Category Archives: Books

“The Wizard of Oz” Movie Review

So this August officially marks the 80th (Yes, EIGHTIETH) anniversary of this classic movie. If that still isn’t enough reason for me to review it now, than I honestly don’t know what is. This musical fantasy film was originally released in theaters by MGM on August 25th, 1939. Budgeted at $2.8 million, the studio’s most expensive produciton at the time, it failed to make a real profit and only garnered around $3.01 million at the box office at the time, likely due to Gone With the Wind being released at the same time. However, the film became a massive success on home video and television re-runs starting in 1956, becoming an annual tradition on CBS. According to the Library of Congress, it is actually the most watched motion picture in film history. In addition, it was one of the first 25 films to be inducted into the National Film Registry, one of the few films included on UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register, and is considered one of the most influential films in history. Directed by Victor Fleming, (Who also helmed Gone With the Wind) the film is (quite loosely) adapted from L. Frank Baum’s wildly popular novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, whose rights had been in Samuel Goldwyn’s possession for some time. Throughout pre-production and production, numerous writers, actors, and even directors were swapped as the script constantly changed, including an early attempt to pander to young audiences. Producer Melvin LeRoy consistently toyed with the runtime and content of the picture, including almost cutting “Over the Rainbow” and abandoning a stencil-printed transition from sepia-tone to color. It’s also the source of an infamous urban legend regarding the alleged on-set suicide of a Munchkin actor, which multiple people have denied is true. The iconic story follows Judy Garland as Dorothy Gale, a poor farm girl from Kansas living a dreary, seemingly unhappy life. After a major tornado strikes, she and her dog Toto leave their home to realize that they have been transported to Munchkinland, one of several provinces in the magical Land of Oz. However, she immediately draws the ire of the Wicked Witch of the West, played by Margaret Hamilton, who vows revenge on Dorothy for killing her sister with the falling house. Picking up ruby slippers off of the Wicked Witch of the East’s body, she sets off on the Yellow Brick Road to Emerald City, where the mysterious and all-powerful Oz can potentially send her home- and along the way she meets a brainless Scarecrow, a heartless Tin Man, and a Cowardly Lion. Do I really need to emphasize how important this film is to both the medium and American pop culture as a whole? All of the aforementioned honors above should already be enough to convince anyone of its significance, but the fact that it’s turned 80 years old is just remarkable. One couldn’t throw a stone very far without seeing its influence to this very day, both for better and for worse. Even though most people have already seen it in their childhood, there is a bit of worry that it won’t quite hold up watching it all grown up. Whether it turned out to hold some fairly offensive imagery or subtext or simply because of its old age, that’s always a concern for films like this. And while that fear seems true initially, The Wizard of Oz is still as magical and joyous and fun as you remember it being. Sure, the dialogue and its delivery is cheesy, some of the effects are dated, the songs are clearly written with younger audiences in mind, and a number of other things have noticeably aged. But measure it up against most other family films from the era, and it still holds up remarkably well because of its universality. The idea of home and belonging somewhere is something anyone can relate to. Granted, The Wizard of Oz removes a lot of the darker elements from L Frank Baum’s novel, but that arguably makes it more accessible. It’s not everyday that a film from 80 years ago can still be just as meaningful to kids of this era as it was to children of the time when it was released. I can only hope films of today will have a similar impact decades from now. Judy Garland is a silver screen legend who had a deeply tragic life and, for better and worse, this is the role she will always be remembered for. Her performance as Dorothy is iconic as ever, portraying an innocence and childlike wonder that’s desperate to see more of the world. She’s kind and courteous but never afraid to stand up for herself or the people she cares about, and has such a golden singing voice. She is joined by Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, and Bert Lahr as the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion, respectively. Their own songs are memorable in their own way, providing individual motivations and dance numbers. All of them have their own little traits that make them impossible to forget, and each has a reason to getting to the titular Wizard of Oz. Speaking of which, Frank Morgan is also memorable as the Wizard himself, even if he’s not in the movie much. He initially appears as a very intimidating figure but later turns out to be a lot more human and understanding. And while Billie Burke, Charles Grapewin, and Clara Blandick leave impressions as well, Margaret Hamilton is easily the most iconic as the Wicked Witch of the West. Covered in green makeup and carrying a terrifying screeching voice, she absolutely chews the scenery every time she’s on-screen. Her utter commitment to the role ensures her place among the most iconic movie villains of all time. And technically speaking, The Wizard of Oz had many innovations that are still impressive today. The Academy Award-nominated cinematography by Harold Rosson is still just as stunning as it was back then. Utilizing a lot of long-takes, we get the full scope of the unique fantasy world presented to us. And considering it was 1939, many of the in-camera special effects still hold up pretty well. The editing by Blanche Sewell is almost on the level of the camera work. The transitions between scenes is masterful and clean, keeping the pacing aloof for the whole 101 minute-long runtime. And while it does include the aforementioned “oners” quite often, it also includes enough cuts in each scene to keep things interesting. The first 20-30 minutes of the film are in a sepia-toned, black-and-white world. However, when we are transported to Munchkinland, we become immersed in the bright delights of Technicolor, one of the first features to be done is such a way. The shot transitioning from inside Dorothy’s house into Munchkinland is one of the greatest shots in the history of film. And the songs; oh Lord, the songs in this film. Harold Arlen and Edgar “Yip” Harburg are responsible for the soundtrack, easily ranking among the best in the industry. Ranging from “Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead” to “We’re Off to See the Wizard” to “If I Only Had a Brain,” each one is instantly recognizable, even if you’ve never seen the movie itself. Many of them have reprisals throughout, ensuring a sing-along with families for generations. But the clear winner is “Over the Rainbow,” sung by none other than Garland herself. Somber yet hopeful, the composition combined with her amazing voice make it a truly timeless song. It’s also sadly prescient for the singer-actress’ tumultuous life off-screen and the  With endlessly memorable songs, iconic imagery, immortal characters, and quotable lines, The Wizard of Oz is an unquestionable watershed moment for cinema in every conceivable way. Even with its troubled production, Victor Fleming and MGM managed to completely change the game of moviemaking forever. It’s nearly impossible to imagine American pop culture today without this film; its influence and reach can be seen everywhere. There may exist another film as influential as this to come, but it’s probably far away from here, laying somewhere over the rainbow.

“Children of Men” Movie Review

My God. The things that Man will do to one another when they forget the sound of cries and laughter from children. This science-fiction drama thriller initially premiered at the 63rd Venice International Film Festival, where it won an award for achievement in cinematography. And although it debuted to the top spot in the United Kingdom, when it was released in the U.S. on Christmas Day of that year, it failed to really make a dent. The Universal Pictures production ended up only making back $70 million against a $75 million  budget. Although, it was nominated for various year-end awards, and has grown dramatically in reputation in the years since its release. Directed and co-written by Alfonso Cuarón, the film is an extremely loose adaptation of P.D. James’ novel of the same name, the first draft of which was written back in 2001. Shooting was temporarily pushed back while the director worked on Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, during which he drew several influences from The Battle of Algiers as well as his own experiences living in Britain. During production, the infamous 7/7 London bombings occurred, but this apparently did not deter the cast or crew in much capacity. Set in the year 2027, humanity has been completely infertile for nearly two decades, causing most of society as we know it to collapse. The few functioning governments left create massive, harsh sanctions against immigrants or refugees of any kind, causing consistent violence. In the city of London, a bureaucrat named Theo Faron, played by Clive Owen, is approached by a militant, pro-immigrant activist group called the Fishes and is strong-armed into escorting a young refugee named Kee away from the chaos. It becomes especially important since Kee is, miraculously, the first woman to become pregnant in 18 years. As the 24th and final film in my New Year’s resolution, I wanted to tackle yet another highly regarded picture that I had never seen before. I had heard many a great chatter about this film for a long time, with some people even going so far as to say that it’s the best sci-fi movie of the 21st Century so far. And I have loved virtually every film that Alfonso Cuarón has made since Y Tu Mamá Tambien, so this felt like a completion of sorts. Plus, it was super enticing to see what his take on a near-apocalyptic future would look like. And I couldn’t have picked a better film to round out my resolution with because Children of Men is an essential, moving, and utterly captivating film to behold. I’m sure many people have said it already, but I feel one of the biggest reasons for its power is how it has- unfortunately -only become more relevant in recent years. 2027 is not that far away anymore and while there has yet to be an infertility pandemic, more and more countries are closing off their borders and turning to fear-mongering as their next generations are seemingly ignored or forgotten. Through context, we learn of the decadence that the remains of humanity have turned to in a child-less world, one where there’s seemingly no hope for the future. What makes Children of Men so terrifying is how much Cuarón grounds the story in reality, creating a plausible scenario where the last hope of our species is surrounded by a bleak world. I’ve liked Clive Owen in various projects over the years, but his turn as Theo Faron is easily the best performance of his career. Having apparently been heavily involved in early writing, he completely owns this character as a cynical man who’s lost nearly all faith in his fellow man. But when the time comes, he truly steps up to the plate in complete selflessness to protect what’s really important. Julianne Moore and Michael Caine do respectable work as Faron’s ex-wife/the leader of the Fishes and his drug dealing friend, respectively. Although they’re not in the movie for very long, each leaves a lasting impact as they relish roles unusual for their careers and we really feel a past history they had with Theo. There are also a number of unexpectedly strong supporting players such as Chiwetel Ejiofor, Charlie Hunnam, Danny Huston, Peter Mullan, Oana Pellea, and Pam Farris. Then, there’s Kee, played by Claire Hope-Ashitey. Although her character doesn’t exist in the original novel, she stands as the embodiment of the recent single-origin hypothesis- that all human life began on Africa. It’s a beautiful allegory and she carries many of her scenes with all of the confusion and strength and weight of a young mother-to-be. We immediately grow to care about her, and not just because she potentially has the key to human survival, but that others seek to take advantage of this. Meanwhile, the filmmaking aspects of Children of Men show Alfonso Cuarón being in complete control of his craft once more. With his regular collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki, the cinematography helps to make an utterly bleak future look quite gorgeous. There are a number of extremely impressive long takes, such as a mounted perspective of an attack on the group in a car or a shaky camera following Theo through a violent war-torn city. The use of natural lighting is especially effective as we get to gradually see details of this world come into focus through the sunlight or by other ways. Cuarón also edits the film like many of his other works, this time in collaboration with longtime friend Alex Rodríguez. There are thankfully a number of good cuts to go around, as some of the one-take scenes begin to get exhausting after a little bit. It also manages to help capture certain parts of the action from different angles and perspectives, which keeps things consistently interesting. There is a instrumental film score, albeit a minimal one, composed and conducted by the late John Tavener. It’s not a traditional score, as the few tracks written feel extremely fluid with one another. The most predominant track is “Fragments of a Prayer,” which uses both dynamic vocals and ethereal strings to create a spiritual atmosphere. Some of the others use full-scale choirs and even flutes and unique percussion instruments. Many of these elements come together for a scene near the end that creates a true sense of emotional beauty. My jaw dropped and my heart stopped as it went on, a momentary pause in a fictional world so devoid of any hope. I can’t really write about it here because it’s so hard to describe in its power, despite its apparent simplicity, but all I can say is that I was left stunned. Frighteningly relevant today, but never succumbing to its bleakness, Children of Men is a hauntingly stark vision of human nature in dystopia. It celebrates some of our best qualities while simultaneously condemning the ones that make us worse off. Alfonso Cuarón is a true master of finding incredible subtext within even the simplest of stories, painting a sci-fi world in a way that feels like it could become a reality. Let’s hope that it never does.

“Hold the Dark” Movie Review

If this and Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia prove anything, it’s that the Alaskan Wilderness is a scary environment to go hunting for killers. I don’t care how pretty the scenery may be, if someone (Or something*) up there is wanted in questioning, I want no part in any of it. This horror thriller was initially set to premiere out of competition at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. However, following a series of heated clashes between the distributor and festival elites, it was pulled away from its original summer release and instead premiered at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival in mid-September to somewhat polarized reactions. Following another screening at Fantastic Fest, it was released (very briefly) in art house theaters and on the streaming service Netflix on September 28th, 2018. Directed by Jeremy Saulnier, the same man behind Blue Ruin and Green Room, his childhood friend and frequent star Macon Blair adapted the screenplay from the 2014 novel of the same name by William Giraldi. A24, the same production company that released Green Room, was initially supposed to distribute the film, before Netflix acquired worldwide rights in January of 2017. Set in December of 2004, the film opens with a young woman named Medora Slone, played by Riley Keough, whose young son is seemingly taken and murdered by wolves near a tiny Alaskan village named Keelut. She writes to Russell Core, played by Jeffrey Wright, a writer and retired naturalist who studies wolf behavior, begging him to help track down the wolves and kill them. She wants to make sure she at least has something to show her husband when he returns home, who’s currently deployed in Iraq. But while Core agrees and is out on the job, he accidentally gets drawn into a very dark mystery that the rest of the village seems to be in on. I’m a pretty big fan of Jeremy Saulnier’s two previous directorial efforts, Green Room and Blue Ruin. While the characters in both films were victims to making stupid choices, they both illustrated an exciting new filmmaker with a tight control on his voice. So getting the opportunity to see his next picture from the comfort of my dark living room in the evening made me anticipate Hold the Dark, not to mention the wonderful cast assembled. In particular, I wanted to see how he would be able to handle the bigger-scaled story compared with what he had previously written and directed. While it’s admittedly not really as great as those films, it’s still a solid thriller worth watching at least once. It’s clear in its metaphors that Saulnier has much he wants to say about human nature and our violent natural instincts. We witness numerous heinous acts committed by humans in either the village in Alaska or over in the Iraq warzone, ranging from murder to rape. In comparison, the wolves of Alaska, which are often viewed as savage and uncivilized, are oblivious to their own actions; everything that happens to them is seen as natural. Similar to his previous films, Hold The Dark doesn’t hold back on gruesome violence, but none of it ever happens unless it’s in service to the story. In fairness, Saulnier and Blair ultimately get carried away with their metaphors as the film doesn’t seem to lead anywhere totally concrete. It attempts to hint at something a little more supernatural, but rarely does something totally meaningful with it. I’ve enjoyed seeing Jeffrey Wright in a number of supporting roles over the years in both T.V. and film. And he proves here that he’s fully capable of carrying a feature-length picture as a lead character. As Russell Core, there’s a quiet aura and history of sadness and loneliness surrounding him, and we watch him trying to cling to reason and do what’s right. Riley Keough and Alexander Skarsgård also do great work as the Slone couple, who never seem quite right when they’re separated. From the very minute that these two first appear onscreen, they exude a cold, observational outlook on the remainder of their community. Julian Black Antelope and Tantoo Cardinal do superb supporting work as indigenous locals who seem to know something isn’t right with the family in question, while James Badge Dale is wonderfully subdued and grizzled as the honest cop hopelessly looking for answers. There are also tiny but effective parts by Peter McRobbie and Macon Blair himself that leave something of an impression. Meanwhile, the technical aspects of Hold the Dark reveal reasons why Saulnier is a talent worth watching out for. Magnus Nordenhof Jønck’s cinematography is quite gripping, using the bleak snowy environment to create a strong yet melancholic atmosphere. The way that it focuses on subjects and their every movements is very reminiscent of David Fincher, especially in the slow way that it reveals certain things. The editing by Julia Bloch, collaborator for the director on his previous efforts, cuts the movie in an extremely patient, slow to roll manner. Whenever violence bursts out, such as an intense shootout at a barn, it refuses to linger on gratuitous or bloody images for too long. It also focuses on certain subjects while other things are happening offscreen, as if to create a distant and observational look at the events displayed. Brooke Blair and Will Blair, Macon’s younger brothers and who have previously scored Saulnier’s last two features, have written some music for this film. It is in line with material they’ve written in the past, as it mostly consists of somber synthesizers and strings, reflecting the sad world the characters all live in. It also has a couple of tracks using the same instrumentation but instead arranged to rack up intensity. Filled with atmosphere and perhaps more metaphors than it can afford to carry, Hold the Dark is a sturdy, if unsatisfying slow-burn with a tight central mystery. Jeremy Saulnier proves that he’s able to handle a bigger budget, even if the results don’t always work. Moreover, Jeffrey Wright and Alexander Skarsgård provide some of their best work yet and show why they should be taken more seriously by studios and filmmakers. If for nothing else, this movie stands as further proof why I never want to live in Alaska.

“Crazy Rich Asians” Movie Review

In which a demographic that spent years being desexualized by the media get two attractive leads to show how stories, no matter how old-fashioned, can be applied to anyone anywhere. Take that as you will, that’s a reality. This landmark romantic-comedy was released in theaters worldwide on August 15th, 2018. It has thus far grossed over $207 million at the worldwide box office, staying atop the #1 spot for three weeks straight and becoming the highest-grossing romantic comedy in nearly a decade. It also attracted the largest Asia-descended audience in North America in quite a few years, plus the immense support of other Asian artists in the industry. And now, there’s a sequel en route with most of the same cast and crew to return. Directed by Jon M. Chu, the adaptation of the titular novel by Kevin Kwan was in development hell for about 3 years, primarily because producers wanted to cast a Caucasian actress in the lead. Following an intense bidding war between numerous studios, Warner Bros. scooped it up for theatrical distribution, beating Netflix’s extremely high offer. This is the first major Hollywood film in 25 years to feature a predominantly Asian-American cast, the last one being The Joy Luck Club. Fresh Off the Boat star Constance Wu plays Rachel Chu, a first-generation Chinese-American economics professor at NYU. Her longtime boyfriend Nick Young, played by Henry Golding, asks her to accompany him to his best friend’s wedding in his home country of Singapore. When they arrive, she is surprised to learn that he hails from one of the wealthiest and most powerful families in all of Southeast Asia. Now Rachel must contend with the very rich and famous elite of Singapore, including Nick’s domineering mother Eleanor. Earlier this year, Netflix released two delightful rom-coms, Set it Up and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. Despite their lack of theatrical release, they proved that the classic formula still works in the modern era without any of the regressive gender stereotypes. Not going to lie, I initially had little interest in seeking out and watching this film in theaters. It’s not that I don’t like romantic comedies, just that the story being advertised for Crazy Rich Asians seemed so tired and overly glamorous. But after seeing all of the positive, confident buzz building up, I gave it a try, and I’m glad I did. This movie deserves a chance to be seen by as many people as possible while it’s still in theaters. Yes, the central story of a character meeting their love interest’s eccentric family is one of the most well-worn synopsizes in storytelling. But what makes this version of that story so unique is how deeply it understands numerous aspects of Asian culture. The cold opening, taking place just 20 years prior to now, reveals the struggle for families, particularly matriarchs, to gain respect in the Western world. Moreover, it details the cultural divide between someone like Rachel, who was born in the U.S. with some privilege, and Eleanor, who worked hard to build her family’s huge fortune. While their skin tone and mother tongues are ultimately the same, they come from radically different backgrounds, which essentially forms the emotional bedrock for both the film and it’s central conflict. Although I haven’t watched any of ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat, Constance Wu’s performance in this movie now really makes me want to. She really is charming as Rachel, in command of her own agency and tries never to let any of Nick’s family put her down. In his first film role, newcomer Henry Golding, meanwhile, is equally excellent as Nick and promises a great acting career. Charismatic and attractive, his insane family wealth is contrasted beautifully by his personal humility. The two of them share great chemistry, despite their differences in backgrounds, and play up the typical rom-com moments with ease and grace. Nearly all of the supporting cast members help to break cultural stereotypes in their quirky roles, but the best two were Awkwafina and Michelle Yeoh. Awkwafina continues her mean-streak from Ocean’s 8 as Goh Piek Lin, Rachel’s eccentric Singaporean friend from college. She delivers some of the most hilarious lines in the movie. Yeoh, meanwhile, gives perhaps her best predominantly English-speaking role as the mother Eleanor. Despite her tough, seemingly cold exterior, she brings an honest concern and care for both her spoiled children and her connection to them. She constantly feels that they’re in danger of forgetting their heritage or how they got there, which is completely understandable. As for the technical aspects, director Jon M. Chu helps to craft one of the most polished and handsomely produced rom-coms in years. Cinematographer Vanja Cernjul uses many styles of camerawork, each of which works perfectly. Whether it’s used in intimate face-to-face shots or sweeping looks at the lush island of Singapore, it always makes it look interesting. Not to mention the gorgeous locales for filming and use of color. Different shades of gold, white, yellow, or green are frequently brought out either in the outstanding costumes or production designs. Speaking of costumes, they are truly eye candy for how expensive and glamorous they are, reflecting the near-materialistic wealth of these characters. Brian Tyler wrote the original score for this movie, but I promise I can’t remember anything he wrote. Instead, the soundtrack has a wide range of different songs, mostly ones about money or classic Chinese tunes. The most memorable song in the entire film is a Mandarin cover of “Yellow” by Coldplay, performed by The Voice competitor Katherine Ho. Chu apparently wrote a long, impassioned letter to the band members after the initially refused to license it out, explaining how it showed him how his skin color was truly beautiful. Thank God they gave in, because I dare say that it’s better than the original version. With her amazing voice and the dynamic instrumentation, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve listened to it since watching it in theaters. While its overall plot may be extremely familiar and at times cliched, Crazy Rich Asians is a fun, old-fashioned step forward for on-screen representation. A charming cast, wonderful scenes and settings, and a great balance between humor and heart make this easily the best rom-com of the year and one the best in recent memory. I recognize that I may personally not be the most qualified person to discuss this film’s potential cultural impact on Hollywood, but if there’s an audience member or two who’s able to see themselves onscreen for the first time, then it should undoubtedly be a success.

“The Godfather Part II” Movie Review

Ladies and gentlemen, I now present to you the first great franchise of Hollywood. Well, at least it was for a little while, but that’s besides the point. This epic crime drama was released during Christmas time of 1974, a full two years after the original. Although it ultimately made less than its predecessor, with a box office intake of around $55 million against a budget of $13 million, it received virtually the same praise as last time. In fact, many critics consider it to be superior to the original, although others took a little while to come to their senses. Nominated for 11 Academy Awards, it won 6 and became the first sequel to win Best Picture, a feat only matched in 2003 by Return of the King. Once again written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola, the story stemmed from his interest in the dichotomy in the two central arcs. A number of actors from the first film, such as Marlon Brando and Richard Castellano, chose not to return despite their parts being written. It took over half a year for filming to complete, and only 6 months after that to prepare in time for a holiday release for Paramount. This time around, it’s both a prequel AND a sequel. The first story takes place in 1958, and follows Michael Corleone who has assumed the role of family Don. As he attempts to expand his family business into major venues, an attempt on his life leaves him weary of even his closest associates. In the other one, we see his father Vito in his young years emigrate to the U.S. during the early 20th century. And we watch as his empire gradually grows in New York City as Michael’s begins to fall apart. As anyone who’s read my blog before should know, I absolutely adore the first Godfather movie. In spite of all the difficulties Coppola had making that film, I genuinely don’t have any problems with it in terms of either narrative, technicality, or acting. For the longest time, I had been somewhat scared to watch the sequel, as I felt there wasn’t any possible way it could live up to the original. In fact, I only finally watched The Godfather Part II for the first time very early this year. And while I’m not quite sure if it surpasses the original, it is absolutely a worthy follow-up deserving of the exact same gushing. It’s very curious to watch the dual yet somewhat opposite storylines play out. As young Vito’s list of allies and associates grows, Michael’s gradually wanes in the face of paranoia. How both of these men come about it is shown in a very slow, deliberate, but engaging manner. Despite the epic runtime of 3 hours and 22 minutes, including a brief intermission, not a single moment felt wasted developing their stories. In fact, I’d argue that a minute shorter would diminish its power and significance. The movie is less a continuous crime saga and more a melancholy parable on the consequences American Dream, as Vito emigrated to the United States and built everything he had from the ground up. It’s at turns inspiring, heartbreaking, and shocking. Returning to his most iconic role, Al Pacino is even better than last time as Michael. Through subtle gestures and some occasional outbursts, this man becomes increasingly less sympathetic as the film goes on, but you still can’t help but watch. This time around Fred Cazale and Diane Keaton are given more room and time to shine as his brother Fredo and wife Kay, respectively. Each one has a tragic element that they expertly add to their character, partly due to their mutual fear of who Michael has become. Meanwhile, Robert De Niro shines in his Oscar-winning breakout role as a young Vito Corleone. A role spoken almost entirely in the Italian language, he shows why he is a man not to mess with as he kills people from rival gangs to solidify his power as the mafia Don. But he still is able to show genuine care, looking after his wife and infant sons and giving back to less fortunate members of his community. Once again, The Godfather Part II is also a brilliant piece of technicality that was revolutionary for the time and still impressive today. Gordon Willis returns as cinematographer and gives a more muted look to the film. It was the last Hollywood picture to be made using the dye imbibition process with Technicolor until the 1990’s, and makes the most out of its set pieces. From the Dominican Republic to Sicily to a Senate committee, the production designers Angelo Graham, John Dapper, and Dean Tavoularis crafted many memorable locations across the epic story. Each one is edited by Peter Zinner, Barry Malkin, and Richard Marks with ease, moving between each timeline with cross dissolves or some hard cuts. And yet, it still works effortlessly. Nino Rota writes the original film score for the second go-around, this time with a little help from the director’s late father Carmine Coppola. While the primary theme is kept mostly intact, there is some new music worth listening to as well. There are a handful of more lighthearted tunes for Little Italy scenes, consisting of bouncy percussion and accordions. What’s particularly memorable is the song that plays when Vito first sees the Statue of Liberty, a haunting and beautiful piece that illustrates his newfound freedom. Starting with a solemn trumpet solo before blowing out with strings and woodwind trills, it works as well as any piece of film score I’ve ever listened to. It’s truly a soundtrack for New York City. Even after this rewatch, I do need a bit of time to decide if I like this film more than the original, like many cinephiles proclaim. It definitely feels more free of the usual constraints faced by sequels, as the story is never beholden to the events of the original film. In that, it’s just as strong a standalone feature as it is a continuation of the story Mario Puzo had originally envisioned. The Godfather Part II is a brilliant Shakespearean family tragedy clothed as an operatic gangster saga. Just as with last time, there is virtually nothing wrong with this movie in any department and only gets better with age. Epic but not overlong, dark but not cold. The real question: What the hell happened to Frances Ford Coppola? That man was on a roll. But hey, at least we have this duology, (Yes, you read that correctly) The Conversation, and Apocalypse Now, and frankly that’s all I need from him.

 

“BlacKkKlansman” Movie Review

I don’t know if I’ve ever felt more hit by a metaphorical truck than the opening and closing sequences of this film. Whatever you may read about beforehand, trust me when I say that you are not prepared for it. This biographical crime drama competed for the prestigious Palme d’Or at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. Although it didn’t win the big prize, the film ultimately took home the Grand Prix, which is essentially second-place in the competition. It was later released by Focus Features in theaters on August 10th, 2018, grossing over $43 million at the box office against a modest budget of $15 million. Co-written and directed by Spike Lee, the spec screenplay Charlie Wachtel and David Rabinwoltz was originally written around 2015 after stumbling across the titular memoir. After many months of unsuccessful pitches to Hollywood studios, the project came to the attention of Get Out producers Jordan Peele and Jason Blum, who immediately wanted to get it made. Peele handpicked Lee to direct the picture, and production practically accelerated last year after the Charlottesville Unite the Right ally in mid-August. Based on an insane true story, John David Washington (Son of Lee’s long-time collaborator Denzel) stars as Ron Stallworth, the first black man to become a detective in the Colorado Springs Police Department in 1979. Following an inconsequential stint infiltrating a speaking event by Kwame Ture, he comes across an ad in the local newspaper asking for support for a new chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. On a whim, he calls the number and puts on the guise of a white supremacist, and actually earns their trust. He then assigns a white Jewish partner named Flip Zimmerman, played by Adam Driver, to play the part in person as they advance further and further into the organization. I’ve read a great number of reviews for this film saying that it’s Spike Lee’s “best film in decades” or “his return to form.” Truth be told, I have only seen a handful of his films, and a couple clips from his Netflix series She’s Gotta Have It, so I can’t make either claim. I was very excited, however, to see this film mainly because of the director’s reputation and the absurdity behind the true story. It seemed impossible for something that started out as a hilarious skit by Dave Chappelle to have happened in real life. Yet time and again, truth can always be stranger than fiction. Which is why I can confidently say that BlacKkKlansman is my favorite Spike Lee joint thus far, and one of the best films of the year. There are a number of different aspects that work hand-in-hand in the film, many of which you wouldn’t expect to at first. Namely, how Lee is able to balance the very light with the very heavy. There are a number of hilarious moments, mainly which highlight the inherent stupidity of organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan. But there are other scenes that extremely intense or dark, such as a scene where a character played by Harry Belafonte tells a sickening story of brutality. There’s also a very unconventional pastiche prologue that just didn’t quite click with me. John David Washington is on his way to being a star like his father, and his lead performance here proves as much. He’s extremely charismatic and intelligent, but not ignorant to the institutional prejudice he faces; he’s often wondering if he can make positive changes to what’s seemingly a broken system. By his side are Adam Driver and Michael Buscemi as his white partners on the investigation. While both have reservations- particularly with Flip’s sudden acceptance of his Jewish character -they are perfectly willing to go along with Stallworth’s plan to end the bigotry. Other notable players include Laurie Harrier as a fiery Black Student Union president, Cory Hawkins as the infamous Kwame Ture, and Jasper Pääkkönen as the most radical Klansman. But the scene-stealer to me is Topher Grace’s icy cold portrayal of David Duke, former Grand Wizard of the Klan. It saddens me to say that he feels born to play the role, and it’s his best one yet. The conversations he has with Ron over the phone provide some great insight into his ideology. After all, he managed to make bigotry somehow more mainstream and sophisticated in modern day society. Meanwhile, Lee shows off most of his stylistic trademarks through some wonderful technical flourishes. Chayse Irvin is an inspired choice for the cinematographer, as he also photographed Beyonce’s Lemonade in 2016. We see a number of dolly shots, showing characters practically floating from one destination to another, creating a dreamlike feeling to the story. There are also a handful of shots that either carry out from curious dutch angles or from Steadicam drifts. Either way, it’s all captured on a glorious 35 mm lens. It meshes extremely well with Barry Alexander Brown’s quick and decisive editing skills, reportedly his fastest job in decades. Many of the phone conversations are given a split-screen treatment so that we can see reactions from both ends. It also manages to keep the story flowing in a clean three-act manner, which is apparently a rarity for the director. Jazz musician Terence Blanchard returns for his 15th collaboration with Lee to compose the musical score. It’s a real doozy, mixing a number of unique instruments to make a cool sound. With a central riff on the electric guitar and gradually building flutes and strings, it sounds almost as if it belongs in a major spy picture. It’s also curious how it mixes the percussion. One minute it’s a smooth beat on the drumset, the next it’s playing out on a marching snare as if we’re marching off to the war many characters prophesize. Regardless, the main theme sticks in your head and is the backbone for many tracks. Not to mention the sweet selection of 70’s dance songs, which help seel it’s homage to blaxploitation films of the era. And as I’m sure many of you have heard, the ending sequence right before the credits roll comes out of nowhere. I don’t necessarily see it as a spoiler, so I’ll just tell you: BlacKkKlansman ends with actual footage from the Charlottesville rally, and the reactions of officials afterward. Jarring, powerful, confrontational, and completely sincere. My jaw was on the floor and no one in my theater left with a single word said. BlacKkKlansman is a dynamic play on multiple genres with a sharp bite. It’s an extremely entertaining buddy cop story with a broad appeal, but also unafraid to run its audience over with a ginormous truck. Spike Lee not only crafts a thought-provoking and all-too-relevant meditation on brutality and perseverance, we’re left to question just how much has changed in the nearly 40 years since then. But it is worth noting that having that conversation isn’t only okay, it’s important.

“The Meg” Movie Review

So, Jason Statham is taking on a gigantic shark all by himself, while his pals join in on the action with a number of cheesy quips. I don’t care how stupid it ends up being, this movie could not possibly be more My Shit. This sci-fi horror flick was released worldwide in theaters on August 10th, 2018. Produced on a budget of $130 million, it made a second-best Thursday preview gross and has managed to far outperform predictions for its opening weekend. It’s also on track to a healthy and hopeful box office intake from China, who helped co-produce the film. Based on the novel Meg: A Novel of Deep Terror by Steve Alten, the rights for a Hollywood adaptation were originally purchased by Disney and its mature production label in 1996. After a few years, the rights were reverted back to the author and stayed in development hell for a number of years. After many production companies and attached directors or producers kept abandoning ship, Warner Bros. Pictures finally moved forward with Eli Roth, who eventually left the director’s chair and replaced by Jon Turtletaub. Set in a somewhat futuristic time, the story mostly follows the crew and administrative staff of Mana One, an underwater research facility off the Chinese coast. When its main financier Jack Morris comes to celebrate their discoveries, the team manages to find an extremely deep part of the ocean. During the mission, they accidentally attract the attention of a megalodon, an enormous, prehistoric shark long thought to be extinct. The team has to recruit the help of washed-up rescue diver Jonas Taylor, played by Jason Statham, in order to get out alive and face the megalodon in the open waters. If that premise doesn’t sound like the most insanely, delightfully idiotic thing that’s ever been concocted, then I’m at a total loss for imagination. The fact that it’s based on an existing (And apparently, beloved) novel just adds to that fact at least 5 times over. From the trailers, I expected The Meg to be one of those monster/disaster flicks that had a cool setup but ultimately succumbed to too much self-seriousness. That’s unfortunately been happening a lot in studio monster movies lately, leaving the campy fun of the genre to straight-to-video dreg like Sharknado. And I absolutely hate that series and the cult it has inexplicably spawned as a result, so really Deep Blue Sea was the last decent shark movie. Thankfully, The Meg proves to be just stupid enough to be a fun time at the movies. Maybe I’m just growing more lenient and soft as I get older, but this mostly self-aware B-grade monster flick proves to be an odd breath of fresh air in an environment dominated by superhero epics and overly ambitious franchise-starters. This honestly feels like a throwback to a time (Oh, let’s say, the mid- to late-90’s) when major studios could still be allowed to make stupid-but-entertaining blockbusters. Statham vs a giant shark is going to get a ticket out of me, no questions asked. Obviously, this is not going to be competing with something like Jaws in any capacity whatsoever. There are a number of absurdities and plot points that make almost no sense in the slightest and shows the titular beast far more than Bruce to be considered that menacing. Then again, it doesn’t really need to be, nor does it even really show that much interest in trying. Jason Statham plays his usual caricature of rough and complicated badass with complete and utter ease. His physical commitment to the diving scenes, as well as his generally great comedic timing, make him very watchable as Jonas Taylor. Dwight Schrute from The Office A.K.A. Rainn Wilson is surprisingly good as essentially the comic relief. As the billionaire financier of the whole operation, it’s clear that he has little to no clue as to how to work at sea. The supporting cast is filled with some great international talent. These include Cliff Curtis as the general leader of the crew, Winston Chao and Li Bingbing as the father and daughter in charge of the research, Page Kennedy as a swaggering tech designer, and future Batwoman Ruby Rose as the wisecracking tech expert in the whole facility. Each actor does a fair job, but don’t expect development outside of their archetypes. I’m also rather impressed by how technically proficient The Meg really is. Shot and composited by Clint Eastwood’s regular cinematographer Tom Stern, the digital camera moves in and out of the Mana One with ease and fluidity. Mixing neat, practical production design with gorgeous underwater visuals, it occasionally gets a tad hard to figure out where the CGI starts and ends. There are also a number of obligatory P.O.V. shots just at level with the surface of the ocean, adding to the tension of certain scenes. It’s also edited by Steven Kemper as if it’s a full-stop action movie. Although not hyperactive in its cuts, it does mostly utilize them well for moments when the megalodon might be near. During some shots, it becomes clear when the shark will strike against its next victims, but it tries to draw out that anticipation. Tries, but not always succeed. The prolific composer Harry Gregson-Williams provides the musical score, which is appropriate and sometimes dynamic. It employs the obvious accompanying strings and horns that are virtually customary for the genre. But it makes use of a few leitmotifs. While the shark itself is clearly backed by the low cellos and basses, there are also instances of more percussive drums and wooden flutes. In a way, it helps to add a bit more characterization to certain characters, particularly the Chinese father and daughter. It was a cool score, but nothing I’d pick up on iTunes or listen to again. That’s really everything to be said about the film. If you go in expecting this to be like a gamechanging monster horror movie with thematic or character depth, then look somewhere else. It knows exactly what it is and makes no intention or hints of apologizing for it. The Meg is an unapologetically dumb piece of fun popcorn entertainment. Possible to forget come the next morning, but surprisingly better and more fun than I had initially anticipated. Save for a rainy Friday night.

Image result for the meg