Category Archives: Dramas

“Pulp Fiction” Movie Review

Alright, since Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Tarantino’s 9th and potentially penultimate feature, is being released later this month, I decided it would be a great opportunity to look back at a couple of my favorite films of his. I highly doubt I’m the only cinephile to come up with this idea, but it gives me an excuse to talk about some of them. This neo-noir black comedy premiered at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the prestigious Palme d’Or despite protests from certain filmgoers. It was later theatrically released in the United States on October 14th, 1994, following a length festival run and huge word-of-mouth among critics. It managed to gross $213.9 million at the worldwide box office against a budget of $8 million, far more profitable than the average indie film at the time. It’s marketing campaign and awards season glory, including an Oscar win for Best Original Screenplay, went on to have a fundamentally huge impact not just on independent cinema but the film industry at large. Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, the story was originally conceived as a short by the director and his longtime friend Roger Avary, but it later evolved into a feature with an anthology trilogy. A couple of scenes that made it into the final product were originally intended for Tarantino’s earlier screenplay True Romance. Producer Lawrence Bender originally set it up at TriStar Pictures, who dropped the project after being horrified by its depiction of drugs and violence. The script was later brought to Miramax and the Weinstein brothers, who immediately bought the rights to it, making it the first feature film Miramax ever financed. The film follows various interwoven stories concerning criminal figures in Los Angeles over a couple of days. These include two philosophical hitmen debating retirement, a violent washed up boxer on the run from a mob boss, a Bonnie and Clyde-esque couple holding up a restaurant, and said mob boss’ wife going on a turbulent night out with one of his men. And to make things even more enticing, all of these vignettes are presented out of chronological order, so characters float in and out at various moments. I feel like I shouldn’t have to emphasize how deeply impactful this film has been on the world cinema over the last 25 years. Hell, even the poster for this film has already become a staple of college dorm rooms and cinephile apartments everywhere. Even if you only have a casual or passing interest in movies, this film will always make its way into your orbit one way or another. I was extremely curious to see how well it would hold up on this rewatch, especially after developing his craft further over the years to come. Would it seem obsolete and amateurish compared to the director’s later works? As it turns out, quite the opposite; even after making 8 feature-length movies, Pulp Fiction unquestionably remains Tarantino’s magnum opus. Under most circumstances, no film should be able to keep an audience’s attention through conversations about foot massages and a 5-dollar milkshake. But one of Tarantino’s best weapons has always been and continues to be his masterful ability to write dialogue that feels both cool and natural in his characters’ mouths. He uses these extended diatribes about trivial subjects both to help characterize the individuals on-screen and subtly hint at their interpretation of certain events in the story. Speaking of story, the decision to split the narrative up into different chunks and rearrange them all out of order is kind of an ingenious idea. I’m fairly confident that if this film were told in chronological order, it would not have become nearly as successful as it is now. But thankfully, Pulp Fiction feels like one of those old magazines with different crime stories- unexpectedly interwoven in a really graceful and organic way. Another one of the director’s specialties is getting the perfect actors for various roles and really pushing them to do their best. Two prime examples are John Travolta and Bruce Willis as Vincent Vega and Butch Coolidge, a bumbling hitman and runaway boxer, respectively. Both of these men’s careers were in a rut and yet somehow Tarantino was able to resurrect them by making these two interesting and unpredictable in nature. Another huge standout for me is Uma Thurman as Mia Wallace, wife to an intimidating local mob boss. Even as the literal face of the movie on most of the marketing material, she’s surprisingly in the movie prominently only for one segment, “Vincent Vega and Marcellus Wallace’s Wife.” Despite this, she still leaves a huge impression as a cocaine-addicted aspiring actress who just wants to have fun night out, especially during a dance sequence to “Son of a Preacher Man” by Dusty Springfield. But let’s be honest here, people: it’s Samuel L. Jackson in his star-making turn as Jules Winnfield that really brings the movie to a homerun. The first of several collaborations between the actor and filmmaker, he clearly relishes the role as an efficient hitman who comes into a spiritual crisis. It’s perfectly easy to see why Tarantino wrote the role specifically for Jackson, particularly when he recites a passage from Ezekiel before offing a victim: “The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides y the iniquities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men.” He’s had many great roles since then, but this will always be his defining role. And on a purely technical level, Pulp Fiction demonstrates Tarantino’s early prowess behind the camera. Many below-the-line team members had previously worked with the director on Reservoir Dogs, including cinematographer Andrej Sekula. His anamorphic cinematography creates a wonderful and diverse canvas with a beautiful film stock that leaves no grain. The camera almost always seems to know exactly to keep a focus on and a number of scenes are done in long takes. This is leveraged by the late Sally Menke’s fantastic editing job. Every single scene and shot is cut together to the director’s incredibly specific vision, giving us just what we need to see. It also manages to be a punchline for certain scenes featuring pitch black humor and mystery. Whether it’s the golden gleam from a McGuffin-like briefcase or the sudden cut from a guy accidentally getting shot in the face, the movie juggles a handful of tones that are beautifully interwoven. There is no original score for this film. Instead, we’re treated to a diverse and appropriate soundtrack full of songs from different eras. Starting and ending with surf rock interpretations of various songs, every selection is so obscure yet perfect for the moment. My personal favorite is Neil Diamond’s “Girl You’ll Be a Woman,” another little dance sequence for Mia Wallace. I don’t know how he does it or where he finds these songs, but the director always picks the right track for whatever scene it’s used in. And of course, with such a big, influential film like this, there came a wave of imitators in its wake. You know the types I’m talking about: fast-paced, dialogue-heavy movies with witty criminals as the central characters where violence is often used as a punchline for the humor. And yet, no matter what, none of those are ever able to measure up to what this film did because it simply did all of that right. Pulp Fiction is a cleverly written and highly rewatchable watershed moment for cinema across the board. While he’s made several other great films since this one’s release, Quentin Tarantino will always have to measure his filmography to this early masterwork. The characters and dialogue will far outlast any of the filmmakers and actors involved in this project. It’s rightfully become one of the quintessential films to watch as part of becoming a cinephile alongside Citizen Kane, The Godfather, Star Wars, and more.

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“Apollo 13” Movie Review

Yeah, I know it’s not really the appropriate month, but this coming July 20th will mark the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing. And I thought it would be extremely appropriate to revisit one of the earliest films about astronauts. This space-centric historical docudrama was originally released in theaters on June 30th, 1995. Made for the budget of $52 million, it went on to gross over $355 million at the worldwide box office and brought in a little more when it was re-released in IMAX in 2002. It also garnered some of the best reviews from that year and was nominated for 9 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It ultimately won two in technical categories and scored numerous victories elsewhere. Directed by Ron Howard, the film is adapted from the nonfiction book Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13 by Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger, which had been optioned by several studios. After Universal Pictures got their hands on the rights, the dense script by William Broyles Jr. and Al Reinert had been overhauled as the film was entering production. Many interior sets were built from the ground up, but NASA did allow them to use certain tools for accuracy, such as a reduced-gravity aircraft. Set in 1970, the true-story drama takes place at the height of the Space Race during the Cold War. Following the incredible success of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing, astronauts Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert, and Fred Haise- played by Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, and Bill Paxton, respectively -are assigned to helm the third official trip to the Moon. However, 3 days into the mission, a small technical failure causes an onboard explosion which deprives the ship of most of its electrical power and oxygen supply. Reduced to a lifeboat, the trio of astronauts and the NASA members back on Earth abort the mission and scramble to find ways to get the men back home safely. Let me get this out there so that there isn’t any confusion: I fully believe that the 1969 Moon Landing and all other lunar-based missions were 100% real. I have no interest in the idea that Stanley Kubrick filmed it or if the CIA staged the whole thing or any other conspiracy theories about it being fake. I don’t usually like to get on a soapbox for my reviews, but I just needed that to be known, especially when we’re so close to the anniversary of such a historical human achievement. In any case, I’ve always been fond of movies centered around astronauts, whether they’re laced with science-fiction like Interstellar or recounting history like last year’s First Man. Many of those films partially owe their success and existence to this Ron Howard film, and for good reason. Because Apollo 13 still holds up tremendously well all these years later and leaves me on the edge of my seat the whole time. This movie has been one I’ve seen multiple times at different ages or points in my life. As a child, I was in total awe of the tense adventure and visual effects. Now, as a fully-grown adult, I can understand the very real potential for the human cost this mission caused. Every time I watch it, I appreciate the people at NASA even more for their hard work and commitment to these missions. And while Apollo 13 may not be the most historically accurate film ever made, it does a fantastic job at illustrating that teamwork. Whether you know how the story ends or not, it’s hard not to be drawn into the drama of it all. With a laundry list of incredible roles, it’s kind of odd that his performance here is relatively underrated. He’s great as Jim Lovell, the level-headed leader of the team who’s not only concerned for his crew but also wanting to get back to his family. When the big explosion happens onboard, he utters the famous words, “Houston, we have a problem.” His crewmates Jack and Fred are played by Kevin Bacon and the late Bill Paxton, respectively. Although they have different personalities, it’s clear that their combined expertise will be the only thing that might help them get through the situation alive. The three of them bounce off of each other beautifully as the likelihood of their survival gets les and less certain and they begin pointing fingers at one another. Back on Earth, Ed Harris turns in an Oscar-nominated turn as Gene Kranz, the team’s Flight Director. Although we don’t really get to see his interior life, he absolutely refuses to give up on the Apollo crew no matter what the public or his NASA superiors may think. His dialogue is delivered with the authority of an Aaron Sorkin script, which is probably one of the highest compliments I could give to him. The rest of the cast on Earth does a great job at propelling the human drama and intensity of the task at hand. These include Kathleen Quinlan as Lovell’s optimistic yet concerned wife, Gary Sinise as the deposed original member of Apollo 13’s crew, Joe Spano as the NASA director worried about public perception, Bret Cullen as a Capsule Communicator, and Xander Berkeley as the bumbling yet well-intentioned member of the Office of Public Affairs. Each of them manages to elevate the 2-hour and 20-minute runtime with humanity, even if not all of them get full characterization. Meanwhile, the technical aspects of Apollo 13 show Ron Howard in full command behind the camera. Dean Cundey’s widescreen cinematography captures everything in the mission with exquisite detail. Considering that there are no archival shots from the actual ship in the film, that’s especially impressive. The practical sets make the film feel more authentic, particularly a couple of shots that simply drift through the spacecraft and show the crew. While most other shots throughout the film are static, they work for establishing the enormity of NASA’s hopes and dreams for the future. And the Oscar-winning editing job by Daniel P. Handley and Michael Hill is truly remarkable. Whenever something big is happening, it constantly cuts back between the three men onboard the ship and the people at Mission Control. Not only that, but it doesn’t forget to cut back to scenes with Lovell and Haise’s families, as a way to illustrate the potential cost if this mission doesn’t end well. If this weren’t edited as well as it is, the movie would lose all of its intensity and grip on viewers. The late great James Horner composes and conducts the instrumental film score, which can only be described as Aaron Copland in cinematic form. The use of snare drums is extremely present in many of the tracks as if to keep the intensity of the situation constant. Much like Copland, there’s a prevalent amount of strings and horns throughout the soundtrack, a sound of patriotic optimism in the face of great obstacles. It also makes occasional use of heavenly choruses as a way to capture the absolute God-like nature of the mission. It’s films like this that honestly make me wonder why we ever stopped going into space decades ago. For better and worse, it really is going to be the final frontier for mankind and abandoning it just seems foolish. We’re now wiser and more experienced thanks to the dedication of the people in this film and I think we ought to use it for exploration. Apollo 13 is a gripping and masterful thriller about perseverance and teamwork in the direst of circumstances. Ron Howard’s classic historical drama feels like the type of film that never gets made anymore, and I mean that in the best possible way. Without the needless emotional manipulation, we’re able to get straight to the point; a grand story about one of the greatest rescue-and-recover missions ever attempted.

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“Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” Movie Review

This may be one of the few films I’ve ever seen that actually doesn’t live up to the description in its title. In context with the story and characters, it makes sense but there is not a single moment here which indicates that it earns it. This biographical crime thriller initially premiered out of competition at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Picked up for approximately $9 million, it also played at the Tribeca Film Festival later in April to similarly mixed opinions. It later received a limited theatrical release on May 3rd, 2019, and landed on the streaming service Netflix the same day. It is believed to have made close to $2 million in specialty markets, although, like all of the distributor’s theatrical releases, there’s no telling the veracity of these reports. It’s also scheduled to make a return to theaters later this fall as a way to provide more visibility for awards season. The film marks the narrative feature debut of director Joe Berlinger, who previously helmed a number of documentaries. This is his second Netflix project focused on the main subject, after the docu-series Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes. There was some initial backlash when the film was first announced at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, particularly over its star’s seemingly problematic casting, and sparked further controversy with its first trailer. Beginning in 1969 Seattle, the true story is told from the perspective of Liz Kendall, played by Lily Collins, a single mother and secretary. Pretty soon, she becomes romantically involved with law student Theodore “Ted” Bundy, played by Zac Efron, who soon moves in and becomes a stepfather to her daughter Molly. However, Bundy quickly becomes accused of committing a number of heinous and disgusting crimes against women, eventually culminating in the first-ever televised court trial. And while all of this happens over the course of more than a decade, Liz struggles to reconcile her love for Ted with the crimes he committed. I’m not going to pretend like I didn’t expect this movie to garner controversy when it first made waves. Like many films focused on the lives and/or exploits of serial killers, it would have to walk an incredibly fine line to really work. I was somewhat worried that it would turn into a voyeuristic or fetishized depiction of what Bundy did to all of those women. Although I haven’t watched Joe Berlinger’s Confession Tapes, I have a pretty good feeling that he’s fascinated with this man. And I was curious to see if he could find a certain wavelength or angle that would serve up a fresh and respectful treatment of the subject matter. And Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile is by no means exploitative or distasteful, it’s just… not that remarkable. In fairness to the filmmakers, the story of Ted Bundy has been covered in so many different views and perspectives. The idea of looking at his decades-long crimes from the P.O.V. of his real-life girlfriend, whose book The Phantom Prince served as the source material, is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because his sickening acts of violence are only heavily implied throughout the film, which also ends with a list of his known victims. But it’s also a curse because Extremely Wicked still feels beholden to stay in Bundy’s orbit constantly. He keeps insisting that he’s an innocent man and it’s not really until the very end of the movie that he finally relents. The whole film is framed with Liz visiting him in prison one last time before his ultimate sentence and for whatever reason, that format just didn’t feel right. For whatever problems the movie has, Zac Efron is practically perfect casting as Ted Bundy. He has all of the confidence, swagger, and deceitful charm befitting of the man, able to swoon entire flocks of people with just a blink. He surprisingly maintains a level-headed composure throughout the film, internalizing his sick thoughts and deeds. And although the film is told from her perspective, I have mixed feelings about Lily Collins as his longtime girlfriend Liz. Don’t get me wrong, she’s great in the role, but her lack of agency and full characterization make her feel more like a sketch of a person than a real individual. Kaya Scodelario turns in surprisingly effective work as Carole Ann Boone, Bundy’s old friend and by far most ardent supporter. She is absolutely devoted to getting Ted acquitted by any means necessary, following him to his various trials and trying to persuade the judge or juries to let him be. Haley Joel Osment and Jim Parsons are pleasant surprises as Liz’s new boyfriend and the Florida prosecutor, respectively, while Brian Geraghty and Jeffrey Donovan excel as Bundy’s failed attorneys. John Malkovich is quite impressive as Edward Cowart, the judge presiding over Bundy’s final trial. Despite the violence and degrading, inhumane crimes described in the case, he offers a bit of empathy to the defendant. “It is an utter tragedy for this court to see such a total waste of humanity, I think, as I’ve experienced in this courtroom,” he says to a full house, deeply disappointed by what has transpired over the trial. And although it’s only his first feature, Joe Berlinger first feature, he shows some promise with the technical aspects of Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile. The film is shot by regular comedy cinematographer Brandon Trost, and his usually dark aesthetic translates rather well here. Much of the film seems desaturated of color to strip away any color or glamour in Bundy’s crimes. Many scenes are done in long takes, with one unbroken monologue that Ted delivers when his final sentencing is announced in court being especially memorable. The editing by Josh Schaeffer, on the other hand, is rather bland and uninteresting in it execution. The aforementioned framing structure makes the story feel more constrained than it needs to be, as the rest of the film is cut together in chronological order. The film frequently cuts between filmed scenes and actual archival news footage, which works to an extent with bringing the historical context full circle. An example of the sum of its parts being better than the whole, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile has a fantastic lead performance that cannot save a middling-at-best film. While not nearly as gross and exploitative as I feared it would be, Joe Berlinger just doesn’t put enough oomph or engagement to really examine its subject matter. Yes, Zac Efron is undeniably great as one of the most reprehensible humans to have ever walked the Earth, but I just wish it had focused more on the intriguing angle it had promised. Unfortunately, it sometimes feels like the movie forgets that.

“The Lion King” Movie Review

Okay, yes, I am writing a review for this movie because of the impending “live-action” remake next month. However, it also turns out that this movie is celebrating its 25th anniversary this month. This beloved animated musical was originally released in theaters on June 15th, 1994, to overwhelming success. In its initial run, it managed to gross over $766 million at the worldwide box office, making it the most successful film of that year. It was later re-released in 3D in 2011, which brought its total intake to around $968 million. In addition, it remains the best-selling film of all time on home video and the highest-grossing film made from traditional animation. Co-directed by Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff, the story was first conceived in 1988 while Jeffrey Katzenberg and Roy E. Disney were in Europe promoting Oliver and Company. With no less than 17 people credited for the story, original director and producer George Scribner and Thomas Schumacher left the project after constantly clashing visions with Disney. Their departure led to the story being greatly rewritten and reimagined as a musical. Although William Shakespeare’s Hamlet was a big inspiration for the story, it’s also worth noting that this was the first animated film under the Mouse House to be an entirely original property with no pre-existing source material. The classic story follows a young lion named Simba, voiced by Matthew Broderick, who’s destined to rule as King of the Pride Lands in Africa. After his father Mufasa is murdered by Simba’s paternal uncle Scar, he is manipulated and shamed into thinking that the death was his fault and runs away. Years later, Simba is all grownup, living with meerkat Timon and warthog Pumbaa, voiced by Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella, and is completely divorced from any sort of responsibility. But when he gets word of the horrible conditions under Scar’s tyranny, he must rise up to the challenge and reclaim his rightful place as King. This is a film that has been ingratiated into the minds of so many childhoods over the last two-and-a-half decades. If you grew up in the late 1990’s or early 2000’s, there is virtually no way that this movie wasn’t involved in your life. It’s very hard for me to remember a time in my early childhood when it wasn’t around; it just seemed like the movie was always being played in the house. All of that nostalgia initially had me a little hesitant to review the movie now as a fully grown adult. I was worried that it would cloud my judgement on seeing the film purely for its own merits; or worse, that it wouldn’t hold up as well as I remember it. And yet, even without any childhood bias, I can still confidently say that The Lion King is still the peak of the so-called Disney Renaissance. For those who don’t know, the Disney Renaissance was a period of time in which Walt Disney Animation Studios churned out one high-quality movie after another. Other films released during this time included Aladdin, Tarzan, Mulan, and The Little Mermaid, all of which allowed the studio to further establish its worldwide brand. And even since its conclusion, fans such as myself have constantly debated over which one was the best of the all. For me, as you may or not have figured out, it’s no competition; this film contains everything those other films had and more. Memorable musical numbers, awesome characters, fantastic animation, a great sense of humor and heart. If there’s a certain criteria you have for a capital “G” Great animated feature, The Lion King probably has all of it. Matthew Broderick may be best known for Ferris Bueller in the titular movie, but there’s a lot to like about him as Simba. While probably not the most nuanced or complex protagonist in the studio’s arsenal, his struggle to step up and take on a tremendous task is something nearly all viewers can relate to. Also, James Earl Jones is fantastic as Mufasa, Simba’s wise and stern father. A completely different father figure from his turn as Darth Vader, his deep voice resonates with audiences of any age with many sage monologues filled with wisdom. Jeremy Irons also impresses as the voice of Scar, hands down one of the best animated villains ever, Disney or otherwise. His regal voice is one that is built for chewing the scenery and the way his character’s movements are animated makes it seem like he’s acting it out in the recording booth. And of course, we have Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella as Timon and Pumbaa, Simba’s laidback mentors. The comedic timing and slight immaturity in their voices sounds completely naturalistic in their hands, and their timeless number, “Hakuna Matata,” is one for the ages. Moira Kelly, Robert Guillaume, Madge Sinclair, Whoopi Goldberg, and Rowan Atkinson all provide their voices for various supporting roles. It’s quite hard to point out a real weak link in the cast here, as they all contribute something memorable. It’ll be interesting how the new version changes these characters, if at all. And as with most other films of its period, The Lion King still stands as a technical marvel in the genre. Like some of its peers, there are a handful of shots that seem to blend traditional animation with then-burgeoning CGI. And despite being released in 1994, this mixture is not obvious; quite the opposite. It makes for some truly cinematic shots in iconic scenes, such as the heart-stopping stampede scene relatively early on in the film. And even when it’s just purely traditional animation, it’s absolutely gorgeous. The use of colors like orange, yellow, and red is ingenious in creating the atmosphere for the Pride Lands. It helps to deepen the character of the setting and define the characters’ personalities. Every time I watch it, the visuals always pop out, right from the opening shot of the sunrise on the horizon. Hans Zimmer won an Oscar for a reason because his original score here is a true classic of cinema. The soundtrack is just as epic and exciting as the story, utilizing a wide range of instruments and vocals for different tracks. Whether it’s an exciting bit where characters are being chased by the hyenas or a moment where Simba realizes his destiny, Zimmer knows what to do. It goes from being filled with rapid percussion and strings to haunting vocals in an instant and somehow still feels organic. In addition, musician Elton John and lyricist Tim Rice composed several original songs together, many of which have earned a spot in the annals of Disney history. Whether it’s the attention-grabbing, nostalgia-inducing opening number “The Circle of Life” or the Oscar-winning ballad “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?,” those two really know how to play it right. But who are we kidding? The best one is obviously the villain song, “Be Prepared,” in which Scar lavishly talks about his planned coup for the throne. There’s honestly WAY more that I could say about this film. About how it essentially defined a whole generation, how nearly every family had it playing in the house at some point growing up, and son on and so forth. But I have a feeling that everyone reading this already knows that and so, I’m gonna leave it off here. The Lion King remains the undisputed chief of traditional animation and the king of Disney proper. Even with a lean runtime of 88 minutes, there’s so much packed into this film that’s literally impossible to not fall in love with every viewing. I have limited expectations for Jon Favreau’s reimagining next month, but we’ll always have the original. If you ask me, this film was, is, and probably always will be the absolute pinnacle of animated cinema.

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“Long Shot” Movie Review

In all seriousness, if Charlize Theron were running for the presidency, I would go out and vote for her, no questions asked. This politically charged romantic dramedy premiered at the 2019 South By Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas. It was then released in theaters worldwide by Lionsgate on May 3rd, 2019, riding a wave of incredibly positive buzz and word-of-mouth from the festival. It has thus far grossed roughly $44.5 million at the box office against a middling budget of $30 million. Not bad for a mid-budget studio rom-com coming out the week after the biggest movie event of the year. Directed by Jonathan Levine, the film had originally been pegged for an early February release, before extremely encouraging test screenings convinced the studio to move it into a summer tentpole position. The script was originally penned by Dan Sterling under the original title Flarsky, before being overhauled and rewritten by Liz Hannah. Hannah, who broke onto the scene in 2017 with Steven Spielberg’s The Post, had her first Hollywood job working for the main actress’ production company, who was only initially onboard as a producer. Seth Rogen stars as Fred Flarsky, a vulgar and left-leaning journalist from New York City. He quits his newspaper in a rage after it gets bought up by a massive news conglomerate whom he despises, only to run into and reassociate with his former babysitter Charlotte Field, played by Charlize Theron. Field, currently serving as the U.S. Secretary of State, is gearing up to campaign for the office of the President of the United States after learning that the incumbent President is not running for reelection. Impressed by Flarsky’s writing, she hires him as a speechwriter to help add flare and personality- only to grow closer to each other along the way. Now, I was a big fan of Levine’s 2011 underrated rom-com 50/50, starring Rogen and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. It totally subverted my expectations and turned out to be a really charming and genuinely touching buddy movie, which was apparently semi-autobiographical for its star. In fact, Rogen’s movies of late have a consistent streak of surprising me with their quality and empathy, such as last year’s hilarious and progressive Blockers. Which is why, despite the absurdity of the premise, I had good hopes for the actor and director’s third collaboration together. Especially with an incredible co-lead like Charlize Theron, who has slowly proven herself to be quite a funny woman. And I can safely say that Long Shot met my expectations and is an extremely likable if somewhat uneven rom-com. I think what I love most about it is that despite some of the obvious parallels to our current world, it doesn’t really have any interest in making a serious commentary on it. For the most part, it steers clear of the nastiness in politics and modern journalism because both Flarsky and Charlotte are the main focus. Levine does acknowledge the inherent absurdity behind the premise to hilarious results, but that doesn’t mean he skimps out on the pressures Charlotte faces as a woman running for office. There are definitely some pacing issues throughout Long Shot, and in particular, one scene that has an awkwardly placed commentary on centrism. When compared with the rest of the film, it just felt kind of out of place and like a forced attempt to make a real commentary. But for the most part, the movie is able to skirt around this and stay focused on the fantasy-like romance at the center. I don’t know if it’s just me, but I’ve grown more impressed with Seth Rogen as his career’s gone on. As Fred Flarsky, he’s just as vulgar and raunchy as he’s ever been, but there’s a certain tenderness to his character I wasn’t expecting. His fierce commitment to his views and moral compass put him into some tricky situations. Opposite him, Charlize Theron is genuinely hilarious and compelling as Charlotte Field. While she maintains an idealistic worldview, she constantly has to deal with misogyny both on the homefront and abroad. Her timing is absolutely impeccable and proves that she deserves more comedicroles in the future.  The chemistry the two share together is refreshing and believable, making this otherwise extremely unlikely couple easy to root for. Ice Cube’s son O’Shea Jackson Jr. also shouldn’t be overlooked as Fred’s loud-mouthed best friend Lance. He has enough flair and personality to step out of the typical archetype to provide some genuinely funny lines with killer delivery. The two of them are flanked by a cast full of capable actors in key supporting roles. There’s Bob Odenkirk as a T.V. actor-turned bumbling President of the United States, Andy Serkis in full makeup as a Rupert Murdoch-esque media mogul with his own agenda, Alexander Skarsgård as the overtly flirtatious Prime Minister of Canada, Ravi Patel and June Diane Raphael as Field’s key campaign staffers, and amusing cameos from Boyz II Men and Lil Yachty as themselves. Nearly all of them have at least one moment of hilarity or insight during the 2-hour and 5-minute runtime. And although the technical aspects of Long Shot aren’t particularly impressive, they are still worth mentioning. Shot by Jean-Marc Vallée’s regular cinematographer Yves Bélanger, the film is shot in his typical handheld, cinéma vérité style, which makes it feel more fly-on-the-wall than your usual rom-com. Especially good-looking is a night-time party sequence in Paris when Charlotte finally decides to let loose a little and have some fun. It also seems to highlight the colors of Flarsky’s clothes, specifically his unusual jacket. Meanwhile, the colors of Charlotte’s personal world, by comparison, and staff are mostly beige and drab. The film is edited together by Melissa Bretherton and Evan Henke, who are able to cut together and structure the film from scene to scene competently. There’s a montage about halfway through the picture of Charlotte and her team making their way across the world as she runs on a controversial platform. It can also be affecting whenever the film cuts from her lavish meetings with world leaders and wealthy influencers to Fred’s quiet space with some other workers. Using a classic formula and giving an appropriately modern update, Long Shot is a hilarious yet predictable romp that somehow finds romance in politics. Although it’s far from perfect or even the best romantic-comedy of the year, Jonathan Levine still deserves credit for being able to find something fresh. This is by far the most entertaining thing to take place within the sphere of American politics this year- which is, admittedly, a very low bar to clear.

“Lagaan” Movie Review

Although I’ve reviewed a handful of foreign-language films before, it occurs to me that I’ve never reviewed a Bollywood movie. So what better way to resolve that checkbox than making it a part of my New Year’s resolution? This epic musical sports drama was originally released in theaters around the world on June 15th, 2001. However, per a promise, the producers arranged to have it premiere first in the ancient village of Bhuj where it was shot. Although it was produced on the then-unprecedented budget 250 million rupees, (Roughly $5.32 million in U.S. dollars) it managed to gross over 3 times that amount. It went on to become one of the highest-grossing films in the country at the time, and scored massive critical acclaim across the world. It also managed to become the third Indian film to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Written and directed by Ashutosh Gowariker, the film was partially inspired by the 157 film Naya Daur starring Dilip Kumar. The filmmaker had an extremely difficult time finding funding for the project, so much so that the main star started his own production company just to get it off the ground. While Gowariker and Sanjay Daima came up with the overall story and English dialogue, the dialogues in Hindi and its various dialects were handled by K.P. Saxena. With a grueling schedule that included a year of pre-planning and 6 months of filming, the cast and crew have continually stated that it was one of the most physically challenging films they’ve ever done. Set in the small Indian town of Champaner in 1893, Aamir Khan stars as Bhuvan, a young man devoted to helping his poor village thrive. With the local British cantonment putting their boot further under the neck of the Raj, the cruel leader Captain Andrew Russell, played by Paul Blackthorne, orders the citizens to pay double the tax. However, he makes a deal with Bhuvan to cancel all taxes for the next 3 years if they win a game of cricket against him and his British soldiers. Bhuvan takes up the challenge and with help from Russell’s sister Elizabeth, played by Rachel Shelley, brings along 10 other men to learn the game within the course of 3 months. For years, I had heard raves about the Bollywood film industry, but never had the chance to watch one of its offspring. It wasn’t until a few years ago during a class that I finally managed to watch one; it was this movie. Since then, I’ve watched a handful of others in the genre, albeit more modern ones such as Queen and Dangal. But after discovering that this film, along with other films by Aamir Khan, were available in their entirety on Netflix, I decided to give it another go. Would it hold up on second viewing? And thankfully, as has been the pattern with my New Year’s resolution, Lagaan is still a wonderful movie and actually improves the second time. Don’t let the intimidating runtime of 3 hours and 43 minutes steer you away, though. This is rather typical of big Indian movies, often setting their stories against a massively epic canvas. I actually argue that this is one of the best primers for getting into Tollywood or Bollywood films, as it has all of the essential ingredients the genre has to offer. It really is a huge, old-school crowd-pleaser and it’s honestly refreshing that it does not care what its audience thinks of it. In that, some people might be quick to dismiss Lagaan (or Once Upon a Time in India in some territories) as being too predictable and easy-going, and they would be partially right. And yet, the film has such a strong and engrossing way of immersing you into its world that it’s almost impossible to escape from its orbit. Aamir Khan is one of India’s biggest movie stars (If not their biggest) for good reason; he’s perfect in the lead role. As Bhuvan, he exudes empathy and concern for the people in his village, recognizing both the oppression dealt out by the British regime and their own personal tensions. Opposite him, Gracy Singh is a true talent as Gauri, his longtime love. Not as thankless a role as it may sound, her singing and dancing skills are incredible, especially when she sings a melody about her seemingly unrequited love for the hero. Paul Blackthorne is also delightfully villainous as Captain Russell, without a doubt the main antagonist of the picture. Arrogant and stubborn to a fault, he has no problem making the villagers’ lives a living hell- or for that matter, infuriating his superior officers. The rest of the cast is rounded out by an impressive ensemble of actors with varying roles. There’s Rachel Kelley as Russell’s kindhearted and unassuming sister, Kulbhushan Kharbanda as the seemingly powerless Raja of the region, Yashpal Sharma as a woodcutter jealous of Bhuvan’s heroism, and Raghubir Yadav, Rajesh Vivek, Akhilendra Mishra, Pradeep Rawat, and Aditya Lakhia as some of Bhuvan’s cricket teammates. While these men have many differences and doubts, (Lakhia plays an “untouchable”) the chemistry the hold is key to making the audience care about them. On the technical side of things, Lagaan has so many techniques worthy of the best epics in cinema. Anil Mehta’s sweeping cinematography is a thing to behold, capturing everyone and everything in every frame with perfection. The sweeping shots and predominant colors of yellow and brown help craft a look of a piece of history long forgotten. During musical numbers, like many Hollywood and Bollywood classics, the camera often moves flawlessly between different characters during the song. Meanwhile, Ballu Saluja’s editing job is able to keep the momentum consistently going for the mammoth runtime. His graceful scene transitions and patient cuts make sure nothing is too rushed or drawn-out. The climactic yet somewhat unorthodox showdown between the soldiers and the villagers is cut together in such an elegant and captivating manner that it’s hard to lose attention. And not to mention, his editing manages to do something remarkable: It made me sweat my palms during a cricket match, something that has never happened before. That, alone, is a noteworthy accomplishment. A.R. Rahman, one of the industry’s most celebrated composers, provides the instrumental film score here, which in my opinion is one of the most underrated ones in cinema. For all of the flare, there’s actually only two instrumental tracks on the soundtracks, but they both leave a huge impression. Crescendos aplenty can be heard in percussion and horns especially, and span various different musical styles. There are also six original songs that are a joy to listen to, with extravagant choreography and lyrics by Javed Akhtar. My personal favorite is actually the very first one, “Ghanan Ghanan,” performed by all of the villagers. Concerning their plight of a serious drought, it’s quite hard to get the central melody out of your head. It manages to perfectly illustrate what the movie is all about: unwavering optimism in the face of great trial and adversity. With an incredible soundtrack, characters worth rooting for, and palpable stakes in the rather simple plot, Lagaan is a sweeping musical triumph of epic proportions. Not only is it arguably the most accessible Bollywood movie for Western audiences, but it’s also officially my favorite sports movie of all time. The wonderful costumes, fantastic musical numbers, solid cast, and impeccable finale really help to put it over the top. Please do yourself a favor and seek this gem out on Netflix. And while you’re at it, go ahead and watch any other Bollywood movies in its catalogue.

“Game of Thrones” Series Finale Review

All good things must eventually come to an end, whether the corporate overlords like it or not. So if you haven’t yet figured it out from the title, this post is going to be filled to the brim with spoilers for the 73rd and final episode for Game of Thrones. If you are not yet caught up on the show, (Or simply don’t care) do NOT read this any further. Seriously, just stop where you are. Now I won’t hesitate to admit that I came relatively late to the hit HBO show. I had definitely heard about it beforehand, including some major events like the infamous Red Wedding, but I didn’t full jump onboard until about mid-2014. First, I made it a goal to read the existing books in A Song of Ice and Fire, then played catchup with the show itself. And first things first: for the most part, I’m okay with the changes that have been made to the onscreen adaptation. While I think some fans are justified in their frustration with the abbreviation of some storylines, (I really wish they had done Euron Greyjoy faithfully) ultimately the books are the books and the show is the show. And there are some plot points in these last few seasons that I could definitely see happening in The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring. Now onto “The Iron Throne,” the last episode of Game of Thrones proper that we’ll ever get. While I could talk about the eighth season as a whole, particularly waxing lyrical about the sheer magnitude of the Battle of Winterfell in “The Long Night,” this last episode is all I really have time to discuss. First and foremost, I was surprised by how quiet the episode itself actually was. I had expected something of a calm after the destruction of King’s Landing, but the overall lack of dialogue made a certain impact as the surviving characters wandered the ruins. Which reminds me, say what you want about these last 6 episodes, the production value and filmmaking techniques have been so amazing. Whether it’s Ramin Djawadi’s immaculate score or the incredible production design, the below-the-line crew almost never missed a beat. The shot of Daenerys walking down the steps of the Red Keep as Drogon spread his wings was especially beautiful and symbolic. And when she throws Tyrion Lannister in the dungeons, he urges Jon to see what the Mother of Dragons has become and to do something about it. Now for the past three weeks, my friends and I have debated whether it would ultimately be Arya Stark or Jon Snow to deliver the final blow to Dany. Turns out, it was the former; Jon stabbed his love/aunt in the heart with a dagger, both swimming in tears. What really got me emotional in this scene was Drogon’s shrieks; they legitimately hurt and felt like they were in grieving for a mother. Then came something I wasn’t expecting: Drogon not only spares Jon’s life, but he completely melts down the Iron Throne in flames. If Dany couldn’t be able to sit on it, then nobody else could. Now that she was gone, who would rule the Seven Kingdoms? Should they even have a ruler? Well, as Tyrion points out to the remaining lords and ladies of the land, no one is qualified for the job other than Bran Stark. Because he’s essentially the living embodiment of Westeros’ memories, his stories of the past and present may give a good precedent for the future; and who better to serve as his Hand than Tyrion himself? But before any of it becomes set in stone, Sansa Stark asks for the North to become independent once more, thus making her brother Ruler of the Six Kingdoms for the first time in history. And with the brand new Small Council assembled, newly appointed Grandmaester Samwell Tarly presents A Song of Ice and Fire, a text documenting the events of the series in its entirety. Sidenote: I think it’s kind of hilarious that the maesters managed to finish writing A Song of Ice and Fire before George R.R. Martin managed to. We also get to see Sansa being crowned as Queen of the North, with the Lords and Ladies giving her a similar appraisal as they did Jon Snow. The biggest part of the finale I wasn’t too sure of was Arya’s resolution. She decided to give up her lands and titles to go exploring whatever’s west of Westeros, accompanied by a small crew and loads of maps. I don’t know why, but that felt the most abrupt of all the storyline conclusions here. And ultimately, the show ends in the same place where it begins: beyond the Wall. Since they can neither execute him nor let him go for killing Dany, Jon is sent to the Night’s Watch for the rest of his days. After an awesome reunion with Ghost, he, Tormund, and the last of the Wildlings leave for the woods beyond the Wall, presumably to settle back in after all of the commotions the last couple of seasons. And that’s it. 9 years, 8 seasons, 73 episodes, hundreds of hours, all come to a close here in “The Iron Throne.” From what I’ve read, I think one of the biggest reasons why fans are upset about it is because this is ultimately all we get. The HBO bosses have already confirmed that sequel shows are off the table, and I doubt the upcoming prequel show with Naomi Watts will really fill some holes that fans perceive. Personally, I do think that this season was rushed and could have benefited from having a couple more episodes to really wrap some things up. Weiss and Benioff claim to have known the ending for about 5 years now, so they at least seem to know what they’re doing. But I’m sorry, that petition to remake Season 8 is one of the stupidest fan campaigns I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen some really dumb ones in my time. If you genuinely don’t like the last season, that’s perfectly understandable and I get a lot of the hate, but in what realm of reality are fans entitled to dictate how a story should be told? To quote Martin himself, “Art is not a democracy,” so if you don’t like that Azzhor Ahai or Bran warging into Drogon didn’t pan out how you wanted, that’s your own problem to deal with. I don’t run this show and neither do you. And to be honest with you, I was mostly satisfied with where everything and everyone turned out in this last episode. There were a handful of outcomes that I didn’t quite see coming, the biggest of which for me was when Drogon utterly melted the Iron Throne. My favorite development, though, is undoubtedly when Brienne of Tarth became the Lord Commander of the Kingsguard. She has completely and 100% earned it after everything she’s gone through, I’m so proud of her. And if we’re being honest, the overall outcome doesn’t sound too far-fetched from what has been intended by the author. I am genuinely curious to see how different the ending is when and/or IF The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring come out. Regardless of what you thought of this last episode or season, there’s no denying the fundamental impact that Game of Thrones has had on the television landscape. And I think it’ll be a very long time before any show reaches the scope and scale of this magnitude ever again. To quote one of my favorite characters in the show: Valar Morghulis.

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