Category Archives: Books

“Annihilation” Movie Review

I almost don’t know what to say. I just… I… Words are escaping me now. Well, I guess structural integrity is the way to go. Here goes nothing. This trippy science-fiction horror marks the second directorial effort of Alex Garland, following his massively acclaimed debut Ex Machina in 2015. Produced on a budget of around $40 million, the film has thus far earned back over $11 million following its stateside release on February 23rd, 2018. I suspect that a large portion of its profit will come from the United States, as international audiences won’t get to see it in a conventional manner. That’s something that I’ll explain more on in a little bit. Though it’s adapted from the first part in a literary trilogy, Alex Garland has said that he approached the source material as its own story, which he took from and morphed freely. Based on the novel of the same name by Jeff VanderMeer, Natalie Portman stars as Lena, a cellular biologist hired by a mysterious program called the Southern Reach. Following her thought-to-be deceased husband Kane’s sudden reappearance, she learns of a quarantined zone called The Shimmer that has been cut off from the rest of civilization. She then agrees to go out into the Shimmer with four other female experts and hopes to find new evidence of what happened to Kane and just what the heck is going on here. I loved Ex Machina, Garland’s debut feature. In an age where we’re practically surrounded by rip-offs and reboots and sequels that decades late, the screenwriter behind 28 Days Later and Sunshine created an original breath of fresh sci-fi that leaned more on speculative ideas than spectacle. And in anticipation for his new release, I read the VanderMeer novel, and can tell you two things. First, it’s one of the weirdest and boldest stories in recent fiction. Second, the film adaptation took massive liberties with the source material yet found ways to make its ideas still profound and complex. Hands down, either Annihilation will be the best movie I’ll see this year or 2018 is going to be an incredible year for cinema. It’s sad, however, that not everyone in the world will get to experience it in a traditional sense. Apparently, an executive from Paramount Pictures demanded that changes be made both to the ending and the main character, sighting it as “too intellectual” or “too complicated” for a wide audience. In response, producer Scott Rudin, who retains rights to the final cut, took Garland’s side and refused any notes or changes. As a result, while folks in the U.S. and China will get to see it in theaters, international audiences will have a chance to watch it 17 days later… premiering on Netflix. While I’m not necessarily opposed to Netflix picking up distribution rights for a film, this decision makes me really upset. No matter how large you 4K television is and even if you can watch it on the go, nothing will compare to sitting down in a dark theater and soaking it all in. The lengthy discourse I had with a handful of strangers after it finished is proof enough. Over the last few years, Natalie Portman has consistently proven to be one of my favorite actresses working today. Her performance here is a truly versatile one, bouncing between traumatized and tough-as-nails with ease. A damaged soul, some may find her character to be unlikable, but it’s honestly refreshing to watch a sci-fi movie where the female lead isn’t just a damsel in distress or a love interest. And she’s surrounded by Jennifer Jason-Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, and Tuva Novotny as her teammates. You get a glimpse of each of their individual personalities and every decision they made in the Shimmer was intelligent and reasonable. Oscar Isaac also does great work as Kane, subverting the traditional idea of a traumatized soldier. He initially gives a very wooden performance, but the reasons for it become clear later on. Meanwhile, on a technical scale, this film is nothing short of astounding. The visual effects inside of The Shimmer are something to behold, rarely have on-screen visuals been so simultaneously beautiful yet also terrifying. I won’t actually describe any of them for you so that you can be as surprised as I was watching it. But Garland managed to pull off a number of creature designs from the book I thought would have been impossible to visualize. The lush green landscapes and unique animals can be noticeably CGI, but the fantastic production design and ethereal lighting make it all the more pleasant to look at. Meanwhile, the cinematography by Rob Hardy feels like something straight out of a John Carpenter film. Wonderful, steady wideshots of both the Southern Reach outpost and the landscapes inside The Shimmer feel lucid and almost dreamlike. The widescreen format and excellent lighting allows for an intense, immersive atmosphere that feels so lacking in other horror films. Composers Ban Salisbury and Geoff Barrow both provide the musical score, which perfectly fits the surreal tone of the film. In some of the more mundane scenes, it just consists of an acoustic guitar getting plucked with some accompanying percussion. But during some of the more fantastical moments, it shifts into an ambient mix of synthesizers and suppressed strings. Interestingly, this dichotomy works perfectly to explore the duality of the characters’ situation and bring out a genuine reaction from the audience. The last 15 minutes of the movie are almost dialogue-free, save for that powerful music. As a result, my jaw just dropped. However, I can appreciate that this movie is not for everyone. Like the novel, this movie is like a modern-day H.P. Lovecraft story. For those unfamiliar, H.P. Lovecraft was one of the fathers of horror fiction, creating the myth of Cthulu. In all of his stories, as well as ones that imitated them, the main theme involved ordinary characters trying (And failing) to make sense of the impossible. If you’re unable to accept that from the beginning, then you’ll just be left behind. For those with the fortitude to wait it out and really soak it all in, Annihilation is a stunning, psychedelic piece of science-fiction cinema. Whether you love it or hate it, this is a movie that is going to stick with you long after the credits start rolling. Luckily for people like me, that’s a feeling that I cherish these days with the current studio system.


My Top 10 Comic Book Superhero Movies of All Time

In recent cinematic history, there is perhaps no genre of film as popular or lucrative as the comic book superhero adaptation. Not even the Westerns of the Golden Age of Hollywood could match the critical, let alone commercial, success of the many franchises that have begun, died, grown, and been revived in the last two decades. And with Avengers: Infinity War fast approaching theaters, I felt that now was as good a time as ever to look back on my favorites of the genre. Barring anything miraculous happening, like Aquaman or Ant-Man and the Wasp blowing me away, this list of ten will not change. However, I’d like to emphasize that all of the films on this list are based on an existing source material. I LOVE Brad Bird’s The Incredibles and am completely excited for the upcoming sequel, but that’s going to have to be some other list for another day. That being said, here are a few films that just missed the cut.

Honorable Mentions:

Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Lego Batman Movie, Spider-Man, Thor: Ragnarok, Blade II, Batman

Setting aside all potential controversy and fanboy outrage, here we go:

#10: “Xmen: Days of Future Past” (2014)

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“Please… We need you to hope again.” It’s the conversation depicted in the image above, but it’s also the film’s plea for human kind’s optimism. Bryan Singer returns to the director’s chair to unite the cast of the franchise he started with the players of the First Class generation in an emotionally fulfilling time-travel epic about legacy and regret. The plot may borrow elements from the Terminator franchise, but it’s the rich characters and thrilling action sequences that set it apart. Unlike previous films that mainly deal with the mutant perspective on prejudice, this story shows the effects (or lack thereof) of worthless fighting and speciesism. Also, the kitchen scene with Quicksilver is nothing short of badass and one of my favorite superhero moments in general.

#9: “Wonder Woman” (2017)

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Yeah, it may have only come out last year, but the impact and importance of director Patty Jenkins’ female-led superhero film cannot be understated. In a genre and industry dominated by masculinity and “boys with their toys” mentality, both she and star Gal Gadot show us the power of women, a sentiment much needed in this age. Also needed in this age is its fierce rejection of any cynicism, looking hard and critically at the flaws of man while celebrating their most redeemable qualities. The DC Extended Universe has been fumbling as of late, but hopefully, the masterminds get the lesson from this film to work in more optimistic fields where their directors have total freedom.

#8: “Iron Man” (2008)

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Here it is, folks. The film that started it all. The movie that defied everyone’s negative expectations and started an unprecedented, impossibly successful new model for franchise filmmaking. It was only in the early 2000’s that Marvel Entertainment managed to assemble the rights to many of their major characters, and realized that they had a great opportunity on their hands. Jon Favreau’s partially-improvised Iron Man was the first one in that plan, and they couldn’t have picked a better running start. Robert Downey Jr. IS Tony Stark/Iron Man with his sarcastic wit and beautiful ability to read lines at a fast pace. Endlessly rewatchable, especially because many of the effects are practical.

#7: “Batman Begins” (2005)

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Spoiler Alert: This may not be the last time you see a movie starring the Caped Crusader on this list. Following the atrocity of Batman & Robin, it’s truly a wonder that Christopher Nolan got to make this movie the way that he did. Not only did it revive and change the landscape of superhero movies, but cinema in general. From Christian Bale’s throat cancer-laden interpretation of the titular crime fighter to the seedy underbelly of Gotham City, this felt both realistic and right. For the first time, I actually cared about both Bruce Wayne and Batman. The 2000’s saw a lot of gritty reboots of beloved or lighthearted franchises, but Batman Begins stood head and shoulders above the rest of them.

#6: “Spider-Man 2” (2004)

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In contrast to the previous film, how about we move and look at a movie filled with innocence and earnestness? While Sam Raimi’s first foray into everyone’s Friendly Neighborhood Web-Slinger was a joyous ride, the sequel ramped up both the stakes and the emotional involvement. By wisely putting character development at the heart of the narrative rather than action spectacle, Toby Maguire is given a chance to flex his muscles as Peter Parker AND Spider-Man. Spider-Man 2 also gave us a great villain in Alfred Molina’s Dr. Octopus, who borders on misunderstood tragedy. And its message couldn’t be more uplifting: There’s a hero in all of us.

#5: “Deadpool” (2016)

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Now we’ve come into the first R-rated entry in the superhero genre, and my goodness does it earn it. We all knew that Ryan Reynolds was a good choice for the titular role of the Merc with a Mouth, even if that mouth was sewn shut the first time around. But one reel of leaked test footage later, and both 20th Century Fox and Tim Miller gave us a raunchy, self-deprecating round of profane glory. Deadpool may lean heavily into dick jokes, but in a genre where most movies are seemingly following the same template over and over again, it’s both refreshing and hilarious to see some filmmakers push the boundaries with their knowledge of the source material.

#4: “Guardians of the Galaxy” (2014)

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I am Groot. This movie, if for nothing else, is proof positive that audiences will watch literally anything if you slap the word MARVEL in front of it. By taking a Z-list comic book team whom very few people were familiar with and turning it into an action buddy sci-fi comedy, James Gunn lifted everyone’s fears that this would be the MCU’s first big bomb. Chris Pratt and Dave Bautista basically cemented their names with this movie, full of vibrant colors and a killer soundtrack. Who knew a CGI raccoon and a talking tree would make me laugh? Guardians of the Galaxy, apparently.

#3: “Logan” (2017)

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Shh. Do you hear that? That soft, wordless sound? That’s me crying my eyes out in the theater during Logan. Less a superhero movie and more a like a sober, powerful examination of the violent legacy of an iconic character, director James Mangold foregoes the need to save the world or get the girl at the end. He presents Logan, formally Wolverine, as an old, bitter, tired mutant who’s seen enough of the world to want to drink himself to death. Both Hugh Jackman and Sir Patrick Stewart are honestly Oscar-worthy in their performances as two lost souls sticking together as an obligation rather than a wish. A hard-R, intimately human portrayal of nobility in a terrible world.

#2: “The Avengers” (2012)

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Sneaking out of school to catch The Avengers on opening day is one of the most fun experiences I had at a movie theater. What Joss Whedon managed here should have, by all accounts, been a complete and utter disaster. But not only did he manage to cap off Marvel’s 5-year plan, he did it in an extremely satisfying and entertaining way. All of the characters were juggled around in relevant ways while Tom Hiddleston gives us the best Marvel villain by an ocean length with Loki. In terms of pure and unadulterated fun, The Avengers may be my favorite movie on this list. And yet, it’s still not the best…

#1: “The Dark Knight” (2008)

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Honestly, what else were you expecting to top this list? Don’t let anyone convince you that director Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight is just a “comic book superhero movie.” That would a gross simplification of what actually amounts to a gritty, complex, unpredictable crime epic that deconstructs the mythology of vigilantism. Where should a hero draw a line in the sand? They either die a hero or live long enough to see themselves become a villain. Speaking of villains, Heath Ledger genuinely gives one of the best performances in cinematic history as The Joker. It’s not just because of his death everyone thinks he’s good; he’s really THAT good. The Dark Knight isn’t just the best superhero movie ever made, not just one of the greatest sequels ever made, but one of the greatest films of all time.

Well, there it is. Do you agree with my picks? What’s your favorite superhero movie of all time? Please leave your thoughts in the comments, and if you’re interested to see more content like this, be sure to like this Post and Follow my Blog.

“The Princess Bride” Movie Review

What better way to celebrate Valentine’s Day this year than by rejoicing in one of my favorite romance movies of all time? Seriously, is there any other way to go about it? For cinephiles like this one, certainly not. Rob Reiner’s fantasy rom-com initially saw a release on September 25th, 1987, where it received positive responses from audiences. However, the film was surprisingly dry at the box office, only managing to bring in about $30 million against a $16 million budget. Fortunately, thanks to the rise of the Internet and the expansion of the home media market, the film has found an enormous cult following around the world, including from this reviewer here. Adapted from the William Goldman novel of the same name, who also wrote the screenplay, the film is a rarity in the art in how much it cuts off. Goldman apparently wrote the treatment as one for his relatives and cut out various longer sequences, such as war room discussions. Frankly, that’s a miracle. The movie creatively uses a sick-in-bed preteen boy as the framing device for the entire story, which his grandfather reads in a storybook. In a fictional medieval country of Florin, a farm boy named Westley is willing to do anything to win the hand of the girl of his dreams, Buttercup. Since she’s engaged to marry the sadistic Prince Humperdinck, there’s only so much time to get her back from a forced bond. He recruits the help of various colorful characters, including Inigo Montoya and Fezzik, to go on this perilous adventure to rescue true love. I’m going to be completely honest with everyone here: there’s almost no real point in me writing a full-length review for The Princess Bride. I’m serious, it’s extremely hard, second only Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz in terms of movies that are hard to review objectively. If I were to do that, it would ultimately turn into a long-winded, misty-eyed essay rife with nostalgia on why it’s so foundational to the memories of my childhood. However, I’m under obligation from my New Year’s Resolution to actually go through with this, so why not? One thing I would like to focus on in this “review” is how the film blends a variety of genres together. A sweeping romance story? Check. Swashbuckling adventure epic? Check. Hilarious and self-referential comedy with memorable jokes? Double Check. And yet what Rob Reiner does is that he brings all of these seemingly disparate genres together so effortlessly in a way that still works out for the story. Interestingly, the end result turns out to be something of a loving satire of them all, producing possibly one of the best Frankenstein scripts ever written. And the most impressive part? The movie only runs at 98 minutes, yet everything packed into it feels so like it’s so natural or flows so well. The entire cast is perfect with their deadpan delivery of idiosyncratic lines of dialogue. Mandy Patinkin and Cary Elwes are especially terrific as Inigo Montoya and Westley/Dread Pirate Roberts, respectively. Patinkin shares a story of his longing for revenge early on and constantly tells how he plans to introduce himself to his future victim: “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” Lines like that, as well as Wallace Shawn’s delivery of “Inconceivable!” have become permanently ingrained into pop culture status. For me, though the best performer is the late wrestler Andre the Giant as the huge muscle man Fezzik. He uses surprisingly great comedic timing blended well with physical humor to great avail. Though he’s definitely not the brightest of the bunch, you can’t help but love the big guy as he tumbles through the land. On the technical side of things, Reiner does enough stuff that’s interesting to warrant your attention. The various locations in obscure parts of England and Ireland make for beautiful backdrops in the story, such as the Cliffs of Insanity or the Fire Swamp. The camerawork by Adrian Biddle is simplistic and uses many instances of sweeping pans, which is appropriate for the sweeping tale of true love. All of the gorgeous costumes and outstanding production design are brought to life in glorious colors. I shudder to imagine how much time was spent to build that many sets and seams, especially with the complete lack of CGI or even blue screen. The editing job by Robert Leighton also deserves some commentary, as it breathlessly moves between the layers of the story. It goes from the boy in his bed to the kingdom of Florin, over to the green countryside, and back to the sick boy and his grandfather. This was perhaps the most important aspect to keep the film from collapsing in on itself. Meanwhile, Mark Knopfler of the Dire Straits gives us a musical score worthy of a classical romance. The composition is actually quite simple, mostly consisting of plucked guitar strings or mushy strings. This ironically stands in direct contrast to the satirical nature of the film but works all the better for it. Knopfler also wrote an original theme song called “Storybook Love,” which plays over the ending credits. It sounds just like any love ballad you’ve heard from the 80’s but is no less appropriate for the story. It truly is a storybook romance. Timeless, warm-hearted, comforting, sweet, and endlessly appealing, The Princess Bride is a wondrous adventure that leaves the rest of the genre all behind. This really was Rob Reiner in his peak, and I’m so glad that this movie has found appreciation over the years. If you saw me quote this movie word for word, you’d more than likely be scared. If your desire is for me to keep reviewing movies, to that I say “As you wish.”

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“The Shawshank Redemption” Movie Review

If 2017 proved anything to us, it’s that people really love a good Stephen King adaptation. Now let’s travel back in time to a film that didn’t get the recognition it deserved until years later. This highly beloved prison drama from writer-director Frank Darabont was originally released on September 23rd, 1994. Despite receiving generally favorable reviews as well as 7 Academy Award nominations, the film only barely made back twice its $25 million budget. However, it became the most successful home media release of 1995 and has been re-run on cable T.V. endlessly. Legend has it that Darabont was able to purchase the rights for less than $10,000, but sat on it for nearly 5 years. The film finally came to fruition after a lengthy casting process was done, including some changes to the story that we’ll mention in a little bit. Based on the novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption by Stephen King, the 142 minute-long story follows Tim Robbins who plays Andy Dufresne, an intelligent banker who is wrongfully convicted for the murder of his wife and her lover. He is sentenced to life at the Shawshank State Penitentiary, where he is subject to the brutality of both sadistic prisoners and opportunistic guards. Soon, he befriends a fellow prisoner/contraband smuggler Ellis Boyd “Red” Redding, played by Morgan Freeman. Over the next two decades, they and a handful of others have to deal with various developments, such as the Warden’s money laundering scheme and struggle to hold onto the hope of making it to being free once more. How on Earth am I supposed to review a movie that is so obviously revered by many and has been reviewed/praised to death? Is there really anything left I can say that no one else has already added? I sincerely doubt it. Well, I’ll admit this much: in preparation for my new year’s resolution, there were two movies I had to erase from my “list of shame.” The Shawshank Redemption was one of those. And as with Terminator 2: Judgement Day last year, I feel like such an idiot for having waited so long to actually act on it. Frank Darabont may have gone on to other projects over the years- including The Green MileThe Mist, and The Walking Dead T.V. show -but this remains not only the best film of his career but one of the best ever made, period. The sad truth, however, is that this film’s beloved status came at the burgeoning as well as the growth of the Internet fanbase. More particularly, it currently stands as the highest rated film of all time on the website IMDb, followed closely only by The Godfather. But the inherent problem with that is that many people will suddenly want to play the contrarian and repeatedly call this film “overrated.” The only film that rivals it in that certain regard is Orson Welles’ feature, Citizen Kane. (Which I still haven’t seen) Don’t let any of those fools let you sway from the inevitable. While we could argue about how it ranks among the best, there’s no denying its beauty and power. Tim Robbins is excellent as Andy Dufresne, a man who is established as innocent from the get-go but still gets his life ruined. Despite the hellish nature of the prison, he’s highly resourceful and soon grows respect and admiration from his peers. A particular scene where he offers to handle a guard’s financial problems in exchange for the prisoners to get cold beer is a great example of this. Clancy Brown and Bob Gunton do great work as the pious Warden and captain of the prison guards, respectively. The two of them are incredibly unlikable, but both of these actors inject a certain humanity that makes you understand their positions, despite all of the abuse they use in their power. But the obvious scene-stealer is none other than Morgan Freeman as Red, perhaps the great prison character brought to the celluloid. Although he was originally written as a white Irishman in the novella, his race literally doesn’t matter here. Freeman’s natural, fundamentally human performances deservedly nabbed him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. It also (For better or worse) established him as the quintessential voice-over actor thanks to his brilliant and sometimes-haunted narration of the story. And although it deceptively looks like a simple picture, The Shawshank Redemption is also a great technical triumph. Ever the master of photography, this is arguably the film that launched Roger Deakins into stardom. Each shot feels meticulously crafted, helping to establish Deakins’ love of contrasting harsh, realistic lighting with beautiful shadows. It works both to capture the monotonous daily life of prison work and find the right emotion of each scene; dark shadows dominate moments of despair and sorrow while more light-hearted ones find a particular gleam of light. Meanwhile, Richard Francis-Bruce’s editing job is splendidly fluid with the natural progression of the plot. No period of time feels like it takes priority over the other, as age and time come at a steady pace throughout the story. One minute, we’re starting out in the 40’s. Next thing you know, we’re finishing off in the 1960’s just before America sends its men up to the Moon. Honestly, it’s a crime that Thomas Newman has yet to receive his Oscar for Best Original Score. Nowhere is that more especially tragic than for his score in this movie. Heavy on strings more than anything else, the soundtrack matches beautifully with each of the characters and their various arcs. The main theme features a gorgeous crescendo from an oboe into a full orchestral sound, which is paramount to establishing the tone of the film. It also works in swelling up emotions during particular sequences. This includes the final 10 minutes of the movie, which is one of the most powerful in 20th-century cinema. And yeah, from all the descriptions about prison and wrongful conviction, one might think that this film is a depressing, misery-laden wasteland of pessimism. Don’t be taken the wrong way. While it certainly doesn’t shy away from the darker aspects of incarceration- including an attempted prison rape -Frank Darabont ultimately tells the story to give the audience a sense of hope and wanting of freedom. Its entire message can be summed up in the tagline: Fear can hold you prisoner, Hope can set you free. Cheesy? Possibly. But the “feel-good” elements are nuanced enough to make me overlook that. The Shawshank Redemption is an incredible, uplifting triumph of pitch-perfect filmmaking. Of all of the Stephen King adaptations to ever come out, this has got to be my favorite. And I sincerely hope that it connects with everyone just as it did me. A timeless, phenomenal masterpiece.

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“Zodiac” Movie Review

New year, new me. Well, sort of. As part of my New Year’s resolution, I’m going to review at least two “classic” movies every month. Now into February, I have to play catch-up. A moderate financial success, this historical mystery-thriller was released to critical acclaim in March of 2007. Helmed by David Fincher, the film was a collaboration between Paramount and Warner Bros., a rarity for major studios in Hollywood. Although it was originally scheduled for release in awards season of 2006, tensions over the runtime caused the film to be pushed back. Fincher had rights to the final cut, but he eventually reached an agreement with the studio to trim it down just a little bit. Beginning in 1969, a serial killer known as the Zodiac terrorizes the San Francisco Bay Area. He’s so confident in his abilities that he sends letters to the various news outlets, including The San Francisco Chronicle, taunting about his murders and even including ciphers that contain his real identity. The case becomes an obsession for four men- two Inspectors, a reporter, and a political cartoonist -who are willing to ruin their lives over the course of nearly 15 years. Most films centered on serial killers are terrifying for their brutal subject matter and disturbed antagonists. But for the majority of those pictures, we can take comfort in the idea that they’re fictional stories and relax a little bit in the escapism of it all. On the other hand, what makes Zodiac such a frightening movie, more than most films of its kind out there, is that it’s based on true events. Nearly everything shown in the narrative happened in real life, which arguably makes the concept of a serial killer even harder to comprehend. This is just one of the many things that makes Fincher’s film so damn compelling and engrossing. What this film did for me the first time I watched it, as well as on a recent rewatch, was how obsessed it made me with the case. Screenwriter James Vanderbilt does an excellent job at immersing the audience in this real-life story and its crazy developments. Like the main protagonists, we come along for the ride, aching for even the slightest ounce of new information on the subject matter. One could argue that it’s a serial killer rendition of All the President’s Men, another fantastic film focused on the frustrations of journalism and justice. When a film makes me want to research the actual case for any recent updates as soon as the credits role, that’s when you know the filmmakers have done their job well. As always is the case with David Fincher, the cast is filled with great actors who know what they’re doing. On the reporters’ end, Robert Downey Jr. and Jake Gyllenhaal do magic as Paul Avery and Robert Graysmith, respectively. They provide a great contrast for perspectives on the case; Downey as a cynical chainsmoking journalist and Gyllenhaal as an idealistic cartoonist who tries to navigate a violent world with Boy Scout honor. Then, we have Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards as Inspectors David Toschi and William Armstrong. The world-weary duo are terrific as they become increasingly disturbed with their findings and look at as many leads as possible. In supporting roles, Brian Cox is a steadfast defense attorney whom the Zodiac contacts, Elias Koteas as a Sergeant central to the case, and John Carroll Lynch is quiet as one of the primary suspects. And since this is David Fincher, you know the technical aspects are going to be impressive. The first of his films to be shot on digital camera, the work done with the late cinematographer Harris Savides is impressive. The wide-screen format allows for the viewer to keep their eyes focused on what’s happening. Very little camera movement is done in scenes, with the occasional tilt or pan thrown in to liven things up. They also use the Thomas Viper for good measure in bringing 1970’s Los Angeles to life with a bevy of special effects. Like the opening shot, which foregoes the Golden Gate Bridge and instead digitally recreates the Los Angeles skyline that no longer exists. It still shocks me that much photography was done in front of bluescreens. Other than that, the costumes and hairstyles are all appropriate to the period as the plot proceeds across two decades. I’m telling you, Fincher’s attention to detail is so insane that only Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, and Peter Jackson rival him. I can understand if this movie does not appeal to everyone, though. For one, movies centered on catching a serial killer could prove too stressful for some viewers. Although, I would like to point out that, in the runtime of 2 hours and 37 minutes, the Zodiac only strikes 3 or 4 times. But for others, it could prove to be a rather anticlimactic affair. I know it’s based on true events, but in case you don’t know how the case came to an end, I won’t give anything away. I’ll just note that the film builds and builds in tension and anxiety, but not necessarily a big dramatic climax. Regardless of your feelings on that, Zodiac is a stunning piece of obsession, told with imposing artistry. I don’t feel like I could have kicked my New Year’s resolution off with a better film. I would argue that it’s David Fincher’s masterpiece, and I really hope that you can appreciate and love it as much as I do.

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“The Disaster Artist” Movie Review

Have I ever told you guys that I’ve thought about becoming a film director someday? Well, this movie has given me even more of an incentive to pursue that dream. That’s one of the few things we can thank The Room for. This biographical comedy-drama received a standing ovation at the premiere of its rough cut at South By Southwest in March. After another screening at the Toronto International Film Festival, it released worldwide on December 1st, 2017, where it has already earned back its $10 million budget. Based on the tell-all nonfiction book by Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell, Seth Rogen’s production company set up film rights with James Franco in place to star. Despite the real-life subject wanting Johnny Depp for the lead role, Franco and A24 replicated the marketing strategy by having an actual billboard on Highland Avenue where they would call him and he’d ask them to see his movie. Beginning in 1998, the true-story stars the director’s younger brother Dave as an aspiring actor named Greg Sestero who befriends a fellow student Tommy Wiseau. After the two move to Hollywood and struggle to find any work, they resolve to make their own movie, The Room. And as the production unravels, their friendship and passion for acting is tested by a number of blunders which lead to the creation of one of the worst movies ever made. For those wondering, I have seen The Room. I caught it on cable once a few years ago and kept thinking the entire time, “What the hell is this?” It earns its reputation as the epitome of “so bad, it’s good” because, despite its terribleness, I just couldn’t look away. I will say that the only way to truly enjoy it is with a crowded theater where attendees know the movie backward and forwards and throw spoons at the screen. But the idea of a movie about the making of that movie? That’s like a cinephile’s wet dream come true. Do you need to have seen The Room in order to appreciate The Disaster Artist? No, you don’t. But you should definitely see James Franco’s new film because it’s highly entertaining. You can tell his deep passion and respect for the subject at hand. In fact, some scenes from The Room, such as the rooftop or the flower shop sequences, are recreated exactly as they were, right down to the framing of the shots. But also because Tommy Wiseau is one of the most mysterious and eccentric figures in the history of the film industry. No one, not even Sestero, knows anything concrete about him except that he apparently has a bottomless pit of money. And screenwriters Michael H. Weber and Scott Neustadter, previously scribes for The Spectacular Now and The Fault in Our Stars, find the empathy and the human being inside of him. At least, as much as they could. The younger Franco Dave finally finds himself a worthy role as Sestero, a good-hearted yet quiet actor. Having him play Greg was a stroke of genius because he manages to have great chemistry with his older brother and is the only one in Hollywood willing to give him a chance. But I’m sorry, no matter how many celebrities make a cameo in this film (I counted at least 45) none of them come close to James Franco as Tommy. A revelation in every part of his performance, he nails everything about Tommy Wiseau. From his strange accent to his oddball laugh, it was all spot-on. He has no business making a movie of any sort, but we still root for him in the end. If we’re going to talk about Gary Oldman receiving praise for his makeup-heavy work in Darkest Hour, then James Franco also deserves Oscar consideration for Best Actor. As I said, he has a clear passion for the subject at hand, and that also shows on the technical side of things. Cinematographer Brandon Trost chooses to use a shaky, vérité-style movement around the set in between takes of The Room. In fact, several shots are on one take which gives off this feeling that we’re watching a documentary about Tommy Wiseau rather than a narrative feature. With the creative decision to have several celebrities give interviews at the beginning in a cold open, everything felt real and lived-in. And like many other films of its kind, it ends with a montage of footage and photos featuring the real-life versions of both Greg Sestero and Tommy Wiseau. While this strategy feels tacked-on most of the time, I felt like it worked here pretty well. The way that Stacey Schroeder edits the real footage together with what’s unfolding before our eyes is pretty nice. And for me, The Disaster Artist could not have come at a better time to come out. For all the scandals of abuse, harassment, corruption, cover-up, divorces, and indifference in current stories regarding the film industry, here’s a movie about a couple of goofballs who are genuinely trying to chase their dream. And seeing the tumultuous production of it progress was invigorating as they constantly butt heads on opportunities. As many of you probably know, The Room was meant to be a very gritty, Tennesse Williams style drama. And so when Tommy slowly realizes how people are actually reacting to the finished movie, it was heartbreaking to see his brainchild collapse. I felt like that was what this film captured best, even though, again, no one really knows anything about Wiseau. The Disaster Artist is a hilarious and unexpectedly heartfelt tribute to all the dreamers in the world. Some characters feel like they get left behind, and it occasionally panders to fans of The Room. Otherwise, I’m very happy with this product. In a way, Tommy Wiseau succeeded because his “masterpiece” is still shown and talked about all over the world. And he got a movie made about it.

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“Mudbound” Movie Review

I’m crazy behind on writing movie reviews. I’ve effectively canceled plans to review The Phantom Menace to get more out there. Let’s start with one of the most triumphant. This historical period drama made a splash at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival when it premiered to critical acclaim. Following an intense bidding war, Netflix landed the distribution deal at a whopping $12.5 million. It was widely released on the streaming giant on November 17th alongside a limited theatrical run. So if there’s any movie this year that Netflix is gunning for Oscar consideration, it’s going to be this one. Based on the novel by Hillary Jordan, the story follows two families- the white McAllans and the black Jacksons -who are forced to live and work together on a cotton farm in rural Mississippi. When their two eldest sons Jamie and Henry return from World War II, tensions rise as serious ethical and moral questions are brought up. They must wrestle with poverty, racism, love, and loyalty in a Deep South that doesn’t seem to want either of them. I know what you must be thinking from that short synopsis: This is yet another movie existing solely to make white people feel guilty about their past, yet in the end, lets them know that prejudice is a thing that has long since ended. My friends, please wash that thought out because this film is far more than something so simple as that. I had heard lots of buzz from this picture ever since it premiered back in January. Whispers that Netflix may finally have a major contender for the Academy Awards on their hands. One might easily scoff at that idea, but those whispers were true. Director Dee Rees’ Mudbound is a huge step forward for the service. As you may recall from a previous review, it’s been reported that Netflix is currently $20 billion in debt from all of the original content they’ve been putting out. In fact, there was another report a month or so ago saying that they want to produce and distribute as many as 80 films next year. In my humble opinion, that’s not a good idea for them. If anything, they should become more selective of their library of content. Films like this and Okja have the potential to set them up as one of the great Hollywood studios, and indeed, this film’s Oscar chances may send more filmmakers flocking towards them. The whole cast does a fantastic job here, but this is clearly a show for the matriarchs of the family. Carey Mulligan’s role as the wife Laura defies period stereotypes by being neither a White Savior or a racist plantation wife. Instead, she is a headstrong woman stuck in a household run by masculinity. Mirroring her is singer Mary J. Blige as the concerned Florence Jackson, who easily trumps everyone else in the film. Despite having the best of intentions, her world is constantly swirling as the families clash and reconcile. Garret Hedlund and Jason Mitchell play the two prodigal sons with excellent chemistry. The scenes of their bonding and sharing stories from the War give the audience hope that everything will be okay. The one character who’s not shades of gray is Pappy, played well by Jonathan Banks. A virulent racist, most of the families’ problems stem from him, and I didn’t like watching his scenes. Mudbound isn’t just a showcase of pure acting, as the technical aspects are very accomplished. Rachel Morrison’s cinematography reflects the dirty world the characters have to live in. It’s a rich and down-to-earth aesthetic that perfectly captures the scope of the story. The shots of vast fields and open land are contrasted by the small houses the McAllans and Jacksons are trapped in. There’s also some visceral editing from Mako Kamitsuna with near-perfect cutaways in every instance. Two particular examples standout. The first is when Jamie and Henry are losing friends in combat over at Europe while a Gospel service begins singing heavenly tunes. The other is a disgusting act of violence committed near the end of the film that moves away enough for the viewer to see with their imagination. Both were powerful and unveiled a bigger picture than just this farm. The musical score is composed by artist Tamar-Kali Brown. He manages to bring an Americana voice to this story, fitting since it’s a Southern drama. Most of the tracks mix together sorrowful low strings with a soulful African-American chorus. Some other tunes sound like bits and pieces of rhythm and blues music from the early part of the century were mixed together in a melting pot. Blige also contributes her beautiful voice for an original ballad called “Mighty River” that plays over the ending credits. Much like the message of the film itself, it’s lyrics are clear: we’re not so different from each other. And we need to clean our wounds of the past. Which brings me to the thing binding this film together: hatred. Both of the families have it in them, and even give it out in small doses. If the past year has taught us anything, it’s that racism is far from over. Yes, we have come a long way since the days of both slavery and Jim Crow laws were considered societal norms. But Dee Rees understands how deeply rooted and complex of a problem this topic is and even makes a case that may never evaporate from the land of America. That’s not to say that the film is misery porn with no hope for humanity. Instead, it presents the parasite of prejudice as it is, and even ends on a note of love. Although it occasionally feels like there are too many characters at once, Mudbound is a sprawlingly relevant Southern triumph of character and melodrama. It’s one of the most essential films of the year, with a heavily involving story and shaded individuals with humanity to spare. It gives me hope for the future of Netflix originals. Please set aside 2 hours and 15 minutes to watch this movie, and you’ll feel the same way.