Category Archives: Spy

“Casablanca” Movie Review

Oh come on, who doesn’t enjoy a good old-fashioned Hollywood romance every now and again? Even if you have the coldest, blackest heart known to man, I will be left in a legitimate state of shock if you aren’t won over by the end. This war-time romantic drama was originally released in theaters by Warner Bros. on November 26th, 1942, before going wide in theaters the following January. Made on the budget of about $1 million, it managed to gross just under $7 million at the box office, half of which came in from foreign markets. It then went onto win the Academy Award for Best Picture and Director, and has sustained a lasting influence on the film industry in the years since. Directed by Michael Curtiz, the film is adapted from the novel Everybody Comes to Rick’s by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison. While it was initially written by brothers Julius and Philip G. Epstein, Howard Koch came into finish the script while producer Hal B. Wallis scrambled to put everything in motion. The film also fell to the mercy of the Hays Code, which forced the filmmakers to change several scenes, some of which were arguably for the better. And Wallis’ working relationship with Jack L. Warner became so strained that after the Academy Awards, he left the studio for good. Set in the titular Moroccan city in December 1941, Humphrey Bogart stars as Rick Blaine, an American expatriate who runs an upscale club and gambling den. Despite professing to be politically neutral, he is secretly known for running guns to Ethiopia and helping refugees stranded in the city. One day, his former lover Ilsa Lund, played by Ingrid Bergman, walks into his establishment and begs for him to help her and her husband, who’s a Czech Resistance leader, escape to America. Rick is now forced to choose between staying with the woman he once loved and doing something right for the burgeoning war effort. Much like some of the other films in my New Year’s resolution, this is one of those “classic” movies that most people have likely heard of even if they’ve never seen it. Regardless of your familiarity with the film overall, odds are that you’ve probably heard the line “Here’s lookin’ at you, kid,” at least once. I myself had never really seen it before until early last year, though I had definitely known about it for a long time before hand. Like The Shawshank Redemption or Throne of Blood or Life of Brian, this New Year’s resolution has given me the opportunity to watch some highly regarded films I had always tried to see. I was especially curious to see how well the film would be able to hold up on my third viewing. And lo and behold, Casablanca is indeed one of the few “classic” films that’s actually deserving of all of the reverence it’s received over the years. Interestingly, if I had tried to watch this movie over a decade ago, I likely would have turned it off before the halfway mark. I just didn’t like watching romantic movies back then, at least ones that didn’t have a ton action in them. But now I’m older, wiser, and have realized that I had just been looking at the wrong ones at that time. Casablanca is not as glossy as a lot of rom-coms or dramas in the years since, but it still feels unmistakably old-fashioned. There’s a rhythm to this film that so few others in the genre have, even musical romances that have actual song and dance rhythms. In all seriousness, when people talk about Humphrey Bogart, they’re really talking about Rick Blaine. The first in a slew of suave romantic lead roles, he so expertly tries to hide his good nature under a world-weary cynicism and alcoholic coolness. Reflecting on Ilsa’s untimely return into his life, he drunkenly remarks, “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” Ingrid Bergman is his perfect onscreen partner, exuding a vulnerability and regret for some of her past actions. While she may not be quite as strong-willed as the writers may have intended, for the most part she retains her emotional poise and is genuinely wanting to die to get her husband back to the States. Paul Henreid shouldn’t be overlooked as Victor Lazlo, the Czech resistance leader who’s trying to carry on his guerilla war with Nazi Germany. His reluctance to trust people in the titular city is convincing and real, undercut by a certain tenderness for his wife. They are also flanked by a supporting cast of colorful and interesting characters. There’s Dooley Wilson as the energetic club musician Sam, Sidney Greenstreet as an underworld business figure who has a friendly rivalry with Rick, Claude Rains as the shamelessly corrupt prefect of police under Vichy rule, Peter Lorre as a petty crook able to get his hand into deep places, and Conrad Veidt as the ruthless Nazi emissary Major Strasser. Despite the film only running about 102 minutes, you really feel like you get to know these characters and the dire situations they find themselves in. Meanwhile, on the technical side of things, Casablanca is Classic Hollywood at its most lush and posh. Arthur Edeson’s black-and-white cinematography has many traits of film noir and expressionism. These include precise lighting and fantastic use of shadows, which emphasize the moral ambiguity of Rick’s position. Bergman is mostly shot from her left side, an effect which makes her eyes sparkle and her face glisten with beauty. It uses a number of steady shots to follow the carefully blocked action in every scene, while also allowing actors room to breathe with their iconic rapid fire dialogue. Owen Marks’ editing is also notable for its precise use of cuts between different shots and moments. The most memorable example is our introduction to Rick, which cuts between different parts of his hands and body before revealing his face. Not only that, but the subtle fades between the present day and his past life with Ilsa creates a certain nostalgia effect. The prolific Gone With the Wind composer Max Steiner provides the instrumental film score and boy its a doozy. One of 24 Oscar nominations Steiner would receive over his career, it masterfully mixes different melodies that are familiar but not quite patriotic. With a sweeping orchestra befitting of David Lean epics, the main suite has a wide range of classical instruments, including strings, brass, and piano. The way it’s infused into each scene makes it feel like a romantic adventure on a grand scale, as well as a more personal tale of intrigue. The soundtrack also has the famous song “As Time Goes By” by Herman Hupfeld, here performed by Dooley Wilson. Using a soft piano as the backbone of the song, the jazzy and slow-tempo tune makes for a perfect dance number between Rick and Ilsa. Although Wilson himself could never actually play the piano, Elliot Carpenter provided the playing on set, which comes together to create one hell of a memorable song. I really feel like if you wanted an intro into classic films, there’s no better place to start than here. One iconic scene moves to another, the script is as sharp and whip-smart as ever, and it all just makes filmmaking look so easy in the process. It’s also eminently quotable, with all of the characters each having at least one memorable line. When it comes down to it, Casablanca is perfectly conjured and fantastically produced bubble of escapism. Whether it’s the way Michael Curtiz and Hal B. Wallis put together the final product or the chemistry between Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart, there isn’t an inch of this film that doesn’t work. This is what we talk about when we talk about the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood.

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“Iron Man” Movie Review

I’ve been meaning to dig back into the older Phase One Marvel films for a good while now. And with Avengers: Endgame promising to be even more of a culmination event than Infinity War in less than a month, I figured it was as good a time as any to go back to the beginning of it all. This tech-based superhero film was originally released in theaters on May 2nd, 2008. Although expectations were relatively low, it managed to gross nearly 5 times its $140 million budget and set a number of box office records which, in hindsight, seem rather puny at the time. It also managed to impress critics, comic book fans and general audiences alike, and singlehandedly launched the most lucrative media franchise of the 21st Century: the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Directed by Jon Favreau, the film had been in development hell since 1990, with multiple studios attempting to get it off the ground. After Marvel Comics managed to reacquire the rights to many of its characters in 2006, Paramount Pictures got their hands on the distribution. It became the first film Marvel financed entirely by themselves, setting the path for future installments based off relatively obscure characters. While Kevin Feige, Avi Arad, and the credited screenwriters spent extensive time discussing the story and action, the actors were encouraged to improvise most of their dialogue; several scenes had multiple cameras set up in case someone said something especially memorable. Robert Downey Jr. stars as Tony Stark, a genius billionaire playboy in charge of his father’s massive weapons manufacturing company. Following a life-threatening incident in war-torn Afghanistan, he develops a powered armor suit to help him escape a terrorist group called the Ten Rings. Realizing his culpability in the armed conflict, he modifies his suit with more improvements, adopts the nickname Iron Man, and sets out to fight those who want to use his technology for nefarious reasons. It’s truly strange looking back at this film, having watched all of the other films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe now. Back when I saw this in the theater for the first time, even though I was pretty young, I had a general understanding of the character and his origins. Most audiences didn’t at the time, and the fact that he’s become a household name shows how much the genre has grown in the 11 years since. So I figured that my New Year’s Resolution could use a little shakeup with something that isn’t too far away from the present but still old enough to bare some form of influence. I was a little worried, though, that on a rewatch, the inaugural installment for the MCU wouldn’t hold up very well. That just makes it even sweeter to say that Iron Man is still as badass as I remember it being, and still stands tall against many entries in both the franchise and the superhero genre as well. Do any of you remember a time when movies based on comic book characters were considered uncool? I can still think of the times when I would just mention a character’s name like Iron Man or Captain America and the people I’m talking to would just ask, “Who?” And perhaps the best compliment I can give Jon Favreau isn’t that it somehow managed to swing the franchise out the gate so confidently, but that it managed to have a wide enough appeal to general audiences without feeling like it lost its origins. It truly can’t be understated how hard that task was. Just two months later, it would arguably become overshadowed by Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece The Dark Knight. Marvel and Kevin Feige really had prove to themselves early on, and have earned the success they’ve gotten from it. Let’s get one thing straight here: Robert Downey Jr. IS Tony Stark, no question about it. The role he was seemingly born to play, his snarky attitude and hilarious wit are undercut by his clear intelligence and care for the few friends he has. The actor has literally credited the character was saving his life and career, and if he wasn’t the architect for the MCU, then the whole thing would have crumbled before it got off the ground. Opposite him are Gwyneth Paltrow and Terence Howard as Pepper Potts and Lieutenant Colonel James “Rhodey” Rhodes, Stark’s personal assistant and best friend respectively. Although Howard would later be replaced by Don Cheadle, the film manages to get this trio’s relationship down from the beginning, which would develop over the course of the next several films. Jeff Bridges is also unexpectedly good as Obadiah Stane, Tony’s business partner and former mentor. While the MCU has long struggled with making compelling antagonists, Bridges manages to give off a convincing impression of a greedy and overzealous businessman who wants what’s inside Stark’s mind. Shaun Toub should also not be overlooked for his role as Tony’s cave cellmate Yinsen. With enough aged wisdom to match Stark’s cunning intellect, it’s clear he knows what’s going on with the Ten Rings and what they want. Even though he’s not onscreen for a large chunk of time, he very much leaves a solid impact for the remainder of the story. As far as the technical aspects go, Iron Man was merely the first in a long line of impressive below-the-line feats for Marvel. Shot by the incredibly versatile Matthew Libatique, the cinematography is the right amount of clean and gritty. With some colors muted and couple enhanced, it really feels down in the dirt as Tony is attempting to figure out how to reconcile his identity with his newfound purpose. Unlike many later entries, the camera movement is actually quite controlled and smooth, and we’re able to see exactly what happens in every action scene. This matches up well with the editing by Dan Lebenthal, who collaborated on many of Favreau’s earlier films. The continuity of each scene is kept perfectly, not a single gesture or line feeling out of place with the cut. Considering they filmed with multiple cameras at once, it’s kinda impressive he was able to cut together that much footage and make it cohesive. Not to mention, Stan Winston himself brought the character of Iron to such vivid life, one of his last creations. Ramin Djawadi, who would go on to compose for HBO’s Game of Thrones and Westworld, provides the instrumental film score here. Like his work on those shows, it’s highly unusual for its genre and all the better for it. Mixing grungy rock with traditional orchestral arrangements, the mixture of electric guitar and strings is very memorable. he end results are perfectly suited to the main protagonist. It’s fresh, unpredictable, and quite brilliant. A quiet industry game-changer if ever I’ve seen one, Iron Man is the apex of superhero origin stories for cinema. It really can’t be overstated what Kevin Feige and Jon Favreau did here: they managed to defy expectations and create a cultural shift. Whether it’s Robert Downey Jr.’s immaculate performance as the titular character or Favreau’s assured direction, there’s little that doesn’t work in this film. And that legendary post-credits scene was only the beginning. We’re part of a bigger universe now, and I’m here for it.

“Mission: Impossible- Fallout” Movie Review

Here are some facts everyone should be able to agree on: Tom Cruise is an absolute weirdo in real life. Also, he is still to kick all kinds of ass at an age most would retire at. This critically acclaimed action spy thriller was released worldwide on July 27th, 2018, grossing over $777 million at the box office in the U.S. and across international waters. Despite the apparent collapse of MoviePass, nothing seems to be stopping casual viewers from going out to see this, making it the highest-grossing entry in the franchise thus far. This is likely due to the outpouring of gushing critical praise it has received from all walks of film criticism, whether from major publications or smaller independent labels. Written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie, the film marks the first time a director has made a return to the series, having helmed the previous installment Rogue Nation. Although it initially hit a stumble due to a dispute over the star’s salary, McQuarrie promised he was returning because he wanted to do something very different than had been expected thus far from the franchise. Aside from overlapping with another actor’s schedule, which triggered an unwanted Internet sensation, it’s also worth noting that Cruise managed to break his ankle while filming- and kept on going anyway. Roughly two years after the events of Rogue Nation, Tom Cruise returns as Ethan Hunt, a highly trained operative for the super-secret organization IMF. After a group of anarchists called the Apostles steal a large amount of plutonium, intent on reshaping the “world order,” Hunt and his team are tasked with tracking down the stolen devices. Meanwhile, they’re being monitored by a deadly CIA agent named August Walker, played by Henry Cavill, in case their mission goes awry. But they all soon realize that multiple other parties are interested in acquiring the plutonium and it becomes a race against time. I have been a big fan of the Mission: Impossible series ever since the third entry in 2006, directed by J.J. Abrams. While it has been around since the mid-90’s, it was at that point I really became invested in the franchise, which only got better from that point onward. So my expectations were not exactly low for Mission: Impossible- Fallout, especially after the high of Rogue Nation in 2015. In fact, when the film first started, I was actually afraid that it wouldn’t live up to any of the massive hype that it had received. And yet, my hopes and/or fears were absolutely supplanted because this is by far the best one in the franchise. However, after watching it, I’m a little bit concerned. Not whether it will win over other new audience members, that much is already guaranteed. Rather, I’m concerned about how this franchise, should it decide to continue onwards, will be able to match or top itself in the next installment. Where are they going to go from here? Up into space? Deep beneath the sea? I honestly don’t know. Not since walking out of Mad Max: Fury Road for the first time has a major studio action movie left me so completely gob smacked. Tom Cruise can be a good actor when he wants to be, and Fallout is perhaps his best turn yet as Ethan Hunt. As per usual, he gives absolute physical commitment to the role, able to pull insane on-screen stunts while still delivering on the dramatic heft. This time, he’s given more depth and much more to lose as we dive further into his characters psyche. While the regular members- like Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames, and Rebecca Ferguson -return to their respective roles, it’s the new players that really standout. Angela Bassett and Vanessa Kirby deliver badass, powerful women as CIA Director Erica Sloane and the White Widow, respectively. They each have their own agency and ways of going about their business, elevating beyond what could’ve easily been Bomd Girl stereotypes. And then there’s Henry Cavill as August Walker, the shadow agent for the CIA. Charismatic and physically imposing to a fault, it’s unclear what his motivations are but nonetheless creates exciting conflict. And yes, the famous Moustache Controversy with Justice League was worth it, as he gives off an everyman vibe. As always with the series, Mission: Impossible- Fallout is a complete technical marvel. Rob Hardy chooses to primarily shoot with a 35 mm lens, as well as IMAX cameras, which allows for many action scenes to actually be caught on-camera. The incredibly steady, confident movement throughout the film creates a certain fluidity missing in most films in the genre. There are at least 3 incredible stunt-filled set pieces that showcase how much Cruise and McQuarrie are committed, especially a 3-minute HALO jump taking place in real time. Meanwhile, the editing job by Eddie Hamilton is exquisite, creating enough space between shots to keep tension. This is highlighted in a violent brawl in a prestige bathroom, where it moves between each subject effortlessly. Without music to accompany that scene, you can feel every punch and jab delivered. Speaking of music, Lorne Balfe composed and conducted the best score for the franchise thus far- and that’s REALLY saying something. The use of heavy brass and string staccatos help to punctuate the urgency of the team’s mission. It’s also extremely percussive, using instruments such as bongos, jaunty snare drums, and other tools to add to the momentum. In many ways, it reminded me of some of Hans Zimmer’s earlier works, particularly The Dark Knight trilogy, in the best ways possible. There’s obviously the iconic theme from the original show by Lalo Schrifin, which both opens and closes the film. But overall, Balfe is able to make it his own, and is definitely listening to multiple times through. I haven’t felt this much of a adrenaline rush from a movie in so long. In a world that continually files genres away into subcategories, it’s riveting to see a straight-up action movie that delivers on exactly what it wants. Mission: Impossible- Fallout is a fantastic balancing act between all the essential departments of filmmaking. Not only does Tom Cruise and his death-defying stunts draw audiences in, they stay for the gripping manner in which Christopher McQuarrie tells the rather simple story. This is the best Mission: Impossible film by far, and worthy enough to rank among the best action movies I’ve ever seen in theaters. Believe the hype.

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“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.

“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.

 

 

“The Incredibles” Movie Review

I’m seriously considering extending this New Year’s resolution over to next year because it lets me rewatch movies I love and then gives me an excuse to review them. Well, that and the long-awaited sequel is finally out in theaters so there’s little point in resisting the urge any longer. This computer-animated superhero film, the 6th overall feature produced by Pixar Animation Studios, was the closing night selection for the 2004 BFI London Film Festival before releasing in theaters on November 5th of that year. It proved a massive critical and commercial success, grossing nearly 7 times its $92 million budget worldwide along with 2 Academy Awards and 2 further nominations. This makes it the studio’s first animated feature to win 2 awards for one movie, soon to be followed in the years afterward. Written and directed by Brad Bird, the concept for the film first came up in the mid-90’s when he was struggling to break into the business after the commercial failure of his underrated The Iron Giant. The filmmaker was the first one not in Pixar’s initial core creative group to break into making an animated movie, only getting by on an old college friend named John Lasseter. This meant he had to hire his own team from scratch, which arguably gave him more artistic freedom. During the animation process, Studio Ghibli legend Hayao Miyazaki made a visit and voiced his support, as it was something he had never seen in an American animated film. Taking place in an alternate 1962, the story centers on a dysfunctional family of superpowered individuals named the Parrs. Following a number of lawsuits resulting from the collateral damage caused by their work, all of the living “supers” in the world are forced into retirement or hiding. The patriarch of the Parr family, Bob, formally the incredibly strong Mr. Incredible, is bored by his new life as an insurance adjuster and becomes excited when a mysterious woman named Mirage comes to him with an offer to use his powers again. But something doesn’t sit right with his housewife Helen, formerly the wide-stretching Elastigirl, and soon both she and her children are drawn into the job. If there are just 2 things I love watching consistently, it’s superheroes and Pixar. Put the both of them together, and you already have a recipe to make me at least moderately interested or entertained. I have seen The Incredibles more times than I can count over the years. In fact, I’m fairly positive that it was the first movie I ever saw in a theater. Depending on my mood, this usually switches places with the first Toy Story as my all-time favorite Pixar movie. And now that long-awaited and demanded sequel is FINALLY coming out, it seemed like a prime opportunity to give this modern classic a proper review. And once again, doing so has reaffirmed my love for it. Perhaps the thing I appreciate most about this film, more so than the extravagant action scenes, is the loving homages. Whilst the film was released right before the big boom of superhero movies, it functions more like a combination of old 1960’s spy thrillers and serial comic book adaptations from the 1940’s. Case in point, the heroes can only be recognized if they wear their secretive masks, not just their costumes. The fascinating thing is just how prescient Brad Bird was about superhero movie tropes, and how they would go on  in future genre films. Edna, the Incredibles’ main costume designer, constantly berates them on why it’s terrible to swear capes on the job. And the villain mocks his adversary, “You sly dog! You got me monologuing!” Bird may not have made a genre film before, but he understands it so well, giving him n edge over most live-action superhero operas. Let’s talk about the voice acting; everyone involved gives it their A-game and feels natural in their roles. Without Craig T. Nelson and Holly Hunter, it’s hard to imagine Mr. Incredible or Elastigirl being as relatable as they are. Their chemistry is on point, from the overt sexual attraction they share to the nasty parental fights that their children are witnesses to. Speaking of children, Sarah Vowell and Spencer Fox do great work as Dash and Violet, respectively. One is an insecure teenage girl with the ability to turn invisible and create force fields while the other is a young boy with the gift of super-speed. My favorite of the bunch might be Samuel L. Jackson as the ice-powered Lucius Best/Frozone. A far cry from his more vulgar live-action roles, the actor still gets to show off his effortless charisma through expert delivery of the fantastic dialogue. And then, there’s Jason Lee as the main villain Syndrome. We learn his motivations early on, and are able to inkle the slightest bit of sympathy for his ultimate game plan. And as far as the technical aspects go, The Incredibles is just such delightful pleasure to the eyes. This was the first Pixar film where all of the primary characters were human beings, as opposed to toys or underwater fish or extra-dimensional monsters. So there was a bit of challenge to adapting the computer-animated elements to something more tangible. Thankfully, the new technology they developed worked with flying colors, capturing the subtle dynamics in facial expressions and hair movements. The animation is also able to capture the diverse environments that the story takes us to. Whether it’s the dull color palette of the suburbs or the lush forest and shoreline of a mysterious island, nothing looks out of place. The way camera is able to fluidly follow moving bodies during the exciting action scenes is really marvelous. Capping it all off is Michael Giacchino’s amazing musical score, one of the best from cinema in the 2000’s. His first of 7 collaborations with the studio, the film was mostly recorded using old-fashioned analogue tapes, the same used back in the 1960’s. Utilizing a full symphonic orchestra, the brass section, especially the trumpet, is given main priority on the title tracks. The way they pierce sounds like an improvisational riff, made up as the adventure goes along. As chaotic as that may sound, it actually fits perfectly into the dynamic, near-unpredictable story that has been constructed. Also accompanying it is jazzy saxophones, which allow the two to feed off each other’s energy like the title superhero team. With an actual family at the heart and center of the film, there’s plenty to enjoy on both ends of the genetic spectrum. Kids will be entertained by all of the action and visuals, while adults will find appeal in its clever jokes and jabs at genre conventions. The Incredibles is matched in gorgeous animation only by its blazing originality. The more times I watch this movie, the more I’m convinced that it might be Pixar’s magnum opus. It’s so complete and breezily lightfooted that one can’t help but fall in love with the world that Brad Bird has created. 14 years onward and very few superhero movies I can think of have even come close to touching it. And it’s not even based on a comic book.

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“The Shape of Water” Movie Review

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

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