American History X

Year 3, Film #12 (Total #462)

THE PLOT: A former neo-nazi skinhead tries to prevent his younger brother from going down the same wrong path that he did.

THE GOOD: American History X is probably the most racially-charged, right-leaning, pro-white film I have ever seen, and probably one of the most extremist pieces of media, period. It’s a film that extols the virtues of being white and degrades the existence of every other race, blacks especially. It also has to be the record holder for most utterances of the n-word by white people, and that’s including Quentin Tarantino films.

But this film isn’t like a piece of propaganda. It’s not actually endorsing these actions but rather condemning them. Like most good films or stories though, before you can get to that actual message, the condemnation, you have to get in the mindset of the characters first. You have to try and see things the way Derek Vineyard (Edward Norton) sees them and how he views his actions are guided by what’s right. He was indoctrinated and raised to be racist because of what his father Dennis (William Russ) believed as we learn through flashbacks, and by his father’s murder by a black man. At no point do you feel Derek’s actions are justified or in any way acceptable, but the film does a great job at getting you to understand why it is Derek acts the way he does. 

The greatest strength of American History X is its ability to get you to understand and think about these issues. We not only see the beginning where Derek is the white supremacist, but also the aftermath where his time in prison truly changed his beliefs. We see his little brother Danny (Edward Furlong) following in his footsteps, turning in a paper entitled “My Mein Kampf” and joining his brother’s gang. We also see the effect Danny’s actions has on Derek, who despite what he did, wants a better life for his brother and for the rest of his family. At one point in the film, Derek tells Danny a story and says to him he’s not trying to tell him what to do with his life. The only thing he asks of Danny is that he understand what he went through and where he stands today. And in many ways that’s what this entire film is about. American History X shows you some very brutal, graphic, and disturbing things. It shows you these things to help you to understand what can go through a person’s head and how difficult it can be to change their way of thinking. It certainly implies that some things are wrong and should never be done, but it never preaches. It lets you draw your own conclusions and come to your own opinion.

THE BAD: What the film is not so great at showing is the change and evolution Derek, Danny, and the other characters actually go through. We start off the film seeing Derek as the white-supremacist who hates any other race besides his own. There’s also a few moments scattered throughout the film to show us how Derek wasn’t always this way — he enjoyed reading Native Son for English class and being inspired to learn more from his teacher Dr. Sweeney (Avery Brooks) before his father found out the man was black and educated his son that he was spewing inequality. Derek also spends three years in prison after killing two black men and for a while holds steady to his beliefs. By the end though, he becomes good friends with Lamont (Guy Torry) who proves to Derek that blacks are people too, not some plague that’s out to get him.

There’s a lot of developments in American History X, character- and story-wise, but we don’t get a good sense of it. We see the before and we see the after; we don’t see the change happening in between. One moment Derek is the bigot he starts out as, the next, he’s an accepting person who denounces his old gang and lifestyle. The same is true with the changes Danny goes through. While we see more of the struggle Danny has with these beliefs earlier on, and can realize how he hasn’t drank as much of the Kool-Aid as his brother did, his journey to reach the conclusions he comes to at the end of the film is very binary. There’s no middle-ground to cover through his transformation and everything can feel quite abrupt.

THE TAKEAWAY: As extremist as American History X is, a film not afraid to show its true colors when it comes to race, the film doesn’t preach or prescribe certain beliefs. It may heavily imply what is right and what is wrong after seeing the ridiculousness of these issues being taken to the extreme, but what the film does very well is to get you to understand what’s going on. You come to understand why these characters act the way they do, and ultimately, come to understand why Derek changes his opinion on things. It’s a very powerful film and one that can be difficult to watch at times, but one that can get it’s message across.

THE RATING: 4 out of 5

The Sopranos: Season 2

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Year 3, Show #1, Season #2 (Total Shows—1, Total Seasons—2)

THE PLOT:  His uncle’s in jail. His mother’s in the hospital. His best friend’s still missing. His sister’s moving home. And his panic attacks are back. For mob boss Tony Soprano, life at the top isn’t all it’s cracked up to be in Season Two of this hit series.

THE GOOD: Season 2 of The Sopranos took the best parts of the first season and made them even better. With Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) now the boss, we get to see more of the inner workings of the mafia, and more importantly, the consequences of their actions. Whereas season one gave us a taste for what the mafia does, season two makes us a member. There’s more jobs, planning, and plotting instead of just allusions to them. We see the stock scam with Wobistics, some operations with waste management (and the side business of selling cocaine on the pickup routes), stealing cars and selling them in Europe, phone card scams, high-risk poker games, credit fraud, and many more. And that’s the beauty of being a member now: instead of just hearing Tony and Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese) discuss what they plan on doing, we see Christopher (Michael Imperioli), Silvio (Steven Van Zandt), Paulie (Tony Sirico), and the others actually do it.

With these new responsibilities as boss, comes more stress and anxiety for our anti-hero Tony. Season one introduced you to the problems and dilemmas he faced as part of the mafia, but season two makes it even more personal. Most of the issues Tony faced in season one could be chalked up to mere annoyances. Besides the scheme that his mother Livia (Nancy Marchand) and his Uncle Junior cooked up that could have cost him his life, season one was fairly mild. In season two, there’s more than one betrayal against Tony and a few attempts at his life and his family’s well-being. Combine that with his shrink Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) not even wanting to see him because of the pain he caused her, and Tony is on the loose just waiting to implode. 

And there’s my favorite part about The Sopranos: the Italian lifestyle. While it’s more of the same things we saw in season one, there were a few more instances of word pronunciations that stood out and left me smiling to myself remembering when my own family mentions these foods. Proscuitto (pro-shoot), antipasto (ani-bast), capicola (gabba-goal), and mozzarella (moats-a-rell) are just a few of the examples that I remember from season two. Things like these may seem minor and unimportant to just an average viewer, but coming from a family where these words and phrases are part of our everyday lexicon, they are details that sell the authenticity of the show. In terms of story and character they aren’t really that important. But the give the show credibility and make you believe some of the things that aren’t so commonplace such as the body-bags, meat-cutters, etc.

THE BAD: While season two did make the good parts even better, it also made the worst parts even worse. This time around the minor problems were more numerous and of much larger magnitude. Anthony Jr. (Robert Iler) and Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) both went seemingly nowhere. Meadow at least had high-school graduation and college acceptances but Anthony Jr. just moped around and showed his face every other episode or two. They didn’t have a big role in season one either but at least there, when they did show up, they contributed to the show in some way. In season two when they show up, it’s for meaningless things that take away from the show.

There’s a handful of other similar situations in season two. The trip to Italy in episode 4 “Commendatori” seemed like a standalone episode that was barely mentioned afterward, Tony’s mistress Irina (Oksana Lada) took on a much larger role but then dropped out of nowhere (not a euphemism), and Carmela Soprano’s (Edie Falco) almost-adultery with the wallpaper guy (Joe Penny) showed promise (especially in contrast to Tony’s promiscuous love life) but hit the brakes. Most of these stories had their conclusions but they all seemed very abrupt which in turn makes them feel as if they were insignificant and therefore pointless to include.

One specific episode I took issue with was the finale, “Funhouse”. As with “Isabella” in season one where Tony had hallucinations, in “Funhouse”, Tony has fever dreams that leads him to make a very important decision. The dream sequences themselves aren’t the problem. The problem is two-fold however: 1) they’re all crammed into one episode; and 2) they’re apparently clairvoyant. I might not have as big an issue with these dream sequences if they were spread out over the course of the entire season and treated as a common occurrence. Putting them in all in one episode makes it seem like an abnormality rather than a character trait. Now the reason they’re in “Funhouse” is because Tony gets food poisoning and a resulting fever, but after “Isabella” in season one where all the hallucinations/strange things happened in one episode, I can no longer chalk it up to coincidence. The larger part of the problem though is the clairvoyant aspect. If Tony has his suspicions and wants to take action against certain parties (no names, because spoilers), he should do so. Letting the dreams be the telltale piece of evidence to confirm his doubts seems gimmicky. Either let him have doubts (which he does in the earlier part of the season) and then act on them, or not act at all. Do not let Tony’s actions result from chance and a sixth sense.

THE TAKEAWAY: Season 2 delivers more of the good and more of the bad we saw in the first season. As the new boss, Tony Soprano takes us deeper into the New Jersey mafia to see aspects that were only talked about before in passing. There’s also the little lifestyle details that lend the show credibility and authenticity and make it amusing to watch if you come from an Italian-American household. But there’s also a surge of pointless subplots that have abrupt ends and go nowhere despite showing lots of promise and conflict. A bit disappointing coming from season one, but the finale yet again sets up a few different motions that hopefully will carry season three to new heights.

THE RATING: 3 out of 5

Oblivion

Year 3, Film #11 (Total #461)

THE PLOT: A veteran assigned to extract Earth’s remaining resources begins to question what he knows about his mission and himself.

THE GOOD: One of Hollywood’s latest fascinations is with apocalyptic futures where the Earth has been destroyed and humanity is on their last breath. It’s big in the young adult films (like The Hunger Games and Divergent) and more generic fare as well (Edge of Tomorrow and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes for example). Oblivion is yet another addition to a rapidly expanding list and yet it still has a lot of originality to offer.

First and foremost is director Joseph Kosinski’s (Tron: Legacy) vision. He excels in two ways with Oblivion: both in how things look physically (design, construction, etc.) but also in how society (or what’s left of it) functions. We’ve all seen images of a “future-world” before in films like Star Trek and Her and have our own image of what a future world would look like. Oblivion fits into this mold while also staying fresh. The sleek designs, heavy use of white, and glossy finishes give the impression of a world designed entirely by Apple down to the last plate, fork, and glass. But while it may look familiar, the ships, weapons, and homes are unlike anything we’ve seen before and Kosinski ensures that down for every single detail we see.

As for the functionality of things, this starts to foray into the story a bit. The film starts out with a narration by Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) explaining that there was a war between Earth and an alien species and now, in the year 2077, humanity has been relocated to Saturn’s moon Titan after destroying the Scavs and Earth in the process. Jack and his partner Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) are the only ones left on Earth to monitor and ensure the safety of the machines harvesting Earth’s oceans that will be used for power and sustenance on Titan.

The first half of the film is very reminiscent of WALL·E in more ways than one. Not only do you have the person who is left behind and tasked with maintenance while humanity is relocated, but very little happens in the beginning. All that happens is you get a feel for what Earth is now like. It’s a deserted place, ravaged by destruction and nuclear explosions. But there’s also signs of life and hope. Not all has been lost yet but the human race has been evacuated. It may just be an hour of Jack Harper wandering around investigating new places and repairing drones, but for a film as futuristic and sci-fi as Oblivion is, I argue that this time and effort is necessary for any type of resolution or ending to be effective. You need a foundation on which you can build before you can bring in the steel and dry wall. And the foundation in Oblivion is the highly detailed, stylized, and visionary world that Joseph Kosinski masterfully constructs.

THE BAD: By the end though, you find a story like a sieve letting much of the good drain out of the film leaving only the chunks of rock behind. That isn’t to say the story is all bad. The twist isn’t entirely predictable but it isn’t shocking as it’s probably meant to be. To have technology as advanced as Jack and Victoria have, in addition to the space station called the Tet assisting them in maintenance, it just leads to questions about why they are truly there and what their purpose is. Yes, it’s to keep the Scavs from destroying their rescue equipment, but why are Jack and Victoria necessary. Why not someone else. Why does Mission Control go offline when the sun sets? This isn’t like a radio blackout when a spaceship is returning from orbit, there is absolutely no reason why Sally (Melissa Leo) can’t hand off controls to someone else at night to make sure they have 24-hour surveillance. These questions and suspicions give you a hint at what the real motive of the film is and while it may not give you the direct answer ahead of time, it certainly prepares you for the twist that comes. The result is unsurprising and leaves you wishing there was just a touch more mystery and puzzlement rather than doubt and confusion.

THE TAKEAWAY: Oblivion delivers a shocking amount of creativity and originality despite being a landscape and story that seems all to familiar. The futuristic world that is designed and brought to life by director Joseph Kosinski is one to behold in amazement and the journey you go on is filled with awe and excitement. Sadly, some of that awe and excitement is lost due to a story filled with questions and holes that lead to a twist and an ending that is partly predictable and has room for improvement.

THE RATING: 4 out of 5

Guardians of the Galaxy

Year 3, Film #10 (Total #460)

THE PLOT: In the far reaches of space, an American pilot named Peter Quill finds himself the object of a manhunt after stealing an orb coveted by the villainous Ronan.

THE GOOD: Marvel seems to have a magic formula for how it makes all its films smash hits. Guardians of the Galaxy is yet another in a long line of Marvel films, and superhero films in general, that have the right level or action, story (and the mythology backing it), and of course, humor. This film also carries over what we saw in The Avengers that a group film like this is greater than the sum of its parts. While Marvel’s individual films (like Iron ManThor, and Captain America) are by no means bad, both of their group films — The Avengers and now Guardians of the Galaxy — have proved to be orders of magnitude more entertaining.

Marvel’s films have always had a certain level of comedy in them, which is always helpful for someone like me who has never gotten into comic books. The Avengers was probably my prior favorite in terms of humor, especially with the interactions between Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). But Guardians of the Galaxy easily blows that precedent away and sets a new, incredibly high, bar for comedy in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This film was so hilarious, and so littered with jokes and reactions, that I would even go so far as to label this firstly as a comedy instead of action/adventure. Everything about this film screamed funny from Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), to Rocket (voice by Bradley Cooper), Drax (Dave Bautista), and Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel). Gamora (Zoe Saldana), who is the fifth member of the Guardians in addition to the other four I just mentioned, isn’t that funny by herself but she at least rolls with the punches. However, each of the others, led by Rocket and Peter Quill, had many memorable, laugh-out-loud lines and moments that had the entire audience erupt in non-stop laughter. “It’s a good thing she doesn’t have a black light,” “It’s a metaphor, man,” “Yes, finally!” “I am Groot,” and many, many more.

While comedy is definitely one of Guardians biggest strengths (helped in large part by its characters), the story and it’s integration with the other films, also deserves lots of praise. As I’ve mentioned in previous Marvel reviews, I’ve never gotten into the comic books because it’s always like an insurmountable obstacle I could never get past. There’s just so much history you’d have to get through to be caught up. Guardians of the Galaxy is probably the most interesting film yet because it’s one that many people are not familiar with. I hadn’t even heard about the Guardians before the movie was announced and even then I don’t think I was alone in still questioning how they fit in with superheroes like Captain America and Iron Man.

Guardians of the Galaxy did something amazing  which was broaden the scope while still remaining highly focused. This film is tightly connected with the other Marvel films — including appearances from Thanos (Josh Brolin) and the Collector (Benicio del Toro), both seen in post-credits scenes in earlier films — but introduces us to a whole new world that’s out there. There’s a whole other planet, Xandar, where life is thriving, in addition to many more villains and threats (like the infinity stones, also seen previously) that are on the brink of convergence. Are primary focus until now has been Earth. We’ve gotten a little peak outside our home with Thor’s life on Asgard, but other than that, all conflict has centered around us (very humanistic of us by the way). Guardians of the Galaxy maintains this focus by including little bits and pieces of things we’ve seen before (Thanos, infinity stones) but at the same time being set in an entirely different place with entirely new characters.

As a standalone film, Guardians of the Galaxy delivers. It’s story arc carries us from beginning to end with a handful of twists that keep us at the edge of our seats waiting to see what happens. It also seems to breeze by much quicker than you expect. When they arrive on the Kyln (a high-security prison in space), the film is already halfway done and yet it feels as if you just sat down (always a good sign entertainment-wise; nothing that’s boring you). But the more exciting aspect is where Guardians fits in with the rest of the Cinematic Universe. It gives you the feeling that we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg so far and that there is a whole lot more that’s yet to come. And if even a fraction of that is as good as what we’ve seen so far, we’ll be in for quite a treat.

THE BAD: The only downside I can think of is with regards to the comedic timing. I feel as if I missed a good half of the jokes in Guardians because myself and the rest of the audience laughed over them. Instead of giving us a brief pause to get our laughs out and settle down, they just kept on chugging with more jokes. This may not be as problematic when you watch by yourself after it comes out on blu-ray, but for a packed theater, not so much.

THE TAKEAWAY: Guardians of the Galaxy is easily the funniest Marvel film to-date while also taking the story to new, yet familiar, places. It works as a standalone delivering laughs constantly (this is really like a comedy) and a story that keeps you at the edge of your seat, while also tying into the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole, priming us for even greater things to come.

Guardians of the Galaxy opens in theaters next Friday, August 1, 2014.

THE RATING: 5 out of 5

The Sopranos: Season 1

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Year 3, Show #1, Season #1 (Total Shows—1, Total Seasons—1)

THE PLOT: Modern day morality tale about New Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano, as he deals with personal and professional issues in his home and business life.

THE GOOD: The Sopranos is often regarded as one of the best television shows of all time and comes up at the top of most Google searches. It’s also credited as a major influence in helping all the shows we watch today actually be on the air. When The Sopranos debuted in 1999 on HBO, there weren’t many serialized dramas on TV let alone shows with content as mature and graphic as The Sopranos. While it’s difficult for me to fully appreciate how much of an impact this show has had on our culture since I’m seeing it for the first time in 2014, fifteen years after it first premiered, it’s not difficult for me to recognized how great and entertaining a show it is.

I’ve mentioned time and again just how many films about the mafia I’ve seen. The Godfather parts one and two, GoodfellasCasinoScarfaceDonnie Brasco — the list goes on and on — and the recurring theme throughout all of them, whether I find them fun to watch or not, is their ability to depict this very detailed and structured life of organized crime. The Sopranos is no different. From the boss, to the capos (captains), and to the soldiers, the show examines the duties and responsibilities of each and also how different families and divisions within a family (based upon the capos) function. A major benefit that The Sopranos has over a film is that as a television show, there is substantially more time to play with that can be used to go into great detail and elaboration. Whereas watching a thirteen hour film would get boring, watching thirteen, one-hour episodes is more manageable because it’s more clear where individual stories start and end while still having an overarching story.

Many of the characters are given great focus and have clear-cut purposes in the show. Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) is our main protagonist and is a capo in the DiMeo family. He is the epitome of an anti-hero and, as I mentioned before, is probably a big reason characters like Walter White, Gregory House, and many other exist today. While Tony is responsible for numerous deaths, including some by his own hand, we feel for and relate to his character because he is a loving father who cares for his family in addition to having mental and psychological problems that forced him to start seeing a therapist, Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco). Dr. Melfi is also an interesting character given that she is openly helping someone who she highly suspects (and most definitely knows for sure) is part of the mafia. In several episodes she is very conflicted about the matter and she struggles between doing what she know is right — helping her patient — while also avoiding to tell anyone about what she hears (in part because of doctor-patient confidentiality, but also partly because she wouldn’t want to anyway).

There are many other gems scattered about the cast including some of my personal favorites like Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese), Paul Gualtieri (Tony Sirico), Tony’s mother Livia (Nancy Marchand), and Tony’s children Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) and Anthony Jr. (Robert Iler). All-around everyone in the cast feels important. Some obviously don’t demand as much of the spotlight as others, but one of the great things about The Sopranos is that you never feel like anyone is forgotten. Unlike many films, or even other television shows, where there are minor characters that seem to show up just to advance the story in one very specific way and then vanish, all the characters in The Sopranos are interconnected and even when they’re not serving a story point, they’re serving the show as a whole giving us a better idea of who these people are and what kind of world we’re living in.

What has to be the most entertaining part for me however, is just how astutely it depicts the life an Italian-American household. This is separate from the mafia life, or “the business” as they refer to it. This is the everyday goings-on, all the whacking set aside. Growing up in one myself, there are many things I took for granted until I got to the age where I realized every family wasn’t the same and did things differently from mine. As I kept watching episodes, I was surprised with how many of these things I kept smiling at that I identified as something my family does all the time. The list includes (in no particular order): pasta dinners every Sunday, the inclusion of the grandparents, the loud yelling as a form of typical conversation, the welcoming/come here slap(s) on the face, the pronunciations of words like sfogliatelle and ricotta pie (phonetically: sfoo-ya-dell and ri-got), the fact there was a ricotta pie (it’s my favorite pie and one I’ve never seen anywhere else; sometimes called Easter pie), the hand-talking, the fact that it’s gravy and not pasta sauce, and many others. These little tidbits are what really got me hooked with the show in the first few episodes before the characters and the story really took over for the rest and these nuggets were like icing on the cake.

THE BAD: Probably the biggest complaint I have against The Sopranos is one that I have for many (but not all) first seasons of new shows I watch: getting started. Many shows I give myself the ultimatum of watching the first season before I make my decision of whether I like it or not. Some shows, like Breaking Bad and Battlestar Galactica I knew right from episode one I would watch the rest of the series, but for many others, Doctor Who probably being my most notable it’s not until the second (sometimes third) season when I get really hooked. With The Sopranos there’s a little bit of time spent on the runway getting up to takeoff speed and it wasn’t until around episode five, “College”, that the switch flipped and it went from a show that I was forcing myself to watch to one that was “just one more episode before bed… just one more… just one more.”

Besides the general warmup time to get going with the show, there’s a few minor issues scattered about the show that don’t really pose problems, but do offer areas for improvement. The whole storyline with Artie Bucco (John Ventimiglia) was a bit iffy until the season finale where it showed a lot of potential for season two, Adriana’s (Drea de Matteo) start in the music industry, and the odd thing that happens in “Isabella” all were low points in the season. They’re easily overcome by all the other great moments, but hopefully in season two there’s less of these.

THE TAKEAWAY: Season one is a great introduction to The Sopranos, a show often cited as one of the best ever. That claim is validated as you see the extraordinary depth the show goes into with characters, story (mafia), and lifestyle (in an Italian-American household). Tony Soprano is a great anti-hero who leads you through a journey that’s just getting started, and one that once you start, you won’t want to stop. I for one and very excited to see how the show progresses.

THE RATING: 4 out of 5

Casino

Year 3, Film #9 (Total #459)

THE PLOT: Greed, deception, money, power, and murder occur between two mobster best friends and a trophy wife over a gambling empire.

THE GOOD: The best part about any Scorsese film is almost always getting a look into a life we are not a part of. With Casino, we get a look once again at the ever infamous mafia, only this time we see them at the height of their power in Las Vegas. It’s like watching Ocean’s 11 or 21 on steroids. You see exactly to what lengths people are willing to go to get their way in Vegas. Someone tries to cheat at blackjack; you take a hammer to their hand. Someone else won’t give you information you want; their head goes in a vise. Sam Rothstein (Robert De Niro) brings the brains to the operation and Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci) brings the muscle. The two of them enforce a level of “cooperation” in their casino that brings many front-facing benefits while also bringing along much behind-the-scenes drama. As often as I say such and such film does a great job at providing insight into another life, Scorsese’s film genuinely do so almost every time and Casino is just another example.

THE BAD: Goodfellas is always the example I point to of Scorsese’s of the film I dislike. It’s a film that’s received much praise and is touted as one of the best mob movies out there, but I’ve never agreed with that. Unfortunately, I watched it before I started this marathon so I don’t have a review that I can link back to and quote when I need. Fortunately for me, many of my feelings about Casino are similar to how I felt about Goodfellas. So what is it about two of Scorsese’s most critically acclaimed films that I don’t like.

Well for starters, it’s a film that feels like it goes nowhere and lacks purpose. I say feels because there is indeed an end goal — seeing the downfall of the mafia in Las Vegas — but you have to get through so much unnecessary exposition to get there. Narration is one of Scorsese’s defining characteristics and it’s on full display in Casino to what I feel is it’s detriment. The first half especially is just a ridiculously long introduction to what we’re about to see. For over an hour we hear Rothstein and Santoro narrating the events and describing the setup to how things came to be in Vegas. As a ten-minute introduction, this would have been fine. But as an hour and a half road-to-nowhere, it drives me crazy. Rothstein’s good with numbers and he’s going to run the casino, Santoro is good at beating the shit out of people and he’s going to enforce the “law”. Ginger McKenna (Sharon Stone) is a very persuasive and influential prostitute who catches the attention of Rothstein and will only spell bad news for him. Those are the simple basics that we need to know to get the story going. You want to try and familiarize us with these characters and the environment they’re living in, fine, but cover that after an introduction.

This also just sets the film up for disappointment. For me, the story goes absolutely nowhere for the longest time covering things so inconsequential that I wouldn’t have even thought about them occurring and needing to be shown. By having the introduction be so long, by the time you get to the more meaty parts of the film, you’re already bored out of your mind waiting for something important to happen. Yes, you are getting that feel and experience that I mentioned above is so valuable and well done in a Scorsese picture, but at what cost? Either go in whole hog for that or don’t try at all.

One of the reasons I thought The Wolf of Wall Street was so entertaining, despite it’s length (it beat Casino by one minute to become Scorsese’s longest film) is that it was all about being part of Jordan Belfort’s insane lifestyle. The whole point of that film wasn’t about the rise and fall he experienced as a stock broker and the eventual criminal investigations, it was about seeing the drugs, sex, partying, and other wild shenanigans that went on on a daily basis. And the best way to get a feel for that is to draw those scenes and moments out to ridiculous length and show all the banal events along with the crazy. But with Casino, whose purpose is — at least it seems to be — to tell a story about organized crime in gambling rather than the lifestyle, this method fails.

Even if the film was significantly cut down thought I don’t think it would help because the issues I have with the film are more inherent than that. Sure it’s fun to see moments like the guy’s head being put in a vise, or an FBI surveillance plane having to land on a golf course because it ran out of fuel. But these cool, interesting, and quite revealing moments are few and far between and the antithesis to what the majority of the film is like. Most of the film has no drive, no energy that carries you from one scene to the next. It has energy within each scene, but the moment stops at the transition and you have to start all over again. The story that Scorsese is trying to tell is quite vast and expansive and could indeed fill a full three hours of film. But instead of taking the time to try and explain what’s going on, that time is spent instead on inconsequential actions that support a more introspective approach. Instead of getting something like The Wolf of Wall Street, we get something like Goodfellas, and in my opinion, both Casino and Goodfellas are trying to be films that they’re not.

My favorite film critic, the late Roger Ebert, disagrees with almost all of my criticisms and thoroughly enjoyed Casino. He is also one of the many who enjoyed as well. And what I find most interesting about both his reviews is that I agree with them on one central point: Scorsese’s ability to depict a life, mob life, that many of us have no experience with. But the reason that Ebert enjoys both films is that he views this as the central driving factor and contributor to the film’s entertainment value. I on the other hand, view this as a nice side benefit, but find the actual meat of the film, the story and the character development, to be subpar, goes almost nowhere, and takes a long time to do so. I find this difference in opinion to be fascinating and one of my favorite parts about the film-going experience: two people can have wildly different reactions to the same film while also having some of the same feelings too.

THE TAKEAWAY: Casino, for me, is a film with a runaway story that seems to go nowhere. It does provide a great look into the history of the mafia influence in Vegas, but it’s meandering focus and reliance on small and unimportant plot points makes this yet another of those classic films that I just can’t get behind. Many others have enjoyed this film and you may too, but for me, it’s boring and uneventful. I’ll stick with The Departed instead.

THE RATING: 2 out of 5

Prisoners

Year 3, Film #8 (Total #458)

THE PLOT: When Keller Dover’s daughter and her friend go missing, he takes matters into his own hands as the police pursue multiple leads and the pressure mounts. But just how far will this desperate father go to protect his family?

THE GOOD: I’ve watched many great mystery thrillers and I’ve found that the key to success is always with how the film deals with the dispensing of information. Most mysteries, and usually my favorite ones, require me to do a lot of the work. You know just enough about what’s going on to keep things interesting instead of being frustrated. If you get the clues as the main characters due, it builds up tension because you aren’t sure what’s going to happen next. Prisoners is slightly different, but equally as powerful. Watching Prisoners I often felt like I was a few steps ahead of Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) and Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal). A few of the suspects I saw coming as well as how they were involved (or not) in the abduction. It actually got to a point where I realized I started to guess what would happen and was a bit disappointed. However, what I now realize, is that Prisoners did indeed give away a lot of clues and information, but it provides a false sense of knowledge. This generosity with details masks the fact that there’s a whole lot you’re not paying attention to. The result is a 180˚ twist at the end that caught me completely off guard and left me very impressed.

While the writing and the overall structure of the story has a lot to do with this mystery in Prisoners, the other aspect that contributes a lot is the cinematography. Often times it will play a minor role in a lot of mysteries, always present, but more like a minor character. In Prisoners though, Roger Deakin’s (SkyfallHow to Train Your DragonThe Shawshank Redemption, and many other great films) camera work, the cinematography acts like another character. The shots direct our attention and focus much more precisely than a normal film does which in turn leads to the mysterious moments and revealing of clues.

To give just one example of many, lets look at the beginning of the film. The Dover and Birch families are having Thanksgiving dinner and at this point, these two families are the only characters we’ve met. Cut outside to a wide shot of an tan RV driving down the street, past several houses; the only car on the road. This wide shot from the back of the RV already provides a foreboding feeling — you know whoever is driving this vehicle is going to do the bad thing in this film. Then cut to a shot from the inside looking out the window at the passing houses. It’s a POV shot that lingers at several houses as the RV stops and goes. Especially with this POV shot, which shows nothing of the person (not even the hands or the clothes on the arms), it’s making you crave to know who this is and what is going to happen. Other films have POV shots, and use them to the same effect, but the reason I chose this moment as the exemplar for why the cinematography in Prisoners is so good is that it’s indicative of the broader idea. You, the viewer, are the camera. You are in this world watching things unfold, seeing things for yourself. Whereas other films use the camera more as a window into another world where you view from afar (and in many cases this is the right way to go), with Prisoners, the more “human” approach is much more beneficial and is the best work I’ve seen done for a film like this in some time.

THE BAD: There really isn’t much that’s wrong with Prisoners. Even my minor complaint above about being able to predict a lot of the twists isn’t something wrong with the film, it’s a purposeful misdirection from something even better (a bigger, more unexpected twist). But another minor annoyance that doesn’t have a side benefit is the overall structure of the film. It clocks in at 154 minutes which I would say is actually quite average for a mystery (Zodiac which I saw in June clocked in at 157 minutes) but the timing felt off. For instance, at around 90 minutes is when it feels like there’s a resolution to the story. One of the suspects is captured and is proved to be related somehow to the abduction. And it could have been the end — it would have been a lackluster ending and a horrible resolution, but it felt like there was a complete story that was told. Turns out, there was a whole other hour left to go. 

THE TAKEAWAY: Prisoners packs in the mystery in some new and interesting ways. Many of the twists are predictable, but they lure you into a false sense of security before the big shocking one that’s completely unexpected. The cinematography also does a stellar job at providing and leading you to certain clues while distracting you from others (purposefully and skillfully).

THE RATING: 4 out of 5

Sex Tape

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Year 3, Film #7 (Total #457)

THE PLOT: A married couple wake up to discover that the sex tape they made the evening before has gone missing, leading to a frantic search for its whereabouts.

THE GOOD/BAD: Sex Tape falls under the category of one of those films where the story is told in the trailer and so are many of the funniest jokes. You also get the general jist of it right from the one sentence premise too: Annie (Cameron Diaz) and Jay (Jason Segel) make a sex tape that ends up in the hands of their friends. And while this has inherent detractors in terms of entertainment (which I’ll get into more) it also brought with it some surprising benefits too. All of the elements I’m going to mention are at the same time entertaining and somehow endearing, while also taking away from the comedy and story.

One such element is the film’s reliance on the omnipresent “cloud” that everyone talks about constantly nowadays. Everything is in the cloud now and the word has become synonymous in our language with new technologies. Where Sex Tape surprised me was in it’s over-use and over-simplification of the cloud. Based on the trailer I thought it would just serve as the macguffin but it turns out to be much more satiric. By dumbing it down and blaming all of the problems on this faceless thing that engulfs us, it made it funny instead of just overbearing. The cloud is shoved down our throats and is overwhelming at times, but at the same time it’s funny to hear these characters talk about something they think they know everything about when in fact they know almost nothing. Sort of like the so-bad-it’s-good scenario only here it’s so-in-your-face-it’s-funny.

Another part that has the bipolar effect is the story and for very similar reasons. It’s a very simple story with not a lot going on: Annie and Jay made a sex tape, they try and get it back. Those are the only two important plot points. All the minor points and other characters add meat to the film and provide laughs and funny jokes along the way, but they could be substituted out for different events and jokes and still have the same effect. The comedy isn’t reliant on the story; it’s reliant on the writing of the one-liners and the delivery from the actors. This is a large part to any type of comedy — writing and delivery (arguably the only two parts) — but having some of the comedy be inherent to the story is always better. Some things are funnier in context and as a small part of a whole rather than a portable joke that could be told in any situation and get laughs. Sex Tape has a little of both — the funniest context-driven jokes being courtesy of Robbie (Rob Corddry) and Tess (Ellie Kemper), friends of Annie and Jay — but it’s over-reliance on the “portable” jokes, while still funny, detracts from the better laughs.

THE BAD: One part that has no good associated with it and lands solely in the bad category is the ending. If you’ve seen The Hangover or the many films that have come since then (and probably also before it), you should be familiar with the, show the thing that was talked about in it’s entirety. In The Hangover, the pictures of the blackout night are shown over the credits to give you an idea of the crazy shenanigans that you didn’t actually see that formed the whole basis for the film. In Sex Tape, it’s a similar idea where they show scenes from Annie and Jay’s tape and also fast-forward through other parts. Problem one is that they do it pre-credits and therefore is solely in the land of story-centric. The problem though is that it’s superfluous. Show it over the credits as a sort of bonus because that’s exactly what it is. The whole point of the film is to allude to the sex tape without ever really seeing it. Which leads into part two of the problem which is that to top it all off, we actually saw the beginnings of the filming and mentions of it throughout the film instead of being like the mysterious night in The Hangover where the last thing we see is the wolf pack taking the shots. That’s all you need in general and is all that is needed here: the impetus that creates the conflict without ever seeing the result.

THE TAKEAWAY: Sex Tape is filled with jokes and focuses heavily on a satire of how important the “cloud” has become in our society. While this does provide laughs and some entertainment value, it’s dumbed-down and over-simplified plot, characters, and easy jokes also take away a lot of that entertainment and leave you with some satisfaction, but a big desire for something better.

Sex Tape opens in theaters this Friday, July 18, 2014.

THE RATING: 3 out of 5

Admission

Year 3, Film #6 (Total #456)

THE PLOT: A Princeton admissions officer who is up for a major promotion takes a professional risk after she meets a college-bound alternative school kid who just might be the son she gave up years ago in a secret adoption.

THE GOOD: As The Recruit did in terms of showing the CIA training process, an area which is often never looked at in depth, Admission does here with the application process that everyone who goes to college has to deal with. I’m not saying that I ever looked forward to or desired a film about one of the most annoying parts of my high school career, but I have to say that the story in Admission did a great job with it. Yes, a large focus was on the application process itself, from the point of view of an admissions officer — Portia Nathan (Tina Fey) — but it also connected on the more personal level of “What’s the secret to getting in to college?” It’s something every student wants to know and would certainly make junior year much more pleasant, but at the same time, as with all hard things in life, it is like a rite of passage that you must conquer.

Admission gets both of those points of view told very well, from both sides of the issue. Portia is the admissions officer, and she decides the fates of all these kids. You see the struggle she goes through internally as she makes her decisions about the students, done in an interesting (though very effective) way — showing the student in the background, almost like a dream sequence only taking place in reality. But she also represents the other side of trying to get someone through the process. After she meets Jeremiah Balakian (Nat Wolff), an adopted child who John Pressman (Paul Rudd), a teacher at Jeremiah’s school, claims is her son, she becomes heavily invested in his success. Thus, in a unusual though exciting turn of events, Portia is both helping someone apply to Princeton while at the same time helping to decide his fate.

THE BAD: A problem with this film, which I’ve seen many time before in this marathon, is that of it’s secondary characters. Portia, John, Jeremiah, and a handful of other characters, even some minor ones, were all fantastic. They filled their roles and beyond, evoking the emotions and feelings that we should feel in key moments rather than just watching events unfold at a distance. However, a few characters like Portia’s mother Susannah (Lily Tomlin), fellow admissions officer Corinne (Gloria Reuben), and her long-term boyfriend Mark (Michael Sheen) all felt incomplete. They each had a standout moment or two that made their character click, but for the most part, they felt completely unnecessary to the film. Admission could have done without them and it would still have had the same effect. Not something you look forward to in a film.

THE TAKEAWAY: What I perhaps found most surprising was the film’s ending. While there are some happy moments to be had, it isn’t necessarily a happy ending you come to expect in in a romantic comedy-drama like Admission. And it’s great to see a film that shows even happy endings can have some sadness in them and things don’t always go exactly right all the time. Some of the characters and the execution could have been better, but the film still did a good job at telling to story of college admissions from both perspectives, another thing that isn’t seen done well too often.

THE RATING: 4 out of 5

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Year 3, Film #5 (Total #455)

THE PLOT: 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. 

THE GOOD: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes exceeds its prequel’s strengths in more ways than one. Rise of the Planet of the Apes was an extremely successful reboot of the Apes franchise largely in part due to the big focus on the apes point of view instead of just humans. Dawn continues this focus with much of the film, especially the beginning, taking place solely in the forest with Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his fellow primates. The most interesting thing about seeing things from the apes point of view is to see the strong similarities with humans. This point is brought up in Dawn and is explored much more than in Rise. It’s not just a story about humans vs. apes but a story about good vs. bad and how these qualities are inherent in all living beings. Some people do what’s right and some don’t, and the same with the apes. And what’s so great about Dawn and the rest of this rebooted franchise is to see the fight happen inter-species rather than just intra-species.

As with Rise, the part that deserves the most recognition in Dawn is the performances coming from the apes. Andy Serkis gives an Oscar-worthy performance, one that should be recognized with at least a nomination this year. Serkis carries this film much more than the human cast or the rest of the ape cast. It’s not just his uncanny ability to portray an ape in such a humanistic way, but the effect it has on you as a viewer. An Oscar for Best Actor shouldn’t be given just to someone who can portray and actor out of their wheelhouse, but to a good performance in general. Serkis doesn’t just do a good job at playing an ape, he delivers a performance that’s above and beyond many others. When things get really serious, especially towards the end, you can see the emotions coursing through him, all the subtle movements in his eyes and face. The result moves us and gets us invested in the story much more than any average performance would and brings us to another level of engagement in the films events.

Another performance worthy of recognition is Caesar’s teenage son Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston). As with Serkis’ performance, you can really see the struggle going on inside him as the film unfolds. While these apes are not humans, the performances given by Serkis, Thurston, and the rest of the cast, reduce the barriers between human and ape and allow us to focus on whether it’s good acting or not. Thurston displays the emotions you would expect from a teenage son wanting to rebel against his father. It doesn’t matter that he is a primate, you only see the rebellious teenager.

In terms of a summer blockbuster, Dawn also delivers. It has the action and suspense you’ve come to expect, but it doesn’t just stop there. Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) are great additions to the cast and deliver the conflict and fight that drive the film. Malcolm appreciates the apes and understands their position — they just want to survive. Dreyfus on the other hand is looking after the human interests and therefore is very gun- and war-friendly. Also contributing to the conflict is the ape Koba (Toby Kebbell) who represents the war-favored faction of the apes. As I mentioned earlier, Dawn isn’t a film about humans vs. apes, it’s a film about good vs. evil, traits that exist in both sides of the fight and make for a riveting battle which we get to watch many layers unfold.

THE BAD: There isn’t anything really. Any questions or plot holes, if any, are insignificant and you can easily forget about. Looking back, there’s nothing that popped out as problematic, most likely because I was so invested in the story that was taking place I didn’t have time to think about problems. Andy Serkis, Nick Thurston, Jason Clarke, and Gary Oldman all deliver standout performances and are all mentioned above as extraordinary. The rest of the cast may not have been up to the caliber of these fine actors, but they still held their own and helped to carry this film to great heights. The story as well has no faults, or at least, none that stick out. It’s well structured with a beginning, middle, and end that flow well into each other and keep the right level of excitement and engagement maintained throughout. You’re never bored or left wanting more; there’s always something to keep your attention, and better yet, something to keep you invested at a deeper level with what’s taking place on screen.

THE TAKEAWAY: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes has all the best parts of a summer blockbuster with the action and suspense, while also having the makings of an Oscar winner for a drama. It’s not as deep or complex as other Best Picture winners are, but compared to Rise and especially compared to any other blockbuster — summer or otherwise — it has the potential and even takes advantage of that in certain places. Acting as well deserves widespread recognition for Dawn. Both humans and apes deliver knockout performances and Andy Serkis is entitled to a nomination if not a win for Best Actor. He was snubbed for his performance in Rise, he needs to get one for Dawn. Performance capture be damned, Serkis delivers an Oscar-worthy performance, plain and simple.

THE RATING: 5 out of 5