Category Archives: Historical

“Apollo 13” Movie Review

Yeah, I know it’s not really the appropriate month, but this coming July 20th will mark the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing. And I thought it would be extremely appropriate to revisit one of the earliest films about astronauts. This space-centric historical docudrama was originally released in theaters on June 30th, 1995. Made for the budget of $52 million, it went on to gross over $355 million at the worldwide box office and brought in a little more when it was re-released in IMAX in 2002. It also garnered some of the best reviews from that year and was nominated for 9 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It ultimately won two in technical categories and scored numerous victories elsewhere. Directed by Ron Howard, the film is adapted from the nonfiction book Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13 by Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger, which had been optioned by several studios. After Universal Pictures got their hands on the rights, the dense script by William Broyles Jr. and Al Reinert had been overhauled as the film was entering production. Many interior sets were built from the ground up, but NASA did allow them to use certain tools for accuracy, such as a reduced-gravity aircraft. Set in 1970, the true-story drama takes place at the height of the Space Race during the Cold War. Following the incredible success of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing, astronauts Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert, and Fred Haise- played by Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, and Bill Paxton, respectively -are assigned to helm the third official trip to the Moon. However, 3 days into the mission, a small technical failure causes an onboard explosion which deprives the ship of most of its electrical power and oxygen supply. Reduced to a lifeboat, the trio of astronauts and the NASA members back on Earth abort the mission and scramble to find ways to get the men back home safely. Let me get this out there so that there isn’t any confusion: I fully believe that the 1969 Moon Landing and all other lunar-based missions were 100% real. I have no interest in the idea that Stanley Kubrick filmed it or if the CIA staged the whole thing or any other conspiracy theories about it being fake. I don’t usually like to get on a soapbox for my reviews, but I just needed that to be known, especially when we’re so close to the anniversary of such a historical human achievement. In any case, I’ve always been fond of movies centered around astronauts, whether they’re laced with science-fiction like Interstellar or recounting history like last year’s First Man. Many of those films partially owe their success and existence to this Ron Howard film, and for good reason. Because Apollo 13 still holds up tremendously well all these years later and leaves me on the edge of my seat the whole time. This movie has been one I’ve seen multiple times at different ages or points in my life. As a child, I was in total awe of the tense adventure and visual effects. Now, as a fully-grown adult, I can understand the very real potential for the human cost this mission caused. Every time I watch it, I appreciate the people at NASA even more for their hard work and commitment to these missions. And while Apollo 13 may not be the most historically accurate film ever made, it does a fantastic job at illustrating that teamwork. Whether you know how the story ends or not, it’s hard not to be drawn into the drama of it all. With a laundry list of incredible roles, it’s kind of odd that his performance here is relatively underrated. He’s great as Jim Lovell, the level-headed leader of the team who’s not only concerned for his crew but also wanting to get back to his family. When the big explosion happens onboard, he utters the famous words, “Houston, we have a problem.” His crewmates Jack and Fred are played by Kevin Bacon and the late Bill Paxton, respectively. Although they have different personalities, it’s clear that their combined expertise will be the only thing that might help them get through the situation alive. The three of them bounce off of each other beautifully as the likelihood of their survival gets les and less certain and they begin pointing fingers at one another. Back on Earth, Ed Harris turns in an Oscar-nominated turn as Gene Kranz, the team’s Flight Director. Although we don’t really get to see his interior life, he absolutely refuses to give up on the Apollo crew no matter what the public or his NASA superiors may think. His dialogue is delivered with the authority of an Aaron Sorkin script, which is probably one of the highest compliments I could give to him. The rest of the cast on Earth does a great job at propelling the human drama and intensity of the task at hand. These include Kathleen Quinlan as Lovell’s optimistic yet concerned wife, Gary Sinise as the deposed original member of Apollo 13’s crew, Joe Spano as the NASA director worried about public perception, Bret Cullen as a Capsule Communicator, and Xander Berkeley as the bumbling yet well-intentioned member of the Office of Public Affairs. Each of them manages to elevate the 2-hour and 20-minute runtime with humanity, even if not all of them get full characterization. Meanwhile, the technical aspects of Apollo 13 show Ron Howard in full command behind the camera. Dean Cundey’s widescreen cinematography captures everything in the mission with exquisite detail. Considering that there are no archival shots from the actual ship in the film, that’s especially impressive. The practical sets make the film feel more authentic, particularly a couple of shots that simply drift through the spacecraft and show the crew. While most other shots throughout the film are static, they work for establishing the enormity of NASA’s hopes and dreams for the future. And the Oscar-winning editing job by Daniel P. Handley and Michael Hill is truly remarkable. Whenever something big is happening, it constantly cuts back between the three men onboard the ship and the people at Mission Control. Not only that, but it doesn’t forget to cut back to scenes with Lovell and Haise’s families, as a way to illustrate the potential cost if this mission doesn’t end well. If this weren’t edited as well as it is, the movie would lose all of its intensity and grip on viewers. The late great James Horner composes and conducts the instrumental film score, which can only be described as Aaron Copland in cinematic form. The use of snare drums is extremely present in many of the tracks as if to keep the intensity of the situation constant. Much like Copland, there’s a prevalent amount of strings and horns throughout the soundtrack, a sound of patriotic optimism in the face of great obstacles. It also makes occasional use of heavenly choruses as a way to capture the absolute God-like nature of the mission. It’s films like this that honestly make me wonder why we ever stopped going into space decades ago. For better and worse, it really is going to be the final frontier for mankind and abandoning it just seems foolish. We’re now wiser and more experienced thanks to the dedication of the people in this film and I think we ought to use it for exploration. Apollo 13 is a gripping and masterful thriller about perseverance and teamwork in the direst of circumstances. Ron Howard’s classic historical drama feels like the type of film that never gets made anymore, and I mean that in the best possible way. Without the needless emotional manipulation, we’re able to get straight to the point; a grand story about one of the greatest rescue-and-recover missions ever attempted.

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“Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” Movie Review

This may be one of the few films I’ve ever seen that actually doesn’t live up to the description in its title. In context with the story and characters, it makes sense but there is not a single moment here which indicates that it earns it. This biographical crime thriller initially premiered out of competition at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Picked up for approximately $9 million, it also played at the Tribeca Film Festival later in April to similarly mixed opinions. It later received a limited theatrical release on May 3rd, 2019, and landed on the streaming service Netflix the same day. It is believed to have made close to $2 million in specialty markets, although, like all of the distributor’s theatrical releases, there’s no telling the veracity of these reports. It’s also scheduled to make a return to theaters later this fall as a way to provide more visibility for awards season. The film marks the narrative feature debut of director Joe Berlinger, who previously helmed a number of documentaries. This is his second Netflix project focused on the main subject, after the docu-series Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes. There was some initial backlash when the film was first announced at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, particularly over its star’s seemingly problematic casting, and sparked further controversy with its first trailer. Beginning in 1969 Seattle, the true story is told from the perspective of Liz Kendall, played by Lily Collins, a single mother and secretary. Pretty soon, she becomes romantically involved with law student Theodore “Ted” Bundy, played by Zac Efron, who soon moves in and becomes a stepfather to her daughter Molly. However, Bundy quickly becomes accused of committing a number of heinous and disgusting crimes against women, eventually culminating in the first-ever televised court trial. And while all of this happens over the course of more than a decade, Liz struggles to reconcile her love for Ted with the crimes he committed. I’m not going to pretend like I didn’t expect this movie to garner controversy when it first made waves. Like many films focused on the lives and/or exploits of serial killers, it would have to walk an incredibly fine line to really work. I was somewhat worried that it would turn into a voyeuristic or fetishized depiction of what Bundy did to all of those women. Although I haven’t watched Joe Berlinger’s Confession Tapes, I have a pretty good feeling that he’s fascinated with this man. And I was curious to see if he could find a certain wavelength or angle that would serve up a fresh and respectful treatment of the subject matter. And Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile is by no means exploitative or distasteful, it’s just… not that remarkable. In fairness to the filmmakers, the story of Ted Bundy has been covered in so many different views and perspectives. The idea of looking at his decades-long crimes from the P.O.V. of his real-life girlfriend, whose book The Phantom Prince served as the source material, is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because his sickening acts of violence are only heavily implied throughout the film, which also ends with a list of his known victims. But it’s also a curse because Extremely Wicked still feels beholden to stay in Bundy’s orbit constantly. He keeps insisting that he’s an innocent man and it’s not really until the very end of the movie that he finally relents. The whole film is framed with Liz visiting him in prison one last time before his ultimate sentence and for whatever reason, that format just didn’t feel right. For whatever problems the movie has, Zac Efron is practically perfect casting as Ted Bundy. He has all of the confidence, swagger, and deceitful charm befitting of the man, able to swoon entire flocks of people with just a blink. He surprisingly maintains a level-headed composure throughout the film, internalizing his sick thoughts and deeds. And although the film is told from her perspective, I have mixed feelings about Lily Collins as his longtime girlfriend Liz. Don’t get me wrong, she’s great in the role, but her lack of agency and full characterization make her feel more like a sketch of a person than a real individual. Kaya Scodelario turns in surprisingly effective work as Carole Ann Boone, Bundy’s old friend and by far most ardent supporter. She is absolutely devoted to getting Ted acquitted by any means necessary, following him to his various trials and trying to persuade the judge or juries to let him be. Haley Joel Osment and Jim Parsons are pleasant surprises as Liz’s new boyfriend and the Florida prosecutor, respectively, while Brian Geraghty and Jeffrey Donovan excel as Bundy’s failed attorneys. John Malkovich is quite impressive as Edward Cowart, the judge presiding over Bundy’s final trial. Despite the violence and degrading, inhumane crimes described in the case, he offers a bit of empathy to the defendant. “It is an utter tragedy for this court to see such a total waste of humanity, I think, as I’ve experienced in this courtroom,” he says to a full house, deeply disappointed by what has transpired over the trial. And although it’s only his first feature, Joe Berlinger first feature, he shows some promise with the technical aspects of Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile. The film is shot by regular comedy cinematographer Brandon Trost, and his usually dark aesthetic translates rather well here. Much of the film seems desaturated of color to strip away any color or glamour in Bundy’s crimes. Many scenes are done in long takes, with one unbroken monologue that Ted delivers when his final sentencing is announced in court being especially memorable. The editing by Josh Schaeffer, on the other hand, is rather bland and uninteresting in it execution. The aforementioned framing structure makes the story feel more constrained than it needs to be, as the rest of the film is cut together in chronological order. The film frequently cuts between filmed scenes and actual archival news footage, which works to an extent with bringing the historical context full circle. An example of the sum of its parts being better than the whole, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile has a fantastic lead performance that cannot save a middling-at-best film. While not nearly as gross and exploitative as I feared it would be, Joe Berlinger just doesn’t put enough oomph or engagement to really examine its subject matter. Yes, Zac Efron is undeniably great as one of the most reprehensible humans to have ever walked the Earth, but I just wish it had focused more on the intriguing angle it had promised. Unfortunately, it sometimes feels like the movie forgets that.

“Lagaan” Movie Review

Although I’ve reviewed a handful of foreign-language films before, it occurs to me that I’ve never reviewed a Bollywood movie. So what better way to resolve that checkbox than making it a part of my New Year’s resolution? This epic musical sports drama was originally released in theaters around the world on June 15th, 2001. However, per a promise, the producers arranged to have it premiere first in the ancient village of Bhuj where it was shot. Although it was produced on the then-unprecedented budget 250 million rupees, (Roughly $5.32 million in U.S. dollars) it managed to gross over 3 times that amount. It went on to become one of the highest-grossing films in the country at the time, and scored massive critical acclaim across the world. It also managed to become the third Indian film to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Written and directed by Ashutosh Gowariker, the film was partially inspired by the 157 film Naya Daur starring Dilip Kumar. The filmmaker had an extremely difficult time finding funding for the project, so much so that the main star started his own production company just to get it off the ground. While Gowariker and Sanjay Daima came up with the overall story and English dialogue, the dialogues in Hindi and its various dialects were handled by K.P. Saxena. With a grueling schedule that included a year of pre-planning and 6 months of filming, the cast and crew have continually stated that it was one of the most physically challenging films they’ve ever done. Set in the small Indian town of Champaner in 1893, Aamir Khan stars as Bhuvan, a young man devoted to helping his poor village thrive. With the local British cantonment putting their boot further under the neck of the Raj, the cruel leader Captain Andrew Russell, played by Paul Blackthorne, orders the citizens to pay double the tax. However, he makes a deal with Bhuvan to cancel all taxes for the next 3 years if they win a game of cricket against him and his British soldiers. Bhuvan takes up the challenge and with help from Russell’s sister Elizabeth, played by Rachel Shelley, brings along 10 other men to learn the game within the course of 3 months. For years, I had heard raves about the Bollywood film industry, but never had the chance to watch one of its offspring. It wasn’t until a few years ago during a class that I finally managed to watch one; it was this movie. Since then, I’ve watched a handful of others in the genre, albeit more modern ones such as Queen and Dangal. But after discovering that this film, along with other films by Aamir Khan, were available in their entirety on Netflix, I decided to give it another go. Would it hold up on second viewing? And thankfully, as has been the pattern with my New Year’s resolution, Lagaan is still a wonderful movie and actually improves the second time. Don’t let the intimidating runtime of 3 hours and 43 minutes steer you away, though. This is rather typical of big Indian movies, often setting their stories against a massively epic canvas. I actually argue that this is one of the best primers for getting into Tollywood or Bollywood films, as it has all of the essential ingredients the genre has to offer. It really is a huge, old-school crowd-pleaser and it’s honestly refreshing that it does not care what its audience thinks of it. In that, some people might be quick to dismiss Lagaan (or Once Upon a Time in India in some territories) as being too predictable and easy-going, and they would be partially right. And yet, the film has such a strong and engrossing way of immersing you into its world that it’s almost impossible to escape from its orbit. Aamir Khan is one of India’s biggest movie stars (If not their biggest) for good reason; he’s perfect in the lead role. As Bhuvan, he exudes empathy and concern for the people in his village, recognizing both the oppression dealt out by the British regime and their own personal tensions. Opposite him, Gracy Singh is a true talent as Gauri, his longtime love. Not as thankless a role as it may sound, her singing and dancing skills are incredible, especially when she sings a melody about her seemingly unrequited love for the hero. Paul Blackthorne is also delightfully villainous as Captain Russell, without a doubt the main antagonist of the picture. Arrogant and stubborn to a fault, he has no problem making the villagers’ lives a living hell- or for that matter, infuriating his superior officers. The rest of the cast is rounded out by an impressive ensemble of actors with varying roles. There’s Rachel Kelley as Russell’s kindhearted and unassuming sister, Kulbhushan Kharbanda as the seemingly powerless Raja of the region, Yashpal Sharma as a woodcutter jealous of Bhuvan’s heroism, and Raghubir Yadav, Rajesh Vivek, Akhilendra Mishra, Pradeep Rawat, and Aditya Lakhia as some of Bhuvan’s cricket teammates. While these men have many differences and doubts, (Lakhia plays an “untouchable”) the chemistry the hold is key to making the audience care about them. On the technical side of things, Lagaan has so many techniques worthy of the best epics in cinema. Anil Mehta’s sweeping cinematography is a thing to behold, capturing everyone and everything in every frame with perfection. The sweeping shots and predominant colors of yellow and brown help craft a look of a piece of history long forgotten. During musical numbers, like many Hollywood and Bollywood classics, the camera often moves flawlessly between different characters during the song. Meanwhile, Ballu Saluja’s editing job is able to keep the momentum consistently going for the mammoth runtime. His graceful scene transitions and patient cuts make sure nothing is too rushed or drawn-out. The climactic yet somewhat unorthodox showdown between the soldiers and the villagers is cut together in such an elegant and captivating manner that it’s hard to lose attention. And not to mention, his editing manages to do something remarkable: It made me sweat my palms during a cricket match, something that has never happened before. That, alone, is a noteworthy accomplishment. A.R. Rahman, one of the industry’s most celebrated composers, provides the instrumental film score here, which in my opinion is one of the most underrated ones in cinema. For all of the flare, there’s actually only two instrumental tracks on the soundtracks, but they both leave a huge impression. Crescendos aplenty can be heard in percussion and horns especially, and span various different musical styles. There are also six original songs that are a joy to listen to, with extravagant choreography and lyrics by Javed Akhtar. My personal favorite is actually the very first one, “Ghanan Ghanan,” performed by all of the villagers. Concerning their plight of a serious drought, it’s quite hard to get the central melody out of your head. It manages to perfectly illustrate what the movie is all about: unwavering optimism in the face of great trial and adversity. With an incredible soundtrack, characters worth rooting for, and palpable stakes in the rather simple plot, Lagaan is a sweeping musical triumph of epic proportions. Not only is it arguably the most accessible Bollywood movie for Western audiences, but it’s also officially my favorite sports movie of all time. The wonderful costumes, fantastic musical numbers, solid cast, and impeccable finale really help to put it over the top. Please do yourself a favor and seek this gem out on Netflix. And while you’re at it, go ahead and watch any other Bollywood movies in its catalogue.

“Casablanca” Movie Review

Oh come on, who doesn’t enjoy a good old-fashioned Hollywood romance every now and again? Even if you have the coldest, blackest heart known to man, I will be left in a legitimate state of shock if you aren’t won over by the end. This war-time romantic drama was originally released in theaters by Warner Bros. on November 26th, 1942, before going wide in theaters the following January. Made on the budget of about $1 million, it managed to gross just under $7 million at the box office, half of which came in from foreign markets. It then went onto win the Academy Award for Best Picture and Director, and has sustained a lasting influence on the film industry in the years since. Directed by Michael Curtiz, the film is adapted from the novel Everybody Comes to Rick’s by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison. While it was initially written by brothers Julius and Philip G. Epstein, Howard Koch came into finish the script while producer Hal B. Wallis scrambled to put everything in motion. The film also fell to the mercy of the Hays Code, which forced the filmmakers to change several scenes, some of which were arguably for the better. And Wallis’ working relationship with Jack L. Warner became so strained that after the Academy Awards, he left the studio for good. Set in the titular Moroccan city in December 1941, Humphrey Bogart stars as Rick Blaine, an American expatriate who runs an upscale club and gambling den. Despite professing to be politically neutral, he is secretly known for running guns to Ethiopia and helping refugees stranded in the city. One day, his former lover Ilsa Lund, played by Ingrid Bergman, walks into his establishment and begs for him to help her and her husband, who’s a Czech Resistance leader, escape to America. Rick is now forced to choose between staying with the woman he once loved and doing something right for the burgeoning war effort. Much like some of the other films in my New Year’s resolution, this is one of those “classic” movies that most people have likely heard of even if they’ve never seen it. Regardless of your familiarity with the film overall, odds are that you’ve probably heard the line “Here’s lookin’ at you, kid,” at least once. I myself had never really seen it before until early last year, though I had definitely known about it for a long time before hand. Like The Shawshank Redemption or Throne of Blood or Life of Brian, this New Year’s resolution has given me the opportunity to watch some highly regarded films I had always tried to see. I was especially curious to see how well the film would be able to hold up on my third viewing. And lo and behold, Casablanca is indeed one of the few “classic” films that’s actually deserving of all of the reverence it’s received over the years. Interestingly, if I had tried to watch this movie over a decade ago, I likely would have turned it off before the halfway mark. I just didn’t like watching romantic movies back then, at least ones that didn’t have a ton action in them. But now I’m older, wiser, and have realized that I had just been looking at the wrong ones at that time. Casablanca is not as glossy as a lot of rom-coms or dramas in the years since, but it still feels unmistakably old-fashioned. There’s a rhythm to this film that so few others in the genre have, even musical romances that have actual song and dance rhythms. In all seriousness, when people talk about Humphrey Bogart, they’re really talking about Rick Blaine. The first in a slew of suave romantic lead roles, he so expertly tries to hide his good nature under a world-weary cynicism and alcoholic coolness. Reflecting on Ilsa’s untimely return into his life, he drunkenly remarks, “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” Ingrid Bergman is his perfect onscreen partner, exuding a vulnerability and regret for some of her past actions. While she may not be quite as strong-willed as the writers may have intended, for the most part she retains her emotional poise and is genuinely wanting to die to get her husband back to the States. Paul Henreid shouldn’t be overlooked as Victor Lazlo, the Czech resistance leader who’s trying to carry on his guerilla war with Nazi Germany. His reluctance to trust people in the titular city is convincing and real, undercut by a certain tenderness for his wife. They are also flanked by a supporting cast of colorful and interesting characters. There’s Dooley Wilson as the energetic club musician Sam, Sidney Greenstreet as an underworld business figure who has a friendly rivalry with Rick, Claude Rains as the shamelessly corrupt prefect of police under Vichy rule, Peter Lorre as a petty crook able to get his hand into deep places, and Conrad Veidt as the ruthless Nazi emissary Major Strasser. Despite the film only running about 102 minutes, you really feel like you get to know these characters and the dire situations they find themselves in. Meanwhile, on the technical side of things, Casablanca is Classic Hollywood at its most lush and posh. Arthur Edeson’s black-and-white cinematography has many traits of film noir and expressionism. These include precise lighting and fantastic use of shadows, which emphasize the moral ambiguity of Rick’s position. Bergman is mostly shot from her left side, an effect which makes her eyes sparkle and her face glisten with beauty. It uses a number of steady shots to follow the carefully blocked action in every scene, while also allowing actors room to breathe with their iconic rapid fire dialogue. Owen Marks’ editing is also notable for its precise use of cuts between different shots and moments. The most memorable example is our introduction to Rick, which cuts between different parts of his hands and body before revealing his face. Not only that, but the subtle fades between the present day and his past life with Ilsa creates a certain nostalgia effect. The prolific Gone With the Wind composer Max Steiner provides the instrumental film score and boy its a doozy. One of 24 Oscar nominations Steiner would receive over his career, it masterfully mixes different melodies that are familiar but not quite patriotic. With a sweeping orchestra befitting of David Lean epics, the main suite has a wide range of classical instruments, including strings, brass, and piano. The way it’s infused into each scene makes it feel like a romantic adventure on a grand scale, as well as a more personal tale of intrigue. The soundtrack also has the famous song “As Time Goes By” by Herman Hupfeld, here performed by Dooley Wilson. Using a soft piano as the backbone of the song, the jazzy and slow-tempo tune makes for a perfect dance number between Rick and Ilsa. Although Wilson himself could never actually play the piano, Elliot Carpenter provided the playing on set, which comes together to create one hell of a memorable song. I really feel like if you wanted an intro into classic films, there’s no better place to start than here. One iconic scene moves to another, the script is as sharp and whip-smart as ever, and it all just makes filmmaking look so easy in the process. It’s also eminently quotable, with all of the characters each having at least one memorable line. When it comes down to it, Casablanca is perfectly conjured and fantastically produced bubble of escapism. Whether it’s the way Michael Curtiz and Hal B. Wallis put together the final product or the chemistry between Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart, there isn’t an inch of this film that doesn’t work. This is what we talk about when we talk about the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood.

“Captain Marvel” Movie Review

Hands down, this film features one of the greatest fictional cats ever put to film. However the rest of the film turns out, I’m just really happy that I got to fall in love with a cat on-screen for the first time ever. This sci-fi superhero adventure was released in theaters around the world on March 8th, 2019. Despite being the 21st overall installment in the rapidly expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe, it has grossed over $990.6 million at the worldwide box office, including a massive haul from overseas markets. This makes it the fastest and highest grossing film led by a female actress and the second-highest global debut for a superhero film yet. And while it has received mostly positive responses from critics and audiences, it initially suffered an attempted pre-release review bomb on Rotten Tomatoes and IMDb from male users. This forced both websites to change their policies for the future. Co-written and co-directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, makers of Half Nelson and Mississippi Grind, Marvel Studios had been trying for many years to get a female-fronted superhero movie off the ground, with multiple characters tossed around as possibilities. Nicole Perlman and Meg LaFauve were initially hired to write the screenplay, but producer Kevin Feige eventually brought on Geneva Robertson-Dworet to overhaul it as it started to take definite form in 2017. In addition, this is the first prequel in the franchise, and two principle actors had their faces digitally de-aged by nearly two and a half decades. Set in 1995, Brie Larson stars as Vers, an extremely powerful member of an elite intergalactic team called Starforce working for the Kree Empire. In the midst of their ongoing war with shapeshifting aliens called the Skrulls, Vers accidentally gets separated and lands on Earth. There, she begins to realize that she might have had a past life as an Air Force pilot named Carol Danvers, and quickly becomes acquainted with low-level S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Nick Fury, played once again by Samuel L. Jackson. Soon, they discover that the Skrull are planning to potentially blend in with and take over the planet and try to find them before it’s too late. Watching and anticipating this film, I couldn’t help but feel reminded of last year’s Black Panther. After spending over 10 years and nearly two dozen superhero films starring a white guy named Chris, Marvel finally passed the baton to a demographic that is sorely overlooked in the genre. Also like Black Panther, this was the unfair victim of pre-release bashing by extremely fragile people (Re: men) who felt threatened by something like this. Although I haven’t yet seen Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s acclaimed indie Half Nelson, I did enjoy their Southern gambling movie Mississippi Grind. And the stellar casting and 1990’s setting made it sound even more intriguing, even if the some of the marketing material wasn’t very impressive. Overall, Captain Marvel doesn’t rank quite as highly with the other MCU films for me, but it’s still undeniably entertaining and a great step forward for inclusion. Something I appreciate about the latest slew of films in this franchise is how thematically ambitious they’ve gotten. I’ve seen this film in theaters twice now and both times, I noticed different things in the story that resonated. No, it’s not the ’90s references, (Which, thankfully, avoid nostalgia porn) but how it explores the day-to-day sexism that women have to deal with. Whether it’s some random guy asking her to smile or her own superiors saying she’s too emotional for the job, there’s a certain connection to the real world that was previously missing in the MCU. Even though the story itself is a familiar origin story we’ve seen dozens of times over, its the specificity given to the characters that counts. Following an Oscar win and numerous impressive roles in various films, Brie Larson is perfectly cast as Carol Danvers/Vers/Captain Marvel. It’s previously been stated that she is the most powerful character in the MCU, and it’s easy to see why. She’s incredibly headstrong and fierce with both her powers and mind, frequently torn between following orders and doing what’s right. The digital de-aging for Samuel L. Jackson is no joke, as he looks uncanny to his appearance in films from the same decade it’s set in. While he is more idealistic in this era, he still is able to see the bigger picture and is willing to bend rules to get the job done. On the more cosmic end of things, Jude Law knocks it out of the park as Yon-Rogg while Ben Mendelsohn is great as the Skrull general Talos. Both eschew typical elements of the tough mentor and villain archetypes, respectively, bringing something a little unexpected to the film. Other roles are taken up by Gemma Chan, Annette Bening, Lashana Lynch, Rune Temte, Algenis Pérez Soto, a de-aged Clark Gregg, and both Djimon Hounsou and Lee Pace reprising their roles from Guardians of the Galaxy. Some fair better than others, (Bening feels particularly disinterested) but Lynch particularly impresses as Maria Rambeau, Danvers’ best friend in the Air Force. I’m not sure if she’ll return for future installments but I hope she does because she was so compassionate yet badass. And even though this is their first studio blockbuster, Captain Marvel shows that Boden and Fleck are still able to retain a somewhat personal touch behind the camera. This is the 4th MCU film to be shot by Ben Davis, who’s been more into the cosmic sensibilities of the franchise. The cinematography is very clean and slick with a wide-ranging color palette that encompasses the diverse creatures and worlds that the story visits. Elliot Graham and Debbie Berman also edit the film’s action scenes rather nice. Although it gets in danger of being too choppy, for the most part it keeps everything comprehensive and easy to follow. There is a musical score that goes along with the film that’s composed by Pinar Toprak, the first woman to compose for the franchise. Like many of the recent Marvel films, this score is actually memorable and noteworthy in many different tracks. The main theme is distinctive in its fusion of classic “hero” music and more contemporary riffs with other instruments. One of the most noteworthy instruments is the synthesizer, which plays chaotic melodies over numerous tracks and creates a real sci-fi atmosphere. The soundtrack also licenses a number of female-centric songs from the 1990’s many of which are played appropriately with their respective scenes. The best one used is “Just a Girl” by the ska-punk band No Doubt, which plays at a pivotal point in the climax. The second time I watched it, I could hear a woman in my theater softly singing along to it, which made it even more of a joy. Utilizing its setting to its advantage, Captain Marvel is an enjoyable intergalactic romp with an extremely powerful lead character. They have more work to do on their handling of action scenes, but Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck have successfully transitioned over to studio blockbuster territory with this movie. While it may not be as involving or fresh as other entries in the MCU, it still manages to keep you entertained for 2 hours and has great setup for Brie Larson’s future with the series.

“8 Mile” Movie Review

*Insert some unoriginal joke about Mom’s spaghetti somewhere in here* This hip-hop focused drama was originally released in theaters worldwide on November 8th, 2002, having been pushed back from a previous summer opening. It went on to gross over $242 million at the worldwide box office against a $41million budget and set a record for the biggest R-rated opening weekend at the time. The film managed to garner some very positive reviews both from critics and the rap community, even winning an Oscar. It also made over $40 million in DVD sales the first day of its release, a record for an R-rated  film at the time. Directed and produced by Curtis Hanson, the screenplay by Scott Silver is loosely based on the life of its main star. Numerous other filmmakers were in the running for the director’s chair, including Quentin Tarantino who had to turn it down to finish Kill Bill. Much of the rap battles, the centerpieces of the entire film, were auditioned for by various local artists and were given an improvised, one-take only opportunity. There was a bit of controversy when rap producer Buckwild claimed that one of the scenes used an instrumental of his song “Time’s Up” without his approval. Set in 1995 in Detroit, Marshall Mathers A.K.A. Eminem stars as Jimmy Smith Jr., an unhappy blue-collar worker struggling to provide for himself and his family. He harbors a strong passion for hip-hop music, participating in various underground rap battles under the stage name “B-Rabbit.” As he tries to win back respect after a humiliating defeat, he also attempts to look at his world beyond just his dreams. I’ve been a big fan of Eminem’s music for a long time now. Not just because it’s good music, but also because many of his songs are genuinely inspiring and motivational to me. Hell, even if his newer stuff doesn’t measure up to his first few albums, they’re still a lot better to listen to than most contemporary rap artists. Aside from his hilarious one-scene cameo in The Interview, I had always been curious what his leading role in this film would be like. I also adored Curtis Hanson’s film L.A. Confidential, and while this was a sharp departure for him, it still made me curious to see what he could do. And while 8 Mile is definitely rough around the edges, it’s still a very compelling drama with a surprising amount of insight. While yes, the rap battles themselves are gripping and fun to watch, they’re not really the point of the film. Rather, Hanson and screenwriter Scott Silver are far more interested in using them to contextualize the old and decaying city of Detroit. There are numerous empty houses lined up in entire neighborhoods where people go to party and the characters struggle to get jobs better than on the factory line. One of the areas where it falters is that 8 Mile, named after the titular highway separating demographics, can get a little didactic about these issues. There’s even one character who constantly goes on diatribes about the lack of economic opportunities for citizens there. All of this is well and good, but I feel like we didn’t necessarily need this. Eminem might not want to be a big movie star, but it’s impossible to see anyone else playing B-Rabbit. Yes, the character is based on him, but he inhabits such a hidden energy and repressed anger at his social circumstances that we can’t help but root for him. And when the battles in the final act finally come into play, he absolutely explodes in a fury of brilliance. By his side for much of the film is Mekhi Phifer as Future, B-Rabbit’s best friend and host of the rap battles. He maintains an unwavering optimism for his buddy’s talent and artistry, in spite of the problems they face on the daily. The late Brittany Murphy also makes an impression as Alex Latourno, B-Rabbit’s love interest. Although she sometimes feels more like a sketch of a person than an actual individual, she does good work as a woman who sees the potential in the protagonist’s abilities. Michael Shannon and Anthony Mackie also have effective small roles as men Jimmy has to overcome while D’Angelo Wilson, Evan Jones, and Omar Benson Miller chip in as his enthusiastic best friends. The one weak link is Kim Basinger as Jimmy’s alcoholic mother. She felt really miscast in her role, and wasn’t really convincing in her own struggles. Meanwhile, for a studio movie from the early 2000’s, 8 Mile‘s technical aspects are surprisingly down in the dirt and gritty. The cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto, who later shot Silence and Brokeback Mountain, has a dark aesthetic to it. Most of the scenes are shot in a handheld, cinéma vérité style without much flare or fancy movement. The naturalistic lighting and focus create some organically beautiful shots, such as an abandoned house burning down in the middle of the night. The added fact that all of the film was shot on location in Detroit creates a certain level of authenticity and honesty that’s rare in films. It matches up perfectly with Jay Rabinowitz, which somehow feels wise in the amount of shots shown in each scene. Although a number of scenes take place at night, it’s still easy to tell what’s going on. The rap battles near the end of the film are perfectly cut together, especially considering the fact that each one was done in just one take. As could be expected, Eminem also produced and curated the music soundtrack for the film. The vast majority of tracks are essentially instrumental backings from various songs of his, such as “8 Mile Road.” But there a re couple of more obscure songs, mostly by local artists from Detroit. The centerpiece of it all is obviously “Lose Yourself,” which became the artists first song to reach the top spot on the Billboard. With a very consistent beat of pianos, drums, and guitar, the lyrics are a fiery call to chase one’s dreams. He apparently wrote the song’s music and lyrics in between takes during filming. It ultimately went on to become the first hip-hop song to win the Academy Award for Best Original Song, which Eminem ironically slept through. 8 Mile is a familiar yet gritty drama about the trials of achieving one’s dreams. Although there’s nothing particularly revolutionary about the film, it has enough conviction to earn a spot of memorability thanks to Curtis Hanson’s direction. And not only does Eminem surprise with a great lead performance, but also gave us one of the best songs ever written for a feature film.

“The Curse of La Llorona” Movie Review

How exciting! This is my first ever review for a film I saw at a festival! I wish it were a better film, but hey I won’t complain too much. This supernatural horror thriller had its world premiere at the 2019 South By Southwest Film Festival. It is currently scheduled to be widely released in theaters on April 19th, 2019, by Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema. Made for the budget $35 million, given the studio’s track record the last couple years, it should have little problem earning it all back by the end of its theatrical run. But whether its middling critical reception can improve with general audiences remains to be seen. Produced by James Wan and Gary Dauberman, this movie marks the feature-length debut of director Michael Chaves, who previously helmed a number of short films. The screenplay was written by partners Tobias Iaconis and Mikki Daughtry under the original title The Children. Wan and CO. were apparently so impressed by Chaves’ work on the film that they immediately hired him to take over the next Conjuring film, which is supposedly slated to begin production later this year. Set in Los Angeles in 1973, Linda Cardellini stars as Anna Tate-Garcia, a social worker and widow. She’s called to check in on the status of a single mother Patricia Alvarez, played by Patricia Velásquez, who claims to be protecting her two boys from La Llorona, a ghost in Latin American folklore. Also known as the Weeping Woman, the story goes that a young Mexican woman drowned her children in a river after discovering her husband’s infidelity and then drowned herself out of extreme guilt, cursed to wade through the waters for eternity. Now, Anna becomes convinced that La Llorona is coming after her family next and enlists the help of a disillusioned priest, played by Raymond Cruz, to stop the evil spirit. Let’s get this out of the way before going any further: The Curse of La Llorona is the newest film in The Conjuring Universe. While such rumors had persisted for a while, it was always marketed as its own standalone horror flick. I don’t really consider this to be a spoiler because the connection to the other films is extremely lowkey, but take it as you will. To be perfectly honest, I don’t really have that much familiarity with this franchise, other than hearing a lot of praise from horror fans. I enjoyed what Wan did with the first Saw movie, and I like how he’s giving opportunities to newer filmmakers in the genre like Chaves or David F. Sandberg. Being my first experience at a film festival, there was a unique sort of anticipation I had for this film. And while The Curse of La Llorona has its share of fun moments, it just can’t quite rise high enough to separate itself from the crowded deluge of ghost movies. I have no doubt that Michael Chaves has a great career in the genre ahead of him, and he certainly shows some great skill behind the camera. But the issue is that the script he’s working with is so rote that it often feels like he’s fighting off what begs to be a jump-scare fest and dumb character decisions. At the very least, it could have honestly used an overhaul by another writer to make it a lot better. Furthermore, similar to The Cloverfield Paradox last year, I don’t feel like this had to be connected to The Conjuring at all. It’s a very fleeting moment shown in the latter half that doesn’t bear any actual relevance to the plot itself. I understand the desire for brand recognition to increase box office potential, but this could have easily written that crossover out entirely and no one would be the wiser. Linda Cardellini’s built a pretty sweet resume over the last few years with roles in films like Green Book and the underrated A Simple Favor. For her first stab at the horror genre, she does a pretty great job as Anna and exudes a certain vulnerability and strength in a frightened mother. Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen and Roman Christou play both of Anna’s children, Samantha and Chris, respectively. While horror films are often prone to terrible child actors, these two showed a decent range with what they were given. Patricia Velásquez is also pretty good as the petrified mother in Anna’s case while Breaking Bad‘s Raymond Cruz delivers some goods as a man of faith who may be the family’s best hope of survival. While they both did well with the material, their limited screen-time and development makes it hard to become invested in them. Cruz particularly feels underutilized and only really becomes important in the second half, and at that point he feels more like an archetype than an actual character. As continues to be tradition with New Line’s horror films, The Curse of La Llorona has some pretty polished and inspired moments from behind the camera. Wan’s regular cinematographer Don Burgess captures much of the action in darkness, often switching between tight Steadicam and handheld scenes. After a somewhat uneven prologue, the opening scene sees a single shot follow Anna and her children rushing around the house to get ready for school, setting the atmosphere. There are also a number of admittedly impressive bits where a shot seems like it’s following the titular ghost in one area, only for her to come back in the same shot. But the editing by Peter Gvozdas is pretty inconsistent and at times frustrating. While not necessarily choppy, it does feel in favor of creating jump scares with different shots following another. It can be clever sometimes in how it shows imagery, such as highlighting table cloths to imply that La Llorona is there. But the film is already wrestling with a meager script and editing it in such a ham-fisted way felt detrimental. Despite what the tone this review may make you think, I had a decent time with it. This is certainly a leap ahead of other horror movies like Wish Upon and The Bye Bye Man, but it still feels weighed down because of its obligation to the Conjuring Universe. Definitely a better viewing experience with a huge crowd, The Curse of La Llorona is a fleetingly scary flick that muddles a truly terrifying legend in favor of franchise connections. If for nothing else, this film shows that Michael Chaves clearly has a lot of talent and should enjoy a healthy career in Hollywood. His and Wan’s hearts are in the right place, but it just doesn’t make enough effort to distinguish itself from the genre. You’re most likely going to leave the theater having a fun time with all of the other patrons, but won’t remember much of it come the next day. But hey, it was super fun to watch at South By Southwest, so it’s great for that memory.