If I Had Hosted ‘Your Turn’ on 100.3 The Sound

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With 100.3 The Sound shutting down operations soon, it looks like I won’t get a chance to host an edition of “Your Turn.” This is a program where “Sound Listeners” like you and me can act as DJ for an hour and play ten of our favorite songs. This is one of the many things I love about this station as it shows just how much they truly respect those who listen in on a daily basis. Since first learning about this particular program, I was very eager to be a part of it as I have some experience in being a radio DJ in the past while I was a student at UC Irvine. But with the station going off the air, its likely they have little time to accommodate those who have sent in their song lists to the station.

Whatever the case, I’m going to do the next best thing and provide you, my fellow readers, with the episode I would have done. So here it goes.

Hello people! My name is Ben Kenber, a Sound Listener from Los Angeles, California and also the writer and CEO of the website The Ultimate Rabbit which focuses on my love for movies as well as the challenges I face in training for the Los Angeles Marathon, a marathon I have participated in for seven years. The songs I am going to play have affected me deeply throughout my childhood and as an adult, and I look at them as a journey through the crazy terrain life gives all of us.

  1. “I Can’t Drive 55” by Sammy Hagar

The first song on my list needs no introduction in my opinion. You have all heard this classic before, and the best way for me to describe it is that it’s the song I just LOVE listening to whenever I am in a bumper-to-bumper traffic jam on the 405 freeway. Here it is!

  1. “Shock the Monkey” by Peter Gabriel

This song cast a spell on me when I first heard it on the radio back in the 1980’s. Then I saw the music video for it, and it was the scariest video I ever saw. Keep in mind, I was 7 years old at the time, and this was the worst time to watch a music video like this one. All these years later, I have since become a huge Peter Gabriel fan and have no problem watching this song’s music video as it is one of the few from this decade which really holds up. While my favorite song of Gabriel’s is “In Your Eyes,” one which The Sound has played on a regular basis, this one still holds a lot of meaning for me and still sends a chill up my spine whenever I listen to it. Here is Peter Gabriel with “Shock the Monkey.”

  1. “Find Your Way Back” by Jefferson Starship

I remember when my dad bought the album “Modern Times” by Jefferson Starship back when we were living in Marietta, Georgia, and the first song off of it remains one of my all-time favorites. I even got my dad to let me take this album to my kindergarten class at Wesleyan Day School, and my classmates were eager to rock out to this track every time I put the needle to this vinyl record. It’s a good thing we never got around to playing “Modern Times” in its entirety as the last song, “Stairway to Cleveland,” had a four-letter word parents were eager for their children not to learn about until they turned ten years old. I also have to say that the woman on the album’s cover became a significant part of many nightmares I experience at such a young age. Anyway, here is Jefferson Starship with “Find Your Way Back.”

  1. “Bad Reputation” by Joan Jett & the Blackhearts

I have been a fan of Joan Jett & the Blackhearts ever since I first heard their cover of “Crimson and Clover” on the radio back when I lived in Marietta, Georgia. But I am choosing to play this song because I love its defiant attitude, and it’s the kind of attitude I wish I had during my high school years because I was way too concerned about what others thought of me. Plus, it was also the theme song to one of my favorite television shows, “Freaks & Geeks,” and like many brilliant TV shows, it only lasted one season. Anyway, here’s “Bad Reputation.”

  1. “Can I Sit Next to You Girl” by AC/DC

I have been a die-hard fan of AC/DC ever since I bought their album “Who Made Who,” and 100.3 The Sound has played their music non-stop. This makes selecting a song by them especially challenging as “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap,” “Back in Black,” “Big Balls,” and “Thunderstruck” are always being played on this station. This song from their album “High Voltage” has always been one of my favorites, and I would like to give it a spin here. With the late Bon Scott on vocals, here is “Can I Sit Next to You Girl.”

  1. “Black Dog” by Led Zeppelin

I have to include a song by Led Zeppelin here. I became a devoted fan of their music after my dad bought their untitled album, commonly known as “Led Zeppelin IV,” on compact disc. This particular song by them kept playing in my head while I was on vacation with my family in Hawaii. While looking at the tall cliffs, I couldn’t help but think of this song, and I still can’t get sick of listening to it. Here’s Led Zeppelin with “Black Dog,” because this station has played “Kashmir” way too often.

  1. “State Trooper” by Bruce Springsteen

If you had asked me what my favorite Bruce Springsteen album was years ago, I would have said “Born in the U.S.A.” These days, I would pick “Nebraska” which seems simplistic in its production to his other albums, but is still a very powerful listen as its lyrics are intensely personal. As much as I wanted to select “Atlantic City,” I had to pick this song as it has haunted me ever since I first listened to it while on vacation with my parents in Maine. Here is “State Trooper.”

  1. “Shadows of the Night” by Pat Benatar

Up next is something by Pat Benatar, one of the great rock and roll singers from the 1980’s. She had great hits like “Invincible,” “Hit Me with Your Best Shot,” “Love is a Battlefield” and “Promises in the Dark,” all of which showed she was not someone to mess with. I am selecting this song by her because I love the melody of the chorus and how it soars over the lyrics with grace. Here is “Shadows of the Night.”

  1. “Undercover of the Night” by The Rolling Stones

My parents introduced me to the music of The Rolling Stones when they kept playing their album “Tattoo You” on a regular basis. This one included their classic hit “Start Me Up,” but this song from their 1983 album “Undercover” remains a favorite of mine from childhood. Here is “Undercover of the Night.”

  1. “King Tut” by Steve Martin

Choosing my last song was a tough one as I would love to include one from The Beatles or the late Tom Petty, but again, I wanted to go back to my time in kindergarten as this was a song me and my fellow classmates boogied out to without ever understanding the lyrics. Years later, I came to see it as comedy classic from one of the most brilliant of comedic minds. Here is Steve Martin with “King Tut.”

I again want to thank 100.3 The Sound for all the great music they have played for the last ten years. They have given me a deeper appreciation for bands like Deep Purple, and they made me realize there is more to Lynyrd Skynyrd than just “Sweet Home Alabama” (I foolishly thought this band was a one-hit wonder for years). Happy trails.

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Chris Marquette Talks About Working with Vincent D’Onofrio in ‘Broken Horses’

Broken Horses Chris Marquette

Broken Horses” stars Anton Yelchin and Chris Marquette as brothers who are as close as siblings can be, and it’s very poetic how this movie arrived in theaters on National Siblings Day. Yelchin plays Jacob Heckum, a very talented violinist who reunites with his brother Buddy (Chris Marquette) in their hometown after being separated for a number of years. Their paths have gone in different directions, and Buddy has long since fallen under the spell of Julius Hench (Vincent D’Onofrio), a gangster who has since gained complete control over Buddy to where he has denied him any chance of a scholastic education. But while Julius may have succeeded in turning Buddy into one of his most efficient mercenaries, Buddy is now looking for a way out of this mess he innocently fell into.

I got to talk with Marquette during at the Sofitel Hotel in Beverly Hills, California where he was doing promotion for “Broken Horses.” Marquette began his career as a model at the age of 4, and he later made his acting debut as the son of Mira Sorvino’s character in “Sweet Nothing.” I was very interested in hearing from him what it was like working with D’Onofrio who is one of cinema’s most accomplished actors. D’Onofrio left a memorable impression on us all in Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket,” and he has given us unforgettable performances in “Mystic Pizza,” “Adventures in Babysitting” and “Strange Days.” In addition, many will never forget his work as Detective Robert Goren on “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” or on the “Subway” episode of “Homicide: Life on the Street.”

Broken Horses movie poster

Marquette described what it was like acting opposite D’Onofrio, and his answer provided information about him which many of us didn’t know before.

Chris Marquette: He’s got a foot and a half on both of us which really helps. But D’Onofrio is a charmer and a great storyteller, and he’s really charismatic and that always carries weight and power. He’s got a million stories about the filmmakers and the sets he’s been on, so it was easy for me to start sliding into being whisked away by Vincent and Hench, his character. We were messing around one day and Vincent was just telling me stuff. I was asking him about his life and before he got into acting, and he was an amateur magician. With magicians you’ve got a way of doing tricks, and if you modify it slightly then you’ve technically invented a new technique. And so he invented some new technique on something really simple, and he’s telling me this and he starts doing the magic and it was… He’s telling me this whole story and I was so enthralled by it, and he was showing me this magic trick and I remember the next day Vinod and Abhijat (Joshi, the movie’s co-writer) called me and they said we think we’re writing in this… There’s a part where we are playing pool in the movie and he said, ‘You guys aren’t playing pool, I think he’s going to be showing you a magic trick.’ He was entertaining me like he would a kid, showing me this thing and I was like, ‘It’s amazing! Do it again!’

Not many actors get the opportunity of working with an actor like D’Onofrio, and Marquette is one of the lucky few who did. His thoughts on the “Full Metal Jacket” actor were truly fascinating, and I thank him for his time.

“Broken Horses” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

‘Paranormal Activity 4’ Sees the Franchise Running Out of Clever Ideas

Paranormal Activity 4 movie poster

With “Paranormal Activity 4,” the law of diminishing returns has finally caught up with this found footage franchise. Granted, all the films have revolved around the same old story of people taping themselves and their homes while they sleep so they can see what goes bump in the night, but this same old story has now become all too familiar for me. This sequel does have its moments, appealing characters and some clever twists, but the scares are a hell of a lot easier to spot this time around.

Whereas “Paranormal Activity 2 & 3” revolved around the events of the original film or came before them, “Paranormal Activity 4” marks the franchise’s first real sequel. Moving us forward to the year 2011, 5 years after the events in Parts 1 and 2, the story takes place in a small neighborhood in Nevada where the very pretty Alex (Kathryn Newton) lives with her parents, who are having marital difficulties, and her younger brother Wyatt (Aiden Lovekamp). Alex appears to be pretty happy for a teenager, and she has a cool boyfriend in Ben (Matt Shively) with whom she confides in every night via webcam.

But, of course, things are destined to get weird as they always do in a “Paranormal Activity” movie, and the weirdness begins with the appearance of a young boy named Robbie (Brady Allen) who appears one night in Alex’s tree house. Robbie is the son of their neighbor who lives across the street, and his mother has just been hospitalized for some unknown reason. As a result, he is sent to stay over with Alex’s family until she recuperates. After that, it doesn’t take long for those ominous sounds and loud thumping noises to start haunting this suburban household.

With each “Paranormal Activity” movie, the filmmakers have managed to use different forms of technology to tell the story like video cameras and surveillance equipment. In this fourth movie, they use several: laptop computer cameras, Kinect, a MacBook, smart phones and a Canon XA10. The Kinect proves to be especially interesting as it uses some kind of scanning system which puts out these green lights to map the game player’s physical environment. Those same green lights end up capturing sights not easily visible to the human eye. There’s also the automated voice which keeps saying “FRONT DOOR OPEN.” When you hear that, you know things are going to get bad.

I really liked the way the younger characters were drawn out here. Kathryn Newton is especially appealing as her character of Alex shows a maturity her mother and father seriously lack. I also enjoyed Matt Shively’s performance as Ben, and not just because he shares the same first name as me. The boyfriends in these “Paranormal Activity” movies threaten to be seriously annoying at times, but Ben has just the right amount of cool to keep him interesting. Furthermore, Alex and Ben are wearing Beastie Boys and Metallica t-shirts, so you have to applaud their taste in music!

As for Alex’s parents, I spent most of this movie wanting to smack them in their faces. They are made out to be like some generic bickering couple, and they keep making foolish assumptions and decisions to where you just want to yell at them. When that chandelier comes crashing down in front of Alex (and I know I’m not spoiling anything because we’ve all seen this in the trailers), you’d think they would be a little more suspicious about this strange kid they let stay in their house. It’s like some demonic force has to come out of the ground and throw fireballs at this couple before they finally get the picture. This is nothing against Alexondra Lee and the late Stephen Dunham (who passed away from a heart attack in September 2012) as they do their best with the material they’re given, but the “Paranormal Activity” movies have succeeded in giving us characters who feel real, and these two feel like cardboard cutouts from other horror flicks.

Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, who directed “Paranormal Activity 3,” return to helm this fourth entry. You can feel them struggling to keep the material fresh here, but the series is now becoming more formulaic than ever before, and things become frustratingly predictable as a result. They also rely on cheap scares too much this time around. This was a problem in the previous film as well, but here they just go overboard to a very annoying extent.

“Paranormal Activity 4” does get better as it goes along as things become more eerie, leading to a climax which feels predestined but still makes you jump out of your seat. There is a lot of mystery still left in this series as the whereabouts of Katie and Hunter remain hard to pin down, and this entry is not about to answer all the questions we have. As for the next “Paranormal Activity” movie, stay through the end credits and you will get a glimpse of what it may be.

But as of now, this franchise is running on fumes. The fact these “Paranormal Activity” movies have lasted this long is a testament to our collective fears of those weird sounds we hear late at night when all our electronic distractions have been turned off. However, “Paranormal Activity 4” proves to be a lot less viscerally frightening than its predecessors as we’ve become all too familiar with how these movies work. For the next one, Blumhouse Productions and Paramount Pictures really need to shake things up, and I don’t mean in the way they handle the “demand to see it first” crap. I can’t believe people are still buying that malarkey.

* * ½ out of * * * *

‘Paranormal Activity 3’ Avoids the Curse of the Prequel

Paranormal Activity 3 movie poster

In a lot of ways, “Paranormal Activity 3” shouldn’t work. It’s the third movie in an astonishingly popular series which eventually replaced “Saw” as the official franchise for the month of October each year. The third in a trilogy is also when the series starts running out of creative juices and becomes bound by an increasingly worn out formula. Maybe it’s time to move on to the next big thing in horror, right? Not quite.

Despite the inescapable feeling of déjà vu, “Paranormal Activity 3” still has the power to scare and unnerve viewers, and I knew exactly what I was doing when I watched it at night. This one comes from the makers of “Catfish,” and they follow the familiar found footage setup to where nothing may be new, but they still generate a number of jump-out-of-your-seat moments which will freak out even the most jaded of moviegoers.

Whereas “Paranormal Activity 2” was a prequel and a sequel, this third movie is a flat-out prequel which takes place 18 years before the events of the original. Sisters Katie and Kristi, played by Katie Featherston and Sprague Grayden in the previous films, are seen here as children who live with their mother Julie (Lauren Bittner) and stepdad Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith). Things get weird, however, when Kristi gets an invisible friend named Toby, and strange occurrences develop in their home with increasing volatility.

Since this prequel takes place in 1988, the filmmakers get to work technology now seen as prehistoric as this was a time of video cameras and VHS tapes. Part of it serves as a needless reminder of how Betamax got its ass kicked years ago. While the technology is limited compared to what the characters had at their disposal in the previous films, this forces everyone here to get creative with what they have.

Once again, the man of the house (and it’s always the man) sets up a barrage of video cameras in various rooms to figure out what craziness is going on in order to put a stop to it. The only disadvantage is VHS tapes only allow for 6 hours of recording at the most. But somehow the spirits do make their appearance before the tape runs out which is rather convenient for everyone involved.

The one new thing in “Paranormal Activity 3” is how Dennis comes up with the idea of attaching one video camera to the base of a fan. As the camera veers from side to side, we have another reason to be tense about what we’re watching. Will there be something on the other side about to jump out at us? This quickly becomes a clever device which distinguishes this film from its predecessors.

“Paranormal Activity 3” does, however, get off to a shaky start. There were a bunch of cheap scares which, whether they worked or not, had me worrying this prequel would be overrun with them. While they provided the audience with a several good jolts, it made me wonder if the series was beginning to descend into self-parody. Once this happens, the series might as well end. Fortunately, things straighten out as the happenings inside the house become increasingly unrelenting in their viciousness.

There are many moments which had my hair standing on end. We see furniture moving around by itself, a character running into something not visible, and someone’s hair getting grabbed. “Paranormal Activity 3” may seem like business as usual, but this business is still producing terrifying moments just as things are beginning to look old. Like the previous entries, I’m not entirely sure how the filmmakers pulled off certain special effects (the one at the very end is very painful to witness), and I don’t want to know for fear of breaking the illusion.

I recently watched “The Thing” which was a prequel to John Carpenter’s 1982 film. It reminded me of the problems with prequels in general as you know from the start who is going to live and die, and the suspense gets diluted as a result. The advantage “Paranormal Activity 3” has is, while we know the little girls will survive and live on in future installments, we aren’t sure what the fate of the adults will be. Katie and Kristi only reveal so much about what happened to them as children in the second film, so we are left to guess if any adults hanging around these kids will ever live to see tomorrow. Had the girls revealed the exact chronology of events, this prequel would have been screwed from the get go.

Many critics have voiced that they have had their fill of the “Paranormal Activity” films it, but the formula behind them still works very well and has me pinned to my seat. That invisible spirit can still scare the crap out of me, and it made me look forward to “Paranormal Activity 4.” Granted, Paramount Pictures and Oren Peli can only keep this franchise going for so long, but they have made it this far without losing any of the power which made the original so damn scary. Here’s hoping the filmmakers don’t trip over themselves in the future. We all know what happened to “Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows.”

By the way, you’ll never look at a Bloody Mary (the drink I mean) the same way after this prequel is over. Watch the movie and you’ll see what I mean.

* * * out of * * * *

‘Paranormal Activity 2’ Proves to be as Effective as the Original

Paranormal Activity 2 movie poster

We had every reason to expect the sequel to the surprise hit “Paranormal Activity” would be horrid. Movies like this come out of nowhere and make more money than anyone could have ever expected, so a sequel has to follow, right? God forbid the money train stops at just one movie! Even in the new millennium, greed is still king. Most people were expecting this to be as terrible as “The Blair Witch Project 2: Book of Shadows” which itself was a giant insult to its predecessor, hence giving more fuel to the “Blair Witch” haters who somehow felt tricked out of their money. Besides, how can you expect a story like this to remain fresh, let alone terrifying? We weren’t expecting what got hurled at us last time, literally and figuratively speaking, but now we feel more prepared than ever to scan every scene of this sequel in an effort to predict when the scares come.

Well, it is to my astonishment to say “Paranormal Activity 2” is no “Blair Witch 2.” Heck, it’s not even an “Open Water 2” or a “Jaws 2” or even an “Exorcist 2” for that matter. This sequel turns out to be as scary and unnerving as the original, and it respects Oren Peli’s film for what it was and does nothing to detract from it. In fact, this sequel adds additional layers to the original which enhances the experience of watching it all the more.

“Paranormal Activity 2” opens up in Carlsbad, California where we meet Dan and his second wife Kristin as they arrive home with their newborn son, Hunter. Once there, we also get to meet Ali, Dan’s daughter from another marriage, the family housekeeper and nanny Martine, and the loyal family dog Abby. A couple of days later after going out of town, they come back to find the house ransacked, but nothing has been stolen. As a result, Dan has security cameras installed to make his family feel safe, and maybe even catch whoever did this. After that, things get increasingly scary as the ominous hum which haunted Katie’s and Micah’s abode starts to show its presence in the family dwellings, and things begin to go bump in the night. Just like the original, the men never take the women or their fears seriously, and it makes the rest of us guys look like bad boyfriends and husbands.

Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat return from the first movie, but Katie is the one who is more prominently featured. It turns out Kristin is Katie’s sister, and they both shared a scary past as they were terrorized by an evil spirit. Both are hesitant to talk to explain what they went through as children because the thought of it coming back is too terrifying to consider.

The really clever thing about “Paranormal Activity 2” is it turns out to be a prequel as well as a sequel. It takes place several weeks before the events portrayed in the original, and the ending more or less coincides with what Katie and Micah went through. This, I thought, was an inspired decision because it gives more weight to not just this film, but the original as well. This is not just some dumb follow up with the same old story filled with unrelated characters making the same stupid mistakes. The fate of this family is very much interlocked with the fate of Katie and Micah, and their inevitable doom makes this sequel all the more haunting.

Whereas “Paranormal Activity” had just the one camera which Micah put in his and Katie’s bedroom for the most part, this second film has us looking through various security cameras which record the house from different angles, each revealing little things going on around the house. Then there are other scenes where characters are holding the camera and making us see everything as they search through the house late at night. The security cameras by themselves present images freaky enough to gives us goose pimples, but when we get the first-person perspective, things get even more intense than they already are.

You know what really gets to me about these movies? The silence around the house and the lack of a film score. For me, being alone in a room or a house without any noise gets my anxiety up and running as I suspect something bad is about to occur which I won’t be able to prevent from happening. Both “Paranormal Activity” movies understand this anxiety perfectly and play on it without ever relying on blood and gore. Plus, your home is where you and your family are supposed to feel the safest. What happens when the safety of your home is violated? Where can you feel safe after that?

The choice of director for “Paranormal Activity 2” is a surprise and not who I expected. Tod Williams is best known for directing “The Door in The Floor,” a criminally under seen drama with powerful performances by Jeff Bridges and Kim Basinger. How the producers thought of Williams for this film is beyond me, but he gives this sequel a strong suspenseful tone, and he keeps the tension at a high pitch throughout. Williams also gives us several excellent jump out of your seat moments which will make your hair stand on end, especially the one in the kitchen (trust me, you’ll know it when you see it).

The performances are nothing spectacular, but they are perfect for a film like this. I also have to give special props to Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat who still succeed in acting ever so naturally in front of the camera. After the first film, you’d think they would have a tougher time with this and be even more self-conscious than they were before. But they both act normal as if the first movie never happened which I found very impressive.

I’m not sure I can go on describing “Paranormal Activity 2” for fear of giving away too much. I was pleasantly surprised at how effective this sequel was because I expected it to be nothing more than a scam designed to produce a bigger profit than the original. The surprise of the first “Paranormal Activity” is gone, and there’s not much which is new brought to the material here. This sequel also has end credits which the original did not, although there is an elongated pause for those who want to escape the theater before they come up. But the premise is still very scary for those who were infinitely terrified by the first film. I left the theater with my nerves jangling, feeling very much like I did after I saw the original. A good deal of care was put into making this sequel work because everyone was prepared to tear it apart even before they saw it.

If you liked the first “Paranormal Activity,” I think you’ll like the sequel. For those of you who didn’t like it and can’t understand what the fuss was all about, don’t even bother.

I am also proud to say I didn’t make the same mistake of watching it before I went to bed like I did with the original. I saw it in the early afternoon when the sun was still out. It still freaked me out though. Getting to sleep that evening was not any easier.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Tron: Legacy’ Digs Deeper into the World of the Computer

Tron Legacy movie poster

“There is no better moment than this moment, when we’re anticipating the actual moment itself. All of the moments that lead up to the actual moment are truly the best moments. Those are the moments that are filled with good times. Those are the moments in which you are able to think that it is going to be perfect, when the moment actually happens. But, the moment is reality, and reality always kinda sucks!”

-Lewis Black

I include this quote up above because it more or less symbolizes what I feel about the promotion Disney did for the long-awaited sequel to “Tron.” The company overhyped it to an alarming degree, making several different movie trailers and spent a good three years promoting it. With this kind of marketing, many may go into “Tron: Legacy” thinking it will be one of the greatest movies ever made.

As for myself, I weary of the hype and try to go into most movies with little to no expectations whatsoever. In fact, I think it’s better to watch most films with the lowest expectations possible. With the hype which has greeted movies like this or the “Star Wars” prequels or even “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” it is way too easy to be incredibly disappointed by the finished product. Nothing ever does come out as well as it does in our imaginations.

Well, reality may suck, but “Tron: Legacy” did not. I walked in expecting a fun time, tickled to death Walt Disney Pictures even bothered to make a sequel to a movie which was not a huge box office success back in 1982. At the very least, this sequel, which has been in the making for over 25 years, is more of a continuation of what came before. What it may lack in a fully coherent storyline, it more than makes up for with amazing visual effects, a fantastic score by Daft Punk, and a pair of great performances from the always reliable, and no longer underappreciated, Jeff Bridges.

So, here’s the story behind “Tron: Legacy:” after saying goodnight to his son Sam, Kevin Flynn rides off to Encom to work on a new digital frontier which will revolutionize the world of technology. Instead, he disappears without a trace. Shift to more than 20 years later, and Sam has become a rebellious young kid with strong technology skills he gleefully uses to thwart the executives at Encom who intend to profit and exploit Flynn’s work, work which Flynn wanted to make available to everyone for free.

Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner) comes to Sam’s domicile one night to inform him he got a page from his dad the other night, and that it came from a line at Flynn’s Arcade which has been shut down for 20 years. Sam goes to the arcade to see what’s what, and we all know what happens from there as he gets sucked into “the grid” the same way his father was, and he is forced to fight for his life by hurling discs and racing light cycles in games which are deadlier than ever.

The premise behind “Tron: Legacy” is actually quite interesting. Kevin Flynn ends up developing a more advanced version of his Clu program who, of course, looks exactly like him. Together, they work to create the perfect system meant to bring about a new kind of life form, but somewhere along the line Clu grew resentful and comes to see a world of perfection far more different than his creator does. Soon afterwards, Clu turns against Flynn, making himself the ruler of all programs, and Flynn is trapped inside “the grid” with no way out.

Throughout, we watch as Clu coldly eliminates those programs which do not meet his high standards. It’s an interesting Frankenstein motif in how a creation runs amuck despite the master’s best intentions, and we all know what this leads to). It also reminded me of a line from “Star Trek: First Contact” which the Borg Queen says, “You’re an imperfect being created by an imperfect being. Finding your weakness is only a matter of time.”

The visual effects are unsurprisingly amazing, and they clearly reflect how far technology has come since the 1980’s. This time, they are much more fluid to where not everything is shown going in a straight line, and this gives the action scenes far more friction than they had in the original. The use of dark and neon-like colors doesn’t feel dated, and the costumes have been given a much-needed upgrade. There’s no more of those bulky suits which Sark’s guards and the MCP had, and the digital world presented here is a dark one and very un-Disney like.

By having “Tron: Legacy” focus on Flynn’s son, it seemed like Disney was desperately trying to court the youth demographics and would have been happy to cast the hottest teen or young adult heartthrob the role. Garrett Hedlund, however, turns out to be quite good and holds his own with Bridges. It’s not a great performance, but he does solid work here and keeps his character from becoming some annoyingly whiny brat whose daddy issues get the best of him. He does, however, have the disadvantage of saying the movie’s cheesiest lines like “this isn’t happening” and “this can’t be good.”

Another actor I enjoyed was Olivia Wilde who plays the warrior program, Quorra. She is a strong and engaging presence here, and her role as a Data-like figure eager to learn about the real world leads to some of the movie’s more intimate, as well as some of its funniest, moments. And yes, she does kick serious ass in the action scenes, easily derezzing those evil programs without even breaking a sweat.

But one actor I truly got a kick out of was Michael Sheen who plays Castor, the owner of the End of The Line Club. Stealing every scene he is in, Sheen holds nothing back as he gleefully hams it up as the life of the party, completely unbound by the soulless machinery at his disposal. We never really did see a program like this in the original “Tron,” did we?

And then there is Bridges who remains one of my all-time favorite movie actors. His performance here reminded of just how good he was in the original as he never let the special effects overwhelm his work as Flynn. Even though he was acting against a green screen more than he wasn’t, he makes himself feel like part of the reality to where it seems like nothing is impossible for the Oscar-winning actor. Oh, and if you listen close enough, there is a line designed to remind you of his famous role as The Dude. Trust me, you will know it once you hear it.

Yes, “Tron: Legacy” does have plot holes and some wooden dialogue, but so did the original. Thankfully, none of the dialogue is as cringe-inducing as the kind George Lucas gave us in the “Star Wars” prequels. Also, the story does get slowed down by exposition which could have been shortened. All the same, I’m glad the writers didn’t get lazy and bring back the Master Control Program (MCP) as if it was never defeated back.

Joseph Kosinski made his directorial debut with this sequel. In the past, he has received acclaim for the “Mad World” commercial for the video game Gears of War, and he has since gone on to direct “Oblivion” and “Only the Brave.” For my money, he does a much better job of blending actors with special effects in a way Lucas never could, and he does well in keeping “Tron: Legacy” from becoming overly-cheesy or infinitely monotonous.

The soundtrack by Daft Punk is infinitely awesome, and the duo is a perfect fit for this kind of material which serves as their first official film score. Like the brilliant score Wendy Carlos did for the first film, their music is a strong mix of orchestral and electronic elements which, and brings a strong sense of humanity and emotion to a wholly technological world.

Could “Tron: Legacy” have been a better film? Sure, but why can’t we just be happy Disney took the big risk of making this sequel? For what it is, I enjoyed it and admired the fact it was made by people who respected its predecessor. More than two decades is a massively long period of time to wait for any sequel, but “Tron: Legacy” was worth the wait for me, and I would certainly be open to seeing it again.

Still, I have to wonder, can human beings really exist in a digital world even though they are users instead of programs? Can a program actually be brought into the real world? Oh, who cares! I had fun!

End of line.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Oblivion’ is Familiar, and Yet Visually Unique

Oblivion movie poster

On one hand, I feel like I should be punishing “Oblivion” for its lack of originality as the story will easily remind viewers of other science fiction movies like “Total Recall” (the original, not the remake), “Moon,” “The Matrix” and “Logan’s Run.” On the other, I found Joseph Kosinski’s film to be a compelling piece of entertainment, and I liked how he took various elements from those sci-fi movies and put them together to create something which feels more original than I expected it to. The look of “Oblivion” is incredible, and the film benefits from a very strong cast, great visuals, and a truly awesome music score.

Like many science fiction movies, this one takes place in a distant future. The year is 2077, and sixty years earlier an alien invasion destroyed the Moon, which in turn decimated Earth and left it in shambles. Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) is one of the last human beings left, and he and his communications officer Victoria Olsen (Andrea Riseborough) spend their days helping to harvest what’s left of the planet’s natural resources and repairing drones which help protect it from further alien invasions. They are due to leave Earth in two weeks so they can rejoin the rest of humanity which has long since relocated to another planet. Of course, we all know what happens when people say they only have a few weeks before they leave Earth; they don’t.

Talking about “Oblivion” from here gets complicated because I don’t want to give away the story’s twists and turns and have it seem like a plot summary stolen from Wikipedia, but I’ll do my best. One day, a spaceship crashes on Earth which carries a number of capsules with astronauts sleeping inside them. One survivor is astronaut Julia Rusakova (Olga Kurylenko) who, once awoken from her deep sleep, she makes Jack see he has a past which has long since been denied to him.

This is all I’m going to say about the plot as telling you more would be spoiling the fun. Granted, I have seen many science fiction movies, so when the plots twists and turns came here, I wasn’t surprised. At the same, I was very much enthralled by what was going on. Even if I had a pretty good idea of what was coming next, I was still glued to my seat and eager to see what direction the film was going to head in next.

Much of the success with “Oblivion” comes from its distinct visuals which are very striking, and a lot of the credit for this goes not just to Kosinski but also his director of photography Claudio Miranda. I’ve lost count of how many post-apocalyptic movies which show Earth obliterated beyond all repair to where everything is dark, grey and gloomy. Many famous landmarks like the Empire State Building are shown to be either barely standing or covered up with a lot of dirt in “Oblivion,” but this is the first movie of its kind I can remember which takes place mostly in the daylight. While Earth isn’t in one piece in “Oblivion,” there is still a unique beauty to how it looks here. Those snowy mountains still look worth skiing on, and I found it rather comforting to see plants, grass and trees still growing even after an alien invasion, and this gives the movie an uplifting feel.

The other thing I really liked about “Oblivion” was the architecture of the buildings and the design of the spaceships. The Sky Tower which Jack and Victoria live in is beautiful, and I would love to live in it. This tower looks like the world’s most unique condominium, and I’ve never seen anything quite like it before. Also, it has the coolest swimming pool ever, and it makes me more excited about swimming pools than I have been in ages. Plus, I doubt I will see a cooler looking spaceship than the Bubbleship Cruise flies all over the place.

This is only Kosinski’s second movie as a director, but here he seems to have found his filmmaking voice this time around. His first film was “Tron: Legacy,” and like many eagerly awaited science fiction events, it was greeted with an obscene amount of hype and a lot of fan indifference. With “Oblivion,” however, he is not restricted to staying within certain boundaries dictated by a previous film or a long-running franchise, and he also has a stronger story (based on the graphic novel of the same name by him and Arvid Nelson) to work with as well.

Kosinski also benefits greatly from having M83 and Joseph Trapanese as his music composers here. Their score to “Oblivion” is much like what Daft Punk’s was to “Tron: Legacy:” a beautiful combination of electronic and orchestral music which sounds far more original than any other film score I have listened to recently, and it adds so much to the striking visuals of “Oblivion” as well as the emotion inherent in the story.

Much has been said about Cruise as a person these past few years, but I’m still happy to defend him as an actor. His work as Jack Harper is actually quite understated, and he never descends into the state of “grinning like an idiot every fifteen minutes” (as Dougray Scott described him in “Mission: Impossible II”) for too long. That grin does come along from time to time, but not in a way which ends up annoying half the audience. Along with his strong performance in “Jack Reacher,” his work in “Oblivion” proves he’s still a better actor than people tend to give him credit for.

Kurylenko, since her performance as a Bond woman in “Quantum of Solace,” has proven to be far more than a pretty face. This should have been made clear after we saw her in Terrence Malick’s “To the Wonder,” but there’s no mistaking her talent in “Oblivion” as she creates a complex portrait of someone who knows more than she lets on. I also very much enjoyed Riseborough’s performance as Victoria which was sweet and yet somewhat devious, and I look forward to seeing more of her work in the future.

Then there’s the great Melissa Leo who plays Sally, the mission control commander with a thick accent who oversees Jack and Victoria’s work from afar. Just like in “Flight,” she gives her character a sweet voice tinged with serious intentions which leaves the viewers on edge. As nice as she sounds, you can tell there’s some evil plot lurking behind her eyes. Some may see the role of Sally as a small one, but in Leo’s hands, no role can ever seem small when she plays it.

Oh yeah, Morgan Freeman shows up as well as Malcolm Beech. To say more about his character would further give away certain plot points, but I can confirm he gives the usual strong performance we always come to expect from him. Also, it was really cool to see him shooting a heavy-duty pair of fifty caliber machine guns as I’m not sure I have seen him do so before.

“Oblivion” may seem overly derivative, but then again, most movies released these days are far from original. What matters to me is that a filmmaker can take elements from the movies which inspired him/her and make them their own, and Kosinski has succeeded in doing so here. I very much enjoyed how “Oblivion” took me down the rabbit hole films often do, and I absolutely loved the visual look of it. It also benefits from a number of strong performances and a fantastic film score which sounds epic in a way other scores can only aspire to. When all is said and done, this film is quite a cinematic accomplishment.

If you can, see it in IMAX.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Tom McLoughlin Revisits ‘Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives’ at New Beverly Cinema

Tom Mcloughlin Jason Voorhees tombstone

On Friday June 5, 2009, Phil Blankenship presented a triple feature for horror fans at New Beverly Cinema with “Friday the 13th Parts IV, V, & VI.” The fourth film was called “The Final Chapter,” and seeing its title on the screen induced uncontrollable laughter in every member of the audience for obvious reasons. The fifth film, “A New Beginning” remains the most despised of the sequels as it tried to continue to the series without Jason, and it proved to be an embarrassing failure. “Jason Lives,” on the other hand, is one of the best in the series thanks in large part to the great sense of humor the filmmakers brought to it. All the sequels which came after this one turned out to be completely stupid and unintentionally hilarious with a few exceptions. In retrospect, these three movies marked the franchise’s peak as well as the start of its downward spiral.

As time went on, these three “Friday the 13th” sequels became known as the Tommy Jarvis trilogy. We first meet Tommy Jarvis in “The Final Chapter” where he is played by a very young Corey Feldman and spends his time playing on his computer or indulging in his hobby of making masks. Tommy ends up killing Jason with his machete, and then he can’t get himself to stop bashing him with it. In “A New Beginning,” we see an older Tommy, now played by John Shepherd, still dealing with the intense psychological damage his encounter with Jason thrust upon him. And then in “Jason Lives,” Tommy (this time played by Thom Matthews) is convinced Jason is not dead despite having been buried for years. But of course, he ends up accidentally resurrecting Jason and has to take him down yet again.

Blankenship gave the crowd a special treat by bringing out the writer/director of “Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives,” Tom McLoughlin, to talk with the audience about its making. McLoughlin started off by saying how glad he was to be at New Beverly Cinema as he got all of his film education here, that shooting this sequel remains the most fun he has had as a filmmaker, and he confessed he has not seen a print of it since 1986.

Friday the 13th Part VI Jason Lives poster

When first hired to direct “Jason Lives,” McLoughlin admitted the only “Friday the 13th” movie he had seen previously was the first one. As a result, the executives at Paramount Pictures forced him to watch the other four. With “Jason Lives,” McLoughlin was intent on ignoring the events of “A New Beginning” because he said it really pissed him off. The audience at the New Beverly was in complete agreement with this, and they applauded him loudly.

McLoughlin also said he had originally planned to introduce Jason’s father, Elias Voorhees, into this sequel in order to give the iconic slasher more of a back story. We all know about his crazy mother, but not much has ever been said about Jason’s poppa. But Paramount Pictures was not crazy about this plot element because they weren’t sure which direction it would take the franchise in, so they put the kibosh on it. However, the DVD reissue of “Jason Lives” does have the film’s original ending with Jason’s father in the form of storyboards, and it is a must see for fans.

One fan asked McLoughlin how he got Alice Cooper to contribute songs to “Jason Lives.” It turns out Cooper is a big fan of the “Friday the 13th” series and was more than happy to participate, even allowing McLoughlin to use any of his songs in the movie. Cooper gave “Jason Lives” its end title song of “The Man behind the Mask,” but McLoughlin said the original version was much faster.

Blankenship asked McLoughlin the inevitable question about how he dealt with the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and of what it took to get “Jason Lives” an R rating. Surprisingly, the MPAA didn’t want McLoughlin to cut scenes, but frames instead. McLoughlin said the frames didn’t have blood or gore in them, but the MPAA found them to be too intense. In the end, he made no secret he wanted this movie to be a “huge bloodbath.”

Thom Matthews was cast as Tommy Jarvis in “Jason Lives” as McLoughlin wanted someone who seemed more heroic. Plus, John Shepherd, who played Tommy in “A New Beginning,” didn’t want to return because, as McLoughlin put it, “he got all religious.” Shepherd had since become a born again Christian and his church didn’t feel like doing a slasher movie was in his best interest.

With this particular “Friday the 13th” sequel, McLoughlin admitted he tried to give it a strong sense of humor. This is apparent right from the start when you see how the opening title shot is a clever homage to the gun barrel sequences in the James Bond movies. Indeed, you come out of this sequel feeling like McLoughlin actually took the time to work on the script instead of just throwing something together at the last minute. Plus, the interplay with the kids, and this is one of few movies in this franchise which actually had kids in it, was great like when they hide under the beds and one boy asks another, “So, what were you going to be when you grew up?”

Ron Palillo, who plays Allen Hawes, is best known for playing Arnold Horshack on “Welcome Back, Kotter.” This got McLoughlin talking about how everyone in the city kept calling Palillo “Horshack” wherever he went. Looking back, he said this made him realize how hard it is for actors to get past a character they played which was so popular.

Another fan asked McLoughlin if he had any favorite on-set stories he could share. This got him to talk about a stunt man who came on the set dressed like Evel Knievel and said, “I’m here to crash something. So what do you want me to do?” The stunt he performed was an especially dangerous one as it required him to drive a big RV (is there any other kind?) over a ramp at 90 miles an hour. McLoughlin said this was the scariest time he ever had on a film set as he worried this guy would get killed. Fortunately, the stunt came out perfectly with the RV crashing on its side the way it was supposed to, and the stuntman pulled himself out of the wreckage and said, “Did I do alright?”

It turns out there were different endings thought up for “Jason Lives,” but McLoughlin made it clear he always intended for Jason to end up back in Crystal Lake. One of those endings did include Jason’s father bringing him back to life with voodoo magic. In the end, McLoughlin decided to keep it simple and used the image of Jason’s good eye suddenly opening up wide to show the audience that, surprise, he’s not done killing camp counselors yet.

As for the man behind the mask, two actors were hired to play Jason. The first was Dan Bradley who has since become known as the premier stunt coordinator for Hollywood movies like the Jason Bourne franchise. The powers that be at Paramount Pictures, however, after watching some dailies, decided he should be replaced because they felt he didn’t have the character’s build. Enter C.J. Graham who had just finished a stint as a United States Marine and had no previous acting experience. McLoughlin said Graham came onto the set answering all of his questions with “yes sir.” Today, Graham is a casino manager in Las Vegas.

In regards to his favorite death in “Jason Lives,” McLoughlin replied it was when Sheriff Michael Garris (David Kagen) gets folded in half. This came about because he wanted Jason to kill in ways he thought would seem “superhuman.” The fact Jason starts off being struck by lightning makes it seem all the more logical he would kill people this way. It certainly made for many memorably gruesome moments!

The last question for McLoughlin was if Paramount asked him to direct another installment, and why this didn’t happen. He said he was actually approached by Frank Mancuso to do the next sequel, and Mancuso asked him, “How about Jason vs. Freddy?” To this, McLoughlin replied, “How about Cheech & Chong vs. Jason?”

Later on, McLoughlin did get the offer to direct “Freddy vs. Jason,” but he said he didn’t like the script given to him. New Line Cinema, which ended up buying the rights to “Friday the 13th” from Paramount, invited him for a meeting to talk about it. However, the meeting lasted only ten minutes after which he walked out, and he has not been involved with the movie franchise since.

Since making “Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives,” McLoughlin has gone on to make movies like “Date with An Angel” which featured Emmanuelle Béart at her most beautiful, and he also directed episodes of the “Friday the 13th” television series. His other credits include the Stephen King TV movie “Sometimes They Come Back.” Outside of his contribution to the “Friday the 13th” franchise, he has made a good and comfortable career as a director. Having him speak to the fans at New Beverly Cinema was a real treat, and he really enjoyed the time he spent with them. Special thanks go out to Phil Blankenship for putting this screening together. This particular sequel still remains one of the best of this series, and McLoughlin’s appearance made sitting through “Friday the 13th Part V: A New Beginning” somewhat bearable.

Exclusive Interview with Simon Curtis about ‘Goodbye Christopher Robin’

Goodbye Christopher Robin Simon Curtis

Filmmaker Simon Curtis gave us one of the best adaptations of the Charles Dickens’ novel “David Copperfield” back in 1999, he brought Marilyn Monroe back to life along with the help of Michelle Williams with “My Week with Marilyn,” and he directed Helen Mirren to one of her many great performances in “Woman in Gold.” Now he gives us his latest directorial effort, “Goodbye Christopher Robin,” which looks at the creation of Winnie-the-Pooh and the other characters who inhabit the 100 Acre Wood. But while it looks to be a simple biopic focusing on the creation of classic literature, it also proves to be an examination of the scars war leaves behind, the importance of having a regular childhood, and of the damages fame can cause before others can realize it.

I got to speak with Curtis while he was in Los Angeles recently, so please feel free to check out the interview below.

Goodbye Christopher Robin poster

Ben Kenber: From a distance, this movie looked like it would be a simple story of how A.A. Milne came up with Winnie-the-Pooh, but what I really liked though was how the story developed from the effects of fame to a childhood being stolen. Was this inherent in the screenplay (written by Frank Cottrell-Boyce and Simon Vaughan) when you first read it?

Simon Curtis: That’s a good comment. Yes is the answer. I loved the script from the get-go because you think it’s going to be exactly that, but it is about so many other things: family and creation and the impact of war. And yes, Christopher Robin was almost like the prototype child celebrity. And to be fair to the Milne family, it was such an unknown territory. They couldn’t have predicted that the stories would become so popular and the attention it would bring to the boy.

Ben Kenber: There’s no way they could have been prepared for it, and this is what makes A.A. Milne and his wife, Daphne, so incredibly complex. On one hand, you want to get mad at them for robbing Christopher of his childhood, but at the same time, they both come to realize the damage being done. But by the time they stop it, it is too late.

Simon Curtis: Yes, that’s right.

Ben Kenber: I found it very fascinating, and I liked how the movie deals with the PTSD flashbacks. If you’re in a theater with really good sound, you feel the impact of each bang and balloon pop.

Simon Curtis: Yeah, you do. I was trying to make the point that war doesn’t only impact on the men and the women who fight in the war, but their families and their descendants as well. So, the boy is a victim of World War I even though he wasn’t born until it ended.

Ben Kenber: When it comes to introducing the stuffed animals, I loved how Margot Robbie and Domhnall Gleeson introduced them. She had the voices, and he came up with Eeyore’s name. Was there anything about the stuffed animals which you wanted to include in the movie but were unable to?

Simon Curtis: I don’t think so. I love how it’s this almost accidental thing that they buy bear at Harrods or wherever it was, and suddenly it becomes this iconic thing. One of my favorite moments, in terms of when she first gives him the tiger and she says “happy” and then she hands it to him. Then the father says, “Well what should we call it?” “Tigger.” “Why?” “Because it’s more tiggerish” (laughs). It’s just lovely writing.

Ben Kenber: It is. The names all come by accident. It is not some pre-destined thing.

Simon Curtis: Absolutely. They were just little puppets, and that’s the great thing about art. There’s a surprising element to it.

Ben Kenber: A.A. Milne is very eager to say something about war and reality. The interesting thing is, in terms of the way the Pooh stories were written, he found a way of dealing with reality of writing readers with an escape from it.

Simon Curtis: Yes, good.

Ben Kenber: The young actor who plays Christopher Robin Milne, Alex Lawther, was excellent, and he is a very tough role to play here as you see him revel in seeing this stuff animals come to life, and yet he is thrust into a spotlight you couldn’t be less prepared to deal with. Was it hard casting this role?

Simon Curtis: It was lengthy. But I cast a nine-year-old boy would never acted before, do you know that was? Daniel Radcliffe (Curtis cast him in “David Copperfield”), and he had never acted before, so that gave me some confidence. But this boy Alex was a joy and a gift. He was fantastic.

Ben Kenber: Domhnall Gleeson brings a lot of depth to this role.

Simon Curtis: He does.

Ben Kenber: He has scenes where he says one thing, but his eyes have to say something else. How do direct an actor in scenes like those?

Simon Curtis: I don’t know is the answer. You just try to make every scene as good as possible and help the actor to do their best work, and Domhnall is one of those actors who thinks a great deal about it in advance. It brings a lot to the dad, and he was a real partner. The film improved because of his work in the scenes and elsewhere.

Ben Kenber: Margot Robbie has a very tricky part to play here because in some cases the audience may find her to be not for a likable, but she does come across as a very loving mother. It’s a British thing that they hold back. Some of my friends said Daphne is not very likable.

Simon Curtis: But that’s missing the point because that’s the way people were. Not everyone has to be likable in the world, and that’s the way people were mothers in those days. They had the baby, handed it over to a nanny, and waited for the wedding.

Ben Kenber: I always tell people it is not a question of whether a character is likable or not in a movie. It’s whether or not they are interesting.

Simon Curtis: Exactly.

Ben Kenber: Robbie’s performance is really good because she delves into the unlikable parts of her character, but you never doubt the love Daphne has for her son.

Simon Curtis: Yes, and she doesn’t shy away from it. She has such natural warmth herself as a woman, and that kind of balances it out on another level.

Ben Kenber: For many years, there has been a long battle between the Milne family and Walt Disney over the rights to the Winnie-the-Pooh stories. Was this something you considered including in this film?

Simon Curtis: No because that’s in the future, that story.

Ben Kenber: The movie’s ending could have been too sentimental with two characters hugging, but they don’t hug and I like that they didn’t because it would’ve seemed too manipulative.

Simon Curtis: Yeah, that’s England. Someone said astutely I thought how in England we are the world storytellers from Shakespeare to JK Rowling, but we can’t say I love you to our kids (laughs).

Ben Kenber: I loved the scene where A.A. Milne tells Christopher you will not write another word about Winnie-the-Pooh. The way the same was played was brilliant because it’s straight to the point.

Simon Curtis: I agree. That was Domhnall’s idea for him to be seated and looking up at Christopher who is standing. It was a really good idea. As a director I look like a genius, but it was totally the actor’s idea.

Ben Kenber: Do you give a lot of freedom to your actors?

Simon Curtis: Yeah. Plus, to be perfectly honest, there are so many little things, you can’t have them all solved in your head.

Ben Kenber: The stuffed animals we see in this movie are replicas of the original ones which are now part of a museum exhibit in New York. Did you have any issues with Disney over the rights to show these stuffed animals here?

Simon Curtis: I don’t think so in this case because they all predate Disney. They are not Disney. Winnie-the-Pooh doesn’t have his little red vest. We just wanted him to be this Victorian toy.

Ben Kenber: Were there any dramatic liberties you took with the factual material?

Simon Curtis: Well I think the fame comes much more quickly than a probably would’ve done, so it was that sort of thing.

Ben Kenber: The movie takes a real left turn when the books become incredibly popular, and the sun becomes an unwitting celebrity to where A.A. Milne begins to question the effect fame is having on Christopher.

Simon Curtis: I love that scene where he thinks he is speaking to his dad on the phone, and it is revealed to be a radio interview.

Ben Kenber: It is such a painful moment because you see in the dad’s eyes that he really shouldn’t be doing this.

Simon Curtis: That’s exactly right.

Ben Kenber: Kelly Macdonald’s character of the nanny, Olive, is wonderful as she serves as the Mary Poppins of this story.

Simon Curtis: She is certainly the emotional heart of it.

Ben Kenber: How did you come to cast Macdonald in this part?

Simon Curtis: Well she did a play with my wife about 10 years ago so I’ve always loved her work, and she just struck me as the perfect person at the perfect time.

Ben Kenber: I like how you portrayed England as still recovering from World War I.

Simon Curtis: Very much so, and I think it chimes in now because it feels like were living in wounded times now.

Ben Kenber: Was that something you planned?

Simon Curtis: It just happened in a way.

Ben Kenber: There are a number of things about A.A. Milne I didn’t know before watching this movie such as the fact he was a soldier and a playwright.

Simon Curtis: Yeah, I didn’t know he was a successful playwright.

Ben Kenber: At the beginning of the movie, A.A. Milne does not look the least bit prepared to be a parent. It’s almost like the movie “Kramer vs. Kramer.”

Simon Curtis: Yes, it is. We talked about that actually. There’s the first breakfast and then there’s the expert breakfast in “Kramer vs. Kramer.”

Ben Kenber: The arc of this movie goes from father and son being strangers to them coming together and then later becoming estranged from one another.

Simon Curtis: The thing that bonded them became the thing that tore them apart.

Ben Kenber: The segment where Chris for a sent off to school was handled very quickly. Was this a segment you ever wanted to expand on?

Simon Curtis: Not really because the last thing you want at that point in the film is to be slow.

Ben Kenber: “Goodbye Christopher Robin” has a running time of 107 minutes. I usually expect biopics like this one to go one for over two hours as filmmakers seem desperate to get every little about their subject’s life onto the silver screen. Did you ever feel this pressure when making this movie?

Simon Curtis: I don’t know really how to answer that. I was just doing the script.

Ben Kenber: This movie is dedicated to Steve Christian. Can you tell me more about him?

Simon Curtis: He was one of the producers who supported this script through years of development and who unfortunately passed away after he saw the first cut.

Ben Kenber: Well, it’s nice to know he did see a cut of the film.

Simon Curtis: Yes, it is nice.

Ben Kenber: The way I see this movie, I feel it is about the long journey to happiness. When father and son come together again, they realize to get to a point of happiness, they have to experience a lot of sadness and pain in order to better appreciate joy.

Simon Curtis: To me, the theme is pay attention to your loved ones while they are around because they won’t be around forever. And also, we punish ourselves over getting this or getting that done, and actually just being with your loved ones is the greatest gift of all. Somehow, that’s embedded in the film. I’m so glad when my kids were young because it was before these (cell)phones because I would’ve been totally on them the whole time.

Ben Kenber: In the movie’s postscript, it is revealed A.A. Milne did get to write his anti-war piece. Was this something you wanted to include in the movie as well?

Simon Curtis: Yeah. He didn’t intend to be known only as the writer of Winnie-the-Pooh. There’s a quote (by A.A. Milne) in the “Goodbye Christopher Robin” book introduction by Frank Cottrell-Boyce. Just read that.

Ben Kenber: “…little thinking

                     All my years of pen-and-inking

                    Would be almost lost among

                    Those four trifles for the young.”

Simon Curtis: Yeah. In fact, it’s not almost, it’s now completely. So that’s good, isn’t it?

I want to thank Simon Curtis for taking the time to talk with me. “Goodbye Christopher Robin” will arrive in movie theaters on October 13, 2017. Click here to check out my review of the film.

‘Only the Brave’ Celebrates the Lives of Those who Risk Everything to Keep Others Safe

Only the Brave movie poster

While watching “Only the Brave,” I kept thinking of what Mike Kellerman said in an episode of “Homicide: Life on the Street:” “Fire is a living thing. It eats, it breathes air, it can be killed. Something about that power draws people in.” This dialogue played in my head while Josh Brolin stares at a wildfire off in the distance, wondering which direction it will spread in. From this, we can tell he doesn’t just see fire as simply something to be put out, but as a force to be fought with on its own term. The term fight fire with fire takes on a special meaning here, and it is shown to be more than just the title of a Metallica song.

“Only the Brave” is, yes, based on a true story. In this case, it is about an elite crew of firefighters who came to be known as the Granite Mountain Hotshots and who risked their lives on a regular basis to stop wildfires in their tracks. In June 2013, 19 of their members died while fighting the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona, and it remains one of the deadliest incidents involving United States firefighters outside of the September 11th attacks. I figured the movie would be all about this fire and of who survived it and who didn’t. However, it is really about these group of men who come together to form a brotherhood of sorts as they come to depend on one another as their work is always very dangerous. In the process, we also see the bonds they have with their families and loved ones, and of the constant balance they have to work at between work and family life.

Brolin plays Eric Marsh, the leader of the Granite Mountain Hotshots who is eager to build a team of firefighters which will not simply serve as background performers while other elite firefighters push them to the side. You would think firefighters from different places would be quick to band together in the face of mother nature’s havoc, but each individual firefighting group is shown to be a competitive bunch as they want to claim the glory of being a hero before anyone else. After dealing with conflicts and money problems inherent in the realm of politics, Eric gets the funding he needs to begin training men who are infinitely eager to fight fire with fire.

Now a movie like this typically employs a number of stereotypical characters like the ladies’ man, the fearless leader, the trusted second-in-command the one who looks as if he is in the wrong place, and “Only the Brave” does traffic a bit in this area to where I thought this might become “Top Gun” but with firefighters instead of pilots. But thanks to an excellent cast which includes Miles Teller, James Badge Dale, Taylor Kitsch, Scott Haze, Alex Russell and Ben Hardy, we get to be intimately involved in the exploits of these firefighters to where we have to admire their selflessness in what they do.

An actor worth noting in particular is Teller who has given excellent performances in “Whiplash” and “The Spectacular Now.” Teller plays Brendan McDonough who, at the movie’s start, is a hopeless drug addict. From the character’s first appearance, I figured Brendan would be the one to start the Yarnell Hill Fire as he carelessly is shown smoking crystal meth to where he is barely conscious, and I kept waiting for him to drop a match in a field without even realizing it. Brendan comes to discover his ex-girlfriend is pregnant, and he reacts to this news flippantly as it only increases his capacity for self-destruction. But upon seeing his baby for the first time, he suddenly begins to turn his life around and looks to get employed on Eric’s firefighting team.

Teller’s performance is superb as he doesn’t make Brendan into the typical cinematic addict, but instead a person who goes from being lost in life to one who finds a purpose as he seeks to give his child the life his father never gave him. The interview scene he has with Brolin is superb as Teller never overdoes it as Brendan knows full well he can’t fool Eric since he sees right through his addiction. I kept waiting for Brendan to relapse as this is usually the case for addicts in a movie, but Teller makes his character’s hard-fought battle towards sobriety noble and believable. This is also the second movie he’s been in these past few years where he plays a man determined not to take painkillers even though they certainly would help (the other is “Bleed for This”).

Brolin is an ace at playing blue collar workers, and he never has to do much to convince us how believable he can be in portraying a firefighter. Through his expressions and actions, we quickly see this is someone who can tame the nastiest fires he and his team come into contact with. The “No Country for Old Men” actor shares a lot of great scenes with his male-costars, but his best moments come between him and the always terrific Jennifer Connelly who plays Eric’s wife, Amanda. Their relationship is a strong one, but it takes on an increasing strain when Amanda wants kids, something Eric is not quick to agree on. From this description, it sounds like the average marital conflict we see in every other movie, but Brolin and Connelly bring a lot of raw emotion to their roles to where they inhabit their characters more than anything else. This could have felt clunky, but the actors keep this from happening, and this is especially the case when Amanda reminds Eric what she goes through every day when he walks out the door to go to work.

“Only the Brave” was directed by Joseph Kosinski whose previous films were “Tron: Legacy” and “Oblivion.” This one takes place in the real world instead of in the realm of science fiction, and yet he still brings a strong visual flair to each scene as we watch the fires lay waste to the land with an unforgiving power, and we fear for the deer running through the fields even as a wildfire gets closer and closer. At the same time, he also puts much of his attention on these men as this movie is about the job they did, not the fire which killed many of them. Kosinski makes us share in the friendships they build with one another and of the joyous moments they spend with their families to where we feel we are a part of their lives. Nobody involved with this motion picture should need to convince anyone of the emotional investment they put into this material, and this makes its tragic climax all the more devastating to witness.

Even though I knew how things would end for this group of firefighters, it didn’t make it any easier to sit through. These men had the best training and were constantly being drilled on how to protect themselves in the event of being trapped in a fire, but like other natural disaster, a fire is indiscriminate in who and what it attacks as it seeks to breathe for as long as it can. What everyone is left with are a tremendous amount of grief and survivor’s guilt, both of which deserve a movie of their own to explore.

I walked out of “Only the Brave” in tears as the filmmakers paid special tribute to the men of the Granite Mountain Hotspots, those who lived and those who died. Even the best of preparations could not spare them from the destructive flames they perished in, but it still never took away from the bravery the showed us, and this movie gives them a well-deserved memorial to their selfless efforts. While we mourn the loss of life, we celebrate the lives these men led as they deserve much more than being just a footnote in history.

“Only the Brave” marks a big leap forward for Kosinski as he shows there is more to him than directing big science-fiction films with awesome music scores. It is also worth noting how the movie’s credits are shown at the beginning as opposed to at the end like in “Tron: Legacy” and “Oblivion.” Not only that, but the credits are presented in a surprisingly subtle fashion as Kosinski must have realized his talents could not and should not upstage the firefighters of the Granite Mountain Hotshots.

As I write this review, wildfires have been doing tremendous damage in Northern California near where my brother lives with his family. Seeing this film makes me think about what his family and others are enduring right now as the damage left in the fires’ wake is just awful. I also find myself thinking of those firefighters up north and wonder if they are getting the respect, not to mention the funding, they deserve. Whereas “Backdraft” felt more like a Hollywood take on the lives of firefighters, “Only the Brave” feels like the real deal, and it makes me want to go up to those who are working tirelessly to keep wildfires from spreading and shake their hands. This movie is proof of how much they deserve our respect.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

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