The Inner Child is Awakened

It is rare when a movie beckons me to the theatre for multiple viewings, but director J.J. Abrams found a way. He brought to the screen something familiar, yet new in the absolutely fantastic “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”  image_60d589c5

With storylines, scenes, and concepts borrowed from the original trilogy, I found myself feeling as if I was in a comfortable pair of jeans that somehow felt fresh and clean at the same time. It is unique when I am so taken by a film-going experience, that I immediately want to view it again … and again … and again. But that is exactly what happened with Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

In this seventh installment of this Star Wars series, a young orphaned  woman Rey (Daisy Ridley) stumbles into a storyline of espionage, war, evil sprouting from the seeds of the finn_450f054bhistory, and a mystery concerning her very own back story. When the monstrous military Nazi-like   First Order seeks to destroy the New Republic and all that is good in the universe, only a hero of the past, a droid with a secret map, and a new hope for the future stands in their way. Rey finds herself teaming up with Finn, a former First Order stormtrooper (John Boyega) who leaves the military power because he realizes “it’s the right thing to do.” Together they ultimately embark on an adventure to save the New Republic from total destruction. Somewhere along the way they come across a Wookie and a smuggler (guess who); a band of misfits at a cantina; space battles galore; a small Force-Sensative enigmatic creature with a wealth of wisdom and secrets; and one big bad masked dude dressed in black, and wielding a nasty light saber as a weapon.
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Star Wars: The Force Awakens provides a full balance in a film by providing wonderfully written dialogue, a flawless blend of action, adventure and humor, perfect locations, engaging characters (old and new), and award-caliber special effects and musical score –  this film was my favorite movie-going experience of the year.

While so many of these scenes and themes were familiar to me, somehow if felt right… perfect. It was as if I was viewing something that reminded me of why I’ve always loved going to the movies in the first place. At the very core of reviewing films, I seek to be entertained above all. After all, that’s why my parents first took me to films when I was a kid. So when a film like this comes along that can transport someone back to that first joy, it is truly something remarkable and worthy of
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Star Wars: The Force Awakens has earned a Cinemascene score card rating of “A+” and it has  the potential of being one of the largest box-office draws of all time.

You can guarantee that I will go back to the theatre and pay mucho bucks to see this film on multiple viewings 🙂

The film is rated PG-13 and introduces new actors to the Star Wars universe with Oscar Isaac, and Adam Driver it brings back Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Peter Mayhew, Anthony Daniels and Mark Hamill to the screen. 

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Jan. 2, 2016 update: I’ve now seen this film four times and it keeps getting better for me. #loveit

Humanity is the Beast

 

Netflix Delivers Film Targeting Year-end Awards 

by Noel T. Manning II

When the world around you falls apart, and the life you know and love is ripped from underneath your feet, how do you survive? You either find a way to adapt, surrender, fight, or die. That is the story we find unfolding in Netflix’s “Beasts of No Nation.”

“Nothing is ever for sure and everything is always changing.”

 

beasts-of-no-nation-1140x641Caught between warring factions in an African Civil War, a young orphan teen, Agu, reluctantly joins forces with a rebellion leader and discovers a different type of family. Agu finds a world where violence, suffering, anger, and the thirst for power provide the main courses for each day. He finds that leadership and authority is never guaranteed, even for those who assume the power.

This film is a painful journey into the darkness of the soul, and one in which making one wrong choice can send you to a point of no return. It is a film filled with life questions, and challenges the viewer to examine consequences of actions and inactions.

“I am like old man, not baby, because of my experiences.”

web-beastsCapturing elements of man v man, man v society, and man v self, “Beasts” is a fascinating story exploring lost innocence and the collateral damage associated with trauma through violence. Watching Agu fall deeper and deeper into a life thrust upon him, one wonders, what happens when you become the very evil you hate?

“When you become the Devils pawn, and find yourself doing his bidding, can you ever find redemption… and do you even deserve it?”

e649f612a135cf3f08bbfe300dfea38aAgu also abandons his empathy and compassion along this journey, and yet viewers catch a fading glimpse of it when Agu loses a friend to the violent path he is on. Agu is faced with this: once you’ve travelled so far down a dark and evil road, can you ever find humanity again? Although going back to what you once had is not an option, is there another way forward? Is it even worth the chance?

With an amazing companion score by Dan Romer, the film was well-shot, it offered wonderfully gritty set designs and locations, and provided great performances by newcomer Abraham Attah (Agu) & Idris Elda as the rebel leader. “Beasts” was a powerful story written & directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga and based on the 2005 novel by Nigerian-American author Uzodinma Iweala.

UnknownYet with all that went right with the film, it still had its flaws. It lacked overall balance for me. It had an extremely slow start, intense 2nd act, and an incredibly sluggish 3rd act, and that imbalance combined with the too-long 2 hour and 17 minute runtime detracted from a film that could have been great.  There was also voice over narration that I found disruptive to the story, and it interrupted the flow of the film as a whole. Better editing choices, and 30 minutes shorter, and this could’ve been on my top ten of the year.

commandant-idris-elba-beasts-of-no-nation-assetThe story is still one worth telling, and the film is worth watching. If “Beasts” is any indication, the potential of the Netflix movie studio machine looks promising. While I have no plans to nominate this film this year, I do look forward for what else the studio has in mind for the future.

Cinemascene Score Card = C+

Matt Damon Shines 249 Million Miles From Home

In “The Martian” Ridley Scott directs this great Matt Damon vehicle that combines Apollo 13,” Cast Away,” and “MacGyver.” When astronaut Mark Watney (Damon) 75is left for dead on Mars, he must discover how to survive on his own in a hostile environment where the smallest of mistakes can cost him his life.

It is the story of perseverance, human will, and ingenuity. As rich as the story is here, the set design, sound mix, casting, and visual design make this a complete film. This film transcends science fiction, and is much more drama than science fiction, yet should appeal to audiences of both genres. Damon’s character provides elements of comic relief in the midst of utter chaos. Audiences witness a character at war with nature, the unknown and himself in a film that earns a solid “A” on the Cinemascene scorecard.

The Martian is rated PG-13 for language & disturbing scenes, and brief nudity. It is distributed by 20th Century Fox. 6-ways-mars-could-kill-matt-damon-in-the-martian-475703

Johnny Depp in the Master of Black Mass

by Noel T. Manning II

Johnny Depp shines in a role a bit different from what we’ve seen in the past. No wacky Mad Hatter, insane pirate, demon barber, out of place vampire, or Frankensteinian hedge-clipper here. This time, Depp stars as true-life Boston mobster, James ‘Whitey’ Bulger.377203-black-mass

I’ve seen so many mob films over the years, that it is difficult not to compare on-screen characters in films of the past (biopics or originals). But in Black Mass, Depp brings a character to life who is familiar, yet original at the same time. In many US mob films, you will find a typical rise and fall of a character and a twisted search for their interpretation of the American dream. Most of the time tragedy befalls anyone standing in the way, with the kingpin mobster finally meeting the grim reaper as a result of the battle with self. These are the very stories that would make Shakespeare proud.

In this film, Depp’s character is truly focused on power for the sake of power much like Heath Ledger’s Joker was serving up violence and mayhem just because he could. This mob picture is filled with FBI double-crosses, unholy alliances, mob wars, & family dysfunction. I did find the story to be less compelling than it should’ve been (or than I’d hoped for), and it felt like it was trying to copy the Scorsese formula, and that was my biggest imagesproblem, it was an average copy at best. The absolute best part of this true-crime story was the casting. Depp continues to show he’s able to be versatile and do what Depp wants to do within any role. Johnny Depp is not just a movie star, he’s a top rate actor as well. And because of him, Black Mass gets a B- instead of a C+. I’ve seen plenty of mob movies over the years, and as a whole, this one will be forgettable, even if Depp’s performance won’t.

If you’re interested in some better gangster flicks, I’d suggest checking out Goodfellas,” “The Godfather,” “The Departed,” “Scarface,orReservoir Dogs.” 62951

A Mountain of a Film Challenges the Very Idea of Man vs. Nature

By Noel T. Manning II 

“Everest” is a disaster drama that literally took my breath away. This is a fascinating true-story of survival in the midst of insurmountable odds on a peak known as Mt. Everest. This film captures the fear, suffering, challenges, and the real-life conflicts of man vs. nature, and man vs. self, in a way I haven’t seen on film in quite some time. Based on the books “Left for Dead” and “Into Thin Air,” “Everest” is visually stunning, and captivating.

Everest-Movie-2015-Jason-Clarke-Rob-HallThe film starts off with a slow how-to story filled with some methodical character development, but at the midway point launches into a different kind of film altogether. It is a conflict of landscapes as well with grand magnificent snow swept mountain vistas combined with the claustrophobia of being trapped under those same mounds after devastation hits a climbing party attempting to scale the monstrous peak.

Everest-Movie-2015-Jake-Gyllenhaal-Scott-FischerA film of three acts, we see the challenge to survive dominate act three. It is not a film that is primarily a character-driven piece, it is more about the story of nature, and it’s power – and the reality that sometimes conflicts can, and will overcome the character.

From a visual perspective, this is a film that should be watched on the big screen if at all possible (and the bigger, the better). If you have a chance to catch this in Imax – do it! The richness of the cinematography, the power of the story conflicts, and the raw realism of the mountainous scenes shine without flaw.

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The stellar cast features  Josh Brolin, Robin Wright, Sam Worthington, Keira Knightley, Emily Watson & Jake Gyllenhaal. “Everest” runs 121 minutes & is Rated PG-13 for intense peril & disturbing images

I’m giving “Everest” an A- on the Cinemascene report card. It is a feast for the eyes.

A Captivating Story too Crazy to Be True

 

By Noel T. Manning II

Gods-not-deadIn the past few years, filmmakers have discovered the power of the Christian audience at the boxoffice. Films like “Courageous” (2011), Heaven is for Real” (2014), “God’s Not Dead” (2014), and this summer’s hit “War Room,” prove that this once forgotten market, has potential for growth and success for filmmakers willing to invest into this expanding genre. Coming next year we will see God’s Not Dead 2,” “Risen, and the remake of Ben Hur.” But, if you can’t wait until 2016, or if you choose not to check out “War Room” a second time, you can view another faith-based flick hitting about 800 theatres this weekend in Captive.”

captfeatr1“Captive” is based on the true story of the 2005 incident of a woman taken hostage by a convicted murderer and rapist. As she’s confronted with the possibility of a worst case scenario for her future, she has to find a way to connect with her captor or face death. Somewhere in the midst of a dialogue between the two, she begins to read aloud from Rick Warren’s best selling book “Purpose Driven Life.” What happens next is truly unbelievable, as the captive’s every moment hangs in the balance.facebook

David Oyelowo (from last year’s “Selma”) and Kate Mara (from this year’s horrible “Fantastic Four” reboot) star in this flick, that is dark, and gritty at times. The film offers an examination of characters searching for purpose, self, and better life. “Captive” has the potential to reach beyond viewers from the faith-based background, and I believe it can appeal to anyone searching for a true-life story ripped from the headlines.

Captive_T_1_cmsOverall it is a tale about regret, second chances, and hope. It is a well-acted and well-executed crime-drama, with a few hiccups in pacing along the way, yet it is worth viewing. Captive earns a solid “B” on the Cinemascene report card.

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Is the New M.Night Film Worth “The Visit”?

by Noel T. Manning II

Night Shyamalan brings to the world “Hansel & Gretel meets Blair Witch” in a stripped down fairy tale complete with deep dark woods, creaking wood floors, and freaky characters in the new film “The Visit”.

8l60_tp1_00088rv2Shyamalan loves using children as his protagonists, and does so again in this film with the over-used (but quite inexpensive) found footage-type technique. Here, the children (as in many fairytales) must overcome evil and menacing conflicts (sometimes from the most unlikely of sources) when they discover just how awful a visit to grandmother’s house can be.

“The Visit” offered canned scares, Shamalanian twists, and some laughs, but overall I found the story predictable (creative, yes, but predictable, none-the-less). The found-footage concept is becoming old and tired for The-Visitme for the most part, but here, at times, it was fun. The film was a bit disjointed , yet it was oddly entertaining. You may see here that I’m a bit conflicted with this film that lacked true balance. I didn’t love it, and I didn’t hate it.

I was an early fan of M. Night with such projects as “Wide Awake” (1998) and the mnightOscar-nominated “The Sixth Sense” (1999). I also appreciated films like “Unbreakable” (2000), “Signs” (2002), “The Village” (2004), and even the almost universally panned “Lady in the Water” (2006). But in 2008 with the release of horrid film “The Happening” and the 2010 follow up mess “The Last Airbender” I was really getting worried about the future of this talented writer/director.

“The Visit” is by no means a return to the “A-Game,” for M. Night, and thankfully it’s not a cellar-dweller waste of time either, it somehow fits squarely in the middle and earns a Cinemascene grade of C+ from me.