Category Archives: Biographical

“The Irishman” Movie Review

Let me just start this review by saying that this whole “Marvel isn’t cinema” debate is completely futile and overblown. People can love whatever they love or hate what they hate as long as they have legitimate reasons for it and as long as they don’t bemoan others for not feeling the same way. Now, let’s gladly and respectfully move onto this film. This epic crime drama premiered as the opening night selection for the 2019 New York Film Festival. Although the major chains refused to screen it, it received a limited theatrical release starting on November 1st, 2019, in which it reportedly made around $5 million against a production budget of $159 million. It was later dropped on the streaming service Netflix on November 27th to high anticipation from cinephiles. Directed by Martin Scorsese, the film, based on the book I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt, has been in development since at least 2007. The three main stars were always in mind for their respective parts, but it didn’t gain much traction until Steven Zaillian signed on as the screenwriter 8 years later. Originally set up at the director’s regular distributor Paramount Pictures, the film was subsequently dropped due to its climbing budget. When other studios proved to be hesitant, Netflix scooped it up for around $105 million and essentially blank-checked the entire project upfront. Allegedly based on a true story, (More on that later) Robert De Niro stars as Frank Sheeran, a World War II veteran and teamster or truck driver. After performing some crimes on the side to provide for his family, he becomes acquainted with and employed by Russell Bufalino, played by Joe Pesci, the head boss for the Northeastern Pennsylvania crime family. When the banks won’t give the Mafia loans to build casinos and hotels, they seek out help from Jimmy Hoffa, played by Al Pacino, president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters labor union. As Frank rises through the ranks and serves as muscle over the decades, he becomes torn between his loyalty to Jimmy and Russell as their relationship becomes severely tested. Martin Scorsese, for me, is one of the few directors whose name being attached is reason enough for excitement. I had heard talk of this particular film for years, and not many movies make it out of development hell. So hearing news that it was finally being made with the promised cast was almost like a dream come true for me and others. Hearing that it would be released on Netflix saddened me a little as I wouldn’t be able to see it in a theater. Nevertheless, I eagerly awaited the director’s return to the gangster genre after so many years. And I must say, The Irishman just about lives up to the tremendous hype and is a stellar addition both to the director’s canon and the streaming service’s output. If you sit down and watch this hoping to see another version of Goodfellas or Casino, you’ll be surprised by how slow and contemplative it is. It makes sense why it took so long to make because it’s more a film about older men wrestling with the violence and pain their line of work has brought to others. It’s nice to have someone who follows orders without question, but what happens when that person suddenly is confronted with its consequences? What if it’s too late for reconciliation? It should definitely be noted, however, that the real-life Frank Sheeran, who died shortly after the book was published, was likely full of it. Numerous experts and writers have discredited several of the film’s claims about history, particularly in relation to its approach with the infamous disappearance of Hoffa. But if you watch it more as a piece of historical fiction rather than a true-story drama, it’s very powerful and even surprisingly funny in parts. After a string of hit-or-miss roles, Robert De Niro delivers a powerhouse performance in his 9th collaboration with Scorsese. As Frank Sheeran, he has no problem dealing out violent crimes on behalf of his superiors and remains passionate about union efforts throughout the country. He’s a real man’s man, never allowing people to see his true emotions, and watching him internalize them all is very devastating as he comes to terms with his actions. In his first movie with the director, Al Pacino is almost just as amazing as Jimmy Hoffa, a brazen and foul-mouthed leader of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. Although he doesn’t fully appear until about an hour into the film, he creates a lasting impact with a dichotomous obsession with gaining more power and standing by his union members. It’s almost a Shakespearean tragedy because he’s a man who refuses to compromise his views or ambitions, even when threatened by multiple different parties. Joe Pesci arguably does the best job of the bunch as Russell Bufalino, the calm and calculating head of the Philadelphia crime syndicate. A far cry from his earlier, volatile roles, he has a certain wisdom and weathered experience that makes him a menacing figure in the criminal underworld. Pesci reportedly turned down the role 50 times before saying yes, and if this is truly his last film performance, he does it with such grace and thoughtfulness. The expansive supporting cast is an ensemble worthy of the director’s reputation. This includes Bobby Cannavale as a brutal enforcer for Russell and his organization, Ray Romano as his pragmatic attorney cousin, Jesse Plemons as Jimmy’s loyal foster son, Stephen Graham as one of Hoffa’s biggest union rivals, Harvey Keitel as an elderly Don acquainted with the main trio, Sebastian Maniscalco as the unpredictable hitman “Crazy Joe” Gallo, and Jack Huston as the relentless attorney general who tries to take down Hoffa and the mob. There’s also been much discussion on Peggy Sheeran, Frank’s daughter played by Anna Paquin and Lucy Gallina, respectively. She has very few lines of dialogue, with Paquin only speaking about 7 words total as an adult in the film. While some have criticized it for this, I would argue that it works really well because her silence says much more than anything she could put into a sentence. And just looking at the technical aspects, The Irishman shows that Scorsese’s still got it at the ripe old age of 77. Shot by his recent muse, Rodrigo Prieto, the cinematography is impressive as it moves from decade to decade. Many of Scorsese’s classic camera techniques are found throughout the film, including his penchant for swooping push-ins and careful tracking shots. This makes it feel like one of his older films in the best way, as we get to see every detail of each scene captured tremendously. There are also a couple of scenes told from the POV of a static wide shot, which makes sudden acts of violence both anticlimactic and shocking at the same time. As expected, Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing job is simply immaculate. Despite its mammoth runtime of 3 hours and 29 minutes, it moves along at an even clip thanks to her understanding of pacing. The film often cuts back and forth between different timelines to help create a context for the themes. Huge swaths of the film are just scenes of the characters sitting down and talking, and Schoonmaker cuts them in a way that makes it interesting to watch. This includes two pivotal phone calls between Frank and Hoffa early on and towards the end of the film as it moves between their two environments. And now we get to the much-discussed visual effect of digitally de-aging the central trio of actors. This was one of the primary reasons for it taking so long to develop and one aspect of the film I was somewhat worried about. However, unlike other recent examples of the technology, the work done here by Industrial Lights & Magic is pretty convincing. Although it takes a few minutes to get adjusted, and there is one shot in the first hour that remains a little jarring, you quickly fall into it as the actors really sell their behavior throughout the decades. In fact, it became a little hard for me to figure out what their “true age” looked like after a while. With a well-balanced tone that’s equal parts energy and melancholy, The Irishman is a fantastic and somber meditation on the cost of loyalty and a great swansong for its genre. Although not quite his best, Martin Scorsese still shows impressive maturity and wisdom in a passion project that feels like the natural culmination of his career’s work. De Niro, Pacino, and Pesci are all wonderful in some of their best work as we see them work towards their own self-enrichment until it’s far too late to realize the damage left behind. I don’t know if we’ll ever get another film like this again, but if this is the end of the road on gangster films for most of the people involved, it was a hell of a ride. Or to quote Russell Bufalino, “It’s what it is.”

Image result for the irishman poster

“Dolemite Is My Name” Movie Review

There’s something really inspiring about watching a bunch of goofballs genuinely trying to make something just for the fun of it. This biographical comedy-drama initially premiered at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival. After a brief theatrical run that last for 3 weeks, it landed on the streaming service Netflix on October 25th, 2019. It has thus far amassed some of the best reviews for a film this year so far, not to mention for Netflix films. Directed by Craig Brewer, the film had long been a major passion project for its star and producer. He had met with screenwriting duo Scott Alexander and Larry Karazewski as far back as 2003 and despite getting extensive details from the real-life subject himself, early versions never made it past the initial stage. It never really saw the light of day again until 2018, when Black Snake Moan and Hustle and Flow director Brewer signed on and found life once more. It’s the star’s first R-rated movie in 20 years, and even features a heartfelt tribute to his late older brother Charlie. Based on the true story, Eddie Murphy stars as Rudy Ray Moore, an African-American artist struggling to make ends’ meet. After scraping by as a local amateur singer and shake dancer, he comes up with the character of Dolemite, a vulgar pimp with rhymes and punchlines for days. When his comedy records featuring the character become successful, he becomes inspired to put Dolemite on the big screen in a film made and funded entirely by himself and his friends. Recruiting talent including respected actor D’Urville Martin as director, played by Wesley Snipes, Rudy and his crew set out to make what would become a defining film for the Blaxploitation genre. It’s been a good while since I was actually excited to see a film starring Eddie Murphy in the lead. The trailer made it seem like a role he had been dying to play for the longest time and hearing raves about it out of TIFF was even more encouraging. Seeing the massive talent he had managed to line up here also certainly didn’t hurt its chances with me. I’m also always a big sucker for movies that have to do with the business of filmmaking in some capacity. The fact that it’s based on a real person and the guerilla-like efforts they made to get their movie off the ground makes it even more fascinating. And thankfully, Dolemite Is My Name isn’t only a brilliant return for Eddie Murphy as an actor but the rest of the film itself is full of great actors and craft. From the very first frame until the last, it’s clear that this is a passion project for Murphy and all others involved. Although I’m not personally familiar with the movie Dolemite or the Blaxploitation genre as a whole, it’s hard not to appreciate the respect and reverence shown towards Rudy Ray Moore. He’s just a guy who wants to make art and share it with the world no matter what, and always wants to include as many people as possible in the experience. It also helps that Dolemite Is My Name is very funny, and not just from all the raunchiness of Rudy’s character. Seeing the whole crew trying to figure out how to make a movie as they go along is highly amusing because it’s clear they don’t know what they’re doing. That sort of naïve charm, much like Alexander and Karaszewski’s work Ed Wood, is perhaps the biggest emotional throughline of the whole picture. There’s been talk recently of Eddie Murphy making a comeback starting with this film; that rings true as we watch one of his best performances ever. As Rudy, he brings an infectiousness that’s hard to deny as he tries to make his way through the entertainment industry in any way possible. Murphy’s classic nonstop energy and boisterous personality are easily seen in the scenes where he acts out as Dolemite on stage or on-screen. But he also surprises with more quiet, reserved moments where he discusses his insecurities with his entourage of supporters. Wesley Snipes also makes a big impression as D’Urville Martin, an acclaimed actor and the director of the real-life film-within-a-film. His charisma and sense of humor shine through as he gradually realizes the inexperience of all his cast and crew members. While he seems elitist, he’s also very pragmatic and understanding about how the film industry works, especially for people of color. The supporting cast, meanwhile, features a treasure trove of great actors and artists both of current trends and yesteryear. This includes Keegan Michael-Key as the serious-minded playwright Rudy hires for the script, Craig Robinson as the golden-voiced singer behind the soundtrack, Snoop Dogg and Chris Rock as cynical radio hosts who want Rudy to succeed, Luell as his well-meaning and comedic aunt, and Titus Burgess as his flamboyant friend running a record store. Each player brings vibrant life to their characters and add something new and substantial to the table. But the real scene-stealer is newcomer Da’Vine Joy Randolph as Lady Reed, a single mother Rudy meets on his journey. Dramatic and comedic in equal measure, she proves a force to be reckoned with, even when she’s on-screen with the main star. She has a demeanor that changes from guarded to more open, confessing near the end of the film, “I’ve never seen nobody that looks like me up on that big screen.” I’m already excited for the long and successful career that she deserves. And from a technical point of view, Dolemite Is My Name has plenty to offer besides just excellent performances from the cast. Shot by Jason Reitman’s regular collaborator Eric Steelberg, the cinematography has a certain grainy tinge to it appropriate for the era. Overall, the movements and angles of the film are straightforward and unpretentious, going for a mix of static medium shots and short tracking ones. It still leaves plenty of room for the camera to capture the fantastic period costumes and gets a really excellent color palette across many frames. Billy Fox’s editing job also finds an amazing energy to match its main character as he moves all over. It knows exactly when to add a cut either for comic or dramatic effect, almost feeling like an old-school comedy that Murphy would’ve made back in his prime. It also lets some shots breathe as they draw out the awkward nature of the film they’re all making and wait for a proper punchline to come. It has a couple of montage sequences throughout, such as watching Rudy go from studio to studio trying to seel his movie and his crew putting the set together. This refusal to rush to an easy laugh is part of what makes it so funny and effective. With plenty of laughs to go along with its engaging story, Dolemite Is My Name is an invigorating and heartfelt tribute to an icon of underground cinema. Craig Brewer manages to find a dynamite groove to what should be a fairly straightforward and formulaic picture. And not only do we get arguably Eddie Murphy’s best performance of his career, but it introduces Da’Vine Joy Randolph as an absolute force to be reckoned with. It’s easily one of Netflix’s best offerings, and it may even inspire some to pick up a camera and make something with their friends.

“Ford v Ferrari” Movie Review

There’s a certain, unmistakable adrenaline rush I get from watching movies with really fast vehicles at the center. I always feel the need to go on a short run or something after it’s over just to wear it off. Walking out of this film, I felt that need more than usual. This biographical drama initially premiered at the 2019 Telluride Film Festival, before making an even bigger splash at TIFF the following week. It was then released in theaters worldwide by 20th Century Fox on November 15th, 2019, having previously been scheduled for June. Made for the budget of $97.6 million, it has thus far managed  to gross over $146.6 million the box office. It is likely to turn a decent profit by the end of its theatrical run and is currently the studio’s big awards season player. Directed by James Mangold, a film centered on the true-story subject had been in the works from the studio for quite some time. The earliest known version had Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt set to star with a script written by Jason Keller. That iteration fell apart after brothers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth were brought on for rewrites and Joseph Kosinski signed on to direct, and wasn’t revived until 2018. Numerous kit cars were used and painted over during the racing scenes, to avoid any potential controversy from the companies involved in the film. Set in the early 1960s, Matt Damon stars as Carroll Shelby, a renowned car mechanic and former race driver reited due to a heart condition. After a potential buyout of Ferrari goes south, Ford Motor Company, led by Tracy Lett’s Henry Ford II, approaches Shelby about creating a race car to beat Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans international race. Knowing they’ll need as much expertise as possible, Shelby enlists the help of hot-tempered English racer Ken Miles, played by Christian Bale, to begin work on the Ford GT40. As the race approaches, Carroll and Ken must stave off overshadowing suits from Ford and their own demons to build a car that not only has speed but durability. When I first heard about this film, I honestly wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. I loved Mangold’s work on Logan and 3:10 to Yuma and the talent involved was aces, but I’ve never really been into race cars. As a child, beyond the occasional Hot Wheels toy, I had not found much interest in the sport or profession. But when the first trailer dropped last summer, it immediately grabbed my attention as something old-fashioned yet new. The extreme buzz coming off of the festival circuit only added to my newfound anticipation for the film. And I’m happy to report that Ford v Ferrari is just as exciting, fun, and engaging as the marketing made it out to be. The best part about the film is that, despite the title, Ford Motor Company is not portrayed here as the heroes or even the protagonists. They’re a corporation that wants to stamp out the competition and constantly meddle with Shelby and Miles’ plan, even if they’ve never fixed a car in their lives. Instead, the focus of Ford v Ferrari is on the two protagonists trying to channel their immense passion for something into a commercially viable product. This approach could be applied to many different areas- studio executives interfering with filmmakers’ visions, tech geniuses watered down by shareholders -and makes it a far more interesting film to watch. The specificity of the racing world adds so much character and personality to the story, from the lingo used by mechanics to the observations of how it turns into “a body floating through space and time.” Its approach may feel old school, but it’s done with such precision and skill that you can’t help but fall in love with it by the final lap. Matt Damon proves he’s still got the goods as an actor with a steely determination and delightful Texas accent. As Carroll Shelby, he shows a real knack for how to build cars and always tries to explain why he needs what he needs to his corporate overseers. He’s always precise in his method but constantly thinks on his feet in case the worst comes to pass. Opposite him for much of the movie, Christian Bale is brilliant as the hot-headed yet confident racecar driver Ken Miles. A perfectionist if ever there was one, he has no trouble telling his colleagues if the design is terrible and frequently irritates others around him. It’s also one of the few roles I’ve seen where he uses his natural speaking voice, which adds a nice amount of character to him. Josh Lucas is also notable as Leo Beebe, the Ford executive who constantly interferes with the protagonists in their task. Its quite clear that he’s more interested in following tradition and keeping up with the company’s quota, unwilling to raise the GT40’s budget when necessary. The supporting cast is rounded out by Tracey Letts as the shrewd but determined Henry Ford II, Caitriona Balfe and Noah Jupe as Ken Miles’ supportive wife and son, Jon Bernthal as the more optimistic VP of Ford, Ray McKinnon as Shelby’s second-in-command on the team, and Remo Girone as the proud and elderly  rival Enzo Ferrari. Each one has something to contribute and further enriches the world of cars and racing. While many of them fall into the classic archetypes of the genre, they give extra shades and dimensions to make them feel fresh. And just looking at technical aspects, Mangold and company put so much effort and class into Ford v Ferrari. The cinematography by Phedon Papamichael is in such control of the frame and subject that it’s hard to lose attention. It captures the colors of all of the cars with exquisite beauty and always manages to light it very well whether it’s in the daytime or nighttime. Clever and well-placed angles create a lot of unique negative space for the characters as we move through their process of building the GT40. The camera alternates between gliding tracks as we follow the vehicles up close and long shots to signify their real speed. It goes hand-in-hand with the joint editing job by Michael McCusker and Andrew Buckland, which keeps the pacing going along. Even with a runtime of 2 hours and 32 minutes, it goes by at an even clip, as we watch Carroll and Ken constantly work through different cars to get it just right. During the race sequences… oh Lord. They’re edited together so well that’s hard not to become invested in what’s happening. The way it constantly cuts between the drivers in action and the engineering team at the sidelines helps create the main tension. It also helps that the sound design is pitch perfect and captures every engine rev, every crash, and every gear shift imaginable. It really helps put viewers inside the car itself when the going gets tough. Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders collaborate together on the instrumental film score, and deliver something worthy of the fast-paced drama. The majority of the tracks rely on electric guitar riffs, basses, and light percussion to create a sense of urgency in the race and building process. Subtle at first, as the film goes along, the score becomes more and more powerful as the Le Mans edges closer. A couple of tracks a little calmer and opt to use synthesized organs and slower guitar melodies to emphasize the pure, encapsulating experience of driving on an empty road. It’s a really dynamic soundtrack, and one I’ll definitely come back to. Proving that old-school stories can still be told with expertise, Ford v Ferrari tells a riveting true story of creativity with enormous flare and respect. Rather than trying to upend the genre, James Mangold utilizes the tools at his disposal to deliver the best the genre can possibly offer and then some. Matt Damon and Christian Bale shine in their dual lead performances and give an accessibility to a story that, on paper, sounds flat and boring. But thanks to them and the dedicated team behind the scenes, this film feels like both a blast from the past and completely modern in its technique. Mark my words, it’ll turn into one of those movies that will be impossible to not watch all the way through if it ever comes up on streaming or cable.

“All That Jazz” Movie Review

I’ve been constantly looking for the one film that could possibly win over even people who weren’t a fan of musicals. And I’m pretty sure I just found it. This fantastical musical drama was originally released in theaters worldwide by 20th Century Fox and Columbia Pictures on December 20th, 1979. Made for the budget of $12 million, it went on to gross over $37.8 million at the box office, considered above expectations. One of the most acclaimed films of its year, it went on to garner the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival the following year and won 4 Academy Awards out of 9 nominations. Additionally, it received high praise from figures in the industry, including filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. Directed by Bob Fosse, the screenplay was written in collaboration with producer Robert Alan McArthur. As the production’s cost was continuously climbing, another studio had to be brought in to help finish it and was given domestic distribution as well. The film is said to be based on Fosse’s experiences trying to stage a production of Chicago while simultaneously editing the film Lenny, which resulted in him suffering massive heart attack. Many of the actors involved were either based on people in Fosse’s life or were playing mildly fictional versions of themselves. Roy Scheider stars as Joe Gideon, a workaholic yet successful Broadway director and choreographer. As he’s working on a brand new show, while also editing a film behind schedule, his health condition gradually becomes worse as he can’t pull himself away from a life of debauchery. He frequently has imaginary conversations with an angel of death named Angelique, played by Jessica Lange, who tries to help him understand the sins of his life. And despite the crystal clear signs and warnings from family and friends that he needs to slow down, Joe is determined to finish his work before his time on Earth is over. While my Broadway history is far from thorough, I really do enjoy Bob Fosse’s work on musicals like Chicago. His intimate and first-hand knowledge of that world really shines through in just about every one of his projects. There’s a certain energy and wavelength they’re all on that’s just impossible to resist so easily. Despite this, I had never seen any of his film productions until this one. I guess it was partially because I feared if his masterful staging and choreography would translate into cinema very well. And that is just the case because All That Jazz is a phenomenal film that transcends its very genre over and over. Unlike most semi-autobiographical pictures, this one doesn’t try to sanitize the director’s lifestyle or his profession. In fact, the best and most terrifying part about it is how Fosse reckons with his destructive choices and the people he’s damaged as a result. And yet, I’ve been told that this is still somehow less dramatic than what had actually transpired in real life. Even more scary is that All That Jazz is unafraid to show the dangerous side of show business, warts and all. There are numerous scenes where the producers and financiers of Gideon’s projects are either extremely uncomfortable with his vision or trying to find a way to undermine it for investment returns. In that, it might be too brutal to watch for some, but it never forgets the humanity at the heart of the story. Roy Scheider makes a total departure from his heroic turn in Jaws by completely embodying the director in the best way possible. As Joe Gideon, he convincingly portrays his gradual downfall as his personal and professional life come to a head. His constant movement and multitasking shows the natural talent he possesses, even if it alienates everyone in his life. Watching him slowly fall apart, first denying it hen embracing it, is heartbreaking to see. Jessica Lange also shines as Angelique, Gideon’s eager and contemplative angel of death. The film often interjects scenes of the real world with Gideon recounting different stories to her, who’s goal seems to be trying to understand his humanity as death inches closer. Her curiosity towards his failings as a man makes her one of the few characters he opens up to, even though she’s somewhat distant emotionally. The supporting cast is rounded out by a troupe of noticeable character actors, many of whom have background in theater. This includes Ann Reinking as the auteur’s youthful new girlfriend, Ben Vereen as a late night music entertainer, Cliff Gorman as the lead actor in a film Gideon is cutting together, John Lithgow as one of Gideon’s Broadway rivals, and Wallace Shawn as an opportunistic insurance investigator. Each one plays a big part in Joe’s personal or professional life and frequently come and go as the story needs them to. And from a purely technical standpoint, All That Jazz is a towering achievement in the Hollywood New Wave. Shot by Federico Fellini’s collaborator Giuseppe Rotunno, the cinematography is gritty and largely unpretentious. For the moments when it’ just focused on Joe’s personal affairs or business dealings, the color palette is very grimy and harsh as to represent his lifestyle. But when it switches to something more theatrical, the colors turn vibrant with spotlights and the lighting is incredible. Most of the shots are steady zooms or tracking shots, often showcasing a whole performance in one go. It is made even more amazing by the editing job from Alan Heim, which may as well be a Masterclass in editing. The most notable example of it being Joe’s morning routine, which repeats several times and gives a great view of his unhealthy habits. It frequently cuts between two scenes to show a strong juxtaposition between them, such as the Broadway show’s backers discussing financial prospects contrasting with Joe’s heart surgery. As the film goes along, the editing becomes more distorted as Joe becomes more unsure of what’s real and what’s the afterlife. Both of these things culminate in a glorious final act, which might just be one of the best endings in film history. With a new rendition of The Everly Brothers’ “Bye Bye Love,” it’s a spectacular finale befitting of its protagonist. And the smash cut to the last shot is perhaps one of the most devastating you’re likely to ever see in a motion picture. Featuring intense performances, amazing direction, and an incredible ending to cap it all off, All That Jazz is an existential masterpiece of music, death, and the personal cost of artistry. By subverting the “tortured artist” cliché and letting his guard down, Bob Fosse delivers one of the most powerful and unhinged portraits of the entertainment industry. Roy Schieder gives a great performance as a caricature of Fosse and the whole rest and the cast and crew bring their absolute A-game. As I said in the beginning, even if you don’t really like musicals, it will be very difficult to not be captivated by this film’s chaotic beauty.

“Citizen Kane” Movie Review

Oh yeah, we’re going there now. As part of my New Year’s resolution, I’ve finally decided to takcle what is widely considered to be the best film ever made. This historical drama premiered at the Palace Theatre on May 1st, 1941, before being released in other theaters on September 5th of that year. Although it did well in larger city venues, because of outside industry pressure, numerous theaters and rural areas refused to screen it. As a result, it failed to recoup its $839,727 budget during its theatrical run and faded from public mindset despite good critical reviews. However, it was brought back to attention after it was praised by such people as Roger Ebert and André Bazin and ultimately got a re-evaluation in America starting in 1956. Since then, it has been held up as one of the greatest films of all time and has influenced countless filmmakers in the generations afterward. Directed by Orson Welles, the film was his first time working on a feature film after an extensive history with Broadway and the infamous radio show War of the Worlds. While he was only 25 at the time, RKO Pictures signed him to an unprecedented deal which gave him immense freedom, including final cut and using his own cast and crew. The screenplay is largely attributed to co-writer Herman J. Mankiewicz, but the true extent of Welles’ contribution to it has been fiercely disputed by many, including critic Pauline Kael. Although the true source has been debated, it’s universally believed that publisher William Randolph Hearst served as the inspiration for the title character, who consequentially did everything in his power to destroy or discredit the film. By now, you probably know the general story: Welles stars as Charles Foster Kane, a notorious newspaper business tycoon who has amassed one of the biggest fortunes in the world. At the very beginning of the film, he dies alone in his Xanadu mansion of old age, only uttering the cryptic word “Rosebud.” Soon after, newsreel journalist Jerry Thompson, played by William Alland, sets off on an investigation to figure out the word’s real meaning. As he interviews various people from Kane’s life and reads confidential files, we the audience get to see in flashbacks of the mogul’s rise to power and, ultimately, his loss of innocence. Last fall, Netflix’s finished cut of The Other Side of the Wind was the very first feature film by Orson Welles I had ever fully watched. His other works had always been on my radar, (Touch of Evil is still very high on my watchlist) but somehow his world-famous debut had always eluded me. Until now, that is. Whenever I sit down to watch a highly revered movie, I have a bit of reservation about its praise. And in this case, this is considered to be the best film ever, so I tried to distance myself from all of the hype to ensure I could watch it on my own terms. And I can personally attest that Citizen Kane is indeed worthy of all that acclaim that’s built up over the last 78 years. Before you immediately decide to write this film off as “overrated,” please just consider how it was made and how its reputation was built. It was plagued with production problems, dealt with a media mogul who went to extreme (And allegedly illegal) lengths to bury it before it even premiered, had Hollywood veterans skeptical of such a young man taking on an ambitious project, and still managed to completely change the game of cinema. Not just in terms of technical innovations but also how the storytelling challenged typical structure and plotting. By constantly moving back and forth in time, Citizen Kane becomes a tragedy as we witness a man completely indifferent to wealth become defined by it. The fact that it’s original title was The American is no accident, as the film seeks to indict the cost of power and fame at a time when unbridled capitalism was arguably at its peak. But no amount of witty quips or bad art he purchases can bring him any real sense of happiness or fulfillment. In his multihyphenate debut for a feature film, Orson Welles is nothing short of incredible as Charles Foster Kane. Although he starts out with a genuine desire to hold up freedom of the press, he gradually becomes more power hungry and surrounded by money he has no idea what to do with. When chided by his former mentor for his brand of newspaper journalism, he simply replies, “I have no idea how to run a newspaper, Mr. Thatcher, I just try whatever I can think of.” He’s able to believably portray Kane’s downward spiral from early adulthood into an old man in his twilight years. Ruth Warrick and Dorothy Comingore are equally great as Kane’s first and second wife, respectively. It’s clear that Kane sees them both more as an object of his affection, and like everything else in his life, he seeks to control their actions. This comes into conflict with both of them, and their failed marriages with him add layers to his decline in humanity and empathy. William Alland is also great as Jerry Thompson, the newsreel reporter trying to find more truth on “Rosebud”‘s meaning. Although his face is never fully shown to the audience, his soft voice and constant movement about the frame make him an intriguing and memorable character. It’s clear that he’s deeply fascinated by the life og the mogul and how it affected those around him. Welles brings his Mercury Theatre troupe to the silver screen in various supporting roles and bit parts. These include Joseph Cotten as Kane’s longtime friend and business partner, Ray Collins as his shrewd political rival, Paul Stewart as Kane’s ambivalent butler, Agnes Moorehead as Kane’s well-meaning but financially strained mother, George Coulouris as and Everett Sloane as a kindly employee at The Inquirer. Although none had any prior cinematic experience, their professionalism and commitment is so apparent in every scene. And from a purely technical perspective, Citizen Kane has so many innovations that deserve their own whole essays. Greg Tolland’s cinematography is steady and controlled, capturing everything it needs to in the frame. Easily the biggest breakthrough is the deep focus technique, where everything in the foreground is as visible as what’s in the background. It allows many small things to be captured in gorgeous ways. The movement and placement of the camera is also key, as we get to see many great long takes and a scene where the crew literally cut a whole in the floor to get a shot. This perfectly matches up with Robert Wise’s editing job, which found new and interesting ways to move between scenes. Whether it was a slow dissolve over new audio or vice versa, each moment carried seamlessly into the next one. Not only that, it used whip pans and subtle cuts to advance the timeline, especially during a scene depicting Kane’s crumbling first marriage. And the collapsible set created to pan from a neon sign down through a rainy window into a restaurant is one of the best transitions in any film. Frequent Alfred Hitchcock muse Bernard Hermann composed and conducted the instrumental film score. It’s a unique and wide-ranging one, mirroring the life of its titular protagonist. Some tracks utilize low brass and strings to emphasize the melancholy of his greedy decline in humanity. Others, particularly during scenes of his younger years, are more exuberant and exciting with big percussion and winds. It perfectly reflects his initial optimism for The Inquirer down to his lonely final years and culminates in a big final piece. The orchestral swell as the last shots reveal the truth of everything hits its impact very well. There are only a handful of films in history that can comfortably say they had a major impact on the film industry. And it’s perfectly understandable if some viewers are hesitant to watch it because it’s put so high up on the proverbial pedestal. But that shouldn’t deter you because it’s actually much more entertaining and engaging that some people believe; within the first 10 minutes, you’ll be hooked until the very end. Citizen Kane is an extremely important cinematic landmark that’s worthy of its loft reputation. At the age of 25, Orson Welles completely disrupted the idea of how movies were and should be made. Its influence can be seen nearly everywhere after being released, just to give you an idea of its impact. It has inspired generations of aspiring filmmakers and cinephiles over the decades, including yours truly. Not bad for a film that was nearly destroyed by the very man who inspired the protagonist.

“The Farewell” Movie Review

In all seriousness, if this sort of thing happened in my family, I would completely understand it. To quote one of the character’s in this film, “You’ll just ruin her good mood.” This independent comedy-drama premiered as part of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Shortly after, A24 acquired the distribution rights for $7 million. It was theatrically released on July 12th, 2019, gradually expanding into more theaters in the following weeks. Produced for the budget of $3 million, the film has thus far managed to exceed expectations for the specialty box office, grossing over $17.8 million worldwide. It currently has the best per-screen average of any movie this year, even beating Avengers: Endgame. This comes in addition to highly positive reviews from critics and audiences, accumulating a perfect 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. Written and directed by Lulu Wang, the film is based on her own personal experiences with her family. She had spent years trying to make the film, but numerous financiers from both Hollywood and China rejected the idea unless she wrote in a part for a prominent white character. She eventually turned her story into an episode of the podcast This American Life, which immediately caught the attention of producer Chris Weitz. The director also turned down a large 7-figure distribution offer from a streaming service so that it could be seen in theaters. Awkwafina stars as Billi, a headstrong woman from New York who is a first-generation Chinese-American. She learns from her parents that her grandmother Nai Nai, played by Zhao Shuzhen, has terminal Stage IV lung cancer. However, the family deliberately manipulates her medical records and plans a wedding for Billi’s cousin as an excuse to see Nai Nai one last time without actually disclosing her illness to her. Although her parents are worried that she might tell the truth due to their close relationship, Billi joins the family in China and struggles between the world she grew up in and the world she was born in. I’ve been looking forward to this movie ever since the first reviews poured out of Sundance back in January. It sounded like an absolutely fascinating premise to me, especially since it was based on the writer-director’s own life. And I always love seeing Awkwafina onscreen and this seemed like a great role for her to branch out into. Hearing stories that this sort of thing is actually extremely common among Chinese and Chinese-American families made it seem even more intriguing. I was hopeful that it would highlight the distinct cultural differences between the East and the West while staying focused on character. And The Farewell exceeded my expectations, providing a remarkable showcase for both the lead actress and writer-director. It’s clear from the very first scene that this is a deeply personal film for Lulu Wang, as she channels her own experiences and anxieties so eloquently. We get to see Billi struggling to reconcile her relationship with her family with her own personal anguish of having to keep such a secret. In fact, there are a handful of scenes where she and various relatives argue about whether her being raised and educated in America was a good thing, as her cultural beliefs are clearly different from theirs. Part of what makes The Farewell such a unique crowdpleaser is its ability to balance these moments of tension and genuinely touching emotion with laugh-out-loud humor. Nai-Nai’s obliviousness to her own diagnosis creates some truly amusing irony, as is the family’s tough attempt to hide their emotions. All of this, plus the fact that over half of the dialogue is spoken in the Mandarin language, proves why this is one of the most well-written films of the year. Awkwafina has been on a role in the last two years, and with this film, she shows off her true range as an actress. As Billi, she is fiercely independent and proud, which puts her at odds with the more traditional nature of her extended family. The internal struggle to maintain the secret of her grandmother’s illness while also keeping their sacred bond intact is very poignant. Opposite her is Zhao Shuzhen as her grandmother Nai Nai, completely unaware of what her family’s actually doing in her home. One of the most respected actresses in China, it’s truly fascinating to see her go about her daily life without the knowledge of her diagnosis looming over. The scenes she shares with Billi are some of the best, as we get to see the deep connection between the two despite their cultural differences. Tzi Ma and Diane Lin also deserve to be mentioned as Billi’s mother and father, respectively. The cultural divide at the heart of the film is most evident in these characters, as they have fully adapted to American life but still hold to the traditions of their family. And unlike Billi, they internalize many of their emotions during their stay with Nai Nai, which takes a clear toll on their mental health. Lu Hong, Jiang Yongbo, Chen Han, Aoi Mizuhara, and Li Xiang round out the rest of the family here. Each is dealing with Nai Nai’s condition in their own way, some in more subtle ways than others. And from a pure filmmaking perspective, The Farewell shows Lulu Wang has a distinctive voice that needs to be heard. Anna Franquesa Solano’s cinematography is very deliberate and precise, with most scenes told from a static angle. The muted color palette is perfect for the morally gray nature of the story, although there are some gorgeous neon shots in the streets of Changchun, where the film was shot. Often, entire scenes play out in long takes from one position, providing the actors freedom to act in large space. Matthew Friedman and Michael Taylor’s editing job works quite nicely with this, creating enough cuts between shots to make things interesting. One powerful example is during a dinner scene when all of the family members are eating at the table and it cuts between different members arguing about what’s best for their children. There are also a handful of slow-motion shots peppered throughout, especially when a character is walking down the street. It’s almost as if these are moments meant for us  to slow down and contemplate what’s in their headspace. Alex Weston provides the instrumental film score, and it’s both a doozy and appropriately minimalist. While there are great sequences without any real music, most of the tracks consist of plucking low strings for dramatic or emotional effect. The tension created from this and the more melancholy strings reflects the tension and melancholy of keeping the secret. But a handful also incorporate the vocals of singer Mykal Kilgore. His angelic voice and perfect melody adds to the ominous shadow looming over this faux wedding. The soundtrack also includes a memorable cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Come Healing” done by Elayna Boynton. It plays near the end of the film, and fits so well with the themes of the story being told here. In fact, I dare say it’s the rare cover that’s actually better than the original. With assured direction, an amazing screenplay, and a great sense of authenticity, The Farewell is a hauntingly beautiful and personal account of cultural differences. Bringing her own experiences to the big screen in a universal way, Lulu Wang shows us a world too rarely seen in cinema. We’re also treated to what is easily Awkwafina’s best performance to date, and I will be shocked if she doesn’t get even more work in the future. Wang proved all of her naysayers wrong in the best way possible with this film, and it makes me so excited to see whatever else she has to offer cinema.

“Rocketman” Movie Review

Any movie where the lead actor or actress is actually singing their part is already doing something right in my book. This musical biographical drama premiered out of competition at the 71st Cannes Film Festival to quite a rapturous response from those who attended. It was later released in theaters worldwide by Paramount Pictures on May 31st, 2019, to high anticipation. Made for the relatively small budget of $40 million, it has thus far grossed over $183.3 million at the box office. It’s R-rating should be no trouble for the film to turn a sizable profit in the long run- or to spur potential awards season consideration as well. Directed by Dexter Fletcher, the central figure and his real-life husband and producer David Furnish had been trying to make a feature film out of his life since at least 2001. For the longest time, Tom Hardy was set for the lead role with Focus Features distributing, but clashes over its vision and rating made it languish for years in development hell. Unlike most films in the genre, the director and real-life protagonist insisted on making the film more of a fantasy musical than a straightforward cradle-to-grave biopic. This is also the first film from a major Hollywood studio to explicitly showcase a gay male sex scene, which has caused controversy in countries like Russia and Samoa. Beginning in 1950s England, Taron Egerton stars as Reginald Dwight, an unconfident yet talented piano player. Wanting to break out of his cold familial upbringing, he crosses paths with lyricist Bernie Taupin, played Jamie Bell, who’s looking for a musician to bring his songs to life. Although most other reviewers have done so, I’m not really interested in comparing this movie to last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody. Although Dexter Fletcher was involved in both productions, (And apparently Rami Malek as Freddie almost had a cameo in this movie) they’re completely different in terms of style and personality. And for that reason, I’ve decided to just judge this film on its own terms. I actually didn’t really start loving Elton John and his music until high school and felt like an utter fool. I’ve come to love him both as an artist and a human being, and so I was curious to see how they would tell his story in a manner like this. And it works out near-flawlessly for Rocketman because it perfectly shows what Elton was going through during those years. What’s fascinating is how the structure of a fantasy musical allows the film to be as wild as it is while still being faithful to its central subject. Fletcher isn’t concerned so much with getting every minute detail of his personal life right as he is with capturing the spirit and tone of what he was going through at the time. One has to respect Elton John for allowing the filmmakers and lead actor such an amount of freedom to tell his story to such a wide audience the way they did. Then again, Rocketman‘s unorthodox approach to the genre might not float as well with everyone who sees it. Not to mention, the film really does earn its R-rating because it doesn’t shy away from the drugs, booze, or debauchery of Elton’s rock-and-roll lifestyle. But I definitely respect that Fletcher tried a very different method of telling the singer-songwriter’s life and career. Taron Egerton has been on the rise the last few years, and his performance here is absolutely the best I’ve seen from him so far. His transformation into Elton John is stunning, capturing all of the charisma, energy, and deep insecurities about his own talent. The fact that he also uses his own singing voice and does his own dances adds to the authenticity and may even score him a Best Actor nod in the coming months. Jamie Bell is also pretty remarkable as Bernie Taupin, Elton’s longtime musical partner and lyricist. Although he isn’t given a very deep characterization, the genuine care he shows to Elton is a welcome relief to all of the excess in his life. Richard Madden comes hot off of his excellent turn in the Netflix show Bodyguard as John Reid, the singer’s manager and brief lover. Portraying him with more layers and nuance than Bohemian Rhapsody‘s portrayal, he shows him off like a savvy and pragmatic businessman who puts the well-being of the singer second or even third. The supporting cast is rounded out by a number of impressive performers, some of whom standout more than others. These include Tate Donovan as a nightclub owner who gives Elton one of his first public performances, Bryce Dallas Howard as his unaffectionate mother, Stephen Graham and Charlie Rowe as music producers hesitant to publish the singer’s songs, Sharon D. Clarke as an empathetic Alcoholics Anonymous counselor, and Kit Connor as a young Elton John. Connor easily leaves the best impression of the bunch, as many of the supporting characters aren’t fully developed or interesting. And when it comes to the technical aspects, Rocketman is as dazzling and exciting as the central real-life figure. Cinematographer George Richmond, who’s worked 4 times with Fletcher in the past, uses an incredibly fluid and steady camera throughout the film. There are a number of long tracking shots, often through different time periods or in a fantastical sequence. It moves fast, but not too much for things to be incomprehensible for audiences. Various colors feel heightened in various sequences, such as blue and silver, adding to the dreamlike quality of the film. Chris Dickens’ editing job is also worth mentioning, as it blends different scenes together with near-effortless success. One particularly impressive bit is when the singer engages in a big orgy and multiple images layer on top of one another. It also blends the more fantastical elements in with reality rather seamlessly, and although it can be easy to spot which is which, it adds to the picture. This method is often used to create unique transitions from scene to scene, such as Elton falling into his pool with the intent to drown straight to a bedazzling concert. While there is an instrumental score composed by Matthew Margeson, it’s mostly forgettable. Instead, the film uses various songs by Elton and Taupin for various moments during his life, with the characters often breaking out into full-blown song and dance. Some sequences are highly choreographed or conceptual, others are more isolated and emotional. All of them are slightly different renditions of the singer’s catalogue, all of which use Taron Egerton’s singing voice. And the best part is that they are all appropriately chosen for the moment in the film and perfectly fit. My personal favorite is for “Crocodile Rock,” which adds a heavenly choir and a truly memorable sequence relatively early on. A close second would be the very last song “I’m Still Standing,” a great way to cap off a really unpredictable story. Rocketman has buckets of personality and catchy music anchored by an amazing central performance. By putting music and fantasy into a blender, Dexter Fletcher is able to add something new to a genre that’s becoming increasingly staid. Taron Egerton is definitely Oscar-worthy as Elton John and it’s gonna be a long, long time before another music biopic with this much energy touches down.