Monthly Archives: April 2019

“Casablanca” Movie Review

Oh come on, who doesn’t enjoy a good old-fashioned Hollywood romance every now and again? Even if you have the coldest, blackest heart known to man, I will be left in a legitimate state of shock if you aren’t won over by the end. This war-time romantic drama was originally released in theaters by Warner Bros. on November 26th, 1942, before going wide in theaters the following January. Made on the budget of about $1 million, it managed to gross just under $7 million at the box office, half of which came in from foreign markets. It then went onto win the Academy Award for Best Picture and Director, and has sustained a lasting influence on the film industry in the years since. Directed by Michael Curtiz, the film is adapted from the novel Everybody Comes to Rick’s by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison. While it was initially written by brothers Julius and Philip G. Epstein, Howard Koch came into finish the script while producer Hal B. Wallis scrambled to put everything in motion. The film also fell to the mercy of the Hays Code, which forced the filmmakers to change several scenes, some of which were arguably for the better. And Wallis’ working relationship with Jack L. Warner became so strained that after the Academy Awards, he left the studio for good. Set in the titular Moroccan city in December 1941, Humphrey Bogart stars as Rick Blaine, an American expatriate who runs an upscale club and gambling den. Despite professing to be politically neutral, he is secretly known for running guns to Ethiopia and helping refugees stranded in the city. One day, his former lover Ilsa Lund, played by Ingrid Bergman, walks into his establishment and begs for him to help her and her husband, who’s a Czech Resistance leader, escape to America. Rick is now forced to choose between staying with the woman he once loved and doing something right for the burgeoning war effort. Much like some of the other films in my New Year’s resolution, this is one of those “classic” movies that most people have likely heard of even if they’ve never seen it. Regardless of your familiarity with the film overall, odds are that you’ve probably heard the line “Here’s lookin’ at you, kid,” at least once. I myself had never really seen it before until early last year, though I had definitely known about it for a long time before hand. Like The Shawshank Redemption or Throne of Blood or Life of Brian, this New Year’s resolution has given me the opportunity to watch some highly regarded films I had always tried to see. I was especially curious to see how well the film would be able to hold up on my third viewing. And lo and behold, Casablanca is indeed one of the few “classic” films that’s actually deserving of all of the reverence it’s received over the years. Interestingly, if I had tried to watch this movie over a decade ago, I likely would have turned it off before the halfway mark. I just didn’t like watching romantic movies back then, at least ones that didn’t have a ton action in them. But now I’m older, wiser, and have realized that I had just been looking at the wrong ones at that time. Casablanca is not as glossy as a lot of rom-coms or dramas in the years since, but it still feels unmistakably old-fashioned. There’s a rhythm to this film that so few others in the genre have, even musical romances that have actual song and dance rhythms. In all seriousness, when people talk about Humphrey Bogart, they’re really talking about Rick Blaine. The first in a slew of suave romantic lead roles, he so expertly tries to hide his good nature under a world-weary cynicism and alcoholic coolness. Reflecting on Ilsa’s untimely return into his life, he drunkenly remarks, “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” Ingrid Bergman is his perfect onscreen partner, exuding a vulnerability and regret for some of her past actions. While she may not be quite as strong-willed as the writers may have intended, for the most part she retains her emotional poise and is genuinely wanting to die to get her husband back to the States. Paul Henreid shouldn’t be overlooked as Victor Lazlo, the Czech resistance leader who’s trying to carry on his guerilla war with Nazi Germany. His reluctance to trust people in the titular city is convincing and real, undercut by a certain tenderness for his wife. They are also flanked by a supporting cast of colorful and interesting characters. There’s Dooley Wilson as the energetic club musician Sam, Sidney Greenstreet as an underworld business figure who has a friendly rivalry with Rick, Claude Rains as the shamelessly corrupt prefect of police under Vichy rule, Peter Lorre as a petty crook able to get his hand into deep places, and Conrad Veidt as the ruthless Nazi emissary Major Strasser. Despite the film only running about 102 minutes, you really feel like you get to know these characters and the dire situations they find themselves in. Meanwhile, on the technical side of things, Casablanca is Classic Hollywood at its most lush and posh. Arthur Edeson’s black-and-white cinematography has many traits of film noir and expressionism. These include precise lighting and fantastic use of shadows, which emphasize the moral ambiguity of Rick’s position. Bergman is mostly shot from her left side, an effect which makes her eyes sparkle and her face glisten with beauty. It uses a number of steady shots to follow the carefully blocked action in every scene, while also allowing actors room to breathe with their iconic rapid fire dialogue. Owen Marks’ editing is also notable for its precise use of cuts between different shots and moments. The most memorable example is our introduction to Rick, which cuts between different parts of his hands and body before revealing his face. Not only that, but the subtle fades between the present day and his past life with Ilsa creates a certain nostalgia effect. The prolific Gone With the Wind composer Max Steiner provides the instrumental film score and boy its a doozy. One of 24 Oscar nominations Steiner would receive over his career, it masterfully mixes different melodies that are familiar but not quite patriotic. With a sweeping orchestra befitting of David Lean epics, the main suite has a wide range of classical instruments, including strings, brass, and piano. The way it’s infused into each scene makes it feel like a romantic adventure on a grand scale, as well as a more personal tale of intrigue. The soundtrack also has the famous song “As Time Goes By” by Herman Hupfeld, here performed by Dooley Wilson. Using a soft piano as the backbone of the song, the jazzy and slow-tempo tune makes for a perfect dance number between Rick and Ilsa. Although Wilson himself could never actually play the piano, Elliot Carpenter provided the playing on set, which comes together to create one hell of a memorable song. I really feel like if you wanted an intro into classic films, there’s no better place to start than here. One iconic scene moves to another, the script is as sharp and whip-smart as ever, and it all just makes filmmaking look so easy in the process. It’s also eminently quotable, with all of the characters each having at least one memorable line. When it comes down to it, Casablanca is perfectly conjured and fantastically produced bubble of escapism. Whether it’s the way Michael Curtiz and Hal B. Wallis put together the final product or the chemistry between Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart, there isn’t an inch of this film that doesn’t work. This is what we talk about when we talk about the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood.

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“Us” Movie Review

After watching this movie late at night, I’m officially afraid to look at myself in the mirror anymore. Not that I was a particularly big fan of doing so to begin with. This horror thriller premiered as the opening night feature for the 2019 South By Southwest Film Festival. Following incredible buzz from those who attended, Universal Pictures released the film worldwide on March 22nd, 2019. Making over $7.4 million from Thursday previews, which far outpaced that of the director’s previous film, it has thus far grossed over $247.4 million at the global box office. Already on its way to an extremely profitable run, the film had the highest-grossing opening weekend for an original film since James Cameron’s Avatar way back in 2009. Written and directed by Jordan Peele, the film is the second of five proposed “social thrillers” he wants to make, the first of which was his debut Get Out. Disappointed by audiences’ general confusion about that particular film’s genre, he went ahead and decided to make a full, straight-up horror movie, inspired heavily by the Twilight Zone episode “Mirror Image.” The director has repeatedly stated that while it was very important for him to have black actors in the starring roles, the film is not actually about race. Lupita Nyong’o stars as Adelaide Wilson, a young woman dealing with a trauma from earlier in her life. During the summer, she goes with her husband Gabe, played by Winston Duke, and their children Zora and Jason to a family beach house in Santa Cruz. One night, they are confronted by a group of evil doppelgängers named “The Tethered.” Throughout the night, they must fight to survive the Tethered and their cruel plans while getting a closer look at who they really are. That right there is about as far as I can go with the premise before getting into spoiler territory. Much like the director’s previous effort, that description just barely scratches the surface for what’s really going on in the film. That was one of the main reasons why I loved Get Out so much back in 2017, and a huge reason why I was anticipating this movie. Ever since the project was first announced last spring, I’ve been salivating to see what movie Jordan Peele would come up with next, especially after winning Best Original Screenplay. Even if it wouldn’t be great, I would still make an effort to go see it in theaters because the director already has THAT much support from me. While it may be a completely different film from Get Out, Us is just as much of an audacious, thought-provoking, and supremely entertaining genre film from the former comedian. However, your own enjoyment of the film might have to depend on expectations. If you’re expecting another round of scathing social commentary on race relations in America, then you’ll likely be disappointed. This is indeed Jordan Peele’s first swing at a horror movie, with plenty of loving tributes and subversions sprinkled in throughout. In that sense, Get Out is arguably thematically stronger and more focused in on its issue. That being said, I would actually argue that Us is a better paced film, and it still has a lot on its mind than mere suspense and kills. It isn’t just the idea of “we are our own worst enemy,” but also how classism in modern society can help create a fear of the Other. Once you strip away a person’s social standing, or lack thereof, there’s very little that separates us from each other. Lupita Nyong’o has built an amazing repertoire over the last few years, and this performance is only the next step in her career. As Adelaide, she is paranoid and mindful of all of her surroundings, always feeling like the threat is only a few paces behind. She reunites with her Black Panther co-star Winston Duke, who strays very far away from his role as M’Baku. His performance as Gabe is one of trying to consistently prove himself as the “man” of the house, attempting to impress their wealthy friends and act intimidating when the Tethered all arrive. Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex are also worth noting as the daughter and son, Zora and Jason, respectively. Both of them forego the trope of bad child acting in horror cinema by adding endearing layers to their characters, making us truly care about their survival. Other players include Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Anna Diop, Tim Heidecker, Elizabeth Moss, twins Cali and Noelle Sheldon, and Duke Nicholson. Of course, all of the actors also pull double duty with their Tethered counterparts, managing to be both creepy and physically imposing. Nyong’o is especially impressive as her doppelgänger “Red,” particularly during an unbroken monologue about her life story told through an unsettlingly raspy voice. Meanwhile, the technical aspects of Us show that Jordan Peele is only getting an even stronger grip on his own unique voice. For this outing, he chose Mike Gioulakis as the cinematographer, who also shot Glass and It Follows, and it really paid off. Like those other film’s there’s a certain fluidity and surreal nature to the camera in each scene. The lighting is on point, capturing the darkness in each character with subtlety and grace while making room for some impressive Steadicam moments. Nicholas Mounsour edits these moments together really well. Not once during the 1-hour and 56-minute runtime did a scene feel choppy or hard to follow. The precision and deliberate cut between each different scene or shot is extremely commendable. It often moves back and forth between two separate time periods, offering more context to what’s going on. Michael Abels returns to collaborate with the director to compose and conduct the instrumental film score, his second for a feature film. It’s an infinitely more impressive soundtrack than Get Out, utilizing numerous unconventional instruments to convey a sense of creepiness. The film’s opening credits are played alongside an unsettling anthem that mixes chanting in a nonsense language and unique percussion beats. Other tracks use either swaying or plucked strings to their advantage and never act as a device for a cheap jumpscare. The soundtrack also utilizes the hip-hop song “I Got 5 On It” by Luniz to great effect. Abels somehow managed to transform it from a fun, feel-good song into a genuinely terrifying melody. That’s no easy task, and for that alone, he deserves to be on a list of the most promising composers working today. With strong performances, evocative imagery, a fantastic score, and one of the most unique movie monsters in recent memory, Us is a marvel of originality and thought-provoking ideas wrapped in a fun horror movie. By taking lessons from his debut feature, Jordan Peele has already established himself as a filmmaker who has my undivided attention. I eagerly look forward to anything he’s working on in the future, and I hope that in the years to come, we’ll be talking about this film the same way we’ve been talking about The Shining and A Nightmare on Elm Street and all of the other horror classics.

“Iron Man” Movie Review

I’ve been meaning to dig back into the older Phase One Marvel films for a good while now. And with Avengers: Endgame promising to be even more of a culmination event than Infinity War in less than a month, I figured it was as good a time as any to go back to the beginning of it all. This tech-based superhero film was originally released in theaters on May 2nd, 2008. Although expectations were relatively low, it managed to gross nearly 5 times its $140 million budget and set a number of box office records which, in hindsight, seem rather puny at the time. It also managed to impress critics, comic book fans and general audiences alike, and singlehandedly launched the most lucrative media franchise of the 21st Century: the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Directed by Jon Favreau, the film had been in development hell since 1990, with multiple studios attempting to get it off the ground. After Marvel Comics managed to reacquire the rights to many of its characters in 2006, Paramount Pictures got their hands on the distribution. It became the first film Marvel financed entirely by themselves, setting the path for future installments based off relatively obscure characters. While Kevin Feige, Avi Arad, and the credited screenwriters spent extensive time discussing the story and action, the actors were encouraged to improvise most of their dialogue; several scenes had multiple cameras set up in case someone said something especially memorable. Robert Downey Jr. stars as Tony Stark, a genius billionaire playboy in charge of his father’s massive weapons manufacturing company. Following a life-threatening incident in war-torn Afghanistan, he develops a powered armor suit to help him escape a terrorist group called the Ten Rings. Realizing his culpability in the armed conflict, he modifies his suit with more improvements, adopts the nickname Iron Man, and sets out to fight those who want to use his technology for nefarious reasons. It’s truly strange looking back at this film, having watched all of the other films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe now. Back when I saw this in the theater for the first time, even though I was pretty young, I had a general understanding of the character and his origins. Most audiences didn’t at the time, and the fact that he’s become a household name shows how much the genre has grown in the 11 years since. So I figured that my New Year’s Resolution could use a little shakeup with something that isn’t too far away from the present but still old enough to bare some form of influence. I was a little worried, though, that on a rewatch, the inaugural installment for the MCU wouldn’t hold up very well. That just makes it even sweeter to say that Iron Man is still as badass as I remember it being, and still stands tall against many entries in both the franchise and the superhero genre as well. Do any of you remember a time when movies based on comic book characters were considered uncool? I can still think of the times when I would just mention a character’s name like Iron Man or Captain America and the people I’m talking to would just ask, “Who?” And perhaps the best compliment I can give Jon Favreau isn’t that it somehow managed to swing the franchise out the gate so confidently, but that it managed to have a wide enough appeal to general audiences without feeling like it lost its origins. It truly can’t be understated how hard that task was. Just two months later, it would arguably become overshadowed by Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece The Dark Knight. Marvel and Kevin Feige really had prove to themselves early on, and have earned the success they’ve gotten from it. Let’s get one thing straight here: Robert Downey Jr. IS Tony Stark, no question about it. The role he was seemingly born to play, his snarky attitude and hilarious wit are undercut by his clear intelligence and care for the few friends he has. The actor has literally credited the character was saving his life and career, and if he wasn’t the architect for the MCU, then the whole thing would have crumbled before it got off the ground. Opposite him are Gwyneth Paltrow and Terence Howard as Pepper Potts and Lieutenant Colonel James “Rhodey” Rhodes, Stark’s personal assistant and best friend respectively. Although Howard would later be replaced by Don Cheadle, the film manages to get this trio’s relationship down from the beginning, which would develop over the course of the next several films. Jeff Bridges is also unexpectedly good as Obadiah Stane, Tony’s business partner and former mentor. While the MCU has long struggled with making compelling antagonists, Bridges manages to give off a convincing impression of a greedy and overzealous businessman who wants what’s inside Stark’s mind. Shaun Toub should also not be overlooked for his role as Tony’s cave cellmate Yinsen. With enough aged wisdom to match Stark’s cunning intellect, it’s clear he knows what’s going on with the Ten Rings and what they want. Even though he’s not onscreen for a large chunk of time, he very much leaves a solid impact for the remainder of the story. As far as the technical aspects go, Iron Man was merely the first in a long line of impressive below-the-line feats for Marvel. Shot by the incredibly versatile Matthew Libatique, the cinematography is the right amount of clean and gritty. With some colors muted and couple enhanced, it really feels down in the dirt as Tony is attempting to figure out how to reconcile his identity with his newfound purpose. Unlike many later entries, the camera movement is actually quite controlled and smooth, and we’re able to see exactly what happens in every action scene. This matches up well with the editing by Dan Lebenthal, who collaborated on many of Favreau’s earlier films. The continuity of each scene is kept perfectly, not a single gesture or line feeling out of place with the cut. Considering they filmed with multiple cameras at once, it’s kinda impressive he was able to cut together that much footage and make it cohesive. Not to mention, Stan Winston himself brought the character of Iron to such vivid life, one of his last creations. Ramin Djawadi, who would go on to compose for HBO’s Game of Thrones and Westworld, provides the instrumental film score here. Like his work on those shows, it’s highly unusual for its genre and all the better for it. Mixing grungy rock with traditional orchestral arrangements, the mixture of electric guitar and strings is very memorable. he end results are perfectly suited to the main protagonist. It’s fresh, unpredictable, and quite brilliant. A quiet industry game-changer if ever I’ve seen one, Iron Man is the apex of superhero origin stories for cinema. It really can’t be overstated what Kevin Feige and Jon Favreau did here: they managed to defy expectations and create a cultural shift. Whether it’s Robert Downey Jr.’s immaculate performance as the titular character or Favreau’s assured direction, there’s little that doesn’t work in this film. And that legendary post-credits scene was only the beginning. We’re part of a bigger universe now, and I’m here for it.