Category Archives: Historical

“Uncut Gems” Movie Review

Have you ever wondered what it would feel like to have a panic attack that lasted for 2 hours and 15 minutes? I present you with the cinematic equivalent.

This street-level crime dramedy premiered at the 2019 Telluride Film Festival to rave reviews and reactions. Following a successful screening at TIFF the following week, it was given a limited release in theaters by A24 on December 13th, 2019, and was expanded on Christmas Day. After a strong showing in specialty theaters early on, it has gone on to gross over $43.6 million at the worldwide box office thus far. This makes it the directing duo’s highest-grossing film to date, and it has one of the best per-venue averages of the year and the biggest single-day intake that the indie studio’s ever had.

Directed by Josh and Benny Safdie, the film had been in development for the better part of a decade with co-screenwriter Ronald Bronstein. It’s been said to be partly inspired by the experiences of their father Albert during his time working in Manhattan. The long-gestating project apparently got enough attention for Martin Scorsese and Emma Tillinger Koskoff to jump on-board as executive producers. Although they always intended a major basketball star to play a big role, the constant schedule changing made them go through Amar’e Stoudemare, Joel Embiid, and supposedly Kobe Bryant before finally coming to an agreement with the National Basketball Association.

Set in spring of 2012, Adam Sandler stars as Howard Ratner, a Jewish-American jeweler in New York City’s Diamond District. As he swims in gambling debts, he takes on NBA star Kevin Garnett as a client, playing a fictionalized version of himself, and shows him a rare black opal from Ethiopia. Garnett becomes so enamored of it that Howard loans it to him, who immediately tries to place bets on both it and the upcoming Boston Celtics games to pay back the loan sharks.

I was a big fan of the Safdie Brothers and the work they did on their previous film, 2017’s Good Time. It was a very gritty, unflinchingly harsh story about New York criminals that wasn’t afraid to go in some very disturbing directions. It also was the film that finally convinced me that Robert Pattinson was a truly great actor worthy of recognition.

Hearing that they would be working with Adam Sandler on their next project made it sound extremely enticing. He’s always been an underrated actor who can really come alive when operating under the direction of some true auteurs, especially now that he’s gotten some major awards season buzz for it. And I can now confirm that not only does Sandler give an incredible performance here but the whole rest of the film is invigorating as well.

Much like their previous NYC-set film Good Time, this is not a film meant for the faint of heart at all. It’s a chaotic ride as we witness numerous reprehensible individuals fall down the rabbit hole of greed and money and the extreme lengths they go to get what they want. Part of what makes it so nerve-racking and harsh is that in nearly every scene, all of the actors are yelling over each other to try and get their points across and it can feel exhausting at times.

That being said, Uncut Gems does manage to offset some of that exhaustion by also sprinkling in some pitch black humor throughout. It mostly comes from perfectly timed or delivered (And colorfully profane) dialogue as well as the utter absurdity of various situations in the film. But thankfully, that absurdity never fully takes over the overall narrative in the film, and it becomes a deeply rattling theatrical experience that will stick with you for a long time.

And the rumors are indeed true: Adam Sandler has literally never been better than he is in this film, and its not close. As Howard Ratner, he gives life and personality to a man who’s essentially a scumbag with few, if any, redeeming qualities. It’s incredibly stressful as we watch him constantly make rash decisions that only contribute to his self-destruction, but his deceptive charm makes it still compelling.

Also, newcomer Julia Fox makes a huge impression as Julia, Howard’s materialistic employee and mistress. She’s extremely petty and heavily relishes in the expensive life that Howard gives her, ranging from a high-rise apartment to gorgeous jewelry. She also recognizes the trouble that he constantly gets himself into throughout the film and gets frustrated with his choices.

Kevin Garnett can now be added to the list of retired athletes who gives a surprisingly great performance. He’s able to find a darker side of his personality and uses it to a great advantage, always looking to win the next game no matter what it takes. He makes almost no attempt to hide his disgust for Howard’s methods and develops a uniquely personal connection with the opal; it makes me hope this isn’t his only film.

The supporting cast is rounded out by a capable troupe of character actors, many based in New York City. Idina Menzel as Howard’s fed-up wife, Judd Hirsch as his wealthy and religious father-in-law, Eric Bogosian as the brother-in-law mobster he owes the most money to, Lakeith Stanfield as one of his disgruntled assistants who grows an admiration for Garnett, and Mike Francesca as a local bookie and restaurant owner. All of them are unhinged and brilliantly directed in their individual roles; and that’s not even mentioning the various non-actors that appear as themselves.

And from a technical point-of-view, Uncut Gems shows the Safdie brothers further developing their cinematic style. Shot by Darius Khondji, the cinematography is presented via a grainy 35mm format that fits the gritty, grimy look of Manhattan they seem to thrive in. The camera is mostly done in a handheld, cinéma vérité not unlike their previous efforts that makes us feel like a fly on the wall. It also creates a unique color palette that helps to create an atmosphere.

Meanwhile, Bronstein and Benny Safdie also prove to be capable editors as they cut together a true banger with each scene. Considering how much the actors scream and yell over each other, there’s an impressive continuity between each shot. It also does a great back and forth between different locations for various scenes to establish a tension.

Daniel Lopatin, A.K.A. Oneohtrix Point Never, continues his collaboration with the Safdie to provide the instrumental film score. Just like his work in Good Time, it’s an absolute banger that leans heavily on electronic synthesizers and percussion. Several tracks are more ambient in nature to build the atmosphere of New York City as something almost otherworldly. Other times, the tracks are more bombastic and visceral to match the energy with which Howard is trying to hustle. The opening credits feature a psychadelic coloscopy that establishes the tone for the rest of the soundtrack.

Holding absolutely nothing back and never letting up from the first scene to the last, Uncut Gems is a relentless and brilliantly performed examination of truly depraved characters. Benny and Josh Safdie have crafted yet another exquisite portrait of a New York CIty so far removed from the glamorous view often seen in movies and aren’t afraid to explore how dark their characters can get. It also benefits from being anchored by a career-best performance from Adam Sandler that shows once and for all that he is a great actor when given the right material to work with.

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“Jojo Rabbit” Movie Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Top Ten Most Anticipated Movies of 2020

Welcome to the new year! Welcome to the new DECADE! As the last one passes on by, the next one comes in with an embarrassment of promising cinematic riches. Some of the films on this list have been on my radar for quite a while, others have only recently come to my attention. In any case, these are the 10 feature films that I’m most excited for coming out in the year 2020. I’d like to start off, however, by labeling some honorable mentions for other films that look pretty promising.

Honorable Mentions:

Artemis Fowl, The Way Back, West Side Story, The Prom, Free Guy, Saint Maud, Halloween Kills, The Eternals, Birds of Prey, Onward, Next Goal Wins, The Rhythm Section, The Trial of the Chicago 7, The Witches, Wonder Woman 1984, Black Widow

Now, let’s get on with it, shall we?

#10: “Soul” (Opens June 19th)

After a couple of long in-development sequels to beloved classics of theirs, Pixar is finally making the return to original filmmaking in 2020. Onward also looks interesting, but it’s Pete Docter’s newest film that has my attention the most. Early impressions seem to give off the feeling that this is yet another creative and heartfelt creation from the animation studio. The animation looks unsurprisingly vibrant and the integration of jazz music into the narrative has me giddy for whatever kind of personality it has in store- especially because Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross are handling the score. And given the recent shakeup in leadership at Disney’s animation branch, if Soul ends up being Docter’s swansong, it looks like a big way to go out.

#9: “The Gentlemen” (Opens January 24th)

Many filmmakers are able to sustain their careers by stretching out into different genres. Guy Ritchie isn’t really one of those directors, as his personal style never quite fit into a live-action Disney musical or a fantasy epic. However, his next movie The Gentlemen feels like a return to form for him, similar to Snatch and Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. With an all-star cast at his disposal, all of whom seem to be having the time of their lives, it looks like Ritchie has found his comfort zone again. Let’s hope it’ll be genuinely fun and not just two hours of him trying desperately to relive his glory days.

#8: “Mank” (TBA 2020)

David Fincher finally making another feature film is enough reason for me to become excited about the project. But hearing that it was written by his late father Jack makes it sound much more personal for him, even with the near-mythical subject matter. It promises to be a movie about screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, who fought with Orson Welles to attain a writing credit on the film Citizen Kane. Seeing talent like Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried, and Charles Dance among the cast members makes it seem like this could be a major awards contender for Netflix next fall. Fingers crossed Mank won’t get buried in their catalogue.

#7: “Last Night in Soho” (Opens September 25th)

After the success of Baby Driver, Edgar Wright could have done anything he wanted for is project. Rather than choosing something obvious or right up his alley, he’s doing a non-comedic horror movie with Anya Taylor-Joy, Matt Smith, and Thomasin McKenzie. The first image above teases something genuinely creepy and stylistic that he’s created alongside rising co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns. We still don’t know exactly the story might entail, but it sounds like it will be his rendition of psychological thrillers from the 1970’s. That alone is enough for me to be at least intrigued for whatever Wright and company have cooked up for next fall.

#6: “Cherry” (TBA 2020)

It’s always an exciting prospect when established blockbuster filmmakers move away to something smaller and more personal. Cherry sounds like such a prospect, as it finds the Russo Brothers reuniting with Tom Holland on a true-story drama that’s, unfortunately, only increased in its relevance. The tale of Nico Walker, a PTSD-ridden soldier who becomes addicted to opioids, is one that begs to be told. I’m eager to see how all parties involved can get a film made that doesn’t have to be defined by the constraints of a traditional Hollywood blockbuster like the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Although it technically doesn’t have a 2020 release date or distribution deal set just yet, I really hope the major studios will at least try to give it some attention when the time comes.

#5: “The Invisible Man” (Opens February 28th)

I’m still recovering from the spectacularly failed promise of the “Dark Universe” 3 years ago. It pretty much convinced me that none of the classic Universal Monsters could be properly adapted to the modern age. However, it looks like Leigh Whannell and Blumhouse have managed to find a new and relevant angle on The Invisible Man. It looks like it will be taking a MeToo approach, using the titular character as a way of relating society’s absurd reluctance to listen to women’s stories of abuse even though they can’t really see it. Add in Elizabeth Moss as the lead, and this looks like it could become a real word-of-mouth hit in February.

#4: “No Time to Die” (Opens April 8th)

The James Bond franchise has, by and large, been hit or miss for me over the years. Skyfall still remains my favorite one, and Daniel Craig’s version of the character has been remarkable, but there have been a number of stinkers every now and then. However, his 5th and supposedly last outing as 007 looks intriguing as hell. After a troubled early production history, No Time to Die looks like it’s on the right track based on what we’ve seen thus far. Cary Joji Fukunaga making the transition to big blockbuster filmmaking is incredibly interesting, especially when you consider how gorgeous the film looks visually. And of course, Rami Malek as the main villain sounds really exciting, and I can’t wait to see Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s writing come to light after a hyper-successful rise with Fleabag and Killing Eve.

#3: “In the Heights” (Opens June 26th)

Of the high-profile Broadway adaptations coming to theaters this year- the others being Everybody’s Talking About Jamie and Spielberg’s spin on West Side Story -it’s In the Heights I’m the most pumped for. I’ll admit to having only become a fan of Lin-Manuel Miranda in the past few years because of Hamilton, but his first musical is still a joy to listen to. The first trailer showcased exactly what I was hoping to see from the film, and seeing Anthony Ramos in a huge leading role, not to mention the whole ensemble surrounding him, makes me so pumped.

#2: “Tenet” (Opens July 17th)

Christopher Nolan might be one of the last filmmakers who’s able to let a major studio allow him to make a completely original blockbuster on a massive budget. And after finally getting an Oscar nod for Dunkirk, I knew that whatever he did next would be unique. And seeing him recruit John David Washington and Robert Pattinson for a huge action epic, alongside a wildly exciting crew, makes it sound amazing. As for what Tenet’s plot seems to be? Even after watching the glorious first trailer, I probably still won’t know what the film is actually about until I see in theaters. And I absolutely love that.

#1: “Dune” (Opens December 18th)

Denis Villeneuve was, unquestionably, the breakout director of the last decade. Blade Runner 2049 is one of the best films of all time, Prisoners is an underrated masterpiece, and Arrival is a modern sci-fi classic. So it’s only fitting that his newest project is an adaptation of one of the biggest and most influential science-fiction novels ever written. It feels almost like the type of film that he’s been building his whole career towards, especially with all of the support involved. He also has an enormously talented ensemble at his disposal, from Timothée Chalamet to Jason Momoa to Stellan Skarsgård bound to bring their all to the table. In short, Dune is shaping up to be a true sci-fi epic that could hopefully define cinema of the coming decade.

Do you agree with my picks? What movie are you most excited to see come out in 2020? I’d love to hear your thoughts in a Comment below. And for more awesome content like this, be sure to leave a like and Follow my Blog. Happy New Year, everyone!

“It’s a Wonderful Life” Movie Review

If you’re not in the mood for the sappy schmaltz of Hallmark movies or the action-heavy bravado of Die Hard, you can always look to the “Golden Age” for holiday favorites. This holiday romantic fantasy drama was originally released in theaters worldwide by RKO Pictures on December 20th, 1946. Despite being able to recoup its $3.18 million production budget, the film failed to break even due to stiff competition, and it wasn’t close. Many experts and historians attributed this as the start of the once-popular director’s decline in his favor with the major studios. Nowadays, it is considered to be one of the greatest films of all time. Directed by Frank Capra, the film was originally inspired by the short story “The Greatest Gift” by Philip Van Doren Stern. The studio initially set it up as a starring vehicle for Cary Grant with Dalton Trumbo writing the screenplay before all of their ideas were scrapped. Capra came in and did extensive (And apparently strenuous) work on the new script with Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich and auditioned several actors for all bu the main role. A few months after the release of the film, there was a memo sent out to the public by the FBI accusing the film of having Communist sympathies. Set in the fictional small town of Bedford Falls, Jimmy Stewart stars as George Bailey, a young man working as a building and loan banker. As the film goes along, we witness all the things in his life leading up to a series of particularly miserable decisions and bad luck. On Christmas Eve 1945, he becomes so depressed from his situation that he contemplates suicide, only to be saved by his guardian angel Clarence Odbody, played by Henry Travers. In an effort to show him how different life would be, Clarence takes George to a version of the world where he was never born and the consequences therein. I’ve made it clear in the past that Die Hard is my favorite Christmas movie of all time and I firmly stand by that. However, I also recognize that sometimes it’s nice to find something a little older and more family-friendly to watch over the holiday break. And although it could from household to household, more often than not, it comes down to this film and White Christmas. I had personally not seen this film for the better part of a decade, even though I distinctly remember loving it the first time. I finally got the chance to watch it again in the past few weeks, hoping that my older eyes would see it in a new light. And it’s with a brightened heart and a lifted spirit that I say It’s a Wonderful Life is still fabulous and even improves on repeat viewings. The central premise is a question we’ve all asked ourselves before; would the world be much different without me? This film paints Bedford Falls as a genuinely kind town and in the scenario without George Bailey around, it becomes a much darker and colder place called “Pottersville.” It does a fantastic job at showing how much the protagonist has made the lives of those around him better, even if he himself can’t realize it. Interestingly, something you may notice is that It’s a Wonderful Life doesn’t really get to Clarence or the alternate world until over an hour into the film. The whole movie leading up to that moment is spent with the voices in Heaven recounting George’s whole life story from childhood to present day. It not only helps further establish context for him and his loved ones but also creates a big emotional payoff for the iconic and heartwarming ending. Jimmy Stewart has built his whole career playing the likable American everyman, and I’m convinced that this might be his best work outside of Alfred Hitchcock’s films. As George Bailey, he’s immensely compassionate and is able think on his feet rather quickly when financial situations come up. Although he’s clearly happy to help his fellow neighbors, seeing him sacrificing his dreams of leaving Bedford Falls time and again shows his growing frustration of wanting to live a bigger life but never getting to. In direct contrast to him, Lionel Barrymore is extremely memorable as Mr. Henry F. Potter, the richest man in town. Although he doesn’t move much outside of his wheelchair, he’s successfully able to make both Bedford Falls citizens and audience members despise him as he only cares about buying and owning everything. He prides himself on manipulating various businesspeople on deals and loans for his own gain and only seems to get angrier and greedier as the film goes along. Henry Travers also delights as the guardian angel in training Clarence Odbody, one of the best side characters in cinema. Despite his cheerful and optimistic attitude, he’s determined to show George why his life truly matters and isn’t afraid to show the darkness. It’s almost like a learning experience for both him and us as we learn everything about this town and its people right alongside Clarence and the value of human decency. The supporting cast includes Donna Reed as George’s loving and quick-witted wife, Thomas Mitchell as his caring but dim-witted uncle Billy, Todd Karns as his innocent yet honest younger brother, H.B. Warner as a well-meaning but oft-drunk druggist, and Frank Albertson as George’s wealth but absent old friend. Each one plays an important part in the story of the main character and it’s clear they all are impacted by him. Even if George himself can’t see it, their lives are much better with him around and radiate a genuine warmth and neighborly presence in each scene. And from a technical point of view, It’s a Wonderful Life showcases Capra’s real brilliance behind the camera. Because of the difficulty of production, three cinematographers were credited: Joseph Biroc, Victor Milner, and Joseph Walker. Despite this, the black-and-white cinematography is still timelessly great, filled with long takes for dialogue-heavy scenes between all of the characters. There are a surprising amount of close-up shots used, either used to capture an actor’s internalized emotions or highlight important information on a document. Although a colorized version does exist, the black-and-white original makes the frame feel much more natural and the smooth movements make it seem almost like a fairytale. The editing job by William Hornbeck is equally excellent, being able to showcase everything with great precision and timing. As previously stated, there are several long takes throughout the film. But there are also numerous scenes where it cuts back and forth between different points of view to provide variety and tension, especially during arguments. A handful of times, the frame will freeze so that Clarence and his superiors in Heaven can fill in some blanks on lost time. It’s a brilliant way to keep the audience engaged without trying to hold their hand the whole way through. Dimitri Tiomkin, who previously worked on the director’s prior films, provides the instrumental film score for what would be their last effort together. It has all the sweeping greatness of many old-school Hollywood films, with a full orchestra and more. The main suite is a grand theme that mixes multiple different sounds and instruments together in a great manner. The mixture of strings and brass help create an emotional environment as George moves from one thing in his life to another. It also utilizes both subtle and overt choral moments that highlight the ethereal nature of the story. And best of all, it also knows when to let their be no music whatsoever, making it land much more effectively. A true cinematic classic if ever there was one, It’s a Wonderful Life is a beautiful and humanistic tribute to all the small moments in our lives. Arguably Frank Capra’s masterpiece, the film shows us how much of an impact we all have on the people immediately around us, even if we don’t fully realize it. Jimmy Stewart has quite possibly never been better than here and George Bailey is undoubtedly one of the best heroes in movie history. There is perhaps nothing more true to the “Christmas spirit” than for us to appreciate the time and space we share with our loved ones, and this film shows that wonderfully.

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“Highlander” Movie Review

After watching and reviewing a slew of critically acclaimed “classics” for My New Year’s resolution, I decided to have a bit of a change of pace. And I honestly couldn’t be prouder of the decision. This fantasy adventure film was originally released in U.S. theaters by 20th Century Fox on March 7th, 1986. It was eventually brought to theaters in the U.K. about 5 months later on August 29th of that year by the now-defunct EMI Films. Made for the budget of around $19 million, it failed to recuperate that with a final box office intake of just $12.9 million. It also didn’t help that critical reviews for the film at the time ranged from dismissive to outright panning it. Despite this, it later found some newfound success when it was released on home media, becoming something of a gem with a huge worldwide cult following. It also, for some reason, spawned a franchise that included four sequels, an animated film, and a T.V. spinoff. Directed by Russell Mulcahy, the screenplay was originally written while screenwriter Gregory Widen was an undergrad student at UCLA, and sold it for $200,000. The original concept was apparently much darker and more violent but was watered down after the studio brought Larry Ferguson and Peter Bellwood to rewrite several drafts. Filming was apparently a grueling process for all involved, particularly with getting locations figured out and the logistics of certain shots. Beginning in Scotland 1536, Christopher Lambert stars as Conor MacLeod, a warrior and patron of his family clan. After apparently dying on the field of battle, he discovers that he is one of a group of immortals that can only be killed by decapitation. Fast forward to 1985, Conor is living in New York City under the alias Russell Nash and learns that his lifelong enemy The Kurgan, played by Clancy Brown, has found him. Knowing that their confrontation could decide the fate of the universe, Conor remembers all his teachings and prepares for the final battle. If that premise alone doesn’t automatically scream the 1980s, then I honestly don’t know what does. It was a time when the industry, while heavily commercialized and influenced by the Reagan Era, still churned out original blockbusters at a steady rate. Even if all of the movies from that decade weren’t great or even good, it’s cool to see something so admittedly bonkers get bankrolled by a major studio at the time. This was one of those movies that I had always heard a weird response about, with just as many people proclaiming it a genre classic as there were those who denounced it completely. It had been in my Blu-Ray collection for many years, but now I finally had the chance to sit down and watch it myself. Make absolutely no mistake; Highlander is objectively a bad movie on several fronts, but I just couldn’t help but be totally entertained by it. In my personal experience, there are two different types of “guilty pleasure” movies to watch. There are the ones that are so atrocious that they’re hilariously fun to watch with a crowd, and then those that you love even with the full knowledge that it’s not good at all.  The 80s had plenty of both types, and I consider this film to be among the latter category. I also feel like Highlander is a movie that could only really have worked if it were made in this specific time frame. If they had made it today, (And apparently, there are efforts to try and reboot it) it would have taken everything way too seriously and tried to find some sort of thematic resonance. And while there is a glimpse of looking at immortals cursed to walk the Earth forever, it’s really the zany silliness that makes the movie what it is. Christopher Lambert is not a good actor and his performance as Conor MacLeod in this film is iconic in a different way. As stoic as a statue of William Wallace, he can either go too far into a scene or not far enough depending on the emotional requirements. It’s also arguable that no other actor could’ve portrayed him like this, especially with all of that luscious hair. In more positive notes, Clancy Brown seems to be having the time of his life playing The Kurgan in this film. The future voice actor for Mr. Krabs chews up how overtly villainous and contemptible his character is, covered in many scars and undesirable clothing. Aside from an epic voice and a litany of swear words, he also gets credit for uttering the film’s most iconic line, “There can be only one!” Sir Sean Connery is also noteworthy as Juan Sánchez Villa-Lobos Ramírez, Conor’s immortal mentor during his early days. The only one in the film with a convincing Scottish accent, it’s both perplexing and amusing trying to figure out what background his character is supposed to be. As he rides through the gorgeous hills with a flamboyant costume in tow, he espouses some observations on the values of love for men like them and just hams it up the best he can. Roxanne Hart, Beatie Edney, Alan North, Jon Polito, Sheila Gish, and Hugh Quarshie round out the relevant players in the supporting cast. There’s a decent variety of performance here, with some playing it straight and others going all-or-nothing. I wouldn’t put these actors up as the most memorable roles of the decade or even their careers, but for what it is, they do a fine job. Meanwhile, the technical aspects of Highlander are a mixed bag, ranging from good to jarring. The cinematography by Gerry Fisher bares a sort of sheen of plasticity found in many films from the era. Many colors are weirdly washed out, but come bursting out in bits and pieces such as Juan’s extravagant outfits. It often trades big, swooping landscape shots for many intimate medium or close-ups to try and bring it back to the characters. With only one exception relatively early on, most of the shots are consistent in style and quality as it moves from scene to scene. Speaking of which, the editing job by Peter Hoeness can be highly inconsistent. The transitions from scenes in the present day to 16th-century Scotland are pretty clever and subtle for the most part. But during the fight sequences, the cuts between multiple, drastically different shots is bizarre at best and incomprehensible at worst. A couple of battles even take place mostly in dark shadows as if to hide the stunt doubles, which is a shame because a number of them are decently choreographed. But the incorporation of practical sets and effects is mighty cool and at least feels like an attempt at authenticity. The soundtrack is noteworthy because it reeks of the 1980s in the best way possible. Immortal British rock band Queen write a handful of songs for the film, which eventually were composited into their album Kind of Magic. The two most notable songs they contributed are “Princes of the Universe” and “Who Wants to Live Forever.” Both feature the band’s typical, synth-heavy sound from the decade, while Freddie Mercury’s inimitable vocals fit perfectly for the grand scope of the adventure. Although the former song discuss the cosmic implications of the main story and characters, the latter is more of a somber love ballad for Conor’s doomed attempts at mortal romance. Iconic in ways both genuine and ironic, Highlander is a shamelessly cheesy adventure with entertaining yet unreached potential. Although it definitely leaves much to be desired and could easily find more meat with its premise, Russell Mulcahy and Gregory Widen still managed to create an original mythology that finds a great place in its crowded era. Christopher Lambert may not be able to act well, (Or at all, really) but Conor MacLeod is a hero worth rooting for who gets the chance to go head-to-head in a swordfight against Mr. Krabs. I mean, is there anything else you could possibly ask for?

“The Irishman” Movie Review

Let me just start this review by saying that this whole “Marvel isn’t cinema” debate is completely futile and overblown. People can love whatever they love or hate what they hate as long as they have legitimate reasons for it and as long as they don’t bemoan others for not feeling the same way. Now, let’s gladly and respectfully move onto this film. This epic crime drama premiered as the opening night selection for the 2019 New York Film Festival. Although the major chains refused to screen it, it received a limited theatrical release starting on November 1st, 2019, in which it reportedly made around $5 million against a production budget of $159 million. It was later dropped on the streaming service Netflix on November 27th to high anticipation from cinephiles. Directed by Martin Scorsese, the film, based on the book I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt, has been in development since at least 2007. The three main stars were always in mind for their respective parts, but it didn’t gain much traction until Steven Zaillian signed on as the screenwriter 8 years later. Originally set up at the director’s regular distributor Paramount Pictures, the film was subsequently dropped due to its climbing budget. When other studios proved to be hesitant, Netflix scooped it up for around $105 million and essentially blank-checked the entire project upfront. Allegedly based on a true story, (More on that later) Robert De Niro stars as Frank Sheeran, a World War II veteran and teamster or truck driver. After performing some crimes on the side to provide for his family, he becomes acquainted with and employed by Russell Bufalino, played by Joe Pesci, the head boss for the Northeastern Pennsylvania crime family. When the banks won’t give the Mafia loans to build casinos and hotels, they seek out help from Jimmy Hoffa, played by Al Pacino, president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters labor union. As Frank rises through the ranks and serves as muscle over the decades, he becomes torn between his loyalty to Jimmy and Russell as their relationship becomes severely tested. Martin Scorsese, for me, is one of the few directors whose name being attached is reason enough for excitement. I had heard talk of this particular film for years, and not many movies make it out of development hell. So hearing news that it was finally being made with the promised cast was almost like a dream come true for me and others. Hearing that it would be released on Netflix saddened me a little as I wouldn’t be able to see it in a theater. Nevertheless, I eagerly awaited the director’s return to the gangster genre after so many years. And I must say, The Irishman just about lives up to the tremendous hype and is a stellar addition both to the director’s canon and the streaming service’s output. If you sit down and watch this hoping to see another version of Goodfellas or Casino, you’ll be surprised by how slow and contemplative it is. It makes sense why it took so long to make because it’s more a film about older men wrestling with the violence and pain their line of work has brought to others. It’s nice to have someone who follows orders without question, but what happens when that person suddenly is confronted with its consequences? What if it’s too late for reconciliation? It should definitely be noted, however, that the real-life Frank Sheeran, who died shortly after the book was published, was likely full of it. Numerous experts and writers have discredited several of the film’s claims about history, particularly in relation to its approach with the infamous disappearance of Hoffa. But if you watch it more as a piece of historical fiction rather than a true-story drama, it’s very powerful and even surprisingly funny in parts. After a string of hit-or-miss roles, Robert De Niro delivers a powerhouse performance in his 9th collaboration with Scorsese. As Frank Sheeran, he has no problem dealing out violent crimes on behalf of his superiors and remains passionate about union efforts throughout the country. He’s a real man’s man, never allowing people to see his true emotions, and watching him internalize them all is very devastating as he comes to terms with his actions. In his first movie with the director, Al Pacino is almost just as amazing as Jimmy Hoffa, a brazen and foul-mouthed leader of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. Although he doesn’t fully appear until about an hour into the film, he creates a lasting impact with a dichotomous obsession with gaining more power and standing by his union members. It’s almost a Shakespearean tragedy because he’s a man who refuses to compromise his views or ambitions, even when threatened by multiple different parties. Joe Pesci arguably does the best job of the bunch as Russell Bufalino, the calm and calculating head of the Philadelphia crime syndicate. A far cry from his earlier, volatile roles, he has a certain wisdom and weathered experience that makes him a menacing figure in the criminal underworld. Pesci reportedly turned down the role 50 times before saying yes, and if this is truly his last film performance, he does it with such grace and thoughtfulness. The expansive supporting cast is an ensemble worthy of the director’s reputation. This includes Bobby Cannavale as a brutal enforcer for Russell and his organization, Ray Romano as his pragmatic attorney cousin, Jesse Plemons as Jimmy’s loyal foster son, Stephen Graham as one of Hoffa’s biggest union rivals, Harvey Keitel as an elderly Don acquainted with the main trio, Sebastian Maniscalco as the unpredictable hitman “Crazy Joe” Gallo, and Jack Huston as the relentless attorney general who tries to take down Hoffa and the mob. There’s also been much discussion on Peggy Sheeran, Frank’s daughter played by Anna Paquin and Lucy Gallina, respectively. She has very few lines of dialogue, with Paquin only speaking about 7 words total as an adult in the film. While some have criticized it for this, I would argue that it works really well because her silence says much more than anything she could put into a sentence. And just looking at the technical aspects, The Irishman shows that Scorsese’s still got it at the ripe old age of 77. Shot by his recent muse, Rodrigo Prieto, the cinematography is impressive as it moves from decade to decade. Many of Scorsese’s classic camera techniques are found throughout the film, including his penchant for swooping push-ins and careful tracking shots. This makes it feel like one of his older films in the best way, as we get to see every detail of each scene captured tremendously. There are also a couple of scenes told from the POV of a static wide shot, which makes sudden acts of violence both anticlimactic and shocking at the same time. As expected, Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing job is simply immaculate. Despite its mammoth runtime of 3 hours and 29 minutes, it moves along at an even clip thanks to her understanding of pacing. The film often cuts back and forth between different timelines to help create a context for the themes. Huge swaths of the film are just scenes of the characters sitting down and talking, and Schoonmaker cuts them in a way that makes it interesting to watch. This includes two pivotal phone calls between Frank and Hoffa early on and towards the end of the film as it moves between their two environments. And now we get to the much-discussed visual effect of digitally de-aging the central trio of actors. This was one of the primary reasons for it taking so long to develop and one aspect of the film I was somewhat worried about. However, unlike other recent examples of the technology, the work done here by Industrial Lights & Magic is pretty convincing. Although it takes a few minutes to get adjusted, and there is one shot in the first hour that remains a little jarring, you quickly fall into it as the actors really sell their behavior throughout the decades. In fact, it became a little hard for me to figure out what their “true age” looked like after a while. With a well-balanced tone that’s equal parts energy and melancholy, The Irishman is a fantastic and somber meditation on the cost of loyalty and a great swansong for its genre. Although not quite his best, Martin Scorsese still shows impressive maturity and wisdom in a passion project that feels like the natural culmination of his career’s work. De Niro, Pacino, and Pesci are all wonderful in some of their best work as we see them work towards their own self-enrichment until it’s far too late to realize the damage left behind. I don’t know if we’ll ever get another film like this again, but if this is the end of the road on gangster films for most of the people involved, it was a hell of a ride. Or to quote Russell Bufalino, “It’s what it is.”

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“Dolemite Is My Name” Movie Review

There’s something really inspiring about watching a bunch of goofballs genuinely trying to make something just for the fun of it. This biographical comedy-drama initially premiered at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival. After a brief theatrical run that last for 3 weeks, it landed on the streaming service Netflix on October 25th, 2019. It has thus far amassed some of the best reviews for a film this year so far, not to mention for Netflix films. Directed by Craig Brewer, the film had long been a major passion project for its star and producer. He had met with screenwriting duo Scott Alexander and Larry Karazewski as far back as 2003 and despite getting extensive details from the real-life subject himself, early versions never made it past the initial stage. It never really saw the light of day again until 2018, when Black Snake Moan and Hustle and Flow director Brewer signed on and found life once more. It’s the star’s first R-rated movie in 20 years, and even features a heartfelt tribute to his late older brother Charlie. Based on the true story, Eddie Murphy stars as Rudy Ray Moore, an African-American artist struggling to make ends’ meet. After scraping by as a local amateur singer and shake dancer, he comes up with the character of Dolemite, a vulgar pimp with rhymes and punchlines for days. When his comedy records featuring the character become successful, he becomes inspired to put Dolemite on the big screen in a film made and funded entirely by himself and his friends. Recruiting talent including respected actor D’Urville Martin as director, played by Wesley Snipes, Rudy and his crew set out to make what would become a defining film for the Blaxploitation genre. It’s been a good while since I was actually excited to see a film starring Eddie Murphy in the lead. The trailer made it seem like a role he had been dying to play for the longest time and hearing raves about it out of TIFF was even more encouraging. Seeing the massive talent he had managed to line up here also certainly didn’t hurt its chances with me. I’m also always a big sucker for movies that have to do with the business of filmmaking in some capacity. The fact that it’s based on a real person and the guerilla-like efforts they made to get their movie off the ground makes it even more fascinating. And thankfully, Dolemite Is My Name isn’t only a brilliant return for Eddie Murphy as an actor but the rest of the film itself is full of great actors and craft. From the very first frame until the last, it’s clear that this is a passion project for Murphy and all others involved. Although I’m not personally familiar with the movie Dolemite or the Blaxploitation genre as a whole, it’s hard not to appreciate the respect and reverence shown towards Rudy Ray Moore. He’s just a guy who wants to make art and share it with the world no matter what, and always wants to include as many people as possible in the experience. It also helps that Dolemite Is My Name is very funny, and not just from all the raunchiness of Rudy’s character. Seeing the whole crew trying to figure out how to make a movie as they go along is highly amusing because it’s clear they don’t know what they’re doing. That sort of naïve charm, much like Alexander and Karaszewski’s work Ed Wood, is perhaps the biggest emotional throughline of the whole picture. There’s been talk recently of Eddie Murphy making a comeback starting with this film; that rings true as we watch one of his best performances ever. As Rudy, he brings an infectiousness that’s hard to deny as he tries to make his way through the entertainment industry in any way possible. Murphy’s classic nonstop energy and boisterous personality are easily seen in the scenes where he acts out as Dolemite on stage or on-screen. But he also surprises with more quiet, reserved moments where he discusses his insecurities with his entourage of supporters. Wesley Snipes also makes a big impression as D’Urville Martin, an acclaimed actor and the director of the real-life film-within-a-film. His charisma and sense of humor shine through as he gradually realizes the inexperience of all his cast and crew members. While he seems elitist, he’s also very pragmatic and understanding about how the film industry works, especially for people of color. The supporting cast, meanwhile, features a treasure trove of great actors and artists both of current trends and yesteryear. This includes Keegan Michael-Key as the serious-minded playwright Rudy hires for the script, Craig Robinson as the golden-voiced singer behind the soundtrack, Snoop Dogg and Chris Rock as cynical radio hosts who want Rudy to succeed, Luell as his well-meaning and comedic aunt, and Titus Burgess as his flamboyant friend running a record store. Each player brings vibrant life to their characters and add something new and substantial to the table. But the real scene-stealer is newcomer Da’Vine Joy Randolph as Lady Reed, a single mother Rudy meets on his journey. Dramatic and comedic in equal measure, she proves a force to be reckoned with, even when she’s on-screen with the main star. She has a demeanor that changes from guarded to more open, confessing near the end of the film, “I’ve never seen nobody that looks like me up on that big screen.” I’m already excited for the long and successful career that she deserves. And from a technical point of view, Dolemite Is My Name has plenty to offer besides just excellent performances from the cast. Shot by Jason Reitman’s regular collaborator Eric Steelberg, the cinematography has a certain grainy tinge to it appropriate for the era. Overall, the movements and angles of the film are straightforward and unpretentious, going for a mix of static medium shots and short tracking ones. It still leaves plenty of room for the camera to capture the fantastic period costumes and gets a really excellent color palette across many frames. Billy Fox’s editing job also finds an amazing energy to match its main character as he moves all over. It knows exactly when to add a cut either for comic or dramatic effect, almost feeling like an old-school comedy that Murphy would’ve made back in his prime. It also lets some shots breathe as they draw out the awkward nature of the film they’re all making and wait for a proper punchline to come. It has a couple of montage sequences throughout, such as watching Rudy go from studio to studio trying to seel his movie and his crew putting the set together. This refusal to rush to an easy laugh is part of what makes it so funny and effective. With plenty of laughs to go along with its engaging story, Dolemite Is My Name is an invigorating and heartfelt tribute to an icon of underground cinema. Craig Brewer manages to find a dynamite groove to what should be a fairly straightforward and formulaic picture. And not only do we get arguably Eddie Murphy’s best performance of his career, but it introduces Da’Vine Joy Randolph as an absolute force to be reckoned with. It’s easily one of Netflix’s best offerings, and it may even inspire some to pick up a camera and make something with their friends.