Saturday, April 21, 2018

Isle of Dogs Review

All you have to do to get me into a seat to see a new Wes Anderson film is to simply inform me Wes Anderson has a new film coming out and I'll be stoked. You don't even need to show me a trailer or tell me what the movie is about. The man just has such a unique style and sense of humor that he's practically his own genre of film and all of the movies that I've seen from him have been enjoyably quirky and just a blast to experience. If you've never seen a Wes Anderson film, do yourself a favor and check out his filmography. You'll be glad you did. You can check out his nine-time Oscar nominated film "The Grand Budapest Hotel" that gave Anderson his first nominations for best director and best picture, or you can check out some of his earlier films such as "Rushmore," "The Royal Tenenbaums," "Fantastic Mr. Fox" and "Moonrise Kingdom." Or maybe you can just dive right into "Isle of Dogs," because this is very much a Wes Anderson film in about every way. If you have seen and loved Wes Anderson's previous films, then get to a theater as soon as possible to see "Isle of Dogs" as it shouldn't surprise you that he's conjured up yet another brilliant work of art. In fact, this is one of my favorite films in this still young 2018 and I imagine it will remain a bright highlight.

One thing I really appreciated about the marketing of this film is that they managed to not tell me much about what this was about. We were given some vague, yet intriguing trailers about a boy wandering around on Trash Island looking for his dog. So I wasn't even sure what I was getting myself into when I went into the theater. Certainly this had to be more than just a boy searching for his dog for 100 minutes, right? That didn't make me nervous at all because I have a lot of confidence in Wes Anderson. Curious would probably be the more appropriate word. Turns out my suspicious were correct. This is actually a fairly layered, complex film with a very deep story arc that they left a complete mystery in the marketing. I won't spoil the film, but I do have to talk about it in order to tell you why I loved this so much. If you already love Wes Anderson and you know nothing about "Isle of Dogs," feel free to close this review and go experience the complex, thought-provoking magic that Anderson has presented in this movie. Yes, the movie is about a boy searching for his dog. But the bigger, overarching plot involves a futuristic, fictional Japanese city where everyone loves cats while the leader has banned all dogs, exiling them to Trash Island. That's our plot here.

Thus on the surface we have a story that will have dog lovers in tears as all of these dogs have been sadly dumped on this island, left to fend for themselves while the humans don't care if they all die. After this sad introduction, said dog lovers will then be cheering for this young Japanese kid as he rebels against the government to go search for his own pet dog that has been dumped onto the island that he loves. This will then lead to quite the quirky, enjoyable adventure with this kid and the main group of dogs, voiced by Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray and Jeff Goldblum. Then on top of that, one will also be rooting for the secret team of scientists on mainland Japan who are trying to come up with a cure to this dog flu, which is part of the reason why the dogs have been exiled. In addition to these scientists, there are other groups of secret dog lovers who are trying to start a revolution of sorts to stop this evil tyranny from the current regime. Yeah, that's a lot more than the trailers told you about this movie, but in case you weren't sold solely on the Wes Anderson card, hopefully that will convince you to give this a shot in showing you that this is a deliciously complex film with so much to absorb and take in.

I'm not going to talk about what actually transpires in this film after this initial setup, but there came a point early on in the film where it dawned on me that this is much more than just a film about cats and dogs. There are a lot of films out there that are simply movies about humans and their pets. As an animal lover myself, these simple stories often capture my heart and make me miss my old pets growing up. Off the top of my head, I can immediately think of "Old Yeller," "Homeward Bound" and "Air Bud" as examples. We even have last year's "A Dog's Purpose" that was decently enjoyable. If that's all "Isle of Dogs" was about, there would be a good chance that I would still enjoy it. In fact, there's certain heartwarming moments that I loved specifically because of the relationship between the boy and his dog. But rather than being strictly a movie about cats and dogs, "Isle of Dogs" is a movie that uses cats and dogs as more of a metaphor for government as a whole as well as various social issues. The first thought that came to my mind was that this could be Wes Anderson making a strong, yet subtle statement about our current regime here in the United States with the tyrannical Japanese leader representing everyone's current beloved president, Mr. Donald Trump.

As I began to think about that, my mind was immediately blown. I was like, "Whoa!" Yet as I thought about that even more, it also dawned on me that there probably isn't just one big political statement that is being driven home here. The oppressive, tyrannical government of Japan could probably be applied to a lot of different government regimes, past or present. Meanwhile, in terms of the dogs and the cats, they could apply to various social issues. Perhaps the dogs being oppressed could represent any race or sect of people in our day who are oppressed or maybe even various ideals or philosophies that are being rejected by the populous while the cats are the exact opposite. They could represent the various racist or sexist ideas or philosophies that society often clings onto while the small group of dog lovers in the movie represent the people pushing for change, acceptance and and an overall progressive society. Reject all of those evil cats and learn to accept the dogs in your life that you have discarded. Maybe this idea will make real cat lovers angry, but the movie isn't literally saying all cats are bad. The cats are just the metaphor as cats are generally the more self-centered pets while dogs are the more loyal and humble pets.

Thematically I think this movie is genius. It's a true work of art as we get deeper into the story and learn that this is almost an allegorical tale instead of just a cute movie about dogs. But in terms of said work of art, on a technical level this is an awe-inspiring masterpiece as this is all done in the stop motion animation style, meaning all of the characters and the scenery were literally built from hand while every small movement from each character or background object had to be done shot by shot. If you're unfamiliar with this stop motion animation process, do a quick YouTube search and it'll completely blow your mind how excruciatingly difficult this process is for even the smallest and simplest of scenes. Then you watch an entire film like "Isle of Dogs" that is so detailed with everything that your jaw might literally hit the floor as you think of what went into crafting this film. All of this had me mesmerized for the entire run time. Yet that wasn't the only thing that had me mesmerized. The score throughout the movie is brilliant. It almost felt like one continuous song that was quite progressive in the construction of it that started with simple drum beats and slowly kept adding various sounds and instruments throughout.

Combine these masterfully crafted technical aspects of the movie with a creatively deep themes and metaphors surrounding these lovable characters and the best way to describe "Isle of Dogs" is that it's a brilliant work of art. If you're one of the many that are constantly complaining that Hollywood has no original ideas, then make sure you expand your horizons from the typical big blockbuster affair and go see a movie like "Isle of Dogs" because there's actually a lot of filmmakers out there like Wes Anderson that do have their creative juices flowing and are constantly showcasing it in their films. "Isle of Dogs" is unique, it's creative, it's heartwarming, it's hilarious, it's shocking, it's a bit brutal and graphic at times, it's honest and it's very thought-provoking. Even though it may seem like I have covered a lot of this movie, there's a ton here that I haven't even touched. A lot of twists and surprises throughout. A lot of different story arcs that are beautifully woven together. A lot of classic Wes Anderson moments that will have you rolling around in your chair as he takes you on a wild ride that you didn't think a movie about a boy and his dog could take you. It's definitely a top-tier Wes Anderson film for me that's worth your time and money. I'm giving "Isle of Dogs" a 9/10.

P.S. - This is not a kid's movie. I'm not saying don't take your kids. That's up to you. I'm just going to say use caution. This is a PG-13 movie that earns its rating, thus I would say this is an animated film directed at adults and fans of Wes Anderson rather than kids, which I think we need more of rather than having the stereotype that animated movies are for kids only.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Trek: The Movie Review

Actual footage from my personal Pioneer Trek in 2004. Not footage from this movie
Pioneer Trek. It's a Mormon thing. That's the tagline of this movie, which is about the only thing the movie gets right when it comes to Trek. This is a by Mormons, for Mormons movie, as the filmmakers themselves have admitted, so I don't expect anyone who is a non-Mormon to even look at this review. Unless of course you thought by the title that this was some sort of Star Trek review. I mean, when I search this movie on Google or IMDb, "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" is at the top of the list of things the internet thinks I'm searching for for. As fun as it would be to do a review of that movie, it's Pioneer Trek we're looking at here, not Star Trek. If you happen to be a non-Mormon and you are wondering what in the heck Pioneer Trek is, let me give a brief summary. In the early days of the Mormon church, which was organized in 1830, there was a lot of persecution. The early saints were driven from their homes on numerous occasions, causing them to cross the plains on foot, traveling from New York to Ohio to Missouri to Illinois and eventually to Utah over the course of about 15-20 years. A popular tradition today for Mormon youth is to do short reenactments of that where we dress up like pioneers and walk with handcarts for a few days. Pioneer Trek.

When I say brief summary, that's the extremely brief summary. Obviously the history of the Mormon church is a very long, complex history that I don't care to detail in this review, but the general idea is that they traveled west, often walking with handcarts carrying their stuff. I think in general it's a good idea to remember and honor your ancestors, regardless of what your current state of life is, so in the Mormon church, Pioneer Trek is one good way to remember the sacrifices that our ancestors made. Believe me, hiking in the mountains pulling a handcart behind you for just four days is tough work, even when your church leaders have everything meticulously planned out with plenty of food and water as well as ready medical attention if anyone needs it. You get to the end of that four days and you're ready to go back to your own house with your own family and live your normal life. But generally it's a very positive experience that makes you appreciate your ancestors who went through what they did over the course of several months or years. It was just a four-day reenactment for me. But for them it was life. If they ran out of food and water or got sick, there wasn't always a truck driving behind them ready to bail them out. They had to do their best and move forward.

I promise I'll get to this movie in a second, but the idea of this movie coming out sparked an interest in myself to go back and reflect on my personal experience with Pioneer Trek. The Trek that I went on with my stake was from June 29 - July 2 in 2004. I was 15 years old at the time. Don't be too impressed that I remembered those dates. All that means is that I saved my journal from that experience. I went back and read my thoughts at the time and watched the 55 minute DVD that they made of it, where someone took video footage of our Trek and added interviews of my peers talking about their experiences. I found it to be a really great experience to go back and read my thoughts and watch that DVD. I haven't done that in a long time, so doing so after so many years was pretty special. In fact, the pictures in this blog post are not of this movie that I'm reviewing. I took screenshots from my computer of said Trek DVD while I was watching, because I thought it would be fun to add those to this review. For me, this was a life-changing experience that I never forgot. Being only 15 years old at the time, it was a great way to shape my testimony. I especially loved listening to the testimonies of all my old friends from 14 years ago after this experience.

Actual footage from my Pioneer Trek. This is 15-year-old me
For sparking this desire to go back and reflect on my personal experiences, I really appreciate this movie. It also gives me a platform to talk about a personal experience that I had 14 years ago that I've not talked about much since. But if I'm being perfectly honest, a part of the reason why I immediately went back and watched my own Trek video and read my journal was to purge from my mind this awful movie that I had wasted $5 on. Normally I don't have a problem writing bad reviews, but in this instance I feel horrible doing so because these guys followed me on Twitter. I don't think it's because I'm a fancy movie person. I think it was because I was tweeting during General Conference and whoever was managing their Twitter page went about following people who were tweeting about Conference, which is a smart move on their part. Thus when they followed me, I tweeted to them that I was going to give this movie a shot and write a review of it. And they liked that tweet. So I decided to be a man of my word and fulfill my promise. Which means those people who made this movie could very well be reading this review right now. It's one thing to write a bad review that only your friends will read. But when the filmmakers themselves could be reading? Yikes. That is a bit intimidating to me.

All I can say if the filmmakers are reading this review is that I hope they appreciate honest feedback. I do keep in mind when it comes to locally made films that they're at an unfair disadvantage without the resources available to a normal big-budget Hollywood production. They often can't afford to hire major Hollywood actors or a professional Hollywood movie crew to make it look like a perfect Hollywood film, so it's unfair to judge in the same level. Even if said local filmmakers are rich and can afford to finance the whole thing, you can't spend $50 million making the movie because you're not going to make that much money in return. On the high on the things, "Meet the Mormons" made $6 million, while "The Saratov Approach" made $2.1 million and "Once I Was a Beehive" made $732,655. And those are movies that all had huge, positive buzz in the Mormon community. At the same time, though, all three of those movies were also made with the same handicaps as "Trek: The Movie" had. Or at least those last two were. "Meet the Mormons" is in a slightly different category with the Church itself making and financing it. But despite extremely low budgets, "The Saratov Approach" and "Once I Was a Beehive" were two quality films.

I think one of the biggest problems for "Trek: The Movie" was the idea itself. As you can tell, I loved my Trek experience. As do millions of other Mormon youth. But without even seeing any footage, how many of you would be intrigued at the idea of a Trek movie? I know I was concerned. That doesn't seem like a topic that translates well into an interesting big screen experience. I mean, most of Trek constitutes hours of walking while casually talking with your fellow handcart peers about life. How do you take that and transfer it into a traditional three-act movie structure that manages to keep the attention of the audience for an hour and half? I think the idea the filmmakers had was to take the idea and turn it into a Mormon version of a John Hughes-style high school drama. I suppose that sounds like an interesting idea in theory. But again. How do you translate that idea into an actual movie script that works? The correct answer is that you go talk to the people who put together "Once I Was a Beehive" and figure out how they did it. Because they talked the subject of Girl's Camp and somehow magically transformed that into an amazing Mormon film. In fact, that movie is one of the reasons why I had the confidence to purchase a ticket to this movie. Maybe it can work again?

Actual footage from my Pioneer Trek. I'm not in this picture
I suppose it could work with the right team in place. If you have an experienced Mormon filmmaker like T.C. Christensen who knows just the right strings to pull when it comes to pleasing his target audience, you could've made this work. But the director of this movie is a man by the name of Alan Peterson whose previous IMDb credits are highlighted by two extreme political documentaries called "Hillary: The Movie" and "Hype: The Obama Effect," both from 2008. So, political propaganda films to a Mormon teen movie? That's quite the transition. Not quite the experience I look for with films like this. And the screenplay was written by David Howard, the guy who wrote "Galaxy Quest"? Well that's an idea. Apparently he's done nothing since "Galaxy Quest," though, in terms of writing screenplays. And the other credited writer is a man by the name of Jongiorgi Enos, who acted in a few Mormon movies, such as "Brigham City" and "The Testaments," but this apparently is his first time writing a major screenplay. Now if this writing and directing team with no prior experience in this genre actually works out, then props to them. But when the entire screenplay is an outright disaster and the direction is awful, you look back at that and suddenly it all makes sense. They could've used a different writing crew on this one.

Now I don't know if any of the actors in this movie are going to find this review or even really care about the opinions of a random movie blogger. But they're the ones I'm actually going to compliment. Austin R. Grant, Joel Bishop, Stefania Barr, Clint Pulver, Ryan Mitchel Brown, Spencer Loftus, Avery Pizzuto and Spencer Marsh are the major players in this and they all did a fine job with what they were given. But it's that last part that's the problem. What they were given to work with. This is an awful representation of Trek from start to finish. It's so bad, that it's hard to come up with specific examples as to why, but I suppose we'll start at the top. This is supposed to be a Pioneer Trek for this whole stake. I know not all stakes are the same, but I imagine that if stake leadership made the decision to do a stake Pioneer Trek, there's going to be a lot of planning and preparation put into said Trek for months in advance. And if you have 100+ kids going, you're going to have more than five adult leaders going with them. And all the leaders are going to be well prepared as to what they are doing. Here we have the main leader who is written as an oblivious man to all of this, as if he was asked to lead a few days before, and the other leaders are exaggerated to the extreme.

So said leaders are taking this large group of kids up the mountains five minutes to a place where it looked like all the kids could walk home if they wanted to. Their handcarts are practically empty. And they aren't fed anything. Like, seriously. They walk for half the day and when it's time for lunch, they get a single orange. Then we have one of the drill sergeant leaders yelling at them every five minutes. This isn't Trek. Just look at the pictures I've provided of my real Trek. That's what Trek is. This Trek is just a joke. I don't know the personal backgrounds of these filmmakers who wrote this, but it looked like they had no idea what actual Pioneer Trek was like. At least I hope that's the case. If they ever volunteered as leaders on a real Pioneer Trek carefully organized for months in advance by stake leaders who wanted nothing more than to give the youth in the stake a life-changing experience, then that's even more embarrassing because at the very least this movie should've been able to capture what Pioneer Trek was actually like. I mean, maybe I just went on the most celestial Pioneer Trek ever, but I'd be willing to bet that anyone who loved Trek will watch this movie and be confused as to how off this is. It's the type of movie that could be watched for the sake of laughing at it for the wrong reasons, Mystery Science Theater 3000 style.

Actual Footage of my Pioneer Trek. I'm at the back right
Then we have the curious case of the youth involved. Now again, I think the actors themselves did a good job at what they were given, even though most of them looked like they were at least in their mid-20's as if this were a college Singles Ward going on Trek instead of youth aged 12 to 18. But how they were written was embarrassing. Granted, I can't say everyone involved in going to Trek with me back in 2004 were jumping for joy, but I think for the most part we all had a good attitude about it. All of these kids, and I mean all of them, were written as snobby, annoying teenagers who were dreading this experience. We had a long sequences of the exaggerated, mean adults lining them up to check to see if they snuck stuff in that they weren't supposed to, and all of them had candy, food and electronic devices hidden everywhere and were completely brokenhearted that they had to give them up. And nearly all of them continued to be extremely annoying throughout the whole movie. I think the only "normal" teenager portrayed in the movie was the girl who was playing the non-member. The rest of them were written as a exaggerated Mormon teenagers who drove me crazy, with little realism and way too many romantic subplots.

So yeah, when the whole setup is bad, that's a problem. This is supposed to be a good movie about Pioneer Trek, but the leaders were incompetent, the setup of the Trek itself was way off in terms of accuracy and all of the teenagers that are leading the way in this movie are written as exaggerated Mormon teenagers who all hate the idea of this Pioneer Trek. But OK. Fine. Maybe this is just a really poor setup. Maybe I'll get used to the characters and get something out of this movie in the final two acts. Well, they tried. The major storyline involved our main kid who was lacking in faith because one of his friends died a year previously. There was potential there. But even that fell flat. And the final act of the movie involves them getting lost in the woods because one of the girls got sick since these incompetent leaders decided to starve everyone, so the only normal leader had to drive her home in the truck, while leaving our rebellious main kid in charge of everything. Logically that had me screaming inside, dramatically it all fell flat, spiritually it felt artificial instead tear-jerking, and comedically it was just cringe-worthy. I tried to be patient with this movie, but it was bad to begin with and just kept spiraling downward to the point where I wanted to walk out.

After I left the theater, I didn't want to write this review. I didn't get the impression that many people had even heard about it and I certainly wasn't hearing any buzz after it's first week in theaters. I think this is a Mormon movie that will disappear from theaters rather quickly, so I was thinking that I could get away with just keeping my miserable experience to myself and no one would know any different. But there's a few reasons why I decided to write this. First, I said I would on Twitter after this movie's Twitter page followed me. Second, I honestly had a great time looking back and remembering my personal Trek and I'm glad I had a platform to discuss that for a bit before diving into the actual review, which is why this post is longer than my normal reviews. Third, if any of my other Utah friends saw these previews and were curious about this movie, I'm here to rescue you. Don't waste your time and money on this movie. There's plenty of other good Mormon films that you can watch, with "The Saratov Approach" and "Once I Was a Beehive" being my two prime examples. Yeah, I know, it's an uphill battle making this low-budgeted Mormon films, but for every one of them that succeeds, there's movies like this that don't make it. My grade for the movie is a 3/10.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

A Quiet Place Review

This past weekend wasn't a very quiet one at the box office as "A Quiet Place" stormed in at $50.2 million. That's one of the best opening weekends ever for a horror film. The specific ranking might depend on what counts as a horror film as it's behind movies like "Van Helsing" ($51.7 million), "The Village" ($50.7) and "Hannibal" ($58.0 million), if those count as horror, but in terms of traditional horror, it's behind last year's phenom "IT" ($123.4 million) and narrowly behind "Paranormal Activity 3" ($52.6 million), but ahead of pretty much everything else, including all movies in "The Conjuring" franchise, "Insidious" franchise, everything else in the "Paranormal Activity" franchise and lots more. I don't normally just spout of numbers in my reviews themselves, but I wanted to point this out to let you know the gravity of how big this movie's opening weekend was. Usually if a horror film opens in the $20-30 million range, that's considered good, especially since these movies are pretty cheap to make. Just last weekend in my April movie preview, I threw out "Annabelle: Creation" ($35.0 million) and "Don't Breathe" ($26.4 million) as potential comparisons, and that's after knowing what it made Thursday night. So this opening is absolutely insane.

What this really speaks to in my mind is that people going out to see movies in the theaters isn't dying out. If you make a quality movie and put together a good marketing effort, people are still willing to make the trip to the theaters. And this is a movie that had a ton of momentum ever since the initial trailer dropped, which makes me happy because at first I was wondering if I was the only one excited for this when that trailer first came out. There's quite a few good, unique horror films that end up getting ignored by general audiences and I was ready to begin the fight to convince people to give this one a chance, like I have in the past with movies such as "The Witch," "The Babadook," "It Follows" or "It Comes at Night," but it makes me really happy inside that this is not a battle that I have to even start this time around. In fact, it's been quite the opposite. People have come to me in the last few days asking if I've seen the movie or telling me that they're excited to read my review. I even had to get a ticket later than I was planning on Saturday night because the initial showing I tried to buy a ticket for was sold out. And I totally didn't expect this to be a movie that would sell out. All this has been surprising for me, but this is a really fun movie that deserves the attention.

If you are one of the few people that are a fan of horror and haven't seen this movie yet, well, I'd recommend that you actually close this review and just go see it. I'm not going to spoil anything here, but I am going to talk about what this movie is and why I really enjoyed it. Given that I didn't know much about the premise outside the fact that our main characters had to be perfectly silent or else they were going to be in a lot of trouble, I also want to give you the opportunity to go in with a completely blank slate, because I think that enhances the experience in a film like this. Having seen the movie, I will say that I feel comfortable talking about the premise of the movie because John Krasinski did not make a mystery box horror film. It's not one of those situations where there's something out there and neither the characters nor the audience know what it is until the last half of the movie. Instead, we know rather early on exactly what the danger is. If you're still reading, this is your last chance to turn away because what we are dealing with here is a... monster movie. We don't know where they came from or much about anything how this all started, but John Krasinski's whiteboard and newspaper clippings early on reveal everything that he's learned about them.

I've got to say, in terms of the idea behind these creatures, this was a rather clever way of adding some spice into a genre that has been worn out quite a bit over the last few decades. Whether it's a monster, an alien, a dinosaur or a supernatural demon, a horror movie involving our main characters running away from some sort of scary thing is something we've seen quite a bit, so you have to do more than just give me a movie about a monster terrorizing the community to get me excited, thus is why, for a brief few minutes at the beginning, I was a bit let down that this is all this was. Just another monster movie. But that feeling went away rather quickly as we progressed because these monsters are rather creatively designed and written. While we've seen plenty of these types of movies before, this felt fresh because these monsters are completely blind, extremely fast and will almost instantly kill anyone who makes a sound. That's different. Different enough to get me on board with these creatures, anyways. We do see glimpses of them very early on, which made me immediately a bit terrified because these are scary looking things. Then when we see them close up, it gets even worse because this has to be one of the best creature designs since the Xenomorphs in "Alien."

What's even better than the creature design itself is the way this movie is set up. The idea here is that the characters in the movie have to be very quiet as any loud sound will cause these things to jump out at them, regardless of whether it's midday or in the middle of the night. Because of that, the movie itself is really silent for much of it, which in turn forces the audience to remain frozen in their seats. This was one of the quietest movie-going experiences ever for me because no one dared make a single sound. Thus if anyone coughed, walked down the isle, moved around in their chair or even made too much noise with their popcorn or candy, everyone in the theater would hear that as if it were happening right next to them. Normally small sounds like that aren't a big deal, but when the movie itself is so silent and the whole theater is invested in being perfectly still, those sounds are a big deal and no one wants to be the one to make one of those sounds, making the theater-going experience rather exciting. The best comparison I can come up with is listening to a performance of John Cage's 4'33." If you understand that reference, then we can be friends and you'll know exactly what this movie-going experience will be like. If not, then do a quick Google search.

The basic idea there with John Cage's song is that everything is completely silent. The whole orchestra follows along, the conductor still turns his pages and everyone involved in the performance takes this seriously, but no one has any notes. But there's still music being played. How? Well, John Cage was a very experimental musician and the idea here is that this gives you the opportunity to pay close attention to all the little sounds around you and have that be the music. Yes, there's humor if you're in on it in seeing the initial reaction from those who have never experienced this and are thus really confused as to why no music is being played, but there's also a lot of honest pleasure in taking the time during those four minutes to listen to all of those small noises happening around you that you would normally not pay attention to otherwise, thus making it a beautiful piece of music. That's what it felt like watching "A Quiet Place." It made me pay attention to the sound design in the movie. Sure, there was no score or no dialogue in much of the scenes, but there was a lot of effort put into the sound editing and sound mixing to portray the natural sounds of the world around them and I enjoyed paying close attention to that, both in the movie and in the theater around me.

Thus I went into the movie expecting some really good scares, but I quickly found that the movie was really beautiful. I was fully invested in paying attention to all the small things happening and the movie took a lot of time building these characters so that you actually care about every member of this family. I would say that perhaps the first third or first quarter of this movie wasn't scary at all and I appreciated that because the best horror films aren't the ones with the most scares or the most gruesome monster designs, but rather the best horror films are the ones that make you care about all of your characters and have the best story or themes. Thus when the scares do come, you are even more emotionally invested because you care about all of your characters and you want them to make it out safely. Monster movies like "Jurassic Park" or "Jaws" are extremely effective because there was so much care in the world-building of the movie as well as the character arcs that when the dinosaurs or the shark show up, things get really intense because the audience actually cares. It's not the dinosaurs or the shark that make those movies good. I mean, both movies got a bunch of sequels, yet none of the sequels were able to recapture the magic of the original despite the monster terror.

All of this makes John Krasinski's work in "A Quiet Place" really impressive, especially since he's mostly just a comedic actor with little directing experience, but you wouldn't know that by watching this film as this feels like it comes from someone with years of directing experience. He's said in interviews that he didn't even make this movie for the scares. He made this movie as a love letter to his kids with the idea of presenting a movie showing what he as a parent would do to protect his kids if they were put in some sort of danger like this. Thus in doing so he was able to craft a truly effective horror film. When the danger finally comes, the movie is relentless with its terror. Speaking of "Jurassic Park," most of this movie is like that scene with the velociraptors in the kitchen, but spread out through much of the run time. The movie lets you know when it's OK to relax for a moment, but then quickly reminds you of how dangerous of a situation this family is in so that you can't relax too much. For a majority of this movie, you are left cowering in your chair in complete silent terror. There's also a lot of foreshadowing in the movie as the audience is clued in on several things long before the characters themselves are, giving the audience a complete sense of dread for the future.

The only real complaint that I have about this movie is not really much of a complaint at all, but is rather more of a statement about what type of movie this is. This is not a horror film like "The Witch" or "The Babadook" that will stick with me long after I leave the theater. Both of those movies, as well as others like them, are movies with deep, thought-provoking themes that left me lost in thought right after my first viewing that gave me a desire to go back time and time again in order to explore those themes even more. I didn't have that feeling with "A Quiet Place." Rather, as I was walking to my car, instead of being lost in thought, it was like I just got off an intense rollercoaster ride that gave me quite the thrill, but after being finished my mind was ready to move onto the next ride. That's not to say there's no strong themes worth discussing because there certainly are. However, I'm not going to discuss them here because that would require me talking about spoilers. If you've seen the movie, you'll know exactly what moments I'm talking about. But for the most part, this is not some deep exploration of a certain subject matter, but is a simple, fun thrill ride well worth seeing if you haven't already. And that's perfectly OK. I'm going to award "A Quiet Place" a 9/10.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Movie Preview: April 2018

Normally the month of March is considered early summer, especially the last couple of years with "Beauty and the Beast," "Logan" and "Kong: Skull Island" leading the way to a record-breaking March 2017 that earned a total of $1.17 billion at the domestic box office, while "Zootopia" and "Batman v. Superman" led March 2016 to a $948.7 million total. March 2018 came in significantly lower than both of those totals with just $890.8 million, and the only reason it even got that high was the continued historic run of "Black Panther," now the highest grossing superhero movie ever in the United States, which added $219 million in March. Take that away and this would be the lowest grossing March since 2009 with just $671.8 million as no new release was able to top $100 million and "Ready Player One" might be the only wide release to eventually hit that mark. Although it's worth noting that Hollywood tried to make it another big March. It's just that "Red Sparrow," "A Wrinkle in Time," "Tomb Raider" and "Pacific Rim Uprising" all fell flat on their faces. April 2018 will still probably continue to coast in mostly mediocrity, that is until "Avengers: Infinity War" will usher in the summer movie season a week early than normal. So let's explore what we have on the table this month!

April 6th - 8th-

Slowly building up a lot of steam in 2018 thanks to an excellent marketing effort and phenomenal early reviews is John Krasinski's new horror film A Quiet Place. Similar to Jordan Peele with "Get Out" last year, Krasinksi has typically been a comedy actor who is with little directing experience, so he's not someone you'd expect to step up and direct a horror film. Also like Peele, it appears that Krasinski stepping outside his comfort zone to try something new is going to work out big time. I mean, it might not result in a best original screenplay win at the Oscars, but its near perfect score on Rotten Tomatoes and strong pre-release buzz seem to indicate a strong opening weekend and a very healthy run at the box office that could match recent horror films like "Annabelle: Creation," which opened to $35 million on its way to $102 million total, or "Just Breathe," which opened to $26 million on its way to $89 million total. In a Wired Autocomplete interview posted on YouTube on April 4, Krasinksi said this movie is a love letter to his kids as what got him into directing it was not the scares, but rather the idea of family and what would you do to protect your kids. Though scares is what this looks to bring as the characters in the movie have to remain perfectly silent to remain safe.

Also building up a lot of steam in recent weeks is the comedy Blockers, which currently holds a certified fresh score in the low-80's on Rotten Tomatoes, meaning this is looking to be a real crowd-pleaser. The movie stars John Cena, Leslie Mann and Ike Barinholtz as a trio of parents who learn that their teenage daughters are planning to lose their virginity on prom night and thus go on a mission to try to stop them. Adult-targeted comedy has been a bit sparse recently, thus is why with solid reviews out of the South by Southwest film festival a few weeks ago, "Blockers" is looking to take advantage of the dried up market. So far in 2018, the only adult comedy that has been released has been February's "Game Night," which is wrapping up its release after opening up to $17 million on the weekend of February 23. "Blockers" is currently tracking a bit ahead of "Game Night," meaning other similar titles for opening weekend could be "Snatched" ($19.5 million), "Baywatch" ($18.5 million) or "Bad Moms" ($23.8 million). A best case scenario could be last year's "Girl's Trip" ($31.2 million).

Opening in around 1,700 theaters this weekend is the sports drama The Miracle Season. Speaking of a sparse genre, there really hasn't been many sports dramas at all to open recently as the last one to open in more than 1,000 theaters was "Eddie the Eagle" back in February 2016. "The Miracle Season" depicts the true story of Iowa City West High School's women's volleyball team, who were looking to repeat as state champions, after winning the previous season, when their team captain, Caroline "Line" Found tragically died. After this happened, the girls came together as a team to try to win the title for their teammate and friend. "The Miracle Season" is directed by Sean McNamara, the director of the 2011 film "Soul Surfer," and stars Helen Hunt, who also starred in "Soul Surfer," as the volleyball coach. Using "Soul Surfer" as a comparison, that movie opened to $10.6 million in 2,200 theaters. If "The Miracle Season" matched that per theater average, that would equate to a $8.2 million opening weekend, which might be a bit high. Looking at the aforementioned "Eddie the Eagle," following that movie's per theater average would give "The Miracle Season" $5.1 million. And finally, following the per theater average of "Woodlawn" would give it $4.4 million.

Opening up in around 1,500 theaters is the Entertainment Studios drama Chappaquiddick. This is a movie that tells the true story surrounding the mysterious events when Ted Kennedy drove his car off the Dike Bridge, resulting in the drowning of aspiring political strategist Mary Jo Kopechne. The movie is directed by John Curran and stars Jason Clarke as Ted Kennedy and Kate Mara as Mary Jo Kopechne as well as Ed Helms, Bruce Dern and Jim Gaffigan. It initially premiered at last year's Toronto International Film Festival, where is was purchased by Entertainment Studios for $4 million and was initially scheduled for a December release date last year, indicating that it was going to get an awards season push. However, Entertainment Studios then decided to reschedule for this weekend instead, perhaps indicating a lack of confidence that it could actually be a real player at the Oscars, which isn't a good sign for the movie's potential moving forward. It does have a decent Rotten Tomatoes score from the critics at 80 percent from 70 reviews, but the audience score is a less encouraging 63 percent, which matches up with the IMDb grade of 6.5. Thus with mixed reaction and no awards buzz, "Chappaquiddick" might struggle to find an audience.

April 13th - 15th-

Before Marvel rescheduled "Infinity War" to land in April, the previous major tentpole release for this month was Warner Bros.' Rampage. This is a movie based on the 80's arcade game where users control various giant monsters, including a giant gorilla named George, a giant Godzilla-like lizard/dinosaur named Lizzie and a giant werewolf named Ralph, with the goal of destroying the city, which includes knocking over the buildings and eating the people, before the government agency stops them. The movie has the same absurd premise with the same three giant animals attacking, except for the giant Godzilla-like lizard/dinosaur is a giant crocodile. Dwayne Johnson is in the lead role as he's trying stop the animals from destroying the city while figuring out who mutated them. Recent history has told us repeatedly that it's a bad idea to underestimate a Dwayne Johnson film at the box office, with this past Christmas' "Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle" being the most recent example. "Rampage" has Dwayne Johnson reuniting with "San Andreas" director Brad Peyton, a movie that surprised in a huge way with a $54.6 million opening, a number that pre-release tracking for "Rampage" is slowly sneaking up on. Don't be surprised if "Rampage" ends up coming close to that.

The second horror film being released this month is the teenage-targeted Truth or Dare. This is a movie directed by Jeff Wadlow, director of "Kick-A-- 2," and centers around the popular teen game truth or dare. The catch with this version of the game in this movie is that those who tell a lie or refuse to do the dare are punished by some supernatural occurrence. Starring in the movie are a bunch of potentially lesser-known, younger actors including Lucy Hale ("Pretty Little Liars"), Tyler Posey ("Teen Wolf") and Violett Beane ("The Flash"). Despite opening a weekend after "A Quiet Place," which could hurt it if word of mouth for the John Kransinski film is strong, "Truth or Dare" could still do well if the teenage crowd shows up as the two horror films are targeting slightly different audiences. Blumhouse Productions is the production company here, and although they've released a wide variety of different horrors and thrillers, a potential comparison could be their release of last year's "Happy Death Day," which attracted teens to the theaters during Halloween season to the tune of $26 million opening weekend. Another comparison if "Truth or Dare" doesn't breakout that high is the 2016 teen-targeted thriller "Nerve," which opened to $9.4 million.

There's two other smaller releases scheduled for this weekend, currently listed for wide release on Box Office Mojo, although neither movie has had much of a marketing effort, so the exact theater count is a mystery at this point. Nevertheless, those two movies are Borg vs. McEnroe, a movie about the famous tennis rivalry between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe in the 1980's, and Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero, an animated movie telling the true story of a stray Boston Terrier who wandered into a military camp during World War I and wound up becoming an American hero and the first dog to be promoted to the rank of Sergeant in the United States Army. "Borg vs. McEnroe" premiered during the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival to decent reviews and was purchased by Neon, a new distribution company who released "I, Tonya." Yet Neon has never opened a movie in wide release. "Sgt. Stubby" is being released by Fun Academy and this is their first ever theatrical release. Thus is why the theater count and box office potential for both is a current mystery.

Also, this weekend will see the nationwide expansion of Wes Anderson's latest stop motion film Isle of Dogs, which has experienced a very successful limited release run as it earned $1.6 million from just 27 theaters on its opening weekend on March 23-25 and nearly broke the top 10 in its second weekend with $2.9 million from 165 theaters. It expanded to around 550 theaters in its third weekend, April 6-8, before this scheduled nationwide expansion. Wes Anderson's "Fantastic Mr. Fox" expanded into 2,033 theaters in its nationwide release while "The Grand Budapest Hotel" eventually hit 1,467 at its peak theater count. So that's what "Isle of Dogs" will probably experience. This movie was discussed in more detail in last month's movie preview, so head over there for more information. 

April 20th - 22nd- 

There was initially more movies scheduled for the final two weekends of April, but they smartly scattered when Marvel announced they were releasing "Infinity War" a week earlier than initially planned. Thus we are left with only one major wide release this weekend and two smaller releases hoping to provide some counter-programming to "Infinity War." That major wide release is the comedy I Feel Pretty. This is a movie starring Amy Schumer, who is perceived in this universe as being super ugly because she is "fat." Yet after bumping her head, she begins to think that she is super skinny and thus super pretty, giving her all sorts of confidence that baffles everyone around her. While intended on being a funny comedy, the internet didn't seem to get the joke after the initial trailer dropped as this movie rather instantly received a ton of most-likely well-deserved backlash that is detailed in a Cosmopolitan article that I just linked right there. Long story short, the movie is being accused of all sorts of fat-shaming, which is especially problematic considering Amy Schumer isn't a fat woman. Whether or not the casual audiences are aware of this backlash, or are bothered by it, is another story. Meaning this could still perform well if the release of "Blockers" earlier in the month doesn't steal all of its thunder.

The first of the two smaller releases that I mentioned previously is Super Troopers 2. And by smaller releases in this instance, I mean movies that will probably be getting a more moderate theater count somewhere around 1,000, maybe 2,000, theaters that are looking at a weekend that may end up less than $5 million. When it comes to "Super Troopers 2," this is a movie that is being released 16 years after its predecessor, which only earned $18.5 million domestically following a $6.2 million opening weekend back in 2002. It was mostly panned by critics, which may have led to its subpar box office total. Although it has gained enough of a cult following since its initial release to justify this eventual sequel, which many of the fans of the original have been waiting a long time for. However, comedy sequels arriving 10+ years after the initial movie have had a poor track record, as has been evidenced by the likes of "Anchorman 2," "Dumb and Dumber To, "Bad Santa 2" and "My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2," all of which were generally disliked by fans of the original movies. So that trend might be cause for concern for "Super Trooper" fans. Both movies are centered around the general premise of a team of officers more focused on pranks than real police work.

The second of the two smaller films is the thriller Traffik. This movie is directed by Deon Taylor, director of the 2016 comedy "Meet the Blacks" and stars Paula Patton and Omar Epps as a couple who initially just want a romantic getaway in the mountains. Yet their vacation is spoiled when they run into a motorcycle gang at a gas station and accidentally come into the possession of a phone that is important to a group of sex traffics. This motorcycle gang wants that phone back and will stop and nothing to get it from this couple. This seems like a potentially intense movie with a decent premise. However, the late-April release date doesn't speak a whole lot of confidence to the movie. Even super good reviews might not be enough to make much of a dent. If the reviews come in as negative, then this could be dead on arrival.

April 27th - 29th-

While there is some breakout potential with some of these titles this month, the obvious movie of the month, at least in terms of box office, is Avengers: Infinity War, which was initially scheduled to be Marvel's May opener, as it's tradition for Marvel to open up the official summer movie season on the first weekend of May, but they decided last minute to forgo that May spot and move this movie up a weekend, which caused everything else to scatter. The reason for the move was likely to add some additional breathing room between this movie and Disney's fellow release in late May of "Solo: A Star Wars Story." That and Fox decided to move "Deadpool 2" up to the weekend before "Solo" instead of the weekend after "Solo." So instead of there being just one weekend in between the two superhero movies, there is now two weekends in between. And even though it might seem strange for this to be released in April due to it usually being a quiet month at the box office, this isn't the first time Marvel has released a movie in April as "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" was an early April release. The "Fast and Furious" franchise has also enjoyed April as they released the fourth, fifth, seventh and eighth movies in April. Disney also released "The Jungle Book" book in April.

It also almost goes without saying that this will be one of the biggest movie events of this decade as nearly everything Marvel has done thus far in the MCU has led up to this point as the Tesseract, which is the first infinity stone, was introduced back in "Captain America: The First Avenger" in 2011 with Thanos being teased at the end credits of "The Avengers" in 2012. The idea is that once Thanos gets all six infinity stones, he puts them in the infinity gauntlet and has all the power in the world. Since that first "Captain America" movie, the other infinity stones have been introduced throughout the MCU with only one left to discover, that being the Soul Stone. "Infinity War" is actually the first of a two part story arc involving Thanos and the infinity stones and was initially titled "Infinity War - Part I" before Marvel canned the Part I/Part II idea with the title and simply called this movie "Infinity War" while the conclusion, which is currently scheduled for May 2019, doesn't yet have a title. Or, rather, Marvel doesn't want to reveal the title yet because that could end up spoiling "Infinity War."

As far as how much money this will make opening weekend, a $200 million opening weekend seems like a foregone conclusion while the $247 million opening weekend record set by "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" isn't out of the question as the pre-sales numbers right now are through the roof. Speaking of "Star Wars," though, a safer bet might be one closer to the $220 million opening weekend of "The Last Jedi." As far as what this movie's final domestic total will end up being, that will likely be determined by what the reaction to the movie is. If the movie is as good as everyone hopes it will be, then the reign of "Black Panther" as the highest grossing superhero movie domestically might be short lived, although it's worth noting that both "Captain America: Civil War" and "Avengers: Age of Ultron" were both rather frontloaded, despite being mostly well-received films. So don't be surprised if this opens to $220 million, yet ends up with "only" $530 million total, which is what it would get if it followed the multiplier of "Age of Ultron." Nor should you make fun of the movie for being a "flop" if it fails to top "The Avengers" or "Black Panther." That would make you look quite silly.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Love, Simon Review

Here's a subgenre of film that I have mostly avoided on this blog. The LGBT drama. The conversation surrounding these films is a very sensitive one to most and my feelings towards them are very complex, so it's hard to nail it down as to why I've avoided the conversation on my blog, but it essentially boils down to the simple fact that I'm not the target demographic here. I'm a moderately conservative, religious, heterosexual, white male. I try my best to be open-minded, understanding and progressive, but there's some barriers that I simply can't overcome, the most obvious one being that I don't have the personal experience necessary to properly analyze these films from the perspective of one who has gone through the same things. Simply put, I'm a straight man who is attracted to women. That's not a choice I made. That's just who I am. So when it comes to movies about the LGBT community, I feel like I'm on the outside looking in. Thus when one comes around that is being universally praised by everyone who's seen it, I simply choose to not deal with the potential backlash I'd receive if I admitted that I was unimpressed. Quite frankly, if I'm not the target demographic and I didn't like the movie, then my opinion doesn't really mean anything. So I choose not to fight.

I mean, what if I told you that I hated both "Carol" and "The Danish Girl"? What if I told you that I enjoyed "Moonlight," but didn't think it was the greatest movie ever made? What if I told you that I was mixed on "Call Me by Your Name," with certain aspects being phenomenal while other aspects being atrociously bad? Would you respect my opinion and still be my friend? Or would you sit there in angry silence, never trusting a single word I wrote again? If you stand on the former side of the fence, well then thanks. I appreciate that. But I know there's a lot of people that would be on the latter side, even if they would refuse to admit it. I'd be labeled as the homophobic friend who just didn't get it. And that's just not something that sits well in my mind. So why am I breaking the silence now with "Love, Simon"? Well, quite frankly, this movie is different than most other LGBT dramas. And I plan on driving that home in this review here in a bit. Like most of these movies, I was hesitant about it for a long time, but at some point during the marketing, the light bulb went off in my head, and before I even saw the movie, I knew it would be different. Why? Because this is a Greg Berlanti film. The creator of the Arrowverse. That's my exact cup of tea and I feel completely comfortable discussing it.

Before I discuss all things Arrowverse and the parallels there are to that universe and this movie, I want to drive home why this is different than other LGBT dramas. What it really boils down to is politics. We live in a very progressive era where society as a whole not only has realized that there's a lot of social injustices going on in the world, but they've decided to actually do something about it. Certain cultures, races and sexes have spent their whole history being oppressed and we're trying to undo that. I love that idea. More representation is needed from females, minorities and the LGBT crowd instead of having straight, white males dominate society as a whole. However, when it comes to film, I think there's a right way and a wrong way to go about it and the best example I can think of to illustrate this is to look at the issue of female representation in film. Yes, we need more female-led movies, both in front and behind the camera. But do you do things the "Ghostbusters" way or the "Wonder Woman" way? Both movies had the same general goal of provided female-led movies, but completely opposite ways of going about it. "Ghostbusters" tried to forcefully shove everything down your throat while "Wonder Woman" was much more natural and subtle in their approach.

When I say "Ghostbusters" in this instance, I hope you know I am talking about the new female reboot. The way they decided to go about things was to overcompensate to the extreme. Given that females have been oppressed for many years, they felt it was necessary to make a movie where the women were the only ones who could solve the problems while all the males in the movie were bumbling idiots. So not only was the movie pro-female, but it was also anti-male. I didn't hate the movie because of that. The bigger issue was with the writing and the story. But I do acknowledge that the approach wasn't a great one. Meanwhile, "Wonder Woman" had every opportunity to be an anti-male movie, but even in situations where the door was wide open for that, the movie refused to go down that path. They simply presented the world with a strong female character who was very capable of getting the job done, thus providing women, young and old, with a hero and role model to look up to. At the same time, the movie was also pro-male in that Wonder Woman needed Chris Pine just as much as Chris Pine needed Wonder Woman. Yes, Wonder Woman had the superpowers in the movie, but neither character was dominate over the other.

Now if I apply that to this situation, I'm happy to inform you that "Love, Simon" is the "Wonder Woman" of the LGBT dramas. I won't name specific titles, but a lot of the LGBT dramas that I've seen come with a specific, political agenda and that agenda is to shove the LGBT culture down the throats of the whole world, showing how amazing they are, while at the same time viciously attacking traditional marriage and religion, as if the three elements of society can't coexist, just like "Ghostbusters" was out to prove that, not only are women capable of getting the job done, but they're the only ones that can get the job done while all males are idiots. If we're going to have a balanced world, we need to have the goal of being a balanced world. I know the scales have been tipped a specific way for many years, but to overcompensate and tip the balance the opposite way does not get the job done. Instead it attempts to do things the way President Coin wanted to do things in the end of "Mockingjay," causing Katniss to act in the way she did. "Love, Simon" is not out to shove the LGBT culture down your throat. It does not attack traditional marriage. It does not claim that religion and LGBT rights can't coexist. It's just telling the struggles of a gay, teenage high school kid.

Because of this, I didn't find myself watching in apprehension. I didn't walk out feeling the need to defend my religious views or my support of traditional marriage. I instead became invested in a story about a kid who had this huge secret his whole life that he had no idea how to approach. I became invested in his story and in his character. Even though I have good friends who are gay and I've learned a lot about the types of things they had to deal with growing up, I still don't have that personal experience for myself being that's not who I am. While watching some films that makes me feel ostracized because the way they approach things make me feel like being gay is a prerequisite to understanding the film, "Love, Simon" instead feels like it was politely made for everyone in that I felt like Simon was telling me his story without trying to force his views down my throat or attempt to change my opinion on marriage and religion. That made me feel quite comfortable watching this movie, which in turn caused me to be emotionally invested with this story. I walked out thinking that those who are gay are going to really love and relate to this movie, as many of my gay friends already have, and those who are not gay are going to appreciate this perspective.

This is now where the Greg Berlanti angle comes in. Realizing that he was at the helm of this project put me at ease before I even saw this movie because he had already done this as the creator of the Arrowverse. If the term Arrowverse confuses you, what I am referring to with that is the combined DC TV universe on The CW with "Arrow," "The Flash," "Supergirl" and "Legends of Tomorrow." DC may be struggling on the big screen with their cinematic DCEU as "Wonder Woman" is the only movie in that universe that has been consistently praised, but they're rocking the world on the small screen as "Arrow" just got renewed for season 7, "The Flash" for season 5 and both "Supergirl" and "Legends" for season 4. That will be over 400 combined episodes of television once those announced seasons are complete. And I've faithfully kept up with all four shows. Now I don't know how much of the episode-to-episode decisions Berlanti makes with these shows, but as the creator I don't think it's any coincidence that there are certain running themes across all of the shows that are also very similar to "Love, Simon." Every single show has rather naturally implemented LGBT story arcs and in three of them, LGBT characters are in the lead role. And I've never had a problem with it.

That's why when I made the Greg Berlanti connection, I immediate became comforted because I know how his shows have handled this and I figured he'd do things in a similar way. Specifically in the Arrowverse, I'm thinking of the character of Sara Lance on "Legends" and Alex Danvers on "Supergirl." Season 2 of "Supergirl" focused heavily on Alex Danvers' realization of her sexual identity as a lesbian and slowly started coming out to everyone. Then she began a relationship with a police girl who had come out a long time ago and there was a lot of drama with those two that I rather enjoyed. It was all handled in a very normal, natural way and actually was some of the best romance drama in the Arrowverse. With Sara Lance in "Legends," the proper label for her is bisexual as she started out as Oliver Queen's girlfriend on "Arrow" before the show revealed that she had a serious girlfriend in the League of Shadows. They eventually transitioned Sara from "Arrow" to "Legends" where she is now the leader and captain of their crew. Her journey as a bisexual character isn't a huge focus of the show, but they play around with it occasionally and when they do, it's handled rather well. Sara and Alex even had a bit of a fling on one of the crossover episodes, which amused me.

I hope you're fine with me talking about all of this in relation to "Love, Simon" without actually discussing the movie itself. In my mind, this was a better angle to take this review because I have been able to get all my thoughts out without spoiling much of the actual plot. However, I will admit that "Love, Simon" wasn't all rainbows and butterflies for me. Yet you can rest at ease knowing that my issues with this movie had little to do with the approach they took in presenting this LGBT story or Simon's specific journey. Those aspects of the movie stand as a shining example of how I think LGBT stories should be handled and whenever they are handled wrong, I now have a movie to turn to as an example of a movie that did it right. My biggest issue that I had was with a side character named Martin. In a world full of realistic characters, he stuck out as a sore thumb as someone who felt more cartoonish. I think the actor Logan Miller did great with the material he was given. He took it and ran with it. The character himself just felt fake. I would be able to write this off as an annoying side character of which exists in a lot of these high school dramas, but things that his character did were integral to the overarching plot of the movie and I didn't like it.

The other major problem I had is something I need to tread lightly on because it involved the final act of the movie. This is something that the Arrowverse has a major problem with, too. They LOVE playing the whodunit mystery game. It's a huge problem in "The Flash" specifically, but it has existed to some extent in every show. In the Arrowverse it has to do with the villains. They love stringing out the big reveal as to who the major villain of the season is. In season 3 of "The Flash," they waited until one of the final episodes of the season to reveal who this mysterious Savitar character really was. They did the same thing with Zoom in season 2. I got tired of this real quick. As I'm thinking of examples, in "Arrow" season 4, they revealed at the start of the season that a main character was going to die and they made the audience play that guessing game until the last part of the season. Again, I don't know what part of that was Greg Berlanti's decision, but is it a coincidence that the same thing is done in "Love, Simon" with who this mysterious email friend is? Instead of revealing who Simon was emailing partway through the movie and spending the rest of the time developing the relationship, they played the bait and switch game with us until the very end of the movie.

When that big reveal did happen, I enjoyed a big, cheerful laugh for reasons I won't spoil. But it reminded me of those Gorilla Glue commercials where the gorilla jumps out at them, hands them the glue, and they exclaim, "Of course!" Knowing Berlanti, this made so much sense. Message me in private and we'll talk more about what I mean. Overall, though, I did have a very positive outlook towards this movie. Instead of feeling political and in your face, this felt like a natural story. They didn't have an agenda with this film. They just decided to tell a story about a gay student in high school struggling with this big secret he has of being gay. It's quite engaging and done in a very refreshing way. Nick Robinson ("Jurassic World") does a great job as Simon. Josh Duhamel and Jennifer Garner are excellent as his parents. And his group of high school friends, played by Katherine Langford ("13 Reasons Why"), Alexandra Shipp ("X-Men: Apocalypse"), Jorge Lendeborg Jr. ("Spider-Man: Homecoming") and Keiynan Lonsdale ("The Flash") were all great as well. There's just those few major issues I had with the character of Martin and the heavy bait-and-switch reveal strategy, but mostly I came out of this with a positive experience as good high school drama. I'm going to give "Love, Simon" an 8/10.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Ready Player One Review

March has been a slower month than usual when compared to previous Marches, but now we have the most highly anticipated movie of the month for most, myself included, that is sneaking in at the end of the month as we transition into April. In the last few years, 80's nostalgia vomit has been one of the biggest trends in entertainment business, both in Hollywood as well as on the small screen. If we expand this nostalgia trend a few years both ways, touching on the late 70's and the early 90's, it's fascinating that some of the biggest movies released come from the "Jurassic Park," "Star Wars," "Jumanji" and "IT" franchises, with "Ghostbusters" also making a return as well as movies like "Super 8" that, while not being specific 80's franchises, are an ode to 80's film. And of course the best example of this is the crazy phenomenon that is the Netflix show "Stranger Things." Why do we all love "Stranger Things"? Because it's 80's nostalgia vomit at it's greatest. Everything about that show is a throwback and tribute to everything we all love about our favorite decade, done in the absolute perfect way. And now we have the king of the 80's himself, the man who practically invented that decade, Mr. Steven Spielberg, back playing with all of his old toys again.

When I say the term 80's nostalgia vomit, that almost sounds like I'm using it in a negative connotation, but I'm really not. I'm using it more as a statement of fact in describing this phenomenon. We take everything we love about the 80's and dump it all into one movie or one TV show. For me this is more of a positive thing. The 80's are my favorite decade when it comes to entertainment, most of my favorite music, movies and TV shows are either from the 80's or formulated like the 80's. I can even claim that I was born in the 80's, even though it was on the latter end in 1989, meaning most of my childhood took place in the 90's, but I think most 90's kids like myself would agree that they equally love all of the 80's entertainment. It's practically the golden age of entertainment. The music there is by far the greatest of any generation. And thanks to Spielberg with "Jaws" and George Lucas with "Star Wars" kicking things off in the late 70's, the summer blockbuster was invented and by the time the 80's rolled around, the movie industry was completely transformed, taking everyone around on quite the joyride, a ride that we are still looking back on and doing our best to try to replicate or straight-up remake with modern cinema.

Yes, I love a great nostalgia trip, so when I saw the trailers for this movie, I jumped for joy as I was beyond excited. If you, for whatever reason, hate the 80's or aren't a fan of huge nostalgia dumps like "IT" or "Stranger Things," then this recommendation is simple. Don't see "Ready Player One." But if the idea of a movie starting out with "Jump" by Van Halen as it's theme song while our main character is racing around in the DeLorean from "Back to the Future" puts a smile on your face, then you need to run out to your local theater as soon as possible, find the biggest screen you can, grab a big bucket of popcorn, then sit back and enjoy because you're in for a real treat with "Ready Player One." Much like "Back to the Future Part II," "Ready Player One" is a movie that takes place about 30 years into the future from our present day, that of 2045. This seems like it could be a decent representation of the future with Virtual Reality, something that's on the rise on 2018, being the huge thing of this futuristic generation. Everyone has their VR headsets and they love jumping away from reality into the virtual world they call the Oasis, where you can be anyone you want and do anything you want with anyone you want. 

The specific plot of our adventure involves a challenge presented by the creator of the Oasis, who has recently passed away. Upon his passing, it is revealed that he has hidden three keys somewhere in the Oasis and the person who finds the three keys first gets rewarded with the golden Easter egg, giving that person total control of the Oasis moving forward. So the movie follows our main group of players, led by Tye Sheridan and Olivia Cooke, as they make their way through this challenge. The further they get, the more opposition they receive from our big corporate bad guy, played by Ben Mendelsohn, who is bound and determined to have all the power for himself instead of having the power in the hands of a normal user. Thus him and his crew represent a company like EA, a company that most gamers absolutely hate with the tactics they use, yet they play the games anyways because there's not a lot they can do about it. Or another potential comparison is Disney, who pretty much owns everything in Hollywood at the moment. Or you can even bring politics into this and compare it to the government vs. the average person. Regardless of which way you choose to spin it, this is the big corporation vs. the seemingly insignificant individual.

First and foremost I want to give high praise to our cast of up and coming stars. Leading the way is Tye Sheridan, who absolutely owns this role as Wade Watts in the real world and as Parzival, which is his username in the Oasis. This is the kid from "Mud," a movie that hit the festival run in 2012 before being released to the general public in summer 2013. If you're like me and you saw that little indie film and loved it, one of your high praises was that this Tye Sheridan kid is going to be a star. And it's fun seeing him live out his potential as he got his first huge break as the new Scott Summers in "X-Men: Apocalypse" and now Spielberg picked him up for "Ready Player One," which I feel will boost his career even more. In the Oasis, his character of Parzival falls in love with this super hot avatar girl named Art3mis. People in the movie were warning him to be careful because she could be this old, fat guy living with his mom. But the whole time I was like, "Nah, he's good." Because eventually she was going to be revealed as Olivia Cooke, who I've also loved since 2013 as she starred in "Bates Motel," the "Psycho" prequel series that recently finished that I think is phenomenal. She was also in the 2015 film "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl," which I also loved.

I hope this doesn't make me sound conceited. I mean, all y'all are learning of these two just now while I've known them for five years now. So take that! But hey, as I'll get to more here in a second, this movie has something in it for everyone. For me one of the fun things was seeing two young individuals who I've been cheering on for several years get their huge break in a big budget Spielberg film. I talked a lot about Sheridan, but when it comes to his better half, Olivia Cooke, what has impressed me so much about her in the smaller roles she's been in is that she feels so approachable. There's a lot of times where you'll see an actress in a movie or a TV show that you really love, but you think to yourself that even if you did see her in real life, you wouldn't even be worthy of speaking to her because she's so out of your league. That's not the case with Olivia Cooke and I mean that as a high compliment. I feel like if I ever ran into her on the street, I could sit down and have lunch with her and just talk about life. That I respect and thus it makes me happy seeing her get a huge role like this because she deserves. I do want to talk about the other three in this gang, but their human selves don't get revealed until much later, so I'm going to forgo that.

As far as this adventure that they go on, if I had one major problem with the it, it's that I have a hard time believing that this group of kids and young adults would be the first to ever solve this puzzle. I'm not a gamer myself, but I know a lot of gamers and they all seem really good at discovering all the secrets to these games they play. So I feel if the creator of the Oasis really did introduce the challenge after he died, it would be solved by someone within a week or two, if not earlier. But that's whatever. We kind of have to accept the fact that they get super lucky and now have to move forward while fighting the evil corporation. There's so much in this adventure that I want to dive into, but for the most part the advertising did a great job of leaving the specifics of this movie a secret as far as all the Easter eggs hidden in there. I mean, we knew about the Iron Giant and the DeLorean, as well as several other things from the trailer, but there's a lot more that gets thrown out you that are completely surprises and it was a huge delight. I'm sure there was a ton that I missed, but there were a lot of moments where I felt like Captain America in "The Avengers" with his "I understood that reference!" moment. Those instances made me happy and caused me to really enjoy the ensuing scenes.

I think the best thing about this movie is that, unless you've been living under a rock for the last 30 years, there's a moment for everyone. There will be a song that is played, a character that shows up, a reference that is made or a land that they enter where you will recognize it and cry out with much delight. I've been using the phrase 80's nostalgia vomit when it comes to "Ready Player One," because that's the huge spotlight. But in reality I should remove the 80's because Spielberg obviously had a ton of fun playing with all of his old toys from every decade, as well as other peoples' toys as there's stuff from the 70's, 80's, 90's, 00's and the current decade. The only thing that's missing is Disney and Nintendo property, but that's probably because those companies are very stickler with their property. Everything else is here and it's a blast. Given that there's three keys to find, this movie is essentially split up into three sections and without given any spoilers, I'll just say the second section of the movie was the one for me. I also had a ton of fun with the finale where they throw everything at you at once and the first section was fine. I wish I could talk more, but that's all I'm saying for now. As a whole, this movie was an absolute blast and I'm giving it a 9/10.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Paul, Apostle of Christ Review

Yesterday I gave you my review of "I Can Only Imagine," the definite surprise of this Easter season both in terms of box office and quality. Now it's time to dive into the Easter movie I was highly anticipating. I mean, regardless of what sect of Christianity you belong to, Paul is kind of a big deal since his epistles comprise of nearly half of the New Testament. Plus a good portion of the Book of Acts is dedicated to his story and missions. So a movie dedicated to him seems like it would be a winner among the Christian audience around Easter. There's a huge goldmine full of stories involving him that haven't been mined much by Hollywood. The trailers made it seem like high quality cinema and the filmmakers seemed very passionate about the project. Finally, this is the same exact studio that did the 2016 film "Risen," which I really enjoyed, that being LD Entertainment in association with Affirm Films, distributed by Columbia Pictures. Upon release, the poor critic reviews didn't deter me. Most Christian films get panned by critics, including the aforementioned "Risen," which sits at 52 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, only slightly higher than this movie's 36 percent. The 90 percent audience score is what helped me keep my faith in this release.

I don't want to say that this was a disappointing movie for me, but this was definitely a different movie than I was expecting. Thus before I go any further I want to clue everyone in on what this movie is all about it. I didn't think it was too harsh to expect a movie titled "Paul, Apostle of Christ" to be solely about Paul, the apostle of Christ. His story is a very relatable one in the sense that he went about destroying and persecuting the Christians of his day when one day Jesus appeared to him and told him to stop persecuting the saints, to which he responded by completely changing his life around and spent the rest of his days in Christ's ministry. OK, sure, few of us have Christ appear to us, but the idea is that Paul was arguably a very worldly person who was against Christianity, yet was able to completely change his ways and come to Christ. If such a person who had done such awful things can change and come to Christ, perhaps that can give us hope individually that either we can change and become better or our family and friends that we try to reach out to can eventually soften their hearts and come to Christ. Thus if this movie honed in on those themes and drove home this story of Paul and his miraculous change, I think this could've been a powerful film.

But that's not what this movie does. In fact, I would argue that the central themes of this movie don't even surround Paul at all. This is less about Paul's personal journey and more about the persecution of the Saints following the death of Christ, specifically around 60-70 A.D. in Rome. I knew based on trailers that we'd start out at the end of Paul's life when he was imprisoned in Rome by Nero, who was Emperor of Rome from 54 A.D. when he was just 16 years old up to his death in 68 A.D., during which he was potentially responsible for the deaths of both Peter and Paul. For some reason, though, I didn't think we were going to stay in that time period for the whole movie. I thought maybe we were going to do the thing where we start at the end, but then jump back in time and tell the story of Paul in his prime, before then finishing back with old Paul at the very end of the movie. And yes, we do that to a certain extent, but it's a much smaller portion of the movie than you'd think. There's a moment where Luke sneaks into Paul's prison and Paul tells his story and we get flashbacks of him being responsible for the death of Stephen then later telling of his conversion when Christ appeared to him on the road to Damascus, but that's not what the movie focuses on, which surprised me.

Thus while I was watching it, expecting to be entertained or inspired by Paul's conversion story, I had to mentally shift gears a bit as we were instead focusing on the persecution of the saints in Rome, which was one of the darker times in history for Christians. In fact, I would say that Luke is the main character of this movie while Paul is there as the Yoda figure, giving out his wisdom as to what should be done, while not being in a position to lead them since he's in prison. And it's funny that I think of that Yoda comparison, because now I'm thinking about "The Empire Strikes Back," a movie where the Empire deliver crushing blows to the Rebellion. If the Empire is Rome, Palpatine is Nero, Darth Vader is Mauritius, Yoda is Paul and Luke is, well, Luke, then there's a lot more comparisons to "The Empire Strikes Back" and "Paul, Apostle of Christ" than I was initially intending on bringing up when I started this paragraph. I mean, both movies are led by a Luke who gets advice from a wise old figure in the midst of a conflict where the bad guys win. Ha ha! In that case, I suppose it would be a similar situation would be if "The Empire Strikes Back" was titled "Yoda, Ancient Jedi." Both Yoda and Paul are central figures to the story, but the story isn't completely about them.

OK, now time to get back on track after incidentally stumbling on a Star Wars comparison. Once we have the right idea about what this movie is about, I think this movie can be appropriately enjoyed. Or, rather, appreciated. Because this is a rather somber movie. We start by seeing the good Christian saints being used as torches to light the streets at night. While the specific imagery we see isn't extremely graphic, not when compared to something like Martin Scorsese's "Silence," anyways, the implications of what's happening make you rather sick to the stomach. These are good people who did nothing but choose to believe in Christ, yet they are being brutally tortured by the Romans because of it. There's a group of saints out in hiding who are simply trying to figure out what to do, especially since their leader that they look up to, that being Paul, is essentially on death row and they are going to be up next if they don't figure something out. There's a portion of them that decide they want to start an uprising. All things considered, you can't really blame them for desiring that. In addition to the debate as to whether to fight or remain peaceful, there is a discussion on whether they should stay in their home country of Rome or escape to a more livable area.

All of this is done in a rather subtle manner. By that I mean this is a more character driven story loaded with exposition about what's happening around them rather than showing us the action. They could've gone with the up-tempo, high-paced action film with this, but rather they chose to make a slow film that remains very low key. That's why I like the word subtle. I can see a lot of people being bored with this movie or thinking that it lacks focus. And I would agree to a certain extent, but by the end of it, the gravity of the situation weighed heavily on me. I decided that I didn't need to see all of the persecution on camera. I didn't need a lot of war and bloodshed, but the mood of it all felt almost uncomfortable as I experienced the story from the perspective of the people who were still safe for the moment, but were feeling a lot of agony and pain as they hid from the world around them in this enclosed area. Then we'd follow Luke as he would sneak out to visit Paul and the brief images on the street around him or the brutal lack of mercy from the Romans was rather depressing. Through all that, these moments were hit home as we listened to Luke talking to Paul while Paul gave the council of what Christ would do in situations like this and that is essentially to suffer through.

There's one specific scene that stood out to me as a powerful moment of dialogue in this movie. I won't give the specific storyline to what's happening to these people as it's closer to the end of the movie, but Luke is telling them that they are going to experience a lot of pain. But that pain is going to be brief and if they are able to endure it, then will come the moment of glory where their patience and endurance will pay off as they will get to celebrate in the presence of God. I think that's the message that this movie tries to drive home and if you're patient with the movie, I think it's something that has the ability to be impactful. Everyone has to make choices in life based on what they feel is right and, even though it's hard to endure, you have to stick to your guns and continue to do what is right regardless of what the worldly consequences are. If you believe in God or believe in Christ, do you have enough faith to still believe and follow the teaches even if you are thrown into prison, condemned to die, or see your friends and family get tortured and killed. Can you say with Paul as he says in 2 Timothy 4:7 that "I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith" even as you are about to be offered up and killed by your persecutors? 

I will admit that this is a bit of a difficult watch at times on a few different levels. First off, yes, there is some imagery that is hard to stomach and, even though a lot of it isn't seen on screen, the movie does a good job of letting the audience know how brutal the Roman Empire was to these Christians. But second, this is a slow-moving drama that requires a lot of patience to get through without drifting off. And never once does it really pick up, thus it requires one to think and ponder on the themes of the movie in order to feel satisfied, because I can see people walking out of the theaters feeling bored and I wouldn't blame them. As pertaining to the lack of focus, yeah there's some story arcs that I felt were included because the filmmakers were trying to figure out how to fill the run time, with one example being Mauritius, one of Nero's little pawns, having a sick daughter who was about to die. I'm not sure what the overall point of that was in the big picture of the movie. But overall as I look back on the movie, this was a satisfactory viewing experience for me. If you can only afford to see one Easter movie, I'd still recommend "I Can Only Imagine" over this one. But if you're willing to be patient and implement a bit of brain power, this movie can work just fine. I'll give it a 7/10.