“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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“JOKER” Review (✫✫✫✫)

Don’t cry. Just laugh. 

The scariest thing to admit is that we have monsters living inside of ourselves. Part of the reason why Joker has amassed as much controversy as it has is because people don’t want to admit that at some level, they sympathize with a madman and a serial killer. But the thing that some people need to remember is that before they became murderers, killers, and psychopaths, these monsters were people just like you and me, and they were hurt in very profound and personal ways that would drive anyone towards insanity. Any person, through the right circumstances, can be capable of cruelty. It’s just a matter of where and how you apply the pressure.

In Joker, writer-director Todd Phillips (The Hangover trilogy) plunges headfirst into this dark and depressing place through a gritty imagining of the origin story behind Batman’s greatest enemy. Before he became the Joker, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) was a clown, an aspiring comedian, and a son to a loving mother whom he lives with and takes care of. Arthur’s life is by no means a happy one. He regularly has to fend off attacks from criminals who try to intimidate him in the streets, he has chronic depression and several self-esteem issues, and he struggles with a neurological condition that forces him to laugh whenever he’s anxious.

But even though Arthur doesn’t have a fulfilled life, he does have a normal one for the most part. That is, until something starts to unravel inside of his splintered mind. He starts seeing people and things that aren’t actually there. He starts to become more impulsive, irrational, and erratic. And he begins to find humor in situations that would sicken and repulse any other human being. This mental and emotional decay keeps gnawing away at him until there is nothing left of Arthur Fleck. All that’s left is the Joker.

Before this movie’s release, one commentator remarked that in 1989, you created the Joker by throwing him into a vat of acid. In 2019, you created the Joker by throwing him into society. That is essentially how Todd Phillips approaches the character in this film. In fact, for more than half of the movie’s runtime, Phillips doesn’t even allude to the Joker persona or what he ends up meaning to the Batman mythos. For the most part, Joker is a social observation on mankind’s flaws and how they whittle away at our moral integrity. While I was watching, I was surprised to find that the movie doesn’t play as much like a comic book flick as it does a psychological tragedy. The fact that it just happens to feature a comic book character is just the icing on the cake.

I was reminded by another movie while watching Arthur Fleck’s descent into madness, and that was Martin Scorsese’s 1976 film Taxi Driver. Both movies feel a lot like they are about the same person. Both feature mostly whole people who are going through serious trials and tribulations. Both characters are pieces of a broken world and are trying to make sense of it all. Both start going through a moral and mental decay that wears at the people they once were. And both start committing violent and deranged acts that fit in with their twisted senses of justification.

The movie is, in and of itself, a condemnation of the Joker’s villainy. It has to be, otherwise it threatens to embody the same evil that the Joker himself does. What’s fascinating is that the movie doesn’t just focus on the Joker, but rather all of the elements that help contribute to who he eventually becomes. The movie touches on several issues such as wealth inequality, mental health, infidelity, gun control, entertainment, anarchy, and so many other themes that you would least expect in a comic book movie like this. You wouldn’t think that these serious topics would fit into a movie about the Joker, yet they fit perfectly like pieces into a messy and chaotic puzzle. It’s very easy to simply write Joker off as psychotic and blame all of his cruelty on craziness. It’s much harder to take a deeper look at what turned Arthur Fleck into a murderer and address some of those contributors that had a hand in creating the Joker in the first place.

Since the movie is at its core a character observation, so much of the movie rests on Joaquin Phoenix’s scrawny shoulders as both Arthur Fleck and the Joker. He never buckles under the pressure. Not once. He plays both sides to the character 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. He embodies the nuances of both characters perfectly and never breaks character in the movie’s 122-minute run time. If Joaquin isn’t at least nominated for Best Actor at the Oscars next year, the ceremony deserves to be boycotted.

You need to be warned that this is not a Batman movie by any means and is not meant for the regular superhero moviegoing public. This movie is equally inappropriate for any children younger than 18, as there is a lot of profanity, blood, gore, and disturbing images. Likewise, there’s also a larger conversation to be had about how movies like Joker humanizes deplorable human beings and gives insight to the horrible actions they carry out.

My argument is that these figures were already humanized through their situations and struggles – the movie’s challenge is showing us that without veering into preachiness or self-absorption. We already know that everything Joker does in the movie is reprehensible and wrong, just like we did for the Italian mobsters in The Godfather, or the gangsters in Goodfellas, or the hitmen in Pulp Fiction. The scary part is not caring when we cross that line – when we intentionally blur it or sometimes erase it altogether because we’ve lost any sense of moral integrity. In those moments, you can’t cry anymore because you’ve run out of tears to shed. All you can do is laugh.

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‘The Batman’ Casts Riddler, Catwoman and Commissioner Gordon

Batman’s rogue’s gallery is starting to pile up for his newest cinematic outing.

Ever since Matt Reeves took over as director in 2017, Warner Bros.’s newest Batman movie has been shrouded in nothing but secrecy. First, it was rumored that Ben Affleck would reprise the role of Batman and would go up against Jared Leto’s Joker, but that rumor fell apart quickly once Affleck officially left the project earlier this year. Then Robert Pattinson, most known for Twilight fame, was cast as Bruce Wayne in Affleck’s place. Now the movie is confirmed not to be another origin story, but rather a neo-noir crime thriller with several villains stacked up against the caped crusader.

Well, we can now confirm at least two names that the Batman will be going up against. The first will be Edward Nygma, a.k.a. The Riddler, who tricks and manipulates the Batman through his several riddles and puzzles. The Hollywood Reporter earlier confirmed that Paul Dano, the fantastic actor behind movies including Little Miss Sunshine, There Will Be Blood, and Love & Mercy, will be portraying Edward Nygma in the upcoming superhero flick.

But Dano isn’t the only big name attached to the project. Zoe Kravitz, the spitfire woman behind roles in movies including X-Men: First Class, Divergent, and Mad Max: Fury Road was also confirmed earlier this week to be playing Selina Kyle, a.k.a. Catwoman. Anne Hathaway was the most recent actress to portray the feline Fatale in Christopher Nolan’s 2013 epic The Dark Knight Rises. Interestingly enough, this is Kravitz’s second time to portray Catwoman, as she first provided her voice for the character in 2017’s The Lego Batman Movie.

Finally, Jeffrey Wright, the actor behind films including The Hunger Games and the newest James Bond movies, and television shows including “Boardwalk Empire” and “Westworld,” will be portraying Commissioner Gordon in the upcoming flick. Since its unclear when exactly the film takes place, Gordon could be either a friend or foe to Batman depending on how long Bruce has adopted the cowl. Either way, I’m looking forward to seeing what Robert and Jeffrey’s chemistry will be like and how they work together in the film.

Overall I’m very pleased with these casting developments. Paul Dano is a highly underrated actor and has consistently put out great performance after great performance. Him playing the Riddler is pitch-perfect casting, although I would have loved to have seen what Jonah Hill might have done in the role before he exited the production. Zoe Kravitz is just as intriguing as Catwoman. Although she’s been in several high-profile movies, she hasn’t really been given a role as prominent as this. It’ll be exciting to see what she potentially does in the role and how she plays with Robert Pattinson’s Batman.

The most perplexing to me is Jeffrey Wright. While he’s a talented actor and a great pick for Commissioner Gordon, it’s unclear how he fits into the larger DC Extended Universe. Early on in production, The Batman was pitched as sort of a prequel to Ben Affleck’s Batman in Justice League. But as everyone already knows, J.K. Simmons portrayed Commissioner Gordon in that film and he and Jeffrey look nothing alike. Does that basically confirm that this is a standalone reboot and not attached to the DCEU? Only time will tell whether it is for sure.

What do you guys think? Are you excited that the cast is growing for The Batman? What are your thoughts on some of these casting choices? Comment below, let me know.

– David Dunn

SOURCE: The Hollywood Reporter, Variety

“IT CHAPTER TWO” Review (✫✫✫)

Why, Pennywise! What big teeth you have!

It Chapter Two opens on a scene of horror, not from the titular clown mind you, but rather from the prey he’s supposed to be hunting. It’s 2016 in Derry, Maine, and a gay couple just left the local carnival to go home. But on their way, they are attacked in the street by a gang of homophobic teenagers who beat them, taunt them, and then throw one of them over the bridge and into the river despite knowing that he can’t swim. It’s a harrowing, disturbing, and unsettling scene, especially since it’s something that doesn’t have to come from a horror movie. For many, it’s a reality they have to face every day they wake up. That’s scarier than any clown could ever be.

Of course, this encounter inevitably ends with the murderous Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard) eating somebody. Thought to be dead, Pennywise has reawakened after he was defeated by the Loser’s Club 27 years ago. The now older Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa) is the first to discover Pennywise’s return and reaches out to the rest of the Loser’s Club. His first call is to Bill Denborough (James McAvoy), a famous writer whose brother Georgie was eaten by the vicious clown 27 years ago. There’s Beverly Marsh (Jessica Chastain), who now works as a fashion designer with her abusive husband. There’s Ben Hapscomb (Jay Ryan), a famed architect who lost a ton of weight and replaced it all with raw muscle. There’s Eddie Richmond (James Ransom), a hypochondriac and risk assessor from New York. And then there’s Richie Tozier (Bill Hader), the smart-aleck of the group that grew up to become a standup comedian.

Mike reunites all of the Losers together for one reason: because they swore that if Pennywise ever returned, so would they and finish him off for good. So the Losers Club reunite to find Pennywise, kill him, and end his reign of terror against Derry once and for all.

If you liked It Chapter One, chances are you will like It Chapter Two just as well. Even with Chapter Two being an obvious two-parter, there are still several elements from the first movie that are replicated faithfully in the sequel here. Take Bill Skarsgard’s Pennywise as one example. He was an eerie, hair-raising presence in It Chapter One, and he’s just as creepy, haunting, and darkly comedic here as he was in the first movie. I’ve watched his performances back-to-back in Chapter One and Two and compared them both side-by-side, and the thing that keeps impressing me is how much he’s able to build on the character despite how little we know about him. From his maniacal laughter to his side-eyed stare to his drooling, creepy smile, Skarsgard lines up all of the qualities that make Pennywise a wacky, haunting, and unsettling figure. He surmises all of Stephen King’s appeal into one charmingly twisted character.

But its not just Skarsgard that works so well in this movie: much of the newer cast keeps up with him just as much. James McAvoy does a fantastic job as the stuttering Bill and performs brilliantly under the pressure in expressing his paranoia, grief, anger, guilt, and frustration. Jessica Chastain is just as phenomenal in playing Beverly, and she does a wonderful job in portraying the character’s psychological trauma while at the same time being the glue that holds the Loser’s Club together. Bill Hader is particularly my favorite as Richie. I spent half of the film’s runtime laughing, and most of the time it was because of Hader’s snappy quips and one-liners (especially when it had to do with Eddie’s mom).

What surprises me the most about this movie is how much it relies on flashback sequences to tell its story. It Chapter Two is two hours and 50 minutes long, and probably about a quarter of that time is used in flashback sequences. That means that much of its runtime flips between James McAvoy and Jaeden Martell, Jessica Chasten and Sophia Lillis, Bill Hader and Finn Wolfhard, etc. Mind you, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The younger cast members, after all, were great in the first film and are just as reliable here. Still, I wasn’t expecting them to be featured so prominently in Chapter Two. I would have rathered the movie focus more on the adults rather than their younger counterparts. It would have given the new cast more space to build on and more opportunity to dive into the background of their older selves.

The rest of the movie carries out its typical horror movie routine. Pennywise pops out in a few jump scares, there are some heartfelt drama and lighthearted comedy to break up the action, and a giant CGI monster appears for the Loser’s Club to fight at the end of the movie. Granted, it doesn’t look nearly as terrible as the original monster did in the 1990’s television miniseries starring Tim Curry. Still, why do these movies have to end with a generic movie monster battle in the first place? Because it was in the book? Because it was required in Stephen King’s contract? Or because Bill Skarsgard got tired near the end of filming and told the animators to digitally edit him in so he could go home early?

Of course, I have to answer the inevitable question: which movie is better? It Chapter One or Two? My preference is It Chapter One, not only because it was such a lightning bolt of horror entertainment, but because it was a tightly-knit and brilliantly woven story that carried through fluidly without much confusion or interruption. There was a clear beginning, middle, and end to Chapter One, and we were easily able to immerse ourselves in the Loser’s Club’s plight and their terror of Pennywise. Chapter Two is a little more broken up and convoluted in its narrative, and the scares don’t land quite as hard as they did in Chapter One.

Still, It Chapter Two is a thrilling movie and a reliable sequel to one of the most unique and original horror experiences of our time. Movie fans are sure to be pleased by this duology, and Stephen King fans even more so. Just please, please stick to the book’s ending and don’t bring Pennywise back for another sequel. Otherwise, he’ll take the form of my greatest fear as It Chapter Three.

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Spider-Man Back In The MCU… For Now.

SOURCE: Sony Pictures

He’s back, everybody. It may be only temporarily, but for the moment Spider-Man is back in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Sony Pictures left fans with a scare last month after the studio failed to renegotiate their contract with Walt Disney for the webhead’s future with the MCU. Originally, their contract gave Disney a five percent cut of Spider-Man’s earnings while Sony retained exclusive financing, distribution, and creative rights over the MCU’S Spider-Man movies. Talks of renegotiating fell apart, however, when Disney proposed a new deal that included a 50/50 co-financing agreement. Sony wasn’t satisfied with that proposal and wanted to stick with the terms of the original agreement. After neither Sony or Disney could reach a compromise, negotiations fell apart and Spider-Man was excluded from the MCU.

That all changed Friday when Sony and Disney reached a new deal to temporarily keep Spider-Man within the MCU. According to Variety, the new agreement includes a 75/25 co-financing agreement between the two studios. The new agreement allows Tom Holland to appear in a third Spider-Man movie, as well as another Marvel movie outside of his own series.

Fans that were in an uproar over last month’s developments should be able to breathe with a sigh of relief now that this new deal has gone through. With this new agreement secured between Sony and Walt Disney, Spidey will now be able to conclude his arc throughout his trilogy, as well as potentially appear in the fifth Avengers movie whenever that’s slated to come out. However, just because Spidey’s now back in the MCU doesn’t mean it will stay that way forever. It’s important to remember that while Sony and Disney have reached a temporary deal, that deal is temporary. It’s up to Sony and Disney to negotiate future Spidey appearances within the MCU after he’s appeared in his third movie and another Marvel movie, as well as what that partnership may mean going forward.

The third film in Tom Holland’s Spider-Man trilogy is scheduled for release on July 16, 2021.

– David Dunn

SOURCE: Variety, IndieWire

“ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD” Review (✫✫✫✫)

SOURCE:

Movies, murder, and Manson.

Long before Quentin Tarantino became a household name thanks to the likes of Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill, Tarantino was just an ecstatic, side-eyed cinephile whose entire upbringing was brought up thanks to the movies. At 14 he wrote a parody screenplay to Burt Reynolds’ 1977 hit Smokey and the Bandit called Captain Peachfuzz and the Anchovy Bandit. At 15 he dropped out of high school and worked as an usher for an adult movie theater called Pussycat Theatre. Then in his 20’s, he worked for five years at a video store before going to work as a production assistant for Dolph Lundgren’s workout videos. It wouldn’t be long after until he wrote his first full-length screenplay for Robert Rodriguez’s 1996 film From Dusk Till Dawn. At nearly every corner, movies have come to define Tarantino and a part of his life. If he were any more into movies, he’d be a cinema projector and have film reels flowing through his veins.

I feel his unorthodox upbringing fuels, at least partly, his fascination behind Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, a movie that feels equally as crazy and side-wined as Tarantino’s life has been, but in many ways, also serves as a personal and heartfelt homage to the movies. 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.

In this devilishly wacky and zany dark comedy, Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt play a big-time TV star and his stunt double, both of which are looking for work in the dog-eat-dog world of 1960’s Hollywood. Their adventures into relevance take them everywhere in Hollywood to meet several famous celebrities, including Steve McQueen, Bruce Lee, Wayne Maunder, James Stacy, and Jay Sebring. All while this is going on, famed film director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and his actress wife Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) move in next door to them, all while a strange man stalks them throughout the neighborhood.

How does the Manson family murders tie into this story about Hollywood hijinks and high-profile celebrities? I’m not telling you. Part of the joy of Tarantino’s screenplays is that they play against the audiences’ expectations. That’s one of his greatest strengths as a writer – the unpredictability of his stories. Who could have expected, after all, that John Travolta would die halfway through Pulp Fiction, only to be revived through a flashback much later? Who also could have expected that both Leonardo DiCaprio and Christoph Waltz would be killed by the end of the second act in Django Unchained and that Django would have to spend the rest of the movie fighting a racist black man? And who also could have predicted that Inglorious Basterd’s ending would include riddling Adolf Hitler’s smarmy head full of bullet holes?

Time and time again, Tarantino has proved how he can flip expectations on the audience’s heads and deliver some of the most quirky, unusual, and shocking stories ever put on film. Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is no exception. It has all of the cleverness and wit of a Tarantino screenplay, but with twice as much satire and self-awareness. How do you think this movie will play out? Now do a complete 180 and go the exact opposite direction of what you’re expecting. That is Once Upon A Time In Hollywood in a nutshell, and it’s ingenious because of it.

But it isn’t just Tarantino’s writing skills that are on full display here: it’s also his expert craftsmanship and direction. Most of his movies feature gratuitous blood and gore as a common trademark of his, with it most of the time aimed towards his male character’s genitalia. And like clockwork, this movie also features a variety of violence that has Tarantino’s stamp of approval. What’s curious is that it isn’t a prominent feature throughout the film. In fact, the gory violence is mostly absent until the third act, where Tarantino finally lets loose in his typical nutty fashion. Most of the movie even serves as a staunch critique of violence in mainstream media, how it wears at the mind and desensitizes its audience to macabre bloodshed and sickening imagery. Tarantino’s own filmography is a prime example of this, as his movies have gotten progressively more violent ever since he released Reservoir Dogs in 1992. Does that make him a hypocrite, then, to critique and examine violence and its cultural impact while celebrating and relishing in it at the same time? Possibly, but this movie doesn’t examine cultural violence like it’s an issue to solve but rather as an inevitable quality of entertainment. I appreciate Tarantino’s introspection into observing that issue, even if he isn’t exactly exempt from it.

I would be remiss if I did not mention Leonardo DiCaprio or Brad Pitt. Obviously, they are both incredibly talented and charismatic actors that have developed their own style and likeness similar to Quentin Tarantino. Perhaps that’s why they work so well together in this movie. Pitt succeeds in being the sly, slick, Cool Hand Luke-type character that remains level-headed and calm through all circumstances, even when they’re extraneous or unusual. DiCaprio, meanwhile, is an especially ecstatic character. It’s funny to watch him hyperventilate over the smallest of inconveniences, or damn near tear up when he’s told he should star in a spaghetti western. I like that about DiCaprio, how he can switch from such challenging roles such as Hugh Grant in The Revenant to more comedic and clumsy roles such as Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. It really demonstrates his range as an actor and shows how well he can take on an assortment of characters, no matter how different they may be.

I feel like Once Upon A Hollywood may end up being incredibly divisive, both towards the passionate fans of Tarantino’s work and those who can’t stand him and his wacky, off-beat style. To me, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood embodies Tarantino’s strongest traits as a writer and a director without veering too far into being excessive or self-indulgent. Dare I say it’s my favorite Tarantino film? I’m not sure if I’m quite there yet, but it’s definitely in my top two alongside Pulp Fiction. However you may feel about Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, I can only speak for myself and how I feel about it. On that note, I will say that by the end of the movie, I was shocked, revolted, and incredibly disturbed by what I saw. I was also rolling in my seat dying of laughter. That might say more about me than it does Quentin Tarantino, but hey, that’s the movies for you.

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“THE LION KING (2019)” Review (✫✫1/2)

The circle of (CGI) life. 

Let this be a lesson to Disney and any other media conglomerates in the future: just because something worked well the first time doesn’t mean it’s guaranteed to work every time after. Sure, when Jon Favreau directed the live-action Jungle Book remake in 2016, it garnered critical acclaim, grossed over $966 million at the box office, and even won the Oscar for Best Visual Effects, with many viewers claiming that it was even better than the original. With The Jungle Book’s success in mind, Disney thought they could probably give The Lion King the same treatment and get the same result two times over.

Ah, but here’s the thing: The Jungle Book is consistently considered to be solidly mid-tier in terms of the old-timey Disney animated movies. It’s enjoyable enough, but it pales in comparison to the likes of Bambi, Pinocchio, and Beauty and the Beast. The Lion King, meanwhile, embodies everything great about Disney, from its colorful characters and animation to its vibrant and lively music all the way to its serious and dramatic storyline. The Lion King is widely considered to be Walt Disney’s greatest animated movie of all time – and rightfully so.

Much of the storyline is the same between both adaptations. In both movies, Simba (Donald Glover) is the son of the “Lion King” Mufasa (James Earl Jones) and the prince of the Pride Lands, the kingdom which his father oversees. As prince, Simba is destined to one day grow up, take his father’s place, and become the king over the Pride Lands and the animals who reside there.

However, there is another pining for Mufasa’s throne. Mufasa’s younger brother, a dirty, rugged, and unruly lion named Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) was the first in line for the throne before Simba was born. Now consumed with jealousy and greed for the throne, Scar hatches a scheme to take away the throne from both Simba and Mufasa – and neither will like what he has planned for either of them.

Since this movie revisits so many of the plot beats from the first Lion King, this movie is more of a shot-for-shot re-skin to the original than a remake in its own right. As such, the visual effects are crucial in making this movie work, since so much of its appeal relies heavily on how it looks compared to its animated counterpart. So here’s the million-dollar question: how good does The Lion King look?

The short answer is pretty freaking fantastic. Like The Jungle Book, The Lion King uses photorealistic techniques to bring these CGI animals to life, behaving and moving on-screen as if you’re peering through the glass of an exotic zoo. Every time Mufasa let out a loud, ear-piercing roar, Zazu (John Oliver) spread out his petite little wings to fly, or Rafiki (John Kani) trotted along in the trees, bushes, and savannah, it felt like real animals were in front of you making these movements. The Jungle Book was revolutionary for its time by impressively digitally recreating animals and their behaviors, and The Lion King succeeds in executing many of the same techniques to give its animals a genuine, natural feel to them. If you compare the original Lion King with the remake side-by-side and ask which one looks more realistic, it isn’t even a competition: the remake wins.

But with its realistic computer graphics comes an unexpected consequence: now because the animals look so realistic, the animals can’t express as much as they could in the original. Neither could they in The Jungle Book remake, but that movie had one key element to it that The Lion King does not have: Neel Sethi. With him being one of the few human actors in The Jungle Book, he was able to play his emotions off of the animals and demonstrate genuine expressions of joy, intimidation, grief, sadness, anger, happiness, and excitement. Sure, the animals’ faces were mostly stoic and one-note, but then again they weren’t required to demonstrate expression: Neel was. He pulled off a decent enough job to where we could appreciate the rest of the technical craft behind The Jungle Book’s wild characters.

The Lion King does not have a human actor to anchor the film’s drama or emotions. What we’re left with, then, is an entire reliance on the animals and their limited facial expressions. That’s a problem because they don’t express much of anything throughout the film, despite the voice cast obviously giving it their all. It’s very awkward to watch Mufasa suddenly snap from angry to happy while playing with Simba in the Pride Lands without his facial cues to clue us in on his mood. A few accentuations to his facial animations would have helped with that. Would it be inaccurate to the real-life physiology? Yes, but at least we wouldn’t be as removed from the character personally.

I mentioned the voice actors. Some of them deliver brilliant vocal performances, such as Donald Glover and Beyonce as the elder Simba and Nala respectively. The minute Glover pops out and sings his heart out with “Hakuna Matata,” or when they harmonize during “Can You Feel The Love Tonight?”, it immediately fills you with chills and goosebumps at how beautiful they sound together. Anytime they shared dialogue or a musical number, I was immediately hooked and wanted to hear more from them (even if “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” was annoyingly sung in the DAYTIME).

Other voice performances lack the raw and visceral punch that Glover and Beyonce bring. For instance, Chiwetel Ejiofor voices Scar, and his performance was so meek and wimpy that he sounds more like Jafar from Aladdin than he does Scar. Hugh Jackman was rumored to play Scar early on while casting was still under consideration, and I can’t tell you how much better it would have been if I heard Wolverine’s snarly voice seething between Scar’s teeth. The hyenas, played by Florence Kasumba, Keegan-Michael Key, and Eric Andre are fine but lack the wacky personalities of Whoopi Goldberg, Cheech Marin, and Jim Cummings. Seth Rogan is especially cringe-worthy as Pumbaa. He’s funny enough whenever he’s just bantering with Billy Eichner’s Timon, but have him start singing “Hakuna Matata” and your ears are guaranteed to start bleeding within minutes.

Overall, The Lion King is an enjoyable, albeit inconsistent, remake. I did enjoy seeing my favorite Lion King characters up on the big screen once again, and I did like seeing the new visual style applied to some of them. But the larger film as a whole does not work as well as the animated movie did, but what else did you expect? Some movies were not made to be interchangeable with live-action. Yeah, you could technically adapt movies such as The Incredibles, Up, and Spider-Man: Into The Spiderverse into live-action. But with all of the bright colors, beautiful animation, and vivid visual style, why would you ever want to?

I know three things for certain. 1) The Oscar-worthy visual effects helps this movie as much as it hurts it. 2) Donald Glover and Beyonce are hands-down the best things that could have happened to this picture. 3) Seth Rogan should never attempt to sing again in his career, ever. And for the love of God, please sing “Can You Feel The Love Tonight?” in the evening next time.

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Keanu Reeves Returns To ‘The Matrix’

Those within The Matrix just took the red pill once again, and they’re seeing how deep the rabbit hole goes the fourth time around.

Variety first broke the news that Lana Wachowski, one of the original writers and directors behind the very first Matrix movie, has been contracted to write and direct a fourth film in the sprawling sci-fi series. Not only that, but actors Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss are slated to return, reprising their roles as Neo and Trinity respectively from the visually dazzling action franchise.

This news just suddenly came out of left field and wasn’t really expected by anybody. While The Matrix is one of the most iconic and popular franchises of all time, won four Academy Awards, and grossed over one billion dollars at the box office, they haven’t released a sequel since 2003’s Matrix Revolutions, which opened to a lukewarm box office response and critical reception. Since that time, there was no interest expressed by Lana, Reeves, or Warner Bros. at the possibility of exploring a sequel, not to mention what that would even look like 15 years later.

Regardless, Matrix 4 is happening, and I have so many questions. First of all, what implored Lana to come back to this franchise? Ever since she and her sister Lilly concluded their trilogy in 2003, they’ve gone on to work on several high-profile and visually dynamic projects, not the least of which including V For Vendetta, Speed Racer, Ninja Assassin, Cloud Atlas, and Jupiter Ascending. At this point, I presumed the Wachowskis were more interested in working on original projects rather than returning to familiar territory. What suddenly urged Lana to change course and suddenly go back into The Matrix?

Speaking of which, where is Lilly in all of this? Throughout their entire filmography, Lana and Lilly went together like two peas in a pod, like peanut butter and jelly, like Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Having Lana work on this project without her sister is just unusual. It’s like the Coen Brothers working together for years on several projects including Fargo, The Big Lebowski, and No Country For Old Men, and then suddenly Joel broke away from Ethan to direct The Ballad of Buster Scruggs all by himself.

I am enthralled to see Keanu Reeves returning to this franchise. While Reeves found mainstream success in playing Neo for The Matrix, he wouldn’t hit another high-profile role for several years until he would play John Wick in his self-titled action movie in 2014. Since then he’s gone on to play in two more John Wick movies, voicing the titular cat in the 2016 Key and Peele comedy Keanu, and would even voice Duke Caboom in the more recent Toy Story 4. He’s hit a huge success spurt as of late, and I’m excited to see Keanu return to one of his more recognizable roles that he’s obviously done so well in. Plus, it’s always cool to see the internet’s favorite boyfriend pop up on the big screen.

Overall, I’m very excited about this announcement. Surprised, yes, cautious, absolutely, and I definitely want to see where these developments will lead Neo and his crew. But more than anything else, I’m eager to see what this new chapter will bring for Neo and everyone else within The Matrix.

What do you guys think? Do you take the blue pill and believe whatever you want to believe, or do you take the red pill and see how deep the rabbit hole goes? Comment below, let me know.

– David Dunn

SOURCE: Variety, The Verge

Sony Rips Spider-Man Away From The Marvel Cinematic Universe

The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Spider-Man is no more.

After two successful solo movies and three appearances in the most recent Avengers and Captain America movies, the future looked bright for the MCU’s newest wall-crawler. With his most recent sequel grossing over a billion dollars at the box office, several other planned installments on the way, and a teased future appearance from famed Spider-Man villain Kraven the Hunter, it looked like Marvel was going to keep pumping out as much Spider-Man as they could for years to come.

Unfortunately, Spider-Man’s journey with the Marvel Cinematic Universe just came to an abrupt end this past Tuesday. Deadline first reported that after Walt Disney and Sony Pictures failed to renegotiate their contract, all negotiations fell apart and Sony is effectively moving forward with the Spider-Man franchise without Disney.

This means that Spider-Man will no longer be involved with the Marvel Cinematic Universe and will operate completely separate from any future Avengers movies. In short, this essentially means Tom Holland’s Spider-Man as we know it is over.

The legality behind this is a little more than slightly complicated, so let me try and break it down for you. Back when Captain America: Civil War was still in development in 2015, the infamous Sony Pictures leak revealed that Sony was in active negotiations with Walt Disney to share licensing rights for Spider-Man so he could appear in Civil War and future MCU movies. After much back-and-forth, Sony and Disney agreed to a deal that would allow Spider-Man to appear in both his own solo movies and larger MCU features, including Civil War and the last two Avengers movies. The deal would still allow Sony to finance, distribute, and exercise creative control over their exclusive Spider-Man movies, but Disney would share a five percent cut of the film’s revenue and retain the right to use him in separate movies.

So what happened to make that deal collapse? To put it simply, Disney wasn’t satisfied with the original agreement and wanted to renegotiate its terms with Sony. Instead of Sony retaining its exclusive rights over the Spider-Man movies, Disney wanted to split financing and distribution with Sony right down the middle and negotiate a 50/50 co-financing agreement between the studios. This would presumably include Disney taking a larger cut of the Spider-Man movies’ box office earnings. Sony was not satisfied with this proposal and outright refused it, instead proposing to keep the terms of the previous agreement as they were originally introduced. Disney refused their proposal and sent negotiations through the ceiling, essentially pitting both studios into a standstill.

What does this mean for the web-head? The immediate effect is that Tom Holland’s Spider-Man is now completely divorced from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Since a deal was not reached, Tom Holland can no longer appear in any of the future Avengers movies or any other solo movie existing within the MCU. Holland technically could continue in his own solo series, but there would have to be zero mention or inference to pre-existing events or people in the MCU. Since his character is so heavily influenced by Iron Man, Captain America, and the rest of the Avengers, that would make a third Spider-Man movie featuring Holland incredibly complicated to make.

Another possibility is that Holland’s Spider-Man could now potentially appear in Sony’s spinoff superhero movies, including the Venom series and next year’s vampire movie Morbius. But again, there would have to be no inference to the MCU or the events preceding his appearance. He essentially operates completely outside of the Marvel Cinematic Universe from this moment forward.

I have several emotions at this bit of news. My first reaction is shock. Then anger. Then red-hot-burning rage. And then a deep blue depression. But I try to look at this through several different lenses, and I have to remember that these franchises are as much a business model to these movie studios as they are stories in their own right. So, let’s look at it from an economic perspective.

First of all, it’s completely understandable that Disney would want to renegotiate terms for Spidey’s licensing rights. Thanks to incorporating Spider-Man in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Marvel’s two Spider-Man movies have been among the most successful of the web-head’s career. Not only have Spider-Man: Homecoming and Far From Home become among the most critically acclaimed Spider-Man movies of all time, but they’ve also become their highest grossing. Homecoming became the third highest-grossing Spider-Man movie at $880 million, just a few million shy of Spider-Man 3’s $890 million. Meanwhile Far From Home became the first movie out of the franchise to break over one billion at the box office. His appearances outside of his own movies have also boosted his profile nicely, with Captain America: Civil War grossing over a billion dollars and both Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame grossing over two billion. Disney’s involvement only helped put Spider-Man on the map. No matter how you put it, Disney’s contribution was good business for Sony.

That makes Sony’s hostility to not work with Disney even less sense, especially since all their agreement has done is help boost one of their most prominent and successful franchises. Is 50 percent a little much? Possibly, and I can sympathize with resisting Disney’s monopolistic urges. Still, you couldn’t have found any way to make it work? Nothing? Nothing at all? Fox made over $52 billion for selling its media properties to Disney and made a heckuva big payload for doing so. Sony got to retain a majority of its licensing and distribution rights for Spider-Man, and you still didn’t find a benefit for trying to work with Disney? Really?

Sure, it’s possible Sony and Disney could come back to the drawing board and work out a new deal that would work to the benefit of both companies. I wouldn’t bet my chips on it, however. Not with Sony’s stickler hands trying to retain the rights of several other Spider-Man characters that it owns, including Venom, Black Cat, Silver Sable, Silk, Nightwatch, and several others. If anything, Sony would probably use the Spider-Man character to draw out appeal for its other spinoff franchises that they’re trying to launch. Would that work as well as featuring Spidey in his own original series? Probably not, but you wouldn’t have much success trying to tell Sony that.

And through this all, my biggest frustration is that Spider-Man’s story with the MCU will go on unresolved. Tom Holland won’t get to experience the full semantics of what it’s like being a friendly neighborhood superhero in the large and sprawling MCU. John Watts won’t get to explore the full scope of what Peter Parker would grow up to be like in a world without Tony Stark. All of the potential and all of the stories that could have been told with this new Spider-Man suddenly will no longer be possible, and the Avengers won’t get to experience one last adventure with the amazing web-slinger.

That’s what hurts the most about this development. Not the fact that it ended: the fact that it didn’t get the ending it deserved at all.

What do you guys think? Did Sony screw up by not trying to find a way to make things work with Disney, or do you think this frees the web-head up for new possibilities? Comment below, let me know.

– David Dunn

SOURCE: Deadline, Variety

“THE LION KING (1994)” Review (✫✫✫✫)

A powerful tale of grief, resolution, and Hamlet.

As a child, there were several moments from Walt Disney’s classic movies that stick with you as you matured from a small cub into a fully grown adult all your own. In Pinocchio, that was when Pinocchio sacrificed himself to save his father Gepetto, turning himself from a puppet into a real boy. In Dumbo, it was that somber moment when Mrs. Jumbo extended her trunk out from the cage and cradled her disturbed baby Dumbo to sleep out in the gloomy circus grounds. And in Bambi, it was when Bambi witnessed his mother tragically shot and killed by a hunter in the cold, snowy forest.

Time and time again, Disney has demonstrated an impeccable ability to deliver fun and colorful adventures, but not so detached from reality to where its cute and cuddly creatures didn’t have their own problems and issues of mortality to deal with. These images stay with us because in most cases, what their child-like characters go through could have been us.

This is one among many reasons why The Lion King is such a success, and arguably Disney’s greatest animated feature to date. When I was younger, I remembered all of the kid-friendly elements that appealed to me so much through my bright-eyed, adolescent mind. I remembered the memorable kingdom animals that bantered and bickered about amusingly, the brilliantly sweeping animation that captured the vibrant and luscious landscape of the African Savannah, and the wonderful musical numbers beautifully written by Hans Zimmer and Elton John. All of these captured my mind and imagination in my young age, but after re-watching it through older eyes, I had a greater appreciation on the maturity and the themes the movie was trying to explore, a beautiful homily on life not being about where you came from, but where you’re going: a “circle of life,” so to speak.

The Lion King tells the story of Simba (Matthew Broderick), a young lion cub who is the prince of the Pride Lands. His father Mufasa (James Earl Jones) is the king of the Pride Lands and the ruler of all the animals who reside there. But he won’t be king forever. As he points out to the young Simba, there will be one day where the sun sets on his time and a new king will have to rise in his place. That king, Mufasa says, is none other than his own son Simba.

But it wasn’t always that way. Long before Simba was born, his uncle Scar (Jeremy Irons) was supposed to be next in line for the throne. Selfish, twisted, and devilishly conniving, Scar is jealous that he will one day be forced to give up the throne in place of his little twerpy lion cub nephew who hasn’t even grown out his full mane yet. As Simba grows older, he will have to struggle for the throne against his uncle Scar, and accept his destiny as the King of the Pride Lands.

We’re barely into talking about The Lion King, and already it feels like we’re referring to an epic dramatic blockbuster more than an animated kids’ movie. In a way, we are. The story was co-written by Linda Woolverton, who was most known for penning Disney’s 1991 release Beauty And The Beast prior to The Lion King. In many ways, they’re very similar stories with shared meanings and messages behind them. Both of these films deal with characters stricken with emotional grief, guilt, and anguish. Both of these films deal with masculine protagonists secluding themselves away from the rest of the world, resolved to their suffering and their need to be closed off from it. But they also deal with how those characters come to face their grief and sorrow, resolve it, and commit themselves to a better tomorrow despite their past tragedies.

How is this different from other Disney epics that follows this same plot line, such as Pinocchio, Dumbo, and Bambi? It doesn’t, I guess. But The Lion King feels more immersed in its emotions: in the highs and lows of its characters, in the joys and the sorrows, in the fun and upbeat moments where animals are singing and dancing together in the jungle, and in the slower and darker moments where characters have to come to terms to who they are and who they are going to be going forward.

It makes sense that the film feels as thematic and operatic as it does. After all, directors Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff have stated several times in numerous interviews how they were inspired by several epic folklore stories while making The Lion King, including Williams Shakespeare’s Hamlet and the tale of Joseph from the Holy Bible. Does it sound a little heavy-handed to describe such historic works in comparison to an animated kids movie about jungle animals and lion cubs? Definitely, but it works beautifully in context here. It kind of falls in line with Disney’s earlier work: his movies weren’t just about puppets, giant-eared baby elephants, and bright-eyed fawns. They were about growing up and learning from their experiences in the past.

The brightly-colored and vivid animation is arguably the best Disney has ever helped produce. The first moment the sun rises in the east of the Savannah at the beginning of the film, it’s so warm and bright that it makes you feel like the sun is actually rising from the screen and shining its bright ray onto you. The cast is equally impeccable, with Matthew Broderick, Jeremy Irons, James Earl Jones, Whoopi Goldberg, Jim Cummings and several others offering their voice talents in this sprawling, fun, and visually dynamic family epic.

But arguably the greatest of all of the production elements here is the music, which is co-written by both Hollywood composer Hans Zimmer and Grammy Award-winning pop star Elton John. Normally you wouldn’t expect the composer behind Rain Man, Driving Miss Daisy, and True Romance to be a match made in Heaven with “Rocket Man” himself. Yet, their collaboration together is absolutely breathtaking, with their several music numbers including “Hakuna Matata,” “Can You Feel The Love Tonight?”, and “Circle of Life” breathing vibrancy and heart into this already emotionally stirring animated epic. It is no less influential to Lion King’s success than John Williams is to Star Wars or Randy Newman is to Toy Story.

There will no doubt be much discussion over which of Disney’s several successes will go on to be revered as his best, among them including the recently released Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, and Beauty and the Beast. I waste no breath in saying The Lion King is hands-down my favorite. It’s an emotionally mature animated epic that will leave the adults with several beats to reflect over, all while not short-changing on the fun moments and musical numbers that will delight the kiddos. Pity, that the Academy Awards wouldn’t introduce the Oscar for Best Animated Feature until several years later when Shrek would win the first inaugural award in 2002. The Lion King would have won for sure.

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