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“Hold the Dark” Movie Review

If this and Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia prove anything, it’s that the Alaskan Wilderness is a scary environment to go hunting for killers. I don’t care how pretty the scenery may be, if someone (Or something*) up there is wanted in questioning, I want no part in any of it. This horror thriller was initially set to premiere out of competition at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. However, following a series of heated clashes between the distributor and festival elites, it was pulled away from its original summer release and instead premiered at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival in mid-September to somewhat polarized reactions. Following another screening at Fantastic Fest, it was released (very briefly) in art house theaters and on the streaming service Netflix on September 28th, 2018. Directed by Jeremy Saulnier, the same man behind Blue Ruin and Green Room, his childhood friend and frequent star Macon Blair adapted the screenplay from the 2014 novel of the same name by William Giraldi. A24, the same production company that released Green Room, was initially supposed to distribute the film, before Netflix acquired worldwide rights in January of 2017. Set in December of 2004, the film opens with a young woman named Medora Slone, played by Riley Keough, whose young son is seemingly taken and murdered by wolves near a tiny Alaskan village named Keelut. She writes to Russell Core, played by Jeffrey Wright, a writer and retired naturalist who studies wolf behavior, begging him to help track down the wolves and kill them. She wants to make sure she at least has something to show her husband when he returns home, who’s currently deployed in Iraq. But while Core agrees and is out on the job, he accidentally gets drawn into a very dark mystery that the rest of the village seems to be in on. I’m a pretty big fan of Jeremy Saulnier’s two previous directorial efforts, Green Room and Blue Ruin. While the characters in both films were victims to making stupid choices, they both illustrated an exciting new filmmaker with a tight control on his voice. So getting the opportunity to see his next picture from the comfort of my dark living room in the evening made me anticipate Hold the Dark, not to mention the wonderful cast assembled. In particular, I wanted to see how he would be able to handle the bigger-scaled story compared with what he had previously written and directed. While it’s admittedly not really as great as those films, it’s still a solid thriller worth watching at least once. It’s clear in its metaphors that Saulnier has much he wants to say about human nature and our violent natural instincts. We witness numerous heinous acts committed by humans in either the village in Alaska or over in the Iraq warzone, ranging from murder to rape. In comparison, the wolves of Alaska, which are often viewed as savage and uncivilized, are oblivious to their own actions; everything that happens to them is seen as natural. Similar to his previous films, Hold The Dark doesn’t hold back on gruesome violence, but none of it ever happens unless it’s in service to the story. In fairness, Saulnier and Blair ultimately get carried away with their metaphors as the film doesn’t seem to lead anywhere totally concrete. It attempts to hint at something a little more supernatural, but rarely does something totally meaningful with it. I’ve enjoyed seeing Jeffrey Wright in a number of supporting roles over the years in both T.V. and film. And he proves here that he’s fully capable of carrying a feature-length picture as a lead character. As Russell Core, there’s a quiet aura and history of sadness and loneliness surrounding him, and we watch him trying to cling to reason and do what’s right. Riley Keough and Alexander Skarsgård also do great work as the Slone couple, who never seem quite right when they’re separated. From the very minute that these two first appear onscreen, they exude a cold, observational outlook on the remainder of their community. Julian Black Antelope and Tantoo Cardinal do superb supporting work as indigenous locals who seem to know something isn’t right with the family in question, while James Badge Dale is wonderfully subdued and grizzled as the honest cop hopelessly looking for answers. There are also tiny but effective parts by Peter McRobbie and Macon Blair himself that leave something of an impression. Meanwhile, the technical aspects of Hold the Dark reveal reasons why Saulnier is a talent worth watching out for. Magnus Nordenhof Jønck’s cinematography is quite gripping, using the bleak snowy environment to create a strong yet melancholic atmosphere. The way that it focuses on subjects and their every movements is very reminiscent of David Fincher, especially in the slow way that it reveals certain things. The editing by Julia Bloch, collaborator for the director on his previous efforts, cuts the movie in an extremely patient, slow to roll manner. Whenever violence bursts out, such as an intense shootout at a barn, it refuses to linger on gratuitous or bloody images for too long. It also focuses on certain subjects while other things are happening offscreen, as if to create a distant and observational look at the events displayed. Brooke Blair and Will Blair, Macon’s younger brothers and who have previously scored Saulnier’s last two features, have written some music for this film. It is in line with material they’ve written in the past, as it mostly consists of somber synthesizers and strings, reflecting the sad world the characters all live in. It also has a couple of tracks using the same instrumentation but instead arranged to rack up intensity. Filled with atmosphere and perhaps more metaphors than it can afford to carry, Hold the Dark is a sturdy, if unsatisfying slow-burn with a tight central mystery. Jeremy Saulnier proves that he’s able to handle a bigger budget, even if the results don’t always work. Moreover, Jeffrey Wright and Alexander Skarsgård provide some of their best work yet and show why they should be taken more seriously by studios and filmmakers. If for nothing else, this movie stands as further proof why I never want to live in Alaska.

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Let’s Do It: My Favorite Movies #10-1

And so my friends, we’ve at long last reached the end. Doing this series over the last year has made me realize how much I genuinely love creating lists on this website. I’m so glad that there are many people out there who share my enthusiasm for cinema, and hear what my favorites of all time are. It’s also been somewhat revelatory for me personally as I got a better idea of what I truly love in movies. Now, let’s get on to the final 10 of the Top 100.

#10: “Jurassic Park” (1993)

I totally envy the people who were able see Jurassic Park for the first time when it came out in theaters in 1993. From the first shot of the brachiosaurus to the final roar of the T-rex, you feel completely immersed in what Spielberg and CO. accomplished. John Williams’ legendary theme certainly helps with that. Every time I watch it, I’m still amazed at the seamless blend between Stan Winston’s practical effects and the then-groundbreaking CGI. This movie never needed any sequels because it was always perfect. Pure movie magic, plain and simple.

#9: “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1989)

No one director in the history of filmmaking does cinematic adventures like Steven Spielberg. His films are practically always imbued with a sense of fun and joyfulness, even when it can get rather dark in some of them. Nowhere does that feel more apparent than in Raiders of the Lost Ark, which also happens to double as George Lucas’ second-best creation. This is one of those films where most people probably know many of the iconic scenes, even if they haven’t actually seen it in its entirety. There’s a first time for everything, though, and few experiences are quite as rewarding both on the first watch and subsequent rewatch as this film.

#8: “Terminator 2: Judgement Day” (1991)

This is neither the last nor best sequel that you’ll see appear on this list, but it’s still totally amazing all the same. James Cameron has practically built his career off of blowing away people’s expectations, whether it’s Aliens, Titanic, or the recently announced slew of Avatar sequels. When it came to following up The Terminator, it seemed nigh impossible, but he proved all off us so wrong. Terminator 2: Judgement Day has many of the quintessential action movie ingredients and spins them in beautifully with a fantastic time-travel story involving two of the deadliest robots you’ll ever see. Arnold’s one-liners actually feel both weighty and utterly badass, portraying one of the coolest movie characters ever.

#7: “Forrest Gump” (1994)

In recent years, I’ve seen this movie receive a lot of flak for allegedly promoting a conservative agenda. However, I’m convinced that Forrest Gump is actually a lot smarter than a lot of people realize. Whatever politics Tom Hanks and Robert Zemeckis subscribe to are almost irrelevant as the film asks us more to just appreciate the smaller things in life, even if you never know what you’re gonna get. Hilarious in one scene, heartbreaking in the next, and imminently quotable, (I can’t run a few miles without turning around and saying “I’m pretty tired, I wanna go home”) it so gracefully captures the zeitgeist of the mid-20th Century America.

#6: “The Godfather” (1972)

Masterpiece. Literally no other word exists to properly describe The Godfather whenever it’s brought into conversation. Pick any aspect of filmmaking you like, and Frances Ford Coppola’s got it down here. A relatively simple story with rich, complex characters, fantastic camerawork, a memorable score, and stark production design. On the off chance that you have not yet seen this classic, please go and rectify that situation. Like, right now.

#5: “Pulp Fiction” (1994)

The restaurant standoff. The gimp scene. The accidental bullet in the back of the car. The dance. Pick any single moment from this movie, and I’ll happily watch it over and over again. Quentin Tarantino’s certainly had an auspicious and storied career over the last 26 years, but his second feature remains the most perfect out of all of his films. The way that Pulp Fiction deftly weaves each story together in a way that is neither forced nor tacked on is highly inspired. There were undoubtedly waves upon waves of filmmakers that have tried to mimic the style after its release, most of which fell flat on their faces. Thankfully, Tarantino’s sophomore effort still remains as awesome and brilliantly written as ever. Odds are that I’ll pick at least two quotes from this movie to be engraved on my tombstone when I die.

#4: “The Dark Knight” (2008)

It’s truly a testament to director Christopher Nolan that in the 10 years since it’s been released, not a single comic book superhero movie has come close to topping this masterpiece. Going beyond just that, I’d also argue that few films really managed to tap into the post-9/11 American psyche quite like The Dark Knight, with its pristine observations on mass surveillance and domestic terrorism. This is one of the only films I’m genuinely mad didn’t get nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, but at least they rightfully gave a trophy to Heath Ledger’s inimitable, terrifying performance as the Joker. Every scene with him in it feels like a blessing.

#3: “Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back” (1980)

Interestingly, it took me quite a few years to fully recognize that The Empire Strikes Back was the best film out of the entire Star Wars saga. The best thing that could possibly be said about it is that it ages like a fine wine, only getting better as you grow older. Because I can appreciate so many filmmaking aspects now as an adult and still get gitty like a kid whenever something great happens. Whether it’s the glorious yet doomed Battle of Hoth, the unique training session with Yoda, or the climactic final lightsaber battle, there’s never a moment that feels out of place. And I know I’ve already praised him, but John Williams is seriously a musical icon with no less than 3 amazing tunes in here. I liketh this package aplenty.

#2: “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” (1975)

And now for something completely different. Monty Python and The Holy Grail breaks virtually every single rule of cinema you can possibly think of, and laughs at them in the process. Any time I find it playing somewhere, I can’t help but quote and act out the whole damn thing until the end. It also genuinely has one of the most interesting and inspirational production stories ever, as Pink Floyd was wholly responsible for its existence. Without them, we could’ve never gotten this idiosyncratic, whole-party-off-the-beaten-path delight that geeks love around the world. The stream-of-consciousness humor only gets funnier and funnier as I grow older, and will never cease to school modern “comedies” in wringing out true laughter.

#1: “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” (2003)

If someone had ever asked me to put a film in the dictionary for the word “epic,” that spot would easily go to The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. I’ve yet to come across another feature film in my lifetime that so perfectly crystallizes all of the things that I love in movies. The rare 3-hour movie that makes me wish it were longer every time I watch it, there’s an inexplicable connection I have with this film (And its two predecessors) that clicks from the moment the first scene arrives. With an emotional weight that practically defines the term “life-affirming,” incredible large-scale battle sequences, groundbreaking visual effects, believable performances, an unforgettable score by Howard Shore, and one of the most thoroughly satisfying endings ever, every moment in this fantasy epic has been engrained into my memory. And I absolutely hope to share it with future cinephiles to come.

And so there it is, folks! My 100 favorite films of all time, ranked laboriously over the last 10 months or so. Do you agree with any of my picks from this batch or the previous ones? What are your Top 10 or Top 100 favorite films of all time? I’m more than willing to hear if you sound off in the comment section. And for more awesome content like this, be sure to Like this post and Follow my Blog.

“Bohemian Rhapsody” Movie Review

It was a bold choice for them to name this film after one of the most original and innovative rock songs ever recorded and still present the story as exactly you would expect it to. This biographical music drama was released worldwide on November 2nd, 2018, pushed up from its original date on Christmas Day. Made on a budget of about $50 million or so, it went on to gross over $551 million at the global box office, effectively making it the highest grossing music biopic of all time. That’s more than twice the total intake of the previous record-holder, 2015’s Straight Outta Compton. This film, based on the true story of its iconic band, has struggled to get off the ground for many years, with the earliest iteration having Sacha Barn Cohen attached in the lead role in 2010. Things finally started moving forward with director Bryan Singer at the helm in late 2016, with assistance from two surviving band members. However, high contentions between Singer and the cast and crew, eventually led to the director being fired right before completion, and 20th Century Fox hired Dexter Fletcher (Who was previously attached to a version of the project) to finish filming. In the end, the Directors’ Guild of America gave Singer sole credit while Fletcher received executive producer title. Rami Malek stars as Farrokh Bulsara, a young Indian-British Parsi man with an incredible singing voice and talent for songwriting. Through a variety of circumstances, he meets drum player Roger Taylor, guitarist Brian May, and bassist John Deacon in London and they form a rock band called Queen. Renaming himself Freddie Mercury, he takes the band, and himself, on a truly wild and world-changing ride culminating in perhaps the greatest rock concert of all time. I have no shame in admitting that I have been a huge fan of Queen and their music for many, many years now. If there any one musical group that I could go back in time to watch live, it would most definitely be them. I’m listening to their music as I’m writing this review right now, if that tells you anything. Moreover, Freddie Mercury has been something of a personal inspiration for me, never afraid to flaunt his buoyant personality onstage but still keep to himself in private. And this is one of those movies that has been in and out of the works for many years now, with so many different names attached to it. Even after Bryan Singer’s sexual assault lawsuit, I still had hope for seeing my favorite band on the big screen for the first time. Unfortunately, Bohemian Rhapsody is completely unworthy of either the band’s legacy or Mercury’s because it’s about as formulaic and bland as any musical biopic that you’ve seen. Typically, I don’t care about a film’s fidelity to a true story being told as long as the end result is satisfying. But for Bohemian Rhapsody, it feels more like a piece of historical fiction with the name of a band that also happened to exist. Brian May and Roger Taylor were very much involved in the film’s production, and it really feels like they wanted to paint themselves (And Freddie) in the best light possible. That also manages to have an adverse affect in its depiction of Freddie’s homosexuality and eventual AIDS diagnosis, which borders on the offensive in its sanitized, somewhat negative depiction. It throws certain events out of real-life chronological order and makes his romantic relationships basic and hollow. For whatever angle he’s given to work from, Rami Malek is captivating and feral as Freddie Mercury. I’ve been a fan of him from the excellent T.V. show Mr. Robot, and I believe that this role could catapult him to stardom. In many a scene, he’s almost like the spitting image of the legendary front man, with flamboyant movement and a pair of convincing buck front teeth. Compared to him, though, most of the players are subpar or discouraged by his raw energy. His bandmates are all played by Ben Hardy, Gwilym Lee, and Joe Mazzello, none of whom are ever able to be fully developed as people. They act more as sketches of guys that love making and playing music, and their own personal lives are never really explored. Lucy Boynton, who gave a brilliant performance in 2016’s Sing Street, falls surprisingly flat as Mary Austin, Mercury’s one-time fiancé and close friend. (Yes, he actually was in a heterosexual relationship early in life) They share no chemistry on-screen and she feels more like a foil than anything else. Other actors include Game of Thrones alum Aiden Gillen as the band’s pragmatic manager, Allen Leech as a closeted and toxic personal assistant, Tom Hollander as Queen’s lawyer, Mike Myers in a role that pokes fun at a scene in Wayne’s World, and Aaron McCusker as seemingly the only man Freddie gets in a healthy relationship with. Most of them felt confused on what exactly direction to take their characters. As far as technical aspects go, Bohemian Rhapsody is about as flashy and dramatic as a rock concert. Newton Thomas Sigel, who briefly stepped in to direct when Bryan Singer wasn’t around, serves as the cinematographer. He keeps the camera steady for most of the film, and it’s practically swooping around the stage as we follow the singer’s intensive movements. Much of the visuals who employs in dramatic moments are filled with sepia tone, giving a nostalgic feel for Queen and Mercury. The director’s frequent collaborator John Ottman, usually a composer, steps in for the editing job. He does as much as he can to keep things frenetic, using song cues and iconic imagery of the band to transition between scenes. These contributions come together to form some admittedly electrifying and entertaining concert set pieces. The whole film is framed by and soon culminates with Queen’s legendary Live Aid performance in 1985, widely considered to be the greatest rock concert of all time. A 20-minute set, the film version is remarkably captivating and accurate to the real deal; I can only imagine what it must have been like for anyone at Wimberley Stadium that day. Outside of those moments, however, we’re left with a standard, 2-hour and 14-minute bit of fare that’s been half-baked, half-written and heavily sanitized. Bohemian Rhapsody is a detrimentally safe and rote treatment of real musical legends. I can’t help but wonder what this may have looked like under a different director in one of the previous iterations. Rami Malek’s performance is absolutely astounding to watch and the Live Aid concert scene is arguably one of the most rousing moments in a film you’ll see this year. If only the filmmakers were as concerned about the reality of the story as they were with the authenticity with the music sequences.

“Widows” Movie Review

Who ever said that auteur filmmakers could never make more commercial fare for big Hollywood studios? Apparently, nobody said this to Steve McQueen and I’m so glad they didn’t. This heist thriller premiered at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival, earning numerous raves from many who attended. It was then released in theaters worldwide by 20th Century Fox, and has thus far only grossed about $53 million against a budget of $42 million. This started a debate among industry experts whether the fault was the scattershot marketing campaign or the perceived lack of broad appeal towards film audiences. Directed by Steve McQueen, the same man behind 12 Years a Slave, the film is based off of the 1983 ITV miniseries of the same name by Lynda La Plante. Following the frustrating cancellation of his proposed HBO series Codes of Conduct, he instead teamed up with Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn to co-write the screenplay for what he professes is his passion project. There were also a number of apparent risks during the filmmaking process, such as the devastatingly regular amount of shootings in the city it was set and shot in. Set in modern-day Chicago, Viola Davis stars as Veronica Rawlins, a former unionizer and the stay-at-home wife of renowned career bank robber Harry Rawlins. When he and three other criminals are killed in a heist gone wrong, she is confronted by the man they stole from, Jamal Manning, played by Brian Tyree Henry. He says they stole over $2 million from his planned alderman campaign and gives her a few weeks to get it back for him, or else. Desperate and low on options, she contacts the widows of the other three men, Linda, Alice, and Belle, to pull off another heist to pay off the debt. This is a movie I’ve been looking forward to for quite a while, way before any trailer or official image dropped. 12 Years a Slave was an absolutely soul-crushing film that was completely stripped down in its approach to a topic as horrifying and disgusting as slavery. Hearing that that same director was going to be dipping his toes into the action genre, with help from the woman behind Gone Girl, was extremely exciting. Not to mention the impressive ensemble that he had assembled. I know there’s a stigma against more singular filmmakers trying to make more big-budget studio fare, with some of them being declared “sellouts” by fans. I’m happy to report, however that McQueen’s modern rendition of Widows is not only highly entertaining but also marks an important step forward in his career. As I’m sure many other reviewers are bound to talk about, what truly makes this film work is its unique mixture of timely themes and popcorn thrills. In any other director or writer’s hands, this would most likely come off as either way too preachy or bland beyond belief. But under Steve McQueen and Gillian Flynn, we get to look at subjects that speak to America’s current moment and social angst. Ranging from everything including capitalism, interracial marriage, political corruption, class differences, and fidelity, the screenplay is very ambitious and often grasps what it reaches for. Think Michael Mann’s Heat by way of HBO’s The Wire. Occasionally, it does feel as though there are too many plot threads running at once, as one thing seemingly sets up another nearly every scene. But the transition between these threads is beautifully smooth and slick, offering up a portrait of Chicago that truly feels both realistic and alive. Leading the charge is Academy Award-winning actress Viola Davis, and this movie stands as proof that she needs more lead roles. As Veronica, she is incredibly empathetic but has no interest in remaining a meek victim, despite all of the luxury her husband’s life has bought her. Speaking of husband, Liam Neeson is excellent in a small but vital role as Harry, a criminal with an extreme amount of detail and professionalism. Their chemistry is undeniable, and as we get glimpses of their tragic past through flashbacks, or a sequence where his ghost comforts her over the skyline, we see the complications their relationship brings in modern America. The three other widows are played by Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, and Michelle Rodriguez. They each go beyond what roles they may usually by typecast as, showcasing their stryuggle for survival in a world dominated and largely defined by men. The filmmakers also assembled an impressive ensemble cast, including Robert Duvall and Collin Farrell as the racist and powerful alderman incumbent and his reluctant son, Garret Dillahunt as Veronica’s trusted driver, Lukas Haas as a handsome man intimately involved with Debicki’s character, and Carrie Coon as another reluctant widow. My favorites are Brian Tyree Henry as Jamal Manning and Daniel Kaluuya as his brother Jatemme. A far cry from their respective roles in Atlanta and Get Out, they both portray intelligent, downright scary antagonists who are still genuinely trying to do right by their home. Kaluuya’s screen presence particularly made me tense each time because of his cold, removed demeanor. Meanwhile, on the filmmaking side of things, Widows is still a Steve McQueen movie through and through, with his regular collaborators popping up in various departments. Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography is sleek and controlled, capturing the city of Chicago in a dingy yet diverse palette. Movements are extremely precise, a la David Fincher, and it often focuses on a subject’s facial expressions for an extended period of time, revealing their true state of mind. There’s an incredible tracking shot mounted from the hood of a politician’s car that goes all the way from the projects to his luxurious estate, all while we can hear him fighting with his assistant. It’s a truly remarkable set piece that shows the disparity of privilege in Chicago and serves as an amazing dichotomy to what the people in the car are discussing. As for the editing, Joe Walker knows exactly when to keep a shot going and when to cut it down. In fact, the way that a shot lingers on someone or something can have extremely important subtext for what’s going on. When there is action happening, such as the tense opening sequence or the heist itself, it refuses to cut too much, allowing us to understand what’s going on and keep us on the edge of our seats. Meanwhile, Hans Zimmer, previously working on 12 Years a Slave, composes and conducts the instrumental film score. As we’ve come to expect from the prolific composer, it’s very unusual from typical Hollywood flare, as much of the soundtrack is initially very lowkey. But when things start going down, it ramps up the intensity to new heights, thanks to heavy low strings and unique percussion. Like much of his work, it often feels like a never-ending crescendo. There’s also an original song called “The Big Unknown” by Sade that plays over the end credits, her second one for a film this year. It’s a soft, melancholy R&B ballad that perfectly sums up the unfortunate predicament that the women in the story have been put into. With her sweet voice playing against a soft piano melody and bass guitar hits, it’s a song I definitely intend to pick up soon. With a director and cast working at the tope of their game, a tense story that twists and turns, and far more on its mind than just gunplay and car chases, Widows is an immensely enjoyable ride of heist thrills packed with thematic punch. I can’t wait to see what else Steve McQueen may be able to come up with for Hollywood, and now there’s no excuse to not give Viola Davis top billing in more movies of the future. It’s genuinely the best heist movie in years.

“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” Movie Review

For those who are not in the mood for something as bleak as Godless but still more entertaining and valuable than The Ridiculous 6. This anthology-style Western dark comedy premiered in competition at the 75th Venice Film Festival. Despite a relatively cool response, it won the award for Best Screenplay and grew in favor with critics and industry insiders at further screenings at the New York Film Festival and A.F.I. Fest. In a truly unusual move for Netflix, it was released in limited theaters throughout the country a week before hitting the streaming service on November 16th, 2018. Of course, they never release their rating numbers, so it’s unlikely if we’ll ever know it’s true success at the box office. Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, the project is based on a series of short stories the duo wrote over the course of 20 to 25 years. Although it was initially reported to be a six-part television series, it has been insisted by the brothers and production company Annapurna Pictures that it was always intended to be a feature film. Told in a storybook format, we’re given 6 individual stories, all set in the Wild West. The first one finds the titular misanthrope as he sings and gallops through the desert. Then, “Near Algones” follows an outlaw who constantly finds himself in danger, while “Meal Ticket” sees a tragic traveling act as they work their monologue-heavy show through the winter in various towns. “All Gold Canyon” (An actual short story by Jack London) sees a grizzled prospector mining gold out of an untouched part of land, whereas “The Gal Who Got Rattled” is about a young woman begins a lustrous relationship with someone aboard a wagon train. And finally, “The Mortal Remains” sees a handful of travelers riding in a wagon together, arguing about life, death, morality, and other fundamentals of the world. As mentioned in my review for Fargo, I’m generally a big fan of the Coen Brothers’ work. While some of their work has been more impressive than others, Fargo and No Country For Old Men are two of my favorite movies of all time, while most of their filmography is still great at blending various genres and tones. While yes, their 2010 remake of True Grit was a straight-up Western, hearing their plans for an anthology like The Ballad of Buster Scruggs sounded like a great advancement of their careers. It being released on Netflix is both a blessing, because I get easy accessibility to their newest work, and a curse, since it’s not released in theatrical form like its counterparts. But still, it’s a great segue into their filmography with all of the excellent traits to expect from each film of theirs. Like many of their works, this one is far darker and more melancholy than it may seem at first glance. Yes, there is a healthy dose of genuinely funny dark comedy, often through the ironic situations characters in each story get themselves into. (“Near Algones” features the epitome of “gallows humor”) But they also come with a certain kind of sadness, some cases more obvious than others, and even a nihilistic view of the world they live in. The Wild West may be vast, beautiful, and open, but it’s also lawless, harshly violent, and wholly indifferent to the problems of its occupants, especially women and minorities. It’s very similar territory that the Coen Brothers have explored a few times before, but now it’s in anthology format. This is the thread that connects all of the tales together, instead of some crossover character of narrative crutch; for which I’m very thankful. Tim Blake Nelson stars as the titular outlaw in the first short, and I can’t think of an actor better fit for the part. Dipped in a heavy Texas drawl, he constantly breaks the fourth wall to humorously explain his state of mind during otherwise serious scenarios. It fits in good contrast with his violent nature, although he claims not to have any animosity towards his fellow man. The only other two actors that can match him is Tom Waits as the prospector in “All Gold Canyon” and Zoe Kazan in “The Gal Who Got Rattled.” Both show a tremendous amount of wonder for the untouched land that they explore and get to witness firsthand the violence that can erupt at any time. The rest of the ensemble is stacked with amazing talent from cover to cover. Liam Neeson, Clancy Brown, Bill Heck, Stephen Root, James Franco, Brendan Gleeson, Tyne Daly, Ralph Ineson, and Grainger Hines all do outstanding work across their respective shorts. Each of them is able to speak the absolutely brilliant dialogue to be expected from the filmmakers in their own distinct ways, creating unique characters aplenty. As far as technical aspects go, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs shows the Coen Brothers can still retain their unique voice no matter what platform its released on. Without regular collaborator Roger Deakins, Bruno Delbonnel had to step in for cinematography, marking the directors’ first foray into digital filmmaking. It’s a seamless transition, though, as there are many stunning shots throughout the film that capture the beautiful Western landscape, in stark contrast to the violence common in this area. Colors are vibrant and pretty, especially green for the pastors, and really make it look like a painting of the Romantic Era. The editing by Roderick Jaynes, meanwhile, shows the very precise way in which the brothers like to cut their films together. It breaks between cuts very artfully, such as Scruggs moving between different cameras to talk to about his perspective on the West and those who inhabit it. Continuing their fruitful collaboration, Carter Burwell composes and conducts the musical score for the 15th time with the filmmaking duo, with yet another round of impressive. Both sweeping and immediate, the score as a whole often feels like it was made for a Western picture back during the Golden Age of Hollywood. There are a lot of tracks involving strings, including strummed guitars and jagged staccatos, that establish the mood of each short. The use of brass also makes it sound classical, especially with the trumpet solemnly carrying the melody in several parts. It also has an original song called “When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings,” written by David Rawlings and Gillian Welch. Performed by Tim Blake Nelson and singer Willie Watson at the end of the eponymous first short, it’s a bittersweet duet ballad that laments about what it’d take for a gunslinger to give it up. It utilizes both singers magnificent voices, as well as harmonica and choral background; you’d swear it was written in that time period. In many ways, it’s perfect for the film as a whole for how it captures the gloomy tone. As with most anthology films, not all of the shorts are of equal quality to each other. I could have honestly spent an entire feature-length adventure with the titular character alone and been satisfied. Length is also an enemy, as I’m not entirely convinced that “The Gal Who Got Rattled” or “Meal Ticket” needed to be as long as they were. Overall though, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is an expertly woven storybook that’s as hilarious as it is tragic. The fact that the Coen Brothers were able to wring a compelling film out of Netflix is a testament both to their versatility and the distributor’s draw for auteurs. Featuring great music and intriguing themes in each of its stories, like many of their films, it really marinates on you after the first viewing. You may even be compelled to watch it again.

“The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie” Movie Review

Great. First Stephen Hawking. Then Stan Lee. And now Stephen Hillenburg, the creator of SpongeBob SquarePants. 2018 is becoming the new 2016, i.e. more and more beloved celebrities are dropping dead by the end of the year. I honestly think the best way to honor Hillenburg and his legacy would be to include this into my New Year’s resolution. This animated comedy was originally released in theaters around the world on November 19th, 2004. Although it still faced tough competition from The Incredibles, it managed to gross over $140 million at the box office against an overall budget of $30 million. Aided by generally positive responses, it also saw extensive marketing from establishments like 7-Eleven and Burger King, which outfitted various locations with huge inflatable figures of the titular character. Directed by Stephen Hillenburg, he had continuously rejected offers from Paramount Pictures and Nickelodeon to make a feature-length film out of the beloved cartoon he created. After accepting in 2002, he assembled his regular show writers to come up with good ideas and storyboard in ways that were faithful to the show. By most accounts, this film was intended to be the series finale, but Nickelodeon ordered more episodes and continued on anyway, without Hillenburg’s involvement for a number of years. Set in the underwater city of Bikini Bottom, the titular frycook SpongeBob SquarePants becomes seriously upset when he doesn’t get to become the manager of the newly open Krusty Krab 2. Things get further complicated when Mr. Krabs, proprietor of the Kursty Krab, is accused and frozen in place for allegedly stealing King Neptune’s crown. Given 6 days to clear his name, SpongeBob and his best friend Patrick Star set out to the infamous Shell City to find the crown, all part of Plankton’s nefarious plan to steal the formula for the delicious and popular Krabby Patty. Full disclosure before going any further: The original SpongeBob cartoon was a defining part of my childhood. All of the early episodes from the first 3 seasons and this movie make up maybe a quarter of my memories growing up. In fact, a good number of those episodes I can quote and act out from front to back, with “Band Geeks” remaining my absolute favorite one out of all of them. Even though the newer seasons afterward were never nearly as good, I still watched them because I’m that big of a fan. All of that is a very long way of saying don’t really read this review if you’re looking for some sort of cold, objective take. The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie is still as fun, warm, and entertaining as an adult now as it was back when I was a kid. However, there are still parts of it that I can look at from a new perspective without getting misty-eyed or nostalgic too much. For one, the mythical hero arc that the primary story unfolds over is very traditional and well-worn. If you’re not familiar with this film and go in expecting an original, highbrow narrative with layered thematic interpretations, you’re going to severely let down. It takes everything in the manner of a fast-paced, ridiculously over-the-top comedy in the vein of the Farelly Brothers or Terry Gilliam or Abbott and Costello. If you’re a first-time viewer, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the animators (As well as fans) made or enjoyed it while high on bath salts or something. Virtually all of the cast members from the cartoon show reprise their roles here, and none of them have missed a single beat. Tom Kenny and Bill Fagerbakke are at the forefront as SpongeBob and Patrick and make one of the most lovably buffoonish buddy duos in recent memory. Their chemistry is absolutely on point, and while they may not be the brightest pair in Bikini Bottom, their everlasting enthusiasm makes their delivery of many lines priceless. “A bubble-blowing, double baby doesn’t belong out here. Man’s country!” My favorite (And most relatable) character from the show is still Squidward, and while his part here isn’t as big as I might’ve liked, his scenes leave a good impression. Rodger Bumpass as is hilariously grouchy and deadpan as ever, perhaps the one resident of town with much common sense to himself. He and Kenny also voice a couple of other roles in more subtle capacity, such as the French narrator. Scarlett Johannsson and Jeffrey Tambor are gamely as Princess Mindy and her father King Neptune. He is over-worried and loud about the most minute things while she constantly tries to help the two heroes in whatever way she can. Other new players include Alec Baldwin as a tall hitman tracking the protagonists to Shell City and David Hasselhoff as himself, playing a parody of his character from the show Baywatch. In all seriousness, growing up, I thought he was just some character made up; I swear that I’m not lying. On the filmmaking side of things, The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie fully embraces its weirdness and runs a marathon with it. A higher budget gives the animators more time to smooth things out in the film. While it includes show mainstays like bubbles for scene transition, the framerate and designs for characters looks a lot smoother than it usually does in the show. However, it remains traditionally animated, refusing to let computer animation take control. This works to the film’s benefit because the underwater world is extremely vibrant and colorful everywhere the characters roam. It also uses the storyboarded cinematography to its advantage, drawing out certain scenarios for comedic effect where other cartoons may just cut away. Gregory Narholz composes the instrumental film score, which is appropriate and highly reminiscent of the music from the show. Bendy guitar songs and woodwinds contribute to the huge personality found in Bikini Bottom. There are also a number of songs written specifically for the film, such “The Goofy Goober Song” (And a rock cover of it) and “Now That We’re Men.” They’re all delightful enough, but there are contributions from very weird artists, a deliberate choice by Hillenburg. The most memorable one among them is “Ocean Man” by the band Ween, which plays during the end credits. It’s surprisingly well-fitting for the story, and indeed feels like it was meant of be the end of the series. What I’m concerned about now is that now that he’s gone, what’s Nickelodeon going to do next? I’ve heard whispers that they might take the show off syndication or use the upcoming third movie as the real series finale. Whatever comes up, I agree with several other fans that it all should’ve probably just ended here. The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie is a gleefully zany and over-the-top comedy with nothing held back. Filled to the brim with beloved characters and callbacks to the show without ever trying to pander to any audience, this is certainly better than a lot of cartoon continuations in cinematic form. Say what you want about the recent seasons, there’s no denying the memories and devoted fans that Stephen Hillenburg created. I was overcome with nostalgia and sadness during the entirety of writing this review. Thank you for giving us the show about who lives in the pineapple under the sea, and may you rest in peace with all of the other titans we lost this month. If anyone needs me, I’ll probably be jellyfishing in my backyard for a little while.

“22 July” Movie Review

Generally speaking, I attempt to avoid talking about current politics on my blog. But after watching this movie, the temptation is way too strong. I’ll try to stay off of my soapbox as much as possible, though. This political drama premiered at the 75th International Venice Film Festival to great acclaim. However, it received a much cooler response from its screening during the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival, before releasing on Netflix on October 10th of that year. However, while it did receive a limited run in theaters day-and-date, it saw an unusually wide release in over 100 specialty theaters around the globe. Box office estimates are believed to be are $166,000 against a $20 million budget. Written and directed by Paul Greengrass, the man behind The Bourne Ultimatum, United 93, and Captain Phillips, he had originally developed the film under the title Norway and had also set it for a later release date. It was one of numerous films that the distributor pulled from screening at the 70th Cannes Film Festival in protest of new policies. It is unique among modern productions because it was made using a local cast and crew that were bilingual. The film is based off of a sad true story. On July 22nd, 2011, a far-right terrorist named Anders Behring Breivik committed a shocking sequence of violent acts in Norway. These include a bombing of the government headquarters in the capital city Oslo and a teen-led Worker’s Youth League on the small island of Utøya; 77 were killed, making it the worst terror attack in the country’s history. It then shifts into the aftermath, focusing on Breivik’s tumultuous legal process with a reluctant lawyer, the attempts of his victims to recover from the tragedy, and the Labour Party-controlled government wrestling with how to move forward- especially since there may be more attacks to come. I hadn’t even heard about this movie, let alone the events that it was based on, before a couple months ago. And in all seriousness, at first, I wasn’t really sure if I wanted to watch it. Don’t get me wrong, I love Paul Greengrass and his unique cinematic approach to realism, but stories about domestic terrorism are usually ones that I steer clear from. After some thought, though, especially considering the recent rise of hate violence and nationalism in America, I decided that it was important to at least give 22 July a shot and see this issue from a European perspective. And while it doesn’t necessarily work in all aspects, this is undoubtedly a film with honest intentions and speaks to our current moment. Perhaps the most interesting aspect is how the attacks themselves are dealt away with in the first 40 minutes. Whereas other films like this such as United 93 spend the majority of the film centering around and building up to the big tragedy, 22 July is far more concerned with the aftermath and how a country should be able to deal with something like this. Moreover, Greengrass has no interest in diving into what ticks or drives in someone like Anders Behring Breivik because he knows that he’s wrong. And others like him, too. Dylann Roof, Timothy McVeigh, David Duke, Robert Bowers; people who use violence to promote a far-right agenda are wrong. It was also something genius for Greengrass to use a local Norwegian cast as they feel infinitely more believable, even as they speak English. Arguably the main actor is Jonas Strand Gravli as Vilijar, one of the survivors from the attack on Utøya. Disabled and traumatized, he is heartbreakingly convincing and sympathetic as a young teen who’s lost so much due to one violent attack. Equally good is Jon Øigarden as Geir Lippestead, the reluctant lawyer of Breivik during the trial. Selected for having defended a Neo-Nazi a decade prior, you can tell all the struggle he faces trying to defend a monster, especially as he receives threats from Norwegians citizens to step down. Meanwhile, Anders Danielsen Lie is both cold and terrifying as Anders Behring Breivik. He executes the teens with utter impunity and later he espouses his reasons so straightforward and confidently, with no regret for his heinous actions. “I demand to be acquitted because I acted in defense of my country,” he says before the prosecution and families in court, as if he were a misunderstood knight guarding the borders. Sadly, a lot of the things he says in the movie have become mainstream in the Western world as of late, with even some powerful, influential people taking on similar philosophies. Meanwhile, despite working with an unknown cast and crew, Paul Greengrass is still able to project his unique voice through 22 July in the technical aspects. Pål Ulvik Rokseth’s cinematography is very much in line with the director’s previous style of documentary-style, cinéma vérité looks into the lives of these victims. A lot of the film is handheld, but never unintelligible in its delivery, often using zoom-ins and over-the-shoulder shots on subjects. This proves to be a fairly effective as it allows us to peer into these devastating events like we’re either a fly on the wall or watching a highly televised version of what’s happening. Michael Mann’s longtime collaborator William Goldenberg edits the film in a mostly subtle way, bringing each scene together pretty well. When the attack on Utøya is happening, he wisely decides to not linger on the horrifying violence that Breivik commits. Instead, he cuts back and forth between the survivors and him, making it all the more visceral, a similar strategy used when he’s giving his statement in court. There is a musical score written by Sune Martin, in their first English-language feature. It is appropriately sparse and minimalist, as an overt soundtrack could’ve made it come off as manipulative and cheap. What tracks there are throughout are extremely lowkey, mostly utilizing synthesized strings and piano. This creates an ambient atmosphere of sadness and uncertainty, just like the mindset of the country. But there are many other instances without any music, allowing the actors to convey the emotions without any sentimentality. While the music that does exist isn’t necessarily bad, one has to wonder if the film would’ve been better without one at all. Obviously, due to the subject matter, there are a lot of people who will have a hard time sitting through this film, let alone click the “Play” button. At a number of points, it is quite difficult to watch, especially the scenes involving Vilijar’s recovery. And it can also be infuriating watching Anders Behring Breivik sit so smug while the government and courts scramble to figure out what to do with him. Nevertheless, 22 July a clunky but harrowing examination of hope and unity in the face of terror. While the resolution and overall message may come off as naïve and childish to some, in these scary times, it may be just what we need to witness. Not only that, but it demands that our government and the people in charge of it take responsibility for the citizens so that something like the Norway attacks can never be allowed to happen again. And I’m hoping that it doesn’t.