Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Movie Review - "Midsommar" (2019)

If there's one thing Ari Aster's horror movies excel at, it is the unsettling fear of the unknown. The dread of "Hereditary" came from the first hour of build-up, unclear where it was heading or how all the dots connected, yet every moment oozing with atmosphere, where terror potentially waiting around every corner. "Midsommar" thrives on this fear even more than "Hereditary," leading the audience around with a trail of gruesome bread crumbs for two hours as the tension builds once you start to see that gingerbread house and the pleasant rather unassuming witch that doesn't say too much, only grinning like a fool.

The film follows Dani Ardor (Florence Pugh) after a tragedy befalls the rest of her family. Her emotionally distant boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) does what he can to support her in her time of need, but it is clear their relationship is strained. After it slips that Christian and his friends are heading to Sweden for a summer trip, Dani insists on going too, much to the dismay of Christian and his friends. Though this quickly becomes the least of their concerns once they get their friend's Swedish ancestral commune, where their midsummer celebration that only takes place once every ninety years begins and they quickly pick up on some strange and oddly gruesome traditions within the commune.

While "Midsommar" is unsettling above all else, it was also surprisingly engaging due to its rather alien story structure. I had no idea where anything was going or what the members of this commune were trying to achieve. They certainly had ulterior motives, but nothing is spelled out, which makes the scattered bits of terror and screaming even more sickening. It's like taking a trip with an unknown destination and trying to piece together where you're going from the ominous clues around you.

Like with "Hereditary," the pacing might be maddening to some people; it does take a while before anything horrific begins. But an atmosphere of impending dread constantly hangs over the movie, which more than makes up for the rather slow, almost operatic pace. Ari Aster takes this time to curiously explore another culture with the ambition of how this would effect a strained relationship, certianly made better through Pugh's performance.

Overall, "Midsommar" is a fascinating follow-up to "Hereditary" from Ari Aster. It feels more personal and cathartic, as Dani's emotional pain turns into a fantasy of revenge. While the pacing gets a bit grating at times and there are many repeating scenes, the unsettling atmosphere overpowers everything else, always making it seem like there's something crawling up your spine, waiting for your most vulnerable moment to pounce.

Final Grade: B-

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Movie Review - "Spider-Man: Far From Home" (2019)

It's a little unfortunate that we've now reached a point in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that it is nearly impossible to talk about how spectacular one of the entries is without going into massive spoilers. I do my absolute best to keep my reviews spoiler-free, but even I had a difficult time keeping that up with "Avengers: Endgame," especially since that film did not follow a logical path that "Infinity War" had set by going with a five-year time skip just twenty minutes into the movie.

Much like "Endgame," "Spider-Man: Far From Home" is quite unexpected and has many twists and turns that the audience will not see coming, while also drastically changing how the story plays out from that point on. But while I won't mention what those twists are, I can say that they are so expertly handled and built up that it makes "Far From Home" even more satisfying than "Endgame." Combine this with stellar performances, especially from Tom Holland and Jake Gyllenhaal, and the same wonderfully awkward and down-to-earth sense of humor from "Spider-Man: Homecoming," and you get the best Spider-Man movie to date.

Set a few months after the events of "Endgame," the world is still grieving over the death of Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), especially Peter Parker (Tom Holland) who is also being bombarded with questions about Spider-Man replacing Iron Man. Feeling suffocated by these unbelievably heavy responsibilities, Peter gets away from it for a while by going on his class trip through Europe, where he intends to tell his crush, Mary Jane (Zendaya), how he really feels about her. But his plans become increasingly more complicated when Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) snatches Peter away to deal with a new threat from an alternate Earth, with the help of that Earth's only surviving hero, Mysterio (Jack Gyllenhaal).

Part of the reason "Far From Home" works so well is due to how it builds off of "Endgame." Little things like 3.5 billion people suddenly popping back up on Earth are addressed, especially since a large portion of those people are now homeless, while others have to deal with friends or family being five-years older than they remember. Nick Fury, for example, is a lot tougher and more agitated than usual, since he's missing five years of information and progress, almost like he's an alien on Earth now.

But the biggest development following "Endgame" comes in the form of an Iron Man-shaped void in the world. We see monuments and tributes to Tony Stark in many shapes and forms throughout the movie, while others constantly question what will happen to Earth now that their greatest hero is gone. All of this is given even more gravity with Peter coming to terms with losing his mentor, while questioning his own mortality. He begins to think that being "the next Iron Man" must mean that he has to lay down his life if necessary, which is something he can't even begin to consider if he hasn't even told his crush that he likes her.

This is probably the first time the Marvel Cinematic Universe has asked if it is right to be a hero if it means sacrificing an ordinary life, and this is all done masterfully through Holland's subtle performance, while Jackson and Gyllenhaal continually pull him in opposite directions.

All of the strengths of "Homecoming" are also on display in "Far from Home," especially the comedy. The colorful cast of high schoolers feel just as genuine and honestly awkward as ever, while characters like Ned (Jacob Batalan) and Mary Jane get more time to develop and grow into their own brand of comedy.

If I could describe "Far From Home" in one word it would be maturing. As Holland's portrayal of Spider-Man goes from wide-eyed joy to confused and misplaced, we watch him and the world evolve and come to terms with the fact that these superheroes are just as mortal and flawed as everyone else. The growth of Peter Parker throughout this movie is both entertaining and well-earned, especially as those twists and turns are introduced. Even characters like Ned and Mary Jane show plenty of maturity, learning to overcome their own awkwardness as they grow on this Europe trip as well. All of this adds to one of the most rewarding and satisfying superhero movies in a while and the most well-put together Spider-Man movie to date.

Final Grade: A

Friday, July 5, 2019

Movie Review - "Z" (1969)

It is difficult to discuss "Z" in great detail, mostly because it is a political thriller based on real events in the 1960s. The film opens up with the statement that any characters looking or acting like actual people is not a conicidence, it was done intentionally. Even though the film is in French, "Z" has a fiery passion for Greek politics, as the film reflects actual events that happened in Greece, where a no-nonsense judge learns that a hit-and-run accident against a democratic Greek politician might be connected to the Facist government trying to assassinate him. All of this is based off of an actual assassination attempt on a Greek politician who opposed the military dictatorship in place in Greece at the time and the outrage that it sparked.

I say this is difficult because of how deeply expressive and outspoken "Z" is about what actually happened in Greece. This isn't like "The Great Dictator" where Charlie Chaplin pokes fun at Hitler and German society or bounces a large globe around like a beach ball, this is an outcry over a dictatorship murdering those who stand in their way and the helplessness the filmmakers feel.

The strange thing I've heard is that "Z" had a very dark sense of humor, but I guess that didn't translate well into English since I didn't laugh once, rather I was horrified to see the inner machinations of a dictatorship and the lengths they'd go to keep their power over the nation. I found "Z" to be a distrubing take on real life events that only got more unbearable as it goes on, as we find out just how deep the roots of the military's power goes. Even if the film was meant to be a satire, it never once plays anything for laughs, only horror.

Final Grade: A-

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Movie Review - "Cleo from 5 to 7" (1962)

French New Wave cinema has never been one of my favorite film movements, despite being one of the most important and artistic movements cinema has ever seen. These films are the definition of existentialism and prefer to ask long-winded questions about life, love and our purpose in the universe, not unlike Ingmar Bergman's films. This style has its place in asking important questions about what's truly important in life, but it's like watching the same well-crafted painting for two hours - you can admire the details and subilties, but it isn't enough to keep it interesting for that long.

"Cleo from 5 to 7" is one of the most widely known entires in the French New Wave, alongside "Breathless" and "The 400 Blows." But "Cleo" takes a vastly different angle, following one woman around Paris in real time as she waits for her test results to find out if she has cancer. She visits friends, sings, goes to bars and restaruants, all in an attempt to make her forget about her impending doom. So where other French New Wave films would meander and attempt to seem deep, "Cleo" focuses on a dying woman looking at life in Paris through an entirely new lense, wondering why she didn't see it like this before and if this will be the last time she gets to see the beauty of Paris. This certainly elevates "Cleo from 5 to 7" above other French New Wave films I've seen, elevated by a wonderfully captivating and heartbreaking performance from Corinne Marchand.

Final Grade: B

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Movie Review - "Toy Story 4" (2019)

The "Toy Story" franchise has always left a cowboy and space ranger-sized imprint on us, and not like many other long-running movie franchises. Instead of rekindling nostalgia, these films play with tiny toys having adventures in a massive, threatening world, delving into the psychology of a toy and why they find joy in being play things, but most importantly it captures the awe and imagination of being a kid playing with your toys. The reasons to love these films are as vast as the scenarios you created with your toys. They are some of the most wholesome, exciting, imaginative, down to earth movies of all time.

The newest entry in this series, "Toy Story 4," is no different, offering up the best Pixar sequel to any of their products. While the film was not necessary, there is no sign of rust or complacency on display here. Like every other entry, it is always heart-warming, gorgeously animated, and funny. But what propels this film above Pixar's many sequels is how it offers something fresh and innovative to a series that continually reinvents itself, as themes of purpose and association make these 25-year old characters seem just as shiny and out of the box as ever.

Set shortly after the events of "Toy Story 3," Andy's old gang of toys are settling into their new roles as Bonnie's toys. But Bonnie quickly starts to develop favorites amongst her new toys and Woody (Tom Hanks) is not one of them, often spending most of the day in her closet. When Bonnie is terrified of going to kindergarten though, Woody does everything he can to help his new owner, including giving her supplies to make a new friend, a spork with googly eyes and pipe-cleaner hands named Forky (Tony Hale). This comes as a surprise to all of Bonnie's toys, especially Forky whose only desire is to be put back in the trash.

While the previous "Toy Story" movies focused on the relationship between Woody, Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) and their owner Andy as he grew up, "Toy Story 4" focuses more on Woody and his own personal journey after losing Andy. While it is a little disappointing to see beloved characters like Slinky Dog, Ham, Rex and Mr. Potato Head having significantly smaller roles and only getting a few good jokes each, you don't mind it as much because Woody's development is so strong and the new toys introduced are just as lively and funny as ever.

In fact, I loved all of the new toys this film introduced. Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele play a pair of stuffed animals joined at the hand with vivid (and hilariously violent) imaginations, while Keanu Reeves plays a Canadian-toy equivalent of Evel Knievel with an over-inflated ego and crippling abandonment issues. There's a creepy baby doll named Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) that wants something from Woody and is not afraid to use her army of terrified ventriloquist dummies to get it. But the best new toy is certainly Forky, who can't understand his existence and always has a difficult time doing the simplest tasks using his pipe-cleaner hands and popsicle stick feet, but always remains excitedly optimistic, whether that's for questioning how the world works or getting back into the trash bin. Each of these characters, along with many of the veterans, gets a moment where their vibrant personalities shine.

Overall, "Toy Story 4" is a return to form for this series. Always beautifully animated, often terrifying and heart breaking, but always adventurous and thoughtful. The biggest takeaway for me was just how funny it was, especially when it came to Buzz's own adventure with his "conscious" and the many great side characters. This was easily Pixar's funniest movie to date, which added to the already charming experience. While it is not the best film in this series, "Toy Story 4" is the best family film experience since "The Lego Movie" and Pixar's best sequel, a great addition to an already wonderfully creative film series.

Final Grade: A-

Friday, June 21, 2019

Movie Review - "Late Night" (2019)

As I've grown older, I've begun to notice the divide between my generation and my parent's generation grow wider as we develop more of our own identity where imperfections and vulnerability are valued and how that is in direct conflict with older generations views. But I've never seen it addressed with such ferocity as in "Late Night," a new-age comedy that is less about saving a dying talk show as much as it is about the war of values between millennials and Gen-Xers.

In this movie, a respected but harsh late night talk show host (Emma Thompson) and her newest writer, a bright-eyed honest woman who admires her new boss (Mindy Kaling), constantly butting heads about what would really make the show stand out, while the two unknowingly fight over what they hold most dear, to the point of questioning what they're fighting for.

While "Late Night" isn't particularly funny, with most of the best lines going to Thompson and her dry delivery, I was amazed at how honest the film was at portraying the flaws and strengths of my generation and my parent's generation. There is a genuine understanding and respect for both generations, especially the drive and maturity of the older generation and the honesty and forgiveness of the newer generation, all perfectly captured through Thompson and Kaling's performances. It never felt like I was watching cardboard cutouts of what each generation should be, but rather damaged individuals that try to heal through comedy. Even if the story is nothing special, this one is worth checking out for the best cinematic version of millennials against Gen-Xers.

Final Grade: B

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Movie Review - "Rocketman" (2019)

Going into "Rocketman," I expected something along the lines of "Bohemian Rhapsody," detailing the life and music of one man and how that impacted the lives of so many people. But instead, "Rocketman" dives into how the art impacted just one man, in this case the artist. Instead of a realistic approach the music like in "Rhapsody," this is more of a traditional Hollywood musical, where the songs are used to show a character's emotional state of mind in ways that can't be described without using fantasy and imagination, much like Elton John himself. Moments of overpowering joy are highlighted by "Crocodile Rock," while "Tiny Dancer" makes another scene far more melancholy and tragic.

Rather than doing a documentary style retelling of a musicians' life, "Rocketman" puts us in the mind of the musician, as if the whole movie feels like we're experiencing life from Elton John's eccentric perspective. Instead of the music coming from his soul, his music is used to describe moments in his life, defining who he is as an artist, friend, lover, son, and icon. For once, it feels like we see the full picture of a rock star's life, without ever cutting corners just to play to the audience. Both the good and bad of Elton are shown to the audience, while always celebrating his life and what he created, always brutally honest.

It certainly helps that Taron Edgerton plays the role with sincerity and passion. He practically disappears in the role, only sometimes reminding us that he's there when he doesn't quite sing the line exactly like Elton did. Then again, that only makes me appreciate his performance even more, since you know he's singing with much of the same emotion as Elton John. Edgerton's chameleon-like performance makes "Rocketman" one of the best rock star biopics and one of the best musical fantasies in decades.

Final Grade: B+