Category Archives: Dramas

“The Invisible Man” Movie Review

You wanna know how effective the scares were here? Thanks to this movie, if I’m ever in a room alone again, I’m going to look at empty couches and chairs very differently.

This science-fiction horror film was released in theaters worldwide by Universal Pictures on February 28th, 2020, having been moved up two weeks. Made for the budget of $7 million, it managed to gross over $134.3 million at the global box office before moving to premium VOD due to the coronavirus. And yet, it has still managed to stay relatively popular at homes around the world. Not to mention, the film has garnered some of the best reviews of any film this year and has even been predicted by some outlets to make rounds whenever awards season comes.

Written and directed by Leigh Whannell, this is a modern adaptation of H.G. Wells’ science-fiction novel of the same name. Universal had originally approached David S. Goyer to write the script but departed after about 4 years of no serious development. It was then pitched as part of the studio’s “Dark Universe” franchise with Johnny Depp in the title role but scrapped all plans after the disappointment of 2017’s The Mummy. Producer Jason Blum instead decided to pursue the project as a standalone horror movie and hired Whannell for the job on the strength of his previous feature, Upgrade.

Elizabeth Moss stars as Cecilia Kass, a young architect trapped in a violent and controlling relationship. With help from her sister and childhood friend, she escapes in the dead of night from her unstable boyfriend Adrian Griffin, played by Oliver Jackson-Cohen, a wealthy tech genius in the field of optics. Two weeks after running away and laying low in hiding, it is discovered that Adrian has apparently committed suicide and has left her with $5 million. However, Cecilia quickly becomes convinced that he faked his own death and has found a way to torment her invisibly, and desperately tries to find a way to prove her experience to others around her.

Leigh Whannell is someone who I’ve only become aware of recently, but thus far, I really like his approach to filmmaking. He wrote and starred in the first Saw movie, (The only good installment of the series, in my opinion) and also created the criminally overlooked sci-fi body horror Upgrade. The latter film, in particular, really showcased his ability to handle high-concept films with a relatively limited budget and squeeze believable performances out of his cast.

So when it was announced that he would be writing and directing a new take on this character with Elizabeth Moss, I was cautiously optimistic for it. I was still feeling the sour taste of the colossal failure of the “Dark Universe” a few years ago and was unsure if the studio could really recover and find a way to put these classic monsters into the modern era. But not only does The Invisible Man surpass my expectations as an interpretation of the iconic character, it’s a fantastic horror film on its own merits.

In hindsight, the idea of telling the story of this iconic character from another character’s perspective was a bit of genius on Whannell’s part. By rearranging the story and putting it into a MeToo context, we get to see a unique film about domestic abuse and the emotional consequences fallen upon the victim. The real horror of the story comes not from Adrian using his powers to wreak havoc on mankind at large but from causing so much torment for Celia and no one believing her.

It’s a huge testament to Whannell and Blumhouse that The Invisible Man brings a lot of specificity to this serious issue in order to avoid making broad statements about it. Celia is desperate to find a way to live life on her own terms for the first time in a long while, but her relationship with Adrian still haunts her (Both literally and figuratively) and not even those closest to her really understand her trauma. The analogy of people being reluctant to believe Celia’s story is infuriating and true to life, making me glad that the initial plans for the “Dark Universe” were completely scrapped.

Elizabeth Moss has always been an incredibly capable and versatile actress, and this role might be her best work yet. As Cecilia Kass, she’s absolutely riveting as a woman trying to regain her agency after being gaslighted and manipulated for such a long time. While she wants to come back into the larger world, she’s still deeply aware of the influence Adrian has over her, remarking, “He said that wherever I went, he would find me, walk right up to me, and I wouldn’t be able to see him.”

By her side for much of the film is Aldis Hodge as James Lanier, a San Francisco detective and Celia’s childhood friend. Even though he clearly cares about her and wants to protect her, he’s highly skeptical about her claims of Adrian still being alive and tormenting her. When the vicious mind games start involving him and his own daughter, he starts taking it more seriously, despite also believing Celia to be somewhat unstable.

Harriet Dyer also deserves to be mentioned as Emily, Celia’s headstrong and loving sister. Unlike James, she’s able to more clearly see the psychological hold that Adrian has over her and tries to understand her claims, even if they don’t sound plausible. You can see just from her subtle facial expressions the disgust and terror of having to witness her own flesh and blood survive through someone that monstrous.

The supporting cast is filled out by Storm Reid as James’ curious daughter trying to cheer Celia up, Michael Dorman as Adrian’s submissive brother and attorney representing his vast estate, and Oliver Jackson-Cohen as Adrian Griffin himself. Jackson-Cohen only appears in a handful of scenes throughout the film, but he makes sure that his presence is known and felt. Every time he smiled, every time he opens his mouth, there’s just a horrifying feeling of what might happen.

And just from a filmmaking perspective, The Invisible Man showcases Leigh Whannell has a firm grasp on dynamic visual storytelling. Shot by Stefan Duscio, the cinematography is slick, controlled, and intensely atmospheric. For many sequences, the camera will sit still at the corner of the room when Celia or another character walk out. Sometimes, we see something moving around invisibly, other times, it’s just meant to bring out dread in the audience. And when the camera does start roving around in beautifully constructed long takes, it begins to feel like a character all its own.

The editing job by Andy Danny compliments this perfectly, splicing together shots into longer scenes. It plays a lot with the feeling of perspective, as there might be something we the audience see that no one else does and cuts between angles when needed. This is exemplified in the fantastic opening sequence, which sees Celia trying to quietly escape the house and the camera cuts between different shots just in case a sound might be set off. We’re watching every corner of the frame.

Rising star composer Benjamin Wallifisch gives us the instrumental film score here, and much like the film, it’s intense and utterly brilliant. The majority of tracks use a mixture of distorted electronic sounds to bring a sense of unease out of the viewer. They simultaneously sound like cries for help choked by vocoders and unseen forces punching you out of nowhere. It also hides subtle bits of strings and piano to bring up the inherently tragic elements of the story and even for moments of catharsis.

With a clear eye on the subject matter and a genuinely terrifying approach to its story, The Invisible Man is a hauntingly bleak portrayal of a truly disturbing monster. More stressful than fun to watch, Leigh Whannell has crafted one of the best and most inventive entries of the horror genre and further proves his mastery behind the camera. Anchored by a stunning lead performance from Elizabeth Moss, all parties involved make sure that you won’t forget this film any time soon.

If this is the route that the studio wants to go for their Universal Monster properties in the future, then I’m absolutely here for it. Whannell and Blumhouse knew exactly what they were doing here and I can’t wait to see anything else they make together down the road.

“Collateral” Movie Review

It only takes one special night to either derail all of your aspirations or make you more passionate than ever about them.

This crime thriller was released in theaters worldwide by Dreamworks and Paramount Pictures on August 6th, 2004. Made for the budget of $65 million, it went on to gross over $220.9 million at the global box office, split almost exactly even between domestic and international markets. The film actually debuted at the top of the box office its opening weekend, and remained strong for its whole theatrical run. It also garnered many positive reviews among critics and audiences and managed to receive two Academy Award nominations.

Directed and produced by Michael Mann, the screenplay by Stuart Beatie was inspired a cab trip when he was 17 years old and imagined an assassin in the backseat. Originally a two-page treatment called “The Last Domino,” the final product bears little resemblance to what was first written and went through many different casting options, including Robert De Niro, Russell Crowe, and Adam Sandler at one point. Co-producer Julie Richardson became interested in the project and initially tried to make it as a low-budget movie for HBO. Although he’s the only credited screenwriter on the film, it’s generally accepted that Mann and Frank Darabont performed uncredited rewrites to finalize the script.

Jamie Foxx stars as Max, a highly efficient cab driver in Los Angeles who dreams of opening his own limousine business. One night, a mysterious man named Vincent, played by Tom Cruise, enters his cab and soon becomes a backseat driver of sorts. Impressed by Max’s knowledge and meticulous way of getting around the city, Vincent offers an exorbitant amount of cash to be transported to three more destintions. Initially drawn by the money, Max soon realizes that Vincent is a hitman on his way to different targets and forms a unique relationship with him as the night goes on.

Even though I haven’t watched most of his movies, Michael Mann’s cinematic style is one that, thus far, just clicks with me somehow. The way he’s able to film believable action sequences and balance it out with interesting characters and themes is really compelling and fascinating. That’s one of the big reasons why his 90’s crime film Heat is a masterpiece, in my opinion, along with his uniquely captivating and picturesque take on the West Coast.

But about a year before I originally watched Heat, this film was the first of Mann’s that I ever laid eyes on. I decided to give it a revisit as part of my New Year’s resolution and see if it still holds up well enough and gives me the same tense adrenaline rush that I felt the first time watching it. And while it still suffers from the same issues I have with the third act, Collateral still proves to be highly engaging and riveting.

Much like his earlier work in films like Heat and Manhunter, this film does an interesting job at portraying two men at point in life where they feel disenfranchised by society. Whereas Vincent is a cold, distant man who sees every target of his as just another statistic, Max is a goodhearted person who can’t quite seem to convince anyone on his dream even though he feels strongly about it. This fateful night gives an opportunity for the two of them to meet each other, as they are essentially polar opposites of one another and are forced to confront the unconventional nature of their professions.

The fact that Collateral takes place over one night just makes these themes feel even more immediate and poignant. It’s not a particularly funny movie, (Michael Mann doesn’t really do well with humor) but the film creates a warm feeling of tension and anxiety as there’s this sense of a ticking clock as the night goes on. Even if it loses a lot of luster by the time the third act rolls around, it’s hard to shake the full grip the film has on you for the whole film prior.

Long before he made himself a bonafide star with Django Unchained, Jamie Foxx put himself on the map with his riveting Oscar-nominated lead performance here. As Max, he’s a typical everyman who wants to do good and make his peers happy, even when he has to deal with disrespectful passengers and unforgiving superiors. Although he begins as rather timid and submissive, he gradually grows into someone more keenly aware of the situation as things continuously go from bad to worse.

Also, Jada Pinkett Smith is captivating as Annie Farrell, a federal prosecutor in the state of California. While she only appears in a handful of scenes, she leaves an impression as one of the few passengers who actually treats Max with dignity and respect, and even encourages him to open up his business. She later turns out to have a key role in Vincent’s murderous rampage around LA and proves to be capable in stressful circumstances.

In the backseat for the majority of the film is none other than Tom Cruise as Vincent, the calculating hitman with a gun pointed at the driver. In contrast to his more heroic and easy-to-root-for lead roles of the past, Cruise surprises by making no attempt to be likable and adopts a passive sense of nihilism. He’s calm, ruthless, and utterly indifferent to the loss of life at his own hands, and whenever he isn’t killing his marks, he justifies it to Max and even mocks him for his empathy. To this day, I’m convinced that this is Cruise’s best work as an actor.

And from a technical perspective, Collateral see Michael Mann taking full control of the screen in glorious fashion. The film was the first one in Hollywood to be shot on low-light digital cameras and cinematographer Dion Beebe utilizes it to effect. The film is mostly shot in a handheld fashion, which helps to provide a sense of immediacy and realism to the story. The low-lighting also allows the filmmakers to capture things that would otherwise be unattainable, such as a scene where a pack of coyotes cross the road. The colorful nightlife of LA looks both gorgeous and ominous as the cab cruises through the streets.

This works in tandem with the editing job by Jim Miller and Paul Rubell, which cuts together the film very well. In quieter moments where Vincent and Max are arguing in the cab, the camera cuts between the both of them in a really natural manner so we can both hear their comments and see their reactions. And during action scenes, it knows when to either cut to a different angle or sit tight and let the actors breathe. Even though it’s primarily handheld, you can still tell everything that’s going on.

These elements, combined with the fantastic sound design, come together for the epic nightclub sequence. Swapping digital for 35mm, this whole scene is a masterclass in blocking, editing, and keeping the audience on their toes. It’s at this point in the movie that we finally see why Vincent is a force to be reckoned with as he takes on several adversaries from multiple different parties. It’s one of the finest action sequences of the 21st century, and it wouldn’t be matched until years later when John Wick arrived on the scene.

Relentless and captivating, Collateral is a tense and tightly wound thriller elevated by two magnetic performances. Although it’s not quite on par with his previous crime film Heat, Michael Mann still proves that he knows how to put together a frenetic story with some interesting observations on the world. And thanks to the talents of Jamie Foxx and a career-best Tom Cruise, he’s able to take this high-concept, unconventional setup and make it feel believable and urgent.

“The Matrix” Movie Review

I unfortunately missed the opportunity to review this last year in honor of its 20th anniversary. But since Lana Wachowski and the studio are officially making a fourth installment due in theaters in two years time, the time finally came to go down the rabbit hole once more.

This science-fiction action film was originally released in theaters worldwide by Warner Bros. on March 31st, 1999. Made for the budget of $63 million, it went on to gross over $465.6 million at the global box office, developing extreme popularity through word of mouth among audiences. Its success later led to two sequels shot back-to-back, increased use of CGI in blockbuster films, and even a new school of thought. The film itself also garnered numerous positive reviews from critics and went on to win 4 Academy Awards, particularly for its groundbreaking visual effects.

Written and directed by The Wachowskis, the film was originally packaged into a two-picture deal with the studio after executive Lorenzo di Bonaventura was impressed with their debut screenplay Assassins. In order to lower Warner Bros. Pictures’ fears of the big investment, the siblings hired underground a pair of comic book artists to help create a 600-page storyboard visualization, which finally granted them the full budget needed. Prior to filming, The Wachowskis mandated the cast and crew read numerous philosophical books to understand the themes, including Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation, and took heavy inspiration from Hong Kong action films. The “green rain code” was specifically created for the film using a mix of Latin characters and mirror images of katakana characters to create the aesthetic.

Keanu Reeves stars as Thomas A. Anderson, a low-level software programmer who moonlights as a hacker nicknamed Neo. As he increasingly begins to suspect that something is not right with the world around him, another hacker named Trinity, played by Carrie-Anne Moss, approaches him with a unique opportunity. Serving under the infamous hacker fugitive known as Morpheus, played by Laurence Fishbourne, they reveal to him that the world he’s known all his life is a virtual lie- and that he might be “The One” to save humanity. Now tailed by seemingly superpowered men led by Agent Smith, played by Hugo Weaving, Neo and his new cohorts race to get to the truth of what’s going on in the world.

It’s kind of hard for a person of my generation to imagine just how different the world of sci-fi action movies was before this film came out. Nowadays, its influence can clearly be seen across many different forms of media, from its revolutionary bullet time effects to its philosophical ideas. But back when it came out, it completely changed the game in so many unexpected ways that it’s almost impossible now to imagine what the world would be like if it had never been made.

As such, it’s relatively hard to watch the film from an objective perspective because of how it’s fundamentally integrated into pop culture. Every time I watch it again, I initially get a little worried that I will finally get worn out from it because of some outdated aspect or that it would somehow feel immature. But as usual, The Matrix still proves to be an absolutely mind-bending and highly satisfying film for fans of all genres to watch no matter the occasion.

What has always sold this movie for me was never actually the groundbreaking visual effects or the incredibly filmed action sequences, but the philosophical themes and discussions the story provoked. Its meditations on the straddled line between reality and simulation are arguably the driving force for the whole series, as the Wachowskis confront how many people would rather live in a comfortable lie than face the harsh truth. The great thing about the red pill/blue pill analogy is that it can be applied to many different scenarios, including the directors’ coming out experience as transgender women.

At this point, it seems almost like a cliché to say that The Matrix is just a story that can be boiled down to “What is real? How do you define real?” But as you watch the film and its sequels, (Which I personally find to be very underrated movies) it becomes apparent that those ideas are explored in a really unique and unexpectedly meaningful way, and several characters have their own monologues on the subject. While the technology shown in the movie hasn’t aged particularly well, it’s ultimately the musings on the existence of spoons and prophecies that keep me coming back time and time again.

This was the role that launched Keanu Reeves into superstardom and all these years later, it’s still his most iconic one to date. As Thomas A. Anderson, he feels lost in a repetitive and boring world and longs for a greater purpose in life beyond his office job. As the film goes along, we watch him gradually transform into and accept the fact that he is Neo, “The One” who will supposedly help free humanity from its virtual shackles; and thankfully, the “reluctant hero” trope works here.

By his side for much of the film, Carrie-Anne Moss also excels as the hacker Trinity, who draws Neo into the larger world of the film. She’s deeply intelligent and highly resourceful in most combat scenarios and carries her own personal thoughts on the ideas of destiny and free thought. There’s a personal stake for her in this conflict, one which we don’t learn of until late in the film and helps make her role even more impactful.

Hugo Weaving and Laurence Fishburne are equally captivating as Morpheus and Agent Smith, the main mentor and antagonist of the film, respectively. Each one represents a different side of the central fight, Smith being obsessed with order and control while Morpheus seeks an open world of freedom and critical thought. As it happens, both are also quite intimidating when it goes to hand-to-hand combat and tactical fighting, being exceptionally trained in multiple fighting styles. For much of the film, they both remain stoic until the real costs come into sight..

The impressive supporting cast consists of Joe Pantoliano, Marcus Chong, Anthony Ray Parker, Julian Arahanga, Belinda McClory, Matt Coran, and Gloria Foster. While Foster and Pantoliano are easily the most memorable and important of the bunch, everyone has a good part to play here and helps flesh out the world.

And just from a technical point-of-view, The Matrix is a remarkable cinematic accomplishment for the ages. Shot by the incomparable Bill Pope, the cinematography adopts a highly unique aesthetic that’s come to define the visual language of the Wachowskis’ work. The camera roams around the whole set in many action sequences to give a sense of disorientation and to know what’s going on. Many scenes are filtered with a subtle green hue to signify the carefully coded reality many people are living under.

This matches up with the work done by Zach Staenberg, who won an Oscar for his editing job here. The film knows exactly when to cut to different shots for dramatic or visual effectiveness. Speaking of which, it often times lingers to make room for the special effects, which remarkably still hold up to this day. Whether it’s the opening scene of Trinity freeing time to take down police forces or when the now-iconic “bullet time” segment begins, the editing does wonders to blend it in with real shots.

Frequent Wachowskis collaborator Don Davis provides the instrumental film score here, which perfectly fits the mood. The soundtrack is a fascinating blend of traditional orchestral work with more electronic-driven tracks. The film makes constant uses of strings, brass, and percussion to create an atmosphere of uncertainty and tension as our heroes try to enact a plan of action while on the run from Agents. Meanwhile, the synthesizers and droning beats help the techno-underworld feel more alive.

Packed with memorable quotes, incredible special effects, fantastic action, and stimulating conversations on simulation, The Matrix is a mind-bending treat for the eyes and the mind. The Wachowskis not only created one of the most iconic built-from-scratch franchises of all time, but they completely changed the way that films could be made and shown in the modern era. The entire cast help to bring to life these beloved characters, and fully trust the filmmakers’ vision the whole way through.

I have no idea what Lana Wachowski and Co. have in store for the fourth installment, but no matter what, she and her sister Lilly undoubtedly showed us what was possible with cinema. A world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries; a world where anything is possible.

“Onward” Movie Review

The bond of a brother can accomplish wonders that few relationships can.

This computer-animated urban fantasy film from Pixar Animation Studios premiered out of competition at the 70th Berlin International Film Festival. It was then released in theaters worldwide by Walt Disney Studios on March 6th, 2020. Produced for the budget of around $175 million, the film unfortunately never made a real profit in theaters. It topped off at about $106.1 million at the worldwide box office before the COVID-19 pandemic forced it to drop out early and land on the streaming service Disney+. It is currently scheduled to release in foreign countries when it’s deemed safe enough to return to theaters but in the meantime, has produced positive responses from fans and audiences.

Directed by Dan Scanlon in his second feature-length film, the story was inspired when he heard an audio clip of his late father, who passed away when he was very young. After coming up the plot and setting for the film, Jason Headley and Keith Bunin were brought onboard to perform rewrites on the script. The film got into some legal trouble when San Francisco tattoo artist Sweet Cecily Daniher alleged that the studio copied art designs in the film from her vehicle “The Vanicorn” after renting it for a single-day festival. The film also faced bans and censorship in Russia and various Arab countries for the inclusion of an LGBT character, the first such one in a Pixar film.

The film is set in a fictional world where magic used to exist and classic mythical creatures exist in suburban environments. On his 16th birthday, nerdy elven high schooler Ian Lightfoot, played by Tom Holland, receives a staff from his late father along with instructions for a spell that can bring him back to life for one full day. However, midway through the spell, Ian and his fantasy-loving older brother Barley, voiced by Chris Pratt, accidentally destroy the required gem, leaving only their father’s pants and shoes. With only 24 hours left, they set off on a quest to find a new gem to complete the spell and bring him back to life in the full.

Even with 22 feature films in the can and counting, there’s a certain level of anticipation that comes with a brand new Pixar film. They are undoubtedly a collection of some of the most creative storytellers and animators in the entire medium, but the quality of their films has been rather inconsistent as of late. Part of the issue is that they struck out with so many masterpieces in a row during their heyday that they’ve set the bar a little too high for themselves, which often results in their newer films being disappointing.

I honestly wasn’t quite sure what to make of this new entry in their long-running catalogue when I saw all of the marketing material. I was definitely interested since the studio promised that it would be the first of a new slate of original films instead of another Toy Story or Cars sequel but wasn’t really convinced of the traditional fantasy concept. And yes, Onward doesn’t really measure up to Pixar’s best work, but I still think it’s a fun movie to watch with the family with worthwhile themes.

If you’re as involved with these movies like I am, after a while, you’ll start to notice similar themes and ideas come up. Like most of the studio’s oeuvre, this is another film focused on a buddy relationship and uses the backdrop of a fantastical adventure to help the main characters come to terms with long overdue issues. In this case, Barley is learning how to finally grow up and Ian finds a way to step out of his comfort zone and go on an adventure, which has always given him anxiety.

Also like many of Pixar’s finest entries, Onward does an pretty good job at fleshing out the world around the characters in a natural way. The way it utilizes many classic fantasy creatures like elves, manticores, centaurs, and unicorns is really clever in how they’re all contextualized in a modern-era world while still feeling like a bunch of wholly unique species. The central story itself is somewhat hit-or-miss, but the worldbuilding is one of the big reasons this adventure remains memorable.

Another big reason is the voice cast, which is filled top to bottom with great actors inhabiting their characters. At the forefront are Tom Holland and Chris Pratt as the brothers Lightfoot, Ian and Barley, who genuinely feel and sound like lifelong pals and blood relatives. They contrast each other very well, with Ian being the more introverted and skeptical of the two while Barley is obsessed with fantasy lore and hanging onto the past. Their equally boyish charms do wonders for selling their chemistry, especially as they start to realize the deep bond they share.

Also, Julia Louis-Dreyfus lends her comic voice to great effect as Laurel, the Lightfoot brothers’ headstrong and determined mother. Strong-willed and pragmatic to a fault, she has little belief that the spell can actually work and bring her late husband back but still wants to find a way for her sons to bond in a healthy way. Without hesitation or much forethought, she chases after the boys when they set off on their quest and follows any lead that she can pick up along the way.

Octavia Spencer also deserves some recognition as Corey, a cantankerous manticore who runs a popular restaurant. Despite her cheery outward personality, there’s a lot of deeply repressed strength and rage when she finally comes to realize how much she’s missed going out on adventures in the days of old. Every moment that she appears onscreen, she suddenly radiates with a certain energy and sense of fun that is sometimes missing in the rest of the film.

Mel Rodriguez, Lena Waithe, Ali Wong, Grey Griffin, and Tracey Ullman all round out the well-chosen supporting voice cast here. Each actor does well with their respective characters, even if some of them deserve more screen time than others. Almost all of them portray different species within this world and they all help subvert the classic tropes of fantasy and what’s often associated with centaurs and dragons and so on.

And from a technical perspective, Onward sees Pixar pushing their limits even further in the field of animation. Replacing mythical creatures with humans and real-life animals, every frame is able to capture the movements and physics so beautifully and with exquisite detail at that. There’s a vast array of colors for all of the races and landscapes and even magical items, especially in various hues of blue and purple.

Even the facial expressions of characters and the fabric of their clothes and equipment is shown in a stupidly amazing fashion. Whether it’s the subtle flick of an ear to something coming, the stretch of wings not flown in many a year, or even the faded paint on the film’s central van, it’s really a sight to enjoy. The visual references to fantasy tales of old are woven in now and again, which further makes the world feel alive.

Appropriately, the instrumental film score here is provided to us by two brothers, Jeff and Mychael Danna. The score they bring unto us is befitting of both a typical Pixar adventure and an old-school fantasy story. The film mixes strings and woodwinds in an excellent way, often times used to help create an atmosphere of mystery and the unknown. Other times, during the quieter moments, the music will swell in an emotional, yet non-manipulative way that keeps everyone engaged.

The film also includes an original song that plays during the end credits called “Carried Me With You” by Brandi Carlile. Although it’s folk-pop sound feels a bit jarring compared to the rest of the film, it actually works in relation to its themes of a roadtrip adventure and close friendship. Carlile’s lovely vocals mixed with the acoustic guitar and full band sound is a satisfying way to close off the story.

Wonderfully animated and told with sincerity, Onward is a fun and heartfelt, if somewhat lower-tier, adventure for the whole family. While it stumbles to find its footing and simply can’t compete with the rest of their filmography, Dan Scanlon is still able to provide a magical journey that marks Pixar’s return to original filmmaking. Topped off by a willing voice cast and fantastic visuals, there’s a lot to chew on here, even when it feels like its full potential isn’t reached.

“Casino Royale” Movie Review

Every series deserves a brand new area to prove themselves in, no matter how old or decrepit they may seem. And for the longest-running franchise in film history, that’s been a point it’s had to prove time and time again.

This action spy film was released in theaters worldwide by MGM and Columbia Pictures on November 17th, 2006, having been released in the U.K. a full day earlier. It managed to exceed some expectations and gross over $606.1 million against a production budget of $150 million. This made it the highest-grossing film in the long-running series by that point and renewing the popularity of the character. And that’s in addition to the wave of overwhelmingly positive critical and audience reaction to the picture.

Once again directed by Martin Campbell, the film is a modernized adaptation of Ian Fleming’s very first Bond novel and the third overall live-action version of it. After the failure of 2002’s Die Another Day and Pierce Brosnan stepped down, Eon Productions sought to reinvigorate the franchise. The studio exchanged the Spider-Man property for rights to the novel with Sony Pictures and very briefly considered Quentin Tarantino as director for the project. And once the exhaustive casting search ended, fans of the series cried out that the chosen actor was wrong for the part because he had blonde hair and blue eyes and even launched websites protesting the casting.

Daniel Craig steps into the role of James Bond, an MI6 assassin who recently gets promoted to 00 agent status. On his first assignment in the field, he encounters Le Chiffre, played by Mads Mikkelsen, a mysterious financier who bankrolls terrorist and criminal organizations around the world. After a couple of bad deals puts him under pressure from clients, Le Chiffre puts together a high-stakes poker game in Montenegro to win back all of his money. Accompanied by British Treasury agent Vesper Lynd, played by Eva Green, Bond plans on buying his stake into the game and winning the pot to bankrupt Le Chiffre and his various operations.

Much like my previous venture with 007 in GoldenEye, I always find it interesting when the James Bond franchise tries to push itself forward outside of the Cold War era. Both movies, it should be noted, share the same director- Martin Campbell -and he also seems to share the same sort of fascination with the character in that sense. And similarly, both versions of the character following these reinventions ended up being highly inconsistent in terms of overall quality, so there’s that.

As with many other films in my New Year’s resolution, I hadn’t seen this particular entry in the series in quite some time. And while the later Skyfall still remains my favorite Bond film to date, I just wanted to make sure that Craig’s first foray into the iconic spy franchise was as great and invigorating as I remembered it being. And predictably, Casino Royale still proves to be an absolute banger that successfully mixes the things that made this franchise great to begin with alongside current trends.

Unlike in GoldenEye, 007’s destructive, womanizing behavior isn’t the only thing that’s called into question here. Instead, Campbell and his screenwriters take a deep dive into Bond at the very beginning of his career, when he isn’t just an invincible force of heroism and patriotism. This is perhaps the most vulnerable we’ve ever seen James Bond, both because of the constant physical danger he gets into and the unexpected emotional stakes involved as well.

One thing Casino Royale does better than almost any other movie in the series (Save for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service) is show James develop a genuine relationship with another woman. Rather than just getting into one-scene flings with various beautiful women over the course of two hours, the film puts a lot of effort into showing Bond has a tender side and comes to care for this person just as much as the audience does. But because of his chosen profession, it’s a tragedy waiting to happen and packs a wallop.

I’ve said this before and I have no qualms about saying it again: Daniel Craig is the best cinematic incarnation of James Bond yet. Coming with all the bravado and dry humor expected of the iconic spy, he’s also effortlessly suave, charming everyone simply by walking into the room, even his own enemies. He’s ruthlessly efficient and cold when it comes to his targets, but has many moments throughout where he’s shown fearing for his own life and the life of his colleagues.

Speaking of colleagues, the incredibly underrated Eva Green subverts the “Bond Girl” trope as Vesper Lynd, Bond’s handler from the Treasury. Highly resourceful and skilled with numbers, she proves to be a great foil to the protagonist as she has no experience in the field, especially with violence. The connection that grows between them becomes unexpectedly palpable and believable, particularly after Bond finds her sitting in a shower completely shell-shocked by something that just happened.

Mads Mikkelsen, in one of his early Hollywood roles, also deserves credit as Le Chiffre, the calculating and methodical villain of the whole film. Unlike many other Bond villains from the past and even after this entry, Le Chiffre isn’t so much a criminal mastermind as he is just desperate to pay off debts to people far more dangerous than him. That sort of humanity is hugely refreshing and gives the audience enough empathy to where you almost want him to come out on top.

Rounding out the supporting cast is a troupe of capable actors from all corners. This includes Dame Judi Dench as Bond’s superior officer, Jeffrey Wright as a fellow CIA operative trying to flush out the poker game, Simon Abkarian as an elusive contact of Le-Chiffre’s, Jesper Christensen as a mysterious liaison for an organization trying to get its money back, Ivana Miličević as Le Chiffre’s girlfriend and loyal henchwoman, and Isaach de Bankolé as a ruthless lieutenant within the Lord’s Resistance Army. All of them help flesh out the story more and make the stakes feel appropriate.

And from a purely technical standpoint, Casino Royale shows the James Bond franchise evolving with the times in the most outstanding way. Phil Méheux’s cinematography is appropriately gritty and sleek, combining a number of different techniques to great effect. The film has a beautiful dual use of shadow and color, highlighting the darkness of this world while showing some brief moments of light. There are many great camera tricks throughout, and thankfully, most of the stunts are done in-camera.

This perfectly helps the editing job by Stuart Baird, which cuts together the action and drama in an engaging way. During the poker scenes, the film uses cross dissolves to help illustrate the passage of time and give it an old-school feel. Since most of the second act takes place at this table, it’s an interesting way to keep viewers actively watching the game. It also knows when to not cut away at all and let it roll. The most noteworthy example of this is during a car crash late in the film when the camera takes a solitary position and watches the car continuously flip on the side of the road.

David Arnold provides the instrumental film score, which at once feels like the classic Bond sound but also with its own modern tinge. The soundtrack, much like the action itself, is often very fast-paced and uses multiple instruments to bring out the tension. Whether it’s the constantly rhythmic beats of the percussion or the rapid sweeps of brass, it matches the mood on-screen. Similarly, some tracks use a simplistic mix between piano and strings to solidify the emotional toll this mission takes.

As is tradition, there’s an original song to accompany the elaborate opening credits, this time being “You Know My Name” by Sound Garden frontman Chris Cornell. In a big departure from the pop song sounds of the past, this one mixes a full orchestra with Cornell’s grunge rock sensibilities. The combination of electric guitar and brass instruments is a uniquely pleasing sound to hear as the stage becomes set. And to top it off, the lyrics, sung by Cornell’s gravely voice, foreshadow the themes and tone of the whole film and is great to listen to on its own.

Finding its footing firmly in the 21st century, Casino Royale is a riveting relaunch of a franchise in need of new blood. For the second time in the span of a decade, Martin Campbell has been able to completely redefine what makes Ian Fleming’s spy character so compelling while putting him in a modern context. Daniel Craig utterly owns the part and it’s hard to see anyone replacing him when the time comes to hang up his hat.

Whatever happens with No Time to Die, there’s an unmistakable quality that’s hard to shake with this first installment. James Bond may be an old character, but there is still a place for him to be relevant in the new world.

“GoldenEye” Movie Review

Obviously, with 24 films in the bag already, I don’t have nearly enough time to review all of the James Bond movies in existence. But since No Time to Die is coming out in theaters soon, it seems only appropriate to go back and review a couple of Bond’s best.

This action spy film was originally released in theaters worldwide by MGM on November 17th, 1995, being released in the U.K. a week later. It managed to gross over $355 million at the global box office against a production budget of $60 million, far surpassing many of its predecessors without adjusting for inflation. This made it the highest-grossing film in the franchise since 1979’s Moonraker with Roger Moore. It also received some very positive reviews from critics and audiences, mainly for how it adapted to the modern world while remaining true to the past.

Directed by Martin Campbell, efforts to produce a new film were halted by legal and financial disputes within the studio, causing previous star Timothy Dalton to step down from the part. The end of the Cold War and subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union led to numerous rewrites with completely different drafts one after another. The film was the first in the long-running series to not be based on any of Ian Fleming’s novels and to not be solely shot on the 007 sound stage. It was also the last film in the franchise with the involvement of longtime producer Albert Broccoli, who passed the torch onto his daughter Barbara and son Michael G. Wilson.

Pierce Brosnan makes his debut as James Bond, an MI6 officer and veteran of the Cold War. While on assignment investigating the Janus crime syndicate in Russia, a mysterious EMP goes off in a scientific base in Siberia destroying fighter aircraft and knocking out satellite systems in orbit. His newly appointed superior M, played by Judy Dench, orders him to get to the bottom of it, soon discovering a larger techno-conspiracy at play. Facing his former partner Alec Trevelyan, played by Sean Bean, Bond races against time to figure out his plan and stop it before it can be enacted.

The James Bond franchise is one that has consistently fluctuated in quality throughout the years for me. For every great movie in the franchise like Skyfall or Casino Royale, there’s always been a few that are mediocre or just straight up bad like Moonraker. In fairness, it’s a challenge for a character that’s over 50 years old to stay relevant in an ever-changing world, which leads to mixed results with each installment.

As such, I was curious to rewatch this particular entry after so many years away from it to see if my opinion had swayed at all with the times. Part of me was worried that its 90s style and setting would have aged badly by this point, not to mention whether its treatment of the main character would still fly in the modern era. Thankfully, GoldenEye still proves to be one of the franchises better entries and just a fun action movie in general.

It’s interesting to note how Martin Campbell is actually responsible for revitalizing the Bond franchise twice, first here and later with Casino Royale. (Whose own review will be coming soon) And both times, he found a way to make the character of James Bond grow and modernize without losing his essence. The Soviet Union is long gone by this point, so what use is an old-fashioned secret agent like him to the rest of the world?

Furthermore, GoldenEye manages to acknowledge Bond’s long history of womanizing and points out that it’s really immature and unprofessional of him. The most telling moment is when M tells 007 “I think you’re a sexist, misogynist dinosaur. A relic of the Cold War, and whose boyish charms, though wasted on me, obviously appeal to that young woman I sent to evaluate you.” And although the film ultimately can’t resist giving him an attractive female lead, (Or two) it makes up for it in various other departments.

In his first outing with the iconic role, Pierce Brosnan proves more than capable of putting his own unique spin on James Bond. Although he is surprisingly soft-spoken, he knows exactly how to use both words and weapons to turn control of the situation over to his hands throughout the film. He has a very clear way of keeping his composure under stressful situation, but it becomes tested when his connection to the main conflict suddenly becomes personal.

Also making her franchise debut, Dame Judi Dench is nothing short of impressive as the new version of M, Bond’s superior at the MI6. She’s highly determined and intelligent who fully understand the gravity of her new position, but never passes up the opportunity to break out some wit. Although she’s initially skeptical of 007’s capability as an agent, she begins to develop a grudging respect for him even if she strongly disapproves of his seductive methods.

Sean Bean also shouldn’t be overlooked as Alec Trevelyan, the primary antagonist of the film. While Bond villains are very inconsistent in terms of quality or intrigue, Bean is able to avoid these pitfalls by creating a personal connection with our hero and really represents what he could have become if he hadn’t maintained his loyalty to the United Kingdom. His effortless charisma and confidence makes him pretty intimidating, especially as he seems to know all of Bond’s weak points.

Izabella Scorupco, Famke Jenssen, Gottfried John, Alan Cumming, Robbie Coltrane, and Desmond Llewelyn round out the cast of new and returning supporters. Some of them definitely standout more than others, (I honestly thought Cumming was miscast) but they all play key roles in the grand scheme of things. Everyone knows that they’re in a James Bond movie and have no problem hamming it up for the crowd if the moment comes for it.

And from a technical perspective, GoldenEye marked an evolution behind the camera for the long-running franchise. Phil Méheux’s cinematography looks shiny for the most part but also manages to capture so many cool moments on-screen. Chief among them is the opening sequences when James dives off the top of the Contra Dam and the camera follows down with him. It’s an amazing stunt that immediately sets itself apart from all the previous entries in the series. There are also numerous points throughout where it uses numerous angles and long-takes for certain scenes. And the lighting is almost immaculate all the way through.

This works mostly in tandem with the editing job by Terry Rawlings. Every scene is carefully cut together so that the action can remain exciting but still intelligible for audiences. One particular moment near the end where Cumming’s character keeps frantically pushing on a pen creates a lot of unique tension as it builds towards a literally explosive climax. It also manages to blend the visual effects with practical in-camera tricks really well to where it looks mostly seamless.

Luc Besson’s frequent collaborator Éric Serra provides the instrumental film score here and to be honest, it’s entirely forgettable. The composition very much is inspired by contemporary 90’s music with an attempt to mix traditional orchestral sounds with more electronic rhythms. Unfortunately, the combo really doesn’t work as well as it should, and it honestly feels more like an afterthought than anything else.

Pop superstar Tina Turner gives us an original song for the requisite opening credits sequence titled the same as the film. As far as Bond songs go, it’s fine but not particularly memorable. Turner’s incredible vocals are always a delight to the ears but the rest of the track still leaves a lot to be desired.

GoldenEye is a welcome reinvention of a very archaic character. Martin Campbell is able to wrangle together a capable cast and great crew members to successfully bring James Bond into a post-Cold War world that proves to be just as great, if not more so, than its predecessors. Pierce Brosnan is more than willing to carry the iconic role forward with all of the wit, charm, and sophistication that we’ve all come to expect from 007.

“Birds of Prey” Movie Review

Although I could be wrong, this might be the first movie I’ve ever seen where two female characters exchange a hair tie on-screen. It’s a small moment, but it’s also something totally unique to mainstream films that doesn’t get enough recognition.

This superhero crime comedy film was released in theaters worldwide by Warner Bros. on February 7th, 2020. Made for the relatively small budget of around $82 million, it has gone one to gross just over $202 million at the global box office. While this is undoubtedly a big success and could see a sizable profit, it’s been on a slower role than expected. Following the relative underperformance of the opening weekend, the studio changed the film’s title to Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey for some markets. In spite of that, it has amassed some very positive reviews from critics and audiences alike.

Directed by Cathy Yan, the film was one of several DC projects announced after the commercial success of Suicide Squad. The main actress set up her new production company, LuckyChap Entertainment, so that screenwriter Christina Hodson would have more creative freedom in pre-production. The studio had multiple different properties involving Harley Quinn in development, including Gotham City Sirens, but this was the only one with the main actress’s direct involvement. Yan’s hiring, only her second feature overall, also makes her the first female Asian director to helm a theatrical superhero movie.

Picking up a little while after the events of Suicide Squad, Margot Robbie returns as Harley Quinn, a former psychiatrist turned violent criminal psychopath. After the Joker dumps her and ends any connection between the two, she goes on a citywide bender to keep the breakup a secret as it would remove any protections she has. Word of their breakup soon reaches Roman Sionis, played by Ewan McGregor, a ruthless Gotham crime lord in Gotham who goes by the name “Black Mask.” Harley eventually crosses paths with four other women on Sionis’ radar- mob daughter-turned vigilante Helena Bertinelli, burlesque singer Dinah Lance, alcoholic detective Renee Montoya, and street-wise thief Cassandra Cain -and soon find a way to team up and bring him down.

This was one of those potential superhero projects that I was skeptical about when it was first announced, as DC has had many films in and out of development. My best guess is that most of them are still being made but this one was simply the first one to make it out of the gate. But in any case, it’s finally here now, it’s out in the world, and it’s up to us to talk about the ultimate results of it.

Regardless of your opinions on the movie Suicide Squad, it’s hard to deny that Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn was absolutely fantastic. And hearing that she was gonna headline an all-female team-up movie with various other heroines in an R-rated adventure sounded like a true breath of fresh air for the genre. And lo and behold, Birds of Prey is a really fun time at the movies that inverts a lot of classic superhero tropes.

Make no mistake, this is not a movie either to be seen with the whole family nor taken very seriously. Just the full title, And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn, illustrates how irreverent it’s gonna get and, credit where its due, Hodson’s screenplay commits to it. The film fully utilizes its R-rating with numerous F-bombs and scenes of bloody violence without becoming immature; to be honest, I don’t know if it would have still worked if it were PG-13 instead.

However, after seeing Birds of Prey, it is fairly easy seeing why the studio changed the name in some markets. Harley Quinn is undoubtedly the protagonist of the story and the other four women are more or less just along for the ride. The script often has trouble finding a good balance between multiple storylines, constantly having to cut back to different timelines to keep the continuity flowing. It’s a little frustrating, but it’s hard to resist the charm of what Yan and company set out to do.

Margot Robbie is the definitive live-action version of Harley Quinn, and no recasting will ever change that. Here, she has her trademark sense of macabre humor and aloofness, more often than not unaware of how much destruction she’s leaving in her wake. While she clearly has zero interest in doing the right thing or helping people who need it, she’s desperate to find a sense of belonging after the only person she’s ever had a connection with has abandoned her.

Meanwhile, the other four “Birds” are absolutely fantastic and fun in their respective roles. Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollet-Bell, Rosie Perez, and newcomer Ella Jay Basco all fulfill their duties with flying colors and create different and interesting personalities. Basco is particularly excellent as Cassandra Cain, a highly resourceful petty thief who only wants to find a place of belonging, much like Harley.

Ewan McGregor is also fantastic and flamboyant as crime lord Roman Sionis, A.K.A. “Black Mask.” He’s a complete narcissist who has no qualms about torturing, killing, or humiliating others to get what he wants and always tries to become the center of attention iin the room. McGregor is clearly having a grand time in the role and while it may seem a bit over the top, it perfectly suits the villain’s personality.

The supporting cast is also great and isn’t afraid to ham it up to match the over-the-top nature of the film. This includes Ali Wong as Montoya’s ex-girlfriend of a district attorney, Chris Messina as Black Mask’s psychopathic killer and right-hand man, Steven Williams as the apathetic Captain at the GCPD, Dana Lee as a friendly restaurant owner in Harley’s building, and François Chau as a rival crime boss threatening Black Mask’s operations. All of them know exactly what to do with their respective roles and get one or two good lines in for good measure.

And from a technical perspective, Birds of Prey showcases a unique style that sets it apart from other films in the genre. Shot by the versatile Matthew Libatique, the cinematography is very colorful and saturated, perfectly in the right tone with its wild protagonist. The film makes use of many different techniques throughout, including sudden dolly-ins and roving swoops during action sequences. Numerous primary colors are enhanced to make Gotham feel like a twisted Wonderland playground for Harley and her friends to mess around in.

The editing job by Jay Cassidy and Evan Schiff is frenetic and highly reminiscent of Guy Ritchie’s style. There are multiple freeze frames throughout the film so that Harley can wryly catch the audience up on a brand new plot point. And for the most part, during action scenes, it’s cut together in a way that’s easy enough to follow but still filled with enough style to feel unique.

Bolstered by committed performances and great visuals, Birds of Prey is a fun R-rated romp that can sometimes be too fluff and flair. Freed from the normal constraints of a franchise blockbuster, Cathy Yan is able to make an impressive studio debut that proves comic book movies have a future in going beyond what’s family-friendly. Even when the film gets bogged down by an unnecessarily complicated script, Margot Robbie and the rest of her crew are more than willing to hold it together with all the charm and charisma that can be afforded.

“To Catch a Thief” Movie Review

It was only very recently that I realized I hadn’t actually seen nearly as many Hitchcock movies as I thought. Thankfully, my New Year’s resolution presented an opportunity to help rectify that situation, at least a little bit.

This romantic caper thriller was released in theaters worldwide by Paramount Pictures on August 3rd, 1955. Made for the budget of $2.5 million, the film went on the gross about $4.5 million in U.S. rentals during its original release. However, its global total at the box office is believed to be closer to around $8.75 million, on par with the director’s previous films. Although the film received mixed reviews at the time of its release, it has since garnered a respected reputation among his extensive oeuvre.

Directed and produced by Alfred Hitchcock, the script by John Michael Hayes was adapted from the novel of the same name by David Dodge. The main star had attempted to retire two years prior out of anger for the House Un-American Activities Committee’s treatment of Charlie Chaplin. However, he ultimately returned to collaborate with the director and would go on to act for 11 more years afterward. It’s also Hitchcock’s only film with Paramount that the studio still owns the rights to, as the rest were sold back to him in the 1960s and put out through Universal Studios.

Cary Grant stars as John Robie, a retired cat burglar living a peaceful retirement in the French Riviera. While he enjoys a comfortable, reformed public image, a series of copycat thefts is committed against the small town’s wealthy tourists. The authorities immediately assume that Robie has gone back to his criminal ways, causing him to go on the run. With a limited amount of time, Robie sets out with young American tourist Frances Stevens, played by Grace Kelly, to catch the real crook and prove his innocence.

Obviously, Alfred Hitchcock is one of the most important and influential filmmakers in cinema history. He managed to completely change the way that films were made and presented, with a wholly unique style and clear vision of what he wants. North By Northwest and Vertigo rank among some of my favorite movies of all time, and even some of his lesser work like The Birds is extremely impressive for its time.

I had seen that this particular film, one of his more celebrated as I understand it, was finally available to stream through my resources. Hitchcock is far from a stranger to the caper genre and was curious to see what he and Cary Grant could make prior to their collaboration on North By Northwest. And while To Catch a Thief is certainly not the director’s finest work, it still manages to be a whole lot of fun that subverts expectations all these years later.

Obviously, when you’ve made so many iconic and groundbreaking films like Hitchcock, a few of them are bound to get lost somewhere by the wayside. This one certainly falls into that category, since it was made seemingly in between masterpieces as a sort of lightweight exercise for all involved. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing at all because there’s still plenty of entertainment value to be had here and reflects the kind of caper adventure that Hollywood has seemingly lost interest in making.

It’s also a testament to the quality and production of To Catch a Thief that it stilly manages to really grab your attention all these decades later. Whether it be the magical pull of Hitchcock’s direction, the irresistible cast, or a combination of both, it’s hard not to fall right into Robie’s misadventures and quest for innocence. That’s a sort of Old World optimism that, by today’s standards, actually seems rather quaint, and is an immortal part of its irrevocable charm.

Cary Grant was one of the biggest movie stars in Hollywood for a reason, and his third collaboration with the director is further proof of it. As John Robie, he’s his usually charismatic and debonair self, a career criminal who simply wants to hang up his hat and live the rest of his life in peace. While he acts completely in control of the situation towards the authorities and locals, it all turns out to be a façade as everyone he once considered his friends start turning on him.

In one of her final roles before her royal retirement, Grace Kelly shines as Frances Stevens, Robie’s young American accomplice on the run. Although she only appears initially as a pretty face with a lot to say, she actually turns out to be much more intelligent and resourceful than given credit for. Despite the apparent danger this bandit-on-the-run scenario presents, she seems willing to jump headlong into the excitement of such an adventure.

John Williams (Not to be confused with the legendary composer) also gives a memorable performance as H.H. Hughson, a local insurance man who acts as Robie’s handler. Unlike Robie, he’s an extremely pragmatic career man who understands the intricacies of a situation like this and is highly skeptical of his colleague’s innocence. When it comes down to it, though, Hughson comes through for Robie when almost everyone else in the Riviera immediately believes his guilt.

Jessie Royce Landis, Charles Venel, Brigitte Auber, and Jean Martinelli all turn in memorable supporting roles of varying importance. Each one of them fits perfectly into the classic roles of a caper film which have since become archetypes of the genre. They all prove to be formidable players with someone like Hitchcock and manage to find the right balancing act for each of their respective characters.

Meanwhile, from a purely technical perspective, To Catch a Thief shows Hitchcock has already mastered his craft. Shot by frequent collaborator Robert Burks, the cinematography is very bright and full of diverse compositions. This was the first of five films the director filmed using the VistaVision process, which helps to create a widescreen format that makes the adventure feel bigger in scale and scope. Many of Hitchcock’s trademarks are shown throughout the film, including unusual angles that signify a character’s mental or emotional state during the plot.

This matches up well with the editing job by George Tomasini, who go on to work with the director for 8 more feature films. The film consistently makes use of cross dissolves as transitions between scenes to make things feel somewhat dreamy. And while the film consists of many scenes of dialogue, Hitchcock and Tomasini are able to keep things interesting with consistent cuts that don’t interfere with what’s going on. One particular scene sees a highspeed car traveling dangerously on a cliffside road as Frances and Robie finally come to an understanding with each other. Even 65 years later, that sequence still makes my palms sweat from anxiety.

In one of his earliest jobs for Hollywood, Lyn Murray composes and conducts the instrumental film score here. It is a perfect encapsulation of movie music during this period because of how wide-ranging the whole soundtrack is. The primary theme is an excellent tune that mixes the tone of adventure and mystery, using a mixture of woodwinds and strings to its advantage. Later in the soundtrack, we get to hear unusual percussion such as xylophones and bass drums to illustrate the relatively fast-paced nature of the story. While it’s not the best score of Old Hollywood, it is one worth listening to after the credits roll.

The kind of adventure that rarely gets made these days, To Catch a Thief is a lightweight caper with fun performances and old-school tricks. Alfred Hitchcock may have been coasting on his acclaim here, but he’s still able to assemble one hell of a picture that shows the best of his tendencies. It also has the luck of being carried by both Cary Grant and Grace Kelly in their prime to boost this straightforward and unpretentious classic.

“The Last Thing He Wanted” Movie Review

It’s hard to think of another film in recent history that burns all of its promise so quickly within a span of two hours.

This political thriller premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival to an extremely tepid response. It was later released in extremely limited theaters and on the streaming service Netflix on February 21st of the same year. Despite being touted as one of the streamer’s prestige titles for the year, it arrived on the platform with little to no fanfare, likely because of its debut at Sundance. Since its release, it has received some of the worst reviews of any film in the new year, which many expressed disappointment over.

Directed by Dee Rees, the film is adapted from the novel of the same name by Joan Didion, one of her only works of fiction. The project was announced almost immediately after the success of her previous film Mudbound and was co-written with first-time writer Marco Villalobos. Although it was originally believed to have been ready in time to make the fall festival circuit in 2019, the excessive editing schedule forced Netflix to push it back to early this year.

Set in 1984, Anne Hathaway stars as Elena McMahon, a hardline journalist working for The Washington Post. She’s following a vast conspiracy where the Reagan administration is allegedly supplying weapons to fighters in Central America. While she covers the presidential race, her estranged father Richard, played by Willem Dafoe, gets on-set dementia. From there, Elena unintentionally inherits his position as a gun-runner for the U.S. government and becomes a pawn in the very story she was trying to break.

I absolutely adored Rees’ previous feature Mudbound, the first “Original” film from Netflix that I truly loved. It was a complex, richly satisfying drama about racial tensions in America that refused to give any easy answers to the questions it raised. From Rachel Morrison’s incredible cinematography to an Oscar-worthy performance from an unrecognizable Mary J. Blige, it showed that she was a talent to keep an eye on.

Hearing news that her next project would be a politically-charged thriller sounded like an unexpected but unique step forward. With a stacked cast of recognizable names and some sadly relevant subject matter, it seemed like the film would be a way for her to further realize her potential as a filmmaker. Unfortunately, and it pains me to say this, The Last Thing He Wanted is just as bad as people say it is and quite possibly Netflix’s worst film to date.

At first glance, it can be somewhat easy to tell why Dee Rees signed on to write and direct this film. The story attempts to tackle issues left over from the wreckage of the Reagan Era, specifically with American interventionism in foreign affairs and instigating illegal conflicts for both sides. But pretty soon, she loses a grip on the story as it becomes increasingly and needlessly confusing with all sorts of story threads that never come together. I don’t know if that’s the fault of her, her co-writer Marco Villalobos, or author Joan Didion for making the story like this in the first place.

Moreover, The Last Thing He Wanted feels like it was directed by two completely different people, as if Rees just gave up and someone else finished the job. It never finds a clear stance on what exactly it wants to say for its subject matter or how it wants to treat the Latin American characters. And it definitely doesn’t help to clear things up whenever shadowy American bureaucrats show up in every other scene in a feeble attempt to contextualize just what the hell’s going on.

Anne Hathaway is unquestionably a great actress, but here she just feels severely miscast in the lead role. Elena is tough as nails and extremely determined to get to the bottom of the truth but is clearly way in over her head and doesn’t have the faintest idea of who the real powers and players are. Hathaway is mostly believable with this character in the first half but soon loses sight of what angle to play at and feel more like a caricature than a fleshed-out human being.

By her side during most of her adventures is Rosie Perez as Alma Guerrero, Elena’s trusty and loyal photographer friend. Perhaps the only actor in the film who manages to rise to the occasion, she is far and away the only Latina character here with any sort of depth or layers. She seems to have a clear understanding of how grossly corrupt the system in this world is but still tries to look for an optimistic chance to do the right thing.

Hell, even the usually reliable Willem Dafoe feels lost and out of place in this movie. As Richard McMahon, Elena’s long-estranged father, he spends the majority of his screen time drunk out of his mind and confused about his life. There is an element of tragedy somewhere as his mind slowly withers away and regrets the only things he can remember with his daughter, but there’s so little context between the two of them that it’s hard to grasp on.

Ben Affleck, Edi Gathegi, Mel Rodriguez, Toby Jones, Carlos Leal, and Julian Gamble round out the supporting cast. Sadly, none of them are really able to elevate the material when needed or give their characters much life. Affleck’s character is by far given the most screen time, but even then there isn’t much character development or intrigue for his part; if anything, he makes the situation even more confusing.

And even from a technical standpoint, The Last Thing He Wanted shows Dee Rees struggling to find a complete and unique voice here. Shot by Bobby Bukowski, the cinematography has a certain grainy quality to reflect its period setting and uncertainty of the storyline. It’s often done on tripods or mounts to create an illusion of control that the characters seem to think they have. There are a handful of close-ups or push-ins throughout where it tries to represent the characters’ headspace. It also occasionally uses the split-screen technique when Elena is on the phone with someone, which happens quite often in the film.

But the editing job by Mako Kamitsuna is so choppy and poor that it completely breaks any tension or intrigue in the film. It almost feels like the film is missing half of its scenes because the film frequently reuses footage from earlier moments. This is meant to give extra context or explanation for what’s going on, but it only adds further to the confusion and messiness of the plot. And the in-continuity segments are strung together in such a dull and unappealing manner that it feels like they’re trying to hide how incomplete the whole thing feels.

When it’s all said and done, The Last Thing He Wanted is an utter trainwreck of a thriller that wastes its timely potential. Despite her best efforts, Dee Rees is unable to wrangle this Joan Didion book into a cohesive feature film. Its fascinating premise and subject matter aside, this is a woefully miscast and highly miscalculated film that barely finds a moment of genuine intrigue or entertainment.

I know that with the whole world in full lock-down mode right now, it’s tempting to watch any sort of content that Netflix has to offer. But pushing through this slog of a movie when there are hundreds of other, far better options to choose from is literally the last thing any of us want.

Ben Affleck, Willem Dafoe, Rosie Perez, and Anne Hathaway in The Last Thing He Wanted (2020)

 

“Magnolia” Movie Review

I speak absolutely no hyperbole when I say that that might have been one of the quickest 3-hour movies I’ve ever seen. As someone who lives and breathes off of long films like The Lord of the Rings and Lawrence of Arabia, take that as high praise.

This epic ensemble drama was originally released in theaters worldwide by New Line Cinema on December 17th, 1999. It got a much wider release about two weeks later on January 7th when it expanded to more cities. Although it managed to gross over $48.5 million at the global box office, it struggled to keep up with stiff competition, not to mention its production budget of $37 million. Even so, it garnered some extremely positive responses from critics and audiences, including a glowing reaction from filmmaker Ingmar Bergman. It also went on to win the top prize at the 50th Berlin International Film Festival the following year and was nominated for 3 Academy Awards, but didn’t win any.

Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, the film came along almost fully formed after the success of Anderson’s sophomore feature Boogie Nights. New Line Cinema and Michel De Luca told him he could make whatever he wanted next, and gave him final cut rights without even hearing a pitch. The director reportedly wrote several roles with their actors in mind, and even visited the set of Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut to pitch it to one of them in person. Anderson also strongly disapproved of the studio’s marketing campaign, allegedly designing his own poster and cut together a brand new trailer for it.

Set in the then-present-day San Fernando Valley, the film is more of an ensemble piece rather than a focused narrative. Over the course of one day, we encounter the lives of over a dozen different characters- including a pick-up artist, a lonely police officer, a quiz show T.V. host and contestant, an ailing producer, and the kind nurse caring for him -who are interrelated in some ways. As strange and inexplicable things happen to all of them throughout the day, these men and women try to find a chance at love, forgiveness, and happiness, even if they may not deserve it.

Paul Thomas Anderson is a director whom I’ve run hot and cold on in the past, but overall I like his style. There Will Be Blood, The Master, Punch-Drunk Love, and Boogie Nights show that he has a unique view on human nature and behavior. From the extremely detailed characters he paints to the believable performances he draws out of his actors, he’s often overlooked in his generation of filmmakers.

Despite this, I had yet to watch his third feature, which many people I know consider to be his magnum opus. It being finally available on Netflix gave me an opportunity to watch it in no more than two sittings and see how it holds up against the rest of his filmography. Fortunately, Magnolia proves not only to be one of Anderson’s strongest directorial offerings yet but quite possibly one of the best films of the 1990s, period.

It’s quite clear from the history-heavy cold open of montages that Anderson has very sprawling yet specific plans of what to explore here. In another, less distinctive director’s hands, the synopsis given above could easily devolve into an overlong slog of schmaltz and syrupy sentimentality. And while there are a handful of sentimental moments here and there, there’s never a second of the film that feels cheesy or heavy-handed; it’s a fundamentally human story.

Perhaps the best compliment that I can give Magnolia is that while there are many characters to follow here, you become equally invested in almost all of them. They’re all broken in one way or another and want a chance at reconciliation and happiness, even if they don’t openly acknowledge it or even deserve it. And unlike Love, Actually or any of those stupid, overblown holiday movies with star-studded casts, each of them being connected by the slightest threads only makes revelations about their past all the more tragic and engaging.

In a massive ensemble stacked with talent one either side, perhaps the most underrated performer is Jeremy Blackman as Stanley Spector, a child prodigy competing on a popular quiz show. A precocious and extremely insightful young boy, he desperately wants the respect and approval of his adult peers, particularly his father. He appears to be wiser than many of the people surrounding him but feels eternally trapped in his position and doesn’t feel like he’ll amount to anything more than a has-been.

John C. Reilly is also completely brilliant and natural as Jim Kurring, a bumbling but well-meaning police officer. A sharp departure from his future roles in irreverent comedies, he tries to hide his crippling loneliness and apparent ineptitude as an officer to make it appear as though he is control of his life. When an opportunity arise for him to potentially finally find someone who loves him, he tries to put on his best show and even briefly forgets his own shortcomings.

Anderson works with an enormous troupe of actors in varying roles but manages to get the most out of them. Including *DEEP BREATH* Melora Walters, Philip Seymour Hoffman, William H. Macy, Julianne Moore, Melinda Dillon, Alfred Molina, Philip Baker Hall, Ricky Jay, April Grace, Luiz Guzman, and Jason Robards in his final role before his death.

The most talked-about performer, though, is Tom Cruise as Frank T.J. Mackey, a popular and in-demand pickup artist for unconfident men. This might just be one of his best performances ever, as he uses his typical boyish charisma and charm to give way to a self-obsessed hypocrite. It soon becomes abundantly clear that he uses all of his sexist “self-help” methods and self-aggrandizing monologues as a tool to mask unresolved resentment towards his parents. The sheer range that Cruise demonstrates is a true antithesis to all of his haters, and earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

And from a pure filmmaking perspective, Paul Thomas Anderson uses Magnolia to further define his cinematic voice. Shot by longtime collaborator Robert Elswit, the cinematography is almost always roving around from character to character, even using whip pans as a sneaky transition. Comparisons to Scorsese in the camerawork are apt, but it always keeps the action rolling during tense scenes. There are a number of push-ins and slow zooms for more dramatic moments, and even a brilliant tracking shot early on to capture the chaos of a show behind the scenes. A handful of primary colors such as red and blue are also used to help further establish the tone of each storyline.

This goes hand-in-hand with the editing job by Dylan Tichenor, which manages to seamlessly weave together each storyline. Often times, it’ll cute between multiple characters many times whenever it feels thematically appropriate. What’s even more impressive is how despite carrying the weight of multiple different characters and story threads, the tone is completely consistent with each scene. Some are darkly funny, some are sad, some are so uniquely emotional that it’s hard to describe in words.

Singer-songwriter Aimee Mann heavily contributes to the soundtrack of the film, both with recordings of old songs or her own batch of new ones. After the cold-open montage, a revamped version of the song “One” plays over the introduction to all of the main characters and their situations. It perfectly captures the tone of their loneliness and uncertainty while still being fast-paced. Another notable example is the song “Wise Up,” which manages to be sung by many of the actors at once, even though they’re all in different places. It’s a mesmerizing scene where most of them are at their rock-bottoms and try to cling on to anything to keep going on.

Also, Mann wrote and performed an Oscar-nominated original song called “Save Me,” which is saved for the very end. It’s just as melancholy and empathetic as the rest of her soundtrack and manages to bring nearly all of the storylines to a close. The lowkey instrumentation matches the longing of the lyrics and Mann’s supreme vocals and is arguably one of the most underrated songs ever written for a film.

Carrying the weight of multiple characters and story threads but never once feeling overblown in its ambitions, Magnolia is an emotionally resonant ballet of empathy and humanity. After careful consideration of his whole filmography, I feel comfortable enough to say that this might be Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterpiece. Because not only does he handle a sprawling tale with such care and delicacy, but he also wrings incredible performances out of his massive ensemble cast.

Happiness and forgiveness are extremely difficult virtues to come by for many, especially in these scary times. And while there might not be raining frogs anytime soon, it is the humble opinion of this writer that everyone at least deserves a chance for the two.