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Amistad – Review

13 May

In 1839, the slave ship La Amistad was taken over in a slave revolt led by Mende captives. This led to a drawn out trial involving many different parties concerning murder charges and property rights, while abolitionists of the time used the trial to prove that these Africans had rights the same as anybody else. While this incident didn’t change the times it did have lasting effects whose ripples could be felt throughout that time in history. It remained a story that seemed overshadowed by other historical events until Steven Spielberg, producer Debbie Allen, and writer David Franzoni resurrected the story for modern audiences. While it isn’t the most historically accurate film in the world, it has a sense of courage and honor that shows there was plenty of good in a time of evil.

After freeing himself from his chains securing him to the slave ship La Amistad, Mende captive Sengbe (Djimon Honsou) leads a revolt against the Spanish slave traders on the ship. Due to their lack of knowing how to properly navigate a ship, Sengbe and the rest of the Africans find themselves landing in an American port and are swiftly arrested by Naval officers. The captives are once again locked in jail where they await trial for murder and cases involving property rights. This attracts the attention of abolitionist Theodore Joadson (Morgan Freeman) who enlists the help of property lawyer Roger Sherman Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey) to represent the captives in a court of law. The proceedings actually keep favoring Baldwin’s arguments, but it doesn’t take long for President Martin Van Buren (Nigel Hawthorne) to intercede and take the matters to the Supreme Court. With their case quickly spiraling out of control, Joadson, Baldwin, and Sengbe recruit the help of former president John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins) to stand up for the Africans’ rights in the highest court of the land.

Amistad is the first film Spielberg made with Dreamworks, and at this point it’s hard to believe there was a time that he wasn’t working with this company. This was the time when Spielberg was really showing what he had to offer. This is epic film making that only got better with Saving Private Ryan. The production design of this movie is top of the line with sets that seem to live and breathe. I am really interested in this time period, so I may be a little bit biased to praise movies that so completely bring this era to life. While the set design and costumes already stand tall, there are other factors that exist to completely draw you into the world of this movie. The first is John Williams’ beautiful and often sweeping score. The other is Janusz Kamiński’s eye catching cinematography that was also put on display with Spielberg’s previous movie, Schindler’s List.

Like I said earlier, Amistad is an epic movie that really takes its time in telling the story and making sure all of the information is clear to the audience. This is both a good and a bad thing. While there is plenty of dramatic momentum moving the story forward, it’s hard to ignore that this can be an overly wordy movie. There are some moments where you have to stop and think of people really talk like the characters in this movie do. The writing is mostly spot on, but there are times when it becomes a little bit too theatrical when a general rule for film making is to show the audience information and not outright tell them. There’s one scene in particular that really stands out. There’s a scene where John Quincy Adams is addressing the Supreme Court, and it’s clear that Spielberg was really into shooting this scene, and for a while it’s incredible. It’s an amazing speech that unfortunately never seems to end. There were at least three different times where I thought that the speech was over, but then the camera would change and Hopkins would continue on. It became almost comical.

While this movie does get a little wordy and bogged down in over the top dramatic soliloquies, the people delivering these lines are all megastars in their own rights. This is a great cast with Freeman, McConaughey, Honsou, and Hopkins all knocking it out of the park. McConaughey and Honsou especially work great together and their getting to learn to understand each other while not speaking the same language is my favorite part of the whole movie. I do feel like Morgan Freeman was underutilized and only has a few memorable scenes where I feel like he was actually given something to do. Finally, Hopkins isn’t in the movie all that much, but when he is it feels like I’m watching the real John Quincy Adams and not an actor playing the part. Few actors can pull that off as well as Hopkins can.

Amistad has all the working of a memorable and epic Steven Spielberg movie. It’s filled with a cast of great actors, excellent music, and fantastic production design. It also is a little bit overdone in some parts, which can either add more of an entertainment quality or come off as something a little less respectable. This isn’t Spielberg’s finest achievement, but it is one that I feel doesn’t get the respect that it deserves. Personally, I thought it was a great movie and it’s one that I’d love to watch again. It tells an excellent story, and while it may not be totally historically accurate, it’s a pretty epic way to spend an afternoon.

Final Grade: A-

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Thor: The Dark World – Review

14 Nov

Ever since The Avengers dropped last year, it seems that everybody is going a little Marvel crazy, and that’s just fine with me. This year alone we’ve already got to see Iron Man 3, a new show on ABC called Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, and most recently Thor: The Dark WorldWe’re on our way to the next Avengers movie, but for now the cinematic Marvel universe is growing and growing, with The Dark World not only being a very entertaining film, but also an important entry in terms of expanding the universe.

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Since Bifröst was destroyed and rebuilt, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has been traveling through the different worlds in over to restore peace amongst them all, however, a  lurking evil is waiting for its moment to strike. On Earth, Jane Austin (Natalie Portman) uncovers a portal that releases and infects her with the Aether, a powerful substance that was locked away by Odin’s (Anthony Hopkins) father Bor. Now that the Aether has been released, the dark elves led by Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) come out of hiding to reclaim the Aether and use it to destroy the universe. Facing his most difficult and personal challenges yet, Thor must team up with his brother Loki (Tim Hiddleston) to stop Malekith and save the universe.

Now, let me be there first to say that the original Thor was my least favorite of all of the first Avengers films. I’m sure many will disagree, but in my opinion, once Thor got to Earth in that movie, it slowed down way too much. Kenneth Branagh was s good choice of director and handled the Shakespearean content very well, but it just wasn’t as entertaining as I wanted it to be, which is exactly what I expect from any movie with a Marvel logo attached to it. Luckily, The Dark World fixes all of its entertainment problems, and despite some major ugliness in the plot, beats its predecessor by a mile.

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Right off the bat, this movie throws action in your face and doesn’t let up until it’s over. I can’t say the same thing about the first one, even though it did have the task of setting up the universe and the characters. This time, we know everyone and we can see exactly what they can do. Idris Elba’s character Heimdall gets more to do in this one and it’s really cool to see him kick some ass. Who really steals the show is Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, this time not really playing the villain but still full of wisecracking remarks.

Still, there are some ugly, ugly problems in this movie. For one thing, the whole plot of a powerful villain using a mysterious substance to destroy the earth is a bit old by now. Wasn’t that pretty much the whole thing behind the Tesseract? Now it’s the Aether. Another thing is that there are moments in the plot where everything is solved without any effort. One scene in particular ends before there can even be any suspense at all. And finally, there are moments when the CGI looks pretty bad, especially when it’s from a distance.

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As for the Thor movies, I can say without question that The Dark World is better than the original Thor and I can also say it’s better than Iron Man 3, in terms of post-Avengers Marvel movies. Though it is not without some major flaws, I can’t say that I wasn’t entertained from the very start to the very finish. Let’s just say the movie was over before I even realized, not because of the run time, but because I just had so much fun with it.

The Elephant Man – Review

12 Nov

Joseph “John” Merrick is a man that throughout the years has become a very interesting individual. This isn’t due to any achievement or talent that he had, but because of the rare and extremely curious disease that ailed him, now known as neurofibromatosis. In 1980, the year of this film’s release, David Lynch only had Eraserhead in terms of feature films, but the uncredited producer Mel Brooks was so impressed with this film that he hired Lynch to act as director of the story of Merrick’s later life in The Elephant Man.

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Doctor Fredrick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) is a surgeon in London who comes across an interesting specimen at a traveling freak show one night. This specimen is John Merrick (John Hurt), a man whose extreme deformities make the general public reel in horror at just the sight of him. Treves takes Merrick to the London Hospital to be studied, but soon gets him permanent residence and care. Over the time spent together, the two men become very close friends and Merrick’s reputation as a tragic human being is made known after he befriends famous stage actress Mage Kendal (Anne Bancroft). While everything seems to be going better for Merrick with the help of many kind and caring people, hateful and greedy men from his past and present still use him for fear and money, making Merrick’s ailment all the more difficult.

The Elephant Man is a hard movie to summarize because it isn’t really a plot based movie, but more of a character study and a look at how society should see people who are different. Casting David Lynch was a very interesting choice given his absurd and surreal filmography. This is a much more straightforward film than his others, but there are still glimpses of his trademark style from nightmare sequences to the heavily industrialized area with beautiful shots of smoke blowing out of chimneys and grimy machinery being operated, all embellished an excellent industrial sound design.

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Now, there are a few movies whose sole reason for existence is to test the limits of my tear ducts. Crying isn’t the most enjoyable past time, but sometimes when I’m watching a movie (or the last episode of the John Adams miniseries!!) I just can’t really help myself. The Elephant Man is a very difficult movie to watch in this respect. Seeing Merrick dealing with his disease is hard enough, but seeing his very human reactions to people gawking, screaming, and making fun of him is even worse.

So no, this is not an uplifting movie at all, but this isn’t really a film to watch if you’re looking for a good feeling to be had. This is something to watch to learn about a man’s life, how to treat other human beings regardless of their individual circumstances, and to admire the cinematography by Freddie Francis, who went on to work with Lynch in Dune and later on with Scorsese in his remake of Cape Fear. The point is that you really need to know what you’re getting into with The Elephant Man.

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David Lynch may forever be known as one of the strangest and most surreal film makers of the modern era, with films like Eraserhead and Mulholland Drive to stand as testament. He did something beautifully different with The Elephant Man. He created a very human drama an very unusual and interesting man to come out of the Victorian era. It’s beautifully shot, wonderfully acted, and succeeds in telling this man’s story, despite some historical inaccuracies. It’s one of those movies that are just plain perfect.