Thursday, March 28, 2019

Movie Review - "The Earrings of Madame de..." (1953)

The more I watch French cinema, the more I appreciate the way it turns subtlety into an art form. "Diabolique" and "Wages of Fear" pull this off masterfully, and Max Ophuls' "The Earrings of Madame de..." is another great example of taking performances built on undertones and small moments and turning it into a gripping movie. The structure of the film is entrancing, where something as insignificant as a pair of earrings seem to be controlling this story, manipulating each of these characters like a master train conductor trying to orchestrate the biggest accident possible without any other train knowing. The film is elegant, yet is quite possibly the most greedy and selfish movie I've ever seen, creating this seedy undertone to an extravagant time and period that is quite frankly mesmerizing. If you're looking for the best drama that France has to offer, look no further than "The Earrings of Madame de..."

Final Grade: B+

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Movie Review - "Us" (2019)

Jordan Peele has quickly and rather quietly managed to capture an all-too familiar fear that seems so relevant, yet somehow has hardly been touched by Hollywood. It's a fear of identity and what makes us who we are, while turning that on its head so that society would exploit that as if it were a weakness. "Get Out" was inventive and subtle with that, crafting more of a modern mystery with dark underbelly, while always remaining as sharp as a tack and as witty as a comedian, all working to Peele's strengths.

His newest movie, "Us," takes on more of a horror route yet is somehow even more personal and grand than "Get Out." Everything from the cinematography, to the music, pacing and performances creates this unsettling environment that shows that true horror comes from our own minds rather than our guts and blood. And yet, this feels like the most intimate horror movie in years, plaguing on fears we all have in a way that reminds me of the best "Twilight Zone" episodes. For this reason, I'd even go as far to say that "Us" is better than "Get Out."

The film follows a black family, the Wilsons, as they go to Santa Cruz for a summer vacation. The mother, Adelaide (Lupita Nyong'o), is resistant to going to the nearby beach after a traumatic event that happened on that same beach when she was a child where she ran into some girl who looked exactly like her. When the son, Jason (Evan Alex), goes missing for a few minutes, the family heads back home, only for a group of four people wearing red gowns and carrying scissors to stand in their driveway that night. When the four attack the family though, the family finds out that they all look exactly like them.

To be honest, I can't think of a more horrifying concept than a copy of yourself that wants to kill you. This isn't just a stranger or a random psychopath - it's you. They know you, how you think, what terrifies you the most, because they are connected to you in ways no one else can. It would be like if your reflection suddenly attacked you just so they could replace you. How can you hate or despise something like that when they have your face?

"Us" plays with this concept more than any other horror film I can remember, turning that unsettling cinematography and pacing against the audience to make it feel like they're always being watched. Even in more subversive and subtle ways, like through mirrors, parallels and use of shadows, all to add the crisis of identity. The performances of Lupita and Winston Duke only make this even creepier, as they both mother and father and their doppelgangers, who have an agenda of their own as they seem to resent their reflections and their happiness. For most directors, having every performer play two roles would be a daunting and cumbersome job, but Peele pulls this off masterfully.

Overall, "Us" is a masterpiece of horror, playing with a horror of the mind and identity. Jordan Peele brings the same atmosphere of suspense, warmth and mystery that he did in "Get Out" while cranking up the horror and intrigue to unsettling levels. It never gets dull, every performance nails it, the script is just as sharp and witty as you'd expect from Peele, and it is still giving me something to think about long after I've watched it, which is always the sign of a truly great movie.

Final Grade: A

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Movie Review - "On the Town" (1949)

For a lighthearted musical about sailors falling in love with total strangers and a city, "On the Town" excels at being fun and joyous the whole time. It often feels like a precursor to "Singin' in the Rain" with its elaborate dance numbers and choreography, while also feeling very much in tune with films like "West Side Story" in how it uses New York City as its own character. But what really sets this apart from those other films are the songs and how they feel like smooth poetry, especially when they're sung by Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra.

The romances between the three main leads and the eccentric women they meet start out a little off-putting, especially between Sinatra and Betty Garrett as a crazed taxi driver that falls for him at first sight, but considering the spotaniety of the film and its characters, it fits everything else and has a lot of great comedic moments. Overall, you can see how "On the Town" influenced many other musicals like "Singin' In the Rain" and "The Sound of Music," and easily see why it is considered one of the more accessible and enjoyable musicals of all time.

Final Grade: A-

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Top 5 Coen Brothers Movies

Number 5 - "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs" (2018)

I can't remember a film that encapsulates so many of the wonders and horrors of the old west quite as well as "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs." There is a love for the old west that is unparalleled, showcasing why so many people braved the harsh and unforgiving landscape and the joys and tragedies that came with it, like going out for buried treasure. Every vignette is crafted so meticulously with that classic Coen style that I can't help but love every part of this movie.

Number 4 - "The Big Lebowski" (1998)

More than anything, I think I love the philosophy of "The Big Lebowski." One could argue that the film is about nothing and yet is about everything at the same time. It has no meaning, and yet that gives it a purpose. It is both genius and idiotic. All of this is accomplished through the character of the Dude, who encapsulates a generation of people trying to find meaning in a harsh and unforgiving world by making peace with themselves before anything else. The Dude might be one of the most likable characters in cinema history and his lifestyle is certainly the most memorable thing about this movie.

Number 3 - "O Brother, Where Art Thou" (2000)

There's such a simple charm to "O Brother, Where Art Thou" that I can't help but love. There's something about taking the tale of the Odyssey and setting in the deep south while filling the air with catchy blue grass music that feel so heartwarming. It feels familiar and oh-so simple, and yet just fantastical enough to get engrossed in these hyper-active characters. The film is so vibrant and lovable that I can't help but say it's one of the Coens best films.

Number 2 - "No Country For Old Men" (2007)

For most people, it's always a toss-up for the best Coen brothers film between two choices. And while those two are my top two, it is always a difficult choice for me as to which is better. But if I had to pick, I'd put "No Country for Old Men" in the second spot. This is probably the best modern thriller, playing up the silence and loneliness of its three main characters as it delves into the unpredictable mind of a psychopath. Javier Bardem plays one of the greatest villains of all time, while Tommy Lee Jones brings it all back down to Earth by showing just how much people have changed and whether or not we can reason with this new breed of criminal. One of the most well-shot, suspenseful and terrifying movies I have ever seen.

Number 1 - "Fargo" (1996)

But after a lot of thinking, I can safely say that I prefer "Fargo" over "No Country for Old Men" for one very simple reason - Marge Gunderson. Not only one of my favorite film characters ever, but one of the most greatest characters in cinema history. Without her, "Fargo" is about a bunch of losers and morons desperately seeking something that they hope will bring them happiness. And yet, Marge reminds the audience what true happiness looks like. The film is a cautionary tale, while reminding the audience what really matters in life. It is uplifting, comforting and very funny in how pathetic some of its characters can be. Throw in some spectacular cinematography and feeling right at home with its Minnesotian charm, and you get one of the greatest black comedies of all time.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Movie Review - "The Master" (2012)

I'm often hesistant to write a negative opinion on a critically-acclaimed art-house film such as "The Master," since I fear that it would just come across as me not understanding the deep message of the movie and how I just don't get it. But it's not that I don't get what P.T. Anderson's "The Master" wants to say, it's that I don't care. "The Master" never really did anything to draw me in, or immerse me in this strange cult that the titular Master (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) runs, or do anything to make me care about this drunk (Joaquin Phoenix) trying to turn his life around. While Anderson's style is often trippy and thought-provoking, especially in the many trips through Phoenix's past, every character is either unlikable or brainwashed, but almost always unenthusiastic, aside from Hoffman. The standout scene is Hoffman delving into the depths of Phoenix's mind and watching him slowly open up to him, watching that conversation unfold like taking the bandage off an old wound. It's a rather unpleasant movie with gorgeous cinematography, but a lackadaisical pace and filled with characters that are often infuriating. For a modern arthouse film, it is servicable.

Final Grade: C

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Movie Review - "Hellboy" (2004)

Even in adapted works, Guillermo del Toro's definitive gothic-horror style shines through in all of his work. I'm honestly surprised it took me this long to watch "Hellboy," because it is the kind of dark alternative superhero film I would have loved even when the only thing I watched were Godzilla movies. "Hellboy" is oozing with creepy details and even more disturbing characters that want to bring about even worse evils than Nazis, all while having that authentic del Toro style of makeup and set design that always sends chills up my spine. My only complaints involve some of the superfluous characters, such as the FBI agent trying to befriend Hellboy (Ron Pearlman), and some plot points that don't go fully explored, such as the relationship between Hellboy and his adopted father (John Hurt). I think this film could have been a little more developed and polished, but for an early 2000s supernatural superhero film, this is far from bad.

Final Grade: B

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Movie Review - "Umberto D." (1952)

It has been close to six or seven years since I've seen an Italian neo realist film, and while watching "Umberto D." I suddenly remembered why I'm not a fan of the film movement and why I haven't watched one in years. There is a certain appeal to the genre - no actors, no big Hollywood stories that try to play up reality for dramatic reasons, just real people living their lives in a harsh post-WWII world. "Umberto D." certainly has this in spades, as a retired government worker (Carlo Battisti) does everything he can to not get evicted from his home without anyone to help besides his pregnant neighbor and his dog.

But, like so many other neo realist films, it never succeeds in pulling me in. Despite the vivid unforgiving world it paints, and the struggle it creates for its lead character, Umberto seems like such a lifeless character as he waddles from scene to scene aimlessly. Part of the problem could be the whole "casting actors with no acting experience" experience of neo realism, they just can't convey the passion and emotions as well as expressive actors.

Final Grade: C-

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Movie Review - "Captain Marvel" (2019)

After so many amazing super hero movies, ones that always find a way to reinvent the genre and tell stories that appeal to all ages, I've begun to think if it is actually possible for Marvel to make a dud. Not financially certainly, every one of their movies will always make at least three times its budget back even if the movie is trash (I'm looking at you "Thor: The Dark World"), but an emotional dud, one that just didn't live up to the expectations the other Marvel movies have set. Marvel has been on a hot streak for several years now, every film since probably "Captain America: The Winter Solider" being a worthwhile movie - not just great superhero movies, but good films and experiences in general.

Well "Captain Marvel" certainly answered that question. Yes, Marvel can make a dud. A dull, predictable dud.

While "Captain Marvel" is receiving the usual critical praise these movies get every time a Marvel film is released, this time around I find myself disagreeing with it. The film is certainly colorful, has the usual Marvel world building and has a few high points, there are so many distracting elements that ruin many crucial scenes and drag the movie down. The film is certainly empowering, maybe overly so since it often shoves the fact that Captain Marvel is a woman down our throats, but it fails to make the character or her actions endearing.

Set in the 1990s, the film follows Vers (Brie Larson), an alien warrior of the Kree Empire, who has no memory of her life before becoming the apprentice of Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) six years ago and keeps having these strange flashes and dreams of a life she doesn't remember. Vers and Yon-Rogg are fighting a never ending battle against the Kree's worst enemy, the shape-shifting Skrulls. After the Skrulls ambush and capture Vers, they're able to learn through her memories of a device that could finish the Kree/Skrull war and head to find it on Earth, all while Vers learns about a woman named Carol Danvers.

The first noticeable disappointment in "Captain Marvel" is one I think everyone has a problem with - lots of shaky cam. The Marvel films have always had very easy to follow fight sequences, with characters in brightly colored outfits and very steady and smooth camera movement, even in many of the bigger more sprawling fight sequences like in "Infinity War." "Captain Marvel" decides to throw all of that out the window and use a lot of close-up shots during its fights, all while the camera moves around like a five year old is holding the camera. Most of the time, I had no idea what was going on in these fight scenes, just a lot of blurry colors, and since everyone is wearing bright colors I couldn't tell who is who. I honestly thought we were passed the point of shaky cam, where every filmmaker had realized it is the worst filming technique and we'd never see it again, but I guess I was wrong.

Another problem is how predictable and cliché the story is. It's funny that this is set in the 1990s, because at times it feels like a super hero film made during that era, often feeling as smart as films like "Steel" starring Shaquille O'Neal, "Barb Wire" starring Pamela Anderson and "Batman and Robin," in other words the "dark age" of superhero films. Everything from the character actions, the terrible 90s jokes about dial-up internet and Blockbuster Videos, to even lines of dialogue are extremely predictable. The film offers nothing new to the Marvel formula, even dumbing it down at many parts, so after twenty movies of this formula, the audience is always five steps ahead of this movie. This means that the jokes don't work, and the story feels like something we've heard a hundred times by now. "Captain Marvel" never feels new or innovative, because this story is so formulaic, almost like a robot wrote the screenplay.

But quite possibly the biggest problem with "Captain Marvel" is very simple - Brie Larson's performance is uninspiring. Larson often looks lost in this role, stone-faced and emotion-less throughout most of the movie. While her character is supposed to be repressing her emotions, that doesn't stop Jude Law from turning in a captivating and mysterious performance. In fact, other actors like Samuel L. Jackson and Lashana Lynch act circles around Larson, making me care way more about these supporting characters than I care about the lead hero. Larson shows no enthusiasm, delivers her lines with such a cold, uncaring demeanor that it makes her a dull, boring protagonist. Combine this with the predictable story, and it gives you a dull, boring movie.

And since Brie Larson has often turned in very emotional, heartfelt performances, including one that got her Best Actress in "Room," I'm inclined to believe the blame for this can be put on the directors, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck. What should have been an inspiring, fun and uplifting film about the first lead female superhero in the MCU turns into one of the most predictable, hard-to-watch superhero movies in years. Because Boden and Fleck made Captain Marvel into a robot-like character, I see no reason to care for this character.

Maybe its the Marvel curse for their origin stories - pretty much all of the MCU origin films are fairly predictable and the lead hero is often the least interesting part. That would certainly be the case here, since I found the Skrulls to be the best part of "Captain Marvel," with their shape-shifting powers and underhanded-tone of voice, they turn a crowded train into a very suspenseful scene. It's like if there were a whole race of the alien from John Carpenter's "The Thing" and they invaded Earth. If there were more scenes like that, this would have been a much better movie.

But as it stands, "Captain Marvel" does not live up to the standards the Marvel movies have set over the last decade. There are some standout moments, especially when they involve the support cast such as Nick Fury or Annette Bening as the leader of the Kree Empire, and it does elevate the film to make it at least tolerable. It's certainly not the worst Marvel film, since it does have redeeming factors that make it worth seeing, but the reliance on shaky cam, the predictable story and Brie Larson's unenthusiastic performance certainly don't make me want to watch it again.

Final Grade: C-

Monday, March 11, 2019

Movie Review - "A Man for All Seasons" (1966)

"A Man for All Seasons" feels much like a character study from Shakespeare, about a man who is conflicted between his religious beliefs and his personal beliefs and how that is always at odds with the church in charge of the most powerful country in the world. Paul Scofield plays the role of Sir Thomas More with quiet dignity while still having the strength to command a room, despite his opposition. As a period piece, it reminds me of "The Lion in Winter" with its castle design and regality, but the vibrant color palette of "A Man for All Seasons" is very much its own. Still, the best scenes are More standing up for himself to the much more powerful church, and there can be a lot of down periods outside of these scenes that start to lose my interest after a while. It is a beautiful tragedy, if a bit slow at parts.

Final Grade: C-

Movie Review - "Arctic" (2018)

Of all the places to be stranded on the planet, the worst one that comes to mind is a frozen barren wasteland. Surviving in the arctic circle sounds as appealing as trying to survive in outer space, where the environment is created to kill you and the only thing keeping you alive are some tools that'll eventually run out. No heat, little to no food, no naturally occurring supplies besides snow, and the chance of rescue might as well be as likely as finding a needle in a snowstorm.

This is why "Arctic" hits as hard as it does. The fear and desperation of Mads Mikkelsen is stressed above all else, as well as the isolation and desolation of this inhospitable location, as one man does everything he can to survive after his plane crashes somewhere in the arctic circle. Mikkelsen turns in the performance of his career, giving a captivating and emotionally charged performance while never saying more than seven or eight lines of dialogue.

From the first moment we see Mikkelsen carving a giant "S.O.S." in to the side of a mountain, "Arctic" proves to a gripping survival thriller, playing to the full cinematic experience that movies are made for. Something like "Arctic" could not work in any other medium as well as it does here - the hardships Mikkelsen faces just by going about his daily routine, the turmoil he shows through each of his actions, and the unending dangers he will continue to face that will always try to kill him, all told through that magical bond between the audience and pictures in front of them.

Final Grade: B+

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Movie Review - "Sabrina" (1954)


Is it just me, or does anyone else get creepy vibes anytime they see Humphrey Bogart try to romance a woman who looks like she could be his daughter? Maybe the problem is that Bogart has always looked so old, and he keeps trying to make love to beauties like Ingrid Bergman, Mary Astor and now Audrey Hepburn, all of whom look to be half his age. Bogart has always sold the hardened loner with a heart of gold, but rarely sells me on the well-meaning lover, and "Sabrina" is no exception. However, the film still boasts many great accomplishments, including a career-defining performance from Audrey Hepburn and a wonderful change-of-pace role for William Holden. It helps to have a sizzling screenplay that gets bumped by Billy Wilder's excellent unmistakable touch to many key scenes to make the dialogue really stand out, as well as Wilder's keen sense of cinematography that adds to the visual storytelling. And while I remained unconvinced by Bogart and Hepburn's chemistry, the romance between Hepburn and Holden almost plays out like a tale of revenge between two old friends, and it is both terrifying and hilarious. This is classic Billy Wilder and still comes highly recommended.

Final Grade: B

Friday, March 8, 2019

Movie Review - "Boys Town" (1938)

Compared to the hardened, thought-provoking films of today, "Boys Town" feels like a trip to get ice cream after a very big meal - sweet, comforting and pleasant, but you're already so full that you don't really want anything but you won't turn down ice cream. "Boys Town" is schmolstzy and cliche in all the best ways, filled with the same ideals and philosophies as its main character, Father Flanagan, who always believed that there's "no such thing as a bad boy." Everything about this movie plays to that idea, where this idealic town is practically paradise to hundreds of young boys, where they're always smiling and cheerful and nothing bad ever happens. And while the filmmakers don't skimp on the hardships Flanagan (Spencer Tracy) faced making Boys Town and the one troublemaker (Mickey Rooney) giving him a hard time, there's always an atmosphere that this is heaven for all boys, which plays better than expected thanks to Tracy's performance and the schmolstzy 1930s film style. It is a very pleasant and harmless movie about a kindhearted soul that wanted to make the world a better place.

Final Grade: B

Monday, March 4, 2019

Top 5 Quentin Tarantino Movies

Number 5 - "Kill Bill: Volume Two" (2004)

One thing I've always loved about Tarantino is his love for classic yet obscure cinema and how well that comes across in most of his movies, especially in his "Kill Bill" saga. "Volume Two" is certainly the worse of the two films, but it's still just as captivating and intense as "Volume One." The film exchanges excellent sword fights for word play, speeches and suspense, which makes "Volume Two" feel more like a Shakespeare piece but with Tarantino's unique dialogue. And that is glorious.

Number 4 - "Kill Bill: Volume One" (2003)

But like I said, "Volume One" is the superior movie and one I can watch at any time. The action is just so energize and stylish that I can't take my eyes off of it. It's like if Tarantino took his dialogue and turned into a vibrant action sequence reminiscent of samurai films. I was tempted to include both films as one entry and put it much higher on the list, but since both films feel unique enough, I think it would be doing each film a disservice to count it as one movie.

Number 3 - "Pulp Fiction" (1994)

A true classic of 90s cinema. Such a smart, stylish movie with some of the greatest dialogue ever written. At times, it never actually feels like a movie, but just a slice of extravagent life with nothing cut out. While other times, the screenplay is so perfectly layered and crafted that rivals some of the greatest works of writing. There's no denying that "Pulp Fiction" is one of the greatest films in the last thirty years...but it's not Tarantino's best film.

Number 2 - "Django Unchained" (2012)

If you ask me, "Django Unchained" is where everything came together for Tarantino. With "Pulp Fiction," the screenplay was the star to the movie. With "Kill Bill: Volume One," it was the action and acting. But "Django" finds the perfect middle ground, where the dialogue always feels crisp powerful and real, but the acting compliments that every step of the way. In the end, we get a film that sounds and acts like a Tarantino film, but moves and feels like a truly great western. It's divorced just enough from Tarantino's normal style that becomes a timeless classic.

Number 1 - "Reservoir Dogs" (1992)

Sometimes the best ones are the most simple. As Tarantino's films became more and more elaborate and complex, I think started to move further away from the personal touch that made him so unique in the first place. "Reservoir Dogs" is Tarantino at his most human - his most compassionate, his most frightening, his most confused and his most heartfelt. All of these characters go through these raw emotions as their lives are threatened and it is some of the best confined yet simple cinema I've ever seen. Tarantino's passion and anger is still on full display, but it never comes across as over-the-top or in-your-face given the situation. It is one of the most simple yet effective movies ever made.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Top 5 Martin Scorsese Movies

Number 5 - "The King of Comedy" (1982)

I can honestly say that "The King of Comedy" was the first Scorsese film that I fell in love with. The characters are charming yet gloriously over the top, the story makes great work about celebrity worship and what the culture of media does to entertainers without ever taking itself too seriously, and the chemistry between Robert De Niro and Jerry Lewis is like a bad married couple where one of them doesn't see anything wrong. While Scorsese is wonderful at comedy, this is certainly his best black comedy.

Number 4 - "Raging Bull" (1980)

Certainly Scorsese's best looking movie. I've never seen boxing sequences that feel as authentic and visceral as "Raging Bull," to the point that it feels like I'm the one getting punched. While I've only seen this film once years ago, everything in the ring has left a massive impression on how I look at cinematography.

Number 3 - "The Wolf of Wall Street" (2013)

Never had I ever seen a bigger collection of charming scumbags than in "The Wolf of Wall Street." The way Leonardo DiCaprio sells this little greedy world he lives in is so uproariously loving that its hard not to like all of these despicable pleasure seekers. And that's the true strength of this film - the love-hate relationship between Leonardo and the audience. We don't want to root for this self-absorbed creep but his belief in himself and his company is so strong that you kinda want to. Like another film later on this countdown, the film makes a doomed life almost worth living.

Link to original review of "The Wolf of Wall Street" -

Number 2 - "Taxi Driver" (1976)

Scorsese's strength has always been taking these loathsome characters that want to be bigger than themselves and make them into strong, relatable people, and it has never been done better than with Travis Bickle in "Taxi Driver." This is a man seeking redemption and purpose without a clue to lead his lonely path, complimented by Robert De Niro's greatest performance. It is a disturbingly intimate look at a life that most people would want to look away from, yet we can't turn away from it.

Number 1 - "Goodfellas" (1990)

Not only my favorite Scorsese film, but my pick for the greatest gangster film of all time. The film proudly proclaims the power and attraction of being a gangster, saying that it's better than being the President, all while showing the greed that comes with that same power as we watch that beautiful attraction turn ugly. There is a love for the gangster in this film, stronger than any other I've seen, but never quite to the point of making them into heroes, but more like modern cowboys. "Goodfellas" is Scorsese at his most passionate, and I love it for that.

Link to my original review of "Goodfellas" -

Friday, March 1, 2019

Movie Review - "The Prisoner of Zenda" (1937)

The best way I can describe "The Prisoner of Zenda" is that it is "The Prince and the Pauper" as a 1930s action/adventure piece in the same style as "The Adventures of Robin Hood." Though while I say it has action, it really has just one big action piece during the climax and the rest is a lot of posturing and scowling. The film doesn't even take full advantage of a regular guy becoming a king, since everyone buys the act without a second thought. The film is straight-forward and has very little going for it outside of the climax, which is your typical swash-buckling affair but with a lot of props thrown in for good measure. Not the most fun 1930s adventure movie, but gets pretty exciting when it wants to.

Final Grade: C