My Top Ten Films of 2016

It is that time of year again where I exercise my desire to list my favorite movies of the prior year. As it happens with me, since I am not a professional critic, it takes me a much longer time to see what I would consider a decent enough amount of films to justify compiling such a list as a top ten. And so, I use Oscar weekend as my deadline. I saw about 50 films this year including all best picture nominated films. Below is what I thought to be the best ten of 2016.

  1. Hacksaw Ridge

hacksaw0001This World War II film starring Andrew Garfield tells the story of Private Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector who nevertheless enlists in the military to become a medic. Because of his religion, he refuses to carry a gun and kill. The film recounts his experiences in the battle of Okinawa when his unit is to take the Maeda Escarpment, known to the soldiers as Hacksaw Ridge. During this battle, Doss single handedly saves an impressive number of wounded soldiers.

Hacksaw Ridge is based on an extraordinary true story. At the time of watching the film, much of the events seemed unbelievable to me, but I was pleasantly surprised as to how much of it was actually true after fact checking. Andrew Garfield is worthy of his Oscar nomination. He provides a powerful emotional presence. I was equally impressed with Hugo Weaving who plays the troubled father. It is good to see Hugo shed some of his Agent Smith type cast and do something with a bit more depth.  The film suffers at times when it gets a little bit too much Rambo in some of its war scenes, but those are few and far between.

  1. Hidden Figures

505-asset-pageHidden Figures tells of a trio of brilliant African America women working in NASA who play a vital part in sending John Glenn into orbit around the earth. Tariji P. Henson plays Katherine Johnson, a “computer”, who is assigned to work under Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) in the Space Task Group. She and her colleagues Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) are confronted with many obstacles of discrimination in their attempt to integrate with fellow NASA workers and succeed in their job to help America win the space race.

Although you won’t find anything surprising in the plot of this film, it is a very entertaining, funny, and engaging story. The acting ensemble is superb. Although the film can be a bit formulaic, it is executed so effectively that it is easy to forgive its predictable features. It is an example of what good Hollywood entertainment can be.

  1. Lion

lion-movie-poster-504x709A small Indian boy, named Saroo (Sunny Pawar), is lost in Calcutta. He ends up in an orphanage where a loving Australian couple (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham) decide to adopt him. 25 years later, as an adult (Dev Patel) and living in Australia, Saroo becomes obsessed with finding his childhood home and family that he left behind.

Based on a true story, this one will leave you wiping tears from your cheeks. The first half of the film is carried brilliantly by first time child actor Sunny Pawar. For such a young actor, he has no problem showing the range needed for such an emotional part. The second half is taken over by Dev Patel, but it is Nicole Kidman that really steals the second half of the film. The film is tragic, but it does not leave you hopeless. It is a well written, tightly constructed film for anyone looking for a good cry.

  1. La La Land

1The most acclaimed film of the year sits in my #7 spot. The film is certainly deserving of its merit and there won’t be much complaint from me when it takes the best picture award along with a slew of others. It is a musical that follows the story of Mia (Emma Stone), a struggling actress, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a struggling jazz pianist, trying to get by in the hustle of Hollywood, CA. They meet and form a relationship. We follow as they attempt to achieve their respective dreams.

The movie’s charm is found in its heartbreaking relationship between the two main protagonists. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling have great chemistry together and carry the film throughout. Director/writer, Damien Chazelle (Whiplash), has created an original musical that entertains and engages the viewer. It avoids the excessive singing that can annoy some people unfamiliar with musicals and incorporates jazz and rock n roll elements into its repertoire. The final musical sequence is nothing short of spectacular.

  1. Sing Street

sing_streetI couldn’t stop smiling while watching Sing Street. Maybe because it reminded me of my teenage years (despite taking place in Ireland in the 80s), or maybe because it had so many great songs I wish I would have written myself. Sing Street is a coming of age film about an Irish teenage kid, Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo). Conor is going through a tough time in his life. His family is having personal and financial troubles and, as a result, he has to move to a new school. One day after school, he meets a girl and decides that the best way to impress her is to start a band. He recruits a ragtag gang of schoolmates and with the help of his older brother puts together a music group part Duran Duran, and part The Cure.

Writer/director, John Carney, is already known for these type of films. His previous work, Begin Again and Once, have similar tributes and nostalgic elements of 80s and 90s British pop and rock music. This time around, he has written something close to my heart. Every song in this film is a toe tapper and it is a shame that not a single song was nominated by the Academy. There are some cheesy elements to the story ala John Hughes, but the film is written so well that none of it is even a hint distracting. I recommend this to anyone who ever wanted be a musician as a kid and believed music would save their lives.

  1. Arrival

arrivalposterAmy Adams plays Louise Banks, a linguistics professor hired to help make contact with extra-terrestrial beings that have landed on Earth. She is joined by Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a mathematician. Together they attempt to decipher the alien’s strange language in hopes to stop a full scale war of the worlds.

This is not your average alien invasion movie. You’re not going to get large scale destruction scenes or Will Smith running around screaming one-liners at tentacled alien creatures.  Arrival is a smart, entertaining, sci-fi mystery that unravels slowly and engages the audience right from the first view of the alien ships. The film is not as mind blowing as Interstellar or 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it is a welcomed addition to the sci-fi pantheon of great films.  Director, Denis Villeneuve, is kind of on roll here having had critical success with his previous films in Sicario and Prisoners. Here, he once again delivers a nicely executed film. The cinematography is superb specifically in the early scenes with the aliens. The writing team of Eric Heisserer and Ted Chiang have taken a much used premise and managed to create a unique version of the alien invasion genre.

  1. Café Society

cafe_societyWoody Allen is still making great cinema. While, for many, this addition to his massive repertoire of countless critically acclaimed films did not register even a  tiny impact, I found this movie to be one of the best Woody has to offer. The story revolves around Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg) essentially playing the part of a young Woody Allen. Bobby is a New Yorker sent to California to stay with his uncle, film producer, Phil Stern (Steve Carell). Bobby has little to do with himself in California until he meets Phil’s assistant, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart). He quickly falls in love and, with a bit of luck, they form a relationship. Trouble begins when Vonnie’s secret regarding her ex-lover is revealed.

Woody does an excellent job in capturing the California setting of 1930s golden age Hollywood. His script is simple yet with enough twist and turns to keep you enticed and wanting more. The acting is phenomenal as is with most of Woody’s work. Even Kristen Stewart puts something of an actual decent performance. The film is funny and heartbreaking. And it doesn’t hurt that it throws in a bit of the gangster film genre to add to the mix.

  1. Manchester by the Sea

manchester_by_the_seaCasey Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a man living on his own in Boston working as a handyman. He keeps to himself and has very little interest to interact much with others in a meaningful way. When a phone call comes in to tell him that his brother has died back in his hometown of Manchester, he is forced to pay a visit to his past. To make matters even more difficult, Lee’s brother leaves him custody of his teenage son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Unwilling to make real human connections again, Lee attempts to figure out a way to leave Manchester as soon as he can before his past returns to haunt him.

There is no denying the somber elements of this film. It is a tragic wonderfully written story and, although it won’t leave you smiling walking out of the theater, it will certainly work to evoke that ever so sought after cathartic feeling. This is the kind of film that is carried uniquely by its amazing emotional performances. Casey Affleck will deservingly win the Oscar for his turn as Lee. His performance is subtle, but where he excels is in how he is able to communicate so much pain without much in outward emotional outbursts. The rest of the entire main cast is perfect. Michelle Williams and Lucas Hedges deserve recognition of their own. I recommend this movie highly, but, I must admit, this is not a film for most people. It is a slow build and with very little in closure to satisfy a mainstream audience. Since my top 2 were not nominated for best picture this year, this would be my pick to win the award.

  1. Star Wars: Rogue One

e72d432574cbd16ac12d98570f982debI was first exposed to Star Wars as a young 12 year old boy in 1997. At that time, The Star Wars Trilogy was being re-released in theaters and I took that chance to finally see the movies. Like so many of you out there, I fell in love with the original trilogy right from my first watch. And like so many of you out there, I was excited for those prequels (Episodes I-III). However, by the time the prequels hit theaters, I was a little older and I wanted the franchise to grow up with me. Suffice to say, I was disappointed by the childish nature of the prequels which became more apparent with each installment. The failure of the prequels, I believe, stemmed from Lucas’ inability to recognize that the fan base had grown up and the same tricks from the originals were just not going to cut it anymore. I had no optimism when Disney bought the franchise and my lack of optimism was confirmed when Episode VII was released. Although it was much better than the prequels, apart from being nothing more than a rehash of Episode IV, it still suffered from the same childish feel that I wish the franchise would finally let go. So, when Rouge One was announced, I had no expectations and more pessimism than ever.

But I say this now with the utmost sincerity, Star Wars: Rouge One is the Star Wars I have been waiting for all my life since first watching the original trilogy. And I know this may be blasphemous to many of you reading this, but Rouge One is in my opinion the best Star Wars ever made. Star Wars finally has grown up (and I can’t believe it was Disney that did it). This is what a rebellion looks like: questionable ethics, tragedy, loss, and struggle. The script is wonderful in keeping the spirit of Star Wars, but still moving the franchise forward. Not only is this a better stand-alone Star Wars movie, but it fixes plot holes from the originals making the originals even better than before.

In Rouge One, Darth Vader is a badass again, putting aside the horrendous Frankenstein appearance he made in Episode III. There is no unnecessary cheesy love story. The heroes are not all perfect moral characters. This a war film like Star Wars has never been. Yes, its space battles are as fantastic as ever, but the film exhibits a kind of war-like realism not yet seen in the franchise that meshes so nicely with the Star Wars universe. There is no cutesy droid to provide comic relief. The droid that does appear (Kaytoo) is a snarky dry British humor type that stole my affection faster and more deeply than R2D2 and C3PO have been able to do over 7 films. That last time I cried over a robot was Wall-E.

My faith in the franchise has been renewed and I feel like a 12 year old boy again excited to see what comes next. For the reasons above and so many more that would fill up a 10 page paper, Star Wars: Rogue One is my #2 movie of the year. Only one other movie hit me harder this year and that was…

  1. Nocturnal Animals

naTom Ford wrote and directed this masterpiece based on the novel, Tony and Susan, by Austin Wright. Amy Adams is Susan, a wealthy and privileged art gallery owner. She is unhappily married to her second husband and living a most unfulfilling life. The tragedy is that she had a happy relationship with her first husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), but her lack of patience and confidence in him brought that relationship to an end. To her surprise, Edward reemerges when he sends Susan his book titled “Nocturnal Animals” specifically dedicated to her. As she reads the book, she begins to reminisce and introspect on her relationship with Edward and her life decisions that led to where she is now. What ensues is a three part tale that intertwines Susan’s present with her past and the fictional content of the book itself.

The acting is top notch. Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal are excellent and the supporting cast of Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Laura Linney and others are equally satisfying. The film is beautiful to look at. It is a stylistic work of art that uses it visuals to enhance the meaningful breath of its stories as they work in relation to each other.  Its score enhances the tension when needed and does good work to frame the sadness of Susan’s meaningless present life.

The film plays like a normal thriller when it jumps into the fiction within a fiction of Edward’s book. And what we see just from the contents of the book could work as a satisfying thriller on its own. Yet, the film ads more layers to the plot as it flashbacks to Susan and Edward’s past and reveals how their relationship relates to the story of Edward’s fiction. It is difficult to say more because it is just better that you know the least possible to fully enjoy how this film unwinds itself to its ending. In essence, this is a revenge flick that plays with the genre in the most unexpected ways. Right from its opening credits, you are perplexed by what this film has in store for you and when it finally begins to reveal its twists and turns it leaves you hanging grasping your drink confused, frustrated, happy, and sad all the same time. There is so much more to say about this film, but I think it best you watch it for yourself and then join me for a beer to discuss.

Honorable mentions: Deadpool, 10 Cloverfield Lane, The Nice Guys, Captain Fantastic, Sausage Party, The Lobster, Hell or High Water

Dishonorable Mentions: Suicide Squad, Miss Peregrine’s Home of Peculiar Children, Jackie

Critics loved it, but I thought it was “meh”: Moonlight, Fences

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My Top Ten Films of 2015

Originally published on http://www.Santanerozine.com – February 2016

For many of you out there in social media land, this year’s Academy Awards will fall on deaf ears. The controversy resulting from the lack of minorities in the four acting categories has caused many to boycott this year’s awards. I will not be one of those people. I love film and the Oscars are a celebration of some of the best films of the past year, and this year is no different, despite some worthy omissions. I will be watching and rooting for Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu who is the front runner to win his 2nd Oscar in a row and become the 3rd Mexican director to win the award in succession. I will also be rooting for Mexican Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, nominated for his 8th Academy Award and more than likely about to win his 3rd Oscar in a row. But I guess only the acting categories matter right?

 

Anyway, every year on Oscar weekend I compile my top ten films of the prior year. As always, I do this for my own self-gratification. I like making lists, especially when they involve movies. So, if you want to hear my opinion of what films deserved recognition this year, then read on. Some of my selections coincide with the Academy’s picks, some do not.  Unfortunately, there was no film in my top ten with a leading Asian American actor. But since no one seems to care about Asian Americans in the media, I guess I won’t be branded a racist.

 

  1. Dope

Malcolm is a geek, intelligent and obsessed with 1990s hip hop music culture. Malcom and his fellow geek friends live in a tough neighborhood in Inglewood trying to get by their high school years without getting into too much trouble. He wants to get into Harvard, but his counselor warns him that his straight As and high SAT scores might not be enough. Soon, trouble finds Malcolm as he is forced into the drug business pushing a new drug on the streets.

 

The film, in essence, is a coming of age film. While the concept is not new, the perspective taken from a black teenager in a rough neighborhood certainly gives a unique take on the genre that John Hughes made famous in the 1980s.  Newcomer, Shameik Moore, shines as the lead. The supporting cast of Tony Revolori, and Kiersey Clemons, as his two best friends (Jib and Diggy), provide the comic relief as we watch the three teenagers outsmart their way out of their predicament. Writer/director, Rick Famuyiwa, has made a smart and funny film that manages to take a familiar plot and give us just enough innovation to entertain us from start to finish.

 

  1. Black Mass

The film is another fine addition to the already crowded genre of crime drama. Johnny Depp plays infamous Boston crime boss James “Whitey” Bulger. The film follows the story of Bulger and his time as an informant for the FBI. Bulger and his childhood friend, John Connelly, now an FBI agent, cut a deal to take down the leaders of the rival Italian mob. However, once his rivals are captured, Whitey, with his new found FBI protection, begins to take full control of South Boston’s crime circuit.

 

Johnny Depp is wonderful as Whitey, giving a sinister and disturbing performance. He carries the film. The rest of the cast is nothing to laugh at either. Joel Edgerton and Benedict Cumberbatch put on fine performances of their own as Connolly and Bulger’s brother, Senator Billy Bulger, respectively. While you will not find anything surprising about this film, it will keep you engulfed and interested for its two hours running time.

 

  1. Trumbo

This film is all Bryan Cranston. His performance is more than worthy of winning the Academy Award, if only Leo had not eaten all that raw bison liver. In the late 1940s, Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) is one of Hollywood’s most successful screenwriters. His career, however, takes a downturn when him and other fellow screenwriters are jailed and blacklisted for their political beliefs. We follow Trumbo, as he attempts to survive and continue working under pseudonyms, writing two Academy Award winning scripts in the process.

 

John McNamara and Bruce Cook have penned an excellent script, writing dialogue any actor would love to perform. In addition to Cranston’s Oscar nominated performance, Helen Mirren and Lewis CK provide praise-worthy supporting roles. The film’s intrigue is in its exceptional storytelling. Trumbo’s eccentric personality, and his fight to keep working through political intolerance, makes for an entertaining tale.

 

  1. The Martian

Ridley Scott directs this sci-fi epic based on the best-selling book of the same name. A thoroughly entertaining film, it follows Mark Watney (Matt Damon), an astronaut left for dead on Mars, as he sciences the shit out of his predicament to try and survive long enough for a rescue mission to reach him. This is Matt Damon’s Cast Away. He more than deserves his Oscar nomination. He works alone, keeping us engaged and laughing for the majority of the film. Ridley Scott, as he is known to do, presents yet another beautifully shot film. The cinematography here is fantastic, especially during Watney’s travels through the Martian landscape. Although the dialogue at time falls a bit flat during many of the NASA scenes, the writing more than makes up for it when Watney is on screen. I guess they decided to leave all the best lines for Matt Damon.

 

  1. Room

This is a tragic and yet ultimately hopeful film. Emma Donoghue has written an inspiring story of sacrifice and struggle. Jacob Tremblay is Jack, born in Room and living there all of his short life with his Ma, played by Brie Larson. For 5 years, all he has known are the four walls of Room. Ignorant of the truth of his situation, his Ma finally decides that Jack is old enough to know what is outside and conceives of a plan to escape their cage. Once out, we follow the two as they adjust to living in the outside world.

 

Brie Larson is fabulous as Ma, and more than deserves the Oscar she will most likely win come Sunday.  Little Jacob does well as the confused and innocent Jack. There is no other way to put it here. This film will pull at your heart strings and will keep your emotions occupied as you take a journey through the mind of a child discovering the world for the first time.

 

  1. Beasts of No Nation

Agu is a child living in an unnamed country in Western Africa. He lives in a small village with his parents and siblings. War is breaking out all around them and it soon reaches their village. During an attack, Agu is left orphaned and is picked up by a group of rebel soldiers. Trained to fight with the rebel army, we follow Agu’s story as he is forced to live a life of war.

 

Beasts of No Nation is a powerful film. It is not for the faint of heart. It pulls no punches in its realism and violence. The film is beautifully shot. Director, Cary Joji Fukunaga, has made a stunning picture that will stick with you long after the first watch. Idris Elba plays the commandant, who spares little Agu and thrusts him into the horrible world of perpetual war.  If there was any black actor that most certainly deserved a nomination this year, it was him. Just as impressive though is the lead, Abraham Attah, who is way too young to be exhibiting such emotional strength in his performance. He has a bright future in front him if he keeps this quality.

 

  1. The Hateful Eight

I have to admit that I may be a bit biased when it comes to Tarantino films. I just love his work. Since I began making these lists, every Tarantino movie that has been released has made my top ten. The Hateful Eight may not beat his most recent films, Django Unchained or Inglourious Basterds, but it certainly does not fail to deliver to fans such as myself. The story is a simple one. Bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell) is travelling through the Wyoming wilderness to get known gangster and murderer Daisy Domergue hanged for her crimes at a town called Red Rock. On the way, they meet fellow bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren and Sherriff Chris Mannix. When a blizzard forces them to shack up at Minnie’s Haberdashery, they are met by group of suspicious men. What ensues is nothing but pure Tarantino gold.

 

I saw this in glorious 70mm film complete with its own orchestral overture and intermission. Legendary Italian composer Ennio Morricone, known for his work on Spaghetti Westerns like The Good , the Bad, and the Ugly, and A Fistful of Dollars, will most likely win his first Oscar for this film. The cinematography by Robert Richardson is superb. The acting is top notch and Tarantino writes monologues like a God.         

 

  1. The Big Short

The housing crisis of the mid 2000’s still haunts the country to this day. The Big Short tells the story of how it all went down and how a handful of people managed to get rich betting against the US economy. The Big Short is directed and co-written by Adam McKay, who is more known for his comedic films like Anchorman, Step Brothers, and Talladega Nights. In this work, he brings his comedic wit to tell a complicated story that not only informs but fully entertains delivering big laughs at the most unsuspecting moments. The writing is clever and is my pick for best adapted screenplay. Christian Bale is fantastic as the hedge fund manager, Michael Burry, who figures it all out before anyone else. Steve Carell is hilarious as the eccentric Mark Baum. It’s really an all-star cast with Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, Marisa Tomei, plus a handful of fun cameos sprinkled throughout. If you’re looking for a good time and want to learn something in the process, this is the movie of the year.

 

  1. The Revenant

I can’t say more about Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu that I have not said already. The man is a genius. Like Tarantino, this guy has made no bad films. This is yet another gem in his repertoire. It is a beautiful movie to look at that needs to be enjoyed in all its glory on a big screen. Plot wise, there is not much to it. Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), are aiding a band of pelt hunters working for a trading company. After Hugh Glass is attacked by a bear, fellow hunter, John Fitzgerald kills Glass’ son and leaves Glass for dead buried alive in a shallow grave. Glass manages to recuperate and embarks on an epic journey to get his revenge against Fitzgerald. What ensues is a lovely piece of suffering for two plus hours. One thing is for sure, Leo knows how to suffer. Hugh Glass fights through blizzards, hostile Native Americans, rival hunters, and pretty much everything else nature has to throw at him. Iñarritu shows us everything of nature’s beauty and violent indiscrimination. Since my number 1 film was not nominated, The Revenant is my pick to win Best Picture and hopefully it gets it.

 

  1. Ex Machina

Nathan Bates (Oscar Isaac) is a reclusive genius who has chosen Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) to participate in a unique experiment. Caleb is given the task to interact with an artificially intelligent android named Ava, played brilliantly by Alicia Vikander. The purpose of their interaction is to study Ava and conclude whether her AI is that of human level.

 

Writer/director, Alex Garland, has authored a thought provoking and uniquely suspenseful film. Tackling familiar philosophical issues such self-identity, agency, and morality. We are engrossed in their task to figure out what exactly makes one human. Make no mistake. This is not some sci-fi action thriller. The film is essentially a series of conversations, but there is no boredom to be had. Brilliantly written, visually stunning, wonderfully acted, and a story to keep you guessing, this is my top movie of 2015. I was sad not to see it be nominated for Best Picture. I can only infer that it must have been racism. What other logical explanation could there be? It must have been that Japanese actress (Sonoya Mizuno) that turned them off. Still, the Academy was nice enough to bestow it a well-deserved Best Original Screenplay nod and I hope it takes it down.

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My Top Ten Films of 2014

Originally published on http://www.Santanerozin.com – February 2015

 

It is that time of year again when the movie industry gets together and slaps each other in the butt for their own self-gratification. This year more than others, the academy awards are surrounded with controversy for their snubs. I personally don’t care for much of the controversy; I just love celebrating movies, an art form that captured my imagination since when I was but a wee lad sneaking into the movie theatres to watch Rated R films. So, as I have done in the years past at this time, I have compiled my top ten favorite movies of the past year, 2014. Here they are starting with number 10.

 

  1. Nightcrawler:

Jake Gyllenhaal plays Lou Bloom, a smart, yet very weird and creepy looking loner out of a job and desperate to find one. He stumbles upon the world of freelance video journalism and decides to take it up as his profession. The movie centers on Lou and the lengths to which he goes to keep his career going. Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance is pure evil creepiness as the overly determined Lou. It was unfortunate that he was not recognized for it by the Academy. This movie is not for the Disney crowd. It is a dark film that really dives deep into our current social obsession with exhibition, voyeurism, and greed. With what will seem to most as a very unsatisfying film, I found it to be one of the more daring films of the year that really gave its audience no compromise. Its pure unethicalness is its most endearing quality.

 

  1. Selma

Much has been talked about this film not getting certain nominations from the Academy (it was nominated for best picture and song). While I don’t buy the arguments accusing the Academy of racism, I find it unfortunate that the quality of this film has taken a back seat to the controversies that have surrounded it. Do I think the film deserved a little more recognition? Yes. Certainly, in my opinion, David Oyelowo deserved a nomination. His performance as Martin Luther King Jr. is spot on and he drove this movie with a passionate and intimate performance of a man entrusted with such a heavy responsibility. Do I think Ava DuVerney deserved recognition for her direction? No. While this film is a triumph in execution, there were just better made films this year than this one (some of which didn’t get nominated either). Snubs happen. It’s not racism, it’s an opinion on the overall quality of the film just as this whole list is an opinion on quality. Forget about the historical inaccuracies (every film based on a true story is going to have them), forget about the award snubs, just go watch this movie, it’s good, it’s really good, Oprah Winfrey notwithstanding.

 

  1. Whiplash

The film centers on Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) in his freshman year at the fictional music college of Shaffer Conservatory in New York. Andrew is an aspiring jazz drummer who is plucked out of his class by the school’s Jazz band conductor Terrance Fletcher. Fletcher is every student’s nightmare; he insults and belittles his students who do not meet his high standards of excellence. When Andrew is singled out and ridiculed by Fletcher during a rehearsal, Andrew is determined to win over Fletcher’s approval.

Much has already been said about J.K Simmons’ performance as the evil Terrance Fletcher. He will win the Academy Award and I cannot argue against it. The man certainly deserves it. Miles Teller also does very well as the main protagonist, Andrew. He, apparently, did most of his own drumming. Miles is growing into a star very quickly since his breakout performances in The Spectacular Now. I can only see him get more and more good roles such as this one. The film is well done and it quickly sucks you into the frustrations and ambitions of the main character as he tries to fulfil his dream of becoming an elite jazz drummer despite Fletcher constantly yelling at his ear. The audience is made to wonder whether Fletcher has gone too far or is doing just right considering his philosophy on the world’s complacency with mediocrity.

 

  1. St. Vincent

Bill Murray gives one of his best performances as the grumpy Vietnam veteran, Vincent MacKenna. With an affinity for chain smoking, alcohol, and gambling on the ponies, Vincent plays out the last few years of his lonely life occasionally entertained by a Russian pregnant prostitute and avoiding his gambling debts. When new neighbors, Maggie and her son Oliver, move in next door, Vincent reluctantly takes the opportunity to make some much needed extra money by babysitting Oliver. Oliver turns out to be the friend Vincent needed to get his life back in line. While most would find the plot of this film formulaic, the film does a great job of taking a familiar story and still finding a way to engage us and strike us emotionally. The acting is what really drives the film. From Bill Murray’s excellent portrayal, to Melissa McCarthy’s subtle turn as the single mother trying to get by, to the young Jaeden Lieberher as the smart and curious Oliver, every actor in this film is perfectly casted. I cannot deny that the ending pulled a few tears from my eyes. Damn you, old fashioned storytelling!

 

  1. Gone Girl

David Fincher (Fight Club, Seven, The Social Network) directs yet another fine film, the mystery thriller, Gone Girl, based on the best-selling book of the same name by Gillian Flynn. Ben Affleck plays Nick Dunne who comes home one morning to find his wife missing and seemingly kidnapped. Nick informs the authorities and is soon suspect number 1 in his own wife’s kidnapping and possible murder. The film is a tense mystery as we slowly begin to learn the history of this somewhat abnormal couple. Rosamund Pike, does a remarkable performance as the wife, Amy Dunne. I know Julianne Moore is going to win for her performance in Still Alice, but I am hoping Rosamund Pike pulls out an upset. She embodies this role and you can’t help but hate her, and at the same time, respect her cleverness.

 

  1. Big Hero 6

Ever since Disney bought out Pixar and hired all of its workers, the quality of Disney’s product has vastly improved from their lackluster years of the last decade. Big Hero 6 is probably the best Disney has put out since The Lion King. The main character, Hiro, is a highly intelligent young man who is interested in robotics. After his brother is killed in a fire, Hiro finds comfort and companionship from the balloon like healthcare robot, Baymax, a prototype built by his brother before his death. Baymax and Hiro partner-up to form a team of heroes set out to stop a villain that may have been connected to Hiro’s brother’s death. The charm of this movie is all in the character of Baymax. Baymax is a wonderful character reminiscent of Wall-e but without the robotic ET look. The film is a feel good, funny, and entertaining story about friendship. I haven’t seen very many animated films this year, so I can’t speak for the other nominees in the animated film category. All I know is that I loved this movie and it was one of only two movies this year that managed to make me shed some tears.

 

  1. The Imitation Game

Based on the real life story of Alan Turing, The Imitation Game tells the story of how Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) and a team of code breakers managed to break the code of the infamous German Enigma system. Turing who is one of the innovators of computer science, was a gay man living in a time when being gay was not just looked down upon, it was illegal. Despite his great accomplishments, Turing was convicted of indecency by the British government and forced to take hormonal treatments. Two years later, Turing took his own life. The film concentrates specifically on Turing’s time while working for the British government to break the Enigma code. Obviously, Turing was a genius and a somewhat social outcast. Cumberbatch plays him with great care and although Turing can be quite a jerk at times, we can’t help but like the man for his honesty and sheer genius. The film works as an excellent drama. Kiera Knightly plays Joan Clarke who helps Turing create a computing machine that can help solve Enigma. Although we know the ending, we are still at the edge of our seat as the team struggles to solve the great puzzle. Out of all the films this year based on a true story, this one is definitely the one to watch.

 

  1. The Grand Budapest Hotel

Director, Wes Anderson, has always been hit or miss for me. The Royal Tenenbaums was great. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou was just stupid. Moonrise Kingdom was cute and funny. The Darjeeling Limited was boring. Now, with The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson scored another hit for me. Gustave H. played by Ralph Fiennes, is a well-known concierge for the hotel that bears the film title’s name. The rich and famous of the fictional Republic of Zubrowka gather at this hotel to indulge in the services that only Gustave is able to give. Zero Mustafa, played by the very talented Tony Revolori, becomes Gustave’s most trusted lobby boy. When Gustave is framed for murder, Gustave and Zero are thrown into a series of hilarious events as the duo bumble their way to solve the mystery of the true murderers. Not since The Royal Tenenbaums has Wes Anderson been able to communicate his unique form of humor so well. There is a wonderful balance of good old fashioned physical comedy with dialogue driven comedy. The film is clever, smart, ridiculous, and silly all at the same time

 

  1. Birdman

Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu has become a master auteur. His previous films, Babel, 21 Grams, and Amores Perros have all made previous top ten lists of mine. Birdman is yet another masterpiece and this time Iñarritu hit really close to my heart on this one. Michael Keaton is Batman for me (screw Christian Bale, Adam West, and all the other Batmans). Michael Keaton is Batman, dammit! Since then, I have always loved Keaton as an actor, although he has not done much of anything lately until this film. In Birdman, Keaton plays a washed up actor, Riggan, who, like Keaton in real life, once played an iconic superhero. The similarities are intentional and there are references to Keaton’s real life relation to the Batman films within Birdman.

 

Riggan is trying to jump start his career again by getting into theatre. The film takes place during the few weeks before the premiere of Riggan’s play. We follow Riggan as he deals with the struggles of getting the play to work in time for the premiere, and, at the same time, with his own insecurities and identity crises. The acting is superb in this film. Keaton is my pick to win the Oscar for Best Actor and Edward Norton, as the crazy method actor, Mike, is probably the only performer this year who can challenge J.K Simmons. Emma Stone, does a decent job as Riggan’s troubled daughter and Jack Galifianakis impresses with his dramatic, although still somewhat comedic, turn as Riggan’s agent. Since my number 1 film wasn’t nominated for best picture this year, my hope is that Birdman takes the prize away from Boyhood as I found Boyhood to be quite unexceptional. More importantly, Iñarritu deserves the directing win. The way this film was shot, showing no obvious cuts through-out the first two hours of the film and still have the film work so well is an accomplishment I do not think I have seen before. Plus, Iñarritu would become the second Mexican director in a row to win the prize, something I hope comes to fruition.

 

  1. Interstellar

No other film this year blew my mind like Interstellar. I loved it so much that I watched it twice in theatres (yup, paid for it twice). Visually, it’s a stunning film. Its story is an epic mind fuck I enjoyed so much that I wanted it to keep going despite already getting close to the 3 hour run time. The film takes place in an unknown future time when the Earth has become one giant dust bowl and humanity is on the brink of extinction. Mathew McConaughey plays Cooper, an astronaut who is entrusted to save the world by travelling across the universe through a wormhole to find, essentially, Earth 2.0. He takes with him a team of scientists including Brand (Anne Hathaway), and Romily (David Gyasi). The team must venture into new worlds, galaxies, and even new dimensions to save humanity. Christopher Nolan has created yet another unique film that not only entertains as a blockbuster, but is clever, smart, and original. The film stayed with me for weeks occupying my mind and my conversations with friends. I know many movie nerds will disagree with me when I say this, but Interstellar is the 2001: A Space Odyssey of this generation. It is a film that I still think about deeply more than six months later after its first watch.

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My Top Ten Films of 2013

Originally published on http://www.Santanerozine.com – February 2014

 

This Sunday night, the Academy Awards will take place to honor some of the best movies of this past year. Normally around this time is when I take a moment to compile my own list of my top ten movies. I usually post my top ten on my personal blog, but I have been given the permission to post on Santanero. 2013 was a good year for movies. Below are my favorite ten.

 

  1. Captain Phillips: Based on a true story about a United States cargo ship that is hijacked by Somalian Pirates. Tom Hanks plays the title character, Richard Phillips, who ends up kidnapped after the hijacking of the ship turns sour. Directed by Paul Greengrass (United 93 and Bourne Ultimatum), the film is a well packaged and thrilling story with some decent performances by Hanks and newcomer Oscar nominee, Barkhad Abdi, as Muse, the leader of the pirates.

 

  1. This is the End: Usually, I like to include in my top ten at least one pure comedy. This year is no different. This is the End made me laugh harder than any other film this year. With Jonah Hill, Seth Rogen, James Franco, and Evan Goldberg playing somewhat exaggerated versions of themselves, the story sets these comedic actors at the beginning of the Biblical Apocalypse. And what else can you expect when the Apocalypse hits Hollywood? Hardcore, balls out, Sataaln raping hilarity of course!

 

  1. Gravity: A visual masterpiece, Alfonse Cuaron (Children of Men and Y Tu Mama Tambien) has created a film of outstanding cinematic entertainment. This is a rare film in which watching it in 3D is a must. The story itself is quite simple, Matt (George Clooney) and Ryan (Sandra Bullock), are space engineers working on a NASA satellite when [cue the ominous music] things go horribly wrong. The engineers are stranded in space with nothing but their wits and depleting oxygen to help them on their way back home. Although the film is not unique in story, it is unique in its visual and cinematic scope. The film will most likely win every technical Oscar there is this year and Cuaron is seemingly a shoe in to take the Best Director category.

 

  1. Nebraska: Bruce Dern plays Woody Grant, an aging alcoholic father who believes he has won a million dollars after he receives a letter from a sweepstakes marketing company. Woody, having not much of anything in his life, is determined to claim his prize. His son David Grant, played by Will Forte, agrees to take his father from his Montana home to Lincoln, Nebraska, where his prize awaits. Director, Alexander Payne, has become a master at telling the road trip story (About Schmidt and Sideways being the 1st and 2nd of what I call the Payne road trip trilogy). This film is a touching and very funny portrayal of a father too old to do anything about his unsettled scores and a son still trying to figure out what his father is all about. June Squibb has a film stealing performance as the grumpy and mean old wife of Woody’s. The graveyard scene is something to be remembered.

 

  1. Blue Jasmine: This past decade has seen Woody Allen create some of his best work. Films like Match Point, Vicki Cristina Barcelona, and Midnight in Paris rank high on my list of Woody Allen flicks challenging top spots with the likes of Annie Hall and Crimes and Misdemeanors. Blue Jasmine is yet another gem out of Allen’s late career. Cate Blanchett plays Jasmine, a former rich housewife struggling to accept her new life as a broke working woman. She has moved in with her sister in San Francisco. Suffering a mental breakdown after her separation with her rich ex-husband, Jasmine seeks to re-invent herself, but finds it much more difficult to break old habits. Cate Blanchett puts on an amazing performance and is well deserving of the Oscar she will most likely be receiving this Sunday. Jasmine is a woman who should deserve pity, but all one feels is utter happiness at the tragedies that have befallen her. The film tests your ethical standards in some interesting ways.

 

  1. A Place Beyond the Pines: Unfortunately, this is a film that has been forgotten this past year. I saw the film way back in April of 2013. It is a work of art to say the least. Ryan Gosling plays Luke, a motorcycle stunt performer who finds out that he has a son with an ex-girlfriend of his played by Eva Mendez. Driven by his desire to provide for his newborn son, Luke takes to robbing banks. After one of his bank robberies goes wrong, it sets off an event that drastically alters the lives of all parties involved. Essentially, the film is three stories in one. Bradley Cooper puts on what I feel should have been an Oscar nominating performance (much better than American Hustle in my opinion) playing Avery, a rookie cop who has the bad luck (or good luck depending on how you look at it) of running into Luke as he attempts to escape the scene of the crime. The story spans many years as we find out how this one event has affected the characters involved. A Place Beyond the Pines is a great film that sadly came out at the wrong time. I believe if it would have had a later release, it would have been an Oscar contender.

 

  1. Dallas Buyers Club: Ron Woodroof is a homophobic, alcoholic, cowboy, electrician diagnosed with AIDS. As he attempts to find medication that can help his condition, he strikes the unlikely partnership with Rayon, a cross dressing gay man, and starts a buyers club to sell FDA unapproved medication to helpless AIDS patients. By now, many have heard of Matthew McConaughey’s and Jared Leto’s brilliant performances as Ron Woodroof and Rayon respectively. Leto puts on a striking performance as Rayon and absolutely deserves the Oscar that is coming to him, and Mr. McConaughey has reinvented himself as a serious actor. Gone are his days of terrible romantic comedies and annoying Southern gentlemen bullshit. Although I think there is one better performance this year, if Matthew were to win the Oscar for lead actor, I’d say it was well deserved.

 

  1. Her: Spike Jonze has done it again. Director of such great and unique films like Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, Her is another original piece of work. Strangely beautiful in its own way, this film is like discovering a new porn fetish that at first seems so wrong but then turns out to be so right. Joaquin Phoenix is excellent as the shy and reserved Theodore. Still struggling with coming to grips with his recent divorce, Theodore finds new love in an artificially intelligent operating system named Samantha. The film follows their love story as they both grow and learn from each other.

 

  1. The Wolf of Wall Street: This is Goodfellas on Wall Street. Leo DiCaprio’s performance is almost reminiscent of Ray Liotta’s character from the classic Scorsese 90’s film. Scorsese has presented us with an in-your-face, no-holds-barred look at the life of Jordan Belfort. Complete with drugs, naked women, midget throwing, and material excess, this film is a look at the lives of horrible men drunk on greed. Jonah Hill shows his acting chops as Donnie, the equally greedy sidekick to Jordan. The film is highly entertaining and funny as hell. It is the modern tragedy at its finest: a man born of humble roots rises to power only to suffer his inevitable fall. It is a classic tale told by one of the best in the business.

 

1. 12 Years a Slave: Without a doubt this is the best movie of the year. A heart wrenching tale of perseverance in the face of inexplicable evil, Chiwetel Ejiefor plays Solomon Northup a free black man living in Saratoga, New York in pre-civil war America who is kidnapped and sold into slavery. We follow Solomon as he struggles to survive in a land and time full of ignorance and pure evil. Chiwetel puts on the performance of the year as Solomon and Lupita Nyong’o almost steals the film as the tragic Patsey. The film is wonderfully written. Adapted from the 1853 book written by the real life Solomon Northup, the screenplay is almost Shakespearean in its content and delivery. Not since The Departed has my #1 film matched up with what looks to be the Oscar best picture winner. If 12 Years a Slave does win the Oscar this Sunday night, I can’t think of no other film more deserving.

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My Top Ten Films of 2012

Tonight is the Academy Awards. As the votes are being finalized and I prepare for my annual drunken Oscar party, I decided to take some time to write down my top ten films of last year. I understand that it’s February and top ten lists are usually revealed at the end of the year, but, hey, I am no professional critic. I have to actually pay for all the movies I watch. Anyway, without further ado here are my top ten movies of 2012.

Perks of being a wallflower10) The Perks of Being a Wallflower
The film was written and directed by Stephen Chbosky (who is also the man that wrote the book). It revolves around Charlie (played by Logan Lerman), a freshman, who befriends a couple of seniors, Patrick (played by Ezra Miller) and Sam (played by Emma Watson). The story is not new. It is a coming of age flick that you have probably seen many times over, especially if you are fan of John Hughes. However, while it may seem to some as formulaic, I found it to be quite a unique take on an old story. If you are a fan of the Smiths, I highly recommend this film.

 

 

The Hobbit

9) The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Ok, so this is where my nerdness comes out. While The Hobbit may not be of the same quality as The Lord of the Rings trilogy, I quite enjoyed this first installment of what is to be a new trilogy of the Tolkien universe. It was good to see Ian McKellen as Gandalf the Gray once more and I quite enjoyed Martin Freeman as the young Bilbo Baggins. Gollum, once again, steals the show as we get to see how the ring came into Bilbo’s possession. I’m just happy that Peter Jackson is not screwing up this prequel trilogy like George Lucas did for his.

 

Dark Knight Rises8) The Dark Knight Rises
The last installment of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy was, in my opinion, its best. While most will continue to love The Dark Knight as the best of the three, I do believe that Nolan outdid himself with this one. While I can certainly agree that Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight is unmatched, I think The Dark Knight Rises as a whole is better. I still love Tim Burton’s version the best though and, unfortunately, so many have forgotten how great that version really is.

 

 

Zero Dark Thrity7) Zero Dark Thirty
The controversial film, directed by Academy Award winning director, Kathryn Bigelow, takes its audience through the ten year search of the most wanted man in American history. Obviously, there are no surprises here as everyone knows how this story ends, but the journey to get there is an intriguing story to say the least. The film revolves around Maya (Jessica Chastain) who is put in charge of finding Osama Bin Laden. The film somewhat plays as a detective story as Maya tries to unravel all the clues to Osama’s whereabouts. It takes you through so many false leads that you start to wonder if the film will end like you thought it was going to. When we finally get to the final scene, there is almost a sigh of relief that we actually made it.

Argo6) Argo
The current front runner for best picture is another tale based on real life events in the Middle East. The film follows CIA agent Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) as he attempts to rescue six Americans hiding in Iran. In order to do this, he concocts a plan to fake a film by the name of Argo. While I think the film is a good one, I am not convinced that it deserves the best picture award. Its best moments come from its supporting cast of John Goodman and Alan Arkin who provide the comic relief. I found myself more intrigued with the lengths they go through to create the façade than the actual rescue itself. Just like Zero Dark Thirty, the film is more about the journey to the end than the end itself.

Life of Pi5) Life of Pi
I actually just saw this movie last night. I did not have high expectations for it, but I was quite surprised by how good it was. The story is of a teenager named Pi Patel (Suraj Sharma). He is a son of a zookeeper in India. When his father decides to move to Canada, Pi and his family hitch a ride on a cargo ship along with all the animals. When a huge storm sinks the ship, Pi is found shipwrecked on a life boat with a Bengal tiger and the story follows them as they struggle to survive. This film is a visual spectacle and I was quite sad that I did not get to see it in 3D because I think this is the kind of film that actually benefits from it. It captured me emotionally and it leaves you with a somewhat mystery ending.

Looper4) Looper
Every year there is that one action sci-fi film that really captures my attention. In 2011, that movie was Super 8. In 2012, it was Looper. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Joe, who is an assassin for the mob in present day. However, the people he kills are sent back from thirty years into the future. One day, his own future self (Bruce Willis) is sent back for him to kill. A brief moment of hesitation allows for his future self to escape and the film follows Joe as he attempts to stop himself from changing the future. If you love your action sci-fi films, this is not one to miss. It’s not up for any awards, but it is by far one of the best that came out last year. I actually thought that Joseph Gordon-Levitt did a great job in capturing Bruce Willis’ mannerisms and facial expressions worthy of some acting recognition, but I understand there are far better performances out there. So for all you folks out there just looking for some entertainment, I highly recommend this film.

Lincoln3) Lincoln
What more can you say about the acting prowess of Daniel Day Lewis? There is no contest. If you want to see some amazing acting, this is the movie for you. The film follows the 16th President of the United States as he works to pass the 13th Amendment. The civil war serves as the backdrop, but we don’t see much of the war. As the title suggests, this is all about Lincoln and the difficult decisions he must make in the most crucial of moments in American history. Tommy Lee Jones is great as Thaddeus Stevens and one of the best scenes in the whole film involves him as he insults a fellow congressman. The film is a cinematic masterpiece and I am rooting for it to take the best picture award from Argo.

Silver Linings2) Silver Linings Playbook
This is another acting masterpiece of a film. Bradley Cooper plays Pat, a former teacher, who is recovering from a mental breakdown. Just released from the mental hospital, the film follows Pat as he tries to get his life back together again and win the heart of his ex-wife once more. He meets another person with a troubled past, Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), and they both take on a mutual agreement to help each other out. The film is an unconventional love story with a wonderful balance of comedy and drama. Robert De Niro does a fantastic job as Pat’s gambling addictive father and both lead actors are superb and have great chemistry on screen. Yes, the ending is a bit predictable, but the theme this year seems to be that it’s not about the end itself that matters; it is how we get there.

Django1) Django Unchained
Another Quentin Tarantino triumph! Just when I thought he could not get any better, he goes out and does something like this. Ok, if you have seen a Tarantino film before, you might say to yourself, “What is so special about this one?” Honestly, it is the same Tarantino style that you have come to love, but somehow it is done in such a way that it still feels fresh. As in every movie he has made, the dialogue is superb. Christoph Waltz, who plays the German bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz, once again takes Tarantino’s words to a new level. The film follows Schultz and former slave Django (Jamie Foxx) as they attempt to find Django’s wife and free her from slavery. The film is a gritty portrayal of slavery and pulls no punches. Yes, it is historically inaccurate, but we should have known that Tarantino’s stories are always more fantasy than reality. Whatever the case, I am against the charge that the film does not take slavery seriously and makes light of the institution. Quite the opposite, if there is anything to take seriously in this film is the portrayal of slavery that it attempts to show. While the deaths of all the racist characters in the film are stylized and exaggerated, the brutal tortures of the slaves all take place off camera. This allows for the audience to imagine the horror for themselves and creates an emotional reaction in strict opposition to the deaths of the slave owners. This dichotomy of presentation allows the audience to have a polar opposite reaction to the death of characters in the film, one in which we care so deeply and are angered by it, and one in which we care for nothing at all and even laugh at it.

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Samtheinkblot Exclusively on Santanero! Personal Blog Shutting Down

Hello everyone, effective immediately all future articles, comments, opinions, etc. will be posted through the Santanero Magazine website. I will be closing down this blog (as soon as I figure out how) and I will be writing exclusively on http://www.santanerozine.com. Most of my past articles and interviews will be posted on the website for you to read if you so wish. Please supposrt Santanero Magazine.

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Planet of the Ape Bots

photo by Janie Lynch

Planet of the Ape Bots:

An Interview with Santa Ana band, Orangutron

By
Samuel Munoz

I first encountered Orangutron in 2011. They had played a show during the Summer Concert Series of that year held in Downtown Santa Ana. At the time, they were a three piece with Richie on bass and lead vocal, Colin on guitar and back up vocal, and Courtney on drums. I enjoyed their performance and inquired with Richie as to maybe doing a show together with my band, Inkblots. It turned out that the only show they would play with us would end up being the last Inkblots show held later that year in December. This time around, they had added a new member, Tae Kim on lead guitar. The show they played that night was levels above the show I had seen earlier that year. They presented a type of dirty rock and roll that kicked you in the gut and roared and chugged its way to multiple climaxes within each song. I knew that one day, I would need to get their story.

The funny thing is that I’ve known the singer, Richie, for quite sometime. In fact, we went to high school together. I’ve seen him move from band to band, always looking the part of the coolest motherfucker in each of them. The guy has style, what can I say? He has become the complete opposite of his former geeky high school self–taking on a persona that has served him well as a front man. However, it was not until his involvement with Orangutron that I really felt he matured as a musician. Richie has surrounded himself with three very experienced individuals who have honed their craft through almost two decades of countless musical projects and it seems it has reflected quite well on Richie. I was very impressed with how good he had become and the music he was now creating.

The music of Orangutron is difficult to categorize. Each song is a product of full fledged improvisation, molded and cut down to a presentable size. As a result, the music takes on many styles with each band member including a little piece of their own to the finished product so that each song truly becomes an authentic collaborative effort. While it may help to describe their sound as reminiscent of Television’s Marquee Moon, to say that Orangutron is just another post punk band would (as Tae so eloquently put it in the interview) be an injustice. Unfortunately, the band currently does not have any presentable recordings. Although they do record all of their improv sessions at practice, they have yet to step into the studio and record the finished products. The only way to really understand the sound of Orangutron is to catch one of their shows.

The band met up with me at Memphis in Downtown Santa Ana in early August for a nice little chat about the band. With some drinks at our table, we talked about Orangutron’s early years, their song writing process, and the possible categorization of their music.

Drawing by Tae Kim

Sam:
Let’s start with introductions from each of you and maybe a little bit of background on your time here in Santa Ana?

Colin:
I’m Colin Price. I’ve been playing the guitar for twenty-something years. I moved to Santa Ana around 1998. I came down with my brother, Courtney. Been really happy ever since because the rest of Orange County was really boring [laughs].

Richie:
My name is Richie. I’m 27 years old. I was born in Santa Ana. I’ve been here all my life.

Sam:
Do you want to give us your real name?

Richie:
Yeah sure. It’s Richard Kerns [everyone laughs]. Well, no one ever came up with a last name for the nickname. It was just Richie. There was no back story, no comic book origin, no radioactive spider. I have been known by other names like Richiban Shinigami which is my name on Facebook…

Court:
My name is Courtney Price. I’ve been playing music for about twenty years now. I switched to drums from guitar about ten years ago. I started hanging out in Santa Ana in ‘98. I started going to Koos [Café] for open mic. Then later, when Koos closed down, we started hitting up Neutral Grounds here on 2nd street and started doing open mics there…I‘ve been playing ever since in different projects with my brother.

Tae:
My name is Tae Kim. My age is nobody’s business. I am the guitarists, keyboardists, and back up singer for Orangutron. My affiliation with Santa Ana? I guess I am a newcomer. I started hanging out in Santa Ana around 2002 with a few people I knew at the Spurgeon building. And I just slowly started realizing that there was this growing artist community here: musicians, bands, and stuff. And yeah, I’ve been coming around ever since.

Sam:
So tell me about Orangutron. How did you guys get together? How long have you been together? Give me the story.

Richie:
We had been hanging out, not necessarily together, but we would bump into each other at parties that Jack Marko [local artist] would have. So, from time to time we would be jamming with one another. When Slow [one of Ritchie’s former bands] broke up, there was about a three week period where I didn’t do anything.

Colin:
Yeah, he was depressed, cutting himself, growing a beard [laughs].

Richie:
I think I was playing Legend of Zelda for three weeks.

Sam:
Which one?

Ritchie:
Ocarina of Time

Sam:
Nice! That’s the best one [more laughter].

Drawing by Tae Kim

Richie:
Anyway, I think I was at Proof one night, after those initial three weeks, to see some bands play. These guys [Colin and Court] were there and the conversation came up about Slow. They were like “You guys broke up! Oh that’s horrible! So you want to jam sometime?” [the Price brothers laugh]

Court:
He had a gig that was booked before the band had broken up and we just suggested that we could back him up if needed. We started off just getting together playing some Slow songs and some Richie songs. We did that for the first year.

Sam:
When was this?

Richie:
It was in January of 2009.

Sam:
And you guys started off as a three piece right?

Colin:
No, actually Tae was with us since the beginning. Court and I had been playing with Tae in different projects for like ten years. Orangutron started as a four piece, but Tae decided to leave the band. I guess the music was not satisfying Tea’s taste at the time. [I came to find out later that Tae actually quit the band on Colin’s birthday in Nov. of 2010. The band has yet to forgive him despite taking him back]

Court:
Yeah, but I have to say, we didn’t really start to thrive until Tae quit [everyone laughs].

Colin:
It was about a year before Tae came back.

Richie:
He saw us play a few shows without him and we were sounding good, so he was like [in a wimpy voice] “Can I come back guys? You guys are sounding awesome. I really miss playing with you guys.” And we were like [in a somewhat sympathetic voice], “Ah, I guess.”

Drawing by Tae Kim

Tae:
I was playing in another band and we were on the same bill. I was outside while the three of them were playing and the door man was like, “These guys are pretty good, you know.” And I was like, “Yeah, I was actually in this band.” He was like, “Really? Why did you quit?” I said, “I don’t know why I quit. They are pretty good. I think I should rejoin them.” At the time, it was more of a joke, but I really found it interesting how the music changed after I left. I dug the whole collaborative song writing process. The songs are an extension of everybody in the band instead of just one person.

Court:
Richie had written all the songs before hand, but when Tae left, we were trying to figure out what our sound was going to be. We started improvising and a couple things came out that sounded pretty cool. And from then on, all of the Orangutron songs have been written essentially the same way. We improv, then look back at what we’ve done, cut up the song and arrange it in a way that makes sense. The lyrics get edited. Richie is really good at improvising lyrics. We take his lyrics and see what works and what doesn’t. […] In the end, it worked out really well because what we were looking for in a lead guitarist was Tae, so we were really happy that, once we got something a little more to his palate, he came back. It was really frustrating looking for another guitarist.

Sam:
Are the lyrics always completely improvised?

Colin:
The lyrics are a long process.

Court:
Richie would be the best person to talk to you about the lyrics because he is the one who spits out the initial draft.

Sam:
So you all work on the lyrics together? It’s not just Richie?

Richie:
No, if I did, the lyrics would be a lot less intense. What happens is I will initially improvise lyrics while we are jamming together and Colin will transcribe it.

Court:
We record all of our practices. Colin will come in the next practice and have it all typed out.

Sam:
Wow, can you even understand it? Because I know when we tried to record our practices with Inkblots, I could never understand from the recording what the fuck I was saying. The instruments drown out the vocal a lot of the times.

Richie:
Yeah, half the battle is trying to understand what I am saying. It’s like “You nuts frecd oour fjds” [laughs]. I mean I try to be as coherent as possible. I’ve learned to just repeat phrases when I notice that I’m mumbling.

Drawing by Tae Kim

Colin:
Being a musician, sometimes the words get overlooked, but I love thinking inside the words. I think Ritchie is like a great poet and he reminds me a lot of the beat writers. It’s just a stream of consciousness about places and things that are happening to him. I love the process of going back to the words and trying to put the themes and stories into a more mythological context or philosophical context.

Sam:
Can you take me through the process of it a bit?

Colin:
Well, first I just write it all out as I hear it. Then we look at it, and we say something like “Well, this verse is just pointless, but these four verses are really cool.” You know, they come out off the top of his head all the time, so it can’t possibly all work.

Court:
If we are fortunate, it’s five minutes of continuous music where the lyrics come out and boom we’re done. Sometimes it’s over the course of thirty minutes and we got to figure how to take minute 1:35 and put it together with minute 12 through 15. We need to figure out a way of cutting out the middle and make that bridge. So then the lyrics have to come together in a way that is not comfortable or easy and so the song takes a little bit longer to build.

Colin:
I think “The West” would be a very interesting song as an example. There were like three different phases in “The West” that Ritchie was singing about. I think he had been watching a lot of Deadwood which is how I think the title of “The West” came about and in the end of the song he talks about the Wild West. In the middle of the song, however, it’s like this personal broken hearted love story where you fall in love with a girl and your friends don’t like her. Then the beginning of the song is this personal story about going to college and meeting new people. That was all done in the course of a 15 minute improv. We had to tie those three lyrical sections together. The song got shut down to 7 minutes and it became this coming of age story and waking up to the experiences of life with a love story in the middle. When we get to the Wild West section, we meet this old frizzled man who got his women stolen and has a ruined life.

Court:
You wouldn’t necessarily gather all those things by looking at the song. A lot of the conversations we have as a band are assigning and ascribing meaning to these lyrics that are our own, but we don’t necessarily expect the people that are hearing it to interpret it the same way.

Tae:
It’s open ended…

Photo by Andrew Galvin

Court:
I think we try to stay away from being preachy. We are not trying to tell anyone how they should live, or how they should do things, or subscribe judgment to any of the things we are talking about. It’s more like creating a landscape or environment or a fantasy for people to engage in. There may be meaning in there, but it’s not universal.

 

Tae:
It’s more like reflections than story telling…

Court:
You will never hear us say “You fools, can’t you understand!” in any of our lyrics.

Sam:
Damn it! That line is in like five of the songs I‘ve written [everyone laughs] […] Last thing I want to talk about is the style of your music. How do you describe it? It’s sometimes really difficult for me to pin it down. I sometimes hear Joy Division, sometimes it’s more of a jam band. I also hear a lot of Television in your music.

Tae:
I think calling our music one genre would be like a total injustice. I guess we are just a lot more honest about what we like, what we want to project. We like all these good things versus we want to be post punk or dance rock or whatever. I mean calling us one label would be a complete injustice.

Court:
I mean, it’s a tough question to ask because whenever people do ask that question I’m always using like these bizarre combinations in order to try to explain it. [In a confused voice] “You know we are like a combination of Grateful Dead meets The Velvet Underground meets Can meets uh something else.” I think the improvisation really influences our music a lot and because of that the songs are not going to fall into traditional pop music structures, so then it gets hard to label. But then again, all the bands that you ascribed to us, I would agree with. They are influences that we do have at some level.

Tae:
I think it’s more of what people call you then what you decide to be. I don’t think you decide to be post punk or something like that because a lot of the times people are like you guys are post punk and I would be like “We’re not post punk, we’re like the Grateful Dead. The Grateful Dead is not post punk!”

Richie:
It’s just Rock and Roll to me. I don’t know what else to tell them, really. If you try to put specific categories to it, there is this expectations that it has to follow certain specific characteristics: “Oh, it’s folk, so then you must have acoustic guitar.” I think if you tell them, “it’s rock and roll,” then you leave it up to them to fill in that blank.

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