Monthly Archives: December 2017

“Thor: Ragnarok” Movie Review

So this must be what it looks like when the entire board of head bosses at Marvel starts tripping on acid. If this is the result, then I’ve gotta have a taste of it. Released on November 3rd of 2017, this sci-fi superhero comedy has thus far earned over $833 million at the box office worldwide. The 17th(!) overall entry in the most unexpectedly successful franchise ever to hit theaters, it also serves as the final film starring the God of Thunder in the leading role. The film serves as the first blockbuster for director Taika Waiti, who previously found success from indie comedies like What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Set two years after the events of Age of Ultron, Thor finds himself in a new battle with Hela the Goddess of Death. After a freak accident, he is deserted on a distant alien planet where he’s forced to fight to the death, Gladiator style. With the help of Dr. Bruce Banner/Hulk, who’s also imprisoned as a fighter, he must find a way to get back home in time to prevent Ragnarok, the prophesied ending of Asgard. I have an odd history with the Thor franchise. Even though I liked the first one by Kenneth Branagh, it just didn’t hold up upon repeat viewings. And the second one The Dark World was… one of Marvel’s worst films to date and one I never saw again after leaving the theater. So you can imagine my reaction when plans were announced for a third installment. But I suddenly became more excited when I heard that Taika Waititi was at the helm for it. What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople are 2 of my favorite comedies in recent years, and seeing the little New Zealander moving into blockbuster territory was what ultimately got me to give in my ticket. And he has delivered to us not just the best Thor movie by a country mile, but the first straight-up superhero comedy in the MCU. The film is by far the most distinguished from the rest of its siblings by infusing every frame with a flaring personality. Jokes were cracked and gags were unleashed almost every other line. Waititi himself scored huge bits of stomach-hurting laughter as the voice of a CGI rock creature called Korg. On more than one occasion, a dramatic monologue would be interupted by a sudden physical gag. At times, it felt like there were too many jokes being crammed in at once. One thing’s for sure, though. The director 100% doesn’t care what you think of his movie. In an age where stories of clashes between studio profit and artistic vision are regular, it’s refreshing to see a filmmaker being allowed to let loose onscreen. At least, to a point. Having been one of the most boring characters in the MCU up til now, Chris Hemsworth is finally given the chance to be cheeky yet vulnerable as the titular protagonist. Stripped of his hair and hammer, he shows off great skills of improvisation and surprisingly on-point timing. However, for the third time in a row, Tom Hiddleston and Idris Elba steal the show from right under him as Loki and Heimdall, respectively. Whereas Heimdall is a world-weary warrior coming down to his last stand, Loki is as deceptive as ever, yet there is a sense of genuine concern for his home and adopted brother. Jeff Goldblum shines as a pitch-perfect alien caricature of himself, while Mark Ruffalo gets one of the few quiet moments with Thor. Tessa Thompson may seem like a generic drunkard-turned well-intended badass, but Cate Blanchett is more so as a dime-dozen all-powerful villain. She does what she can, but she falls into the same lame archetype we’ve seen countless times already. However, whatever Thor: Ragnarok falters in for its story or characters is completely made up for by its technicality. Bright, saturated colors fill up the picture in every scene. By far the most visually interesting movie of the series, Waititi’s quirkiness seemingly never ends to shine throughout the 130-minute runtime. There are spare moments when the action starts to get super cut-up by Joel Negron and Zene Baker, as they try to keep everything as slick as possible. The way that Javier Aguirresarobe moves the camera from moment to moment keeps the audience immersed in a tale that never takes itself too seriously. I’m telling you, it was borderline psychedelic at times. Composer Mark Mothersbaugh moves from T.V. to film to give us one of Marvel’s most memorable scores to date. (That’s not saying much) The forgettable sweeping orchestras are replaced here with pulsating synthesizers and fitting electronic music. It matched the idiosyncratic space adventure unfolding before our eyes. The movie opens with an action scene using Led Zepplin’s “Immigrant Song,” which fits incredibly well and sets the offbeat tone to follow. That was immediately followed by a surprise celebrity cameo that had my entire theater roaring. This, along with the gorgeous color palette, makes it feel as though they were going for a vibe throwing back to the 1980’s, the golden age of cheesy adventures. And thank God they do. However, try as he did, Taika Waititi is still confined to the regular formula of the other Marvel movies. The film is at its best when it’s silly and weird, mostly on the alien planet. But when we cut back to Asgard, it’s moody and rather predictable. Now that’s not to say that the ending turned out how I expected it to be. In fact, without spoiling anything, it signals a huge shift for the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole. But up until then, nearly everything outside of the alien planet is uninteresting and nothing more than Hela giving extended monologues about why it’s her duty to rule the Nine Realms. But Waititi does his best, and that’s good enough in this case. Thor: Ragnarok lays endless jokes and appealing visuals on top of a patented superhero formula. Although not quite my favorite of the MCU, it’s leaps and bounds better than the previous Thor movies.

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“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” Movie Review

This movie represents the best type of advertisement out there: Get up off your butts and go make a difference. This darkly comic crime drama won the top prize of People’s Choice Award at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival back in September. Following a relatively limited released on November 10th, the film has already made back its $12 million budget and will no doubt continue a strong run thanks to strong word-of-mouth and rave reviews from critics. Written and directed by Martin McDonagh, the playwright behind the films In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, the screenplay was reportedly conceived back in the early 2000’s when he saw billboards similar to the ones in this movie while traveling through America. He apparently shaped the story around the question of “Who would put up something like that?” Set in the titular small town, Frances McDormand stars as Mildred Hayes, a woman whose daughter was raped and murdered 7 months prior. Frustrated with the lack of progress on the case, she rents three billboards just outside of her town condemning the police department. This leads to a war with the cops, particularly the chief and one racist officer, several townsfolk, and her own family. But hopefully, this can get them to find a new suspect and bring it all to a close. No, I have not yet seen the director’s debut feature In Bruges, though it is high on my watchlist. But I have seen, and enjoyed, Seven Psychopaths, an underrated black comedy with Tarantino-esque dialogue and circumstances. So in that, I knew I had to keep an eye on Martin McDonagh and the projects he’d potentially undertake. And when I first heard about this movie, two thoughts ran through my head. First, this is ridiculously relevant to the current anti-police climate being felt in many areas of the country. Second, how did he come up with such a cool concept? I wanted to see how he’d approach the subject matter. And he has come up with one of the year’s best films. What I appreciated most about the film is how realistic it was. One of my complaints about Seven Psychopaths was that the story felt too ludicrous at times and sometimes felt like style over substance. Three Billboards is almost as if McDonagh heard those responses and decided to get down and dirty in this small town. The dialogue is once again brilliantly written and endlessly profane. The characters have no problem saying some really inappropriate things to each other, some on a regular basis. Virtually every single swear word that you can think of is probably said in this movie, but not in a gratuitous way. It feels like this is as close to reality as could be done if a situation like this were to actually occur. It was unexpectedly funny and, at times, sobering. Frances McDormand is already a legend for movies like Fargo, but she honestly gives the best performance of her career in this film. She curses like a sailor, smokes like a dealer, and is mean to everyone who opposes her actions, but still incredibly thoughtful and deeply troubled. My favorite scene is when a priest asks her to take down the billboards and she goes on a diatribe about how gang laws passed in the 80’s related to priests who are “culpable” to abuse. A pointed, if cynical observation. Woody Harrelson portrays the irritated yet sincere Chief Willoughby, a man who clearly wants to do some justice, but has to deal with rotten apples. One of those apples is Sam Rockwell, who turns in a brilliant role of a racist, drunken cop. Though the character could be easy to write off, Rockwell gives him shades of pity and foolishness as we see he’s nothing more than a product of his environment. And while the rest of the cast, especially Lucas Hedges as Mildred’s troubled son and Peter Dinklage as a funny yet insecure townsmen, do a great job, it’s these 3 actors that are at the forefront of the drama. Let’s take a minute to discuss the technical attributes of the film. Previously a favorite of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, cinematographer Ben Davis uses natural lighting and washed colors to get the accurate look of a small town. Whether we’re on the side of the freeway with the titular billboards or inside neon-lit bar with the characters, we’re always there in the moment. McDonagh’s background as a playwright means that single-location scenes are always engaging, but he makes sure that something else happens to keep the audience’s attention. The edits by Jon Gregory between stuffy indoor rooms and open-air environs outside is rather clever. One of the most memorable sequences is when one character goes on a full rampage, and it’s all taken on a single, handheld shot. I wouldn’t necessarily call this an “action scene,” but it definitely kept me on the edge of my seat. The soundtrack is brought to us by Coen brothers collaborator Carter Burwell. (Which is fitting since this feels like a film they would make together) Compared to most other musical scores this year, it’s a rather simplistic one, but undeniably effective. Most of the tracks consist of the rhytmic blues-like beat of a guitar and hand percussion, giving off the effect of armies marching to war. It also contains real-world songs of country or rock in the background, but their names aren’t coming back to me right now. And in some instances, there is no music. This, I feel, allowed some of the more powerful scenes to breathe. My major issue is about the ending. It made sense for the sake of the story and ended on an unconventional note. But you’ve just spent 115 minutes with this town, and it felt stretched out a little. I’d have liked to watch at least one more scene. In any case, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri finds its outstanding cast reveling in searing comedy. The perfect blend of pitch-black humor and frighteningly real drama.

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“Mudbound” Movie Review

I’m crazy behind on writing movie reviews. I’ve effectively canceled plans to review The Phantom Menace to get more out there. Let’s start with one of the most triumphant. This historical period drama made a splash at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival when it premiered to critical acclaim. Following an intense bidding war, Netflix landed the distribution deal at a whopping $12.5 million. It was widely released on the streaming giant on November 17th alongside a limited theatrical run. So if there’s any movie this year that Netflix is gunning for Oscar consideration, it’s going to be this one. Based on the novel by Hillary Jordan, the story follows two families- the white McAllans and the black Jacksons -who are forced to live and work together on a cotton farm in rural Mississippi. When their two eldest sons Jamie and Henry return from World War II, tensions rise as serious ethical and moral questions are brought up. They must wrestle with poverty, racism, love, and loyalty in a Deep South that doesn’t seem to want either of them. I know what you must be thinking from that short synopsis: This is yet another movie existing solely to make white people feel guilty about their past, yet in the end, lets them know that prejudice is a thing that has long since ended. My friends, please wash that thought out because this film is far more than something so simple as that. I had heard lots of buzz from this picture ever since it premiered back in January. Whispers that Netflix may finally have a major contender for the Academy Awards on their hands. One might easily scoff at that idea, but those whispers were true. Director Dee Rees’ Mudbound is a huge step forward for the service. As you may recall from a previous review, it’s been reported that Netflix is currently $20 billion in debt from all of the original content they’ve been putting out. In fact, there was another report a month or so ago saying that they want to produce and distribute as many as 80 films next year. In my humble opinion, that’s not a good idea for them. If anything, they should become more selective of their library of content. Films like this and Okja have the potential to set them up as one of the great Hollywood studios, and indeed, this film’s Oscar chances may send more filmmakers flocking towards them. The whole cast does a fantastic job here, but this is clearly a show for the matriarchs of the family. Carey Mulligan’s role as the wife Laura defies period stereotypes by being neither a White Savior or a racist plantation wife. Instead, she is a headstrong woman stuck in a household run by masculinity. Mirroring her is singer Mary J. Blige as the concerned Florence Jackson, who easily trumps everyone else in the film. Despite having the best of intentions, her world is constantly swirling as the families clash and reconcile. Garret Hedlund and Jason Mitchell play the two prodigal sons with excellent chemistry. The scenes of their bonding and sharing stories from the War give the audience hope that everything will be okay. The one character who’s not shades of gray is Pappy, played well by Jonathan Banks. A virulent racist, most of the families’ problems stem from him, and I didn’t like watching his scenes. Mudbound isn’t just a showcase of pure acting, as the technical aspects are very accomplished. Rachel Morrison’s cinematography reflects the dirty world the characters have to live in. It’s a rich and down-to-earth aesthetic that perfectly captures the scope of the story. The shots of vast fields and open land are contrasted by the small houses the McAllans and Jacksons are trapped in. There’s also some visceral editing from Mako Kamitsuna with near-perfect cutaways in every instance. Two particular examples standout. The first is when Jamie and Henry are losing friends in combat over at Europe while a Gospel service begins singing heavenly tunes. The other is a disgusting act of violence committed near the end of the film that moves away enough for the viewer to see with their imagination. Both were powerful and unveiled a bigger picture than just this farm. The musical score is composed by artist Tamar-Kali Brown. He manages to bring an Americana voice to this story, fitting since it’s a Southern drama. Most of the tracks mix together sorrowful low strings with a soulful African-American chorus. Some other tunes sound like bits and pieces of rhythm and blues music from the early part of the century were mixed together in a melting pot. Blige also contributes her beautiful voice for an original ballad called “Mighty River” that plays over the ending credits. Much like the message of the film itself, it’s lyrics are clear: we’re not so different from each other. And we need to clean our wounds of the past. Which brings me to the thing binding this film together: hatred. Both of the families have it in them, and even give it out in small doses. If the past year has taught us anything, it’s that racism is far from over. Yes, we have come a long way since the days of both slavery and Jim Crow laws were considered societal norms. But Dee Rees understands how deeply rooted and complex of a problem this topic is and even makes a case that may never evaporate from the land of America. That’s not to say that the film is misery porn with no hope for humanity. Instead, it presents the parasite of prejudice as it is, and even ends on a note of love. Although it occasionally feels like there are too many characters at once, Mudbound is a sprawlingly relevant Southern triumph of character and melodrama. It’s one of the most essential films of the year, with a heavily involving story and shaded individuals with humanity to spare. It gives me hope for the future of Netflix originals. Please set aside 2 hours and 15 minutes to watch this movie, and you’ll feel the same way.

“The Girl With All the Gifts” Movie Review

I didn’t know that originality still existed in zombie flicks. The world still has a few surprises in store for me. Released in theaters earlier in February this year, this post-apocalyptic horror drama made a lengthy run on the festival circuit the previous year, from Toronto all the way to the BIFF. Despite favorable reviews from critics, it only managed to earn back half of it’s $5 million budget. The craziest thing about this film’s production isn’t the fact that the book it was based on was written in tandem with the screenplay. What was more insane is the fact that the filmmaker Colm McCarthy got aerial shots of London by going to Pripyat, a part of Chernobyl. Adapted from the novel by M.R. Carey, who also wrote the screenplay, the story is set in an England following the breakdown of society due to a fungal infection. Anyone who is turned becomes a sort-of zombie called “hungries.” But one special girl named Melanie oscillates between humanity and damnation. With the help of a teacher, a scientist, and two soldiers, she embarks on a journey that may lead to mankind’s survival. I know what you might be thinking from hearing that premise: The Last of Us. Many people who have seen the film have compared it to the highly acclaimed video game by Naughty Dog, and indeed it does share some similarities from both a thematic and storytelling standpoint. You learn just the right amount of backstory to get the apocalyptic picture and see the characters in their current state. And as an enormous fan of the game, I was quite enticed to watch this horror movie. By the time the credits rolled, I was a mini-mess. This is a gorgeous and fantastically entertaining movie, horror or not. Much like The Last of Us, the focus is not on zombie violence. Make no mistake, the hungries are ferocious and allow for some really tense moments. But they’re almost secondary to the human drama and how the characters react to the situation. With most of the population wiped out and the children in danger of infection, humanity seems doomed. But along comes this girl with a special ability and high I.Q. Indeed, it does sound like familiar ground for the genre, and there might be some viewers who might not connect with a young girl in charge of saving the world. Even some of the characters question it, with one character saying, “Why should it be us who die for you?” There are long stretches of the movie with quiet, asking for patience from its audience. A total newcomer to the industry, Sennia Nanua is an absolute star as Melanie. Highly intelligent yet incredibly innocent, the film is often terrifying because we’re scared for what could happen for her. Gemma Arterton has struggled with films like Quantum of Solace and Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunter. But here, she is captivating and compassionate as a teacher assigned with normalizing children on the military compound. When the main group is let loose into the British wilderness, she is the one that tries to keep everyone under a level head, unafraid to put her own life at risk. Meanwhile, Glenn Close impresses as Dr. Caroline Caldwell, a pragmatic scientist bent on finding a cure for the disease. She wants to help Melanie, but she has a hard time trusting anyone else, especially the hot-headed soldiers. And technically, The Girl With All the Gifts is an astounding motion picture. As I said, some scenes were shot near Chernobyl, which contributes to enhancing the oppressive and apocalyptic atmosphere of the picture. Simon Dennis chooses to film a lot of scenes with handheld cameras, but still keeps attention to what’s happening to the characters. A sequence where our heroes make their way through a field of still hungries in the streets of London was particularly terrifying. The couldn’t make a single sound, and each time the camera cut away to an undead being even just twitching, my heart would stop. Another moment of note is when the character’s are taking a pit stop in the forest, and they start hearing signs of other life (Or lack thereof) around them. Such was the power of the editors. The soundtrack was composed by first-timer Cristobal Tapia de Veer, and honestly, it’s not that memorable or noteworthy of a score. It’s pretty similar to other films of its kind in terms of style and structure. Moments of intensity and violence are backed by rigid guitar and pulsating percussion, while quieter moments are bolstered by emotional strings. But the key difference here is that the score also incorporates ambient sounds of nature, chaotic vocals, and the outside world. In a way, this further immerses the audience into a decaying world with the broken remains at our feet. Aside from that, I won’t be going on YouTube to replay certain tracks. There’s really nothing left that I can add. Almost everything about this movie worked for me, and tells a story with a big scope on an intimate scale. And that’s what makes it such a mini-triumph. The Girl With All the Gifts is a breath of fresh air in a dying genre. It’s currently available on Amazon Primer, and I implore you to give it a chance. It’s one of the year’s most overlooked films.

 

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“Murder on the Orient Express” Movie Review

Well, that was stylish. This mystery drama has thus far grossed over $148 million at the worldwide box office since it was released on November 10th, 2017. Overall, this new interpretation from director Kenneth Branagh is the 4th adaptation of the highly celebrated novel by Agatha Christie. It’s also reportedly the first installment of a new franchise starring this iconic character if it’s successful enough for 20th Century Fox. Set in the 1930s, the film stars Branagh as the Belgian PI Hercule Poirot, perhaps the greatest detective in the world. On a ride back home on the lavish Orient Express train in Europe, an American tycoon is found slain in the middle of the night. Trapped in the mountains by an avalanche, Poirot must deduce the killer’s identity before the train gets back on track and they can get away. This might be the part where I lose some readers, but I feel like I should lay my cards out on the table before proceeding any further: I don’t much care for Christie’s bibliography. I mean, I have read the eponymous book and remember liking it, but it’s been quite a while since that happened. And I only vaguely remember episodes of the BBC adaptation of the character where he was portrayed masterfully by David Suchet. But aside from that, most of Poirot’s other stories didn’t click with me as they seemed like cold cases with no real stakes involved. However, I was somewhat interested in the prospect of Kenneth Branagh taking on a new adaptation of the novel. After all, he’s a thespian king who directed Henry V, one of my all-time favorites and a very underrated film. And I gotta say, this movie… really wasn’t that impressive. But I’ll give Branagh and Co. credit; they really tried. After all, this is the 4th live-action adaptation of one of the most popular mystery stories ever written. They added a whole new sequence at the beginning which, aside from forced humor that didn’t click with me, did a good job at setting up Poirot’s skills as a genius. Then, as soon as the murder actually happens, the tone completely shifts from lighthearted and jovial to serious and moody. It works to a point, but ultimately feels jarring the more I think about it. Whatever shortcomings the film has, Kenneth Branagh carries the whole film with his own mustache. Brimming with quirky humor and an inimitable level of intelligence, it’s quite a joy to follow this man as we’re solving the case with him. He spouts a majority of the dialogue in quick bursts with ease and never loses the attention of either the suspects or the audience. Meanwhile, he is backed up by a huge supporting cast of great actors and actresses. *deep breath* Johnny Deep, Judi Dench, Olivia Coleman, Lucy Boynton, Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr., Josh Gad, Willem Dafoe, Penelope Cruz, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Sergei Polunin, Marwan Kenzari, Michelle Pfieffer, and frequent collaborator with the director, Sir Derek Jacobi, all become involved in the central case. But it feels like too many characters to juggle at once without much of an earnest connection to them. Were a couple of them cut out, I don’t think the story as a whole would’ve been hurt. But there’s no denying the film’s technical brilliance. Haris Zambarloukos frames the cinematography in a way that’s almost old-fashioned. (Whenever there isn’t CGI snow) Since the movie mostly consists of Poirot interviewing the suspects, he keeps the viewer interested through unique moves such as overhead view and wide shots. The film ends with a tricky but impressive tracking shot on 65 mm, the same format used for the director’s version of Hamlet, which gives the feeling of this grand scale to the murder. Meanwhile, the editing from Mick Audsley uses great saturation and contrasts of big colors for many scenes. For the lavish looking interior of the train, we get a mixture of red and blue teal. But as Poirot deduces the clues, we see flashbacks in drowned black-and-white, much like an old Hollywood movie. Scottish composer Patrick Doyle creates the musical score for his 10th collaboration with director Kenneth Branagh, and he goes for an interesting route. For the scenes of action or intense investigation, there would be these rousing orchestral beats to bring excitement out of the viewers. For the more quiet, emotionally-driven character moments, he’d move to a soft melody of piano and strings. Often, the flashback scenes are shown without any sound; just narration and the sweet or mellow music to fit the mood. It’s certainly one of the prolific composers better scores recently, if not quite his most memorable one. And for anyone who wants to see this movie but hasn’t read the novel, I won’t spoil the ending here. But for me, it fell kind of flat. It made perfect sense and brought a whole new level of depth the film’s interpretation of justice. But it just didn’t really capture the big picture of its implications. And with all the characters the film attempted to swap in and out, it was kind of hard for me to feel anything really emotional. Again, the ending was fitting for the story and made everything you’ve just watched become more nuanced than initially realized, but screenwriter Michael Green’s approach felt more heavyhanded. Murder on the Orient Express is a stylish but flawed take on a time-worn story. Were this one to come across me on cable later on, I’d give it another go. If for nothing else, it’s a great film that should be saved for a rainy Friday night when you have nothing else to do. This adaptation isn’t without entertainment and even has legitimate merits for a franchise, but it could have been so much more. Oh well.

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