Movie Review: ARRIVAL

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Movie Review ARRIVALParamount Pictures
2016
PG-13

“If you could see your whole life from start to finish, would you change things?”

When mysterious spacecrafts touch down across the globe, an elite team–lead by expert linguist Louise Banks–is brought together to investigate. As mankind teeters on the verge of global war, Banks and the team race against time for answers–and to find them, she will take a chance that could threaten her life, and quite possibly humanity.

It’s been a while since I’ve watched a good hard Science Fiction film. You know, one that isn’t just a space opera, or an action movie utilizing sci-fi undertones. I believe the last one I watched was Interstellar, when it was originally released in the tail end of 2015. And I would understand why, in this day and age, a hard Sci-Fi movie wouldn’t be as popular as it was back in the Before-I-Was-Born days (to borrow the non-excuse that is used for not knowing about something).

Spoilers ahead, in case you have yet to watch this movie yourself. You’ve been warned.

Arrival, not to be mistaken for the 1996 B-movie starring Charlie Sheen, finds the inhabitants of this blue spinning ball we call Earth suddenly visited by twelve extraterrestrial spacecraft landing and hovering above separate points across the globe, just kinda chilling and not doing anything. This, of course, causes the entire world’s population to collectively loose their heads; the military then, in an effort to determine if these are Independence Day type aliens we’re dealing with, or the more cuddly Close Encounters type aliens, they find a linguist and a physicist to bring to one of the spacecraft to try and make contact. The two begin bickering the moment they meet, so you know they’re going to totally hook up after they’re done trying to find a way to talk with the aliens and stuff. So, through the magic of montage, the two manage to figure you the alien language, which honestly looks at first like they’re just trolling us by showing a bunch of coffee stain pictures. But, language it is, and come to a rudimentary understanding of it they do, just in time for a bunch of the other countries the ships are over to start loosing their heads entirely and decide to do what humans do best: blow stuff up. Or, at least attempt to. This only slightly annoys them, and they shift upwards into the air a few hundred feet. The linguist finally figures out that, not only is this a language, but learning it unlocks time travel properties (don’t try and think about that too hard, your head will pop), and narrowly averts mutually assure destruction by utilizing the Bootstrap Paradox theory of time travel. The Doctor would be proud.

There’s a bunch more I left out of that Reader’s Digest Condensed Version of the description, because if I went over every bit of this movie that I happened to continue to chew over long after having watched this some time ago (would you believe it almost made me late for a Sabac game at a friend’s house because I refused to just stop it 20 minutes before the end…and nothing keeps me from my Sabac games), this humble review would go on for freaking ever. I will say, though, despite my pedantic issues I have with the time travel aspect of the movie (it’s subtle, but it will make your eyes bleed if you dwell on the implications and paradoxes contained therein), I found it very, very refreshing to watch a well-made hard science fiction movie that isn’t bogged down with ‘splosions and evil aliens and possibly Will Smith. The big twist with the language is still making my head swim, but that’s just me.

Or is it? I’m sure there are many more out there that are still chewing on this movie long after the end credits. I will now say that I’m joining the bandwagon of calling this a very, very good Sci-Fi flick that you don’t have to check your brain in at the door to enjoy, and recommend strongly to check it out some time soon.

Movie Review: The EDGE OF SEVENTEEN

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edge of seventeenSTX Entertainment
2016
R

“I don’t wanna take up a ton of your time, but I’m gonna kill myself. I just thought an adult should know.”

Everyone knows that growing up is hard, and life is no easier for high school junior Nadine, who is already at peek awkwardness, when her all-star older brother Darian starts dating her best friend Krista. All at once, Nadine feels more alone than ever, until the unexpected friendship of a thoughtful boy gives her a glimmer of hope that things just might not be so terrible after all.

To answer your unasked question: yes, I’m feeling okay. I’m fine, really. I understand your concern, because I’m reviewing what’s essentially a coming-of-age teen dramady, and an Oscar nominated film at that. To be fair, I am just as shocked as you are. But, to reiterate, I’m fine. No, really.

There’s a perfectly good reason why I decided to watch The Edge Of Seventheen. Well, two good reasons, actually: Hailee Steinfeld and Woody Harrelson.

Hailee Steinfeld, who plays the lead of the movie, blew me away with her performance in the True Grit remake in 2010. And she was only 14 then, with that movie being her first. Now, she’s a bit older, with some more experience, which brought a rather nuanced and delightfully complex take to the character of Nadine. Woody Harrelson plays a grizzled teacher that at first seem to be a mere curmudgeon, but then there’s more underneath the crusty outer shell through all this.

It’s the interaction between these two characters that is this movie’s best feature. Watching these two trade some smartly written barbs between each other was fantastic. Harrelson’s reaction to Nadine’s opening suicide threat proclamation is especially dry and hilarious.

Beyond that, though, The Edge Of Seventeen is just another teen dramady where something otherwise benign makes said teen’s world begin to crumble around them, teen does stupid things as reactionary something-something, then teen has epiphany and everything is all sunshine, rainbows and unicorn farts. And puppies. Let’s not forget the puppies. End on an up-tempo indie rock tune for the credits, and you get the idea.

Yeah, had it not been for the the presence of Steinfeld and Harrelson, chances are good I never would have given The Edge Of Seventeen a second thought. And, unfortunately for those of you hoping I would give up my particular taste in movie genres and embrace “good” movies..nope. Whole lotta nope. Sorry, but this did nothing of the sort. It’s a very good movie, don’t get me wrong. It’s just not my cinematic poison.

Movie Review: RAGAMUFFIN

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1-26 - Movie Review: RAGAMUFFINDuality
2014
PG-13

Ragamuffin is based on the life of Rich Mullins, a musical prodigy who rose to Christian music fame and fortune only to walk away and live on a Navajo reservation. An artistic genius, raised on a tree farm in Indiana by a callous father, Rich wrestled all of his life with the brokenness and crippling insecurity born of his childhood. A lover of Jesus and a rebel in the church, Rich refused to let his struggles with his own darkness tear him away from a God he was determined to love. As he struggled with success in Nashville and depression in Witchita, Rich desired most of all to live a life of honest and reckless faith amidst a culture of religion and conformity.

Well, now. Here’s a rarity: A Christian film that I was actually looking forward to watching. This one being a dramatic biopic of CCM’s favorite hippie, Rich Mullins.

If you’re not familiar with Rich Mullins, he’s the guy who inadvertently wrote all those youth group campfire worship songs you were forced to sing. He was second only to Kieth Green as far as ironically being embraced by CCM culture while actively and vocally despising it himself. And like Keith Green, he too was taken from us tragically at too young an age.

As far as I go, I do have an appreciation of the man’s music. I mean, I happen to be one of those part-time WGWAGs that accompanies the the youth group in singing “Awesome God” ad nausium. Although, I do have a bit of a liking for more of his “screw the Christian Industry” period, as I did actively own A Liturgy, A Legacy, And A Ragamuffin Band at one time. Lost in the shuffle. Haven’t replaced it yet. Waiting for it to come out on vinyl. Carrying on…

Long story short, I was anxious to watch Ragamuffin, not because I’m a big fanboy of his music (I’m not), but more because I’m a fan of what he had to say about his faith and his interaction with other Christians in this world, and more to the point, what he had to say about the Christian culture and industry he found himself in.

After an opening where the movie Rich Mullins is talking on-air with a radio DJ that looked more like Rich Mullins than the actor did (because the DJ was played by Rich’s brother Dave), we go through Rich’s life growing up a farm boy who looked at things a bit differently, much to the chagrin of his old-fashioned father. He then heads off to college, where he meets up with like-minded friends, share a house, and start playing music in various churches and coffee houses. He finds himself pursued by CCM suits due to Amy Grant wanting to record one of the songs he wrote; he’s hesitant at first but then relents and goes to Nashville, where he at first works with Amy Grant, then manages to start a solo career. The response is lukewarm at first, but then he writes “Awesome God” which explodes and becomes his most famous song he never wanted to play live again. The CCM execs want more, but then Rich gets sidetracked by wanting to voluntarily live in poverty teaching music to Navajo children. All the while, he’s wrestling with God and his faith in a world he views as superficial and draining, his depression starting to get the best of him, until he happens upon a copy of The Ragamuffin Gospel. Then he gets into an accident and is killed. The end.

I know, I know, it sounds like I’m doing one of those sarcastic irreverent reviews, but I assure you I am not. As a matter of fact, I would like to say that Ragamuffin was one of those Christian movies that happens to be the exception that proves the rule: This movie did not gloss over things and presented a shiny, happy portrayal of the artist. Neither did the movie seem to over-exaggerate the more controversial aspects to the story for the sake of sensationalism. It did a great job in presenting a man who was a broken servant of Jesus, struggling with his faith in a very real way. There’s a scene here where Rich, in the midst of a depressive swing and crushed with lonliness in Nashville tries to call his parents and his friends, but just misses them as they leave right before the phone rings, and he finally collapses in the phone booth in tears. I actually had to pause the movie more than a couple of times, due to the emotional response this movie had on me. Well played, movie. Well played.

On the other hand, though, I don’t think the movie really captured Rich Mullins’ sense of humor. Mind you, I never met the man and cannot claim to personally know this, but from what I’ve read from people who did know him, that’s the one universal complaint from them: that they didn’t capture Rich’s sense of humor. And I have to admit, much of the time the movie Rich just comes off as more cynical and angst-ridden. And maybe as an unintended contrast to that, the end credits have a video of the real Rich Mullins on stage telling a story which ends in a punchline that had me laughing pretty good.

That said, Ragamuffin is a great movie, it doesn’t gloss over things that I myself have been open about struggling with, and is a movie I think every youth group in America should be forced to watch at least once. Bring the snacks and the tissues.

Movie Review: C ME DANCE

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c me danceUplifting Entertainment
2009
PG

“I know this sounds weird Sheri, but it’s as if God has chosen you. And if that’s the truth, man this is going to tick off the Devil.”

C ME Dance is the story of a teenage girl, Sheri, who has trained her entire life to dance for the Pittsburgh Ballet. At 17 years of age, her dream comes true, until she finds out that she is dying of cancer. One night after extensive prayer by Sheri and her father, Vince, while asking God for strength and clarity, a miracle happens: Sheri discovers she is able to bring people to Christ effortlessly. The devil finds out and tries to intervene. He manifests and comes to earth-let the thrill ride begin!

I have to come out and admit it: watching C Me Dance has left me speechless. After watching this movie, I am left completely baffled as to what I can actually say that would describe this movie to you, tender readers, and do it justice. The best way I can actually do so is to run my finger up and down my lips rapidly, making that “B-B-B-B-B-B-B-B-B-B-B-B” noise to signify that I have just watched something so inanely nonsensical that my brain finally went “that’s it, screw you guys, I’m headed to my Happy Place” partway through in an effort to maintain sanity. It happens more times than I care to admit, when it comes to watching movies. But, I’m going to give it my best shot, as a dedicated pseudo journalist, to convey to you the pain I experienced while watching this movie.

We begin the movie with a lady being chased down by a rogue semi truck. Why she’s being chased by said semi is never explained; later on in the movie, it’s said in a throwaway line that the truck was out of control because of a flat tire, but that’s not how that works. Come to think of it, if there was a homicidal, maybe even demon-possessed truck driver bent on the destruction of the family for whatever dark secrets the father was hiding, then this would have been an slightly interesting movie. Lost potential, there. Anyway, there’s a baby on board, and when the car goes up in a spectacular fireball ‘sposion, the kid somehow survives unscathed. Fast forward 17 years or so, and little Sheri is a teenager who just wants to dance and hang out (presumably in that order) and fulfills her life-long dream of joining the Pittsburgh Ballet Theater. Only, faster than you can say “hackneyed plot contrivance”, she also soon thereafter is diagnosed with a rare blood disease of nondescript. This causes her to spiral into a…well, not so much a depression-fueled rage against God and her dad, and more of a whiny hissy fit. Meanwhile, her dad is agonizing over the prospect of losing his daughter, and prays for her to not stray from God. To which God apparently responds to by gifting Sheri with the ability to convert anyone to Christ Jesus just by making physical contact with them. Because apparently that’s a thing that can happen, despite never hearing about anything like that in my over twenty-five years as a Christian myself. Five of those involved with a Charismatic Pentecostal denomination, if that tells you anything. Anyway, this horks off Satan like none other, so he sends guys in trench coats to…walk around and look all menacing and stuff. I guess. Of course, this doesn’t stop Sheri’s supernatural ministry of taking everyone on a feels trip (see what I did there?). Then she dies at Christmas from the nondescript rare blood disease. The end.

Okay, so apparently I was able to find the words to use in this review. I have to ask, though: Which is worse? The fact that this movie was made, or the fact that this movie was given an actual theatrical release? It was in 150 theaters, mind you, but that was 149 more than The Crow: Wicked Prayer was released to. And while that movie was bad, at least it was a well-made bad movie, when compared to C Me Dance.

Watching C Me Dance is insulting on soooooooo many levels, I don’t even know where to begin. How about the script and acting that would make Tommy Wiseau cringe in embarrassment? How about the numerous leaps of logic in the story that could clear tall buildings in a single bound? Or how about the fact that the guy responsible for this holy mess—writer, director, producer and star Greg Robbins—actually got his start as an actor, and perusing his IMDB page shows us he’s been involved with movies like the original Terminator and Re-Animator. Meaning, he knew what he was doing; this wasn’t a case of a well-meaning yet inexperienced Christian deciding to make a movie with a message despite their lack of talent. Greg Robbins knew better, and yet he went ahead and did it anyway. But no…all of that pales to the fact that, for whatever bewildering reason, several Christian sites and reviews actually praises C Me Dance as a quality movie to use as an outreach, and anyone who disagrees is anti-Christian and should keep our destining opinions to ourselves. In short, movies like C Me Dance happen because we let them happen.

Well, now. Writing this was actually kind of cathartic. Still, did not enjoy having to conjurer up the memory of this movie just to write this. In short, C Me Dance is an embarrassing redefinition of the term “ham-fisted Christian propaganda disguised as entertainment”, and should be watched only by those whose taste in bad movies border on self-flagellation.

Movie Review: METALHEAD

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metalheadeOne Films
2013
NR

On a rural cow farm in Iceland Hera’s brother is killed in an accident and she blames herself for his death. In her grieve [sic] Hara finds solace in the dark music of heavy metal and dreams of becoming a rock star.

I first heard about the foreign film Metalhead on the Metal Sucks website that I frequent years ago. Back then, it was still making the rounds at the usual film festivals that go on in Europe. Of course, it had a title that guaranteed my attention.

The description intrigued me further: An Icelandic farm girl grows despondent after the tragic death of her older brother and turns to the Undisputed Music of Awesome–namely, \,,/METAL\,,/–to help cope. And embrace it she does: She not only wears her brother’s collection of vintage, drool-worthy band t-shirts and listens to it constantly within her room festooned with posters and magazine pin-ups, but she also composes her own music. But unfortunately, since she is a teenager, she also has a few additional forms of self-expression, most on the destructive shenanigans side of things–breaking into the neighbor’s houses in the middle of the night to drink their booze, stealing tractors for joyrides, setting their cows free, hijacking the PA system at the slaughterhouse and cranking \,,/METAL\,,/ through them, making passes at the new pastor of their church, things like that. Ah, memories. Anyway, after her childhood friend proposes to her, and her advances at the single pastor were rebuffed, she reacts in the only logical way she knows how: burning the local church down. This proves to be one step too far for the townsfolk, and she makes off for the hills (literally), where she nearly freezes to death, and sees a brief vision of her dead brother, and makes her way back to a forgiving village and accepts the marriage proposal of one of her childhood friends, assimilating into normal rural Icelandic routine. Of course, she’s absolutely soul-crushed, but what is there else to do? Nothing but play doting farmer’s wife…until a trio of Norwegian Black Metal musicians show up in her village looking for her, due to coming across a copy of her demo tape and totally wanting to join her band. So then she drops her metal-hating fiancée and joins up with the guys and plays a totally awesome set at the village’s community dinner-thing. The movie ends with the teenage girl and her two parents dancing to Megadeth’s “Symphony Of Destruction”.

Metalhead falls under the category of Coming-Of-Age Drama that utilizes a bit of pop culture as part of the context of the story, instead of Metalsploitation. I wasn’t really expecting Metalsploitation, mind you, but I would be lying if I said that the presence of \,,/METAL\,,/ wasn’t the sole reason for me buying the streaming version on my Google Play account. I wanted to see how well the \,,/METAL\,,/ references were worked in, regardless of how boring the movie might actually be.

Fortunately, even though it’s not one of the genres I usually glom to for my cinematic downtime, Metalhead turned out to be a rather good movie, well-shot and well-acted. Yes, it’s a foreign film, and yes it has English subtitles, but I found that the actors conveyed their characters very well, to where I probably didn’t really need the subtitles to read the dialog coming from their expressions and performance. The \,,/METAL\,,/ is used well as a good framing device, and not as an afterthought, which is refreshing, to say the least. And finally, we get a depiction of a Christian minister that not only not portrayed in the typical cinematic manner–i.e., judgmental, self-righteous and possibly psychotic–but actually had a history with \,,/METAL\,,/, and understood Hera’s interest in the music.

Overall, Metalhead was very much worth a watch. It’s a compelling drama that is refreshingly saccharine-free, and actually gets the whole \,,/METAL\,,/ part of things right. To say nothing of how awesome the soundtrack is. Definitely worth checking out.

Book Review: DIARY

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Diary (Chuck Palahniuk)Chuck Palahniuk
Anchor Books
2003

Today is the longest day of the year—but anymore, everyday is. The weather today is increasing concern followed by full blown dread. The man calling from Long Beach, he says his bathroom is missing.

Misty Wilmott has had it. Once a promising young artist, she’s drinking too much and working as a waitress in a hotel. Her husband, a contractor, is in a coma after a suicide attempt, and his clients are threatening Misty with lawsuits over a series of vile messages they’ve discovered on the walls of houses he remodeled. Suddenly, Misty’s artistic talent returns. Inspired but confused by a burst of creativity, she soon finds herself a pawn in a larger conspiracy that threatens to cost hundreds of lives.

Diary is Chuck Palahniuk’s sixth novel, and the third one of his that I’ve read overall. I will admit, Palahniuk’s style of writing is rather unique and intriguing, kind of a stream-of-consciousness by way of fever dream. One might say it’s kind of a William S. Burroughs of the time, with a liberal peppering of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. But, just so you know, I’m not trying to paint him as the sum of those parts—Chuck Palahniuk is Chuck Palahniuk. Period.

Diary, it seems, is one of the three titles that fall in the so-called “horror trilogy”, including Lullaby and Haunted. This is more psychological horror than the violent splatterfest most would associate with the word “horror”; and in Palahniuk’s writing style, the sense of paranoia and mounting dread is amplified with a shiny coat of surreal dark humor and a rather twisted point-of-view. The whole thing is deliciously off-putting, and by the time you got to the end all too soon, you begin to question your own sanity itself.

Overall, Diary was a nice little mind-bending vacation from reality.

Movie Review: DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES

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Dawn-of-the-Planet-of-the-Apes-Caesar-poster20th Century Fox
2014
PG-13

“I always think…ape better than human. I see now…how much like them we are.”

A growing nation of genetically evolved apes led by Caesar is threatened by a band of human survivors of the devastating virus unleashed a decade earlier. They reach a fragile peace, but it proves short-lived, as both sides are brought to the brink of a war that will determine who will emerge as Earth’s dominant species.

The sequel to the 2011 reboot prequel (I think I gave my brain whiplash typing that) to the Planet Of The Apes franchise takes place ten years after the so-called Simian Flu has all but decimated the human race. The riots, looting and sheer survival violence that followed notwithstanding. Meanwhile, Caesar and hsi merry band of super-intelligent apes have grown into a mighty tribe in the woods outside of San Francisco, with both groups of apes and humans pretty much keeping to themselves. Until one fateful day a group of humans stumble upon some apes in the woods, and wackiness doth ensue. Let’s just say, shooting first and asking questions later never works well. Anyway, after having their collective butts handed to them, the humans limp back to their city encampment. Seems they were hiking in the woods to reach and possibly fix a hydro-electric dam to restore power to the city, and weren’t counting on running into the apes. The apes, on the other hand, still are quite wary of any humans encroaching on their territory; hoping to squelch any future hostility, Caesar rides to the human encampment to warn them not to try returning to the ape-controlled woods. But then the humans figure they could work together with the apes to repair the dam and restore the power in the human camp, which works fine for a bit…unil another ape going by the name of Koba decides he’s had enough of this collaboration with the damned dirty humans (see what I did there?), and attempts an assassination of Caesar to frame the humans and begin a war. Things don’t go well thereafter.

I have to admit, I do like where this reboot prequel series is going with the overall storyline of the classic Planet Of The Apes series. The story is very Shakespearian in scope, lending some depth to the characters, human and otherwise. The movie manages to avoid going the cut-and-dried route with the characterizations, especially when it came to the humans-vs-apes philosophies and politics. And lest I go off on a discussion on the moral implications of the story, let me move on to the other parts of the movie I enjoyed. Namely, the effects were once again well made, making good with the CGI aspects, the actors worked very well together, and overall the entire movie moved with a fluidness that kept me engaged throughout the run time.

This time out, I waited until the movie was released on DVD before I gave it a watch, instead of catching it on the theatrical run. The Planet Of The Apes movies are ones that, if I were to watch them in the theater, then I’d like some of my friends to watch with me, and unfortunately I couldn’t talk any of my usual compatriots to come with. Regardless, I found Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes to be another decent entry in the revived franchise, and I’m curious as to how this will all play out. As if I didn’t already know.

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