Update: Where I’ve Been Since 2014
“Life happened” is too vague a term to accurately describe the events of my life since 2014. It would be better to say life took over and I found myself not taking the time to write film reviews.
I didn’t stop completely, I was writing reviews between 2017 and 2018, just not on Cinemapeek. Instead, I became a columnist for a school newspaper called The Dixie Sun News. Yes, a college newspaper. In fact, from 2016 till May of last year, I was a student at Dixie State University in Saint George, Utah.
I lost count, but I wrote several reviews for “Jonny at the Movies” on such films as “Us,” “Ladybird,” and the most recent “Hellboy.”
I thought getting to write reviews, special interest pieces and other news articles would give me reason enough to get the blog back up and running once I graduated. However, that is not the case. We all know what happened in March of 2020. COVID-19
Movie theaters shut down and who knew for how long? Thankfully, theaters are opening up again, but with theaters closed and most films pushing release dates (Black Widow anyone?) viewing a film the night before its official release date in order to compose a review the next morning was not going to happen.
Sure, there’s loads of Netflix, Hulu and Amazon originals, but the ability to stream films via a streaming service means those films can be viewed at anytime. This resulted in me not seeing a new digital release on its release date. I would have loved to write reviews on “Enola Holmes,” “The Old Guard,” “Cursed,” and a bevy of others. Except, by the time I watched them, they were old news.
The key to writing a review which will be seen is timing. If I get my thoughts on a film or series out when or before other critics have theirs out, then it is more likely mine will get seen.
However, I think there is value in writing reviews to help create buzz for a film, that’s why I’m coming out of hiatus and will be posting a review of “The Vast of Night” by tomorrow. That film has greatly inspired me. Not only as a writer, but as a filmmaker too.
Inspiration, or lack of it may very well be the problem I have had since 2018. Suffice it to say, the aspiration to write has come back and I hope you’ll all join me as I revisit an old passion; telling stories about other stories.
Papillon: A Review
How many times will a man attempt to escape from an island prison in spite of the fact that with the first attempt, he will be placed in solitary confinement for two years and each subsequent attempt will earn him an additional year added to the initial amount of time? In the film Papillon, released in 1973 and directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, the title character makes three attempts. According to those who made the film, which was based on the book; the actual number was nine. Do the math. Papillon spent a majority of his life sentence in solitary confinement.
True, there is some of that spent in relative freedom and that is shown in the film, but the most interesting aspect of this film is not the attempts themselves, but the extent to which Papillon, portrayed by Steve McQueen plans each escape only for the majority of them to fail and land him right back where he was trying to leave in the first place.
So then; why, after a multitude of failed escapes would he continue a seemingly fruitless endeavor? It could be that he has nothing better do, or he enjoys the challenge. The latter is in fact how McQueen portrays his character. Indeed, each plan of flight from the inescapable prison becomes more and more elaborate. From making an all out run for it, to filling a burlap bag with coconuts as a makeshift raft and jumping into the sea from a cliff.
A long the way, Papillon conspires with compatriots and sympathizers to his predicament. After all, Papillon’s single motivation is the fact that he is an innocent man wrongly accused of murder. By all means, this would be a reason for anyone of us to have the inclination to abdicate from captivity. Papillon’s apparent innocence is the cause for his fellow inmates commiseration to the idea of liberation.
Not only fellow prisoners, but even some conscripted to enforce the resolute confinement of the penitentiary appear willing to aide our would be escapist. Perchance they find it amusing and only do so for entertainment amidst the melancholy of their daily routine. This penchant for insincere support is illustrated in a scene where Papillon, Luis Dega-a part specifically created for Dustin Hoffman-and one other convict arrive at a location where a boat and supplies are said to be placed, only to discover that said provisions are either fake or in such ill repair as to be ineffective.
As if by grace a new ally emerges to accommodate Papillon and his companions with a better means of transport and the trio eludes capture. At least until they reach land fall. The flight to freedom turns into a blunder as they almost literally stumble upon a group of police from another country who are escorting a prisoner of their own. The situation worsens when Papillon hurls an ax at the men, resulting in one guards death. Luis Dega is wounded and can’t run away and the third member of their tiny troupe is wounded by gunfire, leaving Papillon to his own devices. Especially once the prisoner belonging to the new set of guards mets a savage demise.
At this point in the film, we are certain that Papillon has accomplished his goal. After some time passes, another bungle by the antagonist leads the Frenchman straight into the waiting jaws of the Spanish police who ship him to the French prison from which he had gone AWOL. Maybe this will finally convince the man that avoiding his prison time just is not going to happen. For the third time escape is thwarted and our upstart hero is thrust back into solitary and when we see him again, he’s an old man.
One would think that being old would slow such a man as Papillon down. Not likely. Instead he continues his quest for freedom despite being reunited with Louis, whom he had thought to be dead. It is here that we see just how calculating Papillon is as he studies the tide patterns of the small and very dangerous cove near his dwelling quarters and discovers an incredibly risky chance at freedom-if he can only manage to elude the inevitability of being dashed across the rocks below. We will live this bit a mystery as to persuade those reading this to view Papillon.
Although Papillon appears to be a sprawling drama, it is in truth a comedy of errors. This is evident by the number of failures Papillon endures in spite of-perhaps in mockery- of his apparent cleverness, reducing him in those moments to a blunderer. One may feel sad for the man who continuously beats feet for the wide open world, refusing to stay in his cage, but will find the absurdity of it all worth a few chuckles minimum.
Whether it is to see Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman in roles that seem unlikely in contrast to their repertoire, the immaculate cinematography, or to simply view a classic film, Papillon is a cinematic adventure, which merits inspection.
Moulin Rouge: A Story of Love
“The greatest thing you’ll ever learn; is just to love, and be loved in return.” This is a quote from the song Nature Boy written by Eden Ahbez and made famous by Nat King Cole in 1948. This single line from the composition is the central theme in Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge, surrounded by a myriad of ideals about love, freedom of expression; an homage to the first days of film and even a rekindling of an old American past time-the musical.
What makes the line from Nature Boy such a central theme is that the quote-slightly paraphrased in the film-is said numerous times throughout the movie. We first hear it in the very beginning of the film as a kind of introduction to the story as Toulouse-Lautrec (John Leguizamo) sings; “There was a boy. A very strange, enchanted boy. They say he wandered very far. Very far, over land and sea. A little shy and sad of eye, but very wise was he. And then one day, he passed my way. While he spoke of many things, fools and kings; this he said to me, ‘The greatest thing you’ll ever learn, is just to love and be loved in return.’” as if summarizing the events about to unfold before our eyes in an explosion of music, singing, color, comedy, drama and tragedy. At the same time the last sentence is spoken by Christian (Ewan McGregor), a central character in the story as he types the very words we hear. It is here we learn that the story of Moulin Rouge is his story and the prophetic sentence his message to us.
The sentence is repeated again by Christian, as he explains his idea for a play to the group of Bohemians who recruit him to replace their writer. Thereby supporting the previous affirmation and its importance to the story. The third and final recitation of the chorus to Nature Boy comes at the end as a curtain- not unlike the ones found in old 1900’s theaters and the very same one which opens as the title credits roll-closes over the final shot of the film. For the viewer, this creates the sense of closing a book, as if we had just read Christians story and are about to return it to the shelf.
The very act of repeating this theme three times emphasizes its importance and centrality to the story of Moulin Rouge. However, emphasis may not necessarily be Luhrmann’s goal. Instead, the director wants the audience to remember; above all other themes and messages within Moulin Rouge, this one particular phrase. Hence, it is thrice conveyed to us.
Why this single phrase? Why this one in particular? Perhaps there lies an answer within the body of the film and in how it is told to us. Luhrmann does not simply present an age old love story, though in many ways Moulin Rouge is just that. A love story.
Consider this. Christian falls in love with Satine (Nicole Kidman) at first sight and she with him. There love is strong and unwavering it seems. At least until the Duke (Richard Roxburg) sinks his teeth into Satine. As the story goes forth, Satine breaks Christians heart, claiming to love the Duke because of the security he can provide her with his riches. By the end, the Duke turns out to be filled with lust and desire rather than love, treating Satine as something to be possessed and she goes back to Christian. Thus, we have what appears to be the classic boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, boy loses girl, boy wins girl back formula, but this is not so. Moulin Rouge is not a story about romance and finding the love of your life. It is a story about love itself. Its power. Its endurability. Its risks.
When we take into account the numerous anthems of love infused into this hyper active spectacular, spectacular musical unlike any before it or since, we can truly see the tapestry being woven before us. Not unlike a quilt, Luhrmann patches together the best bits of some very famous songs to tell the story of Moulin Rouge and does it well enough that the songs become part of the narrative itself.
When Christian first realizes his feelings, he woos Satine by serenading her with Elton John’s “Your Song”. Later he convinces her of his love with such anthems as “All You Need is Love”, “Love Lift Us Up Where We Belong”, “In The Name of Love” and even “I Will Always Love You”. As much as she resists, Satine soon comes to realize how wonderful life is now that Christian is in the world.
As Christian accompanies the Bohemians to the Moulin Rouge for his meeting with Satine, songs like “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, “Diamonds Are a Girls Best Friend” and “Material Girl” serve as part of the entertainment at the…Cabaret burlesque show. Likewise, the lyrics to Queen’s “Show Must Go On” are a poignant sentiment to the feelings of Zidler (Jim Broadbent) and Satine as both succumb to the wishes and dominance of the Duke. Never the less the purpose of these anecdotes is only to push the narrative forward if only to enhance its theatricality.
Surely one can lose themselves in the attempt to name every popular song used in the film, but that would quickly become a distraction from the true meaning and message that makes a film like Moulin Rouge even remotely relatable. The message of love and what love must sometimes endure before gaining absolution. As if love needed such a thing as to be absolved.
In a sense, Christian is the embodiment of love. It gives him energy, drive, it comes easily to him. Perhaps naively so. After all, it is Christian’s relentless devotion to the power and promise of love that causes him to persuade Satine to rethink her aversion to the idea of being in love, because of its absence in her own life. Here is love at her doorstep and her instinct is to push it away, except that she has never really known love and as much as she’d like to, she cannot deny her need to have it in her life.
Perhaps Satine’s realization that her existence has been bereft of love is what drives her into Christian’s arms and to cherish him so completely, she is even willing to betray him to save him. Yet love-Christian-never wavers. Staying by her side in spite of the Duke. Vying for her right to be happy, to have joy, to have love. Even when Christian finally reaches his breaking point and confronts her, thanking her for curing him of his “…ridiculous obsession with love.” Satine then realizes that the only reason Christian’s heart broke so utterly, is because he loves her body and soul and that her own heart is breaking on the inside, because she truly loves him and she may have lost him forever. Precisely at this moment, when we believe all hope is lost; is when we are reminded that “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn, is just to love and be loved in return.”
For all its theatricality, raucous pomp and comedic bravado, Moulin Rouge is now a classic film of the post-modern era and in spite of its hodgepodge of pop culture romanticism, the films message that love endures all things; even time and tragedy, is not missed by the audience. It stands as a resonant beacon for that timeless of all emotions-love.
Fargo: The Film That Inspired the Show
For a film that was made nearly twenty years ago, about an incident that occurred in nineteen eighty-seven; close to thirty years ago, Fargo still holds up as much as any classic film from the golden age of Hollywood does. This is in part to the approach of the Joel and Ethan Coen, that director/writier tag team responsible for such films as Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou and No Country For Old Men.
Primarily, the directors allow the story to tell itself, beginning with the set up, where Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) meets with Steve Bucsemi’s Carl Showalter and Peter Stormare’s Gaear Grimsrud hiring them to abduct his wife Jean; to the climax of the film where Police officer Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) confronts Grimsrud.
By allowing events to unfold linearly instead of using flashbacks or clever plot twists, the audience is given a sense of being a “fly on the wall” from scene to scene. This approach is effective because we are never left to wonder what will happen next and there is no need to explain why a specific event took place. The only questions the viewer might possibly ask are: “Could this situation get any worse?” or “How will this finally end?”
In answer to the former question, things do unravel rather quickly due to the bungling of Showalter and most especially Grimsrud, both of whom find themselves going from a supposedly effortless kidnapping, to multiple homicides and Lundegaard is forced to watch his perfectly formed plan to use his wife as a means of getting money go to absolute caca.
Another portion of the Coen’s approach that works well, is that they keep things simple, because the events themselves are complicated enough. To achieve this apparent simplicity, we are really only given three points of view: that of Lundergaard, Showalter/Grimsrud and Gunderson. We watch as Lundergaard must deal with his plan becoming increasingly complicated and dangerous, the abductors as they make one mistake after another and Marge as she follows the bread crumbs.
When the treatment of the story is combined with the beautiful cinematography and performances that are realistic rather than over the top and dramatic, the result is a film that is instantly timeless and iconic. So much so, that the film has inspired a television series based on it. Truly worth the effort to create it as well as the awards it earned.
Don Jon: A Film About Finding Fulfillment
If you are familiar with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, or JGL as he is popularly known; then you are more familiar with him as an actor rather than a writer/director. Don Jon is his directorial debut. In addition to directing this film, he is the star, writer and producer. Surely, tackling four positions says a lot about Gordon-Levitt’s talent , not to mention his dedication.
That dedication bleeds through on screen with the actor/director’s character Jon, who the actor portrays as convincingly as he has other parts in other movies like The Dark Knight Rises, or Looper. Never the less, Gordon-Levitt’s acting, nor the superb acting of the remaining cast, which includes; Tony Danza, Scarlett Johannson and Julianne Moore is the focus of this article.
Instead, the topic of import here is the message that Joseph Gordon-Levitt means to convey as writer/director. The reality of this film is palpable and rings so true one has to wonder if the story is not based on someone from Gordon-Levitt’s life, or at least someone he knows. Perhaps the characters and the specific story within Don Jon are fictitious, but the issues and problems the lead character faces are very real.
Here we have a young man whose priorities are: His body, the myriad of women he beds, his apartment, his car and porn. The latter appears to bring him more satisfaction and fulfillment than the second item in the list. This of course, is to his detriment, because he eventually finds himself in a relationship with a woman he “loves” yet he still does not find fulfillment with her.
Don Jon is not so much a comment on how pornography keeps men from finding satisfaction in their relationship, but rather that when it comes to men who think they get more out of looking at pornography, or sleeping with a new woman every day/week, than they do when in an actual relationship, are missing the big picture.
When Esther (Julianne Moore) asks Jon what it is that he gets from looking at pornography that he doesn’t from a relationship, his reply is pretty enlightening. “I can just lose myself in it.” he says. In that single sentence the root of the problem for Jon is revealed. Enjoying his internet activity more than being with a woman is not the problem. It is where his focus lies.
There in we find the message Joseph Gordon-Levitt wants to convey. Men and women often go from one person to another not solely because of a habit they have or just because of an addiction. Instead, they lose sight of where their focus should be due to the habits, addictions or even fears that get in the way of the things that are important. Such as losing oneself in another person whether it be a lover, friend, spouse, or family.
What makes Don Jon a successful film, is that it does not seek to embellish on real topics by making them fantastical or improbable, but takes a real issue and portrays it in a straight forward and objective fashion. We cannot hide from what happens on screen. It forces the viewer to observe their own life and how they approach relationships and what it is that they focus on in order to find fulfillment.
The Wolverine is Back Bub!
The Wolverine starring Hugh Jackman, is among one of the highly anticipated superhero films of the year. With this second stand alone Marvel film featuring the clawed mutant Wolverine, the filmmakers have an obstacle to overcome: the disappointing albeit successful X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Director James Mangold and Marvel do that by borrowing from Uncanny X-Men #172 published in 1983 where the X-Men battle baddies in Japan.
Some of the similarities between the film and comic other than location, are the inclusion of the characters Mariko Yashida, Harada, Yukio and Viper. In the film Viper is a mutant and American. In the comic she appears to be some kind of assassin and is Japanese. Other roles are switched as well, but for the sake of not having any spoilers, we’ll leave out those details. It’s merely interesting to notice what Hollywood does to make something different from the source material while keeping the essence of it alive.
In this “sequel” to X-Men: The Last Stand. Wolverine has exiled himself from The X-Men and retreated to Canada where he lives as a kind of mountain man and is haunted by Jean Grey’s spirit in his dreams. He is found by Yukio, a female Samurai with the ability to see people’s deaths, sent to invite Logan-Wolvie’s real name for those who are unaware-to Japan at the request of Yashida, a Japanese soldier whose life Wolverine saved during the bombing of Nagasaki and Mariko’s Grandfather; who is dying.
Compelled to pay his respects and attempting to escape his past, Wolverine accompanies Yukio to Japan and meets the man he saved sixty-eight years ago. While there he uncovers a plan to kill Mariko and decides to become her protector. This is a task which tests Wolverine’s spirit and perseverance in unexpected ways, aiding him in rediscovering his reason for being the hero.
One aspect of the film that is especially enjoyable, is the portrayal of Japanese customs and culture. Mangold ‘et al do this so well, that we are able to see Japanese culture through the eyes of the Japanese and for those familiar with the culture, it is a breath of fresh air because true Japanese culture tends to get reduced to Samurai philosophies in Western cinema.
Marvel should be proud of The Wolverine because it does a superb job of restoring the iconic legend to his proper visceral, animalistic persona. Perhaps the only critique from this fan of films and Wolverine is that Adamantium is stronger than steel, even Japanese steel; unless we are supposed to assume that the Katanas in the film are made of the same metal as Wolverine’s claws. Otherwise, bravo, well done, splendid and all that!
Also, be sure to stay after the credits for a treat that should get many an X-Men fan excited. This fan sure was!
Thoughts on Pacific Rim
When I was a very young boy, my father was a fighter pilot in the United States Air Force. At that time we were stationed in Okinawa, Japan. Because there was only one channel of American television-neither cable, satellite TV or the internet existed then-my brother and I would often switch to the Japanese programming. It didn’t really matter to us that we couldn’t understand the language, we really only watched for the action and thrill. We watched Ultraman battle giant monsters and other shows involving giant robots battling giant monsters.
While watching Pacific Rim, I was instantly transported back to those days and also remembered Godzilla reruns I had and have seen over the years: The colossal creature from the sea smashing through buildings like they were nothing more than paper mache, droves of people running for their lives. Then, a savior appears. Also massive in appearance; taller than the highest skyscraper. The two become locked in battle. Mountains are leveled, entire city blocks reduced to rubble. Who will be the victor? Thankfully the mechanical golem of steel and the very best in human ingenuity, combined with the bravery and skill of it’s human pilots arise victorious from the epic battle and live to fight another day.
That is the idea behind a film like Pacific Rim and Director Guillermo Del Toro does a fantastic job. The only draw back for me was that a majority of the battles take place in the ocean. I really would have loved to see one of the Kaiju get thrown through a hillside, pulverizing it into level ground, but that’s just the fan boy in me.
Pacific Rim is entertaining at the very least and I believe it opens the door-widely-for some Anime franchises such as Gundam, Robotech and Neon Genesis Evangelion to get the live action treatment. If you’re in the mood for a film where enormously gigantic monsters threaten the existence of the human race and all that stands between them and our extinction are a small band of pilots in mechas that make make the robot in Real Steel look like a toy; then Pacific Rim is precisely the movie for you
Star Trek: Into Darkness Review
Star Trek: Into Darkness reunites us with J.J. Abrams‘ incarnation of the famous Starship Enterprise crew about a year after the events of Abrams’ first venture with the franchise. It also puts Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Simon Pegg; Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana, Anton Yelchin and John Cho back in their respective roles as cinemas most famous starship crew.
The action begins on an Alien world with red plants instead of green. Captain Kirk and Doctor McCoy are fleeing from the indigenous species of the planet. While the Captain and the Doctor run for their lives, we are shown that the crew of the Enterprise work so well together, they can accomplish what appears to be impossible while at the same time, come dangerously close to failing. In order to succeed and save a single life, Kirk makes a decision that puts the Enterprise and the entire crew at risk. It is this decision that results in some dire consequences for Kirk and sets the mood of the film.
As the story progresses, we are introduced to John Harrison, who aids a family on the brink of losing their daughter to disease, in exchange for the destruction of a top-secret Star Fleet installation. Star Fleet brands him a terrorist and conduct a meeting with the senior officers of the Enterprise, Bradbury and other starships present. During the supposed classified meeting, the group is attacked and suffer a devastating loss.
In retaliation for the loss of a peer, Kirk asks Admiral Marcus to send the Enterprise to apprehend the fugitive. Marcus agrees and sends the Enterprise with a payload of newly developed and highly powered photon torpedoes that have an unknown power source. They must ask the questions: Is Marcus hiding something? Why was the development of such weapons so secret? What purpose do they serve?
While in pursuit of John Harrison, they learn that there is much more going on than what appears on the surface and that the criminal could turn out to be much more dangerous than originally believed. Once again pitted against insurmountable odds, Kirk and crew are tested in matters of morality, sacrifice and loss. Captain Kirk himself finds that he must choose between the needs of the many and the needs of the few.
All in all, J.J. Abrams does it again with masterful skill and tells a story that is thrilling and emotionally powerful. There are moments where Star Trek history is literally flipped over in a most surprising, yet brilliant way. Most definitely worth the watch.
Iron Man 3: The Man Under the Armor
Most of us by now have seen how Tony Stark became Iron Man-at least Hollywood’s version of the origin-we have also seen Iron Man square off against the only other man in the world capable of creating the same technology as him (Iron Man 2). In Iron Man 3 we get to see a “stripped down” version of Iron Man.
In other words, we get to see the “man behind the mask” as Tony Stark comes to terms with the fact that Iron Man is a super hero and the responsibilities that come with that. We see a Tony Stark who is unsure of his abilities and overwhelmed by his need to protect Pepper Potts after the events of The Avengers.
Enter The Mandarin: A new foe hell bent on teaching The United States a number of lessons through ruthless terrorist acts meant to undermine the capabilities of the American government.
Happy is injured while investigating a suspicious character that he spotted at Stark Enterprises . Tony learns that The Mandarin was somehow responsible for wounding his friend and threatens the terrorist. The Mandarin answers the challenge with explosive violence, separating Pepper from Tony.
While trying to find the woman he loves, Tony investigates The Mandarin and discovers some startling facts concerning individuals from his own past before he became Iron Man, or even created the arc reactor. Ultimately, Tony Stark learns that the traits and abilities he has are what make it possible for him to be Iron Man.
Oblivion: A Sci Fi Mystery
Jack Harper is a technician living sixty four years in the future. Earth is now a wasteland following a war in which an alien invader destroyed the moon causing earthquakes and tidal waves. Surviving humans have evacuated Earth for Titan, one of Saturn’s moons. Jack and his partner Victoria, are responsible for maintaining and repairing drones used to protect giant hydro collectors taking Earth’s water for use on Titan.
Everything has gone smoothly for the team with only two weeks left before they are able to join the rest of the humans living in an enormous space station orbiting the planet awaiting departure to Titan. Their daily routine is interrupted when a spacecraft crashes down not far from their station. Jack investigates and discovers a female survivor. The woman’s arrival and the impossible fact that she knows Jack’s name set in motion events that changes his view of Earth’s fate and reveals a past he had forgotten.
Oblivion stars Tom Cruise, Morgan Freeman, Andrea Riseborough and Olga Kurylenko. The film provides some breath taking visuals and the story is very intriguing, though it could use a little more tension. However, this is not a thriller or an “all guns blazing” action-the action bits are done very well-Oblivion is in fact, an adventure about how the past can be of such great value, that without it we cannot hope to have a better and brighter future.