Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Movie Review - "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" (1974)

Even in 2020, "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" is hard to watch in the most gut-wrenching way a horror movie can be. Not every horror film can be as brutal or sickening as this time capsule about mutilation or its depraved look at insanity and the trauma it can create. Every moment I was either uncomfortable or wanted to turn off the movie, but only because of how thick the gruesomeness is and how it loves every second of violence and craziness. It often feels like the tapes a serial killer would make of what he did to his victims, and to do that in 1974 when the slasher genre hadn’t been created yet makes this one of the most important horror films of all time. It sets the standard for unsettling horror films to come and makes every horror film made before it look tame by comparison. It is difficult to watch because that’s how horror should be.

Final Grade: B

Movie Review - "Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker" (2019)

The key to Star Wars has always been the joy in its simplicity. While other works in the franchise like "The Mandalorian" or "The Last Jedi" often challenge this notion, the core of Star Wars has revolved around the battle between good and evil, both external in the conflict between the Jedi and the Sith and internal between characters like Anakin, Luke and Rey fighting their own battle between the dark and the light. And yet the series always feels so massive and elegant in its fantasy, taking that conflict and making it universal. Star Wars is the ultimate entertainment fantasy because of how primal and fierce these conflicts become.
It is because of this overpowering joy that the final entry in the Skywalker saga, "The Rise of Skywalker" feels so satisfying. There is never a dull moment in this movie, as it basks in the same basic feelings as the first film, with the shrinking rebel forces fighting a losing battle against the imposing and all encompassing First Order with no hope in sight. For the first time since watching "A New Hope," that feeling of dread and futility on a universal scale is overpowering. Yet there’s a sinister atmosphere that makes the First Order exciting and it’s all thanks to the return of the Emperor, who continues to manipulate everyone like they’re nothing more than his pets, especially Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and Rey (Daisy Ridley). The way the Emperor is reintroduced is bone-chilling while still carrying the maniacal evil the Emperor has always had in spades, and it’s made even more terrifying when we see what he’s been up to since we last saw him "Return of the Jedi."

More than any previous Star Wars film, "The Rise of Skywalker" feels like the pulp sci-fi serials that it was based on, especially "Flash Gordon." Many scenes have our heroes desperately going around the universe, searching for clues and people that’ll get them closer to finding the location of the Emperor while the First Order and Kylo Ren are hot on their trail. Each segment often feels like its own little movie, with vibrant locations such as an iceberg floating in space and a desert planet celebrating its big festival (think "Midsommar" without the drugs and only slightly less murder) as well as unique characters who create some wonderful character moments for Poe (Oscar Issac) and Finn (John Boyega). Each of these scenes offers something of value, whether great visuals, some stunning non-CGI effects, captivating action sequences or some touching character moments, including the best moments ever for C3PO. It has been quite a while since Star Wars has felt as grand or suspenseful as this, with each piece contributing to the overall adventure without ever taking itself too seriously.
The only thing holding "Rise of Skywalker" back is that the movie and J.J. Abrams have to "fix" the problems of "The Last Jedi," taking a lot of time to set fans minds at ease before creating its own identity. Looking back on "The Last Jedi," there are some things that I wish had been done differently, specifically the fates of Luke and Leia, but the film certainly had an idea in mind about developing Rey, Poe and Finn into more three-dimensional characters while building up its themes of handling failure and living up legends. It is not a perfect movie by any stretch, nor is it close to the best Star Wars, but it was the most complex. Yet these filmmakers feel like most of "The Last Jedi" was a mistake that has to be erased or forgotten, even down to some characters like Rose getting cast aside or characters like Poe unlearning what he found about leading in the last film. The film spends so little time addressing what happened in "The Last Jedi" that almost hates the film and wants the audience to feel the same way. These revisions and quick hand-waving of important development in "The Last Jedi" does lessen the impact of the overall trilogy, though not enough to ruin this movie.

As a sci-fi, fantasy epic, "Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker" is everything I wanted it to be – non-stop entertaining, emotional, grand and the most visually rich film in the series. As an end to this nine film saga, it completes everything a story of this size set out to do while never straying too far from its core values in the inner and outer battles between good and evil. It encapsulates everything fun about the franchise and reminded me why Star Wars is one of the best movie series of all time.

Final Grade: B+


Movie Review - "Creature from the Black Lagoon" (1954)

It is fascinating to watch "Creature from the Black Lagoon" with the knowledge I have now, so many years after falling in love with movies like "Godzilla" and "The Shape of Water." Like many people, it is hard not to sympathize with the Gill Man as he defends his home from us, the invaders, and tries desperately to find love. He certainly is the most interesting character throughout the film, as every other character fills the generic monster movie tropes, including the macho hero (Richard Carlson), the greedy corporate leader (Richard Denning), and the helpless beautiful damesel in distress (Julie Adams), though it might help that the Gill Man has one of the best monster costumes ever made and is shown how dangerous he can be underwater with some rather beautiful underwater cinematography.

Though one thing I found distracting throughout the film was the music, since the same theme for the Gill Man would be used many times in "King Kong vs. Godzilla." Every time I heard his theme, I expected King Kong to show up and destroy a building. Still, I can see why "Creature from the Black Lagoon" has attained cult classic status - it is the right amount of campy monster goodness with seriousness, mixed with some great cinematography and an icon monster that may not really be a monster.

Final Grade: B

Movie Review - "Marriage Story" (2019)

"Marriage Story" is like an honest, heartfelt version of "Gone Girl," minus the kidnapping and murder - a tale of two emotional, vulnerable individuals that we see every possible side of, especially what's wrong with them, leading to an emotional roller coaster with many peaks and valleys that paints both parties in this marriage (Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver) as neither good nor bad. There's a spell around this movie, the way it uses empathy and love during the moment most think love must end in a divorce.

It is through the many subtle gestures and silence of Driver and Johansson's performances that this film comes to life, as well as their unbridled love for their son. It is often heartbreaking and devestating, and yet it will put it all back together again through its comedy and honesty. If there is any film that perfectly encapsulates the difficult of love and its bottomless rewards, that film is "Marriage Story."

Final Grade: A

Movie Review - "Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia" (1974)

"Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia" opens with a powerful Mexican crime lord putting a $1 million bounty on the head of our titular character and seemingly the entire crime world getting in on this. You would then think this would lead to many shootouts of one man against thousands while trying to bring down the crime world, or many terrible people trying to hunt one man who might have been wrongfully accused of a crime he didn't commit. But if "Alfredo Garcia" does one thing better than anything, it is subverting expectations.

Rather than a loud, epic gangster showdown, we get a quiet, leisurely western about a bartender (Warren Oates) falling in love while trying to hunt down a man who never fully know. In that regard, the film is servicable, Oates performs well as a man slowly learning what really matters in a world that is so quick to discard him. But given that this is a Sam Peckinpah film about a worldwide manhunt, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little disappointed. "Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia" does leave a lot to be desired, even as a reflective neo-western.

Final Grade: C

Movie Review - "The Seven Year Itch" (1955)

I don't know why I would ever doubt Billy Wilder. Despite this not being mentioned on many of his best films list, "The Seven Year Itch" is still just as vibrant, witty, satirical and sexually charged as all of his comedies. It is raunchy without ever needing to be censored, funny while only needing two key performers (Tom Ewell and Marilyn Monroe), and its due to Wilder's brilliance of turning a phrase like no one ever could and impeccable comedic timing.

The idea of pairing up a lonely but married man with the most vivid imagination with...well, Marilyn Monroe leads to some of the most creative, bizarre comedy to ever come out of the 50s. It certainly helps that Monroe gives the best performance of her career here, as well as the best outfits she ever got to wear, including the famous subway-grate dress. Ewell constantly going over the top and over-thinking every little detail is paired so well with Monroe's simple, dim-witted approach that it sets the standard for many romantic comedies to come.

Final Grade: A-

Monday, December 30, 2019

Movie Review - "Paris, Texas" (1984)

"Paris, Texas" is a slow burn that feels reminiscent of a David Lynch film, where more questions are asked without any answers and silence speaks louder than any dialogue. The film starts off with a man (Harry Dean Stanton) wandering the desert aimlessly and it basically feeds us little by little from that point on, slowly answering the questions of why he's there and where he was going at its own pace. Stanton's performance drives this film, never speaking a word in the first third of the film as he slowly but surely regains his humanity and what he holds dear.

His performance almost feels like a child maturing, starting out as a picky brat who refuses to talk, evolving into a curious but charming helper who wants to make a difference, ultimately becoming a man who wants to right the wrongs of his past. It all leads to a beautifully paced and shot climax that sells the entire picture, one of the great film endings. "Paris, Texas" certianly isn't for everyone, but there's no denying that it is emotionally-charged and perfectly performed.

Final Grade: B

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Movie Review - "Das Boot" (1981)

There's a scene early on in "Das Boot" where a young German boy reflects on the French girl that he proposed to before departing to serve on a Nazi U-boat - the boy knows that they'll both be shot if the Nazis found out about their love, and it's tearing him apart. That's the emotional strength of "Das Boot" - men who learn that the values and strength of the Nazi regime won't bring you love or happiness, and their struggles with that lesson despite everything they've worked for. This is not just one of the best films to depict living in a submarine and the claustrophoic and deadly environment that comes with it, but one that shows good men serving an evil cause and the lengths they go to in order to keep their humanity intact.

Final Grade: A-

Movie Review - "Queen & Slim" (2019)

Before I watched "Queen & Slim," I read a review about how there's an oversaturation of movies that negatively portray the black experience and how that needs to stop. The point was that, while this has led to some of the best films of the last few years, including "Fruitvale Station," "12 Years a Slave" and "Moonlight," that there are so many imitators ("The Hate U Give," "Black and Blue," "Waves") that it portrays an atmosphere of how terrible it is to be black and that there's nothing that can be done about it, especially since films that positively portray this are far fewer (the only one he could cite was "Black Panther").

While I don't fully agree with this sentiment, since these empathetic, culturally diverse films have given a new voice to cinema that it desperately needed, we have gotten to a point where films like "Queen & Slim" have become predictable in their modern tragedy, making the impact feel a bit hollow and forced at times. Even though the film is well acted, especially by Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith, it often does feel like it is going through the motions of similar films, whether that's "The Hate U Give," or "Bonnie and Clyde." So maybe there is a point about too many films that negatively portray the black experience - even if the films are good, some diversity would be welcomed.

Final Grade: B-

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Movie Review - "The Irishman" (2019)

If "Goodfellas" is Scorcese at his most passionate, then "The Irishman" is Scorcese at his most mature and honest. There's still a deep-seeded love for gangsters and the power they wield, but there's even more reflection on how they got that power and if it was truly worth it. This is all perfectly encapsulated in the quiet, contemplative performances of Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, while complimented by Al Pacino doing what he does best by chewing the scenery to beautiful effect as the loud-mouthed Jimmy Hoffa. And while the runtime is nearly three-and-a-half hours, there isn't a single wasted scene, every moment lasting exactly as long as it needs to in order to give us the most introspective look at gangsters we've ever seen. "The Irishman" is smart, well-paced, funny and has three of the best performances of the year, making it the best gangster film since "Goodfellas" and one of the best films of the year.

Final Grade: A

Friday, December 27, 2019

Movie Review - "Knives Out" (2019)

Who would have thought that a whodunit murder mystery would be the perfect genre for Rian Johnson? Maybe its because Johnson wanted to get as far away as he could from "The Last Jedi," or it could be that Johnson always loved subverting the audiences' expectations, and no other type of movie does that more effectively than an old-fashion murder mystery.

As such, "Knives Out" excels at its unpredictability, making every character so vile and filled with rage and hate that violence could erupt at any moment, perfectly portrayed in every performance from an ensemble cast, such as Toni Collette, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Chris Evans and Don Johnson. And yet, there's a surprising refreshing sense of humor throughout the film, where over analysis often comes across as incompetence, especially from the two leads played by Ana de Armas and Daniel Craig. The framing device makes "Knives Out" even more unique, as many flashbacks play out after the questions but before the answers so that the lies and personalities hit that much harder. "Knives Out" is a whodunit that is worthy of standing next to the other great murder mysteries and one that will certainly hold up over repeat viewings.

Final Grade: A-

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Movie Review - "Frozen II" (2019)

As a 30-year old male, I can safely say that "Frozen II" left no impression on me. It does the job that it's supposed to for the little kids - give them new catchy songs, provide loads of comedy and fantasy and more of the same family love that "Frozen" brought us. But outside of even more Olaf (Josh Gad) and his hilarious extenstial crisis and recap of the events of the first film, this is just more of the same, though with even less direction and focus. Many of the subplots feel disjointed or have nothing to do with the main plot, like Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) trying and failing to propose to Anna (Kristen Bell), even Olaf's crisis doesn't really add anything to the story outside of some great comedy. Although, nothing is done incompetently (outside of Kristoff's 90s boy band song that feels out of place) and the characters are still just as charming and likable as ever, so "Frozen II" is at least a passable family experience.

Final Grade: C+

Monday, December 23, 2019

Movie Review - "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood" (2019)

A fair comparison to make with "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood" is "Saving Mr. Banks" - a film that has a very different goal in mind than what the audience came for. Both films feature Tom Hanks in a supporting role that steals the show in every scene he's in, and when he's not on screen both films are bizarrely melodramatic and poorly acted. Despite the title of both films, Hanks' characters are not the primary focus, in this films case its about a vaunted journalist (Matthew Rhys) whose having troubles with his father and interviews Mr. Rogers (Hanks) who wants nothing more than to help the young man. And while Hanks' scenes are whimsically charming and perfectly capture the love that Mr. Rogers had for everyone, the scenes without him are so strange in their discomfort and awkwardness that it does detract from Hanks' scenes, much like it did in "Saving Mr. Banks."

The intent was there - present a man who hates humanity to the most kind-hearted man who ever lived and see what happens, but there's so much focus on the hate that even the love doesn't quite feel rewarding in the end. This is still a movie worth seeing, if only because of Tom Hanks doing what he does best, but beyond that there's nothing going on with "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood."

Final Grade: C+

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Movie Review - "El Camino" (2019)

If you're a fan of "Breaking Bad," then "El Camino" is exactly the fix you need to get all of your unresolved answers. As far as I'm concerned, that's all "El Camino" was good for - wrapping up everything that the finale didn't touch upon, mostly the fate of Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul). As a follow-up to "Breaking Bad," it is nice to see that Jesse's humanity has remained intact despite all the time he spent with Walter White on his power trip. Even after everything's happened, Jesse's soul is still there and now that's put to the test against many more hardened criminals. Beyond that, there really isn't anything else to this one. It is simple-minded in its goals and performs it with the same slow pace that Vince Gilligan became known for. It's servicable, but filled with mostly fluff that is only there for hardcore "Breaking Bad" fans.

Final Grade: C-

Friday, December 20, 2019

Movie Review - "Ford v Ferrari" (2019)

"Ford v Ferrari" never takes itself too seriously and instead focuses its attention on the main reason people are here - Matt Damon, Christian Bale and fast cars. Damon and Bale's chemistry is sizzling, always feeling like they're a moment away from breaking into a fight, and yet both of them have such a great respect for each other. The many car scenes are beautifully photographed and are surprisingly intense, perfectly capturing just how chaotic and unpredictable these delicate cars could be. Many of the scenes with the Ford executives and stuffy business men interacting with the oily and rough mechanics are charming and simply hilarious. "Ford v Ferrari" is just a fun ride that's light on seriousness and high on thrills and laughs, and does it all with enough respect and charm to always be entertaining.

Final Grade: B

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Movie Review - "Doctor Sleep" (2019)

If there's one film that never needed a sequel, it was Kubrick's "The Shining." And yet, that unneeded sequel, "Doctor Sleep," is not only an effective follow-up, but is a servicable horror film in its own right. This is mostly because "Doctor Sleep" doesn't step on Kubrick's toes, walking a similar eerie but slow path while creating its own unique visual style that uses its psychic characters to its fullest. Instead of being haunting, it is mysterious and trippy. There are of course visual homages to "The Shining," but they never feel forced, especially when they arrive at the hotel, leading to some wonderful scenes of Danny (Ewen McGregor) revisiting his traumatic past, especially a wonderful moment with his father. It is a fine horror experience without ruining "The Shining," while also making you realize just how spectacular and one-of-a-kind Kubrick's horror masterpiece was.

Final Grade: B+

Monday, December 16, 2019

Movie Review - "All This and Heaven Too" (1940)

Yet another Bette Davis period piece and yet another film that meant nothing to me. But unlike her other period pieces like "Jezebel," I can at least point to the reason why this film doesn't work - the whole film is set around a French governess (Davis) recounting her life story and all the juicy drama that unfolded when she was the caretaker of a Baron (Charles Boyer) and his family, including the romance that slowly formed between the two. As Davis tells this story to a bunch of American school girls, she goes into explicit and surprising detail about everything that happened, including bits and pieces that she wasn't around for and could never have known about even if she asked. It's not just that Davis is an unreliable narrator, but a narrator who knows everything despite being the main character in a story that doesn't have her in every scene, especially key scenes that involve the Baron and his wife (Barbara O'Neil) in private. If you stop and think about how Davis knows all of this, the whole timeline falls apart. This is just another forgettable period piece that doesn't expect its audience to think about the story.

Final Grade: D

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Movie Review - "Parasite" (2019)

Part of the reason I feel "Parasite" is one of the best films of the year is due to my inability to place it in a genre. Bong Joon-ho continues to push the boundaries of what we should expect out of movies by creating a slow-burn that peels back so many layers between the rich and poor to show that we're not different at all. It certainly isn't like "The Host" or "Snowpiercer," since the high-concept ideas of those sci-fi movies is replaced with several broken family units trying to cling to any chance they can to live. But what I loved most was how despicable and rotten each character acts, greedily consuming whatever they can no matter what that does to other people, and yet they're all so well-acted with just enough humanity that I can't hate any of them - they're all despate people who don't have anything to lose, and we're along for the ride, making for one of the more barbaric yet dazzling cinematic experiences of the year.

Final Grade: A

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Movie Review - "Jojo Rabbit" (2019)

While you might be lured in to "Jojo Rabbit" by the uniquely hilarious idea of a little Nazi youth having Hitler as his imaginary friend that he treats like an unstoppable superhero, the film does not dwell on this for long. Rather, this is more of a coming-of-age story set during the most difficult time to be a child - in the middle of Nazi Germany.

While there are plenty of laughs and snide comments about the Third Reich, especially about their ego and their sense of fashion, the focus quickly becomes about keeping the family unit intact, as well as kids developing their own sense of identity when their nation wants to destroy anything that isn't them. I found the film to be quite heavy-handed as it went on, especially since it seemed at odds with the comedy, but as a coming-of-age tale about finding yourself amongst the Nazis, "Jojo Rabbit" was effective enough.

Final Grade: C+