Category Archives: Comedy

“Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs and Shaw” Movie Review

I don’t care what the title for it says, this is definitely a superhero movie. It may have the words “Fast and Furious” in front of it, but that’s honestly what these series has become. This science-fiction tinged buddy action movie was released in theaters worldwide by Universal Pictures on August 2nd, 2019. After snatching the biggest Thursday preview earnings for its two stars, it has gone one to gross over $758.9 million at the worldwide box office. Much of that intake has apparently come in from overseas markets, including the second-highest opening weekend in China this year. Considering that it’s not even a mainline entry in its franchise, that’s a particularly impressive feat. Directed by David Leitch, the film was formally announced a few months after the release of Fate of the Furious, which caused the planned ninth installment to be pushed back. This caused tension with one of the franchise’s mainstay actors Tyrese Gibson, who took to Instagram to publicly complain about it all. In addition, longtime producer Neal H. Moritz sued the studio for breech of oral contract after being removed from the film’s credits. It was subsequently announced that he would no longer have any involvement with the franchise going forward. Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham both star as Luke Hobbs and Deckard Shaw, a retired D.S.S. agent and former mercenary, respectively. They are both brought on by the C.I.A. to find and take down Brixton Lore, played by Idris Elba, a cyber-genetically enhanced terrorist working for a tech cult known as Etreon. Things are further complicated when Shaw’s MI6 agent sister Hattie, played by Vanessa Kirby is framed for stealing a deadly virus that Lore is after called Snowflake. This sparks a globe-trotting showdown for Hobbs and Shaw to find a way to get rid of the virus safely, bring down Lore and his constituents, and clear their names. I won’t hesitate to admit that I only have a general familiarity with the Fast and Furious series. Before this movie, I had only watched the first two films, plus Fast Five, all the way through, just to have some idea of what this one would be like. Each one somehow managed to be more ridiculous than the last, which I suppose was part of the reason why it’s become so popular among audiences. Since they moved away from the main storyline, I figured I could jump headfirst into this spinoff without having to play catchup too much. And I’ve enjoyed David Leitch’s action work on John Wick and Deadpool 2, so seeing him directing two of the biggest action stars seemed rather enticing. And make no mistake, Hobbs and Shaw is not a masterpiece of any kind and barely feels cohesive at times, but is nonetheless entertaining and diverting. Sometimes, I go into a film hoping to be awestruck by its thematic resonance, wonderful storytelling, and acting. Other times, I go in wanting to see The Rock lassoing a helicopter with a pickup truck’s chain while on a cliffside chase. In no logical world can you allow that to pass by and still complain about the age gap between Deckard and Hattie, so suspending disbelief is pretty much mandatory here. One big bummer is that Hobbs and Shaw could have probably still worked just as well on its own without the Fast and Furious name slapped onto it. Its stars are both likable enough on their own terms to warrant a completely new IP, and this just felt like an attempt at brand recognition. But again, there’s only so much to complain about when looking at the movie as a whole. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Jason Statham have been seemingly building up to starring opposite each other for a while now. If for nothing else, their chemistry and constant bickering are what help carry the film through its bloated runtime. Johnson brings all of the muscle and testosterone typically required of his characters and gets to fire off some pretty decent one-liners. Statham, meanwhile, is his usual rugged and agile self, always confident in his next move and never sheds the opportunity to be hard on his new partner. Idris Elba once again plays the role of the villain here as Brixton Lore, as silly of an antagonist as you’d expect. He totally hams the role up, and brings a certain charm to this cyberpunk bad guy who loves big ambitions and bigger flamethrowers. You can tell he’s having an absolute blast with the character, always confident in his abilities and even gloats to the heroes “I’m black Superman!” Mission: Impossible- Fallout and The Crown alum Vanessa Kirby also shouldn’t be overlooked as Hattie, Shaw’s younger sister. She has many moments throughout where she just unleashes a flurry of attacks on unsuspecting bad guys, proving she’s in desperate need of her own franchise to lead. She proves she can more than hold her own than the established action stars at the forefront of the picture and even has some surprising moments of drama. The supporting cast is filled with the likes of Helen Mirren, Eiza González, Eddie Marsan, Cliff Curtis, and Rob Delaney in various roles. Each one feels like they’re filling archetypes rather than actual characters, but seem to be having fun with their roles. There are also a couple of unexpected appearances that are best left unspoiled here, but which mostly feel satisfying. And from a technical perspective, Hobbs and Shaw has enough flourish to match its silliness and large-scale action set pieces. Leitch’s collaborator Jonathan Sela once again handles the cinematography with varying degrees of success. While the frame sometimes seems digitally washed out in colors, it always keeps the action in focus and follows each blow with precision. The camera frequently has some great movements, such as swoops across the battlefield, as Leitch’s superb blocking skills come to light. This meets with the editing job by Christopher Rouse, a veteran of action films such as The Bourne Ultimatum. Like Leitch’s other work, there are no rapid cuts between numerous shots in various set pieces. This is a breath of fresh air in the action genre and is able to keep things interesting during these scenes. The edits are able to capture exactly what it needs to, as highlighted by a creative split-screen intro for the main duo. Although they’re in vastly different places, we get to see how they both operate in their worlds on a daily basis. That being said, it definitely could’ve been trimmed down. I can’t think of any logical reason why this movie runs at 2 hours and 16 minutes, and it just feels like it keeps going on and on. At least a half hour could be shaved right off without a single narrative beat missed and no would be the wiser. Nothing earth-shattering or even very memorable, Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs and Shaw is a bloated, indulgent but undemanding romp worth at least one ride. David Leitch once again shows his tenacity for behind the scenes magic, but the story and characters still feel secondary. Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham prove why they’re deserving of more movies starring opposite one another and Vanessa Kirby gets even more of an opportunity to shine as a star. This is just not a movie that should have the “Fast and Furious” brand slapped onto it. I’m reminded of something Hobbs says early on: “I’m what you call a nice, cold can of whoop-ass.” That’s what this film ultimately is: fun, nice to watch, and harmless, but sterile and unambitious.

“Cinema Paradiso” Movie Review

No joke, I genuinely believe that this movie is compulsory viewing for anyone who claims to be a cinephile or aspiring filmmaker. Or at the very least, it can act as a great segue into understanding why it’s so important to many of us. This Italian romantic dramedy was released in theaters by Miramax on November 17th, 1988, before also screening at the Cannes Film Festival the following year. It managed to gross over $12.3 million at the U.S. box office alone, and become a huge hit in other territories. Garnering huge critical acclaim the world over, it went on to won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, among other accolades. Numerous filmmakers, such as Roberto Benigni and Gabriele Salvatores, have publicly credited the film with reviving the Italian film industry. Written and directed by Giuseppe Tornatore, the film largely draws on his own childhood experiences. This goes as far as having most of the film shot in his rural Sicilian hometown, with many flashback sequences resembling an idealized version of his memories. Originally running 155 minutes long, after its poor commercial reception in Italy, the producers cut it down by over half an hour for better profits. One of the main actors spoke all his lines in his native French language, having another actor dub over his lines afterwards in Italian. Jacques Perrin stars as Salvatore Di Vita, an acclaimed Italian filmmaker living in Rome in the 1980’s. One night, he receives a phone call informing him that his mentor film projectionist Alfredo, played by Phillippe Noiret, has died. He returns to his hometown in Sicily for the funeral and becomes confronted with various memories and faces from his past. From there, we get to see flashbacks recounting his childhood self, played by Salvatore Cascio, as he begins a passionate love for film in post-World War II Italy. When people talk about films made by movie fans for movie fans, this is most definitely the one that springs to mind. Tornatore’s passionate love for the medium is clear in every frame of the film, with subtle or overt references to other works. Hell, I can personally attest that it has inspired me in several ways, and can definitely appeal to people new to foreign cinema. Even so, I wasn’t entirely sure if some, if any, of that initial magic would remain on this rewatch. Perhaps it might have been a case of a highly acclaimed or beloved picture that I liked mainly because of its enormous hype. Thankfully, Cinema Paradiso actually proves the opposite, turning out to be an improvement on repeat viewings. This film is really like a childhood blanket: warm, comforting, and filled with so many memories that it’s hard to let go. The director doesn’t just make a loving homage to cinema as a whole, but frames it as a way to project his relationships and family from childhood into adulthood. The escapism and power of the reel is an amazing foil to Salvatore’s hometown, which was in ruins following World War II and heavily censored by the people in charge at the time. At times, Cinema Paradiso does get in danger of letting nostalgia cloud the rest of what the film tries to say about maturity and letting go. It’s almost always at its best whenever Salvatore is clearly going through an emotional struggle to reconcile his dreams with his reality. But overall, it’s able to keep the course and get to one of the most beautiful final scenes in history. Salvatore Di Vita is played here in three separate stages of his life by Salvatore Cascio, Marco Leonardi, and Jacque Perrin, respectively. All three of them shine in different ways and bring new shades to the character as the timeline bounces back and forth. From an idealistic young child to a teenager with a head full of dreams to a famous yet jaded filmmaker, we get to see him evolve with cinema as his only true companion along the way. By his side as a child and teenager is Phillippe Noiret as Alfredo, one of the greatest mentors in the history of film. Initially reluctant to take Salvatore on as his protégé, his deep passion for movies and hidden compassion brings many great adventures between the two. More often than not, he is quoting a famous or obscure line from films, and frequently uses the medium to teach Salvatore lessons about life. These two central characters are flanked by a group of smaller but equally capable actors. Chief among them is Agnese Nano as Salvatore’s first (And really) only true love, Antonella Attili as his mother struggling to adjust to post-war life as a war widow, and Leopoldo Trieste as the strict priest who tries to censor the movie theater from what it can show. Each one plays an integral part in the lives of either Salvatore or Alfredo, and come in and out of play throughout the timeline. And from a technical standpoint, Cinema Paradiso plays lovingly with filmmaking conventions across the board. The cinematography by Blasco Giurato captures the filmmaker’s childhood hometown in Sicily with great authenticity and wonder. The swift push-ins and long-shots make it almost seem like something ripped right out of an old fable. The frame always stays fixated on the main subject and moves around when necessary. This plays into the idea that the film is told almost exclusively from the point-of-view of Salvatore. It is practically enhanced by the editing job by Mario Morra, who was nominated for a BAFTA for his work here. Scenes transition from one to another using classic film techniques such as the cross dissolve or slow fade out. It also cuts between different shots quite effectively with a nice variety sprinkled throughout. It also moves in and out of various establishments in the time between the different timelines, showing how much they’ve changed, if at all. The instrumental film score was composed and conducted by industry legend Ennio Morricone. It might just be his most underrated score to date, nearly on par in quality with his other, more famous work. It mostly uses strings, piano, and an oboe, and that simplicity helps cut straight to the emotion evident in the film. Several tracks blend into the same “Love Theme,” which perfectly represents the heart of the film. All of these elements culminate in one of the most memorable endings and montages in film history. Nicknamed the kissing montage, it’s a fantastic sequence as all of the themes and ideas of the film suddenly come rushing forward at once. It may be one of those moments that transcends the barrier of language and translation, as anyone watching it will understand its emotional impact. Cinema Paradiso is a heartwarming and inviting tribute to memory and the movie. Giuseppe Tornatore’s semi-autobiographical take on the story makes it feel all the more personal and intimate, as we really get to know this town and its characters. Stacked with a great cast and one of the best endings in film history, watching this film may as well be an informal version of film school. And I’m more than content with that observation.

“The Farewell” Movie Review

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

“Spider-Man: Far From Home” Movie Review

*This review, while steering clear of plot details for Far From Home, will discuss spoilers from Avengers: Endgame. Proceed with caution.*

No lie, this movie brought back some pretty fond memories of class trips I took back in high school. Granted, none of them ever had any giant monsters wreaking havoc all across the city, but still. Can’t beat the fun. This coming-of-age superhero comedy was released in theaters on July 2nd, 2019, officially making it the 23rd theatrical entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. After breaking records for a Tuesday night opening, it has gone on to predictably gross over $860 million at the worldwide box office. This makes it the third-most successful film centered on the central character and could well be on its way to the $1 billion-dollar marker. It’s also seen major overseas profits from both China and South Korea, all the while receiving typically positive reviews. Directed by Jon Watts, this is the second film under Marvel’s collaboration with Sony Pictures for creative control over the titular character. This marks the official end to Phase Three of the MCU, acting sort of like an epilogue to Avengers: Endgame. Because of Endgame being released before this one, Marvel and Columbia worked together to withhold most marketing material, one teaser trailer notwithstanding, until after its release. This also marks the first in a new multi-film agreement between Sony and IMAX Corporations to have the studio’s films released in IMAX theaters. Taking place not too long after the events of Endgame, Tom Holland returns as Peter Parker, a New York City high school student moonlighting as the superhero Spider-Man. While out on a two-week summer field trip to Europe with his classmates, including his love interest MJ, played by Zendaya, a series of monsters known as the Elementals begin terrorizing the world. Peter is then recruited by Nick Fury to stop these phenomena and teams him up with alternate-reality soldier Quentin Beck, played by Jake Gyllenhaal. As Beck gains the nickname “Mysterio” from the awed public, Spider-Man must decide where his loyalties lie. I really liked how Marvel integrated Peter Parker into the MCU with Captain America: Civil War and Spider-Man: Homecoming. Even though we’ve seen no less than FOUR theatrical iterations of the friendly neighborhood web-crawler this century, three of which have been live-action, the focused approach to the hero’s nerdy high school life has felt genuinely novel and fun. Plus, Tom Holland was virtually perfect as the character in nearly every single way so seeing him continue as the character was almost a no-brainer. Seeing this being an adventure where the web-slinger leaves Queens behind sounded like an opportune moment for him to stretch out of his comfort zone. Especially because this both follows up on Endgame and serves as the official closer to Phase 3 of the MCU. And on the whole, Spider-Man: Far From Home is satisfying on both ends and opens up some really interesting avenues for the franchise’s future. What’s really interesting is seeing how not only Peter reacts but how the people around him react to a post-Iron Man world. Peter lost a mentor and father figure, even if Stark could never admit to being one, while his guardian Happy Hogan, played by Jon Favreau, lost a good friend, and everyone else lost a real hero. Without a proper role model to look up to anymore, Peter is forced to become his own hero and figure out what’s best for him and the people he loves. Far From Home also has some interesting arguments about the power of perspective and manipulation of truth. In a world filled with sensationalist news sources that frequently exaggerate what’s really happening, it’s hard to decide what’s real and what’s not. Granted, this isn’t some grandstanding thesis on modern fallacy, but that little commentary about people believing whatever they want to believe was welcome. Tom Holland continues to prove why he’s more than perfectly suited to play the titular character here. With a genuine kid-like earnestness and a quick wit, it’s interesting to see him grow on his own without any real adult supervision. His sense of wonder at seeing so many different things that teens his age normally wouldn’t see sells it, and can often lead to some pretty funny avenues. Jacob Batalon and Zendaya also return as Ned and MJ, Peter’s best friend and love interest respectively. They both provide an interesting foil for Peter, reminding both us and himself of what he has to lose on this trip. Each one presents a different worry for him, but both are equally great and funny. Jon Favreau also returns as Happy Hogan, Tony Stark’s former bodyguard and best friend. In the character’s most substantial turn to date, we get to see how he’s dealing with Iron Man’s departure. He also gets to have a bit of a romantic fling with Aunt May which creates some humorous tension between him and Spider-Man. The supporting roster is equally impressive, if not always as memorable. Samuel L. Jackson, Cobie Smoulders, Maris Tomei, Tony Revolori, Angourie Rice, and Martin Starr all reprise their roles from Homecoming or otherwise, respectively. Each one brings a certain level of humor or humanity to this world that is so different after Endgame. And Jake Gyllenhaal definitely should not be overlooked for his role as Quentin Beck A.K.A. Mysterio. As the audience gradually learns more and more about him, it’s hard not to get caught up in the things that he’s saying. One particular scene in a bar about two-thirds through the film really showcases the actor’s talents and the unique way he inhabits what’s arguably one of the web-slingers most underrated adversaries in the comics. And as one could expect from any MCU entry at this point, the technical aspects for Far From Home are unsurprisingly astounding. Since much of the behind the scenes magic is done by Marvel’s own in-house talent, such as cinematography and editing, there isn’t a whole lot of room for artistic distinction. But for what it’s worth, both come hand-hand-hand for various scenes. Beginning with a little news montage explaining what’s happened at Peter’s high school since Thano’s Snap, (Nicknamed the Blip) we’re immediately put back into the world of Midtown High. The use of exotic European locations keeps things interesting as the story progresses throughout the trip. The special effects used for the Elementals is mostly convincing, using different forms of matter for each creature such as fire and water. Even as the MCU becomes increasingly cosmic, it’s refreshing whenever they stay relatively grounded on Earth. Costumes are also great, as the new stealth suit for Spidey is both visually appealing and practical. Mysterio’s costume is also extremely accurate to the comics. Like last time with Spidey, the instrumental film score is composed and conducted by Michael Giacchino. He proves once again to be more than capable for the task, providing a mixture of instruments and styles. With a heroic, orchestral remix of the classic Spider-Man theme song, the love and respect for the character’s history is fully established. It also uses staccatos from wind and electronic instruments and dynamic percussion for the more exciting action scenes but always remains memorable. Spider-Man: Far From Home is another step in the right direction for the web-slinger, and a fitting coda to the Infinity Saga. By actually stepping out of the character’s comfort zone, director Jon Watts is able to find new ground for him to explore, and to exciting results. And not only does it prove that Tom Holland is pitch perfect as Peter Parker, but it also sets up many riveting avenues for the Marvel Cinematic Universe to follow in the future. If this movie proves anything, it’s that Sony and Disney need to set aside whatever bullshit they’re dealing with and come back to a reasonable agreement.

 

“Midsommar” Movie Review

I’ve made it clear for a long time that I have no desire whatsoever to join a small “commune” in the future. I don’t care how interesting their beliefs are or how beautiful the scenery is, count me out and keep the hell away. This psychological folk horror film premiered at an Alamo Drafthouse Cinema location in New York in mid-June. It was later released in theaters by A24 on July 3rd, 2019, after previously being scheduled for early August. It has thus far grossed nearly $34.9 million on a budget of around $10 million, swiping most of it within the first 5 days alone. With such a major start, it feels safe to assume that it will turn a large profit by the end of its theatrical run and could even become the distributor’s biggest financial success yet. Written and directed by Ari Aster, the producers originally approached him about doing a straightforward slasher film among Swedish cultists, which he rejected. Production on the film began almost immediately after the huge success of Aster’s breakout horror feature Hereditary, as distributor A24 reportedly built a 15-building village set from the ground up. He’s mentioned previously that making the film was his own way of attempting to cope with a really bad breakup. In addition, there’s also an extended director’s cut running 24 minutes longer which will likely play in select theaters. Florence Pugh and Jack Reynor star as Dani Ardor and Christian Hughes, a grad student couple whose relationship is hanging by a thread. A few months after a horrible tragedy involving her sister, Dani agrees to go with Christian and their friends on a backpacking trip to Sweden. Their friend and guide Pelle, played by Vilhelm Blomgren, takes them to his ancestral village, the Hårga, for a midsummer festival that only occurs once every 90 years. But as the ceremony goes on, the Hårga community ropes the group into an increasingly violent series of pagan cult traditions. As is the case for many cinephiles, Hereditary was easily the best horror movie I saw last year and one of my top 10 favorites of that year. Even though it was heavily divisive among audiences, I was blown away by its singular vision and willingness to go to some really dark places. Aside from a powerful, career-best performance from Toni Collette, it immediately announced Ari Aster as a new filmmaker with tons of potential to bring to the medium. When I heard he was tackling a pagan cult for his new project, I thought that his sensibilities were perfectly suited for the subject matter. And for the most part, Midsommar is able to avoid the sophomore slump and further develop Aster’s craft. Just like Hereditary, I understand that this film will not be digestible for everyone. In fact, I imagine that people who were turned off by that film’s bleak tone and imagery will dislike this one even more. The director is once again tackling grief, suffering, and how people process a tragedy differently, and he doesn’t shy away from the disturbing parts of it. I will say, Midsommar is definitely funnier than Hereditary, often stemming from the main group’s awe and unfamiliarity with the local customs. But this is, by no means, a comedy movie, as the film is more concerned with making the audience uncomfortable. It sometimes feels like it’s purely going for the shock factor from the visceral imagery on-screen and asking audiences to handle it for 2 hours and 27 minutes is a mighty task; but if you try to keep an open mind, it will certainly haunt your thoughts and dreams. Florence Pugh has been on the rise for the past coupe years now and her leading role here might be the big break she deserves. As Dani, she is devastating and frightening as a young woman trying to bottle up her trauma and anger for a trip with her friends. Opposite her for most of the film, Jack Reynor is equally great as her well-intentioned but distant boyfriend Christian. While he does care for Dani, it’s clear that he wants out of the relationship and we’re presented with consistent evidence of why they should just break up. Every time they’re together on-screen, there’s a certain coldness or feeling of discomfort between them that desperately needs to be resolved. Also worth noting is William Jackson Harper as Josh, a friend of theirs completing a thesis on midsummer festivals. A great departure from the good-hearted Chidi Anagonye on The Good Place, he is willing to do anything to get more info about the community, even if it means endangering his friends. Will Poulter, Ellora Torchia, and Archie Madekewe round out the group of tourists for the festival while Vilhelm Blomgren, Isabelle Grill, Björn Andrésen, Anna Åström, and Gunnel Fred play locals in the Hårga community. Each one feels like they have their own hidden motive or something that they’re not sharing about what’s going on. All the characters feel like something right out of an H.P. Lovecraft story, and I mean that in a good way. And technically speaking, Midsommar sees Ari Aster further honing his craft behind the camera. Unlike his work in Hereditary, Pawel Pogorzelski’s cinematography basks in the bright daylight of Sweden. There’s rarely a scene where the sun goes completely down, which makes some moments more disorienting and frightening. The camera is almost always following the characters as they experience their own horrors during the festival, and often feels like a cold, omniscient observer. Most of the time, whenever Dani and Christian are on-screen together, it’s in a distant two-shot to illustrate the deteriorating state of their relationship. It goes well with the editing by Jennifer Lame and Lucian Johnston, who are able to keep things interesting for the 2 hour and 27 minute-long runtime. The scenes are interlaced with each other well enough to make the plot go along, and the style behind it is so fascinating. It often feels hallucinogenic in its execution and how the community is shown to the travelers. There even a couple scenes where the group takes drugs and the frame is very distorted as we see their P.O.V. The instrumental film score is provided by The Haxan Cloak A.K.A. Bobby Krlic, in his first solo work as a composer. For his first time, it’s quite impressive and effective, mixing together different styles to great results. At first, it uses distorted strings and dark overtones to highlight the bad omens to come in the film. But by the end, the soundtrack has morphed into a twisted fairytale score that fully embraces the madness of the Hårga’s traditions. It uses those same strings to bring in everything shown in the film to a wild and emotional culmination. And it’s a definitely final shot to be remembered for quite some time. Utilizing a little known culture as an intriguing backdrop, Midsommar is a maddening if somewhat inconsistent symphony of daytime terror. If this film proves anything, it’s that Ari Aster is here to stay as a filmmaker who demands to be taken seriously. Anchored by a breakout performance from Florence Pugh, we’re fully and convincingly drawn into this unique fever dream.

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“Ready or Not” Movie Review

I can only imagine what this must be like for married or soon-to-be married couples watching it. Never too late to get a prenup, that’s all I’m saying. This darkly comedic horror-thriller originally premiered at the Fantasia International Film Festival. It was then released in theaters worldwide by Fox Searchlight nearly a month later on August 21st, 2019. It has managed to out-perform expectations, grossing over $43.6 million at the box office against a modest budget of $6 million. With showings at 2,118 screens, it’s the specialty studio’s widest release to date and could well turn into their highest-grossing title. It also has enjoyed great reviews from critics and audiences alike, including love from Stephen King and R.L. Stine. Directed by Matt Betinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillet, this marks their second narrative feature after Devil’s Due and contributing to the anthology horror film V/H/S. After years of making DIY shorts on YouTube wit their filmmaking collective Radio Silence, they were eventually approached by producer James Vanderbilt to potentially direct the film. The screenplay was written by Guy Busick and R. Christopher Murphy, although Gillet and Betinelli-Olpin also made some contributions to the final draft. Samara Weaving stars as Grace, a young woman about to marry her fiancée Alex Le Domas, played by Mark O’Brien. On their wedding night, she learns that before officially becoming a member of Alex’s extremely wealthy yet eccentric family, she has to play a randomly selected game with them as part of tradition. The chosen game is Hide and Seek and Grace has to stay hidden until dawn while the family members try to find her. However, she quickly learns that they intend to kill her before the end of sunrise for some sort of ritual, and soon begins fighting back against the Le Domas clan. This one took a little while to win me over, but once the marketing kicked into high gear, I was onboard. Although I haven’t seen any of Radio Silence’s shorts on YouTube yet, I do think it’s cool that Fox Searchlight is backing their first mainstream feature. The trailer made it look like their own fun little low to mid-budget horror thriller in the vein of Blumhouse Productions, which I am a big fan of. I’ve always been interested in horror or thriller movies that take place in a contained setting, like a huge mansion. And I was extremely interested to see how the relatively inexperienced Betinelli-Olpin and Gillet could take something like that for 95 minutes. And these two have such a bright future ahead because Ready or Not is loads of fun even for non-horror fans. With so many self-serious and straight-up trashy horror flicks in the market, it felt refreshing to see something take a tongue-in-cheek approach to the “Final Girl” trope. The story here totally subverts that by having that archetype against the family from the beginning as the tables start turning. She doesn’t take particular joy in trying to kill her would-be murderers, but she has what it takes to try and survive the night. Between all the blood-soaked and gory thrills, (This is a very violent film, by the way) Ready or Not manages to find comedy in the absurdity of it all. Most of the family members are using weapons from a bygone era, and they frequently stumble trying to learn how to use them properly. And there’s a certain Tarantino-esque exaggerated quality to the deaths, which makes the film even more fun. I’ve liked Samara Weaving as an actress for the past couple of years and this is the perfect breakout role for her. As Grace, her initial excitement for getting married turns into genuine terror for her own life in a pretty convincing manner. Although we don’t get much backstory or subtext for her character, she’s easy to root for in this truly bizarre scenario. Mark O’Brien is equally great as her husband Alex, who’s extremely hesitant to partake in the family’s tradition. He does his best to try and get Grace away from playing Hide and Seek and then tries to help her escape the mansion. The rest of the La Domas Clan is filled out by capable character actors, all game for their eccentric parts. These include Henry Czerny as the family’s well-meaning but intensely devoted patriarch, Andie MacDowell as the more welcoming mother, Nicky Guadgni as the cold and somber Aunt Helene, Melanie Scrofano as Alex’s clumsy drug-addicted sister, and John Ralston as the family’s loyal and violent butler. But the real standout in the film has to be Adam Brody as Daniel La Domas, Alex’s alcoholic older brother. Like, Alex, he despises the family’s traditions but his continued involvement has essentially broken him as a man. His pragmatic view of this ritual almost feels unsettlingly real and believable, which made every scene with him a treat. And from a technical perspective, Ready or Not showcases Radio Silence’s top-notch DIY skills behind the camera. Shot by Brett Jutkiewicz, the cinematography has a certain gritty nighttime aesthetic to it. Most of the film takes place within the La Domas family’s enormous mansion, and we often follow the characters running through the house and its secret passage ways. Since we don’t know the full layout of the house, it becomes tense whenever the camera is following the family members or Grace. This matches up well with the editing job by Terel Gibson, which keeps the pacing flowing quite nicely. While there’s a sufficient amount of bloody violence, the number of cuts and how they’re done helps ensure they aren’t gratuitous. Often times, it will include a humorous cutaway to relieve the tension, such as a scene where Emilie’s husband is learning how to use a crossbow juxtaposed with Grace climbing out the window right near him. There is an instrumental film score here provided by the highly prolific if inconsistent Brian Tyler. Many of the tracks are more or less the same, utilizing a mixture of strings and piano to create a melancholy atmosphere. Occasionally, it’ll up the ante by throwing in some percussion and synthesizers when something exciting happens. But for the most part, like many of Tyler’s other works, it’s not very memorable. The film also ends with the song “Love Tender” by Stereo Jane playing in the background during the glorious final shot. With a guitar intro mimicking the classic song played when the bride walks down the aisle, it’s the perfect way to end the chaos. It’s quite possibly one of the most underrated uses of a song in film in recent memory. Ready or Not is a uniquely satisfying thriller with a delightfully B-movie attitude. While it’s rough around the edges, Matt Betinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillet prove that they’re more than capable of handling a genre feature. I look forward to seeing whatever Radio Silence has cooked up next, and Samara Weaving is a star in the making.

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“Yesterday” Movie Review

If there was one band or musical artist I wouldn’t mind forgetting about tomorrow, it would be Wham! I just really can’t stand “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go!” and if the whole world just forgot about their music, I really don’t think things would be any different. This music-centric romantic dramedy premiered as the closing night feature at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival. It was later released in theaters worldwide by Universal Pictures on June 28th, 2019, to generally positive reviews. It has thus far managed to gross over $142.3 million at the box office against a production budget of $26 million. Although it has by no means blown up at the top spot, it has consistently sustained its position as a profitable film. This is especially impressive considering some of the massive tentpoles it’s gone up against weekend to weekend. Even though most audiences have enjoyed it quite a lot, critics are more mixed or critical on their opinions. Directed by Danny Boyle, the script originally started out with writers Jack Barth and Mackenzie Crook under the title Cover Version. Both of them eventually left and Love, Actually filmmaker Richard Curtis took over revisions, ultimately reworking much of the story. All in all, it took a total of $10 million and express permission from the surviving members and widows of the band that inspired the picture to finally go ahead with production. It also got into some trouble post-release when a handful of artists and writers claimed that the premise for the film was practically identical to their own works. Newcomer Himesh Patel stars as Jack Malik, a former teacher and a struggling musician who’s hit a creative dry spell. Just when he’s about to give it all up, the whole world experiences a 12-second blackout, and he ends up in a bad bike wreck. When he wakes up, he realizes that he is the only person in the world who remembers The Beatles and their extensive music oeuvre. He decides to take the opportunity and play their songs off as his own, and as his fame gets bigger and bigger, he grows farther apart from his manager and love interest Ellie, played by Lily James. Let’s be honest, many people have thought about this sort of premise before one way or another. Even if it weren’t specifically about The Beatles, we’ve all thought of being the only ones who remembered an artist’s work. No matter how derivative the rest of the film would be, I was curious to see how it would handle that. Both Danny Boyle and Richard Curtis can be hit-or-miss for me, with films ranging from truly great to just plain boring. The two of them coming together for a Beatles-centric project seemed like a really fascinating cinematic team-up of sorts. But execution proves to once again be a different world than reality because Yesterday just doesn’t live up to its premise. In all seriousness, I’m not at all convinced that The Beatles were the only band that could’ve made the movie work. The lack of real specificity makes it feel like ANY artist could have sufficed for the Fab Four, even though Jack clearly gets success on a global scale. And even then, we don’t really get to see the full extent of what effect this sort of worldwide amnesia, aside from seeing that Oasis and Harry Potter have also disappeared. Instead, Yesterday pulls a full Richard Curtis and is focused mainly on the romance between Jack and Ellie, which is totally fine. But the problem is that neither one of them really have their own agency, and it often feels like Jack just wants to “get the girl.” And because of that, the movie feels just a few steps away from swinging from sappily romantic to just sort of icky. For what it’s worth, Himesh Patel makes a pretty strong big screen debut here as Jack Malik. For much of the film, he struggles with trying to be his own creative artist and giving millions of fans songs he didn’t even write in the first place. On top of that, he also has a really great singing voice, whether it’s in private to his family and friends or on stage in front of a massive crowd. Lily James co-stars alongside him as Ellie, his former manager and longtime love interest. She’s a great actress and she does fine in the role, but she never really feels fleshed out enough to be a seriously compelling love interest. She and Patel have decent chemistry and the movie is almost always best whenever it shows the increasing rift in their relationship. James Corden and Ed Sheeran make amusing appearances as fictional versions of themselves while Kate McKinnon, Lamorne Morris, Joel Fry, Sophia Di Martino, and Ellise Chappell play various friends and acquaintances of Jack’s inside the music industry. Really, the only one who’s able to make anything of an impression- and I can’t believe I’m saying this -is Sheeran. Although he doesn’t appear in the movie too much, he does have some funny lines sprinkled throughout, and even a couple instances where we get to hear him sing. And technically speaking, Yesterday feels like a couple of different creative voices speaking over each other. Christopher Ross’ cinematography often feels flat and uninspired, picking the most bland angles for various scenes. While they’re spliced together nice enough, the lack of flair and out-of-place lighting feels somewhat wrong for the story. During concert scenes, there are a number of swooping crowd shots and of Jack’s performing skills, which work fairly well. It’s use of color for various scenes should also be noted, as the colors are more vibrant and alive during the big performances but cold and muted whenever Jack is doing business with an industry professional. But this also clashes with the editing job by Boyle’s longtime collaborator Jon Harris. Many scenes transition from one to the next in an extremely flashy fashion, typical of the director. This includes quick montages of Jack climbing exponentially in the music world and having massive text flood the screen with headlines. That’s all well and good, but it totally feels at conflict with the relatively lowkey cinematography and lighting. The few times both come together nicely is when Jack is being interviewed by someone like James Corden and he thinks they’re onto his secret, only for it to be his own anxiety. The film definitely needed more of that rather than what we ultimately got. When all is said and done, Yesterday is a disappointing misuse of a compelling setup and excellent music. Even though their idiosyncrasies seem like the perfect odd couple, Danny Boyle and Richard Curtis just don’t seem like a great fit, at least not for this material. Himesh Patel definitely has an exciting future ahead of him as an actor, but his major debut could have certainly been a lot better. I’m confident someone one day will make a great movie about The Beatles, but for now it’s still a long and winding road.

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