Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Review: "Big Hero 6" makes something special out of a conventional superhero tale

Note: As I'm getting to Big Hero 6 rather late, and I assume most readers have had already had a chance to see it, this review contains mild spoilers.

Big Hero 6 is a pretty wonderful exercise in turning narrative familiarity into something genuinely special. On a story level, Big Hero 6 is hardly reinventing the wheel, mixing a lot of basic family film tropes – an orphaned protagonist, Hiro Hanada, experiences yet another loss in his life, and in the process of grieving makes friends and finds a new passion – with a superhero movie 101 structure, where, like Spider-Man or Batman, Hiro is driven at first by righteous fury, the search for justice against his brother Tadashi’s killer leading him and his friends to find their higher, superheroic calling. On a basic storytelling level, there is nothing fresh or challenging to be had here, and while that has frustrated me in a lot of recent Disney projects – Frozen is as classical (and, frankly, dull) as Hollywood animation comes, whatever lightweight nods to modernity it makes (before swiftly abandoning) – a project like Big Hero 6 is an exciting reminder that when true creative passion is involved, the way a story is told matters so much more than the story itself. This is honest, imaginative filmmaking from top to bottom, filled to burst with vibrant characters, unique artwork, and a gentle, goodhearted sense of spectacle that is as refreshing as it is invigorating. Most importantly, Big Hero 6 is the rare family film to have a genuine emotional core; its tale of moving on from loss may be nothing new, but the film is so ripe with pathos, insight, and believable inner-turmoil that it ultimately packs a pretty major wallop – and has a damn entertaining time doing so.

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Sunday, November 16, 2014

SDFF37 Review: Joshua Oppenheimer's "The Look of Silence" is a devastating, transcendent piece of documentary filmmaking

As explained in this post, the Starz Denver Film Festival is once again upon us, and I have been relating my experiences with the various films I see in daily reports. I’m doing something a little different today. Since I only saw one film on Sunday, and it was awful – the Italian film Human Capital, which was about as tedious a movie as I have ever forced myself to sit through – I’m going to forego any discussion of it, and tackle the one film I haven’t talked about this weekend – Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence, which I saw Saturday night – in its own full review. The film certainly deserves the attention. For all Starz Denver Film Festival 2014 coverage, please visit this link. 

Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing has already taken on near-legendary status in the realms of documentary filmmaking, its bold and original approach to exploring the 1965 anti-communist massacres in Indonesia, through deep interaction with the killers themselves, forcefully grabbing the attention of critics and scholars alike – myself included. The film made my Top 10 list last year, and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to shake everything the film had to say about the nature of evil and the ways people who have done terrible things repress and displace guilt. It’s a real documentary masterpiece.

And The Look of Silence, Oppenheimer’s direct follow-up to The Act of Killing, is even better.

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Starz Denver Film Festival 37 Report #2 – "Tu Dors Nicole," "Mr. Kaplan," and a special screening of “Do the Right Thing" offer another compelling lineup

As explained in this post, the Starz Denver Film Festival is once again upon us, and I will be relating my experiences with the various films I see in daily reports, which will compile my thoughts on multiple films within single articles. For all Starz Denver Film Festival 2014 coverage, please visit this link. 

This was another terrific day at the festival, with two fantastic new movies I am positively elated to have seen, one retrospective screening that brought a beloved classic into sharper cinematic focus, and one movie that…wasn’t very interesting at all. But it at least kept me warm during today’s awful weather, so there’s always that. 

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Saturday, November 15, 2014

Starz Denver Film Festival 37 Report #1 – “1001 Grams,” “The Tribe,” & “The Midnight Swim” make for a great first day

As explained in this post, the Starz Denver Film Festival is once again upon us, and I will be relating my experiences with the various films I see in daily reports, which will compile my thoughts on multiple films within single articles. For all Starz Denver Film Festival 2014 coverage, please visit this link.  

While the 2014 edition of the Starz Denver Film Festival technically began on Wednesday nights, Friday was my first day at the festival, and it was a really wonderful afternoon and evening of filmgoing. While one of the films I saw today was underwhelming, the other two were positively splendid – one of them is an absolute lock for my year-end top 10 list. Quality of the films aside, though, the atmosphere of the festival is so warm and inviting, and there are so many nice surprises along the way – meeting new people, surprise appearances from filmmakers, etc. – that I suspect I would have enjoyed myself immensely even if the films had failed to impress as strongly as they did.

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Thursday, November 13, 2014

Plans for covering the 37th Starz Denver Film Festival

The 37th Starz Denver Film Festival began in Denver last night, and while I have not been able to extensively cover the festival in a few years – my reviews from the 2011 festival, the last one I covered in depth, are archived here – I am excited to announce I will be checking out a number of interesting films at the festival this year, and will be providing my thoughts on everything I see over the next two weekends.

Now, for various reasons – decreased personal stamina, increased academic and professional commitments, etc. – I will not be providing full, individual reviews for every film I see. Instead, my plan right now is to provide a diary of my experiences at the end of each day, detailing the films I saw and my reactions to them. These pieces shall hopefully go into a fair bit of depth on each of the films in question, but they will not be getting individual articles this time around. There is a practical reason for combining multiple films into single pieces, of course – it makes things substantially easier for me, and will get my reactions up on the site in a more timely manner – but I also hope it helps to give a greater sampling of the festival itself and connections between the individual films, rather than letting everything simply stand on its own.

In regards to the films themselves, I have a very specific plan of attack this year. First, I will only be seeing and covering films on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, as it will be too difficult to get down to Denver for the festival on weekdays – so expect pieces to go up the evenings of November 14, 15, and 16, and then resume on 21, 22, and 23, with wrap-up coverage and retrospective pieces likely publishing on the following days. Second, rather than devote my time (and money) to seeing some of the ‘big’ films featured at the festival – The Imitation Game, Foxcatcher, Wild, etc. – I am going after less prominent, mostly foreign films, ones I would not expect to see in local theatres any time soon. I would rather seek out and highlight those films than devote time to features that will be out in general release in a matter of weeks, and I will have plenty of other opportunities to see and write about very soon (DVD screeners have already started trickling out to critics, for instance, so I know it won’t be difficult to see big awards players by the end of the year).

So that is, for now, the plan. Certain features I already have lined up to see include The Tribe, The Look of Silence, Clouds of Sils Maria, Kumiko the Treasure Hunter, and more, all of which I am extremely eager to check out. And if you live in the Denver area, I would of course encourage you to participate in the festival, as it is one of our city’s great cultural opportunities, and is showcasing some truly compelling content throughout the next two weeks.

For now, I will be back here with my first report from the festival tomorrow evening, or, at the latest, in the early morning. Follow me on Twitter @JonathanLack for the quickest updates throughout the festival.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

The Weekly Stuff Podcast #101 - Doctor Who Series 8 Finale Review & Retrospective

It’s time for another episode of The Weekly Stuff Podcast with Jonathan Lack & Sean Chapman, a weekly audio show that explores the worlds of film, video gaming, and television. Remember to subscribe for free in iTunes by following this link!

Apologies, again, for the long delay – it’s been a busy couple of weeks, but we are back with lots and lots of things to talk about, including Sean’s review of Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, a preview of upcoming video games both of us are interested in, and analysis of Marvel’s ambitious Phase Three movie plans. I also mention some recent articles I have put up on the site, including an analysis of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar and a review of James Marsh’s The Theory of Everything. Check them out.

But the main topic this week, as it must be, is Doctor Who Series 8, which wrapped up tonight with the season finale, “Death in Heaven.” We offer our usual in-depth review of the finale, including thoughts on the previous two episodes – “In the Forest of the Night” and “Dark Water” – before transitioning into a discussion of the season as a whole. This year had a lot of fantastic episodes and character moments to offer, but now that we have seen the whole thing, did it work on the whole? It’s our last time talking about this fascinating season of Doctor Who, a discussions fans won’t want to miss.


If you have questions, comments, or concerns about The Weekly Stuff, or would like to write in to the podcast to have your questions read on the show, please e-mail

The Weekly Stuff with Jonathan Lack & Sean Chapman is a weekly audio podcast, and if you subscribe in iTunes, episodes will be delivered automatically and for free as soon as they are released. If you visit, we also have streaming and downloadable versions of new and archival episodes for your listening pleasure.

Review: Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones shine in James Marsh's lovely "The Theory of Everything"

It seems appropriate that for a film about Stephen Hawking, a man who has transcended a myriad of human limitations both physical and mental, James Marsh’s The Theory of Everything reaches past the boundaries of the conventional historical drama to deliver the rare biopic that is smart, sensitive, and aesthetically profound. With its beautiful musical score and rich, gorgeous cinematography, along with a relaxed and lyrical pace that treads gracefully across decades, the film is far more cinematically engaging than these pictures usually are, while its perceptively pared-down approach to Hawking’s story proves uncommonly touching and insightful.

Structured not as a typical subject-centered biopic, but as a dual-narrative shared in equally by Stephen and his first wife Jane, The Theory of Everything succeeds most powerfully in providing multiple perspectives on Hawking’s extraordinary life. Thanks in no small part to the superior work done by Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones in their respective parts, the film passionately illustrates the ‘mundane’ details of life biographical films usually avoid or trivialize: the complications of loving another person, the divergent needs and desires found within a human partnership, and the little things that compound over the years to change people and alter the foundations of a relationship. It would be easy to make a film about Stephen Hawking focusing on his physical challenges to the exclusion of all else, and while The Theory of Everything absolutely excels at relating the most harrowing and inspiring trials of Hawking’s battle with ALS – there is one moment in particular, late in the film, that is quietly heart-wrenching and beautiful in equal measure, and may be the high-point of the entire picture – it does so within a dynamic and relatable human context. Neither Hawking’s genius nor his disability stops him from being a man, and the film resonates strongly as a deceptively simple examination of a romantic partnership over time. This is a film of literal and thematic unions, between Jane and Stephen, faith and science, disability and normalcy, and at the film’s best, these myriad halves work together to say something rather profound about the wonder and ecstasy of being human. It strikes me as the sort of message Hawking himself would approve of. 

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