Across the Universe

(A written and audio review) Visuals and live-stage timing make this film a beautiful colorful musical trip. Listen to my review from my podcast or continue reading below.

Across the Universe (2007)
PG-13 | 2h 13min | Drama, Fantasy, Musical | 12 October 2007 (USA)

The music of the Beatles and the Vietnam War form the backdrop for the romance between an upper-class American girl and a poor Liverpudlian artist.
Director: Julie Taymor
Writers: Dick Clement (screenplay), Ian La Frenais (screenplay) | 3 more credits »
Stars: Evan Rachel Wood, Jim Sturgess, Joe Anderson

This is a film telling of many Beatles songs woven into an entrancing film that will leave you breathless yet singing. (Is that possible? Maybe)

Julie Taymor, director, does an outstanding job here and it’s no wonder since her accolades include directing “The Lion King” on Broadway. It was wise of the film financiers to pick a person so versed in dance and music because this is a flm that includes all of it. The charater Lucy is played by Evan Rachel Wood. She moves from the midwest of America to New York. Jude is played by Jim Sturgess. He’s a welder that can’t seem to get a break. As an actor, he can really sing and I bought his scenes hook line and sinker.

Visuals and live-stage timing make this film a beautiful colorful musical trip. I enjoyed every minute of it. One neat aspect was the way some songs are interpreted in new ways for us. An upbeat song on the album might be presented as slow, somber, and thoughtful. The Vietnam war figures into it masterfully, even when the images and subject matter are definitely “not for kids.”

Bono of U2 fame plays the walrus and I have to say, being a staunch defender of Walruses in cinema, I approved heartily. If anyone can make that song work in a film, it’s Bono.

Recently I saw a professional cover band of the Beatles and I was entranced. You really can’t miss when their music is involved. If you like Beatles songs, or are interested in the music of the Beatles and they are new to you, this love story/drama is a great way to enjoy “the lads.” And remember the message, “All You Need is Love!” I recommend Across the Universe in the musical film genre as:

10/10

Wonder

(A written and audio review) As if being fully normal in 5th grade isn’t hard enough, add facial deformity to the mix and you’ve got a boxing ring set up for bullies at the public school. Listen to my episode on this film below, read the written below the player.

Wonder sets you up for a warm, emotional experience by introducing the family. This family has adapted to its child’s deformity and really feels nothing shocking when they see him every day. He’s been home-schooled since Kindergarten and the beginning of the film marks his trip the 5th grade, the first public school he’s ever known.

The director (hard to pronounce his name) Stephen Chbosky did The Perks of Being a Wallflower which painted an odd portrait of a coming of ager. It was a good film with a gritty comic sense to it. This film is not like that in the sense that it is not gritty and dark in any way. It paints such a squeaky clean family and school it reminded me of an after-school tv special or a Hallmark movie. Well, it wasn’t as bad as a Hallmark film but n that direction.

It has a feel good sense to it so I recommend it to families and kids seeking a “lite” experience. I would have liked to have gotten into the mind of Auggie a bit more.

9/10

All the President’s Men

(An audio and written review) A friend who lives in England told me there isn’t much interest in American political scandal. I hope that’s true because some of our stories here in the US are embarrassing.

The conservatives wiretapping the liberals. It sounds like a cartoon movie, a joke if you will. Folks, lest we forget Watergate, it happened. This films gives a solid background of how it was discovered, reported, and used to take the president out of office.

All the President’s Men (1976)
PG | 2h 18min | Biography, Drama, History | 9 April 1976 (USA)

“The Washington Post” reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein uncover the details of the Watergate scandal that leads to President Richard Nixon’s resignation.
Director: Alan J. Pakula
Writers: Carl Bernstein (book), Bob Woodward (book) | 1 more credit »
Stars: Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford, Jack Warden

Director Alan J. Pakula gave us “Sophie’s Choice,” an incredible piece of film. How would YOU choose? That’s what the world keeps asking wherever it’s shown. I don’t usually pay attention to the producer’s name but they do provide the money and they have some input as far as that goes. So, having said that, he produced “To Kill a Mockingbird” in 1962. If you haven’t seen this classic movie you must. If you have, I’ll just let that sink in a minute.

Okay, back to the review:

There’s a new movie out called “The Post” that people are saying is a sequel to this. It isn’t but both are based on real life events. “The Post” is also an excellent film that details the way the press uncovered a government coverup of the atrocities and losses in Vietnam. It’s similar in the way it depicts the government trying to pull the wool over the eyes of its citizens. I don’t think it’s too far off to compare the themes of these films to what’s going on with the sitting president now. “The Post” is up for best picture and I really enjoyed it but this review is about a film that came long before it. Log live the press I say!

Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford play in “All the President’s Men” the two reporters that broke Watergate. They act out their lines among many actors you know nd love now though they looked a lot younger then. The way these two men play these roles makes this film a feat and something to study for future generations. Whether you like American scandal history or not, this is an incredibly engaging film. I give it a 10/10.

James White

A written and audio review. This is no “feel good” film to go see with friends after cocktails. It’s a tale of drug addiction, cancer, shiftlessness, and mental illness. If you’re ok with those themes though, it’s a damn good film with a few scenes that are downright earth shatteringly good.

Listen to my audio review here or scroll down to continue reading my written review.

James White (2015)
R | 1h 25min | Drama | 13 November 2015 (USA)

James, a twenty-something New Yorker, struggles to take control of his self-destructive behavior in the face of momentous family challenges.
Director: Josh Mond
Writer: Josh Mond
Stars: Christopher Abbott, Cynthia Nixon, Scott Mescudi

Having seen and reviewed a difficult film just yesterday, I can tell you I went into this viewing hoping for more uplifting media. Fortunately for me, there is that dark food for thought about life but it’s periodically met with positive quotes and wisdom for ones life. The director here is Josh Mond who’s black and white telling of life’s darkness belies his age. There isn’t much here to hang on to regarding hope but we can see the character get pummeled instead of ourselves and that makes it worth learning from.

As James goes through his early life crisis of trying to figure himself out, his mother is dying of cancer. It seemed like an excuse or an incubator for him to postpone really working and/or writing for hire. He goes all the way to Mexico trying to get clarity but it seems to elude him. Does he get what he needs by the end of the film to “grow up?” That’s the conversation topic. I’d say he’s pretty self-destructive and needs proper therapy and possibly rehab. This is a heavy film with amazing acting. Definitely thought provoking.

8/10

A Dark Song (Written and Audio Review)

Horror movies have talked about love and loss before but not usually this deeply. The issues are so deep in fact, one might question whether they belong in a horror film. They exist just the same and while watching this film you don’t just see them on screen, you absorb them. The longing of the protagonist and her helper calling on the black arts becomes our own … “poor us,” as the ritual master says, in that sense. I also invite you to listen to my podcast below. (Continue reading the written version below the player)

A Dark Song (2016)
1h 40min | Drama, Horror | 28 April 2017 (USA)

A determined young woman and a damaged occultist risk their lives and souls to perform a dangerous ritual that will grant them what they want.
Director: Liam Gavin
Writer: Liam Gavin
Stars: Mark Huberman, Susan Loughnane, Steve Oram

I can sum up this, Liam Gavin’s directorial debut, by saying it moves way too slow for the first 3/4 but the last act is the stuff you take home to your nightmares. We needed the visuals in the first 3/4, they were sadly absent. I hope when Liam gets his next project he remembers that. I really can’t recommend this film to all horror fans because I found it nearly impossible to sit through but I might say if you have fast forward abilities, go to the final act. You’ll see things there you’ve never seen.

Back to non-spoiler territory: The protagonist has lost her son to occultists who ceremoniously murdered him. She pays another occultist to take her through rituals to enable her to talk to her guardian angel and her son to seek revenge. It’s gritty and you expect typical demonic stuff that only lightly comes. It is basically a hodgepodge character study of two dysfunctional people churning, tortured by desire and vegeance, seeking to call on the supernatural realm for relief … and failing. The end third is worth it. This is a movie to discuss, without a doubt. Watch for Liam Gavin’s future work as I will.

8/10

Swamp Thing & Them

(Audio and written review) “Swamp Thing” is a horror movie that at times may come across as a bit funny but it is meant as a serious film. It looks like a throw back to films like “The Creature from the Black Lagoon.” Continue reading my written review and/or listen to my podcast review below. In this case, the podcast has much more material. For example I do a short review of the foreign horror film “Them” in this episode. Listen in the player below and/or keep reading the review.

Swamp Thing (1982)
PG | 1h 31min | Horror, Sci-Fi | 19 February 1982 (USA)

After a violent incident with a special chemical, a research scientist is turned into a swamp plant monster.
Director: Wes Craven
Writers: Wes Craven, Len Wein (comic book)
Stars: Louis Jourdan, Adrienne Barbeau, Ray Wise

It’s from 1982 so there wasn’t that much of a challenge on films to have the perfect cgi and graphics. They did a pretty good job with effects anyway. It was direct by Wes Craven who we all know from a “Nightmare on Elm Scream” and “Scream” and many other beloved horror films. “Swamp Thing” is a Sci-Fi horror. It’s also a theme where the monster grabs the woman and she screams but the creature does not hurt the woman. We see a similar thing in “King Kong” and “Creature from the Black Lagoon.”

We have a scientist who is trying to make something that will cure the whole world’s hunger problem. He’s a “good guy.” The chemical he is working on explodes in his face as bad men are seeking the formula. As a result, he become 1/2 man 1/2 animal. His suit is both rustic and great. By today’s cgi standards they could have done a lot better but it’s still great. At one point he throws a lot of people. This is done in a rustic and funny fashion, almost like 70’s television: the “A Team” and stuff like that.

The woman is Adrienne Barbeaux. She starts off homely but as she sheds clothing and starts to go on the run, she reveals that she is very hot! Never judge a book by its introduction!

So in this film, we get it all: a creature and a beautiful leading lady. I greatly enjoyed this film and give it an 8/10.

M.F.A. (Written & audio review)

On Netflix as of 4/11/2018. My Score: 7/10 Francesca Eastwood, yes the daughter, plays the glam graduate student of art who gets distracted by the crimes of others and chooses to cope with her trauma. I enjoyed this imperfect film. Listen to my audio review below and read my written review lower.

M.F.A. (2017)
Not Rated | 1h 32min | Thriller | 13 October 2017 (USA)

An art student taps into a rich source of creative inspiration after the accidental slaughter of her rapist. An unlikely vigilante emerges, set out to avenge college girls whose attackers walked free.
Director: Natalia Leite
Writer: Leah McKendrick
Stars: Francesca Eastwood, Clifton Collins Jr., Leah McKendrick

Pros: Francesca Eastwood, yes the daughter of Clint Eastwood, fronts this film of vengeance. It’s interesting to watch her struggle to improve her art and finally get recognition for it. Her facial expressions add to her acting abilities. In general, this film is fun to watch. Needed more good men, most are depicted as savages. The film remnded me a bit in tone of “American Mary” though not as body horror and not as gory.

Cons: Some of the material is non-credible. Suicides and covering tracks so well no one sees for a long time what is happening. The film assumes that most women would justify killing rapists. This is somewhat dealt with in the end but not completely. I wouldn’t call it horror it’s more of a thriller.

Ruby Sparks (w my Audio and Written Commentary)

Ruby Sparks is a romantic comedy written by Zoe Kazan. Ruby is a fictional character thought up in the movie by a successful writer in his early twenties played by Paul Dano.

Audio commentary from ‘The Damien Riley Podcast’ episode: Ruby Sparks

Much to his surprise, one day Ruby comes to life and takes on the role of his real life girlfriend. After that a roller coaster of emotions and love lessons ensue. For me, the strongest message in the movie is about the power we try to exert over each other in relationships. It has a truly all-star cast including Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas, Elliot Gould, and many more. Though the film started slow for me, it picked up in the middle and became a very fun and emotion-filled ride. I read online while watching the movie that the actress playing Ruby, Zoe Kazan, is the actual writer of the movie. For this reason, the audience gets the perspective of a woman being invented and controlled by an actual woman writer. I was impressed by Miss Kazan and will look for more from her in the future.

Final Thought: Relationships are often funny but more often perplexing. This movie uses metaphor and satire in the form of this invented woman to address some of those difficult issues. Paul Dano does a very nice job as a young writer trying to figure out life and love. He has definite ideas about what Ruby should be and he writes them clearly. I felt a real-life connection to what he was doing when he “wrote Ruby.” I thought at one point, “How would I ‘write’ my wife if I had the magic typewriter?” Through most of the movie I knew I would not rewrite her one iota. I think that is the message of the movie. We want “the perfect spouse” but in reality, we don’t know what that is for us. Better to let our spouse have her/his imperfections than try to craft them into something “perfect.” If those themes sound interesting, you’ll love this romantic comedy. I give it 5/5 stars. In some ways for me it was a perfect film experience.

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (w Audio Commentary)

This film in some ways is like “Fargo,” it has buffoons trying to commit crimes with disastrous results. It isn’t funny like “Fargo” though. In fact, this is one of the darker films I’ve seen in the past decade. Give a listen to my short episode on this film and see what you think.

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007)
R | 1h 57min | Crime, Drama, Thriller | 26 October 2007 (USA)

When two brothers organize the robbery of their parents’ jewelry store the job goes horribly wrong, triggering a series of events that sends them, their father and one brother’s wife hurtling towards a shattering climax.
Director: Sidney Lumet
Writer: Kelly Masterson
Stars: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney

Audio commentary from ‘The Damien Riley Podcast’ episode: Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead

Nowhere Boy

Most Gen-Xers know the attitude John Lennon of the Beatles had and the impression that left on modern culture. Milennials may not know much about him and they more than anyone should see this film. Beyond that, Boomers and everyone left living will love this film that chronicles the “pre-Beatle” years of John Lennon. It’s highly well made and the material is timeless.

Nowhere Boy (2009)
R | 1h 38min | Biography, Drama, Music | 15 October 2010 (USA)

A chronicle of John Lennon’s first years, focused mainly in his adolescence and his relationship with his stern aunt Mimi, who raised him, and his absentee mother Julia, who re-entered his life at a crucial moment in his young life.
Director: Sam Taylor-Johnson (as Sam Taylor-Wood)
Writer: Matt Greenhalgh (screenplay)
Stars: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Kristin Scott Thomas, Anne-Marie Duff

Sam Taylor-Johnson is our director here. She is unfortunately the director also of “Fifty Shades of Grey.” We’ll give her a hat tip anyway for taking a bestselling novel and setting it to film. Although I haven’t seen it, I’m sure it isn’t all bad. Her other directorial stuff has included a musical short by R.E.M. and some other huge acts like The Weeknd. She wins big with me on that, I’m a huge music lover. As a trivia note: Director Sam Taylor-Wood married Aaron Taylor-Johnson, the actor playing John in this film.

This film is different from your average biopic. First of all it’s an adaptation of a novel on the same name. Also, it’s the story apart from the luster of the Beatles. We get this guy named John instead of the notorious Lennon. He doesn’t even look like him. That may be a plus because this story takes of out of the Beatlemania and into the psychology of a young man in England trying to fit in as a square peg. I had some issues with the film in it’s ack of rational realism. How could he have learned guitar so fast? When did he start to write songs and how did he hone them? Stuff like this is missing because it’s focused more of relationships.

He is raised by his aunt who is very strict but clearly loves him. As a late teen, his real mother re-enters his life and tells him all about rock and roll. In fact, it is she who teaches him to play music on the banjo. He starts a rock band and goes through a few key life-changing experiences that one might assume made for the attitude he brought to the Beatles. This is an excellent film I highly enjoyed watching. I wish there were more like it about the other members of the Beatles. I give this one a 9/10.