Category Archives: Historical

“Citizen Kane” Movie Review

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

“Cinema Paradiso” Movie Review

No joke, I genuinely believe that this movie is compulsory viewing for anyone who claims to be a cinephile or aspiring filmmaker. Or at the very least, it can act as a great segue into understanding why it’s so important to many of us. This Italian romantic dramedy was released in theaters by Miramax on November 17th, 1988, before also screening at the Cannes Film Festival the following year. It managed to gross over $12.3 million at the U.S. box office alone, and become a huge hit in other territories. Garnering huge critical acclaim the world over, it went on to won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, among other accolades. Numerous filmmakers, such as Roberto Benigni and Gabriele Salvatores, have publicly credited the film with reviving the Italian film industry. Written and directed by Giuseppe Tornatore, the film largely draws on his own childhood experiences. This goes as far as having most of the film shot in his rural Sicilian hometown, with many flashback sequences resembling an idealized version of his memories. Originally running 155 minutes long, after its poor commercial reception in Italy, the producers cut it down by over half an hour for better profits. One of the main actors spoke all his lines in his native French language, having another actor dub over his lines afterwards in Italian. Jacques Perrin stars as Salvatore Di Vita, an acclaimed Italian filmmaker living in Rome in the 1980’s. One night, he receives a phone call informing him that his mentor film projectionist Alfredo, played by Phillippe Noiret, has died. He returns to his hometown in Sicily for the funeral and becomes confronted with various memories and faces from his past. From there, we get to see flashbacks recounting his childhood self, played by Salvatore Cascio, as he begins a passionate love for film in post-World War II Italy. When people talk about films made by movie fans for movie fans, this is most definitely the one that springs to mind. Tornatore’s passionate love for the medium is clear in every frame of the film, with subtle or overt references to other works. Hell, I can personally attest that it has inspired me in several ways, and can definitely appeal to people new to foreign cinema. Even so, I wasn’t entirely sure if some, if any, of that initial magic would remain on this rewatch. Perhaps it might have been a case of a highly acclaimed or beloved picture that I liked mainly because of its enormous hype. Thankfully, Cinema Paradiso actually proves the opposite, turning out to be an improvement on repeat viewings. This film is really like a childhood blanket: warm, comforting, and filled with so many memories that it’s hard to let go. The director doesn’t just make a loving homage to cinema as a whole, but frames it as a way to project his relationships and family from childhood into adulthood. The escapism and power of the reel is an amazing foil to Salvatore’s hometown, which was in ruins following World War II and heavily censored by the people in charge at the time. At times, Cinema Paradiso does get in danger of letting nostalgia cloud the rest of what the film tries to say about maturity and letting go. It’s almost always at its best whenever Salvatore is clearly going through an emotional struggle to reconcile his dreams with his reality. But overall, it’s able to keep the course and get to one of the most beautiful final scenes in history. Salvatore Di Vita is played here in three separate stages of his life by Salvatore Cascio, Marco Leonardi, and Jacque Perrin, respectively. All three of them shine in different ways and bring new shades to the character as the timeline bounces back and forth. From an idealistic young child to a teenager with a head full of dreams to a famous yet jaded filmmaker, we get to see him evolve with cinema as his only true companion along the way. By his side as a child and teenager is Phillippe Noiret as Alfredo, one of the greatest mentors in the history of film. Initially reluctant to take Salvatore on as his protégé, his deep passion for movies and hidden compassion brings many great adventures between the two. More often than not, he is quoting a famous or obscure line from films, and frequently uses the medium to teach Salvatore lessons about life. These two central characters are flanked by a group of smaller but equally capable actors. Chief among them is Agnese Nano as Salvatore’s first (And really) only true love, Antonella Attili as his mother struggling to adjust to post-war life as a war widow, and Leopoldo Trieste as the strict priest who tries to censor the movie theater from what it can show. Each one plays an integral part in the lives of either Salvatore or Alfredo, and come in and out of play throughout the timeline. And from a technical standpoint, Cinema Paradiso plays lovingly with filmmaking conventions across the board. The cinematography by Blasco Giurato captures the filmmaker’s childhood hometown in Sicily with great authenticity and wonder. The swift push-ins and long-shots make it almost seem like something ripped right out of an old fable. The frame always stays fixated on the main subject and moves around when necessary. This plays into the idea that the film is told almost exclusively from the point-of-view of Salvatore. It is practically enhanced by the editing job by Mario Morra, who was nominated for a BAFTA for his work here. Scenes transition from one to another using classic film techniques such as the cross dissolve or slow fade out. It also cuts between different shots quite effectively with a nice variety sprinkled throughout. It also moves in and out of various establishments in the time between the different timelines, showing how much they’ve changed, if at all. The instrumental film score was composed and conducted by industry legend Ennio Morricone. It might just be his most underrated score to date, nearly on par in quality with his other, more famous work. It mostly uses strings, piano, and an oboe, and that simplicity helps cut straight to the emotion evident in the film. Several tracks blend into the same “Love Theme,” which perfectly represents the heart of the film. All of these elements culminate in one of the most memorable endings and montages in film history. Nicknamed the kissing montage, it’s a fantastic sequence as all of the themes and ideas of the film suddenly come rushing forward at once. It may be one of those moments that transcends the barrier of language and translation, as anyone watching it will understand its emotional impact. Cinema Paradiso is a heartwarming and inviting tribute to memory and the movie. Giuseppe Tornatore’s semi-autobiographical take on the story makes it feel all the more personal and intimate, as we really get to know this town and its characters. Stacked with a great cast and one of the best endings in film history, watching this film may as well be an informal version of film school. And I’m more than content with that observation.

“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” Movie Review

If Tarantino is indeed serious about only making 10 movies and then retiring, I’m going to be genuinely upset. He still has so much to offer the world of cinema it would be a shame to see him leave all of a sudden. This historical comedy-drama competed for the Palme d’Or at the 72nd Cannes Film Festival, coinciding with the 25th anniversary of Pulp Fiction‘s premiere. It was later released in theaters worldwide by Sony and Columbia Pictures on July 26th, 2019, having previously been set for August 9th. Following impressive drawings from Thursday night previews, it managed to garner the biggest opening weekend for the director yet. It has thus far grossed over $239.8 million at the worldwide box office and has the potential to make so much more. Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, the filmmaker initially spent 5 years writing the story as a novel before deciding that it was better fit for the big screen. After the horrifying allegations against his longtime producer Harvey Weinstein, he severed ties with him and The Weinstein Company permanently and shopped his script around to every major studio around. Eventually, Columbia got the rights after agreeing to several of the director’s demands, including final cut rights. In addition, the late Burt Reynolds was set for a small part in the film, but died before any of his scenes were shot; it’s also the last project featuring Luke Perry before his untimely death last March. Set in 1969 Los Angeles, Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt star as Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth, a faded Western T.V. star and his longtime stunt double. As the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood is coming to an end, the two of them are struggling to break it big into the film industry as it evolves. On their quest to remain relevant, they run into various real-life movie stars and celebrities, including Rick’s new next-door neighbor Sharon Tate, played by Margot Robbie. And while all of this is happening, cult leader Charles Manson and his “Family” began to gain notoriety in the city. This was easily my most anticipated movie of the year from the minute that it was announced for a number of reasons. For one, Tarantino is one of the few living filmmakers who I will watch anything that he creates. Not to mention the absolutely stacked ensemble cast he managed to put together and there is little reason for me not to get amped up for the director’s 9th feature. (Yes, Kill Bill counts as one movie) I was especially curious to see what the self-proclaimed cinephile had in his portrayal of the 1960s film industry he frequently homages in his movies. That it took place in 1969, by most accounts the year when everything changed in Hollywood for good, made it all the more fascinating, particularly when it was reported it would involved Manson Family. And it may not be perfect, but Once Upon a Time in Hollywood just about lives up to my lofty expectations. Nearly everything about this film feels like a genuine, violent, profane fairytale, which you wouldn’t expect from the writer-director. Through an extremely specific and detailed lense, we get to see a version of Hollywood stripped of any bitterness and cynicism, while still not idolizing the industry. This may be his most emotional and mature film yet, as we spend a lot of time with Rick, Cliff, and Sharon as they simply go about their daily lives. Many people have criticized the film for its treatment of Sharon Tate and how it addresses her real-life fate. (I won’t spoil it if you don’t know what happened) But to be honest, Once Upon a Time‘s unconventional way of showing this legend living her life in pure bliss, including watching herself in a theater screening of The Wrecking Crew, is wholly affectionate and deeply respectful. And if you are aware of the context of what went down, that’s ultimately when the fantasy of it all really stings. I’ve always wanted to see Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio collaborate on-screen together and this dream team-up couldn’t have been more perfect. The duo imbue Rick and Cliff with little quirks and traits that make them more human and their friendship more palpable. Whereas Rick is deeply insecure about his future prospects of being a movie star and spends a fair amount of screen time drinking or smoking his problems away, Cliff is always calm and collected and could break every bone in your body without losing composure. Seeing the contrast in these two’s position in Hollywood was extremely enticing and watchable, and the movie is almost always at its best when they’re together. Margot Robbie also leaves a major impression as Sharon Tate, at the time one of the biggest and most beloved movie stars in the industry. Although she has relatively few lines of dialogue and maybe a third of screen time compared to the two male leads, her name and legacy loom heavily over the narrative. It’s particularly during the second act when she shines, getting to walk through downtown L.A. on a free-spirited adventure. Alongside these three is one of the most sprawling ensemble casts I’ve ever seen for a feature. These include *DEEP BREATH* Al Pacino, Kurt Russell, Bruce Dern, Dakota Fanning, Damian Lewis, Emile Hirsch, Nicholas Hammond, Luke Perry, Timothy Olyphant, Margaret Qualley, Austin Butler, Damon Herriman, Lena Dunham, Lorenza Izzo, Rebecca Gayheart, Spencer Garret, Mikey Madison, and Mike Moh as Bruce Lee in a controversial yet highly entertaining scene. All of these actors float in and out of the story depending on the weight of the scene, leaving big impressions throughout. The big scene-stealer, though, is surprisingly the child actress Julia Butters as Trudi, whom Rick meets on a Western T.V. set. She’s only around for a couple of scenes, but she more than holds her own against DiCaprio when the two have a philosophical debate about the profession of acting. I can’t wait to see what else she does in the future. And from a purely technical perspective, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood sees Tarantino gaining an even stronger grip on his voice. With regular cinematographer Robert Richardson, the city of Los Angeles is captured in glorious anamorphic 35mm. Multiple streets were converted into looking like their 1969 counterparts, which lends to a heavy dose of authenticity. There are a number of impressive longshots and static moments where the camera’s fixated on one thing. These include when the two protagonists are watching an episode of The F.B.I. where Dalton guest stars and commentating on it, while the camera remains on the T.V. screen for most of the scene. Careful zooms and slow 360-turns throughout also help reveal a character’s state of mind in certain scenarios. The director’s third movie to be edited by Fred Raskins, at first the pacing is quite deliberate and slow but soon gains momentum. One of the best things in the film is how it cuts back and forth between Rick’s luxurious house on Ceilo Drive and Cliff’s humble trailer home behind a drive-in theater. This creates a really interesting dichotomy between their status in the industry and really says a lot on how stuntmen and stuntwomen are treated. It also does something interesting in digitally editing Rick Dalton into various films and shows from the era, such as The Great Escape and Death on the Run. Although far from a brand new technique, it helps to further contextualize Rick’s success (Or lack thereof) in Hollywood. With amazing performances inhabiting fantastically written characters and a surprisingly affectionate tone, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is an intricate and wonderfully told fairytale about one’s legacy and permanence. If this is truly his penultimate feature, then Quentin Tarantino is still on the right path in terms of filmmaking choices and maintaining a hot streak. Although its pacing could definitely be better, it’s hard not to admire the ambition and extreme attention to detail in its recreation of Los Angeles. And once you strip away all of the fantastic dialogue and rich acting, it’s truly melancholy looking at what could have been in real life. A happily ever after that never came to be.

“Rocketman” Movie Review

Any movie where the lead actor or actress is actually singing their part is already doing something right in my book. This musical biographical drama premiered out of competition at the 71st Cannes Film Festival to quite a rapturous response from those who attended. It was later released in theaters worldwide by Paramount Pictures on May 31st, 2019, to high anticipation. Made for the relatively small budget of $40 million, it has thus far grossed over $183.3 million at the box office. It’s R-rating should be no trouble for the film to turn a sizable profit in the long run- or to spur potential awards season consideration as well. Directed by Dexter Fletcher, the central figure and his real-life husband and producer David Furnish had been trying to make a feature film out of his life since at least 2001. For the longest time, Tom Hardy was set for the lead role with Focus Features distributing, but clashes over its vision and rating made it languish for years in development hell. Unlike most films in the genre, the director and real-life protagonist insisted on making the film more of a fantasy musical than a straightforward cradle-to-grave biopic. This is also the first film from a major Hollywood studio to explicitly showcase a gay male sex scene, which has caused controversy in countries like Russia and Samoa. Beginning in 1950s England, Taron Egerton stars as Reginald Dwight, an unconfident yet talented piano player. Wanting to break out of his cold familial upbringing, he crosses paths with lyricist Bernie Taupin, played Jamie Bell, who’s looking for a musician to bring his songs to life. Although most other reviewers have done so, I’m not really interested in comparing this movie to last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody. Although Dexter Fletcher was involved in both productions, (And apparently Rami Malek as Freddie almost had a cameo in this movie) they’re completely different in terms of style and personality. And for that reason, I’ve decided to just judge this film on its own terms. I actually didn’t really start loving Elton John and his music until high school and felt like an utter fool. I’ve come to love him both as an artist and a human being, and so I was curious to see how they would tell his story in a manner like this. And it works out near-flawlessly for Rocketman because it perfectly shows what Elton was going through during those years. What’s fascinating is how the structure of a fantasy musical allows the film to be as wild as it is while still being faithful to its central subject. Fletcher isn’t concerned so much with getting every minute detail of his personal life right as he is with capturing the spirit and tone of what he was going through at the time. One has to respect Elton John for allowing the filmmakers and lead actor such an amount of freedom to tell his story to such a wide audience the way they did. Then again, Rocketman‘s unorthodox approach to the genre might not float as well with everyone who sees it. Not to mention, the film really does earn its R-rating because it doesn’t shy away from the drugs, booze, or debauchery of Elton’s rock-and-roll lifestyle. But I definitely respect that Fletcher tried a very different method of telling the singer-songwriter’s life and career. Taron Egerton has been on the rise the last few years, and his performance here is absolutely the best I’ve seen from him so far. His transformation into Elton John is stunning, capturing all of the charisma, energy, and deep insecurities about his own talent. The fact that he also uses his own singing voice and does his own dances adds to the authenticity and may even score him a Best Actor nod in the coming months. Jamie Bell is also pretty remarkable as Bernie Taupin, Elton’s longtime musical partner and lyricist. Although he isn’t given a very deep characterization, the genuine care he shows to Elton is a welcome relief to all of the excess in his life. Richard Madden comes hot off of his excellent turn in the Netflix show Bodyguard as John Reid, the singer’s manager and brief lover. Portraying him with more layers and nuance than Bohemian Rhapsody‘s portrayal, he shows him off like a savvy and pragmatic businessman who puts the well-being of the singer second or even third. The supporting cast is rounded out by a number of impressive performers, some of whom standout more than others. These include Tate Donovan as a nightclub owner who gives Elton one of his first public performances, Bryce Dallas Howard as his unaffectionate mother, Stephen Graham and Charlie Rowe as music producers hesitant to publish the singer’s songs, Sharon D. Clarke as an empathetic Alcoholics Anonymous counselor, and Kit Connor as a young Elton John. Connor easily leaves the best impression of the bunch, as many of the supporting characters aren’t fully developed or interesting. And when it comes to the technical aspects, Rocketman is as dazzling and exciting as the central real-life figure. Cinematographer George Richmond, who’s worked 4 times with Fletcher in the past, uses an incredibly fluid and steady camera throughout the film. There are a number of long tracking shots, often through different time periods or in a fantastical sequence. It moves fast, but not too much for things to be incomprehensible for audiences. Various colors feel heightened in various sequences, such as blue and silver, adding to the dreamlike quality of the film. Chris Dickens’ editing job is also worth mentioning, as it blends different scenes together with near-effortless success. One particularly impressive bit is when the singer engages in a big orgy and multiple images layer on top of one another. It also blends the more fantastical elements in with reality rather seamlessly, and although it can be easy to spot which is which, it adds to the picture. This method is often used to create unique transitions from scene to scene, such as Elton falling into his pool with the intent to drown straight to a bedazzling concert. While there is an instrumental score composed by Matthew Margeson, it’s mostly forgettable. Instead, the film uses various songs by Elton and Taupin for various moments during his life, with the characters often breaking out into full-blown song and dance. Some sequences are highly choreographed or conceptual, others are more isolated and emotional. All of them are slightly different renditions of the singer’s catalogue, all of which use Taron Egerton’s singing voice. And the best part is that they are all appropriately chosen for the moment in the film and perfectly fit. My personal favorite is for “Crocodile Rock,” which adds a heavenly choir and a truly memorable sequence relatively early on. A close second would be the very last song “I’m Still Standing,” a great way to cap off a really unpredictable story. Rocketman has buckets of personality and catchy music anchored by an amazing central performance. By putting music and fantasy into a blender, Dexter Fletcher is able to add something new to a genre that’s becoming increasingly staid. Taron Egerton is definitely Oscar-worthy as Elton John and it’s gonna be a long, long time before another music biopic with this much energy touches down.

“Inglourious Basterds” Movie Review

There might not be any action in modern world history more fundamentally American than killing or humiliating Nazis. If only our own current leadership could realize this. This unconventional war movie initially competed for the Palme d’Or at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. Although it didn’t win the big prize, one of the breakout stars won the Best Actor award, as well as a BAFTA and Academy Award later on in awards season. It was released in theaters by The Weinstein Company on August 21st, 2009, having been released the previous day in Germany. It managed to earn over $321.5 million at the worldwide box office against a budget of $70 million, making it the director’s highest-grossing movie at that point. It was also a critical smash, taking home numerous accolades that included 8 Academy Award nominations. Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, the auteur had spent just over a decade writing the screenplay, at one point producing three completed scripts. It was so big that he briefly flirted with the idea of making it into a miniseries, ultimately trimming it down after finishing his Kill Bill duology. The director’s longtime distributor, The Weinstein Company, heavily accelerated production in hopes of making it to Cannes on time, and was the last collaboration between Tarantino and producer Lawrence Bender. The title is a deliberate misspelling of director Enzo G. Castellari’s 1978 film Inglorious Bastards, who also makes a cameo as an S.S. officer. Set during World War II, the story follows a young Jewish French woman named Shoshanna Dreyfus, played by Mélanie Laurent, who seeks revenge against the Nazi regime for the murder of her family. At the same time, a group of Jewish-American soldiers led by Aldo “The Apache” Raine, played by Brad Pitt, slowly carve a path of resistance behind enemy lines. Both parties are under the suspicion of S.S. Colonel Hans Landa, played by Christoph Waltz, a notorious officer with the given nickname “The Jew Hunter.” All of their paths eventually culminate in a film premiere for a Paris theater where many important Germans are attending. At the risk of bias, I’ll admit to having a bit of a personal connection to this movie because it was the first Tarantino film I ever watched. I was fairly young when I first saw it, and had heard that, at least compared to the director’s other films, it was pretty tame. And now, with the lone exception of 2007’s Death Proof, I’ve watched all of his films at least once. Most filmmakers at some point in their career feel like they have a World War II film inside that they want to make. And how would Quentin Tarantino, the same man who made people laugh when a young man was accidentally shot in the face, manage to tackle one of the most extensively covered periods in cinema history? The answer is Inglourious Basterds, a glorious and immensely satisfying film with tons of rewatch factors. Let’s just start by completely throwing out any discussions about historical accuracy because this movie clearly isn’t interested in holding to that. Instead, like most of his oeuvre, this film acts as an extensive homage to classic and foreign cinema and an examination of violence. While not as gratuitous as some of his other films, such as Django Unchained, it still uses shock factor to highlight the regular death toll in a war. This being a Tarantino joint, it’s also, of course, an homage to the medium of film in unexpected ways. As much of the story revolves around a Paris movie theater, we get to see how celluloid is developed and put into a projector for screenings. For aspiring filmmakers and devoted cinephiles such as myself, this is a wonderful thing to watch and makes me excited to see it further explored in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Brad Pitt has worked with a number of great directors to great results, and his turn as Aldo Raine is easily one of his most memorable roles. With a thick Tennessee accent and an affinity for large knives, he has a swaggering personality and forceful nature that makes him a natural leader. When rousing up his troops, he enthusiastically tells them, “Nazis ain’t got no humanity. They’re the foot soldiers of a Jew-hating, mass murdering maniac and they need to destroyed.” A newcomer to the States at the time, Mélanie Laurent also proves a leading lady to be reckoned with as Shoshanna. One of the strongest women Tarantino has created, it is very clear that she will stop at nothing to take revenge on the Nazis for what they did to her family, and internalizes much of her trauma and anger. August Diehl, Daniel Brühl, Alexander Fehling, Sylvester Groth, Léa Seydoux, and Denis Ménochet shine as locals under the French regime while B.J. Novak, Mike Myers, Michael Fassbender, Eli Roth, and Diane Kruger do well as Allied members. But of course, the true standout of the movie is Christoph Waltz in his show-stopping performance as Colonel Hans Landa. The director has frequently called Landa the greatest character he’s ever written, and Waltz plays into it beautifully with tons of charm and bravado covering his truly terrifying nature. In nearly every scene he’s in, he remains in total control of the situation, gleefully manipulating his subjects while never revealing all his cards. To me, there’s no villain more intimidating than that, which is why he is one of the most memorable of the last decade. And from a technical perspective, Inglourious Basterds shows Tarantino further developing his craft and voice. With his regular cinematographer Robert Richardson, the camera is precise and deliberate as always. Many of the character interactions are captured in gorgeous medium shots and the camera often remains in one place during a scene, zooming in or panning when necessary. Numerous colors pop out in the frame, including red for blood and the Nazi flag, and black for the uniforms. There are some pretty evocative shots that reference Western and war films of the past, such a John Ford-esque shot of an open doorway. This was the last film by the director to be edited by longtime collaborator Sally Menke, who died not long after its release. With her skill, every scene is perfectly cut together and the transition between segments or “chapters” of the story feels organic. One standout Mexican standoff in a basement is expertly made, because a LOT happens in a short amount of time and we’re still able to follow the chaos. As with most of his films, there is no original score for the film. Instead, the director uses various pre-existing tracks to help create the mood. Although he wanted Ennio Morricone to compose the soundtrack, he did end up using 8 tracks of his from other films. This helps to establish the tone of a Spaghetti Western in Nazi-occupied France. There’s also an excellent montage later in the film featuring the song “Cat People” by David Bowie, which works splendidly. Inglourious Basterds is a cleverly written and fantastically performed slice of alternative history. I can confidently say that this is Quentin Tarantino’s second-best film, and definitely one of his most rewatchable ones. As always, he breaks the traditional rules for filmmaking, and it’s all the better for it; a World War II film where a beefy 70% of the dialogue is spoken in French and German. Very few other American filmmakers would attempt something like that, and that’s what I love most about him.

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“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.