Category Archives: Dramas

“American Animals” Movie Review

This is likely going to turn into a scenario where the people who keep demanding something new or innovative in cinema will reject this movie as “too arthouse” or “too weird.” If that happens, that means the filmmakers are on the right track for a solid career in the industry. This highly unconventional heist thriller premiered as part of the official competition at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, getting picked up by both The Orchard and the newly formed distributor MoviePass Ventures. Entering a limited theatrical release on June 1st, the film expanded into more theaters and has managed to gross nearly $3 million at the box office. Written and directed by Bart Layton, the film marks his first foray into narrative features, following his breakout with the 2012 documentary The Imposter. Layton virtually expands the elements on atmospheric reenactments from that film to feature-length here. Based on a crazy true story, the film follows 4 college students- Warren Lipka, Spencer Reinhard, Chas Allen, and Eric Borsuk -attending Transylvania University in Kentucky. The college library there is home to several priceless antique books, including two filled with very famous animal paintings by John James Audubon. In the 2003-2004 academic year, for reasons that still remain unclear, the men start joking about robbing the library blind. But they soon become serious about it, researching crime movies for help on their endeavor, setting up potential buyers for the books, and ultimately get ready to pull off one of the most daring heists in recent U.S. history. Movies centered on heists are hardly anything new in cinema these days, there are just so many of them. Any time a new one comes out, they have to REALLY work hard to impress me or stand out from the crowd in any way. And a former documentarian deciding to take on the story of 4 privileged white dudes pulling off a particularly stupid crime on a college campus? Interesting angle, but I’m still not entirely convinced that it’ll be anything special or memorable. And just because it premiered and competed at Sundance or any other festival doesn’t necessarily mean that it will always be worth the trouble of seeing in theaters, let alone worth reviewing. So take that as a sign of how much I liked Amercian Animals; I really had a lot of fun watching this movie. And trust me when I say that no reader here has ever seen any film quite like this in their whole life. Bart Layton may be working primarily with professional actors, but that doesn’t stop him from using his docudrama expertise to his advantage. While most of the film is told in a narrative fashion, it is directly followed by talking head interviews from the real-life subjects. They offer unique reflections on how everything went down, from first meeting one another to the sweat-inducing heist itself. But rather than just have them explain everything exactly as it happened, the filmmakers smartly decide to just let them provide more context as to their actions and motivations. Even better, each of them remembers certain scenarios or actions differently than others, providing both a slick comedic edge and some unreliable narrator shenanigans. Admittedly, it’s a little frustrating because it’s still left unclear why these 4 men did what they did. But I definitely enjoyed watching Layton try to add more thematic depth to the story. Errol Morris would be proud. Agents, studios, and cinephiles all need to start paying more attention to the 4 main actors in this movie. Jared Abrahamson and Blake Jenner do great in their respective roles, but Evan Peters and Barry Keoghan play Warren and Spencer, the ringleaders of the operation, and do particularly fantastic work together. Keoghan, who had a wonderful breakout last year with Dunkirk and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, plays Spencer as a decent, naive kid who seems unsure of what he wants in life, a quality many can relate to. Peters, meanwhile, is a total revelation as Warren. This is wholly different from his turn as Quicksilver in the new X-Men movies. He’s unpredictable, brazenly entitled, manipulative, profane, but also spiteful for no reason. His flawed logic for stealing the antique books is both insane and tragic, painting himself as more than just a sociopathic narcissist. It becomes disorderly and honestly somewhat unsettling when he becomes convinced that he can be just like a smooth criminal from the movies. From a purely technical point of view, there is an amazing amount of skill and confidence behind the camera. Ole Bratt Birkeland’s widescreen cinematography skillfully captures each environment and tone of each scene with grace. In some of the students’ imagined scenarios’, it’s all taken on slick, dynamic single-take shots. Other instances, like when things don’t seem to be going according to plan, it becomes very unsteady and shaky, at times a little disorienting. It also nails the atmosphere, which becomes increasingly darker and more hard-edged as the film goes along. The editing is a collaborative effort between Nick Fenton, Chris Gill, Luke Dunkley, and Julian Hart. It uses very precise cuts, moving back and forth from the acting portrayal to the real criminals themselves. For example, in one scene, Spencer begins a sentence, only to be finished by the real Spencer. It also works to create interesting visual contradictions between the subjects. A few hard cuts elicited a good laugh or two out of me. The musical score here is composed and conducted by Anne Nikitin, who had previously worked with Layton on The Imposter. The score is decidedly modern and appropriately moody for the material at hand, utilizing a number of synthesizers and severely low strings that would (hopefully) bring Johann Johannson back to life. She also uses some neat percussive instruments to wring out the tension in the viewer and softer electric guitar strums to provide an emotional through line. In some ways, it felt like a neverending crescendo as we watch the situation get more and more complicated. There are also a number of obscure songs from bygone rock and folk artists. It’s weird to say that songs by both Mobb Deep and The Doors fit perfectly in the same movie, but that’s how it is. Just like the original tracks, at times it’s playful and others it’s dead serious. I feel like this has a broader appeal than most audiences might think at first. Regular moviegoers will get to see an unconventional heist thriller, cinephiles will get to pick apart the various movie references laying about, and documentary fans will be satisfied with its taught approach. In other directors’ hands, this could have felt extremely forced or unappealing. Thankfully, with enough dramatic heft to match the stylish fun presented throughout, American Animals blends fact and fiction seamlessly into unique entertainment. Bart Layton is highly talented as a documentary filmmaker, but this shows he’s just as confident and comfortable with a narrative feature. Let’s hope both he and Evan Peters have amazing careers ahead of them.

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“Tag” Movie Review

If playing a simple game of tag was all I had to do to stay in touch with my friends for the next few decades, I would have started playing that long ago. Probably not nearly as intensely as these guys, but still, it’d be a lot of fun. Produced on a budget of $28 million, this high-concept comedy was released on June 15th, 2018. Despite facing some tough competition from Incredibles 2, it has done surprisingly well so far by raking in over $48 million worldwide. Directed by first-timer Jeff Tomsic, previously helming episodes for the Comedy Central show Broad City, the wacky story takes its inspiration from an unbelievable article in The Wall Street Journal. The film was originally written with Jack Black and Will Ferrell in mind to star before scheduling conflicts got in the way. Having reduced the number of players from around 10 to just 5, one of the stars ended up breaking both his arms during filming; they had to be recreated with CGI. Based on an absurd true story, (No, I’m not kidding) the movie follows 5 life-long friends from the state of Washington. For the past 30 years, they have all played the same game of tag in the month of May, going to ridiculous lengths and spending enormous amounts of money to not be “it.” One of their friends Jerry, who has never been tagged, is about to retire from the game and marry at the end of the month. The remaining 4 team up to do everything in their power to try and tag him before it’s too late. I love myself a fun, broad comedy every now and again. While studio comedies in recent years have floundered, special gems like The Big Sick or, more recently, Game Night have succeeded in making me laugh my ass off while still giving an engaging story to bite down on. For this reason, I was pretty excited to see Tag in theaters. Hearing the premise of the movie, alone, was crazy enough, but the added fact of it being based on a real-life story (For the most part) gave me even more incentive to watch it. And while Tag isn’t quite on the level of other aforementioned comedies, and certainly isn’t a genre masterpiece, it can still be a pretty fun time watching. It seems weird to say, but I think that the comedic aspects of the movie might be the thing ultimately holding it back. At its core, this is a genuinely heartwarming story about a group of buddies who play tag as a way of sticking together throughout multiple decades. It’s something very special to these men, repeatedly quoting Benjamin Franklin by saying, “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.” There are certainly moments that perpetuate that sentimentality throughout the movie, especially in the back half. But it feels as though more effort was put into watching these men humiliate themselves trying to tag each other. Granted, the source material does lend itself well to comedy and there were definitely more instances of me laughing pretty hard than not laughing at all. But still, it felt like that extra bit of cynicism wasn’t really needed to begin with. For what it’s worth, the 5 lead actors do a solid job and share believable chemistry enough to carry the movie through. Played by Hannibal Buress, Jon Hamm, Jake Johnston, Ed Helms, and Jeremy Renner, the men all bring unique quirks to the group. Renner is the one playing Jerry, and seeing his charm and wide smile seep through his pride is really fun, relying more on physical comedy than expected. Helms, whom I’m not typically a fan of, is definitely the heart of the group, bringing them all back together and suffering multiple injuries in a deadpan manner. The other 3, while really funny, are pretty exactly what you’d expect from the actors. Other supporting players like Isla Fisher as the hyper-competitive wife to Helms’ character, Rashida Jones as a long-lost love to Hamm and Johnston, Anabelle Wallis as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal following these friends, and Verizon’s Thomas Middleditch as the unsuspecting owner of a fitness center all provide their own funny moments that help propel the ridiculous plot. Meanwhile, similar to this year’s Game Night, the technical aspects do a nice effort to distinguish Tag from other studio comedies. Larry Blanford’s widescreen cinematography is smooth, steady, and slick, moving from one attempt at tagging Jerry to another with ease. The balanced lighting and shadows make for an intriguing suspense, as the friends could sprout up from nearly anywhere and take each other by surprise. This pairs rather well with the editing job by Josh Crockett, which is smart enough to show everything that happens just enough to keep us in stitches. The coolest aspect of the film by far is when it takes inspiration from the hyper-stylized fights in Guy Ritchie’s rendition of Sherlock Holmes. By this, I mean that certain scenes where the crew is trying to tag Jerry are undercut by Renner’s narration of what’s going to happen, followed by slow-fast-slow moves of the attempts. Normally, something like this would be distracting to me, but I found it rather engaging and different. With a capable cast, unique filmmaking techniques, and just enough substance to overcome its style, Tag is a funny, undemanding diversion of comedy. It’s nothing special or groundbreaking at all, but if you just want something sweet and funny to watch, you could certainly do worse. It’s quick, harmless, but also unambitious. And frankly, with this absurd story driving forward, it doesn’t really need to be.

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“Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” Movie Review

Watching this movie as a grown man in a theater full of young boys and girls is roughly equivalent to my inner child fighting my older self for dominant opinion mindset. And trust me, that is a sight I would not like to visualize for my readers. This sci-fi actioner was released worldwide on June 22nd, 2018, almost exactly 3 years after the first Jurassic World. Despite dropping nearly 60% at the box office in its second weekend, the sequel has already accumulated north of $935 million worldwide. After massive success with the first film, Collin Trevorrow decided not to return for the second go-around, and instead developing his doomed vision for Star Wars Episode IX. Juan Antonio Bayona, director of acclaimed movies such as A Monster Calls and The Impossible, stepped into the director’s chair in his place. Interestingly, Bayona was executive producer Steven Spielberg’s first choice for the original film in the new series but declined. Trevorrow and Derek Connolly are still involved as co-writers, though. Set 3 years after the catastrophic events of the first Jurassic World, the world governments have all elected to let the cloned dinosaurs on Isla Nubar die on their own. When a massive volcanic eruption is imminent, Owen Grady and Claire Dearing team up with Benjamin Lockwood, John Hammond’s former partner, to try and save as many species as possible. From there, it becomes a race against time as the dinosaurs reach their second extinction, and it becomes a mystery who’s meeting whose ends. The first Jurassic Park, released back in 1993, is one of my top 10 favorite films of all time. No matter how many times I watch it, nothing will ever be able to wash out the awe, terror, and magic of that Spielberg classic. 25 years later, and it’s kind of hard for me to believe it’s become such a big franchise. The first three attempts at following it up were fun in parts but felt uninspired and unnecessary. When I read that they were trying to approach this sequel as more or a horror movie or thriller, I got a little more excited as that was the foundation of the original film. And while Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is arguably the closest in spirit to the first one, there’s still almost no justification to keep this thing going. However, I will grant that there was one particular scene that showed there’s still a bit of power left in the gas tank. I don’t really consider it to be a spoiler, so take it as you will. But when the human characters are leaving Isla Nubar, there’s a lone Brachiosaurus standing on the pier watching them. And we watch helplessly as this creature succumbs to the volcanic fumes and lava, hearing its horrible cries of agony and dying loneliness. That moment was unexpectedly dark, haunting, and brilliantly directed, showing a small ounce of human empathy in a series primarily focused on animals long gone. Aside from that though, what’s left are thinly-veiled, underdeveloped threads about the ethics of cloning, animal rights, and the right to die. Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard return from the first movie, and they’re still mostly charming. Although it feels like phoning it in, they do share some nice chemistry in a few moments. The new characters were an incredibly mixed bag for me. Justice Smith, Daniella Pineda, Rafe Spall, and Ted Levine never evolve out of there archetypes: a thankless nerd, an attractive doctor, a scheming businessman, and a grizzled mercenary, respectively. I’ll give credit to James Cromwell as the old, dying Benjamin Lockwood and newcomer Isabella Sermon as his granddaughter Maisie. Both did their best to contribute something new to the series, even if it didn’t always work out. And don’t get excited about Jeff Goldblum returning as Dr. Ian Malcolm; he only appears in 2 scenes, max. Meanwhile, the technical aspects are perhaps the only thing about this franchise that has consistently evolved or improved. While this film is heavy on using CGI, with somewhere over 2000 VFX shots total, the cinematography by Bayona’s regular collaborator Óscar Faura provides some lowkey backlighting in practical shots. These are directly contrasted by epic, swooping shots when we’re on the island, successfully capturing the scope and scale of the chaos. Combined with Bernat Vilaplana’s frantic but mostly smooth editing, there are a handful of entertaining action or chase scenes. The moment when our characters are running side-by-side with the dinosaurs to the shoreline utilizes both of the aforementioned tools to great effect. It is easily the most thrilling moment and second-best in the whole movie. To his credit, Bayona actually does show some skill behind the camera, ultimately feeling like his own style. Michael Giacchino, one of the most prolific and in-demand composers in Hollywood, returns to write and conduct the musical score for this sequel. Like its predecessor, he inverts many of John Williams’ classic themes from Jurassic Park to some success. Stirring strings and rousing low horns are often undercut by a large vocal chorus, giving a grand feeling to this adventure. And yet, he’s still somehow able to find a bit of the magic from that original by doing his damnedest to inspire awe in the ears. Outside of the soundtrack and fun effects, though, there’s little to no reason to watch this movie. Despite the promise of a new director at the helm, this comes off as a neutered, cold sequel that studios push out of the gate with zero motivation except for profit. There are kernels of good ideas in here; with recent advancements in cloning science, the ethics of bringing back an extinct species feels ripe with potential. But sadly, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom serves as a reminder why this series should have died long ago. Just come to terms with why it should have never become a franchise and give J.A. Bayona a project worth spending money to see. The humans in charge of this should have quit while they were ahead, 65 million years ago. Ironically, Universal Pictures has become to this franchise what John Hammond was like with the attraction in Jurassic Park. Quoth Jeff Goldblum in the original movie, “You were so busy thinking about if you could, you didn’t stop to think if you should.”

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“Paddington 2” Movie Review

I feel like I’m a little late on this one, but I’m glad I got to check it out. Because, quite frankly, I really needed this movie today. And hopefully, everyone else feels the exact same way. This family adventure film was released in the U.K. on November 10th, 2017, before hitting the United States on January 12th, 2018. It grossed over $226 million, only slightly less than its predecessor, but went on to become the highest-rated film of all time on Rotten Tomatoes. (I’m not even making that up) Following the massive success of the first film in 2015, the sequel was set up for release at the Weinstein Company. Following the sexual assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein, however, both producer David Heyman and British distributor Studio Canal looked for another American studio to handle a movie intended for children and families. Thankfully, Warner Bros. Pictures picked it up for $32 million and the film was officially saved. About a year after the previous installment, Paddington Bear, a kind-hearted anthropomorphic bear from Darkest Peru, has settled with the human Brown family in London. Approaching his Aunt Lucy’s 100th birthday, he desires to get her an old and expensive pop-up book of London. However, the book is stolen by Phoenix Buchanan, a washed-up actor, and Paddington is subsequently framed and wrongfully thrown in prison for it. Now the Browns, Paddington, and his fellow inmates must find the book and clear the bear’s name in time for Aunt Lucy’s birthday. I only watched the first Paddington movie back in December, and I loved it. It was not only one of the biggest cinematic surprises I had in a long while but I genuine regretted missing it in theaters. Even though I wasn’t entirely familiar with the late Michael Bond’s hand-drawn children’s books, it wasn’t hard at all for me to connect with the raincoat-wearing bear who loves his marmalade. Yet again, I missed the opportunity to catch the sequel in January, only getting the opportunity to finally watch it on an international plane. And, hand to God, I totally feel bad about it. Because Paddington 2 is one of the best family films I have ever seen in my life. I’m being completely serious here. And maybe a lot of that has to do with the fantastic timing of this movie’s release. Under normal circumstances, a studio movie about a talking bear acting extremely British would have been simply seen as “cute” and “fun” before being indefinitely put to the cinematic sidelines. But because the last 18 months under a new leader of the free world have made so many ordinary people feel so miserable on the daily, (This critic included) director and co-writer Paul King could not have put this out into the world at a better point in time. We needed a piece of accessible media, cinema, to remind everyone that “If you’re kind and polite, the world will be right.” Granted, they couldn’t have known all of the horrible things that would have been done or said under the Trump administration, but that’s beside the point. It acts as a superpowered antidote to actions such as Brexit and the travel ban, as well as the xenophobia that inspired both. Administering said antidote is Ben Whishaw as the voice of Paddington Bear, whose charm will immediately win viewers over. Think of him like a British version of Mr. Rogers; he’s kind, well-behaved, gives everyone compliments, and never forgets to use his manners. While the two children of the Brown family aren’t particularly memorable, Sally Hawkins and Hugh Bonneville do great work as the parents. Both have their own insecurities but are still caring and try to help guide Paddington through the real world at every turn. Peter Capaldi, Julia Walters, and Jim Broadbent all turn in fun supporting roles that give more perspective to the silly plot. But to me, the true scene-stealers are both Brendan Gleeson as Knuckles McGinty and Hugh Grant as Phoenix Buchanan, respectively. While Gleeson is a rough prison cook with a heart of gold, Grant gives arguably the best performance of his career as a selfish, washed up actor trying to respark his fame. You can tell he’s having an absolute blast hamming it up as the villain, and there’s chatter that he could break into Best Supporting Actor. That’s no joke. And from a pure filmmaking point of view, Paul King is inspired with the way he tells this story. The steady, fluid camerawork by Erik Wilson does excellent work following the ever-moving plot. In fact, some scenes are planted with unique symmetry to highlight what’s important for the moment. Combined with the vibrant and dynamic color scheme, and you’d easily be forgiven for thinking that Wes Anderson made this movie instead. It sure feels like one of his more tame, fast-paced comedies except much more family-friendly. Plus the editing by Mark Everson and Edgar Wright collaborator Jonathan Amos is frenetic but never disorienting. Each cut feels appropriately planned and some shots are even cut together to create a sort of long-take montage. It also helps that the CGI work brings Paddington to life so convincingly. Having been highly prolific yet underrated the last few years, Dario Marinelli comes in as the replacement for composing the musical score. His score is a diverse one, with several tracks that contrast each other nicely yet still retain the innocence of the tone. Case in point, the opening track, when we’re introduced to Windsor Garden, is jolly and filled with life. The composition has upbeat percussion such as xylophones and high-hats running well alongside the strings. Then, another theme is a more serene piano melody that’s calming and nice to listen to but feels less fun or jovial than other tracks. In keeping with the happy spirits of the film, the filmmakers decide to end the film creatively. While a wonderful hand-drawn animation plays over onscreen, Harry Belafonte’s song “Jump in the Line” can be heard and acts as a cute dance number. So yeah, all of that is one long way of saying that we needed this movie now more than ever. In a world where so many awful things are seen happening on the national news on a regular basis, here’s a little bubble of escapism and happiness that reminds everyone to look for the goodness in them. And somehow, it encourages us to find it. Knowing exactly what it needs to do and how to do it, Paddington 2 is a warm slice of feel-good, life-affirming cinema that all families must watch. In essence, this movie is a ginormous bear hug both for our bodies and our souls. We may not deserve it, but it’s what we all require right now, to let us know that it’s not the end of the world.

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“Henry V” Movie Review

Time for me to tackle the granddaddy of all modern literature and storytelling: William Shakespeare. But where to go? The overly stylized dreg of Baz Luhrmann or the dated drama of Lawrence Olivier? My favorite comes somewhere in between. This British historical medieval drama was originally released in the U.K. on October 6th, 1989, coming stateside a little later. The film managed to just barely make back its $9 million budget, supported by some of the best reviews from that year. Written and directed by Kenneth Branagh, who had built a reputation in British theatre, the adaptation had been something of a passion project for him. Despite him having no previous experience with cinema, producer Bruce Sharman and the BBC agreed to back it for at least £3 million to start. In addition to the titular play, he also included elements from both parts of its predecessor Henry IV. Based on the stage play of the same name by William Shakespeare, Branagh stars as Henry V, the newly appointed King of England. Set in the middle of the Hundred Years’ War, Henry and his court are in bloody conflict with the French royalty for the sovereign throne of both England and France. With a rough but loyal army that’s a mere fraction of their enemy’s forces, the King sets off on a campaign through the Fench countryside in an effort to defy all the odds and show his worth. Here’s a confession for everybody: I’m a big fan of Shakespeare’s work, always have been. So whenever a filmmaker wants to adapt one of his plays into a movie, I get a little excited but also cautious. Not all of his works have made for great movies, and the upcoming Ophelia, a version of Hamlet from the perspective of the main female character, looks like it’s trying too hard. And it’s pretty clear that some of Lawrence Olivier’s films from the 1940’s and 1950’s have not aged well. That being said, I’ve always had an affinity for Kenneth Branagh’s attempts at the source material, this being the first of 5 adaptations from the enigmatic playwright. And Henry V isn’t just my favorite of his, but quite possibly my favorite Shakespeare play of all time. What I love about it isn’t just the amazing dialogue that should come to be expected of this man’s work. It’s the simple, effective idea that Branagh understands both this story and the titular character so well, you’d swear Shakespeare’s ghost reached out and whispered to him. In any other director’s hands, we’d probably have gotten a film that lionizes Henry whilst ignoring the carnage and conquest left in his wake. And although it does portray him in a mostly positive light, we also see the internal struggle for respect among his peers and the immense weight this war carries on his shoulders. He has to be careful not to give privilege to men he once was friends with. One great moment sees the King sneakily investigating the state of his soldiers and contemplating all of the burdens he must carry. Sure, he had to fight for his right to the throne, but he also has to prove himself as just a man, and that’s the most human thing anyone can do. Kenneth Branagh has had a lot of interesting roles over his career, but he came swinging out of the gate with his Oscar-nominated lead performance here. With a powerful voice that carries across fields, he delivers an innumerable amount of monologues and dialogue exchanges with complete control. And he doesn’t mess around; when the French court sends a herald demanding surrender, he proclaims, “I pray thee take my former answer back. Bid them achieve me than sell my bones!” Another standout would be his ex-wife Emma Thompson as Katherine, the French King’s daughter. The scenes in which she attempts to learn English provide a nice bit of comedy to ease the tension, in true Shakespeare fashion. He also collects a great ensemble to assist him, many of whom have a background in Shakspearean theatre. These include Dame Judi Dench as a distressed common innkeeper, a young Christian Bale as a luggage boy in battle, Sir Drek Jacobi as the narrating Chorus, Ian Holm as a moralistic Welsh officer in Henry’s army, Brian Blessed as the King’s rousing and loyal uncle, and Paul Scofield as the weary King of France. Meanwhile, Branagh also proves to be incredibly skilled and distinctive behind the camera as in front. With the help of cinematographer Kenneth MacMillan, we are able to see the full scale of the King’s European campaign. Many scenes are done on static long takes, especially one near the end of the film that really captures the powerful consequences of conquest. We can see the gritty style of the film come through in the hazy mud and faces soaked with blood. Michael Bradsell’s editing is smart, knowing exactly when to cut and where to give pause. However, one of the biggest stars of the film has to be Phyllis Dalton, whose costume design deservedly won her an Academy Award. Like her work on Lawrence of Arabia, it’s range is wide, it’s period-accurate and detailed to a fault. Combined with the wonderful production design, it really does feel like we’ve arrived in Medieval Europe. In the first of their many fruitful collaborations, Patrick Doyle composes and the epic musical score for Henry V. The first Shakespeare film to recorded using Dolby Audio, the score is performed by the City of Birmingham  Symphony Orchestra. The vast majority of tracks consist of strings, often moving between being intense for conflict, melancholic for more sobering moments, or rousing for ones of hope. There are also a number of woodwind pipes that infect certain moments, undercutting the serious tone for something far more subdued. There’s also a beautiful rendition of the Latin song Non nobis sung at the end of the Battle of Agincourt, hands down one of the best medieval battle sequences put to film. It is sung by Doyle himself and gradually evolves into a massive choir while a 4-minute tracking shot highlights the aftermath of the carnage. It still kind of amazes me that Kenneth Branagh was able to make this movie despite having zero prior expertise or experience. Most filmmakers may wait after a few projects to tackle a medieval epic, let alone one from the mind of William Shakespeare. But he went right in and, much like Henry himself, proved his worth to everyone around him. The BBC more or less blindly trusted his vision, and that trust has paid off. Henry V is a captivating literary tale of loyalty, victory, and conquest. It still boggles me that Branagh only 5 Shakespeare adaptations, and then went on to do other things. A part of me really wishes he could return to it while his career is still going, get back to his roots. Until that happens, I’m perfectly content with watching this film again, a completely underrated masterpiece.

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“Deadpool 2” Movie Review

Just reading the synopsis that 20th Century Fox put for this movie reaffirmed my faith in the project overall. Seriously, before even seeing a single frame of any of the trailers, I laughed my ass off so hard from just a few lines of description for “plot.” That is definitely a first for me. This *extremely* self-aware superhero comedy was released nationwide on May 18th, 2018. Originally scheduled for release on June 1st, the unexpected push-up for Avengers: Infinity War allowed it to have the more traditional early summer breakout. And thus far, it’s paid off; the film has grossed over $709 million worldwide and some of the better reviews for a superhero film this year. Following the humongous success of the first film from 2016, director Tim Miller dropped out early on due to “creative differences.” In his stead, former stuntman and John Wick co-director David Leitch makes his second solo round after last year’s Atomic Blonde. And in addition to starring in and producing the movie, Ryan Reynolds also receives his first official screenwriting credit on this film. Reynolds returns once again as Wade Wilson, a mercenary-turned costumed anti-hero with a love for chimichangas. Following an unexpected turn of events, Wilson finds himself in the company and (Initially unwanted) friendship of a young, powerful mutant runaway named Russell, played by Julian Dennison. Unfortunately, Russell is being hunted down by a grizzled mutant soldier from the future named Cable, played by Josh Brolin, who claims that the child is destined to become a mass murderer. Seeking to redeem himself, Deadpool must confront his own demons by assembling a niche superhero team of his own and save Russell from certain death. The original Deadpool, when it first came out, was one of my favorite superhero films I had seen in a very long while. It was hilarious, self-referential, and a breath of fresh, R-rated air in a dominant, almost exhausting genre. Upon further rewatches, I still really like it, but can appreciate why a lot of people were not fans of it. I was always excited for the sequel no matter what, even though the hiccup in early production seemed to indicate nothing good. Especially because, while I loved John Wick, I didn’t care for Atomic Blonde. What made it even more sensational was the fact that Joi “SJ” Harris, a motorcycle stuntwoman, accidentally died while filming. Now expectations were mounting, and the marketing team specifically poked fun at that. And personally, I’m not as big a fan as the first one, but it’s definitely just as fun and arguably more accessible for more audiences. Once again, you can expect a nice, healthy dose of self-aware humor to populate the majority of the film. For those unfamiliar with the titular character, Deadpool is actually aware that he is inside a comic book or movie or video game. His ability to break the fourth wall provides some hilarious moments of genre mockery. “We need ’em tough, morally flexible, and young enough so they can carry this franchise for 10 to 12 years,” he says after deciding to build the X-Force team from scratch. That being said, the tonal shift between these moments and the character’s serious story arc feel jarring and almost conflicting. It’s always a bit odd, if not frustrating, to see a movie conceding to the tropes that it so openly makes fun of for most of its 119 minute-long runtime. The movie is also bafflingly cynical in many areas, which could, yet again, understandably push some people away. But there is still enough in here, humor and storywise, to keep me interested until the end. Ryan Reynolds owns the persona of Wade Wilson, short and simple. Vulgar, whiny, sex-obsessed, and totally unpredictable, watching this well-trained assassin deliver kills while still cracking jokes is pretty funny and meta beyond comprehension. Also worth noting is Julain Dennison’s performance as Russell. I loved Dennison in Hunt for the Wilderpeople, and he shows a lot of the same characteristics here; a lost kid with the need for a family.  Josh Brolin appears in his second Marvel this year as Cable. This time, unlike Thanos, he’s practical, mean-spirited, and ready to kill with a Terminator-like determination. Meanwhile, Atlanta veteran star Zazie Beetz is simply delightful and fun to watch as the mutant Domino. With Luck as her superpower, there are some really creative ways in which the writers are able to show off her marksman abilities. With a bigger budget this time around, Deadpool 2 is now able to show off a lot of its fancy filmmaking techniques. David Leitch brings a lot of his regular collaborators from Atomic Blonde and John Wick onboard, which allows his skill for directing action scenes to come through above all else. One of them is cinematographer Jonathan Sela, who gives the screen a slightly dark shade to illustrate the moral ambiguity of many of the characters. He comes up with some pretty creative shots throughout the film, and each scene is given a unique color palette, whether it was the moody future Cable hails from or the relatively bright red blood of bad guys during fight sequences. Meanwhile, the editing is done quite well by Dirk Westervelt, Craig Alpert, and Elizabet Ronaldsdóttir. None of the action scenes are cut to shit, allowing the audience to clearly register what’s going on. It also cuts abruptly in certain moments to elicit sudden, serious laughter, which worked a few times. With Tom Holkenborg, AKA Junkie XL, sitting this sequel out, action movie man Tyler Bates steps in to compose the musical score. While most of the tracks are your typical bits of big orchestral strings, the best and most memorable ones come in as distorted guitar melodies. This works surprisingly well to help create a feeling of unease and relentlessness as if Cable just can’t be stopped. There’s also an original song composed for the film called “Ashes” by Céline Dion, which provides a nice emotional through-line for the story. Other songs used on the soundtrack include a hilarious opening montage with Dolly Parton’s “9-to-5,” Electronica DJ Skrillex’s “Bangarang” during an exciting highway chase sequence, and an acoustic rendition of “Take on Me” by a-Ha. The latter may be my favorite, but none compare to the brilliant James Bond-style opening credits with an overly dramatic song setting the mood. With just enough jokes and fun moments to overcome its flaws, Deadpool 2 is an endlessly meta romp that takes no prisoners. It may take me another rewatch to really love it as much as the original, but as it is, this sequel is pretty entertaining and filled to the brim with references for fans to catch. While it certainly may not be a family movie like the title character says, beneath all of its cynicism, there is a heart to the story about family and loved ones looking after one another. P.S. It might just have the great post-credit scene of any film that I’ve ever seen.

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“Aliens” Movie Review

Last time, we had to deal with the “perfect organism,” and now we must contend with an army of predatory bugs. And to be perfectly honest, it’s hard to tell which one would be the better one to face. This sci-fi action horror film was released in mid-July of 1986, grossing over $183 million worldwide. Despite the hype and acclaim of the original 7 years earlier, the film managed to garner some of the best reviews of the 1980’s, including 7 Academy Award nominations. With Ridley Scott out of the picture, the producers approached Gale Anne Hurd and James Cameron to write and direct the sequel, having been impressed with The Terminator. Initially, it seemed as though 20th Century Fox was going to butcher it due to the proposed exclusion of Sigourney Weaver’s character. But Cameron pushed onward, and despite having a troubled shoot that caused most of the crew members to walk out, he managed to deliver the final product on time to Fox. Weaver returns as Ellen Ripley, the flight officer who awakes from stasis 57 years after the events of the original film. Doubtful of her alleged experiences on the Nostromo, the dominant Weyland-Yutani Corporation orders her back to the exomoon LV-426, which is now becoming a terraforming colony. With a company representative and a unit of space marines, they are tasked with investigating a disturbance on the colony, which turns out to have been overrun by a horde of Xenomorphs, the creatures from the last movie. Now Ripley, the marines, and a surviving girl named Newt must fight the extraterrestrials and find a way off of the planet. Rule of thumb in cinema: Doubting either James Cameron or Steven Spielberg makes you look stupid, no matter how off-putting or unappealing the product may seem in marketing. Doesn’t really matter how cold or distant you may be from any of their films, but the fact that they can defy expectations among film lovers time and again is worth their career reputations alone. In this case, Cameron had the heavy duty of following up on Ridley Scott’s original classic, which is nearly perfect in many aspects. Why bother making a sequel to Alien when the first one is amazing as it is? And yet, as has been proven with most of his career, the director proved everyone wrong and made a movie that was just as fantastic and exciting as the original. In fact, I love it even more than the first one. In cinema, there are really only a handful of sequels or prequels or spinoffs that can prove to be at least half as great as the first go-round. There are less in existence that can actually fully live up to the standards of that first installment and even less that manage to ever surpass or improve upon it. Depending on who you ask, Aliens is either just as good as the original film, falls short of it, or is simply better in almost every way. Consider me to be in the camp of the latter. Granted, it’s hard to compare the two since they have very different tones and styles. While Alien was firmly a horror picture, this one leans more heavily into action territory. That’s not to say that it’s totally devoid of the darkness; the idea of soldiers blindly going to battle in an unfamiliar terrain is a melancholy reminder of the Vietnam War. In the midst of this war, Sigourney Weaver still comes through as the heart and soul of the series. Now more world-weary and intelligent than she was before, she is by far the only one in the crew who understands the true threat of the Xenomorphs and is especially distrusting of androids. Weaver also received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, a landmark moment in science-fiction films gaining serious recognition in the industry. Also great are Lance Henriksen as the android Bishop and the late Bill Paxton as Private Hudson. They honestly might be my favorite characters in the whole series and provide an interesting Star Trek-like dichotomy to the situation. One is logical and thinks of all the best options, the other is highly emotional and fueled by testosterone. And then there’s actress-turned teacher Carrie Henn as Newt, the sole human survivor from the colony. Despite her small stature, there’s a courage and wisdom found in her that just resonates deeply. And from a technical standpoint, like its predecessor, Aliens is superbly crafted and handsomely produced. In his first credited work as a cinematographer, the late Adrian Biddle helps create a sustained atmosphere on LV-426, whether out in the open or inside the colony corridors. We get a lot of shots tracking the soldiers down dark passages, without a whole lot of cuts between angles. Combined with the expert backlighting and production design, this only further increased the amount of dread felt while still keeping things fun and exciting. Meanwhile, the editing by Ray Lovejoy, most famous for 2001: A Space Odyssey, is very deliberate yet enthralling. He knows exactly when to turn away from the bug army to keep a fear running through and also when to show us their brute numbers. The action scenes are particularly well-crafted, combining all of the aforementioned techniques with slick writing and strong direction. The musical score is written and conducted by the late, great James Horner, who would go on to collaborate with Cameron on two more films. (Titanic and Avatar) The score appropriately employs military-style drum beats on the snare, which drive the action tone pretty hard. Other bits of percussion includes a metallic slap that punctuates the urgency along with highly dynamic strings and horns that feel perfectly married together. Fragmented crescendos and truncated sections make the scenes it is used to feel all the more engrossing. Interestingly, the composer had such a hard time during production that he was convinced he would never work with the director again. Considering Horner only had 6 weeks to put the whole soundtrack together, it is highly impressive and certainly one of the more memorable ones for a sci-fi action movie. Practically nothing beats this movie nowadays. Sure, there are a couple issues with pacing, mostly with the intense final act. But when measured against nearly all other films of its genre that have come out since then, it really does stand head-and-shoulders above the normal fare. Aliens is a highly satisfying and enthralling example of masterful genre-blending. James Cameron is a cinematic genius and I’m thoroughly convinced that not everyone will be able to realize that until long after he’s gone. He’s made not one but TWO of the best sequels ever made in the span of 5 years. There’s plenty to enjoy here on multiple repeat viewings and I can’t wait for more to experience and appreciate it the same way that I did.

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