Category Archives: Emotional

“Rain Man” Movie Review

Welcome back, one and all, to my New Year’s Resolution! It’s been a great way for me to finally watch films I’ve always wanted to and look back on old favorites. The rules are the same as the have been for the past two years, and it’s time for me to start by scratch a major film off my watchlist.

This road-trip dramedy was originally released in theaters worldwide by MGM on December 16th, 1988. Made for the middling budget of $25 million, it went on to gross over $354.8 million at the box office. This made it the highest-grossing U.S. film of that year, despite competition from the likes of Die Hard and Twins. Critically acclaimed, it went on to win and be nominated for several year-end accolades, including top honors at the 39th Berlin International Film Festival. It also managed to win 4 Academy Awards, including Best Actor and Picture, out of 8 total nominations.

Directed by Barry Levinson, the Oscar-winning screenplay was originally written by Barry Marrow before being polished by Ronald Bass. The characters and story were inspired by Kim Peek and Bill Sackter, two real-life savants who Marrow met by chance. The final draft was delivered a few hours before the 1988 Writers Guild of America strike started, preventing any further rewrites during filming. There was also a controversy when 15 major airlines omitted a pivotal scene from the film, except for the Australian based Qantas whose safety records become more well-known afterwards.

Tom Cruise stars as Charlie Babbitt, a selfish young wheeler-dealer who tries importing cars against the EPA’s rules. When his estranged father dies, he travels to Cincinnati to hear the will reading and presumably inherit his vast amount of money and assets. However, he learns that his father’s entire fortune has been bequeathed to his older brother Raymond, played by Dustin Hoffman, who’s lived much of his life in a group home due to his autism and savant syndrome. Together, they embark on a cross-country roadtrip to change the legal status of their inheritance and form an unusual bond along the way.

Full disclosure for everyone reading this: I am an adult male diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. I have been on the spectrum for as long as I can remember and it has been a major defining part of my life and personality. It’s only been in the last few years that I’ve truly become interested in researching the topic and I’d even go as far as to say that it has helped shape my passion for movies and storytelling. It’s something I’ve become comfortable with, and I’m proud of the resilience it has given me over time.

Despite this, with a few exceptions, I have rarely seen a portrayal of the condition in mainstream media. Shows and films such as Atypical, The Accountant, and Barfi have attempted to normalize it for neurotypical people in recent years, but I had never seen the one that had put it on the map for more people. As a serious depiction of autism, I have a couple of issues with it. But as a film on its own, Rain Man is still a pretty engaging and entertaining road movie to watch after 32 years.

The way they handle Raymond’s condition was much more sensitive than I had anticipated and it definitely gets a lot of things right. Many of his on-screen mannerisms, such as talking to himself and frequent panic attacks or outbursts, are remarkably accurate to the general symptoms of autism. It also gets points for showing how Charlie, a cold and selfish person, initially tries to manipulate Raymond for his own purposes before gradually changing his mind; that really hit close to home for me.

Where Rain Man falters here, aside from just being a typical roadtrip movie, is that it almost implies that all people on the spectrum are savants who are cut off from normal human emotions. This makes Raymond seem almost robotic during his time on-screen, and it feels way too simplified to have a full impact. But at the same time, I have to give Levinson and Co. some credit for at least trying to do something realistic with it, especially for the time it was made in.

In one of the earlier roles of his storied career, Tom Cruise delivers the goods here as Charlie Babbitt. At the beginning of the film, he’s a callous and narcissistic older brother who wants no responsibility that doesn’t result in his own personal gain. And while he tries to use Raymond’s incredible mathematic skills for his benefits, he soon comes to realize that having a relationship with his brother is far more important.

Valeria Golino is also worth mentioning as Susanna, Charlie’s level-headed girlfriend and business partner. She constantly tries to put Charlie on the right path and often tries to shoot down some of his schemes when they clearly only benefit him. As the film goes along, she starts to see his softer side as the influence of Raymond begins to show on the both of them.

And then, we have Dustin Hoffman as Raymond Babbitt, the role that won him the Academy Award for Best Actor. It’s easy to see why his performance was so acclaimed at the time of release and why it’s so controversial now. As mentioned earlier, Hoffman plays the role rather robotically, only showing real emotion during big outbursts. A huge part of me really wishes that had actually cast someone on the spectrum for the role rather than a neurotypical actor, but then again, the film might not have gotten made.

That being said, Hoffman does a pretty good job at showing his character’s insecurity when things don’t go according to his routine. It may seem a little childish at first, but it soon becomes clear that this is the only way that Raymond can cope with the real world, which he has never lived in as an adult. Seeing the way average people dismiss him because of his behavior is heartbreaking, especially since he can’t really express himself or his feelings in a “normal” way.

And from a technical perspective, Rain Man fits right into the pack of late 80s movies. John Seale’s cinematography tries to capture the sense of a sprawling road trip, with sweeping shots across the countryside. Being shot on location helps make it feel like an authentic look through a part of Americana. There are also a number of medium close-ups to help get intimate with the characters in small moments.

This works decently with the editing job by Stu Linder. It’s a very straightforward and unpretentious method he uses to cut the film together. There are only cuts whenever there need to be for the story or for when the emotions start running high, instead opting mostly for longer takes. The lack of flare allows for the characters to take center stage here.

In one of his earliest works in Hollywood, Hans Zimmer provides the instrumental film score. It essentially serves as a guideline for all his scores to come because it is a genuinely good, if not quite memorable one. You can hear his signature style of blending electronic sounds with that of a more traditional orchestral sound. The main theme is an interesting theme that doesn’t really feel sentimental but still feels appropriate for what Charlie and Raymond go through. The trademark 80s synthesizer and percussion is ever present throughout as it sets the tone for the adventure to come.

A clear product of its time, Rain Man is a somewhat problematic mishmash of genuinely good intentions. Barrys Levinson and Marrow do work within the confines of a traditional road trip movie but still put forth a lot of effort to take its subject matter seriously. It’s also a great showcase for a pre-action Tom Cruise and a performance from Dustin Hoffman that, for better or worse, has made its way into film history.

As someone on the spectrum, I’m still trying to work out my exact feelings on how it treats autism. I can definitely respect the attempts the filmmakers made at painting a more accurate picture of the condition, but there’s still a long way to go.

“1917” Movie Review

Imagine crawling through No Man’s Land with just one companion by your side. No living person in this era could ever even comprehend having to do so, let alone see it up close. But now, as VR blurs the lines between reality and fiction ever so gradually, this film has come along to put us face first in the filth of it all. Now, this is what a call a “cinematic experience.”

This period war thriller was given a limited, awards-qualifying theatrical release by Universal Pictures on Christmas Day, 2019. It was then released to a much wider audience two weeks later on January 10th, 2020. After doing exceptionally well in specialty theaters originally, it has since gone on to gross over $147.5 million at the worldwide box office. Against a production budget of around $90 million, this could put it in position as one of the highest grossing films of its genre if it continues its streak. It also helps that it has been given some of the best critical reviews of the year and numerous accolades and nominations, including for 10 Academy Awards.

Directed by Sam Mendes, the film marks his feature screenwriting debut alongside co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns. The duo had previously attempted to get two other projects off the ground before Amblin Partners and Steven Spielberg gave the script the greenlight. The story was inspired in part by memories told to him by his grandfather, Lance Corporal Alfred P. Mendes. During filming, conservationists expressed concern for the trenches and sets being built, a warning signs had to be posted to hikers that any bodies they saw were just mannequins.

Set on April 5th of its titular year, George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman star as William Schofield and Thomas Blake, two British Lance Corporals in France during World War I. The Germans have just made a tactical withdrawal from the Western Front and are planning to ambush an impending British attack the next morning. Blake and Schofield are assigned by the General to carry a message beyond the Hindenburg Line that would stop the attack and save the lives of over 1,600 men, including Blake’s older brother. With time running out, the two soldiers hasten to deliver the message and stop their forces from sustaining heavy casualties.

Overall, I like Sam Mendes as a director. He has a great style that’s really slick, realistic, and in-control of everything that’s happening on-screen. He directed Skyfall, which is my personal favorite James Bond movie, and I also was impressed by his smaller-scale drama Revolutionary Road. Hearing news that he would be returning behind the camera for a huge film like this felt almost like an event.

The fact that he would be covering a movie about World War I was already enough to gain my attention, as there are relatively few films about the conflict. Seeing all of the incredible hype and buzz it was getting left and right in the industry, not to mention crashing the Oscar race last-minute, made me even more excited. But that still didn’t prepare me because 1917 exceeded my expectations and is easily one of the best war films of the last decade.

Contrary to what some people may tell you, the main stylistic choice of this film- presenting the whole story as if it were a single continuous shot -isn’t just a showy gimmick. Yes, it’s very stylish and attention–grabbing, but it only serves a way to drive the story forward, spend time with the two main protagonists. We’re with Blake and Schofield every step of the way as the traverse the mud and blood left behind by men they’re hesitant to even call the enemy.

It’s also a big testament to the film that 1917 never once even thinks about glorifying the conflict that they’re in. World War I was an utterly pointless conflict where millions of people died over petty aristocratic squabbles, and the film shows the immense cost that comes with. The characters are witnesses and party to many horrendous things in the trenches, but as long as the army advances forward the higher ups see it as an absolute victory. By keep the focus on just two small soldiers, the real perspective hammers home; there’s not much time for big heroics but even minor acts of courage count.

George MacKay has been building his repertoir over the last few years and he finally gets a real breakout here. As Schofield, he’s fairly quiet and unassuming, prefering to keep his head down than answer directly the big call. Going on this huge trek forces him to confront anxieties he’s been running away from, including long-repressed feelings about potentially going home and being given a medal for something he says as arbitrary.

Opposite him for almost the entire journey, Dean-Charles Chapman is excellent as Blake, the defacto leader of the duo. He’s much more chatty than Schofield, often reminiscing on stories from home or camp to lighten the mood. The enormity of the mission at hand is never lost on him, desperate to see his older brother again but not foolhardy enough to dive headlong into a worthless firefight with the Germans.

These two men have wonderful chemistry together and are the primary reason why the film works. Refusing to cast world-famous stars in the lead roles is a stroke of genius so that the audience can find more relatability in their struggle. We learn just enough about their personal backgrounds over the course of the film to become invested and believe the reliability they have on each other, even if they’re not best friends.

They’re both flanked by respected thespians in small roles and cameos throughout. These include Colin Firth as the General who gives their mission in the first place, Andrew Scott as a drunken and cynical Lieutenant providing their equipment, Benedict Cumberbatch as the stubborn Colonel wishing to push forward no matter what, and Claire Duburq as a lonely French woman hiding out in the ruins of a village. None of these actors stay on-screen for very long, but they each provide a different perspective on the war and its purpose- or lack thereof.

And just looking at the technical aspects, 1917 is an absolutely stunning landmark in big-budget filmmaking. The inimitable Roger Deakins provides the cinematography and it’s some of his best work yet. The aforementioned single-shot look is breathtaking to say the least and always has a fluid motion throughout the whole movie. The realistic colors and gorgeous natural lighting help to create a strong atmosphere of a country that has been torn asunder many times over. It roves over many impressive sets, never once losing focus and makes us feel like observers.

This works perfectly in sync with the editing job by Lee Smith, who helps to make the whole thing seamless. With one very brief exception about halfway through the film, every take looks perfectly stitched together from the first frame to the last. The occasional CGI structure or enterting of interiors is the closest I can tell to when the takes end and start. How Smith managed to make a transition from a window into a fiery village during the nighttime look seamless is beyond me.

With a long career trailing him, Thomas Newman reunites with Mendes to provide perhaps his finest score ever put to film. Much like Hans Zimmer’s work on Dunkirk, it avoids the sweeping orchestral notes of typical war films and instead builds many tracks as a never-ending crescendo. The soundtrack mixes traditional instruments with some light electronics to create a unique sound that’s hard to shake.

One track, in particular, is more mystifying than the rest, as it uses light strings and glockenspiel to illustrate a mysterious environment. Another one near the end is a 6-minute epic as the tension builds towards a massive payoff on-screen. Although they both sound vastly different, they each encapsulate exactly the film is about. The immediacy of the score somehow matches that of what’s happening in the film, and that alone is enough.

With brilliant performances, unforgettable set pieces, and a stylistic choice that actually serves the story, 1917 is an astonishing and fully immersive achievement of modern cinema. Sam Mendes completely tops himself by delivering easily one of the best films about World War I ever made. With the help of Krysty Wilson-Cairns, Roger Deakins, and a willing ensemble of capable actors, he manages to craft a thrilling piece of film that celebrates the small acts of courage while condemning the machinations of war.

Whether or not you agree with its presentation, it’s almost impossible to shake this one off after the credits roll. It’s the rare kind of event film that just demands to be seen on the big screen rather than at home, which further catapults its impact.

Image result for 1917 poster

“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” Movie Review

For the time being, I want to do nothing but find the casting director for this movie and shake their hand. Avy Kaufman, if you’re somehow reading this review right now, thank you for this pitch perfect casting choice. I hope that you have a long and storied career ahead of you.

This touching biographical drama premiered at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival. It was later released in theaters worldwide by Sony and TriStar Pictures on November 22nd, 2019. Made for the budget of around $25 million, it has thus far grossed over $61.2 million at the worldwide box office. This means it will most likely break even for the studio, but doesn’t really meet their expectations. Despite this, it has garnered incredible reviews from critics and huge adoration from audiences the world over.

Directed by Marielle Heller, the film had originally been developed by screenwriters Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster under the original title You Are My Friend. The script had originally appeared on the 2013 Black List, which compiles the best unproduced screenplays in Hollywood. One of the main stars had long thought to be untouchable, until a happenstance connection between him and the director allowed it to happen. During production, sound mixer James Emswiller sadly suffered a heart attack on set and died shortly afterwards.

Set in 1998, Matthew Rhys stars as Lloyd Vogel, an extremely cynical journalist working for Esquire Magazine. Tired of his abrasive behavior towards co-workers and subjects, his boss assigns him a new piece to write about “heroes.” Much to his chagrin, the primary subject of the story turns out to be popular children’s T.V. host Fred Rogers, played by Tom Hanks. Although it seems like a straightforward interview at first, these two men come to change each other’s lives in ways they could have never expected.

Last year, we got the sorely needed and underseen documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? from Morgan Neville. Even though I hadn’t really grown up watching Mister Roger’s Neighborhood as a child, watching that documentary deepened my respect for the man and made me see why he’s still relevant today. Why the Academy completely overlooked it in consideration that year is beyond my comprehension.

When I read that Tom Hanks would be playing the man in a biographical movie, my heart almost melted at the near-perfect casting. I had also been really impressed with Marielle Heller’s work in Can You Ever Forgive Me? last year and was eager to see the two collaborate together on this project. And as it turns out, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is just as whimsical and emotional as you might expect it to be.

Contrary to what the marketing may have told you, this is not an actual straightforward biopic of Mister Fred Rogers. Rather, it wisely makes Lloyd Vogel the main protagonist so that it becomes more like a parable on a time when adults and children alike the world over have become so cynical about life. It utilizes Mister Rogers as a way for Lloyd to reckon with the mistakes he’s made in the past, including disowning his absentee father, and for audiences to learn his lessons in an organic way.

Thankfully, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood stops just short of putting the beloved man on a pedestal as a true saint. He also has his own worries and frustrations, but he always tries to find a way to channel that negativity into something genuinely helpful to other people around him. This allows the film to be rather mature and flexible in the scope of its themes and makes it standout much more than your typical historical film.

After a healthy run on The Americans, Matthew Rhys gets to shine as the lead actor to excellent results. As Lloyd Vogel, he is deeply jaded with life and puts his own personal bitterness and dissatisfaction onto everyone around him, including his loved ones. He gradually becomes more sympathetic as the film goes along as he starts seriously considering the advice he’s been given.

Although he’s relegated to a supporting role, Tom Hanks is absolutely perfect as Mister Fred Rogers. Soft-spoken, jovial, and filled with enormous energy, he fits right into the comfy shoes of the iconic star without missing a beat. He wants to spread love and positivity wherever he goes, including the public subway or a small restaurant, and always thinks about the needs of those he cares about.

Chris Cooper is also extremely impressive as Jerry, Lloyd’s estranged father who wants to make amends. Although he’s very brash and abrasive initially, it soon becomes clear that he deeply regrets abandoning his children and cheating on his wife years prior. He spends a large portion of the film begging Lloyd for forgiveness, even though he believes he doesn’t deserve it, and tries to cherish the limited time he has left with his newborn grandson.

Susan Kelchi Watson, Maryann Plunkett, Enrico Colantoni, Tammy Blanchard, and Christine Lahti round out the stellar supporting cast here. All of them are connected to Lloyd and Fred’s struggles in some way or another and try to find a way to change themselves for the better. None of them act showy in any scene, which helps bring an even bigger sense of emotional realism to the film.

And from a technical point of view, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood shows Heller sidestepping artistic flourishes for something straightforward. Shot by Jody Lee Pipes, the cinematography is largely unpretentious as it keeps things focused on all of the subjects throughout the story. The contrast in color and exposure is also worth mentioning, as the WQED studio for Mister Roger’s Neighborhood is full of vibrant colors while the outside world is largely cold in its palette.

It works well with Anne McCabe’s editing, which is also largely devoid of pretension. The whole film is framed by Hanks as Rogers making an episode of his show explaining Lloyd’s struggles to the viewer, and then it transitions into the proper moment of the story. There’s even a dream sequence when many of Lloyd’s loved ones take on persona’s of different characters on the show. It’s a brilliant way of acquainting us with the world without fully getting invested in nostalgia. The film also knows when to keep the frame still and leave out sound when necessary.

The most noteworthy example of this is in the third act, when Fred takes Lloyd out f to a restaurant and asks him to take a minute “to think of all the people who loved us into being.” The camera only remains on the two men while all other sound and the rest of the world drown out. It’s a truly great moment of cinema, and one where it almost feels like Mister Rogers is asking the audience to do the same. And if the silent, sniffling reaction from the people in my theater is any indication, it worked.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a wise, deeply felt movie about having empathy in a harsh world. With humble direction and maturity, Marielle Heller brings to life one of the kindest humans to ever grace the Earth without exploiting his legacy in the slightest. Bolstered by some of the best casting choices in the last few years, this film is sure to bring even the most hardened of viewers to being misty-eyed.

Although I still prefer the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, it’s hard denying that we need to listen to the man’s words and lessons today. To quote Mister Rogers himself, “Sometimes, we have to ask for help, and that’s okay.”

“Little Women” Movie Review

Every now and then, a movie comes along that’s truly great but also warm and comforting like a blanket. Last year, we had Paddington 2 and now in 2019, we have this film. And what a lovely time, it is indeed.

This historical romantic comedy-drama was released in theaters worldwide by Columbia Pictures on December 25th, 2019. Made for the budget of around $40 million, it has gone on to gross over $132.3 million at the box office thus far. It exceeded expectations on its Christmas Day debut and has performed extremely well in various specialty theaters since then. It’s also garnered some of the best reviews of the year and numerous accolades, despite coming in the last stretch.

Written and directed by Greta Gerwig, the studio had been planning a new version of the story for some time. If I’m not mistaken, this is the 8th (Yes, eighth) live-action adaptation of the novel of the same name by Louisa May Alcott. Sarah Polley had originally been onboard as the writer and director of the project but her own version never made it beyond the initial stages. Gerwig subsequently came on to rewrite the script and, after producer Amy Pascal was highly impressed with her debut Lady Bird, was offered the chance to make the adaptation wholesale.

Set in 1860s Massachusetts, the film focuses on the March sisters, 4 girls coming of age during and immediately after the Civil War. Jo, Amy, Beth, and Meg- played by Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, and Emma Watson, respectively -each have their own dreams and aspirations as the world around them changes. The story bounces back and forth between the four of them as young women living together and seven years later when they’ve moved away. As they go about their own personal journeys with friends and family, including Timothée Chalamet as Jo’s longtime love interest Theodore “Laurie” Laurence, they all try to find a sense of agency in a changing world.

Without question, Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, released back in 2017, was one of the finest directorial debuts of the past decade. It was told with such an incredible degree of specificity and honesty that it felt like a genuine piece of history brought to life. And furthermore, it proved that the actress and writer was just as capable of being a brilliant force behind the camera.

Although I have never read Louisa May Alcott’s eponymous novel, I did get to watch Gillian Armstrong’s adaptation starring Winona Ryder and Christian Bale recently. It was a delightful little film but I had high hopes for Gerwig’s version that she might add a sense of modernity to the story. And I’m happy to report that the newest incarnation of Little Women is an utter delight with an incredible cast and approach.

Just like Lady Bird, the really beautiful thing about this movie is that it feels like these characters have a history that goes beyond what’s simply on-screen. From the minute we meet them, it seems as if the March sisters have already lived full lives and could continue living long after the credits start to role. This particular film only covers a 7-year snapshot of their lives and it’s riveting to watch a pivotal moment for their emotional maturation.

Another thing that sets Little Women apart from all the other adaptations before it is that it feels incredibly vibrant and modern without being totally anachronistic. All of the period-accurate dialogue is still there, but the way the characters all talk over each other in multiple scenes makes it feel extremely natural and lived-in. It’s clear from beginning to end that Greta Gerwig is deeply fond of this story and its characters and makes them her own.

Gerwig also continues to be adept at mining great performances out of big casts. The March sisters are all played by Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Emma Watson, and Eliza Scanlen, and it’s hard to imagine anyone else in their respective roles. All four of them have excellent chemistry with one another, never passing up an opportunity to poke fun but are always there to lift each other up when needed.

Ronan, in particular, gives yet another excellent lead performance as Jo March, the group’s unofficial leader. She wants to reject the social and economic constraints put on women during her time period, instead aspiring to become a great storyteller. Her free-spirited energy and adventurous attitude make Jo an immensely captivating protagonist to root for as she sincerely tries to prove everyone wrong.

Florence Pugh, meanwhile, continues her cinematic hot streak of 2019 to give her best work yet as Amy, the youngest of the March sisters. Previously, the character had been annoying and unlikable, but Pugh avoids this by giving her shades of melancholy and regret for past mistakes. She gives a great speech about how marriage is more of “an economic proposition” than an act of genuine affection, which is what she desires.

The supporting cast is rounded out by a treasure trove of great actors in roles large and small. This includes Laura Dern as the March sisters’ stern but caring mother, Timothée Chalamet as Jo’s childhood sweetheart, Tracey Letts as the editor for a newspaper who doesn’t understand Jo’s stories, Chris Cooper as the wealthy but kindhearted father of Laurie, Louis Garrel as a German professor with a penchant for romance, and Meryl Streep as the high-strung, matriarchal aunt of the March family. Each one of them avoid the stuffiness of historical films by reaching into unique personality traits and running with them.

Meanwhile, from a pure filmmaking perspective, Little Women shows Greta Gerwig gaining an even stronger grip on her cinematic voice. Yorick Le Saux’s cinematography uses many different techniques that breathe life into the story. Among them is how distinguishes the two main timelines by having sequences in the past have a warmer, brighter tint to the frame. The camera constantly follows the main characters around and accounts for all of their movements. The use of 35mm film helps capture the beauty of the sets and costumes, and even a couple scenes have high framerates to accommodate the pace of the action.

This matches up well with the editing job by Nick Houy, who’s able to find a brilliant balance between different tones and moments in time. The back-and-forth structure is a bit daunting at first, but it soon flows extremely well as scene after scene compliment each other without losing its energy. The constant cutting between characters in various scenes also helps to create a sense of negative space both between them physically and emotionally. Even relatively simple scenes, like Jo and Laurie dancing on a back porch during a ball, are elevated because of the momentum.

The incredibly versatile Alexandre Desplat compose and conducts the instrumental film score here. Just like the rest of the film, it’s vibrant and charming in the best ways possible. The primary theme uses rapid, staccato strings in a major key that help to highlight the spritely tone of the story. This dynamic is present in other tracks, along with some light piano work and and even some soft woodwinds. It often times keeps the same tune going for when it transitions between timelines or locations so the tone matches the melody. It’s a score that fits the period setting well enough but still feels brand new in many ways.

Building on everything she established with debut and finding new avenues in the process, Little Women is a fantastically jovial adventure with timely commentary on female agency. Despite being one of the most adapted books in American literature, Greta Gerwig is somehow able to breathe new life and air into a staid genre, and cements herself as one of the cinematic greats of her time. She’s also helped along the way by an excellent cast and crew who share her wonderous vision.

It really speaks to Gerwig’s power as a storyteller and a director that she’s able to make Alcott’s classic story about powerlessness and choice feel so fresh and amazing. Just give her an Academy Award for Best Director already, dammit.

“Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker” Movie Review

**Out of respect for the fans and viewers who wish to go into this film as cold as possible, I’ll only be giving the baseline premise for everything. Read at your own discretion.**

2019, as a whole, really has been a year of ending for a lot of pop culture things. Avengers, Game of Thrones, The Good Place, Mr. Robot, Toy Story, How To Train Your Dragon all seeing their narratives come to a close. But perhaps none were quite as anticipated or high-profile as this one, so let’s dive right in.

This epic space opera was released in theaters worldwide by Disney and Lucasfilm on December 20th, 2019, having previously been scheduled for May. After making a cool $40 million from Thursday night previews, it has gone on to gross over $927.5 million worldwide against a budget of $275 million. While that’s undoubtedly impressive, it’s a dip down from the intake of its two mainline predecessors. Not to mention, it has managed to split both fans and critics down the middle on its overall quality and effect.

Directed by J.J. Abrams, the third and final installment in the sequel trilogy under Disney was originally meant to be helmed by Jurassic World director Collin Trevorrow. After he departed due to “creative differences,” Abrams came back with co-writer Chris Terrio in tow to basically start over from scratch. There was also an incident months after production wrapped where one of the actor’s scripts accidentally got put up on eBay and a studio employee spent at least 5 figures to take it back. And in addition to the main characters returning here, this film has repeatedly been stated by the cast and crew to definitively be the final installment of the Skywalker Saga.

Picking up roughly a year after the events of The Last Jedi, Daisy Ridley returns as Rey, a young woman training to become a Jedi. During her journey, she and The Resistance discover that The First Order is about to make their final move in an attempt to control the galaxy once and for all. With time running out, Rey and her friends Poe Dameron and Finn, played by Oscar Isaac and John Boyega, set out on a quest to figure out the enemy’s plan before they can enact it. And it proves difficult when the malicious and power-hungry Kylo Ren, played by Adam Driver, tries to beat them to the punch all the while coming to terms with his own sins.

Although it hasn’t always been great, overall I’ve been happy with the Star Wars content Disney has been putting out in the last decade. I still and always will maintain that The Last Jedi is the best film in the saga in many, many years and I am eager to see what they do with The Mandalorian and season 7 of The Clone Wars. And hearing repeated vows that they would finally bring the nine-film Skywalker Saga to a big close made me excited.

As the hype built towards its release, I remained cautiously optimistic about what the results would be. I had hoped that there would be enough resolution for the characters and storyline to satisfy even fans who haven’t been on-board with the newer entries. And while The Rise of Skywalker is undeniably entertaining, there is so much it leaves to be desired from a thematic and story standpoint.

I don’t envy Abrams or Terrio because of the enormity of their task, (Concluding the mainline story for the biggest movie franchise of all time) but it can’t be denied they took the easiest possible route here. While it doesn’t completely retcon the choices made in The Last Jedi, it repurposes them into something that tries to bring all nine main films into play. But by trying to bring in a big picture, which can be admittedly admirable in concept, it’s unable to find enough satisfaction with the current narrative.

Despite this, there is still a lot of emotional weight that The Rise of Skywalker carries that, admittedly, can often be affecting. The character arcs of this new trilogy have arguably been some of the most interesting in the whole franchise and seeing them come to a head, regardless of the method, is a big event. And obviously, Disney and Lucasfilm have more films coming down the pipe, but it’s nice that they committed to wrapping up this particular narrative.

Daisy Ridley proves for the third time in a row why she was perfectly cast for the lead role of Rey. She has so much emotional baggage being carried, some of it for years on end, and the pressure of trying to bring back the Jedi is clearly weighing her down. All she wants to do is bring light and goodness to the galaxy, which is difficult with the consequences of the on-going war.

Opposite her, Adam Driver still proves why he’s one of the best actors of his generation thanks to his role as Kylo Ren. Still as deeply conflicted as always, his internal struggle comes to a dramatic head as his journey nears its end. He’s equal parts desperate, powerful, and pathetic here as he still struggles to figure out what exactly he desires and what path is he to take.

John Boyega also continues to be golden as Finn, one of the more interesting side characters of the franchise. His comedic timing is still impeccable as always and while he isn’t given as much to do as the last two films, his presence is always a welcome one. Seeing him come this far after having defected from the First Order is one of the more satisfying story threads in the film to be sure.

Oscar Isaac, Kelly Marie Tran, Anthony Daniels, Domnhall Glesson, Joonas Suotamo, Mark Hamill, Billy Dee Williams, and the late great Carrie Fisher (Who appears through unused footage from the last two films) all reprise their respective iconic roles from previous installments. Keri Russell, Richard E. Grant, Dominic Monaghan, Shirley Henderson and Naomi Ackie also make impressions as new characters in this story. Everyone onscreen is reveling in the fact that they’re in a Star Wars movie.

Meanwhile, The Rise of Skywalker is nothing short of a technical marvel. Abrams’ regular cinematographer Dan Mindel handles the camerawork once again here and it’s just as energetic as their previous efforts. The widescreen camera constantly roves around the action to keep up the momentum, even in smaller dialogue-driven moments. The use of primary colors, especially red and blue, are frequently saturated to highlight the constant battle between good and evil.

Maryann Brandon and Stefan Grube’s joint editing job is mostly a success, considering they had to edit some of it on-set. At 2 hours and 21 minutes, it’s one of the longest films in the saga, but this film really *moves.* Mile-a-minute pacing is the name of the game, as the main group of characters move around from one cool-looking world to the next as the adventure moves along. All of the action is cut together very well and comprehensively, even during some of the more extravagant sequences.

For his 9th and final Star Wars movie, the inimitable John Williams returns to provide the instrumental film score. It’s almost as magical as his previous efforts in the franchise, combining themes and motifs from all of the collective soundtracks into one while coming up with a couple of new ones. The woodwinds, brass, and strings all come together in the composer’s trademark sound of an emotional epic. He also brings in an ominous choir for the villain’s main theme, which encapsulates both the mystique of Kylo Ren’s morality and the somber road he’s taken thus far. The use of percussion like timpanis and bells also deserves to be noted, making it feel truly mysterious and adventurous.

Bringing the nine-film Skywalker Saga to a close and doing whatever it takes to get there, Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker is an enjoyable but narratively frustrating end to a truly epic cinematic story. J.J. Abrams sets out to finish the trilogy that he started and while it’s far from being worthy of getting thrown in the trash compactor, it still shows that he’s looking too much towards the past. All of the cast members do a great job to bring their characters’ arcs to a close and Williams’ final score for the franchise is undeniably excellent, even when it’s retreading old territory.

A part of me almost admires Abrams to sticking with his gut and ending the story on his own terms, but the choices he makes along the way are often ill-advised. Regardless of what you may think of how the Star Wars saga under the Disney banner has gone, it’s hard to argue that this final chapter could have been so much more.

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“Jojo Rabbit” Movie Review

Imagine your imaginary best friend being the caricature of a famous (Or infamous) world leader. Like you’re just going about your daily routine and a dumbed-down Justin Trudeau or Emmanuel Macron suddenly comes in and starts giving obviously bad advice to you. That thought is both disturbing and intriguing all at once.

This satirical period black comedy-drama initially premiered at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival. Despite some polarizing responses from critics, it managed to win the coveted Grolsch People’s Choice Award. After screening at other festivals such as Fantastic Fest, it was later released in select theaters by Fox Searchlight on October 18th, 2019. After making a killing by selling out theaters early on, it gradually expanded to more cities each week, grossing about $25.2 million against a production budget of $14 million. And while it’s generally had mixed reviews among critics, it has proven to be popular among audiences and casual moviegoers alike.

Written and directed by Taika Waititi, the film is loosely based on the book Caging Skies by Christine Leunens. The director apparently felt so strongly about the project that he put his live-action Akira adaptation on hold and dropped his stop-motion animated feature to work on it. He claims to have done almost no research outside the source material and used his own personality as a reference point in several areas. It was originally reported that, sometime after Disney acquired Fox, executives were extremely uncomfortable during an early test screening.

Set towards the end of World War II, newcomer Roman Griffin Davis stars as Johannes “Jojo” Beltzer, a 10-year-old boy who passionately supports Nazi Germany. Although his single mother Rosie, played by Scarlett Johansson, encourages him to find more empathy, his devotion to the Third Reich is so big that his best friend is an imaginary, idiotic version of Adolf Hitler, played by Taika himself. After a weekend away at a Hitler Youth camp goes awry, he comes home to discover that his mother has been hiding a young Jewish girl named Elsa Korr, played by Thomasin McKenzie, in a cupboard upstairs. Initially frightened, Jojo is convinced by imaginary Adolf to gather more info about the Jews from Elsa, and his long-held beliefs start crashing down as the Allies close in.

Having seen What We Do in the Shadows, Hunt For The Wilderpeople, and Thor: Ragnarok prior to this, I can say I really like Taika Waititi’s unique style of filmmaking. Many have said that he’s the New Zealand version of Wes Anderson, but I believe that he has an artistic voice that’s wholly his own. Seeing him make the full swing to blockbuster filmmaking with Ragnarok and still make it his own personal vision also demonstrated his ability to reach out to the masses in a satisfying way.

When I first heard about what his next film would be, it felt like risky material but one he could surely pull off. The initially polarizing response between critics and audiences also convinced me that it could be a potential conversation starter in the best way possible. And I’m happy to report that Jojo Rabbit is exactly the kind of anti-hate, antiwar satire what I was hoping for.

I feel like in someone else’s hands, this story would have turned into a complete misfire on several fronts. But thankfully, Taika knows exactly how to handle the subject matter, finding a delicate balance between the absurdly funny and the upsettingly real. The tone is very fluid and manages to create unexpected empathy for the characters as they’re all trapped in an unfair system.

I also don’t really agree with the criticism that Jojo Rabbit is too flippant towards its depiction of Nazi Germany. As this story is told through the perspective of a pure-hearted child, it only makes sense that the world around him is shown in an unconventional manner and creates a great tragic irony. Plus, there is perhaps no better time in history than the now for people around the world to laugh in the face of bigots and fascists.

Waititi has a penchant for finding fantastic child talent and Roman Griffin Davis is no exception here. As Jojo Beltzer, he has an enormous amount of enthusiasm for what he believes is a righteous cause and is unafraid to loudly voice his opinion. But as the film goes along, he gradually starts questioning everything he’s stood for and tries to find a good explanation for why his perceptions have been so wrong.

Opposite him for most of the film, the young Thomasin McKenzie gives yet another excellent performance as Elsa Korr. From their first scene together, it’s clear that she holds total power over him and doesn’t hesitate to embellish stories of Jewish people to him. But it soon becomes clear that aside from Jojo and Rosie, she’s completely alone and has no idea what the outside world is like anymore.

Scarlett Johansson, Stephen Merchant, Rebel Wilson, Sam Rockwell, Alfie Allen, and newcomer Archie Yates round out the wonderful supporting cast here. All of them swing brilliantly from deadpan hilarity to deadly serious with surprising ease and confidence.

But the best of the bunch has to be the director himself, Taika Waititi as the imaginary version of Adolf Hitler. He plays it up absolutely perfectly, using his own self-deprecating personality to portray the notorious leader with a decent German accent. As the plot rolls by, he gradually becomes angrier and more confused by Jojo’s open-mindedness and is much more convincing than I anticipated. And to top it off, it’s hard to think of a bigger middle finger to the head of the Nazis than to have him played by a Polynesian Jew.

And from a technical point of view, Jojo Rabbit showcases Taika Waititi developing his cinematic voice even further than before. Shot by the underrated Mihai Mălaimare Jr., the cinematography is very deliberate and precise in its movements and placement. The fullscreen view uses a lot of wideshots that either remain still or move around in the scene to keep its eye of the characters. These techniques are able to capture the comical absurdity of various scenes beautifully while also providing some Expressionist exposition on the setting. The use of slow-motion and saturated colors also brings out the unique personality of the film.

Tom Eagle’s editing job also does wonders to help elevate the storytelling. It very much knows when to cut away to the punchline and when to give an actor space for their own dialogue scene. It also frequently reminds viewers of its bleak setting by keeping deeply upsetting imagery just out of reach from the frame. There are also a handful of montages throughout that highlight Jojo’s unwavering nationalism, including an opening one which mixes him getting ready for camp with real newsreel footage of Hitler in huge crowds. They can be by turns both ironic and intriguing.

Michael Giacchino, one of the most prolific and versatile composers of our time, provides the instrumental film score. It’s a highly unique one, especially for its genre, yet it beautifully fits the tone of the story. The use of light instruments such as plucked strings and the glockenspiel give off the feeling of a children’s fairytale. Flutes, low brass, and militant snare drums also make a welcome addition to the soundtrack as they bring back the feeling of wartime. What’s truly fascinating is how it also uses a recorder in some parts to reflect the childlike perspective of Jojo.

It also features the German versions of a handful of popular songs to contextualize what is happening. The first is “I Want to Hold You Hand” by The Beatles in the beginning, which plays well into showing the obsessive fanaticism among youth in that time period. The other one is David Bowie’s “Heroes,” which plays during the final scene and over the end credits. It really hammers home the theme of love conquering all even in the face of a great monstrosity like bigotry and fascism.

Taking huge swings at a tough subject matter and making no apologies for it, Jojo Rabbit is a fearlessly funny and heartfelt story about one of the darkest chapters of human history. Taika Waititi never shies away from the disturbing aspects of the story but utterly refuses to give in to the cynicism that would be so easy. The humor and touching moments have a genuine earnestness that’s hard to shake, and the spot-on cast help seal the deal.

Our imaginary friends don’t always know best, especially if they encourage scary actions or emotions from us. And it may sound cliché and overdone in the year of our Lord 2019, but to quote one of the characters of this film, “Love is the strongest thing in the world.”

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“National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” Movie Review

Almost everyone who celebrates Christmas has some unique family traditions they try to bring back every year. And if yours are anything like the shenanigans in this film, then you’re truly living a big life. This slapstick Christmas comedy was originally released in theater by Warner Bros. on December 1st, 1989. After coming in second its opening weekend, it went on to gross over $71.4 million at the worldwide box office. Against a budget of roughly $25 million, this made it the highest-grossing film in the Vacation franchise for about 25 years. Although it received mixed reviews during its initial run, it is now considered a modern Christmas classi among many film fans, this one included. Directed by Jeremiah S. Chechik, the screenplay by John Hughes was originally written as a short story called “Christmas ’59” published in the National Lampoon magazine. He only agreed to do it for the studio because of the quality of the story and left the series for good afterwards. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone director Chris Columbus was originally set at the helm before leaving after clashing with its main star consistently. Columbus and Hughes would later try and work together again on the future holiday classic Home Alone. Chevy Chase stars as Clark Griswold, the energetic and enthusiastic patriarch of the oddball Griswold family. As the winter season progresses, he sets out to try and give his family the best Christmas of all time by any means necessary. As more members of his extended family arrive, more and more absurd problems arise as Clark attempts to save old traditions. Just like It’s a Wonderful Life, I wanted to go ahead and close out my New Year’s Resolution with a pair of Christmas films that are considered classics. Sure, there’s a whole lot of cheese in places like Hallmark and Lifetime, but there are plenty of films that take the genre in great ways. And it’s nice to have a traditional rewatch every season, whether it’s a real decades-old classic or a recent gem. I decided to go ahead and look back on a film that’s renowned but not usually discussed in the pantheon along others like Miracle on 34th Street. My feelings on National Lampoon as a whole are kind of mixed, but their Vacation franchise provides some big laughs every now and then. And after all these years, Christmas Vacation still proves to be the best of them and a genuinely fun holiday regular. If you’re hoping for a strong narrative in your yuletide films, you’ll be disappointed because the plot and setup here are extremely simplistic. But that ultimately works to its advantage because it allows breathing room both for the hilarious jokes and the more heartwarming moments. It’s primary theme of trying to find what it means for a truly great Christmas season is really resonant and universal for audiences, no matter how dysfunctional your family may be. The one issue that keeps Christmas Vacation from being a complete classic for me is an unnecessary fantasy pool scene. It comes at around the beginning of the third act and just doesn’t fit in with the rest of the film before or after. But if you can ignore that one scene, (I’ve begun just fast-forwarding through it on each rewatch) the rest of the film is pretty fun across multiple demographics. Although most people associate him with Community and his days on Saturday Night Live, Chevy Chase was really at the top of his game here. As Clark Griswold, he’s extremely energetic and enthusiastic about bringing all of his family’s traditions into the fold this year. He tries to bottle up his frustration with failures and work but finally lets it all out in one of the best and funniest tirades in cinematic history. By his side, Beverly D’Angelo is amazing and endlessly funny as his confused and deadpan wife Ellen. She plays it more like the straight-laced partner who acts completely rational compared to her husband’s wild behavior. Juliette Lewis and Johnny Galicki play the Griswolds’ daughter and son, respectively, which continues the gag of their children always changing actors. They’re both earnest in their desire to make Christmas great but are constantly unsure about their father’s unorthodox methods to get to it. In a way, they act more as an audience surrogate as we witness the bizarre and absurd take hold in their household in gradual fashion. John Randolph, Randy Quaid, Diane Ladd, William Hickey, and Mae Questel round out the memorable members of the Griswold family while Sam McMurray, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Nicholas Guest, and Brian Doyle-Murray play some of their various acquaintances. With the exception of Quaid and Louis-Dreyfus, not many of the supporting cast really stand out or leave a huge impression. None of them really have big character arcs but they provide some decent laughs and contribute to the overall package. And from a technical point-of-view, Christmas Vacation has just enough flare to distinguish itself from other comedies of the decade. Thomas E. Ackerman’s cinematography here is, by and large, straightforward and pretentious. There aren’t really any clever movements, aside from a dramatic push-in on Clark when the house lights finally come on. It mostly places the camera in one or two different static positions during a scene and finds a way to make the humor more visually satisfying and timed well. The main colors associated with the holiday- blue, red, white, and green -are often seen throughout in many different ways and the frame captures them pretty decently. It’s really the editing, which is a joint effort from Jerry Greenberg and Michael A. Stevenson, that brings out the personality. The film often cuts between something really obscene with something more warmhearted for the holiday season, creating a very funny dichotomy. Each scene is nicely cut together to a tea and knows what to focus on for the specific moment. It also makes a wise decision of when to include a pause or when to cut away to the punchline. The aforementioned tirade is mostly shown in a long take of Clark in his living room and he kicks the furniture around him and gathers his breath. The fact that the camera doesn’t cut away during this moment makes it very hard not to break out in laughter as he pours out his true feelings for the first time. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation is a jolly good time with some really timeless jokes and heart. Excluding that unnecessary pool scene, Jeremiah S. Chechik and John Hughes have crafted a really nice classic in the already crowded pantheon of Christmas movies. Your mileage for the film as a whole may vary, but it’s Chevy Chase’s inimitably hilarious turn as Clark Griswold that makes it worth rewatching time and again. A fantastic way to close out the 1980’s, this comedy is sure to bring plenty of yuletide joy and laughter to the family.

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