Movie review: ‘Alien: Covenant’ returns to familiar ground

IMG_2017If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

We all probably heard that piece of advice as kids, and while it may be an old cliche, it usually turns out to be accurate. Unfortunately, characters in movies often seem to disregard this bit of wisdom, and such is the case with the crew in the new movie “Alien: Covenant.”

Continuing the famous “Alien” sci-fi/horror franchise, “Alien: Covenant” takes place after the prequel “Prometheus” but before the original “Alien” movie that officially killed any desire I had to actually go to space. 😉 The Covenant is a colony ship bound for the distant planet Origae-6 when it encounters a rogue neutrino burst in deep space. The crew is awakened from stasis to deal with this emergency, and while they’re awake, they encounter a strange transmission from a nearby planet.

This is, of course, the “too good to be true” planet; it appears capable of sustaining life and is a whole lot closer than Origae-6. Although crew member Daniels (Katherine Waterston) protests, everyone else thinks it’s a great idea to deviate from the mission to explore this new planet. As anyone who has seen another Alien movie already knows, they really should have listened to Daniels. The apparent paradise planet quickly turns into a nightmare, as crew members begin falling ill due to a strange virus or are attacked by a vicious alien predator. As the crew members get picked off one by one, they encounter a mysterious resident on the planet who offers to help them survive…only he may be too good to be true also.

If you’re looking to escape to the theater for an afternoon of summer blockbuster thrills and scares, “Alien: Covenant” is a decent ride. However, it doesn’t really add anything new to the franchise, and people probably won’t still be talking about it by the summer’s end.

“Covenant” feels like a stylistic blend of the first Alien film and the prequel “Prometheus.” Although “Prometheus” proved to be somewhat polarizing among fans, I actually really liked it, and I prefer it to “Covenant.”

“Covenant” starts off slowly, but things get scary rather quickly as soon as the crew starts exploring the “paradise” planet. Director Ridley Scott is good at establishing a creeping sense of dread, and he never lets you lose that queasy feeling in the pit of your stomach. At no point are you allowed to completely relax and believe the crew members are safe.

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Like in “Prometheus,” the standout character is an android played by Michael Fassbender. Fassbender’s character in “Prometheus” was a disturbing and fascinating life-like android named David who had an agenda of his own that didn’t necessarily include saving the human crew he was created to assist. Fassbender actually plays two roles in “Covenant”; I won’t say more due to spoilers, but I thought both roles he played were equally fascinating, for different reasons. At times his performance was just as scary as the alien creatures on the planet — which is definitely saying something.

While the parts with Fassbender are intriguing and the action is intense and gripping, as I mentioned before “Covenant” doesn’t really bring anything new to the franchise and ultimately feels a bit too familiar. Sometimes you can only stretch a franchise so far, and I felt the film tried a little too hard to remind us of the original Alien movie.

You’ll also have to overlook some gaps in logic. I found it a little surprising that Daniels was the only crew member protesting the decision to deviate from their mission to Origae-6 to explore this new planet, which didn’t turn up in their original research. The Covenant is a civilian spacecraft, not military, but I still found it unusual the crew would almost flippantly disregard the original plan in order to venture off into uncharted space and land on what could be a hostile planet. I wish there had been at least a few more protesters besides just Daniels; maybe it could have been put to a contentious vote.

You’ll also notice many of the crew members are married couples, which struck me as an unusual decision. Having that many people with close relationships in the chain of command creates opportunities for emotionally compromised decisions (which happens quite a bit in this movie). Again, it just seemed strange the ship’s crew would have been structured this way.

In short, longtime fans of the Alien franchise will probably still want to catch “Covenant” in theaters, but it can’t quite compete with the original two films.

Soundtrack review: Guardians of the Galaxy ‘Awesome Mix Vol. 2’ brings more intergalactic groove

guardians-vol-2-206127The first Guardians of the Galaxy movie was a colorful, quirky, and hilarious shot of adrenaline to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the film owes part of its success to its soundtrack full of fun retro tunes, called, appropriately enough, the “Awesome Mix.” The film kicked things off with “Come and Get Your Love” by Redbone, and also included favorites like “Hooked on a Feeling” by Blue Swede and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell.

So of course, the soundtrack for the sequel — the “Awesome Mix Vol. 2” — was one of the most anticipated parts of the second movie. How did it measure up to the hype?

Although I love listening to music, I’m definitely more of a movie buff than a music buff, so I actually encountered many of the tunes from the “Awesome Mix Vol. 1” for the first time while watching the 2014 Guardians film. The soundtracks for the Guardians movies really are just as much a character as Star-Lord, Rocket, Groot, and the rest of the gang, so I thought it would be fun to dive a little deeper into Vol. 2 after posting my initial review of the movie.

On the whole, the “Awesome Mix Vol. 2” is a lot of fun; I’ve been listening to it as I drive to work in the mornings, and it always puts a smile on my face as I start my day. However, it is fair to say that it doesn’t feel quite as cool as the “Awesome Mix Vol. 1.” Maybe that’s because the first soundtrack was such a surprise. These retro tunes may have seemed like an unusual soundtrack for a Marvel movie set in space, but they worked perfectly. They never sounded like a gimmick, due to the emotional revelation that all the songs came from a cassette tape that Peter Quill’s mother gave to him before her death.

Only now, we are expecting the retro soundtrack, so it doesn’t feel quite as fresh, even though many of the songs are used well and don’t feel forced (unlike the soundtrack to “Suicide Squad”). It’s also perhaps not as upbeat as Vol. 1, which is perhaps because the second movie has more somber moments.

Here’s a list of all the tracks on the album:

1. “Mr. Blue Sky” – Electric Light Orchestra
This is one of the main standout songs in Vol. 2. It starts off the film and provides music for Baby Groot to dance to. It’s a fun, upbeat song that always makes me want to start dancing too whenever I listen to it.

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2. “Fox on the Run” – Sweet
“Fox on the Run” by Sweet was used for a trailer and is included on the soundtrack, although it wasn’t in the final film. Which is a shame, because this is one of my favorite tracks from the album and I think it really captures the Guardians outlaw spirit.

3. “Lake Shore Drive” – Aliotta Haynes Jeremiah
I don’t actually remember what scene this song was playing in, even though I’ve seen the movie twice. So maybe that means it didn’t have the strongest placement? But I do enjoy listening to it whenever the CD cycles around to this song!

4. “The Chain” – Fleetwood Mac
The Guardians spirit is also captured by “The Chain,” which is one of the best-placed songs in the film. The lyrics “you’ll never break the chain” symbolize the strong bond between the surrogate family members in the Guardians team, even though their relationship is pretty dysfunctional.

5. “Bring It On Home to Me” – Sam Cooke
Nothing wrong with this track, which underscores a quieter moment between Peter and Gamora. However, I preferred their similar moment in the first movie, which is soundtracked to “Fooled Around and Fell in Love” by Elvin Bishop.

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6. “Southern Nights” – Glen Campbell
I was a fan of this song before but never thought I’d hear it as the soundtrack to a Home Alone-esque action sequence in a sci-fi comedy. 😉 I thought this was a great, unexpected use of this song.

7. “My Sweet Lord” – George Harrison
This song works really well as Peter and the gang first arrive at Ego’s planet, a psychedelic, colorful world that appears to be full of magic and wonder…at least at first.

8. “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)” – Looking Glass
Not my favorite track on the album, but it’s used really well in the film to reveal some key points about Ego, Peter’s father.

9. “Come a Little Bit Closer” – Jay and the Americans
This one falls in the middle of my ranking of the Vol. 2 songs, though I also thought it was used really well thematically as Yondu and Rocket break out of captivity.

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10. “Wham Bam Shang-A-Lang” – Silver
Wasn’t as much a fan of this track or its placement in the film.

11. “Surrender” – Cheap Trick
Not as much a fan of this one either, though it’s more of a personal preference.

12. “Father and Son” – Cat Stevens
One of the quieter songs on the soundtrack, it also highlights the theme of family, as well as the film’s most emotional moment, where Peter recognizes who his real father figure is.

13. “Flash Light” – Parliament
This is another favorite track of mine, which ends the credits on a funky note.

14. “Guardians Inferno” – The Sneepers featuring David Hasselhoff
This disco remix of the Guardians theme is probably going to be the most polarizing song on the album. I actually rather like it (it reminds me of the lovably cheesy Star Wars disco remix), although I wasn’t as much a fan of the David Hasselhoff voice-over.

All in all, this soundtrack is worth a purchase for Guardians of the Galaxy and music fans. I’m excited to see what tracks Peter Quill will find on his “Zune” for Vol. 3. 😉

What were your favorite and least favorite tracks from the “Awesome Mix Vol. 2”?

Movie review: The Guardians ride again in ‘Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2’

LevelUp_EW_TOR_Spread_Finou.JPGAlthough “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” will likely end up as the biggest money-maker of the summer, it’s interesting to look back and remember that the first Guardians movie was actually an underdog at the box office. There was real concern it might be the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first flop. How would audiences respond to a Marvel movie set in space featuring that guy from “Parks and Recreation” playing a character who calls himself “Star-Lord”; a wisecracking raccoon; and a walking, talking tree whose vocabulary consists only of the words “I am Groot” (voiced by Vin Diesel, of all people)? Yet somehow, it all came together magically, and audiences fell in love with this band of misfit heroes and their soundtrack of retro tunes. Now, they’re back for a second adventure — does it live up to the first?

“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” dumps viewers right in the middle of the action, as Peter Quill, a.k.a. Star-Lord, and crew have been hired to fight off an inter-dimensional monster. The job doesn’t quite go as planned, and the Guardians end up on the run. They’re saved by an unlikely rescuer: a man who claims to be Quill’s long-lost father, Ego (Kurt Russell). Ego takes the Guardians back to his planet, a beautiful paradise that hides a dark secret.

And that’s all I’ll say about the plot for now, because I don’t want to spoil any of the film’s surprises. Overall, I loved the movie and had a blast watching it, although right now I feel the first movie was a little better. I can’t quite put my finger on why; re-watching the first movie and going back to see “Vol. 2” a second time might help me clear up my thoughts. I think part of the reason is simply that the first movie was such a surprise and it was a joy to watch this wacky and unexpectedly moving story play out on the big screen. Now, we know to expect quirky characters, zany humor, and a retro soundtrack, so the whole concept doesn’t feel quite as fresh, even though it’s still a ton of fun. It’s probably inevitable that the sequel wasn’t going to feel as clever.

That being said, I have to emphasize that watching this movie really is going to be a blast for Marvel fans. This is possibly Marvel’s most beautiful cinematography yet; the colors are bright and literally burst off the screen, even if you’re not even watching it in 3D. Director James Gunn has created a vibrant intergalactic playground for his characters.

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The Guardians are, once again, a great bunch of characters, and this film captures their dysfunctional family dynamic. I felt they all got some standout moments. Drax (Dave Bautista) wins the award for best comic relief this time; they almost focused TOO much on the humorous aspects of his character, but I really liked that they addressed the tragedy of his past, particularly in the scene where Mantis (Pom Klementieff) begins weeping after using her empathic powers to read his emotions. I enjoyed the back-and-forth between these characters. Maybe it’s a budding romance or maybe it’s simply a powerful friendship; either way, it was touching to see these characters who struggle with social interaction forming a special bond.

At first I was a little disappointed to see the Guardians divided up for most of the film’s middle, as Groot and Rocket (Bradley Cooper) stay behind to repair the ship. I was worried they’d get sidelined by the plot, but this actually provided a nice opportunity for some great character interaction between Rocket and Yondu (Michael Rooker). I never would have thought of pairing those two up, but it works perfectly and produces some genuinely emotional moments.

And speaking of emotional moments, I thought Yondu was another standout character in this film. Again, I can’t say much because of spoilers, but Yondu not only gets some awesome combat scenes, he also he has some really touching moments with both Rocket and Quill.

No discussion of a Guardians movie would be complete without talking about the soundtrack. After my first listen, the “Awesome Mix Vol. 2” doesn’t feel *quite* as awesome as “Vol. 1,” but that may simply be because “Vol. 1” was such a surprise. I’m planning to download the soundtrack and listen to it more on its own. Right now, the songs that are sticking with me are “Mr. Blue Sky” by the Electric Light Orchestra, which opens the film, and “Southern Nights” by Glen Campbell and “Come a Little Bit Closer” by Jay and the Americans. I never would have thought to use those latter two songs to soundtrack fight sequences, but the juxtaposition between what we’re hearing in the songs and seeing on screen really makes these tracks stand out.

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***Warning: Spoilers ahead!!!***

For those who have seen the film and want to discuss further, I really enjoyed Kurt Russell as the villain in this film. A common criticism of the Marvel films is that the villain is often the weak link in these movies, but that isn’t the case here. I was worried about how they would pull off the concept of a “living planet,” but I thought it really worked. Russell does a good job making Ego feel fatherly and warm at the beginning of the film; you know there’s probably going to be a twist with his character, but it’s hard not to like him. I was surprised by just how dark that twist really was — that Ego has been creating children all over the galaxy and then killing them since they didn’t share his Celestial powers, and that he actually gave Quill’s mother the cancer that killed her.

I also wasn’t expecting them to kill off a major character — Yondu — or for this death to affect me as much as it did. In the first movie, Yondu is neither a hero nor a villain, though he appears to lean more to the villain side. “Vol. 2” completely switches that up, and we realize he was the father figure for Quill that Ego never could have been. His sacrifice at the end really did make me tear up.

***End spoilers!!!***

Overall, this is a fun and surprisingly emotional movie that is a worthy addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I’m glad Marvel was willing to give James Gunn a lot of free rein to make these Guardians movies so strange, creative, and wonderful. It’s not often you find films with this many laughs and a whole lot of heart in the same package. Sign me up for “Vol. 3”!

Movie Love Tag: A fun post idea for film bloggers

Thanks to fellow movie blogger samoliver1123 over at Sollie Film and TV Reviews for giving me the idea to do this post! The “movie love tag” encourages film bloggers to talk about some of their favorite films and then pass it on to someone else. If you’ve done a movie love tag post in the past or would like to join in the fun, feel free to post a link in the comments section!

A movie you could not live without

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I’m sure this comes as no surprise, but I’m going to have to pick Star Wars. Although my interests have shifted and changed over the years, I’ve always loved Star Wars and I just keep coming back to this franchise. “Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi” are my favorites, but “Rogue One” is up there too. I can’t wait to see what else Disney does with this franchise.

A movie you hate

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The Twilight saga. I did have to pay to see several of these movies in theaters (don’t ask). I’ll never fault somebody for loving a film (we all have our different tastes), but please don’t make me see this one again! 😉

A movie you found meaningful and prolific

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I’ll tear up occasionally in movies, but the movie that made me weep so hard I had to leave the room is “Hachi: A Dog’s Tale.” It’s about a dog who continues to wait for his owner, even after the owner dies. It’s a heartbreaking and beautiful story that illustrates the old saying that it’s “better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all.”

A movie that you’d like to possibly revisit because it’s been so long since you last saw it

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I’d like to re-watch all the films in Edgar Wright’s “Cornetto trilogy.” I watch “Hot Fuzz” the most frequently but would like to sit down and watch them all in a row sometime.

Your favorite horror movie

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I actually don’t watch horror movies (too scary for me!) but I do like suspense. It’s more of a sci-fi thriller than horror and it’s also not a movie but I’d have to go with “Stranger Things” as my pick in this category.

A movie you thought would be a lot better than it actually was

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“The Dark Knight.” I saw this movie after it was released on DVD (I missed it in theaters), and I had heard about the hype for months. It’s a great movie, but it didn’t end up clicking for me as much as others seemed to love it.

The last good movie you saw

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I re-watched “Star Trek: Beyond” on Friday. I really love the Trek reboot franchise and I thought this was a really fun movie that captured the essence of the Original Series (but with a jumbo budget!)

A movie you really want to see

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I’ve got my ticket for “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” tomorrow – I can’t wait! 🙂

A popular movie that you’ve never seen, but everyone else has

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I’ve never seen an Alfred Hitchcock movie. I feel like that’s something I need to do someday.

Your favorite Christmas movie

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I have a soft spot for “Elf” and “Christmas Vacation.”

 

Guardians of the box office: My most anticipated movies for summer 2017

636214970366849896-LUP-14842-R (1)Summer has long been the prime season for studios to release their biggest and best special-effects bonanzas. Which is why it’s been interesting to see spring and late fall also emerging as key times to release massive hits (such as last year’s “Doctor Strange” and this year’s live action “Beauty and the Beast”). Although we may continue to see this balance shift in the years ahead, summer is still a big time for blockbusters, with a major movie coming out pretty much every weekend between now and August. Here are the ones I’m most looking forward to this year:

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (May 5)

It’s hard to believe that when the first Guardians movie came out in 2014, it was an underdog and rumored to be Marvel’s first potential flop. Now, the sequel is the headliner for the summer movie season and likely the biggest blockbuster of the year, aside from Star Wars: Episode VIII. I don’t know a lot about the plot of this one (I want to be surprised), but I couldn’t resist peeking at Rotten Tomatoes to see what its score was. It sounds like this one is really fun, zany, and humorous, although it’s lacking that special surprise factor the first one had, since nobody knew what to expect that time around. It’s my most anticipated movie of the summer, and I’m hoping Star-Lord and crew won’t let me down (and will bring along another awesome soundtrack of retro tunes).

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (May 26)

I have a soft spot for the first three Pirates movies, even though the second and third movies were rather polarizing. But the fourth just didn’t have the same magic, and it felt like more of a cash-grab than a film that needed to be made. Perhaps I’m simply falling for the hype again, but I’m actually pretty excited about the fifth one. The trailers have been fun, and it looks like they actually are trying to do something different, by pulling in Will and Elizabeth Turner’s now grown-up son. I’m actually hoping Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow will be more of a supporting character in this one, which could help avoid the feeling that Disney is just retreading old ground.

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Wonder Woman (June 2)

The DC Cinematic Universe has struggled to escape from the shadow cast by Marvel’s own cinematic universe and Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece, the Dark Knight trilogy. But I am really, really rooting for “Wonder Woman” to succeed. We’re overdue for a female superhero movie (Marvel, please green-light that Black Widow solo film!), and Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman stole all the scenes she appeared in during last year’s “Batman v. Superman.” “Wonder Woman” has all the right ingredients — great story, great cast, great concept (traveling back to World War I) — I just hope all those elements come together onscreen.

Spider-Man: Homecoming (July 7)

Spider-Man will return to the big screen this summer, this time as part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (sort of). While I think Sony has rebooted Spider-Man far too many times in too short a time frame, I loved Tom Holland’s cameo as the character in “Captain America: Civil War.” I also think getting Robert Downey Jr. to appear as Iron Man in an extended cameo was a smart move. I hope this film sticks to a smaller scale and highlights the character’s high school experience; at least it appears to be skipping the origin story we’ve already seen twice!

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War for the Planet of the Apes (July 14)

I always kind of forget about this franchise, which makes me feel bad because the past two installments have been excellent, thought-provoking films. They’re great examples of action films that also work on a deeper philosophical level. This next chapter will see the balance of power shift even more towards the apes in their battle against the humans. Plus, having Woody Harrelson join the crew is always a bonus!

Dunkirk (July 21)

After just wrapping up the Christopher Nolan movie blog-a-thon, I’m definitely in the mood for a new Nolan movie! I’m especially curious as this World War II drama is such a departure from what Nolan has done in the past. One of the things I appreciate most about him is that he always seems to want to challenge himself as a director and take on new subject matter. This should be a really intense movie to see on the big screen.

I’m also keeping these other movies on my radar for the summer: “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” (May 12); “Alien: Covenant” (May 19); “The Mummy” (June 9); “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” (July 21); and “The Dark Tower” (Aug. 4).

So, what movies are you most looking forward to this summer? What will be the biggest hit, and the biggest flop?

Christopher Nolan blog-a-thon: ‘Interstellar’ (Week 7)

558717Well folks, we’ve come to the final week of the Christopher Nolan blog-a-thon! We’ll be wrapping things up with his most recent film, “Interstellar.” Thank you again to my husband, Aaron, for joining me on this blog-a-thon; I might have to invite him back to talk about Nolan’s new movie, “Dunkirk,” which is coming out this summer. 😉

“Interstellar” takes place at some point in the not-so-distant future, as humanity faces a global crisis and the threat of extinction from disease and famine. NASA has been operating off the grid and recruits a farmer and former pilot named Joseph “Coop” Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) to join a top-secret mission. Coop and several other explorers will venture into a mysterious wormhole that could transport them to other planets capable of sustaining life. It’s a dangerous gamble, and also a mission that requires extreme sacrifice: due to the altered passage of time in the wormhole and on these other worlds, Coop’s children could be elderly by the time he returns to Earth — if he ever returns at all.

“Interstellar” is actually my husband’s all-time favorite film, so I’ll let him go first! Also fair warning: spoilers ahead!

Aaron’s thoughts

I’ll just say right now that “Interstellar” is my favorite movie bar none. I remember the first time I watched it. It was right after the wife and I got married. We hadn’t moved into our new place yet and were sleeping on a mattress on the floor. We Red Boxed the movie one of those nights and watched it on my laptop. It blew me away. My opinion of it has held firm through multiple viewings.

So why is it my favorite? First, I’ve always been fascinated with space travel. “Interstellar” tackled that subject without being A.) a war movie (“Starship Troopers”), B.) a survival movie (“Apollo 13”), C.) an extraterrestrial movie (“Alien”), or D.) a love story (“Passengers”) — which is impressive. No aliens, no guns, few action scenes, and no budding romances. Just a story of endurance and determination through adversity.

I love that the story is cosmic in scope, but really focuses mostly on human relations through the whole thing. You’ve got the tension between Cooper and fellow crew member Dr. Brand (Anne Hathaway). The abandonment grief that Coop’s daughter Murphy bears. The resignation of his son Tom. There’s the cold scientism of Professor Brand (Michael Cain) and Dr. Mann (Matt Damon). Plus you’ve got two robots that have more personality than most persons in other films.

It was also refreshing to see a movie take space physics seriously for once. I almost put “Gravity” in this category, but each time I do I remember the ridiculousness of George Clooney’s death scene and repent. The most obvious example of this is how they portray time dilation. I like how that was not only accounted for, but how the movie was built around it. Nolan did a great job creating powerful scenes showcasing what effects relative time could have on people. The scene where Cooper visits his daughter as she dies of old age while he isn’t even 50 is a tearjerker every time. Her sobbing line where she says she knew he’d come back “because my daddy told me so” is powerful and on the nose without being unduly milked. The scene is short, and benefits from its own brevity.

This probably isn’t bantered around as much, but I also really like how the movie takes on scientism. Who are the only villains in the film? It’s not nature. The black hole is powerful and dangerous but the protagonist’s struggle isn’t really against it. Their struggle is against Mann and Cain’s Brand. Both of them are out to “save the species” but are willing do all kinds of violence against the ones they claim to be saving. Throughout the movie Mann talks about the human race as if it were anything other than itself. He might as easily be talking about saving a certain species of tree or an endangered molerat. Mann displays all sorts of knowledge about basic human drives but is clueless about what makes a good person. The people who end up saving the day are not those who are willing to lie and kill in order to “save the species” but those whose profound love for other specific humans makes them unwilling to make that sacrifice.

I’ll talk briefly about the ending, because that’s always a point of contention. I’m okay with it. I think it’s ambitious, like the rest of the movie, but maybe not what I would have done. In general, I’m okay with protagonists sacrificing themselves to complete an objective (i.e. how “Passengers” should have ended and no, I’m not going to forgive it). If there were another way to get the data to Murphy, I’d probably have picked that. That being said, the idea that Coop is Murphy’s ghost is pretty cool and the ending stays true to the theme throughout the movie that, once past the event horizon, nothing inside a black hole can get out and that it requires something that can transcend dimensions to relay a message outside of a black hole. I definitely don’t think the five-dimensional beings have to be humans, as Coop says more often than I’m comfortable with. I also don’t necessarily like this whole “my love is quantifiable” junk. That whole “love transcends dimensions” line sounds more like straw grasping than anything else. All that being said, I’m okay with the ending

“Interstellar” is so cool. No movie is perfect, but most movies don’t even try. I really think Nolan tried to make a perfect space exploration movie, and he came real close. Kudos to him.

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Ashley’s thoughts

One of the things I admire most about Nolan as a director is how he constantly seems to be challenging himself and pushing himself in new creative directions. “Interstellar” — a sprawling epic about space travel — is one of his most ambitious films so far. It’s not a flawless film, but it is breathtaking and moving and beautiful.

One of the criticisms I’ve seen about Nolan in the past is that some say his movies come across as too cool and emotionless. That isn’t really a problem I have with his movies; his films have a certain aesthetic, and that’s what makes him distinctive as a director. Still, this is probably one of his most emotional films, highlighting Cooper’s sacrifice — basically giving up a normal life with his children so he can save the human race. The scene where Cooper watches through years’ worth of videos from his children is always heartbreaking; while he’s barely aged, many years have passed for them, and he’s missed important milestones, like the birth of his first grandchild. He breaks down in tears, and McConaughey completely sells this scene.

And speaking of McConaughey, I really like him in this role. His drawl and everyman portrayal make him easy to relate to, and this helps ground the movie as it ventures into the far reaches of speculative science. He is the heart and soul of this movie.

“Interstellar’s” cinematography is simply gorgeous; I love the wide, sweeping shots of deep space, the mystery and wonder of the black hole, and the other worlds that Cooper and his crew members explore. These other planets share some elements of Earth geography, so they don’t feel too unrealistic, yet they’re also clearly “otherworldy.” Although it might have been kind of interesting to see hints of extraterrestrial life on some of these worlds, I think that would have added too much complexity to a film that is already fairly long and complex.

Clocking in at almost 170 minutes, I think “Interstellar” could have been trimmed down some, although in Nolan’s defense none of the scenes feel like fluff or filler added merely to pad the film’s runtime. And I also have to agree with Aaron’s statement about the “love transcends dimensions” conversation in the film. Normally I’m a pretty sentimental person who enjoys themes about love and friendship in movies (I secretly tear up in that scene from “Guardians of the Galaxy” where they all become a surrogate family and join hands to save Peter Quill from being consumed by the Infinity Stone). But the speech that Dr. Brand makes about the power of love and how it can be a quantifiable force is just too much. The events of the film already express this concept without it needing to be spelled out in the dialogue.

I actually don’t mind the ending either, and I’ve appreciated it more as time goes on. The film seems pretty scientifically plausible up until the point where Cooper ejects from his ship and drifts through the wormhole, falling into a mysterious “tesseract” that allows him to communicate with his daughter in the past. While Nolan could have easily gone with a more grounded ending, I appreciate that he was willing to take a risk and try for something outside the box. It does highlight that we still don’t know a lot about the mysteries of the universe — or what could be hiding inside a black hole.

“Interstellar” is a powerful, thought-provoking movie that took Nolan to a new frontier as a film maker. I didn’t get a chance to see it in IMAX when it was running in theaters, but I really wish I would have. Hopefully humanity will continue to be inspired to keep exploring the stars!

Christopher Nolan blog-a-thon: ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ (Week 6)

CaptureNext up on my husband Aaron and I’s Christopher Nolan blog-a-thon project is the final Batman film, “The Dark Knight Rises.” This is actually the first Nolan film I reviewed as a blogger, back in 2012. I remember the hype being really high for this movie, and some fans didn’t feel it lived up to its highly-praised predecessor, “The Dark Knight.” What were our thoughts after watching this film again several years after its release? Warning: Spoilers abound!

Ashley’s thoughts

I’ve talked about this on my blog before, but I actually think “The Dark Knight Rises” is a better film than “The Dark Knight.” I know this isn’t the most popular opinion 😉 but to me “The Dark Knight Rises” feels like a more emotionally satisfying film.

Nolan’s final Batman movie finds Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) living as a recluse after he allows Batman to become the scapegoat for Harvey Dent/Two-Face’s crimes. However, the threat of a new terrorist called Bane (Tom Hardy) motivates him to put on the Bat suit again…only to be utterly broken by Bane and tossed into Bane’s prison pit. He has to find the strength both to climb out of the pit and return to Gotham to save the city one last time.

One of the main criticisms I’ve heard about “The Dark Knight Rises” is that Bane isn’t as dynamic a villain as the Joker. Yes, sometimes Bane’s voice effect is a little annoying and would have been better if they’d made it sound less garbled. Still, I think Bane was the right choice for this film, especially as we later learn that he is actually working for Talia al Ghul, the daughter of Ra’s al Ghul, the main villain from “Batman Begins.” This really brings The Dark Knight trilogy full circle and highlights the film’s themes of battling your demons and not allowing yourself to be held captive to the past.

I also really liked some of the new side characters introduced in this film. Although I was definitely skeptical when I heard Anne Hathaway was cast as Catwoman, I thought she did a fantastic job, and she and Bale had great chemistry. She’s a worthy adversary and later ally for Batman. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is another strong addition to the franchise, playing a young police officer named John Blake (we later learn his full legal name is Robin John Blake). Part of me still wants to see a spin-off film with Gordon-Levitt taking on Batman’s mission (perhaps as the character Nightwing?), but perhaps it’s better that the franchise concluded with a more open ending, especially as the DC Cinematic Universe is moving in a different direction.

“The Dark Knight Rises” isn’t a flawless film. It runs a little too long and the script could have been tightened more. It’s not as gritty or realistic as “The Dark Knight” and includes some last-minute saves and that often-seen plot device, a ticking time bomb. However, I love how film critic Richard Roeper sums up the film; he calls it “a majestic, gorgeous, brutal, and richly satisfying epic” — and I completely agree.

“The Dark Knight Rises” shows that there is light, and there is hope beyond the darkness. It also has one of my very favorite moments ever in a superhero film, when Batman finally finds the strength to face his fears and climb up out of Bane’s prison pit. It’s such a powerful moment, highlighted by wonderful music from Hans Zimmer. It’s a great metaphor for finding victory over the struggles that hold you back.

I also love the ending of “The Dark Knight Rises,” and I think it’s a great conclusion to the franchise. I love the joy on Commissioner Gordon’s face as he discovers the repaired Bat signal and realizes Batman is still alive. I love how Bruce Wayne reveals the Bat cave to John Blake, inviting him to become Gotham’s next vigilante. And last but not least, I love how Alfred looks across the café in Florence and sees that Bruce is still alive, starting a new life with Selina Kyle. Alfred and Bruce don’t speak to each other, and they don’t have to. A smile and a nod is enough.

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Aaron’s thoughts

“The Dark Knight Rises” was always going to be a tough movie to pull off. Following in the footsteps of the much-lauded “The Dark Knight” is not an enviable task. The Joker was a villain performance for the ages and whoever stepped into the role of Bane would inevitably be compared to Heath Ledger’s Joker. “The Dark Knight” had a tightly woven story full of twists and turns that kept focus. It had powerful story climaxes that kept themselves realistic. Hollywood is always committed to one upping itself with sequels and there wasn’t a lot of room to raise the stakes while keeping the story grounded here. “The Dark Knight Rises” almost made it. It’s an excellent movie, but it shot a little too high.

What did “The Dark Knight Rises” do right? A lot. For starters, I appreciated the nod to the fact that a person can’t be a superhero for long without doing incredible damage to their body (Wayne has virtually no cartilage left, a scarred kidney, skull contusions, etc). Top that off with a timely moment of levity where the doctor says that, given his condition, he can’t recommend Mr. Wayne go heli-skiing.

Another thing they did well, that I noticed more this time, was the incorporation of the “rise” chant used by the prisoners when someone attempts the climb. In all the moments of peril where it’s do-or-die, the chant starts small and keeps growing, adding tension and providing a recurrent theme that heroes have to rise. The pit overall was a great symbol, as well as a great plot point. The metaphors associated with it are endless.

I liked how they kept the same visual design for all the machines Batman uses (bike, car, and plane-helicopter thing). The Bat Plane is interesting, powerful and used just enough without overstepping and making it a crutch or a gimmick. The story of a villain driven by a powerful ideology who manages to make a totalitarian state within a state is interesting (and a deliberate nod to the “No Man’s Land” storyline in the comics).

Speaking of villain, we have to give Bane his own section here. Bane is not only good, but an upgrade from the comic book version of himself. In the comics, he’s all the things he is in the movie, smart, strong, patient, etc. But in “The Dark Knight Rises” another dimension is added. He’s a passionate, charismatic ideologue. Though it’s never given a name, he’s more or less an anarcho-communist (with some Soviet style court theaters thrown in). This gives Nolan an avenue to explore how easily destructive men with violent ideologies can sway people to their side by covering their brutality with shibboleths like “giving back to the people.” Tom Hardy took the lead and ran with it. Though he didn’t have a Heath Ledger-esque performance, I don’t think he could have, given the material he had to work with. Tom Hardy did as well as he could have, and maybe a bit more.

Where did “The Dark Knight Rises” fall short? Mostly, it tried to raise the stakes a little too high. When you start introducing nuclear bombs as the villain’s plot, the ending is more or less foretold (a last second save) because failure would mean, well, the nuclear bomb goes off. This is the problem I have with Superman and such movies. The stakes are so high that anything other than total victory means the total annihilation of humanity or, in this case, Gotham City and everyone in it. If the Joker won, there was still room to come back. If Bane wins, there’s nowhere to go back to. I’d have preferred if they kept it all the same but removed the bomb. Have him find another way to keep government forces off the island and build the tension where the heroic charge of the police is the last real chance to stop him. An all or nothing gambit.

Also the ending doesn’t make much sense. If he wasn’t in the Bat Plane when carrying the bomb, why do they keep showing him in a cockpit as it flies away? Where was he? Is this just imagined? Also, I realize the city wasn’t vaporized but isn’t nuclear fallout a thing? Don’t we have some video games about that? I also realize that Alfred said in his fantasy that he and Bruce don’t talk at the cafe, but really? Just talk. Jeez.

I won’t put Catwoman in the good or bad category. I don’t love her. But I don’t dislike her. They didn’t give her a ridiculously skimpy outfit *coughHalleyBerryCatwowancough.* So that’s nice. She helps the plot along enough to justify her existence and usually has a three-dimensional personality, which is also nice. I still think she distracted from the plot just a little too much and the movie could’ve been well served by being a bit shorter.

TL;DR: It’s a good movie that sets its sights a bit higher than it should. I like it, even with its length.

Song A Day Challenge: My Favorite Soundtracks (Day 5)

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For my final selection in the Song A Day Challenge, I knew right away what I had to pick. I couldn’t list my favorite soundtracks without giving a shout-out to “Guardians of the Galaxy: Awesome Mix Vol. 1”! 🙂

“Guardians” would have been an awesome movie on its own, but the soundtrack full of retro music definitely kicked it up another notch. What makes the “Awesome Mix” even better is that these aren’t just random pop songs stuck in a film; in the movie, these songs are all part of a mixtape that Starlord/Peter Quill’s mother created for him before her death. This makes the soundtrack a lot more personal and impactful.

While there are many great songs included on the “Awesome Mix Vol. 1” album, my favorite is probably “Come and Get Your Love” by Redbone. This song plays during the opening scene of the movie, where Quill is dancing around the planet on his way to steal an artifact. It’s such a fun scene and does a great job setting the tone for the rest of the film:

I’m also partial to the slightly melancholy “I’m Not in Love” by 10cc:

Well, that’s it for the Song A Day Challenge! Thanks again to Bradscribe for nominating me to take on the Song A Day Challenge!

I hope everyone has a great weekend!

Song A Day Challenge: My Favorite Soundtracks (Day 4)

The-Dark-Knight-Rises-7_0For day 4 of the Song A Day Challenge, I knew I wanted to pick a track from one of my other favorite film composers, Hans Zimmer. However, Zimmer has written music for so many iconic movies — “Gladiator,” “Pirates of the Caribbean,” the Dark Knight trilogy, and more — that it was tough to narrow it down to one track.

Since my husband Aaron and I have been working through our Christopher Nolan blog-a-thon project, I decided to go with a song from “The Dark Knight Rises” called “Why Do We Fall?” It’s probably my favorite moment in the whole Dark Knight trilogy, where Bruce Wayne finally summons all his strength and climbs up out of the pit where he’s been imprisoned. I love how the music keeps building and building to this epic finish that really captures Bruce’s triumph over his demons:

Another thing I like about Zimmer as a composer is that he has a very distinctive style and I can almost always pick out his music in a film. Yet even though his music always has a certain sound, I love that he’s willing to experiment, such as the majestically organ-heavy music for “Interstellar” to the quirky, slightly out-of-tune theme for Guy Ritchie’s steampunk “Sherlock Holmes,” in this bonus track:

What are some of your favorite soundtracks from Hans Zimmer?

Thanks again to Bradscribe for nominating me to take on the Song A Day Challenge!

Song A Day Challenge: My Favorite Soundtracks (Day 3)

3092331-maxresdefaultFor day 3 of the Song A Day Challenge, I’m picking a song from the soundtrack to the 2009 Star Trek reboot film by Michael Giacchino. While John Williams will always be my all-time favorite film composer, I think Giacchino is my favorite of the next generation of film composers. I really appreciate what he was able to do with the music for the rebooted Trek franchise; like the movies themselves, he was able to honor what’s come before while also giving the score a fresh and exciting feel.

My favorite track is called “Enterprising Young Men,” which I believe plays as Kirk catches sight of the Enterprise in space for the first time. It’s upbeat, exciting, and captures that sense of wonder the Trek franchise is known for:

Interestingly, just as Star Trek director J.J. Abrams made the jump to a certain galaxy far, far away, Giacchino has also scored music for the Star Wars franchise. The first time I watched “Rogue One,” the music didn’t actually stand out to me all that much. But as I listened to the soundtrack later on at home, I’ve come to appreciate the music more. I’ve heard Giacchino had a very brief time to put together the music, and it would have been interesting to see what he could have done with more time. But there are some really lovely, emotional themes in “Rogue One,” such as the one from this bonus track:

Thanks again to Bradscribe for nominating me to take on the Song A Day Challenge!