Category Archives: Thriller

“Joker” Movie Review

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

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

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

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

“Mean Streets” Movie Review

With Todd Phillips’ Joker coming out this month, there is so much attention given to Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. I decided if we’re gonna talk about that film’s obvious influences from Scorsese, why not go back to his real roots? This crime drama was originally released in theaters by Warner Bros. Pictures on October 14th, 1973. Part of the reason it managed to see the light of day is because some of his fellow “Film School Brats” of the Hollywood New Wave helped him get it off the ground. When it finally did, it managed to gross over $3 million against a production budget of around $500,000, which was considerably low at the time. The film also managed to become extremely popular with critics and young NYC audiences when released, including a rare positive response from Pauline Kael. Co-written and directed by Martin Scorsese, the screenplay initially began as a continuation of characters from his debut feature Who’s That Knocking at My Door. The film is said to based on real events Scorsese witnessed regularly as child in the Little Italy neighborhood. The director almost made it in the style of a Blaxploitation film for Roger Corman before a connection got him in contact with producer Jonathan Taplin, who managed to secure studio funding. While it is his third directorial effort overall, it’s apparently the first one made completely of his own fingerprints. Set in a small New York City neighborhood, Harvey Keitel stars as Charlie Cappa, an Italian-American man and small-time hoodlum. He’s best friends with young gambler John “Johnny Boy” Civello, played by Robert De Niro, who’s swimming in debts to local loan sharks. Charlie is struggling to reconcile his deep Catholic beliefs with his aspirations to rise in the local mob run by his uncle Giovanni, played by Cesare Danova. However, as Johnny Boy’s behavior towards other street-level thugs becomes increasingly volatile, their chances of making it out alive get increasingly harder. This is not usually the film that people talk about whenever Martin Scorsese’s name comes up in conversation. It’s understandable why not, since it’s very early work and clearly lacking the finesse of some of his later films. But I still feel like it’s important to acknowledge where every artist gets their start, no matter how bumpy it is. Recently, almost all of the auteur’s early films appeared on Netflix, including Taxi Driver and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. I thought it would be a cool change of pace to steer clear of his more well-known pictures and choose something a little more hard edge for him. And Mean Streets proves to be a pretty good starting point for the director, even if it’s more amateurish than his later works. Scorsese’s career-long fascination with Italian-American crime is evident here in the look at all these small time hustlers. The mob itself isn’t captured in as much sprawling detail as it would be in the future with Goodfellas and Casino, but there’s a certain quality to it that makes it feel lived-in and real. Everyone in this neighborhood knows everyone and what they’ve done, and that doesn’t always bode well for the protagonists. Where Mean Streets falters a little is that it’s sometimes hard to care for the characters and what they’re all doing. There are numerous scenes where multiple people are talking over one another with lots of vulgarity, which helps give it a fly-on-the-wall feeling. But seeing this and watching them do reprehensible things for about 2 hours can get exhausting, especially because none of the characters really change by the end. Harvey Keitel has always been an underrated actor in my opinion, and his performance in this film is proof of that. As Charlie, he’s very conflicted about his choice of career as it contrasts heavily with his Catholic background. He does his best to keep cool but when pressured just enough, he explodes in a fury of anger that’s hard to look away from. And in the first on nine collaborations with the director, Robert De Niro is absolutely incredible as Johnny Boy, one of his most unpredictable characters. In every scene, he’s extremely volatile and fast-moving, practically refusing to stay in the same place for very long. There’s a tinge of melancholy to his character as he just gets himself into more and more trouble as the plot rolls along. These two characters are undoubtedly the main focus of the whole movie and rightly so. De Niro and Keitel’s chemistry is excellent and you really feel like these two have been friends for a long time. This duo is also flanked by a capable supporting cast of character actors, who fill various roles with lots of appropriate gusto. Chief among them are Richard Romanus as one particularly irked loan shark trying to collect his due, George Memmoli as a pool hall owner, Amy Robinson as Johnny’s cousin and Charlie’s secret girlfriend, and Cesare Danova as Charlie’s calculating and cautious uncle in the mob. Each one has something to lose to someone else and the film’s refusal to paint a black-and-white portrait of the characters is very engaging. And when it comes to the technical aspects, Mean Streets shows Scorsese’s distinct voice gradually developing. In his professional film, Kent L. Wakeford’s cinematography has a certain cinéma vérité quality to it. Nearly every scene is handheld and follows the characters through the grimy and ugly streets of New York. There’s also a beautiful use of the color red, as it often appears in a hazy dominance over several scenes. Whether it’s a birthday party for a drunken soldier or a simply night out at the bar, the color red is almost always there as if to foreshadow the bloodshed in this lifestyle. This just about works on par with Sidney Levin’s editing job, which cuts between each scene exhaustively. While lacking real precision, its intentions are still clear as it never tries to linger too long on violence or nudity to avoid being gratuitous. A couple moments also involve freeze frame, which gives leeway for Charlie’s narration of his thoughts. Although, there are a handful of moments where it’s hard to figure out who’s saying what, but that just adds to the immersion of this world. Mean Streets is a bumpy but solid start to a great auteur’s career. Although I’d never rank it alongside his best work, Martin Scorsese still manages to paint a unique picture of crime in an environment that seems familiar yet alien. With actors that would later become his own regular collaborators, it could certainly be argued that this served as the basic blueprint for his films to follow. It gets very rough around the edges and probably not worth watching more than twice, but if it helped lead to the director’s later masterpieces, than I am content with it.

“Serenity” Movie Review

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

“Ad Astra” Movie Review

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

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“Midsommar” Movie Review

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

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“Ready or Not” Movie Review

I can only imagine what this must be like for married or soon-to-be married couples watching it. Never too late to get a prenup, that’s all I’m saying. This darkly comedic horror-thriller originally premiered at the Fantasia International Film Festival. It was then released in theaters worldwide by Fox Searchlight nearly a month later on August 21st, 2019. It has managed to out-perform expectations, grossing over $43.6 million at the box office against a modest budget of $6 million. With showings at 2,118 screens, it’s the specialty studio’s widest release to date and could well turn into their highest-grossing title. It also has enjoyed great reviews from critics and audiences alike, including love from Stephen King and R.L. Stine. Directed by Matt Betinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillet, this marks their second narrative feature after Devil’s Due and contributing to the anthology horror film V/H/S. After years of making DIY shorts on YouTube wit their filmmaking collective Radio Silence, they were eventually approached by producer James Vanderbilt to potentially direct the film. The screenplay was written by Guy Busick and R. Christopher Murphy, although Gillet and Betinelli-Olpin also made some contributions to the final draft. Samara Weaving stars as Grace, a young woman about to marry her fiancée Alex Le Domas, played by Mark O’Brien. On their wedding night, she learns that before officially becoming a member of Alex’s extremely wealthy yet eccentric family, she has to play a randomly selected game with them as part of tradition. The chosen game is Hide and Seek and Grace has to stay hidden until dawn while the family members try to find her. However, she quickly learns that they intend to kill her before the end of sunrise for some sort of ritual, and soon begins fighting back against the Le Domas clan. This one took a little while to win me over, but once the marketing kicked into high gear, I was onboard. Although I haven’t seen any of Radio Silence’s shorts on YouTube yet, I do think it’s cool that Fox Searchlight is backing their first mainstream feature. The trailer made it look like their own fun little low to mid-budget horror thriller in the vein of Blumhouse Productions, which I am a big fan of. I’ve always been interested in horror or thriller movies that take place in a contained setting, like a huge mansion. And I was extremely interested to see how the relatively inexperienced Betinelli-Olpin and Gillet could take something like that for 95 minutes. And these two have such a bright future ahead because Ready or Not is loads of fun even for non-horror fans. With so many self-serious and straight-up trashy horror flicks in the market, it felt refreshing to see something take a tongue-in-cheek approach to the “Final Girl” trope. The story here totally subverts that by having that archetype against the family from the beginning as the tables start turning. She doesn’t take particular joy in trying to kill her would-be murderers, but she has what it takes to try and survive the night. Between all the blood-soaked and gory thrills, (This is a very violent film, by the way) Ready or Not manages to find comedy in the absurdity of it all. Most of the family members are using weapons from a bygone era, and they frequently stumble trying to learn how to use them properly. And there’s a certain Tarantino-esque exaggerated quality to the deaths, which makes the film even more fun. I’ve liked Samara Weaving as an actress for the past couple of years and this is the perfect breakout role for her. As Grace, her initial excitement for getting married turns into genuine terror for her own life in a pretty convincing manner. Although we don’t get much backstory or subtext for her character, she’s easy to root for in this truly bizarre scenario. Mark O’Brien is equally great as her husband Alex, who’s extremely hesitant to partake in the family’s tradition. He does his best to try and get Grace away from playing Hide and Seek and then tries to help her escape the mansion. The rest of the La Domas Clan is filled out by capable character actors, all game for their eccentric parts. These include Henry Czerny as the family’s well-meaning but intensely devoted patriarch, Andie MacDowell as the more welcoming mother, Nicky Guadgni as the cold and somber Aunt Helene, Melanie Scrofano as Alex’s clumsy drug-addicted sister, and John Ralston as the family’s loyal and violent butler. But the real standout in the film has to be Adam Brody as Daniel La Domas, Alex’s alcoholic older brother. Like, Alex, he despises the family’s traditions but his continued involvement has essentially broken him as a man. His pragmatic view of this ritual almost feels unsettlingly real and believable, which made every scene with him a treat. And from a technical perspective, Ready or Not showcases Radio Silence’s top-notch DIY skills behind the camera. Shot by Brett Jutkiewicz, the cinematography has a certain gritty nighttime aesthetic to it. Most of the film takes place within the La Domas family’s enormous mansion, and we often follow the characters running through the house and its secret passage ways. Since we don’t know the full layout of the house, it becomes tense whenever the camera is following the family members or Grace. This matches up well with the editing job by Terel Gibson, which keeps the pacing flowing quite nicely. While there’s a sufficient amount of bloody violence, the number of cuts and how they’re done helps ensure they aren’t gratuitous. Often times, it will include a humorous cutaway to relieve the tension, such as a scene where Emilie’s husband is learning how to use a crossbow juxtaposed with Grace climbing out the window right near him. There is an instrumental film score here provided by the highly prolific if inconsistent Brian Tyler. Many of the tracks are more or less the same, utilizing a mixture of strings and piano to create a melancholy atmosphere. Occasionally, it’ll up the ante by throwing in some percussion and synthesizers when something exciting happens. But for the most part, like many of Tyler’s other works, it’s not very memorable. The film also ends with the song “Love Tender” by Stereo Jane playing in the background during the glorious final shot. With a guitar intro mimicking the classic song played when the bride walks down the aisle, it’s the perfect way to end the chaos. It’s quite possibly one of the most underrated uses of a song in film in recent memory. Ready or Not is a uniquely satisfying thriller with a delightfully B-movie attitude. While it’s rough around the edges, Matt Betinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillet prove that they’re more than capable of handling a genre feature. I look forward to seeing whatever Radio Silence has cooked up next, and Samara Weaving is a star in the making.

Extra Large Movie Poster Image for Ready or Not (#1 of 3)