“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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2019 Oscar Predictions

Life is funny. At the beginning of this decade, I was screaming into a camera ranting about how the Academy Awards robbed The Dark Knight Rises by giving it precisely zero Oscar nominations. As year after year passed, the Academy kept making one senseless snub after another, from no nominations for Captain America: Civil War and Wonder Woman to not giving Sylvester Stallone his much-deserved Oscar for playing a weary Rocky Balboa in Creed (I still haven’t gotten over that, and probably never will). Last year seemed like the Academy’s first genuine attempt at branching out across all genres and recognizing mainstream films that truly deserved it, even going so far as to give Black Panther three Oscars and a Best Picture nomination. And then they end the decade by giving the most nominations to a film about Batman’s greatest nemesis, the Joker. We started the decade with no nominations for Batman, and then we end the decade with Joker earning some of the most nominations out of any film in the past 10 years.

Like I said, life is funny. And the one thing you need to remember about humor is that tragedy plus time equals comedy: and we have no shortage of tragic snubs to experience this year.

Take, for instance, Joker itself. Yes, it’s nominated the most this year with 11 nominations, including Best Picture. However, it’s not expected to sweep the night by any metric. After all, when you compare Joker side-by-side with the epic and grand scale of 1917, how do you think it compares? It isn’t even a competition: Joker is blown clean off of the German front lines.

That, however, isn’t the least of the losses we’re expected to witness throughout the night. Read on to see my predictions for how the Oscars will play out for the last time this decade:

SOURCE: Universal Pictures

Best Picture: It has become impossible to get into the minds of Academy Award voters and rationalize their loop-de-loop thinking when it comes to the Best Picture winners in the past few years. First, they award Spotlight with Best Picture over The Revenant, despite the fact that Revenant won three Oscars for directing, acting, and cinematography while Spotlight only won one for writing. Then Moonlight unexpectedly beat La La Land for Best Picture, with the infamous mixup announcement happening between the two nominees. After that, The Shape of Water frustratingly became the first science-fiction film to win Best Picture, even over the likes of Star Wars, Inception, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Finally, the play-it-safe Green Book won over the heartfelt and personal Spanish film Roma, a controversial move that did not go unnoticed by the larger moviegoing community.

In all of Oscar history, no foreign-language film has ever won Best Picture, which is why I’m hesitant to say South Korea’s Parasite will win it now. That leaves the night’s biggest contenders to duke it out for Best Picture: 1917, Joker, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, and The Irishman. I doubt it will be Joker since it has the unfortunate stigma of being a comic-book movie working against it. I simultaneously don’t think Martin Scorsese will win for The Irishman either since he hasn’t won an Oscar since directing The Departed in 2006. That leaves 1917 and Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, both heavy contenders for different reasons. Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is a jeering, clever, and sharp commentary on violence and media consumption, while 1917 is a mesmerizing masterpiece that immerses you in the soldier’s experience on the battlefield.

My bias may be influencing my prediction here, but I genuinely do believe 1917 will win Best Picture. For one thing, a war film has surprisingly not won Best Picture yet this decade, despite the fact that every decade has had at least one war film winning Best Picture at least once. It has also been silently sweeping up Awards season, previously winning Best Picture awards at both the Golden Globes and the Producer’s Guild.

Also, 1917 is just truly the most deserving winner out of the nominees. Few films place you so vividly in the reality of its characters as well as 1917 does with its tale of two soldiers venturing through the German front lines to stop a devastating attack. If 1917 does end up winning Best Picture, it will be very well deserved.

Best Director: Sam Mendes won the DGA Award, which means he will also win the Best Directing Oscar for 1917. Again, Mendes made a powerful, moving film made all the more impactful through its one continuous shot filming method (more on that later). Aside from his DGA win, Mendes is simply the most deserving out of all the nominees. That’s really saying something considering his competition is in The Irishman’s Martin Scorsese, Parasite’s Bong Joon-ho, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood’s Quentin Tarantino, and Joker’s Todd Phillips.

Speaking of Joker…

Best Actor: It will be a national outrage if anyone wins in this category other than Joaquin Phoenix for Joker. Not only did he deliver a visceral and haunting portrayal of a decent man gone mad and murderous, but he also gave one of the most unsettling performances this decade that challenges even Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the clown prince of crime. Leonardo DiCaprio did a great job switching between comedic and intimidating in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood and Adam Driver gave a vulnerable and affectionate performance as a heartbroken husband in Marriage Story. But no, if we’re talking about the best actor and the best performance of the year, it’s not even a competition. Joaquin for the win.

Best Actress: I loved Scarlett Johannson in Marriage Story and thought she did a wonderful job tenderly demonstrating how a family falling apart affects somebody as both a wife and mother. But the Academy has a history of awarding real-life roles moreover original ones, especially this year where Scarlett is up against three biographical performances in Bombshell, Judy, and Harriet. Who will it go to? My money is on Renee Zellweger considering how she completely disappears into her portrayal of Judy Garland in Judy. Sure, she’s won an Oscar before for Best Supporting Actress in 2003’s Cold Mountain, but considering she’s been out of the spotlight for a hot second, this seems like the perfect opportunity to recognize some of her under-the-radar work. Charlize Theron or Scarlett might pull an upset in this category, but it isn’t likely given Zellweger’s tenure.

Best Supporting Actor: There are several reasons to consider Brad Pitt winning Best Supporting Actor in his pointed and indomitable performance as a stuntman filled with swagger and violent tendencies in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. One such reason is that Pitt has never won an acting Oscar before and all of his competitors have. Another reason is that he already won the corresponding SAG award a week after he was nominated. But my reasoning is simple, straightforward, and to the point: his performance is just too freggin’ good to ignore. In a long line of memorable Quentin Tarantino performances from John Travolta in Pulp Fiction to Christoph Waltz in Inglorious Basterds, Pitt’s is the most restrained and unnerving. Brad Pitt absolutely owned his role, and he deserves no less than the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for it.

Best Supporting Actress: First of all, shame on the Academy for not nominating Jennifer Lopez as a hardworking stripper with attitude in Hustlers. Her commanding presence dominated that entire film, and it’s ridiculous she wasn’t even recognized with a simple nomination. It’s even more maddening when you realize no Latina actresses were nominated in any of the acting categories this year, not even Penelope Cruz in Pain and Glory or Ana de Armas in Knives Out. Absolutely outrageous, but that’s regressive Hollywood at work here people.

As for the rest of the supporting actress nominees, my personal favorite is Scarlett Johansson in Jojo Rabbit as a German mother trying to keep her son playful and happy in a world rotting from death, misery, and antisemitism. But she’s picked up no traction this awards season, and it’s unlikely that she’ll pick up the pace in the next few weeks. No, Laura Dern is much more likely to win as a compassionate and charismatic divorce attorney in Marriage Story, which is weird because A) She’s in the film very little, and B) She doesn’t have a lot of space to really make an impact as a character. Or at least, not as much as her co-stars Adam Driver and Scarlett Johannson do. It would be like Ray Liotta winning Best Supporting Actor as Adam Driver’s attorney, even though he was in the film very little and did even less.

Still, she was good in the role she played and fulfilled the part that she needed to. I’ll be happy if I get this category wrong, but for now, I’m going with Laura.

SOURCE: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Best Animated Feature: If we’re going off of merit, the clear winner in this category deserves to be How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World. It was deep, affecting, incredibly moving, and featured the same beautiful and fast-paced animation you’ve seen from this whole franchise. I doubt it will win, however. The previous two movies lost to Pixar and Disney respectively both times, the first time with Toy Story 3 and the second time with Big Hero 6. I expect this year’s ceremony to repeat that trend with Toy Story 4 winning the Oscar for Best Animated Feature. It’s a shame, especially since How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World was so committed to its ending whereas Toy Story 4 didn’t even commit itself to the toys’ original ending. But whatever. There are worse snubs that will pop up throughout the night.

Best Documentary Feature: Best Documentary has always been a difficult category to predict, especially when you haven’t even seen half of the nominees like I have. However, there’s one film that is a slight outlier to the rest of the nominees, and that is Honeyland. Not only does this Macedonian documentary focus on a lonely beekeeper keeping the craft alive in the mountainous region of Bekirlija, but Honeyland is also nominated for the Best International Feature. To put that into context, no film has ever been nominated for both Best Documentary and Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars, so that has to carry some significance to it. Again, no assurances on this category, but if I have to place my bet on one of these nominees, I’m going with Honeyland

Best International Feature: Parasite. If anything else wins, the Dolby Theatre deserves to be burnt to the ground.

Best Original Screenplay: If there was any fairness in the Academy Awards’ voting process, they would just hand Rian Johnson his Oscar for Knives Out and call it a day. Unfortunately, he’s up against four other Best Picture nominees in the Best Original Screenplay category, so he doesn’t stand a snowball’s chance. Ridiculous that one of the most creative, cunning, and crafty films of the year gets diluted to a mere honorable mention. But that’s the Oscars for you. At least Knives Out got nominated for something, which is more than can be said about Us or Uncut Gems.

That remains the dilemma of who will win the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay? I doubt it will be 1917 since that film’s aesthetic and technique is more impressive than its actual writing is. I also doubt it will be Parasite since three other foreign-language films have been nominated this decade and all of them lost, though I am pleased the Academy nominated Bong Joon-ho and Han Jin-won in this category regardless.

That leaves Quentin Tarantino for Once Upon A Time In Hollywood and Noah Baumbach for Marriage Story. Who will win? Tarantino has won this award twice already, once for Pulp Fiction in 1994 and another for Django Unchained in 2012. Three-peats are not common for Best Original Screenplay, but if anyone can do it, I guess it’s Tarantino.

At the same time, Noah Baumbach made a deeply affecting and personal homily with Marriage Story that was equal parts heartbreaking and hopeful. He has conversely never won an Oscar, though he was nominated once for The Squid and the Whale in 2005. Plus, the Academy has awarded more tender and heartfelt screenplays as of late than they have for witty and wild ones, with Manchester By The Sea winning in 2017 and Green Book winning last year.

This category is a coin toss, but if I’m going with my instincts, I’m going to guess Tarantino wins his third Oscar for Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. Don’t be surprised if Baumbach pulls an upset, however.

Best Adapted Screenplay: If Issa Rae’s “congratulations to all these men” remark tells you anything, it’s that the female filmmaking community really did not appreciate that Little Women director Greta Gerwig was not given a Best Director nomination. The Academy will make it up to her by giving her the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for Little Women now. I don’t want to even think about the wrath the Academy might face if they snub Greta Gerwig twice in the same ceremony.

SOURCE: CJ Entertainment

Best Film Editing: This category in particular is difficult to predict nowadays, mostly because you don’t know whether the Academy is going to give the Oscar to a nominee that truly deserves it like The Social Network or Whiplash, or if they’re going to give it to something completely bonkers like Bohemian Rhapsody. In the end, I find myself completely absorbed and mesmerized by Yang Jin-mo’s brilliant assembly of beauty and chaos in Parasite and cannot imagine any other film winning for Best Film Editing. It’s possible one of the flashier films like The Irishman and Ford v Ferrari might pull off a win, especially since Bohemian Rhapsody was last year’s underdog and it unbelievably beat both Vice and BlackKklansman. In unpredictable times like these, it’s best to go with the best nominee as opposed to the best prospects. So Parasite it is.

Best Cinematography: It would not have been possible to have made the film Sam Mendes did if it weren’t for Roger Deakins’ skilled and masterful cinematography for 1917. The way he fully captured the desperation and tragedies of war was captivating and heartbreaking, and it makes it even more impressive that he filmed it to look like one continuous shot. In many ways, 1917 is just as much Deakins’ film as it is Mendes’, and no other nominee deserves the Oscar as much as he does. If anyone else wins, it will be the 13th time the Academy has snubbed Deakins.

Best Makeup and Hairstyling: The first time I caught a glimpse at Charlize Theron in Bombshell, I seriously mistook her for Megyn Kelly. A lot of the makeup work done for the film is that exemplary, with characters appearing so starkly similar to their real-life counterparts that you could put them right on Fox News and you almost wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. The makeup work on Joker and Maleficent is equally stunning, but if we’re going to go with the most skillful makeup job here, my money is on Bombshell.

Also, praise to the Academy for nominating five nominees in the makeup category this year as opposed to the usual three. Makeup artists are often the most overlooked professionals in Hollywood, and I’m glad they’re getting the exposure they deserve here. Hopefully, this is a trend the Academy will keep up for future ceremonies.

Best Costume Design: The Oscar winner for Best Costume Design is particularly difficult to predict this year, mostly because all of the nominees are so outstanding. Previous Academy Award winners Sandy Powell, Jacqueline Durran, and Mark Bridges are respectively nominated for The Irishman, Little Women, and Joker, while Mayes C. Rubeo and Arienne Phillips are also nominated for JoJo Rabbit and Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. While JoJo Rabbit’s costumes were packed with as much personality and uniqueness as its wildly entertaining characters were, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood deserves special praise for doing the same thing while simultaneously calling back to the wardrobe of 1960s pop culture. I love all of these costumes equally, but if I’m going with the most likely winner, I’m going to have to guess it’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. 

Side note: Shame on the Academy for not honoring Jenny Eagan’s beautiful and mesmerizing work on the mystery-thriller Knives Out. The costumes on the film’s suspects were so colorful and alive that they echoed back to the mini figurines from “Clue.”

Best Production Design: Another difficult category to predict, especially with two clear frontrunners going head-to-head: 1917 and Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. Fun fact: the Academy Award winners for 1991’s Bugsy are also nominated here against each other – Dennis Glasner for 1917 and Nancy Haigh for Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. Man, if that isn’t an entertaining coincidence, I don’t know what is.

Anyhow, predictions. Many of the sets for 1917 were created from scratch in order to accommodate the one continuous shot filming method. This is especially impressive in scenes involving the claustrophobic trenches or the muddy No Man’s Land, given the harrowing detail in the damage and casualties surrounding the British soldiers. However, there is one flaw not necessarily with the production design itself, but rather the capturing of it. In especially dark scenes where they’re filming in the thick of night or deep in a tunnel, it’s impossible to observe the set design through all of the shadows. The sets in these sequences very well could be amazing or terrible. We will never know because of how opaque these sequences were.

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, however, didn’t have a dark moment in it (well, in terms of the lighting, that is). Since that is the case, we’re able to absorb its full production design in detail, and man is it gorgeous. Whether Sharon Tate is walking up to an oldie theater to watch The Wrecking Crew, Rick is acting on-set of a spaghetti western, or Cliff is eerily investigating Spahn Ranch, all of the sets in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood were colorful, vibrant, and ripe with 1960s life. It’s a close call, but Once Upon A Time In Hollywood has a slight edge for being represented more on-screen and meeting the challenge. Sorry, Dennis. At least 1917 isn’t going home empty-handed in the other categories.

Another side note: Again, the Academy was wrong to snub David Crank and Jeremy Woodward’s phenomenal craft in assembling Harlan Thrombey’s ancient, isolated mansion in Knives Out. If the first 10 minutes alone wasn’t convincing enough of their hard work and deserving of being nominated, then certainly the other two hours were. Their absence was absurd and ridiculous to the highest degree, and Jacob would be rage-tweeting about it online if he found out his grandfather’s mansion wasn’t nominated for an Oscar either.

SOURCE: WARNER BROS. PICTURES

Best Musical Score: Do you know who I feel really bad for? Thomas Newman. Not only has he been nominated a whopping 13 times by the Academy, but he has also never won an Oscar for Best Musical Score. Not once. Not with The Shawshank Redemption. Not with American Beauty. Not with Finding Nemo, WALL-E, Skyfall, Saving Mr. Banks, or Bridge of Spies. The only other nominee who’s been snubbed the number of times Thomas Newman has been was cinematographer Roger Deakins, who was also nominated 13 times for Best Cinematography before he finally won for Blade Runner 2049.

This year, unfortunately, is no different for him. He’s facing stiff competition with the likes of Alexandre Desplat for Little Women and John Williams for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. Most of his nominees, however, have already won Oscars. Thomas Newman is one of the few composers to have not won yet, along with Icelandic newcomer Hildur Guonadottir for Joker.

Since this is the case, the underdog brawl comes down to Newman for 1917 and Guonadottir for Joker – and Quonadottir has a slight edge, only because Joker won the Golden Globe for Best Original Score while 1917 didn’t. This is the only category where I really hope I’m wrong, however, as Newman is an outstanding composer and deserves to be recognized at least once in his 35-year career, especially for the hauntingly gorgeous themes he provided in the backdrop of 1917.

Please, Academy. If you have any sense or decency, give Newman his much-deserved Oscar already. Otherwise, you’ll look like the jokers Hollywood already believes you are.

Best Original Song: Elton John fans are already ticked off that last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody won four Oscars, whereas Rocketman only got one nomination this year for Best Original Song. If “I’m Gonna Love Me Again” doesn’t win the Oscar now, then it will break Rocketman fans’ hearts. Don’t let the sun go down on them, Academy.

Best Sound Editing: 1917. I know its commonplace to give this award to war pictures, but 1917 stands out even when compared to fellow winners Dunkirk and American Sniper. I don’t usually care much about the sound categories, but 1917’s sound editing truly deserves to be recognized. If not it, then Ford v Ferrari. 

Best Sound Mixing: 1917. Again, compared to recent winners Dunkirk and Hacksaw Ridge, 1917 is truly masterful in its sound engineering. There are scenes where a loud, ear-piercing BANG will go off from the screen and it just sends shivers down your spine. Other times, the soft and quiet sounds of a soldier singing “Wayfaring Stranger” crescendoes into a beautiful melody that captures your heart and your emotions. Again, its possible Ford v Ferrari might pull an upset, but 1917 is the current leader in this category for very good reason.

Best Visual Effects: A lot of people believe Avengers: Endgame is the clear leader in this category. No. Not this time. Last year’s Avengers: Infinity War clearly deserved to be the winner, but the Academy chose to give the visual effects Oscar to the shoddy, dull, and vastly unimpressive First Man instead. Does Endgame deserve to win against the likes of its fellow nominees Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, The Irishman, and The Lion King? Obviously, but it won’t win because of the Academy’s preconceived bias. So screw the Academy. Avengers: Endgame won’t win the Oscar for best visual effects, even though it clearly deserves to.

That being said, 1917 was stunning in how it placed you on the German front lines in World War I, especially in conjunction with Deakins’ one-shot filming technique. I still don’t know how the film fully encapsulated the epic-scale war violence and tragedy that it did. 1917 may not be my first pick for best visual effects, but it’s definitely a solid second, and I think it’s going to end up winning. If Avengers: Endgame ends up winning in its place, Thanos needs to come back and snap the Academy members off of the voting board.

And finally, the dreaded short categories, which I never watch and am yet condemned to predict anyway. I usually go with the most interesting titles for these categories, so with that criteria in mind, I’m gonna guess that The Neighbor’s Window, Hair Love, and Learning To Skateboard In A Warzone (If You’re A Girl) wins Best Live Action, Best Animated and Best Documentary Short respectively. I unbelievably got all three of these categories right last year, so let’s see if the good man Oscar looks down favorably upon my ballot again this year.

And those are my predictions, folks. Tune in on Feb. 9 to see how well I did on my ballot this year, as well as vent my frustrations at how Knives Out was unbelievably not nominated for anything this year except for Best Original Screenplay – which it should have won, by the way.

– David Dunn

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Why So Snubby?

SOURCE: WARNER BROS. PICTURES

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

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

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

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

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

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

SOURCE: Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

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

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

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

– David Dunn

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

Ending the Skywalker saga for the third time. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– David Dunn

SOURCE: Variety, We Got This Covered

Top 10 Films Of 2019

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

– Arthur Fleck, Joker

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

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

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

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

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

10. Uncut Gems

SOURCE: A24

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

9. Shazam!

SOURCE: Warner Bros. Pictures

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

8. Parasite

SOURCE: CJ Entertainment

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

7. Ford v Ferrari

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

6. Marriage Story

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

5. Joker

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

4. Once Upon A Time In Hollywood

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

3. Us

SOURCE: Universal Pictures

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

2. Avengers: Endgame

SOURCE: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

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

1. Knives Out

SOURCE: Lionsgate

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

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

Special Prize: Jojo Rabbit

SOURCE: Fox Searchlight Pictures

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

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

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

– David Dunn

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“FORD V FERRARI” Review (✫✫✫✫)

SOURCE: 20th Century Fox

Two men, a Mustang, and a wrench.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“KNIVES OUT” Review (✫✫✫✫)

SOURCE: Lionsgate

Sharp in more ways than one. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“DOCTOR SLEEP” Review (✫✫✫1/2)

SOURCE: Warner Bros. Pictures

Redrum and redemption. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Joaquin Phoenix Set To Return For ‘Joker’ Sequel

SOURCE: Warner Bros. Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– David Dunn

SOURCE: The Hollywood Reporter, Deadline