Category Archives: Action

“Pulp Fiction” Movie Review

Alright, since Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Tarantino’s 9th and potentially penultimate feature, is being released later this month, I decided it would be a great opportunity to look back at a couple of my favorite films of his. I highly doubt I’m the only cinephile to come up with this idea, but it gives me an excuse to talk about some of them. This neo-noir black comedy premiered at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the prestigious Palme d’Or despite protests from certain filmgoers. It was later theatrically released in the United States on October 14th, 1994, following a length festival run and huge word-of-mouth among critics. It managed to gross $213.9 million at the worldwide box office against a budget of $8 million, far more profitable than the average indie film at the time. It’s marketing campaign and awards season glory, including an Oscar win for Best Original Screenplay, went on to have a fundamentally huge impact not just on independent cinema but the film industry at large. Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, the story was originally conceived as a short by the director and his longtime friend Roger Avary, but it later evolved into a feature with an anthology trilogy. A couple of scenes that made it into the final product were originally intended for Tarantino’s earlier screenplay True Romance. Producer Lawrence Bender originally set it up at TriStar Pictures, who dropped the project after being horrified by its depiction of drugs and violence. The script was later brought to Miramax and the Weinstein brothers, who immediately bought the rights to it, making it the first feature film Miramax ever financed. The film follows various interwoven stories concerning criminal figures in Los Angeles over a couple of days. These include two philosophical hitmen debating retirement, a violent washed up boxer on the run from a mob boss, a Bonnie and Clyde-esque couple holding up a restaurant, and said mob boss’ wife going on a turbulent night out with one of his men. And to make things even more enticing, all of these vignettes are presented out of chronological order, so characters float in and out at various moments. I feel like I shouldn’t have to emphasize how deeply impactful this film has been on the world cinema over the last 25 years. Hell, even the poster for this film has already become a staple of college dorm rooms and cinephile apartments everywhere. Even if you only have a casual or passing interest in movies, this film will always make its way into your orbit one way or another. I was extremely curious to see how well it would hold up on this rewatch, especially after developing his craft further over the years to come. Would it seem obsolete and amateurish compared to the director’s later works? As it turns out, quite the opposite; even after making 8 feature-length movies, Pulp Fiction unquestionably remains Tarantino’s magnum opus. Under most circumstances, no film should be able to keep an audience’s attention through conversations about foot massages and a 5-dollar milkshake. But one of Tarantino’s best weapons has always been and continues to be his masterful ability to write dialogue that feels both cool and natural in his characters’ mouths. He uses these extended diatribes about trivial subjects both to help characterize the individuals on-screen and subtly hint at their interpretation of certain events in the story. Speaking of story, the decision to split the narrative up into different chunks and rearrange them all out of order is kind of an ingenious idea. I’m fairly confident that if this film were told in chronological order, it would not have become nearly as successful as it is now. But thankfully, Pulp Fiction feels like one of those old magazines with different crime stories- unexpectedly interwoven in a really graceful and organic way. Another one of the director’s specialties is getting the perfect actors for various roles and really pushing them to do their best. Two prime examples are John Travolta and Bruce Willis as Vincent Vega and Butch Coolidge, a bumbling hitman and runaway boxer, respectively. Both of these men’s careers were in a rut and yet somehow Tarantino was able to resurrect them by making these two interesting and unpredictable in nature. Another huge standout for me is Uma Thurman as Mia Wallace, wife to an intimidating local mob boss. Even as the literal face of the movie on most of the marketing material, she’s surprisingly in the movie prominently only for one segment, “Vincent Vega and Marcellus Wallace’s Wife.” Despite this, she still leaves a huge impression as a cocaine-addicted aspiring actress who just wants to have fun night out, especially during a dance sequence to “Son of a Preacher Man” by Dusty Springfield. But let’s be honest here, people: it’s Samuel L. Jackson in his star-making turn as Jules Winnfield that really brings the movie to a homerun. The first of several collaborations between the actor and filmmaker, he clearly relishes the role as an efficient hitman who comes into a spiritual crisis. It’s perfectly easy to see why Tarantino wrote the role specifically for Jackson, particularly when he recites a passage from Ezekiel before offing a victim: “The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides y the iniquities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men.” He’s had many great roles since then, but this will always be his defining role. And on a purely technical level, Pulp Fiction demonstrates Tarantino’s early prowess behind the camera. Many below-the-line team members had previously worked with the director on Reservoir Dogs, including cinematographer Andrej Sekula. His anamorphic cinematography creates a wonderful and diverse canvas with a beautiful film stock that leaves no grain. The camera almost always seems to know exactly to keep a focus on and a number of scenes are done in long takes. This is leveraged by the late Sally Menke’s fantastic editing job. Every single scene and shot is cut together to the director’s incredibly specific vision, giving us just what we need to see. It also manages to be a punchline for certain scenes featuring pitch black humor and mystery. Whether it’s the golden gleam from a McGuffin-like briefcase or the sudden cut from a guy accidentally getting shot in the face, the movie juggles a handful of tones that are beautifully interwoven. There is no original score for this film. Instead, we’re treated to a diverse and appropriate soundtrack full of songs from different eras. Starting and ending with surf rock interpretations of various songs, every selection is so obscure yet perfect for the moment. My personal favorite is Neil Diamond’s “Girl You’ll Be a Woman,” another little dance sequence for Mia Wallace. I don’t know how he does it or where he finds these songs, but the director always picks the right track for whatever scene it’s used in. And of course, with such a big, influential film like this, there came a wave of imitators in its wake. You know the types I’m talking about: fast-paced, dialogue-heavy movies with witty criminals as the central characters where violence is often used as a punchline for the humor. And yet, no matter what, none of those are ever able to measure up to what this film did because it simply did all of that right. Pulp Fiction is a cleverly written and highly rewatchable watershed moment for cinema across the board. While he’s made several other great films since this one’s release, Quentin Tarantino will always have to measure his filmography to this early masterwork. The characters and dialogue will far outlast any of the filmmakers and actors involved in this project. It’s rightfully become one of the quintessential films to watch as part of becoming a cinephile alongside Citizen Kane, The Godfather, Star Wars, and more.

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“Game of Thrones” Series Finale Review

All good things must eventually come to an end, whether the corporate overlords like it or not. So if you haven’t yet figured it out from the title, this post is going to be filled to the brim with spoilers for the 73rd and final episode for Game of Thrones. If you are not yet caught up on the show, (Or simply don’t care) do NOT read this any further. Seriously, just stop where you are. Now I won’t hesitate to admit that I came relatively late to the hit HBO show. I had definitely heard about it beforehand, including some major events like the infamous Red Wedding, but I didn’t full jump onboard until about mid-2014. First, I made it a goal to read the existing books in A Song of Ice and Fire, then played catchup with the show itself. And first things first: for the most part, I’m okay with the changes that have been made to the onscreen adaptation. While I think some fans are justified in their frustration with the abbreviation of some storylines, (I really wish they had done Euron Greyjoy faithfully) ultimately the books are the books and the show is the show. And there are some plot points in these last few seasons that I could definitely see happening in The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring. Now onto “The Iron Throne,” the last episode of Game of Thrones proper that we’ll ever get. While I could talk about the eighth season as a whole, particularly waxing lyrical about the sheer magnitude of the Battle of Winterfell in “The Long Night,” this last episode is all I really have time to discuss. First and foremost, I was surprised by how quiet the episode itself actually was. I had expected something of a calm after the destruction of King’s Landing, but the overall lack of dialogue made a certain impact as the surviving characters wandered the ruins. Which reminds me, say what you want about these last 6 episodes, the production value and filmmaking techniques have been so amazing. Whether it’s Ramin Djawadi’s immaculate score or the incredible production design, the below-the-line crew almost never missed a beat. The shot of Daenerys walking down the steps of the Red Keep as Drogon spread his wings was especially beautiful and symbolic. And when she throws Tyrion Lannister in the dungeons, he urges Jon to see what the Mother of Dragons has become and to do something about it. Now for the past three weeks, my friends and I have debated whether it would ultimately be Arya Stark or Jon Snow to deliver the final blow to Dany. Turns out, it was the former; Jon stabbed his love/aunt in the heart with a dagger, both swimming in tears. What really got me emotional in this scene was Drogon’s shrieks; they legitimately hurt and felt like they were in grieving for a mother. Then came something I wasn’t expecting: Drogon not only spares Jon’s life, but he completely melts down the Iron Throne in flames. If Dany couldn’t be able to sit on it, then nobody else could. Now that she was gone, who would rule the Seven Kingdoms? Should they even have a ruler? Well, as Tyrion points out to the remaining lords and ladies of the land, no one is qualified for the job other than Bran Stark. Because he’s essentially the living embodiment of Westeros’ memories, his stories of the past and present may give a good precedent for the future; and who better to serve as his Hand than Tyrion himself? But before any of it becomes set in stone, Sansa Stark asks for the North to become independent once more, thus making her brother Ruler of the Six Kingdoms for the first time in history. And with the brand new Small Council assembled, newly appointed Grandmaester Samwell Tarly presents A Song of Ice and Fire, a text documenting the events of the series in its entirety. Sidenote: I think it’s kind of hilarious that the maesters managed to finish writing A Song of Ice and Fire before George R.R. Martin managed to. We also get to see Sansa being crowned as Queen of the North, with the Lords and Ladies giving her a similar appraisal as they did Jon Snow. The biggest part of the finale I wasn’t too sure of was Arya’s resolution. She decided to give up her lands and titles to go exploring whatever’s west of Westeros, accompanied by a small crew and loads of maps. I don’t know why, but that felt the most abrupt of all the storyline conclusions here. And ultimately, the show ends in the same place where it begins: beyond the Wall. Since they can neither execute him nor let him go for killing Dany, Jon is sent to the Night’s Watch for the rest of his days. After an awesome reunion with Ghost, he, Tormund, and the last of the Wildlings leave for the woods beyond the Wall, presumably to settle back in after all of the commotions the last couple of seasons. And that’s it. 9 years, 8 seasons, 73 episodes, hundreds of hours, all come to a close here in “The Iron Throne.” From what I’ve read, I think one of the biggest reasons why fans are upset about it is because this is ultimately all we get. The HBO bosses have already confirmed that sequel shows are off the table, and I doubt the upcoming prequel show with Naomi Watts will really fill some holes that fans perceive. Personally, I do think that this season was rushed and could have benefited from having a couple more episodes to really wrap some things up. Weiss and Benioff claim to have known the ending for about 5 years now, so they at least seem to know what they’re doing. But I’m sorry, that petition to remake Season 8 is one of the stupidest fan campaigns I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen some really dumb ones in my time. If you genuinely don’t like the last season, that’s perfectly understandable and I get a lot of the hate, but in what realm of reality are fans entitled to dictate how a story should be told? To quote Martin himself, “Art is not a democracy,” so if you don’t like that Azzhor Ahai or Bran warging into Drogon didn’t pan out how you wanted, that’s your own problem to deal with. I don’t run this show and neither do you. And to be honest with you, I was mostly satisfied with where everything and everyone turned out in this last episode. There were a handful of outcomes that I didn’t quite see coming, the biggest of which for me was when Drogon utterly melted the Iron Throne. My favorite development, though, is undoubtedly when Brienne of Tarth became the Lord Commander of the Kingsguard. She has completely and 100% earned it after everything she’s gone through, I’m so proud of her. And if we’re being honest, the overall outcome doesn’t sound too far-fetched from what has been intended by the author. I am genuinely curious to see how different the ending is when and/or IF The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring come out. Regardless of what you thought of this last episode or season, there’s no denying the fundamental impact that Game of Thrones has had on the television landscape. And I think it’ll be a very long time before any show reaches the scope and scale of this magnitude ever again. To quote one of my favorite characters in the show: Valar Morghulis.

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“Shazam!” Movie Review

Alright, not going to lie here: After watching both this and last year’s Instant Family, I’m seriously considering adopting foster children. I had never even thought about it before, but now I would love to give it a try someday. I’m being totally serious. This superhero comedy film was released in theaters around the world by Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema on April 5th, 2019. Made on a production budget of around $80 million, the film has managed to gross over $361.5 million at the worldwide box office. This partially came from a $3.3 million total made from advanced screenings setting up by Fandango two weeks earlier. It has also received some of the best reviews in the franchise and a sequel is already in the early stages of development at the studio. Directed by David F. Sandberg, maker of the horror films Lights Out and Annabelle Creation, the project had initially been in and out of development hell since the early 2000s. After many stops and starts throughout the decade, Warner Bros. finally put it on its release slate in 2014 with Dwayne Johnson attached as the potential villain Black Adam. He eventually departed the project for a future solo film, and remained credited as an executive producer. This also marks the seventh overall installment in the constantly evolving DC Extended Universe. The story follows a young orphan named Billy Batson, played by Asher Angel, who’s been in and out of foster homes for most of his life. After moving into a group home that includes disabled comic book nerd brother Freddy Freeman, played by Jack Dylan Grazer, he later is visited by a mysterious wizard named Shazam. This wizard is looking for someone who is pure of heart to take his place and transfers his immense powers over to Billy, who transforms into an adult played by Zachary Levi. Quickly becoming an internet sensation, his powers and exploits gain the attention of Mark Strong’s Dr. Thaddeus Sivana, who’s been tracking the wizard’s powers for decades. I’ll be honest here, for the longest time I didn’t actually think this movie was going to happen. Sure, there was the persistent news that The Rock was playing the main villain, but that is about as consistently supporting as saying Channing Tatum’s Gambit movie is actually going to happen now. In any case, the film is here in theaters now, and it’s here to stay for at least a little while. The trailers for this movie were very funny and lighthearted, but there was still a skepticism within me about it. Although I haven’t seen Sandberg’s debut Lights Out, I was legitimately creeped out by the short film that inspired it. And while horror directors in the past have adapted well to the superhero genre, such as James Wan or Scott Derrickson, since he only had two other movies under his belt, I wasn’t entirely sure if it would stick the landing. Shazam! is far and away one of the best films in the DCEU and perhaps one of the most fun entries in the genre as a whole. Like some of the best superhero movies, this one is primarily concerned about what it means to be a hero, rather than just big action spectacle. Billy is not pure of heart, so he has to learn how to use his powers responsibly and for the betterment of others. Since he’s only 14 years old, this is hard for him to realize, especially when Freddie helps him become a YouTube star and they initially use the powers for whatever they want. I was actually surprised by how much Shazam! had to say about masculinity and what it means to be a “man.” This is something that Dr. Sivana constantly struggles with understanding because of his very harsh upbringing, and also leads to some pretty terrifying imagery. The film occasionally strains with balancing this delicate tone, but for the most part it’s done pretty well. I can’t think of a living actor better fit to play the adult Shazam than Zachary Levi. As a big fan of his work on the show Chuck, his boyish charm and bumbling charisma make him perfect for the titular role. It star Jack Dylan Grazer is equally perfect as his foster brother Freddie Freeman, a massive comic book aficionado. It’s clear that while he sees the potential good that this can bring about, he also wants an opportunity to do something worthwhile and prove he’s not just a sad kid in crutches. The two of them have incredible chemistry together throughout the film, making for one of the most watchable duos in superhero movies recently. Mark Strong, consistently typecast as villains, is noticeable as the big baddy Dr. Thaddeus Sivana. He’s given a rather disturbing and dark prologue at the beginning, which sets up all of the confusion and obsession his character has to deal with in the story. I had partially expected him to be an intentionally over-the-top villain, but his backstory and characterization surprised me. Meanwhile, Billy’s foster family is filled with both new and familiar talent. Cooper Andrews and Marta Milans are warm and empathetic as the parents, Grace Fulton is caring yet conflicted as the college-bound older sister, Faithe Herman is extremely effusive and lovable as the youngest of the bunch, Ian Chen is honestly hilarious as the residential tech wizard, and Jovan Armand is shy and reserved as the middle child. Each one feels alive and brings a different aspect of the family to like. The technical aspects of Shazam! show that it’s a film which Sandberg has total fun working within. Maxim Alexandre, known mostly for shooting horror movies, handles the cinematography with a rather balanced aesthetic. Whether it’s highlighting the vibrant, popout colors of the titular hero’s suit or the more nightmarish look of the villain’s henchmen, the personality is always definite. It goes surprisingly well with Michel Aller’s editing, which manages to keep both the pacing and tone consistent throughout the 132 minute-long runtime. There’s one particularly amusing “training montage” set to Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” where Freddie takes videos of Billy testing his powers. The way it moves between first-person shots is quite funny and engaging. Benjamin Wallifisch, one of Warner Bros. and Hans Zimmer’s most promising proteges, provides the instrumental score. Much like the rest of the film, it feels like an appropriate throwback back to an era of blockbusters that weren’t afraid of their source material. With jovial bells and percussion, there’s a certain childlike wonder to the main theme. It also helps that horns and strings manage to come in and out of the melodies that makes it sound like a classic. The best way I can describe it is if John Williams decided to compose for his long-awaited Superman follow-up. Shazam! is a colorful and light-hearted dose of old-fashioned superhero fun. Despite his horror background, David F. Sandberg proves that he’s quite capable of making the genre his own. Not to mention the pitch perfect casting of Zachary Levi and Jack Dylan Grazer which makes the connection feel extremely tangible.

“Avengers: Endgame” Movie Review

**While this review will be completely spoiler-free, I’m going to be under the assumption that everyone reading it has already seen Infinity War. Proceed at your own discretion.**

And to think, 11 years ago, this entire saga started in a cave, with a box of scraps. It’s truly jaw-dropping to see how far it’s come since then. But I’m extremely glad to have seen it all the way through. This epic superhero film was released in theaters around the world on April 26th, 2019, a week ahead of its previously scheduled release date. Within its first couple of weeks, it has already grossed over $2.189 billion at the global box office, and is very likely to make it as the highest grossing movie of all time. It’s broken a handful of box office records and is sure on its way to shatter some more in the coming weeks. Numerous movie ticket websites such as Fandango and Atom Tickets consistently struggled to keep their servers operating, and ended up selling the most amount of pre-release tickets for a film within a few hours. Once again directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, the film was shot back-to-back with its predecessor Infinity War. This marks the 22nd overall installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and has been promised to be even more of a culmination than its predecessors. While most all of the MCU films have maintained a certain level of secrecy about the plot, the producers and marketing team for this one went extremely far out of their way to ensure nothing got out. This included filming fake scenes that were purely used for trailers, a practice which some took issue with. According to numerous sources, only one member of the principal cast was given the entire screenplay to read. Picking up 23 days after the end of Infinity War, the remaining heroes of the Avengers are still reeling from the destructive victory of Thanos. Soon, they realize that they might have a legitimate chance to undo the damage done by his snap, which ended half of all life across the known universe. So they set out on a quest to recover the Infinity Stones to hopefully bring their loved ones back. And… that’s it. That’s quite literally all I can get into here without spoiling anything else about the plot. The Russo Brothers actually sent out a joint letter on Instagram asking fans to ruin anything for the people who haven’t seen the movie and out of respect for them, I won’t say another word about the actual plot. Obviously, like so many other fans and cinephiles, I was wondering how Marvel and the Russos could possibly follow up Infinity War, a film I found highly entertaining despite feeling a little unsatisfying. This would arguably become an even bigger culmination than that film, the sum of 22 films over the past 11 years. No other film in history has had such a Herculean task to achieve, let alone take on. Would it reach the stars or crumble in our hands? The simple answer is yes, yes it can; Avengers: Endgame exceeds all expectations one could possibly hold for it. The best way I can describe it is that this feels like the series finale for a T.V. show that I’ve been watching for the last decade. It has a certain sense of finality that most superhero films don’t have, really bringing a lot of character arcs to a strong thematic close. If I were given the job of writing the screenplay, I couldn’t possibly have done a better job at wrapping it all up. Of course, Disney and Marvel still have numerous projects coming down the pipe in the coming years. But as the wrap-up to 11 years worth of stories and characters, Endgame couldn’t have been more fulfilling and awesome. The Marvel mountain will never peak this high ever again. Quite literally everyone who’s ever been in an MCU film to date appears in this movie one way or another. All of them have grown immensely comfortable in their roles to the point where it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing them. Of particular note are the Original Six Avengers- Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, and Jeremy Renner. All of them have gone through incredible journeys since the first installment and getting to see them all reunited is so emotional. The end credits even include the actors’ signatures next to their names. Downey Jr. and Evans are especially amazing as Tony Stark/Iron Man and Steve Rogers/Captain America, respectively. As the defacto leaders of the team, both feel a deep shame from having failed the people they love and struggle to reconcile with the new world. And despite the faith-shattering fallout the two of them had in Civil War, they realize that their mission goes beyond any hard feelings they harbor for one another. Also noteworthy is Karen Gillan as Thanos’ cyborg daughter Nebula. In the previous films, she had never really impressed me or stood out as a character very much. But here, she’s given a full, interesting arc where we get to witness her reckon with past misdeeds and how to try and redeem herself. And at this point, there’s no real need to espouse how Avengers: Endgame is because all parties involved know exactly what they’re doing. Whether it’s lighting, sound design, art direction, or costumes, quite literally everything here works. The visual effects especially, as it took nearly 10 different companies- from Industrial Lights & Magic to Framestore -to bring the complex visuals to life. They’ve already accomplished making a fully CG character like Thanos look photorealistic, but adding more to that and keeping all of the realistic detail is unparalleled. It also has some of the best editing in the franchise done by Jeffrey Ford and Matthew Schmidt. When the mission becomes split up, we are able to cut between multiple scenes of the heroes working on their parts. This keeps the pacing aloft without having to getting muddled by exposition or constant action scenes. But when there are action scenes, they are so beautifully crafted and fluid that you can tell everything that’s happening. Without any. Rapid. Cuts. Once again reprising duties from Infinity War, Alan Silvestri provides perhaps one of the best superhero scores of the last to decades. By calling back to various themes and motifs from throughout the MCU, it feels like it’s really bringing everything full circle. The use of massive choirs, brass, and strings for new tracks is enough to induce goosebumps in any viewer. Of particular mention is the track titled “Portals,” which blends the classic Avengers theme song from the first movie with an exciting intro and outro. I’ve given the MCU heat for not having lots of memorable music, but this soundtrack truly feels like a fitting culmination to everything that’s come before in this franchise. In all seriousness, there is so much more I could write about this movie, that I WANT to write about this movie. But for now, this spoiler-free take is all that’s going to out right now. I’ll wait a little bit longer to write a spoilery review with my thoughts on various scenes or things that happened. Somehow bringing together 11 years and 22 movies worth of stories and making it all meaningful, Avengers: Endgame is an emotionally resonant journey, and one of the most satisfying feature films I have ever seen. This was the epic payoff to an unprecedented cinematic gamble that will rarely, if ever, find its equal. The Russo Brothers truly did the impossible and brought Stan Lee’s unbridled vision to life on the big screen. My only wish is that he had stayed alive long enough for it to come before his eyes like the rest of us. If this truly the endgame for most of this universe, than I am so happy to have taken this road, even through the bumpier installments. I love it, 3000.

“Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace” Movie Review

Alright, I’m going to be completely honest with everybody reading this review. It is May the 4th, and this is not really the Star Wars movie I want to be talking about right now. However, I promised the review for a while and it’s appropriate for the 20th anniversary, so let’s do this. This epic space opera was originally released in theaters worldwide on May 16th, 1999, almost 16 years to the day from the premiere of Return of the Jedi. Widely anticipated from fans and the general public, the film managed to gross over $924.3 million at the global box office. This made it the highest grossing film in the Star Wars saga and the second-highest grossing film of all time at that point. It was also rereleased in 3D in 2012, bringing its total to over $1 billion. Despite this, it had an incredibly mixed reception, with fans and critics saying it was either just fine or a hot pile of garbage. Written and directed by George Lucas, the director had long expressed no interest in continuing the Star Wars saga as he felt it would fade out, even cancelling a planned sequel trilogy. However, after seeing the franchise’s sustained popularity through the Expanded Universe comic books and novels, he decided to move forward. He apparently adapted the screenplay from a 15-page outline he wrote way back in 1976, and took advantage of the then-burgeoning innovations of CGI. It’s also been confirmed that he tried to hand the reigns over to Ron Howard, Robert Zemeckis, and Steven Spielberg, all of whom insisted he be the one to helm it. Set 32 years before the events of A New Hope, Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor star as master Qui-Gon Jinn and apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi, two Jedi Knights sent to try and end a dispute between the Trade Federation and the Galactic Republic. Barely escaping an attempt on their lives, they soon abscond with Queen Amidala just as the Federation launches a full-scale invasion of the planet Naboo. While on the run and trying to make it home, they come across a nine-year-old boy named Anakin Skywalker, played by Jake Lloyd, who has unusually strong powers with the Force. They ultimately decide to take him and a misfit alien named Jar Jar Binks on a quest to prove that the Trade Federation’s actions are completely illegal and under the influence of the Sith Lord Darth Sidious. This is one of those films that’s hard for me to review fairly because it’s such a divisive film among fans and critics. I myself have had conflicted feelings over it for many years. I used to really like it and defend it to death as a kid, along with the other two prequels Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. Now that I’m older, I can definitely understand why so many fans felt burned by it when it was originally released. But is it the intergalactic dumpster fire that a lot of people have continually proclaimed it as? While Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace may be extremely disappointing and subpar compared to the rest of the saga, there are still a handful of things I like about it. I think George Lucas is a very creative person, with tons of different ideas that he wants to get out on the canvas. He wants to make a film about the political and economic machinations behind a galactic civil war? That is perfectly fine by me. What’s so bothersome about The Phantom Menace is that it never really weaves all of these ideas into the story in a compelling or organic way. Sure, we get to see that slavery exists in the Outer Rim and the lightsaber battles are glorious, but it doesn’t really matter when the direction and characterization are so choppy that it feels like they might have been sleepwalking. And I’m not even going to dive into the problematic nature of “midichlorians” and how that alters the Force. The performances, across the board, are an incredibly mixed bag. The impressive ensemble, including everyone from Samuel L. Jackson to Ian McDiarmid, try their hardest with the material given and are occasionally able to power through the wooden dialogue. Liam Neeson and Natalie Portman, as Quin-Gon Jinn and Padmé, seem particularly stiff and uncomfortable, not quite able to make out what to do with their characters. Ray Park and Ewan McGregor are by far the best of the bunch as Darth Maul and young Obi-Wan Kenobi, respectively. McGregor’s interpretation as a somewhat hotheaded Padawan is a neat foil for his later role in the franchise, and while Maul has few lines of dialogue, he left an impression as one of the coolest villains in the saga. Now we come to Ahmed Best and Jake Lloyd. I have no problems with these two personally, and the career-hurting hate they received is wholly unfair. But it’s hard for me to deny that Jar Jar Binks is an annoying character, even though Best is clearly have the most fun out of any of the cast members. And Lloyd does some decent work as young Anakin, setting the groundwork for the character’s tragic arc to come. But because the characterization is all over the place, there isn’t much of an angle that he gets from it. Even when it comes to the technical aspects, The Phantom Menace is still a hit-or-miss. David Tattersall’s cinematography is usually quite flat and uninteresting, opting for dull camera angles and zooms. Occasionally it starts to pick up when something exciting happens, but the film is so focused on expository dialogue that they’re few and far between. It also has a weird and confusing color palette, being bright and gorgeous one moment and absolutely dull the next. For better and worse, it goes hand-hand-hand for the editing by Paul Martin Smith and Ben Burtt. Using classic screen-swipes for transitions, the disparity between what’s convincing practical effects and obvious CGI is too often. While some of the effects still look fine and were probably fantastic for their day, others just have me scratching my head. But it does shine during the pod-racings sequence and the lightsaber duels, which are now much more elegant and choreographed. As is tradition, the musical score is provided here by franchise veteran John Williams. He brings a number of brand new themes to appreciate here, particularly “Duel of the Fates,” which plays during one of the most exciting lightsaber battles in the series. Using a full choir that sings in Sanskrit and backed by a full orchestra, the 4-minute track is beautiful and majestic all the same. Of course, the rest of the soundtrack utilizes Williams’ signature brass horn line, but also incorporates strings in a rather unique way. If for not the sake of continuity, this film is worth watching for Williams’ iconic score, which makes it at least FEEL like a Star Wars movie. I would definitely recommend watching the 2008 CG cartoon Star Wars: The Clone Wars. Not only is it a great series on its own but it also retroactively improves the prequel trilogy and provides even more context to what happens. In that, I can definitely appreciate what they’re going for here even more now and can see its potential. Unfortunately, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace is still a frustrating mishmash of confusing lore and uncertain characterization. I have no doubt that George Lucas tried his hardest to make this film great, and you can definitely see little moments that hint at it. But I truly feel like it would have been a lot better if he had handed the helming duties over to another director. And yet, it’s still not the worst film in the saga; that title still belongs to the Christmas Special and Attack of the Clones. Whether we like it or not, this movie introduced a whole new sect of the universe to explore and devour. And it’s definitely an interesting sect, but the execution of it all is still extremely underwhelming, even watching it now as an adult. May the 4th Be With You, fellow geeks!

“Us” Movie Review

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

“Iron Man” Movie Review

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