Thursday, March 22, 2018

Movie Review - "The Ox-Bow Incident" (1943)

Part of the appeal of the western is the raw, unbridled battle between good and evil. This genre is a window to a time and place where men took the law into their own hands, where modern society and its rules weren't anyone's concern yet and we could be as barbaric, chaotic or strong as we wanted to be - the only code around was your own personal code of honor. But as exhilarating and rewarding as these movies can get, there are just as many westerns that turn these ideals on their head to give us a more tragic and sympathetic tale of the west. Films like "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" and "Unforgiven" pull this off wonderfully, but another great western morality tale is William A. Wellman's "The Ox-Bow Incident."

The film is set in a miniscule town in Nevada that has been devastated by cattle-rustlers lately. When the town gets word of another attack that leaves one of their kindest and most well-liked cattle farmers dead, they've all had enough of not doing anything and waiting for the law to bring in these evil-doers. So when most of the town folks find out where the cattle-rustlers are heading, they form a posse hell-bent on taking care of these murderers on their own, even though the sheriff is no where to be found and the local judge says that what they're doing isn't legal. Many others tag along, including passer-by Gil Carter (Henry Fonda), in an attempt to keep all this as level-headed and orderly as possible.

What follows is a tale about passion and anger overriding logic and civility. These men are quick to judge and act of their own accord, including the deputy sheriff who deputizes everyone in the posse despite not having that power, or the former civil war Major who takes command of the situation even though no one asked him to. They've lived in the west so long that they don't see how law and order can solve this situation - these dangerous men only understand bloodshed and swift action, so they must respond in kind.

But the strength of "The Ox-Bow Incident" comes from how you understand where the towns folk are coming from. They immigrated from all the corners of the globe to start a new life where decent and honest men could thrive, and now the only thing they've ever held dear is being taken away from them. These aren't bad people, they're just so caught up in their own sense of right and wrong that they've grown impatient and angry at the world. This is their way of lashing out.

Of course, that only makes this tragic tale even more sympathetic. Like watching a peaceful protest turn into an angry mob.

I would argue that "The Ox-Bow Incident" is one of the most important and significant westerns ever made. Because it was made in 1943, when the genre was just reaching its peak, this film challenged the status quo by muddling its morals and sense of right and wrong, to the point where you're not sure who to root for anymore. It shows a vulnerable and unpleasant side to a setting that is often romanticized and glorified, giving us possibly the most flawed yet human western tale of its time.

Final Grade: A

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Movie Review - "Field of Dreams" (1989)

If there's one thing I admire about cinema, it is the ability to blend together vastly different genres to give us a wholly unique and captivating experience. "Field of Dreams" takes two types of stories from completely separate worlds, fantasy and sports, and creates a charming, wholesome, heart-lifting film.

I don't normally enjoy films about sports, due to their predictable formula and clich├ęs about the underdog overcoming every adversity. But "Field of Dreams" escapes that by using baseball as its backdrop and passion that unites the world, rather than having it define the movie. While the fantasy elements certainly help its case, its love for the game and the sense of nostalgia is what really makes it stand out.

The film is set in the rural farms of Iowa, where baseball-fanatic Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) has made a living for himself growing corn with his wife and daughter. But one day, Ray starts hearing voices out in his field, repeating the same thing over and over again - If you build it, he will come. As if struck by divine guidance, Ray interprets this message as a sign that he should convert his corn field into a baseball field. And sure enough, once he builds the field, magical events start happening.

The acting in "Field of Dreams" is a mixed bag. Kevin Costner brings his usual bland and uninterested tone, as even during the more personal and earth-shattering moments he can barely find the strength to work up a smile, let alone give us a decent reaction. That being said, Amy Madigan, who plays Annie Kinsella, is overflowing with positivity and joy that it almost makes you forget that Kevin Costner is hardly acting. Every time she's on screen, you can tell that she's having a blast and genuinely loves being her supportive and lovable character. James Earl Jones plays a famous writer who has lost interest in the world and brings a lot of snark to the film, as well as a connection between the past and the present.

Although the acting certainly gets boosted further with the final film appearance from Burt Lancaster, who brings the same energy, charm and enthusiasm that he always had throughout his career. As a capstone to his acting career, Lancaster gives us one final chance to see his sentimental side.

But the biggest reason "Field of Dreams" works as well as it does is because of its passion for baseball and how it connects people in so many invisible ways. The film lovingly paints a tapestry of baseball history, explaining what happened to certain baseball players and their statistics, and telling us how there is no feeling quite like playing on a baseball field surrounded by caring fans. Most importantly, that whatever may happen in the world, no matter what troubles and problems we may experience, we'll always have something to root for out on that baseball diamond. Baseball is not just a uniter, but a love that will never fade.

Overall, "Field of Dreams" is a charming film that loves baseball as much as any one else, and wants to share that love with the rest of the world. It has some heartfelt performance, though some are better than others, and some effectively sentimental writing that hits the right notes when it needs to. The fantasy elements are all over the place, but the passion and love for baseball more than makes up for that. If you are even remotely interested in baseball, or are intrigued by the sport, then check out "Field of Dreams" to see the true strength of the sport.

Final Grade: B

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Movie Review - "Game Night" (2018)

I am so happy that more modern comedies are trying to be like "Hot Fuzz," and have a funny screenplay to go with the great jokes. One where the jokes are not just one-liners, but serve as plot points that add a whole new layer to the film and its characters. They're not just funny for their own sake, but also smart.

"Horrible Bosses" did this wonderfully, and now we have those writers returning to direct another witty, multi-layered comedy-thriller, "Game Night." Whether you're going into this one for the action and intrigue or for the laughs, there's enough of both to go around, especially since it's filled to the brim with charming characters and twists that keep the audience on their toes. It makes this film feel refreshing, especially since 2017 didn't have many worthwhile comedies.

The film follows married couple Max and Annie (Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams), two extremely competitive people who love to play any sort of game - board game, video game, trivia, you name it and they're convinced they can beat you at it, except for Max's vastly more successful and accomplished brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler). The couple have a weekly game night with their group of friends and invite Brooks to join them while he's in town. Brooks then insists on having the next game night at his place, where he promises to take it to the next level, where things get far more real than Max and Annie ever thought possible.

The glue that holds "Game Night" together is the charming and lovable relationship between Max and Annie. Since both of them are very competitive, you'd think they would spend their time fighting each other to see who is better, but it quickly becomes the opposite of that - they become a team that practically shares one mind and do their best to make the other even better. They spend their wedding night playing "Dance Dance Revolution" with the biggest smiles on their faces. They each bring far more meaning into the others' game of life, and they never lose sight of that.

My favorite scene involving these two comes early on when Max admits why he's so jealous of his brother. While Annie doesn't initially see it, after spending the evening around Brooks, she completely understands why Max feels this way and hates Brooks just as much. In any other movie, the spouse would never understand why the other is so jealous or upset until the final act, like they don't think it's a big deal and the other should just get over it. But Annie supports and understands her husbands' feelings, and instead of choosing to ignore them or tell Max to man up, she wants to help find a way to get back at Brooks and make him feel like the inadequate one.

That was the moment that I truly fell in love with these characters.

"Game Night" also has a varied sense of humor, ranging from slapstick and witty dialogue to callbacks and jokes with a long wind-up. It also has a very violent sense of humor at times, upping the ante from "Horrible Bosses" and giving us some scenes that'll make you squirm in your seat. But it never goes too far in one direction as it masterfully pulls off a darker sense of humor that feels unique.

To top that off, the mystery and intrigue in "Game Night" really does keep you on your toes. I was never too sure what was real or part of the "game" motif that is always persistent throughout the film. The cinematography really compliments this by having several scenes that portray our characters like pieces on a board game, each of them making progress throughout the board and having to deal with the obstacles along the way.

Overall, "Game Night" is a smart, funny and intriguing breath of fresh air. It offers a multi-layered black comedy filled with lovely and charming characters and a wide-range of comedy styles that never gets old. I'd recommend this film to everyone who enjoys a good R-rated comedy or who wants to see a good thriller with a great sense of humor. I wouldn't mind if we start getting more comedies like this in future.

Final Grade: B+

Movie Review - "Annihilation" (2018)

Science fiction can be a difficult genre to tackle and it is even more difficult to please an audience in that genre. While science fiction can cover everything from robots, aliens, depictions of the future, man-made monsters, advancements in technology and so on, the point of the genre should be to show how we maintain our humanity and soul in the face of these new and unexplored perils, or in some cases how we lose ourselves. The reason films like "WALL-E" and "Blade Runner 2049" work so well isn't just because of the impressive visuals or captivating stories, but because of their exploration on how we as a species changed with advancements in technology and artificial intelligence.

Side-note - For this reason, I don't see "Star Wars" as science fiction, but as a space western.

But at the same time, it is possible for a sci-fi film to overdo it on the philosophy and human condition, to the point that the film loses its audience, like a pendulum swinging too far in one direction. Films like "Solaris" and the original "Ghost in the Shell" have this problem - too much style, not enough substance. Now we can add another film to that category - "Annihilation."

This the second film directed by Alex Garland, who previously made "Ex Machina." My feelings on that film are fairly similar to mine on this film - it is visually captivating and well-performed, but thinks way too much of itself to the point that most of it comes off as pretentious. The difference between the two films though is that "Ex Machina" was pretentious through its high-and-mighty dialogue, while "Annihilation" takes a page from "2001: A Space Odyssey"'s book by having many ambiguous scenes without any lines of dialogue.

In fact, that's how I would describe "Annihilation" - as a cross between "Ex Machina" and "2001: A Space Odyssey." With its stunning visuals and high concept ideas about alien life and identity, it has long stretches of silent moments to let those images sink in. But the film does meander for quite some time, as it deals with a dull plot about the government and regulations before they get to the good stuff.

The film follows Lena (Natalie Portman), a cellular biology professor and a former soldier, as she copes with the loss of her husband Kane (Oscar Issac), who has been on a mission for over a year and hasn't heard anything from him in over six months. But one day, Kane pops back up and isn't acting like his usual self. After Kane suddenly grows ill, the two of them are taken captive by a secret government organization and taken to a top-secret area in Florida, dubbed "The Shimmer" that has been slowly expanding for years and changes everything inside of it - no team that has gone inside of it has ever come out alive. But when an all-women team of researchers is hell bent on making it to the center of the Shimmer, Lena volunteers to head inside as well and possibly get some answers about what happened to Kane.

Outside of the impressive visuals, I enjoyed just how vulnerable and broken most of these women were, making this a rather emotional ride as they enter the alien bubble. They all bring their emotional baggage with them, especially Gina Rodriguez's paramedic as she starts grows more paranoid and abusive as they journey towards the center. Tessa Thompson plays a quiet physicist with a dark past that plays out like the opposite of her character in "Thor: Ragnarok," while Jennifer Jason Leigh leads the expedition and grows more ruthless and uncaring over time. They all wear their emotions on their sleeves, and it makes some of this feel like a tragedy at times.

But the main problem with "Annihilation" is that, while it does leave you pondering questions about what happened, none of it was truly investing or satisfying. The mix of ambiguity and pretentiousness leaves me feeling like nothing was accomplished, causing everything to blend together in a rather bland film with no substance to it. By the end of it, I had lost interest in the questions the film was asking, because I did not care about its lackluster (and predictable) ending.

That being said, "Annihilation" is not a bad film, but an underwhelming one. The performances from its minor characters are solid and the visuals are stunning. But the story moves too slowly for its own good and thinks way too highly of itself. In the end, its pretentiousness overpowers everything else about it.

Final Grade: C+

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Movie Review - "The Best Man" (1964)

"The Best Man" makes me so glad that I'm not a politician and never will be one.

According to this film, politics is a cut-throat competition that will stop at nothing to defeat the opposition just to get a better chance at more power, only to have your beliefs, ideals and personal life scrutinized and deflated by the entire nation. It's a area where honesty and trust goes to die, and the only thing that truly matters is not the values of the nation, but looking out for number one.

I respect "The Best Man" for not pulling any punches and showing us two men (Henry Fonda and Cliff Robertson) who believe they're good people that have what it takes to be the next president of the United States. But ultimately resort to every dirty rotten trick in the book to gain the upper hand over the other, exposing the underbelly and nasty side of politics that most believe is necessary to achieve success. Henry Fonda in particular feels authentic as always, as a man who wants to be more than he is, but has a hard time dealing with shadier side of politics, feeling that he shouldn't have to resort to such low tactics to win the heart of the nation.

This is a film with no easy solutions and presents the ever-evolving world of politics as a chaotic, greedy one that hides behind empty promises, television interviews and smiles. It is based off the stage play by Gore Vidal and it often feels like a play, most of the film taking place in two or three interchangeable locations and relies heavily on the flowery speeches of politicians and its leading performances. It has just enough going on to keep you invested in the struggle for power between these two men, so it is certainly worth a watch.

Final Grade: C+

Monday, February 26, 2018

Movie Review - "Black Panther" (2018)

What better way to start off the films of 2018 than with Ryan Coogler, Michael B. Jordan and Marvel?

The newest addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, "Black Panther," is very much a departure from the style that we're used to, where one-liners and snappy comebacks are the norm, while still allowing the filmmakers to explore these long-established characters in creative and imaginative ways. Unlike films like "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2" and "Thor: Ragnarok," this film doesn't feel like a popcorn blockbuster, but an exploration of a diverse and fascinating culture and a serious socio-political piece about what it means to be a king and to remain a good man.

This is certainly Marvel's most serious-minded film since "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," with very few jokes and filled with actors who expertly handle their craft like seasoned veterans. For once, this doesn't feel like a Marvel film aimed at kids, but rather those who understand or appreciate diverse cultures and attitudes.

"Black Panther" picks up where "Civil War" left off, with the leader of the fictional African nation of Wakanda, King T'Chaka, dying in an explosion and his son, Prince T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) being the next heir to the throne and taking up the mantle of the legendary Black Panther. But T'Challa feels conflicted, wanting to be a great king like his father, but quickly becomes aware that the world is rapidly changing and might be a better place if the mysterious nation of Wakanda revealed its true self to the rest of the world. Meanwhile, a blood-thirsty thief (Andy Serkis) is set on stealing more of Wakanda's most valuable resource again, only this time he's working with an elusive and ruthless partner (Michael B. Jordan).

What I enjoyed the most about "Black Panther" was the vast lore, aesthetic design and culture of Wakanda. In the richest country in the world, the people are noble and honest, deeply devoted to their culture and heritage while still being the leader in technology that outshines all the tech we've seen in these Marvel movies. I especially like that the women are often shown more respect and honor than the men, since they make up the most elite guards in the entire kingdom. But at the same time, the weakness of this place is always on full display - its isolation from the rest of the world, with everyone outside of Wakanda believing it is a third world country that has nothing to offer.

This ends up becoming one of the main conflicts of the movie - Does T'Challa preserve the purity of his people's culture and continue to keep the secret? Or does he share the knowledge, wealth and technology of his people with the rest of the world that could desperately use it? Which comes first - his duty to his people or his duty to the world? Do you stick with traditions or evolve with the rest of us?

Every frame of this movie is filled with a rich and vibrant culture, from clothes, to building structure, to ancient traditions and everything in between. Even their legend of the Black Panther comes from their beast God and watchful protector. Coming from my perspective, it makes me appreciate the diversity of other cultures and how there's a lot more in the world that connects us than divides us.

But the glue that holds "Black Panther" together is its many wonderful performances. Chadwick Boseman brings a quiet humanity and kindness to the role to go along with his fierce strength and passion for his people, while Michael B. Jordan steals the show every time he's on screen, commanding attention with his odd charisma and how much he loves what he does, like he's Alex DeLarge at the beginning of "A Clockwork Orange." Lupita Nyong'o plays a Wakandian spy who serves as T'Challa's bridge between his two worlds, while Danai Gurira plays the head of the elite all-women special forces that always demands authority while still being very proud of her country. But most importantly, there's Letitia Wright as Shuri, T'Challa's teenage sister and the tech genius of Wakanda who is an absolute joy as she bounces around with excitement and child-like innocence to all of this. All of these performances come together to make the best ensemble casts in any Marvel movie.

Overall, "Black Panther" is a wonderfully unique super hero film that prides itself on diversity and cultural heritage. The world building in this movie is phenomenal, making Wakanda feel less like a dream and more of a flawed yet beautiful city. The cinematography and art direction is superb, making every little detail stand out. The actors are all used well to help deliver one of Marvel's most imaginative yet serious stand alone entries to date.

Final Grade: B+

Friday, February 23, 2018

Movie Review - "The Pianist" (2002)

Making a film about the atrocities of World War II is like walking a tight rope - one false move or overplayed gesture could cause everything to go wrong, but if you play it expertly and with grace then it is a work of art. This is especially true with portraying those affected by the ruthless and beyond barbaric acts of the Nazis. While there's a certain strength to a film that doesn't shy away from the terrible things that happened throughout Europe during that time and that is absolutely something to respect, there does come a point where it is too much and enters the realm of depressing and almost unwatchable.

Take for example films like "Schindler's List" and "Life is Beautiful," both films that put themselves in the thick of the struggle and show every excruciatingly painful and horrifying things the Nazis would do to any one they considered less than superior. But at the center of it all, there's a heart to these films - a reason to life beyond the struggle to survive. The main characters in these films put everything they have on the line so that others will live on, because they realize that people should live and not just survive.

To me, that makes those films watchable. They're not just gruesome tales about those who lived through the war against the Nazis, but morality tales about how the good and kind in men will always outshine and prevail over the evil and darkness. If you take out that moral center and leave only the fight for survival in the face of these monsters, then you're left with "The Pianist," an unbelievably depressing movie that I respect but would never watch again.

The film is based off of the memoirs of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Polish-Jewish concert pianist at the beginning of WWII. Szpilman (Adrien Brody) lives in Warsaw with his family as the Nazis invade their country and delegate a specific ghetto area of town for the Jewish, as he and his family fight to stay together and survive despite everything the Nazis throw at them, while Szpilman never gives up on being the best pianist he can possibly be.

"The Pianist" is unforgiving, unflinching and honest about the fight Szpilman had to contend with for over six years. Every violent act is given the stunned silence it truly deserves without anything ever losing its weight. But as Szpilman witnesses all these horrible acts and merely does what he can to survive, that tight rope walker starts to overplay his movement and starts to fall off that rope.

Watching a man hopelessly cling to life while it is being extinguished around him is only watchable for so long before it becoming daunting. Watching this for over two and a half hours, like all faith and hope is gone from the world, makes it a bleak and unpleasant experience. Even though Adrien Brody's performance is hauntingly beautiful as he just gets more desperate and ragged over time, the film doesn't give us anything to grab onto. While I don't think that hurts the film, it does hurt the experience.

I would recommend "The Pianist" to those who are curious, but only believe it is worth one viewing. It is a respectful film for its brutal honesty and is worth watching for Adrien Brody's performance, but the onslaught of bloodshed is a massive weight to carry without some form of morality and humanity.

Final Grade: C+