Monthly Archives: August 2018

“Ant-Man and the Wasp” Movie Review

This is that kind of superhero movie for those who want a relative break from all of the $200+ million blowout epics. Despite what many may say, we need to have this every once in a while. This superhero comedy actioner was released worldwide on July 6th, 2018, marking the 20th (!) film in the impossibly successful Marvel Cinematic Universe. Receiving positive reviews, it has so far grossed over $$450 million at the box office against a budget of around $162 million. And that is reportedly one of the franchise’s lowest budgets to date. Following the success of the first Ant-Man in 2015, director Peyton Reed was immediately excited to get involved with the sequel. According to him, including the titular female hero in the second go-around was a “no-brainer” and constantly insisted that they were equal to one another. It’s also the first Marvel film to feature a female superhero in a lead role, even if it’s shared with her male co-star. Taking place shortly before the events of Avengers: Infinity War, we once again find star/co-writer Paul Rudd as Scott Lang, a petty con man turned crime-fighting superhero with the technology to shrink or grow in size. In the last few days of his house arrest, he gets a signal that might lead to Janet Van Dyne, the original Wasp and wife to Pym Particle inventor Hank Pym, who vanished into the quantum realm decades earlier. This attracts the attention of Pym and his daughter Hope, who seeks to take her mother’s mantle as the Wasp, and have to perform a few heists to get the right equipment. They are, however, being followed and sabotaged by a mysterious woman named Ghost, who possesses the ability to walk or phase through solid objects. I enjoyed the original Ant-Man, released in 2015, for what it was. It was a light, funny, breezy heist comedy with a superhero makeover. It also made for an extremely memorable viewing experience, as my theater that day experienced a power surge followed by 5 minutes of footage that were completely silent. While it was frustrating to me that Edgar Wright was bumped off of the project after years of trying to get it off the ground, the end result by Peyton Reed was surprisingly joyous. And following the game-changing events in Infinity War this April, I was curious to see how Ant-Man and the Wasp could handle following it up. Turns out, it came at a perfect time to relax from the heavy, devastating moments of that huge crossover. This provides a nice, smooth viewing experience for the summer. I really like how appropriately small the scale and stakes are in this film. Lang and Pym aren’t concerned about saving the world because there are other heroes for that- something that’s constantly referenced by them. In fact, almost all of the action takes place within the San Francisco Bay Area, keeping things tight and contained. Unfortunately, that strength also turns out to be the films biggest weakness. While I do like how much more lowkey everything is, it just feels void of any real consequence. There is a mid-credits scene that does bring things back into perspective, and it even got an audible gasp out of me and the audience. Paul Rudd is as likable and fun as ever playing Scott Lang. He perfectly balances the sensibilities of a struggling single dad with that of a costumed superhero trying to do the right thing. Since he co-wrote the screenplay, a lot of the dialogue for his character feels natural and fluid in his mouth. Michael Peña and Evangeline Lilly both return as Lang’s friend Luis and Hope, respectively. Luis and his security crew were funny, even though their improv abilities was downplayed this time around. Lilly, meanwhile, is an absolute badass as The Wasp, fitting into the costume perfectly and carrying a great burdDen of responsibility. Her determination to find her mother offers some nice context and motivation. Hannah John-Kamen takes a little bit to grow comfortable in her role as Ghost, but once she does, she ranks among some of Marvel’s better on-screen villains. Her motivations don’t make necessarily evil, and in some ways can draw some sympathy from the audience. But as always, I didn’t feel there was enough screentime for her character. As is fitting with the nature of the film, the technical aspects of Ant-Man and the Wasp are lowkey but still notable in some regards. Cinematographer Dante Spinotti, who has previous experience with some comic book adaptations, paints the story in fullscreen glory. There are a surprising amount of practical sets used, which helps some of the scenes pop. The color palette is a bland grey, which makes the colorful costumes standout more. Speaking of costumes, the designs for the titular heroes and Ghost are outstanding. They’ve been updated since the previous installment, and look great on the characters. The film is edited jointly by Marvel veterans Craig Wood and Dan Lebenthal. The most impressive sequence, as last time, is a flash montage in which Luis breaks down events as actors mouth his words. And while the dramatic and comedic moments feel rightly stitched together, the action scenes, are once again, cut to shit. Virtually all of the MCU films have this problem, and I’m starting to get sick of it. Frequent action movie collaborator Christophe Beck composes and conducts the instrumental film score for the picture, which is about exactly what you’d expect from the studio at this point. The typical fanfare for when our heroes show up, a dark and brooding theme to highlight the villains, and fast-paced tracks for when action is going down. The theme song in the end credits, however, was a fun change of pace. It included electric guitar riffs, bass walks, and drum kit fills. Interestingly, that theme felt reminiscent of theme songs from old comic book movies in the 60’s and 70’s. It also makes use of the song “It Takes Two” by Rob Base and DJ EZ Rock, which feels like the perfect fit for the story. It does take two heroes to make things right, further emphasizing the teamwork dynamic of the titular protagonists. By no means remarkable or overly important in the grand scheme of things for the franchise, Ant-Man and The Wasp is still a fun, lightweight palette cleanser for the whole family. Pretty much on par with its predecessor, you can expect another round of breezy entertainment from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s great as a breath of fresh air following the gut-punch that Infinity War was. Nothing more, nothing less.

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“The Meg” Movie Review

So, Jason Statham is taking on a gigantic shark all by himself, while his pals join in on the action with a number of cheesy quips. I don’t care how stupid it ends up being, this movie could not possibly be more My Shit. This sci-fi horror flick was released worldwide in theaters on August 10th, 2018. Produced on a budget of $130 million, it made a second-best Thursday preview gross and has managed to far outperform predictions for its opening weekend. It’s also on track to a healthy and hopeful box office intake from China, who helped co-produce the film. Based on the novel Meg: A Novel of Deep Terror by Steve Alten, the rights for a Hollywood adaptation were originally purchased by Disney and its mature production label in 1996. After a few years, the rights were reverted back to the author and stayed in development hell for a number of years. After many production companies and attached directors or producers kept abandoning ship, Warner Bros. Pictures finally moved forward with Eli Roth, who eventually left the director’s chair and replaced by Jon Turtletaub. Set in a somewhat futuristic time, the story mostly follows the crew and administrative staff of Mana One, an underwater research facility off the Chinese coast. When its main financier Jack Morris comes to celebrate their discoveries, the team manages to find an extremely deep part of the ocean. During the mission, they accidentally attract the attention of a megalodon, an enormous, prehistoric shark long thought to be extinct. The team has to recruit the help of washed-up rescue diver Jonas Taylor, played by Jason Statham, in order to get out alive and face the megalodon in the open waters. If that premise doesn’t sound like the most insanely, delightfully idiotic thing that’s ever been concocted, then I’m at a total loss for imagination. The fact that it’s based on an existing (And apparently, beloved) novel just adds to that fact at least 5 times over. From the trailers, I expected The Meg to be one of those monster/disaster flicks that had a cool setup but ultimately succumbed to too much self-seriousness. That’s unfortunately been happening a lot in studio monster movies lately, leaving the campy fun of the genre to straight-to-video dreg like Sharknado. And I absolutely hate that series and the cult it has inexplicably spawned as a result, so really Deep Blue Sea was the last decent shark movie. Thankfully, The Meg proves to be just stupid enough to be a fun time at the movies. Maybe I’m just growing more lenient and soft as I get older, but this mostly self-aware B-grade monster flick proves to be an odd breath of fresh air in an environment dominated by superhero epics and overly ambitious franchise-starters. This honestly feels like a throwback to a time (Oh, let’s say, the mid- to late-90’s) when major studios could still be allowed to make stupid-but-entertaining blockbusters. Statham vs a giant shark is going to get a ticket out of me, no questions asked. Obviously, this is not going to be competing with something like Jaws in any capacity whatsoever. There are a number of absurdities and plot points that make almost no sense in the slightest and shows the titular beast far more than Bruce to be considered that menacing. Then again, it doesn’t really need to be, nor does it even really show that much interest in trying. Jason Statham plays his usual caricature of rough and complicated badass with complete and utter ease. His physical commitment to the diving scenes, as well as his generally great comedic timing, make him very watchable as Jonas Taylor. Dwight Schrute from The Office A.K.A. Rainn Wilson is surprisingly good as essentially the comic relief. As the billionaire financier of the whole operation, it’s clear that he has little to no clue as to how to work at sea. The supporting cast is filled with some great international talent. These include Cliff Curtis as the general leader of the crew, Winston Chao and Li Bingbing as the father and daughter in charge of the research, Page Kennedy as a swaggering tech designer, and future Batwoman Ruby Rose as the wisecracking tech expert in the whole facility. Each actor does a fair job, but don’t expect development outside of their archetypes. I’m also rather impressed by how technically proficient The Meg really is. Shot and composited by Clint Eastwood’s regular cinematographer Tom Stern, the digital camera moves in and out of the Mana One with ease and fluidity. Mixing neat, practical production design with gorgeous underwater visuals, it occasionally gets a tad hard to figure out where the CGI starts and ends. There are also a number of obligatory P.O.V. shots just at level with the surface of the ocean, adding to the tension of certain scenes. It’s also edited by Steven Kemper as if it’s a full-stop action movie. Although not hyperactive in its cuts, it does mostly utilize them well for moments when the megalodon might be near. During some shots, it becomes clear when the shark will strike against its next victims, but it tries to draw out that anticipation. Tries, but not always succeed. The prolific composer Harry Gregson-Williams provides the musical score, which is appropriate and sometimes dynamic. It employs the obvious accompanying strings and horns that are virtually customary for the genre. But it makes use of a few leitmotifs. While the shark itself is clearly backed by the low cellos and basses, there are also instances of more percussive drums and wooden flutes. In a way, it helps to add a bit more characterization to certain characters, particularly the Chinese father and daughter. It was a cool score, but nothing I’d pick up on iTunes or listen to again. That’s really everything to be said about the film. If you go in expecting this to be like a gamechanging monster horror movie with thematic or character depth, then look somewhere else. It knows exactly what it is and makes no intention or hints of apologizing for it. The Meg is an unapologetically dumb piece of fun popcorn entertainment. Possible to forget come the next morning, but surprisingly better and more fun than I had initially anticipated. Save for a rainy Friday night.

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“Lawrence of Arabia” Movie Review

The day that the casual viewer is able to make it all the way through Lawrence of Arabia with little to no guidance is the day that they truly fall in love with this medium. That’s happened to me, and I sincerely hope that that is what happens with other future cinephiles like you. This epic historical drama was first released around the world on December 10th, 1962 by Columbia Pictures. Grossing over $70 million at the box office against a budget of $15 million, it also won massive critical praise and scored multiple award nominations. It ultimately went to win 7 out 10 total nominations from the Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, has been included in several “Best of all time” lists, and- easily most important of all -has been proclaimed by Steven Spielberg as his favorite film of all time. It’s also been rereleased in theaters multiple times in different formats, both digital and celluloid. Directed by David Lean, the long in-development production on the true story marks the second collaboration between him and producer Sam Spiegel, who had worked together on  the war film Bridge on the River Kwai. It took many years to convince the titular figure’s surviving father to sell the rights of several writings collected. Mainly taking inspiration from his work The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, screenwriters Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson traded several drafts, which tried to juggle the study of the main character as well as the more political aspects of the events., but were forced to start filming without a complete screenplay. Based mostly on the true story, Peter O’Toole stars as T.E. Lawrence, a highly educated British Army lieutenant who has the personality of a misfit. During World War I, he is sent to the Arab Peninsula, where Prince Faisal and the gathered Arab tribes are in need of support for their uprising against the Ottoman Empire. To the surprise of pretty much everyone around him, he becomes an important figure for the War to End All Wars in this sector of the world. His accomplishments and exploits turn him into a messianic hero for the cause, but also must contend with the emotional and psychological toll the journey brings on him. It feels cliché to say this, but I’d say that it’s a pretty safe bet that every cinephile out there has at least one film that ignited their passionate love for movies. Some might be seen in the theater, others are probably found on home media. Either way, it must have awoken something deep inside the viewer, an unquenchable thirst for answers on how a motion picture like this could be so amazing. For me, Lawrence of Arabia is that type of movie. For it not only opened my eyes to things once thought impossible on the film canvas, but proves to be a true gem in a seemingly forgotten time of ambitious filmmaking. I can still vividly remember the first time I watched it. It was the first weekend after 7th grade started, my mother suggested we go see it together. It was showing at the Paramount, an old movie theater in the downtown Austin area,  screened in 70 mm with an intermission. It is one of the most memorable viewing experiences I’ve ever had, and the moment that I wanted to fall in love with cinema. What strikes me most is how well-balanced everything is, whether it’s intimate moments with the big or broad themes with character-centric ones. David Lean never gets enough credit, in my opinion. In his first major acting role, Peter O’Toole gives a stunning performance as Lawrence himself. Whilst it exaggerates certain aspects of his character and legacy, the subtlety in his gradual spiral. This is best illustrated in two moments when Lawrence looks at himself in the reflection of a dagger, and the circumstances of both. He also employs a wry sense of humor, as the first thing he tells a soldier after trekking through the desert is, “We want two, large glasses of lemonade.” Opposite him is Omar Sharif as Sherif Ali, the protagonist’s primary Arab guide in the adventure. Far more pragmatic and stern than Lawrence, it’s clear how much he’s willing to sacrifice for the Arab cause. Like O’Toole, he deserved to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, despite not winning. Meanwhile, the technical aspects of Lawrence of Arabia are almost entirely what caused me to seriously examine filmmaking. Freddie Young’s astonishing cinematography brings the Arabian desert to glorious, beautiful life. Gorgeous wides of the vast landscape paint the scope of the story on 70 mm Super Panavision film. With static push-ins and steady shots, this film as some of the most breathtaking frames my eyes have ever laid eyes on. In fact, in many ways, it eclipses the craftwork of other crew members. Which is not at all to bash Phyllis Dalton’s fantastic costumes or the amazing production design of Johns Stoll and Box. Equally impressive is the editing by Anne V. Coates, which is extremely precise and engaging. The now-famous transition from a match flame to sunrise in the desert is so unexpectedly perfect in its simplicity and effectiveness. In many ways, that one transition captures the whole scale and scope of the film, and it’s so simple. Maurice Jarre composes and conducts the musical score, which has become so iconic over the years that it defines multiple film scores’ templates. The main theme, which is used as the backbone for most of the tracks is just like the film itself: huge, bolstering, jaw-dropping, and beautiful. It primarily utilizes a series of elaborate strings to eschew the main melody several times, while also using a number of other great instruments. These include bouncing percussion such as xylophone, timpani, and auxiliary equipment to more harsh brass trumpets. There are even brief bits of marching military snare drums and trills on high-pitched flutes. The theme builds and then drops again constantly, almost like a Shephard’s Tone built specifically for the desert. It’s grand and flamboyant, much like the titular protagonist. And what an accomplishment it should be to all those who can withstand the mammoth task of finishing it all in one sitting. Clocking in at 3 hours and 42 minutes, it may sound like an intimidating commitment of time. But trust me when I say that that running time actually flies by, for it not only engrosses you in the adventure but makes keeps you enthralled by way of all of the stated qualities above. Lawrence of Arabia is an incredible and sweeping epic destined to inspire for eternity. This is the kind of movie that, as you’re watching, feels like the only movie that there was, is, or ever should be. Films like Lawrence of Arabia remind me why I love cinema in the first place, and makes me fall head over heels for the medium every time I see it. And someday, if I ever get to fulfill my dream of becoming a filmmaker, this David Lean masterpiece is the one I’ll watch right before production.

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“Eighth Grade” Movie Review

Full disclaimer before starting this review: If awkward moments legitimately stress you out, this movie might literally kill you. If anything, that should be proof enough that the film did its job perfectly for me. This coming-of-age dramedy premiered as part of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Following a string of screenings at other events such as South By Southwest, the critically acclaimed film received a limited release on July 13th and expanded to more cities and theaters in the following weeks. It has thus far received over $10 million at the worldwide box office as well as some of the best reviews of any film released this year. Written and directed by Bo Burnham, a standup comedian mostly known for quirky YouTube videos, the film was born out of his own anxieties about the Internet and other concerns in the past couple years. He wrote the first draft of Eighth Grade in less than two weeks and was quickly brought to the attention of producer Scott Rudin and distributor A24. According to him, the hardest part was trying to have enough time to work with the child actors- and fighting the R-rating that would ultimately deter their demographic from seeing it in theaters. The 94 minute-long plot follows Elsie Fisher as Kayla Day, a shy and awkward young girl struggling to come to terms with growing up. In her last week of eighth grade, she decides to start making a series of self-help YouTube videos that could hopefully boost her confidence. As she gets more wrapped up in various social media shenanigans, she discovers more about herself and the classmates surrounding her, most of whom seem to spend the vast majority of time on their phones. While I was excited to see Eighth Grade because of all of the extremely positive buzz that it’s been getting, I won’t hesitate to admit that I was unsure if I could relate to it. I’m a (somewhat) grown man with virtually no social media account whatsoever. I’ve never been a 14-year-old girl with long blonde hair and a crush on the popular boys in the classroom. I have never really found the desire to vent a lot of my problems into some social media app like Snapchat or Instagram on my phone. And yet, that probably means that Bo Burnham, a 26-year-old man making his directorial debut, is a lot more informed about our current culture than I am. And that should be the highest praise that Eighth Grade can receive because it’s just such a marvelous film to watch. It’s truly a wonder how well Bo Burnham actually “gets” just how awkward and awful it is to be a middle schooler in the modern era. He has no reservations whatsoever about expressing the pains of growing up as a teenage outsider. That undesirable span of time when it feels like you’re stuck between at least two different worlds, one that wants you to leave as soon as possible and the other that doesn’t want you in the first place. I honestly don’t know how Burnham was able to grasp this world and tone so realistically and beautifully. To the best of my knowledge, he never had the experience of being an adolescent girl growing in the post-Millennial era. But again, that’s what makes it so well-done. Elsie Fisher gives a star-making performance as Kayla, and everyone should be paying attention to this. She’s so naturally shy and dorky as Kayla that it almost seems like the part was written for her. Without any makeup hiding her imperfect skin, and with a real-life age that corresponds with her character, she virtually is Kayla Day. Pretty much all of the supporting cast members are made up of unknown actors, all of whom are age-appropriate for the story. But the one person who can match Fisher is Josh Hamilton as her loving if confused single father. While he doesn’t quite understand what all she’s going through, he tries his hardest to be there for her. He delivers an impassioned monologue near the film’s end about how lucky and proud he feels to be her family. In some ways, he seems, a little too good to be true. But there’s no denying that any child would be lucky to have him there to support them. But what’s also extremely impressive about Eighth Grade is how well-constructed it is from a filmmaking perspective. I had been expecting a lot of shaky, handheld camerawork, but cinematographer Andrew Wehde sidesteps this successfully. The camera is almost always steady as it focuses on different characters when needed. The spontaneity of the shot composition unfolds almost in real time for scenes, which makes it seem as awkward as our protagonist. What’s interesting is that when Kayla’s often with her father, it sticks to static wide shots as if to illustrate the distance between the two of them. The editing is handled very well by Jennifer Lilly, who employs enough cuts to maintain continuity. For example, more uncomfortable moments are drawn out while others are more filled. What’s more is that the actors are all using real Snapchat and Instagram accounts made by the director himself, creating realistic lighting effects. And often it’ll use one of Kayla’s videos as a transition tool between scenes. The instrumental score is composed by Anna Meredith, an electronica artist whose debut album released a couple years ago. Her sensibilities are well-met, as the soundtrack replaces ditzy guitar-heavy pieces commonly found in these films with tracks consisting almost entirely of synthesizers. Most of them are made up of only a few chords and create a certain dissonance that fits the uncertainty of the characters. A select few also include electronic drum kits and melodies that strike a surprisingly effective emotional chord with the audience without having to be overly saccharine. There’s also a great use of the song “Orinoco Flow” by Enya in a montage sequence that feels incredibly appropriate for the tone. Overall, this is a great soundtrack worthy of its approach. In all seriousness, I’m quite convinced that this is the masterpiece many critics and viewers are touting it as. There were a couple of elements in the story that just seemed a little too far removed for me to be able to empathize with completely, plus the lack of rewatchability. I definitely see why it’s been getting all of the hype, but something felt missing- I can’t quite put my finger on it. Regardless, Eighth Grade is an immensely relatable piece on the ambivalence of the Internet. I really emphasize enough how shocked I am to see how complete Bo Burnham’s feature debut is. It makes me eager to see what else he has in store for creative output. It also is anchored by perhaps the best female lead performance of the year so far. Elsie Fisher is a star that deserves love and recognition. Be wary of intense awkwardness, though.

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“Toy Story” Movie Review

In the vast world of cinema, there are game-changers and then there are THE game-changers. Consider this film, dear friends and readers, to be among the latter group. This computer-animated comedy, the first of its kind in feature length, was originally released by Disney on November 22nd, 1995. It made back over 12 times its $30 million budget at the worldwide box office and became one of the highest grossing films of the year. Later spawning a franchise, the film also garnered unanimous critical acclaim, dozens of award nominations usually not considered for animated features, and was one of only 6 films to be selected for preservation by the National Film Registry in its first year of eligibility. Directed by John Lasseter, the then-unproven company Pixar Animation Studios was offered a deal to make a full-length picture after the success of multiple shorts. Written by no less than 8 individuals, including Joss Whedon and Andrew Stanton, the original story reels for the film were so disastrous that Disney almost abandoned it on several occasions. Executive producer Steve Jobs (Yes, the creator of Apple) had such shaky faith in the production that he began thinking about selling Pixar to other rival computing companies. As most people are probably aware of, the high concept story is focused on Andy, a young boy whose various toys come to life whenever humans are not around. On the day of his birthday party, the whole team is thrown off when a new action figure comes in named Buzz Lightyear, who’s actually unaware of the fact that he’s a plastic toy. This begins a rivalry with Woody, a pull-string cowboy doll who has general leadership over the gang. After the two of them accidentally get lost, they must work together to find Andy and the rest of the toys as the family is soon moving to a new home. Hollywood, and the movie industry in general, has a certain pattern that it unintentionally adheres to. There’s a particular genre or style that most studios and filmmakers like to continue or imitate because it’s simply the norm. Any initial attempt to break away from that mold is kind of scoffed at by the larger community. And then comes along a film so original and different that it literally changes everything. I mean, EVERYTHING. Toy Story should certainly be counted among those films, for it not only showed the untapped potential of computer animation, but also revealed Pixar as a forerunner in creative storytelling. And while it may be their first, it’s still unequivocally their best. It’s truly impossible to understate just how impactful this film was at the time of traditional animation being much more acceptable. That’s not to discredit anything that came before this one. (My favorite animated film is still a classic Disney picture) But a bunch of newbies heading up a company that just started as a computing branch for Steve Jobs cut their teeth so effectively. The screenplay was the first one for an animated film to receive an Academy Award nomination, which would become almost precedent for future Pixar endeavors. Witty without being cynical, and heartwarming without being sappy. And the most amazing part is that the film is able to cram so much worldbuilding and plot into just 81 minutes, yet never feels rushed or bloated. Two of their most career-defining roles, Tim Allen and Tom Hanks were practically born to voice Buzz Lightyear and Woody, respectively. The chemistry between them is so natural and on point that you’d swear they’ve been doing this for years. Their comradery provides much of the emotional punch throughout, whether it be touching or hilarious. One of the funniest characters is Mr. Potato Head, voiced by the late great Don Rickles. Despite his mean-spirited nature, there’s just something lovable about his breakable parts that makes him endearing to audiences. Another notable player is John Ratzenberger as Hamm the piggy bank, who would go on to have a role in every single Pixar film. And while Toy Story may have aged in some parts, it’s still a wonderful piece of technical prowess. As the first full-length film of its kind, the animation was extremely revolutionary for the time. The crew use the full 24 frames per second watching it and then walking out wondering how they did it. Admittedly, some of the animations for characters or actions, particularly ones for humans and the dog Scud, look fairly aged on rewatches. But it still holds up amazingly today thanks to fantastic sound design and editing choices by Robert Gordon and Lee Unkrich, who’d go on to direct Toy Story 3 and Coco. Randy Newman composes and conducts the musical score, which perfectly matches the whimsical and childlike nature of the story. He uses conventional strings and bombastic brass during some of the more sweeping scenes for adventurous effect. He also brings his signature jazzy, seductive style to more piano-heavy tunes. Newman lends his sweet voice to a handful of original songs that are performed throughout the film. The most famous and memorable one is “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” which plays during the opening and closing credits. The lyrics are a swell ode to the core themes and motifs of the story, as well as the later two sequels, of friendship and trust regardless if you’re made of plastic or flesh. Packed with unforgettable characters, creative set pieces, excellent quotes, and plenty of heart to propel forward, Toy Story is an extraordinarily realized landmark adventure full of groundbreaking moments. Nearly every frame in this film featured what would come to be expected from a film made by Pixar, and spawned an entire generation of imitators in its wake. Not often can it be said that something has so boldly changed the ebb and flow of a cinematic tide. But Toy Story can lay such a claim, as it still shows how much other companies, including themselves, what can be accomplished in the field of animation.

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“Sorry to Bother You” Movie Review

Of all the low-end jobs that I could end up with in my adult life, being a telemarketer just seems like the absolute worst of my options. And that includes being a Wal-Mart greeter and working the bathrooms at any fast food restaurant you could think of. This absurdist sci-fi comedy screened in the U.S. Dramatic Competition section at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, getting picked up shortly after by the newly formed studio Annapurna Pictures. Despite a somewhat limited release, it has grossed over $13.4 million at the box office against a $3.2 million budget. Given the highly positive critical response it’s been receiving, I wouldn’t doubt if it jumps even further as it expands to more theaters. Written and directed by Boots Riley, a former rapper and recording artist, the film is loosely based on his own experiences in low-ranking capitalism jobs. Originally having trouble finding financing for it, he instead recorded it as a concept album in 2012 with his hip-hop group The Coup. It wasn’t until June of last year that Forrest Whitaker and Nina Yang Bongiovi read the script and instantly provided funding for it. Set in an alternate present-day Oakland, the story follows LaKeith Stanfield as Cassius Green, a young African-American man with few ambitions and talents. In an effort to prove himself to his visual artist girlfriend Detroit, played by Tessa Thompson, he reluctantly decides to take a job at a telemarketing firm called Regal View. At the advice of a colleague, he begins using a fake “white voice,” which subsequently earns him more revenue and split reactions from friends. And from there, while his economic life soars, his social one spirals out of control as he’s faced with harsh realities. That is about as much as I can say about the plot without diving into the full, juicy meat. To say anything more would completely ruin the shocking twists and turns that frequently left my jaw on the floor. That, or it will just begin to sound REALLY weird to casual viewers. Either way, rest assured that there’s a lot more going on than simply poking fun at the subject matter. When I saw the first trailer for Sorry to Bother You, I got excited because it seemed like a blackly humorous, deliberately absurd critique of the world of telemarketing. The movie I finally saw in theaters was not, at all, what I was expecting to watch- and that made me love it even more. While I could honestly spend this entire review lauding how genuinely novel and unconventional the film is, Riley is wise not just to use the absurdity as a way to produce laughter. (Although, it does work for those instances) Rather, he uses these small little sci-fi details in this alternate reality to give greater context to the story, using Oakland as a character unto itself. There are some things throughout the movie that, if it were shown to us normally, would seem way too outlandish to believe. Thankfully, we are put into the same shoes as Cassius Green, confused and speechless by what’s going on while everyone else treats it casually. Not since Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster in 2016 has such a far-out dystopian world so simultaneously felt unreal yet rational. Following a series of great supporting roles in Get Out and Atlanta, LaKeith Stanfield proves here that he can carry a movie as a lead all on his own. Quite possibly one of the best actors of his generation, he embodies the persona of a young man with little going for him. In a way, despite being called a sellout by using his “white voice,” you can still see the desperation and loneliness in his eyes because he’s finally found something he’s good at. He’s buoyed by a fantastic supporting cast, each with their own goals and problems. These include Tessa Thompson as Cash’s art-loving girlfriend, Terry Crews as his hard-pressed uncle, Jermaine Fowler as a goodhearted cousin who sees through the system, Danny Glover as the man who introduces the “white voice,” and The Walking Dead‘s Steven Yeun as the leader of the union for telemarketers. My favorite player, aside from Stanfield, is the increasingly prolific Armie Hammer as Steve Lift. The CEO of Regal View’s biggest client, his exuberant charisma is matched only by his manipulative, cocaine-snorting personality. He apathetically tells Cash, “I’m not your boss; I’m your friend.” And it’s not just the script that feels different; Boots Riley uses his background in music videos to create a distinct style for Sorry to Bother You. Cinematographer Doug Emmett uses many full and close-up shots to isolate the characters in this highly absurd environment. Often, as the camera is focused on a certain subject, there’s something else far more ridiculous happening in the background, which makes the world feel credible and real. Emmett also shows a wonderful color palette and heightens specific colors, such as purple and yellow, for various scenes or characters. Meanwhile, the editing by Terel Gibson compliments the camera work very nicely. By using a number of clever scene transitions and movements between cuts, there’s a certain fluidity to the narrative. As the actors are speaking with their “white voice,” the lip-syncing is deliberately terrible as the white actors are dubbed over. Perhaps it’s to help further establish us in the surreal environment that has been created for the screen. If so, it works. The musical score is composed by New England project Tune-Yards in collaboration with Boots Riley’s former cohorts The Coup. It’s clear that all parties knew exactly what this movie needed to be playing in the background while the action was taking place. The soundtrack infuses traditional instruments, such as strings and synthesizers, with heavy hip-hop beats. Each song just feels right for the respective moment used in the movie, whether it’s serious or deadpan humorous. I’ll be honest, I’m unsure how much of it is from their 2012 album of the same name. But most of the tracks use creative vocal arrangements, including supporting ones from cast members and Janelle Monáe, to make a surrounding audio that feels… odd, to say the least. Nevertheless, it’s easily one of the most distinctive features of the film, and one soundtrack I plan on picking up at some point. However, I should probably acknowledge that while most audiences will likely appreciate its creativity, it might just be a little TOO weird for some. As I was watching the film, I noticed there were a number of people who looked like they just wanted to leave while it was still playing. And that’s not even touching on the message it tried to convey. It wasn’t specifically anti-Trump but rather more of a harsh, scary condemnation of white corporatism and what basically amounts to modern-day slavery. It can admittedly feel kind of jarring at first, but once you’ve settled into the crazy world that’s been built, a lot of things start making logical sense. If you can’t accept from the beginning that this going to be a weird movie, then you’re, unfortunately, gonna feel left behind. Luckily, if you’re able to get past that, Sorry to Bother You is a funny, seething, and wholly original look right into the horrors of employment. It’s going to have to take a lot in order for another feature film this year to top this level of screenwriting creativity and inspired plotting. Boots Riley clearly has a lot to say, and a desire to scream it for the entire world to hear, and I can’t wait to see what else he might have in store.

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“Fargo” Movie Review

And for our next entry in my New Year’s resolution series, we take a look at perhaps one of the coldest, most isolated spots in all the United States. You’re darned tootin’ that things are gonna get ugly up in here. This black comedy crime film was originally released on March 8th, 1996, grossing nearly 10 times its $7 million budget. It was also a part of the Competition for the Palme d’Or at that year’s Cannes Film Festival and went on to win 2 Academy Awards the following February. In addition, the film is one of only 6 movies in history to be selected for preservation in the National Film Registry in its first year of eligibility. Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, who at the time couldn’t be credited together yet, the film claims to be based on a true story. (It’s not, really) The duo had to deal with difficult conditions during the shoot, but by all accounts, the hard work paid off. It also, unfortunately, received bad press after a Japanese woman died trying to find the “real” money buried out in the snow. Set mostly in the titular town in North Dakota, the story follows William H. Macy as Jerry Lundegaard, a down-on-his-luck car salesman from Minneapolis. Swimming in over $300,000 of debt, he desperately hires two dimwitted criminals, Carl Showalter and Gaear Grimsrud, to kidnap his wife and collect a hefty ransom from his wealthy father-n-law. However, Grimsrud and Showalter impulsively kill a state trooper and two eyewitnesses on the side of the snowy highway. This attracts the attention of police chief Marge Gunderson, who is determined to solve the case despite being over 7 months pregnant. I have an odd relationship with the Coen Brothers, almost as odd as the films they make together. Some of their films, like Hail, Caesar! and Inside Llewyn Davis, left me feeling cold and unsatisfied, but others such as A Serious Man, Raising Arizona, and O, Brother Where Art Thou? I really adore. Most of their filmography requires at least two viewings to fully grasp what was being said or done. However, of the ones that I have seen, there are only two films of theirs that I truly love. And honestly, after this rewatch, I’m extremely tempted to say that Fargo is my favorite one. In my lifetime, there have only been a handful of films I’ve seen that I’m willing to call “perfect” without any reservation. Among them: Pulp Fiction. Raiders of the Lost Ark. Moonlight. Singin’ in the RainThe Shawshank Redemption. Casablanca. Whenever I see lists or compilations that countdown feature films with no flaws or issues, I always want to see Fargo make it on there. There is not a single misstep in the plot, not one line of dialogue that feels out of place, no thread left unresolved or a weak link performance. Every time I watch it, I actively look to see if anything stumbles, even in the background. But for such a mundane film, one that only runs at about 98 minutes total, Joel and Ethan have crafted something truly masterful, despite the fact that it takes place in the middle of nowhere. The two show a knack for getting incredible performances out of actors, not the least of which is Joel’s wife Frances McDormand. Deservedly winning an Academy Award for Best Actress, her turn as Marge is so believable and understated that you’d swear she actually lives in the northern state itself. William H. Macy is also excellent as Jerry Lundegaard. Despite his apparent sliminess, he is able to wring out a tiny bit of sympathy as we see just how desperate and pathetic he is. Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare play the two criminals hired for the job, Carl Showalter and Gaear Grimsrud. Whereas Buscemi is playing his typical role of a talkative and deceptive dirtbag, Stormare is more of a quiet, thoughtful man capable of unexpected violence. Either way, it becomes clear how stupid these two really are for taking on the job. Other supporting players like John Carrol Lynch, Steve Reevis, Harve Presnell, and Kristin Rudrüd each provide a neat little addition to the supposedly “nice” environment and leave nothing to complain about. And like many of their other films, Fargo is a secretly brilliant film from a technical standpoint. In the third of what would be an extremely fruitful collaboration with the duo, Roger Deakins uses the cinematography to create a feeling of isolation. The frame is almost always filled with wide shots of the blank, bleak, endless landscape of snow and ice. It’s almost as if they’re reminding us that while it might look unremarkable at first glance, there’s always more than meets the eye to a place set in the middle of nowhere. The Coen Brothers also lend their hands at editing the picture, a common practice in their career. They show remarkable patience with cuts in scenes. Many are drawn out or stalled, as if to elicit more laughter from the audience, even in some really moments. The most interesting ones are when it cuts between the calm, happy nature of certain citizens and the severely sad atmosphere of others. Carter Burwell provides the original instrumental score, who has turned out to give it to 15 of the directors’ films over the years. And it’s a real doozy, somehow matching the winter landscapes of both Minnesota and North Dakota with an almost melancholic whimsy. The opening theme, which serves as the backbone to most of the tracks, perfectly establishes the offbeat tone to be expected from this film. With light flutes and Western-esque violins, the main melody is as simple and elegant as the plot. It also utilizes soft mallet percussion and other plucked strings to great effect. And like other entries in the brothers’ filmography, there’s always something more to take away than just what the plot might be. Whether it’s the nihilistic undertones of No Country For Old Men or the absurdist mind reality of Barton Fink, the duo have quite a bit to say without specifically pronouncing it. In this movie, they look at what it takes to be happy and fulfilled, which very few of the characters are. When Marge finally confronts the bad guys, she lectures, “And for what? For a little bit of money. There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’tcha know that? And here ya are, and it’s a beautiful day. Well. I just don’t understand it.” Despite that relatively sad observation, it does convey how little a normal person should have in order to attain happiness. With fantastic dialogue, beautiful performances, and multiple people working at the top of their craft, Fargo is a darkly hilarious and satisfying meditation on crime and life. I don’t know how Joel and Ethan Coen do it, but they manage to take someplace as mundane as a small snow-filled town and transform it into a tense, unpredictable thriller backdrop. Every member of the cast is perfectly written for their parts while Roger Deakins and others work their behind-the-camera magic. All in all, this might just be the cinematic definition of the word “perfect.”

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