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

2014 at the Movies: Six Months In

As you’ve no doubt noticed, this has been a rough year in terms of keeping up with movies. If you’ve been reading, you know why, so I’m not going to dwell on it. I do continue to find time to watch movies, and that’s the important thing, even if they aren’t always seen in a timely manner, or even in theatres. Movies are one of my great loves in life, and they always will be.

What about this year’s movies, thus far? So far, I’ve been predominantly relegated to watching studio films and the “big” blockbusters, so a lot of interesting and relatively acclaimed indie films (“Bad Words”, “The Raid 2”, “Chef”, and “Under the Skin”) have been missed. (Of course, I still haven’t seen “Divergent”, either. Go figure.) What isn’t seen in theatres, let alone missed altogether, is immediately added to the Netflix Queue, so a lot of these will be seen eventually.

What I have seen has been something of a mixed bag. This summer has continued the trend, although there has definitely been some top-notch franchise entries this year. What are my favorites? Well, that’s part of the point of this blog, although don’t worry—the least honorable mention will get their due, as well.

=“How to Train Your Dragon 2”: Unless something damn-near amazing comes out in the next six months, here’s my favorite movie of 2014, and very possibly, the best. The film hit especially close to home after my father died last October, but that only deepened the impact of this story of a son trying to cut his own path, while also following the one his father sets out for him.

=“The LEGO Movie”: Two animated films at the top? So far, but that’s how awesome Chris Miller and Phil Lord’s wicked trip of a movie is. Yeah, they’re also poking fun at action tropes in the “Jump Street” films, but seeing it come to life in brick form, with wonderful ingenuity and imagination (which turns out to be the main theme of the film), with a cast finely tuned comedically, makes it just that much cooler. As the song says, “Everything is Awesome!!”

=“Noah”: Arguably the year’s most controversial blockbuster, Darren Aronofsky’s brave, visually stunning epic, reimagining the Bible story from how we know it, is one that etched a deep carving into my memory banks that will likely be there for a while. I don’t know if I’d put it in the Oscar race for Best Picture, but if the film doesn’t get some below-the-line love (especially for Clint Mansell’s stellar, year-best score), I’m not going to be happy, although honestly, I won’t be surprised, either. I can’t wait to watch some of these sequences in HD at home.

=“Showing Sydney”: Writer-director Edgar Muniz has continued to impress me with the insight and feeling he brings to personal stories about creative people stuck in difficult times at their lives. This one, about a young woman who has an ugly reflection held up for her to see when a movie is made about her, is another triumph for the smart indie filmmaker, who should be much better known that he is.

=“Captain America: The Winter Soldier”: I’m not going to say fistfights have broken out over whether this terrific thriller is the best Marvel solo movie since “Iron Man”, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they had. Personally, I can’t imagine how anyone could think otherwise, since no film outside of “The Avengers” has had quite the collective impact this one did to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, even causing a bit of a reboot to the first season of “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”, no less. It also helps that the film is damn fun in it’s own right.

=“Eroticide”: Another filmmaker screener request, and a very fine one, to boot, as a man finds himself in a toxic love triangle with two women that turns into an emotionally, and physically, devastating moment of truth for the three people involved. The less said the better, as this 30-plus minute short is quite an emotional roller coaster.

Beyond that, the first six months of 2014 has been a collection of quirky, wonderful smaller films accentuated by a couple of pretty great blockbuster films. Let’s start with the blockbusters, and honestly, you’ll be hard pressed to find people saying a bad word about either “X-Men: Days of Future Past” and Gareth Edwards’s haunting reboot of “Godzilla”, though both do have some detractors. (Same goes with Disney’s revisionist fairy tale, “Maleficent”, which grew on me the more I thought about it, but not enough to put it with the earlier films.) Going into the indie realm brings Wes Anderson’s delightful “The Grand Budapest Hotel”, with a great performance by Ralph Fiennes and some of the finest technical qualities of any Anderson film; the Joss Whedon-scripted love story, “In Your Eyes”, which was made available online, and is another winner from Whedon; “Belle”, a historical drama about a mixed-race young woman finding her place in 18th Century English society, propelled by a terrific lead performance by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, one of the few, real Oscar possibilities in this young year; “Veronica Mars”, Rob Thomas’s Kickstarter-financed big-screen version of his cult TV show, with Kristen Bell returning to the role that made her famous; “Draft Day”, Ivan Reitman’s football draft comedy-drama with Kevin Costner trying to rebuild the Cleveland Browns with some wheeling and dealing; and finally, “Monster Killer” and “Under the Dark Wing”, a couple more “screener” films that take intriguing looks at the monster hunter genre and a criminal’s existential dilemma, respectively.

There’s more to my movie year, though, and a lot of it was disappointment in franchises that have been great in the past. In this era of reboots and sequels by the dozens each year, it’s not a surprise, but whether it was “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit”, “The Amazing Spider-Man 2”, “Muppets Most Wanted”, “Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones”, or Michael Bay’s dreadful “Transformers: Age of Extinction”, the latter which holds the title for “worst in show” thus far, Hollywood made me wonder, to varying degrees, where the inspiration had gone with each of these franchise placeholders. (The disappointment was lessened by “22 Jump Street” and “300: Rise of an Empire”, on account on the former being a sly send-up of endless sequels, and the latter—which boasted a fine, over-the-top Eva Green, as well as a wild sex scene involving her—was a sequel to a movie I wasn’t high on to begin with.)

The remaining six movies I’ve seen from the 2014 calender year are average pieces of filmmaking all around—nothing great, but nothing terribly awful, either. The ones I enjoyed most were Disney’s “Million Dollar Arm” and George Clooney’s “The Monuments Men”, which took true stories, and told them in entertaining, inoffensive ways. The first documentary I’ve seen this year is “Mitt”, a fly-on-the-wall work as bland as the 2012 Presidential nominee whose campaign it covers. On the comedy front, Seth McFarlane’s “A Million Ways to Die in the West” was definitely more enjoyable than the Adam Sandler/Drew Barrymore rom-com “Blended”, but neither one is so unfunny that it lacks entertainment value. That just leaves the young love drama, “Endless Love”, which I’ve pretty much forgotten about, except for having seen it at the end of a day-long date with my girlfriend back in February.

The rest of 2014 should be an interesting mix of big hits and indie sleepers, but first, the rest of the summer is on the horizon, and it promises to be a doozy one. In July, the big draw is going to be “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”, which is already starting to draw rave reviews, with “Hercules”, “The Purge: Anarchy”, “Sex Tape”, “Tammy”, and “Planes: Fire & Rescue” feeling very much like also-rans in comparisons. (Luc Besson’s “Lucy”, with Scarlett Johansson, is another matter.) August looks to be more exciting, with Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” starting the month off with a bang that will (hopefully) reverberate through late-summer films ranging from “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For” and “Get On Up” (a James Brown biopic) to “The Expendables 3” and “As Above, So Below”, with potential sleepers like “If I Stay”, “When the Game Stands Tall”, and “The Hundred-Foot Journey” looking to make an impression with adults after all the geek blockbusters we’ve seen this year. Me? I’ll take what I can get, and hopefully, these and other movies will deliver the goods before the Oscar season gets underway.

I can’t wait.

Viva La Resistance!

Brian Skutle

A Movie a Week

A Movie a Week: "Star Trek: First Contact"

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.

This is a movie, and review, that was largely written before Dragon*Con, but I didn’t have enough time to put the finishing touches on it before Con. That said, it didn’t take long for me to get things finished up so I could share my review for the 1996 film, “Star Trek: First Contact”, not long after. I hope you enjoy!

Brian Skutle

“Star Trek: First Contact” (1996)- A
It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that I’ve always been a bit more of a “Star Wars” fan than a “Star Trek” fan. That being said, there are a handful of the “Star Trek” films I’ve enjoyed watching over the years, and 1996’s “First Contact,” the first one to feature the crew of the “Next Generation” TV show exclusively, is one of those films.

I’m not about to get into a debate over which part of the franchise was better—original crew or “Next Generation” both have their strong points, and compelling characters all around. However, you ask which character is better between William Shatner’s Admiral Kirk and Patrick Stewart’s Jean-Luc Picard, and you might as well throw a hand grenade into the middle of a firefight; that’s how volatile things get. In a lot of head-to-heads, I think you’d find the original crew come out on top, but the Next Gen crew is probably the most diverse and fascinating group, and in “First Contact,” even if you’ve never seen an episode of “Next Generation,” it’s very easy to find yourself drawn in by the characters, and subsequently, the story. And as written by Brannon Braga and Ronald D. Moore, and directed by Jonathan Frakes, “First Contact” has not only a great “Star Trek” story, but a great sci-fi story, in general.

The film begins with Jean-Luc Picard having a nightmare about the Borg, a collective of half-human, half-machine beings who attack species through assimilation, a form of bringing others into their “hive mind.” Captain Picard has a unique perspective on the Borg, having once been assimilated himself. Now, the Borg is attacking the Federation, only Picard and the Enterprise are being kept out of the fighting as a result of his history. He is unable to stay away for long, though, because a group of Borg have traveled back in time in an attempt to change history, and undo the Federation forever. You see, in the early 21st century, a scientist and engineer by the name of Zefram Cochran (James Cromwell) develops the first warp technology, and during a landmark launch, is the one who makes first contact with alien life. This unites humanity like never before, bringing on the peace responsible for the Federation. Picard and his crew have to make sure that launch occurs, although the Borg, led by their queen (Alice Krige), have some surprises in store to keep the crew on it’s toes.

It didn’t occur to me until watching it again this morning that this has a lot of similarities in story structure to “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home,” widely considered one of the best “Trek” films. The Enterprise must travel back in time, and figure out a way to preserve a piece of the past, in both films, to save mankind’s future. Culture clash bits of humor ensue, although in “Voyage Home,” it was more overt, topical comedy. And as with Kirk, Picard becomes attached to one of the people (Lily, played by the great Alfre Woodard) who will bring forth this new era for man, although it’s not necessarily a romantic connection, but one of the mind. I can see why some people prefer Picard over Kirk—as played by Stewart, Picard is a cerebral captain, more oriented in his mind, so that when he does something impulsive, neither the characters, nor the audience, really see it coming. I can’t imagine anyone else in either this, or the other roles, for the “Next Generation” crew, whether you’re talking about Riker (Frakes); Geordi (played by LeVar Burton); Data (the superb Brent Spiner, given one of the more interesting arcs in the film); or Worf, the Klingon Federation leader played by Michael Dorn. Of course, six years ago, people were saying the same thing before J.J. Abrams and his expert cast changed the game. Still, one hopes that the reboot of the “Trek” universe will start creating new characters instead of just telling tales of characters we already know. After all, with the “Next Generation” crew in 1987, the “Trek” universe expanded into something much larger, and as the years have passed, “Trek” has moved into rarefied air as one of the bigger genre worlds in the history of science fiction.

Previous “A Movie a Week” Reviews
“Suspicion” (1941)
“The Big One” (1998)
“BASEketball” (1998)
“Parenthood” (1989)
“Seven Samurai” (1954)
“Beat the Devil” (1954)
“Robocop” (1987)
“Manhattan” (1979)
“Some Like It Hot” (1959)
“Inherit the Wind” (1960)
“College” (1927)
“The Muppet Movie” (1979)
“Requiem for a Dream” (2000)
“Howard the Duck” (1986)
“Ghostbusters” (1984)
“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)
“1941” (1979)
“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)
“Clerks” (1994)
“Star Trek: First Contact” (1996)

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.

Music News

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,

Brian Skutle
“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

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