Great ideas, bad execution
Wonder Woman 1984 (2020): Rewind to the 1980s as Wonder Woman's next big screen adventure finds her facing two all-new foes: Max Lord and The Cheetah.
Woof. That's a cringe IMDB description. Anyway, DC movies get a bad wrap. They’re kind of set up to fail, because ultimately they become gods fighting gods, and they are still (somehow) influenced by Zack Snyder, which means incoherent fight sequences with a lot of cheesy CGI being shot at night. (Absolutely nothing should be influenced by Zack Snyder, yet here we are.) That said, when the original Wonder Woman hit theaters, I was pleasantly surprised. Director Patty Jenkins and company managed to buck the Snyder aesthetic (until its admittedly lame final sequence) for not only some marvelous action sequences, (with only mildly cheesy CGI) but a touching and intimate story around its title character. Wonder Woman’s arc is one of the most interesting arcs in a superhero film that combines a coming of age story with understanding the complexities of humanity. So I was hopeful, heading into WW84, that we would see another intimate portrait of one of our culture’s most iconic superheroes in addition to the inevitable Snyder “god vs god” action sequences. Is that what we got? ……..I would argue yes, but in a far more abstract and unorthodox way than we were expecting.
Look. I know WW84 is getting dunked on by the neckbeards. They say it’s overzealous, overlong, and full of “plot holes” and “macguffins.” If you came here hoping for another dunk sesh, you’re not going to get it. I actually really like some of the ideas and themes presented in this film. (Some spoilers ahead, fair warning) For example, Barbara Minerva’s (Kristen Wiig) transformation from a down-on-her-luck archeologist that nobody likes into Cheetah, an “apex predator,” was super interesting. Patty Jenkins (back as director and also co-writer, this time around) attempts to use Minerva’s past traumas as the catalyst for this transformation. This is a really good idea and has the makings of a potentially excellent villain, and is easily the most intriguing aspect of the entire film. But the execution? We’ll get to that. I also enjoyed Maxwell Lord’s (Pedro Pascal) villain arc. The idea that we could want everything in the world yet still need the people we love the most is unique and interesting, and the conclusion of this idea, aka the final “climatic” sequence of the film, is a very unique conclusion for a supervillain. But again, the execution is….lacking. The idea of Maxwell Lord obtaining everything and giving it all up for the person he loves most, while Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) has to give up the person she loves most to save everything? Great idea. But the execution….? Just a minute. We’ll get there. There are some good performances too. Pedro Pascal is extremely campy, erratic, and over-the-top, but Gal Gado and Kristen Wiig are both excellent, especially the later. Barbara Minerva is generally the best thing in this film, and her quirky awkward beginnings as a character is a performance few can pull of as well as Wigg. Those are all good things!
If only the execution was anything close to cohesive and competent. This script is a mess. All of those ideas I mentioned are fun, unique, and compelling, but each requires a significant amount of setup in order to be earned. Despite this film’s massive 151 minute runtime, none of those ideas are even close to properly visualized. Instead, we focus too much on Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) “Discovering the 80s with quirky nostalgic humor,” which is totally unnecessary rehash of the “Wonder Woman sees advanced civilization for the first time with an innocent sense of discovery and joy,” from the first film. We spend too much time on Maxwell Lord essentially killing anything and everyone to control the world for his abrupt transformation to giving it all up for his son. Also, call me cynical, but part of this end sequence involved civilization “recanting” their wishes they had just asked for because Wonder Woman asked them to. While I do like the sentiment, after watching 40% of America refuse to wear a mask to protect others throughout 2020, citing “personal liberty,” it’s hard for me to buy the idea that the entire world would come together and recant everything they want for the safety / well being of others. It’s just…. An overall terrible final sequence. Despite it being somewhat unorthodox and unique. Again.... abstract! Oh, also! Just before that sequence, we (finally) get the final transformation of Barbara Minerva into Cheetah, a villain so weakly used that I had to actually Google who she was after the film to find out it was Cheetah, but this sequence is the obligatory terrible action sequence in every DC film: two gods facing each other with cheesy CGI, in the dark, and lots of strobe lights. (This time in the form of exposed power lines!)
So, should you watch WW84? I say yes, because I think there are some good ideas here. (And you can stream it on HBO Max and let's face it: what else are you going to do right now? Laughs) I’ve been simmering on what Wonder Woman has to do to save humanity here, as well as what Maxwell Lord has to do to save humanity. That ending for the supervillain was very abstract, and I appreciated the idea despite the shoddy execution. Barbara Minerva’s transformation has resonated as well, particularly when she is forced to confront her traumas with enhanced powers. Dealing with them by cheating, so to say. It’s a great descent into evil, but this idea, like so many others, falls short of being truly worthwhile because here’s another idea! And a big chase sequence that is completely unnecessary and doesn’t serve the plot! And here’s Steve Trevor discovering baggy pants with lots of zippers! (trails off into oblivion)
My Number: 5/10 Average
It's good to be back, even if the content isn't
Hey! What is this thing? Going to the movies? Who does that? More importantly, what does going to the movies look like in the current climate? Well, it includes masks, people not wearing said masks, and projectors that haven't been used in months. Oh, and obnoxiously loud kids - that part hasn't changed. But, you know what? I loved every second of it.
Let's talk about the experience first. It was so good to be back in my happy place. In the "before times," the movie theater was a place of refuge. An escape into another world, to elude the troubles of our time. To have that feeling return, to come back to my safe haven - every emotion was amplified. Every sense heightened. I was here for this (ultimately) messy superhero film. I sat with baited breath for every (predictable) twist and turn. This film, unorganized as it may have been, was chaotically beautiful. Because the moment was beautiful. I found myself holding back tears towards the end of the film, even though I was FULLY aware I was watching a painfully cliche, "main hero discovers their power from within" ending. When you've been away from your happy place for so long, it's hard not to be taken along for a ride, even if you know exactly where that train is headed. Going to the movies is back, and I can't help but be here for it.
Which brings us to The New Mutants. First things first, what I mentioned earlier. The projector this was screened on was awful. I get it - it was barely used for 7 months. A projector like what's at an AMC is probably not designed for that. But, my God. The viewing experience was absolutely awful. Everything was SOOOOO dark, the screen was almost indecipherable at times. The film didn't do the projector any favors - nearly the entire film was shot with cold lighting, and at night - but it didn't feel like much of an attempt was made to adjust the situation the movie presented the AMC staff and equipment. As if the staff wasn't fully aware that they were back, and didn't know what they wanted from the return. An accidental metaphor for the film, because it was confused about what it wanted to be, a tale of two disjointed ideas come to life. Half of this was a "haunted house" superhero film, half of it was an action-y "escape from Krypton" superhero film. It made the film tonally inconsistent, and really muddied the ideological waters of what this film wanted to be. Was it about overcoming your deepest fears? Was it about overcoming the oppressor? Was it about discovering the forces of evil pulling the strings behind a seemingly innocent operation? WHY NOT ALL OF THE ABOVE? Because throwing everything and the kitchen sink against the wall always works, right?
That said!! There are some major pluses of this film I have to share. First and foremost: the main character. The original trailer would make you believe this title belongs to Anya Taylor-Joy, Maisie Williams, or Charlie Heaton, but no! The title goes to little known Blu Hunt, who is also Native American. This marks the first superhero movie led by a Native American actor, and I am so here for it. It's kind of a shame this isn't being talked about more, because it is a monumental moment for diversity. As if that boundary pushing equality wasn't enough, this film also features an unapologetically gay love story. Honestly, it's one of the best LGBTQ+ love stories I've seen, because of how inconspicuous it is. After a big, "We're discovering ourselves and our sexuality," moment, this love story is intertwined with the overarching narrative in a totally innocuous way. It was easily the strongest narrative of this film, to the point I'm actually kinda disappointed it's sucked up in this ultimately mediocre, disorienting superhero film.
In conclusion, is The New Mutants actually worth seeing in a theater? ……….no. I don't think so. Every decision we make has a risk calculus, and unless you live and breath film like me, it's not worth returning to a theater (and see the irresponsibility contained within by its "invincible" patrons - my fellow theater goes took their masks off almost as soon as the lights went down) to see a disorganized superhero film. But, if you live and breath film, such as yours truly, (hello!) any film is worth it. When you've been aimlessly searching the void for purpose over the past 7 months, (a personal exaggeration, but a nice allegory for this writing) any film that is at least competently told is worth it. The escapism of a dark theater and a visual story is indescribably refreshing. Just…. Maybe wait a few weeks and for a better movie (looks at Tenet) before you do it yourself.
My Number: 5/10
The movie of the moment
Just Mercy (2019): World-renowned civil rights defense attorney Bryan Stevenson works to free a wrongly condemned death row prisoner.
Editor's Note: For the month of June, Just Mercy is available to stream for free on all major platforms. Learn more here.
How does an ordinary person rise to an extraordinary moment? That's the question I've been asking myself for the past few days. Ever since the horrific video of George Floyd's tragic (and avoidable) death emerged, I have been grappling with what I, a straight, privileged, white man, can do in a moment like this. I think that's a universal question in this moment. There are some obvious answers: you can donate to a worthy cause, (like the Equal Justice Initiative) protest with organizations like Black Lives Matter, and educate yourself on the daily, systemic struggled of communities that don't look like yourself. (Check out this link for more on that.)
One of those avenues for self-education is film. I have written about film on this blog for nearly 7 years. And, I must admit, I've let my writings go by the wayside during the coronavirus pandemic. Writing about film has felt small. It's felt unimportant while we try and grapple with the incalculable loss of over a hundred thousand American lives, (which came and went while the leader of the free world feuded with Twitter) and many thousands more across the globe. But. Film can also be an avenue for education. And I, an ordinary man looking at an extraordinary moment in our nation's history, owe it to the people less fortunate than me, the people who are condemned and disadvantaged solely because of the color of their skin, I owe it to them to use every platform at my disposal to amplify their struggles. So, even though it's been months since my last review, let's dust off the ol' typewriter and talk about Just Mercy.
Just Mercy is the latest film from Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12, The Glass Castle) and is the true story of Bryan Stevenson (founder of the Equal Justice Initiative and portrayed by the infectiously charismatic Michael B. Jordan) as he works to free wrongfully convicted death row inmates in Alabama. The film’s story is naturally dramatic, but is amplified by the culture of this moment. To see the oppression these men face laid bare - Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx) was convicted of murder and sentenced to death based on the testimony of a single white man, who himself was simultaneously on trial for unrelated charges - while we chant, “I can’t breathe,” in the streets today, makes the events and sequencing of this film that much more emotional. This is the movie of the moment, and you truly owe it to yourself to watch it.
Not only is this the movie of the moment to highlight the ingrained intolerance of black people in our judicial system, which you see in every moment of the powerful story, Just Mercy’s message on capital punishment, and the barbarism it represents, is equally as dramatic. There is an extended sequence around the halfway point surrounding a death row inmate that is sent to the electric chair that made me ball. I honestly can’t remember the last time I cried that hard during a film. The empathy of this sequence that Destin Daniel Cretton was able to convey, the humanity and emotional state of a man in his final moments before being executed, was incredible. Regardless of what that man did or did not do that led him to death row, he was still a human being, and to see him put to death in such an archaic way…. It tore me apart.
That said, the film is not perfect. I took issue with Michael B. Jordan’s performance in particular. I have loved Michael B. Jordan from the first moment I saw him on screen, (shoutout to Chronicle!) but this performance felt a little over-the-top. The story as a whole is an intimate piece of storytelling, yet it felt like Michael B. Jordan was attempting his best Captain America impression. It was a little much. That said, Jamie Foxx’s performance was perfect for the moment - quiet and subdued, yet intelligent and powerful. Additionally, Eva Ansley’s (portrayed by Brie Larson) character was largely inconsequential to the overall film, despite being integral to the real life narrative. It's a real shame because I’m sure she was the recipient of a significant amount of misogyny, being a female lawyer in Alabama, and her ability to rise above that is truly powerful. Not to mention the fact that she was the second-in-command to a black lawyer looking to instigate some semblance of racial tolerance in the deep south….. That sounds like a pretty interesting story to me, in and of itself. But, I’ll save those hopes for the sequel.
In short, this film is a magnificent, powerful, and frustrating piece of nonfiction. It is essential viewing for white viewers and should be shown in classrooms for educational purposes in the future. As we try and educate ourselves on how to be anti-racist now and in the future, watching a film like this will be a tremendous help to furthering that cause. Don’t miss it.
My Number: 8/10
A purrfect catastrophe
Cats (2019): A tribe of cats called the Jellicles must decide yearly which one will ascend to the Heaviside Layer and come back to a new Jellicle life.
It’s not hard to know what you’re going to get walking into a screening of Cats. Universally panned, bombing at the box office, the reputation of this film far proceeds itself at this point. Yet, never have I ever been more excited to watch a film as I was going into Cats. I even flirted with dressing up as one because, why not? If you’re gonna go watch Cats at 10:30 at night, might as well go all out. Do what the film should have done and dress up in a unitard and dance around for two hours, right? From the first moment to the end credits of this 110 minute cat-tanic disaster, my hands never left my mouth. I was shocked and amazed, yet delighted that something as purrible as this could possibly be green-lit by a studio, let alone have that studio legitimately think they had a glitzy, deserving awards contender on their hands. (Cats has since been removed from Universal’s “For Your Consideration” awards page. Don’t worry, though: cats have 9 lives, right?) This film somehow, inexplicably exists, and honestly we are better off for it.
Do you need a summary of what Cats is? Is that why you’re here? Probably not, but if you are, Cats comes to us from direct Tom Hooper (bless his heart, he’s done good work before and will make good films again. If he can get over the PTSD of looking at this digital fur technology for an entire production cycle) and is an adaptation of the musical of the same name from playright and man-who-just-discovered-LSD Andrew Lloyd Weber. The musical is essentially cats introducing themselves for 2 hours via hit-or-miss numbers, with the final cat (that the rest initially shun because that cat is poor and uncharismatic, but we won’t talk about the message of hating something simply because it’s different) singing the (admittedly) iconic “Memory” and instantly winning the competition for 9 lives. Or the Jellicle Cat award. I don’t know, whatever trippy title Weber thought of when he wrote this. (Are you mad I just spoiled Cats? Are you really?) Tom Hooper’s cat-daptation (they’re not gonna stop, I am gonna work through all my lives with these) tries to use CGI to create “digital fur technology” (yes, that is the official PR phrase from our friends at Universal, and don’t you feel better knowing that) so it doesn’t look like we are looking at people in form-fitting unitards dance around for 2 hours. Instead, we have to look at some of the worst CGI on the planet, so that’s better? I guess? Don’t worry, we’re gonna talk more about this digital fur technology in a bit. Ugh. Never have I ever been more ashamed to like cats.
If you’re looking for a disaster in filmmaking that is so bad it’s actually kind of fun to watch it implode on itself…. Look no further than Cats. Literally every aspect of this film is catastrophic, from the editing to the cinematography to the lighting to the sound design to the very un cat-like performances themselves. The editing varies WILDLY from number to number, as it was clearly used as a crutch to mask the hilariously terrible CGI. Some numbers have so many cuts it’s literally incatprehensible to process what is happening on screen. (I’m pretty sure I counted something like 25 cuts in less than 30 seconds in one number? That is NOT how you want to film a musical) Fortunately, “Memory” is almost a single close up on Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson) in a moment that is totally-absolutely-not a shameless attempt to recreate the “I Dreamed a Dream” sequence in Les Misérables. (which, to be fair, is also a Tom Hooper film so not the worst thing?) This sequence, akin to the actual musical itself, is the only thing of any value Cats has to offer to the world.
There is absolutely no direction in this filmmaking. How do you butcher the sound design in a musical? I’d rather listen to cats howl than listen to this again. The vocals were clearly added in post production, so how do you not get the balancing right among the singers? And how do you not balance the singers with the instrumentation properly? These are basic qualities of a movie musical, and when you can’t even get that right…. Yikes. Also, the lighting. Is so bad. Like the rest of this dumpster fire, the lighting is created via CGI, and it looks like the filmmakers spent their CGI budget on cat fur and forgot that they needed to actually light the cat fur, too. And can we talk about the set design? Because, it’s great. Said no one, ever. The sizing of the cats in correlation to the set around them is wildly inconsistent. It’s distracting and uncomfortable watching a cat transform from the size of a peanut to a human in correlation to the set around them from one scene to the next. It’s almost as if the filmmakers ran out of time adjust the sizing of the cats, or had some sort of existential crises realizing they were working on Cats and tried to escape before completion. It’s bad.
But the worst offender in all of this is undoubtedly the digital fur technology, and the actors underneath the disturbing CGI. At best, the CGI creates a disturbing cat-human hybrid, a product of a science experiment gone horribly wrong, and at worst we witness an abomination that would make Sega Genesis graphics proud. This was amplified by the cast, which clearly didn’t rehearse together before shooting, as there was no consistency in the performances whatsoever. Some (like James Corden) are actually trying to act like a cat, others (like Rebel Wilson) are making jokes at the expense of cats, (rude) and others (like Ian McKellen) are just walking around like humans, clearly not even trying.
Ok, ok, ok. I need to vent and ask the void what on earth are Ian McKellen and Judi Dench doing here? They can’t sing, they barely dance, (and the dancing they do do is baaaad) they don’t have a chance to act under all the CGI, so…. Why? Both of them are clearly #initiforthepaycheck, but why give them the paycheck at all? They bring nothing but their likeness to these roles, a likeness which you can barely see under the digital fur technology, so, I ask again: why? But that question is exactly what I was asking myself for basically two hours. An indecipherable, incatprehensible disaster of a film that is the very definition of “so bad it’s good.” Destined for cult status, this film is almost worth watching during its brief run in theaters just to say that you witnessed it. Because, at the end of the day, it is a lovable, joyous meowtain of cat litter.
My Number: 1/10 So Bad It's Good
So the winter of 2019/2020 has kind of gotten away from me a bit, and as a result I didn't have the chance to write full reviews of some of the most talked about films of the year. However, I wanted to take a quick moment and give you my brief thoughts on three of them. Enjoy!
The Two Popes
Why Does This Exist?
The Two Popes (2019): Behind Vatican walls, the conservative Pope Benedict XVI and the liberal future Pope Francis must find common ground to forge a new path for the Catholic Church.
Ok, before I really dive into this one, I should preface with this: I am not one to talk about the Catholic Church. I have come to loathe the institution over the years, mostly because of its hubris and gross malpractice around the handling of the millions of sexual assault claims levied at priests over the last two decades, so a story about an uber conservative pope handing the reins of the church over to a slightly less conservative pope won't particularly interest me. That said.... if you're not a diehard Catholic, there is very little here to keep you engrossed. This entire film feels rushed and unkempt, particularly with its over-the-top handcam (this feels like your dad holding a 90s camcorder for most of the film) and uncomfortable close close-ups. This film is supposed to highlight the acting prowess of Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce, but I couldn't stop marveling at how bad this film looked. Which is kind of amazing to do since most of this film is those two titans of the acting world. Also, we get an origin story on Jorge Bergoglio (the "liberal" Pope Francis) which..... eh. Again, not sure why this is here. If you're a devote member of the Catholic Church, you're probably screaming at your computer screen right now, but everyone else? There's nothing for you here.
My Number: 4/10
The Two Popes is available to stream on Netflix.
Genuine Heartbreak Manifested
Marriage Story (2019): Noah Baumbach's incisive and compassionate look at a marriage breaking up and a family staying together.
The latest story from Noah Baumbach was a touching, semi-autobiographical, emotionally powerful look at divorce and the messiness of attempting to untangle yourself from someone you've shared several years of your life with. (And a child.) I loved every second of it. It's relatable, palpable, and an emotional rollercoaster that made me ugly cry on several occasions. The acting is amazing, (easily the best performance of ScarJo's career, and Adam Driver is pretty dang great, too) the dialogue is sharp and witty, and this is simply a perfect film. From its simplistic set design to its touching score, to the overall quiet nature of the film, Baumbach delivers a masterful display of minimalist storytelling to maximize the emotional impact. And maximized, it is, as this is one of the most emotionally charged journeys 2019 had to offer.
My Number: 10/10
Marriage Story is available to stream on Netflix.
Technical Mastery, but Little Else
1917 (2019): April 6th, 1917. As a regiment assembles to wage war deep in enemy territory, two soldiers are assigned to race against time and deliver a message that will stop 1,600 men from walking straight into a deadly trap.
This film is pretty simple. It's a technical behemoth, a masterclass of camera skills from cinematographer Roger Deakins, and one of the most ambitious undertakings in cinematic history in this regard. The tentpole sequences of this film are nothing short of breathtaking, led by a STUNNING nighttime sequence that used flares for temporary, moving, lighting pieces. The final gargantuan sequence, the battle charge, was mesmeric and pulse-pounding, exactly what boundary-breaking cinema should look like. However.... what was that story? The script surrounding the technical achievements makes Gravity look like a masterpiece, as it tries (and fails) to integrate several very real wartime themes into its 120 minute runtime. This film has as much deeper meaning as a McDonald's hamburger, and is just as thin, too. The dialogue some of these iconic actors are forced to utter is straight cringe-worthy, from Mark Strong's "Some men just want the fight" line to Benedict Cumberbatch's "Last man standing" line. And you want to see a thesis on what bad chemistry between two leads looks like? Look no further than Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay. I like both of them as people, but.... man. Their one-on-one sequences were boring and slowed the entire film down. In short, watch this marvel in a theater to appreciate Roger Deakins incredible work, but do not search it out anywhere else. You will be bored AF watching this on a TV screen.
My Number: 7/10
https://m.media-amazon.com/images/M/MV5BYTQ1NjRmNzYtODZiNy00MmZhLTlmOTItMWQwOWM1ZWRiOGVjXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTkxNjUyNQ@@._V1_.jpg (The Two Popes)
https://m.media-amazon.com/images/M/MV5BOWIzMzU3YzAtNWNkZC00MGJkLWI1NjMtZDVjOTIxZDNjODlkXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTAyMjQ3NzQ1._V1_.jpg (Marriage Story)
Chaos for chaos's sake
Uncut Gems (2019): A charismatic New York City jeweler always on the lookout for the next big score, makes a series of high-stakes bets that could lead to the windfall of a lifetime.
What a wild and insane film. The latest from the Safdie Brothers, (who have been around for a while but burst on to the scene with 2017's Good Time) Uncut Gems follows the crazy, chaotic life of Howard Ratner in NYC. (Adam Sandler) Howie is a rather stereotypical New Yorker, a Jewish jeweler living in the heart of Manhattan who likes to bet big on sporting events. He's a cunning salesman, able to (or at least attempt to) talk himself out of any situation and completely addicted to the life he leads. There are girls, collectors, insane schemes, plenty of booze, and of course, Kevin Garnett. I love it, and I'm so here for it.
There's a fiery sense of palpability to the Safdie Brothers' filmmaking. I've only seen two of their films, Good Time and this, but their handiwork is instantly distinguishable. Their prophetic use of colors and closeup to elicit heightened emotional responses are at the forefront of this style. While I would say Good Time leans into these aesthetics a bit more than Uncut Gems, the later makes up for it with some utterly insane dialogue. This film is chaos, for chaos sake, and nowhere is that more prevalent than in the dialogue. A great double feature to see the power of dialogue firsthand would be this film and Little Women. Both use a stacked dialogue style to tell their respective stories. However, whereas Greta would use stacked dialogue in an elegantly chaotic sense, to elicit a sort of organized, controlled chaos in Little Women, the Safdie Brothers use stacked dialogue in a totally destructive way. Everyone is talking over one another, constantly upping the ante to eleven to try and get their point across. (Very New Yorker of them, right?) This dialogue is chaos for chaos sake, in a very unrefined sort of way, which does have its downsides from time to time.
When you have a film as raw as this, there will be some imperfections. Certain scenes can be hard to follow, particularly when you add Howie's superfluous lifestyle into the equation, (the sound design struggles to keep up when you're talking over each other in a loud night club) but it's nowhere near enough to detract from the wild ride this film is. And, at its core is some of the craziest pairings I've ever imagined in a film. Who woulda thought you'd see Idina Menzel, Kevin Garnett, LaKeith Stanfield, and The Weeknd in a film led by Adam Sandler? Makes perfect sense, right? And who woulda thought Adam Sandler would be so good? The long-standing actor puts in possibly the best performance of his career, (certainly the glitziest) a jarring reminder that the dude who is making money off the likes of Grown Ups 2 and The Ridiculous 6 can also act when he feels like it. It feels like Sandler just needs to remind us every few years that he can act so he can make three more crappy movies, but hey. If what we get in this theory is the likes of Uncut Gems, I ain't complaining.
It also helps that Howie is an incredibly interesting protagonist. He's wild and unpredictable - incapable of thinking more than a few seconds ahead, while also having the undeniable charm of a snake oil salesman - with a hilariously depressing home life and hordes of collectors / adversaries closing in. Howie is the reason you watch Uncut Gems, as his character arc is as fascinating as it is harrowing. The Safdie brothers grip you to the edge of your seat from the first moment to the film's completely unexpected ending. (May be the best ending of the year, by the way. Certainly in the conversation.) Find it and experience it, as this journey is as wild a journey you can find to come out of 2019.
My Number: 9/10
Quick Reviews, Winter 2019, Part 1: Jojo Rabbit, The Irishman, Jumanji: The Next Level, Richard Jewell, Midsommar, The Last Black Man in San FranciscoRead Now
Jumanji: The Next Level
So, I was writing my review of Little Women the other day, and when I went to link to my Midsommar review, I realized it was trapped in my Google docs, along with reviews of Men in Black: International and The Last Black Man in San Francisco. So, enjoy these incredibly overdue reviews of films that came out back in the summer! Woo!
The Last Black Man in San Fransisco
Who needs tonal consistency?
Bombshell (2019): A group of women take on Fox News head Roger Ailes and the toxic atmosphere he presided over at the network.
I’m not really sure what I just saw. Bombshell is a film devoid of purpose or meaning. On the one hand, it tells the naturally dramatic story of the women of Fox News courageously rising up and speaking out against the harassment of Roger Ailes. There are some harrowing moments that come along with this story, and it’s sold by the determined, paranoid, dogmatic performance of John Lithgow in great makeup as Ailes. But, on the other hand…. How director Jay Roach and screenwriter Charles Randolph choose to portray this story is… puzzling, to say the least. The film is a tonal catastrophe. One second, we’re watching a disturbing sequence between Kayla (Margot Robbie portraying a conglomerate character of the women Roger abused at Fox News) and Ailes, the next we’re cracking jokes with Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) and watching her grapple with a weird semi-hero’s journey. What?
Lets talk about what Bombshell gets right. Its story is gripping and dramatic. (Shocker, right?) Gretchen Carlson’s (Nicole Kidman) storyline is very captivating. Unfortunately, it’s largely secondary to Megyn Kelly’s, which is understandable (since Gretchen signed an NDA in real life when she settled her lawsuit against Ailes) but also frustrating. Gretchen Carlson’s calm, coordinated plan to take down the most powerful man in the media industry was significantly more interesting than Megyn Kelly grappling with setting her personal ambition aside to do the right thing. (Positive things. Positive things….) Carlson is played with a cool, collected demeanor by Nicole Kidman in the strongest of the core three performances. (Kidman, Theron, and Robbie) Additionally, the makeup in this film is AMAZING. Lithgow, Kidman, and Theron disappear into Ailes, Carlson, and Kelly thanks to some excellent makeup and great costume design. (Colleen Atwood strikes again) However, the makeup around Megyn Kelly was a bit inconsistent at times. It felt rushed in a few places, like much of this film, and made me very aware that I was watching Charlize Theron play Megyn Kelly. However, when it worked, it worked.
Let’s talk about Megyn Kelly for a second, shall we? Bombshell tries to ride a fine line with this character – not making her out to be hero while having her simultaneously embark on a hero’s journey – and I do not believe it does this successfully. Too many times Kelly is glorified while grappling with a basic moral quandary, with the reminder that she is largely to blame for letting Ailes abuse and harass women while she sat silent in a seat of power only being mentioned once in the film by Kayla. Too often is Kelly cracking jokes in uncomfortable moments, or having a sympathetic moment being harassed by Trump supporters in her million dollar villa for me to not feel like she was being somewhat glorified for her actions. Yes, it takes great courage for anyone to come forward and upend their lives, and she did play a crucial role in bringing down Roger Ailes, but to sit silent for that long is equally troublesome. I don't know. It felt.... uncomfortable, and to simultaneously glorify her definitely turned me off. Also, we need to talk about Kayla. She is a conglomerate of all the women at Fox News abused by Ailes over the years, but she is a rather poorly written character with narrow, underdeveloped perspectives. She also has a romance with Jess Carr (Kate McKinnon) that is mentioned and dropped immediately? Huh? Actually, Jess Carr as a whole…what is she doing in this film at all? What is her purpose? She has a fascinating perspective to offer – a closeted lesbian / democrat working at Fox News – but has approximately 10 minutes of screen time and one scene to flesh this out. What a complete waste of a character. (And Kate McKinnon – sigh.)
And that’s the ironic summary of this film. A fascinating story largely wasted on tonal inconsistencies (and pacing… my God is the pacing all over the place) and, well, Megyn Kelly. Solid acting, great makeup, and a harrowing performance by John Lithgow (seriously – bless his heart for falling on the sword and playing Ailes. He goes all-in on this role too) are forgotten in a haze of uncomfortable jokes, shoddy editing, and overall just going too much like The Big Short. (Yup, addressing the elephant in the room finally.) This film is trying to hard to be another The Big Short, and I’m beginning to think The Big Short really did catch lightning in a bottle. This style has been tried several times now since then, both by The Big Short director Adam McKay (see: Vice) and others, but it has never had the same gravitas or effectiveness. Also, maaaaaaybe it would’ve been helpful to have a woman take a pass at this script. Just saying.
My Number: 4/10
A disappointing finale
Star Wars: Episode IX - The Rise of Skywalker (2019): After Palpatine mysteriously returns, the Resistance faces the First Order once more in the final chapter of the Skywalker saga.
It’s hard to approach this film with any sort of objectivity. I, like countless others, was raised on Star Wars. One of my earliest movie memories was seeing my brother’s VHS copy of Episode IV (with a title scroll that did not feature “Episode IV” in it) and thinking it was the coolest thing I had ever seen. That childlike sense of innocence and wonder is integrally tied to Star Wars for countless fans, so it’s hard to look at the finale of the latest trilogy in the biggest franchise in movies with a critical take. Especially when you add in the divisiveness of the previous installment. However, I will do my best because that is what I’m here for, right? So, let’s talk about The Rise of Skywalker!
The Rise of Skywalker is the 9th installment in the Star Wars saga and 11th film in the Disney mega-franchise. The finale in a trilogy that began with Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens, this installment sees director J.J. Abrams return to the helm after Rian Johnson led the groundbreaking and divisive 8th film, Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi. The film concludes the battle between the lowly Resistance and mighty First Order with the same cast of characters from the previous two films. From the opening scene, J.J. Abrams sets the tone for a frenetic and chaotic Episode IX, often to the film’s detriment. One of the many wonderful traits of many Star Wars films is its lush and beautiful planets the characters visit. However, because of the frantic pacing of Episode IX, you hardly ever get to take a breath and enjoy these worlds. It also doesn’t help that the primary world this film takes place on, the mysterious planet of Exegol, (which I had to look up to remember because, worst name ever) is a hideous, decrepit, and forgettable setting with nothing but distracting, seizure-inducing lighting that is some of the worst lighting I have ever seen in any film, let alone a Star Wars film. Seriously. I wish I knew what J.J. Abrams and co were thinking when they made this planet the crux of this film, because there are ways to promote the idea of a “sinister” planet without making your film unwatchable in the process. *Facepalm*
Ok, so the set design is *not great.* What about the story? It’s….. mediocre. Back in the hands of the crowd-pleasing Abrams, The Rise of Skywalker is completely devoid of any originality or creativity. It’s a carbon copy hero's journey, a bland and utterly predictable story that taps into your nostalgia veins from the first shot by making the puzzling decision to bring back the Emperor, making him the overarching villain of the entire trilogy in the process. (This is revealed in the opening title scroll, so don’t @ me with spoiler complaints.) Seriously, The Last Jedi left this trilogy in such a fascinating position, pinning a seemingly irredeemable Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and his mighty First Order against Rey (Daisy Ridley) and the decimated Resistance after a STUNNING battle on the gorgeous planet of Crait. (Ugh, The Last Jedi was SO good.) But, nope, J.J. Abrams has the unquenchable need to reintroduce a massive villain, because the worst thing about people can’t be other people, right?
In its attempt to appeal to the lowest common denominator, The Rise of Skywalker takes no risks, a conscious decision made by Disney entirely out of fear of a toxic fanbase’s overreaction to something they don’t like and/or expect. Nowhere is this fear more prevalent than in The Rise of Skywalker’s abhorrent treatment of Rose Tico. After having a major role in The Last Jedi, actress Kelly Marie Tran found herself at the epicenter of a toxic fanbase of neckbeards, honing in on her for all the issues they saw with Episode VIII almost entirely because she was an Asian woman. The abuse leveled at Tran was despicable, and Disney’s decision to cut her out of The Rise of Skywalker almost entirely was equally as such. No, introducing a black woman in Jannah (Naomi Ackie) does not make it better, guys. Rose has around 5 lines in this entire film as she is cast aside by Disney out of fear of enraging the neckbeards again. (Man, The Last Jedi was great….)
That said, it’s not all bad. This is still a superficially fun film. There are lightsabers, plenty of space and ground battles, the final action sequence is enjoyable (even if its set design is terrible) and it’s still Star Wars. On my second viewing I turned my brain off and approached this film as a popcorn flick, similar to a Fast and Furious film, and had way more fun than I did the first time around. The core cast is still wonderful, with characters like Poe (Oscar Isaac) and Finn (John Boyega) receiving plenty of aesthetically pleasing screen time. The dynamic between Kylo Ren and Rey is still intriguing, even if it is butchered, (especially at the end, my GOD did I hate the conclusion of their arc) but that is thanks largely to where Rian Johnson left their storyline at the end of Episode VIII. Also, newcommer villain General Pryde (Richard E. Grant) is fun and gleefully sinister, as Grant basically rolls out of bed, puts on his best Grand Moff Tarkin (villain from A New Hope) impression, and screen chews to the bitter end in this unnecessary but welcomed role. I do wish he had been the main general in this franchise over General Hux, (Domhnall Gleeson) because Hux has had hilariously little to do since The Force Awakens. Also, veteran Billy Dee Williams reprises his role of Lando to a merrily nostalgic effect. Who doesn’t love a charismatic laugh from the 82 year old actor? The dude’s still got it! And, the score! It's great! Composer John Williams returns for one more Star Wars score and fully leans into the nostalgia of the franchise this time around, rehashing many of the iconic themes this saga has to offer in what may be the legendary composer’s final film score. (John Williams is 87, after all.) This is one department where I have no quarrel with leaning into the nostalgia alllllll day.
What else is there to say about The Rise of Skywalker? As you’ve probably gathered, (and can see firsthand in my previous review) I adored The Last Jedi and its courageous effort to upend the status quo. I think if you enjoyed Episode VIII, you are going to have an opinion similar to mine on Episode IX. If you hated the previous installment, you’ll probably enjoy this film a lot more. I can’t help but go back to Disney’s puzzling decision to have two (and initially three, before nixing poor Colin Trevorrow in favor of Abrams return after the response to The Last Jedi) different auteurs helm this trilogy. George Lucas may have had no idea how to direct actors, or pen a script, but at least he had a consistent vision that he was able to execute virtually uninterrupted (or in a heavy advisory role re: The Empire Strikes Back) in the previous two trilogies. Here, the visions of Abrams and Johnson ultimately clash and conflict, creating a disjointed and disorganized final product. But, at the end of the day, it is still Star Wars, and Star Wars is, at its core, a space opera between the forces of good and evil and the ability to make millions off of merchandising rights. If you go into this film looking for an entertaining sci-fi battle between good and evil, there may be enough here for you to have a good time. For those of us (like me) hoping for Star Wars to set the bar for the best big budget Hollywood has to offer? Prepare to be disappointed in what may be the worst installment to this entire saga outside of The Phantom Menace.
My Number: 5/10
Dynamic characters and fun filmmaking
Little Women (2019): Four sisters come of age in America in the aftermath of the Civil War.
There’s something marvelous about Greta Gerwig and her filmmaking. The wonderful actor-turned-director’s, easy-going, innocent style is perfect for the latest adaptation of Little Women, the pioneering, iconic, revelatory coming-of-age story originally penned by Louisa May Alcott. And that’s exactly what this film is: lovely, free-spirited, beautiful, and, of course…. Fun. Sure, it has some confusing editing, (we’ll get to that) but this story could not have been put in better hands. Greta’s directorial debut and titanically successful Lady Bird may have enabled her the opportunity to helm this film, but the idea was in her head long before her 2017 breakout hit. (As evidenced by the fact that she wrote the first draft of this script before directing Lady Bird.) Gerwig’s entire career has led to this moment, and the result is nothing short of a cinematic triumph.
Little Women is the second film from director Greta Gerwig, and the fifth(ish, but who’s really counting) adaptation of the classic Alcott novel. The story follows the March sisters – Jo, Meg, Amy, and Beth – as they come of age in Civil War era America. Their struggles to be independent in a sexist economical and societal system designed to repress them are conveyed with a wonderful combination of chaos and meticulousness by Gerwig. The film features a non-linear style with two separate storylines, one set during the Civil War, 7 years earlier than the later. This side-by-side allows you to see two separate portraits of each of the March sisters: one of where they are discovering themselves and who they want to become, the other after they’ve (mostly) molded into what their lives will be. While some have complained that the editing between these storylines was muddy and hard-to-follow, I felt Greta did a marvelous job balancing them thanks to her subtle and clever use of lighting. The earlier storyline was shot entirely with warm lighting, while the “present day” storyline was shot entirely with cold lighting. (If you have no idea what I’m talking about, here’s a handy crash course.) Apart from providing practical help, this also played up the themes of each storyline, as the earlier felt more vibrant, child-like, and innocent, while the “present day” storyline felt more industrial, flawed, and joust overall grown-up and realistic. It’s not every day that the lighting in a film gets to take center stage to help tell its story, but here it is an invaluable character.
That said, the strength of Little Women is in the characters themselves. Each of the March sisters have their own unique set of qualities that Gerwig explores with a carefree, spontaneous sense of self-discovery. At the helm is the chaotic, disorganized, yet fiercely independent Jo March. Portrayed by Saoirse Ronan, there is a palpable fire to her character, both thanks to the strong writing of her in the source material and thanks to Ronan herself. This was the role Ronan was born to play: her fusion with Jo is downright uncanny at times. (Greta has talked at length about this seamless transformation on the press tour.) There’s Meg, played by Emma Watson, who is the closest thing to a traditional feminine character this story has to offer, but even she is unconventional. She is kind and patient, the elder of the group, and becomes a metaphor for the manifestation of true love while still offering wisdom and guidance for the rest of the sisters. Emma Watson’s calming facial expressions brought a real soothing sense of peace and joy to this character. There’s Beth, quiet and reserved, played in a down-to-earth way by Eliza Scanlen and a welcome contradiction to the rest of the sisters. And finally, there’s Amy. Her struggle for social acceptance, combined with her unquenchable ambition, was the most relatable for me. This, as well as her impromptu yet calculated personality made her my favorite of the sisters. Additionally, while the other three stars felt at home in their characters, Florence Pugh’s performance was the most impressive of the group. It really felt like Pugh had to settle into the skin of Amy and mold herself to the character she was playing, versus coming naturally equipped to play the role. Between this, Midsommar, and Fighting with My Family, Pugh has certainly arrived in the business. (Also, she started filming this 4 days after wrapping Midsommar, so that is quite the impressive transition.)
The supporting characters are also incredibly strong, but the highlight is definitely Laurie. Timothée Chalamet strips away his “bad boy” persona for this grounded yet romantic and innocently kind take on the boy next door. I have a natural predisposition to like everything Timothée Chalamet does, but I really enjoyed his portrayal of Laurie. He is a romantic, searching for his one true love, but also willing to step aside and do what’s best for others around him. He’s never selfish and always fun, and that’s right in Timothée’s wheelhouse. Laurie is the embodiment of how men should act around the women they love. That said, the bad boy vibe does come through a few times and feels somewhat awkward when it does, and, even though you can see the torment of his past actions shining through in these moments, they still feel very out-of-place compared to the character we see the rest of the film. But, of course, it’s Timothée Chalamet, and I am gleefully obligated to love anything and everything that he is involved in.
I’ve spent so much of this review talking / praising the individual characters, because that is the selling point of what Little Women is. It is incredibly rare for a 134 minute film to have this many developed characters, but the strength of the source material, combined with Gerwig’s penmanship, make each character I just mentioned feel unique and thorough. Gerwig’s amazing use of stacked dialogue really hammers this point home. Each scene in the tumultuous March home gives the viewer a fascinating insight into each sister and their mother. These scenes are chaotic yet driven at the helm of a master conductor behind the camera. I could go on and on about this film. I could talk about the amazing costume design, (I will cry foul play if it isn’t at least nominated for this) the incredible colors in the luscious set design, everything. From a technical standpoint, this film is perfect. And thanks to the lighting cues, I never once felt lost at the hands of the admittedly frenetic editing. But, even this worked for me! Gerwig makes great use of recycled shots in these scenes to up the emotional ante, and I found myself rocking the ugly cry in these moments on both viewings of the film.
I’m worried this film is going to be largely overlooked this award season because of sexism, (to the people who are excited to see Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker while also complaining about a new adaptation of Little Women being released at the same time, just stop) and because, depressingly, many of the societal constructs mentioned in Alcott’s novel are still in existence today, that doesn’t take away from the fact that this movie is a surefire classic. It is absolutely the pick-me-up film you need this holiday season, and a triumph for its filmmaker, firmly establishing her in the upper echelon of the Hollywood elite. Greta Gerwig has come a long way, and now the world of Hollywood is firmly in her grasp. Never did I ever think I'd be this hyped for a Barbie film.
My Number: 9/10
A unique portrayal of forgiveness
Honey Boy (2019): A young actor's stormy childhood and early adult years as he struggles to reconcile with his father and deal with his mental health.
Rarely does a film come around with the rawness of something like Honey Boy. The passionate, reconciliatory brain child of Shia LaBeouf and Alma Har'el, Honey Boy approaches its primary subject, forgiveness, in one of the most unique ways I've ever seen. While it doesn't always work - the unpolished edges can lead to some rather distracting / incomprehensible moments - the end product is nonetheless emotional, purgative, and alluring.
Honey Boy is the feature debut of both director Har'el and screenwriter LaBeouf. LaBeouf also places himself in front of the camera (a position he's certainly used to by now) and plays James Lort, a stand-in for Shia's own father, Jeffrey Craig LaBeouf. Portraying Otis, the stand-in for Shia LaBeouf, is Noah Jupe as a kid and Lucas Hedges as a 20ish year-old grappling with the effects James left on him as a kid. It's a rather hard film to summarize, other than to say it's about anger, coping, and forgiveness, but the parallels shown between each storyline go a long way to conveying traumatic events and how one grapples with them while simultaneously trying to forgive the person responsible. It's a fine line to try and ride that Har'el does a fairly great job with.
Let's talk about forgiveness for a moment. So many films portray this complicated subject in black and white terms. A singular moment in a film where the main character realizes the errors of their ways, delivers a touching monologue, and all is forgiven. Rarely does it work that way in real life, and this is exactly how Honey Boy tries to tackle the subject. James Lort is a wildly flawed, yet somewhat relatable character who is despicable on the surface. Yet, despite his (at times) heinous actions, Otis continues to follow him because he genuinely loves him and cares for him. We all have that person who's hurt us, emotionally or physically, that we need to search the inner dimensions of our own feelings to forgive because we know that's the only way to truly move on and grow as a human being. While, at times, Lort amplifies these misdeeds for cinematic effect, (and the message become somewhat incomprehensible because of it) the end result is still identifiable and personable to the viewer. It also helps that the man playing him, Shia LaBeouf, delivers one of the best performances of the year. A raw, emotional, unnerving turn that was clearly therapeutic for the real life man who's been around the business his entire life. Love love love.
We also need to talk about Otis. This character is played effectively by both Noah Jupe (definitely the child actor performance of the year) and Lucas Hedges, (who does a great Shia LaBeouf impression, and I loved it, too) and almost acts as a vehicle for the viewer to place themselves in this role. I absolutely love this character. He's written so well by LaBeouf. It's clearly himself, but he writes the character in a way that makes him ascribable for the audience. The viewer can easily channel himself through the young Otis, (Jupe) which makes the older Otis's (Hedges) path to forgiveness with his father that much more identifiable.
I know I keep returning to the topic of forgiveness, but that's what makes Honey Boy so great! Sure, sometimes the visuals are….. distracting, and the hand cam isn't always welcome, (seriously, you don't need hand cam in every scene!) but how this film approaches forgiveness and coping with one's past actions is so wonderful. James Lort, on the surface, is a terrible human being. He commits abusive atrocities on Otis that (understandably) lead to his drinking / ultimate PTSD. And yet…. You feel for Lort. You see his insecurities play out in screen. You see his unwavering drive to see his son succeed. You see how Otis follows in his footsteps and how Lort influences him, both good and bad. While the filmmaking is distracting and overproduced at times, this message is applicable to all demographics. If you're looking for an artsy film that is intimidating, yet approachable, look no further than Honey Boy.
My Number: 8/10
A masterful display of minimalism
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019): Based on the true story of a real-life friendship between Fred Rogers and journalist Tom Junod.
There’s a certain sense of tenable awe one feels when they think about the legacy of Mister Rogers. Whether you watched his program as a child or not, (yours truly would fall into that later category) Mister Rogers persona has become synonymous with generosity, kindness, and good-will. He was a genuine, down-to-earth person, and his program was overtly simple, yet poignant and touching. His legacy, and a wonderful example of his unwavering hospitality, was destined to find its ways into the hands of one of the most touching directors in the business today, Marielle Heller.
For those who don’t know, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is the latest work from director Marielle Heller (who previously directed last year’s overlooked and underappreciated film Can You Ever Forgive Me?, as well as 2015’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl) and stars America’s real-life dad Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers. The story follows reporter Lloyd Vogel (played by Matthew Rhys and based on real-life reporter Tom Junod) as he is assigned to profile Mister Rogers for a real American heroes” segment in Esquire magazine. Lloyd is dealing (poorly, as we see in one of the film’s opening scenes) with a multitude of personal issues. He and his father are estranged (to put it mildly) and this estrangement has trickled down to Lloyd’s lack of intimate connection with his own newborn son, Gavin. These personal issues have seeped into his work, as well. Lloyd has developed a reputation for being a hard-assed reporter, searching for the worst in the people he’s interviewing. As we discover when Lloyd begrudgingly accepts the Mister Rogers assignment, no one else wanted to be interviewed by him.
While the film takes its time approaching the first interaction between Mister Rogers and Lloyd, the conversations they have throughout the film are some of the best film conversations I’ve seen all year. This is where the mastery of director Marielle Heller comes in. Her ability to make a simple conversation mesmeric is remarkable. Her use of shot reverse shot, the most simplistic technique in filmmaking, is perfect. It holds on the relevant character for the exact right length of time, is never distracting with too many edits, and lets us really see into the minds of these characters with its use of close ups and (to a lesser extent) mids. These exchanges between Lloyd and Mister Rogers are done mostly in close-up, which means there’s very little excess in the shot to distract you from the characters, what they are saying, and how they are saying it. The conversations between Mister Rogers and Lloyd are simple and intimate, yet they provide us, the viewers, with so much insight into their respective mentalities. Lloyd is troubled and cynical, while Fred Rogers is heartfelt, loving, and most of all genuinely concerned by Lloyd’s demeanor. Mister Rogers takes over these exchanges as they progress, and Marielle Heller’s cinematographer, Jody Lee Lipes, will show this transformation with a subtle change of the camera angle halfway through the scene. These exchanges between Lloyd and Mister Rogers are not just the best scenes this film has to offer, it’s some of the best scenes I’ve seen in any film all year, period.
The quietness of these scenes comes to a head in the third act. There is a scene between Mister Rogers and Lloyd that occurs in a diner in Pittsburgh, shortly after Lloyd experiences some particularly traumatic events and responds to them by fleeing to see Mister Rogers. In this scene, Mister Rogers asks Lloyd to sit back and think about all the people that love him for an entire minute. We, the audience, proceed to sit in silence with these characters for that entire minute, while the camera slowly and deliberately pans around Mister Rogers until he is looking directly into it and thus at us. This therapeutic minute was emotional and cathartic, a courageous inclusion by Marielle Heller in an age where most big budget films are terrified to have even a second of silence in their respective films. There were audible sniffles and tears throughout the theater as we shared in this incredibly touching and minimalistic moment.
While the minimalism is where this film excels, its gaudy moments are where it does not. There is one moment especially, a disorienting dream sequence Lloyd experiences when he flees his problems for Pittsburgh, that felt shockingly out-of-place. It was a glitzy, flamboyant moment that didn’t really fit into the overall narrative. It also took Marielle Heller out of her wheelhouse, and the filmmaking itself suffered as a result. Additionally, and likely my biggest complaint about the film, is in the performance of Matthew Rhys as Lloyd. While Tom Hanks was phenomenal as Mister Rogers, embodying that simple, minimalist approach Heller is skillful at conveying, Rhys’s performance felt very.... big. It was a showman performance reserved for a play, and at times it felt like the antithesis of Heller’s vision. However, despite Rhys’s out-of-place performance, it was more than made up for by Tom Hanks. It’s been a few years since I was truly blown away by a Tom Hanks performance, (I’d say Captain Phillips was the last one) but his casting as the iconic Fred Rogers was perfect. The brilliance of his performance was uncanny – it was almost soothing to hear the calming voice he donned to play the icon.
Despite its sporadic missteps, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a master work from a director at the height of her game right now. It’s very quiet, slow, and deliberate, but that feeling also embodies the show Mister Rogers created. This film’s formula is the very essence of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, right down to Heller’s decision to bookend this film with an episode of the show itself. While it may not be for those looking for an exciting thrill ride at the movies right now, (you can reserve that for something like Ford V Ferrari) those that are willing to stick with this 108 minute film will find it to be exceptionally rewarding and possibly even curative for their own personal problems. Even now, 16 years after his death, Mister Rogers is still helping to make us feel loved, just the way we are.
"Anything that is human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable is manageable." - Mister Rogers
My Number: 9/10
Quick Reviews, Fall 2019, Part 2: Harriet, Motherless Brooklyn, Ford V Ferrari, Midway, Dark Waters, Knives OutRead Now
Ford V Ferrari
Disappointing in every sense of the word
Frozen II (2019): Anna, Elsa, Kristoff, Olaf and Sven leave Arendelle to travel to an ancient, autumn-bound forest of an enchanted land. They set out to find the origin of Elsa's powers in order to save their kingdom.
As usual, I need to preface every review about an animated film by reminding you that I don’t watch that many animated movies. Trying to review them tends to feel rather foreign to me. However, this isn’t just any animated film, it’s Frozen II – the sequel to the biggest animated film of this decade – so I’ll give it a whack and see what happens.
The moment I walked out of the theater after seeing Frozen, (fun fact: one of the first reviews I ever wrote right there, so go easy on me) I knew I had seen a genre-defining film. Its story was timeless and inspirational, the characters were lovable and charming, and the music was damn near instantly iconic. (“Let It Go” has been stuck in my head ever since, as I’m sure it has been in yours.) So it goes without saying that the predecessor has big shoes to fill. Unfortunately, this sequel is not Cinderella. Instead, it’s one of the evil stepsisters.
Forced Disney metaphor aside, before I go any further let me just say this: this movie is fine. It’s cute, fun, upbeat, brisk, and energetic. Young children will almost certainly be entertained. But, as a sequel to Frozen? This is the best you could do? Really? The film’s problem’s start with its music, which is decent at best and decrepit at worst. The only song here with any sort of staying power is “Into the Unknown,” which is 100% propped up by the enviable diaphragm of Idina Menzel. (The Panic! At the Disco version is better, but that should hardly come as a surprise. BRENDON URIE SINGS THIS SONG IN THE SAME KEY, PEOPLE. THE SAME KEY. AS IDINA MENZEL.) Even this song, the best Frozen II has to offer, is seriously lacking in instrumental catchiness, with a very awkward and sudden ending to cap it off. If this song goes on to win Best Original Song at the Oscars, that would mean it was a depressingly weak year for Hollywood and original music. Meanwhile, the worst song in this film undoubtedly goes to Kristoff’s (Jonathan Groff) big number, which somehow manages to totally waste the voice behind the character on an awkward, out-of-place 1980’s hair metal-esque song that is clearly only here for the dads in the audience that have to watch this film. Seriously… what was that, and why do you waste Jonathan Groff on something like that? At least have that be an Olaf (Josh Gad) number! (While still out of place, that would’ve been funnier, at least.) But I want to know why it’s in the film at all, as it feels so out-of-place it borders on an actual Frozen parody.
While the music is…. Disappointing, the characters are not. Once again, the core cast is excellent, with Anna (Kristen Bell) and Elsa (Idina Menzel) successfully reprising their beloved characters. There’s even a clever bit of gender reversal here, as Kristoff spends most of the film trying (and hilariously failing) to propose to Anna. Hey, isn’t it nice to have a guy spend an entire film talking about a woman, for once? I also thoroughly enjoyed Olaf’s comedic relief. Writer / directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee transform Olaf into a sort of teenage philosopher, and adults in the room will find themselves laughing a lot as he discovers the world with a contemplative sense of zeal, joy, and innocence. But, the overarching story? It’s a cardboard cutout of corporate mandated filmmaking. The film never takes anything even resembling a risk, forgoing anything that could be viewed as a deep and contemplative philosophical topic or theme in place of a standard hero’s journey with sisterhood, FTW! thrown in to boot. While the music was disappointing, the story may be Frozen II’s biggest offense. There is absolutely no courage to it. No edge. Every side is smoothed out for the widest possible audience appeal. Heck, the only character failure in this film arises from someone being overly ambitious to discover the truth, which is kind of ridiculous when you think about it. (Imagine what our world would look like if we all taught that to our kids…) The characters hardly face any meaningful adversity, and when they even approach the topic it’s cast aside with an overly simple, single line of dialogue. There is absolutely nothing here to grapple on to, which could not be more disappointing.
I don’t know. I’m just frustrated that, in a animated sequel of this titanic proportion, Disney and the filmmakers weren’t more willing to take some risks in their storytelling. The original Frozen was significantly more interesting in its tale of overcoming the fear of something you don’t understand with Elsa’s great character arc. However, this story couldn’t be more ordinary if it tried. I don’t think it’s too much to ask for the sequel to one of the biggest animated films Disney has released this century to have a bit of fortitude to go along with being entertaining. But this lack of audacity, combined with the instantly forgettable music, is what leads to Frozen II being nothing more than…. Fine. Take the kids, have a good time, then forget about it as soon as you get home. Sigh.
My Number: 5/10
Zombieland: Double Tap
What.... exactly.... do you do here?
Doctor Sleep (2019): Years following the events of The Shining, a now-adult Dan Torrance meets a young girl with similar powers as he tries to protect her from a cult known as The True Knot who prey on children with powers to remain immortal.
It's rare for a film to leave me this flabbergasted. This dumbfounded. This awestruck by the sheer audacity of what I just witnessed. We've waited nearly 40 years for a sequel to one of the greatest horror films, (and films period, for that matter) and, in this current Stephen King Renaissance, it was inevitable that it would finally come. Doctor Sleep is that long awaited sequel. Going in, I was temperamentally excited. How bad could a sequel to The Shinning, The EFFING SHINING, possibly be? The Shining's haunting formula of psychological terror and human degradation is the standard-bearer for what horror films should be. All they had to do was replicate that genre-defining formula, or at the VERY LEAST attempt to mimic it, but instead we get….. witches. And, look. I get it. Stephen King is weird and somehow didn't like Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of his book. The Overlook Hotel (the setting for The Shining) isn't even in the Doctor Sleep novel. That's not my problem with this film - in fact, I actually somewhat enjoyed the lore King expanded on. That's not my issue with this film. My issue is that it ignores EVERYTHING that made its legendary predecessor great in favor of…. witches. Effing witches. Doctor Sleep is not just the most disappointing film I've seen all year, it's one of the most disappointing films I have ever seen. WHY DO YOU IGNORE EVERYTHING THAT MADE YOUR PREDECESSOR ICONIC?
Ok, I'm gushing over it to a near unhealthy degree, so let's talk about The Shining for a minute. Yes, the original is buoyed by one of the greatest performances ever, (thank you, Jack Nicholson) but the meticulous filmmaking of director Stanley Kubrick (you've probably heard of him) also amplified the sheer horror of this pillar of American cinema. The Shining plays on the very human fear of the unknown to deliver its terror, versus the stereotypical jump scare. As Kubrick himself put it, The Shining is, at its core, about one family going insane together. It's simple, quiet, and elegant. And that's what makes it terrifying. You don't have any singular omnipresent being slowly ramping the scares up to eleven before everybody dies. The Shining is, simply, a study in the human psyche when confronted with some weird and unusual, yet eerily plausible events. However, Doctor Sleep gives all of that up in favor of witches. By rooting this sequel in the supernatural, director Mike Flanagan (and more so Stephen King, for that matter) forgo the entire psychological evaluation that made The Shining as great as it was. The fear of the unknown is completely lost in favor of something realistically implausible, something supernatural and near omnipresent, which is as frustrating as it sounds.
Yes, this comes despite some admittedly decent lore-building moments. Rose the Hat is a legitimately interesting villain, and actress Rebecca Ferguson certainly had a ball playing the character. She's cool, calm, and collected, which makes her pretty terrifying when she goes off on someone. Rose the Hat is a somewhat menacing yet identifiable character as she does anything to protect her flock, but she is lost in this incomprehensible sea of noise. Because, again…. Witches.
I don't know. Maybe if you approach this film more as a suspenseful, supernatural, spiritual successor to The Shining, you'll have a better time. Clearly, I was hoping for a more forward sequel. But…. Will you? This film is 151 minutes long and it draaaaags in the second act. The writing is all over the place. At times it's great, but at others.... characters stop to drop monologues at the most random times, the Stephen King tropes feel depressingly forced, (lines like, "Fresh off the bus" are worn out in 2019 after 15 other Stephen King adaptations since It) and there's just…. Zero tension. It takes 2 full hours for the film to finally revisit the iconic Overlook Hotel, (which isn't in the novel, mind you) and when it does there are some admittedly great moments. (That can be described as fan service, but at least there was some good psychological tension here) There's one truly great sequence between Dan (Ewan McGregor) and his father figure, Jack, that doubles as a child coming to grips with the insanity of his father, all dressed as this incredibly tense and gripping moment with a seeming innocent bartender. In this moment, all the tropes that made The Shining great return with haunting effects, buuuuuuuut it really serves to make the rest of the film that much more frustrating. Where were sequences like this in the previous 2 hours? Why did it take the unforgettable set of The Shining to make this film interesting? Why did Stephen King go all-in on witches??? Not even a good performance from Ewan McGregor can save this. I don't think it should take somewhat blatant fan service for us to be like, "Oh, this is what made The Shining great, why didn't you do this earlier?" I think if you approach this more as a film about witches and their titanic struggle against Dan Torrance and Abra Stone, (Kyliegh Curran - also really good) you'll have more fun. If you're looking for anything resembling a direct sequel to The Shining, however..... stay away.
My Number: 4/10
An Unstoppable Force
Hustlers (2019): Inspired by the viral New York Magazine article, Hustlers follows a crew of savvy former strip club employees who band together to turn the tables on their Wall Street clients.
Ok, first things first. Before you read this review: GO WATCH THIS MOVIE. RIGHT NOW. It is an absolute must-watch and deserves every cent of its box office gross. Stories like this, told like this, don't come around very often. A film about female empowerment, female companionship, based on strippers, that avoids the male gaze thanks to its meticulous female director, Hustlers is exactly the kind of film I want to see more of a post #MeToo Hollywood. Make ALL of the money, please!
This film is an unstoppable force, and it shines through in the performances and the filmmaking. Jennifer Lopez is at this film's molten center, like the freaking star that she is, putting in easily the best performance I've ever seen from her, ever. (And I've seen more of her films than I should probably care to admit!) Her performance as Ramona is the heartbeat of this film. From the first moment she's on screen, Ramona owns this film and everything in it, and we're just lucky enough to witness it. However, she is complimented spectacularly by Constance Wu. The star of Crazy Rich Asians puts the haters to bed by showing us that she really can bring it, regardless of whether the role is in her comfort zone or not. Her character, Destiny, is the brains to Ramona's unbridled spirit. Destiny is the emotional centerpiece of this film, and her character is fleshed out flawlessly by director / writer Lorene Scafaria.
We need to talk about Lorene Scafaria, because she is the reason this film works as well as it does. The director / writer of this film, (and formerly of Seeking a Friend for the End of the World acclaim) she puts a touch on the filmmaking that sets it apart from so many other films about criminal subjects. She makes Ramona and Destiny personable, authentic, and relatable. Not only in the writing of each character, but in the filmmaking itself. The editing, reminiscent of an Adam McKay project, (he and Will Ferrell happen to be producers on this film) is a driving force, and a big reason why these two characters are so relatable and sympathetic. Pulling a play out of The Social Network, this film intersperses sequences with the journalist who wrote this real-life story, (played by freaking Julia Stiles and I'm here for it. Also Lizzo, who I'd be seriously depressed if I neglected to mention the fact that LIZZO IS IN THIS AND NOW I'M ALIVE. Wait, where was I?) which really helps to ground the story. This film is not like The Wolf of Wall Street, which focuses on the excess itself, instead, Hustlers focuses on the relationships and how the excess both brings them together and tears them apart. This makes Hustlers far more human, even as they're giving each other million dollar fur coats in their penthouse apartments. You feel for them, and their suffering, which is all thanks to the perspective director / writer Lorene Scafaria puts on this film
End of the day, this is one of the best films I've seen all year. While it does struggle to develop any meaningful characters outside of Ramona and Destiny, it doesn't necessarily need to. These characters are more than worth the cost of admission, as is this story of female empowerment. See it once. See it twice. See it a hundred times. Hustlers is still worth it.
My Number: 9.5/10
Quick Reviews, Summer 2019, Part 2: Yesterday, The Lion King, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, The Peanut Butter Falcon, Official Secrets, The Farewell, Ad AstraRead Now
The Lion King
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It Feels the Same
It: Chapter Two (2019): Twenty-seven years after their first encounter with the terrifying Pennywise, the Losers Club have grown up and moved away, until a devastating phone call brings them back.
Two years after the wild success of It, one of the most successful horror films of all-time, a film which brought about the Stephen King Renaissance we're currently in, Pennywise and the Losers Club return in It: Chapter Two. And…… I'm not sure what happened between the first (which I loved) and second film, but this time around the formula feels... forced and uninspired. While there is absolutely nothing that can replace the feeling of watching big budget horror unfold before my eyes, which clearly I LIVE for, (please give us more of this, Hollywood) It: Chapter Two is missing the magic that made its predecessor work so unexpectedly well. Maybe it's the fact that we've seen 14 Stephen King adaptations since 2017. Maybe it's the fact that It: Chapter Two does the exact same thing as its predecessor, only 27 years later. Or, maybe it's just the fact that its predecessor caught irreplicable lightning in a bottle. Whatever the case may be, while I did enjoy It: Chapter Two, it failed to live up to the (admittedly) lofty expectations set by its predecessor and becomes nothing more than a (rare) big budget horror film that's…. Fine.
One thing I love about this film that is undeniable: it is wonderful to watch AAA list stars like Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, and Bill Hader wander through horror setpieces. Yes, the best part of this film is the fact that it is a big budget horror film, and the dark ages of the 2000s and most of the 2010s are still so recent that it still feels invigorating to watch it unfold before you. We, as a society, need more big budget horror, stat. Let's see a solid psychological horror with Amy Adams at the helm. (No, Nocturnal Animals doesn't count.) Or a film where Tom Hanks plays a creepy serial killer. (We can dream, right?) Watching James McAvoy navigate a funhouse (the scene from the trailers) was an absolute delight to watch, as was watching Chastain interact with a superficially kind old lady. The horror setpieces are grand and pragmatic, and their orchestrater, Pennywise the DANCING Clown, is as menacing as ever. Once again Pennywise is a terrifying and unstoppable villain, played manically by Bill Skarsgard, only this time he's treated as an established entity versus an unknown one. Which, unfortunately, detracts from the overall film.
I'm really trying to put my finger on why this film doesn't work as well as the original did. I just rewatched the original one night prior to seeing It: Chapter Two, and once again I loved it. The setpieces all served the easily translatable narrative about overcoming your fears, with a relatable and identifiable core of misfits. The effects were huge yet delightfully cheesy. But here, the Losers Club feels recycled and reused. Rehashed in a narrative that feels almost identical to its predecessor. It just feels….. lazy and uneventful. I'm all for the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" narrative, but you have to give us at least some originality. This time, Pennywise is a character you know and either love or loathe. The backstory to how he came to be is utterly ridiculous. (I know, the source material this franchise has to go off of is pretty ridiculous, but still.) So, you're left simply loving (or loathing) Pennywise because… he's Pennywise the DANCING Clown. He's no longer this new and unknown figure, he's just this ominous, sentient being our heroes have to kill. Maybe this sequel never had the chance to give us a "fresh take" on Pennywise. Maybe my expectations were too lofty to begin with. But just doing the exact same thing again left me unfulfilled.
I think that's the biggest loss of this franchise. Because of the million Stephen King properties between the 2017 It and now, combined with the fact that this film essentially picks up the original 27 years later and does the same thing again, It: Chapter Two feels like nothing more than a rehash and, at times, lazy sequel to its 2017 counterpart. While it is wild to watch Jessica Chastain go through a horror setpiece, and every member of the Losers club puts in a great performance respectively, the magic of the original is all but gone. Which just leaves us with a bloated, big budget horror film. And, while we do still need (a lot) more of those…. I was hoping for so much more.
My Number: 5/10
Quick Reviews, Summer 2019: Late Night, Ma, Her Smell, Men in Black: International, Spider-Man: Far from HomeRead Now
Men in Black: International
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