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
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
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
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 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
Dat male gaze dough
Once Upon a Time... In Hollywood (2019): A faded television actor and his stunt double strive to achieve fame and success in the film industry during the final years of Hollywood's Golden Age in 1969 Los Angeles.
Quentin Tarantino is back! The 9th film from the so-called "Godfather of indie films" turns the self-indulgence and self-referential humor up to 11 while inexplicably doing everything he can to derail an otherwise enjoyable film. That's right, folks. The worst thing about Quentin Tarantino's latest film is.... Quentin Tarantino. But, despite Tarantino trying so hard to be the most Tarantino possible, the final product is still a somewhat enjoyable one, thanks entirely to its once-in-a-generation collaboration between two of modern Hollywood's most recognizable stars. Which makes all the Tarantino aspects of this film THAT MUCH MORE FRUSTRATING.
Ok. Look. Before I trash Quentin Tarantino's distracting storytelling style, I should tell you: like every self-proclaimed film buff, I love Quentin Tarantino films. When his style works, it's iconic. I will never forget how I felt when Lt. Hicox held up three fingers the wrong way. Or when Pumpkin decided to hold up a random diner that's not-so-random. Or when any Christoph Waltz character did anything in a Tarantino film. When it works, it works! But when it doesn't, you'll find yourself bored out of your mind, wanting to SCREAM at the screen to move along. This film DRAGS. The Hateful Eight did too, but that film also heavily featured a Tarantino trait that is sorely lacking for most of Once Upon a Time….. tension. Without any sort of tension, Tarantino's overzealous style becomes glaringly distracting, and it does everything it can to derail an otherwise perfectly enjoyable film. Also, where TF are the women?? The male gaze is disturbingly obvious here. Let's not forget Tarantino was BFFs with Harvey Weinstein, and the legendary Uma Thurman had some things to say about his…. abusive directing style once the #MeToo movement was in full force. So, what does Tarantino do in his first post- #MeToo film? Have a female lead who's rich, dynamic, and interesting? Hahahaha NO. ABSOLUTELY NOT. MARGOT ROBBIE HAS NOTHING TO DO BUT BE CAUGHT IN SQUARELY IN THE MALE GAZE. About 2 hours in, when Sharon Tate (Robbie) FINALLY goes to a local movie theater to watch herself in one of her films, she had had basically one line of meaningless dialogue the entire film. (Yes, that one scene from the trailer is basically her only meaningful scene in the ENTIRE film) For the first TWO FREAKING HOURS, Tarantino spent more time uncomfortably checking her out with the camera than actually letting her speak. After SKIRTING by the #MeToo movement…. This ain't a great look, Quentin. Oh, and if you think any other woman will have a notable part to play in this film….. lol! Think again. Squeaky (Dakota Fanning) has ONE SCENE. She was probably on set for a single freaking day! Sure, the same goes for George, (Bruce Dern) but if only the old white dudes were ignored as much as the women. JAY SEBRING (Emile Hirsch) HAS AS MUCH DIALOGUE AS MARGOT ROBBIE. WHAT ARE YOU DOING, QUENTIN. Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) has one scene too, and it's there entirely to serve one of the male leads. And I haven't even mentioned the controversy surrounding Bruce Lee's character! Which is a major problem in and of itself. Seriously, this film flirts with being a #MAGA's wet dream, and the further I get away from it, the more frustrated I am by it.
(Deep breath.) That said…. Maybe it's because Tarantino has unlimited budget and clout in Hollywood at this point, but damnit….this film is also so freaking charming. When you accept this film is essentially a buddy picture between two best friends who happen to be played by two of the biggest stars in the world, who have somehow never shared a silver screen before, in a nostalgia-driven 1960s fantasia Hollywood…. yes, you will have a good time. Leo and Brad are iconic! Leonardo DiCaprio, playing the lead Rick Dalton, in his first role since winning his Oscar no less, reminds us why he is one of the greatest living actors today. And his dynamic with the equally rich Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) is palpable and (frustratingly) worth the cost of admission. Both Dalton and Booth are incredibly fleshed out and have a great relationship with each other and everyone around them as the events of the film drive them apart and bring them back together. And the nostalgic odes to classic Hollywood are intoxicating. How many directors would be able to revert the actual Sunset Blvd to its 1969 state? The attention-to-detail is incredible. Just give them the Oscar for Best Production Design right now. These tracking shots are so cool! And the music is so good! Tarantino's taste in music is impeccable once again! H!
This film is so polarizing! It's propped up squarely by its two iconic (white male) leads, while leaving its female star in the dust. The male gaze is so infuriating. Its director does everything he can to ruin the experience. And its ending..... is something. I wasn't a huge fan of the moment where Tarantino finally went full Tarantino at the hands of an acid-dipped cigarette. Your mileage will vary with this ending, but I will put it squarely in my rearview. As I will the rest of this film. Why oh WHY did we have to waste this iconic duo on Tarantino? Can we get a do-over, please? Hey, Damien Chazelle, you watching this?
The Critique: Despite having one of the most iconic collaborations of the 21st century as its leads, Once Upon a Time squanders any hope of greatness at the hands of its overzealous director.
The Recommendation: Film buffs will rush out to see this if they haven't already, but the rest of you? Just rewatch Rocketman or something.
My Number: 4/10
2018's most underappreciated film
Widows (2018): Set in contemporary Chicago, amid a time of turmoil, four women with nothing in common except a debt left behind by their dead husbands' criminal activities, take fate into their own hands, and conspire to forge a future on their own terms.
This review is from the archives of Enter the Movies, also known as getting lost in my Google docs folder until now.
You want a suspenseful heist film that grips you from the first pulse-pounding moment and never lets go until the credits roll? May I present to you: Widows. The latest work from director/writer Steve McQueen, (who's last work, 12 Years a Slave, only won him Best Picture so it's not like there's a high bar or anything) Widows, for me at least, has come out of nowhere and become one of my favorite films of the year. Featuring a phenomenal cast, unpredictable story, and masterfully executed filmmaking, it just might be the best heist film I have ever seen.
There's not much this film does wrong, but there is one slight hiccup in the character Amanda. (Carrie Coon) In a film that takes the time to develop its large cast, this glaringly underdeveloped character stands out even more. Despite being one of the namesakes of the movie, (she is one of the four women who loses her husband at the beginning of the film) she becomes nothing more than a plot device as time goes on. I'm guessing there was a scene or two with Amanda that was cut for one reason or another, (the movie is 129 minutes long, so time was probably one of them) but it is a real shame. Especially since the other three core characters are developed so freaking well.
This is, by far, the strongest point of Widows. The characters of Veronica, (Viola Davis) Linda, (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) each experience unique and fleshed out arcs. Each cope with the loss of their husbands in different ways and each way is equally compelling. The three also have phenomenal chemistry together, and if Viola Davis could lead every movie ever made, I'd have absolutely no issue with that. The rest of the cast here is equally phenomenal, and all bring something unique to the table. Jamaal and Jatemme Manning (Bryan Tyree Henry and Daniel Kaluuya, respectively) are starkly contrasted by Jack and Tom Mulligan (Colin Farrell and Robert Duvall, respectively) in their race for the 9th Ward of Chicago. All four of these characters receive plenty of opportunities to shine, and shine they do. Daniel Kaluuya in particular provides some of the most memorable sequences in the film. (Including a sequence that did make my favorite movie moments of the year.) The contrasts between how these politicians run their races, and how they go about trying to achieve their ambitious goals, is one of the best parts of this incredible script from Gillian Flynn (of Gone Girl acclaim) and McQueen.
Which brings us to the filmmaking. Steve McQueen's footprint is all over this film. The cinematography is where it's most notable: there are a mess of unorthodox shots here that are rich and full of insight into the world these character's live in. One of the best shots of the entire film focuses on Jack Mulligan's car as it transitions from the poor section of the 9th Ward to the rich section, where Mulligan's house resides. Cinematographer Sean Bobbit, a long-time collaborator with McQueen, is at the top of his game here. There's also some terrific editing here courtesy of Joe Walker. He does an amazing job building up suspense with his cuts, while also providing a great deal of fluidity throughout the film. There is a boatload of meandering character development in Widows, and yet thanks to the editing the pacing never slows down from start to finish.
In short, Widows is amazing, and would have been higher on my top 10 list (it was number 9) were it not for the treatment of one of its core characters. That aside, this is a phenomenally executed piece of filmmaking dressed up as an engaging heist film, and if you need to find me I'll be on my soapbox screaming to the heavens that this was EASILY the most underappreciated film of 2018. Whatever you do, do not miss Widows!
The Verdict: One of 2018’s best films, Widows is a masterfully executed heist film with interesting characters, great filmmaking, and an unpredictable story.
The Recommendation: An absolute must-see for all!
The Verdict: 9.5/10 Damn Near Perfect
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.
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!
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
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.
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!
Bo Burnham's Debut Shines On Every Level
Eighth Grade (2018): An introverted teenage girl tries to survive the last week of her disastrous eighth grade year before leaving to start high school
Every so often, a movie comes along that blows me away on every level. Films that come to mind include Mad Max: Fury Road, Gravity, Moonlight, La La Land, and Phantom Thread. Now you can add Eighth Grade to the list. The stunning debut from Bo Burnham, Eighth Grade takes you on an emotional rollercoaster as you follow the very relatable life of introverted eighth grader Kayla, played by Elsie Fisher. The film flawlessly executes every level of filmmaking, and I found myself hanging on every word and every scene. I instantly connected with the kind but shy Kayla, and I think many of us unpopular kids will see a lot of our daily struggles play out in her life, with a modern twist to top it off. (You had Snapchat in 5th grade???) Undoubtedly the best film of the year so far, Bo Burnham instantly cements himself as one of the best in the business with the very definition of a perfect film.
Since I have absolutely zero complaints to speak of, let's gush about all the things Eighth Grade does right. At the center of this film is an incredibly grounded and intimate performance from its lead, Elsie Fisher. Her performance was reminiscent of Sasha Lane in American Honey, or Kitana Kiki Rodriguez in Tangerine. Honestly, this entire film feels directly inspired by Sean Baker. Most filmmakers can only dream about making their characters feel as human as the characters of something like Tangerine or The Florida Project. But that's exactly what Kayla feels like. She is subdued and emotional while being awkward and fun. And COOL. She's written brilliantly by Burnham, and feels very human from start to finish. Fisher's performance is right there with Toni Collette’s terrifying portrayal of Annie Graham in another A24 film, Hereditary, for best performance of 2018 so far. However Fisher's performance comes with added bonus of being a debut lead role for the talented young actress, which to me is all the rationale I need to call it the best performance of the year. Kayla is accompanied by character actor Josh Hamilton, who portrays Kayla's father Mark. Their chemistry is wonderful. I feel like it would be hard to sell the awkward father/daughter relationship, but these two pull it off with ease. Additionally, Hamilton has the most emotionally impactful moment of the film in the form of a monologue reminiscent of Michael Stuhlbarg's devasting monologue in Call Me By Your Name that basically comes out of NOWHERE. Even though you're laughing for most of this film, be prepared to rock the ugly cry before it ends. Just warning you now.
This speech is shot flawlessly through the film's incredible cinematography. Most of this film is shot through Kayla's perspective, (which makes Elsie Fisher's performance that much more demanding) which leads to some very claustrophobic and chaotic shots. There's one shot in particular where Kayla is talking to someone and is pacing back and forth, and the shot feels so dynamic thanks to a colorful background and (I think) a telephoto lens. It flawlessly relates the disorienting feeling Kayla is experiencing in this deliriously joyous scene, and it's one of many sequences that convey the feelings of Kayla in any given moment. Mad kudos to cinematographer Andrew Wehde for the flawless execution here. Speaking of newcomers, we have to talk about the experimental score from Anna Meredith. This score is easily the best score of the 2018, and right there with some of my favorites of all time. Honestly I haven't found a score this groundbreaking since Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor’s score to 2010’s The Social Network, widely considered the most influential score of this decade. Meredith’s wonderful use of synthesizers creates a very modern score, and they layer on top of each other brilliantly. The sound design also hammers the amazing score home. The editing is executed perfectly as well, as the film utilizes YouTube videos from Kayla as voiceovers to create something of a modern montage sequence at various moments. Honestly, for a film that utilizes social media as much as this, I was shocked at how fluid the pacing was in the sequences where Kayla is basically looking at her phone. Sequences that so many other films get wrong, but here Burnham handles them with grace and fluidity.
If you haven't picked up on it yet, I love every aspect of this movie, and have every intention of watching it again and again. We've been extremely fortunate these past two weeks at the cinemas between the best summer blockbuster of the year, Mission: Impossible - Fallout and now Bo Burnham's Eighth Grade, so do make sure you check out at least one of them. This film is so good. I haven't even talked about the story to this point, but it too blew me away. The film starts out as a comedy but around halfway through the second act Burnham veers the story hard to the right and turns it into a tearful drama with some gripping scenes. This 90 degree right turn comes out of nowhere, but it works! It works so well. Seriously, for a debut feature film Bo Burnham brings the poise of not just a seasoned vet, but a AAA level vet, akin to a Paul Thomas Anderson or Damien Chazelle, and delivers the very best film of 2018 so far and my first perfect 10 of the year. You want a good night at the cinemas? Try a double feature of Mission: Impossible - Fallout and Eighth Grade. Have kids? Just watch Eighth Grade. Its brisk 95 minute runtime will ensure you don't have to keep the babysitter for very long, and Burnham's flawlessly executed piece of cinema will certainly prepare you for what's to come in their lives. Heck, take them with you! Just as long as you go see it. It's worth every penny. Gucci!
The Critique: Featuring a breakout performance from Elsie Fisher, Eighth Grade puts debut filmmaker Bo Burnham on the map with an intimate, relatable, and emotional take on the traditional coming-of-age drama.
The Recommendation: I think you could guess this one….it's an absolute must-see for all. And take your kids too! This is about as light an R rating that you'll ever see. The MPAA really needs to revamp their ratings system when something like this is rated R while something like World War Z gets a PG-13 rating. Seriously.
The Verdict: 10/10 Perfect
This is what a popcorn flick should be
Ocean's 8 (2018): Debbie Ocean gathers an all-female crew to attempt an impossible heist at New York City's yearly Met Gala.
For those of you who think I can't have fun watching a movie anymore, I present to you Ocean’s 8. This movie is a BLAST. Sleek, shiny, lighthearted and exciting. Does it have some shortcomings? Sure, but Ocean's 8 is already making a strong case for the best summer film of 2018 (it certainly is so far) because it embodies everything a summer popcorn flick should be, and it knows it too. (Which I think is the most important part.) When you're looking for some a/c to get out of the heat, you're not looking for a film trying to make a grand statement on society, or some deeper theme or meaning....you're just looking for some good ol' fashion fun. And that's exactly what Ocean's 8 is.
Now, since you know we can't have all the nice things, there were a few things that didn't work. First off, the movie does slow down a bit during the third act. During this final act, the film introduces a new element that, given everything leading up to this point in the film, should work really well. However, for some reason it feels largely wasted as the plot is wrapping itself up. This new element also takes away from the diverse and interesting core group of characters, instead taking a rather safe and predictable track from a writing standpoint. It was a good idea in practice, (obviously I'm trying not to spoil, but those who have seen it probably know what I'm talking about here) but the execution was rather lackluster, especially given how enjoyable the other core characters were. Additionally, this film lacks the... "shine" of Steven Soderbergh's classic Ocean's Eleven. I think director Gary Ross was trying to go for that Soderbergh look with the lighting and production design, as well as the witty dialogue, but here it does feel like someone trying to imitate someone else at times versus be its own thing. But I really only felt that way at a few different moments, like the fact that the opening here mimicked the opening of Ocean's Eleven, or the fact that some of the one-on-one scenes between Debbie Ocean (Bullock) and Lou (Blanchett) resembling the interactions between Danny Ocean (Clooney) and Rusty. (Pitt) Otherwise, though, I wasn't thinking all that much about this film's predecessor's. For the most part, Ocean's 8 does feel like its own thing versus walking among the shadows.
One of the strongest aspects of Ocean's 8 is the depth of its main characters. Every one of the core members of the heist have a memorable and unique personality to varying extents, and are all given adequate screen time to flesh out said personalities. My favorite was Constance, played wonderfully by the erratic and unpredictable Awkwafina. I freaking loved Constance, and Awkwafina brought an incredible amount of swagger and individuality to the role. Fortunately, Bullock was able to lived up to the pressure of having to play a relative of one of the most charismatic individuals ever seen in a film. (It's no easy thing to have to say you're film-related to George Clooney and carry that burden of responsibility.) Finally, there are a ton of cameos in this (to an almost distracting extent) but there's one from the original Ocean's trilogy that's one of the better cameos I've seen recently in film because it actually played into the plot of the film. In the final cut it's a rather subtle cameo that may be missed by casual Ocean's fans, but it was a savvy choice from screenwriters Ross/Olivia Milch. Unfortunately, after the reveal of this cameo it made me wish that the third act had instead been spent developing this cameo a bit more as opposed to the one it did develop. A real missed opportunity, yes, but it's certainly a good thing to be wishing for more screen time in any film. Also, gotta say that I loved the score here from Daniel Pemberton. He does a great job of imitating David Holmes's incredibly underrated score from Ocean's Eleven, while still bringing a good amount of originality to the betting table.
That's actually a good way to sum up Ocean's 8. For the most part, it does a good job of imitating its predecessors while still bringing a good amount of originality to the roulette table. (I'll be here all night) I had an absolute blast watching this film, and I think it's well worth the watch if you're into a good ol’ fashion popcorn flick disguised as a fun, lighthearted heist film. This summer has consisted mostly of mediocrity to this point, but Ocean's 8 is easily the best blockbuster so far, and it's one that's not to be missed.
The Critique: Featuring a strong cast that packs a ton of unique personality, Ocean's 8 is as fun and lighthearted a popcorn flick that you'll be able to see this summer.
The Recommendation: I really don't think anyone would dislike this one, and it's a light PG-13 too, so bring the whole family!
The Verdict: 8/10 Great
One of the best movies I have ever seen
Phantom Thread (2017): Set in 1950's London, Reynolds Woodcock is a renowned dressmaker whose fastidious life is disrupted by a young, strong-willed woman, Alma, who becomes his muse and lover.
This initially started as a "Raw Thoughts" piece, which came to you from Darkness Brewing immediately after the second viewing of the film, but have since been edited after watching the movie for a third time. This is the best film of 2017, so it's too good for just a "Raw Thoughts" piece!
Phantom Thread….is a masterpiece. The great Paul Thomas Anderson is back, and this time he's paired, once more, with the legendary Daniel Day-Lewis. Their last film, There Will be Blood, is widely considered one of the best films of the 21st century, so to say there was some hype behind this one is something of an understatement. Anderson’s last film, Inherent Vice, was a rather messy endeavor that was a little too incoherent and loose with its style for my tastes. But I think P.T. Anderson realized that, too. This time, his cast is waded down to three from the enormous supporting cast of Vice. This allows Anderson to intimately focus on the intricate and dynamic relationship between the leads of this film, Reynolds and Alma.
Let's start there. These two are the reason to see this movie. Their relationship is the centerpiece, and these characters are played masterfully by Daniel Day-Lewis and Vicky Krieps, both of which put in the best performance of 2017. Freaking Vicky Krieps, guys. We all know Daniel Day-Lewis is one of the greatest method actors in the history of Hollywood, and he reminds us why (again) here. That's honestly assumed at this point. He may win an Oscar for this performance, (probably not - Gary Oldman has been sweeping the awards season so far) but when Daniel Day-Lewis decides to put himself in a film an Oscar is basically the bar for him. But I can't even imagine what it must've felt like to have to play opposite of a man as intense as he is. (Apparently Daniel Day-Lewis insisted on meeting Krieps for the very first time on set filming their first scene together.) Well, Krieps more than holds her own and creates an utterly fascinating character in the process. There's so much intrigue and depth to her character, and the relationship between her and Reynolds is intoxicating. The whole film is about their back-and-forth power struggle, and Alma's transformation from shy waitress to muse on equal footing with the demanding Reynolds is simply incredible. And, of course, it's absolutely marvelous to see Daniel Day-Lewis on screen once more. He spent a year studying couture preparing for this role, and his attention to the most minute of details are ever apparent. The relationship between these characters will be analyzed for years to come, and every scene involving the pair, even down to a simple look between them, is mesmerizing. Daniel Day-Lewis has said this is his last role, but as one star rides out into the sunset in triumphant fashion, another rises to take his place. Welcome to the top of the world of A-list movie stars, Vicky Krieps. What an incredible casting choice from Paul Thomas Anderson. The sheer unknown that comes with Vicky Krieps as an actress is undoubtedly a strength of the film, but having to play opposite a man of Daniel Day-Lewis's caliber.....well, it has certainly proved to be too much for people in the past. Fortunately, though, Krieps knocked this one out of the park and rocketed herself into stardom in the process.
You know who else is really interesting in this film? Lesley Manville as Reynold's intriguing sister, Cyril. There's at least one thesis paper waiting to be written on the relationship between her and Reynolds. Despite how demanding Reynolds is, both Cyril and Alma find their own ways to have power over him, and it's simply magnificent to watch. GAH! I love this film, if you can't tell. It has this alpha male lead with Reynolds, but it's really all about the women in his life and how they find various ways (some more extreme than others) to get him to do what they want. It's amazing. On top of their incredible and dynamic relationship, you have, well, EVERYTHING else. Like the set design! Everything about this set is meticulously chosen by P.T. Anderson. The costumes are brilliant and tell their own story. The freaking food choices from Reynolds tell their own story. Everything has a purpose here. I've seen this film multiple times now and I know there are still dozens of details that I've missed! And the score. Holy Jonny Greenwood the score! Hey, Jonny: can you PLEASE wade into Hollywood films more than just in P.T. Anderson flicks? Because this is easily the best score of 2017, and it comes from Radiohead's lead guitarist. I mean, who needs John Williams, right? It's mysterious and memorable just like Alma, and demanding and intrusive like Reynolds. On the second viewing I already found myself humming along to it, too. I freaking love it! I'm going to be listening to it for months and years to come. I haven't liked a score this much since Junkie XL's haunting score for Mad Max: Fury Road.
About the only complaint I have with this otherwise perfect film is with the third act. There's something of a pointless MacGuffin thrown in as “jealousy” is seemingly introduced into Reynolds and Alma's relationship, but it doesn't really go anywhere. However, this fault is well into the third act and relatively minor overall, and I'm sure it does serve some purpose that I just haven't figured it out yet, so it's not enough to take away from this masterpiece of filmmaking. In conclusion, this film is the very definition of the (often overused) word "masterpiece." It is the best film of 2017, and is every bit worthy of the hype it has garnered. Take the opportunity to go and see this one in a theater, guys. I think 10 years from now you'll wanna be able to tell people you saw this one when it first came out.
The Critique: Featuring an intoxicating relationship between its marvelous leads, Phantom Thread is Paul Thomas Anderson at his best and is easily the best overall film of 2017.
The Recommendation: Easy. An absolute-must see for all!
The Verdict: 10/10
The Most Culturally Relevant Film of 2017
I, Tonya (2017): Competitive ice skater Tonya Harding rises amongst the ranks at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, but her future in the activity is thrown into doubt when her ex-husband intervenes.
This movie is freaking amazing. While it may not be the "best" all-around movie of the year, (though it is close) it is, without a doubt, the most relevant and necessary film of the year. It's also my personal favorite by far. I, Tonya tells the infamous story of the scandal between Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan through interviews of Tonya herself, her husband Jeff, (played by Sebastian Stan) her mother LaVona (played by Allison Janney) and a few others. The presentation of this story is undoubtedly the highlight. Not only does director Craig Gillespie and writer Steven Rogers utilize voice-overs so well that it would make The Big Short jealous, but they even change the perspective of individual scenes in an engaging and subtle way throughout the film. More on that later. In addition to telling its crazy and over-the-top story in an amazing way, the film features phenomenal acting, a great soundtrack, and fantastic editing. So let's dive into why I, Tonya is one of the year's best films!
Let's hit that acting first. The wonderful Margot Robbie plays Tonya Harding in what is clearly a labor of love for her. She undergoes a pretty noticeable transformation to play this character, and man is she magnificent. This role solidifies Robbie (for me, at least) as a top-of-the-line A-list celebrity in Hollywood. Not to be outdone by Robbie though is Allison freaking Janney in a role that has earned her a deserving Oscar nomination. (Her first ever) Tonya's mother LaVona is a complex character with no redeeming qualities, and Janney goes ALL OUT to play her. It's hard to believe this is the same woman that played the charismatic and legendary C.J. Cregg in The West Wing, but man do I love it! She's simply incredible. Honestly it's one of the best performances of 2017, period. While these two are the highlights in the film, their male counterparts also put in stellar performances. Sebastian Stan was great playing this complex character that you almost love to hate, and Paul Walter Hauser was HILARIOUS as Shawn, Tonya's.....bodyguard. Hauser is a relative newcommer to Hollywood as this is his first major supporting role, but I can't wait to see what's next for him. He had me rolling on the floor laughing with his delivery and persona. However, while the acting is incredible, it's the style in which this story's told that is the highlight of the film.
The voice-over narration of this film is hysterical. Not only is this film told using, in its own words, "Wildly contradictory, irony free, and totally true" interviews, but it also shoots individual scenes from different points-of-view. I didn't notice this as first because it is quite subtle, but this storytelling style made the film unpredictable and that much more fun-to-watch. One scene, Tonya is clueless and naive while asking her husband if he had anything to do with "the incident" with Nancy Kerrigan, the next she's acting like she's totally in on it. One scene Jeff is beating the crap out of her, and the next scene she's teaming up with him to yell at another character (Jeff's friend Shawn, played by Hauser) for no reason whatsoever. It was utterly fascinating. I think there's a video essay to be had on the screenplay of this film and how it tells its story. It's a damn shame writer Steven Rogers didn't receive any love from the Academy in this year's Oscar nominations. Much as I loved Logan, that definitely did not deserve the nod over this. These perspective changes also sold me on the voiceover narration, which is certainly easy to screw up. In many films voiceovers are a crutch on the story, (and over-explain things) but here they add to it and help us navigate the changing perspectives. Oh! And it's funny! This film is SO freaking funny. It made me bust my gut laughing on more than one occasion, and it even managed to break the fourth wall in a hilarious and not-corny way. LaVona has a joke in this vein about halfway through and it is the freaking joke of the year for film. Also! This movie features a fantastic soundtrack with a lot of smart and savvy musical choices. While it's not Baby Driver levels of great, you will find yourself tapping your foot to the beat and listening to the on-point lyrics that were meticulously chosen for each scene. About the only negative I have with this film is in the makeup and effects departments. Gillespie's team didn't do a very good job making Margot Robbie look 15, which she has to pull off early in the film, but this by no means diminished from the overall viewing experience. They cast Margot Robbie to play the lead character, and Tonya spent most of the first half of the film in her teenage years, so they might as well just use her. And some of the effects are corny, particularly in the slow motion skating moments. But this film had a budget of $11 million, most of which was probably for the actors, so I'll forgive it for having less-than-stellar visual effects.
Finally, I REALLY love the fact that this film never really cares about whether Tonya "did it" or not. That's not the point, and THIS is what makes I, Tonya the most relevant film of the year. (You knew I had to address that statement sooner or later) It focuses more on the fallout and consequences to the incident Tonya had to face, and the adversity she experienced during her brief career because she didn't "fit the part" of a women's figure skater. Figure skating was clearly eager to crucify Tonya Harding because she didn't come from a "wholesome American family" and didn't represent "America's values," and she dealt with adversity her entire career because of it. And now, in 2017, while monsters like Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey are trying to plot their comeback stories, (if they are "truly sorry" of course..... :( ) I think it's about time we allow a woman to change the image that's been forced upon her. THAT'S the goal of I, Tonya, and it achieves this goal effectively and in a riveting manner. This is one of the best films of the year, and it's absolutely worth your time. ESPECIALLY if you think Tonya Harding is a monster for what she may (or may not) have done. However, if you still think Tonya is a monster after seeing this film...... that's fine. She doesn't care about you anyway. After all, as she would say...... fuck 'em.
The Critique: Featuring phenomenal performances from Margot Robbie and Allison Janney. a unique storytelling style, and an important message, I, Tonya is the most relevant and worthwhile film of 2017.
The Recommendation: You knew this one was coming: It's an absolute must-see!
The Verdict: 10/10 Perfect
Overhyped, but still good
The Post (2017): A cover-up that spanned four U.S. Presidents pushed the country's first female newspaper publisher and a hard-driving editor to join an unprecedented battle between journalist and government.
I'll be honest with you: I think this movie was overhyped. How could it not be, though? Two of the most iconic actors of the 21st century on screen together in a film directed by the man widely considered to be the most influential director in the history of Hollywood, (for better or for worse) one year after we saw, firsthand, what happens when we ignore the very institution this story is centered around? Ya, it's hard not to hype this one up to eleven. And don't get me wrong: The Post is a good, enjoyable, and important film. It takes a naturally dramatic event and portrays it as exactly that: a dramatic event. Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks are as charming as you would expect them to be together, and their time on screen was easily the best part of the film. As you would expect it to be. But. BUT. That does not change the fact that this film falls apart in the final 20 minutes. That does not change the fact that a crucial, CRUCIAL subplot is not resolved in any way. That does not change the fact that after such an energetic and dramatic setup, the film just, kind of.... ends. And that does not change the fact that there are other problems with this film. But more on that later.
The good of this film is obvious: Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep. While neither put in necessarily standout performances, it is still marvelous to see these two iconic actors on screen at the same time. It's a cataclysmic event for Hollywood that we've never seen before, and may never see again from these two. This is reminiscent of the 1951 film The African Queen, which paired Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepbrun on screen for the only time in their respective and legendary careers. The Streep/Hanks pairing alone will sell tickets, and I am very much ok with that, because this story is just as relevant in today's world as it was in the early 1970s. As a media nerd myself, I loved (almost) every second of this film. I cannot emphasize this point enough. I loved the "bedlam" (as executive editor Ben Bradlee, played by Tom Hanks, would say) we got to see as the newsroom, many of the most influential journalists of the 20th century included, frantically sorted through 4000 pages of government secrets in Bradlee's house as his wife (played by Sarah Paulson) served sandwiches. I loved seeing Bob Odenkirk go after his source for the Pentagon Papers in a way that would make Saul Goodman proud. This is a two-hour movie, but the middle of it flew by with tense scene after tense scene. However. This film makes a BIG mistake, and it centers around the decision-making process of its central character, the paper's publisher, Kay Graham.
Kay Graham inherited WashPo from her husband (who inherited it from her father) after he committed suicide. For decades, (and hard to believe now) WashPo was a little family paper headquartered in Washington D.C. that was, like everyone else, chasing the New York Times for the next big story. Now, this film does a brilliant job showing the paper grappling with the consequences of publishing the Pentagon Papers. There's no fault to be had there whatsoever. However, Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) has the final say on whether the papers are published or not, and she comes at this decision from a very different (and reasonable) angle. While Ben Bradlee and co. are deciding whether they should publish for fear of putting US troops in harm's way, Graham is risking the newspaper itself because The Post was also doing its initial public offering (IPO) at the same time as it was publishing the Pentagon Papers. And, as this film reminds us multiple times, there is a clause in the IPO that allows the "bankers" of Wall Street to pull out of the IPO within a week of its initial offering due to a dramatic event. (Like, say, The Post publishing top secret documents and being reprimanded in federal court. Something like that.) This risk is at the crux of her decision making. Unfortunately, not only is this debate not resolved in a satisfying way, it isn't resolved.....at all. After grappling with this risk for the vast majority of the movie, we don't get even a single scene of fallout from the IPO side of the paper. No shot of its stock tumbling. (or soaring) Absolutely. Nothing. And, because they make this the central focus of Kay Graham's character arc, it kind of made her.... irrelevant to the entire story. Yes, I know I just said Meryl Streep didn't need to be in this at all, but given how the film ended..... she didn't need to be in this movie. At all. While this is the only major issue I have with The Post, having your top-billed actress be relatively inconsequential to the events of your story is something of a major problem! Her only meaningful arc is her learning to have the resolve to run the paper as a whole. Yes, this is a good side arc, and a good/relevant one for 2017, but not enough to overshadow the fact that her main arc is, you know, useless!
I only had a few other minor issues with this film. The first is (admittedly) VERY mute, but I wish the dialogue had been....smarter. Maybe it's just because I've seen The Newsroom, but I REALLY wish Aaron Sorkin had been the screenwriter for this movie. That's ok, though. He was too busy writing/directing Molly's Game, which, surprisingly enough, is a superior film. The ending overall was also very rushed, but I can hardly fault the film for having such a tense setup that it can't follow through on a conclusion to historical events. I mean, you know what's going to happen, so when you see the thing happen....how dramatic can it really be? But, IPO issues aside, many of the other "stakes" that are established in the setup here are glanced over in the film's final 20 minutes, if brought up at all. The film also kind of sequel-baits. Most of the time I don't have an issue when a movie does this, and even here I very much hope we do get a sequel, whether it be a direct or indirect one, but... after such a rushed conclusion, did we really need to do that? Did we really need that final minute? I don't know.... I guess I was already disappointed with the ending so the attempted sequel-baiting just got to me more than it would in another situation.
I've spent a lot of time hating on this film, but doesn't change the fact that it is a good movie with an engaging and dramatic story, and the top-tier level of acting you'd expect from a film that puts Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks on the same screen together. (And gives them a strong supporting cast to boot) Sadly, though, it suffers from being overhyped and overrated. If you're just looking for a compelling and dramatic film on media and journalism, go back and watch 2015's Spotlight. (It's available on Netflix right now) It won Best Picture that year, and for good reason. If you've already seen that film half a dozen times, (I wouldn't know anyone that could say that.......) and need your next media and journalism movie fix, look no further. Just.... temper your expectations a bit.
The Critique: While pairing Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep goes exactly how you would expect it would, The Post is sadly overhyped and overrated, with a rushed conclusion and wasted character arc at the core of its faults. It is (merely) a good film.
The Recommendation: There are a lot of reason to go see this film, (I don't feel like mentioning all of them) just be sure to give films like Call Me by Your Name and I, Tonya some love too, ya?
Rewatchability: Moderately High
The Verdict: 7/10 Good.
2017's Smartest Film
Molly's Game (2017): The true story of Molly Bloom, an Olympic-class skier who ran the world's most exclusive high-stakes poker game and became an FBI target.
These Raw Thoughts come from you from Braxton Labs in Newport, KY, approximately 45 minutes after seeing the film.
Molly's Game is straight fire. The directorial debut for legendary screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, this film takes the writer's trademark dialogue style and turns it up to eleven. This is done to the detriment of the film at times, but most of the time it works beautifully, especially surrounding the lead character. Molly Bloom is a total boss. The hero 2017 needed. She controls all the men around her (save one) while holding their hearts on a string, and she is played masterfully by Jessica Chastain. This is the role Chastain was born to play, and she puts in one of the sleekest and most badass roles of the year.While this performance may not net Chastain an Oscar, it is certainly one of my favorites of the year, and Sorkin's trademarked style meshes with Chastain better than PB&J.
As if that wasn't enough, Chastain’s male counterparts are fantastic, led the way by Idris Elba and Kevin Costner. These two are amazing. Heck, this may be the best role I've ever seen from the amazing Idris Elba. Freaking love this man! He is so charming and charismatic, and he gets to show that off as much as possible here. There's also a really deep (and strong) supporting cast. You know your cast is deep when someone like Joe Keery (from Stranger Things) has a total of two scenes! He does make the most of them, but the big loser from this is Michael Cera. He plays “Player X” and is clearly playing the “idea” of a character and isn't given much to do other than "be maniacal," which is unfortunate. But all in all this is a relatively minor complaint. The highlight of this film, without a doubt, is the dialogue.
The dialogue. If you've never seen a film by Aaron Sorkin, you've missed out on one of the most distinguishable storytelling styles in recent Hollywood memory. In his films, every character is the smartest person in the room, and they make sure everyone else knows it. They pull some of the deepest references out of thin air and know exactly what each other is talking about at all times. (At one point, Jessica Chastain starts talking about three poems that Idris Elba is making her daughter read. When did she have time to become fluent in poetry? Does it matter?) This film is no exception, and it is just so much fun! However, with Sorkin in the director's chair for the first time, no one was around to tell him no, which means sometimes people are….too smart. Sometimes, scenes will linger for too long because Sorkin can't help himself. It's the classic Quentin Tarantino problem. Sorkin is in love with his own dialogue, and without a director to tell him that he's written too much of it for a certain scene, they tend to be overlong as the characters will put out one reference too many. Personally, I LOVE Sorkin’s dialogue, so I have no problem with this, but if you're even slightly turned off by Sorkin's style…..you're gonna be turned off here. This is Sorkin's dialogue on steroids, so consider yourself warned. Though, to be fair, I don't know how you can hate his formula! It's sleek. It's sexy. It's intelligent. And it's FUN. I had a blast watching this! This movie is all of those things, and if you like Sorkin's dialogue then it's a STRONG directorial debut, led by the dazzling performance of Jessica Chastain.
“Player X” is a bit weak, and the film does glorify gambling a little too much, (I know, I know, gambling is romanticized in every Hollywood movie) but it's not enough to offset the greatness of here. See it for the craziness of the story, (and know it'll be nominated for an Oscar in the Adapted Screenplay department) the sleek and sexy actors, (Idris Elba and Jessica Chastain especially) and the amazing dialogue, however if you've never seen a Sorkin screenplay (somehow)....don't start here. Start with something like The Social Network. (Fun fact....that was the fifth review I ever wrote! And I still think it's one of the 5 best films of the 21st century)
My Number: 8/10
All the Christopher Plummer in the World
All the Money in the World (2017): The story of the kidnapping of 16-year-old John Paul Getty III and the desperate attempt by his devoted mother to convince his billionaire grandfather Jean Paul Getty to pay the ransom.
Happy new year everyone! So I'm going to try a new thing here on Enter the Movies. Some of my favorite posts in the past have been the ones where I write them almost immediately after seeing the film. I also do this every year immediately following the Oscars. So I'm gonna turn this into a new series that I will use occasionally. Aka whenever I feel like it. Hope you enjoy it!
These raw thoughts come to you from the bar at Braxton Labs in Newport, KY, immediately after seeing All the Money in the World.
There's a great story behind this. After allegations of sexual assault arose against Kevin Spacey, director Ridley Scott and company removed him from the film just six weeks ahead of its nationwide release, and they stumbled onto gold with his replacement, Christopher Plummer. The highlight of this film is Christopher Plummer’s performance as J. Paul Getty. Plummer was Scott's first choice before Sony asked him to “find someone more famous” for the role, and I can see why he wanted to go with Plummer initially. HOWEVEr, that does not excuse the glaring faults of this film. The film plays fast and loose with its subject matter, which doesn't make a lot of sense to me given how naturally dramatic the actual story is. After getting off to a bang with some terrific sequences with J. Paul Getty, the film doesn't know what to do with itself as it slugs through its snoozefest of a second act, losing all momentum it had initially built. It does manage to recapture some of its intensity in the final act, but it also torpedoes itself here with this completely absurd town sequence that had me practically saying, “There's no way that happened in real life” out loud. Not to mention a rather silly epilogue that's only there so we can feel like we “stuck it to the man.”
This may be Scott's best work in recent memory (though if it were me I'd probably still go with Alien: Covenant) but he just can't get out of his own way. In real life, Gail Harris (played beautifully here by Michelle Williams) wages war with her grandfather-in-law in the press. Here, the press is nothing more than a leeching paparazzi group, and we only get one scene in the film of Harris using the press to her advantage. Even in that scene the press is vilified for no real reason other than to be vilified. Ugh! The second act of this film could've been this interesting cat-and-mouse political game between Harris and Getty, but instead we got this slow moving section that doesn't know what to do with itself.
That said, the acting is excellent. Christopher Plummer leads the way with one of the best performances of the year, and when you factor in the fact that his performance was shot in nine days it becomes all the more impressive. Michelle Williams is, once again, great and Mark Wahlberg is pretty good too.... though he admittedly doesn't have much to do other than “be mysterious.” He has one exchange with Getty that was a great scene, but it was CLEARLY a Hollywood-esque scene. Absolutely no chance it really happened. (Like way too much of this film) While it is a pretty enjoyable film, and it will get some love from the Academy, (definitely more so than Downsizing and The Greatest Showman, the other big studio “for your consideration” Oscar films) there's just too many absurd moments for me to consider it a must-watch. And I SWEAR TO GOD IF RIDLEY SCOTT IS NOMINATED FOR BEST DIRECTOR AT THE OSCARS. What are you doing, Golden Globes? Yes, it's impressive that they did these reshoots in nine days, but it doesn't overshadow the other glaring problems of this film. Many of which come at the hands of Ridley Scott! (Deep breath) Anyway..... Watch it if you're a cinephile like me and want to see what a performance shot in nine days looks like, otherwise there are better things to see at the theater.
My Number: 5/10 It's FINE
"Like" Enter the Movies on Facebook for the latest and greatest on all things movies! OR ELSE FACE THE CONSEQUENCES OF A KILLER RABBIT. Sorry about this one, guys. Not my decision. He volunteered. And is just absolute dynamite!