Friday, August 24, 2018
Despite Spike Lee's bizarre career filled with decisive and polarizing films, sometimes of questionable quality, Lee has always been a filmmaker that's worn his emotions on his sleeves and has never shied away from using cinema as a way to tell us how he feels about the world we live in. Films like "Do the Right Thing" and "25th Hour" are both raw, fiery, unfiltered looks at the tensions and fears everyone was feeling at the time, one looking at a racial divide turning into hate, while the other comes to terms with an insecure country after the events of 9/11. His films are strangely timely timeless films - stuck in a particularly tough moment in time, yet delivering a powerful message about racial (in)equality which resonates forever.
Spike Lee continues this trend of timely timeless cinema with his newest film, "BlacKkKlansman," as he delivers far more than just a compelling crime thriller about a black cop infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan and the game of cat-and-mouse that ensues. Lee never once shies away from how the vile and hate of these Klansmen hasn't gone away to this day, and that the world is still filled with unrelenting prejudice that we shouldn't stand for. This makes "BlacKkKlansman" not only the most important movie of the summer, but one of the most important movies in years, made by one of the most important filmmakers of our time.
One aspect worth noting about "BlacKkKlansman" is that principal shooting and photography was completed well over a year ago. Lee's intent was to tell a true story about the first African-American detective in the 1970s and his tense job to befriend members of the KKK that delivers a thrilling ride built on the pillars of racial indifference.
Then the hateful and tragic white supremacist rally in Charlottesville happened, changing the course of this movie. It wasn't just that the morals and philosophies of the KKK still exist today, but that this racist, repulsive way of thinking feels safe and protected when the leader of the free world doesn't condone it. These acts of violence and racial divide will only continue if our leaders won't stand against it and even outright applaud this behavior.
Like Lee's many other films, it is this unbridled energy to showcase the hate in the world that serves as the driving force for "BlacKkKlansman." Despite being accurately set in the 1970s, the film is very much about our modern society. Lee gives strength to those voices that would normally be silenced and turns the spotlight on a world that needs to be reminded what love, acceptance and power really looks like. Through stellar performances from John David Washington, Adam Driver and Topher Grace, plus a very in-your-face visual style that Lee is known for, we get a film that invokes the best and worst in humanity.
With films like "BlacKkKlansman," "Sorry to Bother You" and "Black Panther" being released this year, and so many others like "Get Out" and "Selma" in last few years, it is safe to say we have entered a new era of filmmaking that isn't afraid of making a bold statement about racial inequality and the need to tell new stories from different perspectives than audiences are used to. These films are helmed by stylish, diverse filmmakers that want to use cinema as a way to not only entertain and entrance, but to reflect. I, for one, am honored to be take part in this new age of diverse filmmaking and feel that "BlacKkKlansman" is one of the high points of this age.
Final Grade: A
Thursday, August 23, 2018
What makes Hollywood in the 1940s so fascinating from my perspective is the way morally taboo subject matters are addressed without ever even hinting at them. The strict Hayes code was in full force at this point, which included not showing a man and woman in bed together and a single kiss not lasting any longer than three seconds. Yet the era was still ripe with sexual tension and often feels more authentic and palpable than the movies of today, especially in film noirs such as "Double Indemnity," "The Big Sleep" and "The Postman Always Rings Twice" that serve as the backbone of the film noir genre.
"Postman" has a rather similar plot to "Double Indemnity" - a gullible naïve man falls for a beautiful blonde woman who convinces him that the only way they can be together is if he helps kill her husband. The difference in "Postman" is that this act of murder is more passionate and raw, done out of longing-ness for these two young lovers to be together, while "Double Indemnity" is done more with the money in mind, especially for the femme fatale.
Lana Turner plays Cora, a young woman who has had men chase her around her whole life and finally decides to settle down with a much older man who runs a diner in the middle of nowhere, Turner's vibrant yet subtle acting hinting that these two are in a one-sided relationship. The moment another man, Frank Chambers (John Garfield), shows her any sort of affection and kindness, she's ready to run off with him. Turner tows the line between seductive and alluring yet sympathetic and lonely, making her feel honest in her goal to be someone yet naïve enough to think that she's in control of her damaged life.
And yet, through all of this sexual tension, "Postman" hardly ever hints that Cora and Frank are intimate, turning their relationship into more longing and pining for each other rather than a fire and ice romance or even the sharp, witty dialogue of "Double Indemnity." Garfield and Turner create a relationship that seems to live in permanent limbo, both genuine in their affection but frustrated that it can't be more. Garfield is confused and always on-edge, while Turner is pitiful and vain, making for alluring yet volatile chemistry.
Overall, "The Postman Always Rings Twice" is a staple of 1940s film noir and is captivating in how raw and emotional its journey of toxic love can get. The performances from Turner and Garfield are sizzling with sexual tension, while the atmosphere is as shady and dark as they come. If you're looking for a similar experience to "Double Indemnity" but played more sympathetically, this is just as satisfying and savory.
Final Grade: A-
Wednesday, August 22, 2018
To be honest, the only reason I went to see "The Spy Who Dumped Me" is because I genuinely find Kate McKinnon to be hilarious in everything she does and because of my celebrity crush on Mila Kunis. On paper, this film seems like a winner - a funny yet tense thriller in the same vein as "Spy," with Mila Kunis and Kate McKinnon running around the globe. Yet this film finds a way to take all the fun and appeal of these two lovely actresses and turns it into a tedious, mean-spirited waste of time.
The biggest problem with "The Spy Who Dumped Me" is that it doesn't know what it wants to do with its two main leads, switching wildly between dead-serious spy action sequences and dirty toilet humor while never stopping to give these girls some traits or personality. Kunis plays Audrey and the only thing we learn about her is that she never finishes anything, while McKinnon plays Morgan who is like if Daffy Duck was reincarnated in the body of a woman and was way too personal with everyone she met. Beyond these quirks and tiny snippets of character, the film never offers a reason for why they act this way or why they would go all around Europe, aside from the script telling them to.
Another problem is the whiplash between its constant genre switching. It's not just that the action and comedy don't compliment each other, like they do in "Spy," but that they're both so off-putting when done back to back. It's night and day between its gritty, gruesome action sequences and fourth-grade level humor, and it's hard to get a read on what this film was going for.
The only thing the action and comedy have in common is that both are unbelievably mean-spirited. In every action sequence, blood and violence is used in extremely graphic detail, while many characters are beat-up or killed for no reason other than to have a body count. The comedy doesn't fair much better, as Audrey and Morgan ruin as many lives as they can throughout Europe without any concern for others. It comes across as the filmmakers having no respect for humanity, especially when our heroes are just as despicable as the villains.
It's hard to get invested in any of this movie when there's more bloodshed than a slasher flick, worse humor than an Adam Sandler comedy, and no redeeming qualities to its cast of characters or their journey.
Even if you like Mila Kunis or Kate McKinnon like me, don't waste your money and time on "The Spy Who Dumped Me." This is a dull, unremarkable film that can't make up its mind on what genre it wants to be and doesn't bother to give its leads any character. While Kunis and McKinnon do well with what they're given, this is overshadowed by how ugly and horrific this film can be, always to unnecessary levels. If you want a good spy thriller, save your breath on this one and go see "Mission: Impossible - Fallout" again.
Final Grade: D+
Tuesday, August 14, 2018
We all remember our adolescence, for better or worse. For most people, it's that unbelievably awkward and confusing time where the innocence of childhood comes crashing down but we're not quite ready to grow up or even know how to grow up into equally awkward teenagers. Emphasis on the word "awkward." It is a time of insecurity, anxiety and coming face-to-face with the kind of person you wish to be against the person you actually are. This is made even more awkward and difficult in today's society of social media and instant access to information, where teens have to develop a social identity quickly or be left behind.
This is what makes Bo Burnham's "Eighth Grade" so enlightening, speaking to that adolescence in all of us and playing the hopes and fears we all experienced at that age with brutal honest. The film is surprisingly relatable with how truthful it rings to these experiences, not pretending to be anything other than a modern coming-of-age story in all of its awkwardly glorious charm. The fact that Burnham casts real eighth-graders in these roles speaks to the honest nature of the movie, truly capturing what it means to be that age and learning about the real world.
The film follows Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher), a shy and unconfident teen in her last week of middle school. Kayla creates YouTube videos about self-improvement and confidence that get very few views, while also struggling to make new friends or even talk to other people at school, getting voted "Most Quiet" by her classmates. But with middle school coming to an end, Kayla is intent on making the most of it, hoping to follow her own YouTube advice and do something with her life.
"Eighth Grade" is the most honest yet awkward film of the year, perfectly emulating the feeling of being that age again without sugarcoating a second of it. This is the age of social insecurity, pimples and sexual awakening and Burnham knows that. The film reminds us of that time and how much we've grown since then, yet at the same time how much we've stayed the same. Elsie Fisher's performance perfectly teeters between that awkwardly uncertain stage where she wants to be confident and certain but doesn't know the best way to make others see it.
And believe me when I say this film is awkward. Every other moment has something cringey or out-of-place that makes the situation weird. Yet the film embraces that side of growing up, reminding us of that very same pain that we went through. "Eighth Grade" certainly reminded me of how I wasn't all that different from Kayla growing up, uncertain and trying to impress others, but also reminded me that we'll all grow up to be more confident and self-respecting, turning this coming-of-age tale in on itself as it's just much about the audience as it is about Kayla.
Overall, "Eighth Grade" perfectly encapsulates a time in our lives that we may want to forget, but probably defined us more than any other point in our lives. With pitch-perfect casting and beautifully awkward pacing and humor, this film rings true to everyone who sees it. It is brutally honest without ever shying away from the harsh anxieties of growing up in a new-age of self discovery.
Final Grade: A-
The 1970s was the renaissance in filmmaking. It was the first time in over 40 years that Hollywood's many limitations were lifted and filmmakers could tell more brutally honest stories that they never could have before. Instead of campy and overly cliché films like "Hello, Dolly!" and "It Happened At the World's Fair," filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick and Martin Scorsese were pushing the envelope of what cinema could show with movies like "A Clockwork Orange" and "Taxi Driver." Yet, at the same time, filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola and Steven Spielberg found new ways to take capitalize on this graphic nature without sacrificing visual storytelling with "The Godfather," "Apocalypse Now" and "Jaws." This isn't even limited to the most well-known filmmakers, with classic like "The Exorcist," "The Sting," "Chinatown" and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." And of course there was a little known film called "Star Wars."
It's safe to assume that we'll never have another period in filmmaking as experimentally rewarding, freeing or fascinating as the 1970s. An embodiment of this ideal is 1974's "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three" and how it updates the tired crime thriller with brutal realism without ever losing focus on the strength of its characters.
In this gritty thriller, a group of four men armed with submachine guns hijack a New York subway train. As the transit authorities and the police slowly find out about the hijacking and the 17 passengers turned hostages, the leader of the hijackers (Robert Shaw) makes his demands - one million dollars in one hour, and for every minute the delivery is late they will kill a hostage. Now it's up to the joint force between subway and police, led by Lieutenant Zachary Garber (Walter Matthau) to negotiate with the uncooperative hijackers and save all of the hostages before it's too late.
"The Taking of Pelham One Two Three" works because of how innocent yet terrifying its concept of an unsuspecting subway car being hijacked plays out as a tense thriller. Anyone of us could be one of those hostages. Yet the hijackers are unflinching and ruthless, dedicated only to their tasks without concern for anyone besides themselves. Each of them is prepared to take another life if it means it'll bring them closer to that million dollars. The slower, methodical pace works to the films' advantage, focusing more on the unforced realism that elevates this above so many other thrillers of its kind.
While the plot is rather predictable due to the formula of this type of thriller, it's the vast range of characters that we end up caring about. From the hostages making an effort to level with their captors and fearing just what they're planning to do even if they get their way, to the police putting everything on the line just to save 17 people, there is no shortage of worthwhile characters doing their best to handle a crisis. But the real standout characters are the classy, methodical hijackers, who have every detail of this convoluted idea planned out and act like this is all a sure-fire deal. They're convinced that they have this million dollars in the bag and wait for everyone else to catch up as their plan unfolds. This level of class and pride in their work makes their realistic nightmare hijacking far more enjoyable than I expected.
Overall, "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three" is a different sort of crime thriller worth checking out. Rather than relying on the expected plot mechanics of the genre, it plays with the realistic fears and emotions of this situation while giving us a wide range of characters and superb performances, especially from Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw. It is experimental and brutally honest without ever sacrificing realism, just like many other films from the 1970s.
Final Grade: A
Thursday, August 2, 2018
The "Mission: Impossible" franchise is one of those rare series that gets better with each entry. While most long running franchises become simplistic and lazy with later entries, such as Batman and Star Trek, this series continues to surprise audiences with its stunts, great acting and high stakes with astonishing results. I can honestly say that each "Mission: Impossible" movie has been more surprising than the last, because I never expect these movies to be anything more than action pieces and instead get a visual and suspenseful treat.
Beyond the crazy and breath-taking stunts and little use of CGI throughout all of these movies, in other words when Tom Cruise looks like he's hanging onto the edge of a cliff with no support it is all real, the reason these films work so well is that they serve as an antithesis to the Marvel superhero flicks or the "Fast and Furious" movies. Rather than going for quick, people-pleasing jokes or over-the-top action sequences, "Mission: Impossible" is as serious as they come without sacrificing realism and tension. The tone feels like if Alfred Hitchcock directed a big-budget blockbuster, and "Mission: Impossible - Fallout" racks up the tone to unnerving yet personal heights.
Building off the events of "Rogue Nation," the remnants of an evil crime syndicate have dedicated themselves bringing a great peace to the world at any cost necessary. Their most recent plan involves stealing three plutonium cores and a captured nuclear weapons expert and threaten the world with three rogue atomic bombs. The IMF tasks Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his team with stopping these plutonium cores from falling into the wrong hands before they can be used on the world at large. But after Hunt fails to secure the cores, the CIA orders one of their best agents, August Walker (Henry Cavill) to make sure this mission is a success, despite Hunt and Walker have different agendas.
My biggest complaint with the spy/agent genre is that the protagonist always seems so detached emotionally that it's difficult to get invested in his struggle to save the world. The "Mission: Impossible" movies have bounced this back and forth, sometimes making more about Ethan Hunt's personal dilemmas, like in "Mission: Impossible 3," while others like "Ghost Protocol" and "Rogue Nation" focus less on the characters and more on the dilemma. "Fallout" finds the perfect balance between the two as the opening establishes the severity of the situation, while Cruise is given far more room to show his acting abilities in this than any other film in the series. All while the top-notched acting from Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames, Henry Cavill and Rebecca Ferguson keep the film from ever getting stale.
Of course, the highlights of "Fallout" are the wonderful stunts and action pieces, with each piece feeling and looking different from the last. I was impressed by how little CGI was used throughout the stunts, or if CGI was used it was well hidden. I found the most impressive stunt to be Cruise and Cavill doing a HALO jump onto downtown Paris all done in one take. Then again, I'm a sucker for impressive scenes performed in one shot, though this jump out of a plane would still be stunning if it were done in multiple takes. Each action sequence delivers the right punch with enough style and flair to make you take notice of these complex and death-defying stunts.
However, "Fallout" does have some pacing problems, especially near the halfway point. As the film begins and ends, the pacing is quick and satisfying, lingering on some scenes just long enough to make the more human moments of grief and horror stand out. But in the middle, the pace comes to screeching halt with several long takes that feel out of place in this movie. It's nothing too major, but it does take away some of the tension that thankfully returns near the end of the second act.
Overall, "Mission: Impossible - Fallout," is the best film in the franchise and continues to demonstrate just how talented Tom Cruise is as both a stuntman and an actor. Showcasing an array of awe-inspiring stunts with very little trick photography and some great choreography during action sequences, this is the best action movie experience of the year. It is tense and breath-taking while remaining grounded in reality, making it about the people involved instead of grand schemes and hidden agendas. I cannot recommend this film enough to those who enjoy engrossing suspenseful tales.
Final Grade: A-
Wednesday, August 1, 2018
I disagreed with many critics on 2014's "Unfriended," due to it's engrossing horror tale where every character was awful or selfish in their own right, while also having unique visuals with everything taking place on one computer screen. It was a suspenseful horror film that played on the fears and anxieties of a generation engrossed in social media. So when the sequel, "Unfriended: Dark Web" was getting similar reviews to its predecessor, I know that I had to check this out for myself and see if this film is as underrated or if really isn't worth mentioning.
"Dark Web" is unrelated to the last film, but still follows a group of young adults having a Skype conversation one evening, when one of them, Matias (Colin Woodell) shows off his new laptop he got off Craigslist. But it very quickly becomes clear that the laptop's former owner used this for shady, disgusting business, though it gets even weirder when the former owner orders Matias to give him back his laptop or else people will start dying, in particular Matias' girlfriend Amaya. As Matias and his friends struggle to figure out what to do, they learn there's information on a currently missing girl on the laptop, leaving everyone with a difficult choice to make.
"Unfriended: Dark Web" makes better use of its single computer screen point of view than the previous film, as it shifts between the many apps, texture changes and webcams smoothly and effectively. Whereas the last film only used Facebook and Skype, this film takes advantage of so many more apps that it feels more in-tune with how tech-savvy adults would act and respond.
The characters also act more realistically here, actively trying to stop what's happening and regain control over a chaotic situation. Each character also has a distinct personality and act as far more than just shocking death fodder. From the early interactions between Matias and his small group of friends, it's easy to tell how they've remained close through their subtle acting alone.
Beyond this, "Dark Web" is a vastly different film from "Unfriended." Where the first film was about essentially a ghost trapped in the internet, "Dark Web" is about how a group of friends unwittingly discovered a ruthless secret part of the internet that loves to sadistically play with people like they're nothing but pawns in their game. While the first film was sympathetic towards the ghost since all of the characters wronged her, the characters in this film have done nothing wrong. Rather, they are the sympathetic ones since they're trapped in a game they have no hope of understanding.
This makes "Dark Web" more of a thriller than a horror film, which I feel doesn't work as well with the single screen point of view. It feels limited, especially since our protagonist keeps making the same dumb mistakes by taunting a faceless enemy. Yet the film feels confused, unsure if it wants to go into more detail about the titular dark web or focus on the horrifying and shocking images, causing the filmmakers to do neither of those very well.
Overall, I'm a bit disappointed by "Unfriended: Dark Web." While it used the single computer screen format effectively, the filmmakers tried to go for a bigger story without changing its limited point of view. "Dark Web" wants to impress with its sinister, all-encompassing evil presence, but it ultimately feels small and unfocused. If you liked the first film or enjoy low-budget horror films, this will have a few scenes that'll creep you out. Just don't expect this to be better than "Unfriended."
Final Grade: C