Category Archives: Independent

“Mean Streets” Movie Review

With Todd Phillips’ Joker coming out this month, there is so much attention given to Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. I decided if we’re gonna talk about that film’s obvious influences from Scorsese, why not go back to his real roots? This crime drama was originally released in theaters by Warner Bros. Pictures on October 14th, 1973. Part of the reason it managed to see the light of day is because some of his fellow “Film School Brats” of the Hollywood New Wave helped him get it off the ground. When it finally did, it managed to gross over $3 million against a production budget of around $500,000, which was considerably low at the time. The film also managed to become extremely popular with critics and young NYC audiences when released, including a rare positive response from Pauline Kael. Co-written and directed by Martin Scorsese, the screenplay initially began as a continuation of characters from his debut feature Who’s That Knocking at My Door. The film is said to based on real events Scorsese witnessed regularly as child in the Little Italy neighborhood. The director almost made it in the style of a Blaxploitation film for Roger Corman before a connection got him in contact with producer Jonathan Taplin, who managed to secure studio funding. While it is his third directorial effort overall, it’s apparently the first one made completely of his own fingerprints. Set in a small New York City neighborhood, Harvey Keitel stars as Charlie Cappa, an Italian-American man and small-time hoodlum. He’s best friends with young gambler John “Johnny Boy” Civello, played by Robert De Niro, who’s swimming in debts to local loan sharks. Charlie is struggling to reconcile his deep Catholic beliefs with his aspirations to rise in the local mob run by his uncle Giovanni, played by Cesare Danova. However, as Johnny Boy’s behavior towards other street-level thugs becomes increasingly volatile, their chances of making it out alive get increasingly harder. This is not usually the film that people talk about whenever Martin Scorsese’s name comes up in conversation. It’s understandable why not, since it’s very early work and clearly lacking the finesse of some of his later films. But I still feel like it’s important to acknowledge where every artist gets their start, no matter how bumpy it is. Recently, almost all of the auteur’s early films appeared on Netflix, including Taxi Driver and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. I thought it would be a cool change of pace to steer clear of his more well-known pictures and choose something a little more hard edge for him. And Mean Streets proves to be a pretty good starting point for the director, even if it’s more amateurish than his later works. Scorsese’s career-long fascination with Italian-American crime is evident here in the look at all these small time hustlers. The mob itself isn’t captured in as much sprawling detail as it would be in the future with Goodfellas and Casino, but there’s a certain quality to it that makes it feel lived-in and real. Everyone in this neighborhood knows everyone and what they’ve done, and that doesn’t always bode well for the protagonists. Where Mean Streets falters a little is that it’s sometimes hard to care for the characters and what they’re all doing. There are numerous scenes where multiple people are talking over one another with lots of vulgarity, which helps give it a fly-on-the-wall feeling. But seeing this and watching them do reprehensible things for about 2 hours can get exhausting, especially because none of the characters really change by the end. Harvey Keitel has always been an underrated actor in my opinion, and his performance in this film is proof of that. As Charlie, he’s very conflicted about his choice of career as it contrasts heavily with his Catholic background. He does his best to keep cool but when pressured just enough, he explodes in a fury of anger that’s hard to look away from. And in the first on nine collaborations with the director, Robert De Niro is absolutely incredible as Johnny Boy, one of his most unpredictable characters. In every scene, he’s extremely volatile and fast-moving, practically refusing to stay in the same place for very long. There’s a tinge of melancholy to his character as he just gets himself into more and more trouble as the plot rolls along. These two characters are undoubtedly the main focus of the whole movie and rightly so. De Niro and Keitel’s chemistry is excellent and you really feel like these two have been friends for a long time. This duo is also flanked by a capable supporting cast of character actors, who fill various roles with lots of appropriate gusto. Chief among them are Richard Romanus as one particularly irked loan shark trying to collect his due, George Memmoli as a pool hall owner, Amy Robinson as Johnny’s cousin and Charlie’s secret girlfriend, and Cesare Danova as Charlie’s calculating and cautious uncle in the mob. Each one has something to lose to someone else and the film’s refusal to paint a black-and-white portrait of the characters is very engaging. And when it comes to the technical aspects, Mean Streets shows Scorsese’s distinct voice gradually developing. In his professional film, Kent L. Wakeford’s cinematography has a certain cinéma vérité quality to it. Nearly every scene is handheld and follows the characters through the grimy and ugly streets of New York. There’s also a beautiful use of the color red, as it often appears in a hazy dominance over several scenes. Whether it’s a birthday party for a drunken soldier or a simply night out at the bar, the color red is almost always there as if to foreshadow the bloodshed in this lifestyle. This just about works on par with Sidney Levin’s editing job, which cuts between each scene exhaustively. While lacking real precision, its intentions are still clear as it never tries to linger too long on violence or nudity to avoid being gratuitous. A couple moments also involve freeze frame, which gives leeway for Charlie’s narration of his thoughts. Although, there are a handful of moments where it’s hard to figure out who’s saying what, but that just adds to the immersion of this world. Mean Streets is a bumpy but solid start to a great auteur’s career. Although I’d never rank it alongside his best work, Martin Scorsese still manages to paint a unique picture of crime in an environment that seems familiar yet alien. With actors that would later become his own regular collaborators, it could certainly be argued that this served as the basic blueprint for his films to follow. It gets very rough around the edges and probably not worth watching more than twice, but if it helped lead to the director’s later masterpieces, than I am content with it.

“Citizen Kane” Movie Review

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

“The Farewell” Movie Review

In all seriousness, if this sort of thing happened in my family, I would completely understand it. To quote one of the character’s in this film, “You’ll just ruin her good mood.” This independent comedy-drama premiered as part of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Shortly after, A24 acquired the distribution rights for $7 million. It was theatrically released on July 12th, 2019, gradually expanding into more theaters in the following weeks. Produced for the budget of $3 million, the film has thus far managed to exceed expectations for the specialty box office, grossing over $17.8 million worldwide. It currently has the best per-screen average of any movie this year, even beating Avengers: Endgame. This comes in addition to highly positive reviews from critics and audiences, accumulating a perfect 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. Written and directed by Lulu Wang, the film is based on her own personal experiences with her family. She had spent years trying to make the film, but numerous financiers from both Hollywood and China rejected the idea unless she wrote in a part for a prominent white character. She eventually turned her story into an episode of the podcast This American Life, which immediately caught the attention of producer Chris Weitz. The director also turned down a large 7-figure distribution offer from a streaming service so that it could be seen in theaters. Awkwafina stars as Billi, a headstrong woman from New York who is a first-generation Chinese-American. She learns from her parents that her grandmother Nai Nai, played by Zhao Shuzhen, has terminal Stage IV lung cancer. However, the family deliberately manipulates her medical records and plans a wedding for Billi’s cousin as an excuse to see Nai Nai one last time without actually disclosing her illness to her. Although her parents are worried that she might tell the truth due to their close relationship, Billi joins the family in China and struggles between the world she grew up in and the world she was born in. I’ve been looking forward to this movie ever since the first reviews poured out of Sundance back in January. It sounded like an absolutely fascinating premise to me, especially since it was based on the writer-director’s own life. And I always love seeing Awkwafina onscreen and this seemed like a great role for her to branch out into. Hearing stories that this sort of thing is actually extremely common among Chinese and Chinese-American families made it seem even more intriguing. I was hopeful that it would highlight the distinct cultural differences between the East and the West while staying focused on character. And The Farewell exceeded my expectations, providing a remarkable showcase for both the lead actress and writer-director. It’s clear from the very first scene that this is a deeply personal film for Lulu Wang, as she channels her own experiences and anxieties so eloquently. We get to see Billi struggling to reconcile her relationship with her family with her own personal anguish of having to keep such a secret. In fact, there are a handful of scenes where she and various relatives argue about whether her being raised and educated in America was a good thing, as her cultural beliefs are clearly different from theirs. Part of what makes The Farewell such a unique crowdpleaser is its ability to balance these moments of tension and genuinely touching emotion with laugh-out-loud humor. Nai-Nai’s obliviousness to her own diagnosis creates some truly amusing irony, as is the family’s tough attempt to hide their emotions. All of this, plus the fact that over half of the dialogue is spoken in the Mandarin language, proves why this is one of the most well-written films of the year. Awkwafina has been on a role in the last two years, and with this film, she shows off her true range as an actress. As Billi, she is fiercely independent and proud, which puts her at odds with the more traditional nature of her extended family. The internal struggle to maintain the secret of her grandmother’s illness while also keeping their sacred bond intact is very poignant. Opposite her is Zhao Shuzhen as her grandmother Nai Nai, completely unaware of what her family’s actually doing in her home. One of the most respected actresses in China, it’s truly fascinating to see her go about her daily life without the knowledge of her diagnosis looming over. The scenes she shares with Billi are some of the best, as we get to see the deep connection between the two despite their cultural differences. Tzi Ma and Diane Lin also deserve to be mentioned as Billi’s mother and father, respectively. The cultural divide at the heart of the film is most evident in these characters, as they have fully adapted to American life but still hold to the traditions of their family. And unlike Billi, they internalize many of their emotions during their stay with Nai Nai, which takes a clear toll on their mental health. Lu Hong, Jiang Yongbo, Chen Han, Aoi Mizuhara, and Li Xiang round out the rest of the family here. Each is dealing with Nai Nai’s condition in their own way, some in more subtle ways than others. And from a pure filmmaking perspective, The Farewell shows Lulu Wang has a distinctive voice that needs to be heard. Anna Franquesa Solano’s cinematography is very deliberate and precise, with most scenes told from a static angle. The muted color palette is perfect for the morally gray nature of the story, although there are some gorgeous neon shots in the streets of Changchun, where the film was shot. Often, entire scenes play out in long takes from one position, providing the actors freedom to act in large space. Matthew Friedman and Michael Taylor’s editing job works quite nicely with this, creating enough cuts between shots to make things interesting. One powerful example is during a dinner scene when all of the family members are eating at the table and it cuts between different members arguing about what’s best for their children. There are also a handful of slow-motion shots peppered throughout, especially when a character is walking down the street. It’s almost as if these are moments meant for us  to slow down and contemplate what’s in their headspace. Alex Weston provides the instrumental film score, and it’s both a doozy and appropriately minimalist. While there are great sequences without any real music, most of the tracks consist of plucking low strings for dramatic or emotional effect. The tension created from this and the more melancholy strings reflects the tension and melancholy of keeping the secret. But a handful also incorporate the vocals of singer Mykal Kilgore. His angelic voice and perfect melody adds to the ominous shadow looming over this faux wedding. The soundtrack also includes a memorable cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Come Healing” done by Elayna Boynton. It plays near the end of the film, and fits so well with the themes of the story being told here. In fact, I dare say it’s the rare cover that’s actually better than the original. With assured direction, an amazing screenplay, and a great sense of authenticity, The Farewell is a hauntingly beautiful and personal account of cultural differences. Bringing her own experiences to the big screen in a universal way, Lulu Wang shows us a world too rarely seen in cinema. We’re also treated to what is easily Awkwafina’s best performance to date, and I will be shocked if she doesn’t get even more work in the future. Wang proved all of her naysayers wrong in the best way possible with this film, and it makes me so excited to see whatever else she has to offer cinema.

“Midsommar” Movie Review

I’ve made it clear for a long time that I have no desire whatsoever to join a small “commune” in the future. I don’t care how interesting their beliefs are or how beautiful the scenery is, count me out and keep the hell away. This psychological folk horror film premiered at an Alamo Drafthouse Cinema location in New York in mid-June. It was later released in theaters by A24 on July 3rd, 2019, after previously being scheduled for early August. It has thus far grossed nearly $34.9 million on a budget of around $10 million, swiping most of it within the first 5 days alone. With such a major start, it feels safe to assume that it will turn a large profit by the end of its theatrical run and could even become the distributor’s biggest financial success yet. Written and directed by Ari Aster, the producers originally approached him about doing a straightforward slasher film among Swedish cultists, which he rejected. Production on the film began almost immediately after the huge success of Aster’s breakout horror feature Hereditary, as distributor A24 reportedly built a 15-building village set from the ground up. He’s mentioned previously that making the film was his own way of attempting to cope with a really bad breakup. In addition, there’s also an extended director’s cut running 24 minutes longer which will likely play in select theaters. Florence Pugh and Jack Reynor star as Dani Ardor and Christian Hughes, a grad student couple whose relationship is hanging by a thread. A few months after a horrible tragedy involving her sister, Dani agrees to go with Christian and their friends on a backpacking trip to Sweden. Their friend and guide Pelle, played by Vilhelm Blomgren, takes them to his ancestral village, the Hårga, for a midsummer festival that only occurs once every 90 years. But as the ceremony goes on, the Hårga community ropes the group into an increasingly violent series of pagan cult traditions. As is the case for many cinephiles, Hereditary was easily the best horror movie I saw last year and one of my top 10 favorites of that year. Even though it was heavily divisive among audiences, I was blown away by its singular vision and willingness to go to some really dark places. Aside from a powerful, career-best performance from Toni Collette, it immediately announced Ari Aster as a new filmmaker with tons of potential to bring to the medium. When I heard he was tackling a pagan cult for his new project, I thought that his sensibilities were perfectly suited for the subject matter. And for the most part, Midsommar is able to avoid the sophomore slump and further develop Aster’s craft. Just like Hereditary, I understand that this film will not be digestible for everyone. In fact, I imagine that people who were turned off by that film’s bleak tone and imagery will dislike this one even more. The director is once again tackling grief, suffering, and how people process a tragedy differently, and he doesn’t shy away from the disturbing parts of it. I will say, Midsommar is definitely funnier than Hereditary, often stemming from the main group’s awe and unfamiliarity with the local customs. But this is, by no means, a comedy movie, as the film is more concerned with making the audience uncomfortable. It sometimes feels like it’s purely going for the shock factor from the visceral imagery on-screen and asking audiences to handle it for 2 hours and 27 minutes is a mighty task; but if you try to keep an open mind, it will certainly haunt your thoughts and dreams. Florence Pugh has been on the rise for the past coupe years now and her leading role here might be the big break she deserves. As Dani, she is devastating and frightening as a young woman trying to bottle up her trauma and anger for a trip with her friends. Opposite her for most of the film, Jack Reynor is equally great as her well-intentioned but distant boyfriend Christian. While he does care for Dani, it’s clear that he wants out of the relationship and we’re presented with consistent evidence of why they should just break up. Every time they’re together on-screen, there’s a certain coldness or feeling of discomfort between them that desperately needs to be resolved. Also worth noting is William Jackson Harper as Josh, a friend of theirs completing a thesis on midsummer festivals. A great departure from the good-hearted Chidi Anagonye on The Good Place, he is willing to do anything to get more info about the community, even if it means endangering his friends. Will Poulter, Ellora Torchia, and Archie Madekewe round out the group of tourists for the festival while Vilhelm Blomgren, Isabelle Grill, Björn Andrésen, Anna Åström, and Gunnel Fred play locals in the Hårga community. Each one feels like they have their own hidden motive or something that they’re not sharing about what’s going on. All the characters feel like something right out of an H.P. Lovecraft story, and I mean that in a good way. And technically speaking, Midsommar sees Ari Aster further honing his craft behind the camera. Unlike his work in Hereditary, Pawel Pogorzelski’s cinematography basks in the bright daylight of Sweden. There’s rarely a scene where the sun goes completely down, which makes some moments more disorienting and frightening. The camera is almost always following the characters as they experience their own horrors during the festival, and often feels like a cold, omniscient observer. Most of the time, whenever Dani and Christian are on-screen together, it’s in a distant two-shot to illustrate the deteriorating state of their relationship. It goes well with the editing by Jennifer Lame and Lucian Johnston, who are able to keep things interesting for the 2 hour and 27 minute-long runtime. The scenes are interlaced with each other well enough to make the plot go along, and the style behind it is so fascinating. It often feels hallucinogenic in its execution and how the community is shown to the travelers. There even a couple scenes where the group takes drugs and the frame is very distorted as we see their P.O.V. The instrumental film score is provided by The Haxan Cloak A.K.A. Bobby Krlic, in his first solo work as a composer. For his first time, it’s quite impressive and effective, mixing together different styles to great results. At first, it uses distorted strings and dark overtones to highlight the bad omens to come in the film. But by the end, the soundtrack has morphed into a twisted fairytale score that fully embraces the madness of the Hårga’s traditions. It uses those same strings to bring in everything shown in the film to a wild and emotional culmination. And it’s a definitely final shot to be remembered for quite some time. Utilizing a little known culture as an intriguing backdrop, Midsommar is a maddening if somewhat inconsistent symphony of daytime terror. If this film proves anything, it’s that Ari Aster is here to stay as a filmmaker who demands to be taken seriously. Anchored by a breakout performance from Florence Pugh, we’re fully and convincingly drawn into this unique fever dream.

Image result for midsommar poster

“Ready or Not” Movie Review

I can only imagine what this must be like for married or soon-to-be married couples watching it. Never too late to get a prenup, that’s all I’m saying. This darkly comedic horror-thriller originally premiered at the Fantasia International Film Festival. It was then released in theaters worldwide by Fox Searchlight nearly a month later on August 21st, 2019. It has managed to out-perform expectations, grossing over $43.6 million at the box office against a modest budget of $6 million. With showings at 2,118 screens, it’s the specialty studio’s widest release to date and could well turn into their highest-grossing title. It also has enjoyed great reviews from critics and audiences alike, including love from Stephen King and R.L. Stine. Directed by Matt Betinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillet, this marks their second narrative feature after Devil’s Due and contributing to the anthology horror film V/H/S. After years of making DIY shorts on YouTube wit their filmmaking collective Radio Silence, they were eventually approached by producer James Vanderbilt to potentially direct the film. The screenplay was written by Guy Busick and R. Christopher Murphy, although Gillet and Betinelli-Olpin also made some contributions to the final draft. Samara Weaving stars as Grace, a young woman about to marry her fiancée Alex Le Domas, played by Mark O’Brien. On their wedding night, she learns that before officially becoming a member of Alex’s extremely wealthy yet eccentric family, she has to play a randomly selected game with them as part of tradition. The chosen game is Hide and Seek and Grace has to stay hidden until dawn while the family members try to find her. However, she quickly learns that they intend to kill her before the end of sunrise for some sort of ritual, and soon begins fighting back against the Le Domas clan. This one took a little while to win me over, but once the marketing kicked into high gear, I was onboard. Although I haven’t seen any of Radio Silence’s shorts on YouTube yet, I do think it’s cool that Fox Searchlight is backing their first mainstream feature. The trailer made it look like their own fun little low to mid-budget horror thriller in the vein of Blumhouse Productions, which I am a big fan of. I’ve always been interested in horror or thriller movies that take place in a contained setting, like a huge mansion. And I was extremely interested to see how the relatively inexperienced Betinelli-Olpin and Gillet could take something like that for 95 minutes. And these two have such a bright future ahead because Ready or Not is loads of fun even for non-horror fans. With so many self-serious and straight-up trashy horror flicks in the market, it felt refreshing to see something take a tongue-in-cheek approach to the “Final Girl” trope. The story here totally subverts that by having that archetype against the family from the beginning as the tables start turning. She doesn’t take particular joy in trying to kill her would-be murderers, but she has what it takes to try and survive the night. Between all the blood-soaked and gory thrills, (This is a very violent film, by the way) Ready or Not manages to find comedy in the absurdity of it all. Most of the family members are using weapons from a bygone era, and they frequently stumble trying to learn how to use them properly. And there’s a certain Tarantino-esque exaggerated quality to the deaths, which makes the film even more fun. I’ve liked Samara Weaving as an actress for the past couple of years and this is the perfect breakout role for her. As Grace, her initial excitement for getting married turns into genuine terror for her own life in a pretty convincing manner. Although we don’t get much backstory or subtext for her character, she’s easy to root for in this truly bizarre scenario. Mark O’Brien is equally great as her husband Alex, who’s extremely hesitant to partake in the family’s tradition. He does his best to try and get Grace away from playing Hide and Seek and then tries to help her escape the mansion. The rest of the La Domas Clan is filled out by capable character actors, all game for their eccentric parts. These include Henry Czerny as the family’s well-meaning but intensely devoted patriarch, Andie MacDowell as the more welcoming mother, Nicky Guadgni as the cold and somber Aunt Helene, Melanie Scrofano as Alex’s clumsy drug-addicted sister, and John Ralston as the family’s loyal and violent butler. But the real standout in the film has to be Adam Brody as Daniel La Domas, Alex’s alcoholic older brother. Like, Alex, he despises the family’s traditions but his continued involvement has essentially broken him as a man. His pragmatic view of this ritual almost feels unsettlingly real and believable, which made every scene with him a treat. And from a technical perspective, Ready or Not showcases Radio Silence’s top-notch DIY skills behind the camera. Shot by Brett Jutkiewicz, the cinematography has a certain gritty nighttime aesthetic to it. Most of the film takes place within the La Domas family’s enormous mansion, and we often follow the characters running through the house and its secret passage ways. Since we don’t know the full layout of the house, it becomes tense whenever the camera is following the family members or Grace. This matches up well with the editing job by Terel Gibson, which keeps the pacing flowing quite nicely. While there’s a sufficient amount of bloody violence, the number of cuts and how they’re done helps ensure they aren’t gratuitous. Often times, it will include a humorous cutaway to relieve the tension, such as a scene where Emilie’s husband is learning how to use a crossbow juxtaposed with Grace climbing out the window right near him. There is an instrumental film score here provided by the highly prolific if inconsistent Brian Tyler. Many of the tracks are more or less the same, utilizing a mixture of strings and piano to create a melancholy atmosphere. Occasionally, it’ll up the ante by throwing in some percussion and synthesizers when something exciting happens. But for the most part, like many of Tyler’s other works, it’s not very memorable. The film also ends with the song “Love Tender” by Stereo Jane playing in the background during the glorious final shot. With a guitar intro mimicking the classic song played when the bride walks down the aisle, it’s the perfect way to end the chaos. It’s quite possibly one of the most underrated uses of a song in film in recent memory. Ready or Not is a uniquely satisfying thriller with a delightfully B-movie attitude. While it’s rough around the edges, Matt Betinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillet prove that they’re more than capable of handling a genre feature. I look forward to seeing whatever Radio Silence has cooked up next, and Samara Weaving is a star in the making.

Extra Large Movie Poster Image for Ready or Not (#1 of 3)

“Stuber” Movie Review

I’ve had a handful of memorable rideshare experiences, but I would probably die from a heart attack if half of everything in this movie happened to me. But I wouldn’t hesitate in the least to give my driver a massive tip for the memorability of it all. This action-comedy premiered as a rough cut at the 2019 South By Southwest Film Festival. The final complete version was later released in theaters by Disney under their new 20th Century Fox banner on July 12th, 2019. Made for the budget of around $16 million, it has grossed over $31.1 million at the box office and should be able to gross back more than its entire budget by the end of its theatrical run. In spite of this, the film has received mixed reviews from critics but general audiences have given it higher ratings. Directed by Michael Dowse, the script was originally written on spec by newcomer Tripper Clancy. Fox purchased the script in 2016 for around six figures and Game Night filmmaking duo John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein became attached as producers. Both of the male leads signed on to the project before a director was even announced, apparently enthused by the opportunity to work together. Because of the recent Disney-Fox merger, this is the first R-rated feature to be released by Disney since The Fifth Estate in 2013. Dave Bautista stars as Vic Manning, a grizzled, tough-as-nails LAPD detective hot on the trail of a ruthless drug lord named Tedjo who killed his partner. But because he recently underwent LAZIK surgery, he is unable to drive himself anywhere, so he gets set up with the app Uber. His driver is Stu, played by Kumail Nanjiani, a wimpy store clerk who’s unable to confront anything or anyone. Vic strong-arms Stu into driving him all around L.A. as they track down any leads that connect to Tedjo. Even though they aren’t in the directing chair, I loved what Francis Daley and Goldstein brought to Game Night. It was a genuinely funny and thrilling film that revived my faith in the studio comedy and I wanted to see what the duo had in store next. A small-scale odd-couple comedy starring Kumail Nanjiani and Dave Bautista honestly sounded like a match made in heaven. Even if this movie didn’t turn out to be great, I still feel the need to support it in theaters for the genre’s survival. I guess part of me was also worried if it was gonna be watered down after its rough-cut screening at South By Southwest. And while Stuber is certainly not without its flaws, it’s definitely a fun and laugh-out-loud ride for the summer. Like it or not, the mid-budget studio movie is slowly dying and that’s a real damn shame because it still has a lot to offer. Just look at The Nice Guys for proof, one of my personal favorite movies from 2016 but its lackluster box office performance more or less killed hopes for a sequel. With Stuber, the filmmakers take the classic mismatched duo approach and use it as a platform to explore toxic masculinity in 2019. It shows a balanced portrait of how Stu is too insecure and unconfident to stand up for himself while Vic has backward ideas of what it means to be “a real man.” It’s in moments like these where the humor and heart shine best, but the film often slides into old-school action movie cliches. Granted, many of them were self-referential and exciting but it just doesn’t really hold up to what the main duo are exploring internally. After watching this movie, I firmly support Kumail Nanjiani and Dave Bautista being on-screen together for the rest of time. The two could not be more mismatched, which only makes their interactions all the more hilarious; their differences and weaknesses bounce off of each other perfectly. You get to see glimpses of their undesirable personal lives, such as Vic’s neglecting his own daughter for police work and Stu working retail under a boss who’s constantly bullying him. Seeing them trying to handle crime scenes or suspects in drastically different manners makes them the perfect odd couple. The rest of the supporting cast doesn’t quite measure up to the two, although they do a decent job. There’s Natalie Morales as Vic’s estranged daughter trying to become an artist, Betty Gilpin as Stu’s best friend and one-sided love interest, Mira Sorvino as Vic’s hardline police captain, Jimmy Tatro as Stu’s profane and mean-spirited retail boss, and Karen Gillan as Vic’s white-eyed partner early in the film. Easily the biggest crime this movie commits is that it totally wastes Iko Uwais as the druglord Tedjo. As a huge fan of his work in The Raid: Redemption and a handful of other films, his skills as both an actor and a martial artist are seriously underutilized. The problem isn’t that he’s playing the main villain, but he has few lines of dialogue and only a couple of scenes that showcase his fighting prowess. And on the technical side of things, Stuber shows a certain understated nature and distinction among the comedy genre. The cinematography by Bobby Shore creates a slightly gritty aesthetic to the story, which works in contrast to the bright daylight of L.A. Although a decent chunk of the movie is told in Stu’s car, whenever they get out and about, the camera always follows them. It often switches between using handheld sequences and more steady angles, depending on the scene. It uses unique lighting to highlight the absurdity of various scenes, such as a shootout inside a veterinarian center. Jonathan Schwartz’s editing job manages to keep tension and comedic timing mostly consistent throughout the film. During the aforementioned vet shootout, there are numerous cuts as well as certain shots that are put in slow-motion for comedic effect. It could work harder to make the pacing better, as some scenes either feel too lightfooted or drag on too long. But given that the movie already runs at 93 minutes, I suppose they’ll have to do. Joseph Trapanese provides the instrumental film score, which is surprisingly memorable for the genre. Much like Game Night, much of the soundtrack is made up of synthesizers and electronic drums, although many of the tracks are warmer in tone here. Often times, they are used to highlight the melancholy truth behind Vic and Stu’s personal lives, mixing with guitars and violins. Other times, it’s more tense and exciting, particularly during moments where the investigation starts to pick up more or the characters get into a scuffle. It also uses the song “Come Sail Away” by Styx in an amusing and funny way. After Stu gets ridiculed by Vic early on for being too soft in his music choices, it comes back late in the film for a final chase sequence. And the way it’s incorporated into the scene makes the editing seem almost synchronized to it, which juxtaposes the darkly comic way the scene is proceeding. Stuber is an uneven but fun modern spin on the buddy action movie. While the script does leave a lot to be desired, it’s ultimately the chemistry between Dave Bautista and Kumail Nanjiani that makes this a breath of fresh air in the summer movie season. They, alone, make it worth watching for all of their bickering and misadventures. I genuinely wish there was much more interest from studios to make more understated fare like this to take a break from all the massive tentpoles that come out regularly. Because even though this film could’ve been a lot better, I definitely feel like it should be supported by the broader movie-going audience.

Image result for stuber movie poster

“Booksmart” Movie Review

On the one hand, I’m glad I’ve ended up where I am now because of my decisions in high school. On the other hand, this movie has made me think about what could have been if I had just let loose a little more. This coming-of-age comedy premiered at the 2019 South By Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas, to extremely ecstatic responses. It was later released in theaters (And on Netflix in France) by Annapurna Pictures on May 24th, 2019, conveniently near the end of the academic year for many people around the world. Although it has managed to gross nearly 4 times its $6 million budget, many industry publications said it had performed below expectations. The targeted demographics reportedly showed up in droves but it reportedly didn’t quite breakthrough into the mainstream. This film marks the feature directorial debut of actress Olivia Wilde, who had previously cut her teeth with a short film and two music videos. The original script, dating back to 2009 and written by 4 different women, has gone through many different variations and alterations, being brought to its final version by Susanna Fogel and Katie Silberman. While the production mostly stuck to the script, actors were encouraged to change any line of dialogue that they thought was inauthentic. In addition, the two main stars spent about 10 weeks as roommates in an L.A. apartment to build actual report with one another. Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein star as Amy Antsler and Molly Davidson, best friends and the top two students of their senior class. On the last day of school, they revel in the fact that they’re headed off to Ivy League universities in the fall. But they soon realize that all of the classmates who partied hard and did stupid pranks, whom they have constantly reprimanded, have also gotten into good colleges. Desperate to prove that they’re not just a pair of goody-too-shoes, they set off on a quest to cram 4 years of partying and fun into one increasingly ludicrous night. I just barely missed the premiere for this film in my hometown, but I had heard nothing but excellent things all the way up to its release. As a fan of Olivia Wilde’s work, I was excited to see what she could do with her first feature behind the camera. Especially when so many people were calling it the female version of Superbad, which I’m a personal fan of. Ever since the first trailer dropped, I’ve been anxiously waiting for the opportunity to see it in theaters. I was really optimistic that a female perspective could provide a fresh spin on the genre like Lady Bird in 2017. That optimism has paid off because Booksmart is easily one of the funniest and most intelligent movies I’ve seen in a while. Having now seen it, I feel like comparing this film to a female version of Superbad is a bit reductive. Whereas as that movie was more about a group of immature boys trying to lose their virginity before the end of high school, this film is concerned about feeling like the characters missed out on so much. I personally relate to the protagonists because they realize that all of their judgements and sole commitment to academic success made them push away many of their peers. Booksmart‘s biggest strength is that it gives this thoughtful insight while still managing to be hilarious at every turn. There’s a brilliant balance between the real and the absurd, and various scenes use this perfectly, such as a drug trip-turned stop-motion sequence that made me suffocate with laughter. Scenes like that and many more are what make me excited for Wilde and Silberman’s recently announced cinematic team-up happening soon. Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein have been deserving of lead roles for a long while, and this movie finally gives them the chance. As Amy and Molly, they are perfectly in sync with each other for every line of dialogue and action taken, their differences being just as important as their similarities. It’s clear that they both have big hopes for the future but because they are so far apart they’re scared of fully committing to these dreams- or letting each other know the full scope of it. They are joined together by a whole fleet of great actors, both fully grown and in high school like them. On the adult side, Jason Sudeikis and Jessica Williams are memorable as the main duo’s perverted principal and friendly teacher, respectively. Both have great timing and have completely different but equally funny interactions with Amy and Molly, showing different foils and levels of comfortable they feel around them. And while their classmates are portrayed by an array of talented young actors including Diana Silvers, Noah Gavin, and Molly Gordon, it’s surprisingly Billie Lourd who steals the show. The late Carrie Fisher’s daughter hasn’t really impressed me in the past, but here, as the mysterious rich kid Gigi, she’s perfection. She constantly pops up nearly everywhere the girls go, which creates some truly side-splitting moments. It’s also clear that she’s on drugs for most of her appearance, which only makes her performance so much more elevated and hilarious. Aside from the acting ensemble, Booksmart‘s distinct technical aspects show Wilde’s amazing talent behind the camera. Jason McCormick’s cinematography is extremely smart and calculated, using various shots to highlight little quirks in the character. Whether it’s capturing high school achievements in a bedroom or a slow-motion car ride, many characters are painted with just a couple shots. It also uses precise camera movements to focus on whatever’s meant to be the source of a scene’s humor or drama. The editing by Jamie Gross and Brent White is equally meticulous, knowing exactly when to cut to a different shot and when to linger. There’s one particularly impactful long-take near the end of the film where it hovers between the two protagonists during an intense argument. In contrast, some scenes are comedically amplified by constantly intercutting between different places. The most obvious example is the aforementioned stop-motion sequence, which quietly and beautifully transitions between shots. But, undoubtedly, the crown jewel of the entire film is a pool scene in the third act. Set to Perfume Genius’ “Slip Away,” it shows Amy trying to branch out to impress her love interest. Shot almost entirely underwater, the lighting and clever editing shows her navigating uncharted territory. This is punctuated by the cathartic anthem of Perfume Genius, as all of Amy’s pre-existing worries and fears suddenly slip away. It will likely go down as one of the most memorable scenes of the year. A promising feature debut, Booksmart is a splendid combination of sharp writing and believable performances. I’m genuinely interested to see whatever Olivia Wilde has planned for the future behind the camera, as she couldn’t have picked better material for her first outing. Give it some time, and I’m convinced this will become as much of a modern genre classic like Lady Bird and Eighth Grade. And please, pretty please, make Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein co-leads for many more movies in the years to come.

Image result for booksmart movie poster