Thursday, December 31, 2015

Productivity in 2015

So with the year coming to an end, I'd like to take a look back at what 2015 had to offer, and what I look to accomplish in the year coming up. It's been a pretty productive year for me, one my most productive yet actually. After having spent the past couple years focused mostly on my novel writing pursuits, I decided that I had been neglecting my filmmaking aspirations for far long enough, and so proceeded to shift focus onto that for the majority of the year.

There have been ups and downs, but to jump straight to the positives, I filmed and released two new short films this year, which I'm just ecstatic about. Dream Girl was a bit of a smaller, more scaled back project, but a nice way to segue back into the filmmaking groove, and we managed to pull it off all the same, putting together and nice solid little film. And it received a generally positive reaction all around, which I was very pleased by.

And Breathe was a bit more of an experimental work, which I used as a means to test myself as a filmmaker, and which released to a more mixed reaction as a result. But even so, I was still personally satisfied with how it turned out in the end, and found the experience working alongside my cast and crew to be an absolute delight.

And these experiences have lead to other projects that have lined up, some of which have panned out, and some not so much. But of those that came through, working on the stage production Splintered Judgement turned out to be quite a rewarding new experience for me, and really tested me as an actor. And, again, working on this play introduced me to a whole lot of great people who I hope to continue to work with moving forward.

I did allude that not quite everything went smoothly, however. For instance, at the beginning of the year, I had a job that restricted my availability to really work on a lot of these projects, which proved to be a real hurdle, and it still bothers me thinking back on just how much I missed out on throughout the first half of the year as a result. But I've since found a new, much better job, one that's got a lot more flexibility with their scheduling, and is a relatively stress-free work environment, giving me plenty of time and peace of mind to work on these various projects of mine, which is definitely a far more ideal situation. And, well, some other collaborative projects may have just fallen by the wayside, for one reason or another, but I've decided to just keep focused on my own thing in the meantime, and so far, it's worked out pretty well for me.

Since the conclusion of Breathe, I've been hard at work writing again, and have actually completed the screenplay for my first feature length film. And trust me when I tell you that this one's going to be to die for! But we've now entered into pre-production, and intend to move forward with the project going into the new year. And in the meantime, I've also worked out a lot of the kinks in one of my older script ideas I've been working on in an on and off fashion over the past few years, and for the first time really, it finally feels like it's starting to all come together and actually work, which I'm very pleased by.

So I'm happy with my efforts in the past year, working more and more towards this goal of mine, and I look to continue those filmmaking pursuits in full force going into 2016. But that's not to say that I've abandoned novel writing altogether. I also completed a final outline for the third book in The Ninja Kat series, The Masquerade, with intent to move forward writing the actual narrative next year as well. Believe me, I'm feeling the itch to return to the Velcro world once more, so it won't be too much longer now before we all feel that sweet relief!

So yeah, looking back at all of that, it's actually kind of hard to believe all that happened in only a year. See, I don't just spend all my free time watching every single movie that comes out! Though, working on these various projects of mine has effected my blogging activity a bit, though really, what I've been working on lately is far more important than yet another review for the latest new movie. But it's been a pretty decent year, I must say. I met a lot of great people, made a lot of new friends, and got a lot done towards working on my bigger goals. So that's all I've got for now, and hopefully it was a good year for all of you as well! And here's to yet another solid productive year to come!

Monday, December 28, 2015

My Top 10 Movies of 2015

So here we are again, time to count down my picks for the Top 10 Movies of the Year. And 2015 proved to be an especially tremendous year for film, which makes this year's list harder to narrow down than usual, and that's even before I've had a chance to get to some of the more prolific releases that haven't come around here just yet, the most notable among them being Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight. But as always, before we begin with the list, let's first take a look at a handful of Honorable Mentions that just missed the cut:

Honorable Mentions
Ex Machina (Alex Garland)
Maggie (Henry Hobson)
Magic Mike XXL (Gregory Jacobs)
Sicario (Denis Villeneuve)

And even that was hard to narrow down, but those four stood out above and beyond all the rest as especially noteworthy films. But now, moving onto the main list, let's start off strong with...

#10

The Revenant
(Alejandro G. Iñárritu)

Iñárritu's follow up to last year's Birdman definitely lives up to expectations. This was a technical marvel of a film. The way this movie is shot with longer takes and visceral movement is just a spectacle on film, and makes you feel like you're right there in the thick of things with our characters. And the performances are great across the board, and wraps up yet another standout year for Tom Hardy, who continues to prove himself to be one of the most versatile actors out there, but also Domhnall Gleeson, who I'm glad to see breaking out into his own variety of bigger and better roles. But really, let's just talk a minute about the star of the show here.

That bear was fantastic! I mean, did you see that thing? I swear, this movie should win the award for best visual effects for that bear alone. What a fucking beast!

...

Oh, yeah, and Leonardo DiCaprio was good, too. Heh, but all kidding aside, seriously, just give this guy his damn Oscar already. The things they put him through in this movie, every growling, guttural crawl is just begging for Oscar gold. When he grabs a fish out of water and eats it alive in his bare hands, you just know that he's thinking "this tastes like Oscar!" He barely speaks throughout the movie, and yet says so much through his facial expressions and physical acting alone. It's time, guys. It's time to include poor Leo in the ranks of Academy Award winning actors.

The Revenant was a great revenge flick that took us through the harshness of the wilderness and man, with stunning cinematography and outstanding performances that'll make your own blood boil. The only thing that could've made this thing even better is if they had somehow gotten this movie a Thanksgiving Day release. Come on! How perfect would that have been?!

#9

Clouds of Sils Maria
(Olivier Assayas)

If The Revenant was a great "director's film", then Clouds of Sils Maria was a great "writer's movie". This wasn't a perfect movie all around, but when it's good, it's damn good, and that's typically when one of two things are at play here: 1. The lovely writing is taking center stage, and 2. Kristen Stewart is on screen.

Now that we're in the thick of awards season, honestly the person I'm rooting for hardest is Kristen Stewart. She gives quite possibly my favorite performance of the whole year here, and when the Golden Globe nominations were announced, I commented how the only snub that really bothered me was hers. Hopefully the Academy Awards will correct this horrible oversight, because god damn does she deserve it. She's one of the most unfairly hated on actors working today, so to see her actually get recognized for her phenomenal talents and put her haters in their place would be the ultimate recompense.

But even beyond her, I loved the writing in this thing, and feel it's a fascinating film with its parallels and character interactions throughout. Pulled together with great performances and some gorgeous scenery shots in tow, Clouds of Sils Maria is one that actors and writers alike should be able to particularly appreciate and take away from.

(Original review)

#8

San Andreas
(Brad Peyton)

Now this may seem like a silly choice to include here. But of all the big dumb stupid blockbusters released this year, this one stood out as being the especially fun one of the bunch. Now, I'll admit that I didn't go in with the highest of expectations, thinking the trailers looked pretty ridiculous, even for my tastes. But I was actually quite surprised by what we got here, and found the movie to be more than just dumb action spectacle on screen, thanks to some, again, surprisingly good performances throughout.

Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson has proven himself time and time again to be an incredible actor, and has only continued to improve over the years. In fact, I'd say that it's only a matter of time now before people start to take him seriously for awards recognition. And he didn't disappoint here, giving yet another noteworthy performance, and bringing in a, again, surprisingly deep level of emotion with his delivery. I know I keep using the word "surprising" to describe this film, but I suppose I just can't emphasize enough how true that is.

This movie also acted as my introduction to the drop dead beautiful Alexandra Daddario, who brought with her an absolutely commanding presence.

Sure, anytime she stepped foot on screen I may have been melting in my seat (honestly the first time an actor's mere presence has had this effect on me since Loki in The Avengers), and I even at one time started writing an overly long and embarrassing post that was going to go far too much into detail on this subject alone, before ultimately deciding against it. But there was just something about her presence here that just elevated the movie. And I've seen a lot of beautiful women on film, so it wasn't just her looks, but something about her personality, the way she moved, the way she carried herself, the look in her eyes, something that just captivates one's attention. And that something made all of the chaos erupting around her feel all the more real, the stakes all the more dire.

So yeah, San Andreas surprised me, in more ways than one. This movie knew that it took more than just exciting visuals to make the spectacle of a disaster film truly work, and so injected it with a good ol' dose of emotion, with more than capable actors up to the task of making you take this otherwise relatively silly movie a lot more seriously than you normally would.

#7

Steve Jobs
(Danny Boyle)

My boy Fassbender killed it again. As did the whole cast, including Kate Winslet, Jeff Daniels, and Seth Rogen. As did director Danny Boyle with his kinetic style, and as did screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and his trademark fast-paced dialogue. Everything just came together so magically to create a fittingly frenetic work of art built upon a foundation of love.

The structure of this movie was brilliant, broken up into three scenes played out in real time leading up to various pivotal moments in Steve Jobs' career, and the editing and orchestral music made for some of the most powerful moments of the year on film. There's an argument about halfway into the film between Fassbender's and Daniels' characters, which intercuts with another argument the two were having in the past, and is gradually built up through its lighting, through the music, and through their performances, and creates one of the most pulse-poundingly intense scenes of the whole year.

This movie is just filled with so much energy. And it all comes through so passionately. So much so that, despite the fact that this is now only one of many movies on the life of Steve Jobs, this one stands out all the same and somehow manages to feel fresh. When the only flaw you can think of for a movie is that the title is a bit underwhelming, I think we're onto something good there.

#6

Creed
(Ryan Coogler)

A while back, I highly recommended this movie to a filmmaker friend of mine, describing the movie to her in detail, discussing the great performances here, with Michael B. Jordan impressing yet again, and Sylvester Stallone giving us quite possibly the most genuinely incredible performance of his career, so much so that I'll be rooting for him to take home the Oscar for this one (but seriously, who would have ever that that, between Maggie and Creed, we'd be getting legitimately great acting performances from both Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone in 2015?).

I mentioned how its blend of new and iconic musical cues will send chills through your body. And I also mentioned that the cinematography was simply outstanding, and how the boxing scenes here are quite possibly the best shot boxing scenes in any movie to date, finding new ways to reinvent the wheel, even after we thought we've seen everything the genre has to offer. So, all in all, what it boiled down to was, as I recommended this movie to my filmmaking collaborator, what I was describing to her that truly left an impression with me was that this was a real "filmmaker's film".

By incorporating a fresh take to a franchise that, even beyond the Rocky movies themselves, we're all too familiar with by now (hell, the original Rocky invented all the cliches that an entire genre has been utilizing ever since), Creed manages to stand out among the pack as a brand new instant classic in its own right. You'll feel the raw emotion, you'll experience chills, and you'll maybe even tear up a bit by this all around impressive modern spin on an old classic.

#5

Boruto: Naruto the Movie
(Hiroyuki Yamashita)

Yeah, it's possible that this is my most biased inclusion on this list, but I was damn impressed by this particular Naruto outing. I've covered all of the Naruto movies to date now, and while most of them are essentially just a crappy, extended version of a typical filler episode, this is the first one that actually feels like a true legitimate movie, and one that just happened to be about Naruto. And I loved that about it.

I have mentioned to some friends how I one day would love to direct a live action Naruto movie. But, being such a wide and expansive series with so much to cover, the issue would always be what would you choose to include, what would you cut, and how would you cut it down. This movie, just in its structure alone, shows itself to be essentially the perfect blueprint on just precisely how one would make such an adaptation work in the most effective manner. And I loved that about it.

Brimming with gorgeous, flowing animation and the classic emotional beats that the best moments of the series are known for, this is a movie that truly captures the heart and soul of the main series, and was an absolute delight to see play out on the big screen. In fact, I was actually a little disappointed that this was only a limited Fathom Event release, because if this had received a more traditional theater run, I most certainly would have gone out to see it again. And maybe I'm saying that just because that's just how big a fan I am of this series. But truly, even beyond my love of the series, Boruto: Naruto the Movie was a fantastic feature film.

(Original review)

#4

Crimson Peak
(Guillermo del Toro)

This movie was just so gorgeous and rich, drenched in style and character. Definitely more of a gothic romance than the horror movie it was mismarketed as, I thought this was just a lovely movie through and through, and you can definitely tell that this is a Guillermo del Toro film.

However, one common complaint that I continued to hear about this movie was that it was all style but no substance, that the plot was somehow underwritten, the characters underdeveloped. And I have to say, having seen it twice now and paying particular attention with this complaint in mind the second time around, that is just not the case here at all. The movie's style and its writing go hand in hand and truly compliment one another throughout, and quite frankly, the writing in this thing is just as deep, brilliant, gorgeous, and colorful as any of the production design.

I have no idea where that complaint originated, but it honestly feels like the kind that one critic expressed, and everybody just latched on to without giving it any further thought of their own. That, or the only other conclusion I can come up with is that somehow seemingly everybody who saw this thing was so swept up by the visuals that the plot and character development equally swept over their heads. But I'll say this, the second time I saw this, I watched it with a friend who had also had these complaints brought to her attention, and halfway through the movie she turned to me with a bewildered look and asked "what the fuck are people talking about underwritten?" This, mind you, after a scene that was gushing with character development. The same character development that many would lead you to believe doesn't exist in this film.

But I digress, and whether or not you see the clever writing on hand for the brilliance that it is, one thing that's for certain either way is that this movie is simply magnificent. Beautiful to watch, and a perfect example of a movie where every single frame is, indeed, a painting all its own, and brought to life by some chilling performances from the likes of Mia Wasikowska and Tom Hiddleston, and especially Jessica Chastain, who gives one of the most maniacal performances of the year. Crimson Peak is not only one to watch, but one to really pay attention to.

#3

Mad Max: Fury Road
(George Miller)

Holy shit what a movie. So much of what I've already said about all the other movies leading up to this pick feels like you can roll it all up into one, and you'd get this masterful beast of a film. And really, what can I even say about this movie that isn't just repeating what everyone else has already said ad infinitum by now? This movie is like nothing else out there, and is just brimming with brilliant decisions throughout.

I will say this about it, though, while it may not be at the top of my list, it is the one single release this year that I guarantee you, years and years from now, will continue to be looked back upon, studied and dissected in film courses and the like. Just the making of this movie alone is almost even more fascinating than the movie itself, and it's a damn fascinating movie.

I'm so loving that this is actually being taken seriously now that we're in the thick of awards seasons, not only in that it's being nominated, but it's winning Best Picture awards left, right, and center. And good! I'm glad this movie isn't being disregarded just for being an action flick. Because not only from a filmmaking perspective, but also a social point of view, Mad Max: Fury Road is absolutely brilliant, and important, and absolutely deserves the recognition that it's currently getting, and hopefully will continue to get moving forward.

#2

It Follows
(David Robert Mitchell)

I'm just gonna say it right off the bat, this is the best damn horror release I've seen in about a decade. This movie gets right what so many other horror films get oh so wrong, and harkens back to older John Carpenter films, both in terms of its style and its excellent score, back when horror movies were about scaring the living daylights out of you. And this movie can be absolutely terrifying. Some of the imagery here is the stuff nightmares are made out of. And the way it's all captured is still my favorite camera work of the whole year, done in a way that constantly keeps you on edge, constantly keeps your eyes scanning the scenery, looking for anything out of place.

The premise is fairly simple enough, but the movie's filmed in the most clever and effective way possible that maintains the tension all the way through. And as much as it may at times seem to over-explain things, it leaves quite a bit of visual details hidden throughout that only those who are really paying attention will be able to pick up on, making for a rewarding experience at that. And the cast of characters we follow are all fully fleshed out three dimension people who you come to care for and hope they make it out alive. Maika Monroe especially stood out, who, after her showings both here and in the similarly Carpenter-esque film The Guest, is a new young actor who is definitely on my radar now.

I loved this movie, and I especially loved the way they filmed this movie. In a day and age where most horror movies have forgotten what it actually means to be scary, It Follows acts as a good reminder of better times, not relying on cheap jump scares, but actually taking its time to gradually build a true looming sense of dread that'll follow you home and stick with you. Truly a modern classic in the genre.

And now, this brings us to my pick for the #1 Best Movie of 2015...

#1

Inside Out
(Pete Docter)

This movie is an absolute miracle. One of the best screenplays ever written in the history of cinema, brought to life in the very best film Pixar has ever produced, by an incomparable margin. To call this movie brilliant is quite frankly cutting it short, this movie is something else entirely. They thought of absolutely everything for this movie, and executed it all in a way that manages to tackle such a complex subject in such a seamless manner.

Even now, several months after seeing it, just thinking about certain scenes still gives me chills and starts to make my eyes well up. This is one of the most emotionally powerful movies that has ever been produced, and is, in my opinion at least, the absolute most must see movie of the entire year.

Earlier in the year I wrote one of my more extended pieces really breaking down just how much this movie meant to me, so anything I write about it here will feel like I'm just repeating myself. So I would just direct you to my original review of it for a more in-depth break down, and suggest that you just go see this movie and experience the perfection that is Inside Out for yourself.

(Original review)

So there it is again, my Top 10 Movies of 2015. And those weren't the only good films from this year, there were tons more, and I could keep listing more and more films all night, but this should suffice for now. However, not all was good, and so, seeing as I won't be doing a separate post for the worst of the year, I'll quickly toss out my picks for the Top 5 Worst Movies of 2015 here as an added bonus.

My Top 5 Worst Movies of 2015
#5 - Aloha (Cameron Crowe)
#4 - The Age of Adaline (Lee Toland Krieger)
#3 - Cinderella (Kenneth Branagh)
#2 - Jupiter Ascending (Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski)
#1 - Jurassic World (Colin Trevorrow)

And I'll throw out a Dishonorable Mention to Leo Gabriadze's Unfriended as well. And I could get really in-depth as to why these are all the worst of the year (that I've seen at least), but I really can't be bothered to create an entire post for it, so I'm just tossing those out there for anyone who might be curious, seeing as those picks usually tend to stir up the most interest anyhow for some reason. But honestly, bad as those movies may have been, there were far fewer bad movies this year compared to the good, and here's hoping that we see that trend continue moving into the next year as well!

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Star Wars Into Darkness

Warning! The following review for Star Wars: The Force Awakens will be very spoiler-heavy at points, so you probably don't want to read any further until you've seen it!

Alright, getting that out of the way right off the bat, so now we can talk about the new Star Wars! And, what did I think about it? Well, I will say that there were certain aspects to it that were very good, and on the whole I do like the movie, enough to where I've even gone and seen it a second time already. However, the movie has some very glaring flaws, which will require those heavy spoilers for me to really get into, and which I will also warn you right now may come across as a bit of a rant at times. But just keep in mind, as you're reading my rant, that I actually did like this movie, quite a bit at that, and do recommend seeing it!

But before we get to all of that, let's start with what I thought this movie did well. Really, the entire cast was phenomenal, and they're what really make this movie work on the whole. Generally speaking, I enjoyed all of the new characters. The new droid BB-8 is appropriately adorable throughout, and Oscar Isaac and John Boyega are both a delight.

In fact, it actually is pretty cool to see a different side of the Stormtroopers here in the form of Boyega's Finn, and actually experience things from their perspective for a bit. The Stormtroopers have never been cooler than they are in this movie, and I liked that they felt like more than just cannon fodder for once. And our new main villain is okay as well, I suppose, though Kylo Ren does leave a little something to be desired, leaving me missing our old pal Vader. Though, well, I suppose that actually is kinda the point of the character, that he's a poor man's Darth Vader. But there is a really compelling internal struggle to the character, which will definitely make him an interesting one to see how he continues to develop from here.

As for returning cast, Harrison Ford was great, and Chewie comes in and straight up steals the show from a comedic standpoint, having all of the biggest laughs in the whole movie. And Carrie Fisher was there, too. But great as it was to see some of our old classic favorites on the big screen again, this movie introduces us to a new character who's bound to go down as a classic all her own, and may very well end up being my new favorite character in the entire series as a whole.

That character is Rey, played by Daisy Ridley, who was fucking fantastic. I loved this character so much! She's such a strong, fascinating, fully fleshed and yet still mysterious new player in the series, and I actually wish that the movie had placed even more focus on her than it already did, that this was more her movie than the more equally split effort that we got. She was definitely the best thing about the whole movie, without question, and its her development through the movie that are the standout scenes. As she's coming more and more in tune with the force awakening within her, these are the most powerful moments of the whole thing, the moments that give you chills and leave one breathless. And it's seeing how her story will continue to progress from here that I'm most looking forward to in the future installments of the franchise.

Outside of the cast, I would also point out the fantastic cinematography and use of lighting as a highlight for the movie. We get some very atmospheric shots not dissimilar from some of the moments in The Empire Strikes Back, and the way that the light shines on the scene, that the shadows slowly creep in, really stood out in a way that especially elevated the mood throughout.

And there were some other details here and there that I liked, which I'll get to a little, but now's about the time where I need to get into why I feel this movie initially left me less than enthused by the end of it upon first viewing. And really, what it ultimately all boils down to is that this movie is far too similar to A New Hope. In fact, it's so similar, it's almost a modern day beat for beat remake of that movie, which, in this day and age of remakes and reboots, almost makes this movie's existence a cliche in its current state.

Oftentimes, I've found that the best kinds of sequels are those that are pretty radically different from their predecessors, that aren't afraid to change things up and don't just try and do the exact same thing over again. And up until now, the Star Wars series has been really good about this. All six prior movies have a unique feel to them. None of them feel like they're trying to just mimic another entry in the series. But that all comes to a screeching halt here, where director J.J. Abrams decided that, instead of making a brand new wholly original entry in the series, he was more interested in just recreating what he loved about the original Star Wars.

Yes, the same J.J. Abrams who, with Star Trek Into Darkness, was more interested in recreating scenes from Wrath of Khan than telling a new, compelling story in the Star Trek universe. The same J.J. Abrams who, with the 2009 Star Trek, used that as an opportunity to put together a Star Wars highlight reel taking place in the Star Trek universe, thus likely landing him his job on this movie in the first place. And the same J.J. Abrams who, upon getting this job, again, decided that, instead of making a brand new story, he was going to just regurgitate yet another older entry that we've already seen. And this bothered me to no end.

Hell, it's apparent from the very opening scene that this is just a retelling of A New Hope. They've gotta get this message stored in this new droid to the Resistance (which is really just a rebranded Rebel Alliance), so that they can fight back against the First Order (or the rebranded Empire), in their new bigger, badder Death Star, the Starkiller Base (which is now more of a Death Planet, and was admittedly pretty cool, especially that it even had its own ecosystem and everything), and which the Resistance has to then take out. And once this fact begins to settle in, this over-familiarity also instantly telegraphs the whole movie, so you can see precisely where this thing is going well before we ever get there. And then suddenly, moments such as the death of Han Solo become some of the most predictable aspects of the whole film, when really, that's the kind of moment that no one should see coming.

This almost makes me curious if this isn't the reason that the plot was kept so heavily under wraps in all of the promotion. Now, I will say that I loved the marketing for this thing, and that other movie studios can learn a thing or two from this movie's trailers as it concerns building intrigue through showing restraint. However, right now a big thing being emphasized is not spoiling the movie for anyone, something that was emphasized even in the trailers themselves. But was that only because, were they to put any story elements in the trailers, so predictable would it suddenly be that everyone would see precisely where this movie was going even before setting foot in a movie theater?

My patience has really worn thin with Abrams' nostalgic obsession by this point. As the movie went along, it started off sorta neat how he would toss in little references to the older series. But by the time they were aboard the Millennium Falcon and the 3D monster board game came to life, I was left groaning instead of grinning at these intrusive references. We get it. We get the point. This is a new Star Wars movie, and takes place in the same universe as the old ones. Now, can we get on with the story already? Except, as I mentioned before, the story, as well, was just all too familiar.

There's paying homage, and then there's just being a fanboy, and this film was far too much of the latter. In fact, with the sheer amount of fanboy nostalgia just forced all throughout this movie, Episode VII honestly felt less like a real entry in this series, and eventually got to the point where it felt more like we were watching a real big budget fan fiction project instead. And it's a shame, because Abrams has proven himself to be a very talented technician behind the camera, and very capable at putting together a good film. But it's his constant insistence on returning to old familiar territory that holds him back as a filmmaker, and that I fear will ultimately lead to his movies having a harder time standing the test of time.

Years from now, we can go back and revisit any one of the six previous Star Wars films. And, despite your feelings on the matter of their quality, each of them offers a unique experience that adds to the greater whole of the series. The Force Awakens, however, opts to retread old ground instead of doing something else new, and relies far too heavily on older references to provide an almost artificially fan-pleasing experience, but an experience that really doesn't have the legs to stand on its own as a true genuine new entry in the series.

So yeah, there's my big rant. I think the movie on the whole does still work, but I think it's possibly despite J.J. Abrams' involvement, and not because of it. The cast definitely does their job bringing their new characters to life and making us really care for them, and it's the characters that really make this movie work. But outside of that, I was honestly left feeling like Abrams really wasn't the right man for the job after all, and that his now typical nostalgia-obsessed nonsense that he brought to the table was to the film's ultimate detriment in the end.

And that's not to say that I think there was anything malicious behind his choices here. I definitely think that he had the best intentions, and approached this movie with as much respect for the franchise as possible. And that respect does shine through, as the movie does have a genuine heart and soul behind it. I just fear that he doesn't have nearly enough trust or respect for his own abilities as a filmmaker to not have to rely so heavily on nostalgia to piece his movies together, and that until he gains the real confidence to just make something new and original and not worry too much about throwing in references in a desperate attempt to please fans in the most shallow way possible, well then he's just going to continue down this rut of putting together these technically well made shrines to the past, but leave nothing original behind of his own to truly show what he was capable of bringing to the table.

So yeah, despite all that was good in the movie, I wasn't blown away or even all that satisfied by the end of the movie upon first viewing. After watching Episodes II and III in the theater, I was ecstatic, and couldn't wait to see those again. And yeah, this is one I was willing to see again as well, but more so out of curiosity than out of enthusiasm. Still, it was a good movie overall, and I loved the few things that actually were new additions to this series, especially the introduction of Rey. But all in all, good as it may be, it still wasn't great, and I couldn't help but feel that Star Wars: The Force Awakens was not the new Star Wars we were looking for.

However, that all was how I felt after my first viewing. And, having since seen it that second time, I will say that, while I still feel many of my points brought up in terms of direction are still valid, most of those issues really didn't bother me the second time around at all. In fact, the movie improved quite a significant degree on second viewing, to where the striking moments were even more striking, the compelling, complex characters were even more compelling, and I overall found myself get even more sucked up by the epic story playing out.

The over-familiarity that I initially found distracting suddenly didn't even phase me, and I found I was able to brush past a lot of the more obnoxiously in-your-face references and just enjoy the movie for what it was. No, it's still not perfect, but this time, I actually did feel quite a bit more satisfaction by the time the credits rolled, and certainly feel that this is definitely a movie with a lot worthwhile going on that's worth checking out.

I do still think that, especially given the unique circumstances of a lot of our characters, following a rogue Stormtrooper and a lone scrapper finding her place in the world, that there was more than enough room to tell a newer and more unique story here, but I can live with what we got for now, and hopefully this installment has gotten all of the nostalgia-baiting out of this series' system so that we can see a truly interesting new take with the next installment reportedly being helmed by Rian Johnson, the guy who brought us Looper, one of the most depressing bleak movies of the past few years. Now that's a movie I'm looking forward to! But in the meantime, The Force Awakens did a good job whetting our appetite with the introduction of such an awesome new cast of characters, who I more than look forward to continuing to follow.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Boruto: Naruto the Movie

I mentioned in my review for The Last how I hoped that Boruto would similarly come Stateside sooner than usual. Well, it turns out that Fathom Events held a limited number of screenings, similar to what they did with the new Dragon Ball Z movie earlier this year, and so I was able to watch this brand new release in the same year it came out in Japan. The closest showing to me happened to be a three hour drive away, but I figured, hell, coming off of The Last, which more than impressed, and given that this one promised to be even better, I was more than willing to make a trip out of the occasion. And boy was it worth it. Boruto more than lives up to that promise, and is probably the closest we'll get to having a perfect Naruto movie.

Taking place after the series epilogue, we follow Naruto's son, Boruto, as he deals with life as the Hokage's son. Naruto's so busy with his duties that he's constantly having to send off shadow clones to take care of things outside of the office, including television appearances, and at times even life at home. But this doesn't sit well with Boruto, who wants nothing more than for his father to really be a part of his life.

This whole aspect was handled incredibly well, and features so many layers, it's kind of mind boggling to see in one of these kinds of movies. You get so used to being treated to typical, well, filler-level crap from a lot of these movie spinoffs based off of popular anime series. But, seeing as the creator himself penned the script this time around, it really shows just how much a difference that can make in terms of applying actual quality, because this is some seriously deep stuff that's handled so effortlessly.

We see the frustration of Boruto's inner turmoil, both striving to gain the attention of his father, yet so mad at him that he's rearing on the boiling point of full blown retaliation. And even on Naruto's end, he acknowledges how he's been messing up as a parent, how he needs to do better, and there's almost a timidness at times as he's not really sure how to approach his son anymore, for fear of further pushing him away. These are really deep seated family issues that are handled in such a moving and respectable manner, and it's just damn impressive to see this all integrated so seamlessly in what feels like a story straight out of Part 1 of the Naruto manga.

In fact, the story as a whole almost feels like a full blown arc condensed down to a two hour movie, but done in a way that doesn't feel rushed or choppy. The pacing is spot on throughout, and they know just how long to stick with a scene before moving along with the plot. Honestly, this movie really shows precisely not only how to do Naruto on a cinematic level, but quite frankly, any big sprawling anime series looking to have a cinematic spinoff could learn from this movie in terms of how to make the transition work so smoothly.

Where as a lot of actions will be over-explained in either the manga or anime, this movie trusts the fans to be able to just flow right along with the action on screen. For example, all throughout, there are scenes in which, had this been in the manga or anime, you know we would be getting in Naruto's head and hearing his thoughts, explaining the direness of the situation, or perhaps Sasuke trying to assess their circumstances. But here, the movie merely shows us these characters' facial reactions, which tells us everything we need to know through using the old "show, don't tell" concept. And, what d'ya know, it works, and it works damn well.

Also part of what makes this movie work so well is that they don't feel the need to shoehorn in a ton of characters. We mostly follow Boruto, as well as his team consisting of Sarada, Mitsuki, and their sensei Konohamaru, and other than them, we also follow along with Naruto and a returning Sasuke. And, outside of some brief interactions with the likes of Shikamaru or Hinata here and there, that's mostly it. Kishimoto wasn't concerned with providing a lot of fan service (though that's not to say there aren't some decent cameos), he stays very focused and placed priority on story and character first, and it made for a hell of a Naruto movie.

And speaking of, let's dive into those characters a bit now. Sarada proved to be one of the more compelling new characters in Kishimoto's manga mini-arc that he used to promote this movie, but here, it was Boruto's time to shine, and he definitely proves to be another pretty compelling character all his own as well. I sorta loved how he's so similar to Naruto in certain respects, yet in others is wildly different, so we aren't just getting a clone of our main character in the form of his son. He really does come quite a long way by the end of his journey, dealing with his father, with the current ninja system, and with the teachings of Sasuke, who takes him under his wing as his sensei, and you can really feel the growth and maturity that he experiences by the time the credits roll.

Naruto himself is also extremely interesting to see how far along he's come. He's far more stern and serious than we're used to seeing him, and yet I loved how, even so, there are moments where the old doof we all know and love is still in there somewhere. And Sasuke (or Uncle Sasuke, as Boruto humorously referred to him as) is probably the most likeable the character has ever been. For the first time, his friendship with Naruto feels genuine, and there's a certain humbleness added to his usual stoic manner that really shows just how far he, too, has come since his more troublesome teenage years.

And the animation was just something really special altogether. I've made a point in the past to highlight specific episodes of the anime that feel of a more cinematic quality in terms of their animation, and this movie is definitely on that level, giving us some of the most gorgeously fluid action the series has ever seen to date. It's so well that, even during the climactic battle, when we start to enter the more "monster mash" territory that I've complained about in the past, here, it just works, in an almost beautifully abstract way, like watching a painting come to life.

I would say if there was one negative aspect to the movie, it would be in the original characters introduced specifically for this film. There's a generic team of ninja scientists who have typical anime filler characteristics, both in terms of their appearance and their actions, which did sort of stick out, like they didn't quite belong in this world, as has always been the case when it comes to filler characters in the anime. And the main villain is a bit generic as well, just another Otsutsuki looking to complete Kaguya's plan, and we don't really learn a whole lot about him, so he's basically there just to be an obstacle for our heroes to overcome. But really, given how well everything else was executed, these minor discrepancies didn't stand out too badly, all things considered.

But yeah, getting to see this so soon after its Japanese release (and with the original Japanese voices still intact, no less) is pretty cool, and seeing it on the big screen was an especially awesome experience. The explosive sounds during the fights have so much more oomph that you just don't get watching it at home, and being surrounded by a bunch of enthusiastic fans really made it an experience that was definitely worth the effort to see.

This movie did so well in really capturing the heart and soul of the series, while still telling a complete and compelling story that feels right at home with the best the series has to offer, and doing so in a truly cinematic way that others can take note from. With thrilling, creative action, phenomenal animation, and a surprising amount of character depth and exploration, this wasn't just the best Naruto movie to date, Boruto is a legitimately fantastic movie even beyond that, and is well worth seeking out.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Mocking the Mockingjay - Part 2!!

So here we are, the final installment of The Hunger Games series, Mockingjay - Part 2! But first, before we get into this movie, a quick rundown on my thoughts of the previous entries in the franchise: I actually thought the first Hunger Games movie was really good, and stands as the best of the whole series to date. Catching Fire, on the other hand, was putrid, vile, and insufferable tripe. A truly awful movie, just the worst. Mockingjay - Part 1, however, while still nowhere near as good as the first movie, was a monumental improvement over the previous installment, and ended up being something that was kind of awesomely bad in its execution. So then, here we are now with Mockingjay - Part 2, and, though it's far from the worst entry, it's still held down with an overly bleak tone in an overly bland world, and a story that feels all over place, if not quite in the same awesomely bad vain as Part 1.

Let's start with the tone. In many respects, the movie feels disjointed, going for a far darker approach than any of the previous entries, including a lot of grounded imagery that tries to show the horrors of war. You see, the series started off with so much color, but all of the color has been ripped out of this final installment, which is almost too somber for its own good. Everyone wears the same dark attire and sorta just blends in to the same bland looking environments, and even when the action begins, everyone looks so similar to one another that I had a hard time figuring out who was actually engaging in the action at a given moment. Hell, even Katniss' red outfit from all the promotional material...


Yes, this thing!

... isn't even in the damn movie. And sure, that poster may be one of the most ridiculous things I've ever laid my eyes on, but at least the costume itself could have lended some color to an otherwise dull looking movie.

The thing is, these overly dark moments stand in stark contrast to the sillier, typical YA stuff, such as being chased by flooding oil or, most bizarrely, when the film suddenly decides to become a scene ripped straight out of The Descent during a battle against that movie's cave monsters. And yet even these scenes are treated in an ultra serious manner that's just kind of hard to actually take too seriously. If the film wanted to go for a more grounded approach, it needed to go all the way, or lighten up a bit when these visually silly moments find their way on the screen.

Where the movie also fails in its ultra-serious approach, is that the movie feels almost robotic, like it's completely devoid of any genuine emotion. Being a final installment, it's not spoiling too much to say that some fairly significant characters get killed off here. However, not once do any of these moments pack any kind of an emotional punch. When Rue died in the first movie, that was a truly honest and stirring moment. But here? There's nothing of the sort with any of the deaths in this movie. Every one of them falls completely flat, and leave you just kind of shrugging your shoulders, like it wasn't that big a deal. And believe me, there are some deaths in here that should be treated like they're a big deal, but the movie's robotic approach does these moments a disservice that completely drops the ball on them.

I also mentioned how the movie feels all over the place, and this is kind of hard to explain (hell, it's possible that this passage will feel about as disjointed as the movie itself, fittingly enough), but the pacing in this movie just has a very disjointed feel to it. For one thing, the movie feels significantly longer than it actually is. However, unlike Catching Fire, it's not necessarily in a boring way, but it's also not because the movie feels like a slow-burner, either. The movie just sort of trudges along, and as it does, the rhythm in this thing is just sort of... off.

It's like, structurally speaking, the movie has a hard time really connecting from scene to scene. Like its lack of emotion, this robotic movie has no real heartbeat. And this is also not helped by the fact that the movie also suffers a bit from Return of the King syndrome, never knowing quite when to end, so just adding on more and more endings on top of one another. So, yeah, there's a good example, imagine that feeling of watching all of those endings from Return of the King, only stretch that out over the course of the entire film, and that's about what I'm trying to convey here.

And speaking of endings, what I assume is supposed to be somewhat of a twist couldn't have been any more telegraphed. Even having not read the books and not knowing what was going to happen, I could see that shot coming from a mile away, so if we were supposed to be surprised, then just add one more tally to the list of areas where this movie failed spectacularly on.

But all that said, I still didn't find myself hating this movie. Probably more so that I just didn't really care too much about it. But that's not to say that it was all bad. Probably the most compelling aspect of the movie came from the conflict between Katniss and the brainwashed Peeta. Sure, this is also probably the most contrived aspect of the movie, but the actors actually did a hell of a job selling this nonsense and actually kind of making it work, bringing a true, real human element to it, something that the rest of the movie was very much lacking.

Josh Hutcherson definitely had to step up his game here to make this stuff work, but honestly, I was actually most impressed by Jennifer Lawrence. Now, those of you who've followed me for a while should be well aware that I am not as impressed by Jennifer Lawrence as seemingly everyone else is. I think she's pretty overrated as an actor, and in fact, I think her best performance to date has been in the first Hunger Games movie. But then she followed that up by over-acting her way to an Oscar, and proceeded to repeat that same cringe-inducing over-acting schtick in every role since. However, here, she's surprisingly reserved in this final outing as Katniss, dialing things down quite a bit, and, honestly, probably giving her best genuine performance in a movie since that first Hunger Games. I was quite impressed, and honestly hope that we can actually see more of this Jennifer Lawrence, and less of the over-acting Oscar winner, in her future work.

As far as other performances, honestly, most of the cast kinda goes to waste, most notably Woody Harrelson, as there's really nothing much for him or anyone else to do. I will say, however, that my favorite was probably Jena Malone, who shows up and proceeds to pretty much call bullshit on Katniss and the whole revolution surrounding her, which was pretty much the highlight of the movie for me. In fact, thinking back on it, her character was also one of the very few things that I actually did like about Catching Fire, so we probably could have done with a little more of her here. And Donald Sutherland is actually pretty fun to watch this time around. I've never really cared too much one way or the other about President Snow in this series, but in this particular outing, the character actually proved to be quite entertaining for once.

So, yeah, there you have it then. The series started off strong, then hit rock bottom with its sequel, only to kind of flounder about with these last two Mockingjay movies. They're both very problematic, but in radically different ways. And though it's a bit of a shame that the series could never really make a true comeback to being as good as the first movie, in the end I did find myself sorta enjoy tagging along with this series, like watching a trainwreck in progress. A bright, vibrant trainwreck, one that left its cars crashing and flying at first impact, until it all gradually settled down and skid to a halt, the cars all over the place in a jumbled heap, now covered in soot and debris from the wreckage, and losing all its color and life in the process. And, well, you watch a trainwreck for long enough, it sorta loses its spectacle by the end. And that's The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The Last: Naruto the Movie

This movie came out last December in Japan, and it took less than a year to make it overseas to the US, which I'm very pleased by. I was ridiculously hyped for this movie at the time, despite the fact that it would be a while yet before I would even get a chance to see it for myself. But now that I have, I'm happy to say that this one delivers on a lot of that hype.

Taking place two years after the conclusion of the main series (but before the time period of the epilogue), The Last focuses on the romance that lead to Naruto and Hinata finally ending up together. The story was written by Kishimoto himself, and is also the first Naruto movie to be entirely considered canon material. And sure enough, as with the other films he has assisted on, this also happens to be one of the most solid of these movies yet.

For one thing, one of my biggest gripes with literally every single Naruto movie up to this point, as well as most Naruto anime fillers, is just how consistently out of character almost everyone acts in these things, as if the writers who work on the anime have no actual concept of these characters or their progression beyond their very first introductory points, despite working on this series with these characters for as long as they have. However, for the first time ever, there's not a single out of character moment to be had in this movie, which is really just a huge relief at this point. Also, the main villain is directly connected to the canon Otsutsuki clan, so in addition to characters actually acting correctly, we also don't have to be burdened by out of place character designs by, again, the usual filler writers who appear to have no basic grasp or concept on the Naruto world. No, the main villain here, Toneri, clearly fits in this world, both in design and personality, and feels like a genuine addition to this world.

But anyways, the central core of the movie itself is definitely the brewing romance between Naruto and Hinata, and this actually acts as both the movie's strongest point, as well as its weakest. On the one hand, the way this aspect plays out feels sorta rushed and, at times, forced. See, Naruto learns of Hinata's feelings for him via a genjutsu dream sequence, in which the two's minds were momentarily connected, and he was able to relive their moments from the past and see things from her perspective. This, in turn, gives Naruto a new perspective of his own when looking at her, and he begins to grow feelings for her as well. This definitely feels sorta cheap, and I do wish they could have figured out a better way to more organically allow for their relationship to blossom. But on the other hand, it does still seem to fit with the tone of the series in certain thematic regards, and the dream sequence itself was actually executed rather well, so it wasn't a major hindrance or anything.

However, later on, when Naruto finally does profess his love for her, this moment appears to almost come out of nowhere, and I really didn't buy it as a result. It felt too soon, like Naruto shouldn't have been that sure of his feelings at that moment. Perhaps if there was more uncertainty in his deliver, like he thinks he loves her, but isn't quite sure yet, then I could've bought it. But as is, his conviction was too certain, and it came too soon for me to really be able to swallow.

But again, that's just one moment, and that moment aside, the rest of their love story was actually quite touching to see play out. Throughout, there's an element involving Hinata knitting Naruto a red scarf, and the themes that tie into this, of the two's lives intertwining, bonding together, was very cleverly interwoven into the narrative. It was nice to see a Naruto story where not only did such an aspect take center stage over the action, but it did so while still genuinely feeling like a Naruto story.

So yeah, there were a couple if iffy moments, but on the whole, The Last is probably the most all around solid Naruto movie to date that definitely met my expectations. It's not quite as action-oriented as most of these movies, but that's also not the focus, and where it does focus, its emotion, is what makes this movie truly excel. It's a nice change of pace for the series, while being the only one of these movies that actually feels like a genuine entry in this series.

I also sorta love how this was released following the end of the manga series, despite the fact that the anime series is still on going with a quite frankly embarrassing number of fillers at this point to stretch it out to its absolute thinnest, milking it for all its worth. But even so, they're continuing on with these movies anyways, which take place after the series and completely spoil what's left to be seen in the anime, for those few who have still somehow managed to stay spoiler free up to this point. And I'm also quite pleased with how short we had to wait for them to bring this over to the States, so here's hoping for that same quality and timeliness to equally follow suit with the next Naruto movie, Boruto.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Clouds of Sils Maria

Clouds of Sils Maria is a movie that I had been interested in getting around to for some time now. It's just sorta funny how timing works out sometimes, and almost more fitting that I only just now got around to it, seeing how so much of this movie focuses on an actress rehearsing for a part in a play.

The main story here sees Juliette Binoche's character get offered the role of an older character in a play, 20 years after she had previously played the younger character in that same play during its initial run. And this was just a really intriguing story to watch play out, as there are several clever parallels between the play in question and our main cast's personal lives that come to the forefront throughout, in addition to some really interesting conversations looking at the deeper meaning behind their characters' motivations.

I especially loved this aspect of the movie, particularly as their conversations expand into other mediums, such as superhero movies, and the different takes one can take away from it. One character sees a world of character depth, while the other laughs it off as just a silly superhero flick. It just feels so true, because I've been in those kinds of conversations myself when defending the deeper meanings and symbolism in some of my favorite not so well received films, the likes of which include Spider-Man 3 and Sucker Punch. The writing in this thing was just a delight, in some ways even inspiring, and one that I especially took quite a bit away from as a writer myself.

But as I mentioned in the beginning, a lot of this movie does revolve around our main characters practicing for their part in this upcoming play, and seeing as I've just come off a month straight of rehearsing non-stop for my own first play, the timing of seeing this movie couldn't be more fitting. I honestly went into this movie completely blind, which made this especially satisfying a discovery. But it was just interesting to see this aspect play out, and what I loved so much about these scenes was, as they were rehearsing, there became moments where you almost couldn't tell if they had dropped out of character to continue their personal discussions in the middle of things, which just goes to show just how immersed a lot of those aforementioned parallels really were.

Now, it's not an entirely perfect movie, mind you, as there were a few minor discrepancies that irked me a bit. For one, in regards to editing, the film decides to end a number of scenes by needlessly fading to black, which just felt awkward and choppy, and sorta pulled me out of the movie every time. This sort of editing just kind of gives the movie a cheap feel, like it was made for TV and we were fading to a commercial break or something, when really, they could have just as easily cut instantly to the next scene and avoided this jarring effect. That may seem overly nitpicky of me, but it's something that happened enough throughout that I feel warrants pointing out as an issue that could have very easily been avoided outright.

The movie also feels like it reaches a natural conclusion, only to continue on into one last act that sorta feels to drag on a little too long as a result. But there's a specific reason for that, which I won't get into here, and otherwise, those issues aside, I really quite enjoyed this movie. It was gorgeously shot (though the hokey superhero film that they go see coulda been shot in a more sincere manner), and as I keep gushing over, I loved the writing here, which I just absolutely ate up.

And the movie was also very well acted as well, with a seriously great cast. Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart were both phenomenal and played off one another fantastically. And then one of my favorites, Chloë Moretz, showed up, which was a nice little surprise, and she unsurprisingly held her own and put on yet another solid outing, playing the trainwreck young actress taking on the role of the younger character Binoche had originally played, and those two have a number of interactions that only grow more gripping as the movie goes along and Moretz's character's true intentions come more to the forefront.

And as for Kristen Stewart, this was her performance for which she became the first American actress to win the Cesar award, which is essentially the French version of the Oscars, and damn did she earn it. She gives an absolutely captivating, commanding performance here, so much so that you instantly and genuinely miss her presence anytime she's not on screen. Seriously, this girl can act, and she's damn good at it, and anyone who still wants to write her off due to her outings in those Twilight flicks needs to see her in this movie and promptly proceed to shut the hell up on the matter once and for all.

So yeah, I had heard a lot of nice things about this movie, and had been interested in checking it out for a little while now. I didn't know entirely what I was getting into, but once I found out, the timing of my finally getting to it was just sort of awesome, and the overall content within certainly delivered on all of those nice things I had heard about it. The performances were great, the writing was great, and this is definitely the kind of film I can see myself returning to at some point and taking more and more away from it. Clouds of Sils Maria is a delightful film worth checking out.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Splintered Judgement

So after this past weekend, I suppose I can't use the line "I'm not an actor, I just play in all my movies" anymore.

It's sorta interesting how things work out. After wrapping up production on Breathe, I was actually jokingly complaining about how I was suddenly lacking a busy schedule and didn't know what to do with myself. Then, almost all at once, I got offered projects left and right from a number of people, several of which are still in various stages of planning, but one of those projects happened to be as an actor in the play Splintered Judgement.

Now, Splintered Judgement was my first time working on a stage production in any capacity, and I went into it looking at it as a challenge and an opportunity, and it turned out being quite an interesting experience at that. The story, written by Allie Howe, is a one act, single scene show with no intermission that plays in real time, as a jury prepares to depart after having just convicted a man, only for that very man to burst into the jury room, gun in hand, and proceed to hold the jury hostage after receiving a life sentence for a minor crime. And as the scene plays out, we learn more and more about each of these characters, the baggage they brought into the courtroom with them, and the screwed up ways how all of this and more can effect the judicial system.

It's a real interesting play, with tons of character depth, and a lot of thought provoking conversation, which only became more enlightening during our post-show Q&A sessions involving the audience. This was just such an interesting show to be a part of, and it's something I came away learning a lot, not only about the topic at hand, but about the whole process that goes into putting on a stage production in the first place.

For one thing, I'm more used to film, where we might rehearse maybe five minutes of footage at a time before going out and shooting it, however many takes it takes us to get it. But theater doesn't have the luxury of multiple takes, and so we had to learn to get it right all the way through, and get it right the first time. Rehearsals consisted of pretty much a solid month of us just running through the entire show start to finish, so by the time it was showtime, we all pretty much knew the whole thing front and back.

In fact, my character, Tim (which is still just a little bit weird being called this, as this is my brother's name), really didn't have too much dialogue, but what he did have were a number of single lines scattered about here and there, which meant that I had to constantly pay attention for my cues throughout. We did a "listening exercise" early on during rehearsals, and I kept that exercise well in mind throughout, reacting to everything else going on during all the time I had nothing else to contribute. And luckily, outside of a single moment during our final dress rehearsal performance in which I accidentally tripped Patsy Pallone, pulling her away from an ensuing cat fight, and thus became so flustered that I missed my next line (don't worry, we fixed this in time for showtime), I actually managed to hit my cues and remember my lines, so I'm pretty pleased with that.

Speaking of Patsy, who you all might remember from Dream Girl and Breathe, she's actually the one who surprisingly brought me onto this project, and then subsequently brought on Jason Simmons, and eventually the whole Simmons family including Leilani and Cheyenne, who I had also worked with on Breathe and who had all stepped up in a huge way here. So before I knew it, Team Widdop was in full force on this production, which was a pretty cool deal. And in fact, the whole cast and crew, which included Caleb Goodman, Victor Duncan, Ty Wold, Lenore and Bill Zuspan, and Areshia Stafford, was just an absolute pleasure to work with all around, and I'm sure I'll be working with many of them in future projects as well.


And lest we forget Parker!

And I kind of loved Byron Spires' direction as well. He started by giving us the freedom to just play our characters however we personally interpreted them, then tweaked things here and there as we went along. And he encouraged feedback from the cast, allowing us to really come together as a team. My character actually received quite a bit of drastic tweaking about halfway into our rehearsal schedule, which in the end apparently ended up coming across as being evil incarnate, at least according to one of our Q&A audiences. But really, my character was intended to just be a bit delusional, lost in his own world in his head with a false perception of his own capabilities, until he has a taste of reality near the end. (Oh yes, this also happens to be my second performance in a row in which I play a character who gets taken down by an angry man with a gun. Here's hoping I don't get typecast!)

But all throughout, I received nothing but compliments and encouragement, and as the play came more and more together, the more I just really was in awe and appreciation of the talent surrounding me. We weren't without our hiccups leading to showtime, but we managed to pull it all together and make this thing work. And as much an experience just practicing for the big show was, actually going out there and performing in front of an audience proved to be a whole different beast all its own.

We performed in front of a live audience at TOSAC in Thomasville, GA. And as I said before, we only got one shot to get it right, and if something went awry, we had to find a way to fix it on the spot and move on. And, yeah, things definitely got pretty interesting in that regard. For instance, while our first and final shows, as well as our previews, all had a pretty expected audience reaction, we were caught a bit off guard by our second show audience, who proceeded to turn our super serious play into a full blown comedy for one night only, laughing maniacally all throughout. And yeah, I could tell that this caught several of our cast off guard, but such pros that they all are they they quickly accommodated and even changed up their delivery just a bit to match this sudden shift in tone dictated by our audience.

It just goes to show how alive the theater can be, and really emphasizes how no two performances are the same. In fact, it's this very aspect that our lead, Caleb, kept mentioning as being the reason he loves the theater so much, and prefers it over film as a performer. And while I still personally very much prefer the captured preservation allotted by film, I can definitely see the appeal here.

So yeah, working on my first stage production, this was definitely an experience that I took quite a bit away from. And while I wouldn't be opposed to working on another play at some point, my passions do still very much lie in film, and so there I will be returning to soon enough. But I definitely hope to work with many in this cast and crew in the future, and Byron and Allie have already included me in their plans for their next film project moving forward as well, so we'll see where things continue to proceed from here. It's like I said in the beginning, it's sorta interesting how things have continued to work out.

I do think that this was definitely a wonderful experience for me personally, and I learned a lot as a performer, as one being on the receiving end taking direction, and I'll surely be bringing these experiences with me into future projects. And as a show, I think it's one that definitely deserves to be seen by a broader audience, as there's so much to think about and discuss about the legal system. But for those who did get a chance to see it, and to those who came up to me after the show with such kind words of appraisal, I give my utmost thanks to all of you.

And I also want to give thanks to Patsy for personally reaching out to me for this role, to Byron for having the faith in me to pull it off, and to the Simmons family for their continued support all throughout. Thank you to TOSAC for having us, and thank you to my awesome job for actually accommodating my schedule so that I could even be a part of this thing at all. And of course, a big thanks to the whole cast and crew for being such awesome people to work with. I keep saying it, but this was an experience I'll definitely be taking a lot away from, and I'm just honored to have been a part of it.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Theatre Tallahassee's Red

So I don't usually review stage productions, but I just can't help but express just how utterly impressed I was by Theatre Tallahassee's latest coffeehouse production of Red. And, seeing as I'm currently getting my own feet wet in a play for the first time as well, what better timing to take a look at this truly awe-inspiring production.

"What do you see? This is the central question posed in John Logan's Red. The play is an unflinchingly honest look at two artists at the dawn and twilight of their respective careers. We approached this play as a discussion of art. What makes great art? What makes it worthy of our time? What are the aspirations of the artist? While ultimately all of these questions are answered in the eye of the beholder, the conversation leading to these answers provides fascinating insight into the minds of our Artist Ken and Rothko."

-Matthew Watson, Director

First, I want to talk about the writing. This script is absolutely magnificent, a true thing of beauty. To say that it deals with the meaning of art doesn't even begin to do this writing justice, as it brings to light the subject matter in such a personal yet brilliantly conflicted manner. The debates that our two leads engage in are fascinating to behold, and the arguments brought to the table are the like that'll stick with you, that'll leave you pondering well after the show is over.

And that's the thing here. I've seen a number of plays in town, and for the most part, the most I could really say about any of them is they they were entertaining. But this one? Not only was it entertaining, but more so than that, it was truly thought provoking. In fact, the writing here astounded me so much that it left me wondering the deeper meaning behind my own currently silly screenplay that I'm working on, and I couldn't help but feel almost inadequate as a result. Not to confuse that for being a negative connotation, much the opposite, as the writing in this play actually inspires me to look upon and improve on my own craft.

But as impressed as I may have been with the writing, really, it's the actors who bring that writing to life that deserve the real praise here, and oh boy did they deliver. Red is a two man show, and to say that both Daniel Gray and Bo Smith were incredible is putting it mildly.

Now, for those of you who've followed me a while and may have seen some of my movies, then you should know I'm well acquainted with my friend Daniel, though I do try to go into these things leaving as much bias aside as I can. But I will say this, since his resurgence into acting a few years back, which also happened to coincide with his performance in my own first movie, Daniel has always been a standout performer, and has only continued to improve since, being the one actor most singled out as giving the best performance in both The Red Scarf and Breathe whenever anyone discusses the films with me, and he has similarly impressed consistently on the stage.

However, what he brings to his performance in Red is like nothing he's ever done before. For his performance as Mark Rothko, he underwent a complete transformation, and exuded a level of confidence that even I didn't know he was capable of. Daniel's always been a solid standout performer, but he's never really been given the chance to shine the way that he does here. And now, given the full spotlight, he completely ran with it and proved that, without a shadow of a doubt, he can carry a production and more than hold his own, much like he holds the audience in the palm of his hand, in a leading role. For the first time, I didn't feel like I was watching a friend who happens to be a good actor putting on a good performance. What I saw was a star, a true artist all his own, taking center stage and cementing his rightful place in this line of work. Daniel Gray truly became Mark Rothko.

And as for Bo, I'm not nearly so familiar with him, though I have seen him in other productions as well, and from what I recall, he, too, has always impressed. But again, something about this play just seems to bring out the best in people, and Bo, too, definitely elevated to another level in the role of Rothko's assistant, Ken. I overheard him speaking after the show about how emotional he became just reading the script, and that overflow of emotion definitely showed in his performance. Really, both Daniel and Bo killed it, and their chemistry was absolutely electric. Quite frankly, this is the kind of play that you could tell was extremely challenging, and yet even so, so seamless were their performances that those two went up there and proceeded to make this thing look easy.

Being a coffeehouse production, it's a smaller scale show, and yet even so, they definitely did the most with what they had to work with, including some inspiring lighting choices throughout to most fully drive the mood, and an on-going performance during the intermission where they continued to paint on stage. I seriously couldn't take my eyes off of them the whole time, just completely drawn in by the performance, even as people engaged in chatter all around me.

There was a lot of hype for this production going into it, but I've gotta say, what I saw far exceeded the expectations laid out for me. Incredible performances with an incredible script, all tightly directed and beautifully executed, Theatre Tallahassee's coffeehouse production of Red was truly a work of art worth taking a good hard look at.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Breathe - Under the Breath

A couple of weeks ago I released my latest movie, Breathe. And I mentioned how it was a bit of an experimental film, so I wanted to discuss it a bit more, and give you a little bit of a peek behind the making of this movie, a look "under the breath", if you will, and share with you some insight, as well some pictures provided by our on-set photographer, the awesome Suzette.

To begin, let's start with this story's inception. The idea for this movie came to me in a dream, a dream that was so vivid that it actually sprang me from my sleep, where I instantly awoke and had to write it down right then and there. I know of some people who write down their dreams on the regular, but honestly, this is a very rare occurrence for me, and especially for an idea to sneak up on me that not only was so vivid and so different, a bit ambitious (but not too ambitious), but most importantly, particularly at my stage of the game, was also realistically filmable.


Our amazing makeup artist Cheyenne hard at work roughing Jason up good.

As I wrote the screenplay, I knew that this one was going to have its own challenges, the most notable among them being sound. Now, this is admittedly my weakest aspect as a filmmaker, and was the one universal complaint everyone had about my first movie, The Red Scarf, that the sound quality wasn't all that good. And so I proceeded to address this discrepancy of mine in two forms.


El Mariachi and Robert Rodriguez

The first was for my next film, Dream Girl, to be a silent film and just do away with sound entirely, so there was nothing to worry about in that regard. And while that certainly worked in that film's favor, I also didn't really learn anything as a filmmaker as it regards the actual use of sound. And so, my next challenge was to do away not with sound, but rather, the music that I had quite possibly been relying on a little too much up until this point.

That's right, Breathe was always intended to be a music-less project, with the focus being on sound from the get-go. Now, there actually was one scene, the scene with the brothers in the car, where I originally intended for Charlie to turn on the radio and play some music to drown out the awkwardness, but honestly, even this one single use stood out so much that it just didn't fit within the rest of the movie, and so silent it remained!


Don't let that brush fool you, she really just punched me in the face between shots to achieve this look!

But yeah, where normally I'd use music to set the mood that fits the scene, here, it was the sounds of the night, the rumbling of the cars, these elements became my soundtrack instead. And the heavy breathing that prevails over the course of the movie, this became the movie's score, adding an overlooming sense of tension throughout. And, well, this certainly was quite a test for me as a filmmaker. And as to whether or not I passed that test I suppose comes down to personal judgement on the matter, but for me personally, I was satisfied with the results at least.


Hooty says, "You think that's a sword?"

"This is a sword!"

Narratively I also had concerns as to how well this would play out, if I was being too vague with certain aspects (or perhaps even too on the nose with some of the hints), since the story doesn't play out in a typical straightforward manner and there's a lot of things that are "implied", if not stated outright, so that was another balancing act I had to contend with going into this thing. But while not everyone who's seen the movie necessarily understood everything, enough people have to where I feel we did a good enough job conveying what's really happening, without having to resort to dumbing things down, so I'm happy with that.


They attempt to take my direction seriously whilst wearing this makeup...

… it did not work!

I also personally viewed this film as an experimental exercise with the way many of the scenes were shot, particularly inside the cop car and in regards to certain aspects of my character's identity, and there was quite a bit of trial and error that went into testing things out before shooting began, to make sure we could capture everything as intended. And gladly, a lot of it ended up working out pretty well, so again, I was pleased with how that all turned out.


Michael rockin' the 'stache!

And I've really got to hand it to my cast and crew for making things such a smooth shoot, as this was definitely a great group of people to work with, which made my job a lot easier. I'm not exaggerating when I say that this was seriously one of the smoothest shoots I've been a part of, and that can be attributed to everyone involved bringing their A-game. And despite how tense things may get on screen, we all had fun all throughout the whole shoot, so it was nice to film in such an enjoyable and relatively stress-free environment, and I look forward to working with this group of people again on future projects.




Well they all took that scene pretty well!

So that's pretty much all I had for now. This project was a growing experience for all involved, and I know I certainly came away learning quite a bit as a filmmaker. And I hope that all comes across in the final product. So if you haven't seen it yet, please, I would love it if you would give it a look and experience for yourself the sights, sounds, and atmosphere that is Breathe.

Monday, August 24, 2015

My Top 5 Fictional Character Crushes

So a little while back while on set with the film team, one of the ladies on set mentioned how guys got it easy because they don't form crushes on fictional characters the way that girls do. This caused every guy in the room, myself included, to vehemently disagree, and spurned on a conversation where we all discussed our own personal fictional character crushes. And now, I figured I'd share my own Top 5 Fictional Character Crushes list with you all today!

Now, forewarning for those of you playing along, but when referring to fictional characters, particularly those of the live action variety, we're specifically speaking on the character itself and not the actor who plays them. So, for instance, while originally forming my list I had to debate whether or not Hermione Granger should make it, but ultimately had to cut her, as my crush there lies not with the character, but rather, the actor playing her, the lovely Emma Watson.

So yeah, other than that, pretty straightforward enough, though I do also need to warn that my list does get pretty weird as it goes along, and I also discovered a thing or two about myself that I wasn't entirely aware of beforehand, but we'll get to that as we get to that. Anyways, enough stalling, let's get to the list! But first, some...

Honorable Mentions

Claire Bennet (Heroes)
Haruko Haruhara (FLCL)
Samus Aran (Metroid)
Selene (Underworld)

Okay, now onto the main list!

#5

Android 18
(Dragon Ball Z)

I'll admit that this is the only entry that's based almost entirely on looks moreso than personality, but god damn. Dragon Ball's not exactly a series known for its hot ladies the way a lot of anime series out there are, but then Android 18 showed up on the scene and put an end to all of that. Hell, I pretty much fell for her much the same way that Krillin himself did in the show, and really, can you blame a guy? There's just something about the way she brushes her beautiful blonde hair from her gorgeous, striking eyes that just does it for me every time.

Not to say that she's not a cool girl as well, as a poor personality would definitely kill the attraction. But yeah, for the most part, she's definitely my superficial pick here, and with looks that could kill, Android 18 is certainly a deadly opener to the list.

#4

Sakura Haruno
(Naruto)

This one got some shocked responses, and rightfully so. After all, I rant so damn much about the way this character is written all of the time. And yet, even so, there's just something about her that's just compelling. Let me try to explain. No matter how frustrated I get with her, how much reason I'm given to just loathe her as a character, there's just something there, something deeper, that keeps me from being able to actually hate her. In fact, quite the opposite. She's just such a trainwreck of a character with so much depth hiding deep down inside that there's something about her that I can't help but find sort of intriguing.

It's sorta like the old series mantra used to go in the beginning, with finding the underneath behind the underneath, and how Sakura used to have her "Inner Sakura" moments presented to us in part 1. But as the series progressed, those inner moments became more repressed from the reader, as she became more and more tortured by inner turmoil. And, well, I dunno what it says about me, but there's just something about that hidden depth to her, something about her stubborn conviction, that's always sorta secretly drawn me to her as well.

I will also say that her character design was one of the more standout designs that initially caught my eye, as I recognized her instantly when I first picked up the show and was like, "Oh, here's where that pink haired girl's from!" And while I could quite possibly populate an entire draft of this list with nothing but Naruto characters, I guess that initial attraction towards Sakura sorta grew from there, in its weird yet appropriate roller coaster of a way, and made her stand out from the rest. But yeah, I told you all the list was gonna get weird, and it only picks from here, as we move onto my next choice.

#3

Sally Acorn
(Sonic the Hedgehog)

Yeah yeah, I know, this is entering into anthropomorphic territory, but where someone like Android 18 may have been chosen for looks, Sally here is sorta the opposite, as it's her strong personality that wins out here. When people name their typical list of tough, "strong female characters", you usually wind up with names like Ripley or Sarah Connor, but my first go-to girl in such discussions has always been Sally Acorn.

She's just such an empowering and caring woman, surefire and confident, never straying from her post as leader of the Freedom Fighters, leading her people head on into battle and willingly sacrificing her own well being for the benefit of everyone else. But she's also not just a one-note action trope of a character, either, as throughout the pages of the Sonic the Hedgehog comic book, she is a fully realized, fully three dimensional individual. She has fears she has to face, weaknesses that she has to overcome. And even on the homefront away from war, she has very real and quite frankly human situations that she has to contend with. Hell, she's more well rounded a character than most of this particular brand of "strong female" characters, all while still maintaining the bad ass qualities that make the best of the best stand out.

Honestly, this character didn't do much for me in the early days of Sonic the Hedgehog, but as the series progressed and I grew up along with the character and saw her true self gradually unfold, there was an odd sort of attraction that started to brew, and I began to understand more and more just why so many guys in the series were willing to fight one another to try and win her heart.

#2

Loki
(Marvel Cinematic Universe)

Nobody was ready for this one when I originally shared my list! But yup, those of you who've followed me for a while should already be well acquainted with my shameless crush on the God of Mischief. But what can I say, there wasn't a moment in The Avengers where this man was on screen and I wasn't simultaneously melting in my seat. He just oozes so much charisma, so much charm in his demeanor, and I just can't get enough of his lusciously long black locks.

And as with other characters on the list, he's similarly quite the complex character at that, and continues the trend of trainwreck crushes that I was gradually coming to grips with. I would say he's probably the most well written character in the MCU to date, with such a subtle amount of depth in his initial appearance in the first Thor, a depth that comes more and more to the forefront in his subsequent, more outgoing appearances. Loki is just such a fascinating character, brought to life by Tom Hiddleston's transcending performance that just absolutely slays me. But where this pick happened to catch some off guard, my #1 pick really shouldn't be all too surprising for anyone who's been paying attention up until now.

#1

Elsa
(Frozen)

What else can I even say here that hasn't already been well documented in one of my many other Frozen-related posts? But just look at her, she's so stunning! And listen to her sing, how can you not fall in love with that voice when she belts her heart out the way she does?

And yes, this pick does round out that aforementioned trainwreck trend that I apparently have a thing for, which, who knew? But even so, I find her just so perfect in all of her imperfections, she's just so compelling and complex, yet so relatable to me on such a personal and emotional level as well. And people can talk all the trash they want about the movie, whatever (or, no, not whatever, quit hatin' on Frozen, dammit!), but I've actually found that whenever their attacks start being directed at Elsa specifically, yeah, it actually kinda stings a little, almost like they're attacking a part of me all of a sudden. Y'all need to quit hatin' on my girl, dammit!

But yeah, like I said, I don't even really know what all else I can say about her that I haven't said already, and I think I've embarrassed myself quite enough for the time being, so I think I'll stop here.

So there you have it, my Top 5 Fictional Character Crushes, and then some. So you see, guys do also fall for fictional characters like you ladies do. But in any event, I think you all learned a little too much about me for one day. Hell, I certainly learned something about myself while compiling this list. But hey, it was all in fun, so what the hell!