Monthly Archives: January 2020

Retrospective: 2019 Superlatives

And that’s a wrap on 2019, folks. I know it took longer than usual, but it’s better late than never, in my opinion. I watched a whole lot of movies this year, both in the comfort of my home and in the theaters. In fact, for the 4th year running, I watched so many over the course of 2019 that I couldn’t limit it to just one list.

There’s no specific ranking here, but I felt like these 10 movies deserved to be talked about in some form or another. Some of them were in contention for my Top 20 list, and others were not. In any case, I just felt the need to bring them back into the end-of-year conversation that everyone else is having.

Most Original: “Velvet Buzzsaw”

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A horror movie where paintings and exhibits come to life to kill everyone in the modern art world that wants to profit off of them. That’s the honest-to-God premise of Dan Gilroy’s latest film and thankfully, it understands how ridiculous that inherently is. Velvet Buzzsaw has a bit of Robert Altman feel to it, never taking itself too seriously but still has just enough venom for its satire to land hard. The big ensemble moves from character to character with ease as each person finds a different way to try and look at the ones and zeroes that could be slapped onto a painting or exhibit. It being a slasher flick, the wide range of what qualifies as “modern art” allows for some really creative deaths for some truly pathetic humans.

*Read my full review here

Most Surprising: “Ready or Not”

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I honestly wasn’t quite sure what to make of Ready or Not when I first heard about it. It just seemed like another scream-queen slasher flick that will get dropped into the $5 barrel at Walmart after a small theatrical run. But boy oh boy, this movie had the goods and delivered them. A nice satire on the absurd lengths a wealthy family will go to in order to maintain their status and usher new members in, it’s fast, gory, and darkly funny at every turn. And it benefits from having one of the year’s biggest breakout turns from Samara Weaving, who totally subverts the scream queen trope to give a genuinely likable protagonist worth rooting for. A promising calling card for Radio Silence, this is a  great party movie, to be sure.

*Read my full review here

Most Overrated: “Yesterday”

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Look, almost everyone on Earth knows that a world where The Beatles never existed would be very different and bizarre. But the most frustrating aspect of Yesterday is that it never fully explores that potential, instead becoming a full Richard Curtis love story. That’s all fine and good, but Danny Boyle is never quite sure how to balance that out and the result is kind of frustrating. Part of me thinks it’s just the fact that 17 of The Beatles’ songs are performed on-screen is why it became so popular over the summer, especially considering how protective they are of the licenses. If for nothing else, Yesterday gave the world Himesh Patel and for that, I’m grateful. The rest of the movie is just mediocre, unremarkable, and disappointing.

*Read my full review here

Most Underrated: “Alita: Battle Angel”

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Although I don’t quite feel confident in saying that it’s a forgotten masterpiece like some other people, Alita: Battle Angel is definitely an underrated film for sure. Whatever qualms about the story you may have, it’s hard to deny the spectacle that Robert Rodriguez and James Cameron put on together. From what I can tell, it actually does justice to the manga it’s based on and it has many thrilling sequences worth watching again and agin, such as the riveting Motorball tournament. It’s pretty much everything to expect from an old-school slice of entertainment Hollywood doesn’t make too often anymore. This film also unintentionally marked the end of an era, as it was the last film to be released by Fox before Disney took them over. Here’s hoping that a sequel isn’t completely out of the picture now.

*Read my full review here

Most Overlooked: “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark”

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Over the years, Guillermo del Toro has gradually become a master of the horror genre. While he didn’t direct this underseen flick, his fingerprints are unmistakably on nearly every frame of the film. I’ll admit that I have only a passing familiarity with the original anthology books, but Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is the rare horror film that works because of its broad appeal. It’s nice to have a scary movie that both adults and young children can enjoy, and can even serve as an entry point for aspiring genre fans. While it can be heavy on jumpscares, it’s hard not be in awe of its devotion to practical effects and makeup over CGI, which makes it feel almost like a twisted throwback to Amblin movies of the 80’s. The Jangly Man and The Pale Lady still give me the creeps and prove that throwbacks aren’t necessarily the worst thing in the world.

*Read my full review here

Most Disappointing: “Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker”

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This was a year chock full of big stories reaching big conclusions on the silver and small screen alike. While some were definitely worse than others, the third and final installment of the new Star Wars trilogy was a big letdown in many ways. It’s far from being a big dumpster fire but The Rise of Skywalker reeks of pulled punches and missed opportunities as J.J. Abrams and Co. look to the past to find out how to bring the story to an end. But by reveling in that nostalgia, it’s unable to push itself forward and even undoes several choices from The Last Jedi that were wonderful. You’ve got some great work from the actors and John Williams giving it his all for his final Star Wars score, but the rest is just pretty underwhelming.

*Read my full review here

Best Scene: “Crocodile Rock” from “Rocketman”

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The movies of 2019 had many cinematic moments that have already earned their way into the history books. Endgame‘s epic army entrances through portals, 1917‘s midnight run through a ruined village, the restaurant scene in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, and the gloriously cathartic pool scene from Booksmart were all in contention here as well. But of the films I saw, nothing felt as purely cinematic as this moment from Dexter Fletcher’s musical fantasy, when Elton John performs in the U.S. for the first time. As he’s playing “Crocodile Rock” to an ecstatic crowd, it uses a historic photo of the singer to make everyone look and feel like they’re floating in the air. It’s one of many moments in Rocketman that beautifully captures the spirit of Elton’s career, but for me, it’s easily the best and most euphoric.

*Read my full review here

Scariest: “Joker”

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Yes, I know Midsommar was also frightening and unsettling to say the least, but there’s something about Joker that’s just deeply disturbing to me. Whether you loved it or hated it, it’s hard to deny that Todd Phillips’ film is one of the most singular offerings of the comic book movie genre. Watching Arthur Fleck spiral downwards into the personification of The Joker is genuinely terrifying in several ways, thanks in no small part to Joaquin Phoenix’s amazing performance and Hildur Guðnadóttir’s hauntingly beautiful score. Without glorifying or idealizing the Clown Prince of Crime’s actions, it shows the horrific state of underfunded healthcare and indifferent social service systems that are still a major problem of modern America. And that makes it scarier than a lot of current horror films.

*Read my full review here

Funniest: “Long Shot”

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In these dark and trying times, every now and then it’s refreshing to have a movie that’s just nice and easy to recommend. This year, that movie for me was the hilarious Long Shot, which makes the most unlikely romantic duo imaginable actually work. Seth Rogen is his usual raunchy and self-deprecating everyman, but Charlize Theron is the true comedic champ here as a woman who might just get elected as President of the United States. Their chemistry works like gangbusters, and the world they live in feels just lived-in enough to avoid becoming a full fantasy. But watching Theron’s character resolve a hostage crisis over the phone while heavily intoxicated might be one of the biggest laughs I’ve had at the movies this year.

*Read my full review here

Worst: “Hellboy”

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Look, comic books and graphic novels are the most lucrative IPs in the industry these days, but Hellboy deserved way better. Guillermo del Toro’s first two movies were just fine as they were, and if there was going to be a third film it should have been under his vision. Instead, we get probably the most egregious example of studio interference in recent years with bad CGI, piss-poor action scenes, and buckets of gore with no real purpose or personality. David Harbour is good in the title role, and it definitely proves that Hellboy can work under an R-rating. But he’s pretty much the only redeeming factor to be found in the rubble. The rest of this film is just one big, bloody turd.

*Read my full review here

What are your own thoughts? What did you think was the worst, scariest, or funniest movie of the year was? What about the most overrated?

“1917” Movie Review

Imagine crawling through No Man’s Land with just one companion by your side. No living person in this era could ever even comprehend having to do so, let alone see it up close. But now, as VR blurs the lines between reality and fiction ever so gradually, this film has come along to put us face first in the filth of it all. Now, this is what a call a “cinematic experience.”

This period war thriller was given a limited, awards-qualifying theatrical release by Universal Pictures on Christmas Day, 2019. It was then released to a much wider audience two weeks later on January 10th, 2020. After doing exceptionally well in specialty theaters originally, it has since gone on to gross over $147.5 million at the worldwide box office. Against a production budget of around $90 million, this could put it in position as one of the highest grossing films of its genre if it continues its streak. It also helps that it has been given some of the best critical reviews of the year and numerous accolades and nominations, including for 10 Academy Awards.

Directed by Sam Mendes, the film marks his feature screenwriting debut alongside co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns. The duo had previously attempted to get two other projects off the ground before Amblin Partners and Steven Spielberg gave the script the greenlight. The story was inspired in part by memories told to him by his grandfather, Lance Corporal Alfred P. Mendes. During filming, conservationists expressed concern for the trenches and sets being built, a warning signs had to be posted to hikers that any bodies they saw were just mannequins.

Set on April 5th of its titular year, George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman star as William Schofield and Thomas Blake, two British Lance Corporals in France during World War I. The Germans have just made a tactical withdrawal from the Western Front and are planning to ambush an impending British attack the next morning. Blake and Schofield are assigned by the General to carry a message beyond the Hindenburg Line that would stop the attack and save the lives of over 1,600 men, including Blake’s older brother. With time running out, the two soldiers hasten to deliver the message and stop their forces from sustaining heavy casualties.

Overall, I like Sam Mendes as a director. He has a great style that’s really slick, realistic, and in-control of everything that’s happening on-screen. He directed Skyfall, which is my personal favorite James Bond movie, and I also was impressed by his smaller-scale drama Revolutionary Road. Hearing news that he would be returning behind the camera for a huge film like this felt almost like an event.

The fact that he would be covering a movie about World War I was already enough to gain my attention, as there are relatively few films about the conflict. Seeing all of the incredible hype and buzz it was getting left and right in the industry, not to mention crashing the Oscar race last-minute, made me even more excited. But that still didn’t prepare me because 1917 exceeded my expectations and is easily one of the best war films of the last decade.

Contrary to what some people may tell you, the main stylistic choice of this film- presenting the whole story as if it were a single continuous shot -isn’t just a showy gimmick. Yes, it’s very stylish and attention–grabbing, but it only serves a way to drive the story forward, spend time with the two main protagonists. We’re with Blake and Schofield every step of the way as the traverse the mud and blood left behind by men they’re hesitant to even call the enemy.

It’s also a big testament to the film that 1917 never once even thinks about glorifying the conflict that they’re in. World War I was an utterly pointless conflict where millions of people died over petty aristocratic squabbles, and the film shows the immense cost that comes with. The characters are witnesses and party to many horrendous things in the trenches, but as long as the army advances forward the higher ups see it as an absolute victory. By keep the focus on just two small soldiers, the real perspective hammers home; there’s not much time for big heroics but even minor acts of courage count.

George MacKay has been building his repertoir over the last few years and he finally gets a real breakout here. As Schofield, he’s fairly quiet and unassuming, prefering to keep his head down than answer directly the big call. Going on this huge trek forces him to confront anxieties he’s been running away from, including long-repressed feelings about potentially going home and being given a medal for something he says as arbitrary.

Opposite him for almost the entire journey, Dean-Charles Chapman is excellent as Blake, the defacto leader of the duo. He’s much more chatty than Schofield, often reminiscing on stories from home or camp to lighten the mood. The enormity of the mission at hand is never lost on him, desperate to see his older brother again but not foolhardy enough to dive headlong into a worthless firefight with the Germans.

These two men have wonderful chemistry together and are the primary reason why the film works. Refusing to cast world-famous stars in the lead roles is a stroke of genius so that the audience can find more relatability in their struggle. We learn just enough about their personal backgrounds over the course of the film to become invested and believe the reliability they have on each other, even if they’re not best friends.

They’re both flanked by respected thespians in small roles and cameos throughout. These include Colin Firth as the General who gives their mission in the first place, Andrew Scott as a drunken and cynical Lieutenant providing their equipment, Benedict Cumberbatch as the stubborn Colonel wishing to push forward no matter what, and Claire Duburq as a lonely French woman hiding out in the ruins of a village. None of these actors stay on-screen for very long, but they each provide a different perspective on the war and its purpose- or lack thereof.

And just looking at the technical aspects, 1917 is an absolutely stunning landmark in big-budget filmmaking. The inimitable Roger Deakins provides the cinematography and it’s some of his best work yet. The aforementioned single-shot look is breathtaking to say the least and always has a fluid motion throughout the whole movie. The realistic colors and gorgeous natural lighting help to create a strong atmosphere of a country that has been torn asunder many times over. It roves over many impressive sets, never once losing focus and makes us feel like observers.

This works perfectly in sync with the editing job by Lee Smith, who helps to make the whole thing seamless. With one very brief exception about halfway through the film, every take looks perfectly stitched together from the first frame to the last. The occasional CGI structure or enterting of interiors is the closest I can tell to when the takes end and start. How Smith managed to make a transition from a window into a fiery village during the nighttime look seamless is beyond me.

With a long career trailing him, Thomas Newman reunites with Mendes to provide perhaps his finest score ever put to film. Much like Hans Zimmer’s work on Dunkirk, it avoids the sweeping orchestral notes of typical war films and instead builds many tracks as a never-ending crescendo. The soundtrack mixes traditional instruments with some light electronics to create a unique sound that’s hard to shake.

One track, in particular, is more mystifying than the rest, as it uses light strings and glockenspiel to illustrate a mysterious environment. Another one near the end is a 6-minute epic as the tension builds towards a massive payoff on-screen. Although they both sound vastly different, they each encapsulate exactly the film is about. The immediacy of the score somehow matches that of what’s happening in the film, and that alone is enough.

With brilliant performances, unforgettable set pieces, and a stylistic choice that actually serves the story, 1917 is an astonishing and fully immersive achievement of modern cinema. Sam Mendes completely tops himself by delivering easily one of the best films about World War I ever made. With the help of Krysty Wilson-Cairns, Roger Deakins, and a willing ensemble of capable actors, he manages to craft a thrilling piece of film that celebrates the small acts of courage while condemning the machinations of war.

Whether or not you agree with its presentation, it’s almost impossible to shake this one off after the credits roll. It’s the rare kind of event film that just demands to be seen on the big screen rather than at home, which further catapults its impact.

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“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” Movie Review

For the time being, I want to do nothing but find the casting director for this movie and shake their hand. Avy Kaufman, if you’re somehow reading this review right now, thank you for this pitch perfect casting choice. I hope that you have a long and storied career ahead of you.

This touching biographical drama premiered at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival. It was later released in theaters worldwide by Sony and TriStar Pictures on November 22nd, 2019. Made for the budget of around $25 million, it has thus far grossed over $61.2 million at the worldwide box office. This means it will most likely break even for the studio, but doesn’t really meet their expectations. Despite this, it has garnered incredible reviews from critics and huge adoration from audiences the world over.

Directed by Marielle Heller, the film had originally been developed by screenwriters Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster under the original title You Are My Friend. The script had originally appeared on the 2013 Black List, which compiles the best unproduced screenplays in Hollywood. One of the main stars had long thought to be untouchable, until a happenstance connection between him and the director allowed it to happen. During production, sound mixer James Emswiller sadly suffered a heart attack on set and died shortly afterwards.

Set in 1998, Matthew Rhys stars as Lloyd Vogel, an extremely cynical journalist working for Esquire Magazine. Tired of his abrasive behavior towards co-workers and subjects, his boss assigns him a new piece to write about “heroes.” Much to his chagrin, the primary subject of the story turns out to be popular children’s T.V. host Fred Rogers, played by Tom Hanks. Although it seems like a straightforward interview at first, these two men come to change each other’s lives in ways they could have never expected.

Last year, we got the sorely needed and underseen documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? from Morgan Neville. Even though I hadn’t really grown up watching Mister Roger’s Neighborhood as a child, watching that documentary deepened my respect for the man and made me see why he’s still relevant today. Why the Academy completely overlooked it in consideration that year is beyond my comprehension.

When I read that Tom Hanks would be playing the man in a biographical movie, my heart almost melted at the near-perfect casting. I had also been really impressed with Marielle Heller’s work in Can You Ever Forgive Me? last year and was eager to see the two collaborate together on this project. And as it turns out, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is just as whimsical and emotional as you might expect it to be.

Contrary to what the marketing may have told you, this is not an actual straightforward biopic of Mister Fred Rogers. Rather, it wisely makes Lloyd Vogel the main protagonist so that it becomes more like a parable on a time when adults and children alike the world over have become so cynical about life. It utilizes Mister Rogers as a way for Lloyd to reckon with the mistakes he’s made in the past, including disowning his absentee father, and for audiences to learn his lessons in an organic way.

Thankfully, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood stops just short of putting the beloved man on a pedestal as a true saint. He also has his own worries and frustrations, but he always tries to find a way to channel that negativity into something genuinely helpful to other people around him. This allows the film to be rather mature and flexible in the scope of its themes and makes it standout much more than your typical historical film.

After a healthy run on The Americans, Matthew Rhys gets to shine as the lead actor to excellent results. As Lloyd Vogel, he is deeply jaded with life and puts his own personal bitterness and dissatisfaction onto everyone around him, including his loved ones. He gradually becomes more sympathetic as the film goes along as he starts seriously considering the advice he’s been given.

Although he’s relegated to a supporting role, Tom Hanks is absolutely perfect as Mister Fred Rogers. Soft-spoken, jovial, and filled with enormous energy, he fits right into the comfy shoes of the iconic star without missing a beat. He wants to spread love and positivity wherever he goes, including the public subway or a small restaurant, and always thinks about the needs of those he cares about.

Chris Cooper is also extremely impressive as Jerry, Lloyd’s estranged father who wants to make amends. Although he’s very brash and abrasive initially, it soon becomes clear that he deeply regrets abandoning his children and cheating on his wife years prior. He spends a large portion of the film begging Lloyd for forgiveness, even though he believes he doesn’t deserve it, and tries to cherish the limited time he has left with his newborn grandson.

Susan Kelchi Watson, Maryann Plunkett, Enrico Colantoni, Tammy Blanchard, and Christine Lahti round out the stellar supporting cast here. All of them are connected to Lloyd and Fred’s struggles in some way or another and try to find a way to change themselves for the better. None of them act showy in any scene, which helps bring an even bigger sense of emotional realism to the film.

And from a technical point of view, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood shows Heller sidestepping artistic flourishes for something straightforward. Shot by Jody Lee Pipes, the cinematography is largely unpretentious as it keeps things focused on all of the subjects throughout the story. The contrast in color and exposure is also worth mentioning, as the WQED studio for Mister Roger’s Neighborhood is full of vibrant colors while the outside world is largely cold in its palette.

It works well with Anne McCabe’s editing, which is also largely devoid of pretension. The whole film is framed by Hanks as Rogers making an episode of his show explaining Lloyd’s struggles to the viewer, and then it transitions into the proper moment of the story. There’s even a dream sequence when many of Lloyd’s loved ones take on persona’s of different characters on the show. It’s a brilliant way of acquainting us with the world without fully getting invested in nostalgia. The film also knows when to keep the frame still and leave out sound when necessary.

The most noteworthy example of this is in the third act, when Fred takes Lloyd out f to a restaurant and asks him to take a minute “to think of all the people who loved us into being.” The camera only remains on the two men while all other sound and the rest of the world drown out. It’s a truly great moment of cinema, and one where it almost feels like Mister Rogers is asking the audience to do the same. And if the silent, sniffling reaction from the people in my theater is any indication, it worked.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a wise, deeply felt movie about having empathy in a harsh world. With humble direction and maturity, Marielle Heller brings to life one of the kindest humans to ever grace the Earth without exploiting his legacy in the slightest. Bolstered by some of the best casting choices in the last few years, this film is sure to bring even the most hardened of viewers to being misty-eyed.

Although I still prefer the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, it’s hard denying that we need to listen to the man’s words and lessons today. To quote Mister Rogers himself, “Sometimes, we have to ask for help, and that’s okay.”

“Little Women” Movie Review

Every now and then, a movie comes along that’s truly great but also warm and comforting like a blanket. Last year, we had Paddington 2 and now in 2019, we have this film. And what a lovely time, it is indeed.

This historical romantic comedy-drama was released in theaters worldwide by Columbia Pictures on December 25th, 2019. Made for the budget of around $40 million, it has gone on to gross over $132.3 million at the box office thus far. It exceeded expectations on its Christmas Day debut and has performed extremely well in various specialty theaters since then. It’s also garnered some of the best reviews of the year and numerous accolades, despite coming in the last stretch.

Written and directed by Greta Gerwig, the studio had been planning a new version of the story for some time. If I’m not mistaken, this is the 8th (Yes, eighth) live-action adaptation of the novel of the same name by Louisa May Alcott. Sarah Polley had originally been onboard as the writer and director of the project but her own version never made it beyond the initial stages. Gerwig subsequently came on to rewrite the script and, after producer Amy Pascal was highly impressed with her debut Lady Bird, was offered the chance to make the adaptation wholesale.

Set in 1860s Massachusetts, the film focuses on the March sisters, 4 girls coming of age during and immediately after the Civil War. Jo, Amy, Beth, and Meg- played by Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, and Emma Watson, respectively -each have their own dreams and aspirations as the world around them changes. The story bounces back and forth between the four of them as young women living together and seven years later when they’ve moved away. As they go about their own personal journeys with friends and family, including Timothée Chalamet as Jo’s longtime love interest Theodore “Laurie” Laurence, they all try to find a sense of agency in a changing world.

Without question, Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, released back in 2017, was one of the finest directorial debuts of the past decade. It was told with such an incredible degree of specificity and honesty that it felt like a genuine piece of history brought to life. And furthermore, it proved that the actress and writer was just as capable of being a brilliant force behind the camera.

Although I have never read Louisa May Alcott’s eponymous novel, I did get to watch Gillian Armstrong’s adaptation starring Winona Ryder and Christian Bale recently. It was a delightful little film but I had high hopes for Gerwig’s version that she might add a sense of modernity to the story. And I’m happy to report that the newest incarnation of Little Women is an utter delight with an incredible cast and approach.

Just like Lady Bird, the really beautiful thing about this movie is that it feels like these characters have a history that goes beyond what’s simply on-screen. From the minute we meet them, it seems as if the March sisters have already lived full lives and could continue living long after the credits start to role. This particular film only covers a 7-year snapshot of their lives and it’s riveting to watch a pivotal moment for their emotional maturation.

Another thing that sets Little Women apart from all the other adaptations before it is that it feels incredibly vibrant and modern without being totally anachronistic. All of the period-accurate dialogue is still there, but the way the characters all talk over each other in multiple scenes makes it feel extremely natural and lived-in. It’s clear from beginning to end that Greta Gerwig is deeply fond of this story and its characters and makes them her own.

Gerwig also continues to be adept at mining great performances out of big casts. The March sisters are all played by Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Emma Watson, and Eliza Scanlen, and it’s hard to imagine anyone else in their respective roles. All four of them have excellent chemistry with one another, never passing up an opportunity to poke fun but are always there to lift each other up when needed.

Ronan, in particular, gives yet another excellent lead performance as Jo March, the group’s unofficial leader. She wants to reject the social and economic constraints put on women during her time period, instead aspiring to become a great storyteller. Her free-spirited energy and adventurous attitude make Jo an immensely captivating protagonist to root for as she sincerely tries to prove everyone wrong.

Florence Pugh, meanwhile, continues her cinematic hot streak of 2019 to give her best work yet as Amy, the youngest of the March sisters. Previously, the character had been annoying and unlikable, but Pugh avoids this by giving her shades of melancholy and regret for past mistakes. She gives a great speech about how marriage is more of “an economic proposition” than an act of genuine affection, which is what she desires.

The supporting cast is rounded out by a treasure trove of great actors in roles large and small. This includes Laura Dern as the March sisters’ stern but caring mother, Timothée Chalamet as Jo’s childhood sweetheart, Tracey Letts as the editor for a newspaper who doesn’t understand Jo’s stories, Chris Cooper as the wealthy but kindhearted father of Laurie, Louis Garrel as a German professor with a penchant for romance, and Meryl Streep as the high-strung, matriarchal aunt of the March family. Each one of them avoid the stuffiness of historical films by reaching into unique personality traits and running with them.

Meanwhile, from a pure filmmaking perspective, Little Women shows Greta Gerwig gaining an even stronger grip on her cinematic voice. Yorick Le Saux’s cinematography uses many different techniques that breathe life into the story. Among them is how distinguishes the two main timelines by having sequences in the past have a warmer, brighter tint to the frame. The camera constantly follows the main characters around and accounts for all of their movements. The use of 35mm film helps capture the beauty of the sets and costumes, and even a couple scenes have high framerates to accommodate the pace of the action.

This matches up well with the editing job by Nick Houy, who’s able to find a brilliant balance between different tones and moments in time. The back-and-forth structure is a bit daunting at first, but it soon flows extremely well as scene after scene compliment each other without losing its energy. The constant cutting between characters in various scenes also helps to create a sense of negative space both between them physically and emotionally. Even relatively simple scenes, like Jo and Laurie dancing on a back porch during a ball, are elevated because of the momentum.

The incredibly versatile Alexandre Desplat compose and conducts the instrumental film score here. Just like the rest of the film, it’s vibrant and charming in the best ways possible. The primary theme uses rapid, staccato strings in a major key that help to highlight the spritely tone of the story. This dynamic is present in other tracks, along with some light piano work and and even some soft woodwinds. It often times keeps the same tune going for when it transitions between timelines or locations so the tone matches the melody. It’s a score that fits the period setting well enough but still feels brand new in many ways.

Building on everything she established with debut and finding new avenues in the process, Little Women is a fantastically jovial adventure with timely commentary on female agency. Despite being one of the most adapted books in American literature, Greta Gerwig is somehow able to breathe new life and air into a staid genre, and cements herself as one of the cinematic greats of her time. She’s also helped along the way by an excellent cast and crew who share her wonderous vision.

It really speaks to Gerwig’s power as a storyteller and a director that she’s able to make Alcott’s classic story about powerlessness and choice feel so fresh and amazing. Just give her an Academy Award for Best Director already, dammit.

“Frozen II” Movie Review

The lengths I would go to protect my sister.

This computer-animated family fantasy film was released in theaters worldwide by Disney on November 22nd, 2019. Following the biggest opening weekend of all time for an animated feature, it has gone on to gross over $1.268 billion at the global box office thus far. This almost puts it financially up to par with its predecessor in a shorter amount of time. With a little more time, it has managed to become the most successful animated film ever released, in addition to the positive attention it’s gotten from fans and critics.

Once again co-directed by Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, the filmmakers and studio had constantly talked about a sequel to the 2013 hit for a couple years before officially moving forward. Lee worked on several different drafts alongside Allison Schroeder, although the latter ended up not getting a real credit for the screenplay. The actors’ recording for dialogue and songs supposedly began as early as late 2016, though the veracity of these claims is disputable. The studio also worked in close collaboration with various experts and representatives of the Saami people to get some story elements culturally accurate.

Set 3 years after the first film, Idina Menzel and Kristen Bell return as Queen Elsa and Princess Anna, who have managed to keep the kingdom of Arendelle in prosperity. One night, Elsa begins hearing a strange voice singing repetitive notes to her and drawing her away into a mystical forest. There, the two of them alongside Kristoff, Olaf, and Sven- voiced respectively by Jonathan Groff and Josh Gad -travel there and discover a deeply rooted conflict between their kingdom and the natives of the land. Wanting to mend things before it’s too late, they also find that their journey may bring them closer to what happened to their parents.

The original Frozen, when it first came out in 2013, was a hugely pleasant surprise for me. It had all of the elements of a classic Disney movie (Memorable songs and heartwarming characters) while also finding interesting ways to invert the traditional format of the past. It was also an indisputably gorgeous movie with some of the best animation of its time and still looks stunning to this day.

It being far more successful than anyone had anticipated, a sequel to the film was pretty much inevitable. I was extremely curious to see how Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee would be able to continue the story, especially since Lee has been made the new head of Disney Animation following John Lasseter’s unfortunate exit. And while Frozen II is certainly a step down from the first installment, it’s still a great time at the movies with the whole family.

Just like last time, this movie is at its best when its questioning the usual tropes of a typical adventure story. Despite what the people around her seem to think, Elsa is neither a villain nor a damsel in distress; she’s just unsure of how to rule a kingdom and manage her mysterious powers at the same time. Similarly, Anna wants to be the princess who falls in love and gets married, but she also learns how to retain her own agency and doesn’t want to be defined either by her sister’s status or her romantic relationship with Kristoff.

Where Frozen II starts to falter is that, while it acknowledges change as something inevitable and even positive, it still doesn’t quite make enough narrative progress to be fully satisfying. It’s undeniably cool to see this world grow beyond the kingdom of Arendelle and even see the potential origins of magic in this universe. Still, by the end, you can’t help but feel that they played a little too safe for its own good, particularly because of how it teased something that could have been much more.

Idina Menzel is still just as iconic as she was in the first go-around, and cements Elsa as one of the most interesting monarchs in Disney’s library. Still unsure of her capability as a leader, she strives to find a balance between the powerful and humble, thinking distance is the safest option for her loved ones. Her voice is still a powerhouse as always and she releases all of her worries and troubles into song whenever possible.

Also, Kristen Bell is charming and delightful as ever as she returns to the role of Anna. Her own sense of confidence and self-worth have grown immensely since the previous film, but she still cares deeply about the fate of her sister, willing to do whatever it takes to keep her happy.

Josh Gad also makes a return as Olaf, the magical talking snowman. He proves to be much more fun and likable as a side character than a protagonist, and brings out some of the biggest laughs of the whole movie. He also has a newfound sense of wisdom and maturity in this film; although much of it proves to be him misunderstanding its true meaning for comic effect, it still creates an interesting dynamic with the others.

Jonathan Groff, Alan Tudyk, and Ciarán Hinds all reprise their respective roles from the first installment while Alfred Molina, Evan Rachel Wood, Sterling K. Brown, Martha Plimpton, and Norwegian singer Aurora come in new ones. All of them bring different weight and while not all of them get a chance to sing, they’re memorable for the most part. Woods and Brown were particularly interesting and I was hoping to see more from their parts than we ultimately did.

And from a technical point of view, Frozen II proves that even after 58 animated features, Disney is still able to make some real surprises. The animation in this movie is somehow even more stunning and rich than the previous one, utilizing 3D animation to its full potential. The stupid amount of detail in everything in every frame, even the hair or fabric of a character’s wardrobe, is jaw-dropping. Not to mention the remarkable physics being displayed on-screen throughout.

There’s a heavy emphasis on the colors blue and orange. We see all different shades of blue in the film, from the ice emitting from Elsa’s powers to the deep blue of the ocean. For orange, it’s mainly an autumnal look from fall leaves and even Anna’s brunette hair has a bit of orange in it. It plays up a nice contrast in the visual composition, representing the contrast between the life the main characters want to live versus the adventure they’ve embarked on.

Songwriters Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez return from the first film to provide a whole new soundtrack here. And with the help of composer Christophe Beck, they’re able to create a bounty of memorable new songs. The big one is obviously “Into the Unknown,” a powerful ballad that allows Idina Menzel’s powerhouse vocals to work magic. It uses the motif of light and uncertainty to a great advantage as it builds and builds, much like Elsa’s confidence.

But for me, the best song of the film is “Show Yourself,” which comes in the latter half of the story. The natural culmination of all the elements that have come before it, it’s a true showstopper as Elsa finally comes to terms with her abilities and their implications. It also features the vocals of Evan Rachel Wood, who proves to a worthy song partner as their voices collide. The animation of the scene that song plays in is some of the best in the whole movie, and both come together to create something special.

More safe and fun than forward-thinking, Frozen II is a perfectly fine family-friendly romp with gorgeous animation and great music. While it doesn’t take as many risks as it probably should, Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee are still able to deliver a fun sequel to its immensely successful predecessor. The vocals of the cast are all still excellent and the Lopez’ give them new tunes worthy of the gold voices singing them.

I think part of what made the first Frozen so surprising and special is that it defied expectations and subverted several of the classic Disney tropes. This sequel still understands those tropes exist, but is more content to coast on the comfort of the characters from last time. Even if it means it has to miss out on what could have been some truly exciting storytelling opportunities here.

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“Marriage Story” Movie Review

I was lucky enough to grow up my whole adolescence with both parents in my life and happily married. I can only imagine what it was like for children of divorce to experience this film.

This divorce dramedy originally premiered in competition at the 76th Venice International Film Festival. Following an extremely lengthy run on the festival circuit, it began a month-long theatrical engagement in specialty theaters around the world on November 6th, 2019, where it grossed over $2.3 million against an $18 million production budget. It then landed on the streaming service Netflix on December 6th to high anticipation from various cinephiles. It currently stands as one of the most critically acclaimed films of the year and has been selected or nominated for many year-end accolades.

Written and directed by Noah Baumbach, the idea originally came to him while in post-production on his previous film, The Meyerowitz Stories. The story was partially inspired by his tumultuous real-life divorce from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh, who apparently responded very positively to the finished product. He discussed the concepts and characters with the two main leads long before anything was written down in order to better develop their respective characters. And as a testament to the film’s unbiased nature, Leigh apparently really liked the film after watching it.

Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver star as Nicole and Charlie Barber, an acclaimed stress and theater director based in New York. At the beginning of the film, they decide to get a divorce and Nicole moves to L.A. to film a T.V. series. While they initially agree to split as amicably as possible, they hire divorce lawyers Nora Fanshaw and Bert Spitz, played by Laura Dern and Alan Alda, respectively. From there, it turns into a harsh, coast-to-coast battle not just for custody of their young son Henry but also for their own personal agency.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve managed to watch a handful of Baumbach’s features across different platforms. The Squid and the Whale, Frances Ha, and The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) really show that he has a style of realism uncommon in many movies. He has also proven to bring out earnest, understated performances from some big name actors in the industry and bring them down to a naturalistic level.

When I heard about the plans he had for his newest film, and the second one under Netflix, I got ecstatic with the cast he was working with. And the news that it would be the streaming service’s second big awards contender, the other one being The Irishman, made me realizes that it would be taken seriously rather than just another film of theirs to add to the queue. And that’s just the case because Marriage Story is a heartbreakingly beautiful film that’s so emotionally rewarding.

If you go into this film expecting to root for one side or the other, then you’d be missing the point of the film. The most admirable quality here is that it always stays neutral, never really showing who was right or wrong, but instead highlighting the emotional and legal fallout from a failed marriage. Part of what makes Marriage Story feel so realistic isn’t just the fantastic dialogue but also how it showcases the two protagonists trying to keep it all under a smiley façade for their confused child.

Nicole and Charlie are actually very reasonable and polite with one another when meeting in-person, only turning sides whenever their ferocious lawyers are in the same room. They only really argue with each other once during the entire film, and it’s really hard to watch as they let long-repressed feelings finally loose. By embracing the messiness and lack of easy answers in the situation, it feels like a real self-reckoning for Baumbach and can even seem theraputic.

Adam Driver has always been one of the best actors around and here, he finally steps away from big blockbusters to deliver his best performance to date. As Charlie, he’s deeply fixated on trying to stay in New York and repeatedly (And unsuccessfully) tries to get Nicole and their son to come with him. His hard upbringing has a clear effect on his emotions, as he has no true concept of expressing his feelings toward anyone in a healthy or friendly way.

Opposite him from a different coast, Scarlett Johansson gets a chance to shine in an incredible role as Nicole. She wants a chance to break out into her own stardom after working under Charlie for years, even if that means breaking his heart and ego. The toll this divorce takes on her is immense, compartmentalizing and drinking her feelings away until it all comes flooding out in several instances.

If these two actors didn’t work well together, the whole movie would have fallen apart. But they have incredibly convincing chemistry and their interactions feel so believable that it’s almost like watching a real marriage fall apart before our eyes.

Laura Dern is also worth mentioning here as Nora Fanshaw, Nicole’s calculating and world-weary divorce lawyer. Her charisma is absolutely scene-stealing as she glides through all of the state and county laws to try and get Nicole on top in the settlement. Although she does seem to care about the well-being of her client, her ruthless tactics and meticulous planning only strains the process even more, even if she can’t quite realize it.

The supporting cast, meanwhile, is full of stars and character actors giving great performances. This includes Alan Alda and Ray Liotta as two polar opposite lawyers Charlie hires, Julie Hagerty as Nicole’s wayward but supportive mother, Merritt Wever as her experienced sister, Azhy Robertson as their confused yet hopeful son Henry, and Wallace Shawn in a brief role as a member of Charlie’s theater company. All of them work wonders in the simple yet emotionally complex story.

And from technical standpoint, Marriage Story isn’t especially showy but still manages to keep your attention. Shot on 35mm film, the cinematography by Robbie Ryan is straightforward and unpretentious. The simplistic shots and compositions give a lot of room for the actors to breathe on-screen, especially given the hefty amount of dialogue. A handful of panning movements and slow zooms throughout help to keep the action in perspective and get inside the mindset of the characters.

It works really well with Jennifer Lame’s editing job, which finds a great rhythm for the story to follow. The film opens with two back-to-back montages of the ups and downs in their marriage as Charlie and Nicole describe everything they love about each other. It’s a perfect way to establish the two and their differing opinions on their time together over the years. Numerous scenes use dissolves or fade-in/fade-out techniques to transition between one another, which gives it a classical feel.

Randy Newman takes a break from Pixar to deliver the instrumental film score here. It’s just as smooth and jazz-influenced as many of his other works, using a lot of soft percussion and double reeds. It gracefully captures the melancholy tone of a failing marriage without verring off into sappy territory. The score uses two different motifs for Charlie and Nicole and frequently repeats them whenever their scenes come back into play on-screen. It sounds almost like a more mature version of Toy Story, and I consider that to be a great thing.

Anchored by some of the best acting this past decade and never getting bogged down in pretension or self-importance, Marriage Story is a devastatingly honest and believable examination of the breakdown of a relationship. Pulling from his own past without taking any sides, Noah Baumbach has delivered arguably his best film yet and one I’m sure will speak to many viewers’ own experiences. Driver and Johansson are obviously amazing in their roles, but the excellent dialogue and realistic interactions help to drive this film all the way home.

“Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker” Movie Review

**Out of respect for the fans and viewers who wish to go into this film as cold as possible, I’ll only be giving the baseline premise for everything. Read at your own discretion.**

2019, as a whole, really has been a year of ending for a lot of pop culture things. Avengers, Game of Thrones, The Good Place, Mr. Robot, Toy Story, How To Train Your Dragon all seeing their narratives come to a close. But perhaps none were quite as anticipated or high-profile as this one, so let’s dive right in.

This epic space opera was released in theaters worldwide by Disney and Lucasfilm on December 20th, 2019, having previously been scheduled for May. After making a cool $40 million from Thursday night previews, it has gone on to gross over $927.5 million worldwide against a budget of $275 million. While that’s undoubtedly impressive, it’s a dip down from the intake of its two mainline predecessors. Not to mention, it has managed to split both fans and critics down the middle on its overall quality and effect.

Directed by J.J. Abrams, the third and final installment in the sequel trilogy under Disney was originally meant to be helmed by Jurassic World director Collin Trevorrow. After he departed due to “creative differences,” Abrams came back with co-writer Chris Terrio in tow to basically start over from scratch. There was also an incident months after production wrapped where one of the actor’s scripts accidentally got put up on eBay and a studio employee spent at least 5 figures to take it back. And in addition to the main characters returning here, this film has repeatedly been stated by the cast and crew to definitively be the final installment of the Skywalker Saga.

Picking up roughly a year after the events of The Last Jedi, Daisy Ridley returns as Rey, a young woman training to become a Jedi. During her journey, she and The Resistance discover that The First Order is about to make their final move in an attempt to control the galaxy once and for all. With time running out, Rey and her friends Poe Dameron and Finn, played by Oscar Isaac and John Boyega, set out on a quest to figure out the enemy’s plan before they can enact it. And it proves difficult when the malicious and power-hungry Kylo Ren, played by Adam Driver, tries to beat them to the punch all the while coming to terms with his own sins.

Although it hasn’t always been great, overall I’ve been happy with the Star Wars content Disney has been putting out in the last decade. I still and always will maintain that The Last Jedi is the best film in the saga in many, many years and I am eager to see what they do with The Mandalorian and season 7 of The Clone Wars. And hearing repeated vows that they would finally bring the nine-film Skywalker Saga to a big close made me excited.

As the hype built towards its release, I remained cautiously optimistic about what the results would be. I had hoped that there would be enough resolution for the characters and storyline to satisfy even fans who haven’t been on-board with the newer entries. And while The Rise of Skywalker is undeniably entertaining, there is so much it leaves to be desired from a thematic and story standpoint.

I don’t envy Abrams or Terrio because of the enormity of their task, (Concluding the mainline story for the biggest movie franchise of all time) but it can’t be denied they took the easiest possible route here. While it doesn’t completely retcon the choices made in The Last Jedi, it repurposes them into something that tries to bring all nine main films into play. But by trying to bring in a big picture, which can be admittedly admirable in concept, it’s unable to find enough satisfaction with the current narrative.

Despite this, there is still a lot of emotional weight that The Rise of Skywalker carries that, admittedly, can often be affecting. The character arcs of this new trilogy have arguably been some of the most interesting in the whole franchise and seeing them come to a head, regardless of the method, is a big event. And obviously, Disney and Lucasfilm have more films coming down the pipe, but it’s nice that they committed to wrapping up this particular narrative.

Daisy Ridley proves for the third time in a row why she was perfectly cast for the lead role of Rey. She has so much emotional baggage being carried, some of it for years on end, and the pressure of trying to bring back the Jedi is clearly weighing her down. All she wants to do is bring light and goodness to the galaxy, which is difficult with the consequences of the on-going war.

Opposite her, Adam Driver still proves why he’s one of the best actors of his generation thanks to his role as Kylo Ren. Still as deeply conflicted as always, his internal struggle comes to a dramatic head as his journey nears its end. He’s equal parts desperate, powerful, and pathetic here as he still struggles to figure out what exactly he desires and what path is he to take.

John Boyega also continues to be golden as Finn, one of the more interesting side characters of the franchise. His comedic timing is still impeccable as always and while he isn’t given as much to do as the last two films, his presence is always a welcome one. Seeing him come this far after having defected from the First Order is one of the more satisfying story threads in the film to be sure.

Oscar Isaac, Kelly Marie Tran, Anthony Daniels, Domnhall Glesson, Joonas Suotamo, Mark Hamill, Billy Dee Williams, and the late great Carrie Fisher (Who appears through unused footage from the last two films) all reprise their respective iconic roles from previous installments. Keri Russell, Richard E. Grant, Dominic Monaghan, Shirley Henderson and Naomi Ackie also make impressions as new characters in this story. Everyone onscreen is reveling in the fact that they’re in a Star Wars movie.

Meanwhile, The Rise of Skywalker is nothing short of a technical marvel. Abrams’ regular cinematographer Dan Mindel handles the camerawork once again here and it’s just as energetic as their previous efforts. The widescreen camera constantly roves around the action to keep up the momentum, even in smaller dialogue-driven moments. The use of primary colors, especially red and blue, are frequently saturated to highlight the constant battle between good and evil.

Maryann Brandon and Stefan Grube’s joint editing job is mostly a success, considering they had to edit some of it on-set. At 2 hours and 21 minutes, it’s one of the longest films in the saga, but this film really *moves.* Mile-a-minute pacing is the name of the game, as the main group of characters move around from one cool-looking world to the next as the adventure moves along. All of the action is cut together very well and comprehensively, even during some of the more extravagant sequences.

For his 9th and final Star Wars movie, the inimitable John Williams returns to provide the instrumental film score. It’s almost as magical as his previous efforts in the franchise, combining themes and motifs from all of the collective soundtracks into one while coming up with a couple of new ones. The woodwinds, brass, and strings all come together in the composer’s trademark sound of an emotional epic. He also brings in an ominous choir for the villain’s main theme, which encapsulates both the mystique of Kylo Ren’s morality and the somber road he’s taken thus far. The use of percussion like timpanis and bells also deserves to be noted, making it feel truly mysterious and adventurous.

Bringing the nine-film Skywalker Saga to a close and doing whatever it takes to get there, Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker is an enjoyable but narratively frustrating end to a truly epic cinematic story. J.J. Abrams sets out to finish the trilogy that he started and while it’s far from being worthy of getting thrown in the trash compactor, it still shows that he’s looking too much towards the past. All of the cast members do a great job to bring their characters’ arcs to a close and Williams’ final score for the franchise is undeniably excellent, even when it’s retreading old territory.

A part of me almost admires Abrams to sticking with his gut and ending the story on his own terms, but the choices he makes along the way are often ill-advised. Regardless of what you may think of how the Star Wars saga under the Disney banner has gone, it’s hard to argue that this final chapter could have been so much more.

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