Category Archives: Adventure

Final 2020 Oscar Predictions

It’s that time of year again, folks. The 92nd Academy Awards are nigh upon us, and much sooner than usually expected. Unlike last year, the lead up to the ceremony itself has been relatively quiet, save for the occasionally befuddling snub or surprise. And just like the last two years, I have managed to watch the majority of the big nominees and contenders and have decided to put down my own predictions for who I think will or should win. In addition, I’ll be including films or artists who I felt should have been recognized but were ultimately left out of the bunch.

And no matter what you think of the nominees or the ones that were snubbed, we’ll all find out the results when the ceremony airs on ABC this Sunday, February 9th.

Best Picture

Will Win: 1917

Could Win: Parasite

Should Win: Parasite

Should Have Been Nominated: The Lighthouse

 

Best Director

Will Win: Sam Mendes for 1917

Could Win: Bong Joon-ho for Parasite

Should Win: Bong Joon-ho for Parasite

Should Have Been Nominated: Greta Gerwig for Little Women

 

Best Actor

Will Win: Joaquin Phoenix in Joker

Could Win: Adam Driver in Marriage Story

Should Win: Adam Driver in Marriage Story

Should Have Been Nominated: Robert Pattinson in The Lighthouse

 

Best Actress

Will Win: Renée Zellweger in Judy

Could Win: Scarlett Johannsson in Marriage Story

Should Win: Scarlett Johannsson in Marriage Story

Should Have Been Nominated: Awkwafina from The Farewell, Lupita Nyong’o from Us

 

Best Supporting Actor

Will Win: Brad Pitt in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Could Win: Joe Pesci in The Irishman

Should Win: Brad Pitt in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Should Have Been Nominated: Song Kang-ho in Parasite

 

Best Supporting Actress

Will Win: Laura Dern in Marriage Story

Could Win: Florence Pugh in Little Women

Should Win: Laura Dern in Marriage Story

Should Have Been Nominated: Jennifer Lopez in Hustlers

 

Best Original Screenplay

Will Win: Parasite

Could Win: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Should Win: Knives Out

Should Have Been Nominated: Booksmart

 

Best Adapted Screenplay

Will Win: Little Women

Could Win: Jojo Rabbit

Should Win: Little Women

Should Have Been Nominated: Just Mercy

 

Best Animated Film

Will Win: Toy Story 4

Could Win: Klaus

Should Win: I Lost My Body

Should Have Been Nominated: Weathering With You

 

Best International Feature Film

Will Win: Parasite (South Korea)

Could Win: Pain and Glory (Spain)

Should Win: Parasite (South Korea)

Should Have Been Nominated: Portrait of a Lady on Fire (France)

 

Best Documentary- Feature

Will Win: American Factory

Could Win: For Sama

Should Win: For Sama

Should Have Been Nominated: Apollo 11

 

Best Documentary- Short Subject

Will Win: Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl)

Could Win: Life Overtakes Me

Should Win: In the Absence

Should Have Been Nominated: Birders

 

Best Live-Action Short

Will Win: Brotherhood

Could Win: The Neighbor’s Window

Should Win: Brotherhood

Should Have Been Nominated: Anima

 

Best Animated Short

Will Win: Hair Love

Could Win: Kitbull

Should Win: Hair Love

Should Have Been Nominated: Best Friend

 

Best Original Score

Will Win: Joker by Hildur Guðnadóttir

Could Win: 1917 by Thomas Newman

Should Win: Joker by Hildur Guðnadóttir

Should Have Been Nominated: Us by Michael Abels

 

Best Original Song

Will Win: “Into the Unknown” from Frozen II

Could Win: “Stand Up” from Harriet

Should Win: “Into the Unknown” from Frozen II

Should Have Been Nominated: “Glasgow (No Place Like Home)” from Wild Rose

 

Best Visual Effects

Will Win: The Irishman

Could Win: 1917

Should Win: The Irishman

Should Have Been Nominated: Ad Astra

 

Best Cinematography

Will Win: 1917

Could Win: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Should Win: 1917

Should Have Been Nominated: A Hidden Life

 

Best Costume Design

Will Win: Little Women

Could Win: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Should Win: Little Women

Should Have Been Nominated: Dolemite Is My Name

 

Best Makeup and Hairstyle

Will Win: Bombshell

Could Win: Judy

Should Win: Joker

Should Have Been Nominated: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

 

Best Production Design

Will Win: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Could Win: 1917

Should Win: Parasite

Should Have Been Nominated: The Lighthouse

 

Best Film Editing

Will Win: The Irishman

Could Win: Ford v Ferrari

Should Win: Parasite

Should Have Been Nominated: Rocketman

 

Best Sound Mixing

Will Win: 1917

Could Win: Ford v Ferrari

Should Win: Ford v Ferrari

Should Have Been Nominated: Alita: Battle Angel

 

Best Sound Editing

Will Win: 1917

Could Win: Ford v Ferrari

Should Win: 1917

Should Have Been Nominated: Alita: Battle Angel

 

Do you have any thoughts or predictions of your own? Which films do you think will, could, or should take home the prize in each category? What are some that you felt were snubbed by the Oscars? I’d love to hear your thoughts in a Comment below, and if you like what you see here, be sure to Like this post and Follow my blog for more movie-heavy stuff.

“1917” Movie Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image result for 1917 poster

“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” Movie Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Little Women” Movie Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Frozen II” Movie Review

The lengths I would go to protect my sister.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“Uncut Gems” Movie Review

Have you ever wondered what it would feel like to have a panic attack that lasted for 2 hours and 15 minutes? I present you with the cinematic equivalent.

This street-level crime dramedy premiered at the 2019 Telluride Film Festival to rave reviews and reactions. Following a successful screening at TIFF the following week, it was given a limited release in theaters by A24 on December 13th, 2019, and was expanded on Christmas Day. After a strong showing in specialty theaters early on, it has gone on to gross over $43.6 million at the worldwide box office thus far. This makes it the directing duo’s highest-grossing film to date, and it has one of the best per-venue averages of the year and the biggest single-day intake that the indie studio’s ever had.

Directed by Josh and Benny Safdie, the film had been in development for the better part of a decade with co-screenwriter Ronald Bronstein. It’s been said to be partly inspired by the experiences of their father Albert during his time working in Manhattan. The long-gestating project apparently got enough attention for Martin Scorsese and Emma Tillinger Koskoff to jump on-board as executive producers. Although they always intended a major basketball star to play a big role, the constant schedule changing made them go through Amar’e Stoudemare, Joel Embiid, and supposedly Kobe Bryant before finally coming to an agreement with the National Basketball Association.

Set in spring of 2012, Adam Sandler stars as Howard Ratner, a Jewish-American jeweler in New York City’s Diamond District. As he swims in gambling debts, he takes on NBA star Kevin Garnett as a client, playing a fictionalized version of himself, and shows him a rare black opal from Ethiopia. Garnett becomes so enamored of it that Howard loans it to him, who immediately tries to place bets on both it and the upcoming Boston Celtics games to pay back the loan sharks.

I was a big fan of the Safdie Brothers and the work they did on their previous film, 2017’s Good Time. It was a very gritty, unflinchingly harsh story about New York criminals that wasn’t afraid to go in some very disturbing directions. It also was the film that finally convinced me that Robert Pattinson was a truly great actor worthy of recognition.

Hearing that they would be working with Adam Sandler on their next project made it sound extremely enticing. He’s always been an underrated actor who can really come alive when operating under the direction of some true auteurs, especially now that he’s gotten some major awards season buzz for it. And I can now confirm that not only does Sandler give an incredible performance here but the whole rest of the film is invigorating as well.

Much like their previous NYC-set film Good Time, this is not a film meant for the faint of heart at all. It’s a chaotic ride as we witness numerous reprehensible individuals fall down the rabbit hole of greed and money and the extreme lengths they go to get what they want. Part of what makes it so nerve-racking and harsh is that in nearly every scene, all of the actors are yelling over each other to try and get their points across and it can feel exhausting at times.

That being said, Uncut Gems does manage to offset some of that exhaustion by also sprinkling in some pitch black humor throughout. It mostly comes from perfectly timed or delivered (And colorfully profane) dialogue as well as the utter absurdity of various situations in the film. But thankfully, that absurdity never fully takes over the overall narrative in the film, and it becomes a deeply rattling theatrical experience that will stick with you for a long time.

And the rumors are indeed true: Adam Sandler has literally never been better than he is in this film, and its not close. As Howard Ratner, he gives life and personality to a man who’s essentially a scumbag with few, if any, redeeming qualities. It’s incredibly stressful as we watch him constantly make rash decisions that only contribute to his self-destruction, but his deceptive charm makes it still compelling.

Also, newcomer Julia Fox makes a huge impression as Julia, Howard’s materialistic employee and mistress. She’s extremely petty and heavily relishes in the expensive life that Howard gives her, ranging from a high-rise apartment to gorgeous jewelry. She also recognizes the trouble that he constantly gets himself into throughout the film and gets frustrated with his choices.

Kevin Garnett can now be added to the list of retired athletes who gives a surprisingly great performance. He’s able to find a darker side of his personality and uses it to a great advantage, always looking to win the next game no matter what it takes. He makes almost no attempt to hide his disgust for Howard’s methods and develops a uniquely personal connection with the opal; it makes me hope this isn’t his only film.

The supporting cast is rounded out by a capable troupe of character actors, many based in New York City. Idina Menzel as Howard’s fed-up wife, Judd Hirsch as his wealthy and religious father-in-law, Eric Bogosian as the brother-in-law mobster he owes the most money to, Lakeith Stanfield as one of his disgruntled assistants who grows an admiration for Garnett, and Mike Francesca as a local bookie and restaurant owner. All of them are unhinged and brilliantly directed in their individual roles; and that’s not even mentioning the various non-actors that appear as themselves.

And from a technical point-of-view, Uncut Gems shows the Safdie brothers further developing their cinematic style. Shot by Darius Khondji, the cinematography is presented via a grainy 35mm format that fits the gritty, grimy look of Manhattan they seem to thrive in. The camera is mostly done in a handheld, cinéma vérité not unlike their previous efforts that makes us feel like a fly on the wall. It also creates a unique color palette that helps to create an atmosphere.

Meanwhile, Bronstein and Benny Safdie also prove to be capable editors as they cut together a true banger with each scene. Considering how much the actors scream and yell over each other, there’s an impressive continuity between each shot. It also does a great back and forth between different locations for various scenes to establish a tension.

Daniel Lopatin, A.K.A. Oneohtrix Point Never, continues his collaboration with the Safdie to provide the instrumental film score. Just like his work in Good Time, it’s an absolute banger that leans heavily on electronic synthesizers and percussion. Several tracks are more ambient in nature to build the atmosphere of New York City as something almost otherworldly. Other times, the tracks are more bombastic and visceral to match the energy with which Howard is trying to hustle. The opening credits feature a psychadelic coloscopy that establishes the tone for the rest of the soundtrack.

Holding absolutely nothing back and never letting up from the first scene to the last, Uncut Gems is a relentless and brilliantly performed examination of truly depraved characters. Benny and Josh Safdie have crafted yet another exquisite portrait of a New York CIty so far removed from the glamorous view often seen in movies and aren’t afraid to explore how dark their characters can get. It also benefits from being anchored by a career-best performance from Adam Sandler that shows once and for all that he is a great actor when given the right material to work with.

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