more of this character and his world.

Final Score: 9 / 10

Everybody Wants Some!! (2016): A Beautiful Exploration of Groups, Sexuality and Purpose

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    “Everybody Wants Some!!” might end up being my favorite movie of the year. This is a film that never stops being fun and brings depth to the purpose of being alive, group dynamics and the different parts of the self people reveal depending on who they are with and also a pretty real take on sexuality and some of the many expressions of it. I’ll get into greater details in the review, suffice to say on my non-spoiler thoughts…this film is one of the best out there.

     The film was written, directed and produced by Richard Linklater and also produced by Ginger Sledge and Megan Ellison.

    The films involves newly arrived Freshman Jake (Blake Jenner) who is part of College Baseball and is staying at the Baseball House since it is a legacy in relation to the College. There are a few days left until College starts and the drama and adventures he and his teammates have is explored.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: The World – The world is fantastic and manages to transport us back in time to 1980 where it takes place and from there we get to visit so many different environments and groups…from disco clubs, rock concert, country bar, the baseball team and theatre crowd…and none of them exist as stereotypes, they are fully fleshed out characters and it makes the world real.

The Cinematography – The cinematography is beautiful and captures the adventure and different environments and situations so well. If a character feels isolated you are in it, if the environment is big and large and the full ensemble is present…you get to see snapshots of all of them. Shane F. Kelly really did a fantastic job.

The Soundtrack – The soundtrack is awesome and is a fantastic blend of 80’s and 70’s songs that capture the different environments really well as well as the youthful energy of the young unknown cast, who I hope to see more of in the future.

The Writing – The writing is amazing! This is a film of show rather than tell as any good movie should be. We see characters ego and empathy and how none of them are simple caricatures. Characters may claim not to think but demonstrate just how much they think about things the less minute, characters can be jerks but the next moment they are backing up a character they put through Hell. The script is dynamic and shows what great writing actually means. Linklater truly nailed this film.

The Characters – The characters are complex and the actors are great. I didn’t really have a favorite and loved most of them, like I said in the writing…none of them are simple, each of them has a depth that is revealed over the course of conversations and the events of the film.

Group Mentality – Group mentality is something that’s analyzed in this whether it is the pro of people who have your back but at the same time can be cruel when you are the outsider becoming part of the group. This dynamic comes up countless times throughout the film as well as the core competition of the group given how serious being part of the Baseball team is shown to be. The group can the biggest troll or the greatest protector.

Humans and Sex – It is normal for people to want to have sex and this film embraces this. Whether it is a one night stand or a serious relationship sex is such a part of what makes us humans as well as our desire for it that this film cannot escape it, so it embraces it and shows all the different motivations for sex or mistakes that can happen during it. It truly is beautifully explored in this.

Of Faces and Identities – There are some great conversations in this, largely from Finn and how is is natural to shapeshift given we are animals and adapt to meet desires (in his context sex) or what it means to fit in and be your best self as Jake and his girlfriend Beverly discuss as so much of what drives them is their identity and how for them it is tied to motivation, dreams and as expressed in their relationship, the intellect and connection. The characters of this film where many faces and I found it a true expression of humanity and not just group pressure, people want to fit in or to shape a group and we see that here as ego and relationships are constantly in play.

Purpose – Purpose is another theme of the film, “What’s your focus in college?” as one of those questions, with others discussing the purpose of sex, dressing up, reality and even the purpose of the Baseball Team and one’s place on the Team either as outsider or something else. The answers are up to interpretation and that is where a lot of the power in this film lies.

   There weren’t any issues I had with this film, it is a film that when I saw the trailer for it I thought it was just be a stupid party movie, this was so much more. This was a film that tackled all the different aspects of what makes us human and life worth it. It is hard to choose any favorite character since this is an ensemble cast where each character is shown to have at least more than one face or layer that helps define who they are. This is a fun adventure that manages to be so much more than that and this is a film that could easily be my favorite film for 2016.

Final Score: 10 / 10 One of the few perfect films.

Hell or High Water (2016): An Amazing Modern Personal Western

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   “Hell or High Water” is a fantastic modern western. It is modern in that it takes place in the current era with cars and technology unlike most westerns I’ve seen which usually go back to the Civil War Era and the surrounding time periods…and it works. This is a personal film that gives room for the characters to breathe so their motivations can be fully explored and how complicated each of them are.

   The film was directed by David Mackenzie and written by Taylor Sheridan with the producers being Sidney Kimmel, Peter Berg, Carla Hacken, Julie Yorn, Gigi Pritzker and Rachel Shane.

    The story involves the brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner Howard (Ben Howard) robbing banks in small town Texas while being hunted by Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birningham) as each of their motivations for being in this hunt or robberies is revealed over the course of the film.

SPOILERS ahead

 The Pros: The World – The world is a bunch of small dying towns in Texas. These are all towns that were bigger when the west was first settled but have died to time as so many dead industries litter the landscapes. It is a location of extreme poverty and desperation where everyone is armed…I enjoyed my time in this world because of how relevant and real it is to poverty here in the U.S. today.

The Cinematography – The cinematography is beautiful and captures the rugged stretches of land that make up Texas as well as how isolated all our characters are making what connections they have with each other all the more meaningful. Giles Nuttgens did a fantastic job.

The Soundtrack – The soundtrack is very much a western and keeps up the dark tone of the film as at the core it is a crime and heist film mixed with a western, as we spend as much time with the Howards and their robberies as we do with the Rangers Marcus and Alberto who are hunting them. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis did a great job capturing the feel of Texas and the tension that pervades the film.

Tanner Howard – Tanner is the brother who got out of prison and had experience robbing before. He also killed his and Toby’s abusive father and from there realized he had nothing to lose. Everything he does is for his brother and his brother’s family and for the thrill of the action. He’s a fascinating character who is bad but not all bad. Ben Foster does a good job giving this guy an edge and empathy.

Alberto Parker – Alberto character is half native and half Mexican and it is through him we get the why to what the Howard’s are doing as he calls out the people their for taking his peoples’ lands and how the cycle has continued with the banks taking there. He is very by the books and even though Marcus inspires him he also critiques Marcus’s obsessions. He is shot by Tanner at the end…Gil Birningham plays him and he is easily my favorite character in this film. I wanted to know more of his story.

Ranger Marcus Hamilton – Jeff Bridges owns every role he plays and he does that once again here as a Ranger who is aging out of the force and sees capturing the thieves as his last great hurrah. He manages to avenge his partner after Tanner shoots and figures out that Toby is the one who set everything in motion and even goes to talk to him. He is filled with so much regret over the loss of Alberto and implies he may be killed or kill Toby later. Like Toby he has no peace after the events, even with retirement and being sung as hero for taking out Tanner.

Toby Howard – Toby lives for his ex-wife and kids and everything he does is to get the money and the rights to the property his mother owned that has oil on it. He succeeds but we see, especially near the end how he regrets letting his brother reek havoc as he now has the blood of innocent people on his hands. This regret is one reason we see him wising for death at the end and that he is only living for his kids, the ones who he went into crime for in the first place to get them out of poverty.

Poverty and Dying Towns – Poverty is rampant throughout the landscape in this film and we get the glimpse of so many people who only have their pride, which can motivate them to different things like the Howard’s crime spree or Hamilton’s obsession. The opportunities are becoming less and their is sadness to everything that even though Toby pulled his family out of it, they screwed over so many others and others will never be able to get out.

Land and Ownership – The theme of land and ownership is huge and starts with Alberto’s speech on how this land all used to belong to his people until like the thieves the settlers and government stole it through war and now the banks are doing the same in this dying region. It is powerful as we see how land ownership is tied to power and power through violence.

The Cons: Too Slow At Times – About halfway through it hit’s a slow part where it takes a while to pick up again before the final big heist where everything goes down. The rest of the film makes up for it, it wouldn’t be in competition for the Top 5 Films of 2016 if that wasn’t the case, but it is still a problem. A bit more action in character relationships or heists would have strengthened the film.

   This was a great film and might end up being one of the Top 5 of the year. It manages to say so much just by showing the state of so many poor Texas towns and from there you see the desperation that lead to the Howard’s taking their path of robbery to get out of it. It is really well done and I loved the levels of history, especially as expressed by Alberto and how the settlers had stolen his peoples’ land and now the banks were stealing theirs. This was a smart film that says a lot and doesn’t have a happy ending. It is a bittersweet western that deserves to be up there with the Westerns that are the greats.

Final Score: 9.7 / 10

The Neon Demon (2016): Better Writing and Exploration of Characters Could Have Made This a Classic

the-neon-demon

    “The Neon Demon” is a horror film that could have been a great classic. It had so much going for it in the themes, ideas and even the characters…but due to lack of development of the characters really failed to deliver on it’s intriguing premise making it more of a film akin to “The Lobster” rather than John Carpenter’s “The Thing.” It’s a film I’d still recommend as it is good, but it fails where it has to and that is what keeps it from being great…for my non-spoiler thoughts.

     The film was directed, co-written and co-produced by Nicolas Winding Refn, co-written by Mary Laws and Polly Stenham and co-produced by Lene Borglum.

     The story involves aspiring model Jesse (Elle Fanning) moving from a small town in Georgia to Los Angeles to get a start in the modeling business. All is not as it appears to be though as rivals have plans for her that go far deeper than she can ever realize.

Spoilers ahead

The Pros: The Premise – The premise is cool! The modeling industry in L.A. is such a great place to have the threat of confined spaces and the city and since modeling…body horror or all the different ways people try to fit in by changing their bodies…within horror and thrillers there is so much that can be done with that.

The Cinematography – The cinematography is picturesque and had so many beautiful images. Even if the images themselves were often beautiful for the sake of beauty or symbolic for the sake of symbolism, they were still stunning.

The Soundtrack – Cliff Martinez created an amazing synth heavy soundtrack that gave a sci. fi. horror feel to the film that sadly was never delivered on. I was expecting to see actual demons rather than implied demon models and some sort of real body horror or at least deep psychological horror…and while there are disturbing scenes the music was far better at tension than the story was.

Christina Hendricks and Keanu Reeves – These two play characters whose stories I wish we could have gotten! Hendricks plays the Manager of a modeling agency who has Jesse lie about her age to get the job (What lead her to be that way? How did she become head of the agency? I wanted to know!) and Keanu Reeves plays a corrupt owner of a motel who uses runaways for sex and exploits models. He’s an evil dude who I wanted to know on how a person could get that way…instead they are side characters who only act as motivation or threat…

The Cons: The Demons – The motivation of the demons seems to be power and destruction but I never got why. They merely existed to exist and exist as symbols of how an industry and being so focused on self can consume you and lead you to consume others. That is cool but even that idea isn’t fully explored because the characters feel unfinished. They exist as half-formed ideas which is a shame as the actress are at least decent at their roles.

Characters Never More Than Symbols Who Aren’t Fully Explored as Symbol or Character – It isn’t just the demons who have the problem of never becoming full characters, Jesse has the same problem too. Everyone exists as threat or motivation for Jesse or I guess the Demons at the end so in the end the story is not fully formed as those who inhabit it never fully become characters and are stuck existing as concepts and ideas.

     If the characters had been fully fleshed out and we had fully explored the depths of the evil of the demons and the industry as it is presented in this film this is a horror film that could have been one of the greats and truly a classic. Because it failed in execution I can only say it is really good but not great though. Lack of character exploration can bring any story down whether it is film or book and this film really suffers from that. I’d still recommend it though and I hope to see more of Refn’s work.

Final Score: 8.4 / 10