Category Archives: Film Reviews

The Strangers (2008)

Note: This film was the main topic of discussion on Episode 12 of my podcast, The Cinescope Podcast. Give it listen for a more in-depth discussion!


Growing up, there were restrictions on what types of movies I was allowed to watch. Horror movies were not ever thought of because my parents aren’t fans of the genre, and films that were rated R by the MPAA were completely off-limits. However, as a senior in high school, I knocked out both in one fell swoop with The Strangers, a highly underrated horror film that has since held a special place in my heart.

After a failed marriage proposal at a friend’s wedding reception, James and Kristen (Scott Speedman and Liv Tyler, respectfully) return to James’ family summer home, where his prepared romantic night goes to waste. As they seek peace and rest, their early morning is interrupted by a mysterious knock at the door: a girl asking for someone who isn’t there. From there, things escalate quickly as this girl and her two companions begin to terrorize the home, and the couple’s already-bad night grows worse as it becomes a fight for survival.

The setup of the couple’s relationship is masterfully done as we’re fed small clues at a time: lingering tears on Kristen’s face in the car on the way home, the fancy dress and suit, the rose petals scattered throughout the house, the shortness in their conversation, the bottle of champagne. We’re able to draw a pretty accurate picture regarding what has happened before we’re fed the answer through a flashback, and all of this setup helps us to quickly sympathize with and grow attached to our protagonists.

The protagonists themselves are well-portrayed by Tyler and Speedman, and they’re also well-written by Bertino. They never seem to fall into the horror film trope of making poor decisions in the face of danger; every decision they make seems like either a natural, reactin to the situation or an act of desperation in the face of danger. Not having to yell at the characters for acting stupidly is always welcome in horror films, and it helps to ground the film even further than it already is.

Our “Strangers” are uniquely terrifying as well because they speak so little dialogue that we have no knowledge of their motivations. They’re simply people terrorizing other people, so we keep guessing at the why. Because I like to keep my reviews as spoiler-free as possible, I won’t leave any quotes from them here, but know that they only speak about four times and every. single. time. I get chills up my spine. These quotes reveal their motivations, making their actions all the more sickening.

What makes this particular horror film so effective is that it’s real. There are no monsters or ghosts or demons or scary locations…these are real people terrorizing real people in a setting that we would normally consider to be safe – the home – and the result is a sense of discomfort that makes you want to walk around your house at night with a flashlight so that nothing surprises you in the dark corners. Adding to the terror, the use of a handheld camera allows your eyes to play tricks on you. For example, when scanning across the nearby treeline, the slight tremor in the camera movement might make you panic…what was that? Did something move in the trees? And maybe not in that particular moment, but that makes the moments when something really is there all the more scary.

The real highlight of this film is the sound editing because it is used to the greatest effect when setting up the scares. There’s one scene when Kristen is home alone after James has left for a few minutes where she is panicking because she hears scratches at the window, knocks at the door, wind chimes rattling, and, as she hides in the bedroom, the scratch of the record player as the needle is placed by the intruder who is now in the house with her. In contrast, Bertino uses the absence of sound to generate horror as well; the first time we see one of the masked strangers is when Kristen is alone in the home, standing in the dining room area, and suddenly in the background we see the Man in the Mask silently emerge from the shadows (pictured above). We see him, but she doesn’t, and the complete silence only makes you squirm even more in your seat as you anxiously wait to see what this individual will do to the unsuspecting Kristen.

So many horror movies attempt to scare through excess rather than subtlety, which is part of the reason why I love this movie so much. It’s not trying to make you jump out of your seat – though there are a couple of well-earned jump scare moments – but it’s instead trying to make you feel sufficated and anxious as you worry about the plight of Kristen and James, and the realness of the situation and the idea that this could happen to anyone at any time, including to you, help to make The Strangers truly, wonderfully scary.



MPAA: R – for intense terror and violence throughout, frightening images, and language


Pinocchio (1940)

Note: this film was the main topic of discussion on Episode 10 of my podcast, The Cinescope Podcast. Give it a listen for a more in-depth discussion!


I grew up during the Disney Renaissance of the 1990s, so while I did own and watch many of the older Disney films like CinderellaSleeping Beauty, and The Jungle Book, the ones that stick out most in my memory are the ones that released during my childhood. Pinocchio was one of those films that I definitely owned and watched at some point as a kid, but upon rewatching it I became aware of just how little I remembered of it – and how fantastic of a film it is.

Pinocchio is the classic tale of a puppet lovingly crafted by woodcarver Geppetto. After wishing on a star, Geppetto is astonished to find his wish has come true – Pinocchio has come to life! Still made of wood, the puppet must prove to the beautiful Blue Fairy that he is capable of being brave, truthful, and unselfish in order to become fully human. Guided by a cricket named Jiminy, Pinocchio learns the dangers of lying and disobedience as he sets out on a journey to become a real boy.

When watching this movie as an adult, I’m struck by the beauty and quality of the animation. As we see the streets of the city from the perspective of the tiny Jiminy Cricket, we are treated to an incredible level of detail, and during the final chase with the whale Monstro, every stroke of the brush can be seen in the water – and every single frame is drawn completely by hand, i.e. without the use of any computers. This movie is a work of art, and it’s a true testament to human ingenuity.

One of the most endearing parts of this movie is the character list. I’m actually pretty surprised that I didn’t like this movie more as a kid because watching through now, I was completely hanging on every word that Jiminy Cricket spoke. He’s simultaneously clever and stern, and he’s even occasionally funny, even to the point of toeing the line along the fourth wall a couple of times. He also serves as the audience vantage point for much of the movie; because of him, we bear witness to the creation and “birth” of Pinocchio, and as he follows Pinocchio on his journey through the city, we are able to tag along because we see things through Jiminy’s eyes. Voiced to perfection by Cliff Edwards, Jiminy is easily one of the most endearing characters in all of Disney film history.

Speaking of Pinocchio, he’s a fun main character because he’s believable. He’s a kid in appearance and behavior, and he’s as curious as any toddler would be, constantly asking questions that start with “why?”. His naïvety is funny at first, but it also gives a reason for Jiminy to tag along; he’s not capable of truly knowing right from wrong just yet because he has only just entered the world. His emotions run a wide range and never go past the point of believabilty. We feel his joy, sorrow, and remorse as he feels them because he feels like a real character with real motivations. Plus, he’s adorable!

Other characters that stand out are Figaro the (house) cat, Cleo the goldfish, and Gideon the (antropomorphic) cat, all of whom are mute characters who communicate instead with their actions, allowing for a hilarious mix of human and animal characteristics. The villains, namely Stromboli, the Coachman, and Monstro are all properly despicable and (especially in the case of Monstro) terrifying, which honestly probably contributed to the reasons why I didn’t watch this movie much as a kid.

The story is pretty simple here, but that’s the genius of it: because the story is simple, the artwork/music and the lessons come to the forefront. Pinocchio is given very clear choices between right and wrong, with Jiminy pointing him in the right direction and him instead choosing the wrong direction and subsequently suffering the consequences. When Pinocchio finally does the right thing and follows Jiminy’s advice and shows his bravery and truthfulness, he reaps the benefits, becoming a real boy as it was promised to him. It’s a very clear lesson for children who are watching – if you do the right thing, you benefit. If you do the wrong thing, you suffer.

And speaking of the music, it’s all great here. Songs like “Little Wooden Head”, “Hi Diddle Dee Dee”, and “I’ve Got No Strings” are complete earworms, but the true classic here is definitely “When You Wish Upon a Star”, sung marvelously by Cliff Edwards’ Jiminy. The lyrics are inspiring, the music is beautiful, and Richards has one of the most pure, gorgeous tenor voices I’ve ever heard. It’s certainly deserving of the Academy Award it won!

It’s hard to believe that this movie was made more than 70 years ago because it really does stand the test of time. Pinocchio is charming, beautifully animated, and is a true classic in every sense of the word. Whether you’re a child or an adult, you owe it to yourself to check this movie out and simply enjoy this lovingly-made film.




The Magnificent Seven (2016)

Note: This movie was featured in the first bonus episode of my podcast, The Cinescope Podcast. If you’re interested in hearing my first reaction right after seeing the movie, definitely go check it out!


For better or worse, we live in a world where sequels and reboots/remakes reign supreme over original content. Why create something new when you can create a newer, cooler version of something old? Perhaps that’s a bit of a cynical outlook on things, but fortunately this new Hollywood standard hasn’t been all bad, and director Antoine Fuqua’s 2016 remake of the 1960 Western classic, The Magnificent Seven proves that reboots can still be good fun – if not maybe a bit unnecessary.

In 1879, a man named Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) has taken control of the small town of Rose Creek, forcing the citizens to mine gold, demanding they forfeit their land, and paying off the corrupt local law enforcement to police the town. After he openly slaughters several locals who stand up to him and sets the only church aflame, newly-widowed Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) seeks the help of Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington), who assembles a team of men (Chris Pratt, Vincent D’Onofrio, Ethan Hawke, Byung-hun Lee, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, and Martin Sensmeier) to help take control of the city and to seek vengeance on Bogue.

I unfortunately have to admit that, at the time of this writing, I have seen neither the original The Magnificent Seven film nor its inspiration, Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, meaning that I walked into this movie with no previous story information or knowledge of what to expect aside from the fact that I knew seven guys were basically protecting a town from a bunch of bad guys. So I can’t make any quality comparisons between this new version and either of the originals, but thankfully the new film is a fun one. Gunfights are expertly choreographed and action-packed, but they rarely seem gratuitous, and the lack of Tarantino-esque gore makes them much more watchable. Because of how the villain is introduced at the start of the film, you see him as truly evil and deserving of the vengeance coming to him at the hands of these Seven, and even though he’s physically absent from most of the film; his absence is hardly noticed because it’s hard to shake the image of the slaughter of so many innocents.

Denzel Washington’s Sam Chisolm is absolutely the best part of this film. He’s sympathetic, honorable, and completely believable as a cowboy-type character in this time period. He’s also the most serious and grounded character throughout, which is a great contrast to Chris Pratt’s Joshua Faraday (more on that below). Another standout performance here comes from Haley Bennett as Emma Cullen. She carries all the good qualities of a damsel in distress – emotional without being over-the-top, sympathetic, etc. – but she’s also able to transcend that stereotype and have some true moments in the spotlight as she actively participates in the climactic gunfight sequence of the film, proving herself effective as not only a mourning widow but also as a highly capable woman of action capable of defending herself and others.

Now for Chris Pratt as Joshua Faraday. I love Chris Pratt. I think he’s funny, but I also think that he can be a highly capable dramatic actor when he’s given the chance. Aside from a few small moments here and there, though, he never truly rises above the “quippy Chris Pratt” default character. There are scenes where his lines feel oddly forced and unnecessary, largely during moments when he is supposed to be the comedic relief, but also in more dramatic moments that almost feel undeserved because he doesn’t have the proper character development to lead him to those scenes. Vincent D’Onofrio’s Jack Horne suffers a similar fate; the first appearance of his character introduces him as a true man of the mountain, but despite his awesome tomahawk-throwing skills and visual comparison to a bear, he speaks with an unnecessarily effeminate voice, which wouldn’t really be a problem if there was more of a reason why he did so or if he wasn’t set up as a silly character with silly lines. While watching, I was reminded of Radegast the Brown’s appearance in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy – an unnecessary character who is goofier than he needs to be. It would be unfair for me to say that I didn’t enjoy some moments with Faraday or Horne, but it would be accurate to say that I was a bit disappointed with their roles in the film.

While I’m talking a bit of criticism, I want to quickly touch on some of the cinematography. Now, for the most part, this film is very well-shot and well-choreographed, but the high quality of the majority makes the minor things stand out even more. One scene in particular features Bogue (our villain) preparing an army to send to Rose Creek for battle, which is a fine scene until we cut back to Sam Chisolm simply standing there (or sitting on his horse; I don’t remember for sure), silhouetted against the night sky. Then it cuts back to the Bogue scene, and then back to Chisolm, who hasn’t moved or said a word of dialogue to justify why we’re seeing him. It’s a strange moment. The only other shot(s) that really bothers me took place just prior to the climactic fight in the latter 45 minutes of the movie. As Bogue’s men arrive in Rose Creek, we hear a ring of the church bell accompanied by a close-up of one of the Seven, then cut to black. Another ring, another close-up, then cut to black. It does this for most (if not all) of the Seven, and it is the only shot like this in the entire film. It feels egregiously out of place when compared to the rest of the film, but on the whole this is a pretty minor complaint.

Lastly, I have to briefly talk about the music. This is the third and final James Horner score released posthumously following his untimely death in 2015, and it was probably the aspect of the film that I was most anticipating going in. Elmer Bernstein’s main theme for the original 1960 film is classic and known by pretty much everyone, so everyone was curious to hear what his approach would be. After watching the movie and listening to the score, I’ll be the first to admit that there’s nothing here as memorable or instantly classic as Bernstein’s theme, but that doesn’t take away from it being fantastic. What’s great about Western film scores is that the burden of having to use electronic sounds is absent, so we hear a lot of natural, organic sounding music – lots of brass, woodwinds, strings, the typical stuff, and because it’s Horner, it’s very theme-based. That being said, Bernstein’s original theme actually does appear at the very end of the film, which I have mixed feelings about. On the one hand, it’s nice that something so classic was included as a throwback to the original, but on the other, it feels incredibly out of place since it isn’t heard anywhere else in the film. I would rather it have been sprinkled in bits and pieces throughout only to be finally heard in its entirety at the end OR not heard at all, left solely to Horner’s own original music. But that’s just my preference!

So there you have it. My opinions on this film are largely positive, and I don’t see that changing when I see the original movie and Seven Samurai – hopefully soon! Is it a fantastic movie, or even Magnificent? Not really, but it’s fun and Denzel’s performance alone is worth the price of admission. It may not live up to the expectations of the original, but it’s a perfectly fine film on its own and worth seeing in the theater.



MPAA: PG-13 – for extended and intense sequences of Western violence, and for historical smoking, some language, and suggestive material

Inception (2010)

Note: This film was the main topic of discussion on Episode 9 of my podcast, The Cinescope Podcast. Give it a listen for a more in-depth discussion!


Christopher Nolan is one of the more visionary film directors working in the industry today as evidenced by the audacity and realism of his Dark Knight trilogy and the scope of Interstellar. Inception is no exception, and it proves to be perhaps his most personal film to date – he wrote and fine-tuned the script over a period of nearly a decade before having the chance to actually make it, and his hard work definitely paid off.

Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is the world’s best dream extractor; he enters people’s dreams to steal secrets from their subconscious. He’s good at what he does, but he lives an unfulfilling life, separated from his children due to charges against him for a crime he didn’t commit. To clear the charges and see his kids again, Cobb makes a deal with Mr. Saito (Ken Watanabe), who promises to use his influence to clear Cobb’s name in exchange for inception – the placing of an idea into someone’s head via their dreams. Assembling a team to assist him, Cobb puts everything at risk in order to see his kids again, with failure meaning that he’ll be in prison for the rest of his life.

Nolan’s creativity is incredible here, with him taking things that are familiar to us, like a “kick” – the falling feeling you get while in bed that instantly wakes you up – being used in new ways, in this case as a means of waking up from a dream before the time runs out on their special dream-sharing machine. He also introduces the idea of “projections”, which are physical (within the dream itself) manifestations of our subconscious that can be spoken to in order to gain information or to learn more about the person creating the projections. I find the “mechanics” of Nolan’s dream world endlessly fascinating as I learn more about these as well as things like how Nolan envisions the effects of outside stimuli such as slaps or needing to use the restroom within the dream.

The story itself is in the style of a heist film, but the setting doesn’t allow it to be anything even remotely close to generic. For starters, Cobb and team aren’t stealing anything but are instead putting something there – an idea. There are elements of science fiction and blockbuster action, but at the same time the narrative carries a surprisingly emotion weight with it as we witness Cobb struggling with the loss of his wife and his guilt at having caused it, as well as the strained father/son relationship between Robert and Maurice Fischer (Cillian Murphy and Pete Postlethwaite, respectively). There are multiple scenes that can leave you in tears, but there are also moments of comedy (Tom Hardy’s Eames has a few notable one-liners) and incredible action sequences, with my favorite being Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s fight in a rotating hallway.

Each member of the cast shines, so I won’t talk about them all, but I do feel the need to highlight a couple of them. Leonardo DiCaprio as Cobb brings another all-star performance to the screen here, alternately treating us with scenes of anger, anguish, personal torment, guilt, and compassion. Marion Cotillard appears as his wife Mal, and we see her in various states of maliciousness and sadness. As the story between these two characters unfolds, we learn of the true tragedy that ended their marriage, made even more heartbreaking by the beautiful performances of both DiCaprio and Cotillard. Tom Hardy’s Eames shows off not only his comedic chops, but also his ability to be both intellectual and ready for action…watching his performance in this movie, you could make a pretty convincing argument for Hardy as the next (or eventual) James Bond. And the last character I’ll talk about here is Ellen Page as Ariadne, the young architect who joins to team in order to design the dream levels that the group will be diving in to. She acts as the sort of communication liaison for the audience; as someone new to the group, she’s a vehicle for exposition allowing characters to tell her (and therefore the audience) about the dream sharing process as well as a way for us to get a glimpse into Cobb’s difficulty with restraining his dangerous projection of Mal that jeopardizes their mission. Page is calm and intelligent and is therefore a comforting presence amidst all of the chaos they face on their mission. Additional shoutouts to great performances from Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Arthur (and his amazing rotating hallway/anti-gravity action scenes) and Cillian Murphy’s Robert Fischer.

I also won’t talk about Hans Zimmer’s wonderful score here, mostly because I’ve already written a review on it. However, I will say that this score marked a turning point in my opinion of Zimmer’s work. For most of the first decade of the millenium, I thought that he copied himself too often, but his music here innovated and showed him at his experimental best, and the majority of his work since then has been taken in a similar direction. Nolan/Zimmer is as inspired a pairing as Spielberg/Williams or Zemeckis/Silvestri because the two of them understand each other and have similar visions of scope and artistic expression.

This review was surprisingly difficult to write because there’s so much good to be said that I couldn’t narrow down very well. The bottom line is this: Inception is Christopher Nolan at his absolute best. The story and dream world are incredibly engaging and fun, and the performances from each of the actors as well as from Hans Zimmer are top notch throughout. I have nothing but praise for what has become one of my all-time favorite movies.



MPAA: PG-13 – for sequences of violence and action throughout

Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993)

Note: This film was the main topic of discussion on Episode 8 of my podcast, The Cinescope Podcast. Give it a listen for a more in-depth discussion!


I might have mentioned this in a review before, but comedy films usually aren’t “my thing”. Sure, I love having a good laugh while watching a fun movie, but films labeled as “comedies”  I usually actively avoid, with a few notable exceptions. Prior to discussing this movie on my podcast, I had only seen it once and had paid it very little attention because I was working on homework at the time (I was 17 or so), but I was certainly willing to give it a try, and, thankfully, it’s a fun movie and better than many other comedies I’ve seen.

Robin Hood: Men in Tights is a Mel Brooks film that tells the story of the man we all know, Robin Hood (Cary Elwes), who famously steals from the rich and gives to the needy. We see very little of that side of him in this movie and are instead treated to song and dance numbers and slapstick antics, as well as a cast of side characters that brings the laughs in thick as we follow Robin and friends on a journey to retaliate against the power-hungry Prince John (Richard Lewis) and to win the heart of the beautiful Maid Marian (Amy Yasbeck).

This movie never quite takes itself seriously, and in the select few moments when it does, it’s to emphasize the ridiculousness of something else that is going on or is about to happen. For example, at the very start of the film, we witness a village being attacked and set aflame. The scene seems to be gruesome and violent, but then the villagers start to complain about how “every time they make a Robin Hood movie, they burn [their] village down”, and they go on to call Brooks out by name, asking him to leave them alone. And there you have it: a seemingly serious moment used to tell the film’s first joke by breaking the Fourth Wall.

The film isn’t the only thing to not take itself seriously; each of the characters has their moment to be hysterically funny at some point before the end credits roll. The obvious standout is Cary Elwes, who played Westley in The Princess Bride (my review), and his portrayal of our eponymous hero almost feels like an extension of his character from that film. He has the same sort of humor and general personality, but at no point does Robin seem like a rehash or clone of Westley. In fact, in this movie he gets the opportunity to be straight-out funny rather than hiding behind the more dry, straightforward delivery of his Farm Boy counterpart. He knows when he’s being funny, and he milks it for all it’s worth. At one point, he cheekily turns to the camera to tell the audience that unlike some actors who play Robin Hood, he can speak with an English accent – an obvious jab at Kevin Costner’s portrayal of the same character in 1991’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. He has many moments like this that caused me to laugh out loud while watching. Elwes has a fantastic sense of timing with his joke delivery and knows just how to deliver his line for maximum hilarity.

I won’t dwell on other characters for too long – listen to the podcast for that! – but I will mention my favorites. Roger Rees as the Sheriff of Rottingham is often hysterical, many times due to the way he jumbles up his words, often switching starting consonants (“spoonerisms”) but once or twice becoming so enraged that he’s simply unable to form a coherent sentence. Mark Blankfield played the blind Blinkin, and he is the character who makes me laugh the most, especially during a particular fight scene where, in an effort to aid his friends in battle, he feverishly and unknowingly hacks away at a wooden post for an embarrassingly long time, thinking it to be a legitimate enemy. The last character I’ll mention is actually just a simple cameo, and I don’t exactly want to spoil it for you, so I’ll let you watch the movie for yourself…just be ready for the awesome cameo in the last five minutes of the film!

I don’t have much to say regarding the score or music in general except that it does its job of furthering the purpose of the film – to make you laugh. At the start of the movie, we watch an Indiana Jones-style travel scene by map, accompanied by a rousing orchestral rendition of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”, which is of course ridiculous in the best of ways. There’s also a fantastic choreographed dance scene to a song called (what else?) “Men in Tights”, and it’s hilarious enough that it was the only part of the movie I remembered from my first viewing several years ago.

Mel Brooks has made his mark on the comedy genre through his many beloved films – SpaceballsBlazing SaddlesYoung Frankenstein, to name a few – but, as guest host Mikey Fissel said on Episode 8 of The Cinescope Podcast, none are as accessible or universal as Robin Hood: Men in Tights, so it serves as a perfect jumping-off point for exploring the rest of Brooks’ filmography. The story is a simple one that we all already know, so the real focus of the movie is the ache in your side you’ll get from laughing throughout.



MPAA: PG-13 – for off-color humor

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001)

Note: This film was the main topic of discussion on Episode 7 of my podcast, The Cinescope Podcast. Give it a listen for a more in-depth discussion!


I first read J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in the latter days of 1999 after receiving it from my grandmother for Christmas that year. I was only 7 years old at the time, but I devoured it and was ready for more, so I was given Chamber of Secrets and Prisoner of Azkaban for my birthday just a few weeks later. When this movie adaptation was announced, I forced my grandmother to read the book so she could take me to the theater, and despite her initial reluctance, she loved it as well, and so we went to the theater together. While it will never capture the exact magic of the book series, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone remains one of the best book-to-film adaptations I’ve seen as well as one of the most important movies of my childhood.

10-year-old Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) has grown up believing that his parents died in a car crash, which is why he lives with his terrible aunt, uncle, and cousin; he’s forced to wear his large cousin’s too-big hand-me-down clothes and sleeps in the cupboard under the stairs. His life is far from happy, but all of that changes when mysterious letters start arriving in strange ways, all addressed to him. Harry soon finds out that not only did his parents not die in a car crash, but that they were wizards who died protecting him from the most evil wizard of all time – and that Harry himself is a wizard too. He’s whisked away into a world that is entirely new to him and to a new magical school called Hogwarts, filled with friends, teachers, and danger.

It should be said right off the bat that the production team absolutely nailed the casting decisions; every single actor is perfectly placed in their role, and as a result, I find it difficult to imagine others playing these characters. The child actors – Daniel Radcliffe as Harry, Rupert Grint as Ron, and Emma Watson as Hermione – aren’t all-stars here, but they visually fit the descriptions and perform their parts believably. Yes, they’re children and make typical children mistakes, but they’re still charming and make you feel for them when they are emotional and worry for them when they are in danger, which is what really matters – that they make you care.

And of course the adults in the film are outstanding as well! Richard Harris is pitch perfect as Professor Dumbledore, completely capturing the “twinkle in the eye” aspect of the character as described in the book series. Though I did enjoy Michael Gambon as Dumbledore in later films after Harris passed away prior to the release of Chamber of Secrets, I think that Richard Harris more perfectly embodies the calm, wise old wizard demeanor. Maggie Smith as McGonagall is every bit as stern as her book counterpart, but at the same time she’s able to show the proper warmth and joy when she discovers Harry’s flying capabilities and concern while watching his first match against the rough-playing Slytherin team. Other admirable performances come from Alan Rickman as Snape – you can catch some subtle hints towards his characters’ eventual fate if you watch for it, but at the same time he appears just as loathsome and borderline evil as the children believe him to be – and Robbie Coltrane as Hagrid – who, as Harry’s first real father figure is just as warm and gentle as you would expect him to be despite his size, and his constant refrain of “I shouldn’t have said that” shows both his loyalty to Dumbledore and his secrets as well as his dedication to the children and their safety.

The story, which is basically just a reiteration of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, isn’t overly complex, so the real focuses of this movie are the characters and world-building. Since Harry is just as new to the world of wizards and witches and magic as we are, we are able to witness everything through his eyes and experience things such as Platform 9 3/4, the magic feast in the Great Hall, and the moving staircases through his eyes. J. K. Rowling’s wizarding world is a wonder to behold in all of its details, but the addition of magic doesn’t take away the human lessons to be taken away here. In observing Harry, Ron, and Hermione, we learn about the importance of true friendship and sacrifice for the ones you love, as well as bravery in the face of danger and difficult choices. Additionally, Dumbledore teaches us the importance of living our lives rather than focusing on what could be (“It does not do to dwell on dreams, Harry, and forget to live”) and the power of true, pure love.

Though I won’t go on about it at length here, I have to at least mention John Williams absolutely incredible score for this movie (my review). It was the very first film soundtrack I ever owned, and it sparked a fascination with both film scores and John Williams that continues to this day. More than that, it taught me that instrumental music can still tell a story; when listening to “The Quidditch Match”, I can completely visualize every single action on screen based on the musical cues alone (and to this day, that is one of my top 5 favorite-scored scenes in all of moviedom). “Hedwig’s Theme” remains a classic to this day and is recognizable by those who have and haven’t seen the movies alike, and “Leaving Hogwarts” still causes me to shed a tear or two every time I hear it. This soundtrack is definitely worth checking out if you haven’t given it a listen before.

While this movie is definitely not the best in the series – or even second best, to be honest – it’s the one that means the most to me, and it’s the one that started it all; if Chris Columbus and company hadn’t gotten it right here, then Harry Potter may have continued on very differently and might not have become as successful as it ended up being. To that end, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is exactly the film that needed to be made at that time – it’s not only a great and accurate book-to-film adaptation, but it’s also full of the magic, wonder, and heart that inspired me as a child to seek true friendship, to be brave in the decisions I make, and to unselfishly love others.



MPAA: PG – for some scary moments and mild language

Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971)

Note: This film was the main topic of discussion on Episode 6 of my podcast, The Cinescope Podcast. Give it a listen for a more in-depth discussion!


Most of the movies I remember from my childhood are animated and no longer worth my time. However, there are a few gems that withstand the test of time, and the 1971 film Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory is one of those movies that is part of some of my earliest movie memories; it will always hold a special place in my heart.

Based on Roald Dahl’s book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, this movie tells the story of young Charlie Buckett, a boy who lives in a rundown one-room shack with his mother and four bedridden grandparents. They are the very definition of poor, and Charlie himself has a paper route to help to provide for his family. One day, the mysterious Willy Wonka – a reclusive, highly successful candymaker – announces to the world a contest that will allow five lucky people access into his factory for a day, along with a lifetime supply of chocolate. When lucky Charlie finds a ticket, it’s off to the factory with four other children to see what awaits them.

*this movie is 45 years old; there are spoilers*

This movie is a classic for obvious reasons, not the least of which is the fabulous Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka. He captivates the viewer in every moment he appears onscreen, and his energy is occasionally menacing but more often charming. The twinkle in his eye will make you smile, and listening to him sing “Pure Imagination” will tug at your heartstrings. In the final scene when Wonka promises Charlie his factory and a “happily ever after”, the warmth felt is so incredibly genuine that you can’t help but smile – and maybe even shed a tear.

But Gene Wilder isn’t the only highlight here. All of the children are wonderfully despicable and spoiled, but believable to the point that children viewers can identify parts of themselves and therefore learn from the mistakes of their onscreen counterparts. Peter Ostrum as Charlie shines in his only film role to date: he portrays all of the character’s honesty, kindness, and pure intentions with such an earnestness that you feel for him when he longs for a Golden Ticket but realizes how low his chances are, you grin when he sprints home with the Ticket clutched in hand, and you cheer as he hugs Wonka, knowing that his family will hunger no more. Rarely do you get a child actor, especially one with so little other film experience, who is able to portray such a wide range of emotions believably. Jack Albertson as Charlie’s Grandpa Joe is also a standout role, featuring the love and care expected of a grandfather as well as the energy and zeal of a much younger man. His love for Charlie is obvious as he acts as the beacon of hope for Charlie during his search for the Golden Ticket and as he climbs out of bed for the first time in twenty years to accompany Charlie to the factory – and the first thing he does is participate in an entirely too fun dance number! Watching him sing and dance to “I’ve Got a Golden Ticket” is one of my two favorite scenes in the entire film.

Speaking of songs, I’ve already mentioned my two favorites – “Pure Imagination” and “I’ve Got a Golden Ticket”, and “Candy Man” is a great show opener featuring the wonderful Aubrey Woods as the candy shop owner singing to a group of ecstatic children, a scene that also introduces us for the first time to the idea of Wonka and who he might be: a man born to make candy, apparently! The team of Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley composed both the songs and the film score, for which they won the Academy Award for Best Original Score, and rightly so; the overture that plays over the montage of candy-making in the opening credits is a fantastic introduction to the musical landscape of the movie, and other fine musical moments include the instrumental versions of “I’ve Got a Golden Ticket” and “Pure Imagination” that play in the scenes when Charlie runs home to show off his prize and when Wonka, Charlie, and Grandpa Joe view the city from the Glass Elevator at the end of the film, respectively. And who could forget “Oompa, Loompa” (no one…the answer is “no one”).

I really don’t need to say all that much about this movie because no doubt you’ve already seen it. And if you haven’t? Shame on you. Go get yourself a copy, now, and bask in the magical, scrumdiddlyumptious world. Roald Dahl was always one of my favorite authors as a kid because he taught that childhood was something to relish rather than rush, and that creativity and imagination are our greatest gifts. Not only does Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory display these themes of childhood wonder and pure imagination, but it also serves as a visual and musical treat that stands the test of time and still dazzles to this day. It makes me laugh, it makes me cry, and it’s a movie that’s as (or even more) important to me now as it was when I first watched it as a child.

Rest in peace, Gene Wilder.




Star Trek Beyond (2016)


JJ Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek film was my first introduction to the franchise, and, looking back, I’m still quite fond of that movie. While I initially quite enjoyed his 2013 followup, Star Trek Into Darkness (my review), here we are three years later and I’ve still only seen it the one time I saw it in the theater despite owning it on Blu-Ray…it just isn’t a movie that really stuck with me or demanded rewatches. That being said, I was wary of director Justin Lin – most known for his ventures in the Fast and Furious franchise – taking over for the third installment, but…wow. What a great movie!

Taking place three years after the events of Star Trek Into DarknessStar Trek Beyond places the beloved crew of the USS Enterprise in deep space, exploring new worlds and seeking allies for the Federation. Shortly after arriving at Starbase Yorktown, the crew, still led by Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine), is sent out on a rescue mission into an uncharted nebula, where they are attacked by a creature named Krall and his massive crew. With the Enterprise destroyed, the crew separated, and hope diminishing, Kirk must find a way to rescue his crew and to save the universe at the same time.

It should be noted that all three of the new-Trek films so far noticeably borrow from what is widely regarded as the best Star Trek film, The Wrath of Khan (my review): Star Trek utilizes the Kobayashi Maru test that was first introduced in TWOKStar Trek Into Darkness uses its main villain and directly imitates entire scenes, and Star Trek Beyond explores the same themes of mortality and sacrifice. I would argue that Beyond does this with the most success because it takes familiar themes and applies them to the different situations that the characters find themselves in rather than lifting direct story or scene elements, making the comparisons more subtle and therefore more effective. I can also give this movie the same compliment that I gave TWOK: it feels like an extended episode of the TV series in all the best ways. It really is masterfully done.

The characters this time around are established and don’t require the “set up” that they received in the first two films; they’re now largely the characters we know and love from the original television show and movie series. Chris Pine’s Kirk is a leader who is confident in his abilities and his responsibilities as a captain, but he’s also at a point in his life where he doesn’t know what’s next for him. It’s not that he has insecurities but rather that he is struggling to find the meaning of their continued exploration in uncharted space. We’re able to see his growth over the course of the film as he realizes that his crew is his family and that he would be out of place if he was placed anywhere aside from the bridge of a starship (the same conclusion William Shatner’s Kirk reaches in The Wrath of Khan through different circumstances). The introduction of his famous “captain’s log” in the new-Trek franchise is also an excellent touch.

As captain, Kirk continues to be the main character, but the supporting characters are definitely not tossed to the side here; in fact, we get many great moments with each of the classic members of the crew. Spock (Zachary Quinto) and Bones (Karl Urban), two characters with a history of a somewhat antagonistic relationship, are paired together for much of the film, resulting in some hilarious banter but also some tender moments of expressed friendship and overcoming obstacles. Scotty (Simon Pegg), Sulu (John Cho), and Uhura (Zoë Saldana) all get their moments in the limelight as well. Thankfully, Anton Yelchin as Chekov is given much screentime as he’s paired with Kirk; his work here only continues to show how truly devastating it is that he has left us so soon. Lastly, Sofia Boutella as the newcomer Jaylah was fantastic as a strong female character who was able to hold her own, and, in fact, much of the film would not have been possible without her character’s actions.

I think this movie’s biggest issue is its villain. Idris Elba is an incredible actor, and he did an admirable job here as Krall, but an actor can only do so much when hidden behind that much CGI. His character’s motivations are revealed towards the end of the film, and they’re understandable to a certain extent, but I think that as the antagonist his main purpose was definitely to provide a scenario for our heroes to grow and interact with each other in meaningful ways. The visual effects behind Krall and his fleet of bee-like ships was very well done and made for exciting action sequences. While I’m mentioning technical effects in the movie, I’d be remiss if I didn’t bring up returning composer Michael Giacchino’s wonderful score; his universe building is fantastic and continues to offer some of the best sci-fi music out there. And, of course, I have to say how awesome the pop music used is, in one scene in particular…I won’t spoil it here, and I certainly wouldn’t think that a scene like that would ever appeal to me, but it’s possibly the most fun scene in the whole movie.

I’ve said a few times recently, like in my written review for Blade Runner, that what sci-fi as a genre does best is ask questions and present new ideas, and Star Trek Beyond does that extremely well. It asks us to consider mortality and our friendships with others, and it does so within a fantastical setting that keeps us engrossed without distracting us from the point. When I learned that Justin Lin was directing this movie, I was concerned – Fast and Furious lies far outside my usual range of interest – but I could not have been proven more wrong; he accomplishes so much here with an amazing script by Simon Pegg and Doug Jung. Star Trek Beyond is without a doubt my favorite of the new Star Trek films, and it makes me even more excited for future films in the franchise.



MPAA: PG-13 – for sequences of sci-fi action and violence

Blade Runner (1982)

Note: This film was the main topic of discussion on Episode 4 of my podcast, The Cinescope Podcast. Give it a listen for a more in-depth discussion!


*very mild spoilers*

What is the appeal of the sci-fi genre? Certainly the potential of catching a possible glimpse of the future is a draw, and people are always glad to see the exciting action sequences that are typical in sci-fi works. But I would argue that what sci-fi does well, often better than other genre films, is ask questions, present new ideas, and generally give us life questions to ponder after the credits roll. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner accomplishes all of the above.

In 2019 Los Angeles, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is brought in by his former supervisor Bryant (M. Emmet Walsh) and briefed on a new assignment: four Replicants – illegal androids – have escaped to Earth from off-planet human colonies, and they must now be killed. You see, Deckard used to be what they call a “Blade Runner”, a sort of bounty hunter tasked with tracking down these Replicants and “retiring” them. With Replicants being nearly indistinguishable from humans, Deckard has his work cut out for him, and he may just lose his humanity or even his life along the way.

The plot of the movie is relatively simple: good guy needs to hunt down robot bad guys and kill them before bad things happen. But, as I mentioned, the real highlights here are the questions…are the bad guys actually bad guys? Are the good guys actually good guys? What is right? What is wrong? What does it mean to be human? All of these questions carry quite a bit of heft and really drive the momentum of the film. I won’t attempt to answer any of these questions here – namely because my answers might be different than yours, as they’re meant to be.

Though the whole cast shines, there are three in particular that stand out in my mind when I watch this movie. The obvious choice is Harrison Ford as Deckard. As our primary human character, he brings us an interesting mix of the empathy we expect in a human but also the coldness and moral distance you would expect from a machine or, in this case, a Replicant. One of the biggest – if not the biggest – questions from this movie is whether Deckard is a human or a Replicant, and Ford masterfully plays along that fine line without definitively revealing anything either way. Another standout is Rutger Hauer as the Replicant Roy, who has perhaps the biggest character arc in the film, or at least the most interesting one. He possesses a strange energy that both endears and frightens, especially through the vibrancy of his bright blue eyes, but he also often shows more human traits than Deckard does: compassion, empathy, sadness, happiness, and he delivers one of the finest speeches to be found in any sci-fi film, or to be honest, in any film at all (and partially improvised, at that!). The last one I’ll mention here is Sean Young as the Replicant Rachael, who is particularly fascinating because her character initially believes herself to be a human thanks to implanted memories. Where Deckard is a human with many Replicant qualities, Rachael is just the opposite, and watching her cry as she learns that the memories of the life she thought she had were forgeries is heartbreaking. Throughout the rest of the movie, she expresses conflict between which faction she owes her allegiance to – the humans who created her or the Replicants who share her origin.

Vangelis, of Chariots of Fire fame, sets the tone of the film with another synth-based score that works extremely well in this futuristic dystopian setting; there’s a technological energy in the music as the film opens, but this eventually gives way to a strong feeling of melancholy and despair that matches the state of the world and the conflict going on within our characters’ minds.

The questions and the themes found in this movie could be talked about and written about for ages to come (and probably will be), but for now I’ll leave you to watch the film for yourself and ponder over everything on your own. If you do, I highly recommend checking out the basis for the film as well, Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Reading the book really helped me to get into Deckard’s head and to understand some of his motivations and internal struggles. Once you have watched the movie and maybe read the book, talk about it with others! Blade Runner is a film that demands discussion because of the complex questions found within, but, for the more casual moviegoer, it still has a lot to offer in the way of good sci-fi worldbuilding and action. However you take it on, enjoy the ride and consider: what does it mean to live?


(P.S. – Watch the Final Cut.)


MPAA: R – for violence and brief nudity

Frequency (2000)

Note: This film was the main topic of discussion on Episode 3 of my podcast, The Cinescope Podcast. Give it a listen for a more in-depth discussion!


*very mild spoilers*

It shouldn’t be any secret ’round these parts that I am, let’s say, fond of time travel movies, Back to the Future (my review) being the top of the bunch. Time travel, however, can be a tricky subject, and if it’s not done well, it can be almost painful to watch. Thankfully, Frequency – which happens to be a time travel movie that doesn’t actually feature time travel – handles its subject matter with great care and gives us some great drama along the way.

In October 1969, we’re introduced to Frank Sullivan (Dennis Quaid), a firefighter who loves his job, his wife Julia (Elizabeth Mitchell), and his son John. Flash forward to October 1999 where we meet John Sullivan (Jim Caviezel), now a 36-year-old police officer who we learn lost his father in a fire…30 years ago. Struggling with the departure of his girlfriend and the impending anniversary of his father’s death, John discovers Frank’s old ham radio and, upon hooking it up, finds none other than his own deceased father on the other end of the conversation. Faced with the question of “what if” and all the implications that lie therein, John and Frank begin to reconnect but then must face the consequences that come with meddling with time.

As I mentioned above, this is a time travel movie that doesn’t feature time travel; instead, we have John’s ability to manipulate the past by communicating with his father and changing the way things “originally” happened, causing fascinating ripple effects that we witness in the form of memory flashbacks, changing pictures, and even matter being manipulated in real time. For example, in one scene Frank, in a moment of irony, accidentally sets fire to an object on his desk, and John, sitting at the same desk 30 years later, witnesses the scorch mark appearing first hand. Scenes like this (and another in which Frank writes a message with a soldering iron on the same desk) communicate to the audience that these two characters’ interactions at different moments in time are happening concurrently and have an effect on each other.

Speaking of these two characters, Dennis Quaid and Jim Caviezel are perfectly cast as a father/son duo. Quaid’s introduction as Frank shows us both the passion he has for his job and for helping other people – at his own peril – as well as his immense love for his family; dancing with his wife while singing Elvis Presley’s “Suspicious Minds” (my favorite Presley song) is a highlight of the movie, and Quaid’s natural ease and likability boosts the scene even further. Jim Caviezel’s John is tortured and depressed – his girlfriend is gone, he has grown up without his dad, and he’s distanced from his mother – but he ultimately shares in his father’s desire to help people. Once they are able to reconnect with each other via the radio, we get a great sense of chemistry despite the fact that they are never in the same room at the same time. One scene in particular has the two catching up on subjects such as life, baseball, and marriage, ending with an incredibly heartfelt “I love you” – something they haven’t been able to say to each other in 30 years. It’s this relationship between Frank and John that serves as the focus of the film and presents the majority of the heart.

Other characters I want to mention but won’t linger on too long for fear of spoilers are Elizabeth Mitchell’s Julia, or “Jules” as she’s affectionately called by Frank and others. She fills the dual roles of loving mother/wife and tough woman who isn’t afraid to stand up for herself or others. As a nurse, she works hard to save others’ lives, but in a scene late in the film when her son’s life is in danger, she does what it takes to jump in and potentially sacrifice herself in order to save his life. Andre Braugher’s Satch, police pal of Frank and eventually John when he joins the force, has his moment in the spotlight as well in a scene where he expresses a huge range of emotions, from anger to incredulity to disbelief to tenderness, and at no point does it seem over the top. One more character to mention: Shawn Doyle eventually appears as the villain, and he’s a perfect mix of grounded while still maintaining a certain level of sleaze that makes you know he’s up to no good, but, again, he’s never over the top or hard to accept as a potential real person. (Worth noting that we also get a young Michael Cera in his first feature film role, playing the son of John’s long-time friend Gordo, who is played by Noah Emmerich.)

The rest I’ll leave to the podcast because it features some great discussion between Mugglecast‘s own Eric Scull and me. It isn’t the first time I’ve said it and it certainly won’t be the last, but I love time travel movies, and Frequency is no exception. Sure, it has its fair share of sci-fi and even a bit of action, but the real strength of this movie lies in its characters and the love that they show for each other…everything else is just an added bonus. This movie is underrated and is definitely worth the watch!



MPAA: PG-13 – for intense violence and disturbing images