The biopic Elton John deserves
Rocketman (2019): A musical fantasy about the fantastical human story of Elton John's breakthrough years.
…...and you can tell everybody, this is your review. It may seem quite simple but, now that it's starting..... this movie is freaking great. Regardless of whether you actually like Elton John or not, this film is the standard-bearer for what a musical biopic should be. Step aside, Bohemian Rhapsody. (Actually shoves BoRap off to the side to be forgotten forever.) There's a new queen in town.
This film works on so many levels, but it starts with actually getting Elton right. Taron Edgerton is phenomenal as Elton John. From his voice actually sounding like vintage Elton (you hear that, Rami? Yes, I'm gonna take pot shots at BoRap throughout this review because society won't actually let me forget it) to matching the mannerisms with incredible makeup to boot. The A-lister is absorbed by the mystique of the knight. And it helps that the story here is the story Elton deserves. Each scene embodies the definition of what Elton John stands for while actually being informative about his life and teaching us, the viewers, some lesser-known things about his life. Never did this film feel influenced by the man himself. Never did this film feel entirely too complimentary of its subject matter. Never did it feel revisionistic. (Betcha don't know what film I'm indirectly referring to!) It felt accurate and meticulous, moving gracefully from one flamboyant scene to the next, surrounding Elton's rockstar life with the music he actually released in those moments, using his songs to actually convey the emotion of individual scenes. Ah! It's so good!
Oh ya, this film is a musical, and the music is wonderful regardless of your feelings towards Elton. The dance scenes are actually well-choreographed and shot, with only the editing rearing its ugly head at a few points. (Though, let's be real…. It's not the worst editing to come out of a musical biopic recently. Cough cough) Also, I do take slight issue with John Reid's (Richard Madden) near comedic villain character. For a film that feels as meticulous as this, Reid feels very out-of-place. I'm not sure how accurate that character was to his real life counterpart, but it sure beats creating an entirely fictitious character to turn down a certain rock band after a DESTINATION ALBUM RECORDING SESH. THAT DOESN'T EVEN MAKE SENSE, WHY WOULD YOU TURN DOWN THE END RESULT OF A MILLION DOLLAR RECORDING SESH? That eerily specific example doesn't refer to anything in particular, I swear! That said, Reid is made up for by Elton's partner-in-writing, Bernie Taupin. Portrayed wonderfully by the incredibly underrated Jamie Bell, Taupin helps to ground Elton throughout most of the film, almost turning into an "audience POV" character as Elton's worst impulses play out. All wrapped up in a dynamic and intriguing supporting character that is the embodiment of a true friend. Not someone we're supposed to laugh at because he wants to write a song about loving his truck. (Kristen Bell sums up my sentiments right about now.)
In short, Rocketman is wonderful, and soooooooooo much better than Bohemian Rhapsody it actually hurts. I hate that I've taken pot shots at BoRap as much as I have, but when one film becomes the highest grossing musical biopic in history and the other is struggling just to break $75mil at the domestic box office, it's hard not to constantly remind people that Rocketman is just that much better than BoRap. It encompasses Elton to a wonderful degree, complete with beautiful dance montages and amazing song choices from the knight scattered throughout. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll dance, you'll sing. What more could you possibly ask for? I hope you don't mind, I hope you don't mind, that I put down in words. How wonderful this film is, now that it's in the world.
The Critique: The story Elton John deserves, Rocketman is the best musical biopic I've seen in years, showcasing his life brilliantly with great musical numbers and an incredibly engaging story.
The Recommendation: An absolute must-see for everyone. I think that's my first must-see rec of 2019?
My Number: 9/10
The Sundance Short Film Tour is starting to make the rounds across the country, and I had the wonderful chance to see them early. For those unfamiliar, the collection is a small snippet of the shorts that play at the Sundance film festival every year, a showcase of the incredible diversity the festival sees year in and year out. Overall, they're definitely worth a viewing, despite the occasionally varied quality, if not simply to see facets of our country and our cultural consciousness you wouldn't have the chance to see otherwise. Here are my thoughts on each of the shorts as I watched them in order of programming.
EDITORS NOTE: These short films are coming to Cincinnati World Cinema's Garfield Theater June 21-30. I had the chance to see these films thanks to this organization, an organization which I also volunteer for.
Sometimes, I Think About Dying
Starting off the list of shorts is a heartbreaking film from Stefanie Abel Horowitz. The 12 minute film grips you from the opening moment to the credits thanks to an incredibly genuine performance from its lead, Katy Wright-Mead. She is absolutely wonderful in the main role: timid, shy, reserved, but thanks to a great use of voiceover narration, thorough and dynamic. That said, it doesn't really feel like it's saying anything about it's subject matter - a quiet character who's obsessed with death. The short frustratingly cuts to black right before a moment of coping is able to take place, instead leaving us with a film that simply stars a character who thinks about death, despite simply knowing that's not healthy. I don't know, maybe that was the point, and the abrupt cut to black at the end was supposed to signify the beginning of this coping phase, but it frustrated me personally. That said, it's still a good short, with a great lead and some great editing / cinematography. (Mad kudos to how director Horowitz handles texts.... Sherlock would be proud.)
My Number: 7/10
I'm not sure what I'm supposed to take away from this one. A docushort about a Native American horse relay team, Fast Horse doesn't seem to know what it wants to say. Sure, there's some interesting cinematography, (particularly in the finale of the relay itself) but the short seems to be rather aimless, a Free Solo knock-off with a far less satisfying ending. (Seriously, the main jockey is built in the exact same mold as Alex Honnold.) There's really not much else to say about this one. Good cinematography, enjoyable (albeit not satisfying) finale, but no message, heart, character, or really any substance worth mentioning. Hard pass.
My Number: 3/10
I've mulled over this one in particular the last week or so, and the more I think about it, the more firm my low number becomes. There was an opportunity here to showcase the depressing struggles of the Native American population in our country, an opportunity this film let slip away in order to tell the story of this race team. Which is totally fine, but if you're going to go all-in on the race team, the final result needs to at least showcase some room for future improvement. We get none of that, and the result is exactly what I mentioned before. Sure, the filmmaking is very good, but it alone is not enough to make this short feel truly worthwhile.
Suicide by Sunlight
I'm very torn on this one. On the one hand, it's a bold / interesting premise that's executed fairly well. A world where vampires are widely known / accepted to the point that there's intriguing societal issues surrounding them, (similar to the issues facing our society today) but the main character, Valentina, isn't particularly alluring to boot the premise. The first half of this 17 minute short is spent almost in a "is she or isn't she a vampire" story, which feels like a total waste because when we finally do establish that she is, (something which you'll know by reading the actual first sentence of the synopsis on IMDB) the short abruptly flies through its most interesting bits, not even taking the time to establish that Valentina is even struggling at all to contain her bloodlust. (She's a vampire who works in a hospital, Only Lovers Left Alive taught us that there's plenty of ways for a vampire to sustain themselves in a flippin' hospital. A single scene of this not being enough would've gone a long way.) So, while this short does present some interesting ideas, it spends far too much time establishing the simple fact that Valentina is a vampire for it to reach its full potential. Sacrificing this first half and speeding through a lot in the second half is as criminal an oversight as it is a frustrating one. But hey, at least the end credits song is great!
My Number: 5.5/10
This one is extremely short, clocking in at just 4 minutes in length, but it's 4 minutes of adorableness. It's animated wonderfully and has a charming message about how one interacts / interprets art that's executed well in the brief runtime. Also, the art that's interacted with here is wonderful and hilarious. You'll definitely get a solid laugh out of it, and it serves as a nice change-of-pace from the serious tone of the rest of the shorts to this point.
My Number: 7/10
Buckle up, y'all. This one is WILD, and I loved it. This is a crazy short that has a lot to say about friendship and showcasing your talents wrapped up in two characters with mostly useless superpowers. It's shot in a very Arrested Development kind of way, highlighted by some comedic zoom-ins and totally ADHD editing, which hammers the unknown / unpredictability of growing up aspect of the short. There's a LOT going on in these 15 minutes, and while I think it will be rather divisive among the general public, something like this is exactly what I want to see in the Sundance batch. Crazy, zany, quirky, and unpredictable, but still bringing quite the wallop. Despite some so-so acting from the leads. Wasn't a huge fan of their performances. It felt like they, too, were going "Whaaaaaa?" when they were reading the script. But, still. It'll stick with you simply because it's so uncanny. Also, it is easily my favorite to this point.
My Number: 8/10
This film continues to resonate with me a week+ after watching it. It has such a relatable message encrusted in its zaniness, I can't shake the look into these girls' lives while also having (mostly) useless superhero powers. While it may be divisive, I think this short has the boldest filmmaking in the bunch.
We're on a roll now. This short, from director Robert MacHoian, stars a real-life grandfather and his grandsons, showing a small portion of their everyday lives. The genuineness of this short is its selling point - MacHoian does a phenomenal job eliciting great performances from his cast of first-time actors; certainly not an easy thing to do with 3 of them are kids. It's a very simple, yet heartfelt story, as it merely captures a quick scene in their lives - band practice - but peel away the topmost layer of the short and there's a lot more going on. A grandfather yearning for a past life while enjoying spending time with his grandsons. Kids who are just discovering music and still approaching every moment as if they've never experienced it before. How music is a common language that transcends all barriers. All of which is conveyed in a very brisk 10 minute runtime. It's lovely, and far more approachable than Crude Oil. I have one short left to go, but this one is a surefire crowd-pleaser.
My Number: 8/10
And Brotherhood provides the emotional wallop to bring us home. This devastating short film from Meryam Joobeur follows a family from a Middle Eastern country around Syria, confronted with the return of their son from Syria with a new wife. The elements at play here are ancient yet devastatingly current: a father who sees his son for the first time in over a year and cannot accept his traditional Muslim wife, and a son who returns seeking acceptance from his father. As the events of the short unfold, a picture is unveiled that leads to easily the most emotionally devastating climax in this entire collection. The performances are genuine and grounded, the cinematography is amazing, as director Meryam Joobeur makes great use of shooting on film throughout the 25 minute short, and it all leads to a simply incredible finale that will leave you speechless. This short alone is worth the cost of admission for the group, the definition of perfection in under 30 minutes. Don't miss it.
My Number: 10/10
Hope you enjoyed my takeaways from these shorts! Do yourself a favor and don't miss them if they are playing at a theater near you!
https://static1.squarespace.com/static/51b3dc8ee4b051b96ceb10de/t/5bff15171ae6cfb7775d0efd/1543443741245/?format=2500w (Sundance Banner)
http://www.sundance.org/images/filmguide/2019/19914-2-1100.jpg (Sometimes, I Think About Dying)
http://www.sundance.org/images/filmguide/2019/19918-1-1100.jpg (Fast Horse)
http://www.sundance.org/images/filmguide/2019/19931-4-1100.jpg (Suicide by Sunlight)
http://www.sundance.org/images/filmguide/2019/19912-4-1100.jpg (Crude Oil)
http://www.sundance.org/images/filmguide/2019/19913-2-1100.jpg (The Minors
Quick Reviews, Spring 2019: High Life, Pet Sematary, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, Detective Pikachu, Aladdin, Godzilla: King of the MonstersRead Now
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile
Pokemon Detective Pikachu
Godzilla: King of the Monsters
More of the same, and I ain't complaining one bit
John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum (2019): Super-assassin John Wick is on the run after killing a member of the international assassin's guild, and with a $14 million price tag on his head - he is the target of hit men and women everywhere.
The latest installment in the unexpectedly solid John Wick franchise is exactly what you'd expect: more of the same. Now, is more of the same a good or a bad thing? Did you like the first two John Wick films? Then it's safe to say you'll like this one. Did you either not care / not watch either of the previous two films? This probably isn't the place to start. That said, I fall squarely into the former category, and, as you would expect…. I had a ball of a time here.
At its core, John Wick is a phenomenally choreographed action movie with some breathtaking visuals. This franchise is the pillar for what a modern action film should look like, second only to the Mission: Impossible franchise for best action movie franchise in Hollywood today. (Sorry James Bond / Fast and Furious.) At its core is its heart-stopping fight sequences. These sequences showcase the very best of what Hollywood can do in 2019, with cinematography that actually allows you to see the action unfold. Who knew doing something as simple as shooting your action sequences with as few cuts as possible and giving us wideshots so we can see everything would make such a huge difference, but that's why someone like me (who couldn't care less about the John Wick lore at this point) keeps coming back to this franchise. In a post-Bourne Identity world, where so much of what's considered "action films" is inhibited by Marvel doing whatever they feel like with whatever budget they want, few franchises pay this close attention to detail while making every cent of their production budget count.
That said, the budget of this film clearly went to the stunts / action sequences, because the lore continues to be completely uninteresting to me. Sadly, much of the second act of this film investigates said lore of this franchise, and for people like myself who don't care it was veeeeeery boring. On a surface level the lore is interesting, but it contorts itself to service the protagonist John Wick at every turn, which makes it ridiculous, unbelievable, and boring. Also, Keanu Reeves's portrayal of John Wick has lost the pisaz it once had, an unfortunate result of the fact that there's now 3 of these films. Long gone are the iconic lines of previous installments.
However, that's a rather marginal complaint for the film and franchise as a whole, after all you come for the breathtaking action sequences and tolerate the lore as a tradeoff. Because of how much time this film spends on its lore, I don't think Parabellum will do a good job bringing in new fans, (start with John Wick: Chapter 2 if you're new to the franchise) but for those who are already dug in, Parabellum delivers exactly what you're looking for: mesmerizing action scenes with an increasingly mediocre story to compliment it.
The Critique: Pulse-pounding action sequences continue in blissful fashion in the latest installment of the John Wick franchise.
The Recommendation: This franchise continues to be an absolute must-watch for anyone who considers themselves a fan of action movies. Don't miss it
My Number: 8/10. And that's a testament to how phenomenal the action here really is.
A hilarious and raunchy modern buddy comedy
Booksmart (2019): On the eve of their high school graduation, two academic superstars and best friends realize they should have worked less and played more. Determined not to fall short of their peers, the girls try to cram four years of fun into one night.
Booksmart is 2019’s Blockers and I love it. A raunchy, over-the-top buddy comedy that's actually about something and makes you feel things (even in your cold, cold heart) by film's end. We've had a surprisingly decent run of American comedies between surprise hits like Blockers, Game Night, and soon-to-be (currently just Sundance darling) Booksmart. I am actually starting to have hope that directors like Kay Cannon (director / savior of Blockers) and newcommer Olivia Wilde (Booksmart, directorial debut) may actually be able to bring the genre back from the hopeless abyss it's been in for the last decade or so. That statement may be a bit too optimistic, but after being this uplifted by an American comedy, (again! For the second time in a year at least!) I'm ready to say anything. Let's keep it going, Hollywood!
At this film's core is a wonderful, genuine, and charming relationship between its two main characters, Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy. (Kaitlyn Dever) Seeing two well-written, strong, intricate high school female characters lead a film like this is totally invigorating. Every time they're paired on screen together, Booksmart shines brightly. There's a palpable chemistry between them - a gravity that pulls all other forces in this film to their undying, unyielding presence. From the opening scene featuring the hilarious monologue in the trailer, you can't help but root for each of these girls as they realize there's more to life than just schoolwork. Straight up: this is one of the best buddy comedies I've ever seen. An honest, personal, convoluted relationship between two women is so refreshing to watch. This film is well worth a watch with your best friend just for some quality bonding time alone. Just.... be prepared for the raunchiness because there's a lot of it. But I know I found myself laughing more times than I could count. I had a blast watching this film.
That said, these two aren't on screen together the entire time, and when they're not together the film power recedes slightly. I still enjoyed it, but some of the storylines felt rushed, messy, and too conveniently placed given the overall chaotic tone of the film. There's some time around the start of the third act where Amy and Molly spend about 15 minutes apart, and I found myself getting kind of bored during those moments. Amy has a romantic subplot that, while fresh in its originality, resolves itself in a rather cliché way while the duo goes through a very overused "events separate them but they get back together because of X" trope you see in a lot of modern American comedies. (Like, all of them.) Formulaic, is the word to use here. The film gets formulaic in its third act. But, formulaic isn't necessarily a bad thing. If it ain't broke, don't fix it, right? I just wish a film with this much originality (depressingly) didn't have such a formulaic final act.
Booksmart was a hit at Sundance, and I can see why - it's a trailblazing film, despite some of its faults, from a beloved indie actress making her anticipated directorial debut. Olivia Wilde's mumblecore roots can be felt throughout the film, (I'm sure there will even be some comparisons to Drinking Buddies) and it is wildly refreshing to see a premise we hardly ever have the chance to see put forth in a modern American comedy. It's opinionated, it's raunchy, it's ridiculous, and it's uplifting. It's exactly what we need in a modern American comedy in 2019.
My Number: 8/10 Great.
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
A triumphant conclusion
Avengers: Endgame (2019): After the devastating events of Avengers: Infinity War (2018), the universe is in ruins. With the help of remaining allies, the Avengers assemble once more in order to undo Thanos' actions and restore order to the universe.
What a way to go out. The conclusion of the Marvel's ambitious 11 year plan that began with 2008’s Iron Man can be described with a multitude of glowing superlatives: triumphant, dramatic, nostalgic, emotional, and most of all: entertaining. It's hard not to overlook how captivating it is to watch a film with a billion dollar budget unfold in front of your engrossed eyes. For all its faults, Endgame is still the final result of the most (seemingly) unattainable project in cinema history, and for every time my cynical side came out watching the same rules established in this wildly flawed universe be broken over and over because, “plot,” (remember when it took 5 people just to hold one Infinity Stone?) I found myself internally screaming with glee. One thing's for sure: Marvel saved the best for last.
Ok so as I jump into what I liked and disliked, know I'll do the best I can to avoid spoilers. But, let's be real: if you truly don't want anything spoiled for you, stop reading now and come back after you've seen the film. It is worthwhile joining the other billion people that will watch this film in the theater, so do yourself a favor and do that and come back. Get it? Got it? Good. So. By FAR my biggest complaint of this film is what the Russo brothers did to its once-great villain. The previously complex Thanos is reduced to little more than a psychotic madman: a villain who simply wants to watch the world burn because he feels like it. Had we not already experienced Infinity War, Thanos would've been just as forgettable as the many one-dimensional Marvel villains that preceded him, simply more overpowering. Like, hilariously OP. Additionally, since I'm cynical and leading with this film's faults, the film does drag in its first act. This film is a HARD 3 hours, and if you're not a die-hard Marvel fan that's watched every film and knows every line, you may find yourself rather bored early on. As the film tugs on your nostalgic strings, it will leave those behind that haven't taken the time to watch the other 22 films in the giant MCU.
That said, there's no denying that if you have been with this bloated franchise since the beginning, you're gonna love every second of this. Cynical Joe was in the backseat during this film's wild and unparalleled final act. While it takes a gratuitous amount of time to reach this film's pulse-pounding climax, when it arrives the payoff is 10+ years in the making. We may never see an action sequence like this ever again. The embodiment of unforgettable filmmaking, it's a sequence that's overarching and bloated yet somehow managed to be emotional and poignant. It is the single best action sequence this franchise has to offer by a considerable margin and one I'll be revisiting for years to come. Additionally, the solid writing from Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus gives each of the franchise's original characters a worthwhile and engaging character arc while simultaneously tapping into our nostalgia for the MCU during this film's (admittedly) clever second act. While it is too long, I, as someone who's seen every Marvel film and knows far more about this franchise than I care to admit, was never bored. However, I do think the first half of this film (and especially the first act) will not stand up well to rewatches, as I'll almost certainly be fast forwarding though it before long.
In conclusion, there's not much that can top the gravitas of Endgame's finale, and directors/architects Anthony / Joe Russo's gratifying decisions far outweigh the frustrating ones throughout the 3+ hour runtime. Marvel wraps up its epic 10+ year plan with a completely satisfying conclusion, despite leaving a couple victims along the way. If you're invested, bring the tissues and prepare yourself: we're in the end game now.
The Critique: one of the wildest climaxes we'll ever see in cinema caps off the MCU in dramatic fashion, despite its mangling of certain characters along the way.
The Recommendation: …….lol
Rewatchability: gonna break this down
First Act - Moderately Low
Second Act - Moderately High
Final Act - so high it's ridiculous
My Number: 8/10 Great.
High Flying Bird
Crazy, outlandish, masterful horror
Us (2019): A family's serenity turns to chaos when a group of doppelgängers begins to terrorize them.
This movie is WILD. Us is an insane step inside Jordan Peele's crazy mind. While Get Out was the film Jordan Peele (apparently) made so that we would all accept him as a legitimate filmmaker, Us is the end result of a studio giving the man that made Get Out a blank check to do whatever he wants. And I LOVE it. It has resonated with me far longer than the average studio film, with a chaotic story, amazing filmmaking and a TERRIFIC performance from Lupita N'Yongo.
That said, there are a few things that are harder-to-swallow. Jordan Peele's mind is a bit of an insatiable one. There are several moments in this film that feel entirely too self-indulgent. As if Peele is saying, “Hey! Really made you think there, didn't I?” Nowhere is this felt more than the forced twist ending. While it was unexpected, it felt somewhat unnecessary and rather forced. I think I may ultimately be in the minority on this one, but I felt like this twist ending was there primarily just to have a twist ending. To give us, the viewers, something to talk about as we exited the theater. It painfully detracted from an otherwise brilliant screenplay.
And yes, the rest of this film's screenplay is brilliant, in its unabashed outlandishness. While Jordan Peele wrote a much more safe and systemic (and still brilliant) screenplay in Get Out, his sequel feels more like the film he wanted to make. There's a lot of passion behind this script, both behind the camera and in front of it. The film's core characters are great, led by Lupita N'yongo, SOMEHOW in her first led role after her groundbreaking, Oscar-winning performance in 12 Years a Slave. Only took her 4 years, right? N'yongo CARRIES this film with two polarizing yet mesmerizing performances. It breaches all acting norms: a performance that's both subtle and over-the-top, all dependent on the individual scene. The year is still very young, but this may be one of the best I see throughout all of 2019. Her performance is so powerful that it's kind of easy to forget that both Winston Duke and Elisabeth Moss are fantastic as well. They will likely be mostly overlooked ion what is certainly Lupita N'yongo's (second) career-defining performance.
And it's all surrounded by some truly amazing filmmaking from Jordan Peele. The master auteur puts on a clinic in crafting meaningfully suspenseful sequences that are equally scary and resonating. This film, while weirder than Get Out, is also more terrifying, delivering some breathtaking jump scares that are not just in the film for the sole purpose of scaring you. If you're not a fan of the horror genre, be forewarned: this film is legitimately scary. It'll resonate with you too: I saw the film Thursday and I'm still dissecting individual scenes. This film is every bit as captivating as its spiritual successor was, well worth the watch as it stretches across genres with a crazy, supernatural story and wonderful filmmaking. It proves that Get Out was not just "lightning in a bottle" and firmly establishes Jordan Peele as one of the greatest masters of suspense Hollywood has ever seen. Make it a date night and check out the latest from the wild mind of Jordan Peele. You'll thank me later.
My Number: 8/10
A mildly fun time that doesn't offer much else
Captain Marvel (2019): Carol Danvers becomes one of the universe's most powerful heroes when Earth is caught in the middle of a galactic war between two alien races.
Captain Marvel is a charming film. It has some witty dialogue, a few surprisingly intimate moments (for a Marvel film) and decent action sequences. But, the incredible one-two punch of Thor: Ragnarok and Black Panther, two films which brought powerful new voices to the overbearing Marvel formula, feel like an eternity ago following a string of bloated (Avengers: Infinity War) and hopelessly mediocre films. (Ant-Man and the Wasp) The eye-rolling self referential humor is in full force throughout this origin story, and a rather disappointing villain (after Killmonger and even Thanos himself) left me yearning for so much more as the third phase of Marvel's plan for global domination comes to a somewhat uneventful close.
That seemingly damning intro aside, Captain Marvel is.... fine. The film's title character (Brie Larson) leads Marvel's first female-led superhero movie, and Larson brings her wonderful brand of quick-witisisms, and eyebrow-raising charm we've come to know and love in full force. This film basically answers the question, “What would happen if Envy Adams became a superhero?" and I'm so happy it does. I had lofty expectations for one of my favorite actresses in the business, and she didn't disappoint, even if I know she's capable of a lot more. (See: Larson's truly unforgettable performance in Room) Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) is himself, but I'm more amazed by the magic of movies with his character: the 70 year old actor looks like he's roughly 40 in this film, and it's rather disconcerting. Uuuuuuuntil he runs. Or fights. Or does anything requiring strenuous physical exertion. But that's besides the point! Fortunately directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck don't do much in this regard, so Fury mostly just has a sly remark to offer every now and again, and strikes a friendship with a CUTE kitty, Goose. That cat is the real MVP of this film. Not gonna lie.
The filmmaking here is also pretty good. There are a few shockingly intimate moments in the second act, and there's even some silence during these emotional peaks! As someone who's been frustrated by the sheer noise for the sake of noise in seemingly every Marvel movie, the intimate moments scattered throughout were a WELCOME change-of-pace, even if the audience I saw this film with were visibly bored during them. (I think about 7 people got up to go to the bathroom during one such intimate moment - learn to recognize great filmmaking, people!) The emotionally intimate moments are a staple of directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, (1co-directors of It's a Funny Story and Sugar) and really allow them to flesh out the characters and emotional foundations of this story. Seriously, so many Marvel movies blaze past this so we can have another action scene, so it is very welcome here.
That said, the faults of this film start with its villain. We have squarely returned to the realm of the forgettable in Marvel's villain problem. You see the “twist” with the character coming from a mile away, and the villain basically has 15 minutes to make an impression on screen, with very little to do to make a lasting impression. No thanks. While the villain is topically tied to a great statement on our current administration's fear mongering with immigrants, the character itself is extremely forgettable.
End of the day, Captain Marvel is fun and charming, as most Marvel films are, but outside of it being the first female-led Marvel film, there's not a whole lot to differentiate it from the other 22(ish) Marvel films that preceded it. Maybe history with prove me wrong, but this time I'm feeling pretty confident that my opinion of this film, groundbreaking or not, will stand the test of time. (Unlike Black Panther, a film I enjoyed early on but only saw the true gravitas long after its initial release) See it because of its societal importance, and the fact that Brie Larson is wonderful, but don't expect much other than an ok fun time.
My Number: 6/10 Above Average
Leave No Trace
At Eternity's Gate
Mary Queen of Scots
For the beauty of the craft
If Beale Street Could Talk (2018): A woman in Harlem embraces her pregnancy while she and her family struggle to prove her fiancé innocent of a crime.
Barry Jenkins is a master filmmaker. Plain and simple. He can take any story, no matter how crass, and craft it into a mesmerizing work of art. That's what If Beale Street Could Talk is: an overbearing (and at times slightly insensitive) story composed by one of the true masters of the craft in Hollywood today. We are truly blessed to be in the presence of Barry Jenkins, who, unlike someone like Adam McKay, proved that his breakout film was no fluke.
The calling card of this film is the filmmaking itself. Director Barry Jenkins displays an extraordinary ability to make any scene captivating, regardless of circumstance. Barry Jenkins brought back most of his crew from Moonlight and excelled in the cinematography, editing, and score: all three are very close to the best I've seen in 2018, with the later being the best I've seen BAR NONE. Nicholas Britell follows up his amazing score for Moonlight with an equally captivating and memorable score. But this time, it also packs an emotional wallop that brought me to tears at several points. That's right: the SCORE of this film made me emotional. It's that good. Barry Jenkins personal cinematographer, James Laxton, crafts an incredible work of art with the camera lenses. Shots feel beautifully intimate while carrying an undeniable gravitas to them thanks to the intentionally out-of-focus backgrounds. Various scenes have a beautiful rhythm to them thanks to the constant and subtle camera movement. I honestly cannot believe Laxton was snubbed a Best Cinematography nomination. Performance-wise, Regina King leads the way, (and received a deserving Oscar nomination) but this is certainly an ensemble film. People like Bryan Tyree Henry, Diego Luna, Finn Wittrock, and Pedro Pascal only have a scene or two, but all of them do the best with what they are given. Especially Bryan Tyree Henry. Oh my GOD he's so good. He gets literally one scene, but his performance is unforgettable. When Sharon Rivers (King) finally gets her moment, though, she doesn't let it go to waste.
That said, I've been beating around the bush of the somewhat major fault of this film, and now we gotta talk about it. The story here is…..mediocre. It's overbearing and it hasn't aged particularly well. There are some voiceovers scattered throughout that do nothing but act as a crutch and overexplain things to the viewer, and the subject matter of this story feels a bit inopportune given the #MeToo era we currently live in. Barry Jenkins does a fairly good job at walking the tightrope between two very real problems, (and I, being the straight white man that I am, certainly don't claim to have any firsthand knowledge of either) but there were a few moments where I found myself a little uncomfortable at the approach. The voiceovers are the bigger culprit, though it doesn't detract too much from the overall film, because even as we see an overbearing voiceover, we're still looking at some gorgeous craft. But, sadly….. this story is no Moonlight. Nor does it even deserve to be used in the same sentence.
In summary, the craft of this film was exquisite to watch, but it does surround a screenplay that is both crass and oppressive. Barry Jenkins makes this film great with his technical mastery, but the film is held back by it's subject material. Oh, and it's main characters. I haven't mentioned them at all to this point because Tish and Fonny are a tad forgettable The chemistry between them is…..uninspired. But when the craft is so intoxicating to look at, it's hard to care. This will be a phenomenal movie to watch in film class down the road, because this is exactly how movies should be made.
My number: 8/10 Great.
An intimate family epic
Roma (2018): A year in the life of a middle-class family's maid in Mexico City in the early 1970s.
Every so often, a glorious film comes along that completely reinvigorates my love of cinema. In 2017 it was Phantom Thread. This year it was films like The Favourite and Eighth Grade. Now, you can add Roma to the list. Director Alfonso Cuarón returns for his 8th feature film, set almost entirely in Mexico City in the early 70s. The acclaimed director also wrote the screenplay, produced the film, edited the film, and shot the film. In short, Roma is Alfonso Cuarón's baby, and it is undoubtedly his best work yet. (Which is high praise given his previous film, Gravity, was my number 1 film of 2013.) The film has a simple, intimate, yet emotionally powerful story surrounding the housekeeper Cleo (played by first time actress and star-in-the-making Yalitza Aparicio) and her relationship to the family she cares for as her life unfolds over the course of a year. That's it. Far cry from the technical achievement that was Cuarón's previous film. And yet, this film feels every bit as epic as Gravity did with the extra emotional kick that comes with a truly great story. If you haven't figured it out yet, Roma is well worth your time, and easily the best film Netflix has distributed to date. By a significant margin.
Let's start with the most obvious thing we can see: the acting. The entire cast, outside of Sofía (Marina de Tavira) are first time actors. (Furthering the mythos of Alfonso Cuarón) Cleo is the center of the story, and the intimate, human, genuine performance Yalitza Aparicio gives portraying this character is one of the best of the year. She effortlessly displays an immense range of emotions, and the genuineness of these emotions were increased thanks to the bold decision of Cuarón to hold back key plot details from her until they actually happened. (Yes, including the unforgettable emotional climax of the film.) Actually, that's a good moment to mention the fact that Cuarón was very secretive about the script. The entire film was shot sequentially, (which is actually fairly unusual in filmmaking) with the director often not even giving the actors the script for an individual scene until the day that scene was to be shot. (Something which director Hirokaza Kore-eda also did shooting Shoplifters, to achieve a similar effect.) While this does sometimes hurt the film more than it helps it, particularly in the opening few scenes, it's still mesmerizing to see this cast have as much chemistry with each other as they do with such an incredible level of authenticity.
But the calling card, of course, is the sheer scale of Cuarón's vision. This film is a triumphant family epic if there ever was one. The production design, sound editing, sound mixing, and cinematography are all the best I saw/heard in 2018. Cuarón captures so many nuanced details in every frame: so many extras, creatures, and natural occurrences unfold to a dizzying extent in his grand (and I mean GRAND) one-shots. It will take your breath away, and needs to be adored on the largest screen possible. I know that's a bit of a cliché in movie reviews, but it's deserved for Roma. There was not another film that dropped in 2018 that will sweep you off your feet more. And it's all held together by some of the most amazing cinematography I've ever seen. Alfonso Cuarón certainly made Chivo (cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki - originally slated to shoot Roma before scheduling conflicts arose and Cuarón's cinematographer on films like Gravity and Children of Men) proud with the stunning 65mm black and white aesthetic of the film. The camera is always a calm but confident presence, with a lot of slow, poignant pans from left to right and vice versa being the signature of Cuarón's style. With the two best-looking films of 2018 almost certainly being Roma and Pawel Pawlikowksi's Cold War, also shot in black and white, I think the great film critic Roger Ebert may have been right when he said color handicaps film. (That's a great article he once wrote, by the way. You should read it.)
And that doesn't even mention the sound design. The sound is another reason why you need to see this on a big screen. (At least watch it with surround sound.) The sound mixing is possibly the best I have ever heard, with a mesmeric attention to detail taken by Skip Lievsay, Alfonso Cuarón, and company. You are immersed with the sounds of Mexico City, with the sound making the camera feel like you are right in the middle of each scene. From shopkeepers to mariachi bands to something as nuanced as food being made behind you because the camera is facing the bar and the food is behind you, there is never a moment missed within the sound mixing.
This film is a masterpiece. It'll capture you within the first few moments and not let you go until the final plane soars overhead. It is a flawless epic that is beautiful in both its emotional intimacy and ambitious scale. You'll laugh, you'll cry, and do everything in between. A film like this is exactly why I love the movies, and it gives me the mental drive I need to sit through lesser works. It's also a wonderful foray into the world of foreign film: if you've always been intimidated at the idea of having to read the dialogue unfolding in front of you, (I know I was for a long time) this is a fantastic place to start. And, with it on Netflix right now, there's every reason for you to make tonight a movie night.
The Critique: an emotional powerhouse told on a grandiose scale, Alfonso Cuarón's triumphant masterpiece is a wonderful reminder of why I am hopelessly in love with the world of cinema.
The Recommendation: An absolute must-see for all.
The Verdict: 10/10 Perfect.
Crazy Rich Asians
On the Basis of Sex
Boldly original with captivating storytelling
By: Peter Kosanovich
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018): Teen Miles Morales becomes Spider-Man of his reality, crossing his path with five counterparts from other dimensions to stop a threat for all realities.
Let me start right off the bat by saying that Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is the best Spider-Man movie that has ever been made to this point. And it rightfully deserves all of the accolades and attention it is getting! Sony took a huge risk even greenlighting this movie. They had Sam Raimi’s trilogy with Tobey Maguire, which gave two strong films, and then a catastrophic dud. I will admit, I enjoy those first two movies more than most people. But regardless of your opinions on them, they are well made. Sony followed those up with Andrew Garfield’s The Amazing Spider-Man movies. I thought the first movie was fine, but very unoriginal and uninspired. They just tried to make Peter Parker too cool and "edgy." The second movie was a mess from start to finish, so I will not even address it any further.
Sony was able to negotiate a partnership with Marvel Studios to breathe some new life into the character with Spider-Man: Homecoming. Tom Holland is incredibly charming as Peter Parker, and the audience was not forced to suffer through yet another origin story. Not to mention, the MCU finally sawa good villain in Michael Keaton’s portrayal of the Vulture. All-in-all, it was a solid outing, and well worse the praise. But that still pales in comparison to Spider-Verse.
Sony worked on Spider-Verse in relative secret. While everyone else was focused on Homecoming and the Marvel partnership, Sony was working on this. And wow did it pay off. In December 2017, they released a teaser trailer to show off the new Spider-Man, Miles Morales, and the insane animation they were attempting. I will never forget watching that teaser the first time. I was flying home for a wedding and Christmas from Canada, and I was in a painfully long layover in the Detroit Airport. I opened Facebook minutes after the teaser dropped and promptly had my mind blown! The visuals were stunning; the music, “Home” by Vince Staples (Vince was also featured in the first teaser for Black Panther the previous year), was on point; and the decision to use Miles Morales as the lead character had me practically yelling in joy in the middle of the Detroit airport.
For those of you who do not know Miles Morales, let me give you a quick rundown. In the 2000s Marvel comics decided to spice up their comics by introducing the Ultimate Universe, an alternate universe of Marvel characters that existed outside of the traditional continuity. In this alternate universe they introduced Miles Morales, a 13-year-old Afro-Latino boy from Brooklyn, who, having also been bitten by a radioactive spider, takes up the mantel of Spider-Man after the death of Peter Parker. If you are worried about spoilers for the comics, you are about 10 years too late, but I will do my best to avoid them going forward.
So, now into the actual review portion: From the trailers and various promotional material you may have noticed multiple Spider-persons. This may be overwhelming, but trust me, this is Miles’ story through-and-through. And even though I bashed on origin stories earlier, this includes a fresh take on the origin story. So you will not feel lost if you are new, but you will get some goods laughs if you understand all the references to other Spider-Man movies and history. On that note, the movie is hilarious! There are laughs to be had at every turn. Jokes about Spider-Man, about New York City, about Marvel and the Avengers, about rival studio Warner Bros (Spider-Ham is very self-aware of his likeness to Porky Pig). They even manage to make puberty a running joke throughout the film, without being malicious toward an age group that clearly needs no one throwing punches at them. It is incredibly smart and clever. But, like the puberty joke, none of the humor is malicious or mean in any way. It is charming and endearing, sweet and wholesome, and easily relatable across demographics.
With that, the movie is highly relatable! Sure, it is about superheroes and super-powered Spider-people, but it genuinely has heart to it. Miles has loving parents who want the best for him, even if he does not always see it. His family is complex and messy: his dad is a cop, while his uncle Aaron is a career criminal. Yet both care deeply for Miles. He has friends and struggles to fit in at his new school, a place that is clearly designed to be a little classist. He is one of the very few non-white students there, along with his roommate, an Asian student who barely says a word at all. He struggles to talk with his crush, it is very sweet. As fantastical and complex as the movie is bringing multiple Spider-people from multiple universes together, you can still feel genuine heart and down-to-earth struggles that make this a highly relatable film.
Yes, it is very complex, but Spider-Verse takes care to make sure it does not feel overly complex. When it does get more complex, or you wonder “wait, ANOTHER Spider-person?” they make a joke to help guide the audience along. Each Spider-person gets an individual origin story, but they are mostly boiled down to a minute or less, just so you know, “Okay, it’s a Spider-person. They are similar to Peter Parker, but here is how they are different.”
There is of course Miles Morales, the lead protagonist. There is Peter Parker, dragged in from another universe. There is Gwen Stacy, aka Spider-Woman (Spider-Gwen to the fans). In mainstream comics Gwen Stacy was Peter Parker’s first love, and he was unable to save her from a tragic death. In her alternate universe, she was bitten by a spider, and was unable to save Peter Parker from a tragic death. There is Peni Parker (aka SP//dr), a futuristic, anime-inspired spider-person who co-pilots a biomechanical suit with a radioactive spider. There is Peter Porker (aka Spider-Ham), who was a spider bitten by a radioactive pig (very self-aware), and is designed to look like Looney Tunes cartoons. And finally there is Peter Parker (aka Spider-Man Noir), with the truly inspired voice-casting of Nicolas Cage, in a monochromatic, hard-boiled, noir-esque Spider-Man that wears a trench coat and fedora like old detective films.
What's remarkable is that, even though the standard animation throughout the film is incredible, each of these individual Spider-people have added unique visuals to help truly distinguish them, bringing added individuality and flare to them. Peni Parker is inspired by anime, so her character is Japanese-American and has large, slightly exaggerated features common to anime. For instance, her eyes are massive and tend to twinkle when she is happy or swell up when she is sad. Her movements are also slightly exaggerated to sell the over-the-top nature of some anime series. Peter Porker has a flatter style of animation. He looks almost hand-drawn, and his movements are very rounded and fluid. His arms and legs tend to move simply in motion blurs, much like Looney Tunes characters, especially Roadrunner, when he runs or moves about. His shape is also imperfect, and had odd proportions that help sell the Looney Tunes connection. And Spider-Man Noir is completely monochromatic, black-and-white, even when interacting with color objects.
The colors throughout this movie are astounding. They really use colors to compliment and highlight every aspect of the city. This is shown especially through Miles’ love to graffiti and street art. And Miles’ love of pop-culture is shown through his love of music, which is mirrored in the film’s soundtrack. Like Black Panther earlier in the year, Spider-Verse has a killer soundtrack. It is a love-letter to east coast rap/hip-hop, new and old. This bleeds into Miles’ character too, who uses music to relax and inspire him. The song “Sunflower” by Post Malone and Swae Lee is Miles’ go to relax and feel good song, and it is used a few times throughout the film. “What’s Up Danger” by Blackway and Black Caviar is a thumping, adrenaline-pumping track that builds hype and excitement every time it is used or sampled. And “Star a Riot” by Duckwrth and Shaboozey should be the most hard-hitting rager on the soundtrack, but is instead used for a hilarious joke.
Not only is the curated soundtrack excellent, the original score is also astounding. The orchestration feels both inspiring and reminiscent of traditional scores, but also infuses the feel of the curated soundtrack at points. It uses bits of “What’s Up Danger” throughout to build hype, while using “Sunflower” to relax and let us remember the kind of kid Miles is. The best track on the score though is “The Prowler,” the theme that plays for one of the primary villains of the film. Prowler is a truly intimidating villain, as you learn early on, and the theme that accompanies him is impressively unsettling. From my understanding the composer took an elephants calls, re-pitched it, then made it pulse. Honestly, words do not accurately describe it. Just listen to it.
But, behind all that, like I have mentioned a few times, this movie has so much heart to it. You feel the love for Spider-Man, whichever version you want. You feel Miles’ struggles and the love his family gives him. You feel the excitement in the music. And you can see the dedication the animators put into this, and how much fun they had. The story shines in every respect, and you just feel so good after watching it. This was easily one of, if not my favorite movie of the year. I have been struggling to keep up this year (grad school), but even if I were more caught up I think this might take the cake. It feels even throughout, well-paced, and the story never goes off the rails. The voice-acting is excellent. I have already gushed over the beautiful animation and the characters and the music. There really is nothing I do not like about this movie. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
My Number: 10/10
JOSEPH: There isn't a whole lot here that Peter hasn't already said. I wasn't QUITE as high on it as Peter, (the ending was rather stereotypical for how unique the rest of the film was) but the sheer originality and creative risk taken on such a high-profile franchise is very refreshing to see. Well done, Sony! It's certainly got my vote for Best Animated Feature of 2018! Also, Peter Porker FOR LIFE. What a performance from John Mulaney. That man can do no wrong!
Christian Bale's performance is not enough
Vice (2018): The story of Dick Cheney, an unassuming bureaucratic Washington insider, who quietly wielded immense power as Vice President to George W. Bush, reshaping the country and the globe in ways that we still feel today.
Let's get the obvious out of the way first: Christian Bale is really good as Dick Cheney. Bale's quantifiable performance (he added 40 pounds for the role, changed his accent again, the whole nine yards) will be justifiably discussed at great length this award's season. (It's already netted him a Golden Globe) But it overshadows an abysmal script from director/screenwriter Adam McKay. This movie is an incoherent mess, and not even the terrific performances from its core cast are enough to save it.
I'm guessing this is what happens when Adam McKay is given near complete control over a project. To me, the issues here begin with the fact that no one was willing/able to tell the director that some of his ideas are bad ones. This film is a tonal disaster. One second, we're supposed to be really sad about something, the next we're supposed to feel anger, the next we're supposed to feel joy. All in three quick (and sometimes incoherent) cuts. McKay's textbook style does not jive with this story at all. His asides to explain difficult subjects (akin to explaining what CDOs and sub-prime loans are in The Big Short) feel awkward and forced, and the narrator (similar to Ryan Gosling's character in The Big Short) isn't integrated into the actual story anywhere near as well. But the biggest offender here is the editing.
I'm not sure why there's a huge drop-off between this and McKay's previous endeavor. The same editor (Hank Corwin) did both films, so why does the editing from The Big Short work so well but here it feels like an unwelcome menace? Nothing against Hank Corwin - the man is a legendary editor and will continue to be as much. In 2015, Hank Corwin received a deserving Oscar nomination for his editing on The Big Short. But here I think it's rather safe to say he will not. The editing is incomprehensible at points, and the "cut to something completely different that subtly progresses the story" style that worked so well in The Big Short was so bad in Vice that I just wanted it to go away. It made the film discombobulating and even uncomfortable at times.
All of this dumbfounds me. The Big Short made my top 10 list in 2015 and has resonated with me far more than most films I have reviewed on this blog. And I have always been fascinated by the stealthy corruption of the Bush 43 administration. This project should've been a grand slam home run in my book! It's not all bad, though. One undeniably good thing is the acting. Beyond Bale's quantifiably good performance, you have stellar performances from the rest of the cast, too. (Pretty shocked this didn't get an ensemble nomination from the SAGs this year. Bohemian Rhapsody? C'mon....) Amy Adams is a tour de force, as always, only here her presence is felt even when she's not on screen. I was fascinated to learn of the power Lynne Cheney had over her husband. Easily the most interesting thing about this film, her power is felt right from the first scene, which also happens to be one of the best sequences of the entire film. Oh ya, and the administration is great: Sam freaking Rockwell does a great George W. impression, Steve Carell is great as Rumsfeld, LisaGay Hamilton does a great Condoleezza Rice, and Tyler Perry continues to surprise when he feels like acting with a great Colin Powell. The 9/11 sequence in particular allowed Carell, Hamilton, and Perry to all shine brightly in their respective roles on one of the darkest days in American history.
However, the fact that that initial scene between Lynee and Dick is one of the best is as frustrating as it is invigorating to watch two world-class actors go at it on screen in a tense exchange. It's frustrating because this film does way more to tell you about Dick Cheney the man versus Dick Cheney, the ruthless VP under Bush 43. Adam McKay spent way too much time explaining how Cheney and his team dealt with the legality of his overreach versus actually showing us the overreaches he made. (Outside of the situation room on 9/11.) This is akin to my complaints with Bohemian Rhapsody from a few months ago, and here they are equally damning. As much as I do enjoy watching great actors be great, it's simply not enough to save this film from the infuriating realm of mediocrity. At the end of the day, that's where this film will forever rest.
Also, the "controversy" surrounding the end credits scene is dumb. #analysis
The Critique: Adam McKay spectacularly collapses on his follow-up to The Big Short with a messy script and indecipherable editing, despite terrific performances from its ensemble.
The Recommendation: ........eh? There's probably enough here for Adam McKay fans to enjoy it, as well as those who tend to vote blue, but there are better things to watch in the theater right now. Wait for it to hit streaming services.
Rewatchability: Moderately Low
The Verdict: 5/10 Painfully Average.
(But, for real, Adam McKay knew that post-credits scene would be the scene conservatives would glue on to, ignoring the rest of the film in the process. So, while it is an easy way for conservatives to avoid addressing the issues raised by the rest of the film, it's equally puzzling why this scene is in the movie at all. It accomplishes the same thing as calling out racists does.... the second you stoop down to their level and acknowledge them, you merely enable them and allow them to play the "victim" card, thus doing little outside of confirming what the rest of us already know and furthering their cause with those that don't.)
Play me off, Johnny!
Quick Reviews, Winter 2018 Part 2: Green Book, Welcome to Marwen, Mary Poppins Returns, Holmes & Watson, First ReformedRead Now
Welcome to Marwen
Mary Poppins Returns
Holmes & Watson
A wonderfully nuanced tale on what defines a family
Shoplifters (2018): A family of small-time crooks take in a child they find outside in the cold.
Every so often, a film comes along that blows you away in every sense of the phrase. These occurrences are even more illusive when you combine them with the ability to broaden your horizons about a certain subject pertaining to societal norms. However, Shoplifters does exactly that. One of the most inquisitive films I've ever seen, Shoplifters is a story told by writer/director Hirokazu Kore-eda. The Japanese director crafts a marvelous piece of cinema that effortlessly grips you from the first frame to the end credits. It's easily the best made film I've seen all year, with an equally enlightening story.
The film centers around a Japanese family that makes its living around the film's namesake. Each member of the family is masterfully crafted and portrayed. Kore-eda style bodes well for the actors involved here. Many of the scenes most emotional moments are improvised, (including the film's incredible climax) which leads to some of the incredibly genuine and heartfelt moments. The entire film basks in its intimacy: there's only a handful of shots with more than 5 people in the frame throughout the 121 minute runtime. This intimacy allows you to easily connect with each and every member of this diverse family. The first half of this film is a loving character piece made by a master filmmaker, and you'll find yourself so absorbed by it when it takes a hard right you're completely blindsided.
The final 30 minutes of this film are heart-wrenching and will make you question what it means to be a family. It's one of the best "hard rights turns" I've ever seen in a film, and thanks to the engaging character development in the first 90 minutes, every second of that final act is an emotional roller coaster. It is impossible to leave the theater without this film resonating in the depths of your mind and soul for days, if not weeks, afterwards. It certainly has with me. Every aspect of filmmaking is at its best here at the hands of Hirokazu Kore-eda. The lighting and set design (equally intimate in scale) are equally masterful. The film demands a second (or even third) watch so you can catch all the nuances you missed in the first go. It's one of the best stories I've ever seen, crafted by a master filmmaker, and more than fitting of Cannes Palme d'Or. Do make an effort to see it.
My Number: 10/10 Perfect
Wonderfully weird, mindlessly marvelous
Aquaman (2018): Arthur Curry learns that he is the heir to the underwater kingdom of Atlantis, and must step forward to lead his people and be a hero to the world.
So for those that have been following my reviews over the years, you know that I don’t exactly have the best relationship with comic book movies. So that should lend some credence to the notion that I actually enjoyed James Wan’s Aquaman, because cynical Joe can still have fun watching movies. That's exactly what Aquaman is: fun. How do you make a film with a standard cookie cutter story enjoyable? With great execution, amazing colors, and over-the-top sequences, that's how. I think Warner Brothers has finally discovered a formula for success with these spin-offs: limit Zack Snyder's involvement while simultaneously allowing the directors of these films be themselves. We can thank Patty Jenkins (Wonder Woman - check out Peter Kosanovich's review here) for that.
So what makes this film so enjoyable? James Wan's fingerprints are all over this film. In a nutshell, the accomplished director takes the Furious 7 formula (his previous big budget action movie) and puts Aquaman in it. And since Furious 7 was a wonderful bit of mindless fun, that means Aquaman is that, but with even more money. My favorite thing about this film are the colors. The production design here is out-of-this-world (or, in the depths of the sea? Does that work? Shut up, Oscar.) and makes the film infinitely more enjoyable. Had Zack Snyder been given more leeway in this project the sets would've been disastrous, given the fact that it's hard to find natural light underwater. (And thus justification to shoot an underwater scene "during the day") But James Wan makes sure every set, regardless of natural lighting, is lush and colorful and fun to look at. Mad props to production designer Bill Brzeski. If this film deserves any recognition from the Academy, it should be for its mesmerizing production design. Or special effects. Those are pretty dang good too. The third act in particular has a ton of absurd sequences that would've looked absolutely ridiculous were it not for the great special effects.
Also, the cast is great. Jason Momoa is fantastic as Aquaman, bringing a level of suave and charisma to a character that's never been known for it. (Deeeeeem abs doe.) The writing is where this film really flounders, (more on that in a sec) but one character that does receive a great arc and a ton of depth is King Orm. (Patrick Wilson) While this villain isn't quite as dynamic as Killmonger from Black Panther, King Orm's motivations are grounded in real-world problems and thus make him a far more sympathetic villain. (2018 has definitely been the year of the villain in superhero movies.) However, King Orm is about the only character who's arc is even remotely interesting. Aquaman goes on a dullishly ordinary hero's journey, and Mera (Amber Heard) is all but wasted as the sidekick that (predictably) falls in love with the male lead. You're never taken by surprise with this story, but, similar to that of Furious 7, you still find yourself having fun with all the mindless action. It is undoubtedly well-made and executed, with a charismatic (though dull) lead and an interesting villain. What more could you ask for out of a big budget action movie?
The Critique: Despite a cardboard cutout of a story, Aquaman delivers a ton of mindlessly enjoyable moments thanks to incredible production design and stellar visual effects.
The Recommendation: if you're looking for a fun popcorn flick this holiday season, look no further!
The Verdict: 7.5/10 Almost Great
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