Category Archives: Biographical

“American Animals” Movie Review

This is likely going to turn into a scenario where the people who keep demanding something new or innovative in cinema will reject this movie as “too arthouse” or “too weird.” If that happens, that means the filmmakers are on the right track for a solid career in the industry. This highly unconventional heist thriller premiered as part of the official competition at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, getting picked up by both The Orchard and the newly formed distributor MoviePass Ventures. Entering a limited theatrical release on June 1st, the film expanded into more theaters and has managed to gross nearly $3 million at the box office. Written and directed by Bart Layton, the film marks his first foray into narrative features, following his breakout with the 2012 documentary The Imposter. Layton virtually expands the elements on atmospheric reenactments from that film to feature-length here. Based on a crazy true story, the film follows 4 college students- Warren Lipka, Spencer Reinhard, Chas Allen, and Eric Borsuk -attending Transylvania University in Kentucky. The college library there is home to several priceless antique books, including two filled with very famous animal paintings by John James Audubon. In the 2003-2004 academic year, for reasons that still remain unclear, the men start joking about robbing the library blind. But they soon become serious about it, researching crime movies for help on their endeavor, setting up potential buyers for the books, and ultimately get ready to pull off one of the most daring heists in recent U.S. history. Movies centered on heists are hardly anything new in cinema these days, there are just so many of them. Any time a new one comes out, they have to REALLY work hard to impress me or stand out from the crowd in any way. And a former documentarian deciding to take on the story of 4 privileged white dudes pulling off a particularly stupid crime on a college campus? Interesting angle, but I’m still not entirely convinced that it’ll be anything special or memorable. And just because it premiered and competed at Sundance or any other festival doesn’t necessarily mean that it will always be worth the trouble of seeing in theaters, let alone worth reviewing. So take that as a sign of how much I liked Amercian Animals; I really had a lot of fun watching this movie. And trust me when I say that no reader here has ever seen any film quite like this in their whole life. Bart Layton may be working primarily with professional actors, but that doesn’t stop him from using his docudrama expertise to his advantage. While most of the film is told in a narrative fashion, it is directly followed by talking head interviews from the real-life subjects. They offer unique reflections on how everything went down, from first meeting one another to the sweat-inducing heist itself. But rather than just have them explain everything exactly as it happened, the filmmakers smartly decide to just let them provide more context as to their actions and motivations. Even better, each of them remembers certain scenarios or actions differently than others, providing both a slick comedic edge and some unreliable narrator shenanigans. Admittedly, it’s a little frustrating because it’s still left unclear why these 4 men did what they did. But I definitely enjoyed watching Layton try to add more thematic depth to the story. Errol Morris would be proud. Agents, studios, and cinephiles all need to start paying more attention to the 4 main actors in this movie. Jared Abrahamson and Blake Jenner do great in their respective roles, but Evan Peters and Barry Keoghan play Warren and Spencer, the ringleaders of the operation, and do particularly fantastic work together. Keoghan, who had a wonderful breakout last year with Dunkirk and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, plays Spencer as a decent, naive kid who seems unsure of what he wants in life, a quality many can relate to. Peters, meanwhile, is a total revelation as Warren. This is wholly different from his turn as Quicksilver in the new X-Men movies. He’s unpredictable, brazenly entitled, manipulative, profane, but also spiteful for no reason. His flawed logic for stealing the antique books is both insane and tragic, painting himself as more than just a sociopathic narcissist. It becomes disorderly and honestly somewhat unsettling when he becomes convinced that he can be just like a smooth criminal from the movies. From a purely technical point of view, there is an amazing amount of skill and confidence behind the camera. Ole Bratt Birkeland’s widescreen cinematography skillfully captures each environment and tone of each scene with grace. In some of the students’ imagined scenarios’, it’s all taken on slick, dynamic single-take shots. Other instances, like when things don’t seem to be going according to plan, it becomes very unsteady and shaky, at times a little disorienting. It also nails the atmosphere, which becomes increasingly darker and more hard-edged as the film goes along. The editing is a collaborative effort between Nick Fenton, Chris Gill, Luke Dunkley, and Julian Hart. It uses very precise cuts, moving back and forth from the acting portrayal to the real criminals themselves. For example, in one scene, Spencer begins a sentence, only to be finished by the real Spencer. It also works to create interesting visual contradictions between the subjects. A few hard cuts elicited a good laugh or two out of me. The musical score here is composed and conducted by Anne Nikitin, who had previously worked with Layton on The Imposter. The score is decidedly modern and appropriately moody for the material at hand, utilizing a number of synthesizers and severely low strings that would (hopefully) bring Johann Johannson back to life. She also uses some neat percussive instruments to wring out the tension in the viewer and softer electric guitar strums to provide an emotional through line. In some ways, it felt like a neverending crescendo as we watch the situation get more and more complicated. There are also a number of obscure songs from bygone rock and folk artists. It’s weird to say that songs by both Mobb Deep and The Doors fit perfectly in the same movie, but that’s how it is. Just like the original tracks, at times it’s playful and others it’s dead serious. I feel like this has a broader appeal than most audiences might think at first. Regular moviegoers will get to see an unconventional heist thriller, cinephiles will get to pick apart the various movie references laying about, and documentary fans will be satisfied with its taught approach. In other directors’ hands, this could have felt extremely forced or unappealing. Thankfully, with enough dramatic heft to match the stylish fun presented throughout, American Animals blends fact and fiction seamlessly into unique entertainment. Bart Layton is highly talented as a documentary filmmaker, but this shows he’s just as confident and comfortable with a narrative feature. Let’s hope both he and Evan Peters have amazing careers ahead of them.

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“Tag” Movie Review

If playing a simple game of tag was all I had to do to stay in touch with my friends for the next few decades, I would have started playing that long ago. Probably not nearly as intensely as these guys, but still, it’d be a lot of fun. Produced on a budget of $28 million, this high-concept comedy was released on June 15th, 2018. Despite facing some tough competition from Incredibles 2, it has done surprisingly well so far by raking in over $48 million worldwide. Directed by first-timer Jeff Tomsic, previously helming episodes for the Comedy Central show Broad City, the wacky story takes its inspiration from an unbelievable article in The Wall Street Journal. The film was originally written with Jack Black and Will Ferrell in mind to star before scheduling conflicts got in the way. Having reduced the number of players from around 10 to just 5, one of the stars ended up breaking both his arms during filming; they had to be recreated with CGI. Based on an absurd true story, (No, I’m not kidding) the movie follows 5 life-long friends from the state of Washington. For the past 30 years, they have all played the same game of tag in the month of May, going to ridiculous lengths and spending enormous amounts of money to not be “it.” One of their friends Jerry, who has never been tagged, is about to retire from the game and marry at the end of the month. The remaining 4 team up to do everything in their power to try and tag him before it’s too late. I love myself a fun, broad comedy every now and again. While studio comedies in recent years have floundered, special gems like The Big Sick or, more recently, Game Night have succeeded in making me laugh my ass off while still giving an engaging story to bite down on. For this reason, I was pretty excited to see Tag in theaters. Hearing the premise of the movie, alone, was crazy enough, but the added fact of it being based on a real-life story (For the most part) gave me even more incentive to watch it. And while Tag isn’t quite on the level of other aforementioned comedies, and certainly isn’t a genre masterpiece, it can still be a pretty fun time watching. It seems weird to say, but I think that the comedic aspects of the movie might be the thing ultimately holding it back. At its core, this is a genuinely heartwarming story about a group of buddies who play tag as a way of sticking together throughout multiple decades. It’s something very special to these men, repeatedly quoting Benjamin Franklin by saying, “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.” There are certainly moments that perpetuate that sentimentality throughout the movie, especially in the back half. But it feels as though more effort was put into watching these men humiliate themselves trying to tag each other. Granted, the source material does lend itself well to comedy and there were definitely more instances of me laughing pretty hard than not laughing at all. But still, it felt like that extra bit of cynicism wasn’t really needed to begin with. For what it’s worth, the 5 lead actors do a solid job and share believable chemistry enough to carry the movie through. Played by Hannibal Buress, Jon Hamm, Jake Johnston, Ed Helms, and Jeremy Renner, the men all bring unique quirks to the group. Renner is the one playing Jerry, and seeing his charm and wide smile seep through his pride is really fun, relying more on physical comedy than expected. Helms, whom I’m not typically a fan of, is definitely the heart of the group, bringing them all back together and suffering multiple injuries in a deadpan manner. The other 3, while really funny, are pretty exactly what you’d expect from the actors. Other supporting players like Isla Fisher as the hyper-competitive wife to Helms’ character, Rashida Jones as a long-lost love to Hamm and Johnston, Anabelle Wallis as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal following these friends, and Verizon’s Thomas Middleditch as the unsuspecting owner of a fitness center all provide their own funny moments that help propel the ridiculous plot. Meanwhile, similar to this year’s Game Night, the technical aspects do a nice effort to distinguish Tag from other studio comedies. Larry Blanford’s widescreen cinematography is smooth, steady, and slick, moving from one attempt at tagging Jerry to another with ease. The balanced lighting and shadows make for an intriguing suspense, as the friends could sprout up from nearly anywhere and take each other by surprise. This pairs rather well with the editing job by Josh Crockett, which is smart enough to show everything that happens just enough to keep us in stitches. The coolest aspect of the film by far is when it takes inspiration from the hyper-stylized fights in Guy Ritchie’s rendition of Sherlock Holmes. By this, I mean that certain scenes where the crew is trying to tag Jerry are undercut by Renner’s narration of what’s going to happen, followed by slow-fast-slow moves of the attempts. Normally, something like this would be distracting to me, but I found it rather engaging and different. With a capable cast, unique filmmaking techniques, and just enough substance to overcome its style, Tag is a funny, undemanding diversion of comedy. It’s nothing special or groundbreaking at all, but if you just want something sweet and funny to watch, you could certainly do worse. It’s quick, harmless, but also unambitious. And frankly, with this absurd story driving forward, it doesn’t really need to be.

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“The Death of Stalin” Movie Review

The universe is under no obligation to make any sense to us, no matter how ludicrous something may seem. This philosophy allows me to better comprehend politics, whether it be in the Kremlin, the White House, or elsewhere. This dark political satire was initially screened at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival before finally releasing in theaters on March 9th, 2018. While it has grossed over $14 million at the worldwide box office, the film caused significant controversy and was officially banned from Russia, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan. (No surprise here) Directed and co-written by Armando Iannucci, the man behind the HBO comedy Veep, the film was apparently born out of a visit the filmmaker made to a hotel in Moscow. He was particularly fascinated by how former Soviet leaders still had portraits up on walls while someone like Hitler was trying to be forgotten by history. He’s also made clear that he had to tone down a lot of real-life facts because they were just too unbelievable to put in a movie. Beginning in 1953 Moscow, the film mostly focuses on the political machinations within the Soviet Union. At the height of the U.S.S.R.’s powers, their revolutionary leader Joseph Stalin unexpectedly suffers a cerebral hemorrhage and dies. Soon after, it primarily becomes a power battle between Minister of Internal Affairs Lavrentiy Beria and Communist Party Head Nikita Khrushchev. The well-being of Russia is caught up in the fight and soon both the military and the NKVD secret police clash heads as well. Although I haven’t watched Veep in its entirety, the handful of random episodes I have seen made me burst out laughing. Armando Iannucci had no fears about heightening the ridiculousness of American partisanship for both ends of the spectrum, creating some pretty hilarious moments. So the prospect of that show’s creator making a feature-length satire about Russian politics being released in theaters? That could be more appealing to someone like me. Especially with the ongoing controversy about their alleged interference in the 2016 presidential elections, it felt like we needed something to give us a little better insight. Thankfully, The Death of Stalin delivers that in spades. However, I feel the need to let you know that this film isn’t just line after line of nonstop, suffocation-inducing laughter. The trailers may make it look like a slapstick farce, but it’s actually a lot more serious than I anticipated. Iannucci holds absolutely nothing back here, allowing the audience to become awed by the utter lunacy of Communism. Yes, this does produce some pretty big laughs, some of which you’ll probably end up hating yourself for. But as far as the true context of the story goes, it’s surprisingly grim, nihilistic even. Obviously, there are a number of historical inaccuracies due to the satirical nature but is smart enough on its own to justify certain creative licenses. The funniest (And most absurd) license taken is that the whole cast speaks in English with their natural accents. This ultimately becomes a gold mine, especially when it comes to Khrushchev and Beria. Portrayed by Steve Buscemi and Simon Russell Beale, respectively, the two feel completely natural in their roles and manage to deliver some hysterical dialogue effortlessly. For the most part, we’re meant to be rooting for Khrushchev in the film, who actually draws a lot of similarities to another Buscemi role as Nucky Thompson on the HBO drama Boardwalk Empire. Other standouts include Monty Python alum Michael Palin as a staunch supporter of Stalinism, Rupert Friend and Andrea Riseborough as Joseph’s two volatile children, and Olga Kurylenko as a disgruntled concert pianist. My favorite one is Jason Isaacs as Field Marshal Georgy Zhukov, a key military player in the game. He’s heavily accented and looks like he’s having a blast playing an over-the-top general. And, continuing a trend started this year by Game Night, Iannucci is able to keep the audience’s interest and attention thanks to unique filmmaking. Zac Nicholson’s dynamic cinematography is much in the same style as Iannucci’s work on Veep, which frequently uses handheld cameras or sudden close-ups. This kind of vérité perspective does a great job of always keeping the audience involved in what’s happening, almost as if they’re a fly on the wall watching these events play out. A handful of scenes, such as mass soldier movement or the introduction of new characters, are shown on steady, fluid full shots. This makes a great pairing with the editing job by Peter Lambert, which knows just when to cut a shot. Rather than just doing a jump cut for every comedic punchline in the movie, we follow the subject and get great context at the horrors of the Soviet Union, such as citizens who are killed just off-screen in the background. The musical score is composed by Christopher Willis, whose previous work includes Veep and, strangely enough, the Disney Mickey Mouse House Shorts. His score is a fitting one for its era because it combines huge classical orchestras with deep vocals. Willis’ specialty with 18th-century music shows off in the big arrangements of strings and bellowing horns. Often, the tracks either match the grim imagery of the Communist regime or starkly contrasts it for hilarity. Although it’s early in the year, I am already willing to put this forth as a frontrunner for Best Original Score come next January. My predictions can often be wrong this early, but this soundtrack truly is that great. With ingenious direction, period-accurate costumes and sets, a fantastic cast, and a director that’s unafraid to hold back, The Death of Stalin is an uncomfortably relevant satire that spares no one. Even though it was undoubtedly hilarious, the fact that it dove into dark territory with its subject matter made me love it all the more. In case you ever doubted how ridiculous politics are, just watch this film.

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Retrospective: The Best Films of 2017

Well, folks, another year, another season of new cinema has officially come to a wrap. While many people felt miserable from all the horrible news pouring out daily, (This critic included) filmmakers were busy giving us films that reminded us what it truly means to be human. The good, the bad, and the gray areas in between. Over the course of the last year, I have watched a personal record total of 124 feature-length pictures released in 2017. In fact, I dare say that this was the best year of the decade so far in terms of newly released movies. Horror cinema broke all sorts of box office records, independent films saw releases in multiplexes, and a number of original films (as well as a few sequels) subverted all expectations. It was such a good and massive year that I had to expand to a Top 20. Here are some honorable mentions before we get started.

Honorable Mentions:

Coco, Only the Brave, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Gerald’s Game, Good Time, Mother!, The Disaster Artist, Darkest Hour, The Girl With All the Gifts, I, Tonya, Icarus, Columbus, Stronger, The Meyerowitz Stories, Spiderman: Homecoming, Thor: Ragnarok, The Big Sick, It Comes at Night, Okja, The Survivalist

Without further ado, let’s count down my Top 20 Movies of 2017.

#20: “Brawl in Cell Block 99″

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Let’s kick things off with an especially brutal and violent movie that very few people actually saw. In a year chock full of cinematic surprises, S. Craig Zahler’s prison Grindhouse action thriller Brawl in Cell Block 99 is one of the biggest. Having been a fan of his debut Bone Tomahawk, I was curious to see what the burgeoning filmmaker could come up with. A powerful, unapologetic ride of crushed bones and purple punches, absolutely nothing is held back. From the understated style to the simplicity of the story, virtually everything worked. And most of all, we get to see the best work of Vince Vaughn’s entire career on display as he unleashes fury on everyone in his way.

*Read my full review here.

#19: “Wonder Woman”

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The best film out of the DC Extended Universe by at least two country miles, and a charming affirmation of the better sex’s power, Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman gave us something we were all waiting for so long. The most recognizable female superhero on Earth was done incredible justice, due in no small part to Gal Gadot’s charismatic lead performance. But she’s not simply pandering to teenagers or making a politically correct statement. The two them, together with some of the best men and women working in the business, wanted the world to know that humanity is not too far gone. For all the horrible things we see happen every day, it’s this kind of cinematic optimism that we need.

*Read my full review here.

#18: “IT”

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One of the many things that 2017 will be remembered for was the Year of the Stephen King Adaptation. And while Gerald’s Game was a pretty great movie on Netflix, It edges out simply because of fun factor and sheer shock at its success. A movie about a demon clown becoming the highest-grossing horror movie of all time? Speaking of clowns, Bill Skarsgård was a perfect choice to play the terrifying iconic villain, while the kids all give a wonderful personality to the story. Rarely has a horror film made me feel so emotionally involved in its narrative; to feel the terror and sadness that the characters do. By all rights, this shouldn’t have worked. But director Andy Muschietti somehow made me excited for a sequel.

*Read my full review here.

#17: “First They Killed My Father”

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By far the most criminally overlooked film on this list, Angelina Jolie’s First They Killed My Father is a haunting portrait of a period rarely shown in media. The semi-autobiographical story of a young Cambodian girl desperately making her way through the Killing Fields would have already been crushing. But Jolie wisely chooses to show us this truly evil conflict through the innocent eyes of a child, which makes for a path of empathy uncommon in tragedies. The fact that the film was shot on location, has an entire cast made of Cambodians, and the primary language is Khmer is particularly impressive for an American filmmaker. She unflinchingly captures the aftermath of Communist takeover following the Vietnam War. Speaking of which…

*Read my full review here.

#16: “The Post”

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I get the idea that putting up an Oscar Bait-y movie like The Post on my Best Films of the Year list makes my tastes look cheap and predictable. I understand that. I also don’t care. Steven Spielberg continues his hot streak into his early 70s with this relevant historical drama concerning newspapers that tried to uncover government deception in the 1970’s. Anchored by incredible performances from Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, and an enormous supporting cast, the movie looks and feels like a master at his craft working to tell an immediate story with actors who know exactly what they’re doing. Regardless of how forced the message may seem, there’s no denying the importance of the freedom of the press which Spielberg and his collaborators saw when they first read Liz Hannah’s script 9 months ago.

*Read my full review here.

#15: “The Lost City of Z”

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I bet a lot of people forgot about this movie back when it was released in April. I didn’t, though. James Gray’s musty, jungle-obsessed historical drama is a hallucinogenic throwback to the grand epics of filmmakers like David Lean. A sweeping story about one of the most mysterious treks in British history in the unknown Amazon, someone could easily be fooled into thinking that this was a 35 mm print only discovered recently. While the character of Percy Fawcett is softened up a bit, Charlie Hunnam does excellent work as the complex explorer who became obsessed with a small idea of civilization by the Natives. It’s definitely a slower movie than most audiences are probably used to, which probably explains why it bombed at the box office. But it’s still just brilliant and glorious in scale.

*Read my full review here.

#14: “Lady Bird” 

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The little festival indie that absolutely could, Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird is not the last directorial debut you’ll find on this list. While the story of a young woman wanting to escape her confined small-town life may sound familiar, every single frame of the movie is fleshed out into a three-dimensional object or person. Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf do magnificent work as a daughter and mother whose relationship is increasingly strained as the day comes when the titular girl has to leave for college. But Gerwig fills in many moments with great levity and humor that solidify its honesty, keeping it from being a stressful affair. We all reach our time to fly sooner or later.

*Read my full review here.

#13: “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”

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Aside from having a highly unconventional title and a bevy of veteran actors at his disposal, writer-director Martin McDonagh also chooses to navigate taboo territory. By focusing on a mother who takes a militant stand against the authorities for failing to solve her daughter’s 8-month-old murder, he manages to walk on thin ice with grace. It also helps that Frances McDormand gives one of the best and most vulgar performances I’ve seen all year long while Sam Rockwell is total dynamite as the virulent racist of a cop. And while the film could have easily been drenched in misery and depression, McDonagh bombards the audience with unexpected doses of bleak humor that you really shouldn’t be laughing at. Excellent writing and acting come together perfectly.

*Read my full review here.

#12: “John Wick Chapter 2”

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John Wick Chapter 2 was awesome! It combined slick, stylistic filmmaking techniques with beautifully choreographed action sequences. Even something that simple is hard to come by these days. But still, Chapter 2 builds upon the original film’s worldbuilding by giving us an even bigger peek into the world of assassins. How are they organized? What involvement do the governments have? And whenever something like that isn’t happening, all of the actors are delivering the unsubtle dialogue with complete Shakespearean authority. What more could you want from an action movie?

*Read my full review here.

#11: “Raw”

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Easily my favorite foreign language film of the year, and one that feels absolutely foreign in many different ways, Raw is really a movie that lives up to its title. It’s quite often that horror movies tend to revolve around scenarios or circumstances that could never happen in reality. The horrifying beauty of Julie Docournau’s Cannes debut is how believable every instance of gore and lust is presented, which arguably makes it even more uncomfortable to watch. A lurid coming-of-age tale of budding sexuality with no easy emotions or cop-outs, those with a weak stomach are sure to have a panic attack during Raw. (Just research its screening at TIFF) But it’s a prime example of modern directors still finding little wrinkles of fresh air and forming their own distinctive voices.

*Read my full review here.

#10: “Wind River”

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Top 10 territory now! Wind River was one of the most realistic films I saw in 2017 of any genre. Taylor Sheridan proves that he’s just as capable in the director’s chair as he is a gifted scribe, proved in Sicario and last year’s Hell or High Water. A murder mystery set on a Native American reservation in Wyoming, Sheridan balances sober commentary on an undervalued issue with a big heart at the center. Jeremy Renner and Gil Birmingham give some of their finest performances as two fathers searching for closure on the deaths of their daughters while highlighting the cold, unforgiving frontier of the titular reservation. One of the most intense films of the year as well as one of the most satisfying, it’s movies like this that major studios should come around to making more often. These voices need to be heard.

*Read my full review here.

#9: “Mudbound”

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Don’t let the Netflix logo at the beginning of this movie deter you; Mudbound is as artful a film as anything released in theaters. Dee Rees’ stunning, complex epic is a 2-hour and 15-minute Southern ballet of family drama and suppressed hatred. It speaks to the relevant, deeply rooted problem of racism that ceaselessly dogs America with subtle storytelling and highly mature writing. An able-bodied cast of either color give shades to what could have easily been archetypes in a feel-good historical fantasy. But both they and Rees refuse to let the audience have any easy answers to the issue, leaving us immersed in the dirty farmlands of rural Mississippi. An essential piece of literary cinema, Mudbound may take place in the time of Jim Crow but it still holds truths for today.

*Read my full review here.

#8: “War for the Planet of the Apes”

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A stunning piece of visual storytelling and one of the few concluding chapters that is actually satisfying, the franchise with increasingly long titles reaches a bleak end. War didn’t just offer more proof that Andy Serkis deserves Oscar recognition as the ever-so conflicted ape leader Caesar. This ninth installment also showed us dark themes rarely seen in a summer blockbuster, including an indictment of the audience’s capacity for enjoying brutal violence portrayed on-screen. A barrage of intense emotions and hard choices hit the viewer with beautiful imagery that will haunt me for weeks. And considering that only one scene of verbal exposition was included here, that’s especially impressive. Also, Steve Zahn as Bad Ape provided some good levity for an otherwise completely dark and harsh story.

*Read my full review here.

#7: “Baby Driver”

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Having wrapped up his Three Flavors Cornetto Trilogy 4 years ago and after walking away angrily form Ant-Man, it’s safe to say that most film lovers were curious about what Edgar Wright could come up with next. But none of us could have predicted him bringing such an exhilarating and stylish film quite like Baby Driver. A clear homage to old gangster heist movies from the 1930’s and 1970’s, Ansel Elgort stars as a getaway driver who’s coerced into one final job by his criminal bosses before falling in love with an innocent waitress. Filled with Wright’s trademark kinetic editing and gorgeously precise camera work, the killer soundtrack never misses a beat. Presenting us with a colorful variety of characters, including the deaf J.D. or the profane murderer Bats, this was just a blast.

*Read my full review here.

#6: “The Shape of Water”

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Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water is this year’s only worthwhile movie about the romance between a mute woman and a humanoid amphibian creature. Joking aside, this was a genuinely great and enthralling picture built as a passionate loveletter to classical cinema. (Wipe transition included) Sally Hawkins does phenomenal work in a role dominated by silence and sign language while Doug Jones proves his worth as a brilliant chameleon of an actor. But the real star is del Toro, who weaves together a beautiful love story which, despite the Cold War backdrop, still feels relevant today. Some may feel a little cold, but there’s no denying the brilliance behind the camera, not the least of which is Alexandre Desplat’s whimsical score. It truly is a “Fairytale for Troubled Times.”

*Read my full review here.

#5: “Logan”

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No matter how long I’m a film critic and no matter how many superhero movies I watch down the road- and there are a LOT coming down the pipe -I will never forget Logan. By stripping down a comic book icon like Wolverine to his bare essence, without any superhero spectacle or save-the-world stakes, director Jame Mangold gives us a gritty Western character drama. Not since The Dark Knight has a superhero movie felt so different from both a thematic and technical standpoint. Hugh Jackman and Sir Patrick Stewart sink deep into their iconic roles, finding new corners not yet explored with two men- or in this case, mutants -tired of the violent world around them. A rollercoaster of R-rated action and capped off by an emotionally gut-wrenching finale, it’s films like Logan that give me true hope for the future of the genre.

*Read my full review here.

#4: “Get Out”

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Who on Earth could have possibly predicted the pop culture phenomenon that Get Out would become when it was released? Jordan Peele’s stunning directorial debut made waves back in February and the buzz just never let up from there. A searing satire of how white people respond to accusations of racism, Peele drops subtle hints left and right only to reveal the frightening horror behind it all. Daniel Kaluuya proves that his one-episode stint on Black Mirror wasn’t a hoax by playing Chris, an African-American stuck in one of the most bizarre situations imaginable. Few films moved the national conversation of race quite like this, spreading like a wildfire in multiplexes. Upon rewatches, you’ll find new details that feed further into the subtextual richness of Get Out. Unpredictable, hilarious, and wholly original, if I told you there was a single movie from 2017 that I had more fun watching in a packed theater than Get Out, I would be lying to you.

*Read my full review here.

#3: “Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi”

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In the four years that I’ve run my blog here on WordPress, I don’t think any year was as cinematically divisive as 2017. Few films illustrated that more widely or intensely than the latest entry in the Star Wars franchise. Unlike a lot of fans, I do understand some of the hate this movie has received, but at the same time, I love it all the more for it. You’d be hardpressed to find a modern blockbuster that is as bold or risk-taking as Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi, which sees much of the iconic mythology questioned by our beloved heroes. While the action sequences, especially a beautiful lightsaber duel involving Rey, Kylo Ren, and the Praetorian Guard, are truly extravagant, it’s the storytelling and development of Luke’s character arc that really grabbed me. Some rewatches are probably mandatory, but I’m still in awe of what Disney let Johnson do.

*Read my full review here.

#2: “Dunkirk”

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When I first said this in my review, it felt like a great hyperbole. But it’s been about 6 months since I first watched the film and I still feel quite confident: Dunkirk is the most patriotic British film ever made. Having had little knowledge of the actual history of the titular event, involving 400,000 troops stuck on a beach in 1940 France, I went into this movie expecting a straightforward war movie. But instead, Christopher Nolan immersed me and the auditorium in a 70 mm simulation of what it was like to live that moment; from the land, the air, and the sea. Because of this, many have complained about the severe lack of character development or emotional involvement. I get that criticism, but the attachment shouldn’t come from a monologue about a girl back home. Personally, I didn’t think that was necessary to feel the immense fear, anxiety, and relief of the soldiers in each story. I swore to God it was going to be my best film of the year. Until I saw…

*Read my full review here.

#1: “Blade Runner 2049”

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I get the hate for Dunkirk, The Shape of Water, and even Star Wars. However, I genuinely don’t understand how anyone could hate Blade Runner 2049. For the second year in a row, Denis Villeneuve has directed my favorite film of the year and rightly so. Maybe it was the IMAX syndrome. Maybe it was the jaw-dropping, immaculate cinematography by the legendary Roger Deakins. But I wholeheartedly believe that this sequel is better than Ridley Scott’s 1982 original, with a sprawling story bolstered by impeccable visuals and a solid beating heart at the center. In fact, this could be the movie that convinces some people to switch over to 4K. Ryan Gosling proves his worth as one of the finest actors around as Officer K, but it’s Harrison Ford that steals the show. No real easy explanations are dolled out, just strong storytelling driving the mystery of Rick Deckard forward. Blade Runner 2049 is a complete technical masterpiece and one that will hopefully come to inspire a new crop of aspiring filmmakers.

*Read my full review here.

So there’s my list! Do you agree with my picks? What was your favorite movie from 2017? Leave a comment below, and if you’re interested to see more content like this, be sure to Like and Follow my Blog. Bring on 2018!

“The Post” Movie Review

Alright, so the sole reason I have yet to give my readers a definitive Best of the Year list is that there was just one more movie that I wanted to catch in theaters before Oscar season came to a close. And I’m glad that I’ve held it off thus far. This historical drama from legendary director Steven Spielberg was released in a wide amount of theaters on January 12th, 2018. But thanks to the sneaky practice of a limited release back in late December, the 20th Century Fox production was able to qualify for Academy Award consideration. Having already earned back its $50 million budget, the original screenplay by Liz Hannah was a part of the 2016 Black List. Realizing the potential for timely commentary, Spielberg and Co. scrambled to get this movie made as soon as possible. According to the director, the time between when he first read the script and finished the post-production was a hasty 9 months. Based on the true story, Kay Graham, played by Meryl Streep, is struggling to retain ownership of her family’s newspaper The Washington Post. In 1971, it’s discovered that a classified document called The Pentagon Papers contains 7,000 pages worth detailing how the U.S. government had systematically lied to the public about the Vietnam War over the course of 4 presidencies. The New York Times is the first one to scoop up the story, but the administration of Richard Nixon levies an injunction against them and makes it clear to the rest of the press that publishing any more pages would be equivalent to treason. Seeing this as an unconstitutional attack, Graham is persuaded by her editor-in-chief Ben Bradlee, played by Tom Hanks, to run the story and see her newspaper grow into a national institution. Honestly, it’s not that hard at all to get me excited about a new movie from Steven Spielberg. Doesn’t matter if it’s great or crap, if Spielberg’s name is attached to it I’ll always be there to support him. Plus, this has the always-added benefit of two of the best actors working today in the lead roles. Throw in some not-too-distant history as the backdrop, and we already have a recipe for classic Oscar Bait. Sure, there are some inaccuracies abound for the sake of the story, but is The Post entertaining? You bet your flat bottom it is. Do I really need to explain how great Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep are in this movie? It seems like a redundant statement, but they’re both genuinely great in their roles. But this is clearly Graham’s story, as we see how disrespectfully men on the company board treat her. At one point she states, “This is not my father’s company. It’s not my husband’s company. This is my company, and anyone who thinks otherwise, I feel, is not fit to be on the board.” Of course, Spielberg went all Lincoln and gives us a massive supporting cast of great names. T.V. stars like Bob Odenkirk and Matthew Rhys are perhaps the most important with their roles, but nearly every scene has someone you love. Whoa, Michael Stuhlbarg’s in ANOTHER movie from 2017? Bradley Whitford and Bruce Greenwood in more White House drama! There’s Jesse Plemons and Zac Woods as attorneys more scared than they should be! No one told me Allison Brie and Sarah Paulson were gonna be in this movie! You’ll practically be exclaiming, I promise. And the director may be pushing 71, but he still knows how to keep the film in his own signature style. With cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, he frames it all like a classic Hollywood picture with long still shots focused on characters. Sometimes, we follow the reporters in tracking shots as we get to see what their workspace is like. On rare occasions, it will switch to handheld in order to let the audience know how little time is left. Harsh white light is often shown blasting through windows which give a sense of the black-and-white story. Longtime editor Michael Kahn teams up with Sarah Broshar to masterfully cut together scenes of investigation with employees hurrying to print it out. This added a sense of urgency and ultimately made the experience a little more exhilarating. But of course, what’s a Steven Spielberg movie without John Williams composing the musical score? Certainly better than his work on The Last Jedi, there’s that classic sharp horns and strings that add a good sentiment to the story. But Williams understands better than to manipulate us. He also trades in some noteworthy riffs on the electric guitar along with light trills on woodwinds. The back and forth between these various instruments makes for a particularly riveting score. Even at the age of 85, it’s still remarkable that this man is pumping out new melodies for cinema. And of course, The Post has a message. Despite the impressive setting of 1971, it’s quite clear that this story is meant to act as a reflection of the current U.S. presidency with Donald Trump. It’s considered a miracle if he goes a whole day without complaining about “Fake News” on Twitter. In fact, a study not too long ago showed that maybe 27% of Americans actually trust newspapers anymore. This movie rebukes the idea that (most of) the press has an agenda to follow, opting instead to show how seriously everyone in journalism takes their jobs. Can it seemed forced or bash its message over the head of the viewer? Sometimes. But if any director has a right to do it, it is Spielberg. With relevant drama, gorgeous sets and costumes, an epic cast, and powerful analogies to today, The Post is a riveting historical caricature of modern America. Spielberg, Streep, and Hanks all excel at giving us a story that needs to be told now but they’re never smug about it. They spin an op-ed worthy of being published.

“I, Tonya” Movie Review

After many instances of falling on my butt, I gave up trying to be an ice skater. And now after watching this movie, I’m glad that I made that decision. This biographical black comedy premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September before releasing theatrically on December 8th, 2017. Expanding in the ensuing weeks, the film has already made back more than half of its $11 million budget at the box office. Directed by Craig Gillespie of Lars and the Real Girl fame, the movie was reportedly going to originally be a Netflix Original. But after a strong showing at TIFF, the newly-formed Neon won out the acquisition, likely as a potential last-minute awards-season wrench. Based on the insane, unbelievable, wildly contradictory true story, Margot Robbie produces and stars as Tonya Harding. Despite being beaten and shoved by her family and growing up in a poor environment, she is determined to become the best figure skater in the world. In 1994, she gets a chance to compete in the Winter Olympics against Nancy Kerrigan, a rival skater with a much more “esteemed” background. On the off-chance that you don’t know how this story ends, I won’t go any further into it. But I will say that reviewing this movie objectively is extremely difficult because virtually every living American has an opinion of Tonya Harding. Some people love her, others loathe her. I, myself, am split down the middle because although I do feel more informed about the situation, the whole picture is still not that clear. But if I’m being honest, in the end, we’ll probably never know. I can say, however, that on its own, the movie I, Tonya is unabashedly entertaining and surprisingly resonant. And a lot of that success comes from the crackling screenplay by Steven Rogers. The events of the film are told in a nonlinear fashion, where the excerpts of the story from the past are inter-cut with interviews taken recently.  These interviews are filled out by the actors playing the parts, and sometimes a hardcut between a harsh scene involving Tonya and a deadpan comment made me laugh uncontrollably. It’s actually a lot like the Coen Brothers’ Fargo; a bunch of idoits come up with an insanely stupid plan that they have no business pulling off. But Rogers isn’t undermining anyone; he knows that this story is tragic regardless of what perspective is being told. In fact, all of the characters being interviewed have very different recollections of events, which is wise for the audience to decide for themselves. They even break the fourth wall at times, which allows for some great bits of levity.  Does Margot Robbie deserve Best Actress consideration as Tonya Harding? Absolutely. Her take-no-BS attitude and wicked tongue make her relatable to the audience, especially when we observe her harsh upbringing. Sebastian Stan plays her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly, who brings a nuanced and thick haze on the figure. One minute he’s softly flirting with his wife, the next he’s engaged in a shouting match of emotionally harmful words. But really, West Wing‘s C.J. Cregg A.K.A. Allison Janney makes this her own show as LaVona Golden, Tonya Harding’s mother. The 4-time Emmy winner smokes like a factory and says a number of things that are politically incorrect yet hilarious. Despite her emotional, physical, and verbal abuse, I definitely feel like she’s qualified for Best Supporting Actress. And whenever these actors aren’t lighting up the screen, the technical aspects of I, Tonya keep the viewer entranced. Nicolas Karakatsanis’ cinematography often presents the story in a handheld, cinema vérité style. This allows everything to look lived in and sweated in, giving some realism to a tale otherwise filled with utter lunacy. During moments of actual figure skating, Karakatsanis and Gillespie opt to use long uninterrupted takes to showcase the true talent of Tonya and Nancy. We see the actors’ facial expressions go from sheer terror to relieved happiness in no time. Each of the interviews, meanwhile, is cropped at the sides while the actors have all advanced nearly 20 years of age thanks to the excellently subtle work in the makeup department. And the editing knows just how long to stay on one scene before going back into the present, which keeps everything flowing nicely. But the most impressive part of the movie, by far, is how Craig Gillespie refuses to take sides in telling this story. As I said, for better or for worse, virtually every American walking abroad today has an opinion of Tonya Harding and the things that she’s done. Some hate seems justified, some not so much. And that opinion may hinder or heighten your experience with this film, but Gillespie and Rogers choose not to ask the audience for a letter of forgiveness to Tonya Harding. They present each truth as they are told, leaving it for us. We see how Tonya’s poor upbringing hurt her chances of being respected in the ice skating culture. We see the effects of her extremely toxic marriage to Jeff Gillooly on her emotional state of being as an adult. We witness (and sometimes feel) her jealousy towards Nancy Kerrigan and what that ultimately leads to. At one point, near the end of the movie, Tonya issues an impassioned statement, “I’ve never had a real education. Skating is all I know. That’s all I know.”  Though it can occasionally feel like a tonal juggling act, I, Tonya is a painfully funny and contradictory account of a controversial American figure. Margot Robbie and Allison Janney both turn in some of their best performances to date, while the writing is consistently sharp and edgy. This is quite possibly the most inventive biopic of the year and a nice breath of fresh air from stuffy glorification showcases. This is a real story with multiple angles to work from, and that’s my truth.

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“Darkest Hour” Movie Review

I know that the advertisements for Darkest Hour sell it as the newest completely generic Oscar-bait biopic about the life of yet another highly revered historical figure. And while it’s tempting to make such a write-off, please give Darkest Hour some benefit of the doubt. This historical war drama premiered at the Telluride Film Festival at the beginning of September of 2017. Following another screening at TIFF 10 days later, it received a limited release on November 22nd, 2017. After it went wide a full month later, it has struggled to make back its $30 million budget. Directed by Joe Wright, after it was announced, half of the cast had to be replaced; namely, the late John Hurt. But Oldman was always the choice to play the central character. Set in May of 1940, the early days of Britain’s involvement in World War II come to a head when Nazi Germany shockingly encroaches in on their position. After Nevel Chamberlain is proven to be incompetent in wartime, Winston Churchill is appointed the new Prime Minister. Facing opposition from within his own party to surrender to Hitler’s regime, he must overcome the odds of politics and unite the nation against their enemy. If this had come out in 1999, this movie would have already been the clearest contender for Best Picture. But now after the Academy went through drastic changes following this year’s Best Picture debacle, many are looking at movies like this and scoffing with pride. “That’s just old-fashioned hagiographic garbage” they might say, and they’d be forgiven for saying so. Studios are afraid to make these kinds of movies anymore. Especially if they’re World War II movies, then they have to REALLY work hard to get some recognition from just beyond the middle-aged white man. However, I’m here to tell you that Darkest Hour is worth a recommendation to general audiences. What makes it so enticing is its handling of the famed Operation Dynamo, where 400,000 soldiers were to be rescued from the beaches in France. That rescue was the centerpiece of another excellent war movie from earlier this year, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. The two make a perfect companion piece, quite possibly the best one in years. But whereas Nolan’s film was an experimental and neverending barrage of intensity, this movie shows the machinations and how Dynamo came to be. We see the surprising amount of opposition to continuing war against Hitler, despite Churchill having warned the country about him decades earlier. As the man himself puts it, “You cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth!” Speaking of Churchill, the rumors are indeed true: Gary Oldman’s performance is something stunning to behold. Behind the thick makeup job and cloud of smoke from Cuban cigars, he gives us a man put into the right position at the wrong time. Energized by a ticking clock of Britain’s doom, a powerful orator is unveiled who is never afraid to speak his mind with an extensive vocabulary. But we’re still given a human being who is terribly conflicted on his job and has problems socializing with other people; the first time we meet him, he’s in a thin bathrobe in his bed. If Oldman doesn’t get a nomination for Best Actor come January, I will be very surprised. In fact, he’s so good that he almost overshadows the rest of the great cast. Although she isn’t given too many scenes, Kristen Scott Thomas does great work as Winston’s wife Clementine. A strong-willed woman, she is always at her husband’s side even as he fumbles in politics. Game of Thrones alum Stephen Dillane is given a lot to do as Foreign Secretary Lord Hallifax. Despite initial support for Churchill, his paranoia gets the better of him as his party seeks the agenda of peace talks. Ben Mendohlson is restrained and nuanced as the terrified King George VI, while the young and beautiful Lily James provides a nice surrogate for introducing us to the world of this man. As much of a showcasing for top-notch acting, Darkest Hour excels in its technical aspects. Previously nominated for work such as Amelie and Inside Llewyn Davis, cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel plants us in the middle of these stuffy cabinet room meetings. Underneath a distinctive film grain, we see many colors desaturated into murkier shades of grey or white. This permeates the feeling of hopelessness felt in many during the time of this terrifying war. Most of the compositions are of close-ups, which makes sense since most of the movie is just talking heads trying to figure out what to do. But he makes sure to keep the audience on their toes as he never loses sight of the urgency of the story. While it’s all of Steadicam, there are many quick cutaways between conversations which makes it more riveting. Meanwhile, Dario Marinelli brings us a musical score that matches the grand urgency of the situation. With help from pianist Vikingur Olafsson, he crafts a slew of memorable melodies. The piano is almost always contrasted by swift strings or bouncing percussion such as the timpani. I definitely think that it shouldn’t be overlooked by the Academy in Best Original Score. Carried by the best male lead performance of the year and featuring some desperately needed speeches in these dire times, Darkest Hour is a rousing and energetic look at a powerful figure in history. Gary Oldman will most likely get a nomination and may even win, but it’s Joe Wright’s brilliant direction that brings the whole thing together.

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