Category Archives: Mystery

“BlacKkKlansman” Movie Review

I don’t know if I’ve ever felt more hit by a metaphorical truck than the opening and closing sequences of this film. Whatever you may read about beforehand, trust me when I say that you are not prepared for it. This biographical crime drama competed for the prestigious Palme d’Or at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. Although it didn’t win the big prize, the film ultimately took home the Grand Prix, which is essentially second-place in the competition. It was later released by Focus Features in theaters on August 10th, 2018, grossing over $43 million at the box office against a modest budget of $15 million. Co-written and directed by Spike Lee, the spec screenplay Charlie Wachtel and David Rabinwoltz was originally written around 2015 after stumbling across the titular memoir. After many months of unsuccessful pitches to Hollywood studios, the project came to the attention of Get Out producers Jordan Peele and Jason Blum, who immediately wanted to get it made. Peele handpicked Lee to direct the picture, and production practically accelerated last year after the Charlottesville Unite the Right ally in mid-August. Based on an insane true story, John David Washington (Son of Lee’s long-time collaborator Denzel) stars as Ron Stallworth, the first black man to become a detective in the Colorado Springs Police Department in 1979. Following an inconsequential stint infiltrating a speaking event by Kwame Ture, he comes across an ad in the local newspaper asking for support for a new chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. On a whim, he calls the number and puts on the guise of a white supremacist, and actually earns their trust. He then assigns a white Jewish partner named Flip Zimmerman, played by Adam Driver, to play the part in person as they advance further and further into the organization. I’ve read a great number of reviews for this film saying that it’s Spike Lee’s “best film in decades” or “his return to form.” Truth be told, I have only seen a handful of his films, and a couple clips from his Netflix series She’s Gotta Have It, so I can’t make either claim. I was very excited, however, to see this film mainly because of the director’s reputation and the absurdity behind the true story. It seemed impossible for something that started out as a hilarious skit by Dave Chappelle to have happened in real life. Yet time and again, truth can always be stranger than fiction. Which is why I can confidently say that BlacKkKlansman is my favorite Spike Lee joint thus far, and one of the best films of the year. There are a number of different aspects that work hand-in-hand in the film, many of which you wouldn’t expect to at first. Namely, how Lee is able to balance the very light with the very heavy. There are a number of hilarious moments, mainly which highlight the inherent stupidity of organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan. But there are other scenes that extremely intense or dark, such as a scene where a character played by Harry Belafonte tells a sickening story of brutality. There’s also a very unconventional pastiche prologue that just didn’t quite click with me. John David Washington is on his way to being a star like his father, and his lead performance here proves as much. He’s extremely charismatic and intelligent, but not ignorant to the institutional prejudice he faces; he’s often wondering if he can make positive changes to what’s seemingly a broken system. By his side are Adam Driver and Michael Buscemi as his white partners on the investigation. While both have reservations- particularly with Flip’s sudden acceptance of his Jewish character -they are perfectly willing to go along with Stallworth’s plan to end the bigotry. Other notable players include Laurie Harrier as a fiery Black Student Union president, Cory Hawkins as the infamous Kwame Ture, and Jasper Pääkkönen as the most radical Klansman. But the scene-stealer to me is Topher Grace’s icy cold portrayal of David Duke, former Grand Wizard of the Klan. It saddens me to say that he feels born to play the role, and it’s his best one yet. The conversations he has with Ron over the phone provide some great insight into his ideology. After all, he managed to make bigotry somehow more mainstream and sophisticated in modern day society. Meanwhile, Lee shows off most of his stylistic trademarks through some wonderful technical flourishes. Chayse Irvin is an inspired choice for the cinematographer, as he also photographed Beyonce’s Lemonade in 2016. We see a number of dolly shots, showing characters practically floating from one destination to another, creating a dreamlike feeling to the story. There are also a handful of shots that either carry out from curious dutch angles or from Steadicam drifts. Either way, it’s all captured on a glorious 35 mm lens. It meshes extremely well with Barry Alexander Brown’s quick and decisive editing skills, reportedly his fastest job in decades. Many of the phone conversations are given a split-screen treatment so that we can see reactions from both ends. It also manages to keep the story flowing in a clean three-act manner, which is apparently a rarity for the director. Jazz musician Terence Blanchard returns for his 15th collaboration with Lee to compose the musical score. It’s a real doozy, mixing a number of unique instruments to make a cool sound. With a central riff on the electric guitar and gradually building flutes and strings, it sounds almost as if it belongs in a major spy picture. It’s also curious how it mixes the percussion. One minute it’s a smooth beat on the drumset, the next it’s playing out on a marching snare as if we’re marching off to the war many characters prophesize. Regardless, the main theme sticks in your head and is the backbone for many tracks. Not to mention the sweet selection of 70’s dance songs, which help seel it’s homage to blaxploitation films of the era. And as I’m sure many of you have heard, the ending sequence right before the credits roll comes out of nowhere. I don’t necessarily see it as a spoiler, so I’ll just tell you: BlacKkKlansman ends with actual footage from the Charlottesville rally, and the reactions of officials afterward. Jarring, powerful, confrontational, and completely sincere. My jaw was on the floor and no one in my theater left with a single word said. BlacKkKlansman is a dynamic play on multiple genres with a sharp bite. It’s an extremely entertaining buddy cop story with a broad appeal, but also unafraid to run its audience over with a ginormous truck. Spike Lee not only crafts a thought-provoking and all-too-relevant meditation on brutality and perseverance, we’re left to question just how much has changed in the nearly 40 years since then. But it is worth noting that having that conversation isn’t only okay, it’s important.

Advertisements

“Fargo” Movie Review

And for our next entry in my New Year’s resolution series, we take a look at perhaps one of the coldest, most isolated spots in all the United States. You’re darned tootin’ that things are gonna get ugly up in here. This black comedy crime film was originally released on March 8th, 1996, grossing nearly 10 times its $7 million budget. It was also a part of the Competition for the Palme d’Or at that year’s Cannes Film Festival and went on to win 2 Academy Awards the following February. In addition, the film is one of only 6 movies in history to be selected for preservation in the National Film Registry in its first year of eligibility. Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, who at the time couldn’t be credited together yet, the film claims to be based on a true story. (It’s not, really) The duo had to deal with difficult conditions during the shoot, but by all accounts, the hard work paid off. It also, unfortunately, received bad press after a Japanese woman died trying to find the “real” money buried out in the snow. Set mostly in the titular town in North Dakota, the story follows William H. Macy as Jerry Lundegaard, a down-on-his-luck car salesman from Minneapolis. Swimming in over $300,000 of debt, he desperately hires two dimwitted criminals, Carl Showalter and Gaear Grimsrud, to kidnap his wife and collect a hefty ransom from his wealthy father-n-law. However, Grimsrud and Showalter impulsively kill a state trooper and two eyewitnesses on the side of the snowy highway. This attracts the attention of police chief Marge Gunderson, who is determined to solve the case despite being over 7 months pregnant. I have an odd relationship with the Coen Brothers, almost as odd as the films they make together. Some of their films, like Hail, Caesar! and Inside Llewyn Davis, left me feeling cold and unsatisfied, but others such as A Serious Man, Raising Arizona, and O, Brother Where Art Thou? I really adore. Most of their filmography requires at least two viewings to fully grasp what was being said or done. However, of the ones that I have seen, there are only two films of theirs that I truly love. And honestly, after this rewatch, I’m extremely tempted to say that Fargo is my favorite one. In my lifetime, there have only been a handful of films I’ve seen that I’m willing to call “perfect” without any reservation. Among them: Pulp Fiction. Raiders of the Lost Ark. Moonlight. Singin’ in the RainThe Shawshank Redemption. Casablanca. Whenever I see lists or compilations that countdown feature films with no flaws or issues, I always want to see Fargo make it on there. There is not a single misstep in the plot, not one line of dialogue that feels out of place, no thread left unresolved or a weak link performance. Every time I watch it, I actively look to see if anything stumbles, even in the background. But for such a mundane film, one that only runs at about 98 minutes total, Joel and Ethan have crafted something truly masterful, despite the fact that it takes place in the middle of nowhere. The two show a knack for getting incredible performances out of actors, not the least of which is Joel’s wife Frances McDormand. Deservedly winning an Academy Award for Best Actress, her turn as Marge is so believable and understated that you’d swear she actually lives in the northern state itself. William H. Macy is also excellent as Jerry Lundegaard. Despite his apparent sliminess, he is able to wring out a tiny bit of sympathy as we see just how desperate and pathetic he is. Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare play the two criminals hired for the job, Carl Showalter and Gaear Grimsrud. Whereas Buscemi is playing his typical role of a talkative and deceptive dirtbag, Stormare is more of a quiet, thoughtful man capable of unexpected violence. Either way, it becomes clear how stupid these two really are for taking on the job. Other supporting players like John Carrol Lynch, Steve Reevis, Harve Presnell, and Kristin Rudrüd each provide a neat little addition to the supposedly “nice” environment and leave nothing to complain about. And like many of their other films, Fargo is a secretly brilliant film from a technical standpoint. In the third of what would be an extremely fruitful collaboration with the duo, Roger Deakins uses the cinematography to create a feeling of isolation. The frame is almost always filled with wide shots of the blank, bleak, endless landscape of snow and ice. It’s almost as if they’re reminding us that while it might look unremarkable at first glance, there’s always more than meets the eye to a place set in the middle of nowhere. The Coen Brothers also lend their hands at editing the picture, a common practice in their career. They show remarkable patience with cuts in scenes. Many are drawn out or stalled, as if to elicit more laughter from the audience, even in some really moments. The most interesting ones are when it cuts between the calm, happy nature of certain citizens and the severely sad atmosphere of others. Carter Burwell provides the original instrumental score, who has turned out to give it to 15 of the directors’ films over the years. And it’s a real doozy, somehow matching the winter landscapes of both Minnesota and North Dakota with an almost melancholic whimsy. The opening theme, which serves as the backbone to most of the tracks, perfectly establishes the offbeat tone to be expected from this film. With light flutes and Western-esque violins, the main melody is as simple and elegant as the plot. It also utilizes soft mallet percussion and other plucked strings to great effect. And like other entries in the brothers’ filmography, there’s always something more to take away than just what the plot might be. Whether it’s the nihilistic undertones of No Country For Old Men or the absurdist mind reality of Barton Fink, the duo have quite a bit to say without specifically pronouncing it. In this movie, they look at what it takes to be happy and fulfilled, which very few of the characters are. When Marge finally confronts the bad guys, she lectures, “And for what? For a little bit of money. There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’tcha know that? And here ya are, and it’s a beautiful day. Well. I just don’t understand it.” Despite that relatively sad observation, it does convey how little a normal person should have in order to attain happiness. With fantastic dialogue, beautiful performances, and multiple people working at the top of their craft, Fargo is a darkly hilarious and satisfying meditation on crime and life. I don’t know how Joel and Ethan Coen do it, but they manage to take someplace as mundane as a small snow-filled town and transform it into a tense, unpredictable thriller backdrop. Every member of the cast is perfectly written for their parts while Roger Deakins and others work their behind-the-camera magic. All in all, this might just be the cinematic definition of the word “perfect.”

Image result for fargo movie poster

 

 

“Incredibles 2” Movie Review

What we have to take away from this sequel isn’t that superheroes are an overly saturated form of escapism that gradually makes human beings weaker and more vulnerable. No, what we take away is that 14 years after the original film, Brad Bird is STILL able to school young filmmakers and producers on how to make a truly playful blockbuster. This computer-animated superhero adventure marks the 20th overall feature film from Pixar Animation Studios. Released worldwide on June 15th, 2018, the film has unsurprisingly been able to swallow up over $793 million at the box office, boosted up by strong reviews and high anticipation. Following some pessimism at the summer box office, it managed to set a new record for the biggest opening weekend of all time for an animated film, finally surpassing the 3rd Ice Age film after 9 years. Once again written and directed by Brad Bird, the idea for a sequel to The Incredibles gestated with the filmmaker for many years but promised he would only make one when he felt he had a worthy story. Reportedly, he took some story thread ideas that never made it into the first installment and tried to expand on them. It wasn’t until after the premiere of 2015’s Tomorrowland that he officially committed to making the sequel a reality. When Pixar swapped the release date with Toy Story 4, he had to rush through and try and complete everything in time. Picking up immediately where the original film left off, the superpowered Parr family yet again comes under political and public scrutiny after an attempt to save the city goes awry. When all hope seems lost, they are approached by Winston and Evelyn Deavor, a brother and sister in charge of a powerful telecommunications corporation. Winston is a big fan of superheroes and offers them a chance to regain favor and legislation that would allow them to relive the “glory days.” Bob/Mr. Incredible agrees to stay at home with the kids while Elastigirl takes part in the publicity stunt, only to go head-to-head with a mysterious new villain known as the Screenslaver. This is a sequel that I have been anxiously waiting to see in theaters for over a decade now. (Just saying that makes me feel so old) The Incredibles isn’t just one of my favorite Pixar movies, but also easily in my top 5 favorite superhero films ever. And I have also really enjoyed Bird’s Ratatouille as well as his transition to live-action with the superbly directed actioner Mission: Impossible- Ghost Protocol. So imagine the surprise on my face when he FINALLY announced that a sequel to his animated masterpiece was already on the way. I felt that more so when the release date was pushed up. Even so, I tried to be cautious because, with the exception of Toy Story 3, Pixar doesn’t have a great track record with animated sequels. Thankfully, I wasn’t let down because this movie was so much fun, I loved Incredibles 2 almost as much as the first. As with last time, one of the best things about this film is that Brad Bird understands the tropes of the superhero genre so well. The world has seen a lot of change since the year 2004, not the least of which is the unbelievably lucrative genre of superhero movies. The filmmakers seem to understand that and go beyond the traditional definition of what a hero really is. It’s not just what Elastigirl is doing in public, but Bob singlehandedly trying to keep all 3 of his wildly different children in line. As the costume designer Edna puts it, “Parenting, when done properly, is a heroic act.” On the other end of the spectrum, the good public work that the family is putting proves an inspiration to other “supers.” One such moment came in the introduction of Voyd, a Kristen Stewart-like super with the ability to create portals that looks up to Elastigirl as a childhood hero. Most of the original cast members, save for Dash, return for the second go-around and haven’t lost an ounce of their touch. In a truly smart move, Holly Hunter is pushed to the forefront in a chance to shine as Elastigirl, with all the toughness of a badass and the warmth of a truly caring mother. Craig T. Nelson, in a fantastic role switch, is hilarious as he struggles with taking charge of the kids, each with their own set of challenges. Newcomers Catherine Keener and Bob Odenkirk both do great work as the Deavor siblings. Keener’s world-weary cynicism feels perfectly parallel to Odenkirk’s wide-eyed optimism for the return of superheroes. But let’s be honest: The real scene-stealer was Jack-Jack the Parr’s infant son who’s just discovering his own powers. In normal hands, these scenes with Jack-Jack and his family’s dealing with them could come off as unappealing and be pandering. But Bird, well-aware of the excitement and terrors of parenthood, explores it with wondrous possibilities and uses brilliant timing to his advantage. As one can always expect from Pixar, the behind-the-scenes technical aspects for Incredibles 2 are absolutely to die for. The thing I love most about Brad Bird’s animation is that he’s able to make it feel so cinematic and playful. The action is framed and shown almost entirely in rotoscope, allowing us to really seem like it’s a live-action film. This goes for the fantastic lighting effects, which illuminate every single scene perfectly. However, there is one particular moment with rapidly flashing strobes that could prove too much for certain viewers. And of course, the animation is absolutely gorgeous. The differences between this film and its predecessor are almost night and day, with character movements and emotions being captured so flawlessly. It also helps that the use of bright colors and tones make it a joy to look at, and one of the more visually distinctive films of the genre in recent years. Michael Giacchino returns to provide the instrumental score for this sequel, and it’s just as fun as last time. The soundtrack uses similar sounds and leitmotifs from the previous installment, such as piercing trumpet lines and jazzy saxophones. Once again, along with old-school percussion equipment, it feels like an espionage thriller from the 60’s or 70’s. New tracks include ones that rely on low strings or plucked harps, typically during moments of mystery. While not as intense as the original, it still feels right for what they went for. There are also some interesting vocal tracks recorded by Disney’s a capella group, meant to be old-fashioned theme songs for the adult heroes. Not only was this really inspired but also gave more characterization to the world that they inhabit. My main issue with the film, as I’m sure other reviewers probably pointed out, was the villain Screenslaver. As the plot progresses and we learn more about their motivations and plans, there is an element that makes sense to their logic. In fact, in some ways, they’re actually right and justified in what happens. But the way in which they were revealed felt kind of underwhelming and a lesser version of Syndrome in the first film. By the time the final showdown came, it felt as though there was an emotional connection or tension that was missing. Aside from that, Incredibles 2 is a rollicking family adventure worthy of the titular heroes. I’m genuinely surprised and pleased with how much effort Brad Bird put into making this sequel over the years. One can only imagine where a third installment could go, but hopefully, we won’t have to wait another 14 years to see it. In any case, this one was worth the wait.

 

 

“Ocean’s 8” Movie Review

Nothing like watching a bunch of really beautiful people pulling off a seemingly implausible heist for about 2 hours. There are probably a billion better ways to spend an afternoon, but this one doesn’t so bad at all. Produced on a budget of $70 million, this crime caper comedy was released worldwide on June 8th, 2018, grossing over $244 million at the box office so far. This is helped by a wave of surprisingly favorable reviews for the film, becoming something of a sleeper hit for many. Directed by Gary Ross, who previously helmed the first installment of The Hunger Games, Steven Soderbergh vowed for a good number of years that Ocean’s Thirteen would be the last film in the series. However, he did approve of a female-led spin-off starting in October of 2015. Soderbergh remained onboard as a producer, while Matt Damon reprised his role in a scene that was ultimately cut from the final product. Sandra Bullock stars as Debbie Ocean, the late Danny Ocean’s younger sister, and a professional con artist like her sibling. Following her release from prison, Debbie and her best friend/partner-in-crime Lou, played by Cate Blanchett, plan on stealing a valuable necklace worth $150 million at the annual Met Gala in New York City. In order to pull it off, they recruit 5 other female criminals, each with a different, specific area of expertise, to help realize the plan. But one thing stands in the way: the necklace is being worn by celebrity guest Daphne Kluger, who is almost impossible to trick. So Ocean’s Eleven is genuinely one of my favorite crime movies from the 2000’s. It would probably never appear on any “Best of all time” lists or be seen as a cinematic masterpiece, but it does serve as a nice round of undemanding escapism that oozes so much confidence and charisma. Truth be told, I wasn’t all that interested in seeing a spin-off of any kind, especially because the two sequels, Twelve and Thirteen, were pretty underwhelming. I enjoyed the first Hunger Games movie but was frequently annoyed by its poor direction and horrendously shaky camera. That being said, I found myself drawn to the theater, probably because Steven Soderbergh still had involvement in the production. There’s also just something oddly appealing about watching a lot of stars I love playing criminals with hearts of gold while looking pretty. And that’s more or less what one can expect from Ocean’s 8, which yet again provides some effortless entertainment to spare. However, I’m not very convinced that this film actually had to be connected to the Ocean‘s franchise in any way, shape, or form. With a talented ensemble and crew working together at this level of skill, it could have easily been a completely brand new, female-fronted I.P. for Warner Bros. The fact that Debbie is the younger sister of George Clooney’s character doesn’t really have a big effect on the storyline at all. The only exceptions are a few scenes mentioning it in passing as well as both Elliot Gould and Shaobo Qin briefly reprising their small roles in certain moments. Aside from that, it kind of feels like a forced form of brand recognition in an effort to bring bigger bucks from audiences. In the end, it just seems a little bit smug of the studio to slap the name on the title. But that’s not to say the leading ladies don’t make it fun to watch; they really prove their worth. It’s been a while since I’ve seen Sandra Bullock, but I’m happy to report that she’s great in here. She’s almost natural at being a con artist, as it’s often hard to tell whether she’s acting genuine or has something else up her sleeve. Meanwhile, Cate Blanchett, fresh off being the Competition Jury President at this year’s Cannes, puts in smooth work as her partner-in-crime. Right at home with her native Australian accent, she’s arguably the slipperiest and hardest of the group to pin down. The other team members are played by Helena Bonham Carter, Rihanna, Mindy Kaling, Awkwafina, and Sarah Paulson, each of whom are clearly having fun in their roles. Anne Hathaway plays Daphne Kluger, and she seems strangely made for the part. Beautiful but airheaded, it feels reminiscent of her early roles in films like The Devil Wears Prada. It’s all capped off by a number of cool celebrity cameos at the Met Gala that I’m not even gonna try and name off. And while Gary Ross may not have the same skills as Soderbergh, he still demonstrates wonderous technical proficiency with the heist. The cinematography by Eigil Bryld, mostly known for work in indie productions, makes crime in New York look very handsome and smooth. Although it’s in danger of being glossy at times, it still manages to capture all of the leading ladies and various other celebrities at the Met Gala in all their gorgeous outfits, especially at nighttime. Meanwhile, the editing by Juliette Welfling keeps the pacing aloof and allows for some interesting cuts and contrasts between moments. When the heist itself goes down, the way the camera moves from different perspectives, sometimes ones simultaneously. It keeps the tension up high enough to retain the attention of audience members throughout the 110 minute-long runtime. Despite that tension, though, you know pretty much exactly how the story is going to go down. As with the previous Ocean’s movies, as well as as 2017’s Logan Lucky, it follows almost all of the familiar beats that one could expect from these types of films. Again, had it been an original film rather than a continuing franchise, it probably would have been a lot better and more dynamic. But yet I reiterate, it’s still able to provide some nice entertainment. Ocean’s 8 is a wholly unnecessary but effortlessly charming caper. While it plays things a little too safe for its own good, if you just want to watch a movie that completely takes your mind off of any real-world stress or activities, this is a good start to that. One thing’s for sure, though: I still don’t really understand the appeal of high fashion. Sorry.

Image result for ocean's 8

 

“Hereditary” Movie Review

After coming home from watching this movie, I had to take a long, thorough shower while the images kept burning in my brain. Whatever you do, do NOT take your whole family out to see this film. You will all regret it for years to come. This psychological horror drama premiered as part of the Midnight section at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Following another screening at the 2018 South By Southwest Film Festival, it finally arrived in theaters on June 8th. Despite high praise from critics and journalists, audiences gave a mixed reaction to the film, scoring it a D+ on CinemaScore. But that doesn’t really seem to be deterring its success, as it has already accumulated over $62 million at the worldwide box office. Written and directed by Ari Aster, this marks his feature-length debut after producing a number of similarly dark short films. According to him, the story is inspired by a number of harsh, unhappy occurrences in his family which he refuses to share details of. And while he was making the movie, approached it “not as a horror film, but as a tragedy that curdles into a nightmare.” Toni Collette stars as Annie Graham, a miniaturist artist seemingly unhappy with how her life has turned out. When her mysterious and reclusive mother dies of natural causes, she, her husband, and her two children deal with the tragedy in their own separate ways. However, the whole family finds itself in even more of a struggle when they have to deal with some sort of evil spirit left behind by the grandmother. And over the next 2 hours, we get to watch as their sanity and unity slowly falls apart, piece by piece. Now, I have been really looking forward to seeing Hereditary since the first reviews poured in from Sundance. It’s always exciting when a new, young filmmaker wants to give audiences frights in unique ways, and the distributor A24 is a master at finding those voices. In fact, they have been churning out low-key horror masterpieces at such a steady rate in the last few years, that we almost take their films for granted. The marketing cleverly worked around how to promote the film, and yet I tried to caution myself. I’ve had a tendency in the past to get overly excited about hits on the festival circuit that end up being disappointing to me. So keeping that in mind, I really wanted to like Hereditary but tried not to let the hype train override my feelings toward it. And yet, my expectations were completely blown out of the water; this is one of the best and most disturbing horror films I’ve seen in quite a while. And you should be careful when you read that sentence because everyone has a very different, subjective view of what makes something scary. For some, they may just want to have a good time with gore and jump scares. And while this can often be fun, (Some of my favorites fit that very description) it kind of diminishes the potential effects that horror can have on a viewing experience. The ability to dig deep underneath your skin, crawl up and down, and rack your brain with haunting imagery that will stay in your dreams for days; if not weeks. In the entire runtime of the movie, there was only one jump scare… and it scared the living bejeezus out of me. As the credits rolled, my friend and I were left completely speechless and didn’t speak a word on the way home to one another. I even had to take a shower when I got home and put on some funny cartoons to cheer myself up. It’s been a very long time since something like that has happened to me after watching a movie. I’ve been impressed with some of Toni Collette’s roles in the past, but this might just be the best performance of her career. A far cry from her turn in The Sixth Sense, she is seriously depressed and unhappy as Annie, unable to find healthy ways to cope with grief and death. All of the hype circling a potential Academy Award nomination for her certainly isn’t out of the question. Gabriel Byrne and Alex Wolff do similarly extraordinary work as both her husband and teenage son, respectively. The understated anguish on their faces throughout the runtime show all the inner turmoil these two go through after the grandmother’s death. Also worth noting is newcomer Milly Shapiro and prolific character actress Ann Dowd as the daughter and mysterious friend, respectively. Neither one is particularly easy to pin-down, and both are good at making the audience feel uneasy. And whilst this may only be Aster’s first feature, the technical aspects reveal him as an artist in complete control of his own craft. The harsh cinematography by Pawel Pogorzelski mutes several colors as it steadily moves about the characters’ lives. Often times, whenever some bigger scene is happening, the camera will push in on one of the Grahams, almost to an uncomforting degree. It does an incredible job at fusing the layout of their household and livelihoods with the miniature houses and figures that Annie creates, as evidenced by the haunted, unbroken opening shot. The editing is done collaboratively by both Jennifer Lame and Lucian Johnston, whose work cuts together scenes beautifully. Whereas one scene could be made entirely of only a couple takes, others could be precisely edited with multiple back-and-forth cuts. The unease either of them creates in the viewer all adds up to an incredibly effective, bleak atmosphere. It’s still kind of amazing to think that Ari Aster had never made a film before this one. I’m curious to check out his shorts to get an idea of what else this guy is really capable of in a cinematic landscape. Certainly not for the impatient or faint of heart, Hereditary is a profoundly disturbing and upsetting horror drama with heady concepts. Hearing how the director has already been rejecting movie offers from major studios makes me excited for his future career. The imagery still burns in my mind and the dark themes will keep swimming in my mind for a long time.

See the source image

“American Animals” Movie Review

This is likely going to turn into a scenario where the people who keep demanding something new or innovative in cinema will reject this movie as “too arthouse” or “too weird.” If that happens, that means the filmmakers are on the right track for a solid career in the industry. This highly unconventional heist thriller premiered as part of the official competition at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, getting picked up by both The Orchard and the newly formed distributor MoviePass Ventures. Entering a limited theatrical release on June 1st, the film expanded into more theaters and has managed to gross nearly $3 million at the box office. Written and directed by Bart Layton, the film marks his first foray into narrative features, following his breakout with the 2012 documentary The Imposter. Layton virtually expands the elements on atmospheric reenactments from that film to feature-length here. Based on a crazy true story, the film follows 4 college students- Warren Lipka, Spencer Reinhard, Chas Allen, and Eric Borsuk -attending Transylvania University in Kentucky. The college library there is home to several priceless antique books, including two filled with very famous animal paintings by John James Audubon. In the 2003-2004 academic year, for reasons that still remain unclear, the men start joking about robbing the library blind. But they soon become serious about it, researching crime movies for help on their endeavor, setting up potential buyers for the books, and ultimately get ready to pull off one of the most daring heists in recent U.S. history. Movies centered on heists are hardly anything new in cinema these days, there are just so many of them. Any time a new one comes out, they have to REALLY work hard to impress me or stand out from the crowd in any way. And a former documentarian deciding to take on the story of 4 privileged white dudes pulling off a particularly stupid crime on a college campus? Interesting angle, but I’m still not entirely convinced that it’ll be anything special or memorable. And just because it premiered and competed at Sundance or any other festival doesn’t necessarily mean that it will always be worth the trouble of seeing in theaters, let alone worth reviewing. So take that as a sign of how much I liked Amercian Animals; I really had a lot of fun watching this movie. And trust me when I say that no reader here has ever seen any film quite like this in their whole life. Bart Layton may be working primarily with professional actors, but that doesn’t stop him from using his docudrama expertise to his advantage. While most of the film is told in a narrative fashion, it is directly followed by talking head interviews from the real-life subjects. They offer unique reflections on how everything went down, from first meeting one another to the sweat-inducing heist itself. But rather than just have them explain everything exactly as it happened, the filmmakers smartly decide to just let them provide more context as to their actions and motivations. Even better, each of them remembers certain scenarios or actions differently than others, providing both a slick comedic edge and some unreliable narrator shenanigans. Admittedly, it’s a little frustrating because it’s still left unclear why these 4 men did what they did. But I definitely enjoyed watching Layton try to add more thematic depth to the story. Errol Morris would be proud. Agents, studios, and cinephiles all need to start paying more attention to the 4 main actors in this movie. Jared Abrahamson and Blake Jenner do great in their respective roles, but Evan Peters and Barry Keoghan play Warren and Spencer, the ringleaders of the operation, and do particularly fantastic work together. Keoghan, who had a wonderful breakout last year with Dunkirk and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, plays Spencer as a decent, naive kid who seems unsure of what he wants in life, a quality many can relate to. Peters, meanwhile, is a total revelation as Warren. This is wholly different from his turn as Quicksilver in the new X-Men movies. He’s unpredictable, brazenly entitled, manipulative, profane, but also spiteful for no reason. His flawed logic for stealing the antique books is both insane and tragic, painting himself as more than just a sociopathic narcissist. It becomes disorderly and honestly somewhat unsettling when he becomes convinced that he can be just like a smooth criminal from the movies. From a purely technical point of view, there is an amazing amount of skill and confidence behind the camera. Ole Bratt Birkeland’s widescreen cinematography skillfully captures each environment and tone of each scene with grace. In some of the students’ imagined scenarios’, it’s all taken on slick, dynamic single-take shots. Other instances, like when things don’t seem to be going according to plan, it becomes very unsteady and shaky, at times a little disorienting. It also nails the atmosphere, which becomes increasingly darker and more hard-edged as the film goes along. The editing is a collaborative effort between Nick Fenton, Chris Gill, Luke Dunkley, and Julian Hart. It uses very precise cuts, moving back and forth from the acting portrayal to the real criminals themselves. For example, in one scene, Spencer begins a sentence, only to be finished by the real Spencer. It also works to create interesting visual contradictions between the subjects. A few hard cuts elicited a good laugh or two out of me. The musical score here is composed and conducted by Anne Nikitin, who had previously worked with Layton on The Imposter. The score is decidedly modern and appropriately moody for the material at hand, utilizing a number of synthesizers and severely low strings that would (hopefully) bring Johann Johannson back to life. She also uses some neat percussive instruments to wring out the tension in the viewer and softer electric guitar strums to provide an emotional through line. In some ways, it felt like a neverending crescendo as we watch the situation get more and more complicated. There are also a number of obscure songs from bygone rock and folk artists. It’s weird to say that songs by both Mobb Deep and The Doors fit perfectly in the same movie, but that’s how it is. Just like the original tracks, at times it’s playful and others it’s dead serious. I feel like this has a broader appeal than most audiences might think at first. Regular moviegoers will get to see an unconventional heist thriller, cinephiles will get to pick apart the various movie references laying about, and documentary fans will be satisfied with its taught approach. In other directors’ hands, this could have felt extremely forced or unappealing. Thankfully, with enough dramatic heft to match the stylish fun presented throughout, American Animals blends fact and fiction seamlessly into unique entertainment. Bart Layton is highly talented as a documentary filmmaker, but this shows he’s just as confident and comfortable with a narrative feature. Let’s hope both he and Evan Peters have amazing careers ahead of them.

Image result for american animals poster

“Solo: A Star Wars Story” Movie Review

After 3 movies in a row released during the Christmas season, the Star Wars Saga finally sees its return to the more traditional summer movie season. Whether or not that’s an especially great thing is entirely up for debate, my friends. This space-western, marking the 10th live-action feature in the iconic franchise, premiered out of competition at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival before releasing in theaters worldwide on May 25th. While it has made over $345 million at the box office, the film was still produced on a budget of $275 million. With a historic drop in attendance during the second weekend, it’s estimated to become the first Star Wars movie to lose money. Co-written by franchise veteran Lawrence Kasdan, who announced that this would likely be his last gig with the long-running series, the film was first put under the directorial hands of duo Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. However, two weeks before filming could finish, the two were fired due to Lucasfilms’ disapproval of their more comedic, improv-heavy style. Ron Howard, who had previously been offered the chair for The Phantom Menace, was brought in to finish it and pull off extensive reshoots in a stupidly quick time. It has been reported that 70% of the finished film is of his own doing. Set many years before the events of the original trilogy, the story- as the title suggests -follows Alden Ehrenreich as a young Han Solo, a cocky smuggler with no real allegiance. Following a series of unwanted circumstances, Han, his new Wookie partner Chewbacca, and newly found mentor Tobias Beckett find themselves in the debt of renowned Outer Rim crime lord Dryden Vos. The team soon become involved in an intergalactic heist where, along the way, they meet Lando Calrissian and the Corellian spacecraft the Millenium Falcon. Since this project was first announced a few years ago, I’ve had… mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, I was excited to see more new Star Wars stories from different angles to get away from the somewhat tiring Skywalker Saga. There are simply so many fascinating worlds and species and characters worth exploring outside of the main storyline that can add more intrigue to the still-burgeoning Disney canon. On the opposite side of that coin, though, there was the burning feeling that we didn’t need or want to know the origins of arguably the most beloved character in the whole franchise. That it would become the beginning of the House of Mouse turning something dearly, intensely loved into a corporate brand. (Those who tell you The Last Jedi started it are wrong) So how does Solo: A Star Wars Story turn out to be? Well, it’s… fine, I guess. To be fair, the production process was far more hellish and dreary than it should have been in the first place. Considering the fact that Ron Howard only had a few weeks to finish the job AND have it ready in time for a late May release is honestly astounding. One has to give Disney some stones for not simply pushing it back to the holidays like the previous 3 movies under their banner. With all of that taken into consideration, the movie actually turned out far better and more entertaining than had been anticipated. Yet at the same time, it just doesn’t feel like it’s trying hard enough to distinguish itself from other entries in the series. Howard is great with some of the more heartfelt, character-centric moments, but the action sequences feel almost void of personality or unique style. Alden Ehrenreich is certainly on his way to becoming a household name thanks to his performance in the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar! and this film, and rightfully so. He has just the right amount of charisma and rugged charm to fit into the character’s shoes and shares great chemistry with Chewie on nearly every occasion. The standouts for me were Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s motion-capture turn as the droid companion L3-37 and, of course, Donald Glover as Lando. While she is a radical, free-thinking robot who wants to challenge her people’s place in the galaxy, he is a wildly charismatic smuggler who steals every scene of the movie. Other actors in the ensemble like Thandie Newton, Woody Harrelson, Paul Bettany, and Game of Thrones alum Emilia Clarke, aren’t given much to say or do to leave a lasting impression. As always with the series, if for nothing else, you can count on Solo to deliver a technically riveting experience. Cinematographer Bradford Young, fresh off his nomination for his amazing work for Arrival, does a fairly good job at shooting the seedy underbelly of the galaxy. However, it seems like it took him a little while to get comfortable with the style and texture of the inimitable world. Much of the first act is very dimly lit and, with the constant shift from steady to handheld shots, it can be hard to discern what’s going on. The sound design and CGI is impeccable (For the most part) as both come together for some gritty action sequences. One particular battle early on involving the Empire makes for some riveting stuff; it’s also the point in the movie when I really started getting interested in the movie. As was the case with Rogue One, veteran composer John Williams sat out on scoring the soundtrack for this spinoff. However, he did contribute to writing and composing the main theme, which combines two unused tracks from previous films into one song that does a fair job at capturing the adventurous tone. For the rest of it, John Powell takes over duties and actually produces some memorable pieces, all of which have that classic Star Wars tinge. From the beginning, the classic opening crawl and blasting theme music is instead replaced with fading text describing the galaxy’s state. This is accompanied by menacing strings that are soon joined by dynamic percussion and skipping horn beats. It just feels so weird reviewing this movie. Normally, I’m excited to get my opinion on the newest installment from one of my favorite franchises out into the world. But I saw this movie nearly a month ago, and have been struggling with how to properly approach it. I didn’t hate it, but there’s also just not enough about it that’s remarkable enough to count among the “great” entries of the Saga. Then again, I had never really expected it to and it didn’t seem like it wanted to be. While your viewing experiences may differ, Solo: A Star Wars Story is an enjoyable, uninspired space adventure starring amazing heroes. If you go into this movie just wanting to watch a fun, loose Western in a fantastical version of space, then it’ll be a blast. Expect anything earth-shattering or nostalgia-inducing and you’re bound to be disappointed. Either way, this movie has witty quips and obscure fan service for days- for better or for worse.

Image result for solo poster