‘Ralph Breaks the Internet’ Diversifies

Brandon, Will and Jared discuss and pitch a sequel for Phil Johnston and Rich Moore’s “Ralph Breaks the Internet” in Ep. 4 of the Film Diversifies podcast. The group also discusses their AFI Film of the Week “Network,” the Coens’ latest “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” the pros and cons of more significant films skipping a theatrical run, and the Netflix cancelation of “Daredevil” and other Marvel series. This podcast was produced by Jackie Goff, featuring music from Doqtr Shine. It contains some expletive language. 

‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’: spurs, saddles and death

Semler at the Cinema features Brandon Semler’s thoughts on the world of film, including reviews, think pieces, previews and more.

By Brandon Semler

“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” (2018) offers six explorations of mortality in the format of separate vignettes, allowing directors Joel and Ethan Coen to explore many sides of the same die (no pun intended). 

During these stories set in the Old West (post-Civil War),  a very characteristic through-line of dark humor, dire circumstances and general melancholy is executed with the film-making mastery that the Coen name now implies.

Beginning with a story featuring the jovial, singing, mass-murdering cowboy Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson), the film carries on to an incompetent bankrobber (James Franco) and his struggles with the law, a bleak arrangement between a physically disabled performer (Harry Melling) and a traveling showman (Liam Neeson), a prospector (Tom Waits) and his search for a pocket of gold, a young woman  (Zoe Kazan) and man (Bill Heck) searching for a new life in Oregon, and a small group of citizens on a carriage ride to the unknown. 

The Coens navigate the sweeping landscapes of the Old West stunningly in their second collaboration with cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel. From capturing the vastness of the open prairie to the sun-glazed beauty of a small clearing in a forest, the stories unfold over the many terrains of the place and time. 

While nihilism seems to be at the heart of the film, much of it is executed with a twinkle in the eye. Like many of the past Coens’ works, the film sometimes chuckles at the meaninglessness of it all, while sometimes just letting it crawl up your skin and live with you.  But in “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” instead of marinating over it while the credits roll, you’re on to the next short. 

And when the credits do roll, the distractions end, you’re left contemplating all six stories at once.

The film wades into romance territory — not a common Coen trait — with “The Gal Who Got Rattled.” In the short, a romance blossoms with a foundation of practicality and mutual benefit, doomed to the whirlwind of needless tragedy that life on earth so frequently throws at us (as do the Coens). 

The performances throughout are powerful. Tim Blake Nelson’s cartoonish portrayal in the opening “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” provides a mostly comical introduction to a film that travels to very dark places. 

Melling delivers the most heartbreaking performance in “Meal Ticket,” conveying a confident and poetic voice during his performances, but displaying the most meaning offstage with just his expressive, longing eyes.

Tom Waits is gold (again, no pun) in “All Gold Canyon,” which is the most pleasant of the vignettes.

“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is currently streaming on Netflix.  Give it a go.

Status: Recommend

Brandon Semler can be reached at popdiversifies@gmail.com, or on Twitter @BrandonSemler.

Drawing by William C. Hensley

 

‘Creed II’ Diversifies

Brandon, Will and Jared (with appearances from Jackie) discuss and pitch a sequel for Steven Caple Jr.’s “Creed II” in Ep. 3 of the Film Diversifies podcast. The group also discusses their AFI Film of the Week “Rocky,” Brandon’s recent rewatch of the Harry Potter series, Will’s movie ambitions for the graphic novels “New Frontier” and “Chrononots,” the passing of industry legend William Goldman and the recent live-action “Lion King” teaser trailer. This podcast was produced by Jackie Goff, featuring music from Doqtr Shine. It contains some expletive language. 

‘Ralph Breaks the Internet’: buying the characters, not the brands

Semler at the Cinema features Brandon Semler’s thoughts on the world of film, including reviews, think pieces, previews and more.

By Brandon Semler

“Ralph Breaks the Internet” (2018) continues the journey of its lovable duo, catapulting them into the physically embodied world of the internet (brand names included) that seemed a lot more clever in concept than on the screen. 

The film has no shortage of clever moments, but it the world of meta commentary and self-awareness that we find ourselves in, it felt less meaningful than it would have five years ago. 

From IMDB: six years after the events of “Wreck-It Ralph,” Ralph (John C. Reilly) and Vanellope (Sarah Silverman), now friends, discover a wi-fi router in their arcade, leading them into a new adventure.

The relationship between Ralph and Vanellope save the film. After their initial connection in the first “Ralph” installment, the ebbs and flows of their now six-years-older relationship feels authentic in a film that seems to be attempting cleverness at every turn. The performances from Reilly and Silverman are highlights of both films. 

There’s no way to get around it: the blatant branding is cringe-inducing at times. The visual of labels like Amazon and Google majestically lettered on the tops of large buildings just feel like looking at billboards that I paid to see. The meta-Disney material is handled surprisingly well — though that cynic in the back of my head just keeps screaming “this is all an advertisement.” 

Ad or not, it’s an entertaining watch. 

Status: Recommend for Fans (Disney films, “Wreck-It Ralph” fans, etc.)

Brandon Semler can be reached at popdiversifies@gmail.com, or on Twitter @BrandonSemler.

Drawing by William C. Hensley

The Harry Potter films: ranked

Semler at the Cinema features Brandon Semler’s thoughts on the world of film, including reviews, think pieces, previews and more.

By Brandon Semler

Over the past few weeks, I’ve had the pleasure of re-watching a series that has impacted my generation like no other pop culture relic. Not only do these films hold up magnificently well, but one could argue that their lessons become more and more relevant the older we get. 

The “Fantastic Beasts” sequel inspired the re-watch, and I was reminded of better times in the world of wizards and witches. I was also reminded of how impressive these films truly were; how many other series maintained such a level of quality (an improved quality in many instances for me) through seven sequels? The list is, indeed, VERY short.

Below, I’ve ranked the films from my least favorite to my favorite, though I should note that I am ultimately a fan of all of them. Watching these films was a blast; ranking them is another story. It’s like choosing between children. 

8. “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” (2005)

The last place choice was one of the easiest for me. “Goblet of Fire” is a very busy movie from start to finish, with some truly chaotic action sequences. The Yule Ball is a wonderful sequence, but there could have been more of it. It’s a film with too much to do in too little time. Status: Recommend 

7. “Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows: Part  2” (2011) 

I know, I know, hear me out. “Deathly Hallows Part 2” flies through what was so delicately set up in “Part 1,” and sprints its way to the final climactic battle, which is an epic feat. I’m not suggesting that this film should have been four hours (maybe), but many important plot points are handled with ease and convenience. Status: Recommend

6.  “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” (2007)

David Yates’ first outing is an impressive one, as we get an introduction to what the series will be for the next three films. The final battle in the Ministry of Magic — namely Dumbledore and Voldemort literally fighting the elements — is spectacular. Status: Recommend 

5. “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Askaban” (2004) 

This film is the favorite of many and its easy to see why. It’s directed by auteur Alfonso Cuarón, features a wonderful performance from Gary Oldman and introduces some of the darker elements to the series in a digestible way. While the tone, for me, is sometimes inconsistent, its a terrific film. Status: Strongly Recommend

4.  “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” (2001)

This film is where the magic it is. If John Williams’ whimsical score and Chris Columbus’ colorful fantasy frames don’t send tingles up your spine, what will? The world building for everything falls on this film, and boy does it deliver. Status: Strongly Recommend

3. “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” (2002) 

“Chamber” does more of the what the first one did, while weaving in a fascinating mystery, and seemingly higher stakes for everyone. Status: Strongly Recommend

2. “Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince” (2009)

As the series and the stakes build, Yates manages to descend the it further into the darkness, while holding on to a quirky sense of humor. The film captures the beauty and sadness of growing up, even in the most unique and grim of situations. The film moves quickly, and the ending proves to be one of the most powerful in the series.

1. “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1” (2010) 

If “Half Blood Prince” captures the beauty and sadness of growing up, “Deathly Hallows: Part 1” totally lives in it. The film at times flows like a stage show, bringing the viewer uncomfortably close to its three protagonists. The film also captures the insecurities, emotions and fears of its characters in a way that few blockbusters do. This is a best case scenario of the classic studio “split-one-into-two” premise. We end up with a film that is entirely unique in pace, tone and format. 

Brandon Semler can be reached at popdiversifies@gmail.com, or on Twitter @BrandonSemler.



‘Widows’ Diversifies

Brandon, Will and Jared (with appearances from Jackie) discuss and pitch a sequel for Steve McQueen’s “Widows” in Ep. 2 of the Film Diversifies podcast. The group also discusses their AFI Film of the Week “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald,” “Red Dead Redemption 2” an upcoming “Deadpool 2” re-release, the Netflix release of “Avengers: Infinity War” and some of Will’s takes on the current state of the WWE. This podcast was produced by Jackie Goff, featuring music from Doqtr Shine. A written review for “Widows” is available here

‘Creed II’ pairs familiar with fresh

Semler at the Cinema features Brandon Semler’s thoughts on the world of film, including reviews, think pieces, previews and more.

By Brandon Semler

“Creed 2” (2018) might feel formulaic to fans of the “Rocky”/”Creed” universe, but the formula is effective, and the film’s focus on its powerhouse characters makes it a dynamic entry in the series. 

The follow-up to Ryan Coogler’s 2015 film, “Creed 2” picks back up with Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), a light heavyweight fighter, as he grapples with the challenge of a fight from Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu), the son of Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), the man who killed his father in the ring. 

Directed by newcomer Steven Caple Jr., with a screenplay by Sylvester Stallone, the film probably has more in common with “Rocky II” than any of the other sequels, despite the obvious connection to “Rocky IV” (that being Ivan Drago). Though many of the through lines are familiar, the story of Adonis and Bianca (Tessa Thompson) established in “Creed” continues, and these characters give the new series an entire life of its own. 

Caple does a good job of balancing the elements, and making the film derivative but also giving it new life. The past films are primarily stories about families and relationships that just happen to involve boxers. Caple carries that torch in “Creed II.”

The grounding performance of Thompson cannot be understated in this film.  While “Creed 2” certainly turns up the volume and heightens the reality more than the first, Thompson’s portrayal of Bianca keeps the series surprisingly down to earth, balancing out some of the added antics.  Her and Jordan’s chemistry is what gives these films their own identity and purpose. 

Jordan is brilliant as Adonis, but that should hardly be surprising at this point. He’s become one of the most talented superstars currently working.

Appearing in his eighth film in the “Rocky” universe, Stallone once again makes it known that Rocky Balboa is one of the most compelling characters on the screen in the last 50 years. Rocky’s simple wisdom — attained from the baggage we’ve seen unfold right before our eyes since 1976 — makes his relationship with Adonis one of the most rewarding elements of these new films. 

The fight scenes are a step down from Coogler’s 2015 film, but still inspire a stand-up-in-your-seat energy, and the sound design in these fights is once again top-notch. This film features some interesting coaching moments from Rocky and Drago (advising from opposite corners) that unfold during the climax. Though the larger plot points are largely predictable, the ending of the film throws in a rather poetic character moment that I was not expecting. 

If you like the “Rocky” series and “Creed,” you will probably enjoy “Creed 2.”

Status: Recommend for Fans (the “Rocky” series, “Creed,” Sports Movies).

Brandon Semler can be reached at popdiversifies@gmail.com, or on Twitter @BrandonSemler.

Drawing by William C. Hensley

‘Widows’: a thriller with levels

Semler at the Cinema features Brandon Semler’s thoughts on the world of film, including reviews, think pieces, previews and more.

By Brandon Semler

“Widows” (2018) is a fast-paced heist thriller that subverts nearly every aspect of the genre, and also manages to offer a multi-level look at the racial, social, political, financial and gender power struggles and imbalances that shape our world — and the freedom that self-earned power can bring to the human spirit. 

Don’t get me wrong — Steve McQueen’s film does not go out of its way to be heady or grandstanding. These themes are needled in clearly, but subtly. What unfolds on the screen is a thrilling popcorn blockbuster filled with twists and turns and all-star performances from a major league cast. 

The screenplay was penned by McQueen and Gillian Flynn (author/screenwriter of “Gone Girl”). Set in Chicago, four women with nothing in common except a debt left behind by their dead husbands’ criminal activities take fate into their own hands and plan to carry out a job (paraphrased from IMDB).

The film presents a web of stories that are dramatically entangled, floating from one to another and slowly painting a larger portrait of the dangerous world these characters live in.

McQueen uses the camera as a curious observer throughout. From an opening car chase sequence (shot from the perspective of those in the getaway van), to a shot following a vehicle of Tom Mulligan (Colin Farrell), McQueen makes the city a character in this film, one that often tells more than words ever could.

Veronica (Viola Davis), Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) are perhaps the three most compelling characters on screen this year. The three all carry unique pain with them through out the film, though that pain was all a product of the same system, a system that ultimately led them all together. 

The Veronica character careens from scared, vulnerable and in-too-deep to a front of baddassery when around others (which becomes less and less of a front as the film progresses). Davis is an unstoppable presence throughout.

The emotional and confidence growth of the character Alice is conveyed brilliantly by Debicki; we’ll be seeing more of her on the big screen. These three actresses carry the emotional bulk of the film, but the supporting cast rounds it out with a depth that is rarely seen in 2018 blockbusters.   

What’s impressive about “Widows” is its ability to encompass so much thematic material while keeping its foot so steadily on the gas. Every scene holds an individual, isolated importance, as the sequences often mean more to individual characters than to the film’s plotting.

This film is one of my favorites of the year. I tried to hold back on even the mildest of spoilers, because this is a film that should be experienced.

Status: Strongly Recommend 

Brandon Semler can be reached at popdiversifies@gmail.com, or on Twitter @BrandonSemler.

‘LM5’: the return of the queens

Pop Odyssey features Jackie Goff’s thoughts, reviews and analysis of popular music.

By Jackie Goff

“LM5” is the best Little Mix album since their 2013 album “Salute” (their best in my opinion) and the two share theme that has only been magnified over time: women.

The songs on “LM5” are more about empowering women and supporting women than it is about sex, love or men that have done them wrong (though there is a bit of all of those from time to time). All in all, this is the kind of pop record we need in 2018 and it’s beautiful.

Here are a few of the record’s standout singles:

“Woman Like Me (feat. Nicki Minaj)”: The debut single from the new record featuring Nicki Minaj, which addresses the things we all deal with but shouldn’t hold us back, such as insecurity or regret for past mistakes. These flaws don’t make you make you any less desirable or worthy of love. In fact, they are trials that make you stronger, more powerful and deserving of someone who can take the good right along with the bad.

“Strip”: Whisper-singing has a way of driving me bat-shit crazy until it eventually grows on me until the song is an earworm that I can’t get out of my head. It was true for Selena Gomez’s “Hands To My Self,” and the same goes for “Strip”. My first couple of listens I wasn’t overly into it melodically, but the underlying message of self-acceptance and confidence meant that eventually, I was all for it. “Strip! / Take off all my make-up ’cause I love what’s under it / Rub off all your words, don’t give a uh, I’m over it / Strip! / Jiggle all this weight, yeah, you know I love all of this / Finally love me naked, sexiest when I’m confident.”

“Told You So”: “The only thing I love more than an empowering Little Mix jam is an acoustic guitar-based song that showcases these women’s insane voices. This song is about the importance of girlfriends who are around to love and support each other in moments of despair and heartbreak. Picking up the damage without dealing out handfuls of shame, even if they saw it coming because, well, he never did treat her right. The whole record is more heavy-handed about supporting your fellow woman than the men who have done wrong, this song is more tender than the rest of the record and supportive about the fact that sometimes your friend gets their heart broken, and your job isn’t to say “I told you so,” but be there with a bottle of wine or a cup of tea and a shoulder to cry on.

Honorable mention: “Woman’s World”: A beautiful tribute to the trails and tribulations of what it’s like to be a woman in this world hoping for a day where women are heard, recognized and respected not for their body, but their brains.

Jackie Goff can be reached at popdiversifies@gmail.com or @jackiemaemusic on Twitter.

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