Category Archives: Reviews

“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.

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“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.

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“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.

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“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.

 

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

Ending the Skywalker saga for the third time. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“FORD V FERRARI” Review (✫✫✫✫)

SOURCE: 20th Century Fox

Two men, a Mustang, and a wrench.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“KNIVES OUT” Review (✫✫✫✫)

SOURCE: Lionsgate

Sharp in more ways than one. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“DOCTOR SLEEP” Review (✫✫✫1/2)

SOURCE: Warner Bros. Pictures

Redrum and redemption. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“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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