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...


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?!


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)


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.


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.


(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.


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)


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.


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.


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...


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.