Thursday, January 4, 2018

9 Great Winter Films to Watch on a Cold Day

Matt here!

If you're living/visiting along the northeast coast, you're most likely snowed in! And when there's nowhere to go and you're stuck inside, why not curl up and watch a good film? Here are nine films to watch about the cold while you stay nice and toasty inside!

Wind River
Directed by Taylor Sheridan
Starring Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Graham Greene, Gil Birmingham, Kelsey Asbille, Julia Jones, and Jon Bernthal

One of THE BEST investigation procedural mystery thrillers I've seen in a very long time! The story is reminiscent of a great American novel, but it is all written by filmmaker Taylor Sheridan. The plot involves U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), who finds the dead body of a young woman he knows in the frozen wild lands of Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. The investigation is soon turned over to rookie FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), and the two team up to try and find out what events lead to the woman's death. The story has a wonderful cast of complex characters, with tense, nailbiting moments, as you're left guessing who's the culprit. By the movie's end, there is justice but it doesn't feel like it's enough -- which makes it all extremely realistic. Overall, the story is a captivating thriller with solid performances and I would easily recommend it to anyone searching for a truly good film.

Beautiful Girls
Directed by Ted Demme
Starring Timothy HuttonMatt DillonMichael RapaportUma ThurmanNatalie PortmanNoah EmmerichLauren Holly, Mira Sorvino, Martha Plimpton, and Rosie O'Donnell

One of my favorite comedies from the 1990s is this indie gem which focuses on small-town life, returning home and bittersweet lessons of growing up. Timothy Hutton stars as struggling New York pianist Willie Conway, who returns home to Knights Ridge, Massachusetts, for his high school reunion, and looks for answers on whether to marry his girlfriend as well as whether he should quit being a pianist and get a "safe" job. He reconnects with old buddies who are also going through similar growing pains. A delightful comedy with plenty of great performances.

Directed by Frank Marshall
Starring Ethan HawkeVincent Spano, Josh HamiltonKevin BreznahanSam BehrensIlleana DouglasJack NoseworthyBruce RamsayDanny Nucci, and Jose Zuniga

Based on the true story of an Uruguayan rugby team who were involved in the crash of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571, which crashed into the Andes mountains on Friday, October 13, 1972. The film follows the group of rugby players who survived and their harrowing ordeal of surviving not only the wild but the freezing temperatures! When they learn the rescue search has been called off, they must struggle to save themselves. 

The Shining
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Starring Jack NicholsonShelley DuvallDanny Lloyd, and Scatman Crothers

To me, The Shining is one of those rare cases which pretty much never happen with film adaptations of books -- specifically, I equally love the original novel by Stephen King and the Stanley Kubrick film adaptation. Jack Nicholson here is a man possessed. He becomes Jack Torrance. This film was one of the first true mental mindf#*%s of a film in that you don't quite know what's real and what isn't. The isolationist, wintery cold feel of the film and its setting add to the terror of the story, as well as -- near the end -- the cold. But what is most creepy here is the concept of a dear loved one as suddenly becoming a rampaging, murderous maniac. Kubrick's photography -- assisted heavily by cinematographer John Alcott -- help to surround the viewer in Torrance's world as well as his son, Danny's, and his wife, Wendy's (Shelley Duvall). By the end of the film, even though each character's fate is shown quite distinctly, you're still left feeling not quite sure what the hell is going on ... in a good way! This is another notch in Kubrick's successful film career, well worth watching over and over.

The Thing
Directed by John Carpenter
Starring Kurt RussellWilford BrimleyKeith David, and Richard Masur

Based on the 1951 film The Thing From Another World (which was loosely based on the 1938 John W. Campbell Jr. novella Who Goes There?), you won't find a much gorier '80s horror movie than this John Carpenter classic! Halloween may be somewhat iconic, but The Thing is Carpenter's best film! The story works on a person's paranoia of "how much do I really know anybody?", putting the ragtag crew of an American research station in Antarctica against a creature that can assimilate the appearance of any living thing. According to Carpenter, this film is the first in his Apocalypse Trilogy (the other two films being Prince of Darkness and In the Mouth of Madness). The performances are all well and good but it truly is Rick Baker's creature special effects and makeup that makes this film so memorable ... especially in a day and age before CGI. If you're looking for the perfect film to give you the heebie-jeebies, look no further!

Directed by Chris Buck & Jennifer Lee
Starring Idina MenzelKristen BellJonathan Groff, Josh Gad, and Santino Fontana

Based on the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale, The Snow Queen, Frozen follows a fearless princess (Kristen Bell) who sets off on a journey alongside a rugged iceman (Jonathan Groff), his loyal reindeer, and a na├»ve snowman (Josh Gad) to find her estranged sister (Idina Menzel), whose icy powers have inadvertently trapped the kingdom in eternal winter. A perfect musical tale for the kid in all of us!

Mystery, Alaska
Directed by Jay Roach
Starring Russell CroweHank AzariaMary McCormackBurt ReynoldsColm MeaneyLolita DavidovichRon EldardMaury Chaykin, and Scott Grimes

A forgotten film from the 1990s but a good one. The story centers around the fictional town of Mystery, Alaska, where ice hockey is a way of life, and the small, lovable local hockey players rally together to play an exhibition game against the New York Rangers. For many of the men, this is a chance to shine and possibly win a spot with the Rangers. The film is mostly a dramedy than a sports film, but it's sure to please!

Directed by Joon-ho Bong
Starring Chris EvansKang-ho SongEd HarrisJohn HurtTilda SwintonJamie BellOctavia SpencerEwen BremnerAh-sung Ko, and Alison Pill

Based on the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand and Jean-Marc Rochette, this story takes place in 2031, aboard the globe-spanning Snowpiercer train which holds the last remnants of humanity after an attempt at climate engineering in order to stop global warming has unintentionally created a new ice age. Chris Evans stars as a lower-class passenger who begins a revolution against the upper-class seated at the front of the train. This is a rollicking action film, full of plenty of drama and just the perfect film to watch when cooped up indoors, especially in tight spaces!

Directed by The Coen Brothers
Starring William H. Macy, Frances McDormandSteve BuscemiPeter StormareHarve Presnell, John Carroll Lynch, and Kristin Rudrud

I have to admit I'm not crazy about this film, but I would definitely be remiss if I didn't mention it in this countdown purely on the fact that the film takes place in Minneapolis and North Dakota, two states which have some of THE COLDEST winters in the country! The film takes place in the winter of 1987, and Oldsmobile sales manager Jerry (William H. Macy) cooks up a plan to make money to pay back a lucrative loan by having his wife kidnapped and have his father-in-law pay the ransom, which will help pay off his loan. However, things go sideways and get all messed up in this black comedy crime film from the Coen Brothers.

Are there any movies featuring the cold you can think of that I missed? Any films you enjoy watching on a cold day? Sound off in the comments!

Monday, December 18, 2017

5 Great Christmas Films Not Meant to be Christmas Films

Matt here!

Most know of my essential list of Christmas films I post every year, but, for those looking for Christmas films not often found on essential Christmas film lists, here are five films that can be considered Christmas films even though they were not released as Christmas films. Even It's a Wonderful Life, which has gone on to be the quintessential Christmas movie, was originally released with no intention of being a Christmas movie. So, for those looking for both the cliche and different, here are five great Christmas films not meant to be Christmas films!

Die Hard
Starring Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, Bonnie Bedelia, Reginald VelJohnson, Paul Gleason, Alexander Godunov, and William Atherton

I know I listed this film in my "Essential Christmas Films" list but Die Hard also ranks on this list as it was released in July, and doesn't fit conventional Christmas standards. Nevertheless, the soundtrack features Christmas music, showcases good will toward men, and has tons of Christmas references! If you need any more reason why Die Hard is a Christmas film, read Jay's article here!

Starring Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates, Hoyt Axton, Dick Miller, Polly Holliday, and Corey Feldman

It all seems like innocent fun when an inventor father purchases an extraordinary, cute creature for his teenage son for Christmas -- until said creature multiplies and his eerie clones start becoming reptilian-like creatures that cause havoc, mayhem, and even death in the small town in which they live! Most people would probably show this film to their children, and I say "beware." It may be written by Goonies screenwriter and Home Alone director Chris Columbus, but there is some extremely creepy moments in this one -- the most notable being Phoebe Cates' urban-legendesque tale of her father's death and a couple of characters' deaths (it was this film and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom that prompted the creation of the PG-13 rating). But, all in all, it's an enjoyable movie with a wicked streak! Perfect for the horror/suspense fan for the holidays!

Just Friends
Starring Ryan Reynolds, Amy Smart, Anna Faris, Chris Klein, Chris Marquette, Julie Hagerty, and Stephen Root

Ryan Reynolds stars as Chris Brander, a successful, womanizing Hollywood record producer who, thanks to pop music star (think of a dense Britney Spears) Samantha James (Anna Faris) finds himself inadvertently returning at Christmas to the one place he promised he’d never return to: his hometown in New Jersey. Upon his return, he must face his former life as an obese dork, with a lisp and braces, that had a huge crush on his high school best friend, Jamie Palamino (Amy Smart). When he thinks a simple revenge scheme will bring him closure, it turns out that his feelings aren’t as gone as he thought, especially when he has to contend with another former dork (Chris Klein). Anyone who’s ever been caught in the exhausting loop of “I think of you as a friend” can definitely empathize with Chris’ plight. The thing I liked most about this film is the physical comedy – particularly from Reynolds, who I’ve always liked better as a comic actor than a dramatic one – as well as the pacing of the story and the chemistry between the cast. It’s a zany comedy with a great message: don’t try to live up to someone’s expectation; you can’t force anyone to love you; and if you’re a good person, you shouldn’t have to change to please anyone. Sounds serious, but it’s definitely anything but! Plus, any movie that has Reynolds lip syncing to All-4-One’s 1990s R&B ballad “I Swear” and quotes Springsteen (“This town is full of losers, and I’m pulling out of here to win!”) is a winner in my book!

Less Than Zero
Starring Andrew McCarthy, Jami Gertz, Robert Downey Jr., and James Spader 

Based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis, Less Than Zero is certainly one of the heavier, more depressing fare on this list. The story follows Clay (Andrew McCarthy) as he returns home to California from Princeton for winter break. Just a few weeks prior at Thanksgiving, he had caught his girlfriend, Blair (Jami Gertz), in bed with his best friend, Julian (Robert Downey Jr.), so he returns -- all to the glorious, dramatic Bangles cover of "Hazy Shade of Winter" -- feeling completely over the place he once called home and the people he once called friends. However, he is quickly drawn back to his two friends and their world when Blair begs him to check up on Julian, whose drug habit has grown exponentially worse. The entire movie takes place during Christmas, and while themes such as forgiveness, love, and redemption are explored (and the score by Thomas Newman is haunting, melodramatic and great), there is quite a bit of melancholy as well; but it is a good cautionary tale regarding the danger of drugs. 

While You Were Sleeping
Starring Sandra Bullock, Bill Pullman, Peter Gallagher, Peter Boyle, Glynis Johns, and Jack Warden

For those wanting a more romantic comedy feel to their Christmas films, I give you this 1995 film that was never marketed or made to be a Christmas film, but the holiday figures prominently throughout. Lonely Chicago Transit Authority token collector Lucy (Sandra Bullock) sees every day the man (Peter Gallagher) she has a huge crush on, but he's quickly gone and she's left alone. One day, he falls on the train tracks and she rescues him, soon pretending to his loving family that she and he are engaged. The only problem is that the man's brother, Jack (Bill Pullman), isn't buying it. Well, it doesn't take a genius to figure out where this story goes. But seeing how the film centers around Christmas and the importance of family and kindness, it's a welcome addition to the genre!

Are there any movies you can think of that you consider Christmas movies? Or films you enjoy watching at Christmas time? Sound off in the comments!

Friday, December 15, 2017

Matt Reviews "Star Wars: The Last Jedi" (Spoiler-Free)

It's been two years since the sequel to Return of the Jedi graced theaters, and now one of my favorite directors, Rian Johnson (Brick, The Brothers Bloom, Looper) has taken the reins of nearly every director's dream film. After loving The Force Awakens and Rogue One, I wasn't sure the saga could be improved upon, but The Last Jedi exceeded all expectations! Last Jedi works on so many levels: writing, acting, directing, pacing, music, action, emotion! It's as if Johnson completely geeked out on all things you'd like to see in a new Star Wars film and threw it in there!

It's difficult to write a spoiler-free review because, as a critic and fan, you want to instantly gush over the major plot twists and revelations! So, I will simply say there are a couple uses of the force that haven't been seen on the big screen, but the uses are such great, wonderful surprises, they are a welcome -- and some superfans may say long overdue -- addition to the cinematic universe! Of course, there are plenty of humorous moments spattered throughout the film -- the BB-8, newly introduced porgs, and Jedi temple caretakers are particularly for the kids -- but there are also many serious moments -- moments that underline the "Wars" in Star Wars. There is tragedy, loss and sacrifice; however, there is humor, caring and hope! As for the performances, they're all top notch here, particularly from Daisey Ridley, Adam Driver, Carrie Fisher, and Mark Hamill. Johnson finally addressed -- to me -- a long-standing issue with Fisher's Leia and it is glorious! Seeing Fisher up on screen makes your heart both soar and hurt over how wonderful she was and how much she will be missed. Hamill finally gets to delve into the more serious undertones of being the "last Jedi" and he delivers it in the masterful way that only Hamill can, proving once again that he was born to play Skywalker! Driver does well with his unspoken acting, delivering both on the yearning to be accepted and wanting to pave his own path. Ridley especially really upped her acting game, and in one pivotal scene with Driver, she delivers a rather simple line in the most heart-aching way.

There were many scenes I figured out would happen but didn't know for sure if Johnson would actually go there, and, fortunately, he did! But there were also many unexpected moments and that makes for a great film! Of course, the film also saw the return of composer John Williams and his score this time around was SO much better than the Force Awakens score! This time, he does what should be done: he uses those familiar, favorite themes from the original trilogy and interweaves them with the new! Hearing themes like "Luke and Leia," "Han and Leia," "The Force theme," and others was a very welcome addition!

My favorite moment of Last Jedi is one I unfortunately cannot write without spoiling the surprise, but I actually teared up throughout the entire scene! To me, this scene made the movie and I think other diehard fans will love it just the same! New actors and characters such as Laura Dern's Vice Admiral Holdo, Kelly Marie Tran's Rose Tico, and Benecio Del Toro's DJ are wonderful additions to the cast and SW universe, each given their respective moment to shine! Some are saying Del Toro wasn't used enough but I was satisfied with his screen time. Other great moments are seeing the Millennium Falcon speeding through the caverns of new planet Crait; as well as the production design and sets, which were amazing! The colors used and photography brings an artistic distinction to the saga.

The only ever-so-slightly negative criticism I have of the film is the little side plot between Tran's Rose, John Boyega's Finn and Oscar Isaac's Poe, but those characters had to have something to do while Rey met with Luke! While, at first, the side mission felt a little perfunctory, it soon reveals some social class issues very relatable to the real world, as well as drive the overall saga toward episode 9!

Overall, Last Jedi is one of the most enjoyable films of the year! I enjoyed it more than Force Awakens and my ranking would be as follows:

1) Empire Strikes Back
2) The Last Jedi
3) Rogue One
4) New Hope
5) Force Awakens
6) Return of the Jedi & Revenge of the Sith (tie)
7) Attack of the Clones
8) Phantom Menace

I will be seeing this film MANY times over the holiday break and I urge everyone who even remotely likes Star Wars to see this film as soon as possible!

In loving memory of Carrie Fisher. May the Force be with you ... Always.