Category Archives: Coming-of-age

“Citizen Kane” Movie Review

Oh yeah, we’re going there now. As part of my New Year’s resolution, I’ve finally decided to takcle what is widely considered to be the best film ever made. This historical drama premiered at the Palace Theatre on May 1st, 1941, before being released in other theaters on September 5th of that year. Although it did well in larger city venues, because of outside industry pressure, numerous theaters and rural areas refused to screen it. As a result, it failed to recoup its $839,727 budget during its theatrical run and faded from public mindset despite good critical reviews. However, it was brought back to attention after it was praised by such people as Roger Ebert and André Bazin and ultimately got a re-evaluation in America starting in 1956. Since then, it has been held up as one of the greatest films of all time and has influenced countless filmmakers in the generations afterward. Directed by Orson Welles, the film was his first time working on a feature film after an extensive history with Broadway and the infamous radio show War of the Worlds. While he was only 25 at the time, RKO Pictures signed him to an unprecedented deal which gave him immense freedom, including final cut and using his own cast and crew. The screenplay is largely attributed to co-writer Herman J. Mankiewicz, but the true extent of Welles’ contribution to it has been fiercely disputed by many, including critic Pauline Kael. Although the true source has been debated, it’s universally believed that publisher William Randolph Hearst served as the inspiration for the title character, who consequentially did everything in his power to destroy or discredit the film. By now, you probably know the general story: Welles stars as Charles Foster Kane, a notorious newspaper business tycoon who has amassed one of the biggest fortunes in the world. At the very beginning of the film, he dies alone in his Xanadu mansion of old age, only uttering the cryptic word “Rosebud.” Soon after, newsreel journalist Jerry Thompson, played by William Alland, sets off on an investigation to figure out the word’s real meaning. As he interviews various people from Kane’s life and reads confidential files, we the audience get to see in flashbacks of the mogul’s rise to power and, ultimately, his loss of innocence. Last fall, Netflix’s finished cut of The Other Side of the Wind was the very first feature film by Orson Welles I had ever fully watched. His other works had always been on my radar, (Touch of Evil is still very high on my watchlist) but somehow his world-famous debut had always eluded me. Until now, that is. Whenever I sit down to watch a highly revered movie, I have a bit of reservation about its praise. And in this case, this is considered to be the best film ever, so I tried to distance myself from all of the hype to ensure I could watch it on my own terms. And I can personally attest that Citizen Kane is indeed worthy of all that acclaim that’s built up over the last 78 years. Before you immediately decide to write this film off as “overrated,” please just consider how it was made and how its reputation was built. It was plagued with production problems, dealt with a media mogul who went to extreme (And allegedly illegal) lengths to bury it before it even premiered, had Hollywood veterans skeptical of such a young man taking on an ambitious project, and still managed to completely change the game of cinema. Not just in terms of technical innovations but also how the storytelling challenged typical structure and plotting. By constantly moving back and forth in time, Citizen Kane becomes a tragedy as we witness a man completely indifferent to wealth become defined by it. The fact that it’s original title was The American is no accident, as the film seeks to indict the cost of power and fame at a time when unbridled capitalism was arguably at its peak. But no amount of witty quips or bad art he purchases can bring him any real sense of happiness or fulfillment. In his multihyphenate debut for a feature film, Orson Welles is nothing short of incredible as Charles Foster Kane. Although he starts out with a genuine desire to hold up freedom of the press, he gradually becomes more power hungry and surrounded by money he has no idea what to do with. When chided by his former mentor for his brand of newspaper journalism, he simply replies, “I have no idea how to run a newspaper, Mr. Thatcher, I just try whatever I can think of.” He’s able to believably portray Kane’s downward spiral from early adulthood into an old man in his twilight years. Ruth Warrick and Dorothy Comingore are equally great as Kane’s first and second wife, respectively. It’s clear that Kane sees them both more as an object of his affection, and like everything else in his life, he seeks to control their actions. This comes into conflict with both of them, and their failed marriages with him add layers to his decline in humanity and empathy. William Alland is also great as Jerry Thompson, the newsreel reporter trying to find more truth on “Rosebud”‘s meaning. Although his face is never fully shown to the audience, his soft voice and constant movement about the frame make him an intriguing and memorable character. It’s clear that he’s deeply fascinated by the life og the mogul and how it affected those around him. Welles brings his Mercury Theatre troupe to the silver screen in various supporting roles and bit parts. These include Joseph Cotten as Kane’s longtime friend and business partner, Ray Collins as his shrewd political rival, Paul Stewart as Kane’s ambivalent butler, Agnes Moorehead as Kane’s well-meaning but financially strained mother, George Coulouris as and Everett Sloane as a kindly employee at The Inquirer. Although none had any prior cinematic experience, their professionalism and commitment is so apparent in every scene. And from a purely technical perspective, Citizen Kane has so many innovations that deserve their own whole essays. Greg Tolland’s cinematography is steady and controlled, capturing everything it needs to in the frame. Easily the biggest breakthrough is the deep focus technique, where everything in the foreground is as visible as what’s in the background. It allows many small things to be captured in gorgeous ways. The movement and placement of the camera is also key, as we get to see many great long takes and a scene where the crew literally cut a whole in the floor to get a shot. This perfectly matches up with Robert Wise’s editing job, which found new and interesting ways to move between scenes. Whether it was a slow dissolve over new audio or vice versa, each moment carried seamlessly into the next one. Not only that, it used whip pans and subtle cuts to advance the timeline, especially during a scene depicting Kane’s crumbling first marriage. And the collapsible set created to pan from a neon sign down through a rainy window into a restaurant is one of the best transitions in any film. Frequent Alfred Hitchcock muse Bernard Hermann composed and conducted the instrumental film score. It’s a unique and wide-ranging one, mirroring the life of its titular protagonist. Some tracks utilize low brass and strings to emphasize the melancholy of his greedy decline in humanity. Others, particularly during scenes of his younger years, are more exuberant and exciting with big percussion and winds. It perfectly reflects his initial optimism for The Inquirer down to his lonely final years and culminates in a big final piece. The orchestral swell as the last shots reveal the truth of everything hits its impact very well. There are only a handful of films in history that can comfortably say they had a major impact on the film industry. And it’s perfectly understandable if some viewers are hesitant to watch it because it’s put so high up on the proverbial pedestal. But that shouldn’t deter you because it’s actually much more entertaining and engaging that some people believe; within the first 10 minutes, you’ll be hooked until the very end. Citizen Kane is an extremely important cinematic landmark that’s worthy of its loft reputation. At the age of 25, Orson Welles completely disrupted the idea of how movies were and should be made. Its influence can be seen nearly everywhere after being released, just to give you an idea of its impact. It has inspired generations of aspiring filmmakers and cinephiles over the decades, including yours truly. Not bad for a film that was nearly destroyed by the very man who inspired the protagonist.

“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.

“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.

 

“The Wizard of Oz” Movie Review

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

“Stranger Things” Season 3 T.V. Show Review

**This review of Stranger Things 3 will remain spoiler-free, but I will be talking about the broad strokes of what happened in season 2.**

Most people in America use the Fourth of July to celebrate the birthday of the U.S. with fireworks and red-white-and-blue regalia. I use this time to binge watch a Netflix show in a different country. I won’t judge your personal forms of celebration if you won’t judge mine. The third season of this coming-of-age sci-fi horror show was released on the streaming service Netflix on July 4th, 2019. Highly anticipated, the streaming service claims to have scored astronomical views from customers all over the world. However, since the company never publicly discloses their numbers, there’s no telling how well it’s actually doing. But given the huge established fanbase and the positive critical reviews that it’s received from major outlets, it’s safe to say that a fourth season is all but guaranteed. After the big, if somewhat cool success of the second season in 2017, creators Matt and Ross Duffer took a brief break to figure out the next few steps for the show. Netflix had originally desired for the third and fourth seasons to be written and shot back-to-back, but the brothers opted to just focus solely on this next chapter instead. Although initial reports have suggested that this is the penultimate season for the hit show, Netflix and the Duffer Brothers have been mum on whether the next season will be the last or not. Set about six months after the last confrontation, the main kids in Hawkins, Indiana have settled back into normality once more, with Milly Bobby Brown’s Eleven fully integrated into normal civilian life. Many of the characters are indulging much of their summer vacation in the newly opened Starcourt Mall, which has also stirred up controversy with the town’s self-righteous mayor. Soon, it becomes clear that the Mind-Flayer, the primary antagonist from last season is still alive and well, hoping to slowly indoctrinate humanity into their will. On top of all that, a handful of residents stumble upon a conspiracy involving the Russian government wanting to reopen a gateway to The Upside Down. It’s been kind of incredible to see the sheer self-made phenomenon that Stranger Things has become. Like many who got hooked on the show, I’d hardly heard anything about it before finding it on Netflix, and immediately told everyone I knew to start watching it as well. And now, it’s become arguably the streaming service’s biggest flagship show. Because of this, seasons 2 and 3 have a bit of an unfair obstacle to overcome, as fan expectations were sky-high for both of them. The second one was mostly able to meet them, even with a few stumbles in the road that didn’t quite work in the way the showrunners wanted. And now with season 3, Stranger Things has focused up on what works best and gives use easily my favorite season yet. With just 8 episodes now instead of 9, there is less room for unnecessary fat, allowing them to keep the action on the central characters and relationships. With new developments for the ones from last season and spotlights on the brand new ones, the characters all feel the most nuanced, most relevant, and most human they’ve ever been. And even though the mythology and lore surrounding is expanded upon in really intriguing ways, the relationships almost always come first. That has always been one of the biggest strengths of Stranger Things, not just all of the nostalgia-inducing references to 80s pop culture. Sure, there is LOTS of product placement for Coca-Cola throughout and greatly improved visual effects, but that’s not the point of the show. And seeing that the Duffers haven’t lost sight of that is very encouraging for what the future may hold. All of the kids have grown up and evolved with this show in beautiful ways. Just look at how far Lucas, Eleven, Mike, Dustin, and Will have come since the first season; the actors have all grown naturally with their characters. Of particular mention is Joe Keery as bad boy-turned caring pseudo-adoptive father Steve Harrington. His character arc has always been one of the most engaging, as we watch him gradually evolve throughout the show in a positive way. Case in point, his new partner this season is Maya Hawke’s Robin, easily my favorite character of the new season. She’s funny, quick-witted, thinks on her feet, and never misses an opportunity to poke fun at her co-worker. But as the season progresses, she gradually lets her guard down, culminating in a revelation of a bathroom scene that virtually everyone has been talking about. The other big scene-stealer of the season is Priah Ferguson as Lucas’ little sister Erica, upgraded from the previous season. Although she clearly holds her brother’s friends in contempt, her bouncing off of Dustin is one of the most beautiful things the showrunners have come up with. She’s sassy, but also smart and resourceful and always manages to get some clever jabs at her companions every chance she gets. And technically speaking, Stranger Things has never looked so good or polished than here. The trademark cinematography is back with all the controlled movements and expert blending of practical and special effects. For this season, however, they’ve added brighter, more neon-tinged colors that really go well with the 4th of July setting. Whether it’s inside the Starcourt Mall or at the town’s Independence Day fair, there are many colors meshed together in a really cool way. And the pacing of this season is elevated by the editing department, which bounces from one storyline to the next. I was worried that one character or arc would overtake the rest, but I was thankfully wrong; they’re all intercut very well. As always, Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein of the band Survive provide the musical score, and as always, they deliver a great soundtrack. Like the last two times, the soundtrack is composed largely of synthesizers and Theremins as an homage to old-school sci-fi flicks. But the most memorable track comes for the third episode, which mixes the Upside Down’s leitmotif with unique sound effects. With a heartbeat keeping tempo and noises that sound like squishing meat, it sounds deeply terrifying and disgusting. Other notable songs from the era used include an excerpt from Philip Glass’s Satyagraha Act II: Tagore for the end of the sixth episode and a wholly unexpected sequence involving the theme from The Neverending Story. Whereas the former created an extreme amount of tension as the villain’s plan comes into play, the latter is joyous and puts a smile on my face. Stranger Things 3 is a highly entertaining and neon-soaked continuation that pushes the series ever forward. By focusing and improving on what’s made the show great in the past and changing the formula up a little, the Duffer Brothers have delivered the best season of the show yet. And after finishing it all, I can honestly say that I hope rumors about it only lasting four or five seasons is true. Better to go out in a blaze of glory than fizzle out for decades.

“Booksmart” Movie Review

On the one hand, I’m glad I’ve ended up where I am now because of my decisions in high school. On the other hand, this movie has made me think about what could have been if I had just let loose a little more. This coming-of-age comedy premiered at the 2019 South By Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas, to extremely ecstatic responses. It was later released in theaters (And on Netflix in France) by Annapurna Pictures on May 24th, 2019, conveniently near the end of the academic year for many people around the world. Although it has managed to gross nearly 4 times its $6 million budget, many industry publications said it had performed below expectations. The targeted demographics reportedly showed up in droves but it reportedly didn’t quite breakthrough into the mainstream. This film marks the feature directorial debut of actress Olivia Wilde, who had previously cut her teeth with a short film and two music videos. The original script, dating back to 2009 and written by 4 different women, has gone through many different variations and alterations, being brought to its final version by Susanna Fogel and Katie Silberman. While the production mostly stuck to the script, actors were encouraged to change any line of dialogue that they thought was inauthentic. In addition, the two main stars spent about 10 weeks as roommates in an L.A. apartment to build actual report with one another. Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein star as Amy Antsler and Molly Davidson, best friends and the top two students of their senior class. On the last day of school, they revel in the fact that they’re headed off to Ivy League universities in the fall. But they soon realize that all of the classmates who partied hard and did stupid pranks, whom they have constantly reprimanded, have also gotten into good colleges. Desperate to prove that they’re not just a pair of goody-too-shoes, they set off on a quest to cram 4 years of partying and fun into one increasingly ludicrous night. I just barely missed the premiere for this film in my hometown, but I had heard nothing but excellent things all the way up to its release. As a fan of Olivia Wilde’s work, I was excited to see what she could do with her first feature behind the camera. Especially when so many people were calling it the female version of Superbad, which I’m a personal fan of. Ever since the first trailer dropped, I’ve been anxiously waiting for the opportunity to see it in theaters. I was really optimistic that a female perspective could provide a fresh spin on the genre like Lady Bird in 2017. That optimism has paid off because Booksmart is easily one of the funniest and most intelligent movies I’ve seen in a while. Having now seen it, I feel like comparing this film to a female version of Superbad is a bit reductive. Whereas as that movie was more about a group of immature boys trying to lose their virginity before the end of high school, this film is concerned about feeling like the characters missed out on so much. I personally relate to the protagonists because they realize that all of their judgements and sole commitment to academic success made them push away many of their peers. Booksmart‘s biggest strength is that it gives this thoughtful insight while still managing to be hilarious at every turn. There’s a brilliant balance between the real and the absurd, and various scenes use this perfectly, such as a drug trip-turned stop-motion sequence that made me suffocate with laughter. Scenes like that and many more are what make me excited for Wilde and Silberman’s recently announced cinematic team-up happening soon. Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein have been deserving of lead roles for a long while, and this movie finally gives them the chance. As Amy and Molly, they are perfectly in sync with each other for every line of dialogue and action taken, their differences being just as important as their similarities. It’s clear that they both have big hopes for the future but because they are so far apart they’re scared of fully committing to these dreams- or letting each other know the full scope of it. They are joined together by a whole fleet of great actors, both fully grown and in high school like them. On the adult side, Jason Sudeikis and Jessica Williams are memorable as the main duo’s perverted principal and friendly teacher, respectively. Both have great timing and have completely different but equally funny interactions with Amy and Molly, showing different foils and levels of comfortable they feel around them. And while their classmates are portrayed by an array of talented young actors including Diana Silvers, Noah Gavin, and Molly Gordon, it’s surprisingly Billie Lourd who steals the show. The late Carrie Fisher’s daughter hasn’t really impressed me in the past, but here, as the mysterious rich kid Gigi, she’s perfection. She constantly pops up nearly everywhere the girls go, which creates some truly side-splitting moments. It’s also clear that she’s on drugs for most of her appearance, which only makes her performance so much more elevated and hilarious. Aside from the acting ensemble, Booksmart‘s distinct technical aspects show Wilde’s amazing talent behind the camera. Jason McCormick’s cinematography is extremely smart and calculated, using various shots to highlight little quirks in the character. Whether it’s capturing high school achievements in a bedroom or a slow-motion car ride, many characters are painted with just a couple shots. It also uses precise camera movements to focus on whatever’s meant to be the source of a scene’s humor or drama. The editing by Jamie Gross and Brent White is equally meticulous, knowing exactly when to cut to a different shot and when to linger. There’s one particularly impactful long-take near the end of the film where it hovers between the two protagonists during an intense argument. In contrast, some scenes are comedically amplified by constantly intercutting between different places. The most obvious example is the aforementioned stop-motion sequence, which quietly and beautifully transitions between shots. But, undoubtedly, the crown jewel of the entire film is a pool scene in the third act. Set to Perfume Genius’ “Slip Away,” it shows Amy trying to branch out to impress her love interest. Shot almost entirely underwater, the lighting and clever editing shows her navigating uncharted territory. This is punctuated by the cathartic anthem of Perfume Genius, as all of Amy’s pre-existing worries and fears suddenly slip away. It will likely go down as one of the most memorable scenes of the year. A promising feature debut, Booksmart is a splendid combination of sharp writing and believable performances. I’m genuinely interested to see whatever Olivia Wilde has planned for the future behind the camera, as she couldn’t have picked better material for her first outing. Give it some time, and I’m convinced this will become as much of a modern genre classic like Lady Bird and Eighth Grade. And please, pretty please, make Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein co-leads for many more movies in the years to come.

Image result for booksmart movie poster

“Toy Story 4” Movie Review

Who could have predicted that an antique store could be so intimidating? I’ve only been to a couple in my lifetime, and they never seemed nearly this frightening or creepy. This computer-animated comedy was released in theaters around the world on June 21st, 2019, making it the 21st feature from Pixar Animation Studios. In its opening weekend alone, it managed to gross nearly $250 million, shattering records for an animated feature’s opening. It has gone on so far to gross over $917 million at the worldwide box office and could continue well into the $1 billion marker. Directed by Inside Out co-writer Josh Cooley, the sequel was originally announced back in 2014, much to the dismay of many fans and critics. John Lasseter, helmer of the first Toy Story movie, was originally set for the director’s chair with Rashida Jones and Will McCormack, but all parties eventually left due to creative differences. From there, the Pixar team started from scratch and the story came organically, evolving from a planned romantic comedy to a full-on adventure. It’s also worth noting that this is one of the few Pixar films without a short that plays at the beginning, and the two main stars have publicly said how difficult it was to finish recording their lines. Taking place two years after the events of the third film, we once again find Woody, voiced by Tom Hanks, trying to lead the gang to take care of their new kid Bonnie. One day in kindergarten, Bonnie uses leftover materials in the trash to create a brand new toy named Forky, voiced by Tony Hale. While on a road trip with Bonnie and her family, Forky begins to have an existential crisis, which leads him and Woody to an old antique store where they find Bo Peep, voiced by Annie Potts. Bo, who’s found solace in being nobody’s toy, agrees to help Forky get home, while Woody still has feelings for her. For all intents and purposes, this movie has no right to exist. None, at all. Toy Story 3 had already wrapped up the story in such a perfect bow back in 2010, so there was no possible way Pixar and CO. could continue it without milking it. Granted, many people had said the exact same thing about Toy Story 3 back in the day, so it could go either way. From the first trailer, I was worried that my fears had been confirmed and Pixar was officially losing their magical touch. Some sequels of theirs have proven worthwhile, but that still didn’t dissuade me from thinking that they would go down the same path as Cars 2. And thankfully, as soon as the movie started, all of my fears were unfounded because Toy Story 4 is an amazing follow-up and an even better conclusion than last time. After this installment, I’m now thoroughly convinced that the story of these sentient toys could not possibly continue any further.Andy’s tale is far done, but while Bonnie is an endearing new kid, I’m not sure that her story can carry much farther than here. If anything, this film is more about finality and moving on than getting new adventures with a younger kid. What I appreciate most about Toy Story 4 is that every single beat taken towards the finale feels natural and organic. Most of the voice cast from the previous movies return here, once again headed up by Tom Hanks and Tim Allen. Without these two, the journey of Buzz and Woody wouldn’t be nearly as involving as their vocal chemistry is so incredibly natural. Watching these two coming to terms with their age and growing irrelevance is both gripping heartbreaking, as they want to always stay attached to a kid. Returning to the series for the first time in nearly 20 years, Annie Potts hasn’t missed a beat as Bo Peep. With far more independence and agency than she’s ever had before, her story was really fascinating to see how she’s ended up after all this time. She still genuinely cares about Woody and the gang but has seen and done too much to want to go back to a life of ownership. The returning cast (Including archival recordings of Don Rickles) is joined and quite frankly outshined by the batch of newcomers. Chief among them are Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele as fluffy duck and bunny toys from a sprawling carnival, Tony Hale as the existentially confused and trash-loving Forky, Christina Hendricks as the deceptive doll who runs, and Keanu Reeves as a deeply insecure Canadian stuntman of a toy. Key and Peele are easily my favorite ones, with such amazing and hilarious lines that it often feels as though they improvised most of them. And technically speaking, Toy Story 4 might be the most visually impressive Pixar film to date, which is really saying something. Even though the style has become the norm nowadays, the computer animation in this film is hands down the most stunning and jaw-dropping I’ve ever seen. Just compare the animation in this film to that of Toy Story 2 20 years ago, and see how far both the studio and the medium have come; it’s not even close. Seriously, there were numerous shots and scenes throughout the film where it looked almost photoreal. Everything in the frame is filled with so much detail and so much color and personality, you’d swear they spent 10 years working on this. Even tiny little details like the fabric for Bo’s new purple cape or the fur on Forky’s clumsily built arms look so stupidly lifelike. It’s also able to capture more subtle aspects such as characters’ facial expressions and lighting beautifully. And the landscapes are all wide-ranging; the stuffy and archaic antique store is just as visually interesting as the highly colorful carnival outside. As with all three previous installments, the musical score is provided here by Randy Newman, who explores new avenues for the characters. Whereas in years past, he used more jazzy motifs for the aloof adventure, here it’s more melancholy. As the film is all about saying goodbye in many ways, the use of strings and oboes perfectly punctuates the sense of time passed with these characters. You can hear little leitmotifs of his old scores in various tracks, including a redone version of “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” in the beginning. He also produces two new songs, the first one being “The Ballad of the Lonesome Cowboy” performed by country singer Chris Stapleton. The use of twangy guitars and Stapleton’s soulful voice make it a great lament for Woody’s aging. The other new song is “I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away,” performed by Newman himself. With an upbeat tempo and universal lyrics that work perfectly in the context of the film, it’s an excellent way to close out the film. In a year chock full of final installments and series finales, I wasn’t expecting to be nearly as satisfied as I was here. I keep saying this over and over, but there’s literally no further avenue that they can take this story. The studio has already confirmed they’re gonna be committed to original projects for the foreseeable future and I couldn’t be happier about it. Bringing the studio’s oldest property to its natural conclusion, Toy Story 4 is a funny and poignant adventure with immense resolution to its characters. Despite the bumpy road to being made and the lingering feeling that it wasn’t necessary, Josh Cooley did the impossible here. He somehow managed to upend the seemingly perfect ending to Toy Story 3 and gives the franchise the ending it deserves. To infinity… and beyond.