With Marvel and D.C. cornering the markets on big budget comic book films and franchises, it’s only natural that other film studios would attempt to do the same. The YA book series film adaptations seem to have petered out, so the next logical step is manga adaptations. ‘Ghost in the Shell’ was one. ‘Alita: Battle Angel’ is next (adapted from ‘Gunnm’).
And it’s clear the studio put a lot of money into the production. The visual effects are simply top notch. Not only is the CGI incredible, but it’s put to good use in action sequences and wide shots of the dystopian city that serves as the setting. (I saw it in 3D, I recommend others do as well.) This is a film that sets out to entertain, and very much succeeds in doing so.
But while certain sequences are high octane spectacles, there are more than a few scenes that completely drag. Alita’s love interest is a complete blank; any scene that features the two of them is a total waste. I found myself looking at my watch, waiting for the action set-pieces to kick in again (or I would have if I wore a watch. Do people still wear watches?) And it’s clear the film was set up to launch sequels; information about Alita’s past was glossed over, as the filmmakers clearly intend to leave those nuggets for future installments. Whether the series makes it that far is anyone’s guess.+2
It’s early 18th Century England. Queen Anne is on the throne. Her close advisor, Lady Marlborough, has a strong sway over her decisions (particularly because Anne has little interest in governing). A newcomer to the royal court, Abigail Masham, begins to rival Marlborough for influence. Conflict ensues.
‘The Favourite’ checks a lot of boxes that one typically has for a good drama: it’s a period piece, a costume drama, and has political intrigue to it. But before you assume that it’s “Oscar paint-by-numbers”, there’s much more to it than that. It’s not simply an informative piece about Queen Anne. It’s a complex tale of a rivalry and the lengths to which people will go to advance.
Although the film is stylishly directed, what most will take away is the performances of the three leads: Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone and Olivia Colman. Weisz and Stone are both impressive as women struggling for the upper hand against the other, but Colman steals the show as Queen Anne. She’s clearly in over her head as sovereign, but she still clearly wants to project strength. She’s very insecure but at times knows her strengths. It’s a very well written, complex character, and Colman nails every bit of it.+4
There’s a certain difficulty, to crafting a story that is unique but also feels universal, to craft characters that feel like real people but ones that also feel like an archetype. ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ is one such story. The film takes place in New York City in the 1960s, but it feels like it could have taken place in any city, at any point in the 20th century.
Of course, that being said, this is a story about one couple who are struggling to make ends meet. Fonny (Stephan James) and Tish (KiKi Layne) rent an apartment together after Tish becomes pregnant. Shortly afterwards, Fonny is arrested for rape, despite it being clear he couldn’t have been the culprit. The arresting officer simply had it out for him, so he found a way.
What makes the film truly remarkable (aside Barry Jenkins’ light directorial touch) is that despite how clearly dire the couple’s (and their family’s) circumstances are, the film is largely upbeat. They always keep a positive outlook toward the future, and simply do what they have to do in order to get by, even though they seem to have been dealt a bad hand in life. And it’s truly a deft film that can be life-affirming and yet sad at the same time.+3
I suppose that in this day and age, pretty much every leading politician is going to get the biopic treatment. And given his, uh, unique outlook on the vice-presidency (and that ‘W’ has already been released), it stands to reason that Dick Cheney deserves a similar treatment.
That being said, we really don’t learn much more about him than we already know. The film merely highlights the major points in his life. There’s little insight into what drives him or what makes him tick. It’s simply the development of a man interested in politics. Of course, the film winks at this in the opening statement, pointing out that he’s famously secretive, but that isn’t an excuse for a script that feels incomplete.
Of course, there are a few things that make ‘Vice’ worth your while. First is Christian Bale, who is simply uncanny as Dick Cheney. He captures his speech patterns, his walk, how he carries himself, and every one of his mannerisms. He alone is worth the price of admission. But there’s also good performances by Amy Adams as Lynne Cheney and Sam Rockwell as George W Bush (he’s not in many scenes, but it’s possibly the best portrayal of the man that I’ve seen). And while the film overall doesn’t quite accomplish what it wants to, there are a few memorable sequences. But I doubt it’ll change anyone’s mind about the man.+2
In 1962, a black and closeted gay pianist went on a tour of the American South. He hired a first-generation Italian-American as his driver. The two bond. It’s a story that’s begging for a film adaptation. Not only do audiences enjoy films about racial harmony, so do Oscar voters. It can’t lose!
As cynical as that interpretation is, ‘Green Book’ makes no apologies for what it is, and what it tries to do. This is a film about two men overcoming superficial differences to form a mutual respect. It’s a film full of clichés… and yet it works! It’s truly a remarkable story about two men who struggle to deal with the circumstances they’re in.
Of course, it helps that the film features two spectacular leads: Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali. Mortensen plays the lead, and he is a joy to watch throughout. Tony (his character) may not be book smart, but his street smarts and ability to read people well has brought him success (or as he calls it, being a good bull-shitter). He plays extremely well off of Ali’s character (Don Shirley). Shirley is a well-educated, well-mannered, incredibly talented classical pianist, but he doesn’t know much about African-American culture. Watching the two interact is simply fun.
P.S. The real life Tony Lip had a recurring role on The Sopranos!+3
A skydive from 25,000 feet. A brawn in a nightclub bathroom. A high-speed chase through the streets of Paris. A helicopter battle through the Himalayas. These are some of the incredible sequences that ‘M:I-F’ has put together for our entertainment. Sure, reading a description on a page won’t do it justice, but they will remain in my memory for quite some time. The filmmakers know how to put together a good action set piece. Not only that, Tom Cruise (and Henry Cavill) knows how to sell it. This man is 56 years old and he puts his body on the line through several impressive stunts. He even broke his leg in one shot jumping from one roof to another. You can see the shot in the film!
Of course, good action sequences are only one part of the equation. You need a good script with some genuine stakes involved to get the audience interested. Even with high stakes, predictability can sink a good action film. In this regard, ‘M:I-F’ also succeeds. Not only does it feel like Ethan Hunt is in genuine danger, but there’s enough twists and turns to keep the audience guessing (and of course, those cool masks).+4
There’s one scene in particular that sums up ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ nicely. The band (Queen, for those of you that live under a rock) is arguing. Freddie gets too much credit for their success. He’s frequently late. He doesn’t take recording seriously enough. Things get heated. There’s yelling. Then the bass player starts playing the bassline to “Another One Bites the Dust.” The band immediately stops arguing, amazed at his creation. They forget their disagreements, and record the song. It’s a massive hit.
Yes, “Another One Bites the Dust” is a good song, with a great hook. And part of the allure to the film is based on the appeal of their discography. But any drama to the film is spoon-fed to the audience and Is incredibly predictable. Anyone looking to learn some real background to the band is better off watching their episode of “Behind the Music.”
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the spectacular performance by Rami Malek. Not only does he capture a lot of Freddie Mercury’s various idiosyncrasies, he also gives him a kind of vulnerability one rarely sees from the man on stage. If it weren’t for him, this would be a forgettable film.+1
The opening scene tells you all you need to know. There’s a concert in Moscow being broadcasted over the radio. Joseph Stalin is listening. After it’s over, he sends a telegram to the club owner requesting a recording. Of course, there isn’t one. Not wanting to disappoint the General Secretary, the owner scrambles to reassemble the entire orchestra to rerecord the entire concert. So it doesn’t sound empty, he grabs some randos from the street to fill up the audience. And once the conductor is, well, unavailable, he has to scramble for a backup. Sure, it’s hilarious, but there’s also a darkness to the events; if they don’t comply to Stalin’s whims, it could mean the gulag. (And before you ask, yes, this is a true story.)
Of course, the above has very little to do with the larger plot of the film. The real story of the film begins with (spoiler alert) the death of Stalin. The ensuing power grab is straight out of an episode of ‘Veep’, with everyone incredibly incompetent, greedy, and, well, scheming. The end result is a hilarious, fascinating, black political satire. (And one that is largely taken straight out of history books.)+3
There are some films that are simply difficult to describe. (And consequently, make my job as a reviewer more difficult. Well, not ‘job’ per se, but, hobby. You know what I mean.) ‘Roma’ is one such film. Shot in black-and-white, it opens in a district in Mexico City in 1970 and focuses on the life of a housekeeper for an upper middle-class family. Nothing particularly outstanding happens to her over the course of the film. It’s a sharp contrast to a comment I made in a recent review (for ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me’) in which I pointed out that many films are made that tell interesting stories. But in taking a less focused scope overall, the film can make broader statements.
For starters, even though it’s in black-and-white, the film is gorgeous. Each shot is meticulously crafted, from the opening shot of the tiles to the closing sequence. Alfonso Cuaron has directed some impressive films before (Gravity, Children of Men), but ‘Roma’ might be his crowning achievement. He’s able to capture not only the scene, but also Cleo’s (the protagonist) place in it. Furthermore, some of the sequences that take place are simply astounding. The entire film is a large testament to Cuaron’s skills.
Of course, those skills might be wasted if he didn’t have a talented cast to work with (especially a lead). To say it was lucky that he found Yalitza Aparicio, in her acting debut, is an understatement. She is a revelation as Cleo. She can act, to be sure, but it’s more than that. She brings a warmth and a subtlety to her performance that is incredibly rare to find. Her deft portrayal and Cuaron’s masterful direction are the perfect team to really bring the “slice-of-life” aspect of ‘Roma’ to life. It almost makes it feel like a home of sorts; for a film to achieve that is truly an achievement.+4
It’s an interesting premise. Aliens have appeared on Earth. Anyone who sees one instantly goes insane, and immediately commits suicide. Of course, there are a variety of complications, but that’s the general idea. Sandra Bullock has two children with her, and she’s struggling to find sanctuary.
For a suspense/thriller, the film works well. There are several well-constructed sequences, including a few edge-of-your-seat moments and “what is going on?!?” type scenes. It is a memorable film. That being said, some sequences work better than others. We know that seeing the aliens means death, so there really isn’t much suspense to be evoked from being coaxed to do so. But the sequences that do work make the film worth your time.+1
The best films are the ones that tell interesting stories – and tell them well. ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me’ does both. The film tells the story of Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy), who falls on hard times after a string of unsuccessful books. To make ends meet, her and her friend (Richard E. Grant) begin forging personal letters – from prominent authors. “I’m a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker!” is one of her quotes. It’s quite the interesting tale.
As interesting as the story is, what I’ll remember most is the performances; McCarthy and Grant each give career best performances. McCarthy has been known for playing boorish, ornery characters (which are definitely words used to describe Lee Israel), but here she reigns in her comedic, over-the-top tendencies. Her prickliness comes across much more as a defense mechanism of sorts. I hope this opens the door for McCarthy to play more dramatic roles. As good as she was, Grant steals the show as the flamboyant scamp Jack Hock. On the surface, he’s quite the character; he floats through life, couch-surfing and committing petty crimes when it suits him. But his charm is simply off the charts; he’s the highlight of every scene he’s in.+3
‘First Man’ has one of the most intense opening scenes in recent memory. It opens in a cockpit in the stratosphere, with Neil Armstrong piloting an X-15 rocket plane. He struggles to reenter the atmosphere; continually bouncing off. (He eventually has to turn the plane sideways if he wants to get back to earth.) What really makes the scene work is that we never see the plane from the outside; we only really see things from Armstrong’s perspective. He’s alone, trapped in a tiny rocket, miles above the earth’s surface, flying at several times the speed of sound, and if he doesn’t keep his wits about him, he’ll die.
What’s great about ‘First Man’ is that there are several sequences just like this. Director Damien Chazelle truly captures how terrifying it is to be an early astronaut, and how Armstrong is well-deserving of the accolades he receives. Furthermore the (spoiler alert) sequence on the moon is simply breathtaking.
That being said, the sequences between space missions don’t have nearly the same impact. Ryan Gosling is well suited to take on the role of a seemingly opaque human being who carries around sadness. But that simply isn’t enough to make the scenes that depict Armstrong the man particularly interesting (or at least as interesting as what goes on in space). But those sequences in space will stick with me for quite some time.+3
The film opens in a church in a rural town in Upstate New York. Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke) hosts a young, pregnant woman (Amanda Seyfried) about difficulties she’s having with her husband (Philip Ettinger). He agrees to speak with him. The husband is convinced the world will be uninhabitable in 30 years; the reverend is merely trying to instill a small sense of optimism. It’s a fascinating conversation, discussing the responsibility of man to govern God’s creation.
So, you’d probably think the rest of the film would be a rumination of faith in the modern world. Well, you’d be wrong. The film takes a slight turn after this scene. Saying anything more about it would spoil it. But suffice it to say, the climax to the film is actually quite suspenseful, and it’s very much earned.
As impressive as the script was, there are two things I’ll remember more than anything else. First, is the cinematography. Apart from a couple of scenes, it features a very drab color palette, and is a very fixed, narrow screen (as opposed to the very wide screen en vogue). Each shot is carefully chosen, and typically says a lot about the scene. The second thing is Ethan Hawke, who steals the show. Reverend Toller is an incredibly complex character; his past has clearly affected him deeply, yet he still demonstrates his desire to do what’s best for his constituents. But what’s truly incredible is watching his incremental changes throughout the film. It’s very subtle, but distinct. It’s by far the best performance of his lengthy career.+4
I’ll be honest; it’s been nearly 25 years since I’ve been in the 8th grade, so it might be difficult to really determine the accuracy of the feeling portrayed in “Eighth Grade.” But whether or not you look back fondly on your middle school years, you’ll probably agree that this film is the most uncomfortable you will feel in a movie theater outside of a horror film. It’s simply incredibly awkward.
But what the film truly masters (aside the cringeworthy awkwardness) is a portrayal of adolescence. Kayla (Elsie Fisher) is childlike in some scenes, and in others yearns to be treated as an adult. At various times throughout the film she tries on different personalities. She’s clearly trying to figure out who she is and who she wants to be. (In short, she’s 14.) Fisher’s ability to capture both is simply incredible.
What’s also incredible is director Bo Burnham, in his directorial debut. I, as many were, was a big fan of his standup, and was looking forward to seeing what he could do behind the camera. To say he exceeded my expectations was an understatement. He is simply masterful at capturing what is going on in Elsie’s head without use of narration and without spoon-feeding it to the audience. All of us can look back at things we did or said and recoil; Burnham has created a film full of these moments.+3
There weren’t many people that saw Debra Granik’s previous directoral work, ‘Winter’s Bone’ (though it did give Jennifer Lawrence her first Oscar nomination). There are even fewer people that read this film review blog. I can say with near certainty that the Venn diagram between the two groups of people do not overlap whatsoever. That being said, I must point out that ‘Leave No Trace’ feels like a natural successor.
The film centers around Will (Ben Foster) and his daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie), as they live in the woods outside Portland, Oregon. (Literally in the woods. In a tent.) He suffers from PTSD after serving in the military. And to be perfectly honest, that’s really all the film is about. But the two leads are so well-written and brilliantly performed that the overall plot really isn’t all that necessary. The father and daughter clearly have a strong bond, but their relationship evolves over the course of the film. Watching the two of them struggle to survive the rugged Pacific Northwest is a nice bonus (as is watching Foster’s subtle yet effective portrayal of mental illness).+3
There are certain films that it’s hard to put a finger on why precisely they’re so enjoyable. (‘Pacific Rim’ comes to mind.) They’re quite simply fun, and there’s no other way to describe it. They’re typically quick-paced, light, and frequently quite funny.
And that’s really all I can say about ‘Paddington 2.’ Yes, its target audience is children, but it doesn’t completely kowtow to them. There’s a certain tone that it hits out of the park: it’s silly enough that we don’t take it too seriously, but serious enough to understand the stakes to the characters. In fact, one of the characters perfectly embodies this aspect (though they all do to a degree): Phoenix Buchanan, the film’s villain (Hugh Grant). The character is completely ridiculous; his ultimate goal is to self-produce a one-man show on the West End of London. He, well, acts as if he’s the best actor in the universe. But he’s also cunning enough to stay a step ahead of Paddington throughout the film. He’s just fun to watch. As is everyone else in the Paddington universe.+4
‘Love Actually’ achieved a lot of success by hiring a lot of stars, putting them in succinct stories, and weaving them together into a tableau of films about, well, love at Christmastime. Other films, such as ‘Valentine’s Day’ and ‘New Years Eve’ attempted to copy that formula, to middling success. Along comes ‘Dog Days’, which copies the formula and has a different subject matter: skin cancer. Just kidding, it’s dogs.
In 2017 (when ‘Dog Days’ came out), it’s safe to refer to the above as a common trope in film. This film does nothing but capitalize on it. Now, it can work, if it adds some originality to the story, or casts some charismatic performers. This film simply does not. Most of the characters are complete blanks, and do little more than advance the plot involving the dog. (Don’t cast Rob Corddry unless he’s playing an angry, unhinged man.) Others (Ron Cephas Jones, Eva Longoria, Finn Wolfhard) have a bit more meat to their storylines, but don’t really get the chance to add much charisma into their roles. The only true highlight is Adam Pally, who has both the charm and the opportunity to have fun with his role.-1
There’s not really a whole lot I can say about this. It merely takes the formula of the first film (weave a variety of ABBA hits into a semi-coherent story) and applies it again. It’s predictable, it’s been done before, but if you enjoyed the first one (as I did), you’ll like this one. Maybe not quite as much, but you will.+1
Han Solo has always been a fan favorite; it was inevitable that he would get his own story / film (if not several). He’s somewhat of an enigmatic character; he’s not all-in for the rebellion. As one would expect, the film reflects that. He’s mixing it up with other thieves and smugglers on the outside of the empire’s control. There are several sequences where he barely gets out alive.
That being said, the film largely feels like a paint-by-numbers film about Han Solo. He meets Chewy, finds the Millennium Falcon, meets Lando, and finds himself in a moral dilemma. (Does he take the money and run or stay and fight?) Much of the film is spent as Solo goes from one action set-piece to another. But the film does have fun (much of it stemming from Alden Ehrenreich and Donald Glover, who do a spot on Harrison Ford and Billy Dee Williams), so it’s hard not to have fun yourself.+2
The setting: a sports bar in Texas (called “Double Whammies”), that employ young, fit women in tight outfits. At first glance you’d think this is a poor attempt to target a young, male audience by exploiting attractive actresses. But you’d be wrong. ‘Support the Girls’ is, simply stated, a female-driven workplace comedy-drama. The characters are complex and well-crafted, the dialogue is sharp, and the plot is largely relationship-driven. It’s almost what one would call a chick-flick.
Except the film doesn’t fall into the same traps and clichés that lesser films would. The film largely focuses on the trials and tribulations of Lisa (Regina Hall), as she struggles with managing the bar. (Her first order of business: a man got stuck in the vents trying to rob a safe overnight.) Hall is simply fantastic; she has mastered the art of steely resolve amidst nagging insecurities. Her supporting cast (in the bar and the film) are just as memorable. Haley Lu Richardson steals every scene she’s in as a bubbly, always optimistic waitress. Shayna McHayle and Dylan Gelula are part of the supporting staff and help embody the title. The girls will always support each other.+2