Now in Theaters: April 2016

Right now, there’s a lot more good stuff playing at your local multiplex than you might expect. Here are some of my plot-free impressions of several interesting movies you can go see today.

 

THE WITCH

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If you missed it the first time around a few months ago, The Witch is back in multiplexes and for fans of genre filmmaking, it’s an absolute must-see. The film, from first-time filmmaker Robert Eggers, can be classified most accurately as a horror movie but doesn’t deserve to be lumped in with all the PG-13 jump-scare nonsense we’ve gotten so accustomed to lately. While The Witch is short on the sudden jolts, its atmosphere is shaded with ten layers of creepy and makes for a more deeply unsettling experience than just waiting for some pale, black-robed creature to come out and yell at you.

The Witch enjoyed a rapturous response at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, but the gushing hyperbole about it being the “scariest film of the year” led a lot of folks to have the wrong impression and not give the film the thought it deserves. Besides the lack of sudden spikes in the audio track, the film has an ending that has proved polarizing, but I’m completely on board with (and I won’t dare spoil) it. The Witch isn’t afraid to step into some fascinating and morally ambiguous territory, and while many horror fans apparently weren’t looking for it, there’s a morality play bubbling underneath the surface that’s just as troubling and fascinating as the movie’s claustrophobic imagery.

I typically avoid horror films like the plague, but I was so enraptured by The Witch,  I bought another ticket the same day. My second viewing of the film is easily the best theatrical experience I’ve had all year, and left me giddy and smiling. Dunno what that says about me, but I can’t recommend this film highly enough whether you’re into horror or not.

 

ZOOTOPIA

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If you haven’t seen Zootopia yet, where the hell have you been?! It’s a masterpiece. The newest feature from Walt Disney Animation Studios is almost certainly its best yet in a long line of winners since Disney’s merger with Pixar and John Lasseter’s reign as chief creative officer of Disney animation proper.  It’s lush, it’s deep, it’s culturally resonant in a way that’s almost shocking. The candidacy of Donald Trump and Zootopia do not exist in separate vacuums.

While the filmmakers and Disney will never say so, Zootopia is an intensely political film and it comes at a volatile and important period of demographic transition in our country. Like America, the city of Zootopia is a promising but imperfect place where ideals of promoting diversity and inclusiveness clash with the harshness of reality as different populations are made to coexist. Many characters, even ones we like, betray their own biases and have to learn from their mistakes and accept the consequences of their ignorance.

The film’s inter-species dynamics are specific and different enough from our society’s prominent racial biases that it’s easy for Disney to shrug off the allegory, but make no mistake: Zootopia leans to the left. And I love it for that. There are so many ways to tackle the film as it excels on almost every level, but its daringly progressive stance was the aspect I found most thrilling. If Zootopia achieves even a fraction of the cultural penetration that Frozen continues to demonstrate, we’ll be living in a slightly better world.

 

BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE

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Whoof.

Talking about this movie is tough for me, because quite frankly I was biased against it going in. I don’t like Zack Snyder’s aesthetic very much, and BvS bears his visual trademarks as much as anything else in his filmography. Predictably, it’s a washed-out, smoky and loud dick-waving contest. Having said that, the film is not completely without merit and if you’re a film fan or pop-culture connoisseur it’s required viewing regardless of its quality. The movie is called Batman v Superman for God’s sake, what are you going to do? Skip it? Just because a movie is bad doesn’t mean it’s not culturally relevant. I saw it twice just to make sure I didn’t like it.

My first viewing was conflicted experience. The opening title sequence features the murder of Batman’s parents (again) intercut against a restaging of young Bruce Wayne’s discovery of the Batcave from Batman Begins, except this time young Master Wayne is elevated, Christ-like, from the cave by a fleet of bats as the words “Directed by Zack Snyder” appear on-screen. I almost barfed. This cinematic atrocity is followed by easily the most interesting sequence in the film, as the film takes a different perspective on the final act of Man of Steel from Bruce Wayne’s point of view.

The third act of Man of Steel is highly problematic and those issues have been discussed in thorough detail from a variety of sources.  BvS attempts to atone and provide commentary for Man of Steel‘s wanton displays of destruction but muddles its message to the point where the intent is frustratingly unclear. Similar to its Marvel analog, Avengers: Age of Ultron, the film feels unfinished and in need of a 3-hour cut. This is a terrible precedent to be setting for event films. Several scenes feel unnecessary to the plot and are not interesting enough to stand on their own. Snyder also continues to indulge his embarrassing slo-mo fetish.

Batman v Superman is interesting, but unfortunately that is mostly due to its flaws rather than its strengths. I was drawn to Tomorrowland last year due to its trainwreck nature, and I feel similarly about BvS. It’s fun to wrestle with, but it is not a good movie. Sorry.

 

HARDCORE HENRY

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If this movie is for you, you probably know it already. Hardcore Henry distinguishes itself by being told entirely from the first-person perspective of the title character (i.e. GoPro helmets), and draws just as much, if not more, influence from the world of video gaming than other films. It’s a non-stop 90-minute barrage of bloody violence and profanity, and it’s hard to deny that can be a lot of fun.

As a project willing to actually break new cinematic ground, it can feel rough-around-the-edges at times in a way that is both refreshing and periodically annoying. Curiously, for a film told entirely from a character’s first person perspective I was expecting a lot more long takes, but almost every sequence is filled with cuts, even if it feels like only a few seconds of footage were removed.  The staccato editing style keeps up the ferocity and momentum, but this comes at the expense of  a real sense of geography in several of the locations. The plot is secondary at best, which itself is not necessarily a problem, but after a while it can feel exactly like an FPS in the wrong way: a progression of levels, NPCs (played mostly by Sharlto Copley in various ridiculous outfits) and ever-increasing hordes of baddies to slay. By the time the credits rolled, I was tired.

None of this is to say Hardcore Henry isn’t fun or worth seeing, because it is. I’m not a professional critic, but I go see a lot of films and watching something in a theater that is actually unique is an experience I’m always, ahem, game for. Go to a matinee screening with appropriate expectations, and you’ll have a good time.

(note:  I went to the Fathom Events opening-night screening of the film, and was given a prequel comic-book which fills in a lot of backstory for Hardcore Henry‘s villain that isn’t even hinted at in the film. The experience would have been much more perplexing without this background info.)

My thoughts on a few other current releases will be forthcoming soon, thanks for reading and stay tuned to this station.

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Thoughts: DEADPOOL is a (slightly) different kind of superhero movie

Deadpool is a film in conflict with itself.

The story of this movie’s greenlighting process is well-known at this point but it is a huge part of this film’s meta-narrative and internal struggle; Deadpool has both the freedom and burden of being the first studio superhero film developed due to popular internet demand. The film is pulled between two sets of demands: the need for this (ostensibly) niche product to make a demonstrable profit, and to please the hordes of fans who clamored for the Deadpool flick after leaked test footage from Comic-Con went viral.

So what’s the ruckus about? Different people will give you different answers, but at the end of the day it all boils down to the one thing about Deadpool (a.k.a. mercenary Wade Wilson) that makes him different from any other mainstream comic book character: he knows he’s a fictional character. This notion has tremendous dramatic power; unlike any other hero, Deadpool has the unique ability to elevate or completely derail any scene he is in at any time. By the character’s very nature, anything involving Deadpool is going to be deeply meta and the potential is limitless. Deadpool is also filthy and violent. He’s a member of the X-Men family of Marvel superheroes, and therefore falls under the purview of 20th Century Fox who eventually proved game enough to fund an R-rated film of this character, as is befitting his violent and crude nature.

In trying to please both the suits and the fans, Deadpool talks a big game while resting on the standard superstructure of pretty much every other Marvel Comics-related movie of the last decade. All the pieces are there, from the team-up with a few minor characters, to the plucky-but-still-imperiled heroine, to the bit at the end when stuff blows up. The film presents a recognizably standard superhero origin story, a little more graphic than what we’re used to seeing in this kind of movie but not particularly distinctive. Deadpool, both visually and aurally, fits neatly into the shiny Marvel aesthetic.

As a direct link between the reader and the story Deadpool has always served as an audience surrogate, making the MST3K-style jokes you’d crack with your buddies. The film’s running commentary is often very funny, but masks the fact that underneath the lewd exterior, Deadpool isn’t actually all that subversive. Everything you’d expect to see in a superhero film is here, and nothing I saw on screen actually surprised me. T. J. Miller is good, but feels a bit misplaced as comic relief to a character that’s already a clown. Morena Baccarin is delightful as Wade’s love interest (a new addition for the film not present in the comics), but by the middle of the third act is tied up by the villain like superhero love interests are so often wont to do.

Deadpool hits the ground running with a thoroughly clever title sequence skewering comic-movie tropes and barrels gleefully through an expanded version of the highway action setpiece from the original test footage, but begins to sputter during the flashback sequences detailing Wade Wilson’s metamorphosis. Once the film is solidly and the third act and things need to get resolved, the film loses some steam and ends on a bit of a weak note (although the post-credits stinger, some pure fan-candy, perks everyone up on the way out the door). Maybe I was expecting too much, but what I was hoping would be a new kind of superhero movie really was just a naughty version of what I’m already used to seeing, and this sort of thing no longer feels filling.

This isn’t to say the film is bad, because as far as comic book movies go Deadpool is pretty solid. It chugs right along and I never once thought about checking my watch. Ryan Reynolds has found the role that will define him. The jokes comes fast and furious, and just enough of them land. Some of the inside-baseball quips (at one point Reynolds quips about fondling Wolverine’s balls while affecting an Australian accent, the writers are credited in the opening titles as “The Real Heroes here,” etc.) are pretty refreshing.

I really did like Deadpool, and the fault may lie more with me wanting it to be an art film. I’ve seen it twice and both times the audience gobbled it up. It’s crushed all opening-weekend records for an R-rated film, and that’s without 3-D. All’s I’m saying is, Deadpool is good but let’s not get carried away.

Review: The quiet devastation of ANOMALISA

Over the course of his film career, writer Charlie Kaufman (Being John MalkovichEternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) has proven himself exemplary at the fine art of making me feel like shit and like it. His latest, Anomalisa, continues this trend and marks another splendid entry into the Kaufman canon, blending quirky melancholy, absurdist fantasy and heartbreaking disappointment into a distinctively singular work. It’s also his first foray into stop-motion animation, and he utilizes the medium in a unique way that somehow makes the film feel more human than if the actors were human.

Anomalisa originated from a 2005 stageplay written by Kaufman and was funded in part from a Kickstarter campaign; it’s an intensely personal story he’s been harboring for a long time. Its origins on stage makes sense: the story is small, takes place in only a few setting with only a few characters, and over the course of about a day. Many scenes take place in real-time or close to it.

The film follows a middle-aged business traveler as he spends a night in a high-end Cincinatti hotel before giving a speech the next morning. Within the first few moments of the film, and without it ever being verbally stated, it’s clear the traveler, Michael Stone, is hopelessly lost in life (in a thematic echo to the story and as a nod to Kaufman’s long-standing interest in neuroses and mental disorders, Stone stays at the “Hotel Fregoli,” named after a delusion in which the sufferer thinks multiple people are actually the same person). That he meets the title character and they make a connection almost goes without saying if you’ve so much as seen a trailer, but the true joys of the movie lie in discovery, watching as the world is established and it becomes clear all is not as it should be.

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Anomalisa truly looks like no film that has come before. In a departure from the stop-motion medium’s typical flights of visual fantasy, Anomalisa takes place in an exhaustively realistic (and mundane) world in miniature. Besides the physical spaces the puppets inhabit, the film’s realism comes from its pacing and action. The first act painstakingly follows Stone as he lands in Cincinnati, has a useless conversation with his cabbie and checks in at the hotel. His check-in, in particular, is documented in one slow, methodical take that takes him from the front desk, up an elevator and down a hallway to his room over several minutes.  Nothing “of consequence” happens, but the effect is subtly powerful. In technical terms the “long take” is a bit of a fallacy in animation, but Anomalisa has a few of these very long sequences that contribute to the film’s heightened surreality.

It seems counterintuitive but this film, under the direction of Duke Johnson, depicts moments of emotional and sexual intimacy that are as frank and honest as any I’ve seen on film. The sex scene that has anchored much of the conversation in this film mostly transpires in another of those chilling long takes. If we’re going there, it’s easily the most graphic puppet sex I’ve seen since Team America: World Police.

Much of the joy of watching Anomalisa comes from slowly inhabiting the world, learning the rules and being present in intense emotional moments with the characters so I’ll go light on plot, but rest assured, the film leaves the same kind of emotional wreckage observed in the wake of Being John Malkovich or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Kaufman’s bleakly bittersweet persective on love and loss pulls no punches and leaves just as strong an impression as the truly unique design aesthetic. Highly recommended.

Review: Hail HAIL CAESAR!

Why is it coming out in February?

That was the thought swimming around in the back of my mind as I saw all the amazing trailers and promo spots for Hail Caesar!, the latest directorial project from the Coen Brothers. It looked good, had an amazing cast, Coens writing and directing, Roger Deakins behind the camera, why was this film getting buried after Oscar nominations come out?

The answer quickly became apparent as I watched: it’s too fun for the awards circuit. Hail Caesar! is a straight-up slapstick comedy, designed more for the purposes of joy and laughter than any kind of deeper philosophical or thematic conquest. A lot of jokes involve people falling down or getting slapped in the face. It’s not quite as outlandish or broad as The Ladykillers (there’s no equivalent to the “you brought your bitch to the muthafuckin’ Waffle Hut!” moment), which is good, but it’s fun and silly while still retaining that unique Coen artfulness.

As is any project shot by Roger Deakins nowadays (most recently his Oscar-nominated work on Sicario comes to mind), Hail Caesar looks gorgeous. The film is presented in a tall 1:85:1 aspect ratio (think 16×9 TV as opposed to traditional matted widescreen) and has a warm celluloid glow to it. Several sequences take place on film sets and feature “in-camera” shots presented in full-frame Academy ratio for authenticity. Scarlett Johansson’s elaborately-staged entrance is particularly striking in the unusual ratio. There are several repeated visual motifs (clock and watch faces, a particular camera angle used in the tracking shots where Josh Brolin interacts with his dutiful secretary) that hint at the cruel drudgery of the period’s constant chaos (Hail Caesar! takes place in roughly one day of film time).  Hail Caesar marks Roger Deakins’s return to shooting on film (though don’t get used to it), and the decision makes perfect sense for the post-war era in which the movie takes place.

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Tilda Swinton and Josh Brolin in Hail Caesar! (Universal)

Performances are stellar across the board, but what else could be expected from Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Jonah Hill, Ralph Fiennes, Alison Pill and Tilda Swinton (playing twins!) being directed by the Coens? It’s clear everyone is having a great time and the material is whip-smart. Channing Tatum, with little dialogue and only a few minutes of screen time, threatens to run away with the entire movie. His tap-dance extravaganza, hinted at in the trailers, is the scene to beat this year.

The story revolves frantically around a Hollywood studio fix-it man (Brolin) who goes about his day solving casting problems in various pictures, hiding his testy stars’ indiscretions from the public and attempting to free a ransomed actor (Clooney) who needs to be on set to avoid production delays. Characters and their problems flit in and out, contributing to a patchwork, sometimes intersecting, sometimes not.

The film has an interesting sense of comedic timing, and several moments stand out that I wouldn’t dare spoil. Suffice to say, sometimes the jokes come rapid-fire but a few are very slow burns. There are a ton of visual gags and there’s no lack of pratfalls and physical comedy. For a Coen joint it’s remarkably tame, and only even got a PG-13 rating for smoking (not going there today) and a few mildly dirty jokes. You can take your mom.

It’s not going to be the best film of the year or anything, but Hail Caesar! has a lot going on and shouldn’t be dismissed just because it looks like a zany comedy. It’s still a Coen Brothers film and has the requisite brains to go along with its charm and good looks. Go see it with a crowd.

Why I keep going back to THE FORCE AWAKENS

As of this writing, I’ve seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens six times. I know that’s weird, but this film is special and I have an obsessive personality, so I’ve decided not to give myself a hard time about it. And I mean come on, there’s a new Star Wars movie out and it’s really, really good.

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS.

Even after many viewings, I’m amazed at how well the thing operates on a minute-to-minute basis. It’s tight and it’s fast, no second is wasted and unlike the ponderous prequels is stuffed to the gills with character and almost devoid of bullshit. It’s not perfect, there are some structural issues and there are little touches here and there that are a bit too obvious, but these are minor criticisms of a thoroughly successful project.

‘Successful’ may be the best descriptor of The Force Awakens. It gets a ton right, gets very little wrong, and has made almost everybody happy. What else could you possibly ask of it? A conscious creative decision was clearly made to echo the structure of the first film instead of getting too radical or esoteric, and we should not have expected anything different when J. J. Abrams was brought on board (if you want a crazy, unrestrained flight of fancy in the Star Wars universe, you can go ahead and watch Episode I)In terms of filmmaking craft, however, the new film is a far different beast than any of the George Lucas films.

Whenever I watch A New Hope and then put on Empire right aafter, I’m always struck by the jarring aesthetic shift between the two films. The first Star Wars film is mythic, archetypal, and arguably even simple. Luke’s character arc follows the Hero’s Journey taken straight out of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces. The good guys are good, the bad guys are bad. By today’s standards, it feels slow. A lot of the dialogue is very on-the-nose. It’s almost like a children’s book. After that, The Empire Strikes Back is like a breath of fresh air. It feels like a film. I haven’t found a better way to describe it, but I’ll bet you’ve had that experience too. To me, The Force Awakens represents a similar aesthetic leap forward. Abrams’ films have always been sprightly and this one is no exception; the film possesses a kind of manic energy not found in the original trilogy or prequels. Actual good dialogue, too!

The first act is close to perfect. From the opening titles until the Millenium Falcon leaves Jakku’s atmosphere, I could watch that every day. The pacing is spot-on, we’re given precisely enough information about each character, the actors have a great rapport, it nails so many moments. Rey’s introduction up until she rescue BB-8 is almost wordless, reminding me in a pleasant way of the legendary first act of WALL-E. We’re left with no doubt the First Order is both really evil and really dangerous. BB-8 is The King. There are three separate action set pieces. By the time Rey and Finn congratulate each other on their heroics after escaping two TIE Fighters, we want to give each of them a high-five, too.

So much of what makes The Force Awakens great isn’t written explicitly in the text of the dialogue. The whole ensemble has tremendous chemistry and bounce lines and gestures back and forth with aplomb. Certain character dynamics, like Finn’s horn-dog attraction to Rey or the adversarial relationship between Kylo Ren and General Hux, are strongly implied through action and body language instead of mentioned explicitly. In fact, many of the most powerful moments in The Force Awakens (Han Solo entering the Millennium Falcon’s cockpit, Rey’s encounter with Luke) are told completely without dialogue.

Once Rey and Finn escape Jakku and Han Solo enters the picture, the whole affair inevitably gets a bit more complicated as the movie more closely intertwines with the original films. You could definitely argue that Han Solo still being up to his old tricks is a little tired, and it doesn’t do the film much good having him owe space gangsters money again (plus rathtars why?), but spending more time with Harrison Ford playing his most iconic character (and having fun, to boot) is not something I’m going to complain about.

If we’re continuing to nitpick, Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron can feel shoehorned in to many of his scenes after Finn loses him on Jakku. Like Luke in A New Hope, Poe is the only X-Wing pilot we really care about, but unlike Luke he doesn’t have a full character arc to make us care about the guy in the pilot’s seat. Because of this, Poe’s trench run, though very fun, feels disconnected from everything else going on. Also, the spatial relationships between various settings on the planet (in particular the distance between the forest and the oscillator) are not particularly clear.

These criticisms are all very minor; overall The Force Awakens is great. But why is it so great I’ve already seen it six times? First, and most importantly, it’s Star Wars. That is never something to be discounted. Besides that, it’s a really great ride, fun and compulsively watchable. Seeing the film with a big audience is a riot, watching the audience reactions can be almost as much fun as watching the movie. It’s a big movie that should be seen on the biggest screen possible, IMAX Laser or 70mm if possible. I’ve also seen the movie in a D-Box motion seat, and that experience was far more fun than it had any right to be (though the motion can distracting on a first viewing).

If you’re going to see The Force Awakens again (and you probably are,) see it in the best presentation you can. Find an IMAX dome with a 70mm print (note to my New England friends: the Jordan’s Furniture IMAX theater is a laser setup) or see it in D-Box. The release of this film is the motion picture event of our generation, enjoy it while it lasts like I have.

Yes, Seeing THE HATEFUL EIGHT in 70mm IS Glorious

 

When it was announced that The Hateful Eight, the newest film from auteur Quentin Tarantino, would be released for a limited run in 70mm, I thought, “that’s awesome. Wish I could see that.” I was overjoyed to learn a few weeks ago that my city, Orlando, would be a host to the roadshow at the AMC Disney Springs 24 and made plans immediately. I’m here to tell you that not only was I not disappointed, seeing The Hateful Eight in 70mm was one of the best cinematic experiences I’ve had in a year full of them.

Even going to a screening at an off-time (a Sunday morning), seeing The Hateful Eight in its roadshow presentation felt like an event. As I gave the dude at the door my ticket, I was handed a handsome 12″ souvenir program with films stills, a blurb and a poster. A lot of the other folks there to see Star Wars saw the program and were curious, I felt pretty cool. At my screening there were no previews; at the scheduled time the digital projector running previews turned off, the film projector turned on and displayed a title card with the word “OVERTURE,” we were off to the races immediately.

Roadshow presentations of epic films were fairly common in the 60’s, but a proper 70mm roadshow presentation of a new film has not taken place in decades. Certain home releases of 2001: A Space Odyssey include the overture and intermission, but that will be most filmgoers’ closest encounter to the format. With these elements in place, along with the souvenir program (and the vibe of a clearly passionate audience), my perfectly ordinary screening of the film felt like something special and unique.

But let’s stop talking about the ancillary stuff- what does seeing The Hateful Eight in 70mm actually look like? The answer is both more and less different than you might expect.

When big productions like Ben-Hur went on the road, they didn’t go to multiplexes as we picture today. They screened at big, iconic movie houses like the Cinerama Dome. The grand, single-screen movie theatre is no longer really a thing, and most multiplex auditoriums retrofitted with 70mm projectors simply can’t replicate the experience of seeing a film in a huge, ornate  auditorium with a massive screen (this isn’t The Dark Knight in IMAX, calm down). However, simply seeing a film projected on celluloid in a modern multiplex is a pleasure enough in and of itself. It feels tangible. It’s also great to see an actual human projectionist watching over your screening!

Super Panavision 70, the film’s native format, simply looks different from what you’re used to. The field of view is super-wide (imagine playing Minecraft in Quake Pro FOV), and every frame is gorgeous and beautifully framed by DP Robert Richardson. In my presentation (and I expect most), the mattes at the top and bottom of the screen were blurry, an inevitable consequence of the fact that Hateful Eight‘s aspect ratio is wider than conventional films and the adjustable curtain mattes simply don’t go that far. Were you to watch the film on a standard TV, the black bars at the top and bottom of the image would be bigger to support the more extreme height-to-width ratio. This wider aspect ratio looks uniquely stunning and presents huge western landscapes in truly breathtaking fashion, but most of the film is not composed of landscapes.

In fact, The Hateful Eight takes place mostly in one setting: a one-room haberdashery snowed in by a massive blizzard. The 70mm photography may seem suited more to expansive landscapes but brings a whole new dimension to the claustophobic cabin in which the  bulk of the film takes place. At any given moment, a good portion of the whole set is in frame and characters not directly involved in the dialogue are still very present in the one-room set. Like Ex Machina from earlier this year, The Hateful Eight would feel like a play if it weren’t so damn cinematic. The wide field-of-view provided by the vintage 65mm Panavision lenses encompasses a much broader range than traditional camera equipment, and while making landscapes most expansive makes the cottage set feel much more claustrophobic and unescapable.

Besides the technical aspects and aesthetics, how is the film? Definitely worth seeing. The Hateful Eight may not be Tarantino’s best work, but it may be his best-looking and most mature as a filmmaker. The film is peppered with the salty, politically-incorrect language and horrifying violence you’d expect from a Tarantino film but refrains from some of his most egregious excesses:

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Just too much (from Django Unchained, TWC)

The film may be Tarantino’s most aggressive film in terms of pure shock value, it’s more restrained in terms of B-movie exploitation and crudity than some of the director’s earlier works. The film feels grown-up, and the purest distillation yet of Tarantino’s love of the projected moving image. It’s clear that every frame of The Hateful Eight was crafted with love.

There’s plenty more to discuss about the film proper, but for now it’s safe to say you’d be doing a disservice to yourself to see the new film from Quentin Tarantino in any other than its desired 70mm format. Even at an odd time, I felt a connection to the film and the format that felt different and special, and I hope to see it in 7mm again before the run ends. It’s the most delicious film-school porn and I can’t get enough.

First Impressions of STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS

THE SPOILERS ARE STRONG WITH THIS ONE.  IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS YET, DO NOT READ THIS. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

It’s here. The hype train has reached the station and Star Wars: The Force Awakens is now in theaters. Because it’s a Star Wars movie, the opening week is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to our discussion and we’re going to be living with this film for a long time. We still talk about the prequels, after all.

We would all see The Force Awakens even if it was terrible, but fortunately, it’s good! In fact, it’s really good. Episode VII is, remarkably, the first non-sucky Star Wars movie to be released in 32 years (or longer, depending on who you ask). Considering the series’ place in pop culture, that is not to be taken lightly. One of the few big criticisms that can be leveled at the movie is that it plays it too safe and banks on sure-bet imagery and moments from the original trilogy, but we’ve seen what happens when big creative risks are taken with Star Wars, and I’ll take this thank you very much.

YO! SPOILERS! LAST CHANCE TO EXIT! YOU WILL GET WET!

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So yes, let’s get this out of the way. The plot of The Force Awakens hews pretty closely to A New Hope. This approach to crafting the story places certain limitations on where the plot can go and prevents the film from being truly surprising. It may not be the most creatively daring experience, but it’s a great popcorn romp. The three new lead characters, played ably by Oscar Isaac, Daisy Ridley and John Boyega, reflect many of the traits of the original trilogy’s leading trio but not in the obvious ways you might expect. Each character is an amalgam of things we’ve seen before, for example Rey has shades of Luke and most closely follows his arc but has all the feisty energy that made Leia such a forward-thinking character. Finn has some of Han’s reluctance, A New Hope Luke’s pluckiness, and some droid-like dopiness thrown in for good measure. Poe Dameron has Solo’s acerbic wit and lazy confidence, but also Luke’s wholesome earnestness for the cause of the light side.

It deserves a moments’ notice to say the cast of The Force Awakens is spot-on across the board, both new and old. Harrison Ford falls back into the role of Han Solo more comfortably I allowed myself to hope for. John Boyega is wonderfully dippy. Adam Driver continues his streak of making every scene he’s in, no matter the role, a lot weirder. As Rey, newcomer Daisy Ridley hits it out of the park and with the help of a snappy script helps create an exciting new kind of female action hero for our ever-more-progressive times (and who is sure to be a role model for millions of kids of both genders going forward).

The Force Awakens occupies a unique place in pop culture; there’s never really been a release like this one. As such, the film is just as meta as you would expect. Everything you could reasonably expect to see as a Star Wars fan is in there, from the ships to the characters to the production design. It’s even got a cantina scene! And a Death Star! The overtly referential nature of the whole affair looks a bit tired on paper, but for whatever reason none of the similarities really bothered me in the theater, and became less worrisome on subsequent viewings. The film is simply good enough to make up for it.

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It helps that The Force Awakens is compulsively rewatchable. It’s dense and packed to the gills with fun throwaway details, but ditches a lot of the prequels’ visual clutter. Star Wars has always been more than just a movie franchise, with the films dictating big plot events to be expanded upon in other media like books and games. The Force Awakens is the first look into a big new storytelling universe we’ll be living with, presumably, for the rest of our lives. There will always be new details to mine. Beyond the interests of Star Wars fandom, the film is rewatchable because it’s so damn fun. It’s easily the funniest Star Wars movie, and it’s also the tightest. Cut at the breakneck pace for which J. J. Abrams is known, the film zooms along too fast for any cringeworthy moments (“HEY!!! THAT’S MINE!!!!!!”) to really stick. It just keeps coming, and every scene has something new and crazy to look at.

The Force Awakens is not perfect. Most of the  film’s bigger issues stem from the 30-year sequel gap and a lack of definition about the current state of the story universe.  The Starkiller planet destruction scene is the one big moment that really falls flat, we don’t have enough information to know what the stakes are; at least we knew Alderaan had some political importance and we understood Leia’s personal stake. I know nothing about the Hosnian system. I don’t even know if I spelled that right. Really, once the current political landscape of the Star Wars universe is laid out in the opening crawl it’s not brought up in detail again and that was probably the right decision for the movie. This is the biggest movie event ever, it was only going to be so dorky. Also, in a somewhat disappointing footnote John Williams’ score works effectively in the context of the movie, but lacks the next “Imperial March” or “Duel of the Fates.” Rey’s new theme is as close as the score comes to a memorable new idea, but it took several viewings and listening to the soundtrack to really get it. The new trilogy’s musical motifs are currently a little foggy, and that was unexpected.

After seeing The Force Awakens (several times), I’m more excited than ever for the future of Star Wars. Was Episode VII a little basic in its plotting? Maybe. Does it get a bit too on-the-nose with its references to the lore? You could argue that. Did I openly weep when the Star Wars logo appeared on screen? I tried to keep it together.

Little gripes don’t really matter. The fact is, we’re going to get a Star Wars movie every year until the end of time. The next one can be weird, this one just had to be good. And it is. It’s way better that just good. There truly has been an awakening.