Category Archives: Music

“Phantom Thread” Movie Review

A feature-length advertisement for joining (Or not joining, depending on your interpretation) the fashion industry. That’s what this is essentially. The latest historical romantic drama from writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson saw a sneaky limited release in the United States on Christmas Day of 2017. It has received largely positive critical response, but has yet to recoup its $35 million budget at the box office, a common problem for Anderson’s films. Though many assumed that it was coming in too late to qualify for awards season, the film surprised the industry when it gained nominations for 6 Academy Awards. According to the director, the idea for the story came to him while he was incredibly sick in bed and became convinced his wife was trying to poison him. It’s also gained even more press in the last few months because Daniel Day-Lewis announced his retirement from acting and this would be his last performance. Set in post-World War II London circa the 1950’s, the story follows Reynolds Woodcock, played by Day-Lewis, an obsessive fashion designer for members of high society. Along with his sister Cyril, played by Lesley Manville, he spends all his time crafting beautiful haute couture dresses while managing his controlling personality. Then, he meets a young waitress named Alma, played by Vicky Krieps, whom he instantly falls in love with. Over the course of the next few months, their toxic relationship oscillates between hatred, forgiveness, distance, and passion. Okay, let’s make this clear from the get-go: Phantom Thread is an arthouse film through and through. That niche genre already has its own built-in audience that love challenging, “serious” cinema. They will be called “pretentious” by fans of more mainstream fare, who in turn will be accused of just wanting mindless consumption. Like it or not, that’s the situation and we have to deal with it. As a fan of some of Paul Thomas Anderson’s previous works, especially There Will Be Blood, I tried to approach his newest picture objectively. And while I’m pretty sure that I didn’t “get” it all, there’s still some elements of the movie that I do appreciate. Among the strongest elements is the surprising dose of dark humor present. One of the prevailing problems in some of PTA’s past films is that he spends so much time building an intricate, introspective plot that the rest of the movie suffocates in its emotion. Make no mistake, this film doesn’t have much room too breathe (Although it is noticeably shorter than PTA’s previous epics) and could leave a lot of audiences feeling cold. But this is the first time I think I’ve ever laughed out loud during one of his films, with the main trio dolling out wry wit in several instances. Sometimes, it was caused by a random outburst by the artist himself, others it was someone delivering a line of dialogue in an understated manner. Daniel Day-Lewis has given us many transcendent performances over his career and while his turn as Reynolds Woodcock isn’t his best, it’s clear to see why he chose it as his last. He plays an artist who takes his work extremely seriously, and his obsession with it fractures his relationship with everyone else around him. He’s a man who likes to have certain things in his life in exact spots like a chess board and loses it when something gets out of line. Vicky Krieps, meanwhile, does fine work as Alma. A lot of people will probably take issue with the fact that she stays with Reynolds even though he constantly either ignores or verbally abuses her. But I (At least try to) see her as a strong woman who is tired of being invisible to everyone in the world. The best performer, though, is Lesley Manville as the Woodcock sister Cyril. Aside from Alma, she is the only one to be able to get through to Reynolds and actually holds the power in all of her relationships. She is a force to be reckoned with, but she is still very fond of Alma and even sympathizes with her. From a pure filmmaking perspective, Paul Thomas Anderson sings his own voice with this film. Without his regular collaborator Robert Elswitt, he essentially served as his own cinematographer but denies credit for it. Shot on actual celluloid, the film expertly captures 1950’s London with a grainy precision. Many scenes consist of lingering still shots that rarely move around, somehow creating the feeling of a classic film production. There’s even cross-dissolves for various scenes. The grainy effect brings out saturation in the beautiful costumes by Mark Bridges. Each dress and outfit, whether worn by the characters or put in just for show, looked as though a tailor as obsessive as Reynolds himself made them in real life. Former Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood returns to score his 4th film with PTA, which drives home the classical feeling. The soundtrack largely consists of seemingly neverending piano melodies, adding a near-seductive quality to the film. In some instances, Greenwood stretches his muscles as a multi-instrumentalist for ambient percussion and harsh strings. While this would normally be a relaxing composition, it actually gives a dark and surreal feeling to what is otherwise a mundane story. Most of the time, though, the score is relegated to the background in order for this to be more of a “performance-driven” film. How you react to the film as a whole and interpret its themes depends almost entirely on your capacity for patience. It has a deliberately slow pace and virtually none of the characters have any arc changes or even redeeming qualities. Phantom Thread is a showy exercise in art and acting. Overall, I didn’t particularly care for this movie and certainly isn’t one I will be clamoring to watch again immediately. But I do appreciate some of the things that Paul Thomas Anderson was trying to say here. Daniel Day-Lewis is one of the most brilliant actors ever to grace us, and seeing him retire is an end to an era.


“Annihilation” Movie Review

I almost don’t know what to say. I just… I… Words are escaping me now. Well, I guess structural integrity is the way to go. Here goes nothing. This trippy science-fiction horror marks the second directorial effort of Alex Garland, following his massively acclaimed debut Ex Machina in 2015. Produced on a budget of around $40 million, the film has thus far earned back over $11 million following its stateside release on February 23rd, 2018. I suspect that a large portion of its profit will come from the United States, as international audiences won’t get to see it in a conventional manner. That’s something that I’ll explain more on in a little bit. Though it’s adapted from the first part in a literary trilogy, Alex Garland has said that he approached the source material as its own story, which he took from and morphed freely. Based on the novel of the same name by Jeff VanderMeer, Natalie Portman stars as Lena, a cellular biologist hired by a mysterious program called the Southern Reach. Following her thought-to-be deceased husband Kane’s sudden reappearance, she learns of a quarantined zone called The Shimmer that has been cut off from the rest of civilization. She then agrees to go out into the Shimmer with four other female experts and hopes to find new evidence of what happened to Kane and just what the heck is going on here. I loved Ex Machina, Garland’s debut feature. In an age where we’re practically surrounded by rip-offs and reboots and sequels that decades late, the screenwriter behind 28 Days Later and Sunshine created an original breath of fresh sci-fi that leaned more on speculative ideas than spectacle. And in anticipation for his new release, I read the VanderMeer novel, and can tell you two things. First, it’s one of the weirdest and boldest stories in recent fiction. Second, the film adaptation took massive liberties with the source material yet found ways to make its ideas still profound and complex. Hands down, either Annihilation will be the best movie I’ll see this year or 2018 is going to be an incredible year for cinema. It’s sad, however, that not everyone in the world will get to experience it in a traditional sense. Apparently, an executive from Paramount Pictures demanded that changes be made both to the ending and the main character, sighting it as “too intellectual” or “too complicated” for a wide audience. In response, producer Scott Rudin, who retains rights to the final cut, took Garland’s side and refused any notes or changes. As a result, while folks in the U.S. and China will get to see it in theaters, international audiences will have a chance to watch it 17 days later… premiering on Netflix. While I’m not necessarily opposed to Netflix picking up distribution rights for a film, this decision makes me really upset. No matter how large you 4K television is and even if you can watch it on the go, nothing will compare to sitting down in a dark theater and soaking it all in. The lengthy discourse I had with a handful of strangers after it finished is proof enough. Over the last few years, Natalie Portman has consistently proven to be one of my favorite actresses working today. Her performance here is a truly versatile one, bouncing between traumatized and tough-as-nails with ease. A damaged soul, some may find her character to be unlikable, but it’s honestly refreshing to watch a sci-fi movie where the female lead isn’t just a damsel in distress or a love interest. And she’s surrounded by Jennifer Jason-Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, and Tuva Novotny as her teammates. You get a glimpse of each of their individual personalities and every decision they made in the Shimmer was intelligent and reasonable. Oscar Isaac also does great work as Kane, subverting the traditional idea of a traumatized soldier. He initially gives a very wooden performance, but the reasons for it become clear later on. Meanwhile, on a technical scale, this film is nothing short of astounding. The visual effects inside of The Shimmer are something to behold, rarely have on-screen visuals been so simultaneously beautiful yet also terrifying. I won’t actually describe any of them for you so that you can be as surprised as I was watching it. But Garland managed to pull off a number of creature designs from the book I thought would have been impossible to visualize. The lush green landscapes and unique animals can be noticeably CGI, but the fantastic production design and ethereal lighting make it all the more pleasant to look at. Meanwhile, the cinematography by Rob Hardy feels like something straight out of a John Carpenter film. Wonderful, steady wideshots of both the Southern Reach outpost and the landscapes inside The Shimmer feel lucid and almost dreamlike. The widescreen format and excellent lighting allows for an intense, immersive atmosphere that feels so lacking in other horror films. Composers Ban Salisbury and Geoff Barrow both provide the musical score, which perfectly fits the surreal tone of the film. In some of the more mundane scenes, it just consists of an acoustic guitar getting plucked with some accompanying percussion. But during some of the more fantastical moments, it shifts into an ambient mix of synthesizers and suppressed strings. Interestingly, this dichotomy works perfectly to explore the duality of the characters’ situation and bring out a genuine reaction from the audience. The last 15 minutes of the movie are almost dialogue-free, save for that powerful music. As a result, my jaw just dropped. However, I can appreciate that this movie is not for everyone. Like the novel, this movie is like a modern-day H.P. Lovecraft story. For those unfamiliar, H.P. Lovecraft was one of the fathers of horror fiction, creating the myth of Cthulu. In all of his stories, as well as ones that imitated them, the main theme involved ordinary characters trying (And failing) to make sense of the impossible. If you’re unable to accept that from the beginning, then you’ll just be left behind. For those with the fortitude to wait it out and really soak it all in, Annihilation is a stunning, psychedelic piece of science-fiction cinema. Whether you love it or hate it, this is a movie that is going to stick with you long after the credits start rolling. Luckily for people like me, that’s a feeling that I cherish these days with the current studio system.

“The Post” Movie Review

Alright, so the sole reason I have yet to give my readers a definitive Best of the Year list is that there was just one more movie that I wanted to catch in theaters before Oscar season came to a close. And I’m glad that I’ve held it off thus far. This historical drama from legendary director Steven Spielberg was released in a wide amount of theaters on January 12th, 2018. But thanks to the sneaky practice of a limited release back in late December, the 20th Century Fox production was able to qualify for Academy Award consideration. Having already earned back its $50 million budget, the original screenplay by Liz Hannah was a part of the 2016 Black List. Realizing the potential for timely commentary, Spielberg and Co. scrambled to get this movie made as soon as possible. According to the director, the time between when he first read the script and finished the post-production was a hasty 9 months. Based on the true story, Kay Graham, played by Meryl Streep, is struggling to retain ownership of her family’s newspaper The Washington Post. In 1971, it’s discovered that a classified document called The Pentagon Papers contains 7,000 pages worth detailing how the U.S. government had systematically lied to the public about the Vietnam War over the course of 4 presidencies. The New York Times is the first one to scoop up the story, but the administration of Richard Nixon levies an injunction against them and makes it clear to the rest of the press that publishing any more pages would be equivalent to treason. Seeing this as an unconstitutional attack, Graham is persuaded by her editor-in-chief Ben Bradlee, played by Tom Hanks, to run the story and see her newspaper grow into a national institution. Honestly, it’s not that hard at all to get me excited about a new movie from Steven Spielberg. Doesn’t matter if it’s great or crap, if Spielberg’s name is attached to it I’ll always be there to support him. Plus, this has the always-added benefit of two of the best actors working today in the lead roles. Throw in some not-too-distant history as the backdrop, and we already have a recipe for classic Oscar Bait. Sure, there are some inaccuracies abound for the sake of the story, but is The Post entertaining? You bet your flat bottom it is. Do I really need to explain how great Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep are in this movie? It seems like a redundant statement, but they’re both genuinely great in their roles. But this is clearly Graham’s story, as we see how disrespectfully men on the company board treat her. At one point she states, “This is not my father’s company. It’s not my husband’s company. This is my company, and anyone who thinks otherwise, I feel, is not fit to be on the board.” Of course, Spielberg went all Lincoln and gives us a massive supporting cast of great names. T.V. stars like Bob Odenkirk and Matthew Rhys are perhaps the most important with their roles, but nearly every scene has someone you love. Whoa, Michael Stuhlbarg’s in ANOTHER movie from 2017? Bradley Whitford and Bruce Greenwood in more White House drama! There’s Jesse Plemons and Zac Woods as attorneys more scared than they should be! No one told me Allison Brie and Sarah Paulson were gonna be in this movie! You’ll practically be exclaiming, I promise. And the director may be pushing 71, but he still knows how to keep the film in his own signature style. With cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, he frames it all like a classic Hollywood picture with long still shots focused on characters. Sometimes, we follow the reporters in tracking shots as we get to see what their workspace is like. On rare occasions, it will switch to handheld in order to let the audience know how little time is left. Harsh white light is often shown blasting through windows which give a sense of the black-and-white story. Longtime editor Michael Kahn teams up with Sarah Broshar to masterfully cut together scenes of investigation with employees hurrying to print it out. This added a sense of urgency and ultimately made the experience a little more exhilarating. But of course, what’s a Steven Spielberg movie without John Williams composing the musical score? Certainly better than his work on The Last Jedi, there’s that classic sharp horns and strings that add a good sentiment to the story. But Williams understands better than to manipulate us. He also trades in some noteworthy riffs on the electric guitar along with light trills on woodwinds. The back and forth between these various instruments makes for a particularly riveting score. Even at the age of 85, it’s still remarkable that this man is pumping out new melodies for cinema. And of course, The Post has a message. Despite the impressive setting of 1971, it’s quite clear that this story is meant to act as a reflection of the current U.S. presidency with Donald Trump. It’s considered a miracle if he goes a whole day without complaining about “Fake News” on Twitter. In fact, a study not too long ago showed that maybe 27% of Americans actually trust newspapers anymore. This movie rebukes the idea that (most of) the press has an agenda to follow, opting instead to show how seriously everyone in journalism takes their jobs. Can it seemed forced or bash its message over the head of the viewer? Sometimes. But if any director has a right to do it, it is Spielberg. With relevant drama, gorgeous sets and costumes, an epic cast, and powerful analogies to today, The Post is a riveting historical caricature of modern America. Spielberg, Streep, and Hanks all excel at giving us a story that needs to be told now but they’re never smug about it. They spin an op-ed worthy of being published.


“Lady Bird” Movie Review

We’ve all been here in this position before. Whether we want to admit it or not. And A24 has come in to show us that with proof in spades. This indie coming-of-age comedy-drama premiered at the Telluride Film Festival on September 4th, 2017. Following a standing ovation at a subsequent screening at TIFF, it was released in theaters on November 17th, 2017 before expanding in the following weeks. Grossing nearly 4 times its $10 million budget, the film also garnered universal praise from critics, at one point becoming the highest-rated movie of all time on Rotten Tomatoes. (Until one critic decided to become a troll) The directorial debut of writer and actress Greta Gerwig, Christine McPherson is an angst-ridden senior student in high school who prefers to go by the name “Lady Bird.” Fed up with her confined life in Sacramento, California, she begins applying to colleges out of state, specifically anywhere on the East Coast. As she navigates the 2002-03 school year, everything she thought she knew comes into question as her relationship with her parents are strained and friendships are lost and born. I’m not very familiar with Greta Gerwig’s work, and the few films I’ve seen with her involved can range from being side-splittingly hilarious to boring for me. But one thing I’ve never doubted is that she was able to craft stories about strong women in the modern era; for Millenials by a Millenial. And so I wasn’t really sure what to expect from her directorial debut. Though the extremely positive reaction out of its festival run was encouraging, I was largely scared that it wouldn’t really live up to all of its massive hype. Spoiler Alert: It absolutely does. Which is odd because from the synopsis I just gave you, it might just seem like any other coming-of-age story that Hollywood has put out. You’d be forgiven for thinking so because while the narrative is rather simplistic, Gerwig uses this simplicity to flesh out each individual into a tangible human being. The Math teacher is not just simply a Math teacher, and Christine’s best friend is much more than a lovable sidekick. The director even goes as far as making several scenes grounded in reality, with the characters never afraid to share their true feelings. If family members and friends duking it out with words legitimately stresses you out, then maybe Lady Bird is not for you. But for those looking for a break from the more ditsy, idealistic coming-of-age movies, this one is definitely worth checking out. When I saw Saoirse Ronan’s break-out performance in 2015’s Brooklyn, I immediately knew that she was a new talent worth looking out for. And with her role as the titular character, she has further proven my point; she’s a challenging young woman who REALLY hates Sacramento yet still finds a channel of empathy from the audience. The supporting cast is filled out by great performances by Tracy Letts, Timothee Chalamet, Jordan Rodrigues, Lucas Hedges, Lois Smith, and Stephen McKinley Henderson, who all contribute a unique aspect to the film. But the one woman who can stand up to Ronan is Laurie Metcalf as her mother, Marion. The scenes where the two of them fight back and forth bordered on difficult-to-watch, as she is trying to let her daughter know the realities of our world. She didn’t even seem like she was acting; she was just being. And from a filmmaking standpoint, Greta Gerwig proves she also has great prowess behind the camera. Sam Levy warps the color corrected cinematography to look and feel like a teenage memory. Nothing really flashy, just a realistic style that captures the crazy zeitgeist of the early 2000’s. Christine’s dyed red hair is particularly highlighted as it is indicative of a phase every high school girl goes through; they think they’re being rebellious when they’re really just acting like everyone else around them. The feeling of memory permeates to the editing by Nick Huoy. Some sequences are cut up in little fractures, relying on the audience to build through context. As many moments in our lives are only remembered in bits and pieces, this worked immensely well. Composer Jon Brion puts his multi-instrumental talents to the test with the surprisingly warm-hearted film score. In a word, the soundtrack is just “delightful” as the main title track consists of buoyant strumming guitars, drum set, and low brass. Brion refuses to become saccharine and instead highlights the colorful personality of the titular character while remaining friendly and relatable. And the smaller piano melodies hit right to the emotional truth of each hard moment without ever feeling the need for manipulation. In other words, it’s the perfect film score for Lady Bird. But the truest thing that this movie has to offer is its hilarious yet real depiction of leaving home. Most coming-of-age stories focusing on the female perspective that I’ve seen tend to revolve around a young girl’s relationship with a boy or first love. There are boyfriends for Christine, but they’re more like road stops. Rather, this film showcases the relationship between a mother and her daughter who really doesn’t know what she wants in life. We’ve all struggled with filling out college applications or fought about what we can or can’t afford for the future. And sometimes, no matter how hard you try, your future is just not going to align with even your closest friends. That makes this arguably the perfect film for Millennials and Z-Gen kids to watch. Lady Bird presents a brutally honest story on the last days of innocence. It may not necessarily be the most original movie in the coming-of-age drama, but it’s probably the most humane. With a stellar cast, fantastic dialogue, and great timing from all, this movie reveals Greta Gerwig as a real filmmaking talent. With enough time, she might just become a master.

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“The Shape of Water” Movie Review

Guillermo del Toro has officially called his new movie “a fairytale for troubled times.” There is no better description to be found. Seriously, there is none. This fantasy romance drama won the top prize, the Golden Lion, at the Venice Internation Film Festival when it premiered on August 31st of 2017. Following a lengthy festival run, it received a limited release on December 1st before expanding in the succeeding weeks. Made for the budget of just under $20 million, it has done considerably well in its limited run but it remains to be seen how successful it becomes when it goes wide. Primarily inspired by del Toro’s childhood favorite Creature from the Black Lagoon, it’s also believed that the full concept of the movie was conceived during a meal 6 whole years ago. 3 years were spent just trying to bring the updated Gil-Man to life, which means this was just as much of a passion project for the Mexican auteur as Pan’s Labyrinth. Set in Cold War America, (1962, to be exact) Sally Hawkins stars as a mute custodian named Eliza Esposito who has spent much of her life alone. While she’s working in a secretive government facility, she discovers that the authoritative Colonel Strickland is holding an ancient amphibian-humanoid captive for research. Out of pity and loneliness, Eliza befriends the creature, falls in love with it, and soon resolves to help it escape. Of all the movies that have been getting hyped up for awards season, none of them had me as excited as The Shape of Water. Guillermo del Toro’s work can usually be hit or miss for me, but he really hits it out of the park when he’s on top. And Pan’s Labyrinth isn’t just his masterpiece but it’s also my favorite foreign-language film of all time. The fact that this new movie won top honors at Venice only boosted my anticipation for it. A Cold War, adult version of the myth of Beauty and the Beast? Who wouldn’t want to check that out? And I can happily say that I was blown away by del Toro’s newest film. It’s also, in my opinion, one of the most hopeful movies of the year to come out. In the post-Obama era, several filmmakers have had no problem dealing out their feelings on the potential fallout from Trump’s presidency. Another film I’m looking forward to, The Post, addresses this rather directly. But most of these storytellers, no matter how good their intentions may be, come off as either stubbornly naive or relentlessly pessimistic. The Shape of Water addresses contemporary issues- such as prejudice against outsiders and trying to express yourself to people who won’t listen -but does it in a loving way. By avoiding the pitfalls of cynicism, we’re given a whimsical tale that never loses sight of its maturity. I’ll be honest, I haven’t seen Sally Hawkins in much, but I hope that changes with her lead performance in this film. She does a lot without saying anything, her use of Sign Language and facial expressions being almost too real to think of as acting. Alongside Frances McDomand in Three Billboards, she gives perhaps the best female lead performance of the year, and it hopefully scores her a Best Actress nomination. Opposite her, in his sixth collaboration with the director, Doug Jones is fantastic as the god-like Amphibian Man. With spots on his skin that glow and moving gills, some viewers might be turned off by this type of romance. But the way that he moves around and expresses himself underneath the thick suit is so magnificent and even sexy. The supporting cast is filled out by Michael Shannon as the villainous Colonel in charge of operations, Octavia Spencer as the snappy work friend of Eliza, Michael Stuhlbarg as a reclusive yet brilliant lab scientist, and Richard Jenkins in his scene-stealing, career-best role as a closeted neighbor. But if I were to be honest with you, I would say that Guillermo del Toro is the real star of this picture. He brings his unique eye to the technical aspects without being clouded by a filmmaker’s ego. Dan Laustsen frames and moves the camera in ways that masters of old Hollywood would have been proud of. It’s steady, fluid, and several scenes are made as if they were shot on one take. There’s even a wipe scene transition, which cemented both its 1960’s setting and love-letter to cinema. Del Toro also flaunts his love of digital cinematography and specifically highlights the color green. Using it as its own character, it plays a factor in defining the future-obsessed setting and even contrasts with the ancient force of the Amphibian Man. Whether it’s the green Cadillac, the green walls of the facility, the green candy, or the green Jello, you’re gonna find a shade. One of the most criminally underrated film composers in the industry, Alexandre Desplat lends his unique talents to the musical score. And man oh man is it lovely to hear in a theater. Because this is still essentially a fairytale, there’s a whimsical quality to the sound, often incorporating plucked strings and soothing flutes. He also blends a French romanticism into the tracks with hints of the accordion and subtle bits of whistling. And the primary piano melody is so elegant that it makes it feel as though we’re floating through the sea. It’s sentimental for sure, but it’s not cheesy or manipulative. But again, there are bound to be people who will walk away from this film feeling cold because let’s face it: This is a story about a mute woman and a fish man falling in love during the Cold War. If that doesn’t scream “weird,” then I don’t know what does. For others like me, The Shape of Water is a gorgeous, warm-hearted love story celebrating the outsiders. By far one of the most impressive fantasy films of recent years, it’s also Guillermo del Toro’s finest English-language work. Given time, I may even say that it’s his best, if not his most mature.

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“Darkest Hour” Movie Review

I know that the advertisements for Darkest Hour sell it as the newest completely generic Oscar-bait biopic about the life of yet another highly revered historical figure. And while it’s tempting to make such a write-off, please give Darkest Hour some benefit of the doubt. This historical war drama premiered at the Telluride Film Festival at the beginning of September of 2017. Following another screening at TIFF 10 days later, it received a limited release on November 22nd, 2017. After it went wide a full month later, it has struggled to make back its $30 million budget. Directed by Joe Wright, after it was announced, half of the cast had to be replaced; namely, the late John Hurt. But Oldman was always the choice to play the central character. Set in May of 1940, the early days of Britain’s involvement in World War II come to a head when Nazi Germany shockingly encroaches in on their position. After Nevel Chamberlain is proven to be incompetent in wartime, Winston Churchill is appointed the new Prime Minister. Facing opposition from within his own party to surrender to Hitler’s regime, he must overcome the odds of politics and unite the nation against their enemy. If this had come out in 1999, this movie would have already been the clearest contender for Best Picture. But now after the Academy went through drastic changes following this year’s Best Picture debacle, many are looking at movies like this and scoffing with pride. “That’s just old-fashioned hagiographic garbage” they might say, and they’d be forgiven for saying so. Studios are afraid to make these kinds of movies anymore. Especially if they’re World War II movies, then they have to REALLY work hard to get some recognition from just beyond the middle-aged white man. However, I’m here to tell you that Darkest Hour is worth a recommendation to general audiences. What makes it so enticing is its handling of the famed Operation Dynamo, where 400,000 soldiers were to be rescued from the beaches in France. That rescue was the centerpiece of another excellent war movie from earlier this year, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. The two make a perfect companion piece, quite possibly the best one in years. But whereas Nolan’s film was an experimental and neverending barrage of intensity, this movie shows the machinations and how Dynamo came to be. We see the surprising amount of opposition to continuing war against Hitler, despite Churchill having warned the country about him decades earlier. As the man himself puts it, “You cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth!” Speaking of Churchill, the rumors are indeed true: Gary Oldman’s performance is something stunning to behold. Behind the thick makeup job and cloud of smoke from Cuban cigars, he gives us a man put into the right position at the wrong time. Energized by a ticking clock of Britain’s doom, a powerful orator is unveiled who is never afraid to speak his mind with an extensive vocabulary. But we’re still given a human being who is terribly conflicted on his job and has problems socializing with other people; the first time we meet him, he’s in a thin bathrobe in his bed. If Oldman doesn’t get a nomination for Best Actor come January, I will be very surprised. In fact, he’s so good that he almost overshadows the rest of the great cast. Although she isn’t given too many scenes, Kristen Scott Thomas does great work as Winston’s wife Clementine. A strong-willed woman, she is always at her husband’s side even as he fumbles in politics. Game of Thrones alum Stephen Dillane is given a lot to do as Foreign Secretary Lord Hallifax. Despite initial support for Churchill, his paranoia gets the better of him as his party seeks the agenda of peace talks. Ben Mendohlson is restrained and nuanced as the terrified King George VI, while the young and beautiful Lily James provides a nice surrogate for introducing us to the world of this man. As much of a showcasing for top-notch acting, Darkest Hour excels in its technical aspects. Previously nominated for work such as Amelie and Inside Llewyn Davis, cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel plants us in the middle of these stuffy cabinet room meetings. Underneath a distinctive film grain, we see many colors desaturated into murkier shades of grey or white. This permeates the feeling of hopelessness felt in many during the time of this terrifying war. Most of the compositions are of close-ups, which makes sense since most of the movie is just talking heads trying to figure out what to do. But he makes sure to keep the audience on their toes as he never loses sight of the urgency of the story. While it’s all of Steadicam, there are many quick cutaways between conversations which makes it more riveting. Meanwhile, Dario Marinelli brings us a musical score that matches the grand urgency of the situation. With help from pianist Vikingur Olafsson, he crafts a slew of memorable melodies. The piano is almost always contrasted by swift strings or bouncing percussion such as the timpani. I definitely think that it shouldn’t be overlooked by the Academy in Best Original Score. Carried by the best male lead performance of the year and featuring some desperately needed speeches in these dire times, Darkest Hour is a rousing and energetic look at a powerful figure in history. Gary Oldman will most likely get a nomination and may even win, but it’s Joe Wright’s brilliant direction that brings the whole thing together.

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“Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi” Movie Review

Well, Star Wars fans, here we are. After The Force Awakens, we all begged for Lucasfilm to make a more original movie that didn’t mimic the same story beats as the Original Trilogy. And now we have this movie to unpack, so let’s dig in. The 8th main installment of this epic space opera series was released worldwide on December 15th, 2017. Having already accumulated the second-biggest opening weekend of all time domestically, the film is well on its way to breaking the $2 billion mark given the time. While critics have given strong reviews to writer-director Rian Johnson’s new entry, fans have been more mixed in their opinions. Admittedly, there’s a lot of density here in terms of storytelling and themes. And don’t worry, there are absolutely no spoilers to be found in this review. Picking up right after The Force Awakens, the Resistance is on the run after striking a victory against the First Order. Meanwhile, the scavenger Rey goes to an island on a distant planet to learn the ways of the Force from the last living Jedi Master, Luke Skywalker. All of this is happening as the young Kylo Ren continues to struggle with his allegiance to either the Dark or Light Side and his mentor Supreme Leader Snoke is hounding his every move. Like I said, this movie doesn’t follow the beats of the Original Trilogy. Whereas The Force Awakens had to play it safe in order to properly set up the new characters and put the plot on a path, The Last Jedi tosses franchise conventions out of the damn window to go in new, uncharted territory. Some fans may hate it for that, and I understand why. But to me, the second installment of this sequel trilogy had to shake things up in order to propel this series forward. And not only did it shake things up, it took the established structure of a Star Wars movie and threw it in a blender. That’s a long analogy of saying… I freaking loved it all. Rarely has there been an entry in a blockbuster franchise, especially one so beloved and iconic as Star Wars, that has felt this fearless and ambitious. It has no qualms about pushing the boundaries for the characters and turning the wheels off the main road. In that, a lot of fans may not like this movie because of what it does to certain arcs. One story involving Finn and a new girl named Rose dragged in the middle act, but I don’t want to delve into that. As a huge fan of Rian Johnson’s previous film Looper, it was very exciting to see him abscond with $200~ million of Disney’s money to make his own movie with his own voice. And that voice has a lot to say. Virtually all of the cast members from the previous film return here and they have all grown comfortable. Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver are particularly great as Rey and Kylo Ren, by far my favorite arc in the entire movie. Their dynamic dances back and forth like a ballet, playing off of each other’s conflicts and desires. In her last-ever film role, Carrie Fisher is as witty and charming as she always was as Princess Leia Organa. Though she’s bright with hope and optimism, it was difficult watching her scenes knowing her real-life fate. But the scene-stealer here is undoubtedly Mark Hamill’s return as Luke Skywalker in easily his best performance to date. Gone is the idealistic farm boy from Tatooine who wants to get power converters from Toshi Station. This is a tired, embittered old man who wants nothing more to do with the conflict of good and evil. In many ways, Rey has swapped roles with him as he’s hesitant to pass down the torch of the Jedi Order. On the directing side of the camera, The Last Jedi sings its singular vision with spades. As always, the visuals are astounding, switching (mostly) seamlessly from practical to CGI effects in one scene. Johnson’s collaborating cinematographer Steve Yedlin also makes sure to use a wide color palette, particularly that of red. The red throne room of Snoke, the red Praetorian Guard, red salt from the planet Crait. They take what’s normally a symbol of evil or wrong and make it beautiful. Along with Bob Duscay’s slick editing job, we get some of the best action sequences in the franchise. The lightsaber battles have never looked more precise and elegant than here with wide shots and fluid movement. And thanks to Industrial Lights & Magic, all of the computer-animated characters look like tangible beings. In a career spanning over 6o years and over 100 film scores, the legendary John Williams brings out his finest soundtrack since at least Raiders. Though he does recycle leitmotifs such as “Rey’s Theme” or “The Force” multiple times, he brings a harsh yet controlled sound to layer on top. Of particular note is one of the final tracks, “The Spark,” which is essentially a heroic riff on the Imperial March. Williams’ trademark of piercing horns and buoyant percussion are all here. But it’s the new concertos of low-strings that help elevate this to some of his best work. More than ever, The Last Jedi is concerned with exploring the themes commonplace in Star Wars; good vs evil, living up to a legacy, the courage to become a hero. But what if that legacy was overly romanticized by the ages? What if your hero was falsely judged by history? These are the questions the movie’s interested in asking. Luke spends so much time running away from his own legend, that he leaves his admirer choking on deceit. At 2 hours and 32 minutes, it’s the longest in the series yet, taking its time to unfold these ideas gradually. But with the way the story progresses, time is virtually nonexistent to me and it just flies by. I want to go more in-depth but I’ll wait for you to see the movie yourself. Though it has some pacing issues and one arc that could have been tweaked, Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi is a boldly dense and deeply satisfying emotional adventure. By far the best Star Wars movie under the Disney banner, it’s also my favorite one since The Empire Strikes Back. Thematically rich and bursting with memorable characters, this is a movie I can’t wait to experience on the big screen again and again.

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