Category Archives: Reviews

“DA 5 BLOODS” Review (✫✫✫✫)

Bloods don’t die. They multiply.

The only thing that’s more forgotten than a soldier of war is a black soldier. Spike Lee’s Vietnam war epic Da 5 Bloods observes this truth with sobering reality and honesty, taking you through the plight of five black soldiers who went through hell in Vietnam only to trade it for another hell when they came back home to America. Several movies have been done about the Vietnam war now, from Apocalypse Now to Born on the Fourth of July. Yet I’ve never seen a movie quite like Da 5 Bloods.

In Da 5 Bloods, a group of veterans venture back to Vietnam to bury their fallen squad leader and recover treasure they left behind during the war. Their squad leader is Stormin’ Norman, powerfully portrayed by Chadick Boseman in his first major role since Black Panther. The rest of the Bloods include Otis (Clarke Peters), David (Jonathan Majors), Eddie (Norm Lewis), and Paul (Delroy Lindo), who is the most devastated and haunted by Stormin’ Norman’s demise in Vietnam.

One of the immediate things you’ll notice about Da 5 Bloods is its creative direction. While Spike Lee is no stranger to displaying style and pizzazz in his movies whether it’s BlacKkKlansman, Malcolm X, or Do The Right Thing, Da 5 Bloods is noticeably less flashy than his other major projects. While his other films place an emphasis on color, music, and production design that visually pops from the screen, Da 5 Bloods is more grim, bleak, and dark, not just in its storytelling, but also in its visual design. Whether its scenes take place in the 1960s or the present day, the shading is so unrefined and gritty that it doesn’t even feel like a movie: it feels like real life and you’re simply witnessing these men’s experiences play out in front of you.

The cinematography and editing are equally essential when it comes to further realizing the film’s sense of character. One creative detail Spike Lee utilizes is the method of filming the movie’s two different eras. In the present day, Lee and cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel capture the scenes on high-definition digital cameras, reflective of today’s technological achievements. But in 1960s Vietnam, Lee and Sigel switch to 16 mm film, making the picture frame smaller and more grainy. The result is a fuller, more immersive experience that vividly places you in the same period as the Bloods. Few films do this mesmerizing of a job with its cinematography, yet Spike and Sigel make it look serene, striking, and epic (although for some reason, Spike annoyingly decided not to de-age his 60-year-old actors in the Vietnam flashbacks).

The cast is just as exceptional as Spike’s sense of artistry. While John David Washington, Samuel Jackson, Don Cheadle, and Giancarlo Esposito were originally slated to portray the living Bloods, scheduling conflicts prevented them from joining the film, so Lee had to seek alternatives in Peters, Majors, Lewis, and Lindo. Scheduling conflicts may have been the best thing to happen to Spike for this movie, because this quartet feels organic and authentic in relationship to one another. It’s not often where a film brings together an ensemble cast and makes it feel this natural and fluid, yet these actors do such a great job at portraying their love and affection for one another that they can’t help but really feel like long-lost friends reuniting under tragic circumstances.

But of the four leads, Delroy Lindo easily shines the most. You’d recognize him as West Indian Archie from Lee’s Malcolm X. But unlike most of his other supporting roles, Lindo takes more of a leading presence in Da 5 Bloods, and he handles the pressure very well. There’s one moment in particular where he’s vividly expressing his pain, hurt, and anger, and he’s staring into the camera while he’s delivering a heart-wrenching monologue. In context, he’s obviously just talking to himself, but in the shot, it feels like he’s talking directly to you. “You” as in the white man. “You” as in the American. “You” who are unaffected by the issues that plague him and his loved ones every day. His passionate and convincing delivery feels so raw and honest that you can’t help but feel guilty by the time he delivers his last impactful line to the camera.

And of all of the elements that bind this beautifully-wrapped cinematic package together, the most essential is the themes Lee explores in his screenplay. While the script was originally written on spec by screenwriters Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo, Spike rewrote it to include a black American perspective. The result is a spellbinding, rich, and dense narrative filled with many relevant themes to today’s society, including racism, police brutality, violence, war, mental health, poverty, generational wealth, greed, division: even Donald Trump’s election is provided with some commentary.

All of this leads to a grim reality we’re forced to face at the end of Da 5 Bloods: many of the battles Paul, Otis, David, Eddie, and Stormin’ Norman were a part of back then are still being fought to this day. We’ve entered five wars since Vietnam ended in 1975, one of which is still ongoing in Afghanistan. The Black Lives Matter movement is still fighting for the same civil rights that Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X died for in the 60s. Hell, there’s even been multiple teases to World War III in just this year alone. Yet in their misery and despair, Da 5 Bloods reminds us of another truth that perseveres: Bloods don’t die. They multiply. The Bloods never gave up fighting. Neither should we.

Tagged , , , , , ,

“JACK AND JILL” Review (Zero Stars)

SOURCE: Sony Pictures

Poopsie-whoopsie! Why did you make a floopsie-doo-dooski?

It should be illegal to make movies as terrible as Jack and Jill. This isn’t the usual sort of terrible where the cast and crew are merely incompetent at making a good movie  it’s the sort of terrible where they fully understand how to make a bad movie and are aggressively committed to making it as asinine, annoying, and offensive on the senses as possible. Well if Jack and Jill’s goal was to make one of the worst movies ever made, then they succeeded. May they never succeed at anything ever again.

Jack and Jill stars Adam Sandler as identical twins Jack and Jill, with the latter sibling being portrayed with drag and a wig that’s so fake-looking that I’m wondering which mannequin he took it from. The story follows the dreadful duo on a series of absurd adventures, some of which include inviting homeless people to Thanksgiving dinner, appearing on a game show, crushing a helpless horse under Jill’s weight, going to a Lakers game, and being stalked by Al Pacino. And when I say that, no, I’m not saying that it’s a character played by Al Pacino: I mean the actual, real, Academy Award-winner Al Pacino is in love with Adam Sandler in drag and is stalking her/him.

I don’t know what’s more disturbing; watching Al Pacino sexually harass Adam Sandler or knowing that both men willingly agreed to this.

Where do I start with this movie? What’s the worst part? Do I start with the screenplay, which is so childish and immature that fifth graders would be offended? Do I start with the performances, all of which are so obnoxious and distasteful that it makes The Room look artful by comparison? Or do I elaborate on its technical failings, all of which are so basic and amateurish that it makes The Hallmark Channel seem watchable?

Let’s start with the premise itself, in which the idea to have Adam Sandler playing gender-swapping roles is gimmicky at best and downright repugnant at its worst. For some comedic actors, they’re able to successfully play both masculine and feminine characters with finesse and flair, among my favorites being Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot, Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie, and Robin Williams in Mrs. Doubtfire.

Adam Sandler is not one of those actors. Simply put, he doesn’t have the training or the ability to act much beyond his own generic self. That’s why when Jack puts on a dress later in the movie and pretends to be Jill, there’s literally no discernible difference between Jill and the disguised Jack. It’s the same God-awful performance either way.

And seeing Adam Sandler dressed as a woman is truly an unpleasant sight to suffer through. While other gender-swapping roles put its actors through extensive makeup and costuming to make them look believable as women, Sandler just slaps on whatever outfit he bought from GAP and the lipstick and eyelashes he got from Ulta Beauty and calls it a transformation. It’s easily one of the laziest makeup and costuming jobs I’ve ever seen, and I’ve suffered through White Chicks.

But it isn’t just how Adam Sandler looks: his dialogue is just as insufferable and grotesque as the rest of his appearance is. Jill is disgusting, foul, whiny, and loud-mouthed to the point where you need earplugs to even attempt to listen to her. Sandler’s voice as Jill is so high-pitched and screechy that I’m shocked no windows in the theater broke every time Jill talked. Why Sandler chose this particular voice for Jill I have no idea. All I know is that I had to check my ears at the end of the screening to make sure they weren’t bleeding from all of the grated squealing they suffered through.

This begs a question that I, unfortunately, do not have an answer to: why was this movie made? Who was this movie made for? What purpose does it serve other than to test my patience and sanity? I cannot rationalize this movie for any reason whatsoever under any spectrum of thought. If it was supposed to be funny, why didn’t I laugh? If it was supposed to be endearing, why was I enraged the entire time while watching it? If it was supposed to be heartfelt, why did I drive my hands into my skull every time one of the characters spoke? If it was supposed to be sincere, why did the film reek of contrivance and laziness? And if it was supposed to be entertaining, why did I spend all 90 minutes fantasizing about strangling every single person I saw in the film?

While he was once known for starring in cheeky and amusing comedies like Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore, and The Wedding Singer, Adam Sandler has been making one string of bad decisions after another, whether it’s with the cheap and juvenile Grown Ups or the dull and uninspired Just Go With It. Jack and Jill confirms his downward spiral of insanity. For his own safety and well-being, he needs to be checked into a psychological ward as soon as humanly possible, and then his unfortunate viewers should seek counseling to process Jack and Jill in a healthy way.

After watching a trailer where he’s promoting Dunkin’ Donuts’ new Dunkaccino (hardee-har-har), Al Pacino demands that Jack burn all copies of it, warning him “This must never be seen by anyone.” He should have warned Jack and Jill’s producers instead and saved us all from the embarrassment.

Tagged , , , , , ,

“THE INVISIBLE MAN (2020)” Review (✫✫✫1/2)

SOURCE: Universal Pictures

What you can’t see can hurt you. 

An invisible threat haunts Cecilia Kass (Elizabeth Moss) at the beginning of The Invisible Man – and despite what you might expect, it isn’t the film’s titular villain. Instead, the invisible threat that looms over Kass is the same one that has followed Kelly McGillis, Rose McGowan, Ashley Judd, Kesha, Taylor Swift, E. Jean Carroll, Christine Blasey Ford, and several other women: abuse.

We see how it’s affected Kass early on in the film; how she fears sleeping next to her boyfriend Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) and how she quietly and meticulously creeps around the house so as not to wake him. She’s lucky enough to escape from her abusive relationship and stay at her friend James’ (Aldis Hodge) place as she recovers and picks up the broken pieces of her shattered life. Then one day she receives news that brings her a sigh of relief: Adrian killed himself shortly after Kass left him.

At least, that’s what Kass is told at first. But then she starts noticing strange things around the house. She finds an old pill bottle in her bathroom that she left behind at Adrian’s place when she left. Her belongings keep getting shifted around, moved from one place to another, and sometimes disappearing altogether. And despite being told over and over again that Adrian is dead, Kass can’t help but feel that he’s still around, always watching her close by.

I didn’t have high hopes for The Invisible Man prior to seeing this movie. Why would I? For one thing, it’s a remake of the 1940s Invisible Man movies by Universal, and horror remakes go over just about as well as Gus Van Sant’s 1998 remake of Psycho. It’s a February release, and spring movies tend to be among the worst films released on any given year. And to top it all off, The Invisible Man was originally planned to be an inclusion in Universal’s Dark Universe franchise  and if you want to know how bad of a start that franchise got off to, go watch Tom Cruise’s Mummy remake.

So I had no expectations of this movie being any good, let alone even remotely entertaining. Yet The Invisible Man blew away all of my expectations, immersing me in a harrowing, haunting, and nerve-wracking experience that doesn’t fail to send chills down your spine or stick the hairs up on your neck.

One of the many ways that this film succeeds in doing that is in its clever and carefully-crafted cinematography, which evokes a sense of dread and angst throughout the whole picture. Director Leigh Whannell and longtime collaborator Stefan Duscio smartly frame each shot slightly off-center, leaving plenty of white space between its characters and their environments. If this were any other film, you might think the shot was simply framed sloppily and the crew was just too lazy to readjust it. Instead the framing is used for artistic effect, creating the uneasy presence of another character despite never being able to see him. You feel like somebody is always watching Kass, and therefore, somebody is always watching you.

Elizabeth Moss is especially convincing in portraying a traumatized survivor still haunted by her seemingly dead boyfriend. We already knew that she was a skilled and talented actress in television shows like “Mad Men” and “The Handmaiden’s Tale,” but here she demonstrates another layer of expression that feels especially raw and vulnerable. If you removed Elizabeth Moss completely from this movie and put her into another movie where its protagonist was dealing with PTSD from an abusive relationship, it would still work very well. That’s because she isn’t portraying a stock final girl archetype you usually find in many of these horror movies: she’s playing a fleshed out and fully-realized character dealing with her own unique problems and isolation. That depth and complexion adds a lot of emotional weight to this seemingly simple horror movie, establishing a strong connection to its main character and making us root for her throughout the picture.

All of this contributes to Leigh Whannell’s exemplary ability to elevate this picture beyond its original expectations. While the movie is all sorts of exciting and riveting on its own, Whannell uses the thrills and jump scares to tell a deeper narrative about the mistreatment of women and how we respond to them speaking their truth. We’ve seen this in a few other movies now where they use their blockbuster appeal to share something deeper and more compelling, such as the topic of racism in Get Out, mental health and well-being in Joker, wealth inequality in Parasite, and artificial intelligence in Leigh Whannell’s own Upgrade. Here, Whannell is utilizing a classic premise to pioneer a powerful pro-feminist anthem, not unlike other blockbusters such as Alien or Mad Max: Fury Road.

Of course, the movie is not without its flaws. The first act specifically uses a lot of time for setup and drags in terms of pacing. With this being a horror movie, you’re bound to get at least one or two groan-inducing moments where characters seem to be begging to get killed through one stupid mistake or another. And there’s one scene in particular where the invisible man is slaughtering a whole hallway full of guards, all while the security cameras capture the whole scene. You’d think people would see that footage and believe Kass’ outlandish claims, yet the moment is dropped as quickly as it is brought up and is never revisited again.

None of this changes how ingenious and unsettling The Invisible Man is in its eerie premise: how brilliant it is in guiding its audience through one jaw-dropping scare after another and how even more brilliant it is in weaving deeper feminist themes into its narrative. I wondered before going into this movie why its planned sequel was titled The Invisible Woman. Now I know why.

Tagged , , , ,

“MALCOLM X” Review (✫✫✫✫)

SOURCE: Warner Bros.

Liberate your mind. 

If history has taught us anything, it was that Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. had starkly different methods to fighting racism in America. Yet they were so similar in so many other ways despite all of their differences. For instance, both men have experienced firsthand the boot and lashes of white America. Both were men of faith that were compelled to action because of what they believed. Both fought fiercely and passionately for the day that black men would be free from persecution and hatred. And both were shot and killed at 39 years old before they would ever see that day realized.

But of course, Malcolm X is not remembered by many for marching for the same causes that Martin Luther King Jr. did. Malcolm is not remembered for advocating for his fellow black men, for his fight against the evils of racism, and for his rousing speeches and words burning with passion and fire. Instead, he’s remembered because his words were filled with contention and confrontation, not the piety and the hope as Dr. King’s speeches were. Regardless of which ideology you do or don’t agree with, there’s no denying the one truth that both men share: they understood all too well of what it meant to be a black man in America.

In Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, Denzel Washington portrays the Muslim minister in an epic encapsulation of his whole life. The movie covers everything from his traumatic childhood where his family was hunted by white supremacists, to his robbery days as “Detroit Red,” to his discovery of Islam during his time in prison, to his emergence in the civil rights movement, all the way to his last days ministering before he was ruthlessly gunned down by Thomas Hagan and his crew.

Seeing Malcolm’s life play out like this gives perspective into who he was, where he came from, and what happened in his life to shape him into the leader he’s widely recognized as today. Writer-director Spike Lee illustrates Malcolm’s life story with intensity and conviction, fully committed to showing you who he was and who he wasn’t. Lee stylizes his scenes with flair and pizzazz, with Malcolm and his buddies dressed in colorful outfits, shucking and jiving down the streets in Boston while the smoke and police sirens linger in the background. But Lee’s film design isn’t gimmicky or exploitative of Malcolm X. Like Lee’s earlier films Do The Right Thing and Mo’ Better Blues, they speak to the era they’re representing and add authenticity to Malcolm’s story.

The scenes that deal with Malcolm’s faith are especially moving and touching. When he’s first introduced to Islam in his prison cell, it’s an emotionally-stirring moment where Malcolm faces who he is and how he needs to make a change in his life. When he later confronts the hypocrisies of the Nation of Islam, he becomes disillusioned to what message he’s been preaching and what his faith really represents. And when he later travels to Mecca and encounters Muslims of all ethnicities and cultures, Malcolm experiences a spiritual revival of Islam and what it means to him. It’s a poignant redemption arc that shows how he grew from Malcolm Little to becoming Malcolm X.

I can’t talk about Malcolm X without mentioning the man who plays him. Denzel Washington is simply stunning as the civil rights activist. Whether he’s portraying him in high school trying to pick up white women, running a numbers game as a gangster, or standing against oppression in the streets as an outspoken civil rights advocate, Denzel portrays each chapter of Malcolm’s life with vigor and authenticity. He isn’t playing one character so much as he is playing several characters and their many transformations throughout their lives, and he fully commits himself to every single aspect of those characters. I find it fascinating that in the really captivating moments where he was preaching to crowds and protestors, I never once thought it was Denzel reciting someone else’s words. I only saw Malcolm X.

This leads to the film’s greatest strength, and that is its honesty. With a figure as controversial as Malcolm X, it would have been too easy to shy away from the hard conversations Malcolm X forced us to have and sanitize his story for the comfort of neutral moviegoers. But Spike Lee doesn’t do that. Instead, he lays out the entirety of Malcolm X’s legacy, and he doesn’t shy away from its highs or lows. It’s no secret that Malcolm X made many disparaging remarks to many individuals throughout his life, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., President John F. Kennedy, and white America as a whole.

Yet the movie doesn’t virtue signal as to whether Malcolm was right or wrong in the statements he’s made: it just shows it the way it was and lets the audience decide for themselves. I’m not going to comment much on it myself, because my job as a film critic is to review the movie, not the person it’s portraying. I will say that if Malcolm X’s words bother you more than the lynchings, the police brutality, the white nationalism, and the racist institutions he was fighting against, then you need to evaluate whether it’s the words that bother you so much or the cause behind them.

Whatever conclusions you come to about his life, Malcolm X is a powerful film: dramatic, well-acted, and faithfully executed. The film forces you to face uncomfortable questions regarding America’s racist history, and many people may not like facing those truths. My view of it is that if Malcolm X couldn’t shy away from it, neither can we. We could all learn something from those that we don’t see eye-to-eye with. Perhaps we could start with Malcolm X.

Tagged , , , ,

“SONIC THE HEDGEHOG” Review (✫✫✫)

SOURCE: Paramount Pictures

Go, go, go blue hedgehog. 

To anyone and everyone attempting to make a video game movie in the future: this is how you do it. This is exactly how you do it. When Paramount dropped the first trailer for Sonic The Hedgehog last year and unveiled that God-awful-looking abomination that was supposed to be a blue hedgehog, the Sonic community rightfully ripped it apart and begged Paramount to fix the design. At that moment, Paramount did the smartest thing they could have possibly done in that situation: they listened to the fans.

It’s funny because in a day and age where viewers have criticized how ridiculous other cinematic characters have looked (see Doctor Doom in Fantastic Four or Doomsday in Batman V. Superman), it would have been way too easy for Paramount to simply write the fans off and go about making the movie. But in listening to the fans, Paramount demonstrated that constructive criticism can, in fact, be a very good thing. Can you imagine how quickly all of this might have been resolved if they just brought fans in on day one and simply showed them that horrific-looking rodent they debuted in the first trailer?

In either case, we have our first live-action Sonic the Hedgehog movie after waiting for over 30 years. In this big-screen adaptation, Sonic (Ben Schwartz) is a speedy blue hedgehog endowed with lightning-fast reflexes, and he uses it to jet around in what is aptly described as a blue blur. He lives hidden in a small community in Green Hills, Montana, which is also home to Sheriff Tom Wachowski (James Marsden) and his wife Maddie (Tika Sumpter), who Sonic affectionately refers to as “Donut Lord” and “Pretzel Lady” (take a few guesses as to why).

One day, Sonic releases an electromagnetic pulse while running that knocks out all the power in town, alerting the authorities to his presence. Unsure of what they’re dealing with, the military enlists in the help of Dr. Ivo Robotnik (Jim Carrey), a genius megalomaniac who has thousands of egg robots at his disposal, to find and kill Sonic. Now literally on the run from the government and a psycho robot genius, Sonic has to escape before his powers are used for more nefarious purposes.

One of the immediate elements you catch about this movie is its energy. Like its speedy blue devil, Sonic The Hedgehog is fast-paced, funny, and spontaneous, kicking things off at a quick rate and only barely slowing down to catch its breath. The video games run at a similar pace, with Sonic running through hills, pipes, bridges, and loop-de-loops crazier than a pinball machine. In a rare display, the movie matches the attitude behind Sonic the Hedgehog almost perfectly, with his wild antics and adventures feeling like a crazy level you’re whizzing past in one of those classic Sega arcade games.

The key reason for this is because the movie simply nails the Sonic character. Director Jeff Fowler, who was nominated for an Academy Award in 2004 for an animated short film called “Gopher Broke,” rightfully envisions Sonic as a hotwired little kid; impatient, impulsive, and running wherever life takes him. Ben Schwartz especially does a great job voicing the blue speedster. Whether he’s uttering a clever quip or spouting a long-winded thought excitedly, Sonic feels like a sugar-induced teenager that just wants to pack everything into his day and won’t stop until he fills out his bucket list. Of course, we look forward to the scenes where Sonic is running up buildings and fighting robots, but even in the slower moments, Sonic is still a wildly entertaining character. His exhilarating personality kept the movie moving even when everything else was slowing down around him.

Jim Carrey’s Robotnik also serves as a nice contrast to Ben Schwartz’s Sonic, especially when he incorporates his trademark wackiness into the character. Carrey is admittedly quite different from his video game counterpart: while Eggman in the video games is noticeably chubby and bald, Carry’s Robotnik is thin and has a head full of hair. Yet you don’t mind the differences that much because his performance is just that infectious. Jim Carrey huffs and haws at the less-intelligent beings beneath him and offers no shortage of condescending remarks, like bullets aimed towards the film’s unfortunate victims. He pulls off Robotnik’s haughtiness with the same charisma and pizzazz as his other villainous roles, including the Grinch, the Riddler, and Count Olaf. It’s so nice to see Carrey return to the spotlight yet again to take on a villainous role that really lets his more animated qualities shine on screen. This role could serve as a viable comeback for Carrey, and it would be a very welcomed one if he’s going to consistently deliver this quality of performance.

The story, while basic and predictable, is simple enough to be enjoyable and surprisingly even has a few emotional punches that paint Sonic as a more sympathetic character. James Marsden and Tika Sumpter are functional albeit forgettable in the movie, with Carrey easily outshining them and the rest of the cast. And the movie is visually a delight, with Sonic’s quick-witted and lightning-fast reflexes providing for some fun, exciting, and speedy-filled action that’s akin to the Quicksilver and Flash scenes from the X-Men and Justice League movies (with even a few fun references thrown into the mix as well).

Sonic The Hedgehog further demonstrates the potential for the modern video game movie adaptation. This is the second time where a recent video game movie captured the spirit of the source material with charm and vision, with the first being last year’s Detective Pikachu. What other possibilities are there and where does the genre go from here? I can’t say for sure, but wherever it goes, at least it’s bound to be better than that original anorexic Sonic design. I can almost look forward to a new Super Mario Bros. movie. Almost.

Tagged , , , ,

“ROMA” Review (✫✫✫✫)

SOURCE: Netflix

La belleza es donde la encuentras.

For some reason, the Madonna song “Vogue” came to mind while I was watching Roma, which is Alfonso Cuaron’s first Spanish film in 17 years since directing 2001’s Y Tu Mama Tambien. It’s the lyrics that specifically stick out to me, and despite Madonna’s jazzy disco groove and upbeat tempo, there’s a sadder story lying in the song about a woman trying to escape from life’s troubles. Everywhere she turns is heartache, she wants to escape the pain of life that she knows, and there’s a longing to be something better than what she is. And, perhaps most important, she learns that beauty is where you find it.

Alfonso Cuaron illustrates this sentiment early on in Roma. Whereas most movies work so hard to set up groundbreaking establishing shots that set the tone for the movie, Roma opens up on the black-and-white tile floor of a middle-class family in La Roma, Mexico City. The image itself is so plain and ordinary, and at first seems like an unusual opening shot for a family drama. But it’s what Cuaron does with the shot that makes it so compelling. Off-screen, we hear a maid throw soapy suds onto the tile floor, and the reflection raises a mesmerizing pattern of a broken yet beautiful city. Brick rooftops surround the image like a picture frame. Clouds break up the gray sky like cotton candy on a canvas. And far into the distance, a plane flies overhead, carrying its passengers into a new tomorrow.

The whole movie is like that, with Alfonso Cuaron finding captivation and interest in every frame, every pan, every close-up, every wide shot, and every sweeping capture of the scenery and sensation that’s on display. The cinematography never looks or feels forced, awkward, pretentious, or unearned. It is intimate and vivid, like a long-lost memory that has suddenly resurfaced back into your mind.

Roma is based on Alfonso Cuaron’s own childhood while growing up in La Roma with his parents and two brothers, as well as the caretakers that looked after them. Although much of the movie is based on Cuaron’s youth, the movie never makes it clear which character he’s supposed to be. In fact, I’m not even confident any singular one of the children in this movie is him. Any one of them could be him, or two of them, or even all of them.

The movie never specifies which is which, and it’s just as well. After all, Roma isn’t even about Alfonso. Instead it’s about his housemaid, played here by Yalitza Aparicio in her theatrical debut. While Roma does follow her everyday routine caring for the family and their children, the movie is about so much more than her work as a housemaid. It’s about her navigating life in 1970’s Mexico City during a period of political tension and upheaval. It’s about looking for love and finding heartbreak instead. It’s about finding balance and peace in a time where there is nothing but calamity and disturbance. It’s about searching for family and a home to belong to.

You can tell that Alfonso Cuaron comes from a very personal place in writing, directing, and shooting this small-scale epic, because the storytelling feels so honest. Cuaron himself is no stranger to making cinematic epics. He directed the third and arguably the best Harry Potter movie Prisoner of Azkaban, while the films Children of Men and Gravity were among the most thrilling science-fiction movies released in their respective decades. But Cuaron is coming from a much more intimate and vulnerable place with Roma, from the life experiences he’s portraying to the culture he’s paying homage to. The movie finds its heart in its most soft-spoken moments, like a mother whispering a lullaby to her child.

And newcomer Yalitza Aparicio is especially vital to making this movie resonate with us emotionally. Originally studying to be a preschool teacher, Yalitza stumbled onto this film when her sister encouraged her to audition. So much of her performance feels so natural and genuine, mostly because it is natural and genuine. Cuaron notably shot this film in sequence and would provide pages to the script days, sometimes even hours before shooting was supposed to begin so that the actors could more believably react to what they were experiencing. This leads to the most authentic and honest performance Cuaron could have pulled from Yalitza. She didn’t feel like an actress trying to mimic the part of a middle-class housemaid. She felt like she really was a young woman trying to navigate Mexico’s turmoils all by herself, and that wrapped you up in her journey all the more because of it.

Roma is a masterpiece. Go and see it. Movies come and go, but few capture your attention, your intrigue, your emotions, and your imagination as raptly as this picture does. Who would have dreamed years ago that when one humble woman accepted the job as a family’s housemaid that her life story would one day be told on the big screen? Imagine what stories Alfonso Cuaron’s children will tell of their father when he grows old.

Tagged , , , ,

“1917” Review (✫✫✫✫)

SOURCE: Universal Pictures

A snapshot of war.

I didn’t have any words to describe how I felt in the theater after 1917 ended. I still don’t. How do you describe something like that, something so harrowing, vivid, and unflinching? Watching 1917 shook me to my core. I didn’t feel relief as the movie ended, I felt shell-shocked. Yes, my cinematic experience ended, and like the soldiers that left the battlefield in the movie, I was able to go home. But as I laid my head down on my bed and looked up at the ceiling, I didn’t feel like I even left the battlefield. I’ve had those images ingrained in my memory that will stay with me forever, the same ones that those soldiers took home with them when the war finally ended.

One of those images that are stuck in my mind is the last dedication the film offers before the credits roll: “In memory of Alfred Mendes.” When I looked up the name later on, I realized that Alfred Mendes is, in fact, the grandfather of director Sam Mendes. The movie itself is a loose adaptation of Alfred’s own life experiences fighting in World War I, though not so much to the point where it doesn’t carry the same truth with it.

1917 follows two young British soldiers named Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) that are given an important assignment: cross the German front lines and deliver a message calling off the second battalion’s attack the next day. See, the battalion believes they have the Germans on the run and that they’re going to snuff them out. They’re wrong. The Germans have made a tactical retreat past the Hindenberg line to counterattack with vicious artillery. If the battalion doesn’t pull back, all 1,600 of their men will be wiped out: including Blake’s brother Joseph.

When 1917 begins, the camera follows Blake and Schofield through a beautiful tracking shot that captures everything that’s a part of these young boys’ lives: the muddy grounds they sleep on, the mess tent where all the soldiers eat, the medical bay where the wounded are treated, the trenches where men have shot and bled in. It’s all captured in immaculate and stunning detail. When the boys step down into a bunker to get their orders from the commanding general, I noticed that 10 minutes have passed and the film hasn’t cut away to another angle or shot. As the next 10 minutes passed, I realized that the movie was never going to. It was just going to be this one long, continuous shot through the whole movie.

This one-shot technique isn’t new to modern-day cinema. Best Picture winner Birdman utilized this same one-shot approach in 2014, and Sam Mendes even mimicked this style in the opening sequence to his 2015 James Bond film Spectre. But here, he’s escalated the technique to a whole other level by incorporating it smoothly into a war picture. It’s difficult enough executing this technique within the walls of a worn-down Broadway theater or in the streets of Mexico during Dia De Los Muertos. Doing it in the blood-soaked battlefields of France during WWI sounds next to impossible.

Yet Sam Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins pull it off spectacularly, and in the most masterful way possible. With the one-shot technique, it would have been too easy for the camerawork to seem jarring or distracting, like how a film student might capture everything through a shaky hand-held video cam. But the sweeping cinematography is absorbing and immersive, capturing the full scale of war violence and casualty but not missing the smaller, more intimate moments of personal torment these soldiers experience. It’s like Mendes took a snapshot of war from his grandfather’s scrapbook and placed you immediately in the moment when the photo was taken. Few films immerse you in their reality as powerfully as 1917 does. I truly have never seen anything like it.

With this one-shot technique, Deakins deserves all the praise for pulling off this masterstroke in the expert way that he did. But the truth is he did not accomplish this alone: everyone involved with the film lent to its sense of isolation and loneliness, from the editor Lee Smith who seamlessly transitioned between long takes without you noticing to the monumental sets by Dennis Gassner. Even the extras, some sequences requiring more than 500, were vital to making this film feel as vivid and real as it was.

But Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay especially deserve praise for shouldering so much of the film’s emotional weight. These guys had to deal with not only bearing already challenging performances of two soldiers facing off against the entire German army, but they had to pull it off with the extra pressure of filming in several long, continuous takes. I make no exaggeration when I saw both of them were flawless in their acting. Dean-Charles Chapman is phenomenal as the ambitious, bright-eyed soldier desperate to save his brother, but MacKay is especially moving as his best friend. There was one emotion-stirring scene where he has to run across a battlefield while explosions are going off all around him, yet he runs with the tenacity and conviction of a soldier desperate to finish his mission, even if it kills him. Nothing in either of these men’s performances feels rehearsed or unnatural. Everything just flows and feels completely seamless and alive.

The most heartbreaking thing you realize about 1917 as it slowed down to its final moments is that this isn’t just a film: this is a snapshot of the full tragedies and anguishes of war, and we’ve only experienced a small part of that in the theater. Can you imagine what Sam Mendes’ grandfather had to endure during this same conflict? How many corpses he passed by on the front lines, how many friends he’s lost, and how many nightmares and sleepless nights he had to endure when he finally came home? And yet, the saddest thought that crossed my mind when 1917 ended wasn’t everything that these men experienced during the first World War. It was knowing that there was a second one after it.

 

Tagged , , , ,

“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.

Tagged , , , , , ,

“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.

Tagged , , , , , ,

“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.

Tagged , , , ,