Category Archives: Historical

“GoldenEye” Movie Review

Obviously, with 24 films in the bag already, I don’t have nearly enough time to review all of the James Bond movies in existence. But since No Time to Die is coming out in theaters soon, it seems only appropriate to go back and review a couple of Bond’s best.

This action spy film was originally released in theaters worldwide by MGM on November 17th, 1995, being released in the U.K. a week later. It managed to gross over $355 million at the global box office against a production budget of $60 million, far surpassing many of its predecessors without adjusting for inflation. This made it the highest-grossing film in the franchise since 1979’s Moonraker with Roger Moore. It also received some very positive reviews from critics and audiences, mainly for how it adapted to the modern world while remaining true to the past.

Directed by Martin Campbell, efforts to produce a new film were halted by legal and financial disputes within the studio, causing previous star Timothy Dalton to step down from the part. The end of the Cold War and subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union led to numerous rewrites with completely different drafts one after another. The film was the first in the long-running series to not be based on any of Ian Fleming’s novels and to not be solely shot on the 007 sound stage. It was also the last film in the franchise with the involvement of longtime producer Albert Broccoli, who passed the torch onto his daughter Barbara and son Michael G. Wilson.

Pierce Brosnan makes his debut as James Bond, an MI6 officer and veteran of the Cold War. While on assignment investigating the Janus crime syndicate in Russia, a mysterious EMP goes off in a scientific base in Siberia destroying fighter aircraft and knocking out satellite systems in orbit. His newly appointed superior M, played by Judy Dench, orders him to get to the bottom of it, soon discovering a larger techno-conspiracy at play. Facing his former partner Alec Trevelyan, played by Sean Bean, Bond races against time to figure out his plan and stop it before it can be enacted.

The James Bond franchise is one that has consistently fluctuated in quality throughout the years for me. For every great movie in the franchise like Skyfall or Casino Royale, there’s always been a few that are mediocre or just straight up bad like Moonraker. In fairness, it’s a challenge for a character that’s over 50 years old to stay relevant in an ever-changing world, which leads to mixed results with each installment.

As such, I was curious to rewatch this particular entry after so many years away from it to see if my opinion had swayed at all with the times. Part of me was worried that its 90s style and setting would have aged badly by this point, not to mention whether its treatment of the main character would still fly in the modern era. Thankfully, GoldenEye still proves to be one of the franchises better entries and just a fun action movie in general.

It’s interesting to note how Martin Campbell is actually responsible for revitalizing the Bond franchise twice, first here and later with Casino Royale. (Whose own review will be coming soon) And both times, he found a way to make the character of James Bond grow and modernize without losing his essence. The Soviet Union is long gone by this point, so what use is an old-fashioned secret agent like him to the rest of the world?

Furthermore, GoldenEye manages to acknowledge Bond’s long history of womanizing and points out that it’s really immature and unprofessional of him. The most telling moment is when M tells 007 “I think you’re a sexist, misogynist dinosaur. A relic of the Cold War, and whose boyish charms, though wasted on me, obviously appeal to that young woman I sent to evaluate you.” And although the film ultimately can’t resist giving him an attractive female lead, (Or two) it makes up for it in various other departments.

In his first outing with the iconic role, Pierce Brosnan proves more than capable of putting his own unique spin on James Bond. Although he is surprisingly soft-spoken, he knows exactly how to use both words and weapons to turn control of the situation over to his hands throughout the film. He has a very clear way of keeping his composure under stressful situation, but it becomes tested when his connection to the main conflict suddenly becomes personal.

Also making her franchise debut, Dame Judi Dench is nothing short of impressive as the new version of M, Bond’s superior at the MI6. She’s highly determined and intelligent who fully understand the gravity of her new position, but never passes up the opportunity to break out some wit. Although she’s initially skeptical of 007’s capability as an agent, she begins to develop a grudging respect for him even if she strongly disapproves of his seductive methods.

Sean Bean also shouldn’t be overlooked as Alec Trevelyan, the primary antagonist of the film. While Bond villains are very inconsistent in terms of quality or intrigue, Bean is able to avoid these pitfalls by creating a personal connection with our hero and really represents what he could have become if he hadn’t maintained his loyalty to the United Kingdom. His effortless charisma and confidence makes him pretty intimidating, especially as he seems to know all of Bond’s weak points.

Izabella Scorupco, Famke Jenssen, Gottfried John, Alan Cumming, Robbie Coltrane, and Desmond Llewelyn round out the cast of new and returning supporters. Some of them definitely standout more than others, (I honestly thought Cumming was miscast) but they all play key roles in the grand scheme of things. Everyone knows that they’re in a James Bond movie and have no problem hamming it up for the crowd if the moment comes for it.

And from a technical perspective, GoldenEye marked an evolution behind the camera for the long-running franchise. Phil Méheux’s cinematography looks shiny for the most part but also manages to capture so many cool moments on-screen. Chief among them is the opening sequences when James dives off the top of the Contra Dam and the camera follows down with him. It’s an amazing stunt that immediately sets itself apart from all the previous entries in the series. There are also numerous points throughout where it uses numerous angles and long-takes for certain scenes. And the lighting is almost immaculate all the way through.

This works mostly in tandem with the editing job by Terry Rawlings. Every scene is carefully cut together so that the action can remain exciting but still intelligible for audiences. One particular moment near the end where Cumming’s character keeps frantically pushing on a pen creates a lot of unique tension as it builds towards a literally explosive climax. It also manages to blend the visual effects with practical in-camera tricks really well to where it looks mostly seamless.

Luc Besson’s frequent collaborator Éric Serra provides the instrumental film score here and to be honest, it’s entirely forgettable. The composition very much is inspired by contemporary 90’s music with an attempt to mix traditional orchestral sounds with more electronic rhythms. Unfortunately, the combo really doesn’t work as well as it should, and it honestly feels more like an afterthought than anything else.

Pop superstar Tina Turner gives us an original song for the requisite opening credits sequence titled the same as the film. As far as Bond songs go, it’s fine but not particularly memorable. Turner’s incredible vocals are always a delight to the ears but the rest of the track still leaves a lot to be desired.

GoldenEye is a welcome reinvention of a very archaic character. Martin Campbell is able to wrangle together a capable cast and great crew members to successfully bring James Bond into a post-Cold War world that proves to be just as great, if not more so, than its predecessors. Pierce Brosnan is more than willing to carry the iconic role forward with all of the wit, charm, and sophistication that we’ve all come to expect from 007.

“To Catch a Thief” Movie Review

It was only very recently that I realized I hadn’t actually seen nearly as many Hitchcock movies as I thought. Thankfully, my New Year’s resolution presented an opportunity to help rectify that situation, at least a little bit.

This romantic caper thriller was released in theaters worldwide by Paramount Pictures on August 3rd, 1955. Made for the budget of $2.5 million, the film went on the gross about $4.5 million in U.S. rentals during its original release. However, its global total at the box office is believed to be closer to around $8.75 million, on par with the director’s previous films. Although the film received mixed reviews at the time of its release, it has since garnered a respected reputation among his extensive oeuvre.

Directed and produced by Alfred Hitchcock, the script by John Michael Hayes was adapted from the novel of the same name by David Dodge. The main star had attempted to retire two years prior out of anger for the House Un-American Activities Committee’s treatment of Charlie Chaplin. However, he ultimately returned to collaborate with the director and would go on to act for 11 more years afterward. It’s also Hitchcock’s only film with Paramount that the studio still owns the rights to, as the rest were sold back to him in the 1960s and put out through Universal Studios.

Cary Grant stars as John Robie, a retired cat burglar living a peaceful retirement in the French Riviera. While he enjoys a comfortable, reformed public image, a series of copycat thefts is committed against the small town’s wealthy tourists. The authorities immediately assume that Robie has gone back to his criminal ways, causing him to go on the run. With a limited amount of time, Robie sets out with young American tourist Frances Stevens, played by Grace Kelly, to catch the real crook and prove his innocence.

Obviously, Alfred Hitchcock is one of the most important and influential filmmakers in cinema history. He managed to completely change the way that films were made and presented, with a wholly unique style and clear vision of what he wants. North By Northwest and Vertigo rank among some of my favorite movies of all time, and even some of his lesser work like The Birds is extremely impressive for its time.

I had seen that this particular film, one of his more celebrated as I understand it, was finally available to stream through my resources. Hitchcock is far from a stranger to the caper genre and was curious to see what he and Cary Grant could make prior to their collaboration on North By Northwest. And while To Catch a Thief is certainly not the director’s finest work, it still manages to be a whole lot of fun that subverts expectations all these years later.

Obviously, when you’ve made so many iconic and groundbreaking films like Hitchcock, a few of them are bound to get lost somewhere by the wayside. This one certainly falls into that category, since it was made seemingly in between masterpieces as a sort of lightweight exercise for all involved. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing at all because there’s still plenty of entertainment value to be had here and reflects the kind of caper adventure that Hollywood has seemingly lost interest in making.

It’s also a testament to the quality and production of To Catch a Thief that it stilly manages to really grab your attention all these decades later. Whether it be the magical pull of Hitchcock’s direction, the irresistible cast, or a combination of both, it’s hard not to fall right into Robie’s misadventures and quest for innocence. That’s a sort of Old World optimism that, by today’s standards, actually seems rather quaint, and is an immortal part of its irrevocable charm.

Cary Grant was one of the biggest movie stars in Hollywood for a reason, and his third collaboration with the director is further proof of it. As John Robie, he’s his usually charismatic and debonair self, a career criminal who simply wants to hang up his hat and live the rest of his life in peace. While he acts completely in control of the situation towards the authorities and locals, it all turns out to be a façade as everyone he once considered his friends start turning on him.

In one of her final roles before her royal retirement, Grace Kelly shines as Frances Stevens, Robie’s young American accomplice on the run. Although she only appears initially as a pretty face with a lot to say, she actually turns out to be much more intelligent and resourceful than given credit for. Despite the apparent danger this bandit-on-the-run scenario presents, she seems willing to jump headlong into the excitement of such an adventure.

John Williams (Not to be confused with the legendary composer) also gives a memorable performance as H.H. Hughson, a local insurance man who acts as Robie’s handler. Unlike Robie, he’s an extremely pragmatic career man who understands the intricacies of a situation like this and is highly skeptical of his colleague’s innocence. When it comes down to it, though, Hughson comes through for Robie when almost everyone else in the Riviera immediately believes his guilt.

Jessie Royce Landis, Charles Venel, Brigitte Auber, and Jean Martinelli all turn in memorable supporting roles of varying importance. Each one of them fits perfectly into the classic roles of a caper film which have since become archetypes of the genre. They all prove to be formidable players with someone like Hitchcock and manage to find the right balancing act for each of their respective characters.

Meanwhile, from a purely technical perspective, To Catch a Thief shows Hitchcock has already mastered his craft. Shot by frequent collaborator Robert Burks, the cinematography is very bright and full of diverse compositions. This was the first of five films the director filmed using the VistaVision process, which helps to create a widescreen format that makes the adventure feel bigger in scale and scope. Many of Hitchcock’s trademarks are shown throughout the film, including unusual angles that signify a character’s mental or emotional state during the plot.

This matches up well with the editing job by George Tomasini, who go on to work with the director for 8 more feature films. The film consistently makes use of cross dissolves as transitions between scenes to make things feel somewhat dreamy. And while the film consists of many scenes of dialogue, Hitchcock and Tomasini are able to keep things interesting with consistent cuts that don’t interfere with what’s going on. One particular scene sees a highspeed car traveling dangerously on a cliffside road as Frances and Robie finally come to an understanding with each other. Even 65 years later, that sequence still makes my palms sweat from anxiety.

In one of his earliest jobs for Hollywood, Lyn Murray composes and conducts the instrumental film score here. It is a perfect encapsulation of movie music during this period because of how wide-ranging the whole soundtrack is. The primary theme is an excellent tune that mixes the tone of adventure and mystery, using a mixture of woodwinds and strings to its advantage. Later in the soundtrack, we get to hear unusual percussion such as xylophones and bass drums to illustrate the relatively fast-paced nature of the story. While it’s not the best score of Old Hollywood, it is one worth listening to after the credits roll.

The kind of adventure that rarely gets made these days, To Catch a Thief is a lightweight caper with fun performances and old-school tricks. Alfred Hitchcock may have been coasting on his acclaim here, but he’s still able to assemble one hell of a picture that shows the best of his tendencies. It also has the luck of being carried by both Cary Grant and Grace Kelly in their prime to boost this straightforward and unpretentious classic.

“The Last Thing He Wanted” Movie Review

It’s hard to think of another film in recent history that burns all of its promise so quickly within a span of two hours.

This political thriller premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival to an extremely tepid response. It was later released in extremely limited theaters and on the streaming service Netflix on February 21st of the same year. Despite being touted as one of the streamer’s prestige titles for the year, it arrived on the platform with little to no fanfare, likely because of its debut at Sundance. Since its release, it has received some of the worst reviews of any film in the new year, which many expressed disappointment over.

Directed by Dee Rees, the film is adapted from the novel of the same name by Joan Didion, one of her only works of fiction. The project was announced almost immediately after the success of her previous film Mudbound and was co-written with first-time writer Marco Villalobos. Although it was originally believed to have been ready in time to make the fall festival circuit in 2019, the excessive editing schedule forced Netflix to push it back to early this year.

Set in 1984, Anne Hathaway stars as Elena McMahon, a hardline journalist working for The Washington Post. She’s following a vast conspiracy where the Reagan administration is allegedly supplying weapons to fighters in Central America. While she covers the presidential race, her estranged father Richard, played by Willem Dafoe, gets on-set dementia. From there, Elena unintentionally inherits his position as a gun-runner for the U.S. government and becomes a pawn in the very story she was trying to break.

I absolutely adored Rees’ previous feature Mudbound, the first “Original” film from Netflix that I truly loved. It was a complex, richly satisfying drama about racial tensions in America that refused to give any easy answers to the questions it raised. From Rachel Morrison’s incredible cinematography to an Oscar-worthy performance from an unrecognizable Mary J. Blige, it showed that she was a talent to keep an eye on.

Hearing news that her next project would be a politically-charged thriller sounded like an unexpected but unique step forward. With a stacked cast of recognizable names and some sadly relevant subject matter, it seemed like the film would be a way for her to further realize her potential as a filmmaker. Unfortunately, and it pains me to say this, The Last Thing He Wanted is just as bad as people say it is and quite possibly Netflix’s worst film to date.

At first glance, it can be somewhat easy to tell why Dee Rees signed on to write and direct this film. The story attempts to tackle issues left over from the wreckage of the Reagan Era, specifically with American interventionism in foreign affairs and instigating illegal conflicts for both sides. But pretty soon, she loses a grip on the story as it becomes increasingly and needlessly confusing with all sorts of story threads that never come together. I don’t know if that’s the fault of her, her co-writer Marco Villalobos, or author Joan Didion for making the story like this in the first place.

Moreover, The Last Thing He Wanted feels like it was directed by two completely different people, as if Rees just gave up and someone else finished the job. It never finds a clear stance on what exactly it wants to say for its subject matter or how it wants to treat the Latin American characters. And it definitely doesn’t help to clear things up whenever shadowy American bureaucrats show up in every other scene in a feeble attempt to contextualize just what the hell’s going on.

Anne Hathaway is unquestionably a great actress, but here she just feels severely miscast in the lead role. Elena is tough as nails and extremely determined to get to the bottom of the truth but is clearly way in over her head and doesn’t have the faintest idea of who the real powers and players are. Hathaway is mostly believable with this character in the first half but soon loses sight of what angle to play at and feel more like a caricature than a fleshed-out human being.

By her side during most of her adventures is Rosie Perez as Alma Guerrero, Elena’s trusty and loyal photographer friend. Perhaps the only actor in the film who manages to rise to the occasion, she is far and away the only Latina character here with any sort of depth or layers. She seems to have a clear understanding of how grossly corrupt the system in this world is but still tries to look for an optimistic chance to do the right thing.

Hell, even the usually reliable Willem Dafoe feels lost and out of place in this movie. As Richard McMahon, Elena’s long-estranged father, he spends the majority of his screen time drunk out of his mind and confused about his life. There is an element of tragedy somewhere as his mind slowly withers away and regrets the only things he can remember with his daughter, but there’s so little context between the two of them that it’s hard to grasp on.

Ben Affleck, Edi Gathegi, Mel Rodriguez, Toby Jones, Carlos Leal, and Julian Gamble round out the supporting cast. Sadly, none of them are really able to elevate the material when needed or give their characters much life. Affleck’s character is by far given the most screen time, but even then there isn’t much character development or intrigue for his part; if anything, he makes the situation even more confusing.

And even from a technical standpoint, The Last Thing He Wanted shows Dee Rees struggling to find a complete and unique voice here. Shot by Bobby Bukowski, the cinematography has a certain grainy quality to reflect its period setting and uncertainty of the storyline. It’s often done on tripods or mounts to create an illusion of control that the characters seem to think they have. There are a handful of close-ups or push-ins throughout where it tries to represent the characters’ headspace. It also occasionally uses the split-screen technique when Elena is on the phone with someone, which happens quite often in the film.

But the editing job by Mako Kamitsuna is so choppy and poor that it completely breaks any tension or intrigue in the film. It almost feels like the film is missing half of its scenes because the film frequently reuses footage from earlier moments. This is meant to give extra context or explanation for what’s going on, but it only adds further to the confusion and messiness of the plot. And the in-continuity segments are strung together in such a dull and unappealing manner that it feels like they’re trying to hide how incomplete the whole thing feels.

When it’s all said and done, The Last Thing He Wanted is an utter trainwreck of a thriller that wastes its timely potential. Despite her best efforts, Dee Rees is unable to wrangle this Joan Didion book into a cohesive feature film. Its fascinating premise and subject matter aside, this is a woefully miscast and highly miscalculated film that barely finds a moment of genuine intrigue or entertainment.

I know that with the whole world in full lock-down mode right now, it’s tempting to watch any sort of content that Netflix has to offer. But pushing through this slog of a movie when there are hundreds of other, far better options to choose from is literally the last thing any of us want.

Ben Affleck, Willem Dafoe, Rosie Perez, and Anne Hathaway in The Last Thing He Wanted (2020)

 

Final 2020 Oscar Predictions

It’s that time of year again, folks. The 92nd Academy Awards are nigh upon us, and much sooner than usually expected. Unlike last year, the lead up to the ceremony itself has been relatively quiet, save for the occasionally befuddling snub or surprise. And just like the last two years, I have managed to watch the majority of the big nominees and contenders and have decided to put down my own predictions for who I think will or should win. In addition, I’ll be including films or artists who I felt should have been recognized but were ultimately left out of the bunch.

And no matter what you think of the nominees or the ones that were snubbed, we’ll all find out the results when the ceremony airs on ABC this Sunday, February 9th.

Best Picture

Will Win: 1917

Could Win: Parasite

Should Win: Parasite

Should Have Been Nominated: The Lighthouse

 

Best Director

Will Win: Sam Mendes for 1917

Could Win: Bong Joon-ho for Parasite

Should Win: Bong Joon-ho for Parasite

Should Have Been Nominated: Greta Gerwig for Little Women

 

Best Actor

Will Win: Joaquin Phoenix in Joker

Could Win: Adam Driver in Marriage Story

Should Win: Adam Driver in Marriage Story

Should Have Been Nominated: Robert Pattinson in The Lighthouse

 

Best Actress

Will Win: Renée Zellweger in Judy

Could Win: Scarlett Johannsson in Marriage Story

Should Win: Scarlett Johannsson in Marriage Story

Should Have Been Nominated: Awkwafina from The Farewell, Lupita Nyong’o from Us

 

Best Supporting Actor

Will Win: Brad Pitt in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Could Win: Joe Pesci in The Irishman

Should Win: Brad Pitt in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Should Have Been Nominated: Song Kang-ho in Parasite

 

Best Supporting Actress

Will Win: Laura Dern in Marriage Story

Could Win: Florence Pugh in Little Women

Should Win: Laura Dern in Marriage Story

Should Have Been Nominated: Jennifer Lopez in Hustlers

 

Best Original Screenplay

Will Win: Parasite

Could Win: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Should Win: Knives Out

Should Have Been Nominated: Booksmart

 

Best Adapted Screenplay

Will Win: Little Women

Could Win: Jojo Rabbit

Should Win: Little Women

Should Have Been Nominated: Just Mercy

 

Best Animated Film

Will Win: Toy Story 4

Could Win: Klaus

Should Win: I Lost My Body

Should Have Been Nominated: Weathering With You

 

Best International Feature Film

Will Win: Parasite (South Korea)

Could Win: Pain and Glory (Spain)

Should Win: Parasite (South Korea)

Should Have Been Nominated: Portrait of a Lady on Fire (France)

 

Best Documentary- Feature

Will Win: American Factory

Could Win: For Sama

Should Win: For Sama

Should Have Been Nominated: Apollo 11

 

Best Documentary- Short Subject

Will Win: Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl)

Could Win: Life Overtakes Me

Should Win: In the Absence

Should Have Been Nominated: Birders

 

Best Live-Action Short

Will Win: Brotherhood

Could Win: The Neighbor’s Window

Should Win: Brotherhood

Should Have Been Nominated: Anima

 

Best Animated Short

Will Win: Hair Love

Could Win: Kitbull

Should Win: Hair Love

Should Have Been Nominated: Best Friend

 

Best Original Score

Will Win: Joker by Hildur Guðnadóttir

Could Win: 1917 by Thomas Newman

Should Win: Joker by Hildur Guðnadóttir

Should Have Been Nominated: Us by Michael Abels

 

Best Original Song

Will Win: “Into the Unknown” from Frozen II

Could Win: “Stand Up” from Harriet

Should Win: “Into the Unknown” from Frozen II

Should Have Been Nominated: “Glasgow (No Place Like Home)” from Wild Rose

 

Best Visual Effects

Will Win: The Irishman

Could Win: 1917

Should Win: The Irishman

Should Have Been Nominated: Ad Astra

 

Best Cinematography

Will Win: 1917

Could Win: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Should Win: 1917

Should Have Been Nominated: A Hidden Life

 

Best Costume Design

Will Win: Little Women

Could Win: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Should Win: Little Women

Should Have Been Nominated: Dolemite Is My Name

 

Best Makeup and Hairstyle

Will Win: Bombshell

Could Win: Judy

Should Win: Joker

Should Have Been Nominated: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

 

Best Production Design

Will Win: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Could Win: 1917

Should Win: Parasite

Should Have Been Nominated: The Lighthouse

 

Best Film Editing

Will Win: The Irishman

Could Win: Ford v Ferrari

Should Win: Parasite

Should Have Been Nominated: Rocketman

 

Best Sound Mixing

Will Win: 1917

Could Win: Ford v Ferrari

Should Win: Ford v Ferrari

Should Have Been Nominated: Alita: Battle Angel

 

Best Sound Editing

Will Win: 1917

Could Win: Ford v Ferrari

Should Win: 1917

Should Have Been Nominated: Alita: Battle Angel

 

Do you have any thoughts or predictions of your own? Which films do you think will, could, or should take home the prize in each category? What are some that you felt were snubbed by the Oscars? I’d love to hear your thoughts in a Comment below, and if you like what you see here, be sure to Like this post and Follow my blog for more movie-heavy stuff.

“1917” Movie Review

Imagine crawling through No Man’s Land with just one companion by your side. No living person in this era could ever even comprehend having to do so, let alone see it up close. But now, as VR blurs the lines between reality and fiction ever so gradually, this film has come along to put us face first in the filth of it all. Now, this is what a call a “cinematic experience.”

This period war thriller was given a limited, awards-qualifying theatrical release by Universal Pictures on Christmas Day, 2019. It was then released to a much wider audience two weeks later on January 10th, 2020. After doing exceptionally well in specialty theaters originally, it has since gone on to gross over $147.5 million at the worldwide box office. Against a production budget of around $90 million, this could put it in position as one of the highest grossing films of its genre if it continues its streak. It also helps that it has been given some of the best critical reviews of the year and numerous accolades and nominations, including for 10 Academy Awards.

Directed by Sam Mendes, the film marks his feature screenwriting debut alongside co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns. The duo had previously attempted to get two other projects off the ground before Amblin Partners and Steven Spielberg gave the script the greenlight. The story was inspired in part by memories told to him by his grandfather, Lance Corporal Alfred P. Mendes. During filming, conservationists expressed concern for the trenches and sets being built, a warning signs had to be posted to hikers that any bodies they saw were just mannequins.

Set on April 5th of its titular year, George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman star as William Schofield and Thomas Blake, two British Lance Corporals in France during World War I. The Germans have just made a tactical withdrawal from the Western Front and are planning to ambush an impending British attack the next morning. Blake and Schofield are assigned by the General to carry a message beyond the Hindenburg Line that would stop the attack and save the lives of over 1,600 men, including Blake’s older brother. With time running out, the two soldiers hasten to deliver the message and stop their forces from sustaining heavy casualties.

Overall, I like Sam Mendes as a director. He has a great style that’s really slick, realistic, and in-control of everything that’s happening on-screen. He directed Skyfall, which is my personal favorite James Bond movie, and I also was impressed by his smaller-scale drama Revolutionary Road. Hearing news that he would be returning behind the camera for a huge film like this felt almost like an event.

The fact that he would be covering a movie about World War I was already enough to gain my attention, as there are relatively few films about the conflict. Seeing all of the incredible hype and buzz it was getting left and right in the industry, not to mention crashing the Oscar race last-minute, made me even more excited. But that still didn’t prepare me because 1917 exceeded my expectations and is easily one of the best war films of the last decade.

Contrary to what some people may tell you, the main stylistic choice of this film- presenting the whole story as if it were a single continuous shot -isn’t just a showy gimmick. Yes, it’s very stylish and attention–grabbing, but it only serves a way to drive the story forward, spend time with the two main protagonists. We’re with Blake and Schofield every step of the way as the traverse the mud and blood left behind by men they’re hesitant to even call the enemy.

It’s also a big testament to the film that 1917 never once even thinks about glorifying the conflict that they’re in. World War I was an utterly pointless conflict where millions of people died over petty aristocratic squabbles, and the film shows the immense cost that comes with. The characters are witnesses and party to many horrendous things in the trenches, but as long as the army advances forward the higher ups see it as an absolute victory. By keep the focus on just two small soldiers, the real perspective hammers home; there’s not much time for big heroics but even minor acts of courage count.

George MacKay has been building his repertoir over the last few years and he finally gets a real breakout here. As Schofield, he’s fairly quiet and unassuming, prefering to keep his head down than answer directly the big call. Going on this huge trek forces him to confront anxieties he’s been running away from, including long-repressed feelings about potentially going home and being given a medal for something he says as arbitrary.

Opposite him for almost the entire journey, Dean-Charles Chapman is excellent as Blake, the defacto leader of the duo. He’s much more chatty than Schofield, often reminiscing on stories from home or camp to lighten the mood. The enormity of the mission at hand is never lost on him, desperate to see his older brother again but not foolhardy enough to dive headlong into a worthless firefight with the Germans.

These two men have wonderful chemistry together and are the primary reason why the film works. Refusing to cast world-famous stars in the lead roles is a stroke of genius so that the audience can find more relatability in their struggle. We learn just enough about their personal backgrounds over the course of the film to become invested and believe the reliability they have on each other, even if they’re not best friends.

They’re both flanked by respected thespians in small roles and cameos throughout. These include Colin Firth as the General who gives their mission in the first place, Andrew Scott as a drunken and cynical Lieutenant providing their equipment, Benedict Cumberbatch as the stubborn Colonel wishing to push forward no matter what, and Claire Duburq as a lonely French woman hiding out in the ruins of a village. None of these actors stay on-screen for very long, but they each provide a different perspective on the war and its purpose- or lack thereof.

And just looking at the technical aspects, 1917 is an absolutely stunning landmark in big-budget filmmaking. The inimitable Roger Deakins provides the cinematography and it’s some of his best work yet. The aforementioned single-shot look is breathtaking to say the least and always has a fluid motion throughout the whole movie. The realistic colors and gorgeous natural lighting help to create a strong atmosphere of a country that has been torn asunder many times over. It roves over many impressive sets, never once losing focus and makes us feel like observers.

This works perfectly in sync with the editing job by Lee Smith, who helps to make the whole thing seamless. With one very brief exception about halfway through the film, every take looks perfectly stitched together from the first frame to the last. The occasional CGI structure or enterting of interiors is the closest I can tell to when the takes end and start. How Smith managed to make a transition from a window into a fiery village during the nighttime look seamless is beyond me.

With a long career trailing him, Thomas Newman reunites with Mendes to provide perhaps his finest score ever put to film. Much like Hans Zimmer’s work on Dunkirk, it avoids the sweeping orchestral notes of typical war films and instead builds many tracks as a never-ending crescendo. The soundtrack mixes traditional instruments with some light electronics to create a unique sound that’s hard to shake.

One track, in particular, is more mystifying than the rest, as it uses light strings and glockenspiel to illustrate a mysterious environment. Another one near the end is a 6-minute epic as the tension builds towards a massive payoff on-screen. Although they both sound vastly different, they each encapsulate exactly the film is about. The immediacy of the score somehow matches that of what’s happening in the film, and that alone is enough.

With brilliant performances, unforgettable set pieces, and a stylistic choice that actually serves the story, 1917 is an astonishing and fully immersive achievement of modern cinema. Sam Mendes completely tops himself by delivering easily one of the best films about World War I ever made. With the help of Krysty Wilson-Cairns, Roger Deakins, and a willing ensemble of capable actors, he manages to craft a thrilling piece of film that celebrates the small acts of courage while condemning the machinations of war.

Whether or not you agree with its presentation, it’s almost impossible to shake this one off after the credits roll. It’s the rare kind of event film that just demands to be seen on the big screen rather than at home, which further catapults its impact.

Image result for 1917 poster

“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” Movie Review

For the time being, I want to do nothing but find the casting director for this movie and shake their hand. Avy Kaufman, if you’re somehow reading this review right now, thank you for this pitch perfect casting choice. I hope that you have a long and storied career ahead of you.

This touching biographical drama premiered at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival. It was later released in theaters worldwide by Sony and TriStar Pictures on November 22nd, 2019. Made for the budget of around $25 million, it has thus far grossed over $61.2 million at the worldwide box office. This means it will most likely break even for the studio, but doesn’t really meet their expectations. Despite this, it has garnered incredible reviews from critics and huge adoration from audiences the world over.

Directed by Marielle Heller, the film had originally been developed by screenwriters Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster under the original title You Are My Friend. The script had originally appeared on the 2013 Black List, which compiles the best unproduced screenplays in Hollywood. One of the main stars had long thought to be untouchable, until a happenstance connection between him and the director allowed it to happen. During production, sound mixer James Emswiller sadly suffered a heart attack on set and died shortly afterwards.

Set in 1998, Matthew Rhys stars as Lloyd Vogel, an extremely cynical journalist working for Esquire Magazine. Tired of his abrasive behavior towards co-workers and subjects, his boss assigns him a new piece to write about “heroes.” Much to his chagrin, the primary subject of the story turns out to be popular children’s T.V. host Fred Rogers, played by Tom Hanks. Although it seems like a straightforward interview at first, these two men come to change each other’s lives in ways they could have never expected.

Last year, we got the sorely needed and underseen documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? from Morgan Neville. Even though I hadn’t really grown up watching Mister Roger’s Neighborhood as a child, watching that documentary deepened my respect for the man and made me see why he’s still relevant today. Why the Academy completely overlooked it in consideration that year is beyond my comprehension.

When I read that Tom Hanks would be playing the man in a biographical movie, my heart almost melted at the near-perfect casting. I had also been really impressed with Marielle Heller’s work in Can You Ever Forgive Me? last year and was eager to see the two collaborate together on this project. And as it turns out, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is just as whimsical and emotional as you might expect it to be.

Contrary to what the marketing may have told you, this is not an actual straightforward biopic of Mister Fred Rogers. Rather, it wisely makes Lloyd Vogel the main protagonist so that it becomes more like a parable on a time when adults and children alike the world over have become so cynical about life. It utilizes Mister Rogers as a way for Lloyd to reckon with the mistakes he’s made in the past, including disowning his absentee father, and for audiences to learn his lessons in an organic way.

Thankfully, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood stops just short of putting the beloved man on a pedestal as a true saint. He also has his own worries and frustrations, but he always tries to find a way to channel that negativity into something genuinely helpful to other people around him. This allows the film to be rather mature and flexible in the scope of its themes and makes it standout much more than your typical historical film.

After a healthy run on The Americans, Matthew Rhys gets to shine as the lead actor to excellent results. As Lloyd Vogel, he is deeply jaded with life and puts his own personal bitterness and dissatisfaction onto everyone around him, including his loved ones. He gradually becomes more sympathetic as the film goes along as he starts seriously considering the advice he’s been given.

Although he’s relegated to a supporting role, Tom Hanks is absolutely perfect as Mister Fred Rogers. Soft-spoken, jovial, and filled with enormous energy, he fits right into the comfy shoes of the iconic star without missing a beat. He wants to spread love and positivity wherever he goes, including the public subway or a small restaurant, and always thinks about the needs of those he cares about.

Chris Cooper is also extremely impressive as Jerry, Lloyd’s estranged father who wants to make amends. Although he’s very brash and abrasive initially, it soon becomes clear that he deeply regrets abandoning his children and cheating on his wife years prior. He spends a large portion of the film begging Lloyd for forgiveness, even though he believes he doesn’t deserve it, and tries to cherish the limited time he has left with his newborn grandson.

Susan Kelchi Watson, Maryann Plunkett, Enrico Colantoni, Tammy Blanchard, and Christine Lahti round out the stellar supporting cast here. All of them are connected to Lloyd and Fred’s struggles in some way or another and try to find a way to change themselves for the better. None of them act showy in any scene, which helps bring an even bigger sense of emotional realism to the film.

And from a technical point of view, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood shows Heller sidestepping artistic flourishes for something straightforward. Shot by Jody Lee Pipes, the cinematography is largely unpretentious as it keeps things focused on all of the subjects throughout the story. The contrast in color and exposure is also worth mentioning, as the WQED studio for Mister Roger’s Neighborhood is full of vibrant colors while the outside world is largely cold in its palette.

It works well with Anne McCabe’s editing, which is also largely devoid of pretension. The whole film is framed by Hanks as Rogers making an episode of his show explaining Lloyd’s struggles to the viewer, and then it transitions into the proper moment of the story. There’s even a dream sequence when many of Lloyd’s loved ones take on persona’s of different characters on the show. It’s a brilliant way of acquainting us with the world without fully getting invested in nostalgia. The film also knows when to keep the frame still and leave out sound when necessary.

The most noteworthy example of this is in the third act, when Fred takes Lloyd out f to a restaurant and asks him to take a minute “to think of all the people who loved us into being.” The camera only remains on the two men while all other sound and the rest of the world drown out. It’s a truly great moment of cinema, and one where it almost feels like Mister Rogers is asking the audience to do the same. And if the silent, sniffling reaction from the people in my theater is any indication, it worked.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a wise, deeply felt movie about having empathy in a harsh world. With humble direction and maturity, Marielle Heller brings to life one of the kindest humans to ever grace the Earth without exploiting his legacy in the slightest. Bolstered by some of the best casting choices in the last few years, this film is sure to bring even the most hardened of viewers to being misty-eyed.

Although I still prefer the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, it’s hard denying that we need to listen to the man’s words and lessons today. To quote Mister Rogers himself, “Sometimes, we have to ask for help, and that’s okay.”

“Little Women” Movie Review

Every now and then, a movie comes along that’s truly great but also warm and comforting like a blanket. Last year, we had Paddington 2 and now in 2019, we have this film. And what a lovely time, it is indeed.

This historical romantic comedy-drama was released in theaters worldwide by Columbia Pictures on December 25th, 2019. Made for the budget of around $40 million, it has gone on to gross over $132.3 million at the box office thus far. It exceeded expectations on its Christmas Day debut and has performed extremely well in various specialty theaters since then. It’s also garnered some of the best reviews of the year and numerous accolades, despite coming in the last stretch.

Written and directed by Greta Gerwig, the studio had been planning a new version of the story for some time. If I’m not mistaken, this is the 8th (Yes, eighth) live-action adaptation of the novel of the same name by Louisa May Alcott. Sarah Polley had originally been onboard as the writer and director of the project but her own version never made it beyond the initial stages. Gerwig subsequently came on to rewrite the script and, after producer Amy Pascal was highly impressed with her debut Lady Bird, was offered the chance to make the adaptation wholesale.

Set in 1860s Massachusetts, the film focuses on the March sisters, 4 girls coming of age during and immediately after the Civil War. Jo, Amy, Beth, and Meg- played by Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, and Emma Watson, respectively -each have their own dreams and aspirations as the world around them changes. The story bounces back and forth between the four of them as young women living together and seven years later when they’ve moved away. As they go about their own personal journeys with friends and family, including Timothée Chalamet as Jo’s longtime love interest Theodore “Laurie” Laurence, they all try to find a sense of agency in a changing world.

Without question, Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, released back in 2017, was one of the finest directorial debuts of the past decade. It was told with such an incredible degree of specificity and honesty that it felt like a genuine piece of history brought to life. And furthermore, it proved that the actress and writer was just as capable of being a brilliant force behind the camera.

Although I have never read Louisa May Alcott’s eponymous novel, I did get to watch Gillian Armstrong’s adaptation starring Winona Ryder and Christian Bale recently. It was a delightful little film but I had high hopes for Gerwig’s version that she might add a sense of modernity to the story. And I’m happy to report that the newest incarnation of Little Women is an utter delight with an incredible cast and approach.

Just like Lady Bird, the really beautiful thing about this movie is that it feels like these characters have a history that goes beyond what’s simply on-screen. From the minute we meet them, it seems as if the March sisters have already lived full lives and could continue living long after the credits start to role. This particular film only covers a 7-year snapshot of their lives and it’s riveting to watch a pivotal moment for their emotional maturation.

Another thing that sets Little Women apart from all the other adaptations before it is that it feels incredibly vibrant and modern without being totally anachronistic. All of the period-accurate dialogue is still there, but the way the characters all talk over each other in multiple scenes makes it feel extremely natural and lived-in. It’s clear from beginning to end that Greta Gerwig is deeply fond of this story and its characters and makes them her own.

Gerwig also continues to be adept at mining great performances out of big casts. The March sisters are all played by Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Emma Watson, and Eliza Scanlen, and it’s hard to imagine anyone else in their respective roles. All four of them have excellent chemistry with one another, never passing up an opportunity to poke fun but are always there to lift each other up when needed.

Ronan, in particular, gives yet another excellent lead performance as Jo March, the group’s unofficial leader. She wants to reject the social and economic constraints put on women during her time period, instead aspiring to become a great storyteller. Her free-spirited energy and adventurous attitude make Jo an immensely captivating protagonist to root for as she sincerely tries to prove everyone wrong.

Florence Pugh, meanwhile, continues her cinematic hot streak of 2019 to give her best work yet as Amy, the youngest of the March sisters. Previously, the character had been annoying and unlikable, but Pugh avoids this by giving her shades of melancholy and regret for past mistakes. She gives a great speech about how marriage is more of “an economic proposition” than an act of genuine affection, which is what she desires.

The supporting cast is rounded out by a treasure trove of great actors in roles large and small. This includes Laura Dern as the March sisters’ stern but caring mother, Timothée Chalamet as Jo’s childhood sweetheart, Tracey Letts as the editor for a newspaper who doesn’t understand Jo’s stories, Chris Cooper as the wealthy but kindhearted father of Laurie, Louis Garrel as a German professor with a penchant for romance, and Meryl Streep as the high-strung, matriarchal aunt of the March family. Each one of them avoid the stuffiness of historical films by reaching into unique personality traits and running with them.

Meanwhile, from a pure filmmaking perspective, Little Women shows Greta Gerwig gaining an even stronger grip on her cinematic voice. Yorick Le Saux’s cinematography uses many different techniques that breathe life into the story. Among them is how distinguishes the two main timelines by having sequences in the past have a warmer, brighter tint to the frame. The camera constantly follows the main characters around and accounts for all of their movements. The use of 35mm film helps capture the beauty of the sets and costumes, and even a couple scenes have high framerates to accommodate the pace of the action.

This matches up well with the editing job by Nick Houy, who’s able to find a brilliant balance between different tones and moments in time. The back-and-forth structure is a bit daunting at first, but it soon flows extremely well as scene after scene compliment each other without losing its energy. The constant cutting between characters in various scenes also helps to create a sense of negative space both between them physically and emotionally. Even relatively simple scenes, like Jo and Laurie dancing on a back porch during a ball, are elevated because of the momentum.

The incredibly versatile Alexandre Desplat compose and conducts the instrumental film score here. Just like the rest of the film, it’s vibrant and charming in the best ways possible. The primary theme uses rapid, staccato strings in a major key that help to highlight the spritely tone of the story. This dynamic is present in other tracks, along with some light piano work and and even some soft woodwinds. It often times keeps the same tune going for when it transitions between timelines or locations so the tone matches the melody. It’s a score that fits the period setting well enough but still feels brand new in many ways.

Building on everything she established with debut and finding new avenues in the process, Little Women is a fantastically jovial adventure with timely commentary on female agency. Despite being one of the most adapted books in American literature, Greta Gerwig is somehow able to breathe new life and air into a staid genre, and cements herself as one of the cinematic greats of her time. She’s also helped along the way by an excellent cast and crew who share her wonderous vision.

It really speaks to Gerwig’s power as a storyteller and a director that she’s able to make Alcott’s classic story about powerlessness and choice feel so fresh and amazing. Just give her an Academy Award for Best Director already, dammit.

“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.

Image result for uncut gems poster

“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.”

Image result for jojo rabbit poster

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!