Film Review: Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)

Also known as: Fast Times (working title, informal title)
Release Date: August 13th, 1982
Directed by: Amy Heckerling
Written by: Cameron Crowe
Based on: Fast Times at Ridgemont High: A True Story by Cameron Crowe
Music by: various pop bands
Cast: Sean Penn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Judge Reinhold, Phoebe Cates, Brian Backer, Robert Romanus, Ray Walston, Amanda Wyss, Forest Whitaker, Vincent Schiavelli, Lana Clarkson, Eric Stoltz, Anthony Edwards, Nicolas Cage, Kelli Maroney, Scott Thomson, Taylor Negron, Lana Clarkson

Refugee Films, Universal Pictures, 90 Minutes

Review:

“Why don’t you get a job, Spicoli?” – Brad Hamilton, “What for?” – Jeff Spicoli, “You need money.” – Brad Hamilton, “All I need are some tasty waves, a cool buzz and I’m fine.” – Jeff Spicoli

Teen sex comedies were all the rage in the early 1980s. However, unlike all the others, Fast Times at Ridgemont High was much more than just a teen sex comedy. It was a film with purpose, heart and characters that you actually cared for and felt connected to. It had high drama, human emotion but it was still true to the spirit of the genre it was actually better than.

There were several factors that contributed to this movie being better than one would expect at first glance.

First, the story came from a book written by Cameron Crowe, who spent some time undercover in high school to capture the real lives of the teenagers around him. The book was full of true stories, which got adapted into this fictional movie tale. Crowe’s work gave this film a sense of realism and human emotion that other films like it were lacking.

Also, this was directed by Amy Heckerling and even though it was her first feature film, she was young, hip and connected to a lot of cool people at the time. She gave this picture a sort of life and energy that it wouldn’t have had otherwise. She also pulls off similar magic with 1995’s beloved teen comedy Clueless.

Additionally, this film benefits from having an incredible cast for its time. It has Sean Penn, just before he became a superstar, as well as Jennifer Jason Leigh, one of the best actresses of her generation. The shy kind of nerdy character was played by Brian Backer, who had already won a Tony Award the year before for his leading role in Woody Allen’s The Floating Light Bulb on Broadway. You’ve also got quintessential ’80s cool guy Judge Reinhold, the always lovable Phoebe Cates, Robert Romanus, future Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker, Nicolas Cage, Eric Stoltz, Anthony Edwards, Amanda Wyss, Kelli Maroney, Scott Thomson, as well as veterans Ray Walston and Vincent Schiavelli. How many other ’80s teen sex comedies can boast a lineup that impressive? And this didn’t even have a single person from the Brat Pack in it.

The film is well balanced between all of its main characters. It also doesn’t showcase the token stoner as just a token stoner. The chemistry between Penn’s Spicoli and Walston’s Mr. Hand is fabulous and makes for some of the best moments in the film. Seeing Walston go that extra step for a student that most teachers would just roll their eyes at is both sweet and refreshing. I could’ve watched a spinoff movie of just Spicoli and Mr. Hand and been happy, even if it had a lackluster script.

I also loved the chemistry between best buds Mark Ratner (Backer) and Mike Damone (Romanus). The shy Ratner needs Damone’s help in getting with the ladies and their exchanges are hilarious and entertaining. Life throws these best buds a curveball though but it was great seeing real friendship conquer all.

There are several good stories sprinkled throughout this ensemble piece. And it is sort of timeless in that the jokes still work, the characters are amusing and even though this gets very serious at points, it is never short on laughs and keeps things generally lighthearted.

It also has one of the best soundtracks of its decade.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High is a perfect template on how to create a teen coming of age movie. Sure, it is sex heavy, as it was the ’80s, but it’s light-years more mature than similar films like Private School and The Last American Virgin.

Rating: 9.5/10
Pairs well with: Dazed and ConfusedThe Last American Virgin and Private School. Also, Gremlins, as that features both Phoebe Cates and Judge Reinhold. Plus, Clueless, another teen coming of age comedy directed by Heckerling.

Film Review: Southpaw (2015)

Release Date: June 15th, 2015 (Shanghai International Film Festival)
Directed by: Antoine Fuqua
Written by: Kurt Sutter
Music by: James Horner
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Forest Whitaker, Naomie Harris, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, Oona Laurence, Rachel McAdams

Wanda Pictures, Riche Productions, Escape Artists, Fuqua Films, The Weinstein Company, 123 Minutes

Review:

“Your bitch isn’t here to save you now.” – Miguel ‘Magic’ Escobar

*Written in 2015.

I heard great things about Southpaw before seeing it but I was skeptical. I haven’t been a huge fan of Antoine Fuqua’s work but I understand that many people are. I don’t think he makes bad films, they just don’t appeal to me for the most part. Also, this was written by Kurt Sutter, the creator of Sons of Anarchy and I am still recovering from going on that ride recently, which I didn’t find to be that enjoyable. Somehow, however, these two men’s styles blended together well and the result is a pretty good film.

Granted, Southpaw doesn’t come without flaws. I’ll talk about those first.

The film follows the same sort of formula as Sons of Anarchy where the main character is kind of a douchebag that does douchebaggy things. As the film moves on, you find yourself wondering if he can keep getting shittier. He does. In fact, he gets so shitty that it is hard to feel anything for the character of boxer Billy Pope other than disgust. Like Jax and his gang from Sons of Anarchy, I’m left watching some unlikable asshole that I don’t give a shit about. But unlike Sons of Anarchy, that perception changes.

I understand that you have to see the guy hit rock bottom in order to see him redeem himself but it was overkill and it made the first act of the film drag on and on. It was comparable to the immense destruction of Metropolis at the end of Man of Steel. The point could have been made without beating the audience over the head.

What brought this whole thing full circle was the performance of Jake Gyllenhaal as Billy Pope. Because even though you get to the point of despising him, especially after his daughter is put into protective custody, he somehow turns it around and makes it work. There aren’t a lot of actors that could pull it off as seamlessly as Gyllenhaal did.

In addition to Gyllenhaal’s superb acting, we are treated to a fantastic performance by Oona Laurence, who plays his young daughter. Child actors in this day and age are typically dreadful; Laurence is the opposite. She played the role, brushing the cute bullshit aside, committed to it and gave us someone who truly felt like a child going through some personal turmoil. I really attribute her skill as a young actress for making this character shine. If it wasn’t for this performance, it might not have sold the redemption story as well. You cared about her, what she was feeling and you wanted to see her find peace even more so than Gyllenhaal’s Billy Pope.

Forest Whitaker sold this film too. His character Tick Wills was a great figure to play off of Billy and to challenge him and put him on the path of redemption. He was just badass, as he always is.

This is a pretty good movie, overall. It was shaky at first but it went to some really good places and ultimately, the end had you feeling pretty happy for Billy, his daughter and Tick. The tragedy part of the story was maybe too severe to try and come back from but this film pulled it off.

Rating: 7/10
Pairs well with: CreedRocky Balboa, The Fighter and other modern boxing movies.

Film Review: The Black Panther (2018)

Release Date: January 29th, 2018 (Dolby Theatre premiere)
Directed by: Ryan Coogler
Written by: Ryan Coogler, Joe Robert Cole
Based on: Black Panther by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby
Music by: Ludwig Göransson
Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Andy Serkis, Sebastian Stan (cameo)

Marvel Studios, Walt Disney Studios, 147 Minutes

Review:

“The world is changing. Soon there will only be the conquered and the conquerors. You are a good man, with a good heart. And it’s hard for a good man to be a king.” – King T’Chaka

*There be spoilers here!

The world around me turned Black Panther into a political and social film. I wanted to go into it and just enjoy it for what it is, whether the end result was good or bad. But you’ve got Hollywood and and critics pimping it out like its the greatest superhero film of all-time. While that happens almost every time a new Marvel movie comes out, there was the SJW twist this time, just as there was with Wonder Woman. On the flip side of that, there were the anti-SJW whiners who were trying to trash the film before seeing it and even going as far as to sabotage ratings and reviews on interactive movie websites.

I just wanted to see this movie and judge it on its own merits. I had to shut out the outside world (thankfully I deactivated my Facebook long ago) and I had to walk into the theater, sit down and experience this film for myself and without prejudice, bias or some sort of white male guilt weighing heavy on my brain because the media wants to constantly remind me what I’m responsible for throughout history.

All bullshit aside, I thought Black Panther was pretty damn good. Now I didn’t like it as much as the last Thor movie or as much as those Guardians of the Galaxy pictures, but this is certainly one of the best Marvel movies to take place on Earth. Granted, most of this takes place in the fictional and fantastical nation of Wakanda but it is very much a movie about our home planet.

What makes Black Panther so interesting and probably really gratifying and inspirational for black people, is that it shows black people being at the forefront of trying to fix the world’s problems. It shows that they’ve always had something of extreme value to offer but because of the state of the rest of the world, have withheld it and kept it safe. Sure, it’s metaphor, but it’s an effective metaphor and has a deeper meaning than just being a plot device created by Marvel Comics decades ago.

I have been a massive fan of Chadwick Boseman since I saw him play Jackie Robinson in the grossly underappreciated 42. Seeing him get to star in a film directed by Ryan Coogler, alongside Coogler’s go-to guy Michael B. Jordan, was something I couldn’t pass up, regardless of what this movie was about. And luckily, for us, Boseman and Jordan have good chemistry and both actors carry each other to a higher level.

The philosophical differences between Boseman’s Black Panther and Jordan’s Killmonger are both clearly understood and, as a viewer, you respect Panther’s vision of keeping the peace but it is hard to not get swept into the emotion and justice Killmonger feels he needs to enact. Part of me actually hoped that the two would fight it out and would both survive and diplomatically find a solution together. I mean, they’re long lost cousins and it was obvious Killmonger was reconsidering his iron clad stance in those final moments, where a part of him learned to love his true king and cousin.

The rest of the cast is exceptional, especially the three main ladies.

It was nice seeing Lupita Nyong’o playing a human being and not a motion capture character. While I enjoyed her work in Star Wars and The Jungle Book, I haven’t seen her in much else. It was nice being able to feel connected to her and her performance in a more organic way. Danai Gurira, who I really only know from The Walking Dead, finally got a role that allowed her to break free from just being known as sword-wielding badass Michonne. Letitia Wright was probably my favorite person in the film, overall. She played the Panther’s sister, was a scientist and also got into the thick of it and proved that she is far from being just some damsel in distress; she is a friggin’ warrior.

The rest of the cast is comprised of Martin Freeman, playing the same role he did in Captain America: Civil War, Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett and Daniel Kaluuya, in his first role since Get Out. Newcomer Winston Duke was great as Panther’s rival, M’Baku. He is a warrior king from the mountains who challenges Panther for the throne but ultimately, is instrumental in helping Black Panther save Wakanda.

It was really cool seeing Andy Serkis return as the villain Klaw, who was briefly seen in Avengers: Age of Ultron. It’s also always fun to see Serkis play a character that is him, in the flesh. He’s synonymous with motion capture characters so we don’t often get to see his actual face in a big blockbuster film. He was superb as Ulysses Klaue a.k.a. Klaw. His personality was infectious and insane. In all honesty, Marvel has had a hard time of creating great villains but Serkis’ Klaw is now one of my favorites. I just wish Marvel would stop killing all the baddies because we’ll never get a Masters of Evil story that way.

As far as the film’s look, it is pristine and beautiful. Wakanda is one of the most enchanting places in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The special effects and cinematography are spectacular and there isn’t a shot in the film that doesn’t look like it wasn’t meticulously crafted.

Black Panther was a film that came in with a lot of hype and a lot of political and social concerns. Getting beyond that and staring into its core, it is a fine film, crafted by a solid, up and coming director who has already accomplished a lot with only three pictures under his belt. I hope that Coogler returns for the eventual sequel.

Rating: 8/10
Pairs well with: Captain America: Civil War and presumably Avengers: Infinity War and its sequel, once they come out.

Film Review: Out of the Furnace (2013)

Also known as: Dust to Dust, The Low Dweller (both working titles)
Release Date: December 6th, 2013
Directed by: Scott Cooper
Written by: Brad Ingelsby, Scott Cooper
Music by: Dickon Hinchliffe
Cast: Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson, Casey Affleck, Forest Whitaker, Willem Dafoe, Zoë Saldana, Sam Shepard, Tom Bower

Appian Way Productions, Scott Free Productions, Red Granite Pictures, Relativity Media, 116 Minutes

Review:

“Working for a living? I gave my life for this country and what’s it done for me? Huh? What’s it done for me?” – Rodney Baze Jr.

*written in 2014.

Out of the Furnace is produced by Ridley Scott and Leonardo DiCaprio. It also stars Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson, Willem Dafoe, Casey Affleck, Forest Whitaker, Sam Shepard, Tom Bower and Zoe Saldana. With all those names, one would expect a pretty compelling film. What I saw was actually a disappointment.

Written and directed by Scott Cooper, who did the highly acclaimed Crazy Heart, this film falls sort of flat.

In a nutshell, the film was a bit slow and it felt mostly uneventful and very predictable. Where there were good spots to build some serious tension, the ball was dropped. In fact, tension was nearly nonexistent except in quick instant doses where it appeared and ended within a short single scene. There was no build up, no real emotional investment to be made in the characters and it was a string of missed opportunities for a better story or at least a more layered story.

Part of the problem with the film, is that it is a revenge story where the victim being avenged was an unlikable prick and an idiot. I was more invested in seeing the evil asshole in the film get taken out over how he treated his date in the opening scene than what he did to the idiot prick.

The film’s climax, the big payoff for the revenge we’re supposed to be wanting, is pretty straightforward, there are no surprises and it plays out as expected and I felt no emotional pull in the end.

This wasn’t necessarily a bad film, it is just that I was expecting something of much better quality with all these people involved. It is slow, seemingly pointless and a forgettable film. Nothing sets it apart, nothing makes it special or memorable. It just simply exists, as a story of mostly unlikeable characters that no one will want to relate to.

Rating: 5/10
Pairs well with: Scott Cooper’s other films.

Film Review: Bloodsport (1988)

Release Date: February 26th, 1988
Directed by: Newt Arnold
Written by: Christopher Cosby, Mel Friedman, Sheldon Lettich
Music by: Paul Hertzog
Cast: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Donald Gibb, Leah Ayres, Norman Burton, Forest Whitaker, Bolo Yeung

Cannon Film Distributors, 92 Minutes

Review:

“You break my record, now I break you, like I break your friend.” – Chong Li

After making notable and entertaining appearances in No Retreat, No Surrender and Black Eagle, it was a no brainer to give Jean-Claude Van Damme his own starring vehicle. It was also a good fit, putting him into a loose biopic about the life of martial artist Frank Dux. Granted, this just covers the first Kumite tournament that Dux fought in. However, it’s a more compelling story than what was typical of the late 80s martial arts genre.

In reality, Dux’s claims about his fighting history have been disputed and proven to be false. Regardless, the tale evolved into this movie.

This film was also the first time that Van Damme and Bolo Yeung appeared together. They would also duke it out in Double Impact and have talked about making a sequel to that film.

Alongside Van Damme and Yeung is Donald Gibb, who is probably most known for playing Ogre in three of the four Revenge of the Nerds movies. Norman Burton and a young Forest Whitaker play the men sent to Hong Kong to bring in the AWOL Frank Dux.

In Bloodsport, we follow Dux as he leaves the Army and heads to Hong Kong to fight in the secret underground fighting tournament Kumite. He breaks fighting legend Chong Li’s (Yeung) “world record” and thus, paints a target on his back. Li, who is infamous for murdering his opponents, sends a message to Dux when he severely injures his friend Jackson (Gibb). Dux, while evading the military men sent to retrieve him, must step back into the Kumite ring and avenge his friend against the psychotic Chong Li.

Bloodsport is interesting in that it puts a lot of focus on the tournament itself and the fighters in it. It showcases the varying martial arts styles from different regions of the world and when I saw this as a kid, it was the closest thing we had to a live action version of a tournament fighting game. It was like Street Fighter II coming alive on the screen. Well, until Jean-Claude Van Damme made that Street Fighter movie that is nowhere near as awesome as Bloodsport.

The film has solid action but unfortunately, it takes a half hour or so to get to it. Cannon Films usually kicked off their movies with a big early action sequence. Bloodsport differs from that formula but the action it contains makes up for that lack of instant gratification.

Bloodsport is also one of the best films Cannon ever produced. It is also, still to this day, one of Van Damme’s best pictures. This, alongside Kickboxer, are the two movies I use as the measuring stick for Van Damme’s filmography.

Film Review: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

Release Date: December 10th, 2016 (Pantages Theatre Premiere)
Directed by: Gareth Edwards
Written by: Chris Weitz, Tony Gilroy, John Knoll, Gary Whitta
Based on: characters created by George Lucas
Music by: Michael Giacchino
Cast: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, Mads Mikkelsen, Alan Tudyk, Riz Ahmed, Jiang Wen, Forest Whitaker

Lucasfilm Ltd., Walt Disney, 133 Minutes

rogue-oneReview:

“I have a bad feeling about th…” – K-2SO

I would never say something like this carelessly; I may have a new favorite Star Wars film. Time will tell if it holds up for me but it is the closest thing to the Original Trilogy that we have seen since it ended in 1983. Also, Rogue One really just magnifies how flawed last year’s The Force Awakens is.

Rogue One is its own film. It is not a rehash of anything you’ve seen before in the Star Wars cinematic universe. It is also darker and a lot more realistic. It is the grittiest Star Wars film but it is also full of optimism, more than any of the previous pictures.

When it comes to the art of filmmaking, I would have to say that Rogue One takes the cake out of all the movies in the franchise. It’s the most beautiful Star Wars film ever made. It is also the best written and the best acted. The cinematography is beyond majestic. The score, even though it isn’t done by John Williams, is pretty fantastic. While Empire Strikes Back will probably still reign as champion, as far as the majority’s favorite movie, Rogue One is a better film. And to be completely honest, I didn’t think that was possible.

Sure, this film isn’t perfection. It has some flaws. But it has less flaws than any Star Wars film before it. And compared to The Force Awakens, this picture has some really big balls. It isn’t built with the blueprints to an old house. Also, it isn’t afraid to draw from the Prequel Trilogy, as it brings in some characters and vehicles from those films. It was actually really cool to see Disney acknowledge the prequels, as I thought they were trying to ignore them.

I don’t want to spoil it for those who haven’t seen Rogue One yet but there are several familiar faces that pop in and out of this movie. Great characters from the Original Trilogy and the Prequel Trilogy. Some of these are very iconic characters.

Before this movie, the world probably assumed that a Star Wars movie devoid of Jedi would be a boring ride. Rogue One proves that to be completely false. While the Force is mentioned heavily, there is only one actual Force user in the movie but he doesn’t even do anything until the end and it happens very quickly.

The big final battle in Rogue One is breathtaking. It reminds me a lot of some of the great battles you could have in the old Rogue Squadron games. They feature classic Rebel Alliance and Galactic Empire warships, X-wings and TIE Fighters. There are even some cool new vehicles mixed in. The planet is a pretty sight with its pristine beaches and the AT-ACT is a really cool alternate version of the iconic AT-AT from the Battle of Hoth in Empire Strikes Back.

When I wrote my review of The Force Awakens, last year, it was really long because there was so much to pick apart. I just can’t find anything to really criticize this film for. Everything about it just felt right. It gave me the experience I have craved since being disappointed with The Phantom Menace in 1999. And being that it is the best looking movie in the franchise, it gets extra kudos for that.

Rating: 7.75/10
Pairs well with: Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope

Film Review: Arrival (2016)

Release Date: November 11th 2016 (USA)
Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Written by: Eric Heisserer
Based on: Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang
Music by: Jóhann Jóhannsson
Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Tzi Ma

FilmNation Entertainment, Lava Bear Films, 21 Laps Entertainment, Paramount Pictures, Sony Pictures Releasing International, 116 Minutes

arrivalposterReview:

Over the last few years, there have been a lot of big science fiction films popping up around November. I’m really liking this trend, even if most of them don’t seem to be as smart as they are marketed. The thing is, as scientifically literate as Interstellar claimed to be, it was ultimately a disappointment to those of us who have ever picked up a book by Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking or Neil deGrasse Tyson. When you expect to see a spaghettified version of Matthew McConaughey entering the black hole but instead, you get him playing around in his daughter’s closet sending time traveling Morse code to a watch in the past, it’s a pretty eye-rolling experience.

Arrival doesn’t try to dupe the audience with the illusion of a real scientific approach. It actually manages, for the most part, to come of as realistic as a film can considering the subject matter. Sure, like Interstellar, it pulls at the heartstrings, maybe a bit too much, and it brings in a time traveling element of sorts – tying every big event in the film to the main character’s personal life – but Arrival does a much better job of it.

The film stars Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker: three heavy hitters with loads of talent that carry this film on their backs without any problems. Director Denis Villeneuve maybe had it too easy, as the cast felt completely natural with one another and acted out their roles flawlessly.

However, the picture may have benefited more, had Whitaker had a bit more screen time. His character was the thinnest and I wish he had been fleshed out to some degree, as there really wasn’t much that the audience knew about him. I guess the same could be said for Renner, to a lesser degree. Ultimately, this is Amy Adams’ film and she takes center stage. But the film is also her story and really no one else’s.

The highlight of this film is the use of linguistics. Amy Adams’ character, Dr. Louise Banks, is an expert in language and has deciphered things for the government before. This time, she is needed to figure out why alien visitors have arrived on Earth. Instead of following standard sci-fi alien invasion tropes, Arrival doesn’t serve up invaders who already speak our language or who have “studied our planet’s radio waves for years” and figured out how to send us messages. Arrival gives us an alien civilization that we have to work with in an effort to communicate with one another. That is the big story of the movie. Well, as much as I can say without spoiling too much.

The film builds up a lot of tension and it does a great job of moving forward at a good pace while keeping everything interesting and on point. However, by the time you get to the end, which features a sort of plot twist and big reveal, things feel pretty underwhelming. The build up was great but the resolution was pretty bland. There really were no big surprises in the film, even though the picture felt like it thought there were. But maybe that is because the time traveling element that I mentioned before, has already been used quite a bit in these types of serious sci-fi movies.

Ultimately, this film is still pretty fantastic, regardless of the underwhelming resolution.

The cinematography is pretty great. The alien vessel reminds me a lot of the visual style of Michael Mann’s 1983 film The Keep. The rolling fog over the Montana mountains as Louise arrives to base camp the first time is majestic. The cold dark tone of the human side of the glass versus the bright foggy alien side creates a pretty stark contrast between the two species and foreshadows what is to come.

In regards to the aliens, Arrival benefits in that it reveals them almost immediately. There is no mysterious build up over the course of two hours for a crappy reveal ala Super 8 and some other movies. The aliens are just kind of present in the film. Their look isn’t distracting and it is pretty simple and neutral. They aren’t super cool and they aren’t super lame, they just exist and it works.

I was pleasantly surprised by Arrival and was glad that when I first heard about it, that it wasn’t a reboot of that 1996 Charlie Sheen film of the same name. All of these serious sci-fi pictures, as of late, have left me pretty disappointed. Arrival did not. I would say it is the best of the lot.