Friday, January 31, 2020

Movie Review - "1917" (2019)

While "1917" isn’t the first film to claim that it is all one shot (Hitchcock’s "Rope" comes to mind, as well as movies that actually are one take like "Russian Ark"), it is the most technologically impressive film to claim this feat. A film about a pair of young men charging head long into several battles of World War I to stop a massacre before it’s too late is difficult enough on its own, but every big moment in "1917" is done in one continuous shot, giving a larger sense of scale and grandeur, as well as building up the tension as we’re put in the middle of the action with these two, like we’re the third soldier going along for the ride. And while there are certainly moments where the film breaks and a new shot begins, the illusion and atmosphere is never broken as the film puts us right in the heart of such an inhuman struggle.

What sets "1917" above most other one shot films is all the risks it takes. There are so many impressive technological feats, like the long, disgusting walk through No-Mans’ Land as we go through several trenches, a field of barbed wire, passed several decaying bodies and across a body of water like we were gliding on top of it. Or a huge chase scene through a city reduced to rubble while flares light up the night sky. So many scenes that would be wonderful filmed normally, yet are made even more impressive by being one shot. The cinematography and production design is nothing short of a masterpiece here, breathing new life into this small story to make it seem so personal and thrilling.

Final Grade: A-

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Movie Review - "The Two Popes" (2019)

If there’s one moment in the 21st century that represents the drastic changing of philosophies and the conflict that brings, it has to be the transition between Pope Benedict and Pope Francis, the first time a pope stepped down in over 700 years. Pope Benedict represented an older, more traditional way of living, one that humanity believed was the proper way for centuries built on respect and repressing unsightly emotions, which also meant old fashion values against gay marriage, abortion, the poor staying poor and the rich getting richer, and of course the sexually repressed church doing unspeakable things to innocent boys and girls. Pope Francis, on the other hand, represented the opposite of everything Benedict stands for he lives with the people, realizes that people are changing as fast as the world is and that old fashion values don’t stand for much anymore when they get in the way of positive change.

Their conflict is a fight in all of us old vs. new, the way the world has operated for centuries against a world more open and honest with itself about its problems. And it is this conflict that bolsters "The Two Popes" to being far more than any other film about the church or the Pope.

Of course it certainly helps that "The Two Popes" has two of the best performances of the year with the titular leads, Jonathan Pryce as Pope Francis and Anthony Hopkins as Pope Benedict as both of them fight each other over their values and themselves over their mistakes and regrets. Any scene with these two is mesmerizingly beautiful, like two Shakespearean masters with more experience than any actors in the world. From the bigger scenes where they confront each other over their beliefs that escalates with each accusation to the quieter moments of them eating alone or talking in a helicopter over Benedict’s gardener, these two never fail to impress.

However, beyond the relevance and the masterful performances, there really isn’t much to "The Two Popes." The pacing is all over the place, especially in the middle of the film when it flashes back to Francis’ past, and most of the machinations of the church go unaddressed, going instead for Pope Benedict’s flaws and what he was blind to. Personal blame is the focus of both of them, Benedict blaming his distance and isolation for what happened to the church, while Francis regrets some of his choice during the Argentinian dictatorship, mostly leaving the problems that the church made out of it. The film addresses the problems, but fails to offer much in the way of a solution.

Still, "The Two Popes" isn’t without merit. The conflict is relevant to our divisive world and the lead performances some of the best of the year. It is a fine picture that gets its points across and delivers a solid emotional punch when it needs to.

Final Grade: B-

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Movie Review - "Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence" (1983)

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence" follows the lives of four men in a Japanese prisoner of war camp the Japanese commander (Ryuichi Sakamoto), his brutal sergeant (Takeshi), a British officer who lived in Japan (Tom Conti), and the rebellious British major (David Bowie) who tries to make life for the Japanese as difficult as possible. All four have had troubled pasts and try to make the best out of this bad situation, despite their drastically different backgrounds and cultures. Think "Bridge on the River Kwai" only more personable and tragic.

The driving force is the clashing of cultures, as the film perfectly balances the honor and humility of the Japanese with the freedom of expression, chivalry, and no-nonsense approach of the British. Conti tries to play the middleman and play both sides to show how they can get along, but also how much they can’t get along since even he loses his temper from time to time. Still, the biggest problem with this movie is its slow pacing, taking a lot of time with flashbacks to Bowie’s childhood and his grief. Bowie is a good enough actor that he could have explained it with one extended recollection rather than taking us out of the moment by cutting away from the conflict. And while it does play into the themes between the four characters of regret and shame, most of it comes across as unnecessarily slow.
Final Grade: C+

Monday, January 27, 2020

Movie Review - "Road to Utopia" (1946)

The “Road to…” movies are a rare breed of 1940s Hollywood cinema, desperately trying to get as much passed the censors as possible without ever breaking any codes. And while breaking the fourth wall has become more common over the years, you don’t see any movies made before 1960 doing it effectively…aside from the “Road to…” movies. They’re always a treat with Bing Crosby and Bob Hope dishing out one liners, ripping each other apart with insults, poking fun at their careers and Paramount, and desperately trying to win Dorothy Lamour over the other, like the two were bickering brothers trying to win the role of Deadpool. 

“Road to Utopia” gives you more of this and never lets up, trying to break the fourth wall more than any other movie. What separates “Utopia” from their other films, namely “Road to Morocco,” is that this film leans more on slap stick, with scenes involving Bob Hope sleeping with a bear or the pile of snow Hope sits on melting away as Lamour sings to him. “Morocco” balanced its slap stick and witty dialogue rather well, while “Utopia” has far more stunts and visual gags. At times, it has a lot more in common with Chaplin’s “The Gold Rush” than “Morocco,” though that could just be the similar setting and premise of two hopeless drifters trying to make it big in the Yukon during the gold rush. 

Still, “Road to Utopia” delivers on every front. The chemistry between Hope and Crosby is sizzling, the pacing gives the audience enough time to breathe between the jokes and more intense moments, and the comedy is even better than it was in “Morocco.” While the music isn’t as catchy, that’s not enough to distract from a fun time with one of the greatest comedic duos of all time. 

Final Grade: B+

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Movie Review - "Beneath the Planet of the Apes" (1970)

“Beneath the Planet of the Apes” is the most unnecessary bore I’ve ever seen. Not only does it repeat all of the same notes as the first “Planet of the Apes” for the first half of the movie, but does so without any sense of grandeur. Despite having a new man from our time, Brent (James Franciscus), discovering everything we already knew, he never looks any more interested than he would at the DMV, while never giving us any sense of a character or likability. It also certainly doesn’t help that he looks exactly like Charlton Heston, like the filmmakers wanted us to impose our feelings about Heston’s character onto Brent.

The film gets better in the second half, introducing the now-famous worshippers of an atomic bomb, but even then their behavior is wildly inconsistent and clashes with the ape storylines that it feels like it was taken from a different movie. And for what? An even bleaker and more depressing ending than the first film. At least that ending was shocking and put a new light on the entire movie. But this is just shocking for the sake of a shock. No reflection from the apes after getting undeniable evidence that there was an advanced civilization before them, no mutant trying to be anything more than cruel and manipulative or ever putting up a fight in the end, and no redemption for what’s left of humanity in the face of destruction. There is no message here other than humans are terrible, which shows how little thought was actually put into this movie.

Final Grade: D+

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Top Ten Films of 2019

As we reach the end of another year, and even another decade as well, it is time as always to look back at what this year of cinema had to offer. From “Glass” to “Little Women,” from “Midsommar” to “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” and from “Avengers: Endgame” to “Godzilla: King of the Monsters,” 2019 gave us many memorable films for one reason or another. So much so that it does feel fitting to do a top ten of all the best films. 

The question I always like to ask at the end of every year is whether it was a good year for cinema or not. And with how many outstanding films that were released this last year, how can you not say it was a great year? While there are always going to be bad films every year, and believe me 2019 had some real stinkers (especially in the live-action Disney department), the standout films in 2019 will be remembered for decades to come. This is the year where Netflix told some of the most complex and genuine stories of the year, while foreign cinema was just as powerful as Hollywood, who also started taking more chances with their big blockbusters with films like “Spider-Man: Far from Home” and “Shazam!” to give new stories a bigger, bolder light than we ever expected. This was one of the more outstanding years of cinema and these are just some of the best films to celebrate 2019. 

Number Ten: “The Farewell”

Touching, heartfelt, and one of the most honest movies of the year, “The Farewell” is so effective because of the silent wars it wages. The war between the generations, the war between cultures, and the war between happiness and reality. All of them are brilliantly captured in the quiet turmoil of Awkwafina’s performance as she grapples with telling her grandmother that she’s dying despite the rest of her family wanting to keep it a secret from her so that she’ll be happy for the rest of her limited days. Nothing is overt or cliche and it ends with an emotional gut punch that puts a totally different spin on a wonderful sentiment. 

Number Nine: “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”

This is Tarantino at his most reserved and most reflective of his favorite fairy tale – Hollywood. “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” has some of the best production design of the year, perfectly capturing the feeling of 1960s Los Angeles down to the radio DJs between songs, while sucking us into the personal anguish and regrets of Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, though that is certainly helped thanks both of them turning in wonderful performances with even better chemistry. 

Number Eight: “The Irishman”

“The Irishman” is the capstone to Scorsese’s grand epic look at the lifestyle of gangsters, and it hits harder than any of his other movies. What starts out like all of Scorsese’s gangster films, complete with rapid-fire montages of violence and great musical cues, eventually turns into a reflective look at what a life of crime leads to and Scorsese sitting down with himself to ask whether all of that fun was really worth it or not. It honestly does feel like Scorsese’s entire career has been leading up to this one movie, and boy does he stick the landing. 

Number Seven: “1917” 

Certainly the most technologically impressive film of the year, “1917” is the most immersive and gripping cinematic experience of 2019. Filming everything like it’s one long take and from the perspective of two soldiers trying to prevent a massacre breathes new life into this small but thrilling piece, making every little moment feel as tense as the last, while also bringing a kind but honest humanity to its characters as we see the war through their eyes. The camera makes the audience often feel like they’re an angel watching over these two men it makes for the best cinematography of the year.

Number Six: “Marriage Story”

“Marriage Story” is the most honest film of the year- personal, funny, but very devastating in its portrayal of all the heartache that comes with divorce. The acting is the main reason this film works as well as it does, with Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson both turning in career defining performances. The bottomless empathy for everyone involved makes this so heartbreaking when you realize this is all someone’s fault but neither is deserving of the blame, while also creating so much compassion for these characters that it makes the film so rewarding. 

Number Five: “The Lighthouse”

Much like “1917,” the cinematography in “The Lighthouse” tells such a visually-rich story that is impossible to ignore. But one thing “The Lighthouse” has over “1917” is two of the greatest performances of the year with Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe and their descents into madness. Robert Eggers creates a claustrophobic, other-worldly mood that dominates the film like a black aura, while Pattinson and Dafoe work beautifully off each other to make the most visually striking thriller of the year. 

Number Four: “Uncut Gems”

I’m still in shock that “Uncut Gems” was as intense as it was and that Adam Sandler was capable of delivering one of the best performances of the year. The whole movie has this strange magical spell – it takes what should be awful, some of the worst people you can possibly imagine, and makes it impossible to look away from their lives spiraling out of control. It is mesmerizing as it is disgusting. This year was filled with unforgettable cinematic experiences, and this look into a despicable man trying to make it big in the world like it’s all some game to him is one of the better ones. 

Number Three: “Rocketman”

This was certainly the biggest surprise of the year for me. I went in expecting another “Bohemian Rhapsody” and got a “La La Land” style fantasy musical with the greatest performance of the year from Taron Egerton as Elton John. “Rocketman” uses all of Elton’s music to wonderful effect, not only serving as a best-of soundtrack but using the music to tell the story of his life, especially the joy, confusion and turmoil that comes with fame and the loneliness of stardom, made even more devastating through Egerton’s masterful performance. The whole thing feels like a grand musical from the golden age of Hollywood, made even more personal because it is Egerton belting out every song.

Number Two: “Parasite”

No movie this year had me more hooked than “Parasite.” It is the most unpredictable movie I’ve seen in a long time, defying genre conventions and telling the most unique story of the year. It is part-comedy, part-thriller, part-social commentary while twisting between all of these tones so effortlessly and often to present a story I never would have guessed. “Parasite” makes me feel like a kid again, watching a movie for the first time and have absolutely no clue where its going, masterfully crafting its story to so unpredictable that nobody but Bong Joon-ho could figure out what’ll happen next. 

Number One: “Dolemite Is My Name” 

I could say a million reasons why “Dolemite Is My Name” is the best film of the year – it’s a love letter to Blaxploitation movies, one of the better depictions of the hardships of filmmaking especially for a crew with no money or experience, Eddie Murphy puts everything out there and gives the most charismatic performance of the year, and it is the funniest damn experience I’ve had in awhile, fully engrossed in its own ridiculousness. But there’s one main reason why “Dolemite Is My Name” is here above films like “Parasite” and “The Irishman” – its bliss in the search for happiness. Eddie Murphy is so convinced that he has something special that he knows this has to be shared with the rest of the world, and that joy for life is so infectious that it goes beyond the other characters and to the audience. There’s so much love in this movie – a love for cinema, a love for comedy, but most importantly a love for yourself. Despite all of the hardships and challenges, that never stops Eddie Murphy from wanting to shine as brightly as he does on the movie screen. It is the most uplifting and joyful movie of the year, which is why it’s my pick for the best film of 2019. 

Honorable Mentions: 
”Ad Astra”
”Spider-Man: Far From Home” 
”Avengers: Endgame”
”Little Women”

Friday, January 17, 2020

Movie Review - "Cats" (2019)

Coughing up a hairball is more pleasant than being tortured watching “Cats.” 

I can’t recall a more inept or poorly conceived film in recent memory than “Cats,” with the most butt-ugly visual style, laughable or nightmarish special effects, and devoid of any life or intelligence. If you put a real cat in charge of this production, I’m sure it would have done a much better job of capturing the essence of what it feels like to be a cat, instead of this joyless mess. 

“Cats” is like attempting to put together a thousand-piece puzzle, only to quickly realize that the pieces you’ve been given belong to a dozen different puzzles that don’t fit together at all – it is exhausting, unnecessarily chaotic without any semblance of reason, and above all else infuriating. There is no sign of a coherent story, just random ugly “cats” that sometimes sing about how it sucks to be a “cat,” and these actors are given no room to breathe or emote so we never really learn anything about these “cats.” Some “cats” only get one or two scenes, like a James Corden “cat” that loves to eat and nothing else, or a “cat” who works on a train and sings about how much he loves trains. While other “cats” that do get more scenes always wear the same expression throughout the film, like Francesca Hayward who always has a look of dull surprise. There is no connection, no empathy for any of these “cats” – they are all blank canvases we have to watch for two hours. 

If I could describe “Cats” in one word, it’d be “embarrassment.” There was certainly talent behind the screen. Tom Hooper has proven that he can direct good movies with “The King’s Speech” and even some segments of “Les Miserables.” Acting-wise, you’ve got vetern actors like Judi Dench and Ian McKellen, as well as some powerful singing voices with Jennifer Hudson, Jason Derulo, and Taylor Swift. Even Idris Elba is given a chance as the “villain” of the “cats.” With all this great talent and people who seem to know what they’re doing, it’s all the more saddening that this is the film we got. The scenes with actors like Dench, Elba and McKellen are the more painful to watch, because there is no dignity or character to be found here – they’re so bad that even furries don’t want anything to do with this movie. 

It is very rare that we get such a big mess like “Cats.” It is poorly executed at best and abysmally thrown together at worst, all on a budget that would suggest that there’s something of value. I have no clue how a film that was made for over $200 million could be as ill-conceived as this, but Hollywood continues to impress me, even on this kind of level. While I know next to nothing about the Broadway musical, I can still tell you this film isn’t worth anyone’s time or money. The only reason worth seeing this is because you want to see how bad it really gets, like I did. And even then, you’d have to be stupidly drunk or insanely high to get anything out of “Cats.” 

Final Grade: F

Movie Review - "Uncut Gems" (2019)

Who would have thought that a film starring Adam Sandler and a former NBA star would be a contender for best film of the year? 

“Uncut Gems” is a surprise on every level, creating this despicable, awful human being that ruins everything he touches and somehow making the audience give a damn about him conning everyone, even cheering for him at times. Sandler’s portrayal is vibrant and energetic, yet slimey and animalistic, always strutting like a peacock who thinks he owns the forest despite all the predators that would devour him without a second thought, and he loves every moment of his game, practically getting off on his success and letting everyone know it. 

Yet, there’s a vulnerability that he shows in his quieter moments, where he struggles to sell a gem he bought for $100,000 for much more than its worth feels insurmountable. Despite all odds, there’s a persistent gut feeling throughout “Uncut Gems” where you’re watching a man so absorbed in his own world that you want to see him get what he desires, even though he’s irredeemable and treats his family like his jewelry. 

This is the kind of magic cinema was made for – taking the filthiest of humanity and making him as grandiose as a superhero. He certainly seems himself as one. It plays to both sides so well, with his family knowing full well just how he’d sell them off if he could (especially his wife, played by a quiet yet fiery Idina Menzel), while others are caught up in his power rush as much as he is (in particular his girlfriend, played by a loving yet conniving Julia Fox). All while this cosmic force seems to be at work, pushing many characters to aspire to be more, including Sandler but especially Kevin Garnett who proves that he’s just as good at acting as playing basketball. This all creates the most unforgettable movie experience of the year, and one you shouldn’t miss out on. 

Final Grade: A

Monday, January 13, 2020

Movie Review - "Bombshell" (2019)

When it comes to addressing the pain and indecision of sexual harassment in the work place, “Bombshell” is effective and doesn’t pull any punches. It is smart about where this behavior comes from and the stigma it brings to those who have to bare it in front of their coworkers and put their careers on the line. Margot Robbie and Charlize Theron’s performances are wildly captivating for their vastly different portrayals, one baring her soul to the audience in all of its raw rage, while the other weighs that pain against her career and success and what all that truly means to her. 
However, beyond this hard-hitting talk of sexual harassment, “Bombshell” plays everything far too dramatically. The film opens up with how many of the scenes didn’t really happen and were added for “dramatic effect.” I can’t remember any film that outright says this and throws its authenticity out before the opening credits are finished. At no point did I feel this story deserved my attention. It felt like a TMZ report that made a big deal about a cheating celebrity – it’s certainly bad, but we’re probably making a lot of it up our heads. The only thing of merit in “Bombshell” are the performances of Robbie, Theron and Nicole Kidman, all three bringing their usual ferocity and charm to the picture and give the sexual harassment segments life. Other than that, this is a forgettable film told way too close to the news breaking to be balanced. 
Final Grade: C

Movie Review - "Little Women" (2019)

Whether you’ve never heard of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” or you believe Hollywood has adapted this story more than any tale (Hi mom), there is an undeniable relevance in Greta Gerwig’s modern take on this story of four sisters trying to find their place in the world. Gerwig uses its post-Civil War setting to reflect on the state of the world from their perspectives – cold, brutal and dominating, especially for women. And through the performances of Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, and Emma Watson, a love for life blossoms as well as a love to share that love with their siblings and others.

With Gerwig’s own take on the importance of identity guiding this movie though, it becomes surprisingly timeless and heartfelt. Rather than going all in on how women can be so much more than house makers and raising children, there’s a great love and pride for those that make this sacrifice. Gerwig not only romanticizes the past, but looks ahead to a bright future where anyone, not just feisty, artistic women, should look towards their own personal successes rather than what that dominating society might tell you. 

Final Grade: A-