Why So Snubby?

SOURCE: WARNER BROS. PICTURES

Another year, another Oscars ceremony without a host. This is a year of many firsts for the Academy Awards. For one thing, this is the first year in quite a while where they’ll be hosting the ceremony in early February as opposed to late February/early March, so they’ll essentially be airing it in back-to-back weekends between the DGA’s and the WGA’s. This is also the first consecutive year to conduct the ceremony hostless, a trend they’ll be keeping up from the previous year when Kevin Hart was dropped from the show. And perhaps most surprisingly, this is the first year where the film to get the most nominations is not a period piece or a biopic, but a comic-book film.

Yes, dear reader: the critically-lauded Joker received not one, not 10, but 11 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. Since the Academy has an especially sordid history with snubbing one comic-book film after another (with the likes of The Dark Knight, The Avengers, Captain America: Civil War, Logan, and many more), I’m surprised they recognized Joker with so many nominations. Granted, none of them are undeserving. Joaquin Phoenix has certainly earned his Best Actor nomination, as did Todd Phillips for his Best Director nomination. Besides those nominations, Joker is also nominated for Adapted Screenplay, Original Score, Cinematography, Film Editing, Makeup and Hairstyling, Costume Design, Sound Editing, and Mixing.

Following up Joker with 10 nominations is the Sam Mendes WWI drama 1917, the Martin Scorsese gangster epic The Irishman, and the hotshot Quentin Tarantino love letter to 60s cinema Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. Again, none of these Best Picture nominees are surprising in the least. The Academy laps up Martin Scorsese just about as many times as they do Meryl Streep, and war pictures have a great track record with getting nominated by the Academy as well. Pay attention to 1917 and The Irishman in the technical categories especially. They stand a really good chance at snagging a few of those awards.

The biggest surprise out of those three films was how many nominations Once Upon A Time In Hollywood racked up. With 10 nominations, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is officially Tarantino’s most nominated film, right after Inglorious Basterds with eight nominations. Not that it wasn’t deserving. Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt alike were both spitfires in the movie, and Tarantino was arguably at his best behind both the script and the director’s chair. But sweeping the technical nominations was especially unexpected. A few of them, such as cinematography and costume design, were a given. But sound editing, mixing, and production design? That came from left field out of nowhere.

Next up with six nominations apiece is the WWII satire film Jojo Rabbit, the coming-of-age drama Little Women, the heartbreaking divorce homily Marriage Story, and the eerie yet entertaining Parasite. Parasite is certain to have the newly-named International Feature Film award on lockdown, and director Bong Joon-Ho is an early favorite in the directing category as well. Little Women was a little unexpected for best leading and supporting actress, adapted screenplay, costume design and original score, but since no female directors are nominated for Best Director this year, it’s kind of necessary to give this much love to a female empowerment film. Marriage Story, meanwhile, swept in most of the acting categories, with Scarlett Johannson even being nominated twice for both Marriage Story and Jojo Rabbit. Do any of these films stand a chance against the heavyweight titans of Joker, 1917, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, and The Irishman? We can only wait until Oscar night to find out.

And the last, but certainly not least, Best Picture nominee is the racing drama Ford v Ferrari, which is also nominated in the sound and film editing categories. The most shocking thing about this nominee isn’t that it only has four nominations (against everything else, that’s more or less to be expected). What’s shocking is that Christian Bale, who gave a stellar performance as Ken Miles, isn’t nominated for Best Actor. And to be fair to the other nominees, I haven’t seen Antonio Banderas in Pain and Glory or Jonathan Pryce in The Two Popes. But they don’t stand a snowballs chance against their peers, so you have to wonder why Bale wasn’t even being considered over them?

SOURCE: Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

Speaking of snubs, this year has no shortage of them just like with any other given year. The biggest snub Disney fans will notice is that Frozen 2 isn’t nominated for Best Animated Feature, although it is still nominated for Best Original Song with “Into The Unknown.” Jordan Peele’s thoughtful and observant horror film Us was given a resounding zero nominations, not even for Lupita Nyong’o for her hypnotizing dual performance as a petrified mother and her murderous doppelganger. Perhaps most shockingly, Uncut Gems was nominated for a big, fat “nothing” for this year’s ceremony, not even a Best Actor nomination for Adam Sandler’s mesmerizingly brazen performance. Thanks a lot, Academy. We’re going to get Grown Ups 3 now because of you.

But the most maddening has to be the absence of Rian Johnson’s masterful murder-mystery Knives Out, a movie that challenges us socially and politically as much as it does narratively and thematically. Knives Out was brilliant in just about every which way it could be, from the performances and the cinematography to the music and the editing. Even the bloody costumes and set designs were among the most colorful and stylish production jobs of the year. But nope, no nominations for those categories either. I get that five nominations limit what you can include in these categories and where. Still, I would have been fine to knock down a few nominations from Joker if it meant a few more nominations for Knives Out. At least Rian Johnson was nominated for Best Original Screenplay, so he can now call himself an Academy Award nominee at the very least.

Overall, this is a decent year for the Oscars. I’m glad to see comic-book movies like Joker get a little more love this time around, even if it is arguably a little too much love. Regardless, we have a lot to look forward to and many more surprises and snubs coming our way. Get ready, folks. At least there won’t be a host on February 9.

– David Dunn

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“STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER” Review (✫✫1/2)

Ending the Skywalker saga for the third time. 

There was a line from Luke Skywalker that echoed through my mind while watching Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker: no one’s ever really gone. I’d like to expand upon that thought with one of my own: nothing really ever ends. As The Rise of Skywalker crescendoed into its last emotional note and faded into its last end credit sequence, all I could think of was that this really wasn’t the end of the Skywalker saga. How could it be? Hasn’t it ended twice already with Revenge of the Sith and Return of the Jedi? Since it has ended multiple times before, why should this ending feel any different? What makes Rise of Skywalker special?

Even though Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) met his unfortunate demise at the end of The Last Jedi several years ago, the ninth and supposed final movie in the Star Wars series is titled Rise of Skywalker, although the movie never specifies which Skywalker it’s referring to. The movie shows the series’ newest heroes Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega), and Poe (Oscar Isaac) as they take on Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and his newest empire. While they’re doing that, an enemy from the past emerges to take on the new resistance and bring in a new age of the Dark Side.

Since the studio put in the extra effort to keep The Rise of Skywalker’s backstory as vague as possible, I feel I need to try and do the same in this review. But since the trailers and posters have given away one particular detail several times, I feel no shame in informing you that Ian McDiarmid is back as Emperor Palpatine. Yes, that Emperor Palpatine. You know, the one that turned Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader. The one that murdered several Jedi in Revenge of the Sith. The one that was vaporized at the end of Return of the Jedi. You know. That Emperor Palpatine.

One of my biggest concerns going into this movie was how exactly they were going to bring Palpatine back and have it make sense. After all, the dude got thrown into a bloody laser beam by Darth Vader at the end of Return of the Jedi. How were you going to simply write him back into the franchise and justify his return?

Well, the short answer is that they don’t. They just kind of plop Palpatine back into the franchise and expect fans to just go with the flow. And for the most part, that’s how the rest of The Rise of Skywalker plays out. One bombshell reveal is plopped one on top of the other, and instead of explaining some of those twists and turns, the movie just kind of overlooks the exposition and simply skips ahead to the lightsaber duels and space fights. For Star Wars fans looking forward to The Rise of Skywalker answering all of the series’ mysteries and questions, they will be left feeling disappointed.

The good news is for Star Wars fans who aren’t as invested in the series and are simply looking for extravagant lightsaber duels, space fights and stunning action sequences, they’ll have more than enough to satisfy them here in Rise of Skywalker. The director, J.J. Abrams, is no stranger to grand-scale science-fiction and blockbuster action. His last three films, Super 8, Star Trek Into Darkness, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens have had epic proportions of scale in them that led to wonderful feelings of elation and grandeur. Who could forget the first time we saw the sheer size of that mysterious creature in Super 8, or when Benedict Cumberbatch revealed his true identity in Star Trek Into Darkness, or when we realized Rey was in-tune with the Force in The Force Awakens? Abrams is great at building up to really memorable moments in his movies, and they are just as prevalent in Rise of Skywalker as they are in Abrams’ other films.

The problem is those moments don’t really amount to much. While Revenge of the Sith and Return of the Jedi satisfyingly closed out their respective trilogies with emotional payoff and resolution, The Rise of Skywalker just feels sloppy and disorganized in its assembly, like a wrench was thrown into the gears of the Millenium Falcon and Chewie had to do a rush job to fix it in the middle of lightspeed. And to be fair to Abrams, he had an impossible task to deal with. He had to unite fans of both The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi under the banner of one movie, despite how polar opposite those films are. Mind you that I enjoyed both of those movies, The Force Awakens for its nostalgia and spectacle and The Last Jedi for its boldness and subversion of expectations. But trying to unite the fandom from both films is impossible. It would be like trying to get Star Wars and Star Trek fans to agree on which is the better franchise.

In the end, Rise of Skywalker solidifies two things. One, that this sequel trilogy is essentially the anti-prequel trilogy. Whereas the prequel movies got better the further it progressed, the sequel trilogy got worse, so how you react to this movie really depends on what your reaction is to the rest of the franchise. Two, that Disney had no idea how to plan for this series or which direction they wanted to go. Thankfully, J.J.Abrams is a competent and reliable enough filmmaker to make a decent film despite everything he was working against, but fans who were looking for the concluding chapter to provide a satisfying ending will leave the theater feeling unfulfilled. Regardless, Disney’s greatest failure with this new trilogy was trying to convince us that this really is the end of the Skywalker saga. HA. Good one, Disney. I’ll see you again when I’m Luke’s age.

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‘Doctor Strange’ Director Drops Out Of ‘Multiverse Of Madness’

In a strange twist (pun intended), there’s been a commensurate shakeup in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Doctor Strange director Scott Derrickson will not return to helm the highly-anticipated sequel.

After the original Doctor Strange burst onto the scene in 2016 and grossed over $677 million at the box office, a lot of eyes were on Benedict Cumberbatch to reprise the role and see where the franchise was heading. After two stellar appearances in Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, it seemed like there were a lot of exciting possibilities of where the Sorcerer Supreme would go from here.

Well wherever Doctor Strange is going, director Scott Derrickson won’t be going with him. Variety reports that the filmmaker dropped out from helming the doctor’s sequel In The Multiverse Of Madness after sharing creative differences with Marvel Studios, though he will still remain on the project as an executive producer.

“Marvel Studios and Scott Derrickson have amicably parted ways on ‘Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness’ due to creative differences,” Marvel said in a statement to Variety. “We remain grateful to Scott for his contributions to the MCU.”

As far as creative differences go, I’m relatively confident at what the biggest disagreement was: the fact that Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness was supposed to be a horror movie rather than the usual Marvel superhero-fantasy romp. Derrickson previously stated that he wanted to bring the supervillain Nightmare into the sequel, an omnipresent being that feeds on people’s bad dreams. With Derrickson’s filmmaking roots based heavily in the horror genre (The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Sinister) there were tons of potential for which new directions he could have taken the character and the franchise. Sadly, Marvel and Disney are not really well known for being non-family-friendly. The falling out seemed almost inevitable. I’m just sad Derrickson won’t be able to direct Marvel’s first quote-unquote “horror movie” in the MCU.

That begs the question of what will happen to the sequel now? Well we know Elizabeth Olson is still set to reprise her role as the Scarlet Witch in the sequel, and Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Baron Mordo is also anticipated to make an appearance. Other than that, everything else is up in the air. A lot of fans are throwing out the possibility of other horror filmmakers taking the reins, such as Doctor Sleep director Mike Flanagan, Insidious director James Wan, and Pan’s Labirynth director Guillermo Del Toro. Considering their past successes with comic book movies such as Blade II, Hellboy, and Aquaman, any one of these filmmakers would be perfect for Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness. It’s just a matter of whether Disney and Marvel want to go to those dark, opaque places those filmmakers have gone in the past.

Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness is currently scheduled for release on May 7, 2021. 

– David Dunn

SOURCE: Variety, We Got This Covered

Top 10 Films Of 2019

“Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?”

– Arthur Fleck, Joker

It’s not just you, Arthur. By nearly every definition, 2019 sucked, and it looks like 2020 is only going to get worse. Not only has the usual political discourse ruined relationships and family reunions (with ongoing arguments intensifying relating to healthcare, taxes, civil rights, and whether an immigrant can be considered a person), but with the 2020 elections ramping up, more idiots from both sides of the aisle are shouting at each other louder than ever (especially the President himself). By nearly every metric, 2019 has been one long, pulsating, cancer-sized headache, and 2020 is only going to grow into an even bigger one.

Normally this is where the optimist in me would pipe in and say “But at least we have the movies!” Nope. Not this year. In a year full of crappy sequels, prequels, reboots, and remakes nobody asked for, most of the legitimately great movies came out at the tail end of the year between late November and December. Of course, this is not a new trend in Hollywood: studios like to release high-profile releases late in the year so they can get more consideration closer to awards season. Still, this year seems particularly worse even by Hollywood’s already desperate standards. On Christmas week, eight high-profile releases (count them: EIGHT) were released all at once, including Richard Jewell, Bombshell, Uncut Gems, A Hidden Life, Little Women, 1917, Just Mercy, and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. Good lord, is that enough movies for one week? I’m lucky I caught even a handful of them before the year ended. To be honest, part of me just wanted to say to hell with it and just go with my original top 10 and forget the rest. But that wouldn’t be responsible film journalism, so I powered through and fit in as many screenings as I could before January 1 rolled around. Yay me.

As with any other year, these are my 10 favorite films that came out in 2019. A few disclaimers here. One: my list equals my opinion. There are going to be several films that many cinephiles will feel belongs on this list and will wonder why they aren’t on here. There are two possibilities: either I didn’t see the film in question, or it just wasn’t good enough to make my top 10. I know some of you probably loved Harriet and The Lighthouse, but I saw both of those movies on the same night and disliked both of them equally. Sorry to disappoint.

Also, as evident in my earlier rant, I have not seen every film released this year, despite how much I tried to do so. Probably the biggest releases that slipped past my radar this year includes 1917 and Rocketman, but what can I say? Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker came out, and I have priorities.

So without further adieu, let’s wrap up the year – and for that matter, the decade – with my top 10 favorite films of 2019, starting with…

10. Uncut Gems

SOURCE: A24

A tense, anxious, and heart-racing crime thriller that keeps building on the pressure and never lets up. Adam Sandler gives an unexpected breakout performance as Howard Ratner, a desperate Diamond District jeweler who’s neck-deep in debt to several dangerous loan sharks. Sandler does a brilliant job in completely immersing himself in this self-absorbed and egocentric character, a man consumed by his own greed and selfish desires. This is a man who starts the movie in a hole six feet deep, digs himself out of it a little bit, then digs himself like 15 feet deeper. Writers and directors Josh and Benny Safdie do a mesmerizing job showing this man’s life spiraling out of control. Just when you get a moment to breathe for even a second, the film escalates to even further stress and insanity. A little too quick-paced for some viewers, but Uncut Gems is a taut masterwork to behold. Sandler better get nominated for an Oscar next year. He’s earned it. Three and a half stars.

9. Shazam!

SOURCE: Warner Bros. Pictures

A dazzling and spectacular action movie that fulfills the inner child fantasy of being a superhero. When 12-year-old orphan Billy Batson (Asher Angel) comes into contact with an ancient wizard (Djimon Hounsou) that bestows him with supernatural abilities, Billy becomes a powerful superhero named Shazam (Zachary Levi) and is told to use his newfound powers for good – or at least, however much good a 12-year-old is capable of inside a 30-year-old’s body. Asher Angel and Zachary Levi do wonderful jobs in playing the different sides of Billy Batson, with Asher portraying the rebellious and mischievous little pre-teen and Zachary playing the grown-up man-child that just smiles and has fun with every new superpower he discovers. Director David F. Sandberg (Lights Out, Annabelle: Creation) tells a unique, emotional, and hilarious coming of age story in this out-of-body superhero experience. Shazam! is a fresh, bold, and surprising lightning-in-a-bottle superhero epic that’s akin to the unexpected success behind the Guardians of the Galaxy movies. Three and a half stars.

8. Parasite

SOURCE: CJ Entertainment

In many ways, Parasite is like a caterpillar: it starts off looking like one thing, but then it slowly evolves until it changes into something completely different. When an impoverished family begins to infiltrate a rich family’s life, they soon realize that this family isn’t everything they appear to be, and they discover hidden secrets that they would much rather have stayed buried. Writer-director Boon Jong-Ho (Snowpiercer, Okja) illustrates this unusual and elusive tale with mystery and deceit, constantly questioning each family’s motives and flipping between who you should feel sympathy towards and why. The cast is skilled and meticulous in their mannerisms and changes in behavior, with Song Kang-ho and Choi Woo-shik being the most memorable as the poor family’s father and son. Parasite is an unexpected, unpredictable master analysis on classism and economic structure, and it constantly keeps you guessing until the film delivers its jaw-dropping conclusion. Parasite makes you question who the real villains are by the time the end credits roll. Three and a half stars.

7. Ford v Ferrari

SOURCE: 20th Century FoxA David-and-Goliath-sized underdog tale that tells the rivalry of not two massive automobile tycoons, but rather creators versus corporations. When Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) decides he’s going to unseat Ferrari as the Le Mans Grand Prix champions, he recruits automotive designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and hot-headed racer Ken Miles (Christian Bale) to build the fastest racecar in existence. The cast is exceptional, with Christian Bale in particular outshining the rest of his talented cast with his hotshot attitude and constant need to go against the grain. Director James Mangold (3:10 To Yuma, Logan) tells this story like an industrial western, with the tension and anticipation building up like a lone cowboy stepping out of the saloon to duel with the outlaw. The racing scenes are among the most exciting ever put on film and places you in the driver’s seat as the rubber tires burn against the pavement. Ford v Ferrari is an excellent film: dramatic, moving, and dripping with enthusiasm, like oil gushing from an exhaust pipe. Four stars.

6. Marriage Story

SOURCE: NetflixA tender, heartfelt, and raw picture that shows the devastation that comes from divorce and the healing that comes after it. Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver star as Nicole and Charlie Barber, a theater couple who slowly come to the realization that their marriage is falling apart. Sharing custody of their only child, Henry (Azhy Robertson), the duo must work to divorce respectfully so they can remain friends while continuing to raise their son. Writer-director Noah Baumbach (The Squid And The Whale, Frances Ha) illustrates an intimate and heartbreaking narrative that never feels melodramatic or out of step, but instead genuine and vulnerable in a way that only couples can truly empathize with. Scarlett Johannson and Adam Driver give vivid, grounded, and provocative performances that treats its subject matter seriously while not placing all the blame on either one parent or the other. Marriage Story is not a happy film by any means, but it is a real one and it shows that there is hope after people’s lives fall apart. Four stars.

5. Joker

SOURCE: Warner Bros. PicturesA captivating tragedy-turned-comedy that shows one of comic book’s greatest villains’ descent into madness. Joaquin Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, a clown, aspiring comedian, and son to a loving mother who falls from grace and becomes Gotham’s infamous clown prince of crime, the Joker. Director Todd Phillips (The Hangover trilogy) tells a haunting origin story that doesn’t play so much like a comic book flick as it does a psychological breakdown, not unlike Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, The King Of Comedy, or Shutter Island. Joaquin Phoenix plays both sides of Arthur Fleck and the Joker in a beautiful and mesmerizing fashion, playing a meek and cowardly fellow in one beat and then a deranged and psychotic killer clown in another. Joker is not so much a Batman prequel as it is a social observation on humanity’s flaws and how they whittle away at our moral integrity and sense of self. The fact that it just happens to feature a comic book character is just the icing on the cake. Four stars.

4. Once Upon A Time In Hollywood

SOURCE: Sony PicturesA movie that feels equally as crazy and side-wined as Quentin Tarantino’s life has been, but in many ways, also serves as a personal and heartfelt homage to the movies. Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt play a big-time TV star and his stunt double in the dog-eat-dog world of 1960’s Hollywood as they look for work in this devilishly wacky and zany dark comedy. Tarantino’s trademark violence surprisingly takes a backseat to the rest of the film’s wit and charm, all while Tarantino packs twice as much satire and self-awareness as he possibly can in the pages of his screenplay. DiCaprio and Pitt are equally exemplary in this film, with DiCaprio being the ecstatic and self-absorbed Hollywood has-been and Pitt being the sly, slick, Cool Hand Luke-type of character. Oh, and Charles Manson and his murderous cult are involved in this movie as well. If movies, murder, and the Manson family tied into one storyline doesn’t describe a Quentin Tarantino movie, then nothing ever will. Four stars.

3. Us

SOURCE: Universal Pictures

A brilliant, haunting, and harrowing horror experience that says a lot about the current state of our political culture while at the same time not playing specifically to either side of the fence. When Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o) and her family go out to their Lake House in Santa Cruz for a fun family vacation, they suddenly find themselves haunted by their twisted doppelgangers later that night. Now on the run from their literal selves, Adelaide and her family need to survive and discover where their Tethered counterparts came from. Lupita and her on-screen family do a phenomenal job in portraying the duality of their mirrored families. Even her on-screen children, Shahadi Joseph and Evan Alex, are mesmerizing in portraying their fearful selves in one beat and their psychotic and violent alter-egos in another. This dizzying and creative premise comes from Get Out writer-director Jordan Peele, who uses this idea to tell a socially relevant story about political partisanship and socioeconomic divide. Us is a thought-provoking, contemplative cinematic experiment that makes you think for hours on end about what monsters you might have created without even realizing it. Four stars.

2. Avengers: Endgame

SOURCE: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

It’s hard to maintain excitement for a colossal 22-movie saga over the course of 11 years, not to mention build up to an emotional payoff that no franchise has aspired to before. Yet Avengers: Endgame knocks it out of the park in every way imaginable and more. After Thanos (Josh Brolin) wipes out half of all life in the universe in Avengers: Infinity War, the remaining Avengers have to team up to undo Thanos’ actions and save everything they hold dear. The beginning of Avengers: Endgame is very mournful and reflective as it stays on the Avengers’ failure and how much it has cost them: as somber as a funeral and twice as quiet. It isn’t until the third act where the movie explodes into the pure comic-book fun and madness that you’ve become accustomed to throughout the franchise, and it left me feeling fulfilled to every bone in my body and then some. To say Avengers: Endgame meets our gargantuan expectations is a severe understatement. It is nothing short of a cinematic epic not unlike Ben-Hur or The Lord of the Rings – one that we definitely won’t forget anytime soon. Four stars.

1. Knives Out

SOURCE: Lionsgate

I didn’t know a movie could be this creative, this captivating, this intelligent, clever, crafty, ingenious, deceptive, cunning, surprising, emotional, poignant, and socially relevant in 2019. Daniel Craig plays Benoit Blanc, a Kentuckian detective trying to solve the suspected murder of famed mystery writer William Thrombey (Christopher Plummer). Writer-director Rian Johnson (Looper, Star Wars: The Last Jedi) manages an all-star cast that is just as funny as they are infuriating, with Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Ana De Armas, and many more offering stellar and memorable performances. Johnson puts his characters through one puzzling scenario after another and giggles mischievously as he manipulates his audience’s unsuspecting emotions, like how a maestro conducts his orchestra or how a puppeteer commands their puppets. Knives Out is a movie that’s best seen knowing as little as possible about it, because it flips the script so many times that it becomes dizzying by the time you arrive at the film’s head-spinning conclusion. Enough praise could not be said about this film and Rian Johnson’s masterful handling of it. It is nothing short of a masterpiece and my pick for the best film of 2019. Four stars.

And finally, this year’s special prize. Every year, I recognize one limited release film that did not get as much attention as many wide releases did, yet achieved more emotionally despite its smaller viewership. This year’s special prize goes to a movie that is as controversial as it is conversational, as charming as it is challenging, and as irreverent as it is important. That film is…

Special Prize: Jojo Rabbit

SOURCE: Fox Searchlight Pictures

For the life of me, I cannot understand why Jojo Rabbit bombed so precariously at the box office. Sure, it tells a relatively uncomfortable story about fascism and Nazi Germany. Sure, the movie centers around a 10-year-old boy in a day and age where child actors aren’t really that reliable. And yes, the movie does feature a 44-year-old New Zealander playing a child’s fanciful version of history’s most hated human being, Adolf Hitler. Yet, there is so much more to this movie than its mere appearances. Writer-director Taika Waititi deconstructs humanity’s most hateful period in a tone that is equally as jeering as it is joyful, like when Mel Brooks hilariously mocked racism in 1974’s Blazing Saddles. He’s also surprisingly brilliant as Jojo’s imagining of Adolf Hitler, playing a fun, cartoonish parody of the tyrant in one moment, and the more egotistical and maniacal variation of him in another. But even more impressive is the 12-year-old Roman Griffin Davis as the titular Jojo, having to witness the horrors of the holocaust through the innocent eyes of a child. For many, Jojo Rabbit will be mistaken as making light of Nazism and the hateful legacy that it inspired. Those viewers will have misinterpreted Jojo Rabbit and its genius. It’s a story of humanity, it’s a story of hope, and it shows that there is the potential for good in every human being – including a 10-year-old Nazi named Jojo. Four stars.

And that’s all of got for 2019, folks! Really, for the decade. As always, thanks for sticking with me through thick and thin. Whether you’re a consistent follower or a more casual reader, I appreciate all of you for reading my reviews and tuning in to hear my opinions about ongoing film and pop culture topics. From the bottom of my heart, thank you.

I’ll see you at the movies, in 2020, and beyond.

– David Dunn

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“FORD V FERRARI” Review (✫✫✫✫)

SOURCE: 20th Century Fox

Two men, a Mustang, and a wrench.

Ford v Ferrari feels like one of those epic underdog stories not unlike David and Goliath – and despite what the title suggests, Ford is not David and Ferrari is not Goliath. No, this story is about innovators versus CEOs, workers versus corporations, creators versus the companies who own creators. Five decades ago, two men, a Mustang, and a wrench beat not one, but two million-dollar corporations on the race track and in life. Yet, to this day the names we see imprinted on the side of cars are Ford and Ferrari, not Shelby and Miles.

If you ever met these men in real life, you’re prone to either love them or hate them, depending on whether you work on the creative or corporate side of the race track. Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) is a 40-year-old automotive designer and former race car driver who was forced to retire early after developing an intensified heart condition. Ken Miles (Christian Bale) is a hot-headed Brit who has just as much of Shelby’s talent behind the wheel and twice the temper. If these two were parts in a car, Shelby would be the pistons and Miles would be the fuel – when you put them together, combustion is imminent.

These two men are recruited by Henry Ford II (yes, that Henry Ford, portrayed by Tracy Letts) for one purpose: to beat Ferrari at the 1966 Le Mans Grand Prix, a 24-hour race held on a wildly turbulent track in France. Any other man would think Ford was out of his wrinkly, white-haired mind. But Carroll Shelby and Ken Miles are not most men. They take the challenge head-on, and they have to get past not just Ferrari, but Ford to build one of the fastest race cars in automotive history.

Ford v Ferrari feels like one of those classic American stories you should have learned at some point in high school – a classic longshot tale, not unlike Rocky battling it out with Apollo Creed or Secretariat winning the Belmont Stakes. Yet, I have never heard of either Carroll Shelby or Ken Miles. I suspect you may not have either. That’s part of what makes their story so surprising, because they’ve contributed a big part to America’s industrial innovation. Not only did they develop the vehicle that would later become the GT40 Mustang, but they also helped unseat Ferrari as the Le Mans Grand Champions, a title they’ve held onto for nine years before Ford entered the race.

If nothing else, Ford v Ferrari illustrates a story of the everyman – the American innovator who wants to push boundaries, pave paths, and create new ways forward, but are constantly hindered by the people wanting to be stuck in the past. I was surprised to find that this film’s biggest antagonists were not Enzo Ferrari or his driver Lorenzo Bandini, but rather Henry Ford II and his scumbag senior executive Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas). Rarely do you see a face in film that is as punchable as Josh Lucas’. His character is as scuzzy and as filthy as they come, a greedy, self-centered cretin that cares only about the bottom dollar and not much for the people that helped get him there. If Jacob Marley ever saw this man in real life, he would give Ebeneezer Scrooge a pass on Christmas Eve and would send the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future on him instead.

As much as I despise his character, however, Josh Lucas serves a vital role in the conflict of Ford v Ferrari – it’s not the industry we’re fighting, but often the people who control the industry and the people within it. When Shelby and Miles are knee-deep into engineering their Mustang, they’re artists perfecting their craft. When Shelby and Miles are driving at dangerously high speeds, they’re in Heaven. When they’re arguing with a snobby auto exec on who belongs in the driver’s seat, their brakes are punched to a screeching halt.

These characters are very relatable not just because of their situation, but because so many of us have found ourselves in circumstances similar to Shelby’s and Miles’. Their conflict is not just written very well, but also portrayed very well. Christian Bale, in particular, can’t help but outshine the rest of his talented cast. He has the physique and the fighting spirit from his Oscar-winning performance of Dicky Eklund in The Fighter, but in the same sentence possesses the same introversion and comedic timing as Michael Burry in The Big Short. Whether he’s exchanging jabs with Carroll Shelby at a pit stop or sharing a sentimental moment on the road with his son, you’re invested in Miles’ story and his constant desire to go against the grain.

This film is directed by James Mangold, who has been on a winning streak as of late with some of his most recent projects. He previously directed the Academy Award-nominated Walk The Line and 3:10 To Yuma, and he more recently wrote and directed the last entry in Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine trilogy, Logan. Ford v Ferrari possesses all of the grit his previous films have with even more relevance and authenticity. It doesn’t surprise me that the film feels like an industrial western, because when Ken Miles steps out onto race track and gets in his car, it has the tension and anticipation that builds up like a lone cowboy stepping out of the saloon to take on the outlaw with a draw of his pistol.

Ford v Ferrari is an excellent film: dramatic, moving, exciting, riveting, and dripping with enthusiasm, like oil gushing from the exhaust pipe. If I had one criticism, it would be that the first act takes too much time to build up its stakes and doesn’t move as promptly as I felt it could have. But I would rather a film have too much interest in its subject rather than too little. Most men in life, like Henry Ford and Enzo Ferrari, are most interested in winning the race that’s ahead of them. Shelby and Miles are just grateful to be on the race track.

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“KNIVES OUT” Review (✫✫✫✫)

SOURCE: Lionsgate

Sharp in more ways than one. 

When Knives Out begins, we’re provided with the typical murder-mystery setup: Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), a famed mystery writer whose popularity is probably equal only to Stephen King, is found dead inside his mansion. His throat is slit, the blood flowed out onto the floor uninterrupted, and there were no signs of intrusion or trespass into his study. The detective working the case, Elliot (Lakeith Stanfield) thinks this was just a simple suicide and considers the case closed. Meanwhile, private investigator Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) suspects something more sinister had a role in Harlan Thrombey’s death: foul play.

The suspects mostly consist of Harlan’s privileged and wildly dysfunctional family. There’s Harlan’s daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her husband Richard (Don Johnson) and their smug and self-centered son Ransom (Chris Evans). There’s Harlan’s son Walt (Michael Shannon) who manages Harlan’s estate and his son, an alt-right online troll named Jacob (Jaeden Martell). There’s Harlan’s spoiled and greedy daughter Joni (Toni Collette) and her posh liberal arts daughter Meg (Katherine Langford). And then there’s Marta Cabrera (Ana De Armas), Harlan’s personal nurse who tended to his every need prior to his passing. All of these people were a part of Harlan’s life and loved him in one way or another. And, one of them supposedly murdered him. Blanc has eliminated no suspects, but as far as he’s concerned, all of them have something to gain from Harlan’s death.

Writing about movies like Knives Out is particularly challenging, not because there’s isn’t enough to talk about, but rather because there’s too much to talk about. Knives Out is a clever, ingenious, meticulous, observant, and deliciously deceptive movie, but it’s one where the audience benefits most from knowing as little as possible about it. I would argue that even the trailers give too much away for a movie like this. Since this is the case, I’m walking on very thin glass here and I don’t want to give away the enjoyment of the film before you can experience Knives Out for yourself.

I will say this: writer-director Rian Johnson is a mastermind behind this murder-mystery. Manipulating his characters like how a maestro conducts his orchestra or how a puppeteer commands their puppets, Johnson puts his characters through one puzzling scenario after another and giggles mischievously as he waits to spill the next big secret on his unsuspecting audience. I went in expecting Knives Out to go in a certain direction, then 15 minutes in Johnson spins my expectations directly on my head and does almost a complete 180. Then he plays with my mind and emotions for the next two hours until he drops one bombshell reveal on top of another, and then another, and then another, and then another.

Films like Knives Out are truly in rare quantity these days. Johnson put a lot of thought into this screenplay, into its characters and their actions, quirks, personalities, conflicts, wants, desires, disagreements, frustrations, and insecurities and then toys with them like he’s playing with silly putty. In many ways, Knives Out is very similar to his most recent film Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which as you may remember divided the Star Wars fan base more sharply than the 2016 Presidential elections divided the nation. Both films pull you in with a sense of anticipation and expectation, then it goes in a completely different direction and just leaves you with a stunned feeling of “what just happened?”

The difference is that Star Wars is an iconic blockbuster franchise, and fans are very passionate when drastic changes are made to characters they deeply care about. Knives Out is more primed for this sort of treatment because A) It is not part of an established franchise, B) The setup is original, and C) There’s much more freedom for Johnson to do whatever he wants with this premise. Part of the joy of this movie is that you have no idea which direction it’s going to go, and figuring it out along the way is just one of its many surprises.

The cast in this film is exceptional. Nobody is wasted in their role, nobody phones it in, and everybody plays their part exactly the way they need to. Granted, with this large of an ensemble cast, that inevitably means some characters will get shelved while others will get more screen time. Still, I wouldn’t hesitate to put any of these actor’s names forward for awards season. They all played their parts to the letter, and I would argue their efforts even deserve the Outstanding Cast accolade at the Screen Actors Guild Awards. And no, I’m not talking about a nomination: I’m talking about a win.

I don’t want to talk much about the cast because again, this movie benefits most from you knowing as little about them as possible. Two names I will bring up as being among the most entertaining performances are Daniel Craig’s and Chris Evans. These guys were hilarious, quirky, sardonic, and gleefully cunning in their own unique way. Craig’s talents as an actor don’t need much elaboration, as he can flip on a dime from being a slick spy action hero in Casino Royale and Skyfall to a mentally unhinged murderer in Infamous. Here he’s playing an old-fashioned Kentucky-fried fellow that would have Foghorn Leghorn laughing his feathers off at his accent. Chris Evans is especially surprising. For a guy who is known for playing such a genuine and good-hearted spirit as Captain America in the most recent Avengers movies, here he comes off as egotistical, condescending, and very full of himself. It’s hilarious watching him tell his entire family off in a pointed, matter-of-fact fashion, especially when you’re so not used to him playing the asshole in a movie.

I can’t sing enough praise about Knives Out. Go and see it. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime movie that is rarely done with this much thought, care, and attention to detail paid to it. If he wanted to, Rian Johnson could have taken the pages of his screenplay and turned them into his own mystery novel. Harlan Thrombey would be proud.

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“DOCTOR SLEEP” Review (✫✫✫1/2)

SOURCE: Warner Bros. Pictures

Redrum and redemption. 

Doctor Sleep answers a decades-long question that I thought didn’t need answering: what happened to Danny Torrence after his father tried to kill him in The Shining? We know that he survived the encounter with his mother and much post-traumatic stress to spare. But what happened to him when he grew up? Did he let the demons haunt his gentle spirit, or did he grow from the experience and learn to help others that were as afraid as he was?

In Doctor Sleep, Danny’s epilogue is intertwined with two other stories of other people who “shine” as he does. In his elder age, Danny is played by Ewan McGregor as a man who wants to leave the supernatural world behind but is inevitably pulled back into it when an elusive spirit writes messages to him on his chalkboard. His mysterious friend is Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran), a brilliant and curious young teenager who dreams and shines brighter than Danny ever did. And mixed into these two’s unusual friendship is Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), a huntress who leads a troupe that feeds on the souls of children who shine – and she’s caught Abra’s scent.

Now caught up in a hidden war between psychic wolves and sheep, Danny needs to decide what he’s going to do in the midst of all of this confusion and calamity, and where his place fits in all of it.

I never asked for a sequel to The Shining. I never wanted a sequel to The Shining. Who did? With The Shining being one of the greatest horror experiences ever put on film, who on Earth would have even thought of building upon Stanley Kubrick’s insanity and innovation? What I didn’t realize, however, was that this sequel didn’t spawn from the mind of corporate Hollywood – it came from the mind of Stephen King himself. After penning The Shining in 1977, King revisited Danny’s universe when he wrote the sequel Doctor Sleep in 2013. That puts his film adaptation into a tight pinch, because King infamously didn’t like Kubrick’s 1980 adaption of The Shining. As such, whoever adapted Doctor Sleep for the big screen had a unique challenge: they had to satisfy both Stephen King fans and Stanley Kubrick fans at the same time through the same story.

The great news is that writer-director Mike Flanagan (Oculus, Ouija: Origin of Evil) is more than up to the task. One of the most impressive aspects of Doctor Sleep is how it builds on The Shining mythos without taking away from the appeal of the original movie. The Shining was special because its premise was limited to an enclosed and claustrophobic environment inside of an abandoned hotel, and it worked so well because its characters were slowly losing their minds in lonely solitude. Doctor Sleep is not limited to the madness or the seclusion of The Shining. It is much more free, open, and intentional with its structure and world-building.

You would think that this change in setting and tone would hinder, maybe even harm Doctor Sleep as a whole. Yet, it’s nearly as effective as Kubrick’s original Shining was. Although they’re not locked away in some haunted hotel, the characters inside Doctor Sleep are so caught up in the eeriness and the mystery behind their strange abilities that it feels almost inescapable to disillusion yourself from it – almost like being trapped inside of a cage that moves with you no matter where you go. Flanagan and his cinematographer Michael Fimognari illustrate a forced perspective that feels very vivid and immediate with its tension and unease. I was surprised to find that in many moments, not only was I scared for Danny and the little girl he was protecting in Doctor Sleep – at times, I even felt scared for Rose and her crew as well. It takes a good director to invest you in the plights of the film’s protagonists, but it takes a great director to invest their audience in the film’s antagonists as well. Flanagan does both in Doctor Sleep, and the scares stay with you regardless of whether Danny or Rose experiences them.

Another unexpected element to the movie is its emotion. While it would have been too easy to simply plop its audience halfway into the movie and dive right into the blockbuster horror, Flanagan takes the time to build up Danny’s backstory and elaborate how he came to this point in his life in the first place. That means for about the first hour of the film, Danny isn’t fighting spirits or soul hunters but is simply facing his life as it is, alcoholism, addiction, nymphomania, recovery and all. You might think that this sounds boring or uneventful for a Stephen King movie, but these personal moments were actually very meaningful and significant. One of the most touching moments early in the film was when it showed how Danny got his titular nickname “Doctor Sleep,” and why. I appreciate this movie being able to slow down and thoroughly give its characters the development they deserve, and McGregor likewise does a great job in portraying Danny’s sense of vulnerability, grief, and eventual redemption. It’s too easy to write in a generic one-note horror movie hero and call it a day. Doctor Sleep shows Danny as something much more significant than merely the film’s protagonist – it shows him as a person.

I have one and only one complaint with the film, and that is its third act. While most of the movie pulls you in with its intrigue, wonder, and grotesqueness, the third act slows down to a screeching halt and loses much of the film’s sense of identity. This is especially ironic because the third act has the strongest connection to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Strange, that this movie’s most culturally recognizable element also possessed the story’s weakest crux. The film worked much better when it was exploring its own premise and ideas, not revisiting older ones when they were done first, better, and more hauntingly.

Still, Doctor Sleep is a mysterious, eerie, and memorable entry into the Stephen King mythos, and one that has earned the right to call itself the sequel to The Shining. I’m glad Danny turned out okay after the horrifying events of The Shining, and I’m even more happy that I found it out through a movie that is nearly every bit as captivating and enigmatic as its predecessor is. The film may be called Doctor Sleep, but I guarantee you sleeping will be the last thing you do in this movie.

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Joaquin Phoenix Set To Return For ‘Joker’ Sequel

SOURCE: Warner Bros. Pictures

“If I’m going to have a past, I prefer multiple choice.”

Those were the words Joker said to the Batman during one of their many scuffles in the pages of Alan Moore’s 1988 hit “Batman: The Killing Joke.” Now, it looks like those words are becoming reality as Joaquin Phoenix is set to return as Arthur Fleck, a.k.a. the Joker for an upcoming sequel to his recent movie.

This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to anyone, as not only did Joker become the second highest-grossing Batman movie of all time at one billion dollars, but it is also the highest-grossing R-rated film of all time, period. A sequel seemed almost inevitable in the face of all of that commercial and critical success.

Still, many fans were surprised to find that The Hollywood Reporter revealed that not only was Joker getting a sequel, but much of the original cast and crew was returning to head it up: including director Todd Phillips and actor Joaquin Phoenix. This is especially surprising because Phillips previously stated that Joker was intended as a standalone movie with no future installments planned. But throw enough money at something, and I guess it’s destined to get a sequel. After all, Toy Story 4 was released earlier this year.

My first thought with this is that I don’t want a Joker sequel, nor do I need one. Joker was a brilliantly self-contained movie that delved deeply into one of the comic’s most iconic characters. Yes, it was a comic book movie, but in many ways, it was a character study on the effects on mental illness, civil unrest and wealth inequality. Like The Dark Knight, Joker wasn’t just a great comic book movie: it was a great movie period, and I feel like people both familiar and unfamiliar to the comics could appreciate it.

With a planned sequel underway, I question not only how much material is leftover that you can put into it, but also how appropriate it might be in a sequel. Imagine, for instance, if Taxi Driver ever got a sequel, or Apocalypse Now, or One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Wouldn’t a sequel have seemed redundant to those movies? Wouldn’t it have robbed from the original cinematic experience that you were grateful to be a part of? That is my gut reaction to hearing that Joker is getting a sequel – although I am nevertheless excited to see Joaquin Phoenix reprise the role.

What do you guys think? Are you excited to see Joaquin Phoenix return as the Joker, or do you wish he’d stay locked up in Arkham Asylum? Comment below, let me know.

– David Dunn

SOURCE: The Hollywood Reporter, Deadline

A Ducky Schwartz

It’s funny how fast and how hard life can come at you sometimes. A month ago, my parents and I were planning for when my Poppy and Grandy would fly over to visit us. That same weekend, my Grandy was admitted into the hospital. She died three days later from respiratory failure.

Joan Therese “Ducky” Dolinar was born June 25, 1936, in Chicago, IL to her parents John and Evelyn Cepek. She had three siblings: her brothers Phil and Jack and her sister Jeanette. She also had four of her own children, one of which was my mother. But even with a large family, she always had room to fit someone else into her inner circle. Whenever she met somebody new, she never hesitated to strike up a conversation and listen to other people’s stories. If she knew you long enough, she would bake you some kolaches or jelly cookies, maybe even sew a quilt or a blanket for you. Everybody was family to Grandy.

I can’t recall my earliest memory of her. They all blur together like a flurry of wonderful emotions rather than a series of sequential events. One of the earliest memories I remember was when I played on her Super Nintendo when I was a kid (yes, she was that cool of a grandma). I was playing the SNES version of Pinocchio when I ran into a flock of geese and they beat me up into a cloud of smoke. I couldn’t stop laughing at it, and I purposefully kept running back into the flock over and over again. Grandy would keep getting flustered at me for purposefully losing the game, and her frustration just made me laugh harder each time. I remember her throwing her hands up in the air, exhaling a deep sigh, and remarking to my mother “I don’t know what on Earth that boy is doing.”

That wasn’t my only memory of her. I would often play in her basement with her toys, most often with “Sesame Street” characters such as Burt, Ernie, Elmo, Big Bird, and Cookie Monster. I would also watch old cartoons down there as well, anything ranging between “Spongebob” and “Ed, Edd n Eddy.” She had a sewing machine down there that she would often use while I was playing, sewing another beautiful quilt, blanket, pillow, or anything else she felt like making. I didn’t realize this back then, but I felt like she would go down there to watch over me while she was quilting.

“Grandy” was by no means the only name I called her. Whenever I was five years old, we started watching those old Land Before Time movies that told the story of Littlefoot and his dinosaur friends. One character named Ducky had a huge affinity for a pterodactyl named Petrie and would often say his name in a joyful, high-pitched squeal. Grandy would mimic the same speech and giggle gleefully afterward. Eventually, we nicknamed her “Ducky” because of her cute imitation of the giddy character. We would often buy her joke gifts sans her nickname, such as plush ducks that quaked when you squeezed it and duck-themed gift cards. Ducky sometimes seemed mildly annoyed by it, but she eventually embraced the name as playfully as we did.

The rest of my time with her growing up went by in a flash. I remember small snippets of memories, like whenever we would play an old game called “Chicken Legs” where we had to match numbers together on domino tiles. I remembered when we traveled out to Lake Geneva in Wisconsin and spent a week in the condo during the summer and would swim, play on the boat, and eat delicious BBQ together. I remember when we would go out for ice cream and she would have to wipe my chin off, calling me a “messy boy.” I also remembered whenever we would watch classic movies together like Winnie the Pooh, Micky Mouse, Spider-Man, Star Wars, and several others while she sat on her couch, quietly and contentedly needling or reading.

One of my favorite memories of her was when we would play Farkel together. It was a game where you rolled six dice and tried to get patterns from ones, fives and three of a kind. Three sixes would get the most points, so we would often compete to see who would get the most sixes. Grandy would always plead with the dice to get her “her sixes,” and more often than not I would roll them before she would. She would often spread her arms out and lay her head down across the table, crying out “Noooo, my sixes! How could you do this to me???” Our games would often end up with one of us rolling on our seat in laughter.

One of the things I think I looked past in my childhood was how masterful Ducky Schwartz was in her sewing craft. I always knew she was a skilled seamstress. If any of my favorite shirts ripped or if my dog Dusty chewed a hole into one of my toys, she was prompt and reliable enough to sew it back together in one piece. Still, as I grew older I was mesmerized at how talented she really was. She would often make quilts unique to each member of her family and was extra special to them in one way or another.

My Poppy, for instance, is a big fan of the Chicago Blackhawks, and when they won their first Stanley Cup in four decades in 2010, she celebrated by sewing him a Chicago Blackhawks quilt made from various Blackhawks merchandise. Before I graduated high school, Grandy made my parents and I our own family quilt made from photos of some of our favorite trips together. Wherever she went, Grandy made sure that others experienced the same joys of quilting as she did. She was as good at making people smile as she was stitching a thread.

I couldn’t even begin to tell you how much my Ducky Schwartz meant to me – to my entire family and to the many families outside of our own. When I went to her funeral service, I was proud but not surprised to find that over a hundred people came to support Grandy and Poppy, and they shared stories and memories of Grandy and her little laugh-filled adventures with them. As I looked around the room of the funeral home, I can’t tell you how astounded I was to see all the people in there, all the lives she touched, and all the families she made despite not being related to them by blood. That was the person she was. Whether she knew you for a day or several years, your happiness mattered to her. I think that’s a quality more people need to learn to possess.

I don’t know how to describe the feelings I’ve felt since burying my Grandy several weeks ago. At times, it feels like she hasn’t left at all and I can feel her as if she’s standing right next to me. Other times, there’s a deep, gaping hole in my heart that feels like I could cry all the tears in the world and it still wouldn’t encapsulate how much I miss Grandy. But the one thing I’ve felt most through all of the ups and downs of mourning her is gratefulness. I’m so grateful to have had not just her, but all four of my grandparents for the past 26 years. I’m grateful to have experienced so much with her, to have loved her and to have shared a part of our lives with each other. I’m grateful that out of all of her flurry of grandchildren and great-grandchildren, I got to be one small piece of that giant and colorful puzzle. I’m grateful to have known her in her beautiful life because she’s given me something to aspire to, just like everyone else in our sprawling and loving little family.

I love you Ducky Schwartz. I’ll see you on Friday for Farkel.

Joan “Ducky” Dolinar

1936 – 2019

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“US” Review (✫✫✫✫)

SOURCE: Universal Pictures

“The only me is me. Are you sure the only you is you?”

We live in a nation where there are two Americas. One is the proud land of the free and home of the brave, the glorious place of opportunity and prosperity where anything is possible if you’re just willing to work hard enough. The other is a cold and pestilent land riddled by corporate greed, income inequality, racism, police brutality, white supremacy, and unregulated capitalism. Which side you see and experience depends largely on the tax bracket you belong to. But either way, it doesn’t make either side any less valid – only more fractured.

In Us, writer-director Jordan Peele observes this social-political divide through a harrowing horror-thriller experience that seeks to inform and entertain at the same time. In this creative, chilling, and deeply unsettling psychological thriller, Lupita Nyong’o plays Adelaide Wilson, a loyal wife and mother to two beautiful children. Her husband Gabe (Winston Duke) and her children Zora (Shahadi Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex) travel to their Lake House in Santa Cruz where they meet up with Gabe’s affluent friends, Josh (Tim Heidecker) and Kitty Tyler (Elisabeth Moss).

But while they are there, Adelaide remembers a disturbing childhood memory where she came face-to-face with herself inside of a hall of mirrors. She still doesn’t know whether she came across an actual doppelganger of herself or if she was merely staring at her reflection. That question is soon answered for her when her family is hunted by, well, themselves later that night. The duplicate family calls themselves “the Tethered,” and they are almost exact copies of themselves save for a few ghastly differences. Her children are chased by disturbed, twisted distortions of their younger selves. Her husband is attacked by a scarred, huskier version of himself. And Adelaide is taunted by her mirrored self that is nothing but psychotic and bloodthirsty. Now on the run from their doppelgangers, Adelaide and her family needs to survive from this horrifying episode so they can find out where the Tethered came from and why they are after them.

This twisted and mindbending premise comes from the dizzying and creative mind of Jordan Peele, who won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay from Get Out earlier last year and co-produced Spike Lee’s smart and satirical black comedy BlacKkKlansman. With Peele reaching such large success in such a short amount of time, all eyes were on Peele’s sophomore effort to see how well his craft would match up against his directorial debut.

I’ll be the one to tell you firsthand that Us is not as good as Get Out: it’s even better. While Get Out smartly and ingeniously balanced between its commentary, scares, and comedy all at once, Us blends all of its elements together masterfully – like it’s mixing a deliciously chilling milkshake as opposed to a stacked ice cream sundae. Get Out was brilliant in how it inserted relevant social issues into its edgy and haunting plot and made you think about all of the implications stacked one on top of the other. Us is much more subtle in its message and its telling, and it’s all the more effective because of that.

One of the immediate issues I thought about while watching this movie was income inequality. In one monologue early in the film, one of the Tethered compared its life to the original and illustrated how every time the original ate, the Tethered starved, every time the original drank, the Tethered was dry of thirst, and every time the original felt happy and fulfilled, the Tethered felt sadness and grief. I at first thought this was just my own interpretation of it, but as the movie went on it kept making small nudges towards the Tethered’s marginalization and their struggle towards being seen and heard. Imagine, for instance, if you were persecuted and suffering in ways that would make you feel inhuman, maybe even animalistic? Imagine the pain, the anger, the hate you might feel from such an ordeal. Then look at the Tethered’s actions through that filter. Do they still seem like mindless, boorish beasts to you, or can you suddenly see intention behind their hollow, dead eyes?

The beautiful thing about this premise is that it doesn’t have to just apply to income inequality – it can apply to any social issue, whether its healthcare, gun control, immigration, racism, or religion. It isn’t specific to any issue because there is no difference for the persecuted beyond their suffering. Who you see in their seat depends largely on where you come from and what life experiences you’ve had along the way.

I have to praise the talented and diverse cast in this movie, because so much rests on their portrayals of not just one character, but two. Lupita Nyong’o obviously deserves the most credit since she pioneers this movie through her portrayals of both Adelaide and her splintered doppelganger. She masterfully portrays the frightfulness and horror of one character while simultaneously expressing the bloodlust and psychopathy of another. She easily expresses the most range out of any other actor in the film, and I would argue she’s even earned Oscar consideration for her passioned performances in this film.

But equally deserving in recognition is her on-screen family – or should I say, families? Winston Duke was great in both last year’s Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War, and here he does just as great a job as both a loving family man and a barbaric giant. Shahadi Joseph portrays just as much duality as her on-screen mother does and shows a lot of promise for her future career. The young Evan Alex is especially surprising. He’s both a curious and charming little prankster in one beat and a savage little pyromaniac in another. It’s amazing to watch these actors express such a vivid contrast between both of their characters, especially given how young some of them are.

Us is a brilliant, haunting, and harrowing horror experience that says a lot about the current state of our political culture while at the same time not playing specifically to either side of the fence. It’s a thought-provoking, contemplative cinematic experiment that keeps you thinking for hours on end after you’ve left the theater, and it makes you think about what monsters you might have created without even knowing it. I suspect the movie’s themes will hit home hard for some moviegoers while others will have the message fly over their heads. That doesn’t mean Jordan Peele is any less masterful in writing, directing, and releasing this cinematic masterpiece. It does, however, point to the divides some people in this country experience. We would benefit much from learning more about those who differ most from us. Perhaps we could start with the Tethered?

 

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