Category Archives: Emotional

“All That Jazz” Movie Review

I’ve been constantly looking for the one film that could possibly win over even people who weren’t a fan of musicals. And I’m pretty sure I just found it. This fantastical musical drama was originally released in theaters worldwide by 20th Century Fox and Columbia Pictures on December 20th, 1979. Made for the budget of $12 million, it went on to gross over $37.8 million at the box office, considered above expectations. One of the most acclaimed films of its year, it went on to garner the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival the following year and won 4 Academy Awards out of 9 nominations. Additionally, it received high praise from figures in the industry, including filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. Directed by Bob Fosse, the screenplay was written in collaboration with producer Robert Alan McArthur. As the production’s cost was continuously climbing, another studio had to be brought in to help finish it and was given domestic distribution as well. The film is said to be based on Fosse’s experiences trying to stage a production of Chicago while simultaneously editing the film Lenny, which resulted in him suffering massive heart attack. Many of the actors involved were either based on people in Fosse’s life or were playing mildly fictional versions of themselves. Roy Scheider stars as Joe Gideon, a workaholic yet successful Broadway director and choreographer. As he’s working on a brand new show, while also editing a film behind schedule, his health condition gradually becomes worse as he can’t pull himself away from a life of debauchery. He frequently has imaginary conversations with an angel of death named Angelique, played by Jessica Lange, who tries to help him understand the sins of his life. And despite the crystal clear signs and warnings from family and friends that he needs to slow down, Joe is determined to finish his work before his time on Earth is over. While my Broadway history is far from thorough, I really do enjoy Bob Fosse’s work on musicals like Chicago. His intimate and first-hand knowledge of that world really shines through in just about every one of his projects. There’s a certain energy and wavelength they’re all on that’s just impossible to resist so easily. Despite this, I had never seen any of his film productions until this one. I guess it was partially because I feared if his masterful staging and choreography would translate into cinema very well. And that is just the case because All That Jazz is a phenomenal film that transcends its very genre over and over. Unlike most semi-autobiographical pictures, this one doesn’t try to sanitize the director’s lifestyle or his profession. In fact, the best and most terrifying part about it is how Fosse reckons with his destructive choices and the people he’s damaged as a result. And yet, I’ve been told that this is still somehow less dramatic than what had actually transpired in real life. Even more scary is that All That Jazz is unafraid to show the dangerous side of show business, warts and all. There are numerous scenes where the producers and financiers of Gideon’s projects are either extremely uncomfortable with his vision or trying to find a way to undermine it for investment returns. In that, it might be too brutal to watch for some, but it never forgets the humanity at the heart of the story. Roy Scheider makes a total departure from his heroic turn in Jaws by completely embodying the director in the best way possible. As Joe Gideon, he convincingly portrays his gradual downfall as his personal and professional life come to a head. His constant movement and multitasking shows the natural talent he possesses, even if it alienates everyone in his life. Watching him slowly fall apart, first denying it hen embracing it, is heartbreaking to see. Jessica Lange also shines as Angelique, Gideon’s eager and contemplative angel of death. The film often interjects scenes of the real world with Gideon recounting different stories to her, who’s goal seems to be trying to understand his humanity as death inches closer. Her curiosity towards his failings as a man makes her one of the few characters he opens up to, even though she’s somewhat distant emotionally. The supporting cast is rounded out by a troupe of noticeable character actors, many of whom have background in theater. This includes Ann Reinking as the auteur’s youthful new girlfriend, Ben Vereen as a late night music entertainer, Cliff Gorman as the lead actor in a film Gideon is cutting together, John Lithgow as one of Gideon’s Broadway rivals, and Wallace Shawn as an opportunistic insurance investigator. Each one plays a big part in Joe’s personal or professional life and frequently come and go as the story needs them to. And from a purely technical standpoint, All That Jazz is a towering achievement in the Hollywood New Wave. Shot by Federico Fellini’s collaborator Giuseppe Rotunno, the cinematography is gritty and largely unpretentious. For the moments when it’ just focused on Joe’s personal affairs or business dealings, the color palette is very grimy and harsh as to represent his lifestyle. But when it switches to something more theatrical, the colors turn vibrant with spotlights and the lighting is incredible. Most of the shots are steady zooms or tracking shots, often showcasing a whole performance in one go. It is made even more amazing by the editing job from Alan Heim, which may as well be a Masterclass in editing. The most notable example of it being Joe’s morning routine, which repeats several times and gives a great view of his unhealthy habits. It frequently cuts between two scenes to show a strong juxtaposition between them, such as the Broadway show’s backers discussing financial prospects contrasting with Joe’s heart surgery. As the film goes along, the editing becomes more distorted as Joe becomes more unsure of what’s real and what’s the afterlife. Both of these things culminate in a glorious final act, which might just be one of the best endings in film history. With a new rendition of The Everly Brothers’ “Bye Bye Love,” it’s a spectacular finale befitting of its protagonist. And the smash cut to the last shot is perhaps one of the most devastating you’re likely to ever see in a motion picture. Featuring intense performances, amazing direction, and an incredible ending to cap it all off, All That Jazz is an existential masterpiece of music, death, and the personal cost of artistry. By subverting the “tortured artist” cliché and letting his guard down, Bob Fosse delivers one of the most powerful and unhinged portraits of the entertainment industry. Roy Schieder gives a great performance as a caricature of Fosse and the whole rest and the cast and crew bring their absolute A-game. As I said in the beginning, even if you don’t really like musicals, it will be very difficult to not be captivated by this film’s chaotic beauty.

“El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie” Movie Review

This is the first “Original Film” by Netflix that I’ve had the pleasure of seeing in an actual movie theater. I’m not quite sure yet if I’m “excited” to see it happen more with their forthcoming projects but a film like this definitely deserves the theatrical experience. This neo-western crime drama was released on the streaming service Netflix on October 11th, 2019. It also had a concurrent theatrical run in limited venues for one weekend only, presumably to qualify for awards season. Although it reportedly only made about $40,000, some sources have indicated that it likely would have recuperated its $6 million budget if it had a wide theatrical release. It’s also on track to air once again on AMC, the show’s original T.V. network, sometime next year. Written and directed by Vince Gilligan, the idea for the film had been in his mind for many years and didn’t share with anyone for a long time. It initially was thought of as a simple 10-minute short film and later evolved and grew into a two-hour feature project. Around the time that the 10th anniversary for Breaking Bad rolled around, he approached the former star about the concept, who immediately took to the idea. The project was put together and filmed in almost complete secrecy, with rumors about its existence only really popping up near the end of production. Picking up a few moments after the series finale “Felina,” Aaron Paul returns as Jesse Pinkman, a former meth cook turned fugitive. Having recently escaped from his neo-Nazi captors, he struggles to find a place to hunker down in and evade both the law and other interest parties. With a newfound drive for freedom, he sets out to take care of some unfinished business while also trying to escape his violent past once and for all. Let’s get one thing straight here: Breaking Bad is one of the greatest T.V. shows of all time, full stop. From beginning to end, it’s an absolutely incredible character study with a delicate balance of realism and emotional involvement. Better Call Saul was a worthy prequel/spin-off for this universe, but it just can’t get to heights of Vince Gilligan’s original masterpiece. Like many fans, I was always curious to know what happened to Jesse Pinkman after he blasts through that gate in “Felina.” I was a little worried that I wouldn’t want to see what would happen because that sort of slight ambiguity seemed perfect at the time. And while we could debate about it being essential or not, El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie definitely proves to be a worthy continuation of this world and its characters. This movie acts more like an extended epilogue to the series rather than a real sequel to it. Whereas “Felina” acted as the conclusion to Walter White’s story, this film focuses almost entirely on Jesse’s last attempt at gaining real freedom. This forces him to reckon with his past, the people he has done wrong to, and whether he can rectify everything he wants to before it’s too late. And while it’s undoubtedly an exciting movie to watch , El Camino only really appeals to established fans of the show. Unless you’ve seen all five seasons of Breaking Bad from beginning to end, you’ll most likely lack the emotional connection to the characters and story, especially as it makes numerous callbacks to various episodes. But unlike a lot of other cinematic continuations of beloved T.V. shows, what might be considered “fan service” here also works in service to Jesse’s journey. I do hope, however, that newcomers can still enjoy it as a tense neo-western thriller on its own terms. Aaron Paul hasn’t missed a single beat since the end of “Felina,” as the character of Jesse Pinkman is still wholly his own. With a new added sense of maturity and world-weariness, his quietly brilliant turn is equal parts riveting and tragic. He has seen so much over the course of the story that at this point, he’s essentially desensitized to all of  it. We also see him in flashbacks with various characters, which really helps illustrate how far both the character himself and Paul’s performance as him has come. Charles Baker and Matt Jones return as Jesse’s best friends, Skinny Pete and Badger Mayhew, respectively. Although they’re not very bright and are quite oblivious to the full scale of his struggle, they’re also extremely loyal to him and won’t hesitate to help him in a tricky spot. These two are arguably the only real friends that Jesses had throughout the whole series, and seeing them give him support without batting an eye was heartwarming. In flashback form, Jesse Plemons reprises his role as Todd Alquist, Jesse’s captor and forceful boss. He’s as despicable and creepy as ever, which contrasts greatly with his polite and patient demeanor shown while keeping Jesse hostage. Watching what he makes Jesse do in these flashbacks is abominable, and makes his fate in the T.V. show all the more satisfying. Other supporting characters include Larry Hankin as an elderly junkyard owner always willing to help criminals, Tess Harper and Michael Bofshever as Jesse’s concerned parents begging for his surrender, Scott McArthur as a criminal welder Pinkman comes across on his journey, and Robert Forster as a vacuum salesman who specializes in making people disappear. Each one somehow plays a part in Jesse’s torment, salvation, or fugitive status and leaves an impression to be sure. Forster is particularly notable in his last film role before his death, which was sadly the same day as its release. Although he only has a couple scenes, there’s a wisdom and grace to his character’s understanding of the criminal underworld. And it’s clear that even though his calm and collected, he knows exactly what’s going on and how to deal with it. From a filmmaking perspective, El Camino highlights Vince Gilligan developing a distinct cinematic voice. Marshall Adams’ cinematography is as focused and tight as it was in Better Call Saul, with an added cinematic tinge. The steely color palette is perfect for the gritty and seedy nature of the environment Jesse must overcome to survive. There are numerous clever movements with the camera, such as when it rotates 360 degrees to show his confused and desperate mindset. This matches the editing job by Skip Macdonald, who cuts together scenes with a nice balance of grace and force. Several scenes feature long takes to give the actors room to breathe in their performances. Often times, it will feature a hard cut from the present day to a flashback or vice versa, and it works to grab the audience’s attention. Other instances are more subtle, possibly to show how much this particular event or exchange influences his decisions now. Dave Porter returns from the show to provide the instrumental film score, and his partnership Gilligan was sorely missed. Like the show, much of the soundtrack consists of dark electronic sounds and percussion. It’s very psychological and accurately represents the frantic pace with which Jesse’s escape represents. A couple of tracks even escalate like a tightening string on a guitar, waiting for something to snap. But as it goes along, it starts calming down a little, providing room for more contemplative tracks. The film also includes the song “Static On The Radio” by Jim White, which plays over the end credits. While at first it seems unusual, as it plays out it suddenly fits the tone and mood of the ending. Like Breaking Bad, it’s a relatively obscure song that fits perfectly in the story and demands to be heard more afterwards. El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie is an excellent coda to an already perfect story. While it’s not necessarily essential to the experience, Vince Gilligan managed to craft an ending that still honors the show’s timeless legacy. Aaron Paul shows that he’s still got it as Jesse Pinkman in his (Supposedly) final outing with the character, and it was nice to see Robert Forster one last time. Even if he moves away from the Breaking Bad universe, I’m excited to see whatever Vince Gilligan makes next.

Breaking Bad Movie El Camino Poster

“Ad Astra” Movie Review

Of all the depictions of mankind’s future in the stars on the silver screen, this one might be one of the most grounded in plausibility. There’s no telling what exactly the future holds for us and to see this particular sort of portrait is fascinating. This large-scaled science-fiction drama premiere in the Official Competition at the 76th Venice International Film Festival. Aglow with positive reviews from critics, it was released in theaters by Disney under the 20th Century Fox banner on September 20th, 2019. From its opening weekend, it has thus far grossed over $120.1 million against an estimated budget of around $87 million. The studio is reportedly watching its performance closely for future analysis, though the star and director don’t seem to care as much. Directed by James Gray, the filmmaker spent the better part of a decade working on the project with co-writer Ethan Gross. His stated goal was to create the most realistic depiction of space in the history of film, especially of how hostile it is to humans. While many comparisons have obviously been made to the film Apocalypse Now and its novel inspiration Heart of Darkness, it’s also believed to stem from Gray’s complicated experience as a father. Originally scheduled to be ready in time for this year’s Cannes Film Festival, the film was repeatedly pushed back to accommodate time for the complex visual effects and for new distributor Disney to figure out the marketing campaign. Set in the near future, Brad Pitt produces and stars as Major Roy McBride, a space engineer and astronaut. After a series of power surges through the Solar System cause the deaths of thousands, the higher ups at Space Command believe it to be the work of his father H. Clifford McBride, played by Tommy Lee Jones. Clifford had disappeared 16 years prior on the Lima Project, a deep space mission that was meant to find signs of intelligent life in the farthest reaches of the Solar System. Believed to have lost his mind and hiding out near Neptune, Roy is assigned to go out and try and communicate with him, unraveling dark secrets about the mission in the process. I had been looking forward to this movie from the minute it had been announced a couple years back. I’m a fan of James Gray because I think he brings a certain classical touch to popular genres, like he did with The Lost City of Z and We Own the Night. Not to mention, this might be the biggest-scale project Brad Pitt has ever been a part of, which is really saying something. Hearing tale that this was more akin to Apocalypse Now in space rather than something like The Martian was extremely enticing. And plus, I will always support original big budget sci-fi movies in theaters because they’re becoming increasingly rare and in need of more attention. Such is the case with Ad Astra because it is simply one of the best films of the year and one hell of a breath of fresh air for science-fiction. While its yesteryear influences do feel clear in some respects, this film feels so adept to modern times. Some people have said that this is a feature-length advertisement for the proposed “Space Force,” but it’s far more abstract than that. Many people still cling to the idea that space really is the final frontier and while it may hold the future to someone like Elon Musk, to everyone else it’s simply a vast, cold, and empty void. What makes Ad Astra so amazing is that it addresses this hostility but keeps the hope of interpersonal connections at the forefront of its mind. Part of the reason Roy and Clifford love space so much is because it gives them an opportunity to get away from their loved ones, to isolate and become one with the universe. But it becomes clear that they’re both missing out on what’s right in front of them the entire time, and that sort of humanism is both beautiful and sorely lacking in the genre as a whole. I honestly didn’t think that Brad Pitt could top Cliff Booth in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but he has proven me wrong once again. As Roy McBride, he’s so incredibly reserved and collected for much of the film always internalizing his own emotions and fears about everything. And he goes about this mission, long repressed feelings about his father and life begin to bubble to the surface, especially because he thinks that Space Command is hiding something. Ruth Negga is memorable as well as Helen Lantos, a human native to Mars that encounters Roy on his journey. Although she’s only there for a brief period of time, she proves to be vital in his task as she apparently harbors a unique connection with his family. Her ability to empathize with Roy on his struggles makes her rare among the other companions he finds on his mission, and she’s one of the few people to get through to him emotionally and psychologically. Donald Sutherland also gets a rare chance to shine as Colonel Pruitt, Roy’s first and most consistent companion on his journey. He provides much insight into Clifford’s character as he tries to reason that he is not the man Roy remembers him being. Even after The Hunger Games series, it’s nice to see the 84-year-old actor put in some genuine work in a genre film like this. The supporting cast features a host of different individuals who have varying impacts on Roy’s mission or personal life. These include John Ortiz and John Finn as high-ranking officials in Space Command, Donny Keshawarz as an assuming ship captain moving straight from the Moon to Mars, Liv Tyler as his estranged Earth-bound wife Eve, and Tommy Lee Jones as his mysterious father Clifford. Each one leaves a pretty good impression and while Jones certainly isn’t the star of the film, he has a powerful monologue late in the film where it becomes apparent the Lima Project has become all-encompassing. And from just a look at the technical aspects, Ad Astra is such a prestigious and polished film. Shot by Interstellar and Dunkirk DP Hoyte Van Hoytema, the cinematography is about as incredible as you’d expect from him. Beginning with a glorious pan shot to Earth, the transition between CGI and practical sets is nearly flawless. The realistic lighting and careful shots help to establish the unique atmosphere and futuristic world. These include Mars, which is engulfed in an orange-red haze, and the Moon, where everything is wide open and spread out. The editing job is a collaborative effort between John Axelrad and Lee Haugen, and it moves from scene to scene effortlessly. There’s an almost weightless quality to the pacing of this film, as each moment is cut together very smoothly and elegantly. It often switches from wide-angle or medium shots to Roy’s P.O.V. to help us get inside his headspace, whether it’s on the collapsing space antenna or when his escort is attacked by moon pirates. And what’s even better is that these scenes are almost entirely devoid of sound, which makes their impact even more sudden. Classically trained composer Max Richter gives us the instrumental score here, and it’s quite possibly my favorite of his for a feature film. The main track, while lacking a conventional melody, is a sweeping and memorable one filled with high and low strings. Other tracks throughout use a very similar method, and even throw in some old-school electronic sounds for good measure. It’s at once very melancholy and also hopeful, using the composer’s trademark minimalism to capture the emotional effects space has one person. The soundtrack also uses songs from various other composers to great effect, such as newcomer Lorne Balfe. The most notable one, though, is Nils Frahm, whose song “Says” plays near the climax of the film. The synth-heavy piece perfectly plays up the tension as everything our protagonist has worked towards comes to a stirring head. Bolstered by excellent thematic ideas and one of the best uses of voice-over in recent memory, Ad Astra has stunning cosmic visuals to match its deeply humanistic story. Quite possibly James Gray’s finest picture yet, and certainly one of his most accessible, this is the kind of science-fiction movie that studios don’t really make anymore. It features one of Brad Pitt’s greatest performances and a curious message about how maintaining interpersonal relationships is more important than finding any other form of life in the universe. And in a world that’s becoming increasingly distant and disconnected, that is the sort of oddly comforting optimism that should be appreciated more.

Ad Astra - Poster Gallery

“Cinema Paradiso” Movie Review

No joke, I genuinely believe that this movie is compulsory viewing for anyone who claims to be a cinephile or aspiring filmmaker. Or at the very least, it can act as a great segue into understanding why it’s so important to many of us. This Italian romantic dramedy was released in theaters by Miramax on November 17th, 1988, before also screening at the Cannes Film Festival the following year. It managed to gross over $12.3 million at the U.S. box office alone, and become a huge hit in other territories. Garnering huge critical acclaim the world over, it went on to won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, among other accolades. Numerous filmmakers, such as Roberto Benigni and Gabriele Salvatores, have publicly credited the film with reviving the Italian film industry. Written and directed by Giuseppe Tornatore, the film largely draws on his own childhood experiences. This goes as far as having most of the film shot in his rural Sicilian hometown, with many flashback sequences resembling an idealized version of his memories. Originally running 155 minutes long, after its poor commercial reception in Italy, the producers cut it down by over half an hour for better profits. One of the main actors spoke all his lines in his native French language, having another actor dub over his lines afterwards in Italian. Jacques Perrin stars as Salvatore Di Vita, an acclaimed Italian filmmaker living in Rome in the 1980’s. One night, he receives a phone call informing him that his mentor film projectionist Alfredo, played by Phillippe Noiret, has died. He returns to his hometown in Sicily for the funeral and becomes confronted with various memories and faces from his past. From there, we get to see flashbacks recounting his childhood self, played by Salvatore Cascio, as he begins a passionate love for film in post-World War II Italy. When people talk about films made by movie fans for movie fans, this is most definitely the one that springs to mind. Tornatore’s passionate love for the medium is clear in every frame of the film, with subtle or overt references to other works. Hell, I can personally attest that it has inspired me in several ways, and can definitely appeal to people new to foreign cinema. Even so, I wasn’t entirely sure if some, if any, of that initial magic would remain on this rewatch. Perhaps it might have been a case of a highly acclaimed or beloved picture that I liked mainly because of its enormous hype. Thankfully, Cinema Paradiso actually proves the opposite, turning out to be an improvement on repeat viewings. This film is really like a childhood blanket: warm, comforting, and filled with so many memories that it’s hard to let go. The director doesn’t just make a loving homage to cinema as a whole, but frames it as a way to project his relationships and family from childhood into adulthood. The escapism and power of the reel is an amazing foil to Salvatore’s hometown, which was in ruins following World War II and heavily censored by the people in charge at the time. At times, Cinema Paradiso does get in danger of letting nostalgia cloud the rest of what the film tries to say about maturity and letting go. It’s almost always at its best whenever Salvatore is clearly going through an emotional struggle to reconcile his dreams with his reality. But overall, it’s able to keep the course and get to one of the most beautiful final scenes in history. Salvatore Di Vita is played here in three separate stages of his life by Salvatore Cascio, Marco Leonardi, and Jacque Perrin, respectively. All three of them shine in different ways and bring new shades to the character as the timeline bounces back and forth. From an idealistic young child to a teenager with a head full of dreams to a famous yet jaded filmmaker, we get to see him evolve with cinema as his only true companion along the way. By his side as a child and teenager is Phillippe Noiret as Alfredo, one of the greatest mentors in the history of film. Initially reluctant to take Salvatore on as his protégé, his deep passion for movies and hidden compassion brings many great adventures between the two. More often than not, he is quoting a famous or obscure line from films, and frequently uses the medium to teach Salvatore lessons about life. These two central characters are flanked by a group of smaller but equally capable actors. Chief among them is Agnese Nano as Salvatore’s first (And really) only true love, Antonella Attili as his mother struggling to adjust to post-war life as a war widow, and Leopoldo Trieste as the strict priest who tries to censor the movie theater from what it can show. Each one plays an integral part in the lives of either Salvatore or Alfredo, and come in and out of play throughout the timeline. And from a technical standpoint, Cinema Paradiso plays lovingly with filmmaking conventions across the board. The cinematography by Blasco Giurato captures the filmmaker’s childhood hometown in Sicily with great authenticity and wonder. The swift push-ins and long-shots make it almost seem like something ripped right out of an old fable. The frame always stays fixated on the main subject and moves around when necessary. This plays into the idea that the film is told almost exclusively from the point-of-view of Salvatore. It is practically enhanced by the editing job by Mario Morra, who was nominated for a BAFTA for his work here. Scenes transition from one to another using classic film techniques such as the cross dissolve or slow fade out. It also cuts between different shots quite effectively with a nice variety sprinkled throughout. It also moves in and out of various establishments in the time between the different timelines, showing how much they’ve changed, if at all. The instrumental film score was composed and conducted by industry legend Ennio Morricone. It might just be his most underrated score to date, nearly on par in quality with his other, more famous work. It mostly uses strings, piano, and an oboe, and that simplicity helps cut straight to the emotion evident in the film. Several tracks blend into the same “Love Theme,” which perfectly represents the heart of the film. All of these elements culminate in one of the most memorable endings and montages in film history. Nicknamed the kissing montage, it’s a fantastic sequence as all of the themes and ideas of the film suddenly come rushing forward at once. It may be one of those moments that transcends the barrier of language and translation, as anyone watching it will understand its emotional impact. Cinema Paradiso is a heartwarming and inviting tribute to memory and the movie. Giuseppe Tornatore’s semi-autobiographical take on the story makes it feel all the more personal and intimate, as we really get to know this town and its characters. Stacked with a great cast and one of the best endings in film history, watching this film may as well be an informal version of film school. And I’m more than content with that observation.

“The Farewell” Movie Review

In all seriousness, if this sort of thing happened in my family, I would completely understand it. To quote one of the character’s in this film, “You’ll just ruin her good mood.” This independent comedy-drama premiered as part of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Shortly after, A24 acquired the distribution rights for $7 million. It was theatrically released on July 12th, 2019, gradually expanding into more theaters in the following weeks. Produced for the budget of $3 million, the film has thus far managed to exceed expectations for the specialty box office, grossing over $17.8 million worldwide. It currently has the best per-screen average of any movie this year, even beating Avengers: Endgame. This comes in addition to highly positive reviews from critics and audiences, accumulating a perfect 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. Written and directed by Lulu Wang, the film is based on her own personal experiences with her family. She had spent years trying to make the film, but numerous financiers from both Hollywood and China rejected the idea unless she wrote in a part for a prominent white character. She eventually turned her story into an episode of the podcast This American Life, which immediately caught the attention of producer Chris Weitz. The director also turned down a large 7-figure distribution offer from a streaming service so that it could be seen in theaters. Awkwafina stars as Billi, a headstrong woman from New York who is a first-generation Chinese-American. She learns from her parents that her grandmother Nai Nai, played by Zhao Shuzhen, has terminal Stage IV lung cancer. However, the family deliberately manipulates her medical records and plans a wedding for Billi’s cousin as an excuse to see Nai Nai one last time without actually disclosing her illness to her. Although her parents are worried that she might tell the truth due to their close relationship, Billi joins the family in China and struggles between the world she grew up in and the world she was born in. I’ve been looking forward to this movie ever since the first reviews poured out of Sundance back in January. It sounded like an absolutely fascinating premise to me, especially since it was based on the writer-director’s own life. And I always love seeing Awkwafina onscreen and this seemed like a great role for her to branch out into. Hearing stories that this sort of thing is actually extremely common among Chinese and Chinese-American families made it seem even more intriguing. I was hopeful that it would highlight the distinct cultural differences between the East and the West while staying focused on character. And The Farewell exceeded my expectations, providing a remarkable showcase for both the lead actress and writer-director. It’s clear from the very first scene that this is a deeply personal film for Lulu Wang, as she channels her own experiences and anxieties so eloquently. We get to see Billi struggling to reconcile her relationship with her family with her own personal anguish of having to keep such a secret. In fact, there are a handful of scenes where she and various relatives argue about whether her being raised and educated in America was a good thing, as her cultural beliefs are clearly different from theirs. Part of what makes The Farewell such a unique crowdpleaser is its ability to balance these moments of tension and genuinely touching emotion with laugh-out-loud humor. Nai-Nai’s obliviousness to her own diagnosis creates some truly amusing irony, as is the family’s tough attempt to hide their emotions. All of this, plus the fact that over half of the dialogue is spoken in the Mandarin language, proves why this is one of the most well-written films of the year. Awkwafina has been on a role in the last two years, and with this film, she shows off her true range as an actress. As Billi, she is fiercely independent and proud, which puts her at odds with the more traditional nature of her extended family. The internal struggle to maintain the secret of her grandmother’s illness while also keeping their sacred bond intact is very poignant. Opposite her is Zhao Shuzhen as her grandmother Nai Nai, completely unaware of what her family’s actually doing in her home. One of the most respected actresses in China, it’s truly fascinating to see her go about her daily life without the knowledge of her diagnosis looming over. The scenes she shares with Billi are some of the best, as we get to see the deep connection between the two despite their cultural differences. Tzi Ma and Diane Lin also deserve to be mentioned as Billi’s mother and father, respectively. The cultural divide at the heart of the film is most evident in these characters, as they have fully adapted to American life but still hold to the traditions of their family. And unlike Billi, they internalize many of their emotions during their stay with Nai Nai, which takes a clear toll on their mental health. Lu Hong, Jiang Yongbo, Chen Han, Aoi Mizuhara, and Li Xiang round out the rest of the family here. Each is dealing with Nai Nai’s condition in their own way, some in more subtle ways than others. And from a pure filmmaking perspective, The Farewell shows Lulu Wang has a distinctive voice that needs to be heard. Anna Franquesa Solano’s cinematography is very deliberate and precise, with most scenes told from a static angle. The muted color palette is perfect for the morally gray nature of the story, although there are some gorgeous neon shots in the streets of Changchun, where the film was shot. Often, entire scenes play out in long takes from one position, providing the actors freedom to act in large space. Matthew Friedman and Michael Taylor’s editing job works quite nicely with this, creating enough cuts between shots to make things interesting. One powerful example is during a dinner scene when all of the family members are eating at the table and it cuts between different members arguing about what’s best for their children. There are also a handful of slow-motion shots peppered throughout, especially when a character is walking down the street. It’s almost as if these are moments meant for us  to slow down and contemplate what’s in their headspace. Alex Weston provides the instrumental film score, and it’s both a doozy and appropriately minimalist. While there are great sequences without any real music, most of the tracks consist of plucking low strings for dramatic or emotional effect. The tension created from this and the more melancholy strings reflects the tension and melancholy of keeping the secret. But a handful also incorporate the vocals of singer Mykal Kilgore. His angelic voice and perfect melody adds to the ominous shadow looming over this faux wedding. The soundtrack also includes a memorable cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Come Healing” done by Elayna Boynton. It plays near the end of the film, and fits so well with the themes of the story being told here. In fact, I dare say it’s the rare cover that’s actually better than the original. With assured direction, an amazing screenplay, and a great sense of authenticity, The Farewell is a hauntingly beautiful and personal account of cultural differences. Bringing her own experiences to the big screen in a universal way, Lulu Wang shows us a world too rarely seen in cinema. We’re also treated to what is easily Awkwafina’s best performance to date, and I will be shocked if she doesn’t get even more work in the future. Wang proved all of her naysayers wrong in the best way possible with this film, and it makes me so excited to see whatever else she has to offer cinema.

“Spider-Man: Far From Home” Movie Review

*This review, while steering clear of plot details for Far From Home, will discuss spoilers from Avengers: Endgame. Proceed with caution.*

No lie, this movie brought back some pretty fond memories of class trips I took back in high school. Granted, none of them ever had any giant monsters wreaking havoc all across the city, but still. Can’t beat the fun. This coming-of-age superhero comedy was released in theaters on July 2nd, 2019, officially making it the 23rd theatrical entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. After breaking records for a Tuesday night opening, it has gone on to predictably gross over $860 million at the worldwide box office. This makes it the third-most successful film centered on the central character and could well be on its way to the $1 billion-dollar marker. It’s also seen major overseas profits from both China and South Korea, all the while receiving typically positive reviews. Directed by Jon Watts, this is the second film under Marvel’s collaboration with Sony Pictures for creative control over the titular character. This marks the official end to Phase Three of the MCU, acting sort of like an epilogue to Avengers: Endgame. Because of Endgame being released before this one, Marvel and Columbia worked together to withhold most marketing material, one teaser trailer notwithstanding, until after its release. This also marks the first in a new multi-film agreement between Sony and IMAX Corporations to have the studio’s films released in IMAX theaters. Taking place not too long after the events of Endgame, Tom Holland returns as Peter Parker, a New York City high school student moonlighting as the superhero Spider-Man. While out on a two-week summer field trip to Europe with his classmates, including his love interest MJ, played by Zendaya, a series of monsters known as the Elementals begin terrorizing the world. Peter is then recruited by Nick Fury to stop these phenomena and teams him up with alternate-reality soldier Quentin Beck, played by Jake Gyllenhaal. As Beck gains the nickname “Mysterio” from the awed public, Spider-Man must decide where his loyalties lie. I really liked how Marvel integrated Peter Parker into the MCU with Captain America: Civil War and Spider-Man: Homecoming. Even though we’ve seen no less than FOUR theatrical iterations of the friendly neighborhood web-crawler this century, three of which have been live-action, the focused approach to the hero’s nerdy high school life has felt genuinely novel and fun. Plus, Tom Holland was virtually perfect as the character in nearly every single way so seeing him continue as the character was almost a no-brainer. Seeing this being an adventure where the web-slinger leaves Queens behind sounded like an opportune moment for him to stretch out of his comfort zone. Especially because this both follows up on Endgame and serves as the official closer to Phase 3 of the MCU. And on the whole, Spider-Man: Far From Home is satisfying on both ends and opens up some really interesting avenues for the franchise’s future. What’s really interesting is seeing how not only Peter reacts but how the people around him react to a post-Iron Man world. Peter lost a mentor and father figure, even if Stark could never admit to being one, while his guardian Happy Hogan, played by Jon Favreau, lost a good friend, and everyone else lost a real hero. Without a proper role model to look up to anymore, Peter is forced to become his own hero and figure out what’s best for him and the people he loves. Far From Home also has some interesting arguments about the power of perspective and manipulation of truth. In a world filled with sensationalist news sources that frequently exaggerate what’s really happening, it’s hard to decide what’s real and what’s not. Granted, this isn’t some grandstanding thesis on modern fallacy, but that little commentary about people believing whatever they want to believe was welcome. Tom Holland continues to prove why he’s more than perfectly suited to play the titular character here. With a genuine kid-like earnestness and a quick wit, it’s interesting to see him grow on his own without any real adult supervision. His sense of wonder at seeing so many different things that teens his age normally wouldn’t see sells it, and can often lead to some pretty funny avenues. Jacob Batalon and Zendaya also return as Ned and MJ, Peter’s best friend and love interest respectively. They both provide an interesting foil for Peter, reminding both us and himself of what he has to lose on this trip. Each one presents a different worry for him, but both are equally great and funny. Jon Favreau also returns as Happy Hogan, Tony Stark’s former bodyguard and best friend. In the character’s most substantial turn to date, we get to see how he’s dealing with Iron Man’s departure. He also gets to have a bit of a romantic fling with Aunt May which creates some humorous tension between him and Spider-Man. The supporting roster is equally impressive, if not always as memorable. Samuel L. Jackson, Cobie Smoulders, Maris Tomei, Tony Revolori, Angourie Rice, and Martin Starr all reprise their roles from Homecoming or otherwise, respectively. Each one brings a certain level of humor or humanity to this world that is so different after Endgame. And Jake Gyllenhaal definitely should not be overlooked for his role as Quentin Beck A.K.A. Mysterio. As the audience gradually learns more and more about him, it’s hard not to get caught up in the things that he’s saying. One particular scene in a bar about two-thirds through the film really showcases the actor’s talents and the unique way he inhabits what’s arguably one of the web-slingers most underrated adversaries in the comics. And as one could expect from any MCU entry at this point, the technical aspects for Far From Home are unsurprisingly astounding. Since much of the behind the scenes magic is done by Marvel’s own in-house talent, such as cinematography and editing, there isn’t a whole lot of room for artistic distinction. But for what it’s worth, both come hand-hand-hand for various scenes. Beginning with a little news montage explaining what’s happened at Peter’s high school since Thano’s Snap, (Nicknamed the Blip) we’re immediately put back into the world of Midtown High. The use of exotic European locations keeps things interesting as the story progresses throughout the trip. The special effects used for the Elementals is mostly convincing, using different forms of matter for each creature such as fire and water. Even as the MCU becomes increasingly cosmic, it’s refreshing whenever they stay relatively grounded on Earth. Costumes are also great, as the new stealth suit for Spidey is both visually appealing and practical. Mysterio’s costume is also extremely accurate to the comics. Like last time with Spidey, the instrumental film score is composed and conducted by Michael Giacchino. He proves once again to be more than capable for the task, providing a mixture of instruments and styles. With a heroic, orchestral remix of the classic Spider-Man theme song, the love and respect for the character’s history is fully established. It also uses staccatos from wind and electronic instruments and dynamic percussion for the more exciting action scenes but always remains memorable. Spider-Man: Far From Home is another step in the right direction for the web-slinger, and a fitting coda to the Infinity Saga. By actually stepping out of the character’s comfort zone, director Jon Watts is able to find new ground for him to explore, and to exciting results. And not only does it prove that Tom Holland is pitch perfect as Peter Parker, but it also sets up many riveting avenues for the Marvel Cinematic Universe to follow in the future. If this movie proves anything, it’s that Sony and Disney need to set aside whatever bullshit they’re dealing with and come back to a reasonable agreement.

 

“Midsommar” Movie Review

I’ve made it clear for a long time that I have no desire whatsoever to join a small “commune” in the future. I don’t care how interesting their beliefs are or how beautiful the scenery is, count me out and keep the hell away. This psychological folk horror film premiered at an Alamo Drafthouse Cinema location in New York in mid-June. It was later released in theaters by A24 on July 3rd, 2019, after previously being scheduled for early August. It has thus far grossed nearly $34.9 million on a budget of around $10 million, swiping most of it within the first 5 days alone. With such a major start, it feels safe to assume that it will turn a large profit by the end of its theatrical run and could even become the distributor’s biggest financial success yet. Written and directed by Ari Aster, the producers originally approached him about doing a straightforward slasher film among Swedish cultists, which he rejected. Production on the film began almost immediately after the huge success of Aster’s breakout horror feature Hereditary, as distributor A24 reportedly built a 15-building village set from the ground up. He’s mentioned previously that making the film was his own way of attempting to cope with a really bad breakup. In addition, there’s also an extended director’s cut running 24 minutes longer which will likely play in select theaters. Florence Pugh and Jack Reynor star as Dani Ardor and Christian Hughes, a grad student couple whose relationship is hanging by a thread. A few months after a horrible tragedy involving her sister, Dani agrees to go with Christian and their friends on a backpacking trip to Sweden. Their friend and guide Pelle, played by Vilhelm Blomgren, takes them to his ancestral village, the Hårga, for a midsummer festival that only occurs once every 90 years. But as the ceremony goes on, the Hårga community ropes the group into an increasingly violent series of pagan cult traditions. As is the case for many cinephiles, Hereditary was easily the best horror movie I saw last year and one of my top 10 favorites of that year. Even though it was heavily divisive among audiences, I was blown away by its singular vision and willingness to go to some really dark places. Aside from a powerful, career-best performance from Toni Collette, it immediately announced Ari Aster as a new filmmaker with tons of potential to bring to the medium. When I heard he was tackling a pagan cult for his new project, I thought that his sensibilities were perfectly suited for the subject matter. And for the most part, Midsommar is able to avoid the sophomore slump and further develop Aster’s craft. Just like Hereditary, I understand that this film will not be digestible for everyone. In fact, I imagine that people who were turned off by that film’s bleak tone and imagery will dislike this one even more. The director is once again tackling grief, suffering, and how people process a tragedy differently, and he doesn’t shy away from the disturbing parts of it. I will say, Midsommar is definitely funnier than Hereditary, often stemming from the main group’s awe and unfamiliarity with the local customs. But this is, by no means, a comedy movie, as the film is more concerned with making the audience uncomfortable. It sometimes feels like it’s purely going for the shock factor from the visceral imagery on-screen and asking audiences to handle it for 2 hours and 27 minutes is a mighty task; but if you try to keep an open mind, it will certainly haunt your thoughts and dreams. Florence Pugh has been on the rise for the past coupe years now and her leading role here might be the big break she deserves. As Dani, she is devastating and frightening as a young woman trying to bottle up her trauma and anger for a trip with her friends. Opposite her for most of the film, Jack Reynor is equally great as her well-intentioned but distant boyfriend Christian. While he does care for Dani, it’s clear that he wants out of the relationship and we’re presented with consistent evidence of why they should just break up. Every time they’re together on-screen, there’s a certain coldness or feeling of discomfort between them that desperately needs to be resolved. Also worth noting is William Jackson Harper as Josh, a friend of theirs completing a thesis on midsummer festivals. A great departure from the good-hearted Chidi Anagonye on The Good Place, he is willing to do anything to get more info about the community, even if it means endangering his friends. Will Poulter, Ellora Torchia, and Archie Madekewe round out the group of tourists for the festival while Vilhelm Blomgren, Isabelle Grill, Björn Andrésen, Anna Åström, and Gunnel Fred play locals in the Hårga community. Each one feels like they have their own hidden motive or something that they’re not sharing about what’s going on. All the characters feel like something right out of an H.P. Lovecraft story, and I mean that in a good way. And technically speaking, Midsommar sees Ari Aster further honing his craft behind the camera. Unlike his work in Hereditary, Pawel Pogorzelski’s cinematography basks in the bright daylight of Sweden. There’s rarely a scene where the sun goes completely down, which makes some moments more disorienting and frightening. The camera is almost always following the characters as they experience their own horrors during the festival, and often feels like a cold, omniscient observer. Most of the time, whenever Dani and Christian are on-screen together, it’s in a distant two-shot to illustrate the deteriorating state of their relationship. It goes well with the editing by Jennifer Lame and Lucian Johnston, who are able to keep things interesting for the 2 hour and 27 minute-long runtime. The scenes are interlaced with each other well enough to make the plot go along, and the style behind it is so fascinating. It often feels hallucinogenic in its execution and how the community is shown to the travelers. There even a couple scenes where the group takes drugs and the frame is very distorted as we see their P.O.V. The instrumental film score is provided by The Haxan Cloak A.K.A. Bobby Krlic, in his first solo work as a composer. For his first time, it’s quite impressive and effective, mixing together different styles to great results. At first, it uses distorted strings and dark overtones to highlight the bad omens to come in the film. But by the end, the soundtrack has morphed into a twisted fairytale score that fully embraces the madness of the Hårga’s traditions. It uses those same strings to bring in everything shown in the film to a wild and emotional culmination. And it’s a definitely final shot to be remembered for quite some time. Utilizing a little known culture as an intriguing backdrop, Midsommar is a maddening if somewhat inconsistent symphony of daytime terror. If this film proves anything, it’s that Ari Aster is here to stay as a filmmaker who demands to be taken seriously. Anchored by a breakout performance from Florence Pugh, we’re fully and convincingly drawn into this unique fever dream.

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