Category Archives: Music

“Rain Man” Movie Review

Welcome back, one and all, to my New Year’s Resolution! It’s been a great way for me to finally watch films I’ve always wanted to and look back on old favorites. The rules are the same as the have been for the past two years, and it’s time for me to start by scratch a major film off my watchlist.

This road-trip dramedy was originally released in theaters worldwide by MGM on December 16th, 1988. Made for the middling budget of $25 million, it went on to gross over $354.8 million at the box office. This made it the highest-grossing U.S. film of that year, despite competition from the likes of Die Hard and Twins. Critically acclaimed, it went on to win and be nominated for several year-end accolades, including top honors at the 39th Berlin International Film Festival. It also managed to win 4 Academy Awards, including Best Actor and Picture, out of 8 total nominations.

Directed by Barry Levinson, the Oscar-winning screenplay was originally written by Barry Marrow before being polished by Ronald Bass. The characters and story were inspired by Kim Peek and Bill Sackter, two real-life savants who Marrow met by chance. The final draft was delivered a few hours before the 1988 Writers Guild of America strike started, preventing any further rewrites during filming. There was also a controversy when 15 major airlines omitted a pivotal scene from the film, except for the Australian based Qantas whose safety records become more well-known afterwards.

Tom Cruise stars as Charlie Babbitt, a selfish young wheeler-dealer who tries importing cars against the EPA’s rules. When his estranged father dies, he travels to Cincinnati to hear the will reading and presumably inherit his vast amount of money and assets. However, he learns that his father’s entire fortune has been bequeathed to his older brother Raymond, played by Dustin Hoffman, who’s lived much of his life in a group home due to his autism and savant syndrome. Together, they embark on a cross-country roadtrip to change the legal status of their inheritance and form an unusual bond along the way.

Full disclosure for everyone reading this: I am an adult male diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. I have been on the spectrum for as long as I can remember and it has been a major defining part of my life and personality. It’s only been in the last few years that I’ve truly become interested in researching the topic and I’d even go as far as to say that it has helped shape my passion for movies and storytelling. It’s something I’ve become comfortable with, and I’m proud of the resilience it has given me over time.

Despite this, with a few exceptions, I have rarely seen a portrayal of the condition in mainstream media. Shows and films such as Atypical, The Accountant, and Barfi have attempted to normalize it for neurotypical people in recent years, but I had never seen the one that had put it on the map for more people. As a serious depiction of autism, I have a couple of issues with it. But as a film on its own, Rain Man is still a pretty engaging and entertaining road movie to watch after 32 years.

The way they handle Raymond’s condition was much more sensitive than I had anticipated and it definitely gets a lot of things right. Many of his on-screen mannerisms, such as talking to himself and frequent panic attacks or outbursts, are remarkably accurate to the general symptoms of autism. It also gets points for showing how Charlie, a cold and selfish person, initially tries to manipulate Raymond for his own purposes before gradually changing his mind; that really hit close to home for me.

Where Rain Man falters here, aside from just being a typical roadtrip movie, is that it almost implies that all people on the spectrum are savants who are cut off from normal human emotions. This makes Raymond seem almost robotic during his time on-screen, and it feels way too simplified to have a full impact. But at the same time, I have to give Levinson and Co. some credit for at least trying to do something realistic with it, especially for the time it was made in.

In one of the earlier roles of his storied career, Tom Cruise delivers the goods here as Charlie Babbitt. At the beginning of the film, he’s a callous and narcissistic older brother who wants no responsibility that doesn’t result in his own personal gain. And while he tries to use Raymond’s incredible mathematic skills for his benefits, he soon comes to realize that having a relationship with his brother is far more important.

Valeria Golino is also worth mentioning as Susanna, Charlie’s level-headed girlfriend and business partner. She constantly tries to put Charlie on the right path and often tries to shoot down some of his schemes when they clearly only benefit him. As the film goes along, she starts to see his softer side as the influence of Raymond begins to show on the both of them.

And then, we have Dustin Hoffman as Raymond Babbitt, the role that won him the Academy Award for Best Actor. It’s easy to see why his performance was so acclaimed at the time of release and why it’s so controversial now. As mentioned earlier, Hoffman plays the role rather robotically, only showing real emotion during big outbursts. A huge part of me really wishes that had actually cast someone on the spectrum for the role rather than a neurotypical actor, but then again, the film might not have gotten made.

That being said, Hoffman does a pretty good job at showing his character’s insecurity when things don’t go according to his routine. It may seem a little childish at first, but it soon becomes clear that this is the only way that Raymond can cope with the real world, which he has never lived in as an adult. Seeing the way average people dismiss him because of his behavior is heartbreaking, especially since he can’t really express himself or his feelings in a “normal” way.

And from a technical perspective, Rain Man fits right into the pack of late 80s movies. John Seale’s cinematography tries to capture the sense of a sprawling road trip, with sweeping shots across the countryside. Being shot on location helps make it feel like an authentic look through a part of Americana. There are also a number of medium close-ups to help get intimate with the characters in small moments.

This works decently with the editing job by Stu Linder. It’s a very straightforward and unpretentious method he uses to cut the film together. There are only cuts whenever there need to be for the story or for when the emotions start running high, instead opting mostly for longer takes. The lack of flare allows for the characters to take center stage here.

In one of his earliest works in Hollywood, Hans Zimmer provides the instrumental film score. It essentially serves as a guideline for all his scores to come because it is a genuinely good, if not quite memorable one. You can hear his signature style of blending electronic sounds with that of a more traditional orchestral sound. The main theme is an interesting theme that doesn’t really feel sentimental but still feels appropriate for what Charlie and Raymond go through. The trademark 80s synthesizer and percussion is ever present throughout as it sets the tone for the adventure to come.

A clear product of its time, Rain Man is a somewhat problematic mishmash of genuinely good intentions. Barrys Levinson and Marrow do work within the confines of a traditional road trip movie but still put forth a lot of effort to take its subject matter seriously. It’s also a great showcase for a pre-action Tom Cruise and a performance from Dustin Hoffman that, for better or worse, has made its way into film history.

As someone on the spectrum, I’m still trying to work out my exact feelings on how it treats autism. I can definitely respect the attempts the filmmakers made at painting a more accurate picture of the condition, but there’s still a long way to go.

Final 2020 Oscar Predictions

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

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

Best Picture

Will Win: 1917

Could Win: Parasite

Should Win: Parasite

Should Have Been Nominated: The Lighthouse

 

Best Director

Will Win: Sam Mendes for 1917

Could Win: Bong Joon-ho for Parasite

Should Win: Bong Joon-ho for Parasite

Should Have Been Nominated: Greta Gerwig for Little Women

 

Best Actor

Will Win: Joaquin Phoenix in Joker

Could Win: Adam Driver in Marriage Story

Should Win: Adam Driver in Marriage Story

Should Have Been Nominated: Robert Pattinson in The Lighthouse

 

Best Actress

Will Win: Renée Zellweger in Judy

Could Win: Scarlett Johannsson in Marriage Story

Should Win: Scarlett Johannsson in Marriage Story

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

 

Best Supporting Actor

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

Could Win: Joe Pesci in The Irishman

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

Should Have Been Nominated: Song Kang-ho in Parasite

 

Best Supporting Actress

Will Win: Laura Dern in Marriage Story

Could Win: Florence Pugh in Little Women

Should Win: Laura Dern in Marriage Story

Should Have Been Nominated: Jennifer Lopez in Hustlers

 

Best Original Screenplay

Will Win: Parasite

Could Win: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Should Win: Knives Out

Should Have Been Nominated: Booksmart

 

Best Adapted Screenplay

Will Win: Little Women

Could Win: Jojo Rabbit

Should Win: Little Women

Should Have Been Nominated: Just Mercy

 

Best Animated Film

Will Win: Toy Story 4

Could Win: Klaus

Should Win: I Lost My Body

Should Have Been Nominated: Weathering With You

 

Best International Feature Film

Will Win: Parasite (South Korea)

Could Win: Pain and Glory (Spain)

Should Win: Parasite (South Korea)

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

 

Best Documentary- Feature

Will Win: American Factory

Could Win: For Sama

Should Win: For Sama

Should Have Been Nominated: Apollo 11

 

Best Documentary- Short Subject

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

Could Win: Life Overtakes Me

Should Win: In the Absence

Should Have Been Nominated: Birders

 

Best Live-Action Short

Will Win: Brotherhood

Could Win: The Neighbor’s Window

Should Win: Brotherhood

Should Have Been Nominated: Anima

 

Best Animated Short

Will Win: Hair Love

Could Win: Kitbull

Should Win: Hair Love

Should Have Been Nominated: Best Friend

 

Best Original Score

Will Win: Joker by Hildur Guðnadóttir

Could Win: 1917 by Thomas Newman

Should Win: Joker by Hildur Guðnadóttir

Should Have Been Nominated: Us by Michael Abels

 

Best Original Song

Will Win: “Into the Unknown” from Frozen II

Could Win: “Stand Up” from Harriet

Should Win: “Into the Unknown” from Frozen II

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

 

Best Visual Effects

Will Win: The Irishman

Could Win: 1917

Should Win: The Irishman

Should Have Been Nominated: Ad Astra

 

Best Cinematography

Will Win: 1917

Could Win: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Should Win: 1917

Should Have Been Nominated: A Hidden Life

 

Best Costume Design

Will Win: Little Women

Could Win: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Should Win: Little Women

Should Have Been Nominated: Dolemite Is My Name

 

Best Makeup and Hairstyle

Will Win: Bombshell

Could Win: Judy

Should Win: Joker

Should Have Been Nominated: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

 

Best Production Design

Will Win: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Could Win: 1917

Should Win: Parasite

Should Have Been Nominated: The Lighthouse

 

Best Film Editing

Will Win: The Irishman

Could Win: Ford v Ferrari

Should Win: Parasite

Should Have Been Nominated: Rocketman

 

Best Sound Mixing

Will Win: 1917

Could Win: Ford v Ferrari

Should Win: Ford v Ferrari

Should Have Been Nominated: Alita: Battle Angel

 

Best Sound Editing

Will Win: 1917

Could Win: Ford v Ferrari

Should Win: 1917

Should Have Been Nominated: Alita: Battle Angel

 

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

“1917” Movie Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image result for 1917 poster

“Little Women” Movie Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Frozen II” Movie Review

The lengths I would go to protect my sister.

This computer-animated family fantasy film was released in theaters worldwide by Disney on November 22nd, 2019. Following the biggest opening weekend of all time for an animated feature, it has gone on to gross over $1.268 billion at the global box office thus far. This almost puts it financially up to par with its predecessor in a shorter amount of time. With a little more time, it has managed to become the most successful animated film ever released, in addition to the positive attention it’s gotten from fans and critics.

Once again co-directed by Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, the filmmakers and studio had constantly talked about a sequel to the 2013 hit for a couple years before officially moving forward. Lee worked on several different drafts alongside Allison Schroeder, although the latter ended up not getting a real credit for the screenplay. The actors’ recording for dialogue and songs supposedly began as early as late 2016, though the veracity of these claims is disputable. The studio also worked in close collaboration with various experts and representatives of the Saami people to get some story elements culturally accurate.

Set 3 years after the first film, Idina Menzel and Kristen Bell return as Queen Elsa and Princess Anna, who have managed to keep the kingdom of Arendelle in prosperity. One night, Elsa begins hearing a strange voice singing repetitive notes to her and drawing her away into a mystical forest. There, the two of them alongside Kristoff, Olaf, and Sven- voiced respectively by Jonathan Groff and Josh Gad -travel there and discover a deeply rooted conflict between their kingdom and the natives of the land. Wanting to mend things before it’s too late, they also find that their journey may bring them closer to what happened to their parents.

The original Frozen, when it first came out in 2013, was a hugely pleasant surprise for me. It had all of the elements of a classic Disney movie (Memorable songs and heartwarming characters) while also finding interesting ways to invert the traditional format of the past. It was also an indisputably gorgeous movie with some of the best animation of its time and still looks stunning to this day.

It being far more successful than anyone had anticipated, a sequel to the film was pretty much inevitable. I was extremely curious to see how Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee would be able to continue the story, especially since Lee has been made the new head of Disney Animation following John Lasseter’s unfortunate exit. And while Frozen II is certainly a step down from the first installment, it’s still a great time at the movies with the whole family.

Just like last time, this movie is at its best when its questioning the usual tropes of a typical adventure story. Despite what the people around her seem to think, Elsa is neither a villain nor a damsel in distress; she’s just unsure of how to rule a kingdom and manage her mysterious powers at the same time. Similarly, Anna wants to be the princess who falls in love and gets married, but she also learns how to retain her own agency and doesn’t want to be defined either by her sister’s status or her romantic relationship with Kristoff.

Where Frozen II starts to falter is that, while it acknowledges change as something inevitable and even positive, it still doesn’t quite make enough narrative progress to be fully satisfying. It’s undeniably cool to see this world grow beyond the kingdom of Arendelle and even see the potential origins of magic in this universe. Still, by the end, you can’t help but feel that they played a little too safe for its own good, particularly because of how it teased something that could have been much more.

Idina Menzel is still just as iconic as she was in the first go-around, and cements Elsa as one of the most interesting monarchs in Disney’s library. Still unsure of her capability as a leader, she strives to find a balance between the powerful and humble, thinking distance is the safest option for her loved ones. Her voice is still a powerhouse as always and she releases all of her worries and troubles into song whenever possible.

Also, Kristen Bell is charming and delightful as ever as she returns to the role of Anna. Her own sense of confidence and self-worth have grown immensely since the previous film, but she still cares deeply about the fate of her sister, willing to do whatever it takes to keep her happy.

Josh Gad also makes a return as Olaf, the magical talking snowman. He proves to be much more fun and likable as a side character than a protagonist, and brings out some of the biggest laughs of the whole movie. He also has a newfound sense of wisdom and maturity in this film; although much of it proves to be him misunderstanding its true meaning for comic effect, it still creates an interesting dynamic with the others.

Jonathan Groff, Alan Tudyk, and Ciarán Hinds all reprise their respective roles from the first installment while Alfred Molina, Evan Rachel Wood, Sterling K. Brown, Martha Plimpton, and Norwegian singer Aurora come in new ones. All of them bring different weight and while not all of them get a chance to sing, they’re memorable for the most part. Woods and Brown were particularly interesting and I was hoping to see more from their parts than we ultimately did.

And from a technical point of view, Frozen II proves that even after 58 animated features, Disney is still able to make some real surprises. The animation in this movie is somehow even more stunning and rich than the previous one, utilizing 3D animation to its full potential. The stupid amount of detail in everything in every frame, even the hair or fabric of a character’s wardrobe, is jaw-dropping. Not to mention the remarkable physics being displayed on-screen throughout.

There’s a heavy emphasis on the colors blue and orange. We see all different shades of blue in the film, from the ice emitting from Elsa’s powers to the deep blue of the ocean. For orange, it’s mainly an autumnal look from fall leaves and even Anna’s brunette hair has a bit of orange in it. It plays up a nice contrast in the visual composition, representing the contrast between the life the main characters want to live versus the adventure they’ve embarked on.

Songwriters Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez return from the first film to provide a whole new soundtrack here. And with the help of composer Christophe Beck, they’re able to create a bounty of memorable new songs. The big one is obviously “Into the Unknown,” a powerful ballad that allows Idina Menzel’s powerhouse vocals to work magic. It uses the motif of light and uncertainty to a great advantage as it builds and builds, much like Elsa’s confidence.

But for me, the best song of the film is “Show Yourself,” which comes in the latter half of the story. The natural culmination of all the elements that have come before it, it’s a true showstopper as Elsa finally comes to terms with her abilities and their implications. It also features the vocals of Evan Rachel Wood, who proves to a worthy song partner as their voices collide. The animation of the scene that song plays in is some of the best in the whole movie, and both come together to create something special.

More safe and fun than forward-thinking, Frozen II is a perfectly fine family-friendly romp with gorgeous animation and great music. While it doesn’t take as many risks as it probably should, Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee are still able to deliver a fun sequel to its immensely successful predecessor. The vocals of the cast are all still excellent and the Lopez’ give them new tunes worthy of the gold voices singing them.

I think part of what made the first Frozen so surprising and special is that it defied expectations and subverted several of the classic Disney tropes. This sequel still understands those tropes exist, but is more content to coast on the comfort of the characters from last time. Even if it means it has to miss out on what could have been some truly exciting storytelling opportunities here.

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“Marriage Story” Movie Review

I was lucky enough to grow up my whole adolescence with both parents in my life and happily married. I can only imagine what it was like for children of divorce to experience this film.

This divorce dramedy originally premiered in competition at the 76th Venice International Film Festival. Following an extremely lengthy run on the festival circuit, it began a month-long theatrical engagement in specialty theaters around the world on November 6th, 2019, where it grossed over $2.3 million against an $18 million production budget. It then landed on the streaming service Netflix on December 6th to high anticipation from various cinephiles. It currently stands as one of the most critically acclaimed films of the year and has been selected or nominated for many year-end accolades.

Written and directed by Noah Baumbach, the idea originally came to him while in post-production on his previous film, The Meyerowitz Stories. The story was partially inspired by his tumultuous real-life divorce from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh, who apparently responded very positively to the finished product. He discussed the concepts and characters with the two main leads long before anything was written down in order to better develop their respective characters. And as a testament to the film’s unbiased nature, Leigh apparently really liked the film after watching it.

Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver star as Nicole and Charlie Barber, an acclaimed stress and theater director based in New York. At the beginning of the film, they decide to get a divorce and Nicole moves to L.A. to film a T.V. series. While they initially agree to split as amicably as possible, they hire divorce lawyers Nora Fanshaw and Bert Spitz, played by Laura Dern and Alan Alda, respectively. From there, it turns into a harsh, coast-to-coast battle not just for custody of their young son Henry but also for their own personal agency.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve managed to watch a handful of Baumbach’s features across different platforms. The Squid and the Whale, Frances Ha, and The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) really show that he has a style of realism uncommon in many movies. He has also proven to bring out earnest, understated performances from some big name actors in the industry and bring them down to a naturalistic level.

When I heard about the plans he had for his newest film, and the second one under Netflix, I got ecstatic with the cast he was working with. And the news that it would be the streaming service’s second big awards contender, the other one being The Irishman, made me realizes that it would be taken seriously rather than just another film of theirs to add to the queue. And that’s just the case because Marriage Story is a heartbreakingly beautiful film that’s so emotionally rewarding.

If you go into this film expecting to root for one side or the other, then you’d be missing the point of the film. The most admirable quality here is that it always stays neutral, never really showing who was right or wrong, but instead highlighting the emotional and legal fallout from a failed marriage. Part of what makes Marriage Story feel so realistic isn’t just the fantastic dialogue but also how it showcases the two protagonists trying to keep it all under a smiley façade for their confused child.

Nicole and Charlie are actually very reasonable and polite with one another when meeting in-person, only turning sides whenever their ferocious lawyers are in the same room. They only really argue with each other once during the entire film, and it’s really hard to watch as they let long-repressed feelings finally loose. By embracing the messiness and lack of easy answers in the situation, it feels like a real self-reckoning for Baumbach and can even seem theraputic.

Adam Driver has always been one of the best actors around and here, he finally steps away from big blockbusters to deliver his best performance to date. As Charlie, he’s deeply fixated on trying to stay in New York and repeatedly (And unsuccessfully) tries to get Nicole and their son to come with him. His hard upbringing has a clear effect on his emotions, as he has no true concept of expressing his feelings toward anyone in a healthy or friendly way.

Opposite him from a different coast, Scarlett Johansson gets a chance to shine in an incredible role as Nicole. She wants a chance to break out into her own stardom after working under Charlie for years, even if that means breaking his heart and ego. The toll this divorce takes on her is immense, compartmentalizing and drinking her feelings away until it all comes flooding out in several instances.

If these two actors didn’t work well together, the whole movie would have fallen apart. But they have incredibly convincing chemistry and their interactions feel so believable that it’s almost like watching a real marriage fall apart before our eyes.

Laura Dern is also worth mentioning here as Nora Fanshaw, Nicole’s calculating and world-weary divorce lawyer. Her charisma is absolutely scene-stealing as she glides through all of the state and county laws to try and get Nicole on top in the settlement. Although she does seem to care about the well-being of her client, her ruthless tactics and meticulous planning only strains the process even more, even if she can’t quite realize it.

The supporting cast, meanwhile, is full of stars and character actors giving great performances. This includes Alan Alda and Ray Liotta as two polar opposite lawyers Charlie hires, Julie Hagerty as Nicole’s wayward but supportive mother, Merritt Wever as her experienced sister, Azhy Robertson as their confused yet hopeful son Henry, and Wallace Shawn in a brief role as a member of Charlie’s theater company. All of them work wonders in the simple yet emotionally complex story.

And from technical standpoint, Marriage Story isn’t especially showy but still manages to keep your attention. Shot on 35mm film, the cinematography by Robbie Ryan is straightforward and unpretentious. The simplistic shots and compositions give a lot of room for the actors to breathe on-screen, especially given the hefty amount of dialogue. A handful of panning movements and slow zooms throughout help to keep the action in perspective and get inside the mindset of the characters.

It works really well with Jennifer Lame’s editing job, which finds a great rhythm for the story to follow. The film opens with two back-to-back montages of the ups and downs in their marriage as Charlie and Nicole describe everything they love about each other. It’s a perfect way to establish the two and their differing opinions on their time together over the years. Numerous scenes use dissolves or fade-in/fade-out techniques to transition between one another, which gives it a classical feel.

Randy Newman takes a break from Pixar to deliver the instrumental film score here. It’s just as smooth and jazz-influenced as many of his other works, using a lot of soft percussion and double reeds. It gracefully captures the melancholy tone of a failing marriage without verring off into sappy territory. The score uses two different motifs for Charlie and Nicole and frequently repeats them whenever their scenes come back into play on-screen. It sounds almost like a more mature version of Toy Story, and I consider that to be a great thing.

Anchored by some of the best acting this past decade and never getting bogged down in pretension or self-importance, Marriage Story is a devastatingly honest and believable examination of the breakdown of a relationship. Pulling from his own past without taking any sides, Noah Baumbach has delivered arguably his best film yet and one I’m sure will speak to many viewers’ own experiences. Driver and Johansson are obviously amazing in their roles, but the excellent dialogue and realistic interactions help to drive this film all the way home.

“Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker” Movie Review

**Out of respect for the fans and viewers who wish to go into this film as cold as possible, I’ll only be giving the baseline premise for everything. Read at your own discretion.**

2019, as a whole, really has been a year of ending for a lot of pop culture things. Avengers, Game of Thrones, The Good Place, Mr. Robot, Toy Story, How To Train Your Dragon all seeing their narratives come to a close. But perhaps none were quite as anticipated or high-profile as this one, so let’s dive right in.

This epic space opera was released in theaters worldwide by Disney and Lucasfilm on December 20th, 2019, having previously been scheduled for May. After making a cool $40 million from Thursday night previews, it has gone on to gross over $927.5 million worldwide against a budget of $275 million. While that’s undoubtedly impressive, it’s a dip down from the intake of its two mainline predecessors. Not to mention, it has managed to split both fans and critics down the middle on its overall quality and effect.

Directed by J.J. Abrams, the third and final installment in the sequel trilogy under Disney was originally meant to be helmed by Jurassic World director Collin Trevorrow. After he departed due to “creative differences,” Abrams came back with co-writer Chris Terrio in tow to basically start over from scratch. There was also an incident months after production wrapped where one of the actor’s scripts accidentally got put up on eBay and a studio employee spent at least 5 figures to take it back. And in addition to the main characters returning here, this film has repeatedly been stated by the cast and crew to definitively be the final installment of the Skywalker Saga.

Picking up roughly a year after the events of The Last Jedi, Daisy Ridley returns as Rey, a young woman training to become a Jedi. During her journey, she and The Resistance discover that The First Order is about to make their final move in an attempt to control the galaxy once and for all. With time running out, Rey and her friends Poe Dameron and Finn, played by Oscar Isaac and John Boyega, set out on a quest to figure out the enemy’s plan before they can enact it. And it proves difficult when the malicious and power-hungry Kylo Ren, played by Adam Driver, tries to beat them to the punch all the while coming to terms with his own sins.

Although it hasn’t always been great, overall I’ve been happy with the Star Wars content Disney has been putting out in the last decade. I still and always will maintain that The Last Jedi is the best film in the saga in many, many years and I am eager to see what they do with The Mandalorian and season 7 of The Clone Wars. And hearing repeated vows that they would finally bring the nine-film Skywalker Saga to a big close made me excited.

As the hype built towards its release, I remained cautiously optimistic about what the results would be. I had hoped that there would be enough resolution for the characters and storyline to satisfy even fans who haven’t been on-board with the newer entries. And while The Rise of Skywalker is undeniably entertaining, there is so much it leaves to be desired from a thematic and story standpoint.

I don’t envy Abrams or Terrio because of the enormity of their task, (Concluding the mainline story for the biggest movie franchise of all time) but it can’t be denied they took the easiest possible route here. While it doesn’t completely retcon the choices made in The Last Jedi, it repurposes them into something that tries to bring all nine main films into play. But by trying to bring in a big picture, which can be admittedly admirable in concept, it’s unable to find enough satisfaction with the current narrative.

Despite this, there is still a lot of emotional weight that The Rise of Skywalker carries that, admittedly, can often be affecting. The character arcs of this new trilogy have arguably been some of the most interesting in the whole franchise and seeing them come to a head, regardless of the method, is a big event. And obviously, Disney and Lucasfilm have more films coming down the pipe, but it’s nice that they committed to wrapping up this particular narrative.

Daisy Ridley proves for the third time in a row why she was perfectly cast for the lead role of Rey. She has so much emotional baggage being carried, some of it for years on end, and the pressure of trying to bring back the Jedi is clearly weighing her down. All she wants to do is bring light and goodness to the galaxy, which is difficult with the consequences of the on-going war.

Opposite her, Adam Driver still proves why he’s one of the best actors of his generation thanks to his role as Kylo Ren. Still as deeply conflicted as always, his internal struggle comes to a dramatic head as his journey nears its end. He’s equal parts desperate, powerful, and pathetic here as he still struggles to figure out what exactly he desires and what path is he to take.

John Boyega also continues to be golden as Finn, one of the more interesting side characters of the franchise. His comedic timing is still impeccable as always and while he isn’t given as much to do as the last two films, his presence is always a welcome one. Seeing him come this far after having defected from the First Order is one of the more satisfying story threads in the film to be sure.

Oscar Isaac, Kelly Marie Tran, Anthony Daniels, Domnhall Glesson, Joonas Suotamo, Mark Hamill, Billy Dee Williams, and the late great Carrie Fisher (Who appears through unused footage from the last two films) all reprise their respective iconic roles from previous installments. Keri Russell, Richard E. Grant, Dominic Monaghan, Shirley Henderson and Naomi Ackie also make impressions as new characters in this story. Everyone onscreen is reveling in the fact that they’re in a Star Wars movie.

Meanwhile, The Rise of Skywalker is nothing short of a technical marvel. Abrams’ regular cinematographer Dan Mindel handles the camerawork once again here and it’s just as energetic as their previous efforts. The widescreen camera constantly roves around the action to keep up the momentum, even in smaller dialogue-driven moments. The use of primary colors, especially red and blue, are frequently saturated to highlight the constant battle between good and evil.

Maryann Brandon and Stefan Grube’s joint editing job is mostly a success, considering they had to edit some of it on-set. At 2 hours and 21 minutes, it’s one of the longest films in the saga, but this film really *moves.* Mile-a-minute pacing is the name of the game, as the main group of characters move around from one cool-looking world to the next as the adventure moves along. All of the action is cut together very well and comprehensively, even during some of the more extravagant sequences.

For his 9th and final Star Wars movie, the inimitable John Williams returns to provide the instrumental film score. It’s almost as magical as his previous efforts in the franchise, combining themes and motifs from all of the collective soundtracks into one while coming up with a couple of new ones. The woodwinds, brass, and strings all come together in the composer’s trademark sound of an emotional epic. He also brings in an ominous choir for the villain’s main theme, which encapsulates both the mystique of Kylo Ren’s morality and the somber road he’s taken thus far. The use of percussion like timpanis and bells also deserves to be noted, making it feel truly mysterious and adventurous.

Bringing the nine-film Skywalker Saga to a close and doing whatever it takes to get there, Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker is an enjoyable but narratively frustrating end to a truly epic cinematic story. J.J. Abrams sets out to finish the trilogy that he started and while it’s far from being worthy of getting thrown in the trash compactor, it still shows that he’s looking too much towards the past. All of the cast members do a great job to bring their characters’ arcs to a close and Williams’ final score for the franchise is undeniably excellent, even when it’s retreading old territory.

A part of me almost admires Abrams to sticking with his gut and ending the story on his own terms, but the choices he makes along the way are often ill-advised. Regardless of what you may think of how the Star Wars saga under the Disney banner has gone, it’s hard to argue that this final chapter could have been so much more.

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