Category Archives: Coming-of-age

“Frozen II” Movie Review

The lengths I would go to protect my sister.

This computer-animated family fantasy film was released in theaters worldwide by Disney on November 22nd, 2019. Following the biggest opening weekend of all time for an animated feature, it has gone on to gross over $1.268 billion at the global box office thus far. This almost puts it financially up to par with its predecessor in a shorter amount of time. With a little more time, it has managed to become the most successful animated film ever released, in addition to the positive attention it’s gotten from fans and critics.

Once again co-directed by Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, the filmmakers and studio had constantly talked about a sequel to the 2013 hit for a couple years before officially moving forward. Lee worked on several different drafts alongside Allison Schroeder, although the latter ended up not getting a real credit for the screenplay. The actors’ recording for dialogue and songs supposedly began as early as late 2016, though the veracity of these claims is disputable. The studio also worked in close collaboration with various experts and representatives of the Saami people to get some story elements culturally accurate.

Set 3 years after the first film, Idina Menzel and Kristen Bell return as Queen Elsa and Princess Anna, who have managed to keep the kingdom of Arendelle in prosperity. One night, Elsa begins hearing a strange voice singing repetitive notes to her and drawing her away into a mystical forest. There, the two of them alongside Kristoff, Olaf, and Sven- voiced respectively by Jonathan Groff and Josh Gad -travel there and discover a deeply rooted conflict between their kingdom and the natives of the land. Wanting to mend things before it’s too late, they also find that their journey may bring them closer to what happened to their parents.

The original Frozen, when it first came out in 2013, was a hugely pleasant surprise for me. It had all of the elements of a classic Disney movie (Memorable songs and heartwarming characters) while also finding interesting ways to invert the traditional format of the past. It was also an indisputably gorgeous movie with some of the best animation of its time and still looks stunning to this day.

It being far more successful than anyone had anticipated, a sequel to the film was pretty much inevitable. I was extremely curious to see how Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee would be able to continue the story, especially since Lee has been made the new head of Disney Animation following John Lasseter’s unfortunate exit. And while Frozen II is certainly a step down from the first installment, it’s still a great time at the movies with the whole family.

Just like last time, this movie is at its best when its questioning the usual tropes of a typical adventure story. Despite what the people around her seem to think, Elsa is neither a villain nor a damsel in distress; she’s just unsure of how to rule a kingdom and manage her mysterious powers at the same time. Similarly, Anna wants to be the princess who falls in love and gets married, but she also learns how to retain her own agency and doesn’t want to be defined either by her sister’s status or her romantic relationship with Kristoff.

Where Frozen II starts to falter is that, while it acknowledges change as something inevitable and even positive, it still doesn’t quite make enough narrative progress to be fully satisfying. It’s undeniably cool to see this world grow beyond the kingdom of Arendelle and even see the potential origins of magic in this universe. Still, by the end, you can’t help but feel that they played a little too safe for its own good, particularly because of how it teased something that could have been much more.

Idina Menzel is still just as iconic as she was in the first go-around, and cements Elsa as one of the most interesting monarchs in Disney’s library. Still unsure of her capability as a leader, she strives to find a balance between the powerful and humble, thinking distance is the safest option for her loved ones. Her voice is still a powerhouse as always and she releases all of her worries and troubles into song whenever possible.

Also, Kristen Bell is charming and delightful as ever as she returns to the role of Anna. Her own sense of confidence and self-worth have grown immensely since the previous film, but she still cares deeply about the fate of her sister, willing to do whatever it takes to keep her happy.

Josh Gad also makes a return as Olaf, the magical talking snowman. He proves to be much more fun and likable as a side character than a protagonist, and brings out some of the biggest laughs of the whole movie. He also has a newfound sense of wisdom and maturity in this film; although much of it proves to be him misunderstanding its true meaning for comic effect, it still creates an interesting dynamic with the others.

Jonathan Groff, Alan Tudyk, and Ciarán Hinds all reprise their respective roles from the first installment while Alfred Molina, Evan Rachel Wood, Sterling K. Brown, Martha Plimpton, and Norwegian singer Aurora come in new ones. All of them bring different weight and while not all of them get a chance to sing, they’re memorable for the most part. Woods and Brown were particularly interesting and I was hoping to see more from their parts than we ultimately did.

And from a technical point of view, Frozen II proves that even after 58 animated features, Disney is still able to make some real surprises. The animation in this movie is somehow even more stunning and rich than the previous one, utilizing 3D animation to its full potential. The stupid amount of detail in everything in every frame, even the hair or fabric of a character’s wardrobe, is jaw-dropping. Not to mention the remarkable physics being displayed on-screen throughout.

There’s a heavy emphasis on the colors blue and orange. We see all different shades of blue in the film, from the ice emitting from Elsa’s powers to the deep blue of the ocean. For orange, it’s mainly an autumnal look from fall leaves and even Anna’s brunette hair has a bit of orange in it. It plays up a nice contrast in the visual composition, representing the contrast between the life the main characters want to live versus the adventure they’ve embarked on.

Songwriters Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez return from the first film to provide a whole new soundtrack here. And with the help of composer Christophe Beck, they’re able to create a bounty of memorable new songs. The big one is obviously “Into the Unknown,” a powerful ballad that allows Idina Menzel’s powerhouse vocals to work magic. It uses the motif of light and uncertainty to a great advantage as it builds and builds, much like Elsa’s confidence.

But for me, the best song of the film is “Show Yourself,” which comes in the latter half of the story. The natural culmination of all the elements that have come before it, it’s a true showstopper as Elsa finally comes to terms with her abilities and their implications. It also features the vocals of Evan Rachel Wood, who proves to a worthy song partner as their voices collide. The animation of the scene that song plays in is some of the best in the whole movie, and both come together to create something special.

More safe and fun than forward-thinking, Frozen II is a perfectly fine family-friendly romp with gorgeous animation and great music. While it doesn’t take as many risks as it probably should, Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee are still able to deliver a fun sequel to its immensely successful predecessor. The vocals of the cast are all still excellent and the Lopez’ give them new tunes worthy of the gold voices singing them.

I think part of what made the first Frozen so surprising and special is that it defied expectations and subverted several of the classic Disney tropes. This sequel still understands those tropes exist, but is more content to coast on the comfort of the characters from last time. Even if it means it has to miss out on what could have been some truly exciting storytelling opportunities here.

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“Marriage Story” Movie Review

I was lucky enough to grow up my whole adolescence with both parents in my life and happily married. I can only imagine what it was like for children of divorce to experience this film.

This divorce dramedy originally premiered in competition at the 76th Venice International Film Festival. Following an extremely lengthy run on the festival circuit, it began a month-long theatrical engagement in specialty theaters around the world on November 6th, 2019, where it grossed over $2.3 million against an $18 million production budget. It then landed on the streaming service Netflix on December 6th to high anticipation from various cinephiles. It currently stands as one of the most critically acclaimed films of the year and has been selected or nominated for many year-end accolades.

Written and directed by Noah Baumbach, the idea originally came to him while in post-production on his previous film, The Meyerowitz Stories. The story was partially inspired by his tumultuous real-life divorce from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh, who apparently responded very positively to the finished product. He discussed the concepts and characters with the two main leads long before anything was written down in order to better develop their respective characters. And as a testament to the film’s unbiased nature, Leigh apparently really liked the film after watching it.

Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver star as Nicole and Charlie Barber, an acclaimed stress and theater director based in New York. At the beginning of the film, they decide to get a divorce and Nicole moves to L.A. to film a T.V. series. While they initially agree to split as amicably as possible, they hire divorce lawyers Nora Fanshaw and Bert Spitz, played by Laura Dern and Alan Alda, respectively. From there, it turns into a harsh, coast-to-coast battle not just for custody of their young son Henry but also for their own personal agency.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve managed to watch a handful of Baumbach’s features across different platforms. The Squid and the Whale, Frances Ha, and The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) really show that he has a style of realism uncommon in many movies. He has also proven to bring out earnest, understated performances from some big name actors in the industry and bring them down to a naturalistic level.

When I heard about the plans he had for his newest film, and the second one under Netflix, I got ecstatic with the cast he was working with. And the news that it would be the streaming service’s second big awards contender, the other one being The Irishman, made me realizes that it would be taken seriously rather than just another film of theirs to add to the queue. And that’s just the case because Marriage Story is a heartbreakingly beautiful film that’s so emotionally rewarding.

If you go into this film expecting to root for one side or the other, then you’d be missing the point of the film. The most admirable quality here is that it always stays neutral, never really showing who was right or wrong, but instead highlighting the emotional and legal fallout from a failed marriage. Part of what makes Marriage Story feel so realistic isn’t just the fantastic dialogue but also how it showcases the two protagonists trying to keep it all under a smiley façade for their confused child.

Nicole and Charlie are actually very reasonable and polite with one another when meeting in-person, only turning sides whenever their ferocious lawyers are in the same room. They only really argue with each other once during the entire film, and it’s really hard to watch as they let long-repressed feelings finally loose. By embracing the messiness and lack of easy answers in the situation, it feels like a real self-reckoning for Baumbach and can even seem theraputic.

Adam Driver has always been one of the best actors around and here, he finally steps away from big blockbusters to deliver his best performance to date. As Charlie, he’s deeply fixated on trying to stay in New York and repeatedly (And unsuccessfully) tries to get Nicole and their son to come with him. His hard upbringing has a clear effect on his emotions, as he has no true concept of expressing his feelings toward anyone in a healthy or friendly way.

Opposite him from a different coast, Scarlett Johansson gets a chance to shine in an incredible role as Nicole. She wants a chance to break out into her own stardom after working under Charlie for years, even if that means breaking his heart and ego. The toll this divorce takes on her is immense, compartmentalizing and drinking her feelings away until it all comes flooding out in several instances.

If these two actors didn’t work well together, the whole movie would have fallen apart. But they have incredibly convincing chemistry and their interactions feel so believable that it’s almost like watching a real marriage fall apart before our eyes.

Laura Dern is also worth mentioning here as Nora Fanshaw, Nicole’s calculating and world-weary divorce lawyer. Her charisma is absolutely scene-stealing as she glides through all of the state and county laws to try and get Nicole on top in the settlement. Although she does seem to care about the well-being of her client, her ruthless tactics and meticulous planning only strains the process even more, even if she can’t quite realize it.

The supporting cast, meanwhile, is full of stars and character actors giving great performances. This includes Alan Alda and Ray Liotta as two polar opposite lawyers Charlie hires, Julie Hagerty as Nicole’s wayward but supportive mother, Merritt Wever as her experienced sister, Azhy Robertson as their confused yet hopeful son Henry, and Wallace Shawn in a brief role as a member of Charlie’s theater company. All of them work wonders in the simple yet emotionally complex story.

And from technical standpoint, Marriage Story isn’t especially showy but still manages to keep your attention. Shot on 35mm film, the cinematography by Robbie Ryan is straightforward and unpretentious. The simplistic shots and compositions give a lot of room for the actors to breathe on-screen, especially given the hefty amount of dialogue. A handful of panning movements and slow zooms throughout help to keep the action in perspective and get inside the mindset of the characters.

It works really well with Jennifer Lame’s editing job, which finds a great rhythm for the story to follow. The film opens with two back-to-back montages of the ups and downs in their marriage as Charlie and Nicole describe everything they love about each other. It’s a perfect way to establish the two and their differing opinions on their time together over the years. Numerous scenes use dissolves or fade-in/fade-out techniques to transition between one another, which gives it a classical feel.

Randy Newman takes a break from Pixar to deliver the instrumental film score here. It’s just as smooth and jazz-influenced as many of his other works, using a lot of soft percussion and double reeds. It gracefully captures the melancholy tone of a failing marriage without verring off into sappy territory. The score uses two different motifs for Charlie and Nicole and frequently repeats them whenever their scenes come back into play on-screen. It sounds almost like a more mature version of Toy Story, and I consider that to be a great thing.

Anchored by some of the best acting this past decade and never getting bogged down in pretension or self-importance, Marriage Story is a devastatingly honest and believable examination of the breakdown of a relationship. Pulling from his own past without taking any sides, Noah Baumbach has delivered arguably his best film yet and one I’m sure will speak to many viewers’ own experiences. Driver and Johansson are obviously amazing in their roles, but the excellent dialogue and realistic interactions help to drive this film all the way home.

“Jojo Rabbit” Movie Review

Imagine your imaginary best friend being the caricature of a famous (Or infamous) world leader. Like you’re just going about your daily routine and a dumbed-down Justin Trudeau or Emmanuel Macron suddenly comes in and starts giving obviously bad advice to you. That thought is both disturbing and intriguing all at once.

This satirical period black comedy-drama initially premiered at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival. Despite some polarizing responses from critics, it managed to win the coveted Grolsch People’s Choice Award. After screening at other festivals such as Fantastic Fest, it was later released in select theaters by Fox Searchlight on October 18th, 2019. After making a killing by selling out theaters early on, it gradually expanded to more cities each week, grossing about $25.2 million against a production budget of $14 million. And while it’s generally had mixed reviews among critics, it has proven to be popular among audiences and casual moviegoers alike.

Written and directed by Taika Waititi, the film is loosely based on the book Caging Skies by Christine Leunens. The director apparently felt so strongly about the project that he put his live-action Akira adaptation on hold and dropped his stop-motion animated feature to work on it. He claims to have done almost no research outside the source material and used his own personality as a reference point in several areas. It was originally reported that, sometime after Disney acquired Fox, executives were extremely uncomfortable during an early test screening.

Set towards the end of World War II, newcomer Roman Griffin Davis stars as Johannes “Jojo” Beltzer, a 10-year-old boy who passionately supports Nazi Germany. Although his single mother Rosie, played by Scarlett Johansson, encourages him to find more empathy, his devotion to the Third Reich is so big that his best friend is an imaginary, idiotic version of Adolf Hitler, played by Taika himself. After a weekend away at a Hitler Youth camp goes awry, he comes home to discover that his mother has been hiding a young Jewish girl named Elsa Korr, played by Thomasin McKenzie, in a cupboard upstairs. Initially frightened, Jojo is convinced by imaginary Adolf to gather more info about the Jews from Elsa, and his long-held beliefs start crashing down as the Allies close in.

Having seen What We Do in the Shadows, Hunt For The Wilderpeople, and Thor: Ragnarok prior to this, I can say I really like Taika Waititi’s unique style of filmmaking. Many have said that he’s the New Zealand version of Wes Anderson, but I believe that he has an artistic voice that’s wholly his own. Seeing him make the full swing to blockbuster filmmaking with Ragnarok and still make it his own personal vision also demonstrated his ability to reach out to the masses in a satisfying way.

When I first heard about what his next film would be, it felt like risky material but one he could surely pull off. The initially polarizing response between critics and audiences also convinced me that it could be a potential conversation starter in the best way possible. And I’m happy to report that Jojo Rabbit is exactly the kind of anti-hate, antiwar satire what I was hoping for.

I feel like in someone else’s hands, this story would have turned into a complete misfire on several fronts. But thankfully, Taika knows exactly how to handle the subject matter, finding a delicate balance between the absurdly funny and the upsettingly real. The tone is very fluid and manages to create unexpected empathy for the characters as they’re all trapped in an unfair system.

I also don’t really agree with the criticism that Jojo Rabbit is too flippant towards its depiction of Nazi Germany. As this story is told through the perspective of a pure-hearted child, it only makes sense that the world around him is shown in an unconventional manner and creates a great tragic irony. Plus, there is perhaps no better time in history than the now for people around the world to laugh in the face of bigots and fascists.

Waititi has a penchant for finding fantastic child talent and Roman Griffin Davis is no exception here. As Jojo Beltzer, he has an enormous amount of enthusiasm for what he believes is a righteous cause and is unafraid to loudly voice his opinion. But as the film goes along, he gradually starts questioning everything he’s stood for and tries to find a good explanation for why his perceptions have been so wrong.

Opposite him for most of the film, the young Thomasin McKenzie gives yet another excellent performance as Elsa Korr. From their first scene together, it’s clear that she holds total power over him and doesn’t hesitate to embellish stories of Jewish people to him. But it soon becomes clear that aside from Jojo and Rosie, she’s completely alone and has no idea what the outside world is like anymore.

Scarlett Johansson, Stephen Merchant, Rebel Wilson, Sam Rockwell, Alfie Allen, and newcomer Archie Yates round out the wonderful supporting cast here. All of them swing brilliantly from deadpan hilarity to deadly serious with surprising ease and confidence.

But the best of the bunch has to be the director himself, Taika Waititi as the imaginary version of Adolf Hitler. He plays it up absolutely perfectly, using his own self-deprecating personality to portray the notorious leader with a decent German accent. As the plot rolls by, he gradually becomes angrier and more confused by Jojo’s open-mindedness and is much more convincing than I anticipated. And to top it off, it’s hard to think of a bigger middle finger to the head of the Nazis than to have him played by a Polynesian Jew.

And from a technical point of view, Jojo Rabbit showcases Taika Waititi developing his cinematic voice even further than before. Shot by the underrated Mihai Mălaimare Jr., the cinematography is very deliberate and precise in its movements and placement. The fullscreen view uses a lot of wideshots that either remain still or move around in the scene to keep its eye of the characters. These techniques are able to capture the comical absurdity of various scenes beautifully while also providing some Expressionist exposition on the setting. The use of slow-motion and saturated colors also brings out the unique personality of the film.

Tom Eagle’s editing job also does wonders to help elevate the storytelling. It very much knows when to cut away to the punchline and when to give an actor space for their own dialogue scene. It also frequently reminds viewers of its bleak setting by keeping deeply upsetting imagery just out of reach from the frame. There are also a handful of montages throughout that highlight Jojo’s unwavering nationalism, including an opening one which mixes him getting ready for camp with real newsreel footage of Hitler in huge crowds. They can be by turns both ironic and intriguing.

Michael Giacchino, one of the most prolific and versatile composers of our time, provides the instrumental film score. It’s a highly unique one, especially for its genre, yet it beautifully fits the tone of the story. The use of light instruments such as plucked strings and the glockenspiel give off the feeling of a children’s fairytale. Flutes, low brass, and militant snare drums also make a welcome addition to the soundtrack as they bring back the feeling of wartime. What’s truly fascinating is how it also uses a recorder in some parts to reflect the childlike perspective of Jojo.

It also features the German versions of a handful of popular songs to contextualize what is happening. The first is “I Want to Hold You Hand” by The Beatles in the beginning, which plays well into showing the obsessive fanaticism among youth in that time period. The other one is David Bowie’s “Heroes,” which plays during the final scene and over the end credits. It really hammers home the theme of love conquering all even in the face of a great monstrosity like bigotry and fascism.

Taking huge swings at a tough subject matter and making no apologies for it, Jojo Rabbit is a fearlessly funny and heartfelt story about one of the darkest chapters of human history. Taika Waititi never shies away from the disturbing aspects of the story but utterly refuses to give in to the cynicism that would be so easy. The humor and touching moments have a genuine earnestness that’s hard to shake, and the spot-on cast help seal the deal.

Our imaginary friends don’t always know best, especially if they encourage scary actions or emotions from us. And it may sound cliché and overdone in the year of our Lord 2019, but to quote one of the characters of this film, “Love is the strongest thing in the world.”

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Top Ten Most Anticipated Movies of 2020

Welcome to the new year! Welcome to the new DECADE! As the last one passes on by, the next one comes in with an embarrassment of promising cinematic riches. Some of the films on this list have been on my radar for quite a while, others have only recently come to my attention. In any case, these are the 10 feature films that I’m most excited for coming out in the year 2020. I’d like to start off, however, by labeling some honorable mentions for other films that look pretty promising.

Honorable Mentions:

Artemis Fowl, The Way Back, West Side Story, The Prom, Free Guy, Saint Maud, Halloween Kills, The Eternals, Birds of Prey, Onward, Next Goal Wins, The Rhythm Section, The Trial of the Chicago 7, The Witches, Wonder Woman 1984, Black Widow

Now, let’s get on with it, shall we?

#10: “Soul” (Opens June 19th)

After a couple of long in-development sequels to beloved classics of theirs, Pixar is finally making the return to original filmmaking in 2020. Onward also looks interesting, but it’s Pete Docter’s newest film that has my attention the most. Early impressions seem to give off the feeling that this is yet another creative and heartfelt creation from the animation studio. The animation looks unsurprisingly vibrant and the integration of jazz music into the narrative has me giddy for whatever kind of personality it has in store- especially because Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross are handling the score. And given the recent shakeup in leadership at Disney’s animation branch, if Soul ends up being Docter’s swansong, it looks like a big way to go out.

#9: “The Gentlemen” (Opens January 24th)

Many filmmakers are able to sustain their careers by stretching out into different genres. Guy Ritchie isn’t really one of those directors, as his personal style never quite fit into a live-action Disney musical or a fantasy epic. However, his next movie The Gentlemen feels like a return to form for him, similar to Snatch and Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. With an all-star cast at his disposal, all of whom seem to be having the time of their lives, it looks like Ritchie has found his comfort zone again. Let’s hope it’ll be genuinely fun and not just two hours of him trying desperately to relive his glory days.

#8: “Mank” (TBA 2020)

David Fincher finally making another feature film is enough reason for me to become excited about the project. But hearing that it was written by his late father Jack makes it sound much more personal for him, even with the near-mythical subject matter. It promises to be a movie about screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, who fought with Orson Welles to attain a writing credit on the film Citizen Kane. Seeing talent like Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried, and Charles Dance among the cast members makes it seem like this could be a major awards contender for Netflix next fall. Fingers crossed Mank won’t get buried in their catalogue.

#7: “Last Night in Soho” (Opens September 25th)

After the success of Baby Driver, Edgar Wright could have done anything he wanted for is project. Rather than choosing something obvious or right up his alley, he’s doing a non-comedic horror movie with Anya Taylor-Joy, Matt Smith, and Thomasin McKenzie. The first image above teases something genuinely creepy and stylistic that he’s created alongside rising co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns. We still don’t know exactly the story might entail, but it sounds like it will be his rendition of psychological thrillers from the 1970’s. That alone is enough for me to be at least intrigued for whatever Wright and company have cooked up for next fall.

#6: “Cherry” (TBA 2020)

It’s always an exciting prospect when established blockbuster filmmakers move away to something smaller and more personal. Cherry sounds like such a prospect, as it finds the Russo Brothers reuniting with Tom Holland on a true-story drama that’s, unfortunately, only increased in its relevance. The tale of Nico Walker, a PTSD-ridden soldier who becomes addicted to opioids, is one that begs to be told. I’m eager to see how all parties involved can get a film made that doesn’t have to be defined by the constraints of a traditional Hollywood blockbuster like the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Although it technically doesn’t have a 2020 release date or distribution deal set just yet, I really hope the major studios will at least try to give it some attention when the time comes.

#5: “The Invisible Man” (Opens February 28th)

I’m still recovering from the spectacularly failed promise of the “Dark Universe” 3 years ago. It pretty much convinced me that none of the classic Universal Monsters could be properly adapted to the modern age. However, it looks like Leigh Whannell and Blumhouse have managed to find a new and relevant angle on The Invisible Man. It looks like it will be taking a MeToo approach, using the titular character as a way of relating society’s absurd reluctance to listen to women’s stories of abuse even though they can’t really see it. Add in Elizabeth Moss as the lead, and this looks like it could become a real word-of-mouth hit in February.

#4: “No Time to Die” (Opens April 8th)

The James Bond franchise has, by and large, been hit or miss for me over the years. Skyfall still remains my favorite one, and Daniel Craig’s version of the character has been remarkable, but there have been a number of stinkers every now and then. However, his 5th and supposedly last outing as 007 looks intriguing as hell. After a troubled early production history, No Time to Die looks like it’s on the right track based on what we’ve seen thus far. Cary Joji Fukunaga making the transition to big blockbuster filmmaking is incredibly interesting, especially when you consider how gorgeous the film looks visually. And of course, Rami Malek as the main villain sounds really exciting, and I can’t wait to see Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s writing come to light after a hyper-successful rise with Fleabag and Killing Eve.

#3: “In the Heights” (Opens June 26th)

Of the high-profile Broadway adaptations coming to theaters this year- the others being Everybody’s Talking About Jamie and Spielberg’s spin on West Side Story -it’s In the Heights I’m the most pumped for. I’ll admit to having only become a fan of Lin-Manuel Miranda in the past few years because of Hamilton, but his first musical is still a joy to listen to. The first trailer showcased exactly what I was hoping to see from the film, and seeing Anthony Ramos in a huge leading role, not to mention the whole ensemble surrounding him, makes me so pumped.

#2: “Tenet” (Opens July 17th)

Christopher Nolan might be one of the last filmmakers who’s able to let a major studio allow him to make a completely original blockbuster on a massive budget. And after finally getting an Oscar nod for Dunkirk, I knew that whatever he did next would be unique. And seeing him recruit John David Washington and Robert Pattinson for a huge action epic, alongside a wildly exciting crew, makes it sound amazing. As for what Tenet’s plot seems to be? Even after watching the glorious first trailer, I probably still won’t know what the film is actually about until I see in theaters. And I absolutely love that.

#1: “Dune” (Opens December 18th)

Denis Villeneuve was, unquestionably, the breakout director of the last decade. Blade Runner 2049 is one of the best films of all time, Prisoners is an underrated masterpiece, and Arrival is a modern sci-fi classic. So it’s only fitting that his newest project is an adaptation of one of the biggest and most influential science-fiction novels ever written. It feels almost like the type of film that he’s been building his whole career towards, especially with all of the support involved. He also has an enormously talented ensemble at his disposal, from Timothée Chalamet to Jason Momoa to Stellan Skarsgård bound to bring their all to the table. In short, Dune is shaping up to be a true sci-fi epic that could hopefully define cinema of the coming decade.

Do you agree with my picks? What movie are you most excited to see come out in 2020? I’d love to hear your thoughts in a Comment below. And for more awesome content like this, be sure to leave a like and Follow my Blog. Happy New Year, everyone!

“National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” Movie Review

Almost everyone who celebrates Christmas has some unique family traditions they try to bring back every year. And if yours are anything like the shenanigans in this film, then you’re truly living a big life. This slapstick Christmas comedy was originally released in theater by Warner Bros. on December 1st, 1989. After coming in second its opening weekend, it went on to gross over $71.4 million at the worldwide box office. Against a budget of roughly $25 million, this made it the highest-grossing film in the Vacation franchise for about 25 years. Although it received mixed reviews during its initial run, it is now considered a modern Christmas classi among many film fans, this one included. Directed by Jeremiah S. Chechik, the screenplay by John Hughes was originally written as a short story called “Christmas ’59” published in the National Lampoon magazine. He only agreed to do it for the studio because of the quality of the story and left the series for good afterwards. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone director Chris Columbus was originally set at the helm before leaving after clashing with its main star consistently. Columbus and Hughes would later try and work together again on the future holiday classic Home Alone. Chevy Chase stars as Clark Griswold, the energetic and enthusiastic patriarch of the oddball Griswold family. As the winter season progresses, he sets out to try and give his family the best Christmas of all time by any means necessary. As more members of his extended family arrive, more and more absurd problems arise as Clark attempts to save old traditions. Just like It’s a Wonderful Life, I wanted to go ahead and close out my New Year’s Resolution with a pair of Christmas films that are considered classics. Sure, there’s a whole lot of cheese in places like Hallmark and Lifetime, but there are plenty of films that take the genre in great ways. And it’s nice to have a traditional rewatch every season, whether it’s a real decades-old classic or a recent gem. I decided to go ahead and look back on a film that’s renowned but not usually discussed in the pantheon along others like Miracle on 34th Street. My feelings on National Lampoon as a whole are kind of mixed, but their Vacation franchise provides some big laughs every now and then. And after all these years, Christmas Vacation still proves to be the best of them and a genuinely fun holiday regular. If you’re hoping for a strong narrative in your yuletide films, you’ll be disappointed because the plot and setup here are extremely simplistic. But that ultimately works to its advantage because it allows breathing room both for the hilarious jokes and the more heartwarming moments. It’s primary theme of trying to find what it means for a truly great Christmas season is really resonant and universal for audiences, no matter how dysfunctional your family may be. The one issue that keeps Christmas Vacation from being a complete classic for me is an unnecessary fantasy pool scene. It comes at around the beginning of the third act and just doesn’t fit in with the rest of the film before or after. But if you can ignore that one scene, (I’ve begun just fast-forwarding through it on each rewatch) the rest of the film is pretty fun across multiple demographics. Although most people associate him with Community and his days on Saturday Night Live, Chevy Chase was really at the top of his game here. As Clark Griswold, he’s extremely energetic and enthusiastic about bringing all of his family’s traditions into the fold this year. He tries to bottle up his frustration with failures and work but finally lets it all out in one of the best and funniest tirades in cinematic history. By his side, Beverly D’Angelo is amazing and endlessly funny as his confused and deadpan wife Ellen. She plays it more like the straight-laced partner who acts completely rational compared to her husband’s wild behavior. Juliette Lewis and Johnny Galicki play the Griswolds’ daughter and son, respectively, which continues the gag of their children always changing actors. They’re both earnest in their desire to make Christmas great but are constantly unsure about their father’s unorthodox methods to get to it. In a way, they act more as an audience surrogate as we witness the bizarre and absurd take hold in their household in gradual fashion. John Randolph, Randy Quaid, Diane Ladd, William Hickey, and Mae Questel round out the memorable members of the Griswold family while Sam McMurray, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Nicholas Guest, and Brian Doyle-Murray play some of their various acquaintances. With the exception of Quaid and Louis-Dreyfus, not many of the supporting cast really stand out or leave a huge impression. None of them really have big character arcs but they provide some decent laughs and contribute to the overall package. And from a technical point-of-view, Christmas Vacation has just enough flare to distinguish itself from other comedies of the decade. Thomas E. Ackerman’s cinematography here is, by and large, straightforward and pretentious. There aren’t really any clever movements, aside from a dramatic push-in on Clark when the house lights finally come on. It mostly places the camera in one or two different static positions during a scene and finds a way to make the humor more visually satisfying and timed well. The main colors associated with the holiday- blue, red, white, and green -are often seen throughout in many different ways and the frame captures them pretty decently. It’s really the editing, which is a joint effort from Jerry Greenberg and Michael A. Stevenson, that brings out the personality. The film often cuts between something really obscene with something more warmhearted for the holiday season, creating a very funny dichotomy. Each scene is nicely cut together to a tea and knows what to focus on for the specific moment. It also makes a wise decision of when to include a pause or when to cut away to the punchline. The aforementioned tirade is mostly shown in a long take of Clark in his living room and he kicks the furniture around him and gathers his breath. The fact that the camera doesn’t cut away during this moment makes it very hard not to break out in laughter as he pours out his true feelings for the first time. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation is a jolly good time with some really timeless jokes and heart. Excluding that unnecessary pool scene, Jeremiah S. Chechik and John Hughes have crafted a really nice classic in the already crowded pantheon of Christmas movies. Your mileage for the film as a whole may vary, but it’s Chevy Chase’s inimitably hilarious turn as Clark Griswold that makes it worth rewatching time and again. A fantastic way to close out the 1980’s, this comedy is sure to bring plenty of yuletide joy and laughter to the family.

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“Parasite” Movie Review

Every now and then, I watch a movie that can be absolutely hilarious in one scene and then make you question why you’re laughing in the next. If that’s the kind thing that floats your boat, then you’re going to have a grand time here. This dark comedy-drama premiered in the Offical Competition section at the 71st Cannes Film Festival. It went on to win the prestigious Palme d’Or, making it the first Korean film to do so and the first one with a unanimous vote in 6 years. Although it was released in South Korea and other international territories in late May, Neon gave it a theatrical release in North America beginning October 18th, 2019. Made for the budget of roughly $11 million, it has thus far grossed over $127.4 million at the worldwide box office. This makes it one of the country’s highest-grossing features and it has the best-ever per-venue average for a foreign-language film. Directed by Bong Joon-ho, the idea for the film had been in his head for some time. He has repeatedly stated that he and co-writer Han Ji-won were inspired by several of Alfred Hitchcock’s films, incorporating some of his most common motifs. The house in the film was built completely from scratch by the production designers and was specifically designed to cast light in a certain way. Song Kang-ho stars as Kim Ki-taek, the patriarch of a low-income Korean family struggling to make ends meet. When all of them are on the verge of losing their jobs, the son Ki-woo, played by Choi Woo-shik, is bestowed a golden opportunity. Posing as a university student, he is hired as a tutor for the daughter of the wealthy Park family while his friend is studying abroad. As time goes along, each Kim family member slowly becomes ingratiated with the Parks, to the point where they barely recognize the life they’re living anymore. While I’ve admittedly yet to watch all of his films, I really like Bong Joon-ho’s filmography and personal style. He’s always able to blend the very absurd with the realistic in films like The Host and Okja, both of which are among the most underrated films of the century. Plus, his English-language debut Snowpiercer was actually one of the very first films I ever wrote a review for. Prior to actually seeing it, I had been advised by many sources to avoid all trailers and reviews for the film, only watching the trailer once during a screening for another film. Although I usually like learning about whatever film I’m about to watch, here, I decided it would probably be best to go in as cold as possible. And that decision has paid off in spades because Parasite isn’t only Bong Joon-ho’s best film to date, but it’s also now become one of my favorite foreign-language pictures of all time. Like many of the director’s other films, this movie is really about the intersection between class differences, capitalism, and circumstance in our modern world. Rather than giving an easy solution to income inequality, the film shows the nuance in a situation like this and throws unexpected curveballs now and again. The dichotomy in how the rich and the poor react to things so mundane as the rainfall is fascinating and a wonderful way to highlight the difference in their socioeconomic standings. And like I said at the beginning, Parasite is able to generate some laughs from uniquely hilarious moments. The first half of the movie plays out more like a dark comedy and just when the tone seems set in stone, it transforms into something much more sinister. The transition between moods is so seamless and one of the many reasons why this film works so well. Another reason why is Song Kang-ho, who, in his 4th collaboration with the director, gives an incredible lead performance. As Kim Ki-taek, he always has the best interest of his family at heart even if it comes at the expense of others. He’s very thoughtful and quiet, making any sudden outbursts he has feel completely surprising and intimidating. His two children, meanwhile, are both played by Choi Woo-shik and Park So-dam, who demonstrate immense range with their roles. Woo-shik acts kind of as the innocent, wide-eyed man who wants his family to benefit without harming the Parks. So-dam, meanwhile, is more a calculating mastermind who cares about her loved ones but is cynical about the rest of the world. Both of them bounce their ideas of deception off one another even if they disagree about how to go about it. Cho Yeo-jeong also definitely shouldn’t be overlooked as Yeon-gyo, the mother of the wealthy Park family. Although she means well and tries to treat those around her with kindness, it’s clear she is quite dim-witted and oblivious to the con being played. Her aloof attitude provides some of the biggest laughs in the film, and a welcome levity to the story. The rest of the supporting cast, while relatively small, bring a great sense of memorability to the film. This includes Lee Sun-kyun as the stern and stoic patriarch of the Park family, Lee Jung-eun as their loyal yet eccentric housekeeper, Chang Hyae-jin as the assertive mother of the Kims, and Park Seo-joon as a friend of the Kim son who sets them up in the first place. Each player works masterfully under the director’s guidance and finds a uniquely dramatic and comedic angle in every scene. And from a pure filmmaking perspective, Parasite finds Joon-ho working at the absolute peak of his powers. Hong Kyung-pyo’s cinematography is exquisitely detailed and mapped out in such a beautiful way in every scene. The camera movement and positioning are perfectly placed as they find the right amount of negative space for the action. It uses the lighting and production design to its advantage by always blocking the actors with precision. There’s a healthy amount of static wides throughout which equally help to create a sense of unnerving dread and deadpan humor. Yang Jin-mo’s editing job also does wonders for the structure and pacing of the film as it moves from one scene to another. No shot is ever too long or too short for its effect to take hold on audiences. The opening sequence perfectly sets up the characters and their environment, brilliantly showcasing their relevant surroundings. There are also a handful of mini-montages sprinkled throughout that showcase the gradual infiltration between the families. It really demonstrates how methodical and careful the Kims are with their plans. Jeong Jae-il provides the instrumental film score here, and although the Academy apparently disagrees, it’s one of the best of the year. The film opens with a solemn piano piece that immediately sets the mood and it only gets better from there. The soundtrack utilizes numerous different instruments to realize the attitude and position of the characters throughout. This includes plucked strings for more mischievous moments and a high-octave chorus to illustrate the more luxurious life of the Parks. The end credits also feature an original song called “Soju One Glass” written by Jae-il and sung by Choi Woo-shik. Although it starts off with a really mellow guitar melody, it soon shifts into something deceptively enticing. In that, it might just be the perfect tune to end the film on. With an excellent ensemble, tight direction, and one of the most biting screenplays in recent memory, Parasite is an utter masterclass on all filmmaking fronts with immense social consciousness. By tackling its subject matter head on but refusing to give easy answers, Bong Joon-ho has crafted not only of the year’s best films but also proven that he’s an artist that demands to be taken seriously. Its stunning and scathing critique of the effects of capitalism is absolutely incredible but also never forgets the specific cultural context. This also acts as a fantastic example of how to use the setting to help tell your story, and is honestly inspiring to me in this and many other ways.

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“It’s a Wonderful Life” Movie Review

If you’re not in the mood for the sappy schmaltz of Hallmark movies or the action-heavy bravado of Die Hard, you can always look to the “Golden Age” for holiday favorites. This holiday romantic fantasy drama was originally released in theaters worldwide by RKO Pictures on December 20th, 1946. Despite being able to recoup its $3.18 million production budget, the film failed to break even due to stiff competition, and it wasn’t close. Many experts and historians attributed this as the start of the once-popular director’s decline in his favor with the major studios. Nowadays, it is considered to be one of the greatest films of all time. Directed by Frank Capra, the film was originally inspired by the short story “The Greatest Gift” by Philip Van Doren Stern. The studio initially set it up as a starring vehicle for Cary Grant with Dalton Trumbo writing the screenplay before all of their ideas were scrapped. Capra came in and did extensive (And apparently strenuous) work on the new script with Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich and auditioned several actors for all bu the main role. A few months after the release of the film, there was a memo sent out to the public by the FBI accusing the film of having Communist sympathies. Set in the fictional small town of Bedford Falls, Jimmy Stewart stars as George Bailey, a young man working as a building and loan banker. As the film goes along, we witness all the things in his life leading up to a series of particularly miserable decisions and bad luck. On Christmas Eve 1945, he becomes so depressed from his situation that he contemplates suicide, only to be saved by his guardian angel Clarence Odbody, played by Henry Travers. In an effort to show him how different life would be, Clarence takes George to a version of the world where he was never born and the consequences therein. I’ve made it clear in the past that Die Hard is my favorite Christmas movie of all time and I firmly stand by that. However, I also recognize that sometimes it’s nice to find something a little older and more family-friendly to watch over the holiday break. And although it could from household to household, more often than not, it comes down to this film and White Christmas. I had personally not seen this film for the better part of a decade, even though I distinctly remember loving it the first time. I finally got the chance to watch it again in the past few weeks, hoping that my older eyes would see it in a new light. And it’s with a brightened heart and a lifted spirit that I say It’s a Wonderful Life is still fabulous and even improves on repeat viewings. The central premise is a question we’ve all asked ourselves before; would the world be much different without me? This film paints Bedford Falls as a genuinely kind town and in the scenario without George Bailey around, it becomes a much darker and colder place called “Pottersville.” It does a fantastic job at showing how much the protagonist has made the lives of those around him better, even if he himself can’t realize it. Interestingly, something you may notice is that It’s a Wonderful Life doesn’t really get to Clarence or the alternate world until over an hour into the film. The whole movie leading up to that moment is spent with the voices in Heaven recounting George’s whole life story from childhood to present day. It not only helps further establish context for him and his loved ones but also creates a big emotional payoff for the iconic and heartwarming ending. Jimmy Stewart has built his whole career playing the likable American everyman, and I’m convinced that this might be his best work outside of Alfred Hitchcock’s films. As George Bailey, he’s immensely compassionate and is able think on his feet rather quickly when financial situations come up. Although he’s clearly happy to help his fellow neighbors, seeing him sacrificing his dreams of leaving Bedford Falls time and again shows his growing frustration of wanting to live a bigger life but never getting to. In direct contrast to him, Lionel Barrymore is extremely memorable as Mr. Henry F. Potter, the richest man in town. Although he doesn’t move much outside of his wheelchair, he’s successfully able to make both Bedford Falls citizens and audience members despise him as he only cares about buying and owning everything. He prides himself on manipulating various businesspeople on deals and loans for his own gain and only seems to get angrier and greedier as the film goes along. Henry Travers also delights as the guardian angel in training Clarence Odbody, one of the best side characters in cinema. Despite his cheerful and optimistic attitude, he’s determined to show George why his life truly matters and isn’t afraid to show the darkness. It’s almost like a learning experience for both him and us as we learn everything about this town and its people right alongside Clarence and the value of human decency. The supporting cast includes Donna Reed as George’s loving and quick-witted wife, Thomas Mitchell as his caring but dim-witted uncle Billy, Todd Karns as his innocent yet honest younger brother, H.B. Warner as a well-meaning but oft-drunk druggist, and Frank Albertson as George’s wealth but absent old friend. Each one plays an important part in the story of the main character and it’s clear they all are impacted by him. Even if George himself can’t see it, their lives are much better with him around and radiate a genuine warmth and neighborly presence in each scene. And from a technical point of view, It’s a Wonderful Life showcases Capra’s real brilliance behind the camera. Because of the difficulty of production, three cinematographers were credited: Joseph Biroc, Victor Milner, and Joseph Walker. Despite this, the black-and-white cinematography is still timelessly great, filled with long takes for dialogue-heavy scenes between all of the characters. There are a surprising amount of close-up shots used, either used to capture an actor’s internalized emotions or highlight important information on a document. Although a colorized version does exist, the black-and-white original makes the frame feel much more natural and the smooth movements make it seem almost like a fairytale. The editing job by William Hornbeck is equally excellent, being able to showcase everything with great precision and timing. As previously stated, there are several long takes throughout the film. But there are also numerous scenes where it cuts back and forth between different points of view to provide variety and tension, especially during arguments. A handful of times, the frame will freeze so that Clarence and his superiors in Heaven can fill in some blanks on lost time. It’s a brilliant way to keep the audience engaged without trying to hold their hand the whole way through. Dimitri Tiomkin, who previously worked on the director’s prior films, provides the instrumental film score for what would be their last effort together. It has all the sweeping greatness of many old-school Hollywood films, with a full orchestra and more. The main suite is a grand theme that mixes multiple different sounds and instruments together in a great manner. The mixture of strings and brass help create an emotional environment as George moves from one thing in his life to another. It also utilizes both subtle and overt choral moments that highlight the ethereal nature of the story. And best of all, it also knows when to let their be no music whatsoever, making it land much more effectively. A true cinematic classic if ever there was one, It’s a Wonderful Life is a beautiful and humanistic tribute to all the small moments in our lives. Arguably Frank Capra’s masterpiece, the film shows us how much of an impact we all have on the people immediately around us, even if we don’t fully realize it. Jimmy Stewart has quite possibly never been better than here and George Bailey is undoubtedly one of the best heroes in movie history. There is perhaps nothing more true to the “Christmas spirit” than for us to appreciate the time and space we share with our loved ones, and this film shows that wonderfully.

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