Category Archives: Emotional

“American Animals” Movie Review

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

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“Paddington 2” Movie Review

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

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“You Were Never Really Here” Movie Review

Never underestimate a film’s trailer when it stars Joaquin Phoenix. No matter how cool it looked it could have never prepared me for actually watching this film, just like you won’t be ready. Lynne Ramsay’s neo-noir crime thriller first premiered in the Official Competition at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. Despite the fact that it was still a work in progress, it received an 8-minute standing ovation plus awards for Best Screenplay (Shared with The Killing of a Sacred Deer) and Best Actor. Strangely enough, Amazon Studios chose to skip awards season and instead released the film limited on April 6th, 2018. Thus far, aided by strong critical reviews, it has grossed over $3.4 million at the box office, becoming the director’s most commercially successful film to date. After dropping out of Gavin O’Connor’s Jane Got a Gun, Ramsay decided to lay low for a while until she came upon the source material. It is also her first full-length narrative feature in 7 years, her last one being the controversial We Need to Talk About Kevin. Based on the book of the same name by Jonathan Ames, Phoenix stars as Joe, a traumatized Gulf War veteran and former FBI agent now working as a contract killer. One day, New York state senator Albert Votto approaches him and begs Joe to save his teenage daughter Nina from prostitution. While Joe accepts it as a regular job, he uncovers a vast conspiracy web more complex and disturbing than he could have ever imagined. Just by giving that synopsis, the average reader might cast this film aside as yet another derivative crime thriller starring a big name actor. But if anyone has ever watched a film by Lynne Ramsay, then you should know that her films are not so easily pigeonholed. I have been looking forward to this movie ever since it premiered last year. Why Amazon Studios chose to forego a potential awards season run for the lead actor in the fall season and instead release in the spring is still something I’m trying to figure out. But please don’t let the familiar premise and all the “artsy-fartsy” festival buzz deter you; You Were Never Really Here is one of the finest crime thrillers I’ve seen in quite a while. And perhaps that has to do with its subversive take on a harsh topic such as child exploitation. Rather than create a semi-Romantic film that ironically glamorizes the profession of hitmen, Ramsay wisely makes the viewers observers. It’s arguably with this clinical, objective technique that she is able to fully explore the subject matter without fear of exploiting it. Imagine the most European arthouse version of Taken crossed with Martian Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, and that’s about where the tone and style are at. But it never feels self-indulgent or overly obsessed with itself. It is able to find a beautiful balance between empathy for the characters and dispassion in the brutal violence. Joaquin Phoenix is an incredible method actor but, without a doubt, Joe is his best role to date. Imbuing an immense amount of humanity and confusion into the performance, we see just enough of his deeply troubling past to understand his motives and when Votto asks him if really is violent he replies, “I can be.” I will honestly be shocked if he isn’t at least considered for Best Actor this year, even if the film missed out last year. Opposite him is the young Ekaterina Samsonov as Nina Votto, who does a lot without speaking a lot of dialogue. While she sometimes feels more like a symbol than an actual character, hers is truly a breakout role since we can see so much pain and loss of innocence in her small eyes. The two of them are also supported by character actors like Alex Manette as the upset senator wanting his daughter back, John Doman as the hardened handler for Joe’s work, Judith Roberts as Joe’s helpless mother, Alessandro Nivola as the Governor with mysterious ties to the case, and Frank Pandro as a concerned middle man. They’re all great in their own way, but never even come close to Phoenix’s work. As for the filmmaking aspects of it all, Lynne Ramsay shows complete control with her own voice in nearly every department. Shot by underrated British cameraman Thomas Townend, the cinematography captures a seedy griminess to the story rarely found in New York-set cinema. There’s a constant contrast between steady, distant full shots of the scenes and close-ups where the actor might be looking directly into the camera. Not a single frame goes wasted or feels unnecessary, which gives us an opportunity to get to know the characters better without so much exposition. Also, frequent Werner Herzog collaborator knows exactly when to move between these haunting shots. There are a number of smash cuts between either the past, the present, or possible scenarios. This, along with the impressionistic and wholesome sound design, immerse the audience in a narrative that feels fractured, much like Joe’s state of mind. While his work has included both Paul Thomas Anderson and the band Radiohead, multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood has assembled his best work to date for the score. A highly dynamic soundtrack, the man often trades staccato strings and percussion with pieces on a dark-toned synthesizer. His side-job as a computer programmer and infrequent use of diegetic background noises in tracks helps to create a New York City that, much like Daniel Lopatin’s work on Good Time, feels so alien. There’s a beautiful scene near the climax of the film that combines all of the above mentioned techniques with an amazing piece composed by Greenwood. The mix of electric melodies and distant sounds create an emotional connection without trying to manipulate audiences. That being said, I feel like not a lot of people are going to watch this movie. The subject matter, and the manner in which the film deals with it, are so heavy that most mainstream audiences probably won’t even want to try it. Above all, it’s a sad film; these institutions do exist around the world and some of the most powerful men or women condone it. And while some of the characters here are truly despicable, the director rejects the want for them to get a real satisfying closure. Because of this, some may leave the theater wanting more in a bad way. However, I just grew to appreciate her restraint in this approach. You Were Never Really Here is a powerful sucker punch of intense brutality and emotions. One of the absolute best films of the year, I was totally riveted and glued to my seat for all 90 minutes of its runtime. It flies by, which for some may be a relief with its difficult and bold subject matter. This could be the future of action thrillers.

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“Amelie” Movie Review

After solving a crime thriller, wallowing in a prison drama, reading a storybook romance, descending into the madness of war, and going back in time in a DeLorean, it’s time to look at a story from across the Atlantic. And no better a place to look for that than in France. Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s romantic-comedy was infamously rejected from the Cannes Film Festival in 2001. However, the film found a home in other French-speaking countries in April and August before releasing in America later that year. Despite a relatively limited run, it remains the highest-grossing French film ever to be released in the United States, with a total intake of $174.2 million at the box office worldwide. Nominated for 5 Academy Awards, including Best Original Screenplay, Jeunet was said to have based the story, at least partially, on an experience from his early life. The titular role had originally been written for English actress Emily Watson, but changed his mind when her French wasn’t strong enough. Audrey Tautou stars as Amelie Poulain, a painfully shy twenty-something waitress at a tiny cafe in Paris. One day she comes home to something unexpected, which she uses for a satisfying good deed. She then spends the rest of the film working to change the lives of those around her for the better, all the while searching for meaning and love. Perhaps it’s the fault of Hollywood, but I’m really not all that familiar with the cinema of France. Sure, the French New Wave is a monumental period of innovation for filmmaking and auteurs like Francois Truffaut, Jacques Demy, and Jean-Luc Godard all deserve to have their works studied in film school. But even so, it has been hard for me to gain access to French cinema outside the confines of Netflix, and I can’t find a single place in the Austin area that sells Criterion Collection DVDs or Blu-Rays. (If you have a suggestion, please comment) After watching 2017’s Raw, I made it a tangible goal to hunt down other films in the language that were available to me. Thank you, Amazon Prime, for allowing me a chance to watch a beautiful movie like Amelie. And no, before you click the exit button because you’re not interested, please hear me out. This movie is totally unlike anything else that came from any period of French cinema. You won’t find any of the graphic (re: gratuitous) sex or violence common in the New Extremity canon. Nor is there any fourth-wall breaking monologue or camera speech drenched in the vérité black-and-white photography of the New Wave. Instead, Jean-Pierre Jeunet crafts an almost fairytale-like romance, dripping with innocence and lightheartedness. Yet there’s still an inimitable panache or style that distinguishes it from anything in America. In other words, it might just be the most perfect and accessible foreign language film of the 21st century. Even though it was written for Emily Watson, it’s seriously hard to imagine any other actress playing the titular role than Audrey Tautou. She perfectly embodies the naive, innocent qualities of Amelie and effortlessly brings a charm to a character that should never work. Portraying the younger version of the character, Flora Guiet is perhaps even cuter than Tautou herself in the opening moments. Together, the two pull off a part that they both seemed born to play. While most of the supporting cast are ones whom Amelie interacts with on a daily basis and are all great, the standout among them is actor-director Mathieu Kasovitz. As quirky as he is intriguingly mysterious, he might just turn out to be the love of Amelie’s life- if either of them can muster up the courage. Speaking of courage, from a technical standpoint, Jean-Pierre Jeunet shows no fear in letting his style flourish all over the screen. With the help of cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, Paris is given a saturation fitted for a fantasy world. He employs just about every technique you can imagine; the sudden zoom-in-or-out, a whip pan, handheld moments. Each one helps to bring out a definite personality in the characters and story. It also helps to bring out bright, beautiful colors, particularly green and red, to identify virtually every single place or person our hero has touched. Combined with Herve Schneid’s editing, Jeunet knows exactly when to execute a moment of comedy. More often than not, the narrator will lament on something serious in an extremely mundane way, which is than punctuated by an abrupt cut to a fourth-wall-breaking character. He maintains complete mastery of dynamic visual storytelling. Meanwhile, multi-instrumentalist Yann Tiersen composes a musical score worthy of the whimsical adventure taking place in the film. The main theme is a piano melody that neither sounds saccharine or sappy but provides a gorgeous backdrop for the action taking place. It’s an ambient yet surprisingly evocative soundtrack that’ll probably get you wanting to learn how to play the piano just so you can figure out this song. In short, it’s the perfect tune for the movie; pleasant, cheerful, and infectiously lovable- much like the protagonist herself. Come a few years, Tiersen may even start getting comparisons to the likes of Frederick Chopin or Johnny Greenwood. There’s honestly nothing really to hate about this movie. It’s the type of movie that pretty much any person, no matter how heartless they may seem, can fall in love with. It provides a complete, perfect bubble of escapism for 2 hours but is still filled with life and devoid of any cynicism. Amelie is an adorable, vibrant, and relatable rom-com for all film fans. It may have just become my new favorite romance film of all time, simply because it is able to visualize heartbreak and renewal without the slightest ounce of emotional manipulation. It may even inspire you to reach out to the people around you and change their lives for the better. We don’t deserve someone so sweet and innocent as Amelie, let alone movies of them- but the world is better for it.

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“The Hurt Locker” Movie Review

One of the most common adages of modern writing or storytelling is that “War is Hell.” This movie takes that concept and inverts it into something completely different and unexpected. This independently produced contemporary war thriller premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2008. However, it wasn’t distributed in American theaters until the following July. It went on to win 6 Academy Awards, including the coveted Best Picture prize. And yet, it’s the lowest grossing film ever to win the award, with a worldwide intake of $49.2 million against a $15 million budget. Directed by Katherine Bigelow, the first (And thus far, only) woman to ever win the Oscar for Best Director, the film is believed to be loosely based on screenwriter Mark Boal’s personal experiences. A former war journalist, he was embedded with several military task forces during the early stages of what seems to be a contrived, drawn-out war. Set primarily around 2003 and 2004, the film focuses on an Iraq War bomb disposal team, initially composed of Sergeant J.T. Sanborn and Specialist Owen Eldridge. Following a freak accident, a new member, Staff Sergeant William James, joins their operations in places like Baghdad and brings an incredibly reckless yet dedicated behavior to the team. The film traces the squad’s actions during their tour throughout various parts of Iraq and Afghanistan, some able to deal with the stress of combat better than others. It seems impossible these days to make a contemporary war film, let along talk about one, without the possibility of controversy. Some get accused of glorifying the United States’ wartime actions, others are called out for demonizing enemy nations, and the rest are criticized for so-called cowardice in addressing the subject matter. Films like American Sniper, Zero Dark Thirty, Thank You For Your Service, 13 Hours, 12 Strong, and just recently The 15:17 to Paris have all fallen under this controversy and some of it is justified. Now, is Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker the early 21st-century masterpiece everyone is touting it as? Probably not. However, I won’t deny that it is a great film worth watching. Interestingly enough, this movie did receive some controversy, but not the kind you would expect. Some of the most pointed critiques come from veterans of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan and other embedded journalists. Many of them claim that the film is not a realistic or accurate depiction of wartime conditions. Having read them, a number of them are just technical absurdities that only they would be able to notice- such as wrong uniforms or unbelievable weapon range. But they do have a point in criticizing the team’s misbehavior as being very irrational and reckless; to the best of my knowledge, no soldier would ever make decisions like the ones in this movie. At times, it can be as frustrating as watching dumb characters in a horror movie. But I’ll admit that it didn’t detract from the sheer relentlessness of certain scenes, especially when a bomb may potentially be involved. I’ve been a fan of Jeremy Renner for a while now, but this Oscar-nominated role may be his best performance to date. As James, he’s incredibly off the hook yet brilliant when the moment calls for it, perhaps the only one who truly knows how war works. Future Avengers co-star Anthony Mackie also does great work as his level-headed superior Sgt. Sanborn. His headbutting with James is essentially the story’s backbone, with his by-the-numbers input is nearly thrown out the window on numerous occasions in favor of improvisation. Meanwhile, Brian Geraghty is arguably the most “natural” is his role as Eldridge, an insecure but well-meaning teammate. Other actors, like Ralph Fiennes as the profane leader of a British PMC group and Guy Pearce as another bomb disposal guy, do excellent work and leave nothing to complain about. On the technical side of things, it becomes clear why this one was an awards season favorite. The cinematography by Barry Ackroyd opts for a handheld style that almost imitates a documentary, similar to his work on United 93. In fact, the way it constantly moves and zooms in makes it feel incredibly immersive in a raw setting like the Middle East. Several scenes were filmed with multiple cameras at the same time, which allows for new perspectives to be found in each moment. But the editing job by Chris Innis and Bob Murawski is what truly sets the picture apart. Putting together hours of footage from Super 16 mm film is no easy task, but add the asymmetrical structure of the script and things seem almost impossible. During an early bomb sequence, the film breaks out into slow-motion and cuts constantly between the explosion itself and the impact it has on various surrounding surfaces. The musical score here is composed and conducted by both Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders. While not one of the 21st century’s best, it’s still a pretty memorable soundtrack. The tracks are largely made up of electric guitars on constant riffs and melodies. Instrumental in building all of the tension and anxiety in the film, it often sounded like a neverending crescendo. It also features some choir-like voices which help to provide a great background for the cacophony of war. But both Bigelow and Boal’s greatest accomplishment with this film is its examination of how these soldiers react differently to the Iraq War. While most war films spend their time showing us that “War is Hell,” the team behind The Hurt Locker find it to be something else: an addiction. A potent drug, even. The main character is essentially an adrenaline junky, always searching for the next bomb to defuse. That was by far the most interesting thing this film had to offer. Whenever it goes off into something else, it just feels like nothing is happening. The Hurt Locker is a marvel of technical realism and character frustration. A tense and unpredictable war thriller, I appreciated the unique approach it took to the perspective of war while being annoyed by some other decisions. Nevertheless, it’s a truly great film, if not a particularly rewatchable one.

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“The Shawshank Redemption” Movie Review

If 2017 proved anything to us, it’s that people really love a good Stephen King adaptation. Now let’s travel back in time to a film that didn’t get the recognition it deserved until years later. This highly beloved prison drama from writer-director Frank Darabont was originally released on September 23rd, 1994. Despite receiving generally favorable reviews as well as 7 Academy Award nominations, the film only barely made back twice its $25 million budget. However, it became the most successful home media release of 1995 and has been re-run on cable T.V. endlessly. Legend has it that Darabont was able to purchase the rights for less than $10,000, but sat on it for nearly 5 years. The film finally came to fruition after a lengthy casting process was done, including some changes to the story that we’ll mention in a little bit. Based on the novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption by Stephen King, the 142 minute-long story follows Tim Robbins who plays Andy Dufresne, an intelligent banker who is wrongfully convicted for the murder of his wife and her lover. He is sentenced to life at the Shawshank State Penitentiary, where he is subject to the brutality of both sadistic prisoners and opportunistic guards. Soon, he befriends a fellow prisoner/contraband smuggler Ellis Boyd “Red” Redding, played by Morgan Freeman. Over the next two decades, they and a handful of others have to deal with various developments, such as the Warden’s money laundering scheme and struggle to hold onto the hope of making it to being free once more. How on Earth am I supposed to review a movie that is so obviously revered by many and has been reviewed/praised to death? Is there really anything left I can say that no one else has already added? I sincerely doubt it. Well, I’ll admit this much: in preparation for my new year’s resolution, there were two movies I had to erase from my “list of shame.” The Shawshank Redemption was one of those. And as with Terminator 2: Judgement Day last year, I feel like such an idiot for having waited so long to actually act on it. Frank Darabont may have gone on to other projects over the years- including The Green MileThe Mist, and The Walking Dead T.V. show -but this remains not only the best film of his career but one of the best ever made, period. The sad truth, however, is that this film’s beloved status came at the burgeoning as well as the growth of the Internet fanbase. More particularly, it currently stands as the highest rated film of all time on the website IMDb, followed closely only by The Godfather. But the inherent problem with that is that many people will suddenly want to play the contrarian and repeatedly call this film “overrated.” The only film that rivals it in that certain regard is Orson Welles’ feature, Citizen Kane. (Which I still haven’t seen) Don’t let any of those fools let you sway from the inevitable. While we could argue about how it ranks among the best, there’s no denying its beauty and power. Tim Robbins is excellent as Andy Dufresne, a man who is established as innocent from the get-go but still gets his life ruined. Despite the hellish nature of the prison, he’s highly resourceful and soon grows respect and admiration from his peers. A particular scene where he offers to handle a guard’s financial problems in exchange for the prisoners to get cold beer is a great example of this. Clancy Brown and Bob Gunton do great work as the pious Warden and captain of the prison guards, respectively. The two of them are incredibly unlikable, but both of these actors inject a certain humanity that makes you understand their positions, despite all of the abuse they use in their power. But the obvious scene-stealer is none other than Morgan Freeman as Red, perhaps the great prison character brought to the celluloid. Although he was originally written as a white Irishman in the novella, his race literally doesn’t matter here. Freeman’s natural, fundamentally human performances deservedly nabbed him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. It also (For better or worse) established him as the quintessential voice-over actor thanks to his brilliant and sometimes-haunted narration of the story. And although it deceptively looks like a simple picture, The Shawshank Redemption is also a great technical triumph. Ever the master of photography, this is arguably the film that launched Roger Deakins into stardom. Each shot feels meticulously crafted, helping to establish Deakins’ love of contrasting harsh, realistic lighting with beautiful shadows. It works both to capture the monotonous daily life of prison work and find the right emotion of each scene; dark shadows dominate moments of despair and sorrow while more light-hearted ones find a particular gleam of light. Meanwhile, Richard Francis-Bruce’s editing job is splendidly fluid with the natural progression of the plot. No period of time feels like it takes priority over the other, as age and time come at a steady pace throughout the story. One minute, we’re starting out in the 40’s. Next thing you know, we’re finishing off in the 1960’s just before America sends its men up to the Moon. Honestly, it’s a crime that Thomas Newman has yet to receive his Oscar for Best Original Score. Nowhere is that more especially tragic than for his score in this movie. Heavy on strings more than anything else, the soundtrack matches beautifully with each of the characters and their various arcs. The main theme features a gorgeous crescendo from an oboe into a full orchestral sound, which is paramount to establishing the tone of the film. It also works in swelling up emotions during particular sequences. This includes the final 10 minutes of the movie, which is one of the most powerful in 20th-century cinema. And yeah, from all the descriptions about prison and wrongful conviction, one might think that this film is a depressing, misery-laden wasteland of pessimism. Don’t be taken the wrong way. While it certainly doesn’t shy away from the darker aspects of incarceration- including an attempted prison rape -Frank Darabont ultimately tells the story to give the audience a sense of hope and wanting of freedom. Its entire message can be summed up in the tagline: Fear can hold you prisoner, Hope can set you free. Cheesy? Possibly. But the “feel-good” elements are nuanced enough to make me overlook that. The Shawshank Redemption is an incredible, uplifting triumph of pitch-perfect filmmaking. Of all of the Stephen King adaptations to ever come out, this has got to be my favorite. And I sincerely hope that it connects with everyone just as it did me. A timeless, phenomenal masterpiece.

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Retrospective: 2017 Superlatives

Now that my Top 20 Best Films is published and out of the way, I wanted to go into more specific categories with Superlatives. No specific rankings here, but I just wanted to file away certain films that I saw that deserve at least some recognition. Some of these were in contention for the Top 20, others were not. But regardless, I wanted to continue my tradition from last year and give some thoughts on these.

Most Original: “Okja”

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In my experience, Bong Joon-Ho’s films can range from hitting the exact spot that they should hit or struggle to decide what tonal path they want to take. Okja is a mixture of both but there’s no denying how it is unlike anything else that’s pouring out of the studio market these days. The concept of a child forming a close bond with a creature may be familiar, but the way that Joon-Ho goes about it in this Netflix original is so unexpected and exhilarating. Filled with both heart and searing satire, this is the kind of film that more studios and production companies should be putting faith in.

*Read my full review here.

Most Surprising: “Coco”

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I had little doubt in my mind that Pixar Animation would score more laughs and fun out of the audience with Coco. But what shocked and particularly impressed me was the deep respect and reverence the creators had for Mexican culture, which is often overlooked or misappropriated by Hollywood. Moreover, the film was surprising in its examination of death and the afterlife, a topic rarely discussed in family pictures. Topped off with some of the most gorgeous visuals the animators have had to offer yet and a beautiful score by Michael Giacchino, Coco is a glorious return to form for Pixar.

*Read my full review here.

Most Overrated: “Atomic Blonde”

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Now, this just makes me sad because I really wanted to like this movie like everyone else. And while I did enjoy parts of Atomic Blonde, nothing could overcome the excessive feeling of “all style and no substance.” Charlize Theron and James McAvoy are great in their respective roles and seem to be having a lot of fun. But the spy plot needlessly and constantly twists itself in a tangled up knot to hide its inherently generic nature. And while the color scheme and use of graffiti are nice, it ultimately feels indulgent.

*Read my full review here.

Most Underrated: “Mother!”

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I know a lot of people who not only disagree with my choice on this category, but they don’t like Mother! Not at all. And honestly, I can’t blame them since the film has no regard for the audiences’ comfort level. But for me, growing up in a religious household, seeing this allegory played out with total control unleashed from Darren Aronofsky is exactly the kind of disturbing I look for. My jaw was on the floor for the last 30-45 minutes of the movie, and the controversy this film has accumulated for its plot and violence is exactly the kind of conversation that film buffs should be having.

*Read my full review here.

Most Overlooked: “The Girl With All the Gifts”

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One could attribute this film’s relative lack of success to the overcrowded zombie genre, and you’d probably be right. But unlike many other films in that worn out niche, Colm McCarthy’s The Girl With All the Gifts has an effective emotional core in the midst of all the flesh-eating terror and guts. Featuring a breakout performance from Sennia Nanua and some chillingly real zombie effects, the film feels like a believable examination of what would happen to children in the collapse of society. It’s probably the closest we’ll get to a live-action adaptation of The Last of Us.

*Read my full review here.

Most Disappointing: “Bright”

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“It’s like a nuclear bomb that grants wishes!” An actual line of dialogue from this huge let-down. I’ll give Netflix some credit here; they tried. In an age of studios whittling visions down to empty projects, Netflix actually tried to make an original fantasy blockbuster. They’ve even committed to a sequel already! But David Ayer’s Bright failed not just at setting up a potential franchise, not just at pathetic social commentary, but also at the most simple job: making a good movie. Max Landis seems to have a ton of ideas floating around his head, but someone really should have given this one a total rewrite. Sorry, Will Smith and Joel Edgerton, I love you guys. But make better choices.

*Read my full review here.

Funniest: “The Big Sick”

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Aside from Get Out, I can’t think of a single movie from 2017 that caught more people by surprise than The Big Sick. Revealing Kumail Nanjiani as both a brilliant screenwriter and a capable actor, the awkward true story speaks volumes about current cultural barriers without ever becoming too preachy. It is increasingly rare to find honesty or sincerity in romantic films, but Nanjiani, along with his co-writer (And real-life wife) Emily V. Gordon do just that. It doesn’t avoid the emotional weight of a loved one falling ill, but they still find genuine humor amongst it all. Capped off with the single best and most unexpected 9/11 joke in cinematic history.

*Read my full review here.

Worst: “The Emoji Movie”

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In all honesty, who was actually expecting this movie to be any good? When I first heard the announcement, I thought it was an article published by The Onion, but nope. Even so, I might be willing to subside some criticisms if Tony Leonidis and T.J. Miller really put some muscle and effort into it. But The Emoji Movie not only comes across as lazy garbage but also a stupidly cynical feature-length advertisement for various corporate phone apps. Rarely have I seen a movie that is so blatantly insulting to the intelligence of both adult AND child audiences. (Sir Patrick Stewart as the poop emoji included) The Emoji Movie is easily the worst movie of the year, and the worst animation I’ve seen yet.

*Read my full review here.

Do you agree with these superlatives? What do you think was the worst or most underrated movie of 2017? Be sure to leave your picks in the Comments below, and if you’re interested to see more content like this, be sure to like this post and Follow my Blog.