Monthly Archives: November 2018

“Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” Movie Review

I never ever imagined that I would start to grow tired of Rowling’s Wizarding World, but here we are in 2018. God damn it. This fantasy film from director David Yates marks the 10th overall cinematic installment of the Harry Potter Universe. Released worldwide on November 16th, 2018, the film has thus far grossed over $440 million at the box office, primarily from international markets. Domestically, it has earned less money than its predecessor, having the worst opening weekend for a Harry Potter movie, which could temper the franchise’s future for the studio. It also doesn’t help that this became the first film in the series to receive mostly negative reviews from both critics and fans. Once again written by J.K. Rowling, author of the insanely popular and beloved Harry Potter books, the second installment in the Fantastic Beasts saga is meant to set up at least three more films that are being planned. The project courted some (admittedly well-earned) controversy during its casting and marketing phase, mainly around the main antagonist and two of the side characters. Taking place about a year after the events from last time, we once again follow the magical zoologist Newt Scamander, played by Eddie Redmayne. While he’s away finding and studying various magical creatures, the infamous dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald, played by Johnny Depp, breaks out of prison and goes on a crusade encouraging wizards, particularly “pure bloods,” to rise up against non-magic humans. Scamander receives orders from Hogwarts professor Albus Dumbledore, played by Jude Law, to track down someone who is of great interest to Grindewald in Paris. While I’ve cooled a bit on the first one since seeing it in theaters, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was a film I found to be quite enjoyable and fun. I liked the way that it expanded the Wizarding World into an American context, something I had always been curious about as a huge Harry Potter fan. As more news came out about the inevitable sequel, some things deterred my excitement while others heightened it. Sadly, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is easily the worst film in the whole saga thus far and the first bad film to come out of it. There are so many elements to this film that I’m still conflicted about. Whether it’s just a casting choice or a particular story path, I was left cold, disappointed, intrigued, and tortured at every turn. Is it okay to watch an alleged spousal abuser in a movie as long as he’s relegated to the role of a villain? How much control should J.K. Rowling still be give over the movies at this point? These are just a handful of questions to wrestle with through the 2 hours and 14 minutes it takes to get through the journey, which seems more interested in setting up future movies than finishing its own narrative. Eddie Redmayne returns as Newt Scamander, whose continued relevance to this series is starting to come into question. He nails the socially awkward aspects of his character really well, always soft-spoken but never hesitant to stand up for what he believes. His forgettable side characters come back for another outing but they’re overshadowed by new arrivals, such as Jude Law as a young Albus Dumbledore. He has all the charisma and subtle intellect we’ve come to know and love from this character, whose dialogue sounds incredibly natural during his scenes. You get the feeling that there’s a lost, deeply tragic connection he has with the antagonist, which conflicts with his desire to stop his radical uprising. Meanwhile, Johnny Depp’s performance as Gellert Grindelwald has me conflicted in ways that are hard to describe. What he did to his ex-wife in real life is completely inexcusable and the fact that he isn’t recast is infuriating. Plus, with all of the Tim Burton-esque roles the actor has been taking on in recent years, you get the feeling that this part could have gone to anyone and no one would have been the wiser. Yet, it’s hard for me not to say that he was good as the main villain, who operates more as a political terrorist or cult leader than a world-class dictator. “We only want freedom. Freedom to be ourselves,” he says to his followers early on, and indeed he spends much of the film acting like a magical version of David Duke. His rugged charisma is a strong seducer of lost souls. And as far as the technical aspects go, The Crimes of Grindelwald seems like it was practically filmed while the cast and crew were sleepwalking. Being set in France, there are a handful of production workers behind the scenes, which is somewhat appreciated. Philippe Rousselot’s cinematography looks washed out and lacking in colorful distinction between the heavy CGI and the really cool sets. The vast majority of the film uses roving shots in scenes as if to keep the momentum up, especially when something exciting might be happening. The editing done by Mark Day, who has cut together the last 6 Harry Potter films, is very drab. It doesn’t feel like enough of an oomph is given to the dramatic scenes while it drags out shots for more comedic moments. James Newton Howard returns to provide the musical score for this film, and it’s very similar to last time. You can hear little ghostly bits of the classic franchise themes by John Williams in certain tracks, especially when relating someone like Dumbledore. Some of the quieter, more warmhearted moments are given appropriate sounds, such as soft woodwinds and brass. However, it’s the more dramatic stuff where it comes into form, especially in the back half. More ominous hits of percussion, vocal chorus, and sustained string melodies make up the background for the conflict. All in all, perhaps the kindest thing one could really say about this film is that it proves the Wizarding World is indeed filled with different stories and tales worthy of the cinematic treatment. It’s a bummer, too, because the story J.K. Rowling is trying to tell here is undeniably worth being told, a part of wizard history I had always wanted to see visually. Sadly, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is an underwhelming, needlessly convoluted exercise in stretching out a franchise longer than it should be. As a longtime and devoted fan of the saga, both in book and movie form, I was left disenchanted by the final product. Some good performances and music, and a handful of interesting ideas presented in the film save it from awfulness. I do want to see how the rest of this story unfolds and can honestly see where Rowling and Yates are going with it. It’s just the manner in which they’re telling it is both problematic and greatly disappointing.

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“The Avengers” Movie Review

Oh boy. We now live in a world where Stan Lee, the creative man behind countless iconic superheroes in Marvel Comics, is gone. He died at the age of 95. I was originally going to write a straightforward obituary, but I instead decided that it was more cathartic for me to review a film inspired by the comic book pages he created. I could have easily chosen any of the MCU installments or beyond that, but this one seemed the most fitting. This ensemble superhero action film was released on May 4th, 2012, to incredibly high anticipation from industry insiders, fans, and critics. It broke numerous box office records at the time, including the highest-grossing opening weekend to that point, and the third highest-grossing film of all time. It also helps that critical reviewers and general audiences ate it up like a healthy breakfast. Written and directed by Joss Whedon, the crossover film was a cinematic event many years in the making, with ideas planned as early as 2003. Following the huge and unexpected success of Iron Man in 2008, as well as Disney’s acquisition of Marvel Studios in 2010, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was moving ever closer to its first culmination. Interestingly, the original cut was rated R, forcing Whedon to whittle down the film even further because of one trivial scene. The film is set in the aftermath of the trickster god Loki, played by Tom Hiddleston, being given another chance by an otherworldly army called the Chitauri. When he comes down to Earth, he sets out to steal the Tesseract, a cube containing astral power, and manages to brainwash a number of humans into doing his bidding. Desperate, S.H.I.E.L.D. Nick Fury, played by Samuel L. Jackson, quickly assembles a group of superpowered individuals- The Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, Black Widow, Hawkeye, and a resurrected Captain America -to stop Loki and prevent the Chitauri’s invasion of Earth. Can you honestly imagine what it was like for someone like me, a lifelong comic book fan, to see a superhero team like the Avengers get together onscreen for the first time? It was already a miracle that the previous MCU films had (For the most part) been as great and entertaining as they were. But the idea of seeing so many beloved comic book superheroes on-screen together for one movie event for the first time ever was likely to be either lightning in a bottle or career-ending for all involved. Thankfully, The Avengers so brilliantly brought Stan Lee’s creations to life that it set an entirely new standard for the genre. Joss Whedon really was the perfect writer and director to bring this project about. As a big fan of both Firefly and it’s big-screen continuation Serenity, his ability to juggle multiple characters in an ensemble at once and still make them all relevant is no small feat. Not to mention the brilliantly written dialogue, which sounds natural and fluid in each character’s mouth. He also shows a willingness to compromise with producer and franchise architect Kevin Feige, and it’s clear that the two of them have a deep love for the rich source material. I remember sneaking out of school on opening day to see this movie and seeing all of my comic book idols realized in such a resonant manner was so amazing, as I’m sure it was to many other fans. Speaking of ensembles, the original core team of titular heroes are all perfect in their now-iconic roles. Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, and Jeremy Renner all do splendid work as Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, The Hulk, Black Widow and Hawkeye, respectively. Ruffalo and Evans are particularly well-matched for their characters in this outing. One is a brilliant mind struggling to control his inner rage for the sake of others, the other is a soldier of yesteryear confused and disillusioned by the modern world. Samuel L. Jackson, Clark Gregg, and Colbie Smoulders are great in their supporting roles as eager members of S.H.I.E.L.D. while now-deceased people like Powers Boothe, Harry Dean Stanton and, of course, Stan Lee make memorable one-note cameo appearances. Meanwhile, Tom Hiddleston is a joyful bit of character acting as Loki, the main antagonist. It’s clear that the man is having a blast playing this character, which in turn makes him a blast to watch on-screen, in spite of his actions. Yet, there’s a certain element of tragedy to the trickster god, who feels completely homeless and devoid of a welcoming family. It makes his alliance with the Chitauri- who are connected to another major MCU villain -even more understandable and even desperate. As a piece of technical filmmaking, alone, The Avengers is a major achievement that- for better or worse -set a precedent for other MCU films to follow. Whedon uses a lot of his regular collaborators, including Seamus McGarvey as the cinematographer, which was his first foray into digital camerawork. For the most part, he’s able to transition really well, capturing the action and its subjects in a large aspect ratio. This comes for both steady shots in massive set pieces and more shaky, handheld work for ground level action in the streets of New York City. It goes well with the editing job by Lisa Lassek and Jeffrey Ford, who cut the camera in ways that don’t feel too choppy or overlong. For some of the more comedic moments, it knows exactly how long to linger on a person or when to put in a pause. Two shots that stand out are the famous spider-cam rotation around the team as they form a circle and a fantastic shot designed to look like a “oner” that traces the group’s actions throughout the battle. Alan Silvestri, who would go on to write music for other superhero blockbusters, is responsible for composing and conducting the instrumental film score. With some supervision by Danny Elfman and help from the London Symphony Orchestra, he successfully manages to create an old-school sound of action movie soundtracks. The main theme serves as the backbone for the entire soundtrack and it’s, thankfully, a memorable one. With consistent strings, a heroic brass melody, and buoyant percussion sounds. If not for the Marvel logo, you could be forgiven for thinking that this was a lost John Williams score written for a Steven Spielberg picture that was never released. And that’s all there really is to it, honestly. It’s pretty tragic that these circumstances are what made me finally review it in the first place, but still. Without that man’s immortal contributions to literature (I will fight Bill Maher on that) and media, this film wouldn’t exist in the first place. Always aware of what it is and running with it, The Avengers is a glorious epitome of all the ingredients of a great blockbuster. If there were any film of the decade to serve as a definitive example of how the industry has changed, this certainly would be it. Stan Lee’s creation has inspired a generation of fans who never felt like they fit in anywhere- including me. Nobody lives forever but the characters and stories he crafted will endure for an eternity. Rest in peace. Or as the man himself would say, Excelsior.

“Suspiria” Movie Review

Watching this film in the middle of the night during Thursday previews was definitely not a smart move on my part. This supernatural horror drama initially premiered as part of the official competition at the 75th Venice Film Festival. Following a series of divided reactions at other festivals like Fantastic Fest and early Halloween screenings, it was released in theaters worldwide by Amazon Studios on November 2nd, 2018. Thus far it has only grossed about $1.2 million on a budget of $20 million, although it seems to have mostly attracted a younger demographic and currently has the highest screen-per-average box office launch of the year. Directed by Luca Guadagnino, best know for Call Me By Your Name, he had been trying, as a producer, to get a remake of the original 1977 film by Dario Argento off the ground since at least 2008. After numerous actors and potential directors dropped from the project, Guadagnino opted to helm it himself, aided by A Bigger Splash screenwriter David Kajganich. It also helped create one of the most high-profile fake actors in history with the alleged casting of “Lutz Ebersdorf” in a key role. Although it shares a similar setting and even features original star Jessica Harper in a cameo, all parties have insisted that this is not a straight remake of the original film. Set during the German Autumn of 1977, Dakota Johnson plays Suzie Bannion, an American dancer from a small Mennonite family in Ohio. She is accepted and moves into the prestigious Markos Dance Academy in Berlin headed by lead choreographer Madame Blanc, played by Tilda Swinton. A number of strange events occur, such as the disappearance of a radicalized American student named Patricia Hughes. Bannion soon realizes that the academy is being run by a history of sinister witchcraft, and is also investigated by psychoanalyst/Holocaust survivor Dr. Josef Klemperer. Although I haven’t yet watched the original film by Dario Argento, I can totally recognize why it’s considered a classic in the horror genre. From its gorgeous aesthetic and creepy imagery, there’s a lot of influence it’s had over the last 4 decades. I also watched Call Me By Your Name a few months ago on an international plane, and while I thought it was really good, there was a part of the story that felt incomplete. When I heard that that same director was next tackling a reimagining of Suspiria, I was skeptical if he would be able to pull it off. I was excited even more by the divided reaction it has received from critics and audiences thus far. And after watching it, I was almost completely gobsmacked; this is a genuine, flawed masterpiece. First of all, I fully know that not everyone is going to appreciate this movie as much as I or others may. Aside from last year’s Mother!, it’s hard for me to think of a more controversial film in recent memory released by a big-name distributor. Like that picture, it’s very easy for me to recognize where the film will falter for many viewers, as some may see its themes and ideas as either too ambiguous or too blatant. There’s an almost Kubrickian approach to the style and format of storytelling, practically encouraging discussion among audiences. I have a fair grasp on what it was talking about, such as how fascism and national guilt for atrocities is far from a thing of the past. (The historical setting certainly helps with that) It may require a rewatch to fully understand what Guadagnino and Kajganich were going for. Dakota Johnson completely wipes her Fifty Shades fame away here with her most substantial and physically challenging role to date as Suzie Bannion. Her shyness and somewhat quiet attitude reflects an innocence in grave danger at this academy, as she slowly unravels the horrors behind the curtains. Meanwhile, Tilda Swinton continues her fruitful collaboration with the director in no less than three(!) different roles. The first is obviously Madame Blanc, the stern and brilliant director of the institute who tries to instill a maternal grace and mentorship in her young wards. The second is Josef Klemperer, who was officially credited and marketed as a real-life psychoanalyst named “Lutz Ebersdorf.” Her transformation under heavy makeup (Prosthetic penis included) is convincing as a Holocaust survivor who may be too curious for “his” own good. The third role is a secret, but let’s just say that it seemed unnecessary for her to adopt another role. Other significant players include Mia Goth, Chloë Grace Moretz, and Elena Fokina as terrified fellow dance students at the academy while Angela Winkler, Małgosia Bela, and original Suspiria star Jessica Harper in small but vital roles. Everyone has something to add that makes the journey even more spooky and spell-binding. Meanwhile, in a year loaded with brilliant horror films, Suspiria might just be the technical masterpiece of them all. Guadagnino reunites with his Call Me By Your Name cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom for the camerawork, and it’s a dynamic show. Shot on 35 mm film stock, this remake forgoes the original’s use of bright primary colors in favor of something deliberate more dull and cold, as if it were a fevered nightmare in winter. The use of special techniques, such as whip pans and sudden zooms, makes it feel like a subtle homage to horror films of past decades. Walter Fasano edits the film in a beautiful way that matches everything. Using parallel scenes as cutaways makes some otherwise mundane moments rather frightening and real. This especially comes during the central dance sequence, which lasts nearly 6 minutes but thanks to appropriate cuts and movement kept me on the edge of my seat. The lush and sensual choreography by Damien Jalet certainly helped, but it would not have been as compelling had it not been for the intense editing work. Following in the footsteps of his former band member, Radiohead lead singer and front man Thom Yorke composes and conducts his first score for a feature film. With the soundtrack he’s created, one has to wonder why he’s never written music for a film before. (“Exit Music For a Film” not withstanding) The film opens and closes in its credits with a haunting ballad called “Suspirium,” which helps establish the melancholic, ominous atmosphere to be found throughout the 2-hour and 30 minute-long journey. Other tracks consist of Yorke’s soothing yet strained voice and dynamic chord progressions from piano and synthesized brass. The aforementioned dance sequence is accompanied by a gorgeously tense opera of different instrumentations, written as though Igor Stravinsky himself rose from the dead and composed a score for a horror epic. With gruesome imagery matched with heavy thematic weight and some of the most extravagant dance sequences in film this side of Black Swan, Suspiria is an audacious coven of pure cinematic evil. It’s perfectly easy for me to see why this won’t work for everyone out there, but I couldn’t help but be awestruck by what Luca Guadagnino and David Kajganich set out to accomplish. I can’t say whether or not it’s superior to the original, but I can say that what transpired on-screen will stick with me for quite a long time- for better and for worse.

Let’s Do It: My Favorite Movies #30-21

It’s been quite a while since I published one of these lists. I’ve been exceptionally busy with work and academics as it was, but I never abandoned it. Let’s continue onto the next batch now.

#30: “Rocky” (1976)

On the surface, the original Rocky seems just like any underdog sports drama that you’ve ever seen at home or on the big screen. But once you get into it, the true emotional brilliance shines through, in large part thanks to Sylvester Stallone’s amazingly natural screenplay and iconic performance. The city of Philadelphia becomes a compelling character in and of itself, bringing the humble neighborhoods and residents to life in believable fashion. And the final fight scene almost always reduces me to a blubbery mess.

#29: “The Thing” (1982)

To me, John Carpenter’s The Thing is the greatest horror film of all time. It contains all of the ingredients of a great horror film and much more. The sheer paranoia of being in a tight, enclosed, isolated place; practical effects and makeup that still hold up over 35 years later; characters worth getting worried about. I am not exaggerating in the slightest when I say that I have nearly shit my pants every time that I watch it. Along with Carpenter’s Halloween, it’s become a staple of the spooky season for me. It leaves me cold, but in the best way possible.

#28: “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” (2001)

When you become as old as I am, you’ll start to feel more and more like the world is crumbling at an exponential rate. There are some films that are meant to lift your spirits in the most bittersweet way possible all while allowing you to step into a world beyond our own. For me, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring is one of those movies, perhaps the most lighthearted one of Peter Jackson trilogy. I will always come back for the film as a whole, but Gandalf’s monologue to Frodo speaks so truthfully regardless of what era or place that you live in. That, plus the whole sequence itself is already iconic.

#27: “Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade” (1989)

Let’s all just stand in solidarity by agreeing that the Indiana Jones saga finished with this second sequel and that’s that. Moving onwards, there’s a lot to love about this sequel. Steven Spielberg’s joyfully adventurous direction, John Williams’ amazing score, the pitch perfect chemistry between Sean Connery and Harrison Ford. In fact, that might be my favorite father-son relationship ever shown in movies because their dynamics are so hilarious yet somewhat somber. When it’s all said and done, The Last Crusade might just be the second-best film ever made about the myth of the Holy Grail.

#26: “The Godfather Part II” (1974)

Although it’s not quite my favorite one in the iconic saga, I could never disagree with anyone who prefers it over the original The Godfather. The way that it parallels the story of Young Vito’s rise to power as Michael’s empire gradually falls is both fascinating and tragic. Francis Ford Coppola directs the drama with such a heavy realism that it feels like we’re cold, distant observers of the Corleones’ struggles. I would even go as far to say that it is the definitive immigration film, detailing the price and myth of the American Dream.

#25: “Mad Max Fury Road” (2015)

“How the hell did they do that?!” is a question you’ll constantly be asking yourself while watching this batshit crazy post-apocalyptic thriller. A full-stop action masterpiece that pulls zero punches, how George Miller managed to film all of those insane, stunt-filled set pieces and get away with it is STILL something I’m struggling to comprehend. I don’t care what time of day it is; every time I put on Mad Max: Fury Road, I feel an adrenaline rush that is hard to shake off. Mark my words, this is a film that will never age with all of its amazing practical effects, and will inspire generations of action filmmakers.

#24: “The Incredibles” (2004)

Depending on my mood, this film usually shifts around with another Pixar film to be named later, but I love this one so much still. In all honesty, I am over 90% positive that this was the first feature-length film that I ever saw in theaters. I love how Brad Bird is able to get away with the type of mature humor that most family-oriented films wouldn’t even get to show. That plus the animation which has aged quite well, and some of the finest action scenes you’ll see in any animated feature. The sequel in 2018 was almost as great, but still not as fun or warm for me.

#23: “Gladiator” (2000)

Hearing recent news that Ridley Scott may finally be moving forward with a Gladiator sequel is about the dumbest thing I’ve heard in a while. The original one is already awesome and engaging as it is. I am, indeed, entertained.

#22: “Blade Runner 2049” (2017)

Movies like Blade Runner 2049 are exactly what 4K and IMAX were made for. The fact that this practically bombed at the box office is a crime worthy of punishment. It’s something of a miracle that Warner Bros. agreed to release this sequel not as an action movie but as a slow, contemplative mystery. Denis Villeneuve is perhaps my favorite director of his generation and the way he takes his time telling stories with great actors who trust him is something else.

#21: “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952)

How does one reasonably explain the impact of this joy-filled musical? How it gouges out all cynicism of the Hollywood gluttony in just a short runtime? Why so many people keep watching Singin’ in the Rain over and over and over throughout the years? The simple answer is, you don’t. You just sit back, relax, and soak in the pure escapism of one of the Golden Age’s finest and most colorful pictures.

“Outlaw King” Movie Review

I have some bad news for anyone who wants to watch this movie because they heard Chris Pine shows his full-frontal genitalia; it’s a very quick shot, practically blink-and-you’ll-miss-it. Most people will stay for the movie itself. This epic historical action drama premiered as the opening night feature for the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival. After a mixed-to negative reception from critics and industry insiders, two weeks later the director announced he was shaving nearly 23 minutes off the picture. It was then released in a condensed format in select theaters and on the streaming service Netflix on November 9th, 2018, finished on a budget of $120 million. Directed and co-written by David Mackenzie, who also helmed the 2016 neo-Western Hell of High Water, the film was a passion project of his that took over five years to develop. Initially undertaken with extensive research and a couple of playwrights by his side, the completed screenplay was credited to as many as five different writers. He was apparently dismayed by the reaction at TIFF, but felt relieved when the distributor gave him a chance to fix his errors. Set in Scotland in 1304, Chris Pine stars as Robert the Bruce, a well-regarded man with a legitimate claim to his country’s throne. Following the near-crushing defeat of their Rebellion a few years prior led by William Wallace, the remaining Scottish nobility reluctantly swear fealty to King Edward I of England, played by Stephen Dillane, in order to keep their lands intact. Civil unrest and terrible circumstances force Robert to be crowned King of Scotland, triggering an all-out guerilla war against the much larger English army. I absolutely adored Mackenzie’s previous directorial effort, Hell or High Water, released back in 2016. Although I haven’t yet seen any of his other works, that one was such a smart, understated, and beautifully simple character piece with incredible performances out its three main leads. Hearing the director was developing a Medieval epic with one of those leads returning (Pine) for Netflix was enticing, especially after hearing about its emphasis on historical accuracy. Because while I really love Braveheart, it’s really hard for me to overlook the laughable inaccuracies shown throughout. And honestly, even after all of the critical hullabaloo that this film has been through, I found Outlaw King to be a surprisingly entertaining and engaging film. Now, I’m not saying that it’s an amazing movie by any means. While I’ve heard that the cut on Netflix is a major improvement over its TIFF screening, the pacing felt a bit uneven. Even though its runtime now only clocks in right at 2 hours and 1 minute, it feels like it drags in some of the more dramatic moments, as it’s clearly meant to be more of an action-oriented film. Plus, it still feels as though most of the supporting characters from either side of the conflict weren’t fleshed out enough to bring the stakes up higher. Chris Pine does a surprisingly good job as Robert the Bruce, a proud man left with an intensely unhappy country to tend to. His Scottish accent was a bit dodgy at first, but it seemed like he got more into it as it went along. Despite the brutal violence he and his followers commit, he still shows a tenderness towards his people and his family. Game of Thrones alum Stephen Dillane plays King Edward I, and he seems quite comfortable in the role. Channeling bits of Stannis Baratheon, he does a great job internalizing his frustration with trying to control Scotland consistently and is unafraid to kill hundreds to get to Robert. Despite this, he’s not completely heartless and would much rather negotiate peace, telling Robert early on, “You had the courage to stand up to me, and the wisdom to step down.” And while other actors do great such as Aaron Johnson as the unpredictable Black Douglas, Billy Howle as the deranged Prince of Wales, Tony Curran as a feisty loyalist to Robert, and more, the only one who really leaves an impression is Florence Pugh as Elizabeth de Burgh, the Bruce’s English wife. Her journey from meek observer to staunch supporting of Scottish independence is a tad jarring at first, but she never loses sight of her strength and compassion. She does her best making decisions based on SHE wants- not her powerful parents, not her outlaw husband, no one. I’m genuinely eager to see her in more films, and her slate this upcoming year will hopefully satisfy that palette. Meanwhile, the technical aspects of Outlaw King make it pretty clear where that massive budget went to. Shot by Barry Ackroyd, a regular Ken Loach and Paul Greengrass collaborator, he surprisingly restrains his documentarian, cinéma vérité style in favor of something more controlled. The film opens with a stunning, 8 minute-long take that follows the Scottish nobility at their surrender to King Edward I with amazing fluidity. Even during the impressively staged action scenes, the camera remains steady and focused on its subjects. There are also, of course, obligatory swooping shots, which reveal the gorgeous landscape of Scotland. It goes nicely with the editing by Jake Roberts, who cuts each scene together without losing sight of what’s important. It doesn’t particularly feel choppy, despite the near-last-minute trimming of the film, and allows the audience to see the action, especially the glorious, muddy final battle, in full form. Bringing home the historical accuracy is the fantastic sets and the costume designs by Jane Petrie. With rough chainmail, dirty armor patches, and nary a kilt or drop of blue face paint in sight, it feels incredibly lived-in and realistic. The musical score is composed by Tony Doogan and Lucie Treacher, and it’s more or less what I expected to hear. There are a number of tracks filled with sorrowful strings and ghostly hymnal choirs, almost prophesizing the death toll this war will take on Scotland. While it’s great to listen to, it’s not very memorable. There is an original song called “Land O the Leal” by Grey Dogs that plays over the end credits. Featuring the fair voice of Kathryn Joseph, it’s a melancholy piano ballad lamenting on the bloodied homeland of Robert the Bruce. It’s a nice song, but hardly one worth listening to more than a few times. Well-meaning but often misguided in its vision, Outlaw King is a flawed epic celebrating both spectacle and a truly noble man. Maybe I’m a bit fickle and old, but I’d be lying to you if I said that I wasn’t entertained throughout this movie. David Mackenzie gets to show off his Scottish pride with great commitment while Chris Pine plays a classical Medieval hero and Florence Pugh emerges as a talent to watch. Hopefully, it will find a new appreciation and audience, in spite of what happened behind the scenes.

 

“Bad Times at the El Royale” Movie Review

A good reminder of why to never check in at a mysterious establishment in the middle of virtually nowhere. This crime thriller drama premiered as the closing night film at the 2018 Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas. After subsequently screening at the San Sebastián Film Festival, 20th Century Fox released it in theaters on October 12th, 2018. Despite a number of positive critical reviews, it has struggled at the worldwide box office, only raking in about $29 million on a $32 million budget. This perhaps has something to do with the stacked competition it was opening to, as it sadly dropped 52% in its second weekend. Written and directed by Drew Goddard, the film marks his second directorial project, following his satirical horror debut The Cabin in the Woods in 2012. Heavily inspired by crime novels and movies from the 70’s to the 90’s, the director had a setlist of old songs to be used in the film. As he shopped the spec script around Hollywood, he made clear that anyone who couldn’t obtain the license to those songs wasn’t gonna be distributing it. Set in 1969, the story takes place at the titular El Royale, a hotel near Lake Tahoe that straddles the California-Nevada border. One night, seven strangers- a priest, an African-American female singer, a vacuum cleaner salesman, a hippie on the run and her sister, the young concierge, and a charismatic cult leader -come to the shady establishment. However, it soon becomes clear that none of the guests, or the hotel itself, are what they seem and have a dark secret to bury deep. Over the course of this eventful night, we witness each individual’s past come to a head as they all try and seek redemption before it’s too late. Saying anything more about the plot would ruin the various twists and surprises that are in store for viewers. I have been looking forward to this for some time, ever since the first, incredibly enticing trailer dropped. I was a fan of The Cabin in the Woods, and while I enjoyed Goddard’s writing work in between- including The Martian and the first season of Daredevil -it had been way too long of a wait to see him at the helm again. Just hearing the synopsis for this film reminded me in many ways of 2015’s The Hateful Eight. After seeing it, I can confidently say that Bad Times at the El Royale is even better and more original than that film. I’m now convinced that Drew Goddard wants to make his career out of crafting modern answers to worn out staples. Whereas The Cabin in the Woods was a scathing deconstruction of the horror genre, Bad Times takes a specific look at Quentin Tarantino’s late-90’s neo-noirs and the enormous wash of imitators. It essentially takes an omniscient view of the story and makes us ask, “Why do we root for these low-lives? Are they truly deserving of our forgiveness after the things they’ve done?” Even its title feels like a shamelessly pulpy crime thriller from a bygone era, along with the richly written dialogue. Each of the guests serve up excellent performances that help dig more into the characters. Chief among them is Jeff Bridges as Father Daniel Flynn, a Catholic priest, and Lewis Pullman as the mysterious concierge Miles. Neither of the two are what they initially appear to be and are able to strike the right balance of sympathy and mystery for their characters. Similarly, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm, and Caillee Spaeny all do superb work with their roles, imbuing a history of regret behind each one. The most surprising player, for me, is Chris Hemsworth as Billy Lee, a Charles Manson-like cult leader who rarely wears a shirt. This is the first time I’ve seen him play a straight-up villain, and he absolutely delights with all of the convincing charisma and creepiness of Maonson, Jones, Koresh, and their ilk. My favorite, though, is newcomer Cynthia Erivo as Darlene Sweet, a down-on-her-luck African American singer. This may be her first film role, but she plays the part beautifully, bringing up a sense of lost innocence she’s trying to reclaim. Her voice is also stunning with all the songs performed, making me all the more excited to see her in Widows and whatever else she signs on for in the future. Meanwhile, Drew Goddard uses Bad Times at the El Royale to further hone his craft as a filmmaker. Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey’s use of 35 mm film and anamorphic Panavision lenses lends well to the era it’s set in. The slight texture added allows certain colors to pop out of the screen more, such as bright red, orange, and yellow. There’s one particularly great one-take shot that follows Jon Hamm’s character for at least 5 minutes, without a single cut. The way it lingers on certain things, such as Flynn’s priest outfit, is genius in its foreshadowing. The editing by Lisa Lassek, who has frequently worked with Goddard on many projects, cuts each and every scene with care and patience. It is able to mostly sustain the deliberate pacing as we gradually learn more about these strangers, even cutting into different chapters for them. Michael Giacchino, one of the most versatile and prolific composers working in Hollywood today, brings us the instrumental film score. It’s as dynamic as you would expect from him, mixing everything from urban percussion to synthesized piano melodies and harsh brass. The main suite features waning strings throughout indicating a mysterious yet somber atmosphere that the film perpetuates. As mentioned before, Goddard wrote the script with several classic songs in mind, and they are a joy to listen to. “This Old Heart of Mine” by the Isley Brothers, in particular, is played frequently throughout the film and is even sung with passion by Darlene Sweet. I can definitely see why the filmmaker wanted to use them for the plot. And while Goddard is very much able to keep the story relatively lightfooted, at 2 hours and 21 minutes, it does feel a bit bloated. There were a handful of scenes relating to certain characters that felt either too long or just unnecessary. It’s a little hard for me to place my finger on what exactly should have been cut without delving into spoiler territory. That being said, Bad Times at the El Royale is a fun, clever puzzle with fascinating characters. I haven’t had this much fun watching a mystery movie in quite a while, let alone trying to figure out everyone’s secrets. I’m legitimately looking forward to anything that Drew Goddard makes as a director in the future, especially since he seems to be placing a greater emphasis on characters. A fantastic ensemble, including a promising start from Cynthia Erivo, give so much heart to this story. All roads from here lead to success.

“A Star is Born” Movie Review

Apparently, love in relationships is extremely hard to hold onto once one or both partners in a relationship become famous. Not necessarily impossible, just really difficult to keep up with. That’s at least one of the messages that could be pulled from this film. This romantic musical drama premiered out of competition at the 75th Venice Film Festival. Following screenings at a number of other fall festivals, including TIFF, it was released in theaters worldwide on October 5th, 2018. It has thus far grossed over $332 million at the global box office against a $37 million budget, aided by a wash of critical acclaim and enormous Oscar buzz. Marking the directorial debut of actor Bradley Cooper, who also co-writes and produces, this is the 4th overall remake of the film of the same name from 1937, and the 3rd one by Hollywood. Clint Eastwood was originally attached to direct with Beyoncé in mind to star back in 2011, but it fell through due to her pregnancy. Despite numerous warnings from his fellow peers, Bradley Cooper decided he’d make it for Warner Bros., attending various music festivals to find the right voice and genre to play. Cooper also stars as Jackson Maine, a hard-drinking country rock musician who’s beginning to fall on bad times. While out for a drink one night, he discovers Ally Campana, played by Lady Gaga, a young down-on-her-luck singer with an amazing voice. He immediately helps catapult her to stardom, but their newfound love is greatly tested as her career soars while his wanes. This film has been getting seriously hyped up over the last few months, with some even proclaiming it as this year’s La La Land– for better or for worse. I watched the 1976 version of A Star is Born earlier this year, just in order to get myself familiar with the material. It was really not good at all, mainly existing just to stroke Barbara Streisand’s ego while ignoring all the other essential elements. I was very interested to see this admittedly ripe story told in a modern context, as well as how Bradley Cooper could manage it as a first-time filmmaker. While your own reactions may vary, I believe that this rendition of A Star is Born indeed lives up to all of that awards hype. You can see influences that Cooper takes from other filmmakers he’s worked with over the years at Warner Bros. Clint Eastwood and Todd Phillips (Who also serves as producer) immediately come to mind as cinematic mentors. And yet still, he’s able to keep it his own by focusing on both the male and female singers, rather than one or the other. Because of this choice, the events that occur throughout, particularly in the back half of the film, are even more devastating. They’re treated as equals in the story, meaning their talent and fortune is well-earned, but are virtually doomed if they remain together. Pulling quadruple duty, Bradley Cooper delivers quite possibly his best performance to date as Jackson Maine. Beneath the tough beard and deep voice is a fundamentally decent guy who is constantly in danger of his own self-destructive behavior. His singing voice and guitar playing skills are surprisingly well-fit for him, as it becomes clear that this guy is extremely talented yet unstable. Opposite him, as you’ve most definitely heard, Stefanie Germotta A.K.A. Lady Gaga is an absolute revelation as Ally Campana. I won’t hesitate to admit that it took me a few years to truly get on board with her as a musician and here, under stellar direction, she proves just as capable an actress. With little makeup, brown hair, and a lot of pent-up frustration at the music industry, she perfectly and convincingly pulls off an every-girl trying to fulfill her dreams. And while Andrew Dice Clay and Dave Chappelle do fantastic dramatic work as Ally’s father and a retired musician, respectively, it’s Sam Elliott’s turn as Jackson’s older brother Bobby. It’s the best work I’ve seen from him, injecting a genuine sadness and concern for his volatile sibling even as he drunkenly stumbles on concert stages. I was amazed by how he stole scenes from the two leads, especially in a heartbreaking exchange late in the film. His screen presence leaves a strong impact, and may result in an Academy Award nomination come January. Meanwhile, I’m so impressed with how self-assured and in-control Cooper is as a director, as the technical aspects for A Star is Born scream authenticity. With Matthew Libatique as the cinematographer, the different people are given greater characterization. For example, shots primarily showing Jackson are shaky but discernible, representing his dangerous lifestyle, and Ally is seen through static wides and close-ups, as if her career is in more control than her lover’s. Jay Cassidy is able to balance these two perspectives well, again, making them equals in the story. He also cuts beautifully during performances between backstage, up close at the mic, or in the crowd. Using locations such as the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival and the real Saturday Night Live stage as backdrops, it often feels like we’re watching a real-life concert with these artists unfold. Cooper and Gaga team up with Lukas Nelson (Willie Nelson’s son) to write original songs for the much talked-about soundtrack. They’re all great and memorable tunes, ranging in genres from country-rock to pop. Obviously, everyone at this point knows the single “Shallow,” a bittersweet anthem that will most likely win Best Original Song. The two tracks that standout the most to me, however, are the ballads “Always Remember Us This Way” and “I’ll Never Love Again.” Featuring Lady Gaga’s hauntingly beautiful voice and gradually escalating instrumentation, each were both powerful and catchy and kept me tapping my foot in the theater. What’s more, all of the tracks in the film were recorded live, apparently a request by Lady Gaga. In many ways, that makes it all the more remarkable as we can hear both their raw voices and the audience’s reactions. I’ll be honest, when I first walked out of the theater, I did like it but felt it had been way overhyped by critics and audiences. But in the time since then, the story has marinated more on me, and I have been unable to shake either the new songs or its profound emotional impact. Its examination of the cost of fame and artistry really hit close to home, especially as it culminates in the finale. A Star is Born is a heartbreaking, tender, and authentic crowdpleaser with some unexpected emotional punch. Bradley Cooper not only delivers an incredible performance, but also proves himself a confident filmmaker with a bright future ahead. Not only that, but it’s the jaw-dropping performances by Lady Gaga and Sam Elliot that make this a home run. If this is what we can expect from major Hollywood players during awards season this year, then we’re all in for a major treat.