As of Monday, February 23, 2015, Sonic Cinema is officially accepting filmmaker inquiries about having films reviewed on the site. That said, if a backlog exists in such inquiries, it might take a while to get to all of them. Thank you for your patience, and for sharing your art with us. -Brian Skutle
2015 at the Movies: January-April
I have a feeling this is going to be a running theme in the years to come when it comes to reviewing movies…
In the past few years, it’s not really a secret to my long-time readers (if there are any left) that a lot of reviews have been coming in later and later, if at all, even for some of the bigger movies. Case in point: I didn’t see three of this year’s Best Picture Oscar nominees until after the ceremony itself. There are a lot of reasons for this, but the truth is, it’s just been difficult to keep up with all my different responsibilities, while also maintaining a personal life, as well as finding time for myself. This year, that has included trying to initiate a change in career from the full-time job I’ve held at the movie theatre for 13-plus years to getting my foot in the door as a film composer after having completed my Certificate program through the Berklee College of Music online. (More on that in my next music update.) While I love writing about movies, whether they are new releases or older films, that is what I ultimately have to focus on right now, so if I don’t get to some of the bigger releases in a timely manner, that’s kind of how it’s going to be for some time, and believe me, I won’t like it any more than you will.
The past four months, and start of 2015, has been less devoted to seeing movies in theatres, and more in catching up with the screener requests filmmakers have been sending me over the years. The past year, while trying to work through the loss of my father, I got even more behind than usual on these, but as we head into this summer, I’m pleased to announce that, for the first time in a few years, I am completely caught up with these requests, which will definitely help free up some time. Since I started receiving these requests on a regular basis in 2009, the films I’ve seen have been a memorable and vital piece of continuing my love of cinema. Not all of them are going to be as polished as your “Furious 7s” or “Kingsmans,” but the best ones are just as assured, and more rewarding, than anything Hollywood puts out. These films are also the reason this year’s viewing list is up to 26 rather than 10, with an even split between feature-length films and shorts currently. With luck, I won’t get that far behind again.
What follows is a rundown of the movies I’ve seen that qualify for my personal 2015 calendar year, and if you haven’t heard of a lot of them, don’t worry, but also, don’t let it dissuade you from seeking them out online. Check out the reviews, and you might discover something special you otherwise wouldn’t know about. That’s a big part of why I love checking out these requests, and it’s lead to some rewarding bonds with some of the actors and filmmakers involved. After that, you’ll see my list of the movies I’m most looking forward to this summer, and yes, the movie opening this coming weekend is at the top of this list.
The Cream of the Crop: Right now, my feature-length moviewatching has been limited pretty significantly, so I don’t have a whole lot in that arena to choose from. That said, what I have seen has been above average, for the most part—no one has hit that coveted “A+” realm yet. What’s stood out thus far, though, are short films; the only feature that really cracked this level so far is Alex Gibney’s hot-button Scientology documentary, “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief”. In terms of shorts, the best ones have been character-driven jewels, like “It’s Not You”, “Leaving” and “Akibet (Aftermath)”, with a more experimental film in “World Spins Madly On” hitting those emotional notes while also being inventive in how it does so.
Genre Gems: A few films have found a way to work genre conventions into imaginative movie experiences. Starting with some shorts, there’s a supernatural thriller (“Junkie Heaven”) and a zombie comedy (“The Last Taxi Driver”) out in front, with a film noir drama (“That Terrible Jazz”) not far behind. And even though we don’t really think about musicals as genre films, they are, and the indie adaptation of “The Last Five Years”, with lovely, heartbreaking feeling as a relationships starts, and falls apart, is a moving experience with the best of this year, so far.
Serious Contenders: Before pointing out some of the year’s best dramatic offerings, and some of our first feature-length stand outs, some appreciation must be given to two comedic shorts (“Please Punish Me” and “No Headache Tonight”) that really hit the right notes, as well as an animated feature from Dreamworks (“Home”) that could have been a lot worse than it was, and is one of the best efforts from the studio in a while. Now, it’s time to highlight some dramatic efforts that work well, while also covering a lot of different ground in terms of perspectives and cultures. First up are the latest films from a couple of great filmmakers, Edgar Muniz (“Famous James”) and Spike Lee (“Da Sweet Blood of Jesus”)—neither are quite among their director’s best work, but they showed a lot of the singular vision and intelligence I admire from both. Next up are an intimate, odd little road movie about people going home for a personal event (“Different Drum”) and a glossy, Oscar-primed drama that brings true events to life, and history to the forefront (“Woman in Gold”)—both have strong virtues going for them, but neither will likely find their way among my favorites for the year.
More Genre Goodies: The next few films fit into certain genres, and even if they don’t have all it takes to be at the top of what I’ve seen this year, they’ve all had something to offer, be it a great ending and some wild action (“Furious Seven”); a diabolical spin on the spy formula (“Kingsman: The Secret Service”); some scary horror/thriller mood and images (“Desert Noir”, “Music Store Massacre” and “Do Not Press”); a personal spin of an iconic genre (the mob movie, courtesy of “My Father My Don”); some uncomfortable laughs (“The Best Birthday Ever”), and some stylish character work in a studio caper (“Focus”).
Studio Slip-Ups: First of all, the first two films here are passable entertainments, with the first one being a relative success. But all three have one thing in common—pandering to the lowest common denominator when it comes to giving audiences choices to watch in theatres. The first one, I can understand why it was made; the other two, both sequels, were pointless exercises in filmmaking-by-committee. Let’s start with “Fifty Shades of Grey”: if nothing else, it showed that Dakota Johnson was a more than capable star, because her performance as Anastasia Steele is the biggest thing going for this movie, and not just because of her frequent nudity, though I will admit that the soundtrack is pretty great to listen to. I’d like to see them avoid filming the follow-up books in E.L. James’s series, but since the movie was the year’s highest grossing until “Furious Seven” came out, there’s no chance that’s going to happen, meaning we could be seeing more “Fifty Shades” in the presence of pointless sequels like the other two films here, “Taken 3” and “Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2”. Neither needed to be made, and nothing in either film, even the memorable showdown between Blart and a peacock (with a pianist just blissfully looking on, not caring about Blart getting beaten up by a peacock), is strong enough to make me think otherwise. Hopefully, none of the sequels listed below will make me feel the same way.
Brian’s 8 “Must-See” Movies for This Summer
1. “The Avengers: Age of Ultron” (5/1)- Joss Whedon and Marvel were a match made in heaven back in 2012. Now, it’s time to take “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes” to Hell and back in Whedon’s second, and last, time at the helm of Marvel’s flagship.
2. “Jurassic World” (6/12)- Because executive producer Steven Spielberg seems to have found the right blend of fun and dramatic sci-fi after the last two “Jurassic” films flamed out.
3. “Inside Out” (6/19)- From the director of “Up,” my favorite Pixar film, comes another original family treat, about the emotions that make up a little girl. If it’s half as good as “Up,” we’re in for a real treat.
4. “Pitch Perfect 2” (5/15)- One of 2012’s biggest surprise hits gets a sequel. When Anna Kendrick sings, and gets to be snarky, it’s never a bad thing.
5. “Mad Max: Fury Road” (5/15)- George Miller finally got his fourth “Max” film made. The action looks like he hasn’t missed a beat in the 30 years since the third film—can Tom Hardy fill Mel Gibson’s post-apocalyptic boots as the hero? You can be sure I’ll be finding out.
6. “Ant Man” (7/17)- When Edgar Wright left this Marvel property after developing it over eight years, even I was ready to write it off as a rare Marvel misfire. But the two trailers we’ve seen point to, at least, a double a la “The Incredible Hulk” and “Thor” from director Peyton Reed and star Paul Rudd.
7. “Straight Outta Compton” (8/14)- Ice Cube and Dr. Dre produce this drama about their start as the controversial rap group N.W.A. The director is F. Gary Grey, whose work includes “Friday,” “The Negotiator,” “Set It Off” and “The Italian Job,” and is typically entertaining and energetic.
8. “Tommorowland” (5/22)- Brad Bird is one of the most talented directors in Hollywood, and with the fourth “Mission: Impossible” movie, he took that talent to live-action filmmaking. Now, he’s using that skill set on a Disney adventure based on one of their long-time attractions. If anyone can make that special, it’s the director of “The Iron Giant,” “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille.”
Viva La Resistance!
A Movie a Week
A Movie a Week: "Mad Max"
Here we are, at last, as we begin the seventh year of this series. The past few years, I’ve gotten painfully behind at times delivering these reviews, but no time was worse than the last part of 2014, when I basically had to do two reviews a week sometimes just to catch up. Now that last year is finished up, it’s time to start this year.
The “new normal” of my life without my father, and a lot of balls in the air at the same time, is starting to normalize. Part of what kept me so behind last year was my decision to take online courses in film music at the Berklee College of Music, and it was a wonderful choice, even if it was stressful at times. Now, I have a body of work I can share, and hopefully get my foot in the door of something I love. But this is about reviewing movies, my other big love, so let’s get to it.
This year will feature a lot of the same mix of old favorites with movies I haven’t seen before that has been something of a regular happening the past few years in this column, and that will start right off the bat. For this year’s “bookend director,” I decided to go with a filmmaker who isn’t as highly regarded as some of my other choices, but definitely a personal favorite of mine. He’s directed some of my all-time favorite genre films over the years, and the more I’ve watched them, the more they find a place in my cinematic memory. That’s the hallmark of a great filmmaker, and as with Alfred Hitchcock (last year’s bookend), Richard Donner knows exactly how to push an audience’s buttons, and entertain them easily.
This week, it’s time to watch a film that, as hard as it is to believe, I’d never seen before. Yeah, there are a lot of films I haven’t seen, but given my mother’s one-time crush on Mel Gibson, it’s unfathomable that George Miller’s “Mad Max” didn’t pass my eyeballs until now. Just in time for the release of Miller’s newest “Mad Max” adventure. I hope you enjoy!
“Mad Max” (1979)- A
My image of Max Rockatansky, whom audiences know affectionately as Mad Max, is so dominated by the way the character is in “The Road Warrior” that seeing him as a family man and joking around with his fellow officers in 1979’s “Mad Max” is a bit of a surprise. By the time “Road Warrior” starts, Max is hardened, violent and uncontrollable. In a way, this is the opposite of the evolution Martin Riggs, Mel Gibson’s character in the “Lethal Weapon” series, underwent, where the character started out hollow and became human throughout the course of the series. The fact that Gibson could play both emotional ranges effortlessly made it no surprise that he became one of the biggest stars of the ‘80s and ‘90s, with these two franchises being the cornerstones of his stardom for many years. Today, however, I’m only focusing on his breakout film, which is about to have it’s third sequel released this Friday.
The driving force of “Mad Max,” and the subsequent franchise, is not so much Gibson, however, but the vision of co-writer/director George Miller, who has made all four films in the series. Recently, Miller has been known for family films such as the “Happy Feet” animated movies (which he directed, and won an Oscar for the first film) and the “Babe” films (he produced the first one, but directed the second), but it’s his “Max” series that will define his legacy as a filmmaker. For most audiences, the high-water mark of car chases and action scenes are the “Fast & Furious” movies, but rewatching Miller’s magic in this first film, and thinking about “The Road Warrior,” only illustrate how much later films owe to the clarity of chaos Miller has in store in these films.
The screenplay by Miller and James McCausland isn’t complicated, but it doesn’t need to be. The film starts off with a high-speed chase in a land in the not-too-distant future between cops and a criminal known as Night Rider and his girl. After his fellow officers are out of commission, Max takes over the hunt, and it’s not long before Night Rider is dead, and while Max is celebrated for his work, he also has a target on his back as a result from the gang, led by the ruthless Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne). That target extends to his friends and family, and after one of his friends is attacked and burned by the gang, Max quits the force for the safety of his wife and their young child, although even that might not even help.
What propels this story is the action, and while Miller went bigger, and better, in “Road Warrior,” the chase sequences, and how they fit into the narrative, are no less impressive. Apart from the excellent stuntmen, the MVPs of these sequences are cinematographer David Eggby and editors Cliff Hayes and Tony Paterson, who realize Miller’s vision in a way that makes absolute sense visually. The problem with a lot of the scenes from the “Fast & Furious” and “Transformer” movies is not so much anything technical but that from a filmmaking standpoint, they lose focus and don’t really orient the viewer to what they’re watching. Not so with Miller’s sequences for the “Max” movies, which is why it’s not nothing that he’s directing this year’s “Fury Road.” He understands action filmmaking not just on a technical level but a storytelling level, and how the juxtaposition of shots in a particular order, as well as the type of shots, have a particular emotional impact on the viewers. A carefully placed close-up can add profound meaning to an action sequence—it’s not just about apocalyptic chaos and mayhem (hear that Michael Bay?). The best action is less about the action itself but about how the characters are developed through the action on-screen, and Miller is one of the all-time masters in that department.
The setting of “Mad Max” may be desolate and primitive, but how those conditions, and what happens throughout the film’s 94 minutes, are important to how we identify with Max and become engaged in his story, and that’s where Gibson comes in to take us home. “Mad Max” was only his third film, but already, Gibson had something about him that assured his rise to stardom. Max was a perfect role to put that on display, as we see Gibson as not just a loving family man with his wife and son, but also as a single-minded madman when they’re threatened. This role set the template for a lot of Gibson’s most memorable characters in the years to come, and given how much we’ve seen Gibson’s personal demons come out in recent years, it’s not hard to see why he is so at home in both personas. Mad Mel was always a bit different than his contemporaries in how that dark side came out in even his heroic roles, and it’s part of why villain roles (like he’s taken on in “Machete Kills” and “Expendables 3”) might be his road back to the good graces of audiences, and his fellow filmmakers, after the darkness that’s ruined his life the past decade. It’s too late for “Fury Road,” but if Miller gets a chance at a fifth “Max” film, it might be good to see Gibson go after the new Max, Tom Hardy, in a battle royale in the Australian Outback. I’d pay to see that in a heartbeat.
Previous “A Movie a Week” Reviews
“The Goonies” (1985)
“The Outlaw Josey Wales” (1976)
“Conan the Barbarian” (1982)
“The Muppets Take Manhattan” (1984)
“The Lover” (1992)
“4 Little Girls” (1997)
“The Godfather Part III” (1990)
“Blue Chips” (1994)
“The Paper” (1994)
“Ace in the Hole” (1951)
“In a Lonely Place” (1950)
“The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1939)
“Wings of Desire” (1987)
“Mad Max” (1979)
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.
See Brian’s list of 2014 “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: April 2015
It’s been nearly a year since I last updated on Sonic Cinema on my musical exploits. Truth is, I’ve been pretty busy with a lot of balls juggling in the air, so I haven’t been able to update quite as regularly as I’d prefer. But here we are, almost done with the first third of 2015, and it’s definitely been a ride.
Last year, most of the year saw my creative energies being focused on academic pursuits. If you’ll recall, in April of last year I started a 3-course certificate program through the Berklee College of Music online for Music for Film & TV. The last time I updated on my “Musical Happenings,” I had just finished my first course, Film Scoring 101, which confirmed a lot of my own previous experience in the subject, but also gave me a better understanding of the spotting process and syncing to picture than I previously had. Well, in December of last year, I completed the program with two As and an A-, and received my certificate in the mail in February. Now, it’s time to put this added experience into use, and get some changes happening in terms of my career.
Creatively, the courses I took through Berklee expanded my knowledge about the field of film music, heightened my appreciation for the art form, and gave me a lot of chances to spread my wings as a composer. The third course in the program was devoted to breaking down conventions of genre writing, and scoring a scene in that genre using the techniques we learned. This was invaluable to me, not only because it allowed me more exposure in some types of writing I hadn’t done before (like comedy and romance), but because it showed me just how limited some of my thinking as a composer had been in terms of film scoring. As with classical music, there are different conventions and theoretical ideas at play when scoring different types of scenes that can only be understood when you break down examples of those pieces. It was like Music Theory for Film Music, and if I had only taken that course alone, it would have been worth it, but all three courses had invaluable information to learn. The culmination of that last course was the creation of a demo reel of some of our work, which you can hear below.
In terms of looking for opportunities to apply my craft towards film scoring, it’s been relatively slow to start out, but I’ve actually got more potential resources than I think. One of the things I’ve been doing is reaching out to some of the filmmakers I’ve come in contact with in accepting review requests for Sonic Cinema, not necessarily asking them to consider using me, but maybe putting the word out with people they may know looking for a composer. More recently, though, I joined an Atlanta filmmakers meetup group I found online, and that is already heading in the direction of making a short film after two recent meetings. (I might even be doing production sound and the overall mix, as well.) It’s a very exciting project, already, and being able to be a part of it from the start has been great knowledge.
In terms of personal musical projects, the past year has been light on it. I eschewed my usual October composing due to class and personal responsibilities, although I did record a couple of pieces I had written in 2013, one solo harpsicord piece (“Haunted By the Past”) and one flute piece (“Into the Dark Alone”). Otherwise, there were only three original works that were for something other than classes. The first was a piece for band (a configuration I’ve wanted to write for for some time) entitled “Interludes for Winds, Marimba and Timpani”, followed up by an electronic piece called “Cosmic Energy”. The last piece was more personal, and actually partially inspired by my classes. After looking at positive emotional scoring, including romantic writing, a seed of an idea took hold, and turned into a piece dedicated to my wonderful girlfriend of now 2-plus years, Meredith. It’s a piece for strings, winds and synthesizer, and it’s called “Serenity Valley: A Melody for Meredith”, and it’s one of the very best pieces I’ve ever written, in my opinion. It won’t be the only one she inspires in the years to come, that’s for sure.
That’s all I have for now in terms of my musical endeavors. It’s been quite a transitional time for me in my life, and hopefully, the work I’ve done in the past year will lead to a dramatic transition that leads to the life, and career, I’ve wanted for years. Thank you all who have been following and supporting me all this time.
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