Category Archives: Favorite

“Widows” Movie Review

Who ever said that auteur filmmakers could never make more commercial fare for big Hollywood studios? Apparently, nobody said this to Steve McQueen and I’m so glad they didn’t. This heist thriller premiered at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival, earning numerous raves from many who attended. It was then released in theaters worldwide by 20th Century Fox, and has thus far only grossed about $53 million against a budget of $42 million. This started a debate among industry experts whether the fault was the scattershot marketing campaign or the perceived lack of broad appeal towards film audiences. Directed by Steve McQueen, the same man behind 12 Years a Slave, the film is based off of the 1983 ITV miniseries of the same name by Lynda La Plante. Following the frustrating cancellation of his proposed HBO series Codes of Conduct, he instead teamed up with Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn to co-write the screenplay for what he professes is his passion project. There were also a number of apparent risks during the filmmaking process, such as the devastatingly regular amount of shootings in the city it was set and shot in. Set in modern-day Chicago, Viola Davis stars as Veronica Rawlins, a former unionizer and the stay-at-home wife of renowned career bank robber Harry Rawlins. When he and three other criminals are killed in a heist gone wrong, she is confronted by the man they stole from, Jamal Manning, played by Brian Tyree Henry. He says they stole over $2 million from his planned alderman campaign and gives her a few weeks to get it back for him, or else. Desperate and low on options, she contacts the widows of the other three men, Linda, Alice, and Belle, to pull off another heist to pay off the debt. This is a movie I’ve been looking forward to for quite a while, way before any trailer or official image dropped. 12 Years a Slave was an absolutely soul-crushing film that was completely stripped down in its approach to a topic as horrifying and disgusting as slavery. Hearing that that same director was going to be dipping his toes into the action genre, with help from the woman behind Gone Girl, was extremely exciting. Not to mention the impressive ensemble that he had assembled. I know there’s a stigma against more singular filmmakers trying to make more big-budget studio fare, with some of them being declared “sellouts” by fans. I’m happy to report, however that McQueen’s modern rendition of Widows is not only highly entertaining but also marks an important step forward in his career. As I’m sure many other reviewers are bound to talk about, what truly makes this film work is its unique mixture of timely themes and popcorn thrills. In any other director or writer’s hands, this would most likely come off as either way too preachy or bland beyond belief. But under Steve McQueen and Gillian Flynn, we get to look at subjects that speak to America’s current moment and social angst. Ranging from everything including capitalism, interracial marriage, political corruption, class differences, and fidelity, the screenplay is very ambitious and often grasps what it reaches for. Think Michael Mann’s Heat by way of HBO’s The Wire. Occasionally, it does feel as though there are too many plot threads running at once, as one thing seemingly sets up another nearly every scene. But the transition between these threads is beautifully smooth and slick, offering up a portrait of Chicago that truly feels both realistic and alive. Leading the charge is Academy Award-winning actress Viola Davis, and this movie stands as proof that she needs more lead roles. As Veronica, she is incredibly empathetic but has no interest in remaining a meek victim, despite all of the luxury her husband’s life has bought her. Speaking of husband, Liam Neeson is excellent in a small but vital role as Harry, a criminal with an extreme amount of detail and professionalism. Their chemistry is undeniable, and as we get glimpses of their tragic past through flashbacks, or a sequence where his ghost comforts her over the skyline, we see the complications their relationship brings in modern America. The three other widows are played by Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, and Michelle Rodriguez. They each go beyond what roles they may usually by typecast as, showcasing their stryuggle for survival in a world dominated and largely defined by men. The filmmakers also assembled an impressive ensemble cast, including Robert Duvall and Collin Farrell as the racist and powerful alderman incumbent and his reluctant son, Garret Dillahunt as Veronica’s trusted driver, Lukas Haas as a handsome man intimately involved with Debicki’s character, and Carrie Coon as another reluctant widow. My favorites are Brian Tyree Henry as Jamal Manning and Daniel Kaluuya as his brother Jatemme. A far cry from their respective roles in Atlanta and Get Out, they both portray intelligent, downright scary antagonists who are still genuinely trying to do right by their home. Kaluuya’s screen presence particularly made me tense each time because of his cold, removed demeanor. Meanwhile, on the filmmaking side of things, Widows is still a Steve McQueen movie through and through, with his regular collaborators popping up in various departments. Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography is sleek and controlled, capturing the city of Chicago in a dingy yet diverse palette. Movements are extremely precise, a la David Fincher, and it often focuses on a subject’s facial expressions for an extended period of time, revealing their true state of mind. There’s an incredible tracking shot mounted from the hood of a politician’s car that goes all the way from the projects to his luxurious estate, all while we can hear him fighting with his assistant. It’s a truly remarkable set piece that shows the disparity of privilege in Chicago and serves as an amazing dichotomy to what the people in the car are discussing. As for the editing, Joe Walker knows exactly when to keep a shot going and when to cut it down. In fact, the way that a shot lingers on someone or something can have extremely important subtext for what’s going on. When there is action happening, such as the tense opening sequence or the heist itself, it refuses to cut too much, allowing us to understand what’s going on and keep us on the edge of our seats. Meanwhile, Hans Zimmer, previously working on 12 Years a Slave, composes and conducts the instrumental film score. As we’ve come to expect from the prolific composer, it’s very unusual from typical Hollywood flare, as much of the soundtrack is initially very lowkey. But when things start going down, it ramps up the intensity to new heights, thanks to heavy low strings and unique percussion. Like much of his work, it often feels like a never-ending crescendo. There’s also an original song called “The Big Unknown” by Sade that plays over the end credits, her second one for a film this year. It’s a soft, melancholy R&B ballad that perfectly sums up the unfortunate predicament that the women in the story have been put into. With her sweet voice playing against a soft piano melody and bass guitar hits, it’s a song I definitely intend to pick up soon. With a director and cast working at the tope of their game, a tense story that twists and turns, and far more on its mind than just gunplay and car chases, Widows is an immensely enjoyable ride of heist thrills packed with thematic punch. I can’t wait to see what else Steve McQueen may be able to come up with for Hollywood, and now there’s no excuse to not give Viola Davis top billing in more movies of the future. It’s genuinely the best heist movie in years.


“The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie” Movie Review

Great. First Stephen Hawking. Then Stan Lee. And now Stephen Hillenburg, the creator of SpongeBob SquarePants. 2018 is becoming the new 2016, i.e. more and more beloved celebrities are dropping dead by the end of the year. I honestly think the best way to honor Hillenburg and his legacy would be to include this into my New Year’s resolution. This animated comedy was originally released in theaters around the world on November 19th, 2004. Although it still faced tough competition from The Incredibles, it managed to gross over $140 million at the box office against an overall budget of $30 million. Aided by generally positive responses, it also saw extensive marketing from establishments like 7-Eleven and Burger King, which outfitted various locations with huge inflatable figures of the titular character. Directed by Stephen Hillenburg, he had continuously rejected offers from Paramount Pictures and Nickelodeon to make a feature-length film out of the beloved cartoon he created. After accepting in 2002, he assembled his regular show writers to come up with good ideas and storyboard in ways that were faithful to the show. By most accounts, this film was intended to be the series finale, but Nickelodeon ordered more episodes and continued on anyway, without Hillenburg’s involvement for a number of years. Set in the underwater city of Bikini Bottom, the titular frycook SpongeBob SquarePants becomes seriously upset when he doesn’t get to become the manager of the newly open Krusty Krab 2. Things get further complicated when Mr. Krabs, proprietor of the Kursty Krab, is accused and frozen in place for allegedly stealing King Neptune’s crown. Given 6 days to clear his name, SpongeBob and his best friend Patrick Star set out to the infamous Shell City to find the crown, all part of Plankton’s nefarious plan to steal the formula for the delicious and popular Krabby Patty. Full disclosure before going any further: The original SpongeBob cartoon was a defining part of my childhood. All of the early episodes from the first 3 seasons and this movie make up maybe a quarter of my memories growing up. In fact, a good number of those episodes I can quote and act out from front to back, with “Band Geeks” remaining my absolute favorite one out of all of them. Even though the newer seasons afterward were never nearly as good, I still watched them because I’m that big of a fan. All of that is a very long way of saying don’t really read this review if you’re looking for some sort of cold, objective take. The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie is still as fun, warm, and entertaining as an adult now as it was back when I was a kid. However, there are still parts of it that I can look at from a new perspective without getting misty-eyed or nostalgic too much. For one, the mythical hero arc that the primary story unfolds over is very traditional and well-worn. If you’re not familiar with this film and go in expecting an original, highbrow narrative with layered thematic interpretations, you’re going to severely let down. It takes everything in the manner of a fast-paced, ridiculously over-the-top comedy in the vein of the Farelly Brothers or Terry Gilliam or Abbott and Costello. If you’re a first-time viewer, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the animators (As well as fans) made or enjoyed it while high on bath salts or something. Virtually all of the cast members from the cartoon show reprise their roles here, and none of them have missed a single beat. Tom Kenny and Bill Fagerbakke are at the forefront as SpongeBob and Patrick and make one of the most lovably buffoonish buddy duos in recent memory. Their chemistry is absolutely on point, and while they may not be the brightest pair in Bikini Bottom, their everlasting enthusiasm makes their delivery of many lines priceless. “A bubble-blowing, double baby doesn’t belong out here. Man’s country!” My favorite (And most relatable) character from the show is still Squidward, and while his part here isn’t as big as I might’ve liked, his scenes leave a good impression. Rodger Bumpass as is hilariously grouchy and deadpan as ever, perhaps the one resident of town with much common sense to himself. He and Kenny also voice a couple of other roles in more subtle capacity, such as the French narrator. Scarlett Johannsson and Jeffrey Tambor are gamely as Princess Mindy and her father King Neptune. He is over-worried and loud about the most minute things while she constantly tries to help the two heroes in whatever way she can. Other new players include Alec Baldwin as a tall hitman tracking the protagonists to Shell City and David Hasselhoff as himself, playing a parody of his character from the show Baywatch. In all seriousness, growing up, I thought he was just some character made up; I swear that I’m not lying. On the filmmaking side of things, The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie fully embraces its weirdness and runs a marathon with it. A higher budget gives the animators more time to smooth things out in the film. While it includes show mainstays like bubbles for scene transition, the framerate and designs for characters looks a lot smoother than it usually does in the show. However, it remains traditionally animated, refusing to let computer animation take control. This works to the film’s benefit because the underwater world is extremely vibrant and colorful everywhere the characters roam. It also uses the storyboarded cinematography to its advantage, drawing out certain scenarios for comedic effect where other cartoons may just cut away. Gregory Narholz composes the instrumental film score, which is appropriate and highly reminiscent of the music from the show. Bendy guitar songs and woodwinds contribute to the huge personality found in Bikini Bottom. There are also a number of songs written specifically for the film, such “The Goofy Goober Song” (And a rock cover of it) and “Now That We’re Men.” They’re all delightful enough, but there are contributions from very weird artists, a deliberate choice by Hillenburg. The most memorable one among them is “Ocean Man” by the band Ween, which plays during the end credits. It’s surprisingly well-fitting for the story, and indeed feels like it was meant of be the end of the series. What I’m concerned about now is that now that he’s gone, what’s Nickelodeon going to do next? I’ve heard whispers that they might take the show off syndication or use the upcoming third movie as the real series finale. Whatever comes up, I agree with several other fans that it all should’ve probably just ended here. The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie is a gleefully zany and over-the-top comedy with nothing held back. Filled to the brim with beloved characters and callbacks to the show without ever trying to pander to any audience, this is certainly better than a lot of cartoon continuations in cinematic form. Say what you want about the recent seasons, there’s no denying the memories and devoted fans that Stephen Hillenburg created. I was overcome with nostalgia and sadness during the entirety of writing this review. Thank you for giving us the show about who lives in the pineapple under the sea, and may you rest in peace with all of the other titans we lost this month. If anyone needs me, I’ll probably be jellyfishing in my backyard for a little while.

“Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl” Movie Review

When I was younger, I legitimately wanted to become either a pirate or a superhero when I grew up. I didn’t care if it meant I would end up with a noose at my neck, this movie just made it look so cool. Produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, this historical fantasy adventure film was released around the world on July 9th, 2003, following a buzzy premiere at the Disneyland Resort. Against many odds, it went on to gross over $654 million at the worldwide box office, along with a number of positive reviews from critics and general audiences- many of whom were shocked at its quality. It went on to stay at the top of overseas markets for 7 weeks in a row and spawned one of Disney’s most popular and lucrative franchises in recent years. Directed by Gore Verbinski, the film was originally based off of the titular theme park ride in Disneyland. Screenwriters Terry Rossio and Ted Elliot took inspiration from pirate films made during the Golden Age of Hollywood, and constantly clashed heads with then-CEO Michael Eisner, who questioned whether the film would be better off in theaters or direct-to home video. Despite a relatively quick shooting schedule, the complicated motion capture technology and conflict between Verbinski and Industrial Lights and Magic led to grueling 18-hour days in post-production. It is also notable for being Disney’s first film production ever to receive a PG-13 rating. Orlando Bloom stars as Will Turner, a blacksmith and skilled swordsman with a huge heart of gold. Following a massive ceremony, his betrothed childhood love Elizabeth Swan, played by Keira Knightley, is kidnapped by a band of pirates with a mysterious condition. Without many options and virtually no help from the British Navy, he relies on the help of a free-spirited, hard-drinking, disgraced pirate named Captain Jack Sparrow, played by Johnny Depp. The two set off on the Seven Seas searching for the infamous ship The Black Pearl, all the while steering clear of the pursuing British Armada and dreading the ship’s haunted captain, Hector Barbossa. With this month in my New Year’s resolution, I just decided to go ahead and revisit a couple of movies I adored when I was younger, rather than something I had never seen before. (Trust me, I have plans for that in December) It’s always a fun process because then I can watch the film with new, older eyes that can help me appreciate aspects I had never really noticed before. Make no mistake, the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise got consistently worse as it went on, but the first 3 movies were extremely entertaining for what they were. And no matter what, The Curse of the Pearl remains the best of them all, launching a mighty career for its star and redefining what its studio could do. But for all intents and purposes, this film should not have any right to work nearly as well as it does. A PG-13-rated adventure based off of a fairly popular theme park ride from the same studio that gave us Mary Poppins and Pinnochio? Taken at face value, that whole idea just sounds like a Hollywood recipe for disaster, and many people in the industry were extremely pessimistic on its chances. And now, it has become one of the most iconic and defining film franchises of the early 21st Century. If you look at the landscape of blockbuster movies in the years since its release, especially those produced by Disney, the structure has become something of a template- for better or for worse. In all honesty, Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom aren’t very memorable in their roles. Both are meant to be odes to characters in an Errol Flynn epic, but aren’t really able to break out of those molds. For what it’s worth, though, they are able to adapt to the comedic timing and wit found throughout. Geoffrey Rush is excellent and having a wonderful time as Captain Hector Barbossa, a pirate with a bitterness and love of apples. He chews the scenery as we gradually learn what’s going on with him and his crew on the titular ship, something that’s both slightly tragic and absurd. And yeah, you’ve got a supporting cast of Jack Davenport, Jonathan Pryce, Kevin McNally, Lee Arenberg, and Mackenzie Cook, but they all completely pale in comparison to Johnny Depp’s star-making performance as Captain Jack Sparrow. This is the second time this year where I find myself praising Depp in spite of his deeply troubling public issues, but it would be a lie to say that I wasn’t entranced by his iconic turn. Inspired in part by Keith Richards, (Who makes a delightful cameo in the third movie) he completely loses himself as a stumbling, alcoholic, yet unexpectedly cunning pirate who’s not devoid of a moral compass. His unusual movement and speech make for some very funny moments throughout the film. The first film also earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor, a very impressive feat considering everything else. Elsewhere, the technical side of The Curse of the Black Pearl show a surprisingly sufficient film with tons of bite. Shot by Dariusz Wolski, loves to use a number of sweeping wides and tracking shots during action scenes, really bringing out a sense of grand adventure in the viewer. It also helps that the film used real sail ships, costumes and weapons, meaning a lot of things were actually captured in-camera. The editing is a triple-job done by Craig Wood, Stephen Rivkin, and Arthur Schmidt, all of whom do good work on bringing the whole thing together. They cut together the action scenes and visual effects in gloriously satisfying manners, never skimping on any good details. It also knows how to drag out a good shot for comedic effect, as there are a lot of physical gags found in the movie. However, they could’ve definitely trimmed some fat off, as its runtime of 2 hours and 23 minutes feels bloated. Klaus Badelt, with a bit of help from Hans Zimmer, composes and conducts the instrumental film score. It remains one of the most memorable scores of any feature film in the last 20 years, with an iconic sound on par with any adventure flick you’ve seen from the 20th Century. The famous main theme, “He’s a Pirate,” serves as the backbone for the entire soundtrack, a booming anthem of brass, percussion, and orchestral strings. Other tracks are equally foreboding and jovial, trading something as dynamic as cello jigs for percussive, choral suspense. It’s a soundtrack I have listened to for many years, and will continue to do so. With memorable characters, impressive set pieces, and an immortal soundtrack, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl is a fun adventure with loads of swashbuckling charm and personality. You’d be hard-pressed to find a film in recent memory that defied more expectations than this one. Yes, it’s very indulgent and a little too long, but it still delivers after multiple rewatches and never loses sight of what it is.

Let’s Do It: My Favorite Movies #20-11

Almost there to the end, guys. As with the previous batch of ten, we’re now wading into territory of movies that I believe are truly profound in their impact on me.

#20: “The Shawshank Redemption” (1994)

I feel so ashamed that it took me so long to finally watch The Shawshank Redemption this year, but hey I managed to scratch it off the list. In all honesty, is there anything I can say right now that hasn’t been said already in my review or the reviews of literally hundreds of other cinephiles? All I really can add is that if I ever catch this Frank Darabont masterpiece on T.V. or streaming, I will watch it all the way through. It’s beautiful, bittersweet, and strongly optimistic in the face of great trial.

#19: “The Avengers” (2012)

Of all of the celebrity deaths in the last few years, none have made me more genuinely upset than that of Stan Lee, the genius behind so many Marvel comic books. His beloved creations have gone through multiple depictions in media, most notably movie adaptations. Superhero movies have become so regular in the last decade alone that we virtually take them for granted now. Because of this, it’s admittedly easy to forget the massive amount of hype and build-u[ surrounding The Avengers when it first came out back in 2012. It’s just an immense amount of fun to watch all of these iconic comic book characters come to life under Joss Whedon’s voice, and is even fairly telling of later installments in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

#18: “Skyfall” (2012)

I’ve frequently fallen in and out of love with the James Bond franchise. For every great entry in the series started by Ian Fleming, there’s always at least one that is lackluster or just straight up bad. Sam Mendes’ Skyfall is, as you can obviously tell, my favorite one out of all 24 installments, primarily because it both stuck to and subverted the Bond formula in such brilliant ways. The action was riveting and gritty, and gorgeously shot by the inimitable Roger Deakins, while the original song by Adele is hauntingly beautiful. Not only that, but this really feels like the first time in the 50+ year-long franchise that truly examined the character of James Bond, aided by Javier Bardem’s chilling performance as one of his most memorable villains.

#17: “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” (1982)

While I’ve almost always been a major fan of the Star Trek franchise, The Wrath of Khan is unquestionably the chief of them all. From Ricardo Montalban quoting Moby Dick to the first CGI sequence ever put to a feature film, everything in this movie felt right with the franchise. Strong character development and further expansion- both thematic and exposition-based -of Gene Roddenberry’s baby are put at the forefront of this sci-fi extravaganza. You don’t really have to have seen any of the other Star Trek shows or films to jump into this one, which is great for inspiring new crops of fans. What’s more is that the powerful final scene has become even more difficult to watch after the tragic passing of Leonard Nimoy.

#16: “Inception” (2010)

I love a good mindbender every now and then, and few major Hollywood directors are able to do that as consistently as Christopher Nolan. Whether he’s casting a magician’s spell in The Prestige or taking us through space and time via Interstellar, the English man knows how to make audiences think while still providing commercial entertainment. Nowhere does he arguably explore human subjectivity and reality better than in Inception, an original blockbuster with an all-star cast. The visuals are stunning and the multi-layered, multi-dimensional action is riveting to witness. Plus, that ending, man. No matter how many times I watch it, it always captures my attention.

#15: “Toy Story” (1995)

At #15, this still isn’t even my favorite Disney movie, so yeah, I guess you could say that I’ve grown up with them. Pixar Animation Studios have assembled quite an impressive filmography over the last 23 years, but it was always hard for them to top their first outing with Toy Story. Everyone knows the premise by now, but as an adult, you get to see more clever and funny bits of writing and storytelling, yet is never pandering to anyone. Maybe I’m just more nostalgic for it than the company’s other offerings over the years, but the breezy 80-minute runtime never fails to entrance me, especially when you consider the amount of worldbuilding going on. This was easily one of the most important game-changers of its day and still stands head and shoulders over a lot of its kind to this day.

#14: “The Breakfast Club” (1985)

I really don’t think that most people truly appreciate the timeless quality of this movie nearly enough. Not just because there’s not an image of dated technology to be found on-screen but because of the current angst that children, especially teenagers, are facing in our divided world. John Hughes is one of the few adult directors able to truly tap into the psyche of an American teenager, particularly the issues they face as a result of selfish grownups. Each kid in the movie, no matter how different and polar opposite they may seem, is relatable and believable in ways that are hard to describe. Not to mention, The Breakfast Club also manages to still be pretty hilarious, whether it springs from something dumb the five teens do or the brief but memorable role by the janitor.

#13: “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” (1986)

I know, I know, two John Hughes pictures back to back. But seriously, this guy was the true master of teen dramedies during the 1980’s, when there was a wash of them. Unlike The Breakfast Club, this one is far more carefree and overtly comedic. The first time I watched it, I was kind of left in consistent amazement by the titular character’s actions, always topping himself with what he could do. There are funny side characters and running gags aplenty as they explore the city of Chicago,.But also, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off has tiny hints of sadness and inevitability of growing up. Regardless of Ferris’ likability, he does have a point: Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t look up once in a while, you could miss it.

#12: “The Lion King” (1994)

It’d be easy enough to just say that The Lion King is the best Walt Disney Animation film of all time. But I’d like to take it a step even further and say that it is the best animated movie ever made, period. It really does represent everything that was peak Disney during the 1990’s Renaissance: Memorable songs, great characters, even better animation that still looks awesome to this day, and bravery in its emotional poise. There are a handful of scenes in here that messed me up as a kid and many others that still leave me in stitches. I genuinely do not see the need for Disney to go ahead and remake this classic with CGI next year, but whatever. We’ll always still have this little bundle of joy.

#11: “Die Hard” (1988)

Best straight up action movie of all time? No doubt whatsoever. Best Christmas movie of all time? Absolutely yes. There are simply far too many aspects of Die Hard that work in pitch perfect harmony for me to call out in this short paragraph here. Whether it’s John McTiernan’s assured direction, the commitment from both Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman, the impeccably written script, or the fantastic editing in the action scenes, there isn’t a sliver of fat in this movie to be found. Everything works together and has aged like a fine wine. It’s an amazing Christmas tradition in my household, and I really don’t care if other people think that it’s not.

“The Avengers” Movie Review

Oh boy. We now live in a world where Stan Lee, the creative man behind countless iconic superheroes in Marvel Comics, is gone. He died at the age of 95. I was originally going to write a straightforward obituary, but I instead decided that it was more cathartic for me to review a film inspired by the comic book pages he created. I could have easily chosen any of the MCU installments or beyond that, but this one seemed the most fitting. This ensemble superhero action film was released on May 4th, 2012, to incredibly high anticipation from industry insiders, fans, and critics. It broke numerous box office records at the time, including the highest-grossing opening weekend to that point, and the third highest-grossing film of all time. It also helps that critical reviewers and general audiences ate it up like a healthy breakfast. Written and directed by Joss Whedon, the crossover film was a cinematic event many years in the making, with ideas planned as early as 2003. Following the huge and unexpected success of Iron Man in 2008, as well as Disney’s acquisition of Marvel Studios in 2010, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was moving ever closer to its first culmination. Interestingly, the original cut was rated R, forcing Whedon to whittle down the film even further because of one trivial scene. The film is set in the aftermath of the trickster god Loki, played by Tom Hiddleston, being given another chance by an otherworldly army called the Chitauri. When he comes down to Earth, he sets out to steal the Tesseract, a cube containing astral power, and manages to brainwash a number of humans into doing his bidding. Desperate, S.H.I.E.L.D. Nick Fury, played by Samuel L. Jackson, quickly assembles a group of superpowered individuals- The Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, Black Widow, Hawkeye, and a resurrected Captain America -to stop Loki and prevent the Chitauri’s invasion of Earth. Can you honestly imagine what it was like for someone like me, a lifelong comic book fan, to see a superhero team like the Avengers get together onscreen for the first time? It was already a miracle that the previous MCU films had (For the most part) been as great and entertaining as they were. But the idea of seeing so many beloved comic book superheroes on-screen together for one movie event for the first time ever was likely to be either lightning in a bottle or career-ending for all involved. Thankfully, The Avengers so brilliantly brought Stan Lee’s creations to life that it set an entirely new standard for the genre. Joss Whedon really was the perfect writer and director to bring this project about. As a big fan of both Firefly and it’s big-screen continuation Serenity, his ability to juggle multiple characters in an ensemble at once and still make them all relevant is no small feat. Not to mention the brilliantly written dialogue, which sounds natural and fluid in each character’s mouth. He also shows a willingness to compromise with producer and franchise architect Kevin Feige, and it’s clear that the two of them have a deep love for the rich source material. I remember sneaking out of school on opening day to see this movie and seeing all of my comic book idols realized in such a resonant manner was so amazing, as I’m sure it was to many other fans. Speaking of ensembles, the original core team of titular heroes are all perfect in their now-iconic roles. Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, and Jeremy Renner all do splendid work as Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, The Hulk, Black Widow and Hawkeye, respectively. Ruffalo and Evans are particularly well-matched for their characters in this outing. One is a brilliant mind struggling to control his inner rage for the sake of others, the other is a soldier of yesteryear confused and disillusioned by the modern world. Samuel L. Jackson, Clark Gregg, and Colbie Smoulders are great in their supporting roles as eager members of S.H.I.E.L.D. while now-deceased people like Powers Boothe, Harry Dean Stanton and, of course, Stan Lee make memorable one-note cameo appearances. Meanwhile, Tom Hiddleston is a joyful bit of character acting as Loki, the main antagonist. It’s clear that the man is having a blast playing this character, which in turn makes him a blast to watch on-screen, in spite of his actions. Yet, there’s a certain element of tragedy to the trickster god, who feels completely homeless and devoid of a welcoming family. It makes his alliance with the Chitauri- who are connected to another major MCU villain -even more understandable and even desperate. As a piece of technical filmmaking, alone, The Avengers is a major achievement that- for better or worse -set a precedent for other MCU films to follow. Whedon uses a lot of his regular collaborators, including Seamus McGarvey as the cinematographer, which was his first foray into digital camerawork. For the most part, he’s able to transition really well, capturing the action and its subjects in a large aspect ratio. This comes for both steady shots in massive set pieces and more shaky, handheld work for ground level action in the streets of New York City. It goes well with the editing job by Lisa Lassek and Jeffrey Ford, who cut the camera in ways that don’t feel too choppy or overlong. For some of the more comedic moments, it knows exactly how long to linger on a person or when to put in a pause. Two shots that stand out are the famous spider-cam rotation around the team as they form a circle and a fantastic shot designed to look like a “oner” that traces the group’s actions throughout the battle. Alan Silvestri, who would go on to write music for other superhero blockbusters, is responsible for composing and conducting the instrumental film score. With some supervision by Danny Elfman and help from the London Symphony Orchestra, he successfully manages to create an old-school sound of action movie soundtracks. The main theme serves as the backbone for the entire soundtrack and it’s, thankfully, a memorable one. With consistent strings, a heroic brass melody, and buoyant percussion sounds. If not for the Marvel logo, you could be forgiven for thinking that this was a lost John Williams score written for a Steven Spielberg picture that was never released. And that’s all there really is to it, honestly. It’s pretty tragic that these circumstances are what made me finally review it in the first place, but still. Without that man’s immortal contributions to literature (I will fight Bill Maher on that) and media, this film wouldn’t exist in the first place. Always aware of what it is and running with it, The Avengers is a glorious epitome of all the ingredients of a great blockbuster. If there were any film of the decade to serve as a definitive example of how the industry has changed, this certainly would be it. Stan Lee’s creation has inspired a generation of fans who never felt like they fit in anywhere- including me. Nobody lives forever but the characters and stories he crafted will endure for an eternity. Rest in peace. Or as the man himself would say, Excelsior.

“Suspiria” Movie Review

Watching this film in the middle of the night during Thursday previews was definitely not a smart move on my part. This supernatural horror drama initially premiered as part of the official competition at the 75th Venice Film Festival. Following a series of divided reactions at other festivals like Fantastic Fest and early Halloween screenings, it was released in theaters worldwide by Amazon Studios on November 2nd, 2018. Thus far it has only grossed about $1.2 million on a budget of $20 million, although it seems to have mostly attracted a younger demographic and currently has the highest screen-per-average box office launch of the year. Directed by Luca Guadagnino, best know for Call Me By Your Name, he had been trying, as a producer, to get a remake of the original 1977 film by Dario Argento off the ground since at least 2008. After numerous actors and potential directors dropped from the project, Guadagnino opted to helm it himself, aided by A Bigger Splash screenwriter David Kajganich. It also helped create one of the most high-profile fake actors in history with the alleged casting of “Lutz Ebersdorf” in a key role. Although it shares a similar setting and even features original star Jessica Harper in a cameo, all parties have insisted that this is not a straight remake of the original film. Set during the German Autumn of 1977, Dakota Johnson plays Suzie Bannion, an American dancer from a small Mennonite family in Ohio. She is accepted and moves into the prestigious Markos Dance Academy in Berlin headed by lead choreographer Madame Blanc, played by Tilda Swinton. A number of strange events occur, such as the disappearance of a radicalized American student named Patricia Hughes. Bannion soon realizes that the academy is being run by a history of sinister witchcraft, and is also investigated by psychoanalyst/Holocaust survivor Dr. Josef Klemperer. Although I haven’t yet watched the original film by Dario Argento, I can totally recognize why it’s considered a classic in the horror genre. From its gorgeous aesthetic and creepy imagery, there’s a lot of influence it’s had over the last 4 decades. I also watched Call Me By Your Name a few months ago on an international plane, and while I thought it was really good, there was a part of the story that felt incomplete. When I heard that that same director was next tackling a reimagining of Suspiria, I was skeptical if he would be able to pull it off. I was excited even more by the divided reaction it has received from critics and audiences thus far. And after watching it, I was almost completely gobsmacked; this is a genuine, flawed masterpiece. First of all, I fully know that not everyone is going to appreciate this movie as much as I or others may. Aside from last year’s Mother!, it’s hard for me to think of a more controversial film in recent memory released by a big-name distributor. Like that picture, it’s very easy for me to recognize where the film will falter for many viewers, as some may see its themes and ideas as either too ambiguous or too blatant. There’s an almost Kubrickian approach to the style and format of storytelling, practically encouraging discussion among audiences. I have a fair grasp on what it was talking about, such as how fascism and national guilt for atrocities is far from a thing of the past. (The historical setting certainly helps with that) It may require a rewatch to fully understand what Guadagnino and Kajganich were going for. Dakota Johnson completely wipes her Fifty Shades fame away here with her most substantial and physically challenging role to date as Suzie Bannion. Her shyness and somewhat quiet attitude reflects an innocence in grave danger at this academy, as she slowly unravels the horrors behind the curtains. Meanwhile, Tilda Swinton continues her fruitful collaboration with the director in no less than three(!) different roles. The first is obviously Madame Blanc, the stern and brilliant director of the institute who tries to instill a maternal grace and mentorship in her young wards. The second is Josef Klemperer, who was officially credited and marketed as a real-life psychoanalyst named “Lutz Ebersdorf.” Her transformation under heavy makeup (Prosthetic penis included) is convincing as a Holocaust survivor who may be too curious for “his” own good. The third role is a secret, but let’s just say that it seemed unnecessary for her to adopt another role. Other significant players include Mia Goth, Chloë Grace Moretz, and Elena Fokina as terrified fellow dance students at the academy while Angela Winkler, Małgosia Bela, and original Suspiria star Jessica Harper in small but vital roles. Everyone has something to add that makes the journey even more spooky and spell-binding. Meanwhile, in a year loaded with brilliant horror films, Suspiria might just be the technical masterpiece of them all. Guadagnino reunites with his Call Me By Your Name cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom for the camerawork, and it’s a dynamic show. Shot on 35 mm film stock, this remake forgoes the original’s use of bright primary colors in favor of something deliberate more dull and cold, as if it were a fevered nightmare in winter. The use of special techniques, such as whip pans and sudden zooms, makes it feel like a subtle homage to horror films of past decades. Walter Fasano edits the film in a beautiful way that matches everything. Using parallel scenes as cutaways makes some otherwise mundane moments rather frightening and real. This especially comes during the central dance sequence, which lasts nearly 6 minutes but thanks to appropriate cuts and movement kept me on the edge of my seat. The lush and sensual choreography by Damien Jalet certainly helped, but it would not have been as compelling had it not been for the intense editing work. Following in the footsteps of his former band member, Radiohead lead singer and front man Thom Yorke composes and conducts his first score for a feature film. With the soundtrack he’s created, one has to wonder why he’s never written music for a film before. (“Exit Music For a Film” not withstanding) The film opens and closes in its credits with a haunting ballad called “Suspirium,” which helps establish the melancholic, ominous atmosphere to be found throughout the 2-hour and 30 minute-long journey. Other tracks consist of Yorke’s soothing yet strained voice and dynamic chord progressions from piano and synthesized brass. The aforementioned dance sequence is accompanied by a gorgeously tense opera of different instrumentations, written as though Igor Stravinsky himself rose from the dead and composed a score for a horror epic. With gruesome imagery matched with heavy thematic weight and some of the most extravagant dance sequences in film this side of Black Swan, Suspiria is an audacious coven of pure cinematic evil. It’s perfectly easy for me to see why this won’t work for everyone out there, but I couldn’t help but be awestruck by what Luca Guadagnino and David Kajganich set out to accomplish. I can’t say whether or not it’s superior to the original, but I can say that what transpired on-screen will stick with me for quite a long time- for better and for worse.

Let’s Do It: My Favorite Movies #30-21

It’s been quite a while since I published one of these lists. I’ve been exceptionally busy with work and academics as it was, but I never abandoned it. Let’s continue onto the next batch now.

#30: “Rocky” (1976)

On the surface, the original Rocky seems just like any underdog sports drama that you’ve ever seen at home or on the big screen. But once you get into it, the true emotional brilliance shines through, in large part thanks to Sylvester Stallone’s amazingly natural screenplay and iconic performance. The city of Philadelphia becomes a compelling character in and of itself, bringing the humble neighborhoods and residents to life in believable fashion. And the final fight scene almost always reduces me to a blubbery mess.

#29: “The Thing” (1982)

To me, John Carpenter’s The Thing is the greatest horror film of all time. It contains all of the ingredients of a great horror film and much more. The sheer paranoia of being in a tight, enclosed, isolated place; practical effects and makeup that still hold up over 35 years later; characters worth getting worried about. I am not exaggerating in the slightest when I say that I have nearly shit my pants every time that I watch it. Along with Carpenter’s Halloween, it’s become a staple of the spooky season for me. It leaves me cold, but in the best way possible.

#28: “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” (2001)

When you become as old as I am, you’ll start to feel more and more like the world is crumbling at an exponential rate. There are some films that are meant to lift your spirits in the most bittersweet way possible all while allowing you to step into a world beyond our own. For me, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring is one of those movies, perhaps the most lighthearted one of Peter Jackson trilogy. I will always come back for the film as a whole, but Gandalf’s monologue to Frodo speaks so truthfully regardless of what era or place that you live in. That, plus the whole sequence itself is already iconic.

#27: “Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade” (1989)

Let’s all just stand in solidarity by agreeing that the Indiana Jones saga finished with this second sequel and that’s that. Moving onwards, there’s a lot to love about this sequel. Steven Spielberg’s joyfully adventurous direction, John Williams’ amazing score, the pitch perfect chemistry between Sean Connery and Harrison Ford. In fact, that might be my favorite father-son relationship ever shown in movies because their dynamics are so hilarious yet somewhat somber. When it’s all said and done, The Last Crusade might just be the second-best film ever made about the myth of the Holy Grail.

#26: “The Godfather Part II” (1974)

Although it’s not quite my favorite one in the iconic saga, I could never disagree with anyone who prefers it over the original The Godfather. The way that it parallels the story of Young Vito’s rise to power as Michael’s empire gradually falls is both fascinating and tragic. Francis Ford Coppola directs the drama with such a heavy realism that it feels like we’re cold, distant observers of the Corleones’ struggles. I would even go as far to say that it is the definitive immigration film, detailing the price and myth of the American Dream.

#25: “Mad Max Fury Road” (2015)

“How the hell did they do that?!” is a question you’ll constantly be asking yourself while watching this batshit crazy post-apocalyptic thriller. A full-stop action masterpiece that pulls zero punches, how George Miller managed to film all of those insane, stunt-filled set pieces and get away with it is STILL something I’m struggling to comprehend. I don’t care what time of day it is; every time I put on Mad Max: Fury Road, I feel an adrenaline rush that is hard to shake off. Mark my words, this is a film that will never age with all of its amazing practical effects, and will inspire generations of action filmmakers.

#24: “The Incredibles” (2004)

Depending on my mood, this film usually shifts around with another Pixar film to be named later, but I love this one so much still. In all honesty, I am over 90% positive that this was the first feature-length film that I ever saw in theaters. I love how Brad Bird is able to get away with the type of mature humor that most family-oriented films wouldn’t even get to show. That plus the animation which has aged quite well, and some of the finest action scenes you’ll see in any animated feature. The sequel in 2018 was almost as great, but still not as fun or warm for me.

#23: “Gladiator” (2000)

Hearing recent news that Ridley Scott may finally be moving forward with a Gladiator sequel is about the dumbest thing I’ve heard in a while. The original one is already awesome and engaging as it is. I am, indeed, entertained.

#22: “Blade Runner 2049” (2017)

Movies like Blade Runner 2049 are exactly what 4K and IMAX were made for. The fact that this practically bombed at the box office is a crime worthy of punishment. It’s something of a miracle that Warner Bros. agreed to release this sequel not as an action movie but as a slow, contemplative mystery. Denis Villeneuve is perhaps my favorite director of his generation and the way he takes his time telling stories with great actors who trust him is something else.

#21: “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952)

How does one reasonably explain the impact of this joy-filled musical? How it gouges out all cynicism of the Hollywood gluttony in just a short runtime? Why so many people keep watching Singin’ in the Rain over and over and over throughout the years? The simple answer is, you don’t. You just sit back, relax, and soak in the pure escapism of one of the Golden Age’s finest and most colorful pictures.