Star Wars: The Force Awakens – Film Review

“The Force Awakens” is everything that the Star Wars prequels weren’t – self-referential, nostalgic, practical, and mythological. It uses the franchises deep well of origin stories to display the vastness of all of the galaxies far, far away.

The Star Wars franchise is a white canvas where the filmmakers, present and future, can draw as many stars, planets, and storylines as they can reasonably fit. It has so much potential to expand beyond the original films. Hopefully, the spin-off films will fill this void, bringing light to unseen corners of the universe.

The mainstream criticism of the first canon-advancing film produced by Disney is that it’s a fancy, dressed-up copy and paste job of the original Star Wars film, 1977’s “A New Hope”. The story template is certainly familiar, but the visual style and characters are a new breed that I like to call iconic shadows.

Many of the new characters appear and act childish and petty, like some of the hardcore fans of the Star Wars franchise. Other new characters are ambitious but yet hesitant, plagued by self-doubt about whether or not the boots they’re trying to fill are just too big and overwhelming.

General Hux appears overwhelmed and ill-equipped to handle the guilt and sheer power that comes with his Death Star 2.0 device. His imitation of Hitler falls short, though his master plan doesn’t.

General Hux, in some ways, acts as a metaphor of the filmmakers themselves. They feel a duty to complete their mission successfully, though they are uncertain and afraid of the results. JJ Abrams, no matter how confident he felt during the production, couldn’t possibly know how the fans and critics would respond to his highly anticipated film.

Overall, the film succeeds at bringing back old fans of the franchise while also reaching new viewers. With a brisk pace, a fun tone, and plenty of young characters, the future of the force appears to be heading in a good direction.


Mystic River (2003) – Film Review


Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River props up three childhood friends and puts them into adult, full-grown shoes. It’s one of the few films that pulls off this sort of generational time-lapse premise, mostly as a result of the childhood memories having been constructed in a swift, concise manner. The characters pasts aren’t dragged down by long, overdrawn back stories.

A car pulls up next to three kids on the sidewalk. They are writing their names on a wet concrete filling. A confident man climbs out of the car, declaring himself as an officer of the law to the three kids.

He demands one of the boys to come with him. They don’t realize that the man isn’t wearing a uniform or driving a patrol car, warning signs ignored amidst the oddness of the moment.

The film shifts suddenly to adulthood. One of the boys, Dave, played by Tim Robbins, has a sort of quiet, troubled look in his eyes. It’s clear from the beginning that Dave is an embodiment of suspicion: who knows what had happened after he got in the fake officer’s car?

The other two boys appear to be doing fairly well: Sean, a hothead of a boy, played by Kevin Bacon, now works as a police investigator. The third boy, Jimmy, played by Sean Penn, runs a store, employing his nineteen-year old daughter, the light of his life.

When Jimmy’s daughter doesn’t show up for work, her disappearance meshed with his own past turns into a toxic mix. He doesn’t make a big deal out of it at first and assumes she’s simply slacking off work. But when he spots a crowd surrounding a crime scene, he catches a glimpse of his daughters car. She has been murdered.

Jimmy’s daughters murder begins a long, emotional investigation. Throughout the film we discover more about Jimmy’s past, heightening our expectations of the manner in which he’ll confront his daughters killer, if he does. An extra twist thrown into the mix: the investigator of the homicide is Sean, Jimmy’s childhood friend.

The Invisible War (2012) – Film Review

The Invisible War, directed by Kirby Dick, is a movie brimming with incest and systematic injustice, probing into the issue of sexual abuse in the military in an open, graceful manner.

The film doesn’t back down from the truth. Like many great visual essays before it, it contrasts shocking statistics with real people, warts and all, on screen. The film states that twenty percent of women are raped during their military service.

It then goes on to pound the nail in even deeper with interview subjects explaining the hesitancy women have towards telling anyone, thereby likely doubling or at least highly doubting the statistics released by the military.

It’s a cautionary tale to women on what to expect when going into the service. It makes a strong argument for necessary change in the biased process of enforcement in the military. Hopefully, the culture will turn around for the better and women will be able to enter and serve in the military without fear of being harmed by their own fellow soldiers.

On The Waterfront (1954) – Film Review

“On The Waterfront” has become an American classic through the years, and the most credit, unsurprisingly, has gone to Marlon Brando, the supreme acting force anchoring the film.

Brando plays a washed up boxer, Terry Malloy, whose main source of income stems from mob deals; he works on the waterfront, where whiskey, packed and boarded, are loaded up by the tons in large fishing nets. He works hard, a common everyday laborer, but we soon discover that Malloy is very much entangled within the puppet-like strings of the mob.

Characters are often seen asking questions or talking to bystanders, as if they are talking to a blank wall; the cold hesitancy and isolating fear that the citizens feel about the mobs presence. If they slip up just once they’ve lost the opportunity for a second, or first, chance.

At one point, a box of crates fall upon a man standing directly below it; this seems to be done accidentally, a simple labor accident. Then, however, we see the mobsters smoking and gazing down into the deep cellar. They don’t care how much whiskey they’ve shattered and wasted to stage the killing. Murder is their profession and they are indeed very skilled at knocking off the rotten apples easily and economically.

The Magnificent Seven – Film Review

The greatest moments of “The Magnificent Seven” aren’t the scenes where all the magnificent’s are sitting around, talking about their magnificent adventures. Movies should show, not tell, and I agree. But if you aren’t willing to show a characters journey, their past, their present state in the world, then you’ve got to try to tell us a little bit about them.

Cowboys talk in gravely, deep-voiced mumbles, I understand. But not all of them. Josh Faraday, the alcoholic magician played by Chris Pratt (or is it just Chris Pratt played by Chris Pratt?), has a lot to say. The quiet one, Chisolm, played by Denzel Washington, talks and acts as if he were living in an entirely different cinematic universe, a slow-burn, darkly-lit drama photographed by Roger Deakins.


Luckily for Chisolm, he isn’t required to interact a whole lot with this ensemble, other than the obligatory assembling and introductions of the squad. We’ve got 7 here? One, two, three…I count six. Never mind, the seventh is standing over there, as Pratt’s character says in the beginning of the film, “Oh, good, we’ve got a Mexican!”

On-screen diversity is a hot topic in Hollywood and they’ve responded, if not in any dramatic way. They’re learning that people don’t just want diverse characters, they want actual characters. You know, a person with a motive other than revenge or a skill unrelated to their culture.


The Chinese cowboy, Billy Rocks, played by Lee Byung-hun, is very skilled at throwing all sorts of sharp, metallic weapons, even his own hair-pin. It’s typical to cast a Chinese man as the prototypical knife-thrower (with a twist, albeit), but at least his stereotype isn’t dull. Billy actually rocks. He’s a quiet character but arguably the most entertaining of them all.

The second most engaging character arc would have to be Ethan Hawke as Goodnight Robicheaux, a PTSD-ridden sharpshooter who uses Billy as a circus entertainer for the locals, splitting the dividends between them. Their relationship seems very complex: Billy feels bad for Goodnight’s war-torn suffering, while Goodnight takes advantage of a foreign mans abilities for his own gain.

The film doesn’t come close to replecating the greatness of the original film, or even close to The Seven Samurai, Kurosawa’s original telling of the tale. But beyond the sketchy, loosely-plotted characters, there is a thirty-minute plus action sequence that’s very entertaining. If anything, you can be assured that director Antoine Fuqua hasn’t lost his interest or his touch in direction large scale, dynamite-driven action sequences.

Whiplash (2014) – Film Review


“Whiplash”, a deservedly praised, knockout hit, is the first feature film of Damien Chazelle, a clearly talented young director. It follows a college-aged drummer, Andrew, played by Miles Teller, as he struggles to achieve his highly ambitious musical goals.

Young and consumed by equal parts doubt and confidence, Andrew ends up in the crazed hands of a vulgar, extremely intense composer and instructor, Terrence Fletcher, brilliantly played by a wide-eyed, spit yelling J.K. Simmons.

The film explores the pressures put upon those who participate in elite, highly-competitive orchestras. The writer/director, Damien Chazelle, has had direct experiences within the field of musical performance.

The movie has a very specific idea that it poses to us on an even narrative strand throughout its running time. And that is: how far should a person be pushed and pressured towards absolute perfection? Is there such a thing as too far? Is  being healthy but lesser better than being great but maniacal?

These aren’t easy questions to answer, and that’s what makes them compelling to both ask and watch unfold, as Andrew is humiliated and berated by his teacher in order to come out the other side as the best drummer he can possibly be (which he would never know, the film asserts, if he wasn’t pushed in the first place).

The screaming dialogue fiercely performed by J.K. Simmons must have been a riot to sit down and actually write. It seems like such a contradiction to see a man teaching beautiful and archaic symphonies one minute, and then violently screaming imaginatively-worded obscenities the other.

Andrew walks into a bar late one night after recognizing his old instructors name plastered on the marquee outside. We witness Terrence actually performing, his face calm, his eyes closing slightly in an unusually serene expression of peace.

The feisty former instructor seems very much at ease as he plays the melodic piano music. But what does the man love the most? The literal sound of the music or the sense of perfection felt from hitting all the right keys? Does he cherish his abilities in contrast to all of the cues his students fail to hit?

A Most Violent Year (2014) – Film Review

A Most Violent Year focuses on a few small pixels in a larger, more dangerous canvas of events. Set in New York City in the year 1981, where crime-rates are quickly rising to an epidemic level, the story sets its eye on an immigrant man, Abel, as we follow his bumpy ride up towards his homegrown American dream.

The film stars a stone-faced Oscar Isaac, playing the ambitious immigrant as a mix of quiet intensity and disgruntled vulnerability. It’s hard for him to accept even the most simplest of things. Alongside him is Jessica Chastain as his shady wife. Chastain’s scenes with Isaac’s Abel are absolute dynamite, a constant battle of wits and ego sparking off of each other. Two of the best young actors/actresses working today.

A-Most-Violent-Year-movie (1)

The films premise is basically a sub-plot from a lot of other sprawling, ensemble mobster flicks. Remember in Goodfellas, when Jimmy Conway holds up a delivery truck, unloads the goods, and drives away? Well, that’s essentially the main problem in A Most Violent Year, only it’s shown from the microcosmic perspective of the driver and the effect such thievery has on that particular company.

There are a few other key distinctions between the two, though. In Goodfellas, the drivers are complicit: they aren’t getting paid enough to risk being shot in the face, and it’s usually made mutually-beneficial for them anyways. In A Most Violent Year, the driver is a young immigrant man whose not complicit, doesn’t want to be robbed.

The face and owner of the company, Abel, doesn’t want his drivers to back down, although he doesn’t want them to be armed, either. So, waxing in an intelligently cyclical manner, he’s essentially explaining to his low-end drivers that they should be willing and prepared for possible injury or death while delivering the many gallons of oil that will one day make him rich; a very morbid pep speech by any standard.

Through the course of the movie, Abel’s character slowly shapes and grows into his true dimensions. With each conversation or argument he has with others, we’re given small chunks of information about his past; the fact that he’d bought the company from his wife’s father, or that he himself used to be a driver.

It’s these small, subtlety placed nuggets that change not only our perception of him as a character, but also the overall tone of the film as well. With each piece of new knowledge, we cast increasing doubt on the legitimacy and honesty of Abel and his business.

With breathtaking cinematography and a handful of brilliantly brooding performances, A Most Violent Year is an unusually intelligent and entertaining mob film.

Foxcatcher (2014) – Film Review

Review by Logan P. Miller

Bennett Miller’s “Foxcatcher” is a deliberately paced mood piece, a feeling of melancholy flowing through every frame of the film. For some viewers, taking the time to watch these characters unfold in slow, drawn out scenes filled with gaps and uncomfortable stares, is a burden and a letdown.

The story the movie’s based on, the toxic relationship between Olympic wrestlers and their benefactor, is deliciously tabloid, a true-crime tale that’s truly intriguing and complex. But “Foxcatcher” doesn’t use the story as a leaping-off point for an over-the-top Hollywood drama, as that was far from what Dupont’s life really was; long stretches of his life really were just spent alone.

The little details matter in this film, the subtle hints at the characters doomed fates. The slightest facial tick, gesture, or grunt from any of the three main characters signals a possible spell, a foreshadowing of the tragedy that we know is coming. And in that sense, “Foxcatcher” is an actor’s movie all the way.

The film stars Steve Carrell in an unusually dark role as John DuPont, the wealthy heir to the DuPont chemical fortune. He inhabits the man, and yet doesn’t turn him into some mutated hunchback or movie caricature, either. Channing Tatum plays Mark, the ape-like surviving younger brother, whose trying to escape the shadow of his brother’s glory. He sees an opportunity to do this following DuPont’s unusually generous offer, and he rides on it, all the way to the Foxcatcher ranch.

Does every acclaimed, intense film these days have to include an on-set story about an actor inhabiting their role so completely that they actually physically hurt themselves? Is it now officially a requirement for a great performance? Bleed like DeNiro did or don’t even bother. 

Birdman (2014) – Film Review


I really liked this movie, especially the first experience of it, the whirlwind of energy and movement rushing you into the middle of this man’s world. I don’t like to sum up a film with this sort of overzealous simplicity, but there are just so many brilliant touches in this story that make it so relatable and real. Birdman’s plight into obscurity is a fall everyone and anybody can relate to. He’s frustrated that nothing, even the most important something, according to his inner self, doesn’t last, leaving him alone, not knowing how to react to not only the journey itself, but the conclusion of it. What’s next?

Michael Keaton stars as the titular “Birdman”, or Riggan, and he gives an incredible performance, shifting and wiggling around all of the unique supporting and supportive characters, though none of them can outshine his tweaked-out body spasms and off-kilter, narrow expressions that are his trademark. A certain parallel that I as a viewer noticed that an actual stage performer might just think about on the daily: the backstage dramas feel much more authentic and compelling than the acting onstage. The relaxed, spontaneous feel of the actors after a scene reading has a lot to do with the amount of great acting talent in “Birdman”.

Emma Stone plays Sam, Riggan’s daughter, fresh out of rehab and working as his assistant; Naomi Watts plays Lesly, a slightly thin-skinned but ambitious Broadway actress sexually tied with the new hotshot actor, played by Edward Norton, who’s hired following a set “accident” that calls for a hasty replacement. Zack Galifianakis plays Riggan’s press agent and sort-of friend, Jake. Though this isn’t entirely the case, as the onstage goofs provide a lot of great tension and some very exhilarating moments, I think this idea is one of the main overarching themes in the film.

The idea that the best drama happens in reality, when the lens is capped and the lights are off; to not only act like the actor, but also feel as they would. Mike, played by Edward Norton as a dry and dauntlessly crude theater purist, is a believer in this theory, in this whacky form of method acting. He drinks actual gin for the drinking scenes, and he’s got an actual boner right on cue for the sensual, under-the-sheets scene with Lesly, who had complained earlier that he hasn’t been able to get it up in months in real life.

Riggan actually seems to come around to Mike’s acting philosophy towards the end, even if he may not be entirely aware of it. Standing in his dressing room with his ex-wife, played by Amy Ryan, he randomly spurts out that he regrets videotaping Sam’s birth, that he would’ve rather been actively present for the moment.

Keaton’s filmography is easily comparable to his character in “Birdman”, an aging actor famous for once playing a superhero, but I wonder if this could potentially pose as a distraction from the story itself; instead of focusing on the showering of ideas about self-worth and creative egoism, one might be spending most of their time pondering the parallels between the character and the man, Keaton himself. A constant back-and-forth dialogue between a real actor’s filmography and personality, the character’s filmography and personality, and the line the audience chooses to draw between the two.

I’ve wondered if the director of “Birdman”, Alejandro González Iñárritu, is trying to express some sort of meta-critique of the media by casting Keaton in the role. Was he trying to show how comfortable we are as a society to sum up a person’s career in such a shallow, conclusive manner, comparing and rating all that has come before and consider it less than the sum of its parts, that this one single film anchored his sagging legacy back to shore? Because from all the press and news articles I’ve read, sometimes from only scanning the headlines, the answer to such a question is a definite ‘yes’.

To say that this film is a ‘comeback’ for Keaton or ‘the best Michael Keaton movie in years’ sort of does a disservice to all of the work Mr. Keaton’s done in the last ten or so years; it’s the sort of complimentary-insult that the actual character of Riggan would probably obsessively struggle and wrestle with; maybe in the sequel, Birdman Again: For Dignity’s Sake, we’ll find out how he conquers his self-esteem issues.

 While Riggan is being interviewed about his career-saving play, he’s snobbishly questioned about the merit of a spandex-star like himself actually helming a real, live stage performance. He responds in the standard circular non-talk of a public person that doesn’t want to upset or imply anything that could negatively affect themselves or their cause; or, he’s just been out of the game for so long, he forgot how to go through the motions and produce the gaseous, breezy movie star charm.

It’s a unique type of audience involvement, a new layer to contemplate in the intricately woven tapestry of it all. It’s not the first time a movie juxtaposed an actor’s real-life or career with a film’s story, but it will certainly go down as one of the best and most conclusive of this most likely nonexistent micro-genre.

From a technical point of view, “Birdman” soars as much as the characters and storytelling. Consisting mostly of a single continuous take, the camera darts in and out of rooms, rising slowly upwards to the tops of buildings, trailing, following. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki uses clandestine cuts and convenient object placement to momentarily cloud the camera, cut, and resume in the same fixed, object-blocked position, supporting the illusion of a never-ending sequence. It’s a basic cinematic technique in most cases, but yet the simplicity of it depends on the scope of the camera movement.

With aerial shots and multiple characters to track alongside with, the setups had to have been as calculated and choreographed as a hundred-million dollar battle sequence. Compared to Hitchcock’s one-shot, single location film, “Rope”, “Birdman” is quite groundbreaking in its uncut use of so many different locations. The entire movie was filmed in a swift thirty days, and similar to the great director Sidney Lumet, Iñárritu prepared for the shoot far ahead of time, setting aside several weeks for rehearsing and perfecting the scene layouts with his large ensemble cast.

If anybody tries to knock a movie for a quick shoot, they most likely just don’t understand how it works, and how a shorter shoot simply means lower production costs. Any amount of time that can be cut off of the shooting schedule is time well-spent, as many more experienced than I would confirm.

Using the one-take structure for this particular story can be reasoned many different ways, all of them, in my opinion, being very defensible. As Edward Norton’s character says to Riggan’s daughter, Sam, “This is the theater, don’t be so self-conscious.”

The constant scrutiny of the omnipresent camera heightens the pressure on the characters, and increases the tension and urgency for the viewer. We won’t be saved from awkwardness or intense outbursts by a fade-to-black or a sudden cut to a future moment in time.

We are with these people completely, sharing, in a sense, the same vantage point, the same rambunctious moments leading up to the big opening night. It adds to the rolling impact of it all, which, by the end, we can see and understand it to be the embodiment of what the millennial generation allegedly wants — completely unfiltered and exploitative videos, devoid of any dignity or logic.

Spoiler warning:

The ambiguous, cut-short ending leaves something to chew on, and yet at the same time, not really all that much at all. The bandages wrapped around Riggan’s nose seem to intentionally evoke a bird’s beak, long and pointed. But the deep, hoarse voice is completely absent as he lays quietly alone on the hospital bed.

All of the moments Riggan’s Birdman ego had previously voiced its opinion, Riggan was in a similar situation as his current one at the hospital: interior silence, not being directly near any of the films other main characters.

So has Riggan transformed following this shocking, traumatic ordeal? He’s a changed man, right? His two combating personalities are seemingly done with the banging-heads routine, but who surrendered? The “God” of a man, The Birdman himself, or the aged, apologetic father, regular-old Riggan?

The act of hurling himself out of the window destroys half of his dual self; if he’s not truly Birdman, he’s Riggan the mortal, in his new pavement-splattered form. If he’s Birdman, he’s zooming around in circles in the air outside. And if he’s flying up above the hospital, as his daughter Sam, leaning out of the window and smiling proudly up towards the sky seems to be indicating, then has he transformed into the full-blown manifestation of Birdman?

My best guess:

Riggan lives and continues his life as a born-again cultural icon, a walking statue, now gladly willing to reap the benefits of his gloriously remembered years of youth, cheerfully posing for family pictures, attending Birdman retrospectives and Comic-cons. He’s retired from the constant stress of showmanship, and feels fine continuing on the remainder of his days talking about the thing, even if the thing is still just the thing, and not whatever it is that he or they say the thing is right now at this moment.

Bob the Gambler, Bob le Flambeur (1956) – Film Review

bob gamblerDirected by Jean-Pierre Melville

Bob the Gambler was the first Melville movie I’d ever seen, and as most said it was an uncharacteristic piece for him, I was a little sad; I really liked the movie and wanted to dive into other Melville films that were just as quirky and sly as this one.

The film is about a man named Bob, and yes, he’s a gambler; he has a gaming slot machine in his closet, a little taste he indulges in at home for fun, and spends a lot of his time in gambling houses and casinos.

Bob has had one stint in prison and we find out that he’s got a bit of a guardian angel in the form of a cop. He gets picked up in a police car for a generous ride; one of the cops wants to make sure he stays out of trouble. He has them drop him off a couple blocks before his destination though, so as to not hurt his reputation.

Bob has a young apprentice, Paolo, a quasi son of sorts, but without any consent or censoring between them. He tries to keep Paolo out of trouble, or at least out of the hands of hotheads and their criminal schemes. The atmosphere and sense of place is a movie-lovers dream. The misty streets, long, narrow roads filled with high light-posts, and small little bars where people go in as fast as they pour out; ideal surroundings for a man who fancies himself a gangster.

Bob has started to run out of money as a result of his obsessive gambling, and when a friend tells him how much money a certain Casino holds in their safe, he instantly decides he wants to rob it. But he doesn’t act on sudden impulse like a lowly street hood, he tightly plans it out.

He hires distractions, men to hold-up the staff, and a professional safe-cracker; one of the more clever scenes involves the gang standing around the safe-cracker as he uses an amplifier to listen to the small clicks and movements of the combination lock, practicing for the future head-to-head with the real lock, the one that matters. He needs to softly listen for all the right internal whistling gizmos and clicks, while at the same time keeping in mind the need for it to be cracked under four minutes.

Bob      The plan and heist, of course, brings with it some very real obstacles. Earlier in the story, a young hothead, Marc, gets tangled around some trouble and the police subsequently offer him a deal: if he leads them to a bigger, top-of-the-top racket, and said tip results in a legitimately successful arrest, they’ll drop the charges against him.

Paulo, even after Bob tells him never to tell a dame their plans, goes off and brags about their upcoming plans. Then, when Paulo’s girl plays around with Marc behind his back, she tells him this, not thinking Paulo is going to go through with it, and, of course, Marc tips the police. One-by-one, the domino’s fall on top of Bob’s carefully articulated plans.

A heavy dose of irony presents itself towards the end, while Bob’s a bit distracted; his strict schedule for the heist is interrupted once he begins winning considerable sums at the tables, at the exact casino he’s about to attempt to steal eighty-million from. During the entire course of the film poor Bob has the worst of luck: It’s only good when his luck is just moments away from tipping back to the ‘bad’ spectrum.