Remember this trailer? #4 – “Top Gun” (1986)

Classic Trailer Flashback – “Top Gun” (1986)

“I feel the need, the need for speed”. It’s a ridiculous, cheesy, and absolutely fantastic line that captures what makes “Top Gun” such a great movie especially for teens of the 1980s. It actually wasn’t the trailer that first got me excited for “Top Gun”. It was the music video for “Danger Zone” by movie soundtrack superstar Kenny Loggins. But when I saw the trailer with my family my dad was sold. The movie actually had something for everyone and the trailer shows that. It is 100% a product of the 80s which may hurt it with younger audiences, but I loved “Top Gun” as a kid and…well….I still do.

So, do you remember the trailer for “Top Gun”? What do you think?

REVIEW: “Christine” (2016)

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The on-air suicide of news reporter Christine Chubbuck has long been considered one of television’s most shocking moments. Behind that tragic event lies a troubling story of a young woman’s loneliness, self-doubt and severe depression. The movie “Christine” sets out to explore the final few days of Christine Chubbuck’s life right to its violent end on live tv.

Craig Shilowich wrote the script after feeling a deep personal connection to Chubbuck’s story. His own seven-year bout with depression inspired him to explore the issues that could have drawn Chubbuck to such a drastic final act. Shilowich interviewed family and coworkers in an attempt to piece together Christine’s state of mind. Director Antonio Campos allows Shilowich’s story to slowly boil which is perceptive but also harrowing since we know how it will end.

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Christine Chubbock is played by Rebecca Hall who gives us a remarkable performance that burrows deep beneath her character’s fragile surface. Hall’s physical and mental transformation show an intense level of commitment that draws us deeper into the story. Hall’s method is somber and restrained which helps her to visualize the crippling effects of depression.

The film explores several areas of Chubbock’s life, each contributing to her troubled mental state. First is her personal life, specifically her lack of companionship. Campos puts a heavy emphasis on Chubbock’s loneliness. Her past is hinted at through references and the relationship with her mother offers some of Christine’s most vulnerable and perceptive moments.

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We also spend a lot of time in her workplace – a Sarasota, Florida television station. Her main focus as a news reporter was on local community pieces. This puts her at odds with her abrasive and mildly chauvinist boss (Tracy Letts) who pushes for more sensationalism in her stories. She also finds herself lagging behind her competition for a new promotion in a bigger news market. There’s even a sudden health issue she is forced to deal with.

Subtly the film grows more unnerving with each step forward. Campos methodically puts together the pieces of this story and it’s tough to endure knowing the tragic finale that lies ahead. The presentation is authentic thanks to dashes of retro 70’s detail. The performances are superb especially from Hall who should be mentioned among the best of the year. But the real punch comes from the story itself, a mournful heart-breaking account of Christine Chubbuck’s final days. The filmmakers understand that which makes “Christine” all the more powerful.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Kong: Skull Island”

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I’m sure we’ve all had movies we have really wanted to be good but secretly feared would disappoint. I can name several and most of them probably fell in line with my fears more so than my hopes. “Kong: Skull Island” is a movie I’ve wanted to love since seeing the first trailer. But there were several reasons why it could have failed and I was never quite able to shake my skepticism.

Sometimes I love being wrong. “Kong” is an absolute delight and a rousing throwback to the creature features that permeated the 1950s. King Kong has had several big screen features, not as many as fellow movie monster icon Godzilla, but enough to earn him a pretty legendary status.

This film version steers clear of the traditional King Kong story. There is no damsel in distress, ventures to New York City, or the Empire State Building. This time we stay put on Skull Island, a beautiful uncharted South Pacific island by air but underneath its lush canopy is the home of the wildest assortment of creatures. The island is shielded by an ever-present storm wall but by 1973 satellite innovations led to its discovery. The most interested party is a shadowy government outfit called Monarch.

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John Goodman plays Bill Randa, Monarch’s senior official who convinces his government contact to fund an expedition to map out Skull Island. He requests a escort from the battered and bruised US military who in 1973 was in the process of leaving Vietnam. Their escort is led by Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson). Randa also hires a British SAS tracker named Conrad who knows the mission stinks but needs the money. They are joined by Brie Larson’s tough and feisty anti-war photojournalist Mason Weaver.

Let’s go ahead and state the obvious – the mission doesn’t go very well. The film wastes no time introducing the characters to their Kong – more of a towering monster than a big gorilla. The team’s surprise introduction and initial clash with Kong may be the film’s best sequence. It’s an intense, violent collision filled with chaos and carnage that leaves the team’s survivors grounded and separated. There they must navigate a treacherous landscape filled with a host of dangerous digital creations. Oh, and there is John C. Reilly, a true scene-stealer playing a World War 2 pilot who has been stranded on the island for 30 years. He’s a hoot.

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Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts has only one other feature film credit to his name and it’s a far cry from “Kong: Skull Island”. What he manages here is pretty incredible – a swift on its feet thrill ride with plenty of action and just enough wit. Most importantly it doesn’t get bogged down in its pretty looks. It’s one thing to look really good. We’ve come to expect it in this age of digital effects. Vogt-Roberts and company goes beyond that by finding clever ways for the visuals to make the action more cinematic and to emphasize the smallness of man compared to their giant beastly threats (There almost seems to be a crafty Vietnam War metaphor is hidden in there somewhere).

Vogt-Roberts has stated he pulled inspiration from a wild assortment of areas including “Apocalypse Now”, “Platoon”, the films of Hayao Miyazaki, and of course the original “King Kong” film from 1933. Several hands went into the script including Max Borenstein who penned the first draft. Dan Gilroy (“Nightcrawler”) did some important touch-up work and Derek Connelly who came in for some final rewrites. Their story smartly passes on getting too deep in backstory and relationship building. There’s some of it but for a story about a group of strangers thrust into a horrible situation it is held to just enough.

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Another smart move is putting together a fabulous cast. Hiddleston, Larson, Jackson, Reilly and Goodman are all great fits with their characters. But just as fun are other characters played by quality supporting actors. Tobey Kebbell, Corey Hawkins, Shea Whigham, John Ortiz and Thomas Mann all contribute plenty and each have their moments.

It may be tempting to dismiss “Kong: Skull Island” as typical CGI-heavy blockbuster mush. In fact it may be easy to do so because “Kong” doesn’t shy away from what it is. But this is no Transformers-like brain cell killer. It’s a well made, fast-paced monster movie with far more craft behind its presentation and storytelling than you would expect. I love the Vietnam War era setting, the jamming classic rock soundtrack and the old school creature feature nostalgia. It all clicks in a way I wish all big budget movies did. Oh, and be sure to stay until after the credits.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

REVIEW: “The Jungle Book” (2016)

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As a moviegoer one of the best experiences you can have is unexpectedly discovering a wonderful film. It may be a movie you flippantly dismissed. Maybe one you had absolutely no expectations for. But then you see it and you’re blindsided by how good it truly is. Everything I just described defines my experience with Jon Favreau’s “The Jungle Book”.

This semi-live action remake of Disney’s 1967 animated classic may be my biggest surprise of the year. On the surface remaking this story through live action and a ton of CGI seems unnecessary. But while it has been years since I’ve seen the original, Favreau’s freshened up version pulls just as much from Rudyard Kipling’s 1894 stories as the animated feature. And it actually leaves a much stronger and more satisfying impression. Again, something I never expected.

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Debuting young actor Neel Seethi plays a “man-cub” named Mowgli. Orphaned as a child and raised by a wolf named Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o), Mowgli lives among the pack trying to fit in but knowing he is unlike the other wolves. A black panther named Bagheera (Ben Kingsley), who first discovered Mowgli as a baby, now trains him to live like the wolves while avoiding his ‘man tricks’ as a means to survive. Despite the good intentions, this only accentuates Mowgli’s human-born inferiority.

When the dry season arrives a vicious human-hating Bengal tiger named Shere Khan (Idris Elba) breaks a longstanding water truce and states he will kill Mowgli once the rains come. Fearing for his wolf family’s safety, Mowgli leaves his pack and ventures into the jungle, but he quickly realizes the dangers of Shere Kahn’s violent and dogged determination.

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The Justin Marks screenplay bounces back and forth between perilous thrills and lighthearted comedy and that’s no complaint. It works because he always keeps the focus on Mowgli and his venture to find and understand where he fits in. It’s a simple but heartwarming story that never flatlines and never insults its audience by dumbing itself down. It’s one of those rare family treats that easily speaks to every age group.

The story is also written in a way that allows Favreau and his animation team to flex their computer-generated muscles. Let me be clear, this film looks amazing. The effects are nothing short of extraordinary. Shot entirely on Los Angeles sound stages and employing the latest innovations in motion capture, photorealistic rendering, and CGI, Favreau’s undertaking was incredibly ambitious and could have easily failed. Instead he creates a gorgeous and sublimely realistic world that shows off one incredible location after another and that makes talking animals as believable as possible.

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And speaking of those talking animals, the voice work is another huge plus. Kingsley, Nyong’o, Scarlett Johansson as a sultry serpent, Christopher Walken as a gigantopithecus mob boss – they’re all excellent. But the standouts are Bill Murray as a big brown sloth bear and Elba’s terrorizing Shere Kahn. Murray’s Baloo allows him the vocal space to be exactly what you would want from him – Bill Murray playing a bear. On the other end Elba brings such danger and menace to the film’s tiger antagonist.

But it all comes back to Seethi and his wonderful debut performance. The lone human character of any significance, Seethi is asked to carry a pretty big load. He manages wonderfully. His performance is one of many things that make Favreau’s project so satisfying. Toss in its great characters, good story, perfect pacing, and mind-blowing special effects. There are two songs which feel wedged in and a little jarring and the plot does rely on a couple of ‘conveniences’, but in no way do those minor gripes ruin what may have been the most pleasant surprise of 2016.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4.5 STARS

2017 BlindSpot Series – “In the Mood for Love”

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With such a passionate, seductive title, “In the Mood for Love” may tempt you to believe it is something it’s not. The film’s English title is based on “I’m In the Mood for Love”, a song made famous by the likes of Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, and Nat King Cole among others. But unlike the song’s alluringly romantic sentiment, the film has a much more cynical perspective – cynical yet still intensely romantic.

There’s a key line in the film where a character asks “It was so nice then, wasn’t it?” In many ways that’s the question from the start. Early on the film conveys a feeling that we are looking back in time – that we are gazing on what might have been. Technically we aren’t, but writer and director Wong Kar-wai’s crafty approach leaves us wondering. Elements of time do play into the story and the aching hearts of the two main characters intensifies the more time passes by.

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The film features popular Asian stars Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung. Their story begins in the crowded, changing 1962 Hong Kong. Both are stable career people. Leung plays a reporter named Chow while Cheung plays an executive’s assistant named Su. They end up moving next door in the same tight apartment building. Everything seems pretty stable except for one thing – their marriages. As it turns out their spouses are having an affair together and that discovery serves as the catalyst for their unique relationship.

Wong Kar-wai’s hypnotic story structure elegantly drifts back-and-forth between dreamy and bruising reality. There are no dream sequences – only soothing interludes in tune with the narrative’s continuity yet feeling almost otherworldly. It’s here that the camera steals the show. Scene after scene features Kar-wai’s masterful blend of lyrical and visual.

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The story moves at a deliberate but meaningful pace. Su and Chow are two bruised souls who in each other find an outlet to reckon with their pain and feelings of betrayal. They role-play in an attempt to figure out who made the first adulterous move. They rehearse the best way to confront their cheating spouses. Yet during all of their time together they are determined not to commit the same sins. Ironically it’s a misunderstanding of this pledge that proves to be their biggest hurdle to true healing and happiness.

As I mentioned “In the Mood for Love” is intensely romantic but painfully so. There is a continual aching from title screen to end credits. It’s emphasized through the film’s mesmerizing cinematography and composer Shigeru Umebayashi’s entrancing “Yumeji’s Theme”. Wong Kar-wai keeps everything moving at his pace and with his two main characters as the focus. We never once see the faces of the adulterers. We see their backs and hear their voices but that’s it. So many movies like to put the cheaters in the spotlight. This film is much more interested in the real people left in their wake.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

REVIEW: “Don’t Think Twice”

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Writer-director Mike Birbiglia proves he’s one to watch after his smart, witty, and utterly genuine comedy/drama “Don’t Think Twice”. This infectious indie examines the fine line between collaborative loyalties and personal career ambitions while at the same time celebrating a very distinct form of American performance art.

Birbiglia’s career in humor has had many faces. He’s mostly known for his stand-up comedy but has found success as an author and film actor. Birbiglia also spent time doing improv during his college years which strengthens his voice in this film. He’s a guy who intimately understands the difficulties of the funnyman trade which is made clear by the delicacy and candor he uses in handling his material.

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The story revolves around a Brooklyn-based improv troupe known as The Commune. It consists of six friends who genuinely love what they do but who aren’t without higher ambitions. While they maintain steady audiences, making people laugh isn’t always a lucrative occupation and several members work side jobs just to get by. The big blow comes when the group is hit with the news that their theater space is closing. Yet regardless of their circumstances and just like in improv, the tightly-knit group always have each other’s back.

Miles (played by Birbiglia) founded the group and spends his spare time teaching improv and talking about the time he was “within inches” of making it big. Jack (Keegan-Michael Key) has a ton of talent but tends to thrust himself into the spotlight. His girlfriend Samantha (Gillian Jacobs) doesn’t know where she wants her career to go. Allison (Kate Micucci) has been struggling to finish her graphic novel for years. Bill (Chris Gethard) battles insecurity and feelings that true success has passed him by. Lindsay (Tami Sagher) lives off of her rich parents and is constantly in counseling. It’s a good assortment of characters with solid performances throughout.

Their camaraderie is tested when one member breaks their second commandment – “It’s all about the group”. Reps from Weekend Live (a sketch comedy television show in the vein of Saturday Night Live) attend one of The Commune’s shows and afterwards offer auditions to two members of the group. What looks like opportunity for two gives way to envy, frustration, and insecurity as each person is forced to deal with where they are in life both professionally and personally. And as in reality, the truth isn’t always easy to digest.

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Despite the great chemistry in their performances and their seamless friendships, Birbiglia creates a looming cloud of desperation that hangs over each character. And everything is grounded in reality. Because of this the film works as a genuinely funny comedy but also a bittersweet drama. Everyone feels in tune with their circumstance and each relationship we get is authentic.

By the end of “Don’t Think Twice” I felt I knew each of these people. I knew their personalities, their struggles, and their aspirations. Most importantly I cared. That’s because there is an honest approach to the material by everyone involved. I found myself caught up in its wit and sincerity as well as its ability to remind us that life can be as spontaneous and uncertain as the performance art this film is celebrating.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4.5 STARS