Leave No Trace
At Eternity's Gate
Mary Queen of Scots
For the beauty of the craft
If Beale Street Could Talk (2018): A woman in Harlem embraces her pregnancy while she and her family struggle to prove her fiancé innocent of a crime.
Barry Jenkins is a master filmmaker. Plain and simple. He can take any story, no matter how crass, and craft it into a mesmerizing work of art. That's what If Beale Street Could Talk is: an overbearing (and at times slightly insensitive) story composed by one of the true masters of the craft in Hollywood today. We are truly blessed to be in the presence of Barry Jenkins, who, unlike someone like Adam McKay, proved that his breakout film was no fluke.
The calling card of this film is the filmmaking itself. Director Barry Jenkins displays an extraordinary ability to make any scene captivating, regardless of circumstance. Barry Jenkins brought back most of his crew from Moonlight and excelled in the cinematography, editing, and score: all three are very close to the best I've seen in 2018, with the later being the best I've seen BAR NONE. Nicholas Britell follows up his amazing score for Moonlight with an equally captivating and memorable score. But this time, it also packs an emotional wallop that brought me to tears at several points. That's right: the SCORE of this film made me emotional. It's that good. Barry Jenkins personal cinematographer, James Laxton, crafts an incredible work of art with the camera lenses. Shots feel beautifully intimate while carrying an undeniable gravitas to them thanks to the intentionally out-of-focus backgrounds. Various scenes have a beautiful rhythm to them thanks to the constant and subtle camera movement. I honestly cannot believe Laxton was snubbed a Best Cinematography nomination. Performance-wise, Regina King leads the way, (and received a deserving Oscar nomination) but this is certainly an ensemble film. People like Bryan Tyree Henry, Diego Luna, Finn Wittrock, and Pedro Pascal only have a scene or two, but all of them do the best with what they are given. Especially Bryan Tyree Henry. Oh my GOD he's so good. He gets literally one scene, but his performance is unforgettable. When Sharon Rivers (King) finally gets her moment, though, she doesn't let it go to waste.
That said, I've been beating around the bush of the somewhat major fault of this film, and now we gotta talk about it. The story here is…..mediocre. It's overbearing and it hasn't aged particularly well. There are some voiceovers scattered throughout that do nothing but act as a crutch and overexplain things to the viewer, and the subject matter of this story feels a bit inopportune given the #MeToo era we currently live in. Barry Jenkins does a fairly good job at walking the tightrope between two very real problems, (and I, being the straight white man that I am, certainly don't claim to have any firsthand knowledge of either) but there were a few moments where I found myself a little uncomfortable at the approach. The voiceovers are the bigger culprit, though it doesn't detract too much from the overall film, because even as we see an overbearing voiceover, we're still looking at some gorgeous craft. But, sadly….. this story is no Moonlight. Nor does it even deserve to be used in the same sentence.
In summary, the craft of this film was exquisite to watch, but it does surround a screenplay that is both crass and oppressive. Barry Jenkins makes this film great with his technical mastery, but the film is held back by it's subject material. Oh, and it's main characters. I haven't mentioned them at all to this point because Tish and Fonny are a tad forgettable The chemistry between them is…..uninspired. But when the craft is so intoxicating to look at, it's hard to care. This will be a phenomenal movie to watch in film class down the road, because this is exactly how movies should be made.
My number: 8/10 Great.
An intimate family epic
Roma (2018): A year in the life of a middle-class family's maid in Mexico City in the early 1970s.
Every so often, a glorious film comes along that completely reinvigorates my love of cinema. In 2017 it was Phantom Thread. This year it was films like The Favourite and Eighth Grade. Now, you can add Roma to the list. Director Alfonso Cuarón returns for his 8th feature film, set almost entirely in Mexico City in the early 70s. The acclaimed director also wrote the screenplay, produced the film, edited the film, and shot the film. In short, Roma is Alfonso Cuarón's baby, and it is undoubtedly his best work yet. (Which is high praise given his previous film, Gravity, was my number 1 film of 2013.) The film has a simple, intimate, yet emotionally powerful story surrounding the housekeeper Cleo (played by first time actress and star-in-the-making Yalitza Aparicio) and her relationship to the family she cares for as her life unfolds over the course of a year. That's it. Far cry from the technical achievement that was Cuarón's previous film. And yet, this film feels every bit as epic as Gravity did with the extra emotional kick that comes with a truly great story. If you haven't figured it out yet, Roma is well worth your time, and easily the best film Netflix has distributed to date. By a significant margin.
Let's start with the most obvious thing we can see: the acting. The entire cast, outside of Sofía (Marina de Tavira) are first time actors. (Furthering the mythos of Alfonso Cuarón) Cleo is the center of the story, and the intimate, human, genuine performance Yalitza Aparicio gives portraying this character is one of the best of the year. She effortlessly displays an immense range of emotions, and the genuineness of these emotions were increased thanks to the bold decision of Cuarón to hold back key plot details from her until they actually happened. (Yes, including the unforgettable emotional climax of the film.) Actually, that's a good moment to mention the fact that Cuarón was very secretive about the script. The entire film was shot sequentially, (which is actually fairly unusual in filmmaking) with the director often not even giving the actors the script for an individual scene until the day that scene was to be shot. (Something which director Hirokaza Kore-eda also did shooting Shoplifters, to achieve a similar effect.) While this does sometimes hurt the film more than it helps it, particularly in the opening few scenes, it's still mesmerizing to see this cast have as much chemistry with each other as they do with such an incredible level of authenticity.
But the calling card, of course, is the sheer scale of Cuarón's vision. This film is a triumphant family epic if there ever was one. The production design, sound editing, sound mixing, and cinematography are all the best I saw/heard in 2018. Cuarón captures so many nuanced details in every frame: so many extras, creatures, and natural occurrences unfold to a dizzying extent in his grand (and I mean GRAND) one-shots. It will take your breath away, and needs to be adored on the largest screen possible. I know that's a bit of a cliché in movie reviews, but it's deserved for Roma. There was not another film that dropped in 2018 that will sweep you off your feet more. And it's all held together by some of the most amazing cinematography I've ever seen. Alfonso Cuarón certainly made Chivo (cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki - originally slated to shoot Roma before scheduling conflicts arose and Cuarón's cinematographer on films like Gravity and Children of Men) proud with the stunning 65mm black and white aesthetic of the film. The camera is always a calm but confident presence, with a lot of slow, poignant pans from left to right and vice versa being the signature of Cuarón's style. With the two best-looking films of 2018 almost certainly being Roma and Pawel Pawlikowksi's Cold War, also shot in black and white, I think the great film critic Roger Ebert may have been right when he said color handicaps film. (That's a great article he once wrote, by the way. You should read it.)
And that doesn't even mention the sound design. The sound is another reason why you need to see this on a big screen. (At least watch it with surround sound.) The sound mixing is possibly the best I have ever heard, with a mesmeric attention to detail taken by Skip Lievsay, Alfonso Cuarón, and company. You are immersed with the sounds of Mexico City, with the sound making the camera feel like you are right in the middle of each scene. From shopkeepers to mariachi bands to something as nuanced as food being made behind you because the camera is facing the bar and the food is behind you, there is never a moment missed within the sound mixing.
This film is a masterpiece. It'll capture you within the first few moments and not let you go until the final plane soars overhead. It is a flawless epic that is beautiful in both its emotional intimacy and ambitious scale. You'll laugh, you'll cry, and do everything in between. A film like this is exactly why I love the movies, and it gives me the mental drive I need to sit through lesser works. It's also a wonderful foray into the world of foreign film: if you've always been intimidated at the idea of having to read the dialogue unfolding in front of you, (I know I was for a long time) this is a fantastic place to start. And, with it on Netflix right now, there's every reason for you to make tonight a movie night.
The Critique: an emotional powerhouse told on a grandiose scale, Alfonso Cuarón's triumphant masterpiece is a wonderful reminder of why I am hopelessly in love with the world of cinema.
The Recommendation: An absolute must-see for all.
The Verdict: 10/10 Perfect.
Crazy Rich Asians
On the Basis of Sex
Boldly original with captivating storytelling
By: Peter Kosanovich
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018): Teen Miles Morales becomes Spider-Man of his reality, crossing his path with five counterparts from other dimensions to stop a threat for all realities.
Let me start right off the bat by saying that Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is the best Spider-Man movie that has ever been made to this point. And it rightfully deserves all of the accolades and attention it is getting! Sony took a huge risk even greenlighting this movie. They had Sam Raimi’s trilogy with Tobey Maguire, which gave two strong films, and then a catastrophic dud. I will admit, I enjoy those first two movies more than most people. But regardless of your opinions on them, they are well made. Sony followed those up with Andrew Garfield’s The Amazing Spider-Man movies. I thought the first movie was fine, but very unoriginal and uninspired. They just tried to make Peter Parker too cool and "edgy." The second movie was a mess from start to finish, so I will not even address it any further.
Sony was able to negotiate a partnership with Marvel Studios to breathe some new life into the character with Spider-Man: Homecoming. Tom Holland is incredibly charming as Peter Parker, and the audience was not forced to suffer through yet another origin story. Not to mention, the MCU finally sawa good villain in Michael Keaton’s portrayal of the Vulture. All-in-all, it was a solid outing, and well worse the praise. But that still pales in comparison to Spider-Verse.
Sony worked on Spider-Verse in relative secret. While everyone else was focused on Homecoming and the Marvel partnership, Sony was working on this. And wow did it pay off. In December 2017, they released a teaser trailer to show off the new Spider-Man, Miles Morales, and the insane animation they were attempting. I will never forget watching that teaser the first time. I was flying home for a wedding and Christmas from Canada, and I was in a painfully long layover in the Detroit Airport. I opened Facebook minutes after the teaser dropped and promptly had my mind blown! The visuals were stunning; the music, “Home” by Vince Staples (Vince was also featured in the first teaser for Black Panther the previous year), was on point; and the decision to use Miles Morales as the lead character had me practically yelling in joy in the middle of the Detroit airport.
For those of you who do not know Miles Morales, let me give you a quick rundown. In the 2000s Marvel comics decided to spice up their comics by introducing the Ultimate Universe, an alternate universe of Marvel characters that existed outside of the traditional continuity. In this alternate universe they introduced Miles Morales, a 13-year-old Afro-Latino boy from Brooklyn, who, having also been bitten by a radioactive spider, takes up the mantel of Spider-Man after the death of Peter Parker. If you are worried about spoilers for the comics, you are about 10 years too late, but I will do my best to avoid them going forward.
So, now into the actual review portion: From the trailers and various promotional material you may have noticed multiple Spider-persons. This may be overwhelming, but trust me, this is Miles’ story through-and-through. And even though I bashed on origin stories earlier, this includes a fresh take on the origin story. So you will not feel lost if you are new, but you will get some goods laughs if you understand all the references to other Spider-Man movies and history. On that note, the movie is hilarious! There are laughs to be had at every turn. Jokes about Spider-Man, about New York City, about Marvel and the Avengers, about rival studio Warner Bros (Spider-Ham is very self-aware of his likeness to Porky Pig). They even manage to make puberty a running joke throughout the film, without being malicious toward an age group that clearly needs no one throwing punches at them. It is incredibly smart and clever. But, like the puberty joke, none of the humor is malicious or mean in any way. It is charming and endearing, sweet and wholesome, and easily relatable across demographics.
With that, the movie is highly relatable! Sure, it is about superheroes and super-powered Spider-people, but it genuinely has heart to it. Miles has loving parents who want the best for him, even if he does not always see it. His family is complex and messy: his dad is a cop, while his uncle Aaron is a career criminal. Yet both care deeply for Miles. He has friends and struggles to fit in at his new school, a place that is clearly designed to be a little classist. He is one of the very few non-white students there, along with his roommate, an Asian student who barely says a word at all. He struggles to talk with his crush, it is very sweet. As fantastical and complex as the movie is bringing multiple Spider-people from multiple universes together, you can still feel genuine heart and down-to-earth struggles that make this a highly relatable film.
Yes, it is very complex, but Spider-Verse takes care to make sure it does not feel overly complex. When it does get more complex, or you wonder “wait, ANOTHER Spider-person?” they make a joke to help guide the audience along. Each Spider-person gets an individual origin story, but they are mostly boiled down to a minute or less, just so you know, “Okay, it’s a Spider-person. They are similar to Peter Parker, but here is how they are different.”
There is of course Miles Morales, the lead protagonist. There is Peter Parker, dragged in from another universe. There is Gwen Stacy, aka Spider-Woman (Spider-Gwen to the fans). In mainstream comics Gwen Stacy was Peter Parker’s first love, and he was unable to save her from a tragic death. In her alternate universe, she was bitten by a spider, and was unable to save Peter Parker from a tragic death. There is Peni Parker (aka SP//dr), a futuristic, anime-inspired spider-person who co-pilots a biomechanical suit with a radioactive spider. There is Peter Porker (aka Spider-Ham), who was a spider bitten by a radioactive pig (very self-aware), and is designed to look like Looney Tunes cartoons. And finally there is Peter Parker (aka Spider-Man Noir), with the truly inspired voice-casting of Nicolas Cage, in a monochromatic, hard-boiled, noir-esque Spider-Man that wears a trench coat and fedora like old detective films.
What's remarkable is that, even though the standard animation throughout the film is incredible, each of these individual Spider-people have added unique visuals to help truly distinguish them, bringing added individuality and flare to them. Peni Parker is inspired by anime, so her character is Japanese-American and has large, slightly exaggerated features common to anime. For instance, her eyes are massive and tend to twinkle when she is happy or swell up when she is sad. Her movements are also slightly exaggerated to sell the over-the-top nature of some anime series. Peter Porker has a flatter style of animation. He looks almost hand-drawn, and his movements are very rounded and fluid. His arms and legs tend to move simply in motion blurs, much like Looney Tunes characters, especially Roadrunner, when he runs or moves about. His shape is also imperfect, and had odd proportions that help sell the Looney Tunes connection. And Spider-Man Noir is completely monochromatic, black-and-white, even when interacting with color objects.
The colors throughout this movie are astounding. They really use colors to compliment and highlight every aspect of the city. This is shown especially through Miles’ love to graffiti and street art. And Miles’ love of pop-culture is shown through his love of music, which is mirrored in the film’s soundtrack. Like Black Panther earlier in the year, Spider-Verse has a killer soundtrack. It is a love-letter to east coast rap/hip-hop, new and old. This bleeds into Miles’ character too, who uses music to relax and inspire him. The song “Sunflower” by Post Malone and Swae Lee is Miles’ go to relax and feel good song, and it is used a few times throughout the film. “What’s Up Danger” by Blackway and Black Caviar is a thumping, adrenaline-pumping track that builds hype and excitement every time it is used or sampled. And “Star a Riot” by Duckwrth and Shaboozey should be the most hard-hitting rager on the soundtrack, but is instead used for a hilarious joke.
Not only is the curated soundtrack excellent, the original score is also astounding. The orchestration feels both inspiring and reminiscent of traditional scores, but also infuses the feel of the curated soundtrack at points. It uses bits of “What’s Up Danger” throughout to build hype, while using “Sunflower” to relax and let us remember the kind of kid Miles is. The best track on the score though is “The Prowler,” the theme that plays for one of the primary villains of the film. Prowler is a truly intimidating villain, as you learn early on, and the theme that accompanies him is impressively unsettling. From my understanding the composer took an elephants calls, re-pitched it, then made it pulse. Honestly, words do not accurately describe it. Just listen to it.
But, behind all that, like I have mentioned a few times, this movie has so much heart to it. You feel the love for Spider-Man, whichever version you want. You feel Miles’ struggles and the love his family gives him. You feel the excitement in the music. And you can see the dedication the animators put into this, and how much fun they had. The story shines in every respect, and you just feel so good after watching it. This was easily one of, if not my favorite movie of the year. I have been struggling to keep up this year (grad school), but even if I were more caught up I think this might take the cake. It feels even throughout, well-paced, and the story never goes off the rails. The voice-acting is excellent. I have already gushed over the beautiful animation and the characters and the music. There really is nothing I do not like about this movie. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
My Number: 10/10
JOSEPH: There isn't a whole lot here that Peter hasn't already said. I wasn't QUITE as high on it as Peter, (the ending was rather stereotypical for how unique the rest of the film was) but the sheer originality and creative risk taken on such a high-profile franchise is very refreshing to see. Well done, Sony! It's certainly got my vote for Best Animated Feature of 2018! Also, Peter Porker FOR LIFE. What a performance from John Mulaney. That man can do no wrong!
Christian Bale's performance is not enough
Vice (2018): The story of Dick Cheney, an unassuming bureaucratic Washington insider, who quietly wielded immense power as Vice President to George W. Bush, reshaping the country and the globe in ways that we still feel today.
Let's get the obvious out of the way first: Christian Bale is really good as Dick Cheney. Bale's quantifiable performance (he added 40 pounds for the role, changed his accent again, the whole nine yards) will be justifiably discussed at great length this award's season. (It's already netted him a Golden Globe) But it overshadows an abysmal script from director/screenwriter Adam McKay. This movie is an incoherent mess, and not even the terrific performances from its core cast are enough to save it.
I'm guessing this is what happens when Adam McKay is given near complete control over a project. To me, the issues here begin with the fact that no one was willing/able to tell the director that some of his ideas are bad ones. This film is a tonal disaster. One second, we're supposed to be really sad about something, the next we're supposed to feel anger, the next we're supposed to feel joy. All in three quick (and sometimes incoherent) cuts. McKay's textbook style does not jive with this story at all. His asides to explain difficult subjects (akin to explaining what CDOs and sub-prime loans are in The Big Short) feel awkward and forced, and the narrator (similar to Ryan Gosling's character in The Big Short) isn't integrated into the actual story anywhere near as well. But the biggest offender here is the editing.
I'm not sure why there's a huge drop-off between this and McKay's previous endeavor. The same editor (Hank Corwin) did both films, so why does the editing from The Big Short work so well but here it feels like an unwelcome menace? Nothing against Hank Corwin - the man is a legendary editor and will continue to be as much. In 2015, Hank Corwin received a deserving Oscar nomination for his editing on The Big Short. But here I think it's rather safe to say he will not. The editing is incomprehensible at points, and the "cut to something completely different that subtly progresses the story" style that worked so well in The Big Short was so bad in Vice that I just wanted it to go away. It made the film discombobulating and even uncomfortable at times.
All of this dumbfounds me. The Big Short made my top 10 list in 2015 and has resonated with me far more than most films I have reviewed on this blog. And I have always been fascinated by the stealthy corruption of the Bush 43 administration. This project should've been a grand slam home run in my book! It's not all bad, though. One undeniably good thing is the acting. Beyond Bale's quantifiably good performance, you have stellar performances from the rest of the cast, too. (Pretty shocked this didn't get an ensemble nomination from the SAGs this year. Bohemian Rhapsody? C'mon....) Amy Adams is a tour de force, as always, only here her presence is felt even when she's not on screen. I was fascinated to learn of the power Lynne Cheney had over her husband. Easily the most interesting thing about this film, her power is felt right from the first scene, which also happens to be one of the best sequences of the entire film. Oh ya, and the administration is great: Sam freaking Rockwell does a great George W. impression, Steve Carell is great as Rumsfeld, LisaGay Hamilton does a great Condoleezza Rice, and Tyler Perry continues to surprise when he feels like acting with a great Colin Powell. The 9/11 sequence in particular allowed Carell, Hamilton, and Perry to all shine brightly in their respective roles on one of the darkest days in American history.
However, the fact that that initial scene between Lynee and Dick is one of the best is as frustrating as it is invigorating to watch two world-class actors go at it on screen in a tense exchange. It's frustrating because this film does way more to tell you about Dick Cheney the man versus Dick Cheney, the ruthless VP under Bush 43. Adam McKay spent way too much time explaining how Cheney and his team dealt with the legality of his overreach versus actually showing us the overreaches he made. (Outside of the situation room on 9/11.) This is akin to my complaints with Bohemian Rhapsody from a few months ago, and here they are equally damning. As much as I do enjoy watching great actors be great, it's simply not enough to save this film from the infuriating realm of mediocrity. At the end of the day, that's where this film will forever rest.
Also, the "controversy" surrounding the end credits scene is dumb. #analysis
The Critique: Adam McKay spectacularly collapses on his follow-up to The Big Short with a messy script and indecipherable editing, despite terrific performances from its ensemble.
The Recommendation: ........eh? There's probably enough here for Adam McKay fans to enjoy it, as well as those who tend to vote blue, but there are better things to watch in the theater right now. Wait for it to hit streaming services.
Rewatchability: Moderately Low
The Verdict: 5/10 Painfully Average.
(But, for real, Adam McKay knew that post-credits scene would be the scene conservatives would glue on to, ignoring the rest of the film in the process. So, while it is an easy way for conservatives to avoid addressing the issues raised by the rest of the film, it's equally puzzling why this scene is in the movie at all. It accomplishes the same thing as calling out racists does.... the second you stoop down to their level and acknowledge them, you merely enable them and allow them to play the "victim" card, thus doing little outside of confirming what the rest of us already know and furthering their cause with those that don't.)
Play me off, Johnny!
Quick Reviews, Winter 2018 Part 2: Green Book, Welcome to Marwen, Mary Poppins Returns, Holmes & Watson, First ReformedRead Now
Welcome to Marwen
Mary Poppins Returns
Holmes & Watson
A wonderfully nuanced tale on what defines a family
Shoplifters (2018): A family of small-time crooks take in a child they find outside in the cold.
Every so often, a film comes along that blows you away in every sense of the phrase. These occurrences are even more illusive when you combine them with the ability to broaden your horizons about a certain subject pertaining to societal norms. However, Shoplifters does exactly that. One of the most inquisitive films I've ever seen, Shoplifters is a story told by writer/director Hirokazu Kore-eda. The Japanese director crafts a marvelous piece of cinema that effortlessly grips you from the first frame to the end credits. It's easily the best made film I've seen all year, with an equally enlightening story.
The film centers around a Japanese family that makes its living around the film's namesake. Each member of the family is masterfully crafted and portrayed. Kore-eda style bodes well for the actors involved here. Many of the scenes most emotional moments are improvised, (including the film's incredible climax) which leads to some of the incredibly genuine and heartfelt moments. The entire film basks in its intimacy: there's only a handful of shots with more than 5 people in the frame throughout the 121 minute runtime. This intimacy allows you to easily connect with each and every member of this diverse family. The first half of this film is a loving character piece made by a master filmmaker, and you'll find yourself so absorbed by it when it takes a hard right you're completely blindsided.
The final 30 minutes of this film are heart-wrenching and will make you question what it means to be a family. It's one of the best "hard rights turns" I've ever seen in a film, and thanks to the engaging character development in the first 90 minutes, every second of that final act is an emotional roller coaster. It is impossible to leave the theater without this film resonating in the depths of your mind and soul for days, if not weeks, afterwards. It certainly has with me. Every aspect of filmmaking is at its best here at the hands of Hirokazu Kore-eda. The lighting and set design (equally intimate in scale) are equally masterful. The film demands a second (or even third) watch so you can catch all the nuances you missed in the first go. It's one of the best stories I've ever seen, crafted by a master filmmaker, and more than fitting of Cannes Palme d'Or. Do make an effort to see it.
My Number: 10/10 Perfect
Wonderfully weird, mindlessly marvelous
Aquaman (2018): Arthur Curry learns that he is the heir to the underwater kingdom of Atlantis, and must step forward to lead his people and be a hero to the world.
So for those that have been following my reviews over the years, you know that I don’t exactly have the best relationship with comic book movies. So that should lend some credence to the notion that I actually enjoyed James Wan’s Aquaman, because cynical Joe can still have fun watching movies. That's exactly what Aquaman is: fun. How do you make a film with a standard cookie cutter story enjoyable? With great execution, amazing colors, and over-the-top sequences, that's how. I think Warner Brothers has finally discovered a formula for success with these spin-offs: limit Zack Snyder's involvement while simultaneously allowing the directors of these films be themselves. We can thank Patty Jenkins (Wonder Woman - check out Peter Kosanovich's review here) for that.
So what makes this film so enjoyable? James Wan's fingerprints are all over this film. In a nutshell, the accomplished director takes the Furious 7 formula (his previous big budget action movie) and puts Aquaman in it. And since Furious 7 was a wonderful bit of mindless fun, that means Aquaman is that, but with even more money. My favorite thing about this film are the colors. The production design here is out-of-this-world (or, in the depths of the sea? Does that work? Shut up, Oscar.) and makes the film infinitely more enjoyable. Had Zack Snyder been given more leeway in this project the sets would've been disastrous, given the fact that it's hard to find natural light underwater. (And thus justification to shoot an underwater scene "during the day") But James Wan makes sure every set, regardless of natural lighting, is lush and colorful and fun to look at. Mad props to production designer Bill Brzeski. If this film deserves any recognition from the Academy, it should be for its mesmerizing production design. Or special effects. Those are pretty dang good too. The third act in particular has a ton of absurd sequences that would've looked absolutely ridiculous were it not for the great special effects.
Also, the cast is great. Jason Momoa is fantastic as Aquaman, bringing a level of suave and charisma to a character that's never been known for it. (Deeeeeem abs doe.) The writing is where this film really flounders, (more on that in a sec) but one character that does receive a great arc and a ton of depth is King Orm. (Patrick Wilson) While this villain isn't quite as dynamic as Killmonger from Black Panther, King Orm's motivations are grounded in real-world problems and thus make him a far more sympathetic villain. (2018 has definitely been the year of the villain in superhero movies.) However, King Orm is about the only character who's arc is even remotely interesting. Aquaman goes on a dullishly ordinary hero's journey, and Mera (Amber Heard) is all but wasted as the sidekick that (predictably) falls in love with the male lead. You're never taken by surprise with this story, but, similar to that of Furious 7, you still find yourself having fun with all the mindless action. It is undoubtedly well-made and executed, with a charismatic (though dull) lead and an interesting villain. What more could you ask for out of a big budget action movie?
The Critique: Despite a cardboard cutout of a story, Aquaman delivers a ton of mindlessly enjoyable moments thanks to incredible production design and stellar visual effects.
The Recommendation: if you're looking for a fun popcorn flick this holiday season, look no further!
The Verdict: 7.5/10 Almost Great
Noir films make the best holiday films, don't they?
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005): A murder mystery brings together a private eye, a struggling actress, and a thief masquerading as an actor.
Happy holidays everyone! The annual tradition continues here at Enter the Movies. For those that are new, (first off, welcome!) every year I take a brief look at a film that is something of an unorthodox holiday film. Past reviews include Die Hard, (which, let's be real, is a holiday film) L.A. Confidential, When Harry Met Sally..., American Psycho, and The Bourne Identity. Now, let's add Shane Black's explosive debut Kiss Kiss Bang Bang to the list, shall we? So gather round the fire with your chestnuts and eggnog, and let's talk about a violent noir film that just happens to take place around Christmas!
The calling card of this film is its screenplay. Writer/director Shane Black (at the time the established screenwriter of the Lethal Weapon franchise was making his directorial debut) puts on a clinic in how to craft and execute a well-made screenplay. The dialogue is fluid, the acting is natural, (Robert Downey Jr. is basically playing himself in the title role of Harry Lockhart, which always helps) and the pace is almost incomprehensibly rapid. Harry Lockhart (RDJ) narrates the entire film, and this narration style is the calling card for a Shane Black film because of its boldly unique fourth-wall-breaking method. (It's basically Scorsese on steroids) While there are moments where the narration is VERY distracting, (Pointing out a weak moment in the script does not make it better, it makes it worse) I found myself laughing and gasping more times than not. And the editing brings it all together. The transitions here are seamless. If I've learned anything over the years of watching film, a great screenplay can be tanked by poor editing just as much as it can be propped up by it.
Let's talk about RDJ for a second. Harry Lockhart is basically Tony Stark's origin story. The parallels between the two characters are rather uncanny. But, if anything, it goes to show that this acting style works and makes it easy to understand why RDJ was ultimately cast to play one of Marvel's central figures. (And become the top-grossing actor in the business) Gay Perry (Val Kilmer) and Harmony Faith Lane (Michelle Monaghan) both deliver this Shane Black dialogue with grace as well. While they are both great, the treatment of Harmony's character, and the film's casual treatment of sex (clearly from a man's perspective) is where this movie really shows its age.
And age well, it has not. I get it. It's 2005. We've come a long way since then. However, that doesn't forgive a film for treating its only woman this poorly. Shane Black makes a joke out of how Harmony has slept with seemingly every guy on the planet besides Harry, who of course she offers to sleep with at one point because what else would you expect her to do? Oh, and of course Harry says no because she admits that she slept with his best friend back in high school, and that really upsets him. And it's funny! Aren't you loling so hard right now? Ha! That's one of several moments throughout the 103 minute runtime that were so cringe-worthy I almost had to stop the film to compose myself. (There's a casual Harvey Weinstein-esque producer in this too, of course.) This film rears its ugly overt sexism quite a bit, which is a damn shame because when it's not it's really enjoyable. Because outside of a frustrating MacGuffin that leads to a messy epilogue, the execution here is flawless. Shane Black bursts out in a big way here, even if it fails the Bechdel Test in rather spectacular fashion.
The Critique: Shane Black's directorial debut wreaks of sexism, but still manages to be somewhat enjoyable thanks to its unique storytelling style and fun lead duo.
The Recommendation: I mean, it's worth a watch, just.....brace yourself for dat sexism dough.
Rewatchability: Moderately Low
The Verdict: 6/10 Above Average.
Happy holidays everyone!! Drink some more eggnog for me!
Raunchy, unapologetic, and batshit crazy
The Favourite (2018): In early 18th century England, a frail Queen Anne (Colman) occupies the throne and her close friend Lady Sarah (Weisz) governs the country in her stead. When a new servant Abigail (Stone) arrives, her charm endears her to Sarah.
If you're looking for an insane time at the movies right now, look no further. The latest (and greatest) work from director Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Dogtooth) completes an oddball trilogy of films that investigate the human condition via dystopian, supernatural, and now existential views. I believe Lanthimos has been honing his style on his previous two films, crafting works that were memorable but also somewhat flawed in their execution. However, those flaws are nowhere to be found here, and we are gleefully treated to a raunchy, intoxicating period drama on steroids with an out-of-this world story, executed flawlessly, while containing one of the most unique and identifiable footprints in Hollywood today. Safe to say I have a new favorite movie of 2018 so far.
Let's start with the three core characters. Queen Anne, (Olivia Colman) Lady Sarah, (Rachel Weisz) and the newcommer Abigail (Emma Stone) are thrust together almost immediately, and from the opening moments the tone of each character is set. Abigail and her cunning ambition, Lady Sarah's chilling no-holds-barred demeanor, and Queen Anne's relative obliviousness to the events unfolding around her. Yet the one who steals the show (in my opinion, at least) is Queen Anne herself. Despite her obliviousness, her presence is felt in nearly every sequence of the film, regardless of whether she's on screen or not. As her character develops, to say she takes over is something of an understatement. All of this is propped up by Olivia Colman, who's performance as the Queen is one of the best I've seen all year. It is innocent yet chaotic while painting a picture of an incredibly emotional and unstable Queen. The performance even has some "quantifiable" acting by film's end. And, let me tell you.....the ending is a show stopping moment courtesy of Colman. Abigail's casting was initially a head-scratcher, but it didn't take long for Emma Stone to win me over. Her mannerisms are dialed down a bit here, but are more than welcome when they do show up. But, of the three leads, Abigail also has the benefit of the strongest bit of writing courtesy of Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara. More on that later. Stone's accent isn't the greatest, but coming off of Jamie Foxx's joke of an accent in Robin Hood...... I'll be happy with just about anything. Finally, there's Rachel freaking Weisz. While Colman has the show-stopping scene at the end, and the Queen's presence is felt throughout the film, Lady Sarah has a multitude of show-stopping moments in the first and second act of this film, and Rachel Weisz makes these scenes look easy. She is quick-witted, cunning, and absolutely ruthless. There seriously needs to be a villain role in Weisz's immediate future.
While Abigail has the best writing overall of the leads, all three benefit from a terrific script from Davis / McNamara. Undoubtedly the best script of the year so far, the dialogue is sharp, witty, and unapolagetically raunchy, all while still containing that trademarked Yorgos Lanthimos mystique. After all, where else are you gonna get a movie with an 18th-century dance-off? Or razer-sharp tension around shooting pigeons? I really think this film does a good job of keeping things weird while not making them distractedly weird. It's a long cry from Colin Farrell's unsettling deadpan character in The Lobster.
Another part of the masterful execution here lies in the cinematography and editing department. The cinematography is a massive departure from Yorgos Lanthimos's previous works, so it's not too surprising that he collaborated with a new camera man, Robbie Ryan. I'm glad he did because I freaking love the unorthodox angles and brisk tracking shots. And there are multiple lens changes that make the film look like you're literally watching a peephole into these character's lives. All held together by brisk and fluent editing courtesy of Yorgos Mavropsaridis. Oh, and the score selections are amazing too. This film utilizes an entirely curated score, a rare thing in Hollywood nowadays, and it is breathtaking. Honestly, the sound design in general is amazing. The score is dialed up to eleven at some points, but Lanthimos also isn't afraid to cut to silence when he needs to.
Yes, every aspect of this film is absolutely stunning, and it's a triumphant climax for a director that has made his mark on the business the last four years. This film is very polarizing - a sign of a truly great work of art - but for me it's a masterpiece on every level. In terms of the films of Yorgos Lanthimos, it is likely his most accessible to date, but it is still not for the feint of heart. There is a lot of raunchiness here, and that will likely discourage some viewers. But for those that are willing to step outside their comfort zone and try something new, to say The Favourite is for you is something of an understatement.
The Critique: The best film of 2018 so far, The Favourite is a raunchy, unapologetic, and tense drama featuring masterful performances from its entire ensemble.
The Recommendation: If you're ok with weird and risqué, then this is absolutely for you. If not.....your loss.
The Verdict: 10/10 Perfect.
Quick Reviews, Winter 2018 Part 1: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Creed II, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Boy Erased, Robin HoodRead Now
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Can You Ever Forgive Me?
A total disaster
Fantastic Beats: The Crimes of Grindelwald (2018): The second installment of the "Fantastic Beasts" series set in J.K. Rowling's Wizarding World featuring the adventures of magizoologist Newt Scamander.
I was actually pretty excited to see this new entry into the Fantastic Beasts series. I was a shockingly huge fan of the original installment, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, in part due to the magical performances of Eddie Redmayne, Ezra Miller, and especially Katherine Waterston. The dynamics between Newt, (Redmayne) Tina, (Waterston) Quennie, (Alison Sudol) and "muggle" Jacob (Dan Fogler) were compelling to me, and were reminiscent of the wonderful relationship of Harry, Hermione, and Ron which grounded the original Harry Potter series. However, writer J.K. Rowling, (who was given full autonomy over this film's script and the direction of this series, for that matter) and director David Yates clearly did not see the groundwork of this series the same way I did. Instead, they chose to focus the second installment of this franchise on the weak and uninteresting villain, Grindelwald, so they could hand over the face of this franchise to.......Johnny Depp? Seriously? (Oscar! Is that really Johnny Depp helming a major movie franchise in 2018? ARE YOU SURE?) I mean, I know there are like five more of these things, but why go all-in on freaking Johnny Depp? No wonder J.K. Rowling went out of her way to defend Johnny Depp after he found himself on the wrong side of the #MeToo movement. Most of the decisions made in this film make no sense, and it's all covered by this weird level of "prestige." As if J.K. Rowling fully believes this franchise will be every bit as culturally impactful as the original Harry Potter franchise. All of this combines for an installment that is so bad it honestly makes me want to revisit the original Fantastic Beasts and figure out why I liked that one so much. I am questioning my very sanity, right now. It's not good.
So, uhhhhhhh, good things. Ezra Miller is good! I mean I think Ezra Miller should be in everything ever so of course I would enjoy Credence. Honestly, Credence is basically the only saving grace of this film. His arc is far more interesting than what I remember in the first one: he's more of a flawed character struggling to find his purpose versus a sort of comic book villain that everyone is seeking for some reason. While it will be largely overshadowed by how much of a comic book villain Grindelwald is, J.K. Rowling is doing a pretty good job with Credence thus far. Minus the completely RIDICULOUS "twist" at the end of this film. Also, Dumbledore is cool. Jude Law is essentially playing himself, but I'm ok with that. Also, the "fantastic beasts" are still cool! They look good, as they should in a big budget film in 2018, but it's still worth mentioning when you're struggling to find anything decent to mention in this dumpster fire.
And that's because everything else is awful. Let's start with the core characters: Newt, Tina, Quennie, and Jacob. Their dynamics are not built upon in any way, (it also doesn't help when Tina is only actually in the film for like 30 minutes, but that's neither here nor there) as instead J.K. Rowling chooses to create division between Quennie and the rest of the group that isn't earned in any way and totally contradictory to her character in the first film. I mean, imagine if in The Chamber of Secrets Hermione had decided after reading a few books written by Tom Riddle, "Ya, actually all of these wizards being turned to stone deserve it because y'all have been mean to me, so I'm joining the Death Eaters now." Sure, it would've delivered the shock value in the moment, but it absolutely would've sacrificed the arc of her character in the long run. That's exactly what happens to Quennie here. Her character does a complete 180 for the sole purpose of delivering shock value in this installment. SPEAKING OF SHOCK VALUE. The twist at the end is hilariously awful. Like, I almost laughed out loud at the screen. It doesn't fit into the world at all and does nothing except tell us that J.K. Rowling is all out of original ideas. Finally, gotta take a second and talk about the uninteresting Grindelwald. Why did J.K. Rowling go all-in on this character? He's not interesting or unique and is nothing more than a comic book villain. He's decided that wizards are better than humans, but for some reason isn't immediately rising up against them because........reasons? In the climax of this film it takes like 30 wizards to stop him from destroying all of London, why doesn't Grindelwald just jump into the muggle world and announce he's a wizard and going to take over the planet? Like, even the Transformers franchise figured out that there was no way these giant robots were going to be able to "sneak" around the earth two films in. It doesn't help that Grindelwald is portrayed by Johnny Depp, a dude who has had one single decent film (Black Mass) since he debuted his character in the original Pirates of the Caribbean. Yes, Johnny Depp showed us he was the symbol of white male entitlement even before he weathered the #MeToo movement. Now, his overbearing presence dates the film while you're watching it, and the incomprehensible decision by Warner Brothers, J.K. Rowling, David Yates to double-down on the decision to stick with Depp may even spell doom for this franchise.
In case that wasn't enough, this movie isn't even all that good from a technical perspective. Sure, the effects are decent, but the lighting, production design, and cinematography are all..... bad. There are a TON of corners cut in these departments by David Yates, with the highlight being one of the worst chase sequences I've ever seen to literally open the film. This opening scene is shot at night, in the rain, and is so muddy, dark, and incoherent it would make The Lone Ranger proud. Speaking of incoherent, why is this film so dark? From start to finish, so much of this film is shot in dark corridors and on dark sets. Not only does the lighting crew fail to show up at points, but the production designers failed to put any vivid colors on set. Everything is brown, grey, or black. That's something of a trivial complaint, but if you're going to give us a convoluted story and force us to watch Johnny Depp for two hours, at least give us some pretty colors to look at!
In conclusion, in case you haven't figured it out yet, Fantastic Beasts: The Crime of Grindelwald...... it's not good. It's not even worth watching once it hits streaming services. I'll give this franchise one more go because I am somewhat interested in what they do with Credence, (stupid plot twist aside) I am exactly the demographic that grew up reading the Harry Potter books, and hopefully they'll realize we need more of Newt, Tina, Quennie, and Jacob, but I won't lie: we're on thin ice now. I can hardly recall a time a franchise has crashed and burned so spectacularly. (Sure, The Hunger Games comes to mind, but we all knew that Mockingjay was going to be a crapshoot. That makes it somewhat easier to bear.) What a shame this franchise has fallen so hard. Hopefully now it can pick itself back up.
The Critique: A disastrous sequel, Fantastic Beasts 2 loses all the charm of its predecessor, in part, because of ignoring its core characters and instead focusing on its unimaginative and dull villain.
The Recommendation: AVOID LIKE THE PLAGUE.
The Verdict: 2/10 Garbage.
Quick Reviews, Fall 2018, Part 1: BlacKkKlansman, Life Itself, Bad Times at the El Royale, Mid90s, Beautiful BoyRead Now
Bad Times at the El Royale
Light on substance, heavy on flair
Bohemian Rhapsody (2018): A chronicle of the years leading up to Queen's legendary appearance at the Live Aid (1985) concert.
*Cue the music* I like Queen. I've enjoyed them ever since I could remember. I have many a fond memory of singing my guts out to classics like “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Fat Bottomed Girls,” and “We Are the Champions.” But I've never considered myself a super fan who knows every bit of Queen trivia, inside and out. I think of myself more as a casual fan of the band. So you can understand my frustration when I sit through a 2+ hour movie about Queen and don't really learn anything new about the band. While that's not entirely true, it is an accurate representation of this film. There is NOTHING here resembling substance. Instead, director Bryan Singer and co. spend (and at moments waste) their time showcasing the flamboyancy of Queen and its iconic front man, Freddie Mercury. Spoiler, right? Bet you didn't know Freddie Mercury was a flamboyant fella!
Ok, ok, ok. Let's not get too depressing off the bat. The best thing about this film is the band. There are two great performances here. The one everyone's talking about is Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury. He is terrific and is effectively absorbed into the iconic persona. He captures all of Mercury's outlandish personality and witticisms. But the one I really love is Gwilym Lee as guitarist Brian May. Granted he had the added benefit of having the Queen guitarist on set (May receives an executive producer credit for his work on the film) but…you wanna talk about being absorbed into a role, look no further than this incredible performance. Only time will tell if Bohemian Rhapsody has the staying power to net either Malek or Lee an Oscar nomination for their work. I'm honestly not sure it does, because there are a lot of problems with this film.
Oh ya. I should also mention the live performances are fun. They're certainly enjoyable, but this is where the problems start for Bryan Singer and co. Actually, back up. The problems start with the fact that Bryan Singer's name is on this at all. The troubled director showed a significant flair for the dramatic throughout the production cycle, and clashed at many points with the lead of the film. Singer is nothing more than a powerfuf white man who has power simply because he's a white man, and his POV of Freddie Mercury and Queen is reflected as such. (Also, there's an impending Esquire article that exposes some of Singer's more disgusting habbits, so there's that.) This is very much the PG-13 interpretation of Mercury and his life, as we zip through anything that might be construed as controversial in order to have another live performance or another shot of Mercury's cats. It's ok for a film this grandiose to bite off more than it can chew. The problems arise when it feels like Bryan Singer and writers Anthony McCarten and Peter Morgan are merely checking off boxes in Freddie Mercury's life. Show a scene of the band fighting then merely refer to it the rest of the time? Check. Show Freddie Mercury struggling to find acceptance with his family and his father, then randomly tie up this plot line up with no context or background? Check. Do literally nothing but fly over Mercury struggling with his sexuality, short of one good scene between him and his then-wife? (Played by Lucy Boynton) Check. (That one scene is the best scene in the movie, by the way.) But hey, gotta be sure to make time for the LIVE AID performance! Because we really need to see 10+ minutes of this performance and get a legit 3+ song set in a biopic about Queen. Ugh! While these lengthy performances are enjoyable, and Rami Malek / Gwilym Lee are exceptional, Bohemian Rhapsody fails to teach its viewers anything about Queen that they didn't already know, which turns it into a fairly run-of-the-mill rock biopic. And to say a band as rambunctious as Queen deserves better is something of an understatement.
The Critique: While an enjoyable concert, Bohemian Rhapsody fails to show any of the inner workings of Queen, despite its lead's terrific performance.
The Recommendation: …..eh? Easy answer is don't see it because Bryan Singer is a jerk, but if you do go see it, don't expect to do much more than dance along to the Queen songs you grew up with.
The Verdict: 4/10 Below Average
A suspenseful game of cat-and-mouse
Halloween (2018): Laurie Strode comes to her final confrontation with Michael Myers, the masked figure who has haunted her since she narrowly escaped his killing spree on Halloween night four decades ago.
Jason Blum can do no wrong. The CEO of Blumhouse Productions, executive producer of 2018’s Halloween, and one of the biggest names in Hollywood you've probably never heard of, Blum and his team at Blumhouse have been behind some of the most successful horror films of the last decade+, for better or worse. Paranormal Activity. Inisidous. Sinister. Split. The Purge. Happy Death Day. And, of course, Get Out. Now, the famous executive and his studio is back for the unimaginitevely titled Halloween, a direct sequel to John Carpenter's 1978 classic by the same name. (Seriously, though, this movie’s good and all, but could we have at least seen a different title? There have 5 films in this franchise called either Halloween or Halloween II....) And, like much of Blumhouse Productions catalog, it's a shockingly well executed film that hits all the right notes at all the right times. So let's dive in, shall we?
I'll cut right to the heart of this film: (don't worry, I'll be here all night) the cat-and-mouse dynamic between Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) and Michael Myers is one of the more interesting dynamics I've seen in a modern horror film. Director/writer David Gordon Green spends less time going for the cheap jump scares and more time developing the characters of Strode and Myers, which makes the climactic third act as tense and effective as it is. And tenseness is something of an understatement for the third act, as the cat-and-mouse game between the two leads comes to a head and the scares that are usually cheap become freakishly effective. The decision to have Jamie Lee Curtis double as a producer for the film pays dividends: Curtis had an undeniably major role in painting the picture of her character. Laurie Strode is a traumatized mom and grandmother, struggling to maintain her relationship with her family, while dealing with her own PTSD. And she plays off the classic villain incredibly well.
However, the supporting cast is one of the weakest parts of this film. Strode’s daughter, played by Judy Greer, has a rather shallow and undeveloped arc with a laughable conclusion, while Strode's granddaughter, played by newcomer Andi Matichack, does a good job with the material she's given…..if only that material was actually worthwhile. And don't get me started on Dr. Sartain. (Haluk Bilginer) Yes, it's a horror movie, but compared to some other previous Blumhouse Productions installments, like Get Out, most of the supporting cast is nothing more than meager plot devices with a good moment here and there. Also, I do have to commend the fact that this film features three heroines more than capable of handling themselves, and the film never even makes a thing about it which is even better. Absolutely love.
But, at the end of the day, this is great horror film. It has some good scares, and compared to a lot of modern horror films, has some great character development and suspense between its two leads. For me, it doesn't land quite as well as 2017’s It did, in part because a voiceless, faceless villain is in itself limiting, but it still gets the job done. Ultimately, isn't that all you want out of a horror film?
The Critique: featuring a suspenseful dynamic between its heroine and villain, Halloween features effective suspense and good scares, despite a weak supporting cast
The Recommendation: if you're a horror fan, or a fan of the original film, it's well worth a watch. Even the casual horror fan may find something to like here. However, if you're looking for a gateway into the genre….. this ain't it. (Try Get Out instead)
Rewatchability: Moderately High
The Verdict: 7/10 Good.
First Man (2018): A look at the life of the astronaut, Neil Armstrong, and the legendary space mission that led him to become the first man to walk on the Moon on July 20, 1969.
Damien Chazelle is BACK. After setting Hollywood ablaze with the 1-2 punch of triumphs Whiplash and La La Land, (in my opinion two of the best films I've reviewed on this blog) the studio executives at Universal decided to give the director a chance to put himself squarely in the realm of “blank check” directors. (To join the upper A-list of names like Spielberg, Nolan, and Fincher, to name a few.) And that, in short, sums up what First Man is: an audition. So does Chazelle pass the bar? ……..yes and no. (Oscar, can I set myself up for a question that I don't answer? No? Well, I'm gonna do it anyway….)
So here's the long-form answer to that question, because it's my job to over explain things. This is an ambitious film. As do most biopics that cover huge ground, the film bites off way more than it can chew, but it manages to show its intimacy in the individual scenes. For example, Claire Foy plays Armstrong's wife, Janet Shearon, and isn't given nearly enough to do. (As would be expected in a film about her husband.) She's basically “the wife,” which shouldn't come as much surprise. But in her criminally limited on-screen time, Claire Foy delivers one of the best “the wife” roles I've ever seen. Shearon’s dominating presence is felt all throughout the film that she's not featured nearly enough in. Makes sense, right? At the center of it all, though, is Gosling's reserved performance of Neil Armstrong. It doesn't bring a prestigious “Oscar-worthy” title with it, but it effectively paints the picture of a quiet and almost socially awkward figure who is probably just as surprised he's a titanic hero of recent American history as we, the viewer, are to discover he was not oozing with charm and charisma. While at many points this is the film's hidden strength, it also serves to be its greatest weakness, as moments that should be intimate and emotionally devastating become as awkwardly uncomfortable as Armstrong, the man, was. If anything, it goes to showcase why this iconic moment in history has been largely avoided by Hollywood cinema over the years.
One thing that has no doubt in its magnificence, though, is the technical side of First Man. This film is a visual marvel, and if you are going to see it try and see it on the biggest screen that you can find. The film features multiple thrilling setpieces, and while it does cheat at points in said setpieces with close-ups of Armstrong throughout the take offs and landings, and unnecessary shaky cam, it does not skimp on all of them. (The take off of Apollo 11 in particular is spectacular.) Additionally, the film's sound design and editing is incredible, to the point that its beauty is downright distracting at times. But expect Oscar nominations for the sound department this Oscar season. Finally, Justin Hurwitz, Damien Chazelle’s personal composer, continues to showcase why he REALLY needs to branch out to every movie ever, because once again his music is spectacular. It's subtle while still memorable, subdued while still dominating. Hurwitz walks all the tightropes. Please, dude. Put yourself in more films ASAP. (Sits by the door and waits for my First Man soundtrack to arrive.)
So one would think after reading all of that, the answer to the question of “Did Damien Chazelle pass his audition to join the upper echolon of Hollywood directors?” with First Man would be a resounding, "Yes." And yet….I'm not so sure because of one real reason, and it's kind of an important one: box office results. See, I have the luxury of being able to jump on a soapbox here because it's Wednesday and the film has been out almost a full week (time-stamping when I wrote this review!) and that's long enough to see the film is performing well under expectations. And I'm worried that Chazelle is going to front the blame for this, and it makes me sad. Because it's not his fault at all. Take a second, step back, and ask yourself: who is this movie for? Who is the target audience? This is where the problems lie, because it's not going for elitist intellectual types. It's going for the American Sniper crowd. A crowd that has effectively turned its back on liberal Hollywood unless the 'Murica themes are over-the-top obvious. (And not showing Buzz Aldrin plant the American flag in the moon does not bode well to showcase those overtly patriotic themes. Honestly, while it's not a necessary inclusion, I'm not really sure why they didn't include it, either. There's my #HotTake, Oscar.) But I'm worried that the studio execs will look at this performance, flip out, and look for someone to blame. And that someone will likely be Chazelle, which is a real shame. However, I sincerely hope Chazelle is given a blank check for his next film because, for picking something that he wasn't even passionate about a few years ago, (he knew almost nothing about the moon landing, and had no interest in it, but reading the book from James R. Hansen changed his mind) I think he did a pretty good job. And while the finished product falls just short of greatness (which is, admittedly, a let down from his previous works) Damien Chazelle further showcases with First Man that he should be a household name among the very top directors in the business. Whether that actually happens, however, is yet to be seen.
My Number: 7.5/10
And the Oscar Goes to.....
A Star Is Born (2018): A musician helps a young singer and actress find fame, even as age and alcoholism send his own career into a downward spiral.
Wow. Talk about coming into your own. A classic story re-imagined for the 21st century featuring the directorial debut of Bradley Cooper and the silver screen debut of Lady Gaga, A Star Is Born is a truly incredible and remarkable film. Cooper's directorial debut reaches for the stars and succeeds on nearly every level. It was an ambitious undertaking for the prolific actor turned rookie director, to say the least: reinterpret one of the most reprised stories in Hollywood for a modern era, (this is its 4th iteration, and each time the starpower has been there, with actors like James Mason, Kris Kristofferson, Judy Garland, and Barbara Streisand playing the lead roles) and as if that isn't enough, might as well put an established pop star with virtually no previous dramatic acting experience in the lead role because....why not? But every facet of the movie works with flying colors, making A Star Is Born one of the best films of the year and an early heavyweight contender for this year's Oscar season. It's well worth the watch!
There's not much this film does wrong, so I'll intersperse it throughout my glowing sentiments about this uplifting film. The heart and soul of this is, of course, Lady Gaga. Almost certainly the favorite for Best Actress this year, Gaga makes the accomplished cast of this film look like amateurs with her iconic performance as Ally. Bradley Cooper wasn't kidding when he said that he fell in love with Lady Gaga's eyes when he decided to cast her, and I can see why: her incredible performance starts with the amount of emotion she can convey with nothing but her eyes. I haven't seen that much emotion one's eyes since Nicole Kidman in 2016's Lion, which is still one of my favorite performances of recent memory.. And that's just one of many things that contribute to her enduring performance. She also has an incredible amount of control over her voice. I know, she's a pop star so this shouldn't be too surprising, but Gaga shows a meticulous level of attention to detail with her voice to convey the emotions she needs to in any given scene. Seriously: Lady Gaga's performance is the best I've seen this year, (sorry, Toni Collette, but I'm still rooting for you to at least be nominated!) and it's worth the cost of admission by itself. And I haven't even mentioned Bradley Cooper or the songs yet!
Which are amazing, obviously. The lead single of this film, "Shallow," is all but assured the Oscar for Best Original Song. Even 2016's La La Land wishes it had music as good as this. Because the crazy thing about this film's music is how diverse it is. It's not like every song in here is a country song. No, no. There's some rock, some pop, some country, there's something here for everyone. And all of it is executed flawlessly. I'm already playing the music on repeat on Spotify, and I suspect this will only increase as time goes on. Oh! And, ya! Bradley Cooper is really, really good! His portrayal of the troubled music star, Jack, struggling with alcoholism is fantastic. He plays off Ally exceptionally well while letting her be the star of the show.
And that, my friends, is the strongest part of this interpretation of A Star Is Born. The 1976 version is really good, don't get me wrong, but there is a frustrating amount of time spent focusing on John Howard (Kris Kristofferson) when the film should be spending 80%+ of its time focusing on Esther Hoffman. (Barba Streisand) Fortunately, the same mistake is not made here. This is Ally's show, from start to (almost) the end. Speaking of, the ending has been updated, but it's still a little messy and the weakest part of the film as it does become a little too much about Jack, despite giving Ally the best solo number of the film to wrap it all up. Either way, it is a HUGE improvement over its 1976 counterpart, so I'll take it. Hopefully the next version will finally be able to smooth this out. In conclusion, though, this movie is fantastic and a great pick-me-up for what's happening in the world right now. It is well worth your time and money at the theater right now.
The Critique: Featuring phenomenal original music and a great supporting cast, A Star Is Born effectively showcases the diverse talents of its lead actress while all but ensuring her (at least) an Oscar nomination.
The Recommendation: You could probably guess this one, but seriously: it's an absolute must-see for everyone!
The Verdict: 9/10 Awesome.
Oscar Talk: Haven't done this in a while! Ya, I keep saying it, and I'll say it again: I will fall to the floor in utter disbelief if Lady Gaga doesn't receive nominations for both Best Actress and Best Original Song. The Best Actor field is shaping up to be a bit more competitive this year, so I'm not sure if Bradley Cooper will join her. If anything, I'd say it would be more likely to see him receive a Best Director nomination. Also, expect a Best Original Score nomination as well, assuming it's eligible for the category. (There are some weird rules with Best Original Score that I don't entirely understand.) Oh, and it's almost a given, but expect a Best Picture nomination as well!
Nowhere near enough Venom
Venom (2018): When Eddie Brock acquires the powers of a symbiote, he will have to release his alter-ego "Venom" to save his life.
Ok, seriously: what was that? Because I have no idea. I'm sitting here in Darkness Brewing. There's a heavy metal cover of Maroon 5’s “Misery” playing as I type this, and it's not the weirdest thing to happen in my life this evening. It's been a solid 30 minutes since the movie ended, and I still haven't the faintest idea what I just saw. What WAS that? Was it a comedy? A romance? An action flick? I don't know, and I'm pretty sure the movie doesn't know either. To say Venom is a mess is something of an understatement, and there's no doubt that your mileage will vary tremendously with this abomination. That said…..did I have fun? …...kind of? I think I was having fun at the movie’s expense, but fun is fun is fun is fun. Right?
Let me first say that before you completely dismiss my opinion because of my (self-admitted) preconceived biases against the avalanche of comic book films we've seen in recent years…..Venom has always been my favorite supervillain. And I actually quite enjoyed Tom Hardy's erratic and unpredictable interpretation of the antihero Eddie Brock. He is undoubtedly the best thing about this very raw and messy film, as director Ruben Fleischer clearly gave Hardy total creative freedom in portraying the character. Your mileage will vary with this polarizing performance, and, fair warning: if you're not a fan of it, there really isn't anything else here to enjoy, because the rest of this movie suuuuuuuuucks. We'll get to that. But first, I have to send some shoutouts: to Riz Ahmed, who portrays a rather entertaining villain Carlton Drake, as well as the great Michelle Williams as Anne. Anne is not given the screen time she deserves, however I mention her because she's played by Michelle Williams, and I love her and she needs to be in literally everything. Carry on.
You know what is bad, though? Every second of this movie where Eddie Brock/Venom aren't together. Which is…… a lot. Specifically, for the first 45 minutes of this thing Fleischer and co. RUSH through a meaningless backstory for Eddie Brock that features some hilariously bad montage sequences, dialogue, and plot points. Honestly, this would've been a better film had we simply started with Eddie/Venom merging together, because after the first 45 minutes trying to be a cheesy soapbox romantic drama, the film veers HARD right into a shockingly entertaining comedy. I was never really sure if I was laughing with the film or at the film, but I knew I was laughing throughout the second act. That's really all that matters, right Oscar? Doesn't matter how you have fun just as long as you have fun? Well, this fun quickly dissipates in the final act as Venom falls victim to some horrific CGI sequences that even give The Amazing Spider-Man 2 a run for its money. Which makes even less sense than it does already because the second act had a fairly enjoyable action sequence in it as Eddie learned what Venom could do on the fly while he mowed down baddies in true PG-13 fashion.
Which brings me to my original point: what is this film trying to be? As it incomprehensibly moves from act to act, from sequence to sequence, the only thing that is certain is that your guess is as good as mine. And that Tom Hardy is nuts when he wants to be. OH. Oscar! Can I talk about the post-credit scenes? Because I want to talk about the post-credit scenes. Because oh my GOD they are TERRIBLE. The first introduces Woody Harrelson and a HORRIFIC wig in a shameless attempt at sequel-baiting that does anything but get me excited for Venom 2, and the second is a tease for Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse. So literally nothing but long teasers for upcoming Sony/Marvel films. Seriously?????? That's what these obligatory post-credit scenes have become? Teasers for upcoming films? Siiiiiiiigh. Anyway, where was I, Oscar? Right. This movie is unashamedly outlandish and it all hinges on Hardy's polarizing performance. If you're into it, there's enough here to like in between the useless opening act and CGI-thon of the final act, but if not? Stay VERY far away
The Critique: pinning its hopes on a uniquely bizarre performance from Tom Hardy, Venom is an incomprehensible mess of a film that still manages to be somewhat fun, even if you are having said fun at the movie’s expense.
The Recommendation: Seriously. Wait until this thing hits streaming services so you can skip through the first 45 minutes and the ridiculous CGI onslaught at the end.
Rewatchability: Moderately Low
The Verdict: 4/10 Below Average.
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