Thursday, April 20, 2017

Post #500!! My Story and Advice for Aspiring Film Critics

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Wow! Here we are at the 500th post that I’ve published here on Rhode Island Movie Corner. And, fittingly enough, it comes out at just the right time. Next month, May, will mark the fifth anniversary of when I first started this blog back in May 2012. It’s still crazy to think that I’ve been running this site for almost five years now, continually updating it with new posts as often as I possibly can. We’ve come a long way since those early days and I couldn’t have gotten to this point without the continuing support of you, the fans. So, today, in honor of this momentous occasion, I decided to do something that’s basically a combination of what fellow film critic Chris Stuckmann did in two of the hundreds of videos that he’s released on YouTube over the past few years; his ‘My Story’ video and his ‘On Film Criticism’ video. Today, I’ll be taking a look back on my overall journey as a film critic, from my early beginnings on Rotten Tomatoes to my current situation here on a Blogger-powered site. Along the way, I’ll also be going over some of the advice that I have for those who aspire to join this business. Because I know what some of you might be thinking; that being a film critic is like the easiest job in the world. I just watch films and then state my opinion on them in written form. However, trust me when I say that this isn’t an ‘easy job’; a lot goes into this line of work. Sure, everyone’s entitled to their opinion, but if you truly want to get into this field, it’s imperative that you know how to properly convey your opinion on a film so that you will be taken seriously by your peers. Thus, I hope that this post will ultimately become a source of inspiration for those looking to become film critics in the same way that some of the greatest in the industry inspired me to become one myself.

I started getting into the film critic ‘business’ in 2010. Before that, though, my ‘career goal’ kept changing over time. For example, from around 2007 to 2009, I wanted to be a sports statistician. It’s an odd path, I know, and I’m certain that this was mainly just because a lot of my favorite sports teams were in the middle of successful runs during that time, like the Boston Celtics’ 2007-08 championship season and the New England Patriots’ near-perfect 2007 season. But, as I’ve stated in the past, I’m just as big into gaming as I am when it comes to film. Thus, for a while, I wanted to become a video game designer, due in part to art always being one of my favorite subjects in elementary school. In the summer of 2010, I ended up going to a week-long summer camp for 3-D design at the University of Rhode Island which, fittingly enough, would ultimately be the place where I went to college beginning in the fall of 2013. During this time, my fellow campmates and I got hands-on experience with some of the best computer graphics software in the business, namely Maya. But, while I did have a good time while I was at this camp, it was in this moment that I realized something; I just wasn’t cut out for this kind of work. I could handle the software decently but not quite to the level that is to be expected from game designers. Plus, it’s probably for the best that I ultimately didn’t go down this route, because by the time that I would’ve gotten out of school, I don’t know if my ‘talents’ as a video game designer would’ve been up to par with the graphical capabilities of this current era of PS4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch, no matter what I could’ve possibly learned in school. Seriously, the most substantial thing that I did in that week-long camp was recreating the Nintendo 64 logo.

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URI Computer Camp, not too different from the camp I went to in 2010.
A few months prior to this, January 2010 to be precise, I had started up a user account on the review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes, where I could post reviews of the films that I’ve seen. Back then, this was really nothing more than just a hobby that I was starting to gain interest in once I was given the opportunity to browse more of the internet (you know, beyond sites like Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, and LEGO; the three sites that I can safely say I browsed the most as a kid). But, it is thanks to my old Rotten Tomatoes account that I decided, sometime in the fall of 2010 if memory serves me right (at the very least, it was after that camp at URI), to go into the field of film criticism. I realized that it would be a perfect place for me to delve into my two biggest passions; film and writing. I’ve loved going to the theater to see the newest films ever since I was a kid. And after every film that I saw with my family, I then proceeded to ask them what their favorite part/line was from the film that we had just seen. Later, I realized that this was basically some of the earliest examples of me discussing film in a way that was like how a film critic would discuss it with others. And keep in mind, this was back during a time when I knew little about the actual filmmaking process. At that time, I primarily only knew about some of the filmmakers involved in some of my favorite films, like Brad Bird and Andrew Stanton (as you might have guessed, I watched Pixar films a lot growing up). Plus, I also love to write; back when I was younger, I used to write what most would refer to as ‘fan-fiction’ of some of my favorite book series as a kid, like Magic Tree House and Jigsaw Jones. Obviously, it’s been quite a long time since those days, which brings me to my first tip for you aspiring critics out there.

TIP #1: GAIN EXPERIENCE

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This first tip speaks for itself. Like any job, you get better as a film critic through experience. Start writing film reviews as soon as possible and as often as you can. Because to be perfectly frank, writing film reviews isn't necessarily something that you learn about in school. Seriously, I didn’t even have a proper film class while in high school. And while I am currently majoring in Film/Media at the University of Rhode Island, my tenure here on Blogger and, therefore, my growth as a film critic has been more of a personal endeavor. However, I have taken quite a few film theory classes while at URI, which have allowed me to acquire a greater understanding of the medium and learn about new ways in which to analyze a film, its themes, and so on and so forth. I’m also minoring in writing and rhetoric, which helps me develop further as a writer. During my time at URI, I’ve also worked at the school’s student-run newspaper, The Good Five Cent Cigar. I started writing articles for their entertainment section during my freshmen year before being promoted to the position of paid staff writer in the Spring of 2014. Instead of just doing one article per week, I was now tasked with doing two a week. However, this only lasted for a little less than a year before I was unceremoniously fired that fall for reasons that I’m not going to go over right now. I wasn’t too bothered by this, though, as I felt that I was far more comfortable doing film reviews on my blog, where I would have much more creative freedom over the content that I produced (more on that in a bit).

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Jeremy Jahns (left) and Chris Stuckmann (right)
The other big way to grow as a film critic is to peruse through other critics’ reviews, whether they are written reviews or even video reviews, for inspiration. When it comes to those who primarily inspired me as a film critic, my #1 answer is, admittedly, the one that most in this field would name if asked the same question; Roger Ebert. While his iconic TV series Siskel and Ebert, which he did with fellow film critic Gene Siskel, was already over by the time that I started to do film reviews, I have watched numerous clips of the show on YouTube over the years. And, of course, I’ve also read plenty of the reviews that Ebert did for the Chicago Sun-Times. The best thing about them is that even if you radically disagreed with him on a specific film (e.g. personally, I think he was a bit too harsh towards the first Thor), his love of film was apparent whenever he wrote and this was the case for his entire career up until his passing back in 2013. R.I.P. Mr. Ebert, for you will forever be one of the best in the business. Aside from Ebert, I’ve also taken a lot of inspiration from an interesting source; the film critic community on YouTube. While I don’t do video reviews (I’ll explain why later), I still took some inspiration from guys like Chris Stuckmann, Jeremy Jahns, Kristian Harloff and Mark Ellis of Schmoes Know, and the Spill.com crew (now known as the ‘Double Toasted’ crew). What inspiration, you ask? The idea of maintaining a ‘down-to-earth’ personality. I find that the best critics are the ones who don’t act like their opinion is the only one that matters in the grand scheme of things. And the YouTube critics that I just mentioned do great jobs of this, establishing friendly personas that regular theatergoers can relate to. This is something that I personally hope I’ve accomplished with you all through my reviews.

TIP #2: FIND YOUR STYLE

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Because there are quite a lot of film critics out there, it’s important for you to figure out your own definitive style when it comes to your reviews. During my time on Rotten Tomatoes, I experimented with various formats of reviews before I found the one that best suited me. Initially, I only did brief 1-paragraph reviews, but while they were quick and to the point, they didn’t really have much to them in terms of overall content. Plus, this was back during my early days as a film critic so the arguments that I made were, to be perfectly frank, quite terrible. Most of the time, these arguments were based solely on popular opinion instead of my own. In an ironic twist, one of my most popular reviews on Rotten Tomatoes (back when the site’s user profile system allowed you to give either thumbs up or thumbs down to reviews) was for 2009’s The Hangover, even though, again, there wasn’t much to that review. Clearly, it was posted at a time when the film’s popularity with audiences was at its peak… you know, before the lesser-received sequels were released. Eventually, I started to do longer reviews for films. If I’m right, the 2005 remake of King Kong was the first film that I ever did a ‘full’ review of. I also remember doing an extensive review of 2010’s Tron: Legacy, namely because I was really anticipating it and had worked it out so that it would be the 200th review that I did on Rotten Tomatoes. Sometime after that, I began to experiment with a different style of reviews; an overall list of a film’s pros and cons. I felt that this would be an effective way of mapping out my overall thoughts on a film. Eventually, though, I reverted back to doing full reviews.

As for the official ‘style’ that I would adopt as a film critic, its origin is rather interesting. When I was in Eighth Grade, my teachers had us use a specific style when writing essays. This style was a five-paragraph format that had an intro paragraph, a body section that consists of the three main arguments of the essay, and finally a conclusion. I guess you could say that because I used this format all the time when writing essays in school, it just came naturally to me and, thus, translated well to the art of film reviews. So, with that in mind, here’s the general format that I use when writing film reviews. The opening paragraph primarily consists of some background information regarding the film before ending it on a hook to give readers an idea of what comes down the road. The second paragraph is reserved for the primary plot synopsis of the film. Sure, it’s not connected to my overall thoughts on the film, but I feel that it should be addressed regardless (in a non-spoiler manner, of course!). The next two paragraphs are where I primarily put the bulk of my arguments; the third paragraph usually discusses the technical and story aspects of the film while the fourth paragraph addresses its cast. Sometimes these two mix together, but overall, this is how most of my reviews go. And, of course, I end the review with an overall summation of my thoughts towards the film without directly copying what I said in the previous paragraphs. While most of my reviews are just five paragraphs long, there have been some instances where my reviews are longer than usual. I find that this primarily occurs with superhero films because simply put, there’s quite a lot to talk about with those films. Ultimately, though, it all depends on the film I’m talking about.

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And, of course, there’s also the matter of your ‘rating system’. Now, for the record, never try and take a critic’s rating system too seriously. Because, obviously, there will be some people out there who will question you as to why you rated a certain film higher than another. In my case, someone may question why I gave a film like Arrival a 4/5 rating and yet gave a 4.5 rating to a film like Terminator: Genisys. They’re not meant to be taken ‘that’ seriously. Like, for example, if I give a film the vaunted 5/5 rating, that doesn’t mean that I think it’s a ‘perfect’ masterpiece. It’s just that I really loved it and, thus, is one of the easiest that I can recommend to others. Thus, my ratings are more on the level of how much I enjoyed them. As for what form of rating system I use, as I basically alluded to earlier, I use the 5-star rating system. This is mainly because of all the time that I spent on Rotten Tomatoes, where the rating system was divided into increments of 10%. I know a lot of critics tend to use the 4-star rating system, most notably Roger Ebert, but I’ll admit that I’ve never been comfortable with it. I guess that I just found it hard to figure out what my rating for a film would be on that scale. With a 5-star system, I find it much easier to distinguish my official rating. But, if these classic systems aren’t your speed, don’t be afraid to try something different and creative. Jeremy Jahns, for example, uses ratings like ‘I’d buy it on Blu-Ray’ or ‘It’s okay but you’ll forget about it in T-minus [insert stretch of time here]’. The Spill.com crew (later Double Toasted) also used a memorable rating scale based on how much they feel you should pay to see the film that they’re reviewing, from ‘Full Price’ to ‘Rental’ to ‘Some Ol’ BS’. So, in other words, don’t be limited by the classic methods of film criticism; be encouraged to go outside the box.

TIP #3: FIGURE OUT THE BEST PLATFORM FOR YOU TO SHARE YOUR CONTENT

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After a while, or sometime in early 2012 to be precise, I started to realize that it was perhaps time for me to leave Rotten Tomatoes. This was around the time when the site was starting to further implement the social media service Flixster, which acquired ownership rights to Rotten Tomatoes in 2010, into its database. This meant a greater implementation of that site’s social media accounts and a lesser focus on the original Rotten Tomatoes user accounts. For the record, though, that doesn’t mean that the original site accounts were erased. My original RT profile is still there if you look hard enough. However, I haven’t done anything on it in nearly five years as it ended up getting overshadowed by my Flixster account (and I don’t even use that anymore in favor of Letterboxd). So, in 2012, I began to search for a different platform for me to post my film reviews. While many have utilized the platform that is WordPress to great success, I’ll admit that it didn’t work so well for me when I first tried to use it, so I ended up using Blogger. Almost instantly, I found myself enjoying using it, as it allowed me more creative freedom than when I was on Rotten Tomatoes. For example, I could use images in my reviews (e.g. posters, screengrabs) to make them more visually appealing to the eye. As for the name ‘Rhode Island Movie Corner’? Well, I’ll admit that I may have kind of copied it from my friend and fellow film critic Matthew Goudreau of The Young Folks. A few years earlier, Matt had been posting reviews on Facebook under the title ‘MGoody’s Movie Corner’; ‘MGoody’ being one of his primary nicknames back then. I took the ‘Movie Corner’ part of that title and added ‘Rhode Island’ in front of it, mainly just to symbolize that I’m from Rhode Island, and ultimately, it stuck.

And, of course, I’ve been operating on Blogger ever since, with no plans of moving to another platform in the foreseeable future. But, with that said, recently there’s been quite a rise in film critics who do video reviews on sites like YouTube. Thanks to this, we have folks like the Schmoes Know, Jeremy Jahns, and Chris Stuckmann, providing viewers with entertaining reviews from passionate film fans who are just like us. However, this has also led to the debate of video reviews vs. written reviews, with some even speculating that the former will one day completely overshadow the latter. As for me, though, I don’t get into that debate too much because both styles of film reviews have their own merits. As you can guess, I’ve always done written reviews because it’s my preferred method. I haven’t done any video reviews only because it’s not really my thing. I’ll even admit that maybe it’s because I may be a bit uncomfortable being on camera. However, I do fully appreciate the effort that critics like the ones that I just mentioned bring to their video reviews and I do see that the video format allows these reviews to be more kinetic and lively as a result. But you want to know another reason why I don’t do video reviews? Well, you know how critics on YouTube sometimes deal with copyright claims, which are generally BS claims because they’re reviews and they’re protected under fair use? I guess you can say that this is part of the reason why I stick to written reviews so that I don’t have to deal with that kind of stress. But that doesn’t mean that I’m not open to trying video reviews in the future. Like I said, nothing but kudos to those who are known for video reviews.

TIP #4: EXPERIMENT!

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As you continue to grow as a film critic, don’t be afraid to try out some new ideas for the posts that you publish. Over the years, I’ve tried different forms of posts here on Rhode Island Movie Corner beyond the typical film review. Way back in 2012, I published weekly posts every Monday that went over the weekend box-office results. In hindsight, though, I’ll admit that I mainly did this just to have more posts published at a time when I was just starting out on Blogger. I’m not an expert at all when it comes to talking about box-office performances so I ultimately abandoned this series of posts in early December of that year. But, just a few months prior to that in September, I did a series of posts that would later spawn an ongoing series that would last for quite a few years. Since September serves as the start of the final third of the year in film, I decided to do a preview of every wide release that was set to come out during the last four months of the year, plus a few notable limited releases. These posts were published over the course of a week and I had such a good time working on them that I decided to make this a regular feature on the site. And so, starting in January 2013 and occurring monthly, I did a ‘preview post’ of every major film that was set to come out that month. These posts were published on the first day of every month and primarily covered that month’s wide releases, though there were occasionally some limited releases in there depending on the film. I did this for about three years before I ended it in 2016. The reason why? Well, I guess I kind of got bored doing them. At that point, they were just being done to get more posts out, just like the ‘box-office results’ posts.

However, I still have a few ongoing series that are still going strong today. Ever since my first year on this site, I’ve done an annual post that gets published around halfway through the year in which I list every film that I’ve seen that year so far, going from the worst of the worst to my current Top 5. In 2014, I started another annual series to cap off the summer film season. Every August, I start up a poll on the site SurveyMonkey, allowing readers to vote on their favorite films from the past summer. This poll usually goes on for about two weeks. Once closed, I take the results and do an extensive post that lists all the films that earned votes. Originally, I was hoping to do something along the lines of a ‘Top 10’ list consisting of the ten most popular films in the poll. However, I quickly found that some films ended up getting similar amounts of votes. Thus, I decided to just list all the films that earned votes in the poll. And, of course, I end each year with my ‘Best of’ and ‘Worst of’ lists. Unlike a lot of critics on the internet, I start things off with the ‘Worst of the Year’ list (published near the end of December) instead of the other way around because I like to end the year on a good note. Thus, the ‘Best of’ list ends up being published in the first few weeks of January. And, of course, as many of you know, I do a Top 12 ‘Best of’ list instead of the traditional ‘Top 10’. As I’ve stated before, it started off as just a joke because I first did it in 2012. But, it ended up becoming a trademark of mine because it allows me to cover more of the films that I loved from that year in general. And, aside from that, I’ve got my usual film reviews, retrospectives of older films (primarily to tie into the newest installment of a franchise), and the occasional editorial, though it mainly depends on the subject (e.g. when Sony struck a deal with Marvel so that Spider-Man could appear in the Marvel Cinematic Universe).

So those first four tips were suggestions on how to get started in this business. These next four are more about the kind of mentality that I feel that one should have so that they can best succeed as a film critic.

TIP #5: BE AS UNBIASED AS POSSIBLE

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For the record, there’s no such thing as a ‘100% unbiased’ film critic. Everyone either is or isn’t a fan of something. For example, as many of you know, I’m a huge fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Thus, it’s generally expected at this point that I will usually end up writing a positive review for each new MCU film and/or TV show that comes out. But, at the same time, that doesn’t mean that I’m a blind fanboy of it, either. I do recognize the various flaws that come from each entry of the MCU, but this never detracts from my love of the franchise. On the other side of the spectrum, there are franchises that I don’t really care about, like Twilight or Divergent. However, I’m not going to be judgmental towards those who do like those films. If you do like those kinds of films, then all the power to you. So, to tie it all back to my main point, just because I’m not a fan of something doesn’t mean that I’ll go into any film automatically expecting it to be bad. Even if I end up seeing the newest installment of a series that I don’t particularly care for, I’ll still go into it with the ‘benefit of the doubt’ that maybe, just maybe, it could turn things around. Obviously, this doesn’t always happen but it’s better to be optimistic than pessimistic. Because here’s the thing; no one immediately knows how a film is going turn out, especially if that statement is based solely on one viewing of the film’s trailer. Because if they did... then I’d be asking them if I can borrow their time machine so I go ahead into the future to see the films that I’m really looking forward to. And yet, time travel clearly hasn’t been invented yet so who knows where they’re getting their sources from.

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Another key suggestion to note when it comes to writing reviews is to not let your overall judgment of an actor or director who’s involved in the film you’re reviewing sway your opinion on that film based on something scandalous that happened to them in real life. As some folks often say, ‘separate the art from the artist’. Examples of this include Tom Cruise after his infamous couch-jumping incident from 2005 and Mel Gibson after the many, many public incidents that he ended up in during the late 2000’s. Say what you will about these two as people but there’s no denying that they’re both terrific at what they do best; film. How about when Bryan Singer was hit with sexual abuse lawsuits back in 2014 just before the release of X-Men: Days of Future Past, or when Casey Affleck’s sexual harassment lawsuits from 2010 came back into the limelight when he was nominated for, and later won, Best Actor at the Oscars for last year’s Manchester by the Sea? Not only were these both instances surrounding incidents that happened years ago, but they had nothing to do with the films that those people were tied to at the time in any way. Now, for the record, don’t misconstrue me and think that I’m suggesting that we should just ignore controversies like these when they happen because we shouldn’t. I’m just saying that if it has nothing to do with the film that person is tied to, then it probably shouldn’t be brought up in a review… but if it does, then it certainly shouldn’t overshadow the review, either. This, folks, is why I tend not to get too ‘political’ when it comes to writing reviews. That’s not to say that I don’t recognize the thematic importance of films that delve into this kind of material, like Moonlight or Zootopia. But, just like in real life, I find that bringing politics into the mix when it comes to writing film reviews just brings the whole mood down. 
TIP #6: TRY TO ACHIEVE A PROPER BALANCE BETWEEN BEING CRITICAL AND BEING FAIR

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I’ll admit that this one may be a bit hard to explain. Basically, what I mean here is that when you’re writing a review, try and find a good balance between being critical but also fair towards the film that you’re discussing. In other words, don’t act oblivious to a film’s faults but, at the same time, try not to come off as being overly harsh either, because I think that this can potentially turn some readers off. For the record, though, that’s not to discredit anyone who is known for doing ‘angry reviews’; in fact, a lot of these ‘angry’ reviewers do their job quite well. It’s just that sometimes I think you need to dial down on the anger, though only when it runs the risk of being overkill. How? Well, for one thing, and, just to note, this is going off a point that Chris Stuckmann made in his ‘On Film Criticism’ video, try and highlight the positives of a film first before you delve into the negatives, even if they are few and far between. Because as many will agree, it’s better to start out by listing the good things about something before addressing any issues that you have with it, thus making the criticism more constructive instead of, well, just making it look like you’re just crapping on something for no good reason. This is something that applies greatly to any sort of review, not just film reviews. Remember those ‘peer review’ sessions that you do for writing assignments at school? Same principle…

It’s commonly said that, as a kid, you tend to like everything that you watch. And, coming from experience, I can safely say that this is basically true. However, as you grow older, you will come to realize that you won’t like everything that you see. And in my case, you want to know the film that was primarily responsible for this change in mindset? Sucker Punch… yep, one of my least favorite films of all-time, as I previously documented in my review of the film back in March 2014. However, if there was ONE positive thing that I could say about the film, it’s that it did allow me to grow as a film fan by realizing I won’t like everything I see. Now, for the record, I am aware that most of my reviews on here do tend to be positive. But that’s mostly because I’ll admit that I don’t necessarily go to see films that are being savaged by critics in theaters unless it’s a film that I’m genuinely interested in seeing. However, I do try to see at least enough ‘bad’ films in a year (usually after they’re released on home media) so that I can do a full ‘Top 10 Worst of the Year’ list at year’s end. And that’s because, for those who are generally new to this site, back when I did my first ‘Worst of the Year’ post in 2012… I only had one frigging film to talk about from that entire year, This Means War. Ironically, just five days later, I would end up doing a review for the other ‘worst of the year’ film that I saw in 2012; the remake of Red Dawn. Since then, I’ve made sure to have a full ‘Top 10 Worst’ list at the end of each year so that something like that wouldn’t happen ever again.

TIP #7: AVOID NITPICKING AND HYPERBOLE!

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There are two primary facets of film discussion that I advise aspiring film critics to avoid when writing reviews. The first is ‘nitpicking’, AKA frequently pointing out minor issues in a film that most people wouldn’t usually notice. I’ll be honest with you, folks, I hate nitpicking with a burning passion because often it just means that a person is being way too critical about a film. I just don’t see how someone can just watch a film with the intention of trying to point out every single flaw in it. It’s almost they went into it already expecting to hate it. Hence why I take much issue with the popular YouTube series CinemaSins. They’re the most egregious examples of nitpickers out there, literally pointing out ‘everything’ that they see ‘wrong’ about a film, hence the title of their series ‘Everything Wrong With [Insert Film Here]’. With an attitude like that, it makes me wonder if they even like film to begin with. And while not as overt with it compared to CinemaSins, Honest Trailers can be guilty of this too sometimes, generally focusing more on a film’s flaws than its strengths. For the record, I’m not saying that these videos are ‘poorly made’ because they aren’t. Hell, I can often tolerate Honest Trailers because, like I said, they’re not as egregious with the nitpicking compared to CinemaSins. It’s just that I feel that because these shows have become so popular, they’ve unintentionally made film fan culture much more nitpicky and cynical as a result. And I know that some of you will point out that they’re not meant to be taken seriously; their videos are just meant to be satire. Well, yes, that’s true. But, at the same time, there are plenty of crystal-clear instances where the writers’ real thoughts on the films that they cover can be seen in those videos so sometimes that ‘satire’ argument is just BS. Sometimes, it makes me wonder how the films that they cover manage to maintain any sort of positive reputation on the internet after they end up ‘satirized’ in one of their videos.

As for hyperbole, it’s whenever someone makes an exaggerated statement. This is something that’s quite common on the internet and not just when it comes to film. Even I’ll admit that I was guilty of this sometimes in my early days on this site. However, I’ve been trying to dial it back in recent years because I realize that it’s kind of silly to overreact to something as simple as a film. It’s why I tend not to get ‘too angry’ over films anymore, as I noted in the intro of my ‘Worst Films of 2016’ list. Literally, the worst thing that comes out of a film that you don’t like is that it’s just a bad film; one that you’ll likely forget about in due time. This is especially true when it comes to sequels, remakes, etc. Bad sequel? Just watch the first film. A bad remake of a film? Just stick to that original film. I talked about this before when I went over the Disney remakes; just because one franchise has a poorly received remake/sequel doesn’t mean that the entire franchise is screwed because of it. It just makes the original installments better by comparison. This mentality of remakes/sequels retroactively ruining their predecessors is just that; a mentality, not a reality. Another common phrase uttered by film fans that needs to be retired? ‘Ruined childhood’. I find this most common with films like Michael Bay’s Transformers films and, of course, the infamous female-led reboot of Ghostbusters that the internet lost its mind over. This ‘argument’ (term used loosely) amazes me because I don’t get how one’s childhood can be ruined by a film that they see AS ADULTS!! You didn’t see it when you were a kid so how the hell was your childhood ‘ruined’ by it? So, in short, try to avoid making statements that are completely overblown.

TIP #8: R.E.S.P.E.C.T.

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I really can’t stress this one enough. Film is a subjective medium; not everyone is going to like the same thing, and that’s fine. There will be instances where a film is critically acclaimed and yet there’ll be one person out there who personally didn’t like it, and vice versa in the case of a film that didn’t get much praise from critics and yet fared much better with audiences. There is no such thing as a ‘perfect’ film. Thus, there is also no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ opinion about a film. However, when discussing films with others, please, please, please, please, PLEASE be respectful towards those who don’t necessarily share a similar opinion to yours, even if their arguments as to why seems completely ridiculous to you. Thankfully, most of the people that I converse with online are respectful when it comes to differing film opinions. However, there will inevitably be people out there who will look at your opinions on a certain film and will make a comment that’s generally along the lines of ‘You liked that film? Gee, you’re a moron’. And, unfortunately, there’s nothing that you can really do about it. Trolls are just a common thing on the internet and not just in terms of film. Thus, the best advice that I can offer when it comes to dealing with them is to just simply ignore them. That and, if you do decide to try and deal with them, don’t stoop to their level because that isn’t going to make you any better than them. Bottom line, it’s your opinion; don’t be afraid to share it, no matter how radically different it may be compared to others.

And finally…

TIP #9: JUST TRY AND BE OPTIMISTIC

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Let’s be honest, folks, there’s a lot of negativity on the internet. Trolls, nitpickers, you name it, they’re out there. Plus, all the crap that goes on outside the world of film can certainly be quite a buzzkill, hence why, like I said before, I don’t like bringing politics into my film reviews. That’s why I strongly believe in the argument that film is primarily meant to serve as a form of ‘escapism’. To me, one of the best aspects of the medium is being able to ignore all the problems in the world for a few hours and just enjoy a good film. Of course, it often depends on the film that you’re watching but, hey, you get my point. Though, is it just me or is there somewhat of a ‘war on escapism’ these past few years? Whether it’s because of the rise of shows like Honest Trailers and CinemaSins or the internet getting worked up over the possibility of La La Land winning over Moonlight at last year’s Oscars (it’s probably a good thing that it didn’t then, because the backlash towards it (which I still don’t entirely get, by the way) would’ve gotten even worse), it seems like there’s been a lot more pressure recently for films to focus more on real-world issues. To be clear, I don’t have any issue with that at all but, at the same time, there’s nothing wrong with just a simple crowd-pleaser that isn’t trying to win an Oscar. And, yes, I’ll admit that I do lean more towards blockbuster films, but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to watch a film with powerful themes and poignant stories. I just wish blockbuster films got a bit more recognition during awards season because there are legitimately some (not all, of course, but, still, some) that I’d argue are just as good as any year’s Best Picture nominees (e.g. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2; I’m still shocked that didn’t get a Best Picture nomination).

Of course, there will always be those out there who will focus more on the negative than they do the positive. When it comes to film, sometimes it feels like the internet focuses more on bad films than it does good films and I think it should be the other way around. If I haven’t made it clear already, I honestly don’t get that worked up over films anymore, because sometimes it’s just not worth it. Don’t get me wrong, when I have problems with a film, I will make them known in my reviews. But, through it all, I hope for the best whenever I go to see a new film and that’s probably the most important piece of advice that I can give to those who aspire to become film critics; just hope for the best, no matter what the film industry throws at you. Because in all seriousness, no critic honestly likes having to give a film a bad review; obviously, though, sometimes it just has to be done. After all, as noted before, not all films are the same. But to reference the classic proverb that was featured in 2015’s Tomorrowland, it’s always better to ‘feed the right wolf’ because too much negativity can just be taxing sometimes. And that’s been the mentality that I’ve been maintaining ever since I started doing film reviews over 7 years ago. I’ve loved film ever since I was a kid and being a film critic has allowed me to do a job that revolves around my two biggest passions in life; film and writing. With that in mind, once again I’d like to thank all of you for following along with me on this crazy journey that we’ve been on ever since this blog was first started back in May 2012. And I hope that I can continue to provide you with entertaining film reviews in the years to come. Until then, to quote the legendary Roger Ebert, “I’ll see you at the movies!”

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To close things out, there’s one question that I’m sure some of you might ask…

WHAT WAS THE FIRST FILM THAT YOU EVER SAW IN THEATERS?

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Well, to be totally honest… I’m not entirely sure. It’s been such a long time now that I can’t really remember. I seriously remember more about the theaters that I used to go to, some of whom aren’t even around anymore like the old Diamond Hill Plaza theater in Woonsocket, RI or the Apple Valley Cinema in Smithfield, RI, than I do when it comes to the first film that I ever saw in theaters. For many years, I assumed that the first film that I ever saw in theaters was Disney Animation’s 1995 effort, Pocahontas. However, I soon realized that this probably wasn’t true. The film came out in June 1995; I wasn’t even half a year old at that point. So, unless there was a re-release that I somehow don’t remember, clearly that wasn’t the first film I saw in theaters. I do assume, though, that this mythical ‘first film’ was something made by Disney or, to be more specific, Pixar. At the moment, and don’t quote me on this, I presume that the first film that I saw in theaters was Pixar’s second full-length animated film, A Bug’s Life. But, it also could’ve possibly been Toy Story 2. I kind of remember being in a theater and looking at credits that I’m sure were for a Toy Story film though of course, I could be wrong. Maybe those credits were from the first film which, like Pocahontas, would’ve had to have been from a re-release because the original Toy Story came out in 1995. Either way, hopefully, one day I’ll figure it out because I’d love to know exactly what it was. Here’s hoping time-travel soon becomes a reality…

Monday, April 17, 2017

The Fate of the Furious (2017) review

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I think it’s safe to say that when the original Fast and the Furious came out in 2001, not many people figured that it would eventually lead into one of the biggest film franchises in recent years. And yet, here we are now at the eighth installment of the Fast and the Furious franchise. Seriously, it’s crazy to see how far this series has come since its early days. Who would’ve thought that by the time that its fifth installment came about in 2011, the franchise that had always attracted a mixed-to-negative response from critics would manage to turn things around and start to do just as well with critics as it’s always done with audiences? Whether it’s due to the shift from street racing to action heist plots or the addition of Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson as fan-favorite Luke Hobbs, the series has seen a major increase in both critical and commercial success thanks to its most recent outings. Case in point, the most recent entry, 2015’s Furious 7, became the first film in the series to gross over $1 billion worldwide. Of course, part of the reason for this was that the film was impacted by the death of franchise star Paul Walker halfway through shooting. Thus, the film ended up becoming a poignant send-off to one of the series’ original stars, while still being another enjoyably over-the-top entry in the series. But the story isn’t over yet for Dominic Toretto and his crew. Now under the direction of F. Gary Gray, fresh off 2015’s smash hit Straight Outta Compton, the crew finds themselves up against their most intimidating adversary yet, one of their own, in The Fate of the Furious. Yes, you may snicker at that title, but if you’re a fan of Fast and the Furious, you’ll be pleased to know that this film features more of the same great over-the-top action that this series is known for.

Things have been going quite well for Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and his crew ever since the events of Furious 7. No longer having to worry about dealing with anyone that’s trying to hunt them down, they’ve been spending most of their time living in peace, with Dom enjoying his honeymoon with his wife, Letty Ortiz (Michelle Rodriguez), in Cuba after she regained her memories of their marriage in the previous film. However, when the team is called in to steal an EMP device from a military complex in Berlin, they are surprised when Dom shockingly betrays them by taking the device and getting their ally, Diplomatic Security Service agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson), arrested by the local government. As they soon come to find out, Dom is in cahoots with the most elusive cyberterrorist on the planet, Cipher (Charlize Theron), who unbeknownst to them has managed to coerce Dom into working for her thanks to a crucial ace in the hole. Thus, Letty, Hobbs, and the rest of the crew; fast-talker Roman Pearce (Tyrese Gibson), tech expert Tej Parker (Ludacris), and hacker Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel), find themselves in a difficult situation as they’re now forced to combat their longtime friend. With the aid of their old ally, government agent ‘Mr. Nobody’ (Kurt Russell), the team embarks on their latest mission; to take down Cipher before she instigates nuclear war and to, hopefully, get Dom back on their side. They even gain an unexpected ally in their old nemesis, Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), who they had imprisoned at the end of Furious 7.

Well, seeing how this is the eighth entry in the franchise, I’m well-aware that I’m just repeating myself at this point when it comes to talking about these films. Let’s be honest, folks, eight films in, you know exactly what to expect from this series. You’re not going to get anything Oscar-worthy out of this film’s straightforward ‘stop the bad guy from doing something terrible’ plot. But, of course, that’s not what you’re here for. You’re here for the ridiculous and yet still all-around awesome action sequences that defy all logic and physics with characters who are basically superheroes at this point. And, of course, this film has plenty of that to go around, including an epic chase through New York City involving an army of cars remotely controlled by Cipher. Seriously, though, if you’re one of those who scoffs at the sight of Dwayne Johnson pushing away a torpedo (that has been fired by a submarine) with his bare hands or Vin Diesel managing to finish a street race all while his car is almost entirely on fire, then this film isn’t for you. But, for those who are fans of the series, this doesn’t disappoint when it comes to delivering exactly what this franchise is known for. But, at the same time, it’s all handled with solid execution from a directing standpoint. F. Gary Gray, who’s no stranger to action films having directed the 2003 remake of The Italian Job (which, fittingly enough, starred Charlize Theron and Jason Statham), handles the action well and the film’s overall tone is probably the most consistent that it’s ever been at with this series since Fast Five. In other words, it’s a well-balanced mix of fun, over-the-top action and light-hearted banter with just enough dramatic heft in there that never overshadows the previous two aspects. Because at this point, the franchise is very much self-aware when it comes to not trying to be something that it isn’t.

And, of course, it wouldn’t be a Fast and Furious film without arguably the most definitive aspect of the franchise (yes, even more so than the action), family. Yes, despite the scandalous feud between stars Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson that clearly isn’t ‘just a publicity stunt’ and this film’s big plot-line of Dom going against his family, the camaraderie amongst the cast is as strong as it’s ever been. And the big reveal surrounding Dom’s actions, without giving anything away, are, surprisingly, well-handled. It isn’t anything too outlandish like I know some were assuming when the first trailer came out. Instead, it manages to tie in with the whole ‘family’ aspect quite well. Of course, the rest of Dom’s crew is just as solid as they’ve ever been, from Tyrese getting a lot of the best humorous moments as Roman to Dwayne Johnson being his usual badass self as Hobbs. Hobbs also gets quite a lot of memorable scenes with Deckard Shaw, as Jason Statham thankfully gets a much more substantial role this time around. Sure, the idea of him becoming an ally to Dom’s crew may seem like a major stretch considering that, in the last film, he killed their crewmate Han but I’ll admit that I’m interested in seeing how they handle this going forward. Plus, it does lead to one super entertaining action sequence that he’s directly involved in. And then, there’s the main villain Cipher, who most certainly ends up being one of the series’ best villains. Charlize Theron plays the part excellently and while she does spend most of the film monitoring the action instead of being out in the field (which may come as a disappointment to some given Theron’s clear skill in terms of fight sequences as evident from Mad Max: Fury Road and the upcoming action thriller Atomic Blonde), her ability to coerce Dom into working for her makes her an entertainingly cold villainess.  

I won’t lie, folks… this may have just become my new favorite entry in the Fast and Furious franchise. I’m kind of reeling at the surreal nature of that statement; I just said that about the eighth (eighth!) installment of the franchise. The only other instance in film history where that was even remotely possible was Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 back in 2011… and that’s not even my favorite entry in that series, so this is a first for me. But, as a fan of this franchise (at least since the fourth film), this delivered on everything that you’ve come to expect in a Fast and Furious film. Yes, it’s just as simply plotted as its predecessors. And yes, the action is insane… and yet it’s still so damn awesome. Somehow, someway, the filmmakers are continuing to raise the bar in terms of the crazy stunts that this series is known for. And despite what I just said about the film being just as silly and over-the-top as its predecessors, its handling of the whole ‘Dom going rogue’ storyline is surprisingly well-handled. Yeah, it easily could’ve gone a lot worse but the way that they handle it does make sense once you realize the specific reason why Dom is forced to go against his team. Pair all that with the same great over-the-top action and the strong camaraderie of its cast and you have another super entertaining action thrill ride. And with a record-breaking weekend at the global box-office in the books (over $532 million to be precise), this series clearly isn’t slowing down. And you can bet that I’ll be looking forward to the next two installments of this apparent new ‘trilogy’ that the filmmakers are implicating is being set up by this film.

Rating: 4.5/5


(P.S. As it turns out, my next post on here will be the 500th post that I’ve published on Rhode Island Movie Corner. With that in mind, stay tuned for an extra special post to celebrate this momentous occasion.)

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Top 10 Favorite 'Fast and the Furious' Stunts

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The Fast and the Furious franchise is one that needs no introduction. It’s been one of Universal’s most successful franchises, having been around since 2001, and it’s still going strong today. The eighth (yes, eighth!) installment of the series, The Fate of the Furious, hits theaters this weekend and is sure to deliver more of the entertainingly high-octane and goofy action that we’ve come to expect from these films. Thus, in honor of its impending release, I decided to do a Top 10 list of my personal favorite action sequences from this smash hit of a franchise. Though, again, who’d thought that this series would manage to last this long? Not only that, but this series has also somehow managed to get better with each new installment. For the record, yes, they’re completely ridiculous films with action sequences that defy all logic and physics… but they’re also highly entertaining to watch. And, yes, there are those out there who absolutely scoff at these films, questioning why they became so gosh darn successful despite being so silly (looking at you, CinemaSins). But, at the same time, it’s clear that this franchise has one hell of a fanbase. Heck, it’s a fan-base that I myself am a part of, having been a fan of the franchise ever since the fourth installment. Now, with this list, I only have one ground rule that I’m maintaining and that is that I wanted to have at least one stunt from each of the previous 7 films. Because if I didn’t, then this list would’ve most likely been made up almost entirely of sequences from films 5 through 7. So, with that in mind, rev up your V8 engines (complete with NOS boost) and prepare yourselves as we delve into some of the craziest and yet awesome stunts from the Fast and the Furious franchise.

HONORABLE MENTIONS


I’ve got not one, not two, not three, not even four, but five Honorable Mentions to list. What can I say? This franchise knows how to do awesome action sequences. First up, there’s the scene from the climax of the original Fast and the Furious in which Dominic Toretto’s crew tries to hijack a semi-trailer truck but then must deal with the driver’s heavily armed response. Brian O’Connor manages to come in to help them out of this situation but this then leads to him having to blow his cover as an undercover cop when he calls for medical support for an injured member of Dom’s crew. Overall, a solidly tense action set-piece that culminates in that big reveal. Then, from the third film, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, there are the two primary drift races between Sean Boswell and Takashi AKA ‘D.K.’ (Drift King). I’m listing them both instead of just one because both are good in their own unique way. The first is fun because we get to see a clearly inexperienced drifter like Sean go up against a drifting expert like Takashi. Suffice it to say, Sean doesn’t do so well in the race and he ends up decimating his car, which he borrowed from Takashi’s business partner (and, as we learn later, a former member of Dom’s crew), Han Lue. But, by the time the second race rolls around, Sean has become more experienced with drifting. This results in a much more neck and neck battle between him and Takashi as they race on a treacherous mountain track, culminating in Sean beating Takashi to become the new Drift King.


Next up, from film #4, Fast and Furious, there’s the first true ‘street race’ of the film, in which Dom and Brian race through Los Angeles so that they can be recruited to a team that transports heroin across the U.S.-Mexico border for drug lord Arturo Braga, who both are trying to take down. All in all, it’s another solid street race that shakes things up from previous street races by having them drive through traffic, unlike the ones in the first two films where those involved in the races got the streets closed and, therefore, free of any traffic and police. That and this sequence is also minimal in its use of CG compared to previous films, where they primarily used it for shots of the cars’ engines. It’s also quite funny to see Brian argue with his GPS (provided to them for the race) when he ends up going off-course. Finally, from Fast and Furious 6, there’s the big finale in which Dom’s crew pursues Owen Shaw’s crew, who are escaping via plane on a ridiculously long runway. This admittedly long (about 13-15 minutes to be precise) but exciting sequence is full of epic and over-the-top stunts both inside and outside the plane (e.g. when Hobbs launches into the air to knock out one of Shaw’s goons who’s being held down by Dom). And it all culminates in the plane being brought down by Dom’s crew and Dom’s car crashing through the nose of the plane in gloriously ludicrous fashion, as one would expect from this franchise at this point.

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And while it isn’t an action sequence, I also want to highlight the ending of Furious 7, namely because of how it serves as a fitting tribute to series star Paul Walker. Of course, as we all know, Walker tragically passed away in a car accident in November 2013, during a break from filming. The filmmakers then reworked the ending so that Brian could be given a proper send-off. Thus, after they defeat Deckard Shaw, Dom and crew decide that it’s time for Brian to retire so that he can be with his family; his girlfriend, and Dom’s sister, Mia, their son Jack, and their incoming second kid. As Dom goes off for a drive, Brian catches up with him and as they go on one last ride together, we cut to a montage of moments from the previous films, all set to ‘See You Again’ by Wiz Khalifa and Charlie Puth and a touching monologue from Dom in which he notes “No matter where you are, whether it's a quarter mile away or half way across the world, you'll always be with me. And you'll always be my brother.” It’s a monologue that’s clearly referring to both Brian O’Connor the character and Paul Walker. Finish with a shot from above of the two driving off in separate directions and you have a guaranteed tear-jerker ending that’s sure to affect any fan of this franchise. And think about this for a moment; this is coming from a franchise that’s primarily known for crazy action sequences and not its writing. It just goes to show that all this talk about ‘family’ that keeps getting brought up throughout the films is an accurate reflection of the great camaraderie of the franchise’s ensemble cast.

10. THE FINAL RACE (THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS)

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It’s only fitting that we start this list off with a scene from the original Fast and the Furious from 2001. It was a simpler time back then. Before the physics-defying stunts of its most recent outings, this series started out as a simple street racing franchise… as well as being an unofficial ‘remake’ of Point Break but that’s another story. Anyway, kicking off this list is the final race between Dom and Brian after taking down gang leader Johnny Tran. When Brian catches up to Dom, the two end up in a quarter-mile drag race. This race culminates in an awesome moment in which the two cross a railroad crossing just as a train passes through. Unfortunately, for Dom, he then immediately rams into an oncoming truck, resulting in his trademark 1970 Dodge Charger R/T flipping in the air before crashing. Fortunately, for him, Brian ends up giving him his car so that he can get away from the cops. After all, as noted earlier in the film, Brian did owe him a ‘ten-second car’ after a confrontation with Tran’s gang resulted in Brian’s previous car, which Dom had just won in a street race, being blown up. Like I said before, the simplicity of this action sequence is why it ends up being so memorable. The only thing holding it back, really, is that the slow-motion shots of Dom and Brian in their cars before passing the railroad crossing are a bit too much. However, with that said, the shot of Brian handing his keys over to Dom is one of the most iconic images in the franchise’s history, even after all these years.

9. THE FREEWAY RACE (2 FAST 2 FURIOUS)

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Next up, we have a scene from 2 Fast 2 Furious, which admittedly is the weakest entry in the series. This is primarily due to a mediocre plot which culminates in an anti-climactic finale with an equally mediocre villain. Not even this film’s action sequences can save this from being the ‘worst’ in the series. However, there are still some memorable action sequences from this film, like the one chase scene near the end where Brian and company have a bunch of street racers drive out of a garage to distract the police. But, for this list, I’m going with the race that takes place on a crowded Miami freeway. In this scene, Brian and his best friend Roman Pearce race a bunch of other drivers to acquire a package from an impounded car so that they can be recruited by drug lord Carter Verone to be his drivers. In a film where some of the racing sequences were more CG-based, especially compared to the ones in the first film, this one was done practically and features some great stunt work, including one where a car ends up getting crushed when it gets caught in-between two trucks (though, let’s be honest, that car’s driver CLEARLY died in that moment) and another where Brian does a 180-degree turn and drives backwards for a bit. Now, admittedly, he mainly did this just to show off in front of Roman but it’s impressive to note that Paul Walker really did do this stunt himself. And, because of aspects like this, this scene gets a slight edge over the final race from the first film and lands at the Number 9 spot on this list.

8. OPENING HEIST (FAST AND FURIOUS)

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2009’s Fast and Furious served as the long-awaited return of the series’ original stars. It was the first time that the series’ main leads (Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Jordana Brewster, and Michelle Rodriguez), had appeared together in a Fast and Furious film since the original and while it ended up being the worst-reviewed entry in the series, with a mediocre 28% on Rotten Tomatoes, I’d argue it’s rather underrated. Now, admittedly, this is mainly because THIS was the film that got me into the franchise. I remember seeing the film’s Super Bowl ad and was interested in it despite having never seen any of the other films beforehand. I didn’t end up seeing it in theaters but I did watch it when it came to HBO, so yes, this was the first Fast and Furious film I ever watched. But, I’m getting off-track here; aside from being perhaps a bit too serious for a Fast and Furious film, I’d say that this film was like a better-directed version of the first film. It was the second film in the series to be directed by Justin Lin and while the series wouldn’t truly start to shine until the next installment, this one still has its moments. For one thing, it starts off with a pretty epic opening heist in which Dom and his crew, including his girlfriend Letty Ortiz and Han from Tokyo Drift, hijack a large fuel tanker in the Dominican Republic. However, like the truck driver from the climax of the first film, the tanker’s driver soon starts fighting back once he realizes what’s going on. This time around, though, they do manage to steal a good amount of the tanker’s fuel sources and the sequence ends with Dom and Letty narrowly avoiding the tanker as it crashes towards them in a crazy but awesome stunt that was seen in all the trailers, including that Super Bowl ad I mentioned earlier. I guess you could say that thanks to this scene, I officially became a fan of the Fast and the Furious franchise.

7. CHASE THROUGH TOKYO/HAN’S DEATH (THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS: TOKYO DRIFT)

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As we’d come to find out, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, despite being the third film of the series to be released in theaters, was not the third film from a chronological standpoint. Instead, it took place after the events of the following three films; Fast and Furious, Fast Five, and Fast and Furious 6. This explains why Han appears in those films as a member of Dom’s crew despite what happens during this sequence from Tokyo Drift. It all starts when Sean, Han, and company are confronted by Takashi over a theft that Han had pulled on his family, who are tied to the Yakuza. Thanks to a diversion from their friend Twinkie, Sean, Takashi’s ex-girlfriend Neela, and Han manage to escape with Takashi and his sidekick Morimoto right behind them. This leads to a tense but exciting chase through the city. There’s even one point where they must drive through a crowded street, resulting in a pretty nice shot when they drift through the crowd. And while Sean and Neela manage to get rid of Morimoto, who presumably dies after crashing into an oncoming car, Han, unfortunately, ends up being hit by another car after managing to get away from Takashi. Before Sean can save him, the car explodes, bringing a sad end to easily the best character in the film. This scene would later be revisited during the mid-credits scene of Fast and Furious 6, where we learn the identity of the driver who hit Han’s car; none other than Jason Statham’s Deckard Shaw, setting up the epic confrontation between him and Dom’s crew in Furious 7.

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"Dominic Toretto. You don't know me... you're about to.

6. TRAIN HEIST (FAST FIVE)

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After Fast Five opens with a bang as Dom is broken out of a prison bus by Brian, Mia, and their crew (a scene that was teased at the end of Fast and Furious), the film then sets the stage for the first big action sequence set in its main locale, Rio de Janeiro. In this sequence, Dom, Brian, and Mia, along with their old friend Vince (who last appeared in the first film, released a full decade prior), attempt to steal a bunch of cars from a train with the help of some locals. When Dom overhears one of the locals, Zizi, mention that he’s primarily interested in one of the cars, a Ford GT40, he has Mia ride off with it instead. Of course, this then leads to trouble as Dom and Brian must then deal with Zizi and his henchmen. They barely manage to escape, as the scene culminates in an epic stunt in which the two end up driving off a cliff and jump out of their car before it crash-lands into the water below. Unfortunately, for them, this results in two things happening. First off, they are immediately captured and are then confronted by Rio’s primary crime boss, Hernan Reyes. And, as they come to learn, the GT40 contained a computer chip that was full of information regarding Reyes’ criminal empire. But then, because Zizi killed three DEA agents during the heist, this results in DSS agent Luke Hobbs being called in to capture them when they’re framed for the murders. In short, a lot happens in this scene and, fittingly enough, it’s an excellent sequence with great stunt-work and camerawork. You could even say that it began the series’ transition from street racing to action-filled heist plotlines. Either way you look at it, this scene clearly helped when it came to making Fast Five the most critically/commercially successful entry in the series at that time.

5. JUMPING TOWERS IN ABU DHABI (FURIOUS 7)

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Yep, can’t forget about this one. During the sequence where his crew attempts to steal a powerful computer device known as the ‘God’s Eye’ from a billionaire in Abu Dhabi to help them find Deckard Shaw, Dom and Brian escape from Deckard Shaw (so… really, no need for that God’s Eye device but hey, this is a Fast and Furious film; who seriously goes into it for the plot?) by driving the fancy new Lykan HyperSport out of the Etihad Towers. And how do they do this? By jumping across the complex’s three towers with the car, of course. What else would they’ve done, take the elevator? In all seriousness, though, this is yet another awesome set-piece. And while some parts of the jump were clearly CG (including CG Paul Walker, even, as this was one of the scenes that required the use of his brothers Cody and Caleb Walker as stand-ins), you’d be surprised to find that there was still quite a bit of practical stunt work involved in filming this scene. Obviously, they didn’t ‘really’ jump the car through the towers, but most of the shots in which they go in and out of them were done practically on a set, highlighting the great efforts of the filmmakers to do as many practical stunts as possible even as this franchise continues to get more and more insane with its set-pieces. After jumping out the first tower (right in the middle of a lavish party), Dom and Brian then crash through the second tower on a floor that’s under construction. They then jump out that tower and crash through the third tower, right in the middle of an art exhibition, before jumping out the car before it falls out the tower and descends to the ground below. And while this does mean that the HyperSport (1 of only 7 in the world) gets totaled, it did see more action in this moment than it did when the billionaire they were stealing from was just keeping it locked up in his penthouse. Dom said it best, “Nothing sadder than locking a beast in a cage”. Too bad we didn’t get to see Brian punch the guy in the face like he said he was going to do. Ah well…

4. DOM VS. HOBBS (FAST FIVE)

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At Number 4, we have the only action sequence on this list that doesn’t primarily involve cars. However, it’s still an epic sequence regardless, as it consists of Dom finally going one-on-one with Hobbs when the latter comes in with his team to arrest Dom and his crew. Suffice it to say, this highly-anticipated showdown between Vin Diesel and the Rock lived up to the hype. And as many will agree, the addition of Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson to the series’ ensemble cast is arguably the primary catalyst behind the Fast and Furious franchise’s unexpected rise in quality. The smack-talking but still all-around charismatic DSS agent proved to be a great addition to the franchise and the build-up to his confrontation with Dom was well handled by Justin Lin and his team, from his very first scene where he immediately starts preparing to hunt Toretto once his team arrives in Rio (him to Rio’s chief of police: “Stay the f*** out of my way!”) to the scene where he and his team confront Dom and company at a street race but are driven away by the street racing community of Brazil. But when the two finally go toe-to-toe, all bets are off. Over the course of three minutes, the two crash through several glass windows and the fight ultimately ends with Dom nearly bashing Hobbs’ head in with a pipe wrench, a callback to the first film where it was established that Dom nearly beat a man to death with a socket wrench after he had killed Dom’s father during a stock car race. Mia’s pleas for him to stop are what ultimately keep Dom from pulling the same move twice. 

3. DRAGGING A GIANT SAFE THROUGH RIO (FAST FIVE)

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In Fast Five’s big climax, Dom, Brian, and their crew pull off their big heist on Hernan Reyes. How so? Well, by having Dom and Brian drag a giant safe containing his money through the city of Rio with their cars, of course. What other option would there be? What follows may arguably be the series’ first truly physics-defying action sequence, as the safe becomes a battering ram, smashing through everything in its path. Not only does it smash through several cars, both police and civilian, but it also smashes through a few buildings as well, including a bank. Han and Roman also help Dom and Brian out by getting rid of some of Rio’s extensive police force in police cars that they themselves stole earlier in the film. This chase through the city ultimately ends up on the bridge leading out of the city, with the police, Reyes, and Zizi in hot pursuit. Realizing that there’s no way that they can outrun them all, Dom has Brian go off without him while he stays behind to deal with their pursuers. And, of course, he gets rid of them with the safe, as multiple cars are launched in the air and into the water below. It all culminates in Dom ramming the safe into one of the two remaining cars before jumping out of his car as it launches into the air due to the safe’s recoil and slams into Zizi’s car, critically injuring Reyes, who is ultimately killed by Hobbs for revenge against the death of his team earlier in the film (Zizi is killed by Brian, who came back to help Dom). But while Hobbs has Dom and Brian leave the safe with him, giving them a 24-hour head start before he goes after them again, he finds that they had switched the real safe with a fake one during the pursuit, allowing them to successfully pull off their big heist.  

2. CARS PARACHUTING OUT OF A PLANE (FURIOUS 7)

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When the first trailer for Furious 7 premiered, it immediately gave us our first look at one of the film’s crazy stunts; Dom and crew airdropping their cars out of a plane to ambush a mercenary convoy in the Caucasus Mountains in Azerbaijan to rescue hacker Ramsey. What more can I say? These films continually manage to up the ante with their crazy stunts with each new film and this sequence is no exception. But you know what’s even crazier? A lot of this sequence was done practically. I mentioned this earlier when I talked about the ‘car jumping the towers’ stunt but I wanted to bring it up again because that’s ultimately one of the coolest things about the recent entries in this series. While there are certainly some stunts in these films that implement CG in some way, they still try to do as many practical stunts as possible, no matter how crazy these set-pieces get. And in this instance, they literally sent these cars out of a plane. Obviously, shots of Dom and crew at the wheel were done in front of a blue-screen but, for the most part, those are real cars soaring down from the sky and that’s quite an impressive feat. The ensuing chase is great too, from Dom and Letty ripping the back of the convoy’s large bus off with hooks to Brian climbing out the side window of the bus and running up its side to get back onto the ground before it falls off a cliff. And even after Dom, with Ramsey in tow, is cornered by the mercenaries and their leader, Jakande, they manage to get away by driving backward off the mountain. And even though their car ends up getting totaled on the way down, they survive. Why? Because this is a Fast and the Furious film, of course. These characters are basically superheroes at this point.


(P.S. Also, in one of the best humorous moments of the series, Roman initially backs out from dropping out of the plane, resulting in Tej forcibly dragging him out of it by activating his parachute while he’s still on the plane. If I haven’t mentioned it already, Roman usually gets a lot of the best lines/funny moments in these films and this is easily one of his best.)

1. CARS VS. TANK (FAST AND FURIOUS 6)

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For my Number 1 pick, I’m going with a scene from Fast and Furious 6 which, at the time I’m writing this, still stands as my favorite entry in the series to date. Overall, it’s a toss-up between this and Fast Five in terms of being my ‘favorite film’ of the franchise. For now, the sixth film wins out by a slim margin for various reasons. One of these reasons is that it has a stronger villain in the form of Luke Evans’ Owen Shaw, who operates on a mantra where he views his crewmates as expendable, a sheer contrast to Dom’s crew and their familial bond that has been such a definitive element of this franchise. Not only that, but when we first meet his crew, we see that Letty, who supposedly died during the events of Fast and Furious but is revealed to have survived albeit now suffering from amnesia, is working with them. And in the first of the film’s two climactic action sequences (the other being the plane chase), Dom and his crew pursue Shaw’s crew when the latter attempts to steal a computer chip from a NATO base in Spain so that they can build a device that can block all military communication on Earth. However, they soon realize that Shaw is instead gunning for the military convoy that’s transporting the chip away from the base. When they get there, Shaw and his crew have already hijacked the convoy and are now running around in a big tank. As it begins to bulldoze its way through a busy freeway, crushing cars left and right, Tej remarks that they need a Plan B… or Plan C… or Plan D… or Plan E, bottom line, “We need more alphabet!”

I picked this as my favorite action sequence from these films because it basically has it all. The set-up is so simple (cars vs. a tank) and yet so effective, with Dom and crew running around trying to avoid the tank and its gunfire while they do what they do best which, as Brian notes, is to ‘improvise’. At one point, Roman’s car is about to be crushed by the tank, resulting in him having to jump over to Brian’s car, which had gotten over to that location after doing a sick jump off a ramp made of broken pieces of a bridge that the tank destroyed. And then the scene ends with an epically ridiculous stunt. To stop the tank, Dom and crew end up flipping it by sending Roman’s damaged Mustang, which he had tied to the tank with a cable, off a bridge part of the freeway to use as an anchor. However, this results in Letty, who was outside on top of the tank when this happens because Shaw ordered her to deal with the cable, to be sent flying off it. To save her, Dom ends up launching out of his car and catches her in mid-air over a big drop before they crash down onto a car on the other side of the freeway. Is it a ridiculous moment that defies all logic? Yes. Did it elicit a great reaction from the audience when I saw this in theaters? Hell yeah! That’s another reason why Fast and Furious 6 is my favorite entry in the series; it resulted in one of my all-time favorite theater experiences, as I saw it with an enthusiastic crowd who reacted to every major stunt in the film, including this one. It really goes to show how far this series has come, as it’s amassed a large and dedicated fan-base who are always along for the ride and I’m proud to say that I’m one of them.

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And those are my Top 10 favorite stunts from the Fast and the Furious franchise. Be sure to sound off in the comments below with your own favorite stunts from these films. And you can expect a review of The Fate of the Furious sometime this weekend. 

Monday, April 10, 2017

The Zookeeper's Wife (2017) Short Review

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(Like my review of Hidden Figures a few months ago, this review will only be a short one because I’m currently working on a different post that’s set to come out this week.)

In The Zookeeper’s Wife, directed by Niki Caro (who will be directing the upcoming live-action remake of Disney’s Mulan) and based on the non-fiction novel of the same name by author Diane Ackerman, Jessica Chastain stars as Antonina Żabińska who, in the 1930’s, operated the Warsaw Zoo in Poland with her husband, Dr. Jan Żabiński (Johan Heldenbergh). Their peaceful lives are soon shattered, though, when the Nazis begin to invade Poland during World War II. An air raid on September 1st, 1939 ends up destroying most of their zoo. At the same time, Nazi forces begin to forcibly remove the country’s Jewish population from their homes and put them in a desolate ghetto. Realizing the horrible situation that the Jews are currently in, Antonina and Jan decide to make the bold attempt of trying to rescue Jewish children and adults by hiding them from the Nazis within their home at the zoo. Ultimately, they ended up taking in about 300 ‘guests’ during Germany’s occupation of their city. It’s a powerful true story and while I don’t think that the film fully succeeds in achieving the emotional depth that it’s trying to achieve, its heart is very much in the right place and the direction from Niki Caro is solid. It’s also well-acted, highlighted by the always reliable Jessica Chastain as Antonina and Daniel Brühl as Dr. Lutz Heck, ‘Hitler’s zoologist’ who soon comes into conflict, and even has a bit of romantic tension, with Antonina. So, in short, it’s not perfect but The Zookeeper’s Wife is still a poignant war drama that highlights a remarkable moment that came out of the horrors of World War II.   


Rating: 3.5/5

Monday, April 3, 2017

Passengers (2016) review

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Today, I’m looking at a film from last year that I didn’t end up seeing in theaters when it came out but was genuinely curious about it in the months leading up to its release. The film in question is Passengers and I’ll admit that the main reason why I was interested in seeing it mainly stemmed from who was involved. In the director’s chair was Morten Tyldum, who made it big in Hollywood a few years back with 2014’s Best Picture nominee (and one of my favorite films of that year), The Imitation Game. And taking on the lead roles were two of Hollywood’s biggest stars; Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt. In short, this film’s crew had quite the pedigree, and while I’m sure that some may have viewed it as being nothing more than a ‘cash grab’ project made to bank on the success of its two leads, it was also an original sci-fi story, one that had been in the works ever since writer Jon Spaihts (who’s also worked on Prometheus and Doctor Strange) first wrote it in 2007. Upon release, the film did decently at the box-office with almost $300 million worldwide. However, it didn’t do as well with critics; it currently maintains a measly 31% on Rotten Tomatoes. Thus, because the film admittedly wasn’t one of my most ‘anticipated’ films of 2016, I didn’t see it in theaters because of this. However, in the months since, I’ve found that audiences have seemingly been more positive towards it. So, with that in mind, is Passengers an underrated gem from this past year? Well, despite a few narrative issues, I’d say it is.

In the future, a starship named Avalon embarks on a 120-year journey from Earth to the planet Homestead II, with over 5,000 passengers (consisting of both crew and future colonists of the planet) in tow. However, a run-in with an asteroid belt causes the ship to suffer various mechanical failures. This ends up resulting in one of the passengers, engineer Jim Preston (Chris Pratt), waking up early only 30 years into the trip. With no possible way of being put back into his hibernation pod, Jim languishes in the reality that he’ll be alone for the rest of his life onboard the Avalon, which is still 90 years away from Homestead II. However, one year after his awakening, he comes across another passenger, writer Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence). Jim, completely entranced by her, makes the bold decision to wake her up so that he wouldn’t be alone anymore, despite the morally damning implications that come with it. Once she’s woken up, she too begins to try and find a way to get back to sleep. But, once the situation turns hopeless, the two begin to bond and even start to get romantically attached. However, their blossoming romance soon starts to turn sour once Jim’s big secret is revealed. And if that wasn’t enough, the two find themselves having to save the ship and their fellow passengers when the mechanical failures from earlier start to become much more of a problem.

So, as I partially pointed out in the synopsis, the marketing for this film did not divulge one of its biggest plot-points. The primary trailer for the film implied that both Jim AND Aurora were woken up by accident. But, in the actual film, Jim is the only one of the two who gets woken up by accident. He then wakes Aurora up so that he can have a companion after already spending a whole year alone on the Avalon. This does lead to a fascinating moral dilemma; although it does give Jim someone to talk to (other than the ship’s robotic bartender Arthur (Michael Sheen)), it also means that he’s basically screwing up her life by dooming her to his exact same fate. In other words, what initially seemed to be a generally light-hearted sci-fi romance story ultimately has a rather dark edge to it. But, with that said, many felt that the film’s biggest problem is that, near the end, it deviates from this plotline and switches over to a generic ‘save the ship from destruction’ conflict. And I’ll admit that I do agree with this sentiment; this change in the plot does take away from the consequences that come from Jim’s big decision. Not only that, it also results in that storyline getting a rather iffy/rushed conclusion. But, despite this, the film is still engaging from beginning to end and is well-made on a technical level. The futuristic production/visual design is excellent, as is the score by the always reliable Thomas Newman. I can see why they were ultimately the two primary elements of the film that were recognized during awards season despite its generally mixed reception.    

Ultimately, though, one of the most important aspects of the film is the romance that forms between Jim and Aurora. Despite that ‘big secret’ of the former’s that is always ominously looming in the background, as well as the devastating consequences that come with it once it becomes known to the latter, these two do prove to have solid chemistry throughout. A lot of this, of course, is thanks to Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence. The two of them are both excellent in their respective roles and are also generally likable protagonists. Now, of course, I know that I’m saying this despite the whole thing about Jim being the one who wakes Aurora up (let me be clear; I’m not saying that this decision is a ‘good idea’). But, aside from that red flag, Pratt is, for the most part, still just as charismatic as he usually is in his other big roles and his character does go through some redemptive moments over the course of the film, even if they don’t entirely make up for his big decision. Of course, this does mean that Aurora (and, therefore, Lawrence) is ultimately the more likable of the two. The two of them do manage to carry the film on their own; after all, it is primarily just them for most of the runtime. There are a few minor supporting characters here and there, including Michael Sheen as the ship’s robotic bartender Arthur, who gets some of the film’s best bits of comic relief, and Laurence Fishburne as one of the Avalon’s primary crew members who also ends up getting woken up early. In the end, though, it’s all about Pratt and Lawrence and they are arguably the film’s greatest highlight.

So, in conclusion, while Passengers didn’t get much praise from critics upon release, it seems like audiences have been a bit more positive towards it. And, overall, for a film that I didn’t see until after it was already out of theaters, I quite enjoyed it. Now, admittedly, it does have some major flaws, specifically the change in plot that takes away from what should be the primary focus of the story; Jim’s decision that ultimately affects both him and Aurora. But, despite this, it’s still a solid original sci-fi story with a fascinating moral dilemma and some excellent futuristic imagery. Perhaps it was a good thing that the trailers didn’t give away the big ‘twist’ regarding the big catalyst that sets the main plot into motion. Still, it would’ve been better had it not deviated over to the ‘save the ship’ storyline near the end. Instead, it should have been based entirely on Jim and Aurora’s relationship and the consequences that come from what Jim does to set it all up. On that note, the other great thing about the film is its lead duo of Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence. These two work so well together and have such great chemistry that I totally wouldn’t mind seeing them star in another film together. Thus, you could say that they’re easily the main reason why this film is worth checking out. And despite its narrative flaws, Passengers is quite an interesting entry in the sci-fi genre that’s more than just a Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence vehicle.


Rating: 4/5