As of November 15, 2013, Sonic Cinema will be temporarily holding off on accepting further filmmaker requests for reviews. I have had a great many significant life changes this past year, and I have not yet been able to get to all the ones I currently have on the books. Until those have been completed, I will not be accepting new ones at this time. Thank you for your understanding. -Brian Skutle
Summer 2014 at the Movies: May-August
It’s becoming a common refrain with me, and I don’t particularly care for it, “I haven’t seen it yet.” Most of the big films didn’t have that problem, but nearly all of the smaller films did. Once my everyday life changed, so did my movie habits, and life has been so ridiculously busy, playing catch-up isn’t much of an option.
What does that mean for you, the reader? It means my thoughts on films such as “Boyhood,” “The Fault in Our Stars,” “Tammy,” “Jersey Boys,” “Chef,” “A Most Wanted Man,” “Begin Again,” and “Get On Up,” among many others, will have to wait. I wish it wasn’t so, but those are the breaks. Hopefully, if/when life gets less busy, I’ll get back to my moviewatching routine. For now, I hope you enjoy!
End-of Summer 2014 Best/Worst/Oscar-Worthy:
Best Film/Entertainment: “How to Train Your Dragon 2” (A+); Nothing else came close this summer. You can read my review at a link below at why Dreamworks’s second film in this thrilling franchise elevated to the very top of my summer, and year, but I can sum it up in one big idea: Hiccup has to grow up, and suddenly, his father can’t help him. I can relate big time, and this film tapped into that in remarkable, beautiful ways.
Worst Film: “Hit Team” (F); You will likely never see this film in theatres, and I’ll be honest, there’s a part of me that is disappointed by that, because I’d be very interested to see this with an audience. One of the few filmmaker “screening request” films I’ve genuinely disliked outright, you can/will be able to find this action-comedy piece of absurd performance art on Amazon and check it out for yourself to see if you feel the same way I do about the film. When I wrote the screenwriter/lead actor to let him know how I felt, he said it seemed like he had a new “Birdemic” in the making. I wouldn’t go that far, because from a technical standpoint, this film is watchable without mood-altering substances, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit there weren’t some common insane pleasures in store.
Worst Disappointment: “Blended” (C); There are moments of this third teaming of Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore that really work, but unfortunately, they are relagated to the third act of a movie that has already displayed the worst of what Sandler and his Happy Madison production crew have to offer. The result is as far from the special chemistry of “The Wedding Singer” and “50 First Dates” as possible.
Biggest Laughs: “Guardians of the Galaxy” (A); Yeah, I missed a lot of movies this summer, as well as most comedies, but when you have a sentient raccoon asking for a guy’s prostetic leg as a prank for a prison break, and that only scratches the surface of the hilarity of Marvel’s latest blockbuster, James Gunn proves to be a special filmmaker indeed.
Biggest Surprise: “Maleficent” (B+); For people who love Disney’s recent riff on their animated classic, “Sleeping Beauty,” this wasn’t much of a surprise. However, the film being one of the biggest hits of the summer (it was 3rd, and beat out “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” “Amazing Spider-Man 2,” and “Godzilla”) was quite a shocker in an otherwise weak summer at the box-office. More than that, though, was how this film grew on me after I left the theatre. Not enough to where I love it now, but I definitely appreciated it more in retrospect.
Biggest Dud: “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For” (D); How is it that Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller’s bold noir vision, nine years after their sharp 2005 original film came out, feels like overstylized parody now, even though many elements have been carried over from the first film? I don’t know, but I do know it’s the second film this year where Eva Green saved an adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel universe from being truly unbearable.
Most Gratuitous Cash-In: “A Million Ways to Die in the West” (B-). Seth McFarland’s follow-up to his smash comedy, “Ted.” Rather than voicing a vulgar bear, though, McFarland is the lead in a western comedy that wants to be “Blazing Saddles,” but is just one, long campfire scene, if you get my meaning.
Favorite Performances: Instead of trying to come up with something to write about each performance/character, I’m just gonna be running them down for you: Chloe Grace Moretz, “If I Stay”; Jay Baruchel, “How to Train Your Dragon 2”; Chris Pratt, “Guardians of the Galaxy”; Scarlett Johansson, “Lucy”; Andy Serkis, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”; Bradley Cooper, “Guardians of the Galaxy”; Emily Blunt, “Edge of Tomorrow”; Jamie Blackley, “If I Stay”; Dave Bautista, “Guardians of the Galaxy”; Gugu Mbatha-Raw, “Belle”; Hugh Jackman, “X-Men: Days of Future Past”; Angelina Jolie, “Maleficent”; Mel Gibson, “The Expendables 3”; Eva Green, “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For”
Since there’s a lot of films I have yet to see from this summer that would have merited potential Oscar attention, I’m going to hold off on these. Just know that “How to Train Your Dragon 2,” “Guardians of the Galaxy,” “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” “Godzilla,” and “If I Stay” have my support in many categories.
Summer 2014: The Complete Moviewatching List:
The A’s: “How to Train Your Dragon 2” (A+); “Life Itself” (A+); “X-Men: Days of Future Past” (A+); “Guardians of the Galaxy” (A); “If I Stay” (A); “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” (A); “Godzilla” (A-); “Belle” (A-); “Edge of Tomorrow” (A-)
The B’s: “Maleficent” (B+); “Lucy” (B+); “Million Dollar Arm” (B+); “Into the Storm” (B); “22 Jump Street” (B); “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” (B); “Deliver Us From Evil” (B); “When the Game Stands Tall” (B); “Earth to Echo” (B-); “The Expendables 3” (B-); “A Million Ways to Die in the West” (B-)
The C’s: “Let’s Be Cops” (C+); “Blended” (C)
The D’s: “Transformers: Age of Extinction” (D); “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For” (D)
The F’s: “Hit Team”
Brian’s 8 “Must-See” Movies of Fall 2014
Looking at what’s coming up this Fall, it looks to be a great, diverse Oscar season for movies, so much so that I could fill an entire alternate Top 10 that would be just as worthy. That said, these ten have my interest peaked.
1. “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1” (11/21)- The beginning of the end for Suzanne Collins’s futuristic saga on-screen, as Katniss leads the revolution against the oppressive Capitol and President Snow. Director Francis Lawrence showed that he was plenty capable of bringing the necessary blend of visual and emotional excitement to this story with last year’s “Catching Fire.” Now, it’s time for he and Jennifer Lawrence to bring this series home.
2. “Big Hero 6” (11/7)- Five years after Disney purchased the Marvel empire, and two years after it started to print money for the Mouse House when it began releasing the Marvel Studios movies, the animated branch finally brings a Marvel property to the big screen. Yes, it’s not a big brand title like the ones within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but the trailers for this movie have been nothing short of fantastic, promising another jewel in Disney Animation’s crown after “Tangled,” “Wreck-It-Ralph,” and last winter’s phenomenon “Frozen.”
3. “Rosewater” (11/14)- After 15 years of some of the sharpest political satire on TV with “The Daily Show,” Jon Stewart goes behind the movie camera as writer-director on a labor-of-love project about a journalist who was imprisoned in Iran after an appearance on Stewart’s show made Iran think he was a spy. It sounds too crazy to be true, but if the past few years on “The Daily Show” has proven, nothing is too crazy to be true.
4. “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” (12/19)- Peter Jackson’s final trip to Middle-Earth. Admittedly, “The Hobbit” series hasn’t been as strong in it’s narrative and emotional pull as “The Lord of the Rings” was, but in retrospect, anyone expecting it to be was probably expecting too much from Jackson, and the lighter material. The decision to tell this story in three films will be debated for decades, but I think when all is said and done, Jackson’s Middle-Earth saga will still stand as one of the most ambitious, and resonating, franchises in modern movie history.
5. “Interstellar” (11/7)- Christopher Nolan leaves Batman behind with a piece of hard science-fiction written by his brother about wormholes and travelling the stars with a cast of award-winning actors in tow. Count me in.
6. “Birdman” (10/17)- The newest film from Mexican auteur Alejandro González Iñárritu (“Babel,” “Biutiful”) stars Michael Keaton as an actor who has taken to theatre, but can’t shake his notoriety in a famous superhero role. I can’t possibly imagine why Iñárritu would possibly think the original Batman of the modern age would be a good fit for this role, he said sarcastically. This looks like a great movie. I have to see it in theatres. If not, it’ll be a big disappointment for me.
7. “Inherent Vice” (12/12)- The new film from Paul Thomas Anderson, who’s reversed my initial feelings about him with “Punch-Drunk Love,” “There Will Be Blood,” and “The Master.” Here, he takes a left turn into detective pulp with an adaptation of a novel by Thomas Pynchon. With a cast like Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, and Reese Witherspoon, I’m hoping Anderson keeps this exciting creative streak going.
8. “Tusk” (9/19)- The newest film from Kevin Smith (“Clerks,” “Dogma,” my Dragon*Con cosplay) is a horror film oddity with Justin Long that made an impression on even people who’d sworn off Smith after “Red State” and “Cop Out.” I never stopped being a fan, so now that the film is out, color me intrigued.
A Movie a Week
A Movie a Week: "Insomnia"
A new year, a new set of “A Movie a Week” reviews to write.
We are beginning year six of this column, and hopefully, it’ll be a more consistent one in terms of getting reviews written. I got behind a lot in 2013, and while a lot of it was out of my control, just as much of it could have been avoided. And one film ended up being skipped entirely, but only because I don’t own it, and wasn’t able to get it from Netflix in time. Hopefully, this year will avoid such happenings.
I am playing with fire in that respect, though. There are a great many of the films on my projected lineup this year I don’t own, but part of the fun is in reviewing films I either haven’t seen, or haven’t seen in a while. We’ll see how it goes.
As you know, I always like to bookend this column each year with a particular director. After three foreign filmmaking masters, I really went outside the box with Ed Wood, and last year, started and finished the year with the polarizing Spike Lee. This year, I’m returning to the undisputed upper echelons of cinema with The Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, but not with any of the usual suspects in terms of his films.
To say I’m official, hopelessly, behind on this series is putting it mildly. Not helping my ability to get caught up is my inability to play discs from a box set I was going to use for two of my October horror entries. As a result, I’m skipping my last October entry, and going straight to my first November film, Christopher Nolan’s remake of “Insomnia”. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen it, and it remains a top-notch thriller from the director.
“Insomnia” (2002)- A
Following his breakthrough with “Memento,” Christopher Nolan became a major Hollywood filmmaker, directing blockbusters while continuing a focus on damaged individuals whose issues manifest themselves in morally compromising ways. That theme continued to crystallize in his 2002 remake of “Insomnia,” a Norwegian thriller about a city detective whose inability to sleep while assisting in a small town murder investigation is a reflection of how far off his moral compass is. A fitting comparison might be either version of “Bad Lieutenant,” but unlike that officer, this one wants to do right, but the realities of legal proceedings sometimes means the bad guys get away.
In Nolan’s “Insomnia,” the main detective is Will Dormer (Al Pacino), an LA cop who is sent, with his partner Hap (Martin Donovan), to a remote town in Alaska to aid in a murder investigation of a young girl. They are greeted by a local detective (Ellie Burr, played by Hilary Swank) who looks up to Will, and is excited to be working on this case with him. The official reason they’re up there is for consulting, but there’s a possibility Will and Hap have been sent up there because of an Internal Affairs investigation that Will is at the center of. IA has started talking to Hap, which doesn’t necessarily bode well for Will, making it even worse when, while on a stakeout, they are chasing a suspect in the fog, and Will accidentally shoots Hap, killing him. It’s not as straightforward as all that, though, especially when the girl’s killer, Walter Finch (Robin Williams), takes a vested interest in Will’s plight, which is an inability to sleep because the sun doesn’t set in this Alaskan town. However, maybe it’s something else?
Even though “Insomnia” is the only one of his films where the screenplay is not credited by either Chris or Jonathan Nolan (Hillary Seitz gets credit for the adaptation), this is a Christopher Nolan film through and through. In all of his films, there’s something in the main character’s past that they can’t shake, that keeps them from finding a peaceful state of mind. In most cases with Nolan, it’s the loss of a loved one, like Bruce Wayne’s parents in his “Dark Knight” trilogy, or Robert Angier’s wife in “The Prestige,” but in “Insomnia,” what Will Dormer has lost is his sense of right and wrong. By trying to make sure justice is served, he compromises his oath as a cop to uphold the law. Of course, for much of the movie, we don’t know that, but we sense it. In Hap’s confession to his partner that he was thinking of cutting a deal. In Will’s determination to help Ellie as a mentor, even when he bends the rules for himself. In Ellie’s keen eye to details when she finds a newspaper hidden behind a cabinet. And, of course, the flashes to things from the past that, coupled with the neverending sunrise, make it impossible for Will to sleep. As with all of Nolan’s protagonists, Will is trying to redeem himself, and reconcile with his past. But this case, with it’s not-so-clear cut evidence, challenges him in a way that makes that difficult, although with someone like Ellie aiding him, maybe peace is within reach.
The three main actors all do exceptional work under Nolan’s direction. The main standout is Williams, who had a fantastic 2002 with superlative work in not only “Insomnia,” but also “One Hour Photo” and the much-maligned “Death to Smoochy.” As Finch, the consummate entertainer is gone, and replaced with an icy, but reassuring sociopath who thinks he has Will right where he wants him. How Williams failed to receive an Oscar nomination in 2002 for any of his performances is beyond me, because whether you’re talking about “Insomnia” or “One Hour Photo,” or even “Smoochy,” it was a banner year for the late, great talent. As Ellie, the small town cop who hasn’t really dealt with big, important cases yet, Swank is wonderful, reminding the viewer that her Oscar-winning work in both “Boys Don’t Cry” (which came before this film) and “Million Dollar Baby” (which came after) was no fluke, even if there’s a lot of evidence to the contrary over the past few years. And as Will, Pacino has one of his meatiest roles in a long while, one which plays off of his naturally weary looks, and gives him more to do than just do another over-the-top parody of his previous work. This is a genuine performance, and one that pushes Pacino to the limits exceptionally well. That the film basically is seen as a studio assignment for Nolan, a lark for the actors, and didn’t really gain any traction during awards season feels like a gross slight now, although it did provide the entry point for Nolan’s working relationship with Warner Bros., which opened the door for his “Dark Knight” trilogy, for which fanboys everywhere should be grateful.
I don’t know that I’d seen “Insomnia” since watching it in theatres in 2002; maybe I rented it once since. I forgot how truly engrossing the film is. While I’m very much a fan of Chris Nolan’s blockbuster movies, I have to admit that his smaller films, like this, “Memento,” and “The Prestige,” show a great storyteller who is unafraid of pushing viewers into complicated moral questions. He trusts his audience’s intelligence to work things out for himself, and with his creative team (composer David Julyan, cinematographer Wally Pfister, editor Doddy Dorn, and production designer Nathan Crowley), placing the story in a distinctive cinematic universe that feels like reality, but isn’t quite real. Each film has it’s own reality, and rules, and builds on those things to make it believable for the audience. All of those elements are definitely on display in “Insomnia,” which uses it’s Alaskan setting brilliantly to give us a glimpse into a twisted, psychological mindset as only Chris Nolan can.
Previous “A Movie a Week” Reviews
“The Big One” (1998)
“Seven Samurai” (1954)
“Beat the Devil” (1954)
“Some Like It Hot” (1959)
“Inherit the Wind” (1960)
“The Muppet Movie” (1979)
“Requiem for a Dream” (2000)
“Howard the Duck” (1986)
“Full Metal Jacket” (1987)
“The Searchers” (1956)
“Superman III” (1983)
“Orson Welles’s Don Quixote” (1992)
“Godzilla vs. Mothra” (1965)
“The Usual Suspects” (1995)
“Blazing Saddles” (1974)
“Broken Arrow” (1996)
“Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron” (2002)
“On the Waterfront” (1954)
“The Rock” (1996)
“Planet of the Apes” (2001)
“Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” (1971)
“Modern Times” (1936)
“Lethal Weapon 2” (1989)
“The Birdcage” (1996)
“Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” (1990)
“Star Trek: First Contact” (1996)
“Hoop Dreams” (1994)
“Bride of Frankenstein” (1935)
“Interview With the Vampire” (1994)
“The Hound of the Baskervilles” (1959)
“Dawn of the Dead” (2004)
See Brian’s list of 2009 “Movies a Week” here.
See Brian’s list of 2010 “Movies a Week” here.
See Brian’s list of 2011 “Movies a Week” here.
See Brian’s list of 2012 “Movies a Week” here.
See Brian’s list of 2013 “Movies a Week” here.
If you are a fan on Sonic Cinema, Brian's music, or the work of Cinema Nouveau Productions, and would like to show your support, a store is now available through Cafe Press, with T-shirts, hats, buttons, and other merchandise. A wide variety of designs and products are available. The store is Sonic Cinema Shop and can be found at the link provided. Thank you for your support, so I can continue to do what I love. -Brian Skutle
Musical Happenings: June 2014
I don’t know how people go to school full-time, and work full-time, without going insane. It’s been a crazy three months just doing one online class and working full-time. And then there’s that pesky task of having a life in between. I’m baffled.
To recap: in my last blog about my musical endeavors, I mentioned how I had decided to go back to school and augment my education. And so, for the past three months, I have been taking an online course in film scoring from the Berklee College of Music, the first of three classes required for their Specialist Certificate program in Music for Movies and TV. (Up next: Language of Film & TV, aka the class Mr. “Writing About Film Since 1996” should get an A in.) I’ll admit, it’s been a bit nerve-racking to go back to school, especially since online classes are new to me, but it’s also been invigorating. Since films, and filmmaking, was already a profound passion of mine, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how much I already understood about the process, to say nothing of how much my own personal experiences would come full circle. Due to computer issues (all of which are now taken care of, courtesy of my friend Dave), I had to wing it on a couple of assignments, which meant throwing me back to earlier times of recording music and scoring films, especially my friend Chris’s series, “The Case”. Just goes to further prove that, in fact, everything happens for a reason.
One thing that has become abundantly clear over the past 11 weeks of this course is that film music, and the creative process, is what makes me happiest, and what will make me happiest, in terms of what I want to do with my life. I have the chops for it, and it’s a fun challenge. In terms of the creative aspects, it’s a jolt of energy, and even though I’ll probably always write stand-alone musical works, my musical voice is at it’s best, I think, when it has a definite story to tell. In addition to learning about the techniques of film music, we’ve also had three opportunities to score different student films/scenes, and I’d put the music I’ve written for those projects—“Sinead Rising”, a scene from the short, “Roller Palace”, and “Blue City” (our final project)—toe to toe with my scores for “The Case” or “Walpurgis Night”, or my “2001: A Space Odyssey”-inspired album, “Beyond the Infinite: A Musical Odyssey” as a strong example of what I’m capable of, and what I’m passionate about.
In addition to the music done for these projects (which I will gladly share with anyone interested in checking them out via Dropbox—just private message me, and I’ll send you the links), I continued to work on stand-alone pieces. The band piece I had started on the last update is very much finished; all that remains is doing the parts in Finale, figuring out dynamics and the depth of certain parts. (The working title is currently “Brian Skutle’s Passions”, but we’ll see if that sticks or not.) I’m working on updated software, not just for Finale, but also Cakewalk Sonar (my sequencer of choice for going on eight years now) and Sound Forge (my long-time editing software), which I got as a result of starting this class. I also purchased a small rhythm machine back in May, and immediately put it to use, doing a new electronica piece entitled, “Cosmic Energy”. There’s definitely going to be more featuring that machine in the near future; maybe even another album comparable to last year’s “Arpeggiations & Atmospeheres” down the road.
That’s all I have for now, but that seems like a lot, doesn’t it? Great things going on, and hopefully, more to come as the year progresses.
Thanks for listening,
“Creative Beginnings” at CDBaby
“Dark Experiments” at CDBaby
“Sonic Visions of a New Old West” at CDBaby
“Beyond the Infinite: A Musical Odyssey” at CDBaby
“Storytelling” at CDBaby
“Arpeggiations & Atmospheres” on BandCamp