Monthly Archives: January 2018

Retrospective: 2017 Superlatives

Now that my Top 20 Best Films is published and out of the way, I wanted to go into more specific categories with Superlatives. No specific rankings here, but I just wanted to file away certain films that I saw that deserve at least some recognition. Some of these were in contention for the Top 20, others were not. But regardless, I wanted to continue my tradition from last year and give some thoughts on these.

Most Original: “Okja”

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In my experience, Bong Joon-Ho’s films can range from hitting the exact spot that they should hit or struggle to decide what tonal path they want to take. Okja is a mixture of both but there’s no denying how it is unlike anything else that’s pouring out of the studio market these days. The concept of a child forming a close bond with a creature may be familiar, but the way that Joon-Ho goes about it in this Netflix original is so unexpected and exhilarating. Filled with both heart and searing satire, this is the kind of film that more studios and production companies should be putting faith in.

*Read my full review here.

Most Surprising: “Coco”

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I had little doubt in my mind that Pixar Animation would score more laughs and fun out of the audience with Coco. But what shocked and particularly impressed me was the deep respect and reverence the creators had for Mexican culture, which is often overlooked or misappropriated by Hollywood. Moreover, the film was surprising in its examination of death and the afterlife, a topic rarely discussed in family pictures. Topped off with some of the most gorgeous visuals the animators have had to offer yet and a beautiful score by Michael Giacchino, Coco is a glorious return to form for Pixar.

*Read my full review here.

Most Overrated: “Atomic Blonde”

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Now, this just makes me sad because I really wanted to like this movie like everyone else. And while I did enjoy parts of Atomic Blonde, nothing could overcome the excessive feeling of “all style and no substance.” Charlize Theron and James McAvoy are great in their respective roles and seem to be having a lot of fun. But the spy plot needlessly and constantly twists itself in a tangled up knot to hide its inherently generic nature. And while the color scheme and use of graffiti are nice, it ultimately feels indulgent.

*Read my full review here.

Most Underrated: “Mother!”

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I know a lot of people who not only disagree with my choice on this category, but they don’t like Mother! Not at all. And honestly, I can’t blame them since the film has no regard for the audiences’ comfort level. But for me, growing up in a religious household, seeing this allegory played out with total control unleashed from Darren Aronofsky is exactly the kind of disturbing I look for. My jaw was on the floor for the last 30-45 minutes of the movie, and the controversy this film has accumulated for its plot and violence is exactly the kind of conversation that film buffs should be having.

*Read my full review here.

Most Overlooked: “The Girl With All the Gifts”

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One could attribute this film’s relative lack of success to the overcrowded zombie genre, and you’d probably be right. But unlike many other films in that worn out niche, Colm McCarthy’s The Girl With All the Gifts has an effective emotional core in the midst of all the flesh-eating terror and guts. Featuring a breakout performance from Sennia Nanua and some chillingly real zombie effects, the film feels like a believable examination of what would happen to children in the collapse of society. It’s probably the closest we’ll get to a live-action adaptation of The Last of Us.

*Read my full review here.

Most Disappointing: “Bright”

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“It’s like a nuclear bomb that grants wishes!” An actual line of dialogue from this huge let-down. I’ll give Netflix some credit here; they tried. In an age of studios whittling visions down to empty projects, Netflix actually tried to make an original fantasy blockbuster. They’ve even committed to a sequel already! But David Ayer’s Bright failed not just at setting up a potential franchise, not just at pathetic social commentary, but also at the most simple job: making a good movie. Max Landis seems to have a ton of ideas floating around his head, but someone really should have given this one a total rewrite. Sorry, Will Smith and Joel Edgerton, I love you guys. But make better choices.

*Read my full review here.

Funniest: “The Big Sick”

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Aside from Get Out, I can’t think of a single movie from 2017 that caught more people by surprise than The Big Sick. Revealing Kumail Nanjiani as both a brilliant screenwriter and a capable actor, the awkward true story speaks volumes about current cultural barriers without ever becoming too preachy. It is increasingly rare to find honesty or sincerity in romantic films, but Nanjiani, along with his co-writer (And real-life wife) Emily V. Gordon do just that. It doesn’t avoid the emotional weight of a loved one falling ill, but they still find genuine humor amongst it all. Capped off with the single best and most unexpected 9/11 joke in cinematic history.

*Read my full review here.

Worst: “The Emoji Movie”

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In all honesty, who was actually expecting this movie to be any good? When I first heard the announcement, I thought it was an article published by The Onion, but nope. Even so, I might be willing to subside some criticisms if Tony Leonidis and T.J. Miller really put some muscle and effort into it. But The Emoji Movie not only comes across as lazy garbage but also a stupidly cynical feature-length advertisement for various corporate phone apps. Rarely have I seen a movie that is so blatantly insulting to the intelligence of both adult AND child audiences. (Sir Patrick Stewart as the poop emoji included) The Emoji Movie is easily the worst movie of the year, and the worst animation I’ve seen yet.

*Read my full review here.

Do you agree with these superlatives? What do you think was the worst or most underrated movie of 2017? Be sure to leave your picks in the Comments below, and if you’re interested to see more content like this, be sure to like this post and Follow my Blog.

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Retrospective: The Best Films of 2017

Well, folks, another year, another season of new cinema has officially come to a wrap. While many people felt miserable from all the horrible news pouring out daily, (This critic included) filmmakers were busy giving us films that reminded us what it truly means to be human. The good, the bad, and the gray areas in between. Over the course of the last year, I have watched a personal record total of 124 feature-length pictures released in 2017. In fact, I dare say that this was the best year of the decade so far in terms of newly released movies. Horror cinema broke all sorts of box office records, independent films saw releases in multiplexes, and a number of original films (as well as a few sequels) subverted all expectations. It was such a good and massive year that I had to expand to a Top 20. Here are some honorable mentions before we get started.

Honorable Mentions:

Coco, Only the Brave, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Gerald’s Game, Good Time, Mother!, The Disaster Artist, Darkest Hour, The Girl With All the Gifts, I, Tonya, Icarus, Columbus, Stronger, The Meyerowitz Stories, Spiderman: Homecoming, Thor: Ragnarok, The Big Sick, It Comes at Night, Okja, The Survivalist

Without further ado, let’s count down my Top 20 Movies of 2017.

#20: “Brawl in Cell Block 99″

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Let’s kick things off with an especially brutal and violent movie that very few people actually saw. In a year chock full of cinematic surprises, S. Craig Zahler’s prison Grindhouse action thriller Brawl in Cell Block 99 is one of the biggest. Having been a fan of his debut Bone Tomahawk, I was curious to see what the burgeoning filmmaker could come up with. A powerful, unapologetic ride of crushed bones and purple punches, absolutely nothing is held back. From the understated style to the simplicity of the story, virtually everything worked. And most of all, we get to see the best work of Vince Vaughn’s entire career on display as he unleashes fury on everyone in his way.

*Read my full review here.

#19: “Wonder Woman”

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The best film out of the DC Extended Universe by at least two country miles, and a charming affirmation of the better sex’s power, Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman gave us something we were all waiting for so long. The most recognizable female superhero on Earth was done incredible justice, due in no small part to Gal Gadot’s charismatic lead performance. But she’s not simply pandering to teenagers or making a politically correct statement. The two them, together with some of the best men and women working in the business, wanted the world to know that humanity is not too far gone. For all the horrible things we see happen every day, it’s this kind of cinematic optimism that we need.

*Read my full review here.

#18: “IT”

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One of the many things that 2017 will be remembered for was the Year of the Stephen King Adaptation. And while Gerald’s Game was a pretty great movie on Netflix, It edges out simply because of fun factor and sheer shock at its success. A movie about a demon clown becoming the highest-grossing horror movie of all time? Speaking of clowns, Bill Skarsgård was a perfect choice to play the terrifying iconic villain, while the kids all give a wonderful personality to the story. Rarely has a horror film made me feel so emotionally involved in its narrative; to feel the terror and sadness that the characters do. By all rights, this shouldn’t have worked. But director Andy Muschietti somehow made me excited for a sequel.

*Read my full review here.

#17: “First They Killed My Father”

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By far the most criminally overlooked film on this list, Angelina Jolie’s First They Killed My Father is a haunting portrait of a period rarely shown in media. The semi-autobiographical story of a young Cambodian girl desperately making her way through the Killing Fields would have already been crushing. But Jolie wisely chooses to show us this truly evil conflict through the innocent eyes of a child, which makes for a path of empathy uncommon in tragedies. The fact that the film was shot on location, has an entire cast made of Cambodians, and the primary language is Khmer is particularly impressive for an American filmmaker. She unflinchingly captures the aftermath of Communist takeover following the Vietnam War. Speaking of which…

*Read my full review here.

#16: “The Post”

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I get the idea that putting up an Oscar Bait-y movie like The Post on my Best Films of the Year list makes my tastes look cheap and predictable. I understand that. I also don’t care. Steven Spielberg continues his hot streak into his early 70s with this relevant historical drama concerning newspapers that tried to uncover government deception in the 1970’s. Anchored by incredible performances from Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, and an enormous supporting cast, the movie looks and feels like a master at his craft working to tell an immediate story with actors who know exactly what they’re doing. Regardless of how forced the message may seem, there’s no denying the importance of the freedom of the press which Spielberg and his collaborators saw when they first read Liz Hannah’s script 9 months ago.

*Read my full review here.

#15: “The Lost City of Z”

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I bet a lot of people forgot about this movie back when it was released in April. I didn’t, though. James Gray’s musty, jungle-obsessed historical drama is a hallucinogenic throwback to the grand epics of filmmakers like David Lean. A sweeping story about one of the most mysterious treks in British history in the unknown Amazon, someone could easily be fooled into thinking that this was a 35 mm print only discovered recently. While the character of Percy Fawcett is softened up a bit, Charlie Hunnam does excellent work as the complex explorer who became obsessed with a small idea of civilization by the Natives. It’s definitely a slower movie than most audiences are probably used to, which probably explains why it bombed at the box office. But it’s still just brilliant and glorious in scale.

*Read my full review here.

#14: “Lady Bird” 

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The little festival indie that absolutely could, Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird is not the last directorial debut you’ll find on this list. While the story of a young woman wanting to escape her confined small-town life may sound familiar, every single frame of the movie is fleshed out into a three-dimensional object or person. Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf do magnificent work as a daughter and mother whose relationship is increasingly strained as the day comes when the titular girl has to leave for college. But Gerwig fills in many moments with great levity and humor that solidify its honesty, keeping it from being a stressful affair. We all reach our time to fly sooner or later.

*Read my full review here.

#13: “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”

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Aside from having a highly unconventional title and a bevy of veteran actors at his disposal, writer-director Martin McDonagh also chooses to navigate taboo territory. By focusing on a mother who takes a militant stand against the authorities for failing to solve her daughter’s 8-month-old murder, he manages to walk on thin ice with grace. It also helps that Frances McDormand gives one of the best and most vulgar performances I’ve seen all year long while Sam Rockwell is total dynamite as the virulent racist of a cop. And while the film could have easily been drenched in misery and depression, McDonagh bombards the audience with unexpected doses of bleak humor that you really shouldn’t be laughing at. Excellent writing and acting come together perfectly.

*Read my full review here.

#12: “John Wick Chapter 2”

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John Wick Chapter 2 was awesome! It combined slick, stylistic filmmaking techniques with beautifully choreographed action sequences. Even something that simple is hard to come by these days. But still, Chapter 2 builds upon the original film’s worldbuilding by giving us an even bigger peek into the world of assassins. How are they organized? What involvement do the governments have? And whenever something like that isn’t happening, all of the actors are delivering the unsubtle dialogue with complete Shakespearean authority. What more could you want from an action movie?

*Read my full review here.

#11: “Raw”

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Easily my favorite foreign language film of the year, and one that feels absolutely foreign in many different ways, Raw is really a movie that lives up to its title. It’s quite often that horror movies tend to revolve around scenarios or circumstances that could never happen in reality. The horrifying beauty of Julie Docournau’s Cannes debut is how believable every instance of gore and lust is presented, which arguably makes it even more uncomfortable to watch. A lurid coming-of-age tale of budding sexuality with no easy emotions or cop-outs, those with a weak stomach are sure to have a panic attack during Raw. (Just research its screening at TIFF) But it’s a prime example of modern directors still finding little wrinkles of fresh air and forming their own distinctive voices.

*Read my full review here.

#10: “Wind River”

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Top 10 territory now! Wind River was one of the most realistic films I saw in 2017 of any genre. Taylor Sheridan proves that he’s just as capable in the director’s chair as he is a gifted scribe, proved in Sicario and last year’s Hell or High Water. A murder mystery set on a Native American reservation in Wyoming, Sheridan balances sober commentary on an undervalued issue with a big heart at the center. Jeremy Renner and Gil Birmingham give some of their finest performances as two fathers searching for closure on the deaths of their daughters while highlighting the cold, unforgiving frontier of the titular reservation. One of the most intense films of the year as well as one of the most satisfying, it’s movies like this that major studios should come around to making more often. These voices need to be heard.

*Read my full review here.

#9: “Mudbound”

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Don’t let the Netflix logo at the beginning of this movie deter you; Mudbound is as artful a film as anything released in theaters. Dee Rees’ stunning, complex epic is a 2-hour and 15-minute Southern ballet of family drama and suppressed hatred. It speaks to the relevant, deeply rooted problem of racism that ceaselessly dogs America with subtle storytelling and highly mature writing. An able-bodied cast of either color give shades to what could have easily been archetypes in a feel-good historical fantasy. But both they and Rees refuse to let the audience have any easy answers to the issue, leaving us immersed in the dirty farmlands of rural Mississippi. An essential piece of literary cinema, Mudbound may take place in the time of Jim Crow but it still holds truths for today.

*Read my full review here.

#8: “War for the Planet of the Apes”

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A stunning piece of visual storytelling and one of the few concluding chapters that is actually satisfying, the franchise with increasingly long titles reaches a bleak end. War didn’t just offer more proof that Andy Serkis deserves Oscar recognition as the ever-so conflicted ape leader Caesar. This ninth installment also showed us dark themes rarely seen in a summer blockbuster, including an indictment of the audience’s capacity for enjoying brutal violence portrayed on-screen. A barrage of intense emotions and hard choices hit the viewer with beautiful imagery that will haunt me for weeks. And considering that only one scene of verbal exposition was included here, that’s especially impressive. Also, Steve Zahn as Bad Ape provided some good levity for an otherwise completely dark and harsh story.

*Read my full review here.

#7: “Baby Driver”

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Having wrapped up his Three Flavors Cornetto Trilogy 4 years ago and after walking away angrily form Ant-Man, it’s safe to say that most film lovers were curious about what Edgar Wright could come up with next. But none of us could have predicted him bringing such an exhilarating and stylish film quite like Baby Driver. A clear homage to old gangster heist movies from the 1930’s and 1970’s, Ansel Elgort stars as a getaway driver who’s coerced into one final job by his criminal bosses before falling in love with an innocent waitress. Filled with Wright’s trademark kinetic editing and gorgeously precise camera work, the killer soundtrack never misses a beat. Presenting us with a colorful variety of characters, including the deaf J.D. or the profane murderer Bats, this was just a blast.

*Read my full review here.

#6: “The Shape of Water”

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Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water is this year’s only worthwhile movie about the romance between a mute woman and a humanoid amphibian creature. Joking aside, this was a genuinely great and enthralling picture built as a passionate loveletter to classical cinema. (Wipe transition included) Sally Hawkins does phenomenal work in a role dominated by silence and sign language while Doug Jones proves his worth as a brilliant chameleon of an actor. But the real star is del Toro, who weaves together a beautiful love story which, despite the Cold War backdrop, still feels relevant today. Some may feel a little cold, but there’s no denying the brilliance behind the camera, not the least of which is Alexandre Desplat’s whimsical score. It truly is a “Fairytale for Troubled Times.”

*Read my full review here.

#5: “Logan”

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No matter how long I’m a film critic and no matter how many superhero movies I watch down the road- and there are a LOT coming down the pipe -I will never forget Logan. By stripping down a comic book icon like Wolverine to his bare essence, without any superhero spectacle or save-the-world stakes, director Jame Mangold gives us a gritty Western character drama. Not since The Dark Knight has a superhero movie felt so different from both a thematic and technical standpoint. Hugh Jackman and Sir Patrick Stewart sink deep into their iconic roles, finding new corners not yet explored with two men- or in this case, mutants -tired of the violent world around them. A rollercoaster of R-rated action and capped off by an emotionally gut-wrenching finale, it’s films like Logan that give me true hope for the future of the genre.

*Read my full review here.

#4: “Get Out”

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Who on Earth could have possibly predicted the pop culture phenomenon that Get Out would become when it was released? Jordan Peele’s stunning directorial debut made waves back in February and the buzz just never let up from there. A searing satire of how white people respond to accusations of racism, Peele drops subtle hints left and right only to reveal the frightening horror behind it all. Daniel Kaluuya proves that his one-episode stint on Black Mirror wasn’t a hoax by playing Chris, an African-American stuck in one of the most bizarre situations imaginable. Few films moved the national conversation of race quite like this, spreading like a wildfire in multiplexes. Upon rewatches, you’ll find new details that feed further into the subtextual richness of Get Out. Unpredictable, hilarious, and wholly original, if I told you there was a single movie from 2017 that I had more fun watching in a packed theater than Get Out, I would be lying to you.

*Read my full review here.

#3: “Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi”

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In the four years that I’ve run my blog here on WordPress, I don’t think any year was as cinematically divisive as 2017. Few films illustrated that more widely or intensely than the latest entry in the Star Wars franchise. Unlike a lot of fans, I do understand some of the hate this movie has received, but at the same time, I love it all the more for it. You’d be hardpressed to find a modern blockbuster that is as bold or risk-taking as Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi, which sees much of the iconic mythology questioned by our beloved heroes. While the action sequences, especially a beautiful lightsaber duel involving Rey, Kylo Ren, and the Praetorian Guard, are truly extravagant, it’s the storytelling and development of Luke’s character arc that really grabbed me. Some rewatches are probably mandatory, but I’m still in awe of what Disney let Johnson do.

*Read my full review here.

#2: “Dunkirk”

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When I first said this in my review, it felt like a great hyperbole. But it’s been about 6 months since I first watched the film and I still feel quite confident: Dunkirk is the most patriotic British film ever made. Having had little knowledge of the actual history of the titular event, involving 400,000 troops stuck on a beach in 1940 France, I went into this movie expecting a straightforward war movie. But instead, Christopher Nolan immersed me and the auditorium in a 70 mm simulation of what it was like to live that moment; from the land, the air, and the sea. Because of this, many have complained about the severe lack of character development or emotional involvement. I get that criticism, but the attachment shouldn’t come from a monologue about a girl back home. Personally, I didn’t think that was necessary to feel the immense fear, anxiety, and relief of the soldiers in each story. I swore to God it was going to be my best film of the year. Until I saw…

*Read my full review here.

#1: “Blade Runner 2049”

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I get the hate for Dunkirk, The Shape of Water, and even Star Wars. However, I genuinely don’t understand how anyone could hate Blade Runner 2049. For the second year in a row, Denis Villeneuve has directed my favorite film of the year and rightly so. Maybe it was the IMAX syndrome. Maybe it was the jaw-dropping, immaculate cinematography by the legendary Roger Deakins. But I wholeheartedly believe that this sequel is better than Ridley Scott’s 1982 original, with a sprawling story bolstered by impeccable visuals and a solid beating heart at the center. In fact, this could be the movie that convinces some people to switch over to 4K. Ryan Gosling proves his worth as one of the finest actors around as Officer K, but it’s Harrison Ford that steals the show. No real easy explanations are dolled out, just strong storytelling driving the mystery of Rick Deckard forward. Blade Runner 2049 is a complete technical masterpiece and one that will hopefully come to inspire a new crop of aspiring filmmakers.

*Read my full review here.

So there’s my list! Do you agree with my picks? What was your favorite movie from 2017? Leave a comment below, and if you’re interested to see more content like this, be sure to Like and Follow my Blog. Bring on 2018!

“The Post” Movie Review

Alright, so the sole reason I have yet to give my readers a definitive Best of the Year list is that there was just one more movie that I wanted to catch in theaters before Oscar season came to a close. And I’m glad that I’ve held it off thus far. This historical drama from legendary director Steven Spielberg was released in a wide amount of theaters on January 12th, 2018. But thanks to the sneaky practice of a limited release back in late December, the 20th Century Fox production was able to qualify for Academy Award consideration. Having already earned back its $50 million budget, the original screenplay by Liz Hannah was a part of the 2016 Black List. Realizing the potential for timely commentary, Spielberg and Co. scrambled to get this movie made as soon as possible. According to the director, the time between when he first read the script and finished the post-production was a hasty 9 months. Based on the true story, Kay Graham, played by Meryl Streep, is struggling to retain ownership of her family’s newspaper The Washington Post. In 1971, it’s discovered that a classified document called The Pentagon Papers contains 7,000 pages worth detailing how the U.S. government had systematically lied to the public about the Vietnam War over the course of 4 presidencies. The New York Times is the first one to scoop up the story, but the administration of Richard Nixon levies an injunction against them and makes it clear to the rest of the press that publishing any more pages would be equivalent to treason. Seeing this as an unconstitutional attack, Graham is persuaded by her editor-in-chief Ben Bradlee, played by Tom Hanks, to run the story and see her newspaper grow into a national institution. Honestly, it’s not that hard at all to get me excited about a new movie from Steven Spielberg. Doesn’t matter if it’s great or crap, if Spielberg’s name is attached to it I’ll always be there to support him. Plus, this has the always-added benefit of two of the best actors working today in the lead roles. Throw in some not-too-distant history as the backdrop, and we already have a recipe for classic Oscar Bait. Sure, there are some inaccuracies abound for the sake of the story, but is The Post entertaining? You bet your flat bottom it is. Do I really need to explain how great Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep are in this movie? It seems like a redundant statement, but they’re both genuinely great in their roles. But this is clearly Graham’s story, as we see how disrespectfully men on the company board treat her. At one point she states, “This is not my father’s company. It’s not my husband’s company. This is my company, and anyone who thinks otherwise, I feel, is not fit to be on the board.” Of course, Spielberg went all Lincoln and gives us a massive supporting cast of great names. T.V. stars like Bob Odenkirk and Matthew Rhys are perhaps the most important with their roles, but nearly every scene has someone you love. Whoa, Michael Stuhlbarg’s in ANOTHER movie from 2017? Bradley Whitford and Bruce Greenwood in more White House drama! There’s Jesse Plemons and Zac Woods as attorneys more scared than they should be! No one told me Allison Brie and Sarah Paulson were gonna be in this movie! You’ll practically be exclaiming, I promise. And the director may be pushing 71, but he still knows how to keep the film in his own signature style. With cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, he frames it all like a classic Hollywood picture with long still shots focused on characters. Sometimes, we follow the reporters in tracking shots as we get to see what their workspace is like. On rare occasions, it will switch to handheld in order to let the audience know how little time is left. Harsh white light is often shown blasting through windows which give a sense of the black-and-white story. Longtime editor Michael Kahn teams up with Sarah Broshar to masterfully cut together scenes of investigation with employees hurrying to print it out. This added a sense of urgency and ultimately made the experience a little more exhilarating. But of course, what’s a Steven Spielberg movie without John Williams composing the musical score? Certainly better than his work on The Last Jedi, there’s that classic sharp horns and strings that add a good sentiment to the story. But Williams understands better than to manipulate us. He also trades in some noteworthy riffs on the electric guitar along with light trills on woodwinds. The back and forth between these various instruments makes for a particularly riveting score. Even at the age of 85, it’s still remarkable that this man is pumping out new melodies for cinema. And of course, The Post has a message. Despite the impressive setting of 1971, it’s quite clear that this story is meant to act as a reflection of the current U.S. presidency with Donald Trump. It’s considered a miracle if he goes a whole day without complaining about “Fake News” on Twitter. In fact, a study not too long ago showed that maybe 27% of Americans actually trust newspapers anymore. This movie rebukes the idea that (most of) the press has an agenda to follow, opting instead to show how seriously everyone in journalism takes their jobs. Can it seemed forced or bash its message over the head of the viewer? Sometimes. But if any director has a right to do it, it is Spielberg. With relevant drama, gorgeous sets and costumes, an epic cast, and powerful analogies to today, The Post is a riveting historical caricature of modern America. Spielberg, Streep, and Hanks all excel at giving us a story that needs to be told now but they’re never smug about it. They spin an op-ed worthy of being published.

“Lady Bird” Movie Review

We’ve all been here in this position before. Whether we want to admit it or not. And A24 has come in to show us that with proof in spades. This indie coming-of-age comedy-drama premiered at the Telluride Film Festival on September 4th, 2017. Following a standing ovation at a subsequent screening at TIFF, it was released in theaters on November 17th, 2017 before expanding in the following weeks. Grossing nearly 4 times its $10 million budget, the film also garnered universal praise from critics, at one point becoming the highest-rated movie of all time on Rotten Tomatoes. (Until one critic decided to become a troll) The directorial debut of writer and actress Greta Gerwig, Christine McPherson is an angst-ridden senior student in high school who prefers to go by the name “Lady Bird.” Fed up with her confined life in Sacramento, California, she begins applying to colleges out of state, specifically anywhere on the East Coast. As she navigates the 2002-03 school year, everything she thought she knew comes into question as her relationship with her parents are strained and friendships are lost and born. I’m not very familiar with Greta Gerwig’s work, and the few films I’ve seen with her involved can range from being side-splittingly hilarious to boring for me. But one thing I’ve never doubted is that she was able to craft stories about strong women in the modern era; for Millenials by a Millenial. And so I wasn’t really sure what to expect from her directorial debut. Though the extremely positive reaction out of its festival run was encouraging, I was largely scared that it wouldn’t really live up to all of its massive hype. Spoiler Alert: It absolutely does. Which is odd because from the synopsis I just gave you, it might just seem like any other coming-of-age story that Hollywood has put out. You’d be forgiven for thinking so because while the narrative is rather simplistic, Gerwig uses this simplicity to flesh out each individual into a tangible human being. The Math teacher is not just simply a Math teacher, and Christine’s best friend is much more than a lovable sidekick. The director even goes as far as making several scenes grounded in reality, with the characters never afraid to share their true feelings. If family members and friends duking it out with words legitimately stresses you out, then maybe Lady Bird is not for you. But for those looking for a break from the more ditsy, idealistic coming-of-age movies, this one is definitely worth checking out. When I saw Saoirse Ronan’s break-out performance in 2015’s Brooklyn, I immediately knew that she was a new talent worth looking out for. And with her role as the titular character, she has further proven my point; she’s a challenging young woman who REALLY hates Sacramento yet still finds a channel of empathy from the audience. The supporting cast is filled out by great performances by Tracy Letts, Timothee Chalamet, Jordan Rodrigues, Lucas Hedges, Lois Smith, and Stephen McKinley Henderson, who all contribute a unique aspect to the film. But the one woman who can stand up to Ronan is Laurie Metcalf as her mother, Marion. The scenes where the two of them fight back and forth bordered on difficult-to-watch, as she is trying to let her daughter know the realities of our world. She didn’t even seem like she was acting; she was just being. And from a filmmaking standpoint, Greta Gerwig proves she also has great prowess behind the camera. Sam Levy warps the color corrected cinematography to look and feel like a teenage memory. Nothing really flashy, just a realistic style that captures the crazy zeitgeist of the early 2000’s. Christine’s dyed red hair is particularly highlighted as it is indicative of a phase every high school girl goes through; they think they’re being rebellious when they’re really just acting like everyone else around them. The feeling of memory permeates to the editing by Nick Huoy. Some sequences are cut up in little fractures, relying on the audience to build through context. As many moments in our lives are only remembered in bits and pieces, this worked immensely well. Composer Jon Brion puts his multi-instrumental talents to the test with the surprisingly warm-hearted film score. In a word, the soundtrack is just “delightful” as the main title track consists of buoyant strumming guitars, drum set, and low brass. Brion refuses to become saccharine and instead highlights the colorful personality of the titular character while remaining friendly and relatable. And the smaller piano melodies hit right to the emotional truth of each hard moment without ever feeling the need for manipulation. In other words, it’s the perfect film score for Lady Bird. But the truest thing that this movie has to offer is its hilarious yet real depiction of leaving home. Most coming-of-age stories focusing on the female perspective that I’ve seen tend to revolve around a young girl’s relationship with a boy or first love. There are boyfriends for Christine, but they’re more like road stops. Rather, this film showcases the relationship between a mother and her daughter who really doesn’t know what she wants in life. We’ve all struggled with filling out college applications or fought about what we can or can’t afford for the future. And sometimes, no matter how hard you try, your future is just not going to align with even your closest friends. That makes this arguably the perfect film for Millennials and Z-Gen kids to watch. Lady Bird presents a brutally honest story on the last days of innocence. It may not necessarily be the most original movie in the coming-of-age drama, but it’s probably the most humane. With a stellar cast, fantastic dialogue, and great timing from all, this movie reveals Greta Gerwig as a real filmmaking talent. With enough time, she might just become a master.

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“I, Tonya” Movie Review

After many instances of falling on my butt, I gave up trying to be an ice skater. And now after watching this movie, I’m glad that I made that decision. This biographical black comedy premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September before releasing theatrically on December 8th, 2017. Expanding in the ensuing weeks, the film has already made back more than half of its $11 million budget at the box office. Directed by Craig Gillespie of Lars and the Real Girl fame, the movie was reportedly going to originally be a Netflix Original. But after a strong showing at TIFF, the newly-formed Neon won out the acquisition, likely as a potential last-minute awards-season wrench. Based on the insane, unbelievable, wildly contradictory true story, Margot Robbie produces and stars as Tonya Harding. Despite being beaten and shoved by her family and growing up in a poor environment, she is determined to become the best figure skater in the world. In 1994, she gets a chance to compete in the Winter Olympics against Nancy Kerrigan, a rival skater with a much more “esteemed” background. On the off-chance that you don’t know how this story ends, I won’t go any further into it. But I will say that reviewing this movie objectively is extremely difficult because virtually every living American has an opinion of Tonya Harding. Some people love her, others loathe her. I, myself, am split down the middle because although I do feel more informed about the situation, the whole picture is still not that clear. But if I’m being honest, in the end, we’ll probably never know. I can say, however, that on its own, the movie I, Tonya is unabashedly entertaining and surprisingly resonant. And a lot of that success comes from the crackling screenplay by Steven Rogers. The events of the film are told in a nonlinear fashion, where the excerpts of the story from the past are inter-cut with interviews taken recently.  These interviews are filled out by the actors playing the parts, and sometimes a hardcut between a harsh scene involving Tonya and a deadpan comment made me laugh uncontrollably. It’s actually a lot like the Coen Brothers’ Fargo; a bunch of idoits come up with an insanely stupid plan that they have no business pulling off. But Rogers isn’t undermining anyone; he knows that this story is tragic regardless of what perspective is being told. In fact, all of the characters being interviewed have very different recollections of events, which is wise for the audience to decide for themselves. They even break the fourth wall at times, which allows for some great bits of levity.  Does Margot Robbie deserve Best Actress consideration as Tonya Harding? Absolutely. Her take-no-BS attitude and wicked tongue make her relatable to the audience, especially when we observe her harsh upbringing. Sebastian Stan plays her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly, who brings a nuanced and thick haze on the figure. One minute he’s softly flirting with his wife, the next he’s engaged in a shouting match of emotionally harmful words. But really, West Wing‘s C.J. Cregg A.K.A. Allison Janney makes this her own show as LaVona Golden, Tonya Harding’s mother. The 4-time Emmy winner smokes like a factory and says a number of things that are politically incorrect yet hilarious. Despite her emotional, physical, and verbal abuse, I definitely feel like she’s qualified for Best Supporting Actress. And whenever these actors aren’t lighting up the screen, the technical aspects of I, Tonya keep the viewer entranced. Nicolas Karakatsanis’ cinematography often presents the story in a handheld, cinema vérité style. This allows everything to look lived in and sweated in, giving some realism to a tale otherwise filled with utter lunacy. During moments of actual figure skating, Karakatsanis and Gillespie opt to use long uninterrupted takes to showcase the true talent of Tonya and Nancy. We see the actors’ facial expressions go from sheer terror to relieved happiness in no time. Each of the interviews, meanwhile, is cropped at the sides while the actors have all advanced nearly 20 years of age thanks to the excellently subtle work in the makeup department. And the editing knows just how long to stay on one scene before going back into the present, which keeps everything flowing nicely. But the most impressive part of the movie, by far, is how Craig Gillespie refuses to take sides in telling this story. As I said, for better or for worse, virtually every American walking abroad today has an opinion of Tonya Harding and the things that she’s done. Some hate seems justified, some not so much. And that opinion may hinder or heighten your experience with this film, but Gillespie and Rogers choose not to ask the audience for a letter of forgiveness to Tonya Harding. They present each truth as they are told, leaving it for us. We see how Tonya’s poor upbringing hurt her chances of being respected in the ice skating culture. We see the effects of her extremely toxic marriage to Jeff Gillooly on her emotional state of being as an adult. We witness (and sometimes feel) her jealousy towards Nancy Kerrigan and what that ultimately leads to. At one point, near the end of the movie, Tonya issues an impassioned statement, “I’ve never had a real education. Skating is all I know. That’s all I know.”  Though it can occasionally feel like a tonal juggling act, I, Tonya is a painfully funny and contradictory account of a controversial American figure. Margot Robbie and Allison Janney both turn in some of their best performances to date, while the writing is consistently sharp and edgy. This is quite possibly the most inventive biopic of the year and a nice breath of fresh air from stuffy glorification showcases. This is a real story with multiple angles to work from, and that’s my truth.

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“The Last Jedi” Spoilers- Where They’ll Go From Here

*For some supplementary reading, please check out Haleigh Foutch’s excellent article which provides some great insight into my points here.*

Alright, I think enough time has passed for me to get into the thick juicy meat of the new entry of the Skywalker Saga. Obviously, here’s a big fat spoiler warning. If you have not yet seen Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, rectify that situation quickly. Now, I’m not going to be able to cover everything in this movie, but I just wanted to go more in-depth in certain areas. Specifically, the Canto Bight storyline. A lot of fans are not happy with this arc for Finn and Rose, and I can see why. While Kelly Marie Tran does great work as Rose, I just didn’t really care about her character. Especially when she tried to express her love for Finn later on in the final battle. I get that there was some build-up with the death of her sister, and especially that she was super idealistic about the Resistance. She asks Finn some questions that would seem like legitimate ones for people who’ve grown up just hearing the stories of heroism. And while she and Finn do get to play around with Benicio del Toro’s character DJ, who feels a little shoehorned, again, I didn’t really care for her. Truth be told, the prospect of visiting a planet full of gamblers and intergalactic racketeers feels a bit like an opportunity wasted. But whatever shortcomings that plot thread brought about is almost wiped away by the arc involving Kylo Ren, Rey, and Luke. As I said in my review, Luke is not the whiny kids we first met on the moister farm back on Tatooine staring at the Binary Sunset. (More on that later) In fact, the reason he keeps pushing Rey away- as well as why he came to the island in the first place- is simple: he wants to die. And with him, the Jedi Order. As he tells Rey, the Jedi were overly romanticised by several generations as these untouchable guardian angels. When in reality, they were filled with hubris and hypocrisy and allowed their greatest pupil to destroy them from the inside out. And when he saw a great darkness in Kylo Ren, he almost killed him out of impulse- a mistake that led to the death of all of his other Jedi disciples. A lot of fans were unsatisfied with the way that Luke was portrayed, a gnarly and cynical old man. Even Mark Hamill publicly stated he had disagreements with Rian Johnson on the direction of the character. Honestly, who was actually expecting him to accept Rey with open arms upon first meeting? And remember, he went to this place because he was too ashamed to face his own problems. Plus the scene he had with ghost Yoda was aces. With Frank Oz returning with puppetry, everything felt right and funny. “Page turners, they were not.” And now onto Rey and Ren. First things first, let’s get this out of the way: Yes, shirtless Adam Driver is one of the sexiest images in the Saga thus far. Joking aside, I absolutely loved the Force communication that these two used. Like every Star Wars movie before it, it expanded the Force in new, unseen ways and we may not have even seen its full potential. Can someone physically reach out from the Force and interact from far away? One thing’s for sure, though: Supreme Leader Snoke is dead. I kind of knew that Kylo Ren was going to help Rey in that scene, but slicing his own mentor in half with a lightsaber? And then taking his place? Not only did this lead to a beautifully done battle with the Praetorian Guard, but it also leads to the reveal we’ve been waiting for two years. Rey’s parents. Who are they? Han Solo and Princess Leia? Luke Skywalker? Nope, according to Kylo Ren, they’re nobodies. Junk traders who sold her for beer money. Yet again, this entire sequence angered a lot of fans, primarily because of how it dealt with the death of Snoke and Rey’s lineage. But the problem with that criticism is that fans somehow believe that Star Wars is a guessing game; whoever can get their half-baked theories proven correct is the king of online fandom. Why does it matter if Snoke is Darth Plagueis the Wise or Rey is the next Skywalker? It shouldn’t. In fact, that moment when Rey’s parents are revealed is important, but not for the reasons you’d expect. For better or worse, the Star Wars Saga has been built on the idea of “The Chosen One.” Unfortunately, that made the character of Anakin Skywalker much more distant from the audience. But with The Last Jedi, it’s out with the old and in with the new. In the words of Kylo Ren, “Let the past die. Kill it if you have to. It’s the only way to become what you were meant to be.” After Rey refuses, we head down to the salt planet of Crait- following one of the most memorable moments of self-sacrifice in the series’ history -where the Resistance makes a hopeless last stand against the First Order. But Luke Skywalker comes to provide them time to escape- or does he? Through the use of Force visions, he projects himself and “faces” Kylo Ren before everyone gets off the planet on the Falcon. And after he disappears, we find him on the island, dying happy with his legacy. And the best part is that it was in front of a Binary Sunset, the image setting off his iconic journey. The last shot is a small kid looking up at the stars, implied that he is Force-sensitive. Now, I genuinely don’t know what Episode IX is going to do. With Carrie Fisher dead, I can’t imagine what’s going to happen with Princess Leia other than saying “She’s dead” in the opening crawl. We know by now that Kylo Ren is a lost cause but what’s his ultimate game plan? How is the Resistance going to rebuild itself? So many questions left for us to contemplate, so much time to speculate. And that’s The Last Jedi. A massively-scaled yet thoroughly entrancing indictment of the legacy one leaves behind and how that can affect those who follow. This movie will continue to be either loved or hated by fans for that, and I completely understand why. But regardless of your opinion, the Force is with all of us. And it will continue to be with us in the years to come.

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“Brawl in Cell Block 99” Movie Review

Another S. Craig Zahler film has come our way. Another instance of me wincing at the horrific violence on-screen. And yet another time when I can’t look away from it and actually have fun with it. This director knows just how to mess with me. This gritty action drama thriller first premiered at the Venice International Film Festival on September 2nd, 2017. After subsequent screenings at both TIFF and Fantastic Fest, it was released in select theaters on October 6th, 2017. While actual box office numbers are uncertain, because it premiered on VOD platforms a week later, it’s believed to have sold quite well. Having previously won success with his Western horror Bone Tomahawk, writer-director Zahler apparently knew exactly the type of movie he wanted to make next. After a series of unfortunate circumstances, drug courier Bradley Thomas, played by Vince Vaughn, is sent to prison where he immediately becomes undesirable. Soon, he’s informed that he is forced to kill a fellow inmate in Cell Block 99 in order to save his pregnant wife. Just as with his debut feature Bone Tomahawk, this plot can be easily summarized in two sentences, which I love. S. Craig Zahler proves to be the rare writer-director in this day and age who truly understands the power of simplicity. And because this story is simple, he’s able to find a way to punch through and get to the entertainment value with ease. Sure, it takes a while to get to that point, but the wait is well worth it. The biggest audience that he’s going to rouse up are fans of the Grindhouse Era. For those who want to know, “Grindhouse” refers to a specific type of action movie, typically coming from the 1970’s. They were all dealing with dark, brutal subject matter in badass yet playful ways. And yet most of them were made in poor quality and covered up that fact by showing multiple releases back-to-back. In some cases, it bordered on exploitation. Zahler seems to have an affinity for these so-called “cult classics,” as Brawl in Cell Block 99 dons the coat of an intense prison drama yet revels in all the genre violence fans could want. There’s a guy whose face is de-gloved when being pushed against the concrete floor. If that sounds like too much for you, don’t bother with this one. For anyone else, you’re going to fall in love. Vince Vaughn has proven himself in both comedies and dramas, but this is easily the best work of his career. No one else could have played this stone-cold man who hides his emotions very well, but still shows us how tortured he is in moments of quiet. When asked by a counselor whether or not doing time would do him any good, he sarcastically remarks, “Prison will give me plenty of time to look at guys I don’t like.” Former Dexter star Jennifer Carpenter is also quite good as his pregnant wife Lauren. She manages to break out of the simple archetype and never loses her wits, even when the bad guys have taken her. Meanwhile, the two villains are portrayed by Udo Kier and former Miami Vice star Don Johnson, who do malevolently excellent work. Both are comfortable veterans of this genre, and just as with the Troglodytes in Bone Tomahawk, you really grow to hate them both. And for a movie homaging trash cinema from the 1970’s, there’s a surprising strength in the technical aspects. The production design lends itself well to the brutal environment of prison, which becomes more decadent as the story moves along. This along with the simplistic costumes add a lived-in feeling to the world. Cinematographer Benji Bakshi frames all of the scenes with beautiful, elongated wides capturing everything on-screen. A scene where Bradley tears his car apart with his bare hands in just a few different takes is as riveting as it is terrifying. The sound design is equally effective. Depending on what speaker you have, you’ll be able to hear every bone crunch and every punch land on the flesh. Stylistically, it’s fairly similar to John Wick. But whereas that neo-noir actioner had a lot of precise choreography, this one is really about a big dude pummeling his way through anyone standing in his way. What enhances the intensity even more is the fact that during these sequences, there is no music playing. No original score, nothing sentimental. But in other instances, the soundtrack will play off of some funky big band tune from the 70’s or 80’s. In a way, this choice further reinforced its simplistic, understated style. They were fun to listen to at the moment, but I’d be lying if I said I remember the names of the artists. As with Bone Tomahawk, the biggest issue facing this film is the pacing. It spent a surprising amount of time in the first half setting up its characters and story. That was all fine and dandy for making me care about Bradley Thomas, but with all the long takes, I feel like it went on a little too long. Some fat could have been trimmed in the editing. And there is one shot of what is clearly a mannequin standing in for a human being near the end. You could argue that it was to further homage the cheap nature of the Grindhouse Era. But to me, it just became rather glaring. Despite some uneven pacing, Brawl in Cell Block 99 is still a gritty, badass slice of pulp entertainment anchored by an incredible lead performance. 100% unapologetic for its brutality and finding veils of light beneath the dark subject matter, it’s not for the faint of heart. But for those wanting something outside the box of the industry, you’re going to have a total blast with this movie. S. Craig Zahler was already a talent to watch, but now he has my attention for any of his future projects.

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