Category Archives: Mystery

“Joker” Movie Review

I have rarely seen a piece media evoke such an evolving response that went from “we live in a society” memes to “this could be dangerous.” This psychological thriller initially premiered in competition at the 76th Venice International Film Festival. To the surprise of pretty much everyone in the industry, it won the prestigious Golden Lion award and continued its streak at TIFF the following week. Following what can only be described as one of the most unnecessary firestorms in recent memory, it was later released in theaters worldwide by Warner Bros. Pictures on October 4th, 2019. After breaking records for the biggest opening weekend in October, it has gone on to gross over $937 million at the box office against a budget of $55 million- way below the standard comic book movie budget. Several sources have indicated that it might become the first R-rated film to break the billion-dollar mark. And while some outlets have cooled since its premiere, it has maintained a generally positive critical reception and huge Oscar buzz for its star’s performance. Directed by Todd Phillips, the filmmaker and co-writer Scott Silver originally came up with the film as an answer to the struggling DC Extended Universe. It apparently took them over a year to convince Warner Bros. to release the film as they had conceived it: a hard-R character study with no DCEU connections, no sequel setup, and a mid-range cost. While the cast and crew came together fairly quickly, there was a brief incident during filming when extras were trapped inside a train car, and a SAG-AFTRA rep was sent to monitor the rest of production. It also generated enormous controversy in the weeks leading up to release when some worried that it might incite violence among “incels,” leading to increased police visibility and the film getting pulled from screening in Aurora, Colorado. Set in 1981 Gotham City, Joaquin Phoenix stars as Arthur Fleck, a struggling and isolated party clown. He suffers from a mental illness that causes him to laugh and cry uncontrollably at inappropriate times, which hinders his relationships and aspirations for a stand-up comedian. During a time when the city is going through social and economic strife, Arthur discovers a shocking secret held by his mother Penny, played by Frances Conroy, who he takes care of. This revelation, plus a number of other random and disturbing events happening in the city, propels him into madness as he decides to embrace his clown persona: The Joker. I’ll be honest, I only really became interested in this movie when Joaquin Phoenix signed on. I’ve never been fond of finding out the titular character’s backstory, as his mystique is part of the reason he’s such an endearing villain. But hearing tale that it was a mid-budget, R-rated character study rather than just a straightforward superhero story made it sound more enticing. The trailers showed exactly what I was hoping out of the film, as more of a street-level drama than a massive CGI-filled ensemble epic. Even with all of the controversy surrounding it, (We’ll get to that in a moment) I still had hopes Todd Phillips would be able to at least deliver something mighty interesting. And as it stands, Joker isn’t quite as brilliant as it wants to be, but it’s undoubtedly a big step forward for the genre in many ways. It’s very clear that Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver pay a great deal of homage to early Scorsese films, especially Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. Like the films of that legend, who was initially onboard as a producer, it tries to take a look at a mentally ill man disregarded by society who’s desperate for approval and attention from everyone. This is particularly spurred on because the city of Gotham is in such a state of disarray, and even Arthur’s social worker admits that the city doesn’t care about people like them. This portrait of mental illness and the violence it hath brought has also created an extraordinary controversy that, frankly, got blown way out of proportion. Regardless of the film’s deeper implications about the character, the idea that it would incite armed violence among an online community of incels is far too extreme, even with the current state of gun violence in America. Joker may leave some things to be desired in its exploration of these themes, but at almost no point does it seem like it’s glorifying his actions. Honestly, the mere fact that a major studio film like this even tries to approach these ideas, let alone with its bleak and apocalyptic tone, should be commended. In any case, Joaquin Phoenix continues his white-hot streak with one of his best performances here as Arthur Fleck. With a considerable amount of weight lost and an unassuming demeanor, he’s absolutely terrifying to watch as he spirals downward into something truly demented. He’s not afraid to speak his mind to other people, condescendingly telling his social worker, “All I have are negative thoughts.” By the end of the film, his body language has completely transformed in such a way that the Academy just has to recognize it. Robert De Niro also does some fine work as Murray Franklin, a talk show host whom Arthur is obsessed with. A direct callback to his early Scorsese roles, he convincingly portrays a guy who always wants to get to the next punchline, even at other people’s expense. Frances Conroy isn’t in the film for long, but she leaves an impression as Arthur’s confused and ill-stricken mother Penny. Although it’s clear that she’s having some delusions, we see how Arthur genuinely cares for her when everyone else has left. Other players include Zazie Beetz as Arthur’s cynical yet kind neighbor, Glenn Fleschler as a manipulative clown colleague, Shea Whigham and Bill Camp as GCPD detectives investigating Arthur’s activities, and Brett Cullen as self-righteous billionaire Thomas Wayne. While some are more important than others, they all feel perfectly fit for the decadent world created here. And from a technical perspective, Joker is certainly distinctive from many other comic book adaptations out there. The cinematography by Lawrence Sher creates a gritty, grimy aesthetic for 1980s Gotham. There’s a stark contrast in colors that helps make the frame feel deceptively inviting and gives a sort of grim beauty to the world. The camera is often steady and focused, always trying to follow Arthur as his movements constantly change. The most weirdly compelling moment comes at the end of the first act, when Phoenix launches into an improvised dance routine in a dilapidated bathroom, all captured on one shot. Jeff Groth’s editing job is similarly dark and disjunctive, always knowing exactly how long to linger on a subject. There are a handful of scenes where Arthur is laughing (Or crying) uncontrollably and the camera stays fixed on him as he tries to contain it. There are also a number of shots and cuts done in slow-motion, which helps to show how isolated he is in his world. Hildur Guðnadóttir provides the instrumental film score, and it’s one of the year’s most haunting and terrific. Far removed from other operatic soundtracks of the genre, this one is deeply unnerving and nefarious, much like the titular character. It relies heavily on low strings and percussion to build an atmosphere of tension and unease as Arthur gradually becomes the Joker. At first it seems somber as literally everyone and everything Arthur interacts with ends badly. But by the end, it’s come around to a more revelatory score, one where he finally embraces his clown persona. I can’t wait to see what else Guðnadóttir has in store for cinematic scores. Joker is a moody, sporadic, and sincerely disturbing reimagining of the greatest villain in any medium. Although I was initially skeptical of what it would come out as, Todd Phillips has crafted a real game-changer in comic book adaptations. It also helps that it’s anchored by a terrifyingly convincing performance from Joaquin Phoenix, who’s able to make this version wholly his own without trying to imitate or outdo his predecessors. Even though some aspects and themes of the film are still questionable, it’s hard not to least admire the attempt to create something truly different in this genre. If Warner Bros. actually goes ahead with the proposed DC Black label- one-off, auteur-driven comic adaptations with a mature edge -then I will be so satisfied. More of these, please.

Extra Large Movie Poster Image for Joker (#1 of 11)

“Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs and Shaw” Movie Review

I don’t care what the title for it says, this is definitely a superhero movie. It may have the words “Fast and Furious” in front of it, but that’s honestly what these series has become. This science-fiction tinged buddy action movie was released in theaters worldwide by Universal Pictures on August 2nd, 2019. After snatching the biggest Thursday preview earnings for its two stars, it has gone one to gross over $758.9 million at the worldwide box office. Much of that intake has apparently come in from overseas markets, including the second-highest opening weekend in China this year. Considering that it’s not even a mainline entry in its franchise, that’s a particularly impressive feat. Directed by David Leitch, the film was formally announced a few months after the release of Fate of the Furious, which caused the planned ninth installment to be pushed back. This caused tension with one of the franchise’s mainstay actors Tyrese Gibson, who took to Instagram to publicly complain about it all. In addition, longtime producer Neal H. Moritz sued the studio for breech of oral contract after being removed from the film’s credits. It was subsequently announced that he would no longer have any involvement with the franchise going forward. Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham both star as Luke Hobbs and Deckard Shaw, a retired D.S.S. agent and former mercenary, respectively. They are both brought on by the C.I.A. to find and take down Brixton Lore, played by Idris Elba, a cyber-genetically enhanced terrorist working for a tech cult known as Etreon. Things are further complicated when Shaw’s MI6 agent sister Hattie, played by Vanessa Kirby is framed for stealing a deadly virus that Lore is after called Snowflake. This sparks a globe-trotting showdown for Hobbs and Shaw to find a way to get rid of the virus safely, bring down Lore and his constituents, and clear their names. I won’t hesitate to admit that I only have a general familiarity with the Fast and Furious series. Before this movie, I had only watched the first two films, plus Fast Five, all the way through, just to have some idea of what this one would be like. Each one somehow managed to be more ridiculous than the last, which I suppose was part of the reason why it’s become so popular among audiences. Since they moved away from the main storyline, I figured I could jump headfirst into this spinoff without having to play catchup too much. And I’ve enjoyed David Leitch’s action work on John Wick and Deadpool 2, so seeing him directing two of the biggest action stars seemed rather enticing. And make no mistake, Hobbs and Shaw is not a masterpiece of any kind and barely feels cohesive at times, but is nonetheless entertaining and diverting. Sometimes, I go into a film hoping to be awestruck by its thematic resonance, wonderful storytelling, and acting. Other times, I go in wanting to see The Rock lassoing a helicopter with a pickup truck’s chain while on a cliffside chase. In no logical world can you allow that to pass by and still complain about the age gap between Deckard and Hattie, so suspending disbelief is pretty much mandatory here. One big bummer is that Hobbs and Shaw could have probably still worked just as well on its own without the Fast and Furious name slapped onto it. Its stars are both likable enough on their own terms to warrant a completely new IP, and this just felt like an attempt at brand recognition. But again, there’s only so much to complain about when looking at the movie as a whole. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Jason Statham have been seemingly building up to starring opposite each other for a while now. If for nothing else, their chemistry and constant bickering are what help carry the film through its bloated runtime. Johnson brings all of the muscle and testosterone typically required of his characters and gets to fire off some pretty decent one-liners. Statham, meanwhile, is his usual rugged and agile self, always confident in his next move and never sheds the opportunity to be hard on his new partner. Idris Elba once again plays the role of the villain here as Brixton Lore, as silly of an antagonist as you’d expect. He totally hams the role up, and brings a certain charm to this cyberpunk bad guy who loves big ambitions and bigger flamethrowers. You can tell he’s having an absolute blast with the character, always confident in his abilities and even gloats to the heroes “I’m black Superman!” Mission: Impossible- Fallout and The Crown alum Vanessa Kirby also shouldn’t be overlooked as Hattie, Shaw’s younger sister. She has many moments throughout where she just unleashes a flurry of attacks on unsuspecting bad guys, proving she’s in desperate need of her own franchise to lead. She proves she can more than hold her own than the established action stars at the forefront of the picture and even has some surprising moments of drama. The supporting cast is filled with the likes of Helen Mirren, Eiza González, Eddie Marsan, Cliff Curtis, and Rob Delaney in various roles. Each one feels like they’re filling archetypes rather than actual characters, but seem to be having fun with their roles. There are also a couple of unexpected appearances that are best left unspoiled here, but which mostly feel satisfying. And from a technical perspective, Hobbs and Shaw has enough flourish to match its silliness and large-scale action set pieces. Leitch’s collaborator Jonathan Sela once again handles the cinematography with varying degrees of success. While the frame sometimes seems digitally washed out in colors, it always keeps the action in focus and follows each blow with precision. The camera frequently has some great movements, such as swoops across the battlefield, as Leitch’s superb blocking skills come to light. This meets with the editing job by Christopher Rouse, a veteran of action films such as The Bourne Ultimatum. Like Leitch’s other work, there are no rapid cuts between numerous shots in various set pieces. This is a breath of fresh air in the action genre and is able to keep things interesting during these scenes. The edits are able to capture exactly what it needs to, as highlighted by a creative split-screen intro for the main duo. Although they’re in vastly different places, we get to see how they both operate in their worlds on a daily basis. That being said, it definitely could’ve been trimmed down. I can’t think of any logical reason why this movie runs at 2 hours and 16 minutes, and it just feels like it keeps going on and on. At least a half hour could be shaved right off without a single narrative beat missed and no would be the wiser. Nothing earth-shattering or even very memorable, Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs and Shaw is a bloated, indulgent but undemanding romp worth at least one ride. David Leitch once again shows his tenacity for behind the scenes magic, but the story and characters still feel secondary. Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham prove why they’re deserving of more movies starring opposite one another and Vanessa Kirby gets even more of an opportunity to shine as a star. This is just not a movie that should have the “Fast and Furious” brand slapped onto it. I’m reminded of something Hobbs says early on: “I’m what you call a nice, cold can of whoop-ass.” That’s what this film ultimately is: fun, nice to watch, and harmless, but sterile and unambitious.

“Serenity” Movie Review

About 3 years ago, I had reviewed the one and only season of the underrated and beloved T.V. show Firefly. In that review, I had promised readers that I would review its cinematic follow-up and conclusion Serenity “very soon.” Now, all this time later, I am finally making good on that promise and giving readers that same review and hope it encourages you to watch both. This science-fiction western hybrid film premiered at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, which sold out screenings numerous times. It was later released in theaters worldwide by Universal Pictures on September 30th, 2005, almost 3 years exactly from when inspiration first aired. Despite being highly anticipated, it performed poorly at the box office, barely making back its $40 million budget. However, it was mostly able to recuperate when it was released on home media and was praised by both critics and fans of the show. Written and directed by Joss Whedon, in his feature directorial debut, he had spent over a year rigorously trying to get Hollywood to help him continue the story after Firefly was unceremoniously cancelled by Fox. Eventually, producer Barry Mendel and executive Mary Parent became interested in the project and got Whedon to heavily cut down his script originally entitled The Kitchen Sink. Much of the screenplay takes some of the director’s original ideas for Firefly‘s unfilmed second season, and initially attempted to address all of the unresolved plot points from the show. There were numerous disputes behind the scenes over the budget and shooting circumstances of the film, such as whether to film it abroad or in California. Set in a new solar system about 500 years in the future, the story see’s the return of the titular Firefly-class vessel’s crew led by war veteran and space cowboy Capt. Malcolm Reynolds, played by Nathan Fillion. After rescuing the mysterious girl River, played by Summer Glau, from an Alliance-controlled facility, they intend to go on their merry way. However, it becomes clear that she holds key, deadly secrets regarding The Alliance and its infrastructure. This sets a shadowy assassin known simply as The Operative, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, on their trail as the crew attempts to unravel the clues on their hands. I was a huge fan of the short-lived Firefly show and will never, ever forgive Fox for cancelling it. It was such a creative and unusual take on the space genre, fusing it perfectly with sensibilities of a Western. Had Joss Whedon been given the chance to actually make more seasons, it could have possibly become one of the greatest shows of all time, and I stand by that. Very rarely do creators of a T.V. show get to continue, let alone conclude, their story on the big screen. And the fact that Joss Whedon actually got that second chance, no matter how it might have turned out, is amazing and a testament to the power of passionate fanbases. And that passion paid off because Serenity is a satisfying conclusion to the story and one hell of an enjoyable ride on its own merits. Unlike a lot of other cinematic continuations of beloved series, this follow-up doesn’t feel like it was forced by anyone. It really seems as though Whedon just naturally picked up where he left off with the story and characters without losing a beat. The crew of the ship are still wrestling with their own morality and choices, even if there’s been a gap in the timeline since the last episode. And even though we’re introduced to new planets and technology, Serenity still feels more like a Western than a sci-fi flick. Our heroes are undoubtedly cowboys looking for the next big score out in a virtually lawless sector of space and land. And seeing these cowboys finding a way to do what’s right even at the price of their own lives is all the more poignant, especially if you’re a big fan of the show like I am. Nathan Fillion has literally never been better than he has been as Malcolm Reynolds, and I’ll hold to that belief until I die. Beneath his smirks and cynicism is a man broken by war who tries to reconcile his own personal rules with what’s really going on with The Alliance. He’s also defiantly loyal to his own crew and never backs down from his mission, telling their assassin “I’m going to show you a world without sin.” Gina Torres and Alan Tudyk make a return as Zoe and Wash, Mal’s first mate and pilot on the ship, respectively. Although they frequently have strong differences with their captain, and are eager to share them, their unwavering loyalty makes them potent allies in the struggle to discover the truth about what’s going on. Their own husband and wife dynamic creates a great contrast as we get to see them butt heads on various issues that are raised throughout the story. Summer Glau is as great as ever with her role as River Tam, essentially the key to the whole mystery. She has relatively few lines of dialogue but the lines she does speak are extremely insightful into the chaos of the future and her voice intonations are on point. She also makes up for the lack of substantial words with amazing body language, constantly moving in unique and unpredictable ways. Adam Baldwin, Morena Baccarin, Sean Maher, Jewel Staite, and Ron Glass all reprise their respective roles from the show while David Krumholtz and Sarah Paulson play notable new faces. Chiwetel Ejiofor is extremely memorable as The Operative, as close to a human ghost one could get without becoming a real specter. He’s the kind of antagonist who never really shows outward emotions, using his calm demeanor to disarm his opponents. He also seems to recognize that he doesn’t belong in his vision of a perfect world, which makes his mission slightly more melancholy. And from a technical perspective, Serenity has all of the show’s prowess with a few cinematic touches. Clint Eastwood’s frequent collaborator Jack Green handles the cinematography with equal parts grime and glamour. Due to the film’s relatively low budget, fancy, sweeping shots typical of the genre are instead supplemented by a lot of handheld scenes. This ultimately helps sell its gritty Western aesthetic, as we’re down in the dirt with the characters as they try to make sense of things. The worlds are varied and unique and nearly each one is given a different color palette, which creates a visual distinction between them all. This manages to compliment the editing job by Whedon’s longtime editor Lisa Lassek, who also made her feature debut here. The scenes are cut together nicely and smoothly, with a number of match cuts that are perfectly lined up. It also moves between shots in action scenes with surprising grace and effort, ensuring that the viewer knows and sees everything going on. This especially gets interesting whenever the demented Reavers are on-screen, as the camera cuts away from showing their monstrous actions but still giving you a feeling of dread. The highly prolific yet underrated David Newman provides the instrumental film score here, and it’s perfectly suited to the story. Like the show, it manages to fuse influences from Westerns, sci-fi, and even a little bit of Eastern music into a big musical melting pot. Plucked strings are the main instrumentation, which give off the feeling of an old-school sci-fi adventure with a unique touch. It’s very melodic and befitting for the vastness and life of the new solar system that our heroes explore. Other tracks utilize low strings and electronic percussion to heighten the tension or mystery of the film. No matter what, it all works, even if the show’s theme song is sorely missed. With beloved characters making a wonderful return, Serenity is a highly fulfilling follow-up that does justice to its roots while making new strides. Even if you’re not affiliated with the show in any way, Joss Whedon still crafts one hell of a genre mashup that’s sure to be a crowd-pleaser. Even if it gets really weird and wonky in its pacing from time to time, the passion from everyone involved is as clear as daylight. And after the recent acquisition, this is one Fox property that I would be okay with seeing Disney revive. If it does actually happen, I can only hope that they do it right.

“Ad Astra” Movie Review

Of all the depictions of mankind’s future in the stars on the silver screen, this one might be one of the most grounded in plausibility. There’s no telling what exactly the future holds for us and to see this particular sort of portrait is fascinating. This large-scaled science-fiction drama premiere in the Official Competition at the 76th Venice International Film Festival. Aglow with positive reviews from critics, it was released in theaters by Disney under the 20th Century Fox banner on September 20th, 2019. From its opening weekend, it has thus far grossed over $120.1 million against an estimated budget of around $87 million. The studio is reportedly watching its performance closely for future analysis, though the star and director don’t seem to care as much. Directed by James Gray, the filmmaker spent the better part of a decade working on the project with co-writer Ethan Gross. His stated goal was to create the most realistic depiction of space in the history of film, especially of how hostile it is to humans. While many comparisons have obviously been made to the film Apocalypse Now and its novel inspiration Heart of Darkness, it’s also believed to stem from Gray’s complicated experience as a father. Originally scheduled to be ready in time for this year’s Cannes Film Festival, the film was repeatedly pushed back to accommodate time for the complex visual effects and for new distributor Disney to figure out the marketing campaign. Set in the near future, Brad Pitt produces and stars as Major Roy McBride, a space engineer and astronaut. After a series of power surges through the Solar System cause the deaths of thousands, the higher ups at Space Command believe it to be the work of his father H. Clifford McBride, played by Tommy Lee Jones. Clifford had disappeared 16 years prior on the Lima Project, a deep space mission that was meant to find signs of intelligent life in the farthest reaches of the Solar System. Believed to have lost his mind and hiding out near Neptune, Roy is assigned to go out and try and communicate with him, unraveling dark secrets about the mission in the process. I had been looking forward to this movie from the minute it had been announced a couple years back. I’m a fan of James Gray because I think he brings a certain classical touch to popular genres, like he did with The Lost City of Z and We Own the Night. Not to mention, this might be the biggest-scale project Brad Pitt has ever been a part of, which is really saying something. Hearing tale that this was more akin to Apocalypse Now in space rather than something like The Martian was extremely enticing. And plus, I will always support original big budget sci-fi movies in theaters because they’re becoming increasingly rare and in need of more attention. Such is the case with Ad Astra because it is simply one of the best films of the year and one hell of a breath of fresh air for science-fiction. While its yesteryear influences do feel clear in some respects, this film feels so adept to modern times. Some people have said that this is a feature-length advertisement for the proposed “Space Force,” but it’s far more abstract than that. Many people still cling to the idea that space really is the final frontier and while it may hold the future to someone like Elon Musk, to everyone else it’s simply a vast, cold, and empty void. What makes Ad Astra so amazing is that it addresses this hostility but keeps the hope of interpersonal connections at the forefront of its mind. Part of the reason Roy and Clifford love space so much is because it gives them an opportunity to get away from their loved ones, to isolate and become one with the universe. But it becomes clear that they’re both missing out on what’s right in front of them the entire time, and that sort of humanism is both beautiful and sorely lacking in the genre as a whole. I honestly didn’t think that Brad Pitt could top Cliff Booth in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but he has proven me wrong once again. As Roy McBride, he’s so incredibly reserved and collected for much of the film always internalizing his own emotions and fears about everything. And he goes about this mission, long repressed feelings about his father and life begin to bubble to the surface, especially because he thinks that Space Command is hiding something. Ruth Negga is memorable as well as Helen Lantos, a human native to Mars that encounters Roy on his journey. Although she’s only there for a brief period of time, she proves to be vital in his task as she apparently harbors a unique connection with his family. Her ability to empathize with Roy on his struggles makes her rare among the other companions he finds on his mission, and she’s one of the few people to get through to him emotionally and psychologically. Donald Sutherland also gets a rare chance to shine as Colonel Pruitt, Roy’s first and most consistent companion on his journey. He provides much insight into Clifford’s character as he tries to reason that he is not the man Roy remembers him being. Even after The Hunger Games series, it’s nice to see the 84-year-old actor put in some genuine work in a genre film like this. The supporting cast features a host of different individuals who have varying impacts on Roy’s mission or personal life. These include John Ortiz and John Finn as high-ranking officials in Space Command, Donny Keshawarz as an assuming ship captain moving straight from the Moon to Mars, Liv Tyler as his estranged Earth-bound wife Eve, and Tommy Lee Jones as his mysterious father Clifford. Each one leaves a pretty good impression and while Jones certainly isn’t the star of the film, he has a powerful monologue late in the film where it becomes apparent the Lima Project has become all-encompassing. And from just a look at the technical aspects, Ad Astra is such a prestigious and polished film. Shot by Interstellar and Dunkirk DP Hoyte Van Hoytema, the cinematography is about as incredible as you’d expect from him. Beginning with a glorious pan shot to Earth, the transition between CGI and practical sets is nearly flawless. The realistic lighting and careful shots help to establish the unique atmosphere and futuristic world. These include Mars, which is engulfed in an orange-red haze, and the Moon, where everything is wide open and spread out. The editing job is a collaborative effort between John Axelrad and Lee Haugen, and it moves from scene to scene effortlessly. There’s an almost weightless quality to the pacing of this film, as each moment is cut together very smoothly and elegantly. It often switches from wide-angle or medium shots to Roy’s P.O.V. to help us get inside his headspace, whether it’s on the collapsing space antenna or when his escort is attacked by moon pirates. And what’s even better is that these scenes are almost entirely devoid of sound, which makes their impact even more sudden. Classically trained composer Max Richter gives us the instrumental score here, and it’s quite possibly my favorite of his for a feature film. The main track, while lacking a conventional melody, is a sweeping and memorable one filled with high and low strings. Other tracks throughout use a very similar method, and even throw in some old-school electronic sounds for good measure. It’s at once very melancholy and also hopeful, using the composer’s trademark minimalism to capture the emotional effects space has one person. The soundtrack also uses songs from various other composers to great effect, such as newcomer Lorne Balfe. The most notable one, though, is Nils Frahm, whose song “Says” plays near the climax of the film. The synth-heavy piece perfectly plays up the tension as everything our protagonist has worked towards comes to a stirring head. Bolstered by excellent thematic ideas and one of the best uses of voice-over in recent memory, Ad Astra has stunning cosmic visuals to match its deeply humanistic story. Quite possibly James Gray’s finest picture yet, and certainly one of his most accessible, this is the kind of science-fiction movie that studios don’t really make anymore. It features one of Brad Pitt’s greatest performances and a curious message about how maintaining interpersonal relationships is more important than finding any other form of life in the universe. And in a world that’s becoming increasingly distant and disconnected, that is the sort of oddly comforting optimism that should be appreciated more.

Ad Astra - Poster Gallery

“Citizen Kane” Movie Review

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

“Midsommar” Movie Review

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

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“Stuber” Movie Review

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

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