Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Matt's Top 16 Picks for Best Crime Documentaries on Netflix & Hulu

Matt here!

I'm a huge fan of true crime TV -- particularly the ID Channel! Which is ironic since I'm not a big fan of fictional police procedural shows. Seeing how I got rid of cable TV about four years ago, the ID Channel is no longer a regular watch. Thankfully, Netflix and Hulu are jammed full of numerous quality crime documentaries! And here's a list of the crime docs I LOVE the most:


13 Families: Life After Columbine (2009)

One of the best documentaries about the tragic 1999 Columbine High School massacre, with interviews primarily with the victims' families as well as eyewitnesses who were there that day. It's a heartbreaking film but one that must be watched.


The Central Park Five (2012)

On April 19, 1989, a woman was attacked and raped while jogging through Central Park in New York at night, thus leaving her in a coma for 12 days. However, that same night, five young African American teenage males were arrested and charged with the assault. All five confessed on tape to the attack and were sentenced to prison. Open-and-shut case, right? Well, this documentary by master documentarian Ken Burns proves – like most cases – this story isn’t so black and white. The documentary follows the entire case as well as features interviews with all kinds of suspects, witnesses, lawyers, and law enforcement officials who were there. This film is a thought-provoking, intense story told with all the right footage and interview testimony to make even the biggest Law & Order fan’s jaw drop!


Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son about His Father (2008)

Do yourself a favor and do NOT read anything about this before you watch it. Just watch it! I got so emotionally invested in this true crime film and felt such strong emotions of anger and sadness and love. I've never felt so moved by a documentary – let alone a film – than with this one! There is so much to this doc that it almost seems like a piece of fiction. Sadly, it isn't. Director Kurt Kuenne is an exceptional filmmaker, creating an important film that is well-done with excellent editing, pacing and personal, heartfelt interviews. There are no pulled punches when it comes to presenting the facts and every available video, audio or photograph that Kuenne could unearth about his friend, Andrew Bagby. I fully support the Bagbys (without even knowing them personally) and my heart truly goes out to them. This film should truly be seen by everyone!


(30 for 30) Fantastic Lies (2016)

Exploring the infamous March 2006 Duke University Lacrosse Team supposed rape of a stripper, ESPN Films meticulously interviews many of those involved in this case -- from the parents of the accused lacrosse players to attorneys and reporters, as well as Duke students and the lacrosse players' next-door neighbor; as well as archival interviews of those accused. This case has it all: racial tension, class warfare, town/gown conflict, sports player privilege, rape cover-up by the university officials, and the outcry of hate from the talking heads and public. Like real-life, the film begins with the feel of the players being guilty of their crime, but it soon turns to the sad reality of what happens when the accuser is dishonest. The film is a testament to not just learning to be less accusing until the facts have fully come to light, but also on how the public, news and universities oftentimes can dishonestly cover a crime story.


The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden (2013)

One of the weirdest, yet fascinating, stories I’ve seen. And what’s weirder about it is that not many people even know something like this really happened! It’s the tale of a handful of European idealists whose relocation to the Galapagos Islands turned tragic with murder, missing people and strange rivalries. The documentary – and its story it reports – proves how men’s wickedness can follow wherever men may go. It’s Murder on the Orient Express meets Lord of the Flies. The film specifically follows three sets of visitors to one of the Galapagos Islands in the early 1930s, looking to start a life away from the things of man, only to bring one of the most brutal traits of mankind to the island paradise: murder.


The Hunting Ground (2015)

One of the most frightening crimes is the one that doesn't involve murder: rape. This documentary showcases some of the brave young women who come forward to tell their stories, as well as the criminal cover-up that major colleges and universities put up in order to keep the money rolling in. This documentary should be required watching for everyone -- especially anyone who has a daughter!


The Imposter (2012)

The term “stranger than fiction” was made for such a film as this! The Imposter starts off seeming so simple in its description, but, what follows as one watches the film, is a discombobulated avenue of so many twists and turns, you can’t help but keep your eyes locked on it. On its face, the story is about 23-year-old Frederic Bourdin, a Frenchman living in Spain, who poses as 16-year-old Texan boy, Nicholas Barclay, who had been missing for 3 years. Despite Bourdin’s physical differences from Barclay, he is welcomed into Barclay’s family’s home and lives the life of a teenage high school boy. Hear from Barclay’s family, the detectives, child welfare officer, and Bourdin himself as to this strange-but-true tale which takes a wickedly weirder turn as something stranger and more sinister may be lying underneath the surface of this con.


Let the Fire Burn (2013)

Truly one of the most captivating documentaries I've had the pleasure of watching! Director Jason Osder takes previously unreleased archival footage, new footage, and public hearing meeting footage, and edits it together to make a masterpiece of documentary cinema. The film centers on the May 13, 1985, assault on a radical group called MOVE in a Philadelphia neighborhood, which created a six-alarm blaze, destroying 61 homes, and killing 5 children and 6 adults. What's worse is that the blaze was started – and allowed to persist – by Town officials and police. This documentary perfectly captures how intolerance, prejudice and fear can lead to incredible violence. It is a bipartisan film that focuses on the wrongdoings of both sides – the town and police officials, and the MOVE members. I could not take my eyes off of every interview and scene presented – even though they were recorded some 28 years ago! The music is powerfully affective and this documentary is essential viewing about a tragedy in America's history which most in this country either have no knowledge of, or have completely forgotten!


Making a Murderer (2015)

Netflix's programming has not only given fictional TV series on the primetime TV channels a run for their money, but the company is also starting to get into the documentary game as well. And with entries like Making a Murderer in its resume, the ID Channel better look out! Taking somewhat of a cue from HBO's wildly successful The Jinx (which followed accused killer Robert Durst), Murderer spans 10 episodes, with filmmakers Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi spending 10 years following Steven Avery as he was once wrongfully convicted of a rape he didn't commit. Then, when he is about to take the arresting county police to court to sue them for a large sum of money, a gruesome murder points the same police force -- along with a neighboring town's police force -- to investigate him, making him their number one suspect! I've never seen a crime documentary with so many twists and turns! Of course, the documentary is mostly shot from Avery's and his family's point of view, but there is some compelling evidence to make the audience think that what some would pass off as "conspiracy theories" are actual truths! In a day and age with past cases such as the West Memphis Three, the Central Park Five, and other various wrongfully convicted inmates, this doc adds to the genre! However, there may not be the absolution one looks for. That's what makes this documentary so fascinating and also so addicting to watch! If there is one crime doc to watch, it's this one!


A Murder in the Park (2014)

Most of these types of documentaries are about the wrong man -- an innocent man -- being imprisoned and having to be set free. However, A Murder in the Park is not just about that, but also about a guilty man being set free via the Innocence Project, the American organization aimed toward freeing innocent people who are imprisoned. This documentary showcases how sometimes even the other side of the coin -- those with the best intentions -- are afraid to admit to their mistakes.


My Brother's Bomber (2015)

Filmmaker Ken Dornstein lost his older brother, David, who died on the Pan Am Flight 103, which was bombed and crashed in Lockerbie, Scotland, on December 21, 1988. In this 3-part documentary, Dornstein sets out to discover who exactly was behind the bombing (i.e., who financed it, who built the bomb, who set it, etc.) and hopefully bring him -- or them -- to justice. Along the way, he meets allies in his quest, but his journey also takes him to countries such as Zurich and Libya, meeting and talking with shady characters who may or may not have intelligence community ties! This PBS Frontline doc is suspenseful as much as it is intriguing! One man's search for truth and justice may be a trip from which he can never return -- not just physically, but also emotionally!


Nanking (2007)

Nanking tells the often-underplayed history of the 1937 Japanese invasion of Nanking, China, most referred to as “The Rape of Nanking.” By utilizing diary entries, film archives, photographs (CAUTION: some of the photos are very graphic and disturbingly violent), and interviews with actual survivors of the event, as well as actors portraying the eyewitnesses there, this emotional documentary follows the events which led to the destruction of the once-serene city at the hands of the Japanese army, beginning with the relentless bombing and the eventual foot invasion. There were thousands of rapes of girls and women of all ages, as well as the killing of thousands of innocent lives. Nanking perfectly captures one of the most horrific events in human history (along with the Jewish Holocaust), but, there is hope – and it is found in those who stood against the Japanese by cordoning off a section of the city which was a refuge for Chinese civilians. Among such good Samaritans were a few American missionaries who refused to leave the city even though they could have, a German businessman who believed even Hitler would put a stop to all of the atrocities the Japanese were executing, and an American doctor – all heroes. The film is essential viewing for fully realizing and understanding the scope of the last necessary war.


Shenandoah (2012)

Filmed in the small town of Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, this documentary centers on four high school star football players and their being charged with the hate crime death of an innocent Latino immigrant, as well as the alleged cover-up and shocking court verdicts. Both sides of the issue are represented as the filmmakers interview the victim’s family and friends, as well as the accused teenagers’ parents and friends. Shenandoah is proof positive of the old adage: “Just because you don’t see it, doesn’t mean it’s not there.” The film is gripping and emotionally resonating – everything a good documentary should be.


Team Foxcatcher (2016)

This documentary uses real-life home video footage as well as archived interviews and current interviews regarding billionaire John E. DuPont (most, if not all, of you Delaware folks know about the DuPont family!) and the events leading up to his killing one of his one-time best friends, Olympic wrestler Dave Schultz. The film follows the wrestling community living on DuPont's Pennsylvania estate and how his paranoia began fracturing his world. Even though the story is known, the journey there is no less heartbreaking and tragic.


The Thin Blue Line (1988)

Sure, this documentary was not released in the past 10 years, but, being a huge true crime fan (and if you are too), you must check out this film by now-legendary documentary filmmaker Errol Morris. The film centers on Randall Dale Adams, a man convicted and sentenced to life for a murder he says he didn’t commit. The story goes that Adams ran out of gas one nigh out on the town in Texas, and was picked up by 16-year-old David Ray Harris. Somewhere during the night, a police officer is killed and the investigators apprehend Harris. Harris, in turn, accuses Adams of the crime and what follows is the story into whether Adams played any part in the police officer’s murder. There are plenty of interviews with the accused, eyewitnesses, lawyers, investigators and others close to the case, plus reenactments based on testimony. This documentary is where a lot of scripted crime dramas and true-life crime documentaries today have gotten their formula.


The Thread (2015)

Not just a well-done documentary about the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, The Thread also speaks to how easy it is for anyone to make any news real in today's 24-hours internet news era. Specifically, the doc showcases the bombing, the eyewitness accounts, the manhunt for the suspects as reported from armchair detectives and journalists, and how their guessing could easily persuade national legitimate news agencies to report on the wrong man. The best thing about this film is how it showcases how loosely today's supposed respectable cable news outlets report a story -- mostly without any actual facts.


TWA Flight 800 (2013)

Of all the documentaries I’ve recently watched, this one may very well be the most important, angering, and heartrending I've seen. The film follows independent investigator and physicist Dr. Tom Stalcup as he enlists the assistance of actual National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators who worked on the investigation of TWA Flight 800 when it crashed in July 1996. After much in-depth research and hundreds of eyewitness interviews, they come to the conclusion that Flight 800 did not crash as a result of a mechanical failure or malfunction of the fuel tank, but rather because of a missile attack. Most may say it sounds crazy or use that "c" word, but, trust me, just watch this once and you'll seriously be questioning what the public was told then, and is still told today by the NTSB and the FBI. A powerfully intense documentary that will keep you thinking about it for several days, weeks, months after watching it.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Matt & Jay Pick the 5 Best Superhero Movies Ever

Jay here.

The recent release of Zack Snyder's Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice has Matt and I at odds. Read my review here where I criticize certain aspects of the movie and read Matt's here, which defends it. Whether or not we agree on BvS, one thing Matt and I both can come together on is our love for the genre and for comic books in general. It should be noted that Matt has always gravitated towards DC's gallery of characters (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Arrow, The Flash, etc.) while I grew up reading mostly Marvel (X-Men, The Punisher, Daredevil, Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, etc.). I think we truly approach each superhero movie and judge it on its own merit, trying to divorce ourselves from the comic book fanboys within, but it is hard sometimes, on that I think he'd agree.

So, in light of the new Snyder film and our love of all things "comic book geek," we present to you our personal picks for the 5 best superhero/vigilante movies.

Jay's Picks

Blade II
Directed by Guillermo Del Toro
Starring Wesley Snipes, Kris Kristofferson, Ron Perlman, Leonor Varela and Norman Reedus

This may be a controversial pick for some, but I love the second installment in the Blade franchise. This was before Del Toro made a name for himself with Pan's Labyrinth and the Hellboy movies (which are both very good comic book adaptations as well). Blade finds himself in an uneasy alliance with the vampires when a new bread of bloodsucker lands on the scene in the form of the fearsome Reapers. Truly frightening creations, the Reapers showcased what would become Del Toro's flair with the unusual, mixing practical and CGI elements with terrifying results. Blade II also assembled a fantastic cast of supporting characters including the untrustworthy Blood Pack, a team of vampires expertly trained to take down the Daywalker. They are led by the backstabbing, Reinhardt, who is played to perfection  by Ron Perlman, a frequent Del Toro collaborator. Fans of The Walking Dead will also recognize a younger Norman Reedus here as Blade's new sidekick, Scud. Blade II may not have the epic scope of some of the bigger comic book blockbusters, but it has dynamic action, a great script, fun performances and it built off of what made the original Blade so good and eclipsed it.

 "Can you blush?" - Reinhardt (Ron Perlman)


Superman: The Movie & Superman II 
Directed by Richard Donnor and Richard Lester
Starring Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Gene Hackman, Marlon Brando and Terence Stamp

Ok, I'm not cheating by giving both of these movies one slot when you learn that originally Superman I and II were supposed to be one film. It was split into two when the studio realized they had too long of a running time with too much material. Richard Donnor famously sued Warner Bros, and won, when they got rid of him on the second installment and replaced him with Lester even though Donnor had shot a lot of what ended up in the final cut of the sequel. Anyway, Superman I and II are really the origins of the comic book blockbuster for me. They may look seriously dated now but in the late 70's they were way ahead of their time. When I was a kid I truly believed Christopher Reeve could fly. Superman really set the template and standard for comic book movies. Both Hackman and Stamp are campy and evil as Lex Luthor and General Zod. Margot Kidder is the one blemish here. Her Lois Lane is goofy and often helpless when she should be street smart and intrepid. And any mention of these movies has to accompanied with accolades for the iconic score by John Williams. It certainly holds its place among the most recognizable piece of film music created. It was epic in scope and though it does show its age, no list like this should leave it out.

"There's a strong streak of good in you, Superman. But then, nobody's perfect ........ almost nobody." -  Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman)


X2: X-Men United
Directed by Bryan Singer
Starring Patrick Stewart, Hugh Jackman, Halle Berry, Ian McKellan, Famke Janssen, and Brian Cox

Growing up in the 80's, the Uncanny X-Men was the first comic that I discovered at a young age. I think you could do a lot worse. One could make the argument that at its core, the X-Men series has the most important message to teach young readers. It's one of tolerance and acceptance in the face of bigotry and hate. When exploring the notion that comic books, through the years have served as a vehicle to teach and instill morals in young minds, the comic book about a school for mutants looking to learn about their abilities in a place that accepts them, stands above most of the rest. The X-Men movie franchise has had its ups and downs (some way downs) but it would be the second movie in the series that would most accurately capture the essence of the source material. After a staged attempt on the President's life by a brainwashed Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming) an anti-mutant megalomaniac named William Stryker (Brian Cox) is able to infiltrate Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters and kidnap the Professor (Patrick Stewart). The X-Men are forced to partner with their arch-nemesis, Margneto (Ian McKellan) and his sidekick, Mystique (Robecca Romijn) in order to stop Stryker's plan to commit mass mutant genocide using Cerebro. Everything about X2 works so well. It's a perfect example in how to balance a large ensemble cast. Hugh Jackman comes into his own as Wolverine as he is finally allowed to show the character's ruthless side. Magneto's dramatic escape from his plastic cell is perfectly executed and so true to the character. And the revelation that Jean Grey (Famke Janssen)  may be more powerful than anyone imagined set things up perfectly for the next movie to begin the famous "Dark Phoenix" storyline. Unfortunately, Singer would abandon the franchise he created to make the unfortunate Superman Returns, which would prove to be a mistake. The next installment, X-Men: Last Stand, would prove to be one of the worst comic book movies ever made. It's just awful and an insult to X-Men fans. X-Men: First Class would get things back on the right course and Singer returned for X-Men: Days of Future. Past, a good, if not great return to form. X2, though, will be hard to ever top.

"You are a god amongst insects. Never let anyone tell you different." - Magneto (Ian McKellan) to Pyro (Aaron Stanford)


Spider-Man 2
Directed Sam Raimi
Starring Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, Alfred Molina, James Franco and J.K. Simmons

I've just realized that each of the movies on my list is the first sequel in a franchise. I didn't plan it that way, honest, but I do find it interesting and it speaks to a trend within this genre. So often you have the first movie that comes out of the gate strong, but is often limited by various constraints, ie. money, studio interference, etc. Then after its a hit everything is looser on the sequel, the filmmaker is given more creative control. There's more money and the studio isn't as nervous. This is why the second film in a big budget franchise is often the best. This is the case with most of the movies on my list and it certainly is with Sam Raimi's second go-round with everyone's favorite webslinger. I loved Spider-Man growing up. It was easy for a young kid to identify with the nerdy boy who gains super spider powers. The first Spider-Man was good. Raimi nailed the origin story, but things got somewhat rocky in the second half. Willem Dafoe was a brilliant Norman Osborne/Green Goblin, but he was hampered by one of the most ridiculous costumes ever. The Green Goblin suit looked like something out of a Power Rangers episode. Spider-Man 2 is pretty much flawless. It's a beautiful package of comic book goodness. Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) goes through a personal crisis when he decides to turn his back on a relationship with Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) in order to both keep her safe and devote his time being Spider-Man. Things go south when, because he is denying who really is and what he wants, Peter begins to lose his powers just as a new villain emerges on the scene. Alfred Molina plays Dr. Otto Octavius, a genius scientist who is the victim of the proverbial experiment gone awry. Now the giant metal arms grafted onto his back he begins to terrorize the city as the evil Doctor Octopus. Doc Ock takes his place as one of the great tragic comic book villains and Molina is fantastic in the role. Once Peter decides to embrace who he is once again and accept that he needs to make himself happy too he is able to confront Ock and save the city once again. The subway train fight between Spidey and Octavius is one of the best choreographed action pieces in movie history. Spider-Man 2 is colorful, glorious and everything a smart superhero film should be. If only we could forget the next movie in the series, and the two after that as well. 

"These things have turned you into something else ...... don't listen to THEM." - Spider-Man (Tobey Maguire) to Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina)


Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Directed by Joe and Anthony Russo
Starring Chris Evans, Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, Robert Redford, Sebastian Stan and Anthony Mackie

If you had asked me out of Iron Man, Thor and Captain America, which Avenger would have the best stand-alone films back when Marvel first announced their plans for these characters on screen, the last one I thought it would be is Cap. But that's exactly what happened. Joe Johnston's Captain America: The First Avenger is a unique telling of Steve Roger's origin. It was smart because it embraced the corniness of this character and did it in away that both honored and respected the source material. It didn't run from it. As good as the original was this is yet another case where the sequel surpassed it. The Winter Soldier gets everything right. Continuing with theme of the man out of his time, the Russo brothers have created a film that is at once both superhero epic and a homage to the paranoia of government conspiracy thrillers. Why else do you think they cast Robert Redford as the surprise bad guy? The whole movie has an undercurrent that feels like 70's era spy flick, a la Three Days of the Condor. Then there is Chris Evans as Cap himself. He just embodies the role so well and when he flings that shield and jumps into the fray he makes this character more bad-ass then the comics ever did. As he slowly uncovers the corruption at the heart of S.H.I.E.L.D. most of the people who fought beside him turn against him. And the fight with the Winter Soldier himself, an infamous Soviet assassin with a tie to Steve Rogers' past, is both awesome and emotional at the same time. Shout out to Scarlett Johansson who continues to make the Black Widow a compelling heroine for Marvel to partner with Cap. When it comes to comic book movies you don't get much better than this. 

"Like he said ..... Captain's orders." - Agent 13 (Emily VanCamp)


Matt's Picks


Watchmen (Ultimate Cut)
Directed by Zach Snyder
Starring Patrick Wilson, Billy Crudup, Malin Akerman, Jackie Earle Haley, Matthew Goode, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, and Carla Gugino

I’ve heard people bash this film but I don’t know why. I realize the story is so massive and has so many aspects to it that it is damn near impossible to adapt it to film. And despite the theatrical cut understandably not being able to fit all of the imagery and storylines into its two hours and forty-five minute runtime, it was the release of the ultimate cut on DVD – clocking in at three hours and ten minutes and also includes the interwoven comic book story, Tales of the Black Freighter (in animated form) – that makes the film so damn good! For those who hate on this film (even the Ultimate Cut), I can’t quite understand their reasoning. Save the method of New York’s destruction near the end (which, even though I love the book, is very lame and would most likely not work on film), about ninety-eight percent of the film is practically the Alan Moore classic book, page by page! The film is long but it has to be in order to capture the entire epic feel of the story, which captures the more real-world reaction to how superheroes would be treated. The acting, writing, production, pacing is all so spot on and it truly feels as one of the best comics of all time has come to life! Director Zach Snyder may not be one of the most respected filmmakers, but, to me, he succeeded -- with his ultimate cut -- in filming a story many deem unfilmable.

"None of you seem to understand. I'm not locked in here with you. You're locked in here with ME!" - Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley)


X-Men: First Class
Directed by Matthew Vaughn
Starring James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Kevin Bacon, Nicholas Hoult, Rose Byrne, January Jones, and Zoe Kravitz


I know most would point to Bryan Singer’s second installment of X2: X-Men United as one of the greats, and, while that is a really good film, to me, director Matthew Vaughn’s prequel was far more enjoyable. With First Class, I loved seeing the beginnings of the legendary characters. The writing was better, the acting was better, and the story structure was nicely done. I have to admit that Singer’s first X-Men film was severely flawed to me and most times boring. And as much of a major improvement X2 was – getting the franchise back on track – it still fit in that dull world Singer had fashioned, with the first one’s mediocre performances. Both X2 and First Class reference the stigma of being different, and they do it with style and poignancy. However, First Class shows the heroes we all know and love as not-yet-heroes, still in the infancy of their full potential. My only qualm was the sore underuse of Emma Frost (January Jones), who came off merely as eye candy. Nevertheless, Vaughn and his production team’s usage of James Bond-style sets and locations also help this film shine compared to its predecessors. Plus, getting to see the formation of Charles Xavier’s (James McAvoy) and Erik Lensherr’s (Michael Fassbender) legendary friendship is a thrill to watch as it builds and crumbles before our eyes! Throw in Jennifer Lawrence’s alienated Mystique, Kevin Bacon’s Sebastian Shaw – one of the most formidable foes the X-Men have ever faced – and the real-life setting of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis for good measure, and you’ve got an enjoyable film.

"There is so much more to you than you know. Not just pain and anger. There is good, too. I felt it. When you can access all of that, you will possess a power no one can match. Not even me." - Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy)


Batman
Directed by Tim Burton
Starring Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson, Kim Basinger, Jack Palance, Robert Wuhl, Michael Gough, Pat Hingle, and Billy Dee Williams

This may (or may not) come as a surprise when I say this but, save one major plot point, Tim Burton's 1989 film about the caped crusader is pretty much faithful to the comic. Batman is no doubt dated, but it perfectly captures the Batman of its time (the late 1980s/early 90s). Jack Nicholson's take on the Joker is funny, cool, zany, and homicidal -- just like in the comics -- and his performance makes it easy for him to steal the show. Of course, that plot point which is flawed is (SPOILERhaving Joker being the killer of Bruce Wayne's parents, which never happened in the comic. (SPOILER END) Regardless, the first big-budget superhero film since 1978's Superman, which paved the way for the comic book genre so prevalent today, captures all of the dark, twisted imagery and style -- thanks to the production design of the late Anton Furst -- most Batman fans associate with the comic. Just as Christopher Reeve will always be Superman to a lot of fans, there are many who feel the same with Michael Keaton in regards to Batman. Gangsters, thugs, corruption, 1930s/40s style, gunfights, romance, hand-to-hand combat, the Batcave, Batmobile (my favorite of them all), Batwing, Bat-signal, and Joker's twisted Smilex gas toxin: it's all in here! Comic book movies are tricky to make as they reflect the times of when they are made, so some of the older films seem very dated. Batman certainly falls into that category. It's not as dark as the Christopher Nolan Batman films or the Batman portrayed in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, but it's still enjoyable and cool.

"Ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?" - The Joker (Jack Nicholson)


Superman: The Movie & Superman II 
Directed by Richard Donnor and Richard Lester
Starring Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Gene Hackman, Terence Stamp, Ned Beatty, Sarah Douglas, Jackie Cooper, Marlon Brando, Glenn Ford, and Marc McClure

Most fans of comic book films nowadays may think these two Superman films as being hokey or, at best, fail to see the hype and love fans such as myself have thrown upon them. But they have to realize this was the first big-budget superhero film made. And not just that. It was also the first to have an actor completely become Clark Kent and Superman. And, yes, as a child watching one of our favorite superheroes come to life, we did believe a man could fly! What made Richard Donner’s film such a hit and a timeless classic was Christopher Reeve – then a fairly unknown actor – who embodied the last son of Krypton; and the overall feel of the film, which portrayed the golden and silver ages of the character.

While there are some aspects to the films anyone could cherry-pick, it still doesn’t diminish the films’ quality or the enjoyment it exudes! As Jay mentioned, both films were meant to be combined so it’s easy to talk of both as one; however, if you watch the Donner cut of Superman II, it’s a major letdown that he lazily has Superman use the same deus ex machina power in the second film as he did in the first film – having Superman fly around the world so fast, it makes the world turn backwards and thus turns back time. The only problem with that theory is that some things are changed – all of them for the better – while some things are left in continuity. Ah, semantics! That’s why the Richard Lester version is a bit preferable with the “super kiss” scene -- at least it's something new, no matter how far-fetched. What does work for these films, besides Reeve who will always be the true Superman, is the use of General Zod (Terence Stamp), the action sequences, John Williams’ legendary music score, and the hope infused throughout. Also, despite Margot Kidder’s portrayal of Lois Lane, nothing beats that first meeting between Lois and Superman. Even the questionable aspects are great, leaving a lot of contemporary superhero films lacking what these films so effortlessly have: heart.

"They can be a great people, Kal-El, they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you... my only son." - Jor-El (Marlon Brando)


Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Directed by Joe and Anthony Russo
Starring Chris Evans, Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, Robert Redford, Sebastian Stan and Anthony Mackie

I was pleasantly surprised with Marvel's 2011 adaptation of its star-spangled boy scout Captain America: The First Avenger -- especially since I've never been a big fan of his (my book, The Midknight, is an antithesis to Cap) -- but I was still very impressed. So the stakes were high when the inevitable sequel was released this past April. Fortunately, Captain America: The Winter Soldier greatly exceeded my expectations! Taking on all of the aspects of a spy film, Winter Soldier -- while it does have huge action sequences -- focuses more on story, twists and turns, and ideas. When I first saw the trailer, I was so excited as Cap (Chris Evans) sees what S.H.I.E.L.D. is doing with weaponizing alien technology for defense and promptly tells S.H.I.E.L.D. commander Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), "I thought the punishment came after the crime" and "This isn't freedom. This is fear." I loved the idea that Cap was "sticking it to the man" (as evidenced when Fury says, "S.H.I.E.L.D. sees the world how it is." Reminds me of how politicians go about deciding to pass laws nowadays.) And what is even more great is how Fury attempts to justify the weaponization. His moral ambiguity in order to secure some freedom runs parallel to not just real-world attempts of security (i.e., Patriot Act, overspending billions of dollars for defense, etc.), but also the antagonist's over-eagerness to bring order through homicidal utilitarianism. The Winter Soldier himself is not a big twist for those who know -- or have read -- the Cap comics, but what plays out on screen is done with expert precision, pacing, and writing. The only criticism I do have with Marvel movies is what I call the "coincidental catastrophe" in that there always seems to be some massive spaceship or transport (i.e., this film, Guardians of the Galaxy, The Avengers) and when said vehicle inevitably crashes, this massive machinery conveniently crashes safely either in a body of water or a huge city which has unrealistically been completely evacuated in a matter of minutes. I have said since The Avengers that Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow needs her own stand-alone film -- especially since her history in the comics is so freakin' cool -- and her role in this film only proves it even more (due to their history, I'm still hoping we may see her make at least a cameo appearance in Netflix's Daredevil series)! What most excited me was the addition of Anthony Mackie's Falcon and how he will ultimately figure into the sequel -- 2016's Captain America: Civil War, which will pit Cap against Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.)! Marvel doesn't hold most of my favorite comics (although I LOVE Daredevil and the Punisher), but their films have done an outstanding job at tying the entire universe together, and it is that technique -- along with the writing -- which makes them -- and Cap -- a success!

"After New York, I convinced the World Security Council we needed a quantum surge in threat analysis. For once, we're way ahead of the curve." - Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson)
"By holding a gun at everyone on Earth and calling it protection." - Captain America (Chris Evans)

Matt here. As Jay said, we did a list of our top five favorite comic book superhero films, and when we both thought of our favorite of all time (so far!), we both agreed on our number one. So, we're both writing an entry for that film. Here it is:

The Dark Knight
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Gary Oldman, Michael Caine, Aaron Eckhart, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Morgan Freeman

Matt: Anyone who knows me, knows how big of a Batman fan I am (although, they also know I'm a bigger Superman fan). And even though this may sound biased, I can honestly say that The Dark Knight is the best comic book adaptation movie ever made! With little nods and sideplots that only us deep Batman fans could recognize (i.e. the sonar spying system that Batman utilizes in the film that is ironically close to the Brother I satellite from the OMAC Project storyline in the comics The OMAC Project; or the Batman wannabe gang that mirrors Frank Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Strikes Again), Christopher Nolan's Knight brings so much to the table. There are so many plotlines in this film, which may make you think that the movie would become convoluted, but it doesn't. If anything, it keeps the audience involved with each and every character all the while keeping them on the edge of their seats, as there are plenty of nailbiting sequences in this film. The main plotline is Bruce Wayne's (Christian Bale) having to deal with the fact that his persona as Batman has inspired many new acts of criminality -- both seemingly good and extremely bad. Yes, Rachel Dawes is back too. Only instead of Katie Holmes, we now get Maggie Gyllenhaal. I was one of those few when the first film came out that didn't think Holmes' performance was all that bad, but, after seeing Gyllenhaal in this, I now realize how -- although not that bad -- truly stiff Holmes' performance was. And, much to Bruce's chagrin, Rachel's love interest is no other than the compassionate, idealistic District Attorney Harvey Dent (with a performance by Aaron Eckhart that may be the best of his career to date). Of course, Bruce has to deal with this relationship as well (continuing their relationship from Batman Begins), all the while dealing with the newest criminal to grace Gotham's streets -- an anarchistic criminal who simply "wants to watch the world burn" and calls himself The Joker (Heath Ledger). And the complicated relationship between Gordon, Dent and Batman (another comic book staple) is explored with great writing (again, taking a cue from their relationship in Batman: The Long Halloween). Ledger more than deserved the Academy Award for Supporting Actor for his turn as The Joker. He is that good! Of course, being The Joker, he does have a few funny one-liners; however, unlike Jack Nicholson's Joker, Ledger's lines are so creepily delivered that you're not sure whether you want to, or should, laugh. And the complex relationship between The Joker and Batman -- one not being able to exist without the other -- that is a constant in the comics even to this day is added into the movie, which I was delighted about. Also, Ledger's Joker is always one step ahead of Gotham's police and Batman that he makes the perfect formidable foe that us fans know from the comics. Brothers Jonathan and Christopher Nolan, and David S. Goyer wrote what a Batman movie should be and perfectly showcase why all of us fans love the contemporary Batman in the first place: the dark, gritty realism peppered with hope and lots of cool gadgets. The action is plentiful but doesn't take away from the drama that is also needed for a film of this caliber. The Dark Knight dominates over every comic book-movie adaptation out there!

Jay: Wow, Matt really said a lot that I agree with when it comes to The Dark Knight. It really has no equal when it comes to comic book adaptations. Epic in scope, Christopher Nolan pulled out all the stops to give us the definitive Batman film. And I agree with him on Burton's 1989 Batman, as well. They are both two very different ways of approaching the same characters. Drawing on inspiration from crime epics like Michael Mann's 1995 masterpiece, Heat, it's obvious Nolan wanted to approach Batman from a much more realistic and grounded perspective. Everything in this Gotham feels real. Heath Ledger's Joker is a revelation. Like many when I first heard he was playing the Bat's greatest foe, I was scratching my head. Heath Ledger? Really? Well, he only ended up winning an Oscar for the performance, the first and most likely last actor to ever win one for a comic book movie. I also love how this movie tackles the story of Harvey Dent and his transformation into Two-Face. Two-Face has always been my favorite Batman villain. What can I say? I'm a sucker for tragic bad guys. This Two-Face is much more true to the character than the Tommy Lee Jones version in Batman Forever, which treated him like a joke. Everything about The Dark Knight is expertly conceived and produced. It was such an achievement that Nolan could never hope to replicate again. The follow-up, The Dark Knight Rises, is an overall flawed film, with moments of brilliance, but not even close to its predecessor. It will take a lot for someone to make as good a comic book adaptation as this. It really rises above all the others.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Matt's Best Albums of 2015

Matt here!

It was a dismal year for music in terms of the number and quality of entire albums. But I was lucky to come across a few, and here they are (in alphabetical order by artist):

1989
Ryan Adams

I first dismissed this album as a lame gimmick. After all, how come Adams couldn’t just put his energy into writing his own album, rather than making his personal arrangements of a Taylor Swift pop album? But then you hear his adaptation and realize it’s one of the best albums released this year. Of course, the fact that it is one of the best speaks volumes about the state of music and new releases this past year – the fact that an adaptation album made the top list – but, regardless, it’s still one of the best. Adams takes bubble-gum pop music and turns it into alternative indie rock for all ages. A song like “Bad Blood” sung by Swift sounds like some pop anthem, but Adams’ version is haunting and cerebral while also maintaining its catchy chorus and musical hooks. Whether Adams’ album is a gimmick or not, it’s an essential album to check out!
Favorite track: (tie) “Blank Space” and “Out of the Woods”


Coming Home
Leon Bridges

Nobody wants to be heralded as the next “insert legendary musican’s name here!” But sometimes, whether an artist wants it or not, it’s inevitable. That’s why I couldn’t help tones but hear heavy of Sam Cooke when I first heard Leon Bridges’ debut album, “Coming Home.” But he’s not the excitable Cooke; he’s the slow-groovin’ Cooke! Bridges’ songwriting heralds back to the time of great soul and he writes, plays and sings it as effortlessly as if he took a trip in a time machine from the mid-1960s. Bridges manages to craft a wonderful album that’s just as comfortable to play whether you’re cruising down a long highway or sitting at home on a rainy morning. Each of the songs are filled with something sorely lacking in most of today’s music: soul, meaning and harmony.
Favorite track – “Smooth Sailin'”



How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful
Florence + The Machine

Florence + The Machine have been a force to be reckoned with ever since their debut album! Their newest album does not disappoint as Florence Welch continues to showcase her stunning, haunting voice! If there is one paramount thing the band has going for it in order to make it legendary, it’s that most bands (and their singers and therefore sounds) have a distinct sound – a sound like no other band out there. And Florence + The Machine have that kind of distinct sound! With this release, Welch and the band have swam into deeper waters in terms of the songwriting of the lyrics. There weren’t many hits this year, but this band’s album was a bonafide one!
Favorite track – "Ship to Wreck"


Medicine
Drew Holcomb & The Neighbors

I know everyone threw a lot of attention to Jason Isbell this past year, and while his album is good, it's not as good as the latest album from Tennessee natives Drew Holcomb & The Neighbors' seventh album, Medicine. The album features a lot of alternative/folk rock with a small tinge of country in it. I'm ashamed to admit this is the first I've heard of Holcomb, but better late than never! Holcomb delivers songs full of soul and music with catchy guitar licks and a beautiful melody with his wife, Ellie Holcomb. There's a nice, steady mix of faster tempo songs and lazy, slow songs. This is one of the bands I'm most happy about discovering this year!

Favorite track: "Here We Go"



Little Neon Limelight
Houndmouth

In a year not full of many hits for me, this diamond-in-the-rough couldn’t help but shine. I had never heard of this band before this album, but when I did hear it, I wanted more! Houndmouth is some of the best soul/blues/rock out there! It’s a great southern California alt. rock-blues album with tones of Black Crowes, Kings of Leon, Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros, and Grace Potter all in one! Houndmouth is helping to bring back the blue-eyed soul of which I am a big fan and they one of the few albums released this year that regular rotation in my car and at work!

Favorite track – (tie) "Otis" & "Say It"

Wilder Mind
Mumford & Sons

Upon first listen of this album, I wasn’t sure whether I liked it or not. Wilder Mind doesn’t have as many of the usual catchy musical hooks their previous folk albums had, and it’s the first time the band has gone heavily electric. Upon the news of the release of this album, there were many fans who were wary of the idea of the band using electric and it instantly reminded me of the backlash Bob Dylan received from his fans and critics when he first went electric with his fifth album, Bringing It All Back Home, and particularly when he first performed with an electric guitar to boos at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. Since I’m a big fan of Mumford & Sons, I listened and was really excited for their shift to electric instruments. The first listen wasn’t anything special, but the next listen warranted a handful of songs I enjoyed. The third listen had me enjoying the entire album. Wilder Mind is not an instant hit that hooks you right from the start but it is a hit nonetheless. There are some songs which are a bit repetitive but songs like “Broad-Shouldered Beasts” and “Ditmas” more than make up for it.
Favorite track – “Broad-Shouldered Beasts”


Selfies on Kodachrome & Top Hat on Fleek
Postmodern Jukebox

Year and year again, Scott Bradlee’s music ensemble has released successful album over and over – most times maybe three albums per year! Bradlee created Postmodern Jukebox after leaving school and studying jazz piano. What started off as Bradlee taking contemporary pop songs and rearranging them to sound as if they came from various eras and genres (i.e., 1930s jazz or 1960s girl group, etc.), soon turned into him getting together some like-minded musicians and damn good various singers recording songs and music videos. Two of his latest albums made my best list this year, all consisting of various musicians and spanning many different genres over many different decades. If you are a fan of big band, jazz, doo wop, torch singer, and any other such genre, then Postmodern Jukebox will be the answer to your prayers!
Favorite track(s): “I’m Not the Only One” & “Hey There Delilah”


Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats
Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats

The BEST album of the year! Nathaniel Rateliff formed his band, The Night Sweats, and decided to bring back a genre so sorely needed: true soul and blues rock! With his self-titled album – along with Leon BridgesComing Home album – Rateliff sings, wails, and plays with a deep-rooted, guttural voice and sound, making the heart and soul packed in each song burst through the speakers. Their breakout hit, “S.O.B.,” which Rateliff wrote about the pains of overcoming alcohol abuse, is a rollicking soul rocker and one of the best on the album. Rateliff brings Motown soul back and is easily one of the best new artists to have emerged in the past 10 years! I can’t wait to see what he and the band come out with next!
Favorite track – (tie) “Howling at Nothing” & “S.O.B.”