Category Archives: Favorite

“Serenity” Movie Review

About 3 years ago, I had reviewed the one and only season of the underrated and beloved T.V. show Firefly. In that review, I had promised readers that I would review its cinematic follow-up and conclusion Serenity “very soon.” Now, all this time later, I am finally making good on that promise and giving readers that same review and hope it encourages you to watch both. This science-fiction western hybrid film premiered at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, which sold out screenings numerous times. It was later released in theaters worldwide by Universal Pictures on September 30th, 2005, almost 3 years exactly from when inspiration first aired. Despite being highly anticipated, it performed poorly at the box office, barely making back its $40 million budget. However, it was mostly able to recuperate when it was released on home media and was praised by both critics and fans of the show. Written and directed by Joss Whedon, in his feature directorial debut, he had spent over a year rigorously trying to get Hollywood to help him continue the story after Firefly was unceremoniously cancelled by Fox. Eventually, producer Barry Mendel and executive Mary Parent became interested in the project and got Whedon to heavily cut down his script originally entitled The Kitchen Sink. Much of the screenplay takes some of the director’s original ideas for Firefly‘s unfilmed second season, and initially attempted to address all of the unresolved plot points from the show. There were numerous disputes behind the scenes over the budget and shooting circumstances of the film, such as whether to film it abroad or in California. Set in a new solar system about 500 years in the future, the story see’s the return of the titular Firefly-class vessel’s crew led by war veteran and space cowboy Capt. Malcolm Reynolds, played by Nathan Fillion. After rescuing the mysterious girl River, played by Summer Glau, from an Alliance-controlled facility, they intend to go on their merry way. However, it becomes clear that she holds key, deadly secrets regarding The Alliance and its infrastructure. This sets a shadowy assassin known simply as The Operative, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, on their trail as the crew attempts to unravel the clues on their hands. I was a huge fan of the short-lived Firefly show and will never, ever forgive Fox for cancelling it. It was such a creative and unusual take on the space genre, fusing it perfectly with sensibilities of a Western. Had Joss Whedon been given the chance to actually make more seasons, it could have possibly become one of the greatest shows of all time, and I stand by that. Very rarely do creators of a T.V. show get to continue, let alone conclude, their story on the big screen. And the fact that Joss Whedon actually got that second chance, no matter how it might have turned out, is amazing and a testament to the power of passionate fanbases. And that passion paid off because Serenity is a satisfying conclusion to the story and one hell of an enjoyable ride on its own merits. Unlike a lot of other cinematic continuations of beloved series, this follow-up doesn’t feel like it was forced by anyone. It really seems as though Whedon just naturally picked up where he left off with the story and characters without losing a beat. The crew of the ship are still wrestling with their own morality and choices, even if there’s been a gap in the timeline since the last episode. And even though we’re introduced to new planets and technology, Serenity still feels more like a Western than a sci-fi flick. Our heroes are undoubtedly cowboys looking for the next big score out in a virtually lawless sector of space and land. And seeing these cowboys finding a way to do what’s right even at the price of their own lives is all the more poignant, especially if you’re a big fan of the show like I am. Nathan Fillion has literally never been better than he has been as Malcolm Reynolds, and I’ll hold to that belief until I die. Beneath his smirks and cynicism is a man broken by war who tries to reconcile his own personal rules with what’s really going on with The Alliance. He’s also defiantly loyal to his own crew and never backs down from his mission, telling their assassin “I’m going to show you a world without sin.” Gina Torres and Alan Tudyk make a return as Zoe and Wash, Mal’s first mate and pilot on the ship, respectively. Although they frequently have strong differences with their captain, and are eager to share them, their unwavering loyalty makes them potent allies in the struggle to discover the truth about what’s going on. Their own husband and wife dynamic creates a great contrast as we get to see them butt heads on various issues that are raised throughout the story. Summer Glau is as great as ever with her role as River Tam, essentially the key to the whole mystery. She has relatively few lines of dialogue but the lines she does speak are extremely insightful into the chaos of the future and her voice intonations are on point. She also makes up for the lack of substantial words with amazing body language, constantly moving in unique and unpredictable ways. Adam Baldwin, Morena Baccarin, Sean Maher, Jewel Staite, and Ron Glass all reprise their respective roles from the show while David Krumholtz and Sarah Paulson play notable new faces. Chiwetel Ejiofor is extremely memorable as The Operative, as close to a human ghost one could get without becoming a real specter. He’s the kind of antagonist who never really shows outward emotions, using his calm demeanor to disarm his opponents. He also seems to recognize that he doesn’t belong in his vision of a perfect world, which makes his mission slightly more melancholy. And from a technical perspective, Serenity has all of the show’s prowess with a few cinematic touches. Clint Eastwood’s frequent collaborator Jack Green handles the cinematography with equal parts grime and glamour. Due to the film’s relatively low budget, fancy, sweeping shots typical of the genre are instead supplemented by a lot of handheld scenes. This ultimately helps sell its gritty Western aesthetic, as we’re down in the dirt with the characters as they try to make sense of things. The worlds are varied and unique and nearly each one is given a different color palette, which creates a visual distinction between them all. This manages to compliment the editing job by Whedon’s longtime editor Lisa Lassek, who also made her feature debut here. The scenes are cut together nicely and smoothly, with a number of match cuts that are perfectly lined up. It also moves between shots in action scenes with surprising grace and effort, ensuring that the viewer knows and sees everything going on. This especially gets interesting whenever the demented Reavers are on-screen, as the camera cuts away from showing their monstrous actions but still giving you a feeling of dread. The highly prolific yet underrated David Newman provides the instrumental film score here, and it’s perfectly suited to the story. Like the show, it manages to fuse influences from Westerns, sci-fi, and even a little bit of Eastern music into a big musical melting pot. Plucked strings are the main instrumentation, which give off the feeling of an old-school sci-fi adventure with a unique touch. It’s very melodic and befitting for the vastness and life of the new solar system that our heroes explore. Other tracks utilize low strings and electronic percussion to heighten the tension or mystery of the film. No matter what, it all works, even if the show’s theme song is sorely missed. With beloved characters making a wonderful return, Serenity is a highly fulfilling follow-up that does justice to its roots while making new strides. Even if you’re not affiliated with the show in any way, Joss Whedon still crafts one hell of a genre mashup that’s sure to be a crowd-pleaser. Even if it gets really weird and wonky in its pacing from time to time, the passion from everyone involved is as clear as daylight. And after the recent acquisition, this is one Fox property that I would be okay with seeing Disney revive. If it does actually happen, I can only hope that they do it right.

“Ad Astra” Movie Review

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

Ad Astra - Poster Gallery

“Citizen Kane” Movie Review

Oh yeah, we’re going there now. As part of my New Year’s resolution, I’ve finally decided to takcle what is widely considered to be the best film ever made. This historical drama premiered at the Palace Theatre on May 1st, 1941, before being released in other theaters on September 5th of that year. Although it did well in larger city venues, because of outside industry pressure, numerous theaters and rural areas refused to screen it. As a result, it failed to recoup its $839,727 budget during its theatrical run and faded from public mindset despite good critical reviews. However, it was brought back to attention after it was praised by such people as Roger Ebert and André Bazin and ultimately got a re-evaluation in America starting in 1956. Since then, it has been held up as one of the greatest films of all time and has influenced countless filmmakers in the generations afterward. Directed by Orson Welles, the film was his first time working on a feature film after an extensive history with Broadway and the infamous radio show War of the Worlds. While he was only 25 at the time, RKO Pictures signed him to an unprecedented deal which gave him immense freedom, including final cut and using his own cast and crew. The screenplay is largely attributed to co-writer Herman J. Mankiewicz, but the true extent of Welles’ contribution to it has been fiercely disputed by many, including critic Pauline Kael. Although the true source has been debated, it’s universally believed that publisher William Randolph Hearst served as the inspiration for the title character, who consequentially did everything in his power to destroy or discredit the film. By now, you probably know the general story: Welles stars as Charles Foster Kane, a notorious newspaper business tycoon who has amassed one of the biggest fortunes in the world. At the very beginning of the film, he dies alone in his Xanadu mansion of old age, only uttering the cryptic word “Rosebud.” Soon after, newsreel journalist Jerry Thompson, played by William Alland, sets off on an investigation to figure out the word’s real meaning. As he interviews various people from Kane’s life and reads confidential files, we the audience get to see in flashbacks of the mogul’s rise to power and, ultimately, his loss of innocence. Last fall, Netflix’s finished cut of The Other Side of the Wind was the very first feature film by Orson Welles I had ever fully watched. His other works had always been on my radar, (Touch of Evil is still very high on my watchlist) but somehow his world-famous debut had always eluded me. Until now, that is. Whenever I sit down to watch a highly revered movie, I have a bit of reservation about its praise. And in this case, this is considered to be the best film ever, so I tried to distance myself from all of the hype to ensure I could watch it on my own terms. And I can personally attest that Citizen Kane is indeed worthy of all that acclaim that’s built up over the last 78 years. Before you immediately decide to write this film off as “overrated,” please just consider how it was made and how its reputation was built. It was plagued with production problems, dealt with a media mogul who went to extreme (And allegedly illegal) lengths to bury it before it even premiered, had Hollywood veterans skeptical of such a young man taking on an ambitious project, and still managed to completely change the game of cinema. Not just in terms of technical innovations but also how the storytelling challenged typical structure and plotting. By constantly moving back and forth in time, Citizen Kane becomes a tragedy as we witness a man completely indifferent to wealth become defined by it. The fact that it’s original title was The American is no accident, as the film seeks to indict the cost of power and fame at a time when unbridled capitalism was arguably at its peak. But no amount of witty quips or bad art he purchases can bring him any real sense of happiness or fulfillment. In his multihyphenate debut for a feature film, Orson Welles is nothing short of incredible as Charles Foster Kane. Although he starts out with a genuine desire to hold up freedom of the press, he gradually becomes more power hungry and surrounded by money he has no idea what to do with. When chided by his former mentor for his brand of newspaper journalism, he simply replies, “I have no idea how to run a newspaper, Mr. Thatcher, I just try whatever I can think of.” He’s able to believably portray Kane’s downward spiral from early adulthood into an old man in his twilight years. Ruth Warrick and Dorothy Comingore are equally great as Kane’s first and second wife, respectively. It’s clear that Kane sees them both more as an object of his affection, and like everything else in his life, he seeks to control their actions. This comes into conflict with both of them, and their failed marriages with him add layers to his decline in humanity and empathy. William Alland is also great as Jerry Thompson, the newsreel reporter trying to find more truth on “Rosebud”‘s meaning. Although his face is never fully shown to the audience, his soft voice and constant movement about the frame make him an intriguing and memorable character. It’s clear that he’s deeply fascinated by the life og the mogul and how it affected those around him. Welles brings his Mercury Theatre troupe to the silver screen in various supporting roles and bit parts. These include Joseph Cotten as Kane’s longtime friend and business partner, Ray Collins as his shrewd political rival, Paul Stewart as Kane’s ambivalent butler, Agnes Moorehead as Kane’s well-meaning but financially strained mother, George Coulouris as and Everett Sloane as a kindly employee at The Inquirer. Although none had any prior cinematic experience, their professionalism and commitment is so apparent in every scene. And from a purely technical perspective, Citizen Kane has so many innovations that deserve their own whole essays. Greg Tolland’s cinematography is steady and controlled, capturing everything it needs to in the frame. Easily the biggest breakthrough is the deep focus technique, where everything in the foreground is as visible as what’s in the background. It allows many small things to be captured in gorgeous ways. The movement and placement of the camera is also key, as we get to see many great long takes and a scene where the crew literally cut a whole in the floor to get a shot. This perfectly matches up with Robert Wise’s editing job, which found new and interesting ways to move between scenes. Whether it was a slow dissolve over new audio or vice versa, each moment carried seamlessly into the next one. Not only that, it used whip pans and subtle cuts to advance the timeline, especially during a scene depicting Kane’s crumbling first marriage. And the collapsible set created to pan from a neon sign down through a rainy window into a restaurant is one of the best transitions in any film. Frequent Alfred Hitchcock muse Bernard Hermann composed and conducted the instrumental film score. It’s a unique and wide-ranging one, mirroring the life of its titular protagonist. Some tracks utilize low brass and strings to emphasize the melancholy of his greedy decline in humanity. Others, particularly during scenes of his younger years, are more exuberant and exciting with big percussion and winds. It perfectly reflects his initial optimism for The Inquirer down to his lonely final years and culminates in a big final piece. The orchestral swell as the last shots reveal the truth of everything hits its impact very well. There are only a handful of films in history that can comfortably say they had a major impact on the film industry. And it’s perfectly understandable if some viewers are hesitant to watch it because it’s put so high up on the proverbial pedestal. But that shouldn’t deter you because it’s actually much more entertaining and engaging that some people believe; within the first 10 minutes, you’ll be hooked until the very end. Citizen Kane is an extremely important cinematic landmark that’s worthy of its loft reputation. At the age of 25, Orson Welles completely disrupted the idea of how movies were and should be made. Its influence can be seen nearly everywhere after being released, just to give you an idea of its impact. It has inspired generations of aspiring filmmakers and cinephiles over the decades, including yours truly. Not bad for a film that was nearly destroyed by the very man who inspired the protagonist.

“The Farewell” Movie Review

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

“The Wizard of Oz” Movie Review

So this August officially marks the 80th (Yes, EIGHTIETH) anniversary of this classic movie. If that still isn’t enough reason for me to review it now, than I honestly don’t know what is. This musical fantasy film was originally released in theaters by MGM on August 25th, 1939. Budgeted at $2.8 million, the studio’s most expensive produciton at the time, it failed to make a real profit and only garnered around $3.01 million at the box office at the time, likely due to Gone With the Wind being released at the same time. However, the film became a massive success on home video and television re-runs starting in 1956, becoming an annual tradition on CBS. According to the Library of Congress, it is actually the most watched motion picture in film history. In addition, it was one of the first 25 films to be inducted into the National Film Registry, one of the few films included on UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register, and is considered one of the most influential films in history. Directed by Victor Fleming, (Who also helmed Gone With the Wind) the film is (quite loosely) adapted from L. Frank Baum’s wildly popular novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, whose rights had been in Samuel Goldwyn’s possession for some time. Throughout pre-production and production, numerous writers, actors, and even directors were swapped as the script constantly changed, including an early attempt to pander to young audiences. Producer Melvin LeRoy consistently toyed with the runtime and content of the picture, including almost cutting “Over the Rainbow” and abandoning a stencil-printed transition from sepia-tone to color. It’s also the source of an infamous urban legend regarding the alleged on-set suicide of a Munchkin actor, which multiple people have denied is true. The iconic story follows Judy Garland as Dorothy Gale, a poor farm girl from Kansas living a dreary, seemingly unhappy life. After a major tornado strikes, she and her dog Toto leave their home to realize that they have been transported to Munchkinland, one of several provinces in the magical Land of Oz. However, she immediately draws the ire of the Wicked Witch of the West, played by Margaret Hamilton, who vows revenge on Dorothy for killing her sister with the falling house. Picking up ruby slippers off of the Wicked Witch of the East’s body, she sets off on the Yellow Brick Road to Emerald City, where the mysterious and all-powerful Oz can potentially send her home- and along the way she meets a brainless Scarecrow, a heartless Tin Man, and a Cowardly Lion. Do I really need to emphasize how important this film is to both the medium and American pop culture as a whole? All of the aforementioned honors above should already be enough to convince anyone of its significance, but the fact that it’s turned 80 years old is just remarkable. One couldn’t throw a stone very far without seeing its influence to this very day, both for better and for worse. Even though most people have already seen it in their childhood, there is a bit of worry that it won’t quite hold up watching it all grown up. Whether it turned out to hold some fairly offensive imagery or subtext or simply because of its old age, that’s always a concern for films like this. And while that fear seems true initially, The Wizard of Oz is still as magical and joyous and fun as you remember it being. Sure, the dialogue and its delivery is cheesy, some of the effects are dated, the songs are clearly written with younger audiences in mind, and a number of other things have noticeably aged. But measure it up against most other family films from the era, and it still holds up remarkably well because of its universality. The idea of home and belonging somewhere is something anyone can relate to. Granted, The Wizard of Oz removes a lot of the darker elements from L Frank Baum’s novel, but that arguably makes it more accessible. It’s not everyday that a film from 80 years ago can still be just as meaningful to kids of this era as it was to children of the time when it was released. I can only hope films of today will have a similar impact decades from now. Judy Garland is a silver screen legend who had a deeply tragic life and, for better and worse, this is the role she will always be remembered for. Her performance as Dorothy is iconic as ever, portraying an innocence and childlike wonder that’s desperate to see more of the world. She’s kind and courteous but never afraid to stand up for herself or the people she cares about, and has such a golden singing voice. She is joined by Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, and Bert Lahr as the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion, respectively. Their own songs are memorable in their own way, providing individual motivations and dance numbers. All of them have their own little traits that make them impossible to forget, and each has a reason to getting to the titular Wizard of Oz. Speaking of which, Frank Morgan is also memorable as the Wizard himself, even if he’s not in the movie much. He initially appears as a very intimidating figure but later turns out to be a lot more human and understanding. And while Billie Burke, Charles Grapewin, and Clara Blandick leave impressions as well, Margaret Hamilton is easily the most iconic as the Wicked Witch of the West. Covered in green makeup and carrying a terrifying screeching voice, she absolutely chews the scenery every time she’s on-screen. Her utter commitment to the role ensures her place among the most iconic movie villains of all time. And technically speaking, The Wizard of Oz had many innovations that are still impressive today. The Academy Award-nominated cinematography by Harold Rosson is still just as stunning as it was back then. Utilizing a lot of long-takes, we get the full scope of the unique fantasy world presented to us. And considering it was 1939, many of the in-camera special effects still hold up pretty well. The editing by Blanche Sewell is almost on the level of the camera work. The transitions between scenes is masterful and clean, keeping the pacing aloof for the whole 101 minute-long runtime. And while it does include the aforementioned “oners” quite often, it also includes enough cuts in each scene to keep things interesting. The first 20-30 minutes of the film are in a sepia-toned, black-and-white world. However, when we are transported to Munchkinland, we become immersed in the bright delights of Technicolor, one of the first features to be done is such a way. The shot transitioning from inside Dorothy’s house into Munchkinland is one of the greatest shots in the history of film. And the songs; oh Lord, the songs in this film. Harold Arlen and Edgar “Yip” Harburg are responsible for the soundtrack, easily ranking among the best in the industry. Ranging from “Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead” to “We’re Off to See the Wizard” to “If I Only Had a Brain,” each one is instantly recognizable, even if you’ve never seen the movie itself. Many of them have reprisals throughout, ensuring a sing-along with families for generations. But the clear winner is “Over the Rainbow,” sung by none other than Garland herself. Somber yet hopeful, the composition combined with her amazing voice make it a truly timeless song. It’s also sadly prescient for the singer-actress’ tumultuous life off-screen and the  With endlessly memorable songs, iconic imagery, immortal characters, and quotable lines, The Wizard of Oz is an unquestionable watershed moment for cinema in every conceivable way. Even with its troubled production, Victor Fleming and MGM managed to completely change the game of moviemaking forever. It’s nearly impossible to imagine American pop culture today without this film; its influence and reach can be seen everywhere. There may exist another film as influential as this to come, but it’s probably far away from here, laying somewhere over the rainbow.

“Stranger Things” Season 3 T.V. Show Review

**This review of Stranger Things 3 will remain spoiler-free, but I will be talking about the broad strokes of what happened in season 2.**

Most people in America use the Fourth of July to celebrate the birthday of the U.S. with fireworks and red-white-and-blue regalia. I use this time to binge watch a Netflix show in a different country. I won’t judge your personal forms of celebration if you won’t judge mine. The third season of this coming-of-age sci-fi horror show was released on the streaming service Netflix on July 4th, 2019. Highly anticipated, the streaming service claims to have scored astronomical views from customers all over the world. However, since the company never publicly discloses their numbers, there’s no telling how well it’s actually doing. But given the huge established fanbase and the positive critical reviews that it’s received from major outlets, it’s safe to say that a fourth season is all but guaranteed. After the big, if somewhat cool success of the second season in 2017, creators Matt and Ross Duffer took a brief break to figure out the next few steps for the show. Netflix had originally desired for the third and fourth seasons to be written and shot back-to-back, but the brothers opted to just focus solely on this next chapter instead. Although initial reports have suggested that this is the penultimate season for the hit show, Netflix and the Duffer Brothers have been mum on whether the next season will be the last or not. Set about six months after the last confrontation, the main kids in Hawkins, Indiana have settled back into normality once more, with Milly Bobby Brown’s Eleven fully integrated into normal civilian life. Many of the characters are indulging much of their summer vacation in the newly opened Starcourt Mall, which has also stirred up controversy with the town’s self-righteous mayor. Soon, it becomes clear that the Mind-Flayer, the primary antagonist from last season is still alive and well, hoping to slowly indoctrinate humanity into their will. On top of all that, a handful of residents stumble upon a conspiracy involving the Russian government wanting to reopen a gateway to The Upside Down. It’s been kind of incredible to see the sheer self-made phenomenon that Stranger Things has become. Like many who got hooked on the show, I’d hardly heard anything about it before finding it on Netflix, and immediately told everyone I knew to start watching it as well. And now, it’s become arguably the streaming service’s biggest flagship show. Because of this, seasons 2 and 3 have a bit of an unfair obstacle to overcome, as fan expectations were sky-high for both of them. The second one was mostly able to meet them, even with a few stumbles in the road that didn’t quite work in the way the showrunners wanted. And now with season 3, Stranger Things has focused up on what works best and gives use easily my favorite season yet. With just 8 episodes now instead of 9, there is less room for unnecessary fat, allowing them to keep the action on the central characters and relationships. With new developments for the ones from last season and spotlights on the brand new ones, the characters all feel the most nuanced, most relevant, and most human they’ve ever been. And even though the mythology and lore surrounding is expanded upon in really intriguing ways, the relationships almost always come first. That has always been one of the biggest strengths of Stranger Things, not just all of the nostalgia-inducing references to 80s pop culture. Sure, there is LOTS of product placement for Coca-Cola throughout and greatly improved visual effects, but that’s not the point of the show. And seeing that the Duffers haven’t lost sight of that is very encouraging for what the future may hold. All of the kids have grown up and evolved with this show in beautiful ways. Just look at how far Lucas, Eleven, Mike, Dustin, and Will have come since the first season; the actors have all grown naturally with their characters. Of particular mention is Joe Keery as bad boy-turned caring pseudo-adoptive father Steve Harrington. His character arc has always been one of the most engaging, as we watch him gradually evolve throughout the show in a positive way. Case in point, his new partner this season is Maya Hawke’s Robin, easily my favorite character of the new season. She’s funny, quick-witted, thinks on her feet, and never misses an opportunity to poke fun at her co-worker. But as the season progresses, she gradually lets her guard down, culminating in a revelation of a bathroom scene that virtually everyone has been talking about. The other big scene-stealer of the season is Priah Ferguson as Lucas’ little sister Erica, upgraded from the previous season. Although she clearly holds her brother’s friends in contempt, her bouncing off of Dustin is one of the most beautiful things the showrunners have come up with. She’s sassy, but also smart and resourceful and always manages to get some clever jabs at her companions every chance she gets. And technically speaking, Stranger Things has never looked so good or polished than here. The trademark cinematography is back with all the controlled movements and expert blending of practical and special effects. For this season, however, they’ve added brighter, more neon-tinged colors that really go well with the 4th of July setting. Whether it’s inside the Starcourt Mall or at the town’s Independence Day fair, there are many colors meshed together in a really cool way. And the pacing of this season is elevated by the editing department, which bounces from one storyline to the next. I was worried that one character or arc would overtake the rest, but I was thankfully wrong; they’re all intercut very well. As always, Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein of the band Survive provide the musical score, and as always, they deliver a great soundtrack. Like the last two times, the soundtrack is composed largely of synthesizers and Theremins as an homage to old-school sci-fi flicks. But the most memorable track comes for the third episode, which mixes the Upside Down’s leitmotif with unique sound effects. With a heartbeat keeping tempo and noises that sound like squishing meat, it sounds deeply terrifying and disgusting. Other notable songs from the era used include an excerpt from Philip Glass’s Satyagraha Act II: Tagore for the end of the sixth episode and a wholly unexpected sequence involving the theme from The Neverending Story. Whereas the former created an extreme amount of tension as the villain’s plan comes into play, the latter is joyous and puts a smile on my face. Stranger Things 3 is a highly entertaining and neon-soaked continuation that pushes the series ever forward. By focusing and improving on what’s made the show great in the past and changing the formula up a little, the Duffer Brothers have delivered the best season of the show yet. And after finishing it all, I can honestly say that I hope rumors about it only lasting four or five seasons is true. Better to go out in a blaze of glory than fizzle out for decades.

“Booksmart” Movie Review

On the one hand, I’m glad I’ve ended up where I am now because of my decisions in high school. On the other hand, this movie has made me think about what could have been if I had just let loose a little more. This coming-of-age comedy premiered at the 2019 South By Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas, to extremely ecstatic responses. It was later released in theaters (And on Netflix in France) by Annapurna Pictures on May 24th, 2019, conveniently near the end of the academic year for many people around the world. Although it has managed to gross nearly 4 times its $6 million budget, many industry publications said it had performed below expectations. The targeted demographics reportedly showed up in droves but it reportedly didn’t quite breakthrough into the mainstream. This film marks the feature directorial debut of actress Olivia Wilde, who had previously cut her teeth with a short film and two music videos. The original script, dating back to 2009 and written by 4 different women, has gone through many different variations and alterations, being brought to its final version by Susanna Fogel and Katie Silberman. While the production mostly stuck to the script, actors were encouraged to change any line of dialogue that they thought was inauthentic. In addition, the two main stars spent about 10 weeks as roommates in an L.A. apartment to build actual report with one another. Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein star as Amy Antsler and Molly Davidson, best friends and the top two students of their senior class. On the last day of school, they revel in the fact that they’re headed off to Ivy League universities in the fall. But they soon realize that all of the classmates who partied hard and did stupid pranks, whom they have constantly reprimanded, have also gotten into good colleges. Desperate to prove that they’re not just a pair of goody-too-shoes, they set off on a quest to cram 4 years of partying and fun into one increasingly ludicrous night. I just barely missed the premiere for this film in my hometown, but I had heard nothing but excellent things all the way up to its release. As a fan of Olivia Wilde’s work, I was excited to see what she could do with her first feature behind the camera. Especially when so many people were calling it the female version of Superbad, which I’m a personal fan of. Ever since the first trailer dropped, I’ve been anxiously waiting for the opportunity to see it in theaters. I was really optimistic that a female perspective could provide a fresh spin on the genre like Lady Bird in 2017. That optimism has paid off because Booksmart is easily one of the funniest and most intelligent movies I’ve seen in a while. Having now seen it, I feel like comparing this film to a female version of Superbad is a bit reductive. Whereas as that movie was more about a group of immature boys trying to lose their virginity before the end of high school, this film is concerned about feeling like the characters missed out on so much. I personally relate to the protagonists because they realize that all of their judgements and sole commitment to academic success made them push away many of their peers. Booksmart‘s biggest strength is that it gives this thoughtful insight while still managing to be hilarious at every turn. There’s a brilliant balance between the real and the absurd, and various scenes use this perfectly, such as a drug trip-turned stop-motion sequence that made me suffocate with laughter. Scenes like that and many more are what make me excited for Wilde and Silberman’s recently announced cinematic team-up happening soon. Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein have been deserving of lead roles for a long while, and this movie finally gives them the chance. As Amy and Molly, they are perfectly in sync with each other for every line of dialogue and action taken, their differences being just as important as their similarities. It’s clear that they both have big hopes for the future but because they are so far apart they’re scared of fully committing to these dreams- or letting each other know the full scope of it. They are joined together by a whole fleet of great actors, both fully grown and in high school like them. On the adult side, Jason Sudeikis and Jessica Williams are memorable as the main duo’s perverted principal and friendly teacher, respectively. Both have great timing and have completely different but equally funny interactions with Amy and Molly, showing different foils and levels of comfortable they feel around them. And while their classmates are portrayed by an array of talented young actors including Diana Silvers, Noah Gavin, and Molly Gordon, it’s surprisingly Billie Lourd who steals the show. The late Carrie Fisher’s daughter hasn’t really impressed me in the past, but here, as the mysterious rich kid Gigi, she’s perfection. She constantly pops up nearly everywhere the girls go, which creates some truly side-splitting moments. It’s also clear that she’s on drugs for most of her appearance, which only makes her performance so much more elevated and hilarious. Aside from the acting ensemble, Booksmart‘s distinct technical aspects show Wilde’s amazing talent behind the camera. Jason McCormick’s cinematography is extremely smart and calculated, using various shots to highlight little quirks in the character. Whether it’s capturing high school achievements in a bedroom or a slow-motion car ride, many characters are painted with just a couple shots. It also uses precise camera movements to focus on whatever’s meant to be the source of a scene’s humor or drama. The editing by Jamie Gross and Brent White is equally meticulous, knowing exactly when to cut to a different shot and when to linger. There’s one particularly impactful long-take near the end of the film where it hovers between the two protagonists during an intense argument. In contrast, some scenes are comedically amplified by constantly intercutting between different places. The most obvious example is the aforementioned stop-motion sequence, which quietly and beautifully transitions between shots. But, undoubtedly, the crown jewel of the entire film is a pool scene in the third act. Set to Perfume Genius’ “Slip Away,” it shows Amy trying to branch out to impress her love interest. Shot almost entirely underwater, the lighting and clever editing shows her navigating uncharted territory. This is punctuated by the cathartic anthem of Perfume Genius, as all of Amy’s pre-existing worries and fears suddenly slip away. It will likely go down as one of the most memorable scenes of the year. A promising feature debut, Booksmart is a splendid combination of sharp writing and believable performances. I’m genuinely interested to see whatever Olivia Wilde has planned for the future behind the camera, as she couldn’t have picked better material for her first outing. Give it some time, and I’m convinced this will become as much of a modern genre classic like Lady Bird and Eighth Grade. And please, pretty please, make Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein co-leads for many more movies in the years to come.

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