All posts by Matt Taylor

I am a Writer currently living in Mesa, AZ. I'm always writing, always thinking, always creating. Check me out on twitter @mctaylo.

Adventures at Phoenix Comic Con 2015

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Phoenix Comic Con 2015

It’s difficult to define what the modern geek is. In the past the geek, or those that could be defined as such, were fringe characters. The preoccupations and passions of the geeky, nerdy sorts of people did not seep into the mainstream, and many of those who indulge in the nerdy side of life could find themselves maligned, insulted, and left out in the cold. A strange culture shift has taken place over the last ten years thats put the spotlight on the realm of geekdom, and nowhere else is this more evident than at Comic Conventions around the country. Thousands of fans flock to these gatherings to revel in their shared interests and passions and pop culture at large has taken notice. No longer are comic conventions merely gathering places for superhero lovers. Movies, television, books, video games and more take center stage at this comic cons with the definition of what it means to be a geek widening with each passing year.

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Phoenix Comic Con is a four day event normally taking place at the tail end of May, or early June. A long weekend full of excitement and entertainment awaits those who dare to brave the thick crowds of enthusiastic pop culture junkies. Movie and television stars come to share stories and answer question, along with photo opportunities and autographs. Writers, artists and craftsmen and women bring their art and works to share with eager attendants. Vendors and exhibitors fill the lower hall as far as the eye can see, an endless supply of all kinds of pop culture memorabilia and collectibles. It’s really easy to overdose on the sheer number of exciting things there is to see and do. Or, at least, it used to be.

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Having been to Phoenix Comic Con in the past, as well as speaking to people who have been going to the convention since it’s inception, it’s clear that this years event was lacking something. What could it be lacking, though? It had celebrities, writers, artists, vendors and more. How could an event with so much feel like it had so little? Quantity seemed to rule over quality this year. There was a ton of stuff there, but how much of it was worthwhile? The panels were shallow and little more than hour long pats on the back for those who enjoy a particular intellectual property. A video game room was advertised as a great place to come and play with other fans and have a great time, but even that was lacking. A dark room in the back of a hotel lobby filled with broken controllers and loitering children made the gaming environment feel unwelcome. Normally the convention has parties on Friday and Saturday nights, but those were conspicuously missing. The city of Phoenix closed down an entire street for the convention, but this wasn’t used to hold any kind of nighttime block party to give people something do once the exhibitor hall closed. Indeed, at seven o’clock the exhibitor hall was emptied and thousands of fans with nothing to do wandered two and fro like a herd of zombies.

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Among the other events was the Masquerade Costume Contest. Cosplay enthusiasts of every skill level and variety entered with a shot at cash prizes and trophies. It was a light hearted, fun event hosted by a wise cracking, sarcastic old gent dressed as a Storm Trooper. As costumer after costumer took the stage I, along with the crowd, found myself dazzled and disappointed. Though, I suppose, if it’s the thought that counts then everyone who entered left a winner. The actual winners though, I’m sad to say, did not have the best costumes, but rather the best showmanship. I’m not at all discounting the winners, but it was a shame to see a costume with animatronics in the build lose to a group that simply dressed up and lip synced to a scene from the animated Disney film Mulan. Though great, I did not think that performance should have overshadowed a true craftsman.

Con4 As mentioned earlier geekdom is now a major part of pop culture at large. No longer can the tiny IP’s we held in so near and dear in our hearts fit neatly in our back pockets. With the likes of The Avengers and Batman bringing in billions at the box office, and The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones and Dr. Who ruling the television arena nerds can no longer lay claim to such geek fare as ours and ours alone. With a larger audience comes a need to make things as accessible as possible, and I think that is Phoenix Comics Con greatest strength and weakness. I saw more events geared for very young children this year than ever before, and in fact many of the panels I attended worked extra hard and making sure all the subject matter was as family friendly as possible. I saw just as many strollers as I did grown men dressed up like Spider-Man this year. To see throngs of people that otherwise wouldn’t identify as a nerd, or dare be caught in a comic book store of any variety attend a large comic book convention speaks volumes.

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I would say that for the Phoenix Comic Con this years festivities were a great success. Attendance was through the roof, exhibitors were plentiful, and the celebrities and artists had fans truly happy and excited. A deeper view, and perhaps that of a cynical geek such as myself, still can’t help but be disappointed. It was, ultimately a great place to spend a lot of money. Next year I’d like to see more activities, more events. A nighttime block party with live music on Saturday night seems like an absolute must. A more robust gaming area (with working equipment) and panels led by hosts with greater credibility and credentials would be nice to see as well. Hopefully next year the convention will add less to buy and more to do. A nerd can dream.

Spectre Review

A cluster of goosebumps ran up my arm the moment the legendary gun-barrel sequence crawled across the screen at the opening of the latest James Bond film Spectre. That iconic moment, paired with the equally iconic music, can only mean one thing. James Bond is back. Daniel Craig returns to the role that made him a household name, with director Sam Mendes returning as well after his successes with Skyfall. While not as great a film as Skyfall that came before it, Spectre manages to still entertain despite some glaring problems.

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The movie starts with a cold open, as is tradition with the Bond films. We’re dropped smack dab in the middle of the Day of the Dead festival in a well worn, but beautiful Mexico City. Bond, dressed in typical Day of the Dead garb, walks through the crowd with a beautiful woman on his arm. They make their way to a hotel room, but rather than a whirlwind Bond romance breaking out 007 is out the window and on to his mission. It’s a run of the mill assassination for Bond that goes downhill after a building collapses. What follows is a high octane helicopter sequence that, however improbable, is still just as thrilling.

After the Mexico City misadventure Bond returns to MI6 and is scolded for his mess. We’re told MI6 is merging with MI5 and that a new surveillance program will allow all governments access to each others intel and spy networks. It’s the kind of government overreach that’s mirrored by current affairs.

Bond is grounded for wrecking Mexico City, but you can’t keep a good secret agent down. After the death of Judi Dench’s M he’s given clues to follow that lead him to the discovery of the super secret evil organization Spectre. Apparently this organization has been behind all of the conflicts that have transpired in the Daniel Craig Bond films. It’s a bit far fetched, but I went along with it. The leader of this group is an old childhood frenemy of Bond’s named Franz Oberhauser, played with an eery calm by Christoph Waltz. After being outed in a meeting full of these cackling, multicultural evil doers Oberhauser’s menacing henchman Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista) chases after Bond in a remarkably dull car chase. While both men are driving at top speeds there’s no real danger and neither man seem phased by what they’re doing. It just feels like an 80MPH morning commute. Low stakes don’t make for much excitement, and after the helicopter sequence in the opening this car chase feels limp.

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With our villain revealed we next are introduced to our Bond girl Madeleine Swann who’s given a strong portrayal by Lea Seydoux. Swann is the daughter of Mr. White, a man we met in Casino Royale and later in Quantum of Solace. It was nice having some closure for the Mr. White story, but in the end it felt somewhat forced. We didn’t really need the connection to the past films, but it didn’t hurt the film either. It had much bigger problems.

With all the players revealed the movie unfolds in a typical Bond fashion. There’s a monologue by Oberhauser in his suitably over the top evil lair. There’s a bombastic final showdown with plenty of action, and in the end Bond gets the girl. The Bond formula is alive and well in Spectre, but I genuinely feel it’s not a good thing this time around.

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The past Craig Bond films have been hinting at the traditional Bond ways. Skyfall gave us Moneypenny, Q and a new M with a handful of gadgets but it was all done with a wink and a nod. Specter doesn’t seem to know what it wants. It neither goes all the way into the classic Bond pool, nor does it maintain Skyfall’s subtleties. It’s a shame because a perfect melding of the Casino Royale style mixed with the classic Bond tropes could be really fantastic, but Spectre just isn’t it.

The biggest problem with this film is the writing. Oberhauser is the weakest villain we’ve got in a Bond film since Mr. Green in Quantum of Solace. At least Mr. Green had a clear motivation and reason behind what he was doing. It was all money for Mr. Green. Oberhauser is motivated by petty childhood squabbles. His main motivator is that his father took a liking to Bond and Oberhauser was jealous. To start a giant criminal enterprise with far reaching governmental influence over a grudge seems just plain stupid. There’s also a torture sequence where Bond is strapped to a chair with little drills lined up to puncture his skull. Oberhauser tells him of the grievous affects this will have on Bond. The drills go in, Bond screams in pain, then nothing. There’s no ill affect. There’s no explanation for this other than I assume it would be inconvenient for the rest of the film for Bond to be blind, or unable to remember and recognize faces. There was absolutely no reason for that scene and it instantly pulled me out of the film. I knew something would be amiss when during the opening credits I saw a total of four “written by” credits. Can’t have four writers without something getting lost in the shuffle.

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Ultimately this is a solid Bond film. It’s not the worst of them, but it’s not the best. It’s better than Quantum of Solace, but fails to reach the highs of Skyfall and Casino Royale. As a standalone film it’s not good at all. I think that’s an important distinction to make. Bond has a lot of wiggle room for inane plot problems and overall dopiness. For fans of Bond this is right in 007’s swing zone. All the usual Bond elements are there. I just wish they did more with them.

Truth Review

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The Truth about CBS 60 Minutes drama, Truth

There’s a always a fine line to walk when it comes to adapting any true story into a fictional medium. The further back in the past the story takes place the easier it is to fudge on some details. Dramatizations of modern events are always trickier. Portraying events that many in the audience lived through, saw and experienced makes for an uphill battle, even more so when the subject matter is divisively political. Truth, directed by Zodiac scribe James Vanderbilt, tells the allegedly true story of the 60 Minutes Team at CBS News’ investigation into former President George W Bush’s time in the Air National Guard and the fallout that came with the investigation.

The movie begins with a very agitated and tense Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchette) being asked some tough questions by a lawyer. She’s asked if she has a substance abuse problem, or considers herself a radical feminist. The opening minutes set the tone of the film. There are going to be tough questions ahead for Mary, both asked by and asked of. The movie then flashes back to Mary and her team airing their eventual Peabody award winning report on the Abu Ghraib Prison Scandal. Her team is plucky, close knit and described by Mapes as “crack.”

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Shortly after the airing of the Abu Ghraib report she receives a tip about a damning memo that would reveal President Bush went AWOL during his time in the Air National Guard and lied about his military service during Vietnam. This comes during the Presidential Election cycle and could very well sway the election. With veteran reporter Dan Rather at her side Mary sprints ahead with the story, despite some very suspicious and cloudy circumstances regarding the memos.

In the end it seems as though the memos were faked and in Mary’s headstrong pursuit of the truth she fumbled along the way. She’s fired, her team asked to resign and Dan Rather retires shortly thereafter. It’s not a happy ending for our truth seeking heroes, but honestly I walked away feeling as though it was a deserved outcome.

Whether the team at CBS was right or wrong never really enters into the equation. At the end of the day you look at what they did and wonder what they could have possibly been thinking. It was sloppy journalism. We’re supposed to root for a character that steadfastly pursues a flimsy story. When told that the evidence doesn’t hold water they ignored it and kept marching. They took people at their word, believing that was all the evidence needed. It didn’t matter if Bush did or did not go AWOL. What mattered was this team really didn’t do a great job investigating it.

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As a film I enjoyed it. Removing what I know of the actual events surrounding I was able to have a good time watching. Cate Blanchett is superb, as per usual. I believe she’s one of the greatest actresses to ever grace the silver screen. Robert Redford disappears into his role as Dan Rather. Its inspired casting. Denis Quad and Topher Grace fill the supporting roles with plenty of charisma as well.

James Vanderbilt has not directed much, though he’s written some great films. It’s surprising that this script feels kind of clunky at times. There’s a few too many overly melodramatic and downright cheesy moments. Most of these happen during some kind of exposition, and are usually accompanied by a swell of over dramatic music. It’s unfortunate because we rarely need such sloppy storytelling. We don’t need to be told a characters motivation, we can understand it through their actions. What’s worse is most of these moments are centered around Cate Blanchett’s character, and she’s such an amazing actress that we don’t need this extra info on her character. She’s giving us everything we need in spades through her performance. Why tell us that she views Dan Rather as a father figure, when the performance between Redford and Blanchett makes that clear as day. A tighter script would have certainly elevated the film to greater heights, there’s no denying that.

At the end of the day this probably won’t be an award winner. It’s a serviceable film, but the actions of the heroes are largely unsympathetic and it makes it hard to root for them. Couple that with the knowledge of actual events that most audience members bring with them makes for a middle-of-the-road kind of drama. Neither great nor bad, it simply is.

Crimson Peak Review

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If you’re looking for spooky, look no further than Crimson Peak.

Guillermo Del Toro is somewhat of an anomaly in the world of Hollywood. He’s regarded, rightfully so, as one of the most creative, inventive and visually engaging directors to ever grace the medium. His masterpiece, Pan’s Labyrinth, won armfuls of accolades, awards, and forever cemented his imaginative place in the world of cinema. The tricky thing about Mr. Del Toro’s career, however, has been his lack of a box office success. The word “decent” is often used to describe his best box office grosses, while flop is used for the rest. What I find interesting is that in light of his middle-of-the-road financial successes he was able to make a film like Crimson Peak. It’s a haunted house film to rival the eeriest of gothic romance tales ever committed to film or otherwise.

The film starts off with Mia Wasikowsa’s Edith Cushing exclaiming that ghost’s are real. She tells of the death of her Mother when she was very young, and the haunted happenings that followed. Her deathly apparition of a Mother appears to her with a warning: Beware Crimson Peak. With an ominous light cast on this Crimson Peak very early on we then jump forward into Edith’s adulthood. She’s an inspiring writer of spooky fiction and gothic romances. Her works are scoffed at as tacky ghost stories, though she reminds her critics that they aren’t ghost stories, they’re stories with ghosts. That’s an extremely important bit to remember, and a line that played over in my mind as a left the theater. I’ll get to it in a second.

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From there we meet the Sharpe twins, played magnificently by Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain. For the viewer it’s clear from the get go that something’s just not right about this two strangers clad in black. The characters in the film seem to share the audiences misgivings, with of course Ms. Cushing being the exception. She falls madly in love and moves to the Sharpe estate in England where the bulk of the film takes place. Once there the creepy happenings pick up the pace and continue on until the end. The ghosts are unsettling to behold, and the atmosphere Del Toro places them in only enhances their spooky factor. Spoiler warning for those who care to remain fresh, but the ghosts are ultimately inconsequential to the plot. The evil of Crimson Peak is not of supernatural origin. The twist and finale of the movie can be seen coming from a mile away and unfolds as we’d assume it would. The plot isn’t really why one would see this film, however. The magic lies in the visuals.

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My biggest problem with Crimson Peak was how little impact these truly exciting and terrifying apparitions had on the story. If you took the ghosts out the plot would remain nearly unaffected. The mystery of the Sharpe twins is uncovered largely without the assistance of anything supernatural. The ghosts are not even integral to the climax of the film, even after their connection to the Sharpes is established. That felt like a huge missed opportunity. Like I mentioned earlier Edith Cushing states that her story is not of ghosts, but rather featuring ghosts. It’s curious to me that Del Toro would tell us what kind of film we’re getting, and that the impact of that line wouldn’t hold it’s full weight until after the credits roll. I guess this is one man’s opinion, but I would have liked to have seen the ghosts have a larger effect on the overall plot.

Guillermo Del Toro has a visual eye unlike any filmmaker I’ve ever seen. Nothing looks like a Del Toro picture. He takes every influence he’s ever had and mashes them together into something that feels truly original. Crimson Peak is no different. It’s dripping with his unique aesthetic. It’s a shame his story telling elements never line up with his visuals. Each English language film he’s done is masterful in it’s design. They look phenomenal. The stories and characters always leave something to be desired, however. These troubles aren’t found in his Spanish language movies. The story and visuals match up and make for really great films. Something about the English language holds Guillermo Del Toro back, and I hold my breath for the day he returns to Spanish cinema and delivers another masterpiece.

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At the end of the day I absolutely recommend Crimson Peak. It’s a perfect Halloween film. It’s a perfect film to turn the lights off and behold some spooky happenings. The plot and characters don’t hold up under scrutiny, but if you’re looking for some delicious eye candy, or rather what Del Toro would call eye protein, then watch Crimson Peak. If you like looking at cool stuff then this is the movie for you. Forgive the plot contrivances and weak characters and you’ll have a good time.

The Martian Review

The Martian Review: Ridley Scott and Matt Damon find their movie magic again. On Mars of all places.

Ridley Scott has confused me somewhat over the last few years. His output has been steady to the point of releasing a film at an annual basis. His last handful of movies left me cold and underwhelmed. He seemed to be chasing quantity rather than taking the time to focus on quality. Understandably, I went into The Martian with some trepidation. Was this going to be another critical flop from such a prolific director, or would all the pieces at play come together to give us a fun, entertaining, and thought provoking movie? I won’t leave you sitting in suspense. The Martian is a very good film. Ridley Scott seems to have found some magic left in his bag of tricks and delivers a heck of a good time. This is a movie review, however, so I can’t simply leave it at that. Let’s take a closer look at what The Martian had going for it.

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The movie plops us right into the middle of the action. We’re instantly treated to the wide, dusty red vista’s of mysterious Mars. A team of astronauts are diligently performing their duties gathering soil samples and other scientific duties. It’s not long after (and I do mean not long) that a massive storm derails the mission and they’re forced to evacuate. While on their way back to the escape craft astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is struck by debris and left for dead. That entire sequence makes for an attention hooking, exciting opening, but I do wish that there had been a little more with the team as a whole. Sure, prior to the accident we get tons of witty banter and a clear picture of the camaraderie between them all, but a little more of that would have perhaps given us a larger emotional investment into Watney’s ordeal and his team’s determination to get him back. Nevertheless the crew returns to their ship and heads back to Earth, unaware that Watney is alive.

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The rest of the film details Watney’s survival attempts. Though in a dire situation he’s in good spirits, which helps the audience have fun. Intercut with Watney’s chores are the actions of NASA who must walk the line between risking a mission to save Watney and keeping public approval high while understanding that Watney is in a no win scenario. Jeff Daniels plays the head of NASA, and while he does a fine job he’s a little too unnecessarily villainous at times. It’s hinted at and perhaps mentioned in passing that the future of the entire space program could lie upon what the public, and more importantly, what the Mars crew know of Watney’s situation. Eventually they break down and inform the Mars crew about Watney’s survival and naturally his team wants to rescue him. Using some fancy space maneuvers and a little bit of Chinese intervention the team manages to get back to Mars and perform the daring rescue of this plucky astronaut we’ve grown to love. It’s a suitably happy ending for a film the maintains an optimistic point of view it’s entire run time.

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The Martian is a film with all the necessary pieces for a cinematic classics. By and large everything fires on all cylinders and it’s a rip roaring good time throughout. As mentioned above I felt like Jeff Daniels character needed a better spotlight on his motivations to avoid just being a weak villain, which that character wasn’t. He was a big picture bureaucrat who’s interest centered on the entire space program rather than a single life. Speaking of life there were times the stakes didn’t carry the gravity they should have. Though Watney was in constant danger I never felt like he was ever truly at risk. It was a little too easy to sit back, watch, and know Mark Watney will make it home safe and sound. Spoiler warning: There are zero casualties in this film. Everyone gets to go home to their lives and families no worse for wear. I feel like a zealot calling for blood, but perhaps if one of the more background crew members had perished in the rescue attempt the heavy stakes I was looking for would have been there. The Mar’s crew brought a lot of warmth and character to the film, but I would have liked more of them. Still, all that said, I had a great time watching this movie. I highly recommend it for anyone looking to get some fun, well made entertainment. 

Sicario Review

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Sicario Review:  An action movie worth the price of admission.

It’s rare that a day goes by without the news reporting trouble at the United States southern border. Between illegal immigration, and the infamous drug cartels, the border is a hot button issue no matter how you look at it. Our election cycles in the US inevitably revolve around what to do about those problems, and our government agencies burn through millions of tax payer dollars trying to combat the cartels. It’s a dangerous game, and an important issue. These topics are explored in director Denis Villeneuve’s latest movie Sicario. Starring Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin and Bencicio Del Toro, it tackles the brutality of the Mexican drug cartels and those in law enforcement who stand in their way. The pedigree of talent both in front of and behind the camera left me salivating for more from the very first trailer I saw. Unfortunately this film just barely misses greatness. It comes close, but a few nagging issues hold it back.

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The movie begins with a drug bust in Chandler, Arizona. Emily Blunt’s character Kate leads an FBI SWAT force inside a dilapidated home. What they find inside is far more heinous than mounds of cocaine and illicit cash deposits. Hidden behind the dry wall, covering nearly every square inch of the home, are bodies. Corpses, heads wrapped in plastic, line the walls. It’s a gruesome, visceral sight to behold. This scene helps set the tone of the entire story and shows us the gravity of the situations we’ll be witnessing. From there Kate volunteers to join another task force who’s gunning for the head honchos that run the entire cartel. She meets Brolin’s character Matt, and Del Toro’s mysterious Alejandro. Both men seem to be more than they claim, though both occupy different ends of the character spectrum. Brolin is witty and a little more light hearted in all he does. When we first meet him he’s in a government briefing wearing flip flops. If a picture is worth a thousand words that one must be worth a million. To contrast Del Toro plays a more stoic, dangerous, but disciplined kind of man. He’s the titular Sicario, which means hitman in Spanish. Kate is told he’s just a government liaison, but it doesn’t take a genius to see he’s no pencil pusher.

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I won’t bother diving too much further into regurgitating the plot. There’s a great deal that needs to be seen and experienced first hand to retain it’s impact, and a great deal more that is very obvious and doesn’t need explained. As I mentioned previously this movie misses the greatness mark by just a hair. It lacks a concrete focus. Early on Emily Blunt’s character is our focal point. She’s our window to this nasty world. There’s some inconsistencies in the character, however. She’s both a seasoned agency veteran, and a wet behind the ears rookie. I felt like she was a completely capable agent, but she was never treated as such by her fellow characters. It’s possible that was the point of it all, but the way it was delivered didn’t work. It seemed more that they just didn’t know exactly what they wanted from that character. There was also an uneven emphasis on Del Toro’s character. Halfway through the film the focus seemed to switch to him, with Blunt disappearing for a little longer than she should have were this her film. Del Toro’s Alejandro story is a revenge tale, and an interesting one to boot. The cartel’s murdered his family and now he’s a gun for hire type of character brought in by various governments to take out problem players. Had the film picked one of these stories and stuck to it completely the film would have played so much better. Go all in on either side, rather than giving us a taste of both. If they wanted to have both stories, perhaps adding a third focus like Brolin’s character would have given more perspective. By making the film more of an ensemble than it was it could have smoothed out the jarring focus switching. A more polished script would have launched this film into greatness, as it has a whole lot going for it, but without it just ends up somewhat lukewarm.

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When this film works, it really works. The score is one of the best I’ve heard in a long time, and I left the theater with a piece of that music stuck in my head. The performances were all fantastic, Blunt especially. She takes what she’s given to work with and runs with it. Benicio Del Toro gives an amazing performance as well, though I’ve never seen him not do an absolute fabulous job. Josh Brolin holds his own as well, but I wished we got a little more screen time. The highlight of the movie, for me, was how it was shot. The cinematography was absolutely stellar. There’s a shot towards the end of the government task force walking towards a sun set and dipping into the inky black of shadow leaving only the breathtaking ambers and blues of the sky on screen. The music, actors, and cinematography make for a very good film, but the script keeps it from a great film. Close, but no dice.

I do recommend this movie. it’s got enough going for it that it makes for an entertaining film. Like I said, it’s a very good film, just not great. It raises some important points on some sensitive issues, and shines a light on a segment of the world population that would rather remain in the shadows. Catch it in a matinee and have a good time. It’s worth that much.

The Green Inferno Review

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There’s something irresistibly primal about cannibalism. The sordid concept has been explored in all forms of media; a tale of terror and woe that has existed as long as mankind has walked this earth. Often used as a means to terrify a populace into obedience, or as a warning to beware the other, the evil just outside the safety of home, cannibalistic stories are a constant. Acclaimed horror director Eli Roth’s latest film The Green Inferno seeks to continue the cannibalistic tradition of films like Cannibal Holocaust and Cannibal Ferox. As with those films The Green Inferno boils down to a group of hapless westerners traveling to the Amazon only to wind up in the belly of savages. What sets Roth’s film apart from these other Grindhouse tales is the somewhat mild twist he puts on those destined to be a quick meal.

The movies begins on a college campus. Justine (Lorenza Itto) is a big eyed, idealistic wannabe activist of a freshman who’s woken up by a group of hunger striking protesters just outside her window. While sitting in class (some kind of history/anthropology lecture) she learns about female genital mutilation, which foreshadows the horror to come, and those who perpetrate it in places like the Amazon. Whether spurned on by that, or an attraction to the fellow running the campus activist group she joins up and is shortly thereafter on a plane to the rainforest to stop deforestation and the deaths of indigenous tribes. It’s a nobel enough cause, but the real kick here is how the activists are portrayed. Eli Roth has been vocal in interviews and other media about how he wanted this film to represent a comeuppance for all those internet social justice warriors and slacktivists who hurl themselves at so called “noble” causes without really understanding what they stand for or what they’re getting themselves into. That fact is apparent with how these characters are portrayed, but as with many of these types of people they are ultimately interchangeable. We don’t know these characters. We’re supposed to feel for them, I guess, because they’re in a horrible situation. Unfortunately, because of how Roth set these kids up as hapless wannabe activists, I couldn’t be bothered to care about them because they put themselves into this peril. True, nobody deserves to be eaten or killed in such a brutal fashion, but a quick google search might have alerted these kids to the horrors that await.

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The team of plucky college kids succeed in disrupting a deforestation company and from there catch a plane ride home. Naturally, the plane crashes and the surviving activists are taken prisoner by a blood red tribe of savages. Their bright crimson skin and bone pierced faces make them look less than human, which I imagine was the point. It doesn’t take too long for each of the characters to be killed and eaten. The first kill, in particular, was fairly disgusting and a treat for the gore hounds out there. A man gets his eyes, tongue, limbs and then head removed with a crude chopping instrument. Unfortunately none of the other kills have a similar level of carnage, so once numbed by the first splash of gore nothing else hits as hard. Once down to the last two victims, Justine escapes and is rescued by the same people she had sabotaged and protested earlier in the film. It’s such a predictable outcome that the irony of the situation is lost. It’s a fairly standard horror plot. Happy, idealistic kids get slaughtered one after the other by a boogeyman, or boogeymen in this instance.

As I mentioned above the first kill in the movie is suitably hardcore. From there nothing holds up to that standard. I’ve seen much nastier, gorier stuff on cable television. Shows like The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, and Hannibal are all much more visceral and bloody at times. Normally I wouldn’t mention this in a review, as the gore is something that either is, or isn’t and rarely impacts the story. It’s the act that matters. The reason I bring it up is because The Green Inferno is really being sold as an impossible to watch, bring your own barf bag, kind of gore fiesta. It’s not. It really isn’t. The one dimensional characters bored me in the beginning and by the time all hell breaks lose (around 45 minutes in) the film has lost me. If I don’t care about the characters, then dazzle me with special effects madness. The opening credits reveal Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger as the gore wizards behind the madness so I was expecting something extreme. Make it a bloody, gory mess, especially if that’s what you’ve marketed the film as being chalk full of. In the end a lack of interesting characters and lackluster gore makes this film feel empty.

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It’s interesting that Eli Roth chose to make the kids in this film the wannabe activist types we see all over Twitter and Facebook. There’s a whole army of people on the internet who think they can change the world with a few clickity clacks of their keyboards, and when thrust into the actual danger become nothing more than pigs for the slaughter. That, for me, is the bright spot in this film. It’s a shame the gore was so disappointing because seeing whiny college activists bite the big one could have been cathartic. There’s a moment in the movie where the character leading this charge tells them they changed nothing. They only delayed the inevitable by a few days. The deforestation crews will resume their work unabated. That’s a more crushing defeat for these kids than being roasted for dinner. They’re so blinded by their allegiance to the cause that I never really felt they held any anger towards their tormentors. In fact, the film ends with Justine telling what I assume are UN lawyers that the tribe was completely peaceful and that all her friends died in the plane crash alone. It’s a misguided, confusing devotion to a cause that she never really had any reason to be hung up on. It fit perfectly with the kind of slacktavists Roth was skewering.

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At the end of the day I can’t recommend this. Sure, it had an interesting idea with the college activist thing, but the gore was uninteresting and the college kids were pretty two dimensional. They were faceless hunks of meat before they ever got to the Amazon. I’ve never seen any of the cannibal flicks that inspired this film, so I can’t speak to whether or not this meets those standards, but if those movies were your jam you will probably get some enjoyment out of The Green Inferno. For me, however, it just doesn’t work.

Coming Home – Review

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Zhang Yimou is one of the most exciting, compelling and visionary directors to ever grace the silver screen. It may seem somewhat hyperbolic to say, and certainly an unorthodox way to begin a film review, but one need look no further than the man’s filmography to see what I mean. Films such as Hero, House of Flying Daggers and Curse of the Golden Flower are all absolute masterpieces of cinema. You can even take a gander at the work he did directing the Beijing Summer Olympics opening ceremony to see what a flare for drama, visuals and storytelling this man has. HIs latest picture, Coming Home, pulls him away from the kung fu action dramas I previously mentioned by setting this film during the Chinese Cultural Revolution of the mid 1900’s. Though nowhere near as flashy as his previous endeavors this film is nonetheless a master stroke of cinema. Allow me to gush.

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Coming Home is, at it’s core, a love story. It tells the tale of Yu (Li Gong) and Lu (Daoming Chen) and the upheaval their lives undergo during the oppressive Cultural Revolution of Mao Ze Dong in 1960’s and 70’s China. Right from the start of the film Lu has been in prison for nearly a decade. He’s a so called enemy to the Party and therefore was hauled away to a Chinese Prison Camp. We’re told very early on in the film he’s escaped and that he may make contact with his family. His wife Yu, and teenaged daughter DanDan are told to notify the authorities if Lu should show up, and coerced into making a pseudo oath to the Party against their political dissident of a husband/father. Fearing the wrath of the Party, Yu reluctantly agree’s, while her daughter DanDan is a little more enthusiastic in her compliance, as she is a ballet dancer and Party compliance would assure her a top role in the upcoming recital. Of course, Lu loves his wife very much so he attempts to make contact. He tells Yu to meet him at the train station, and being a devoted wife she does so. Unfortunately young DanDan doesn’t understand the consequences of turning in her prisoner of a father and the police catch up to Lu and Yu before a proper reunion can take place. Yu is knocked down and suffers a head injury while Lu is dragged back to prison. It’s a very well shot, heavily dramatic moment for this family with unforeseen ramifications down the road and Zhang Yimou films it beautifully.

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The film then makes a leap forward by three years, revealing that the Cultural Revolution has come to an end and the political prisoners are being released. Lu is declared rehabilitated by the Party and seeks to resume his happy life with his loving wife. Regretfully the altercation at the train station years earlier left Yu with what’s called psychogenic amnesia and she does not recognize her husband whatsoever. He tries time and time again to force his wife to remember him, but alas it’s all in vain. He instead is recognized by the old woman as a friendly helper and the two grow old together not as husband and wife, but rather as neighbors. All Lu wanted after his release from prison was to care for his wife, and as she will never recognize him as anything more than a friendly neighbor he’s content just to be near her. It’s frustrating for the viewer because of how much we care for and are rooting for Lu and Yu to be truly reunited, but we have to set aside our wants for them and be contented with the tragic beauty of what that relationship must become.

While not as visually flashy as Zhang Yimou’s previous films, this film holds it’s own in his filmography based on the expert direction and acting from all parties involved. Daoming Chen and Li Gong give some of the best performances I’ve ever seen. The subtle sadness, melancholy and longing Chen brings to his character, all while imbuing the performance with tenderness, was absolutely fantastic to see. Li Gong did a beautiful job essentially playing two people, the woman she was before the amnesia and after. She really shines after the midway point when Lu is trying to reunite them. The frustrated mood swings brought on by not remembering so many important aspects of her life are brilliantly displayed by Li Gong. There’s a moment in the film where Lu plays a piece on the piano and a glimmer of recognition dances across Yu’s face. This sliver of hope, followed by the heartache of another failed recollection is beautiful and tragic. It nearly brought a tear to my eye. That sequence is shot with such precision and craftsmanship that I found myself leaning forward in my seat, ready to jump up and cheer should Lu’s exquisite piano playing gambit pay off. The rest of the cast shone brightly as well, but the movie ultimately belongs to Daoming Chen and Li Gong. We get to see two master actors at the top of their game and there’s nothing more rewarding for a cinephile than that.

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One of the aspect of this film I found surprising was how under politicized it was. It took place during a very politically, and socially sensitive time and one would expect the filmmaker to, in one form or another, take sides in the issue. After all, there was some stir over Yimou’s film Hero being nothing more than nationalist Chinese propaganda (though I believe such accusations to be completely unfounded). Zhang Yimou very wisely does not take an explicit side in Coming Home. He uses the Cultural Revolution as nothing more than a backdrop and framing device. Just as a Western is not about the mountain a cowboy traverses, this film is not about what drove these two apart, but rather how transcendent true love and devotion can be. The Cultural Revolution was an event that happened, but he didn’t make it anything more. There’s no Romeo and Juliet style side picking. All that matters is the love this man feels towards his wife. Honestly, it makes the film all the more impactful by not dwelling on the political aspects of the story. It removes the potential for eye rolling personal bias, and allows the audience to focus only on these characters.

I do recommend this film to anyone looking for a tender, tragic, but ultimately beautiful love story. It’s a bit long, and at times frustrating seeing Lu go so long without a triumph, but in the end that’s the point of the story. He couldn’t make his wife remember, so he had to settle with whatever he could to be with his great love. Zhang Yimou remains one of the best directors in the game and I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next. Coming Home is a beautiful drama that should not be missed.