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By Meryl Gottlieb|| @buzzlightmeryl
Star Wars: Episode VII is set for release on Dec. 18, 2015

lupita-nyongo-gwendoline-christieDance like an Ewok! Lucasfilm announced today Gwendoline Christie and Lupita Nyong’o will be in Star Wars: Episode VII.

This is not only great news because they are spectacular actresses, but also because it doubles the amount of important female roles in the film. Previously, only vet Carrie Fisher and newcomer Daisy Ridley were the women announced to be in the newest installment. Traditionally, Star Wars has been sadly low on notable female characters with Leia (Fisher) and Padmé (Natalie Portman) being the only ones from the films and the rest coming from other projects like animated movies or books. Four women is still a crazy low number, but let’s hope it’s on the rise.

Christie’s strong performance as Brienne of Tarth, a bad-ass female role in itself, on Game of Thrones makes it quite easy to see why she would be picked for a role in Star Wars. There is no news as to who these women will play, but I see Christie in an authoritative role.

This announcement simply adds to Christie’s nerd star power because not only is she in Game of Thrones, but she is also playing Commander Lyme in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay. She’s certainly found her niche market.

Nyong’o blazed on the screen with her breakout Academy Award winning role as Patsey in 12 Years a Slave. Rumors about Nyong’o’s involvement have been circling for months, for she apparently was in talks with director J.J. Abrams before she won her Oscar.

Many have pondered what Nyong’o would do next, and The Hollywood Reporter even said months ago that a film franchise would make her “golden.” It would be interesting if Star Wars actually helped launch Nyong’o as an actor for any role because of how much it hindered the careers of its original stars Fisher and Mark Hamill. Here’s hoping Abrams will take better care of his cast than George Lucas did.

“I could not be more excited about Lupita and Gwendoline joining the cast of Episode VII,” said Kathleen Kennedy, Lucasfilm president. “It’s thrilling to see this extraordinarily talented ensemble taking shape.”

Previously announced, John Boyega, Ridley, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson and Max von Sydow are joining original stars of the saga, Harrison Ford, Fisher, Hamill, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew and Kenny Baker in Episode VII.

TMZ also released photos today from the set of Episode VII that reveal the hopes of all Star Wars fans could be true: the new installment will lean more toward creating real life effects like the original trilogy rather than relying so much on computer-generated images like the prequels. I don’t rely on TMZ, but what else could that larger rhino-looking creature be in if not Star Wars?

What are you looking forward to in the newest Star Wars installment? What roles do you want Christie and Nyong’o to play? Let me know @buzzlightmeryl

By Meryl Gottlieb|| @buzzlightmeryl    
Maleficent | Directed by Robert Stromberg | Rated PG
Rating: 4/5    

mal movie posterInitially, this was going to be a standard review of the newest Disney film, Maleficent. Then, I researched online only to find several other critics who did not share the same good-natured feeling I had for the film. Instead, I found a lot of average ratings and even some harsh words. I found this a bit shocking, for I truly enjoyed those 97 minutes.

It’s a bit campy at times, but I’m taking it for what it is: an attempt at a summer blockbuster. It’s a visually huge film and has been highly promoted — and I’d argue highly anticipated — since its first teaser trailer. It’s not groundbreaking for the genre, but it does present a lot of interesting aspects that I truly enjoyed.

Maleficent takes Disney’s Sleeping Beauty to new heights as it tells the tale in a way that is a far cry from the 1959 animated version. Take the old story where Maleficent curses an infant Aurora (Sleeping Beauty’s actual name) to prick her finger on a spinning wheel on her 16th birthday and fall into a “sleep-like death,” and now add some great cinematography, an interesting re-imagination and an actress at the top of the A-list and you have Maleficent.

Angelina Jolie looks menacing as hell in the costume. She does an excellent job embodying the role and making Maleficent fun to watch. About every other scene features a close-up of Jolie, slight eyebrow raise, full red lips, cheekbones and all. I wasn’t opposed to them, but there are a lot.

Yes, visually Maleficent is perfect. But, the new tale does come with its flaws. As much as I liked the film, I have to say the backstory and “true version” of the story wasn’t as creative or full like the heights reached in the musical Wicked, which did an outstanding job retelling the story of the Wicked Witch of the West. Vengeance for a spited love and cruel boy are what drive Maleficent to her evil nature — a trope used countless times. However, the real world parallel to the act done to Maleficent that spawns her true hatred for her former beau is not the typical route for Disney.

Thus, where you think Maleficent will do well, it is mostly average. Where the film truly impressed me was the different tale it told as Aurora aged. That is where it got interesting. That is what drew me in. The scenes with a younger Aurora, played by Jolie’s daughter, were a refreshing comedic break; they also served as some of my favorite moments of the entire film. Interactions with the older, almost 16-year-old, Aurora (Elle Fanning) also proves interesting. It becomes a relationship that is in stark contrast to the one shown in the 1959 animated film. In fact, Aurora probably had triple the amount of screen time here than she did then. Although to be fair, she was actually in a sleep-like death in that film and really is only in a sort of power nap in the new tale.

In this relationship is what will cause the most stir: the different take on “true love’s kiss.” It’s not on par with what Frozen did for Disney princesses, but it is another attempt to please the modern generation, who often look at the early, meek Disney princesses with a hint of disgust, by taking back a signature move of the man swooping in to save the helpless woman. Again, it didn’t make as much of an impact on me as the true love’s kiss ploy in Frozen — now THAT was a statement — but it certainly fit the story the film was presenting.

Prince Phillip (Brenton Thwaites) is thrown into the drama but is hardly monumental. Get the image of him tackling the thorn woods out of your head. For the most part in this film, he’s the sleeping beauty. And I don’t mind it. It’s not that I’m a bra-burning feminist who wants an end to the prince-princess storylines, it’s just that I could never accept the love between Aurora and Phillip or even Snow White and Prince Charming or Cinderella and Charming because their “love” was never developed. Once again, Frozen finally called out how ridiculous it is to rush into a marriage with someone you’ve only known for a day; he could try to kill you and your sister and take over your kingdom for goodness sake! Luckily, that nonsense is dealt with in Maleficent.

maleficentFurthermore, the film’s entire purpose was to humanize Maleficent, as Wicked did for the Wicked Witch. As much as I liked the film overall, I just wish they had allowed her to be actually evil for a tad longer. The famed Christening scene in which Maleficent curses Aurora allows Jolie’s creative whims to soar as she makes a larger than life performance. Jolie was deliciously evil, and I just wish we could have seen more of it.

What I liked least in the film was the portrayal of the three good fairies, played by Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple and Lesley Manville. They were absolutely my favorite characters in the original animation with their sass, wit and competence. But in Maleficent, they were fussy, inept and, well, incompetent. It was quite a disappointment. Because of the new relationship between Maleficent and Aurora, they were edged out, and their purpose in the story was essentially cut.

Maleficent’s right-hand man bird Diaval (Sam Riley) adds the moments of comic relief the good fairies fail to create. He’s really Maleficent’s only friend and is the one character who was truly expanded the best. He’s the sidekick I always imagined Maleficent deserved to have.

Perhaps I would have liked Sharlto Copley more as the antagonist had his accent not been so distracting. It was like a bad Sean Connery. Please stop talking.

The film has some faults, but Jolie is its saving grace. It’s not monumental filmmaking, but it’s definitely worth the hour and a half to see a great performance by Jolie, some very rich visual images and a cool new twist on an old tale.

By Meryl Gottlieb | | @buzzlightmeryl
Star Wars: Episode VII is set for release on Dec. 8, 2015

star-wars-episode-7-cast-announceThe force is strong in the universe: the new slew of Jedis has been announced.

John Boyega, Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson and Max von Sydow will join the original stars of the saga, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew and Kenny Baker in Star Wars: Episode VII.

“We are so excited to finally share the cast of Star Wars: Episode VII,” said J.J. Abrams, the director. “It is both thrilling and surreal to watch the beloved original cast and these brilliant new performers come together to bring this world to life, once again. We start shooting in a couple of weeks, and everyone is doing their best to make the fans proud.”

I absolutely loved Oscar Isaac in Inside Llewyn Davis; he was a remarkable lead with a great voice. Here’s hoping there is a folksy Jedi role to be filled. Adding Andy Serkis to any nerd classic is the right move. That man has done incredible work in Lord of the RingsRise of the Planet of the Apes and King Kong. I’m interested to see if he will do a motion-capture performance or if he will appear as himself. With the vast world of Star Wars and all the creatures it contains, it wouldn’t be a long shot to transform Serkis into an other-wordly being.

Adam Driver of HBO’s Girls has long been rumored to be connected to the latest Star Wars film, so now it’s simply official. Will he be playing the role of the villain as so many have guessed? There’s no way anyone will let that slip this early. In fact, I think they only piece of information we know for sure is that Episode VII takes place some number of years after the events of Return of the Jedi.

You may not know John Boyega, but I’m sure you will soon. Not only has he garnered this incredible deal, you will also be seeing him in the 24 reboot. Domhnall Gleeson is still relatively unknown but Harry Potter fans will recognize him as Bill Weasley from the final films. Max von Sydow is not pictured, but you may know him from as Father Merrin in The Exorcist. Lastly, you won’t really find anything on Daisy Ridley because there isn’t really anything to find. Of all the unknowns in the cast, she is the biggest mystery. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

As a Star Wars fan, it is great to know the old favorites are returning. Ford, Fisher and Hamill should all be returning to their original roles as Han Solo, Princess Leia and Luke Skywalker, respectively. It would be more than silly if Abrams brought them all back to play random mom and dad figures to the newbies. And a major jump for joy comes from the fact that favorites Anthony Daniels will be good ol’ C3PO, larger-than-life Peter Mayhew will return as the furball Chewbacca and Kenny Baker will beep-boop back into our hearts as R2-D2.

Also pictured between Driver and Abrams is the writer Lawrence Kasdan, who also penned Empire Strikes Back — the installment I deem as the best Star Wars film ever. Furthermore, composer John Williams, who wrote the scores for all six Star Wars films, will create the music for Episode VII.

So really, what more could a fan ask for as of now? I mean, could it really be any worse than Episode I? I have faith in Abrams, so hopefully I haven’t been led astray.

By Will Ashton || @thewillofash
| Directed by Nicholas Stoller | Rated R

NEIGHBORS-Poster-ArtDuring the past two years, it appears that Seth Rogen has finally defined his formula.

Whether it is as a star, producer, writer or director—or all of the above—he has been developing a strong sense of his comedic presence and of his own sense of rhythm and timing.

But, most importantly, he has finally figured out that he needs to be seen in the R-rated raunchy format. After some false starts staring in The Green Hornet (which he also co-wrote and executive produced) and The Guilt Trip (again, he was an executive producer, so he deserves at least some of the blame), it was apparent that he is a likable lead, but that he needed the freedom only the R-rating can give him, should he make the most of his time on the screen.

What makes this so commendable is that, where so many stars try too hard to make push their R-rating rather than actually make good jokes—I’m looking at you, Will Ferrell and Adam Sandler—Rogen has actually improved in many ways. Last year’s This is the End, which he co-directed, proved to be one of the tightest, leanest and surprisingly, delightfully dark big-budget comedies in some time.

While not quite as good as that film, he continues this tradition with his latest film Neighbors.

Centered on a clash formed between a stereotypical frat and a newly formed family, Rogen, who produces, continues his usual stick, perhaps to a fault. But the real surprise, and secret to this movie’s success, is found in Zac Efron, who plays the frat’s leader Teddy.

This is the type of movie that Efron needed. Although, to his credit, he tried it earlier this year with That Awkward Moment, this is the movie that truly gets him away from any Disney association he possibly had left and, finally, away from the lead in insipid romantic dramas. In addition to being extreme charismatic, he proves that he does have some chops in comedy beyond his good looks.

I doubt he has enough to make it completely on his own. But in an ensemble comedy like this with some strong writing by Andrew J. Cohen and Brandan O’Brien, he makes the most of his talent.

In fact, the biggest problem that this movie faces, in terms of his character, is that its attempts to make him a more fleshed-out character often feel like an afterthought. I have a hard time believing that I am criticizing a movie for giving character development, but when it is as rudimentary and ineffective as it is here, I have to say something.

Not only do these moments slow down a film that is actually quite well paced throughout, but it never fully feels like these motivations are completely figured out. Instead, it feels like the work of re-writes, potentially from other ghostwriters, that didn’t fully make their way into the final product. It is possible that some of this was just lost in the editing room too, so maybe I shouldn’t just blame the script.

Efron’s character is not alone, though. There are several moments in this script where characters act a certain way just because the script tells them to. These moments never feel authentic, and often pull back on the film’s effectiveness. Although these are mostly found in Efron’s character, it is often seen in Rose Byrne’s too, who plays Rogen’s wife. Although, the screenwriters are so wisely meta about her character, getting some good comedic mileage out of select stereotypes of female characters in raunchy comedies.

Although the writing throughout is quite good, these problems weaken the elements of the film that are quite good, including Nicholas Stoller’s competent direction and its surprisingly good physical comedy timing.  There are more than a few bits that just don’t work—whether they are just not fully formed, or too immature or just plain stupid—and most of these come in the movie’s first 10 or 20 minutes.

I must admit: the beginning of this movie is a bit of a slog before the good stuff comes around, and that is when Efron and Rogen get time to shine together with their surprisingly decent chemistry. Whether it is sex jokes that aren’t that funny, or set ups that don’t really pay off, or their attempts at awkward humor that are too heavy-handed, these opening moments are easily among the weakest of the film’s humor offers. Which is a shame, because it does drag the film from being the truly good comedy it could very easily have been into just a pretty good one.

Of course, there are more than just that that makes it just a slightly above-average comedy. In addition to what I mentioned above, there is also the problem that the movie is more amusing than outright hilarious. There are certainly some very, very funny moments, but there are some that just don’t work either. Oddly, with one or two exceptions, it is usually the smaller moments that are funnier than the brash, outlandish ones.

Rogen appears to be skating on his typical comedic personality here. Which, truthfully, is fine, but one must admit that it is going to get old pretty soon. I am hoping that he does more comedies like Observe and Report pretty soon. Because, in attention to being one of the most underrated big studio R-rated comedies in some time, it proved that Rogen could play a different kind of character and do it very well.

The main reason that this movie doesn’t live up to how good This is the End was is because it simply lacks that movie’s heart. There are moments of sweetness throughout, but where the former movie had a thoughtful look at male bonding relationships, this is mostly a strictly juvenile frat-boy comedy. Which, if done well like it is here, is fine, but not exceptional.

Admittedly, the frat boy audience in my screening ate it up like nobody’s business. But they are also the type of people that enjoy movies like Project X, so their comedic opinions don’t really matter.

Because seriously, that movie sucked. Hard.

Despite these flaws, though, this is a constantly funny movie, which is very well paced and knows how to keep things light and moving quickly. It is not hard to imagine that this movie is going to be a hit, and I don’t see why it shouldn’t be. There is a lot here to like, even if there are a couple of things to dislike too. It may be hit-and-miss comedy, but the hits are hard.

Yes, I guess that is a penis joke. But, there are so many in here, it’s hard to not get sucked up in its attempts. Oh God, there I go again.


By Will Ashton || @thewillofash
Nymphomaniac: Vol. II
| Directed by Lars von Trier | Not Rated

Nymphomaniac-Volume-II-PosterIn my assessment of Nymphomaniac: Vol. I, I highlighted my misunderstanding of how to approach the film. As in, whether it should be looked at as one half of one overarching film, or just as its own individual film?

Well, I still cannot give an answer to that question. But, having now seen Nymphomaniac: Vol. II, I can at least assertively put my foot down on what I feel about writer/director Lars von Trier’s latest “treat” for the cinema.

In a way, then, this should serve as both a review of Vol. II and a new review of Vol. I. While my opinion on the first volume hasn’t really changed, I at least have a stronger understanding now of what I feel about it.

So, with that in mind, let’s dissect what Trier has accomplished here.

Like I noted before, this is the second part of Trier’s look at a woman’s sexuality from a child to her near fifties. It is a rollercoaster ride of sex, romance and a lot in-between. It makes for an individually perverse and yet occasionally engaging film series.

My biggest problem with the last movie was that I believed it walked a very fine line between being sexual fantasy and character study. Whenever it was directly the later, it made for an interesting, if at times repetitive, film. When it was stepping into the former’s territory, though, it was as if the audience was sitting inside an overlong, extended porno.

This was something I had even more of a problem with in Vol. II. But, as it eventually wrapped itself up, I felt like Trier’s finally decided to showcase his overarching point. Which, it would seem, would be a feminists piece based on one’s own sexuality. Which I figured was the case, but it was never directly stated until the movie’s final flickering moments.

This movie provides its actors more availability to showcase their performances, even more so than in Vol. I. In particular, as the titular sex addict, Charlotte Gainsbourg gives a more subtlety versatile performance this time around. Especially as the weight of her sexuality becomes an even greater factor to her motivations in life and, therefore, the story.

The same can also be said of Stellan Skarsgard. His purpose in the film is much more centralized here, and it makes his scenes with Gainsbourg even weightier, especially considering that they are the best-written sections in both volumes.

Although this installment is much more decidedly dramatic and darker, there are still occasional segments of dry comedy spilled lightly throughout the film. This film is not quite as darkly humorous as the former film, but it does have its quiet moments of comic levity, and they are much more spread out than they were in the first movie.

Compared to his other movies—at least, those that I have seen—I don’t think Nymphomaniac Vol. I & II carries the same headiest that the director has given to the other movies on his resume. There are many times that the director seems to be trying to shock his audiences, but, without much of a point, these scenes always seem rather morally bankrupt.

They are well done, which is what ultimately makes these two films worth the time put into them, but compared to what he was trying to communicate creatively with his last two movies, Antichrist and Melancholia, Nymphomaniac Vol. I & II too often feels a bloated attempt for the filmmaker to try to push the audience’s sense of moral decency.

I guess he did this in Antichrist too. But, again, I feel like that movie had more of a purpose throughout. Speaking of which, there seems to be a little nod in this movie to that film here, but I can’t say that for certain. It may have just been a plot point similarity.

The biggest feather in Nymphomaniac Vol. II’s cap is that it is more entertaining than the past volume. That’s not so much to say that this is going to get audiences as excited as they would be in Captain America: The Winter Solider, but the stakes this time are much more realized and the plot has a stronger understanding of what it is trying to communicate to its audience.

If I had to choose, I would say that I preferred Vol. II a little more than I did Vol. I. Neither are perfect by any stretch of the imagination (I should also note, without getting into spoilers, that I found at least one part of this movie’s climax—narrative climax, that is—to be rather far-fetched and another example of the film’s attempt to push the envelope too much), but this movie seems to be more level-headed in what it wants to say.

In the end, I don’t plan to revisit this movie like I never plan to revisit any Trier movie—although, I have seen Melancholia twice, but not by choice. But I can at least somewhat understand and continue to respect Trier for what he was able to accomplish here.

It may be too stuffy and overlong for its own good. But it is still a well-crafted semi-feminist film with a strong lead performance, as always, from Gainsbourg. If anything, these movies are great at showcasing her talents like no other.

By Will Ashton || @thewillofash
Nymphomaniac: Vol. 1
| Directed by Lars von Trier | Not Rated

large_3lVe9Os8FjpX1VgtdT9VFnbqs5fI must confess: I’m not quite sure how to confront my review of Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac: Vol. I.

It’s not that I don’t know what I feel towards the film—I do. I just don’t know how exactly to assess it. Should I view it as its own individual film, or the first part of one long movie?

Considering that this version is the first film on Trier’s filmography not to get the official green slip of approval from the director himself, I guess it doesn’t completely matter how I grade the movie. I mean, it is still his film, and he will still get the blame or praise of the movie. But I shouldn’t have to guilt myself too much over whether I am being as liberal to the filmmaker’s work as I should be.

As the first of two “volumes,” this first chapter of the life of a self-professed nymphomaniac named Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) as she professes her life story to Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) after he finds her beaten and passed out in an alley. As they discuss her life and her naughty deeds, they discuss the worth of her character.

Based on the slivers of footage that was shown during the credits from the second part of this film series, it would seem that all the really crazy shit is going to go down in the next movie. As a result, this one, while certainly good at establishing character, is a bit dry and sluggish in its delivery.

The primary reason for this is because, throughout the movie, Trier never really answers the question that is in the viewer’s mindset, which is: why he is devoting four hours of film to tell this girl’s story? I mean, there are certain segments here that are interesting, but there is nothing especially notable in this movie that explains why this was not brought down to a two hour—or even three hour—movie.

See, unlike last year’s Blue is the Warmest Color, this movie’s decision to go beyond the 140-minute mark isn’t necessarily earned. Although both are intimate in their portrayals through studying their female character’s sexuality—very explicitly, for the record—Nymphomaniac: Vol. 1 feels padded and excessive to a fault.

For the record, before this, I only have seen two of Trier’s movies, which were his last two: Antichrist and Melancholia. Even though neither was perfect in my opinion, for different reasons, I respected and appreciated both in particular for their opening minded looks at heavy topics like depression and lost.

With this movie, though, I’m not quite sure what the writer/director’s point here is. I can’t completely judge yet, because I have only seen the first part of this two-part story, but I don’t quite see what the point is of this story. Are we studying the depravity of sexuality in our culture, or the over-fixation we have towards sex? Is he trying to test the endurance of how much sex we can willing watch on the big screen? Or is he just interested in telling the story of a girl who has sex—a lot?

Truthfully, I don’t know. It doesn’t seem, at least so far, that he really has a point. Which, in turn, makes for a rather dull movie at times, especially considering how stretched the story is already.

But, there is no mistaking that Trier’s is a talent director with a particular warped vision. For all my criticisms, Nymphomaniac: Vol. I is a well-made movie. The acting is strong, the direction is tight and the writing, while a bit all over the place, is well-written in a thoughtful way that I was not expecting from a movie with such a title.

However, what truly makes the movie passable, at least so far, is its dark sense of humor. Through this, Trier is able to not take himself or his subject matter too seriously, which, in turn, makes for a more enjoyable film. There is always the risk that this movie will get too far up its own ass. But through this dry sense of comedy, most notably in the scene with Uma Thurman, the movie works particularly in its twisted, demented little way.

If I have to give credit to Trier in one regard, at least, it will be that he certainly knows how to give his movies unique and memorable opening sequences. This movie is no different. Although this one is quite as beautifully disturbing as Antichrist or as just plain gorgeous as Melancholia, this movie certainly knows how to throw its audience for a loop and get them invested in the story.

As I said, I am essentially reviewing half a movie, so this is weird for me to write. I can’t promise I will like the second half of this story, because I barely enjoyed the first one, but I will say that Trier’s has crafted another distinct and well-made film. Even if this one doesn’t quite have as much of a point, at least so far.