Film Review: Risen

Release Date: February 19, 2016

Running Time: 107 Minutes

Risen follows the story of Roman Tribune Clavius (Joseph Fiennes), who is charged with finding out what happened to the body of Jesus (Cliff Curtis), referred to here by His Hebrew name of Yeshua. He is ordered to do so by Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth), and is accompanied by newly transferred Lucius (Tom Felton of Draco Malfoy fame). Of course, as a film based on one of Christianity’s central moments, Risen was met with some apprehension. Would it be blasphemous, or perhaps a piece of Christian propaganda?

The film actually opens with a little battle between Roman soldiers under Clavius and Jewish rebels led by none other than Barabbas, who, judging by the film’s chronology, seems to be making trouble pretty quickly after his pardon by Pontius Pilate. Clavius returns to Jerusalem to oversee the end of Jesus’ crucifixion. Once Jesus’ body disappears there is talk of conspiracy and a potential Jewish uprising. Clavius leads his men in an investigation and I have to say that while this lasts the film is highly engaging. It weaves in bits of the Bible and history expertly and it’s a treat seeing familiar figures from the Bible through the eyes of pagan Romans. Pontius Pilate’s annoyance with the local Jewish rulers provides some of the film’s few laughs.

Unfortunately, and here may be spoilers, this plot thread gets resolved about halfway through the film, which turns into a straightforward adaptation of the end of the Gospels, just with a Roman soldier now randomly sitting in the background to observe. Even then the way the story is presented is a little underwhelming and a little rushed. Clavius is supposed to have undergone a great inner change, but this doesn’t get well developed since he spends much of his screentime simply looking at the disciples and not really interacting.

Of course, Jesus himself is in the film, thankfully portrayed by a non-white this time, though still not a Jew. Cliff Curtis isn’t a bad actor, and the problems with his performance stem more from the script, which asks him to look around smiling at everyone. The filmmakers also play it very safe with his dialogue. Adding words to Jesus’ mouth will always be a daunting task, since there’s great potential to offend Christians or accidentally insert some heresy. Aside from a few words directed at Clavius, all he says is direct quotes from the Bible, and in between them he has nothing to do but smile at his disciples.

Risen is a movie that starts off great, but flounders in its last act. I think there are three possible, better directions it could have taken. One would have been to extend the investigation and end with a scene between Clavius and Jesus, instead of having him observe the entire last couple chapters of the various Gospels. Another would have had him never find Jesus, dead or alive, but have him affected by what he hears. A third alternative, which would have perhaps required a bigger budget, would show how he has become a different man, displayed in further interactions with various Romans and Jews.

Risen is good if you want to pass a couple hours and should interest religious viewers. It could have been much better. I would much more recommend the 1953 film The Robe, in which one of the Roman officers in charge of the crucifixion is changed by his experiences and tries to balance his newfound Christianity with his devotion to Rome. Unlike other epics of that period it’s only a little over two hours long.

Rating: 6/10

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Film Review: Deadpool

Release Date: February 12, 2016

Running Time: 108 Minutes

With Fox now attempting its own cinematic superhero universe like Marvel Studios, the X-Men franchise has its own batch of spin-offs in development. Aside from the Wolverine films, Deadpool is the first entry outside of the main X-Men series. In the comics, Deadpool is a violent, constantly wise-cracking mercenary who is aware that he is in a comic book and will often break the fourth wall, addressing the reader and commenting on his own writers. This further extends to his appearances in video games and TV shows, the former case exemplified by him grabbing a health bar and beating his opponent over the head with it.

Deadpool, aka Wade Wilson, portrayed by actor Ryan Reynolds, had already appeared in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, a mismanaged film overstuffed with characters. Ryan Reynolds’ few minutes near the beginning as the character were delightful, but his appearance at the end was as a freakish Frankenstein monster with his mouth sewn shut, a total betrayal of the character. Seven years later the character has another shot.

Deadpool is an origin/revenge film. Faced with cancer, Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds) volunteers for a mutant powers project, which ends up further ruining his life, as he is left looking hideous and his fiance believes him dead. I’ve noticed that his famous moniker as the Merc with a Mouth doesn’t really apply here, as he never once takes a mission for money. His focus throughout the whole film is simply tracking down Francis, the scientist/super-soldier responsible for ruining his life, and forcing him to change him back to a normal human. His power is an incredible healing factor that makes him almost unkillable.

Of course, humor is an essential component of Deadpool and this film is chock-full of it. Almost every line of dialogue from Ryan Reynolds is a joke, even in the grimmest moments. It’s how his character interacts with the world. I would say it’s fairly hit and miss. The audience I viewed Deadpool with wasn’t exactly bursting with laughter non-stop. A good chunk of his material is dick jokes, while many of his references will undoubtedly be outdated in a few years, such as his quip about Jared and “footlongs”. He breaks the fourth wall fairly often too, and these moments work pretty well. The self-aware opening credits and post-credits teaser are a delight and his condemnation of the mishandling of his character in Origins is spot-on. While his humor misses several times, Deadpool is a fun character and generally delivers.

In the comics, Deadpool is at his best when he’s working off of other established characters in the Marvel universe, especially another superhero who’s a straight man. In this film it’s Colossus (Stefan Kapicic), who manages to have more screentime and dialogue within this movie than in all of the other X-Men films combined. In those same films he never really had a developed character, so Deadpool gets to build it. Here he’s an incredibly noble and selfless hero who is under the delusion that he can make a real superhero out of Deadpool. Under his wing is Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand), a rude girl who doesn’t share her mentor’s interest in getting Deadpool on the X-Men team.

Weasel (T.J. Miller) is Wade’s best friend, who helps out every now and then and shares some of his humor. Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) is the love interest, and is apparently a mutant named Copycat in the comics, though here she’s just a regular human who turns into a typical damsel in distress by the end. She is a pretty good character, not special but her romance with Wade really works. The villains aren’t really all that special. Francis (Ed Skrein) is just a typical “I have good reflexes and can fight really well” character while Angel Dust (Gina Carano) is good at being a super-strong henchwoman, but doesn’t have much personality beyond that.

Much has been made of the R rating, which many felt was necessary for Deadpool. Having read some of the comics myself, I can say that a PG-13 film could have been made with almost the same effect. From what I’ve read, profanity and nudity don’t factor that much in the source material. For example, there wasn’t a ton of f-bombs n Cable and Deadpool. I do see the benefits when it comes to the violence, and many of the best moments come from the dark humor of the action scenes. I didn’t find the violence particularly insane. There was a good amount of decapitations and some blood spurts, but otherwise it was PG-13. In fact, the final battle was a little underwhelming. It feels like I’ve seen it before: the hero and villain fighting with swords, the brawl between the super-strong, and the love interest giving her small contribution when the hero looks like he might be finished. The first fight scene on the bridge, which is broken up by flashbacks detailing Deadpool’s origin, is another story. Almost all the best action and humor can be found in this one sequence.

This is an entertaining movie and it does do Deadpool’s character justice. However, it doesn’t really break all the rules of the superhero film as many believed it would. Many of the plot points can be found in numerous other action or superhero movies and it suffers from underdeveloped villains like the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I also found some of the humor to be too juvenile at points. Not in the kid-friendly sense, but juvenile in the way that a grade-schooler thinks he’s being edgy. This is a good, fun time regardless and please don’t bring your kids just because it has a couple colorful superheroes in it.

Rating: 6/10

Soundtrack Review: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

Until Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, The Temple of Doom was regarded by most as the weakest Indiana Jones flick. The love interest is annoying, juvenile humor abounds in some scenes, and there was perhaps a little too much dark elements, creating the PG-13 rating. Still, Spielberg’s worst movies are still a cut above most other films and aside from the whipping scene I don’t think it’s too much darker than the other ones, which had their fair share of skeletons and grisly deaths. This time Indiana Jones adventures around South Asia, seeking the Sankara stones an fighting an evil Kali cult along the way. John Williams crafts a fine follow-up to his Raiders score, though the music feels much lighter this time around. The Temple of Doom is the most enthusiastic musical entry in the series, with several themes continuously popping up in racing action cues.

The only returning theme is that for Indiana Jones himself, as no other characters or ideas return from Raiders, but this theme is used quite liberally across the score. There are four new major themes. The first to make its appearance, and the most frequently used, is that for Asian kid sidekick Short Round. It’s playful, but does reach sweeping heights several times. By the way, the track “Short Round’s Theme” isn’t really a suite, but a direct cue which also references the slave children’s theme. This theme also appears for the village where the children are abducted from. It’s considered the highlight of the soundtrack, with “Slave Children’s Crusade” often appearing on John Williams compilation albums. Continue reading

Soundtrack Review: Raiders of the Lost Ark

With Star Wars hearkening back to old-fashioned sci-fi pulps and serials, the Indiana Jones franchise is likewise based off of adventure serials and film from the 1930s-50s and in fact take place in that era. Created by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, Raiders of the Lost Ark, the first Indiana Jones film, was a smash hit that cemented Harrison Ford as a movie star, furthered the popular use of Nazis as villains, and as with almost every Spielberg movie, produced an amazing John Williams score. The Indiana Jones theme itself is one of the most recognizable pieces of movie music, and is often referred to as the Raiders March, after the first film it appeared in.

The Indiana Jones theme is actually two heroic themes that, at the insistence of Spielberg, were mashed together. More recognizable and hummed much more is the first part of the theme, which plays at the outset of “Raiders March”. It’s instantly catchy and is used much more than the second part. I’ve even heard some makeshift lyrics for it (“Indiana, Dr. Jones, Indiana, Dr. Jones, Jones, Jones”). The second part itself always begins the final statement of the theme in the end credits suites. What’s interesting about the use of this theme is that it doesn’t even make an appearance until the end of the opening sequence in “Escape from Peru”. Williams usually brings it out during action scenes or for otherwise particularly heroic moments. Continue reading

Soundtrack Review: The Force Awakens

Composed and Conducted by: John Williams

Bought out by Disney in 2012, the Star Wars film series was quickly brought back, with the first of a new trilogy released at the end of 2015 as Episode VII: The Force Awakens. It was thankfully and perhaps surprisingly a pretty good movie, much better than the George Lucas prequels. The new characters are actually people you care about and can carry a movie without any of the originals, though having Han Solo, Chewbacca, and others come back was pretty awesome as well. Also making his return was John Williams. His music for the prequels didn’t match up to the standards of the original, but were still pretty awesome. The question was, ten years after Revenge of the Sith and at the age of 82, could he still deliver the goods? His only film work after 2006 had been relegated to Spielberg movies.

Spoilers for The Force Awakens were avoided pretty well, with most plot elements being concealed in the trailers and much of the merchandise not being released until the day of the film’s release. The soundtrack was one of these pieces of merchandise, and the track titles were placed in the middle of the booklet, not on the back of the CD case, a clever move although the track titles don’t reveal too much anyways. Still, a careful listening could lead to some deductions, such as who the main character of the new trilogy is.

I can say that the Force Awakens soundtrack is pretty good. It avoids some of the problems the prequel scores had, most importantly the lack of new themes. Here Williams has many recurring themes and motifs, though only one really seems to match the power of the original trilogy’s offerings.

Action/Finn?: This is a repetitive action motif. I’ve read that it’s Finn’s theme and it does appear in the end credits suite, but it only appears in action sequences, so I’m not sure. It also builds into Poe Dameron’s theme a couple times.

BB-8: As far as I can tell, this whimsical little motif only appears twice in the film. It appears in “Rey Meets BB-8”. BB-8 himself is a delightful character, comedy relief and cuteness done right.

Kylo Ren: The new villain gets a sinister five-note motif. It’s pretty evil sounding, but a little too generic for a Star Wars villain theme. It does sound like any composer could come up with it quickly. Nevertheless, it’s grand entrance in “Attack on the Jakku Village” is pretty nice.

Kylo Conflict: This is a secondary motif for the villain which shows his tragic side.

Poe Dameron: Awesome X-wing pilot Poe gets a short heroic theme that appears in “I Can Fly Anything”.

Resistance: The heroic Resistance gets a bombastic military march. Interestingly, the instrumentation and tune are heavily reminiscent of the Nazi music from the Indiana Jones franchise, which could be considered an irony when the Resistance is fighting a Nazi-style regime. It’s of course showcased in “March of the Resistance”.

Rey: This theme is the main theme of the movie and is the only one that I would rank among the great Star Wars themes. It’s a mix of heroism and innocence and plays during most of the high points. After the movie came out I listened to this theme over and over. It first appears in “The Scavenger” in its most innocent form and gets a concert suite arrangement in “Rey’s Theme”.

Snoke: Snoke gets a ominous choral arrangement based off of the chilling opening of “Palpatine’s Teachings” from Revenge of the Sith. Unfortunately it does come off as a little generic and hopefully the character gets an expanded theme in the sequels.

Tragedy: This sad string motif appears in “Starkiller” and at the low point in “Torn Apart”.

The new trilogy has much more characters and connections to the original three films and so Williams uses the classic themes much more than he did in the prequels. The Rebel fanfare is heavily present, serving as a motif for the famed Millennium Falcon. The main Star Wars/Luke’s theme factors into the climatic cues and appears in particularly nostalgic moments. Of course, with the Force always playing a major role, it’s theme appears fairly often too. Very welcome are the return of Leia’s theme and the love theme from Empire Strikes Back, first appearing of course in “Han and Leia”.

The soundtrack opens with the main title, which leads into some peaceful space music only for a sinister little tune to barge in. “Attack on the Jakku Village” is a pretty good track and introduces Kylo Ren’s theme. “The Scavenger” opens with up music that would fit the Tatooine scenes in A New Hope before debuting Rey’s theme. “I Can Fly Anything” and “Rey Meets BB-8” bring in the rest of the main character themes.

“Follow Me” is a generic action cue which does climax with the Rebel Fanfare. After the concert arrangement for”Rey’s Theme”, the action motif ties together a frenetic action cue in “The Falcon”. The one main complaint I have for this soundtrack is that some of the action cues are just frenetic noise. In the other Star Wars movies Williams would have some scene-specific motifs. Think of the ominous little ditty from “Battle in the Snow” or the fanfare from “The Asteroid Field”. Tracks like “The Rathtars!” don’t hold much interest beyond the occasional statement of one of the themes.

“Finn’s Confession” is a pretty good emotional piece with some statements of Rey’s theme. “Maz’s Counsel” has the Force theme and a grand statement of Rey’s theme that unfortunately gets cut off, while”Starkiller” features a solemn string piece. Rey and Kylo Ren’s themes feature in the next couple cues before nostalgia kicks in with “Han and Leia”.

After the themes for the Resistance and Snoke are properly introduced, it’s on to the climatic cues. “Torn Apart” is a heavily emotional piece, very sad with a glimmer of hope before Kylo Ren’s theme triumphs in the end. “The Ways of the Force” has Ren and Rey’s themes battle each other, with the Force theme in its climax. “Scherzo for X-Wings” is full of fanfares, including Luke Skywalker’s theme.

The last two tracks are amazing. “Farewell and the Trip” opens victoriously with Rey, Poe, and the Force’s themes, all right after another. There is a calm interlude with Han and Leia’s themes before the music swells again with Rey’s theme. “The Jedi Steps” features what could be a separate recurring motif, though it sounds like a permutation of Rey’s theme. This motif dies down before the Force theme slowly builds up, climaxing in a slightly sinister style and seguing into the end credits suite. What’s nice about the end credits suite is that it doesn’t cut and paste any concert arrangements, being its own showcase of almost all the new themes and motifs.

Overall, I would say this is a great soundtrack, though there are several cues that aren’t really that interesting. The use of the original trilogy themes are great and while only Rey’s theme matches up, most of the other new themes and motifs are still pretty good, with the Resistance march in particular being pretty catchy. If less of the music sounded like filler, this would easily get a 9 or 10.

Final Rating: 8/10

Track Listing

  1. Main Title and the Attack on the Jakku Village (6:25) 8/10
  2. The Scavenger (3:39) 9/10
  3. I Can Fly Anything (3:11) 8/10
  4. Rey Meets BB-8 (1:31) 7/10
  5. Follow Me (2:54) 7/10
  6. Rey’s Theme (3:11) 10/10
  7. The Falcon (3:32) 7/10
  8. That Girl with the Staff (1:58) 5/10
  9. The Rathtars! (4:05) 5/10
  10. Finn’s Confession (2:08) 9/10
  11. Maz’s Counsel (3:08) 6/10
  12. The Starkiller (1:51) 7/10
  13. Kylo Ren Arrives at the Battle (2:01) 6/10
  14. The Abduction (2:25) 7/10
  15. Han and Leia (4:41) 10/10
  16. March of the Resistance (2:35) 10/10
  17. Snoke (2:03) 6/10
  18. On the Inside (2:05) 5/10
  19. Torn Apart (4:19) 9/10
  20. The Ways of the Force (3:14) 7/10
  21. Scherzo for X-Wings (2:32) 9/10
  22. Farewell and the Trip (4:55) 10/10
  23. The Jedi Steps and Finale (8:51) 10/10