Category Archives: Thriller

“The Gentlemen” Movie Review

If this movie were any more British, you would need subtitles just to figure out what all of the characters were saying.

This crime black comedy was released in the UK on January 1st, 2020, after a surprise premiere in mid-December of 2019. It was later released to theaters in the rest of the world by STX Entertainment on January 24th. Made for the budget of $22 million, it has thus far grossed over $110.1 million at the worldwide box office. This ranks it among the young distributor’s biggest financial successes to date, in addition to some fairly positive responses from critics and audiences.

Written and directed by Guy Ritchie, the film marks a return to form for him after a string of so-so blockbusters. It was originally unveiled at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival under the title Toff Guys and then Bush, with Miramax essentially bankrolling it. There seemed to be have been so hot demand for it as distributor STX Entertainment reportedly acquired the rights from Miramax for $7 million. It was promised to be more tonally in line with the director’s earlier crime films such as Snatch and Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels.

Matthew McConaughey stars as Mickey Pearson, an American ex-pat living in London. Over the course of several years, he has built a highly profitable and powerful marijuana empire that even includes Royals in the mix. Now looking to retire peacefully with his wife Rosalind, played by Michelle Dockery, he approaches an Oklahoma billionaire with a proposition to buy out his business for $400 million. When word of the potential deal reaches the streets, all sorts of criminals and characters come for the throne in a series of blackmail, murder, and double-crossing.

I’ve been on-and-off about Guy Ritchie’s movies for a while now. He definitely has a distinct style that separates him from other filmmakers, but it’s not always suited to films like the live-action Aladdin or King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. The type of fast-paced, immensely quirky works really well when he finds a story that suits that rhythm, which is why I’m a big fan of Snatch and his adaptation of Sherlock Holmes.

When I heard that he would be making a smaller-scaled, mid-budget caper, I became excited about what he could do. It’s always interesting when filmmakers try to return to their basic roots, and I was curious if his vision of unapologetically British criminals would translate well into the 21st century. And while it’s far from perfect, The Gentlemen is still fun and shows that Ritchie’s still got a lot of creative juice left in him.

It’s very clear from the opening sequence that Guy Ritchie is much more comfortable here than in the confines of major blockbusters. Credit where it’s due, he manages to successfully make the film have a modern setting and feel to it without feeling like an old man disgruntled over the new generation. It’s interesting to see how widespread the drug business is in this world, with even the press and Royal family members involved in some form or another.

However, it needs to be said that The Gentlemen can also come off as offensive to some viewers, as the characters frequently say casually racist or anti-Semitic things. I suppose it’s a way to make this world feel more natural and lived-in, but it becomes a little distracting when someone makes a huge point of the character’s ethnicity and it’s not in a positive light. It hardly takes over the whole film and eventually dissipates, but it is still worth mentioning and definitely takes me out of the movie a little.

Matthew McConaughey has made a lot interesting acting choices in recent years with varying degrees of success, but this might be one of his better ones. As Mickey Pearson, he’s his usual rugged and charismatic self, always assured of his dominance in the game. He manages to be quite ruthless and efficient as a crime lord, but prefers to settle all of his disputes with as little bloodshed as possible, having a soft spot for his wife and soldiers under his command.

By his side for much of the film is Charlie Hunnam as Raymond Smith, Mickey’s highly resourceful right-hand man. He’s extremely straightforward when it comes down to business, always having an ally or unseen source waiting in the wings for him. Despite this, he’s insecure about getting his own hands dirty and trys to avoid hurting anyone severely for whatever their istakes may be.

Hugh Grant continues his hot streak from Paddington 2 with his role as Fletcher, an unethical reporter and private investigator. He starts the whole film by breaking down everything he’s gathered so far, however inaccurate it may seem, often going on long unrelated tangents. His deadpan delivery of several lines helps amplify the dark humor of the film and he even adds his own mannerisms that make his character seem even more slimy and amoral.

Ritchie also gets ample performances out of his extensive supporting cast. This includes Colin Farrell as the wise coach of a group of underserved MMA fighters, Henry Golding as an arrogant underboss for a larger crime syndicate, Michelle Dockery as Pearson’s business-savy wife, Jeremy Strong as the peculiar billionaire Pearson tries to sell his empire to, Eddie Marsan as a loud-mouthed tabloid editor, and Eliot Sumner as a young heiress affected by the drug world.

And just looking at the technical aspects, The Gentlemen sees Guy Ritchie’s highly energetic style come to life once again. The cinematography by Alan Stewart balances conventional techniques with unique camera movements. This include sudden dollys and zooms on characters whenever something unorthodox is happening or being explained. The frame creates enough space between subjects to maintain a certain level of tension, such as when an unseen assailant walks up behind someone.

This matches up with the editing job by James Herbert, who works to align with the director’s unique vision. Multiple scenes have constant cuts between shots to illustrate the frenetic speed of the drug business, such as Mickey explaining his operations to a customer. Other times, it uses freezes frames for comedic effect or creates on-screen texts to explain local lingo. It can be a little distracting from what’s happening with the characters, but it definitely grabs your attention.

The Gentlemen is a scrappy yet somewhat problematic return to form for the director. Guy Ritchie, despite making some questionable choices with the story and characters, shows he’s still got a lot of juice left in him after dabbling in Hollywood blockbuster for the last decade. He’s also able to get some pretty fun performances out a well-organized cast that looks hungry for great lines and moments.

“The Rhythm Section” Movie Review

If you suddenly had the chance to get back at the people who wronged you and your loved ones, would you? Regardless of what the collateral damage might look like?

After numerous delays, this action drama was released in theaters worldwide by Paramount Pictures on January 31st, 2020. Made for the budget of $50 million, it has drastically underperformed and only grossed about $6 million worldwide thus far. This is far below several predicted metrics, making it the worst opening weekend ever for a film released in over 3000 theaters. And in addition to losing the studio roughly $40 million, it hasn’t been graced with the best of critical reviews.

Directed by Reed Morano, the film is adapted from the novel of the same name by Mark Burnell, who also wrote the screenplay. The product apparently was so attention-grabbing that James Bond franchise showrunners Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson hopped on-board as producers. During production, the main star suffered a pretty serious physical injury that set the schedule back by almost six months while she recovered.

Blake Lively stars as Stephanie Patrick, a young woman in London still reeling from a terrible loss. Three years earlier, her whole family was killed in an international plane crash over the Atlantic and has since spiraled into drugs and prostitution to cope with the tragedy. However, she is recently told by journalist Keith Proctor, played by Raza Jeffrey, that the crash wasn’t an accident but in fact part of a larger terrorist plot. Over the course of the next several months, she begins developing fighting skills so that she can hunt down and kill every person responsible for the death of her family.

I had been somewhat intrigued by this film all the way through the various hiccups and delays. I’ve been a fan of Blake Lively as an actress for a long time, and in 2018, we got to see her give some really awesome work in Paul Feig’s A Simple Favor. The idea of her doing an international action flick from the same people behind the James Bond franchise sounded like an amazing proposition.

Although I haven’t seen her two previous features, I thought Reed Morano’s work on Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale was really impressive. And despite all the bad reception it was getting, I had hopes that she and Lively would be able to conjure something that was at least interesting. And in all seriousness, The Rhythm Section isn’t nearly as bad as some people say it is; there is some enjoyment to found here.

The story presented here practically begs to become a female version of James Bond, with the CIA and MI6 thrown in for good measure. However, perhaps the best thing about this film is that it avoids that temptation and becomes way more interested in looking at the weight of grief and futility of revenge. Stephanie isn’t a very competent spy, but that makes her feel all the more human as she tries to learn from her mistakes and break the barriers around her.

I think where The Rhythm Section loses a lot of people is that its style is very unconventional for a studio blockbuster. It occasionally moves back and forth between different points in time for Stephanie, which can make it a little frustrating to follow her journey. It’s easy to see why this movie hasn’t fare well at all with critics or audiences, but I definitely at least appreciate it for trying to subvert the norms of a traditional blockbuster, especially since it doesn’t seem interested in starting a franchise.

Blake Lively has been on a role in recent years, and it’s exicitng to see her branch out even further here. As Stephanie Patrick, she is a messy, broken woman who gave up trying to get closure for her family’s death a long time ago. When she gets caught up in a newfound conspiracy web, she becomes desperate to find out the truth and despite knowing she’s in over her head, she’s come too far just to turn around and leave.

Jude Law makes a similar impression as Iain Boyd, a retired MI6 operative who reluctantly helps train her. It’s clear that he wants absolutely nothing to do with the world of espionage anymore and only agrees to help Stephanie due to a personal connection with her case. He’s particularly unremorseful with her, having been desensitized to the worst humanity has to offer, and the secrets he carries make him intriguing.

Aside from these two, the supporting cast is made up of various actors who give hit-or-miss performances. This includes Sterling K. Brown as a highly resourceful information broker, Raza Jeffrey as the determined journalist who gives Stephanie a purpose again, Richard Brake as an infamous international gangster, Tawfeek Barhom as a potential suspect, and Max Casella as the man bank-rolling the antagonist’s plans. Each player has varying amounts of screentime and some leave more of an impression than others.

And looking the technical aspects, The Rhythm Section sees Morano still trying to find her own voice. The cinematography by Sean Bobbit opts for a more handheld, cinéma vérité style to capture the messy and frenetic nature of the protagonist’s situation. Stephanie is in nearly every shot of the film, putting us practically in her shoes as she goes on her bloodthirsty quest. There are many close-up shots and rack focuses, which does a decent job at capturing her state of mind as we learn about the truth as she does.

Joan Sobel’s editing job mostly serves this style well as it tries to keep up with everything happening on-screen. There are a handful of action scenes where it can be hard to tell what’s going on at first, but it soon comes into focus. There’s also a Terrence Malick-esque choice to occasionally cut back to snapshots of Stephanie’s life with her family, using a much brighter color palette. This might be one of the better stylistic choices the film makes, as it illustrates everything that was taken away from her.

Relative industry newcomer Steve Mazzaro provides the instrumental film score here. Like the rest of the film, it tries to provide something unique and different than most mainstream films offer in the genre. The majority of tracks use jagged, staccato violins and other strings to highlight the frantic pacing of the story. Alternatively, this primary sound is often manipulated either into a scene that’s very exciting or deeply somber. What really separates the two is the occasional inclusion of mild percussion or woodwinds sounds.

Taken as a whole, The Rhythm Section is a wonky but determined antithesis to traditional Hollywood spy films. It is far from perfect or even great, but Reed Morano still shows she’s got a lot of potential as a filmmaker who wants to stand toe-to-toe with the other major blockbuster directors of her generation. And Blake Lively proves why she’s completely deserving of a real franchise to lead and manages to deliver one of her most complex roles to date.

When it’s all said and done, I’ve got to give credit to Paramount and Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson for trying to create a unique counterpart to James Bond. It’s a bummer that it’s mostly likely going to get overlooked by most audiences, but hopefully that doesn’t deter studios from make more (And better) action dramas geared towards adults.

The Rhythm Section Poster #1

“Tron: Legacy” Movie Review

Imagine being trapped inside a computer programming of your own creation for the better part of 30 years. With absolutely no knowledge of any of the politics, crimes, misery, or troubles of the real world. I kind of envy that.

This techno-influenced science-fiction action drama initially had its world premiere in Tokyo on November 30th, 2010. It was later released in theaters worldwide by Disney over two weeks later on December 17th to high anticipation. Made for the budget of $170 million, it went on to gross just over $400 million at the global box office. Although it managed to break even, it didn’t meet the studio’s big expectations for the long-awaited sequel. The financial disappointment and mixed critical reception put plans for a new franchise on hold, with talks of a new installment coming and going with each passing year.

Directed by Joseph Kosinski in his feature debut, rumors of a sequel to the 1982 original had been in circulation for a long time. Although Pixar was supposedly interested in continuing the story in 1999, it was only around 2005 that Disney began serious development of the project. Kosinski rejected the studio’s idea of drawing visual and narrative inspiration from The Matrix, and instead used money that producer Sean Bailey lent him for concept footage of the style and tone. An architecture student, he also used chroma keying and various other unconventional techniques to give as much creative room for the effects as possible.

Picking up 27 years after the original, Garret Hedlund stars as Sam Flynn, the primary shareholder of the tech company ENCOM International. For the past two decades, he has been investigating the disappearance of his father Kevin, played by original star Jeff Bridges. One night, Sam’s investigation leads him to an arcade that unintentionally transports him to The Grid, an independent virtual reality system. While he reunites with his father, he must contend with a corrupted version of him named Clu and figure out a way to get back to the real world.

It has been many years since I last watched this film, and I only had vague memories of liking it. On the off chance that I would miss something, I made sure to watch the original Tron first to try and understand the lore a little better. And it was a highly impressive and stylistic technical achievement, but was extremely confusing from a story standpoint.

I was hopeful to see what, if any, lessons this long-belated sequel could take from the first go-around. It’s supposed to be so different from almost all of Disney’s other live-action films recently and I wondered if this was as much of a cult hit as a lot of people have made it out to be. And Tron: Legacy is undeniably entertaining and aesthetically unique, but the story at the center is rather simplistic.

This is exactly the kind of film I think Disney should try investing more stock in making. No “live-action” remakes of animated classics, but something that looks and feels totally different than what’s usually on the market. The film is always at its best when its pushing the boundaries of family-friendly entertainment and ponders if it’s worth sacrificing fatherhood for something truly revolutionary.

But beyond the gorgeous visuals (Which still hold up quite nicely) and these brief moments of contemplation, Tron: Legacy falters to create a very meaningful or engaging story. While there is some pretty cool worldbuilding throughout and the majority of the film’s 2-hour and 5-minute runtime are spent inside The Grid, there’s not much of an emotional pull beyond the father-son thread. Still, it’s cool to watch and this is one IP I hope Disney considers revisiting in the future.

Garret Hedlund has always been a “good-not-great” actor and his performance here epitomizes that pretty well. As Sam Flynn, he constantly does immature and rash things in the real world, likely to cope with the lack of a real father figure for the past 20 years. It’s apparent that The Grid gives him an opportunity not only to make up for lost time with his father but to thrive in a world that doesn’t even exist.

In a dual role as both Kevin Flynn and his evil counterpart Clu, Jeff Bridges returns to the franchise with lots of gusto. With Flynn, he feels much more mature and wise than the previous film, optimistic for the future of humanity but still feeling guilty about his lackluster job as a father. On the opposite end, he’s intimidating and relentless as the villain Clu, even though the then-burgeoning effort of de-aging technology doesn’t quite work for him.

Olivia Wilde is also worth mentioning as Quorra, a uniquely programmed warrior who serve’s as Kevin’s only ally in The Grid. She’s extremely adept at fighting and even steals the show in a handful of action scenes because of her wicked skills. However, she’s also deeply curious about what the real world is like, as reading endless amounts of literature and asking questions isn’t enough to quench her thirst to witness a real sunrise.

And while there are some familiar faces that pop up in the supporting cast, it’s Michael Sheen’s turn as Castor, a flamboyant nightclub owner. Although he doesn’t appear until the second act, he absolutely steals the show from under the protagonists and clearly relishes the role. Sheen’s bright personality and fantastic wardrobe are also heavily reminiscent of David Bowie’s early years, which makes him by far the most interesting character in the whole movie.

And from a purely technical point of view, Tron: Legacy is a major step forward for the studio and shows Kosinski knows what he’s doing. Claudio Miranda’s cinematography is extremely noteworthy for its smooth movements and slick framing. The Grid heavily relies on the opposing colors of orange and blue while scenes in the real world are relatively muted. This is one of the best examples of 3D filmmaking as the cameras capture everything, from light cycle battles to one-on-one duels, with great precision.

James Haygood’s editing job goes hand-in-hand with the visuals, knowing when to leave a shot lingering or keep the action flowing. There are enough cuts during action sequences to keep the momentum up and never makes it confusing or hard to follow. It’s a testament to the editing crew that the flow between CGI shots and practical actors or sets is mostly seamless. Plus, the sound design is stellar, ensuring that every scene can be heard just as well as seen. It’s actually one of the most satisfying sound designs of the last decade.

Speaking of sound, French music duo Daft Punk provide their first and thus far only score for a film. I hope they decide to do more soundtracks because it’s an absolute thing of beauty and innovation. Like the rest of their work, the score is heavy on electronics across the board, which is appropriate for the unique world here. However, much of the soundtrack avoids being just dubstep and uses synthesizers, low strings, and percussion beats to create an emotional connection to the storyline. At times, it’s warm, harsh, and always attention-grabbing, making for one of the most underrated film scores in recent years.

Pushing the boundaries of filmmaking technology in exciting ways but lacking a real human pull for it, Tron: Legacy is a visually and audibly stunning adventure with a rather unaffecting story. At the end of the day Joseph Kosinski and Disney have made a really impressive tech demo that’s more like candy for the eyes and ears than anything else. It’s fun to see Jeff Bridges return to the saga and his new cast members are welcome as well, but their characters aren’t the most compelling to watch.

I think there’s a lot of potential in this franchise for Disney to explore, and this film seems to indicate they have an idea of where it would go. I just wish Kosinski was just as good with his actors as he was with her camera and effects.

Image result for tron legacy poster

Final 2020 Oscar Predictions

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

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

Best Picture

Will Win: 1917

Could Win: Parasite

Should Win: Parasite

Should Have Been Nominated: The Lighthouse

 

Best Director

Will Win: Sam Mendes for 1917

Could Win: Bong Joon-ho for Parasite

Should Win: Bong Joon-ho for Parasite

Should Have Been Nominated: Greta Gerwig for Little Women

 

Best Actor

Will Win: Joaquin Phoenix in Joker

Could Win: Adam Driver in Marriage Story

Should Win: Adam Driver in Marriage Story

Should Have Been Nominated: Robert Pattinson in The Lighthouse

 

Best Actress

Will Win: Renée Zellweger in Judy

Could Win: Scarlett Johannsson in Marriage Story

Should Win: Scarlett Johannsson in Marriage Story

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

 

Best Supporting Actor

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

Could Win: Joe Pesci in The Irishman

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

Should Have Been Nominated: Song Kang-ho in Parasite

 

Best Supporting Actress

Will Win: Laura Dern in Marriage Story

Could Win: Florence Pugh in Little Women

Should Win: Laura Dern in Marriage Story

Should Have Been Nominated: Jennifer Lopez in Hustlers

 

Best Original Screenplay

Will Win: Parasite

Could Win: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Should Win: Knives Out

Should Have Been Nominated: Booksmart

 

Best Adapted Screenplay

Will Win: Little Women

Could Win: Jojo Rabbit

Should Win: Little Women

Should Have Been Nominated: Just Mercy

 

Best Animated Film

Will Win: Toy Story 4

Could Win: Klaus

Should Win: I Lost My Body

Should Have Been Nominated: Weathering With You

 

Best International Feature Film

Will Win: Parasite (South Korea)

Could Win: Pain and Glory (Spain)

Should Win: Parasite (South Korea)

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

 

Best Documentary- Feature

Will Win: American Factory

Could Win: For Sama

Should Win: For Sama

Should Have Been Nominated: Apollo 11

 

Best Documentary- Short Subject

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

Could Win: Life Overtakes Me

Should Win: In the Absence

Should Have Been Nominated: Birders

 

Best Live-Action Short

Will Win: Brotherhood

Could Win: The Neighbor’s Window

Should Win: Brotherhood

Should Have Been Nominated: Anima

 

Best Animated Short

Will Win: Hair Love

Could Win: Kitbull

Should Win: Hair Love

Should Have Been Nominated: Best Friend

 

Best Original Score

Will Win: Joker by Hildur Guðnadóttir

Could Win: 1917 by Thomas Newman

Should Win: Joker by Hildur Guðnadóttir

Should Have Been Nominated: Us by Michael Abels

 

Best Original Song

Will Win: “Into the Unknown” from Frozen II

Could Win: “Stand Up” from Harriet

Should Win: “Into the Unknown” from Frozen II

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

 

Best Visual Effects

Will Win: The Irishman

Could Win: 1917

Should Win: The Irishman

Should Have Been Nominated: Ad Astra

 

Best Cinematography

Will Win: 1917

Could Win: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Should Win: 1917

Should Have Been Nominated: A Hidden Life

 

Best Costume Design

Will Win: Little Women

Could Win: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Should Win: Little Women

Should Have Been Nominated: Dolemite Is My Name

 

Best Makeup and Hairstyle

Will Win: Bombshell

Could Win: Judy

Should Win: Joker

Should Have Been Nominated: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

 

Best Production Design

Will Win: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Could Win: 1917

Should Win: Parasite

Should Have Been Nominated: The Lighthouse

 

Best Film Editing

Will Win: The Irishman

Could Win: Ford v Ferrari

Should Win: Parasite

Should Have Been Nominated: Rocketman

 

Best Sound Mixing

Will Win: 1917

Could Win: Ford v Ferrari

Should Win: Ford v Ferrari

Should Have Been Nominated: Alita: Battle Angel

 

Best Sound Editing

Will Win: 1917

Could Win: Ford v Ferrari

Should Win: 1917

Should Have Been Nominated: Alita: Battle Angel

 

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

“1917” Movie Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image result for 1917 poster

“Uncut Gems” Movie Review

Have you ever wondered what it would feel like to have a panic attack that lasted for 2 hours and 15 minutes? I present you with the cinematic equivalent.

This street-level crime dramedy premiered at the 2019 Telluride Film Festival to rave reviews and reactions. Following a successful screening at TIFF the following week, it was given a limited release in theaters by A24 on December 13th, 2019, and was expanded on Christmas Day. After a strong showing in specialty theaters early on, it has gone on to gross over $43.6 million at the worldwide box office thus far. This makes it the directing duo’s highest-grossing film to date, and it has one of the best per-venue averages of the year and the biggest single-day intake that the indie studio’s ever had.

Directed by Josh and Benny Safdie, the film had been in development for the better part of a decade with co-screenwriter Ronald Bronstein. It’s been said to be partly inspired by the experiences of their father Albert during his time working in Manhattan. The long-gestating project apparently got enough attention for Martin Scorsese and Emma Tillinger Koskoff to jump on-board as executive producers. Although they always intended a major basketball star to play a big role, the constant schedule changing made them go through Amar’e Stoudemare, Joel Embiid, and supposedly Kobe Bryant before finally coming to an agreement with the National Basketball Association.

Set in spring of 2012, Adam Sandler stars as Howard Ratner, a Jewish-American jeweler in New York City’s Diamond District. As he swims in gambling debts, he takes on NBA star Kevin Garnett as a client, playing a fictionalized version of himself, and shows him a rare black opal from Ethiopia. Garnett becomes so enamored of it that Howard loans it to him, who immediately tries to place bets on both it and the upcoming Boston Celtics games to pay back the loan sharks.

I was a big fan of the Safdie Brothers and the work they did on their previous film, 2017’s Good Time. It was a very gritty, unflinchingly harsh story about New York criminals that wasn’t afraid to go in some very disturbing directions. It also was the film that finally convinced me that Robert Pattinson was a truly great actor worthy of recognition.

Hearing that they would be working with Adam Sandler on their next project made it sound extremely enticing. He’s always been an underrated actor who can really come alive when operating under the direction of some true auteurs, especially now that he’s gotten some major awards season buzz for it. And I can now confirm that not only does Sandler give an incredible performance here but the whole rest of the film is invigorating as well.

Much like their previous NYC-set film Good Time, this is not a film meant for the faint of heart at all. It’s a chaotic ride as we witness numerous reprehensible individuals fall down the rabbit hole of greed and money and the extreme lengths they go to get what they want. Part of what makes it so nerve-racking and harsh is that in nearly every scene, all of the actors are yelling over each other to try and get their points across and it can feel exhausting at times.

That being said, Uncut Gems does manage to offset some of that exhaustion by also sprinkling in some pitch black humor throughout. It mostly comes from perfectly timed or delivered (And colorfully profane) dialogue as well as the utter absurdity of various situations in the film. But thankfully, that absurdity never fully takes over the overall narrative in the film, and it becomes a deeply rattling theatrical experience that will stick with you for a long time.

And the rumors are indeed true: Adam Sandler has literally never been better than he is in this film, and its not close. As Howard Ratner, he gives life and personality to a man who’s essentially a scumbag with few, if any, redeeming qualities. It’s incredibly stressful as we watch him constantly make rash decisions that only contribute to his self-destruction, but his deceptive charm makes it still compelling.

Also, newcomer Julia Fox makes a huge impression as Julia, Howard’s materialistic employee and mistress. She’s extremely petty and heavily relishes in the expensive life that Howard gives her, ranging from a high-rise apartment to gorgeous jewelry. She also recognizes the trouble that he constantly gets himself into throughout the film and gets frustrated with his choices.

Kevin Garnett can now be added to the list of retired athletes who gives a surprisingly great performance. He’s able to find a darker side of his personality and uses it to a great advantage, always looking to win the next game no matter what it takes. He makes almost no attempt to hide his disgust for Howard’s methods and develops a uniquely personal connection with the opal; it makes me hope this isn’t his only film.

The supporting cast is rounded out by a capable troupe of character actors, many based in New York City. Idina Menzel as Howard’s fed-up wife, Judd Hirsch as his wealthy and religious father-in-law, Eric Bogosian as the brother-in-law mobster he owes the most money to, Lakeith Stanfield as one of his disgruntled assistants who grows an admiration for Garnett, and Mike Francesca as a local bookie and restaurant owner. All of them are unhinged and brilliantly directed in their individual roles; and that’s not even mentioning the various non-actors that appear as themselves.

And from a technical point-of-view, Uncut Gems shows the Safdie brothers further developing their cinematic style. Shot by Darius Khondji, the cinematography is presented via a grainy 35mm format that fits the gritty, grimy look of Manhattan they seem to thrive in. The camera is mostly done in a handheld, cinéma vérité not unlike their previous efforts that makes us feel like a fly on the wall. It also creates a unique color palette that helps to create an atmosphere.

Meanwhile, Bronstein and Benny Safdie also prove to be capable editors as they cut together a true banger with each scene. Considering how much the actors scream and yell over each other, there’s an impressive continuity between each shot. It also does a great back and forth between different locations for various scenes to establish a tension.

Daniel Lopatin, A.K.A. Oneohtrix Point Never, continues his collaboration with the Safdie to provide the instrumental film score. Just like his work in Good Time, it’s an absolute banger that leans heavily on electronic synthesizers and percussion. Several tracks are more ambient in nature to build the atmosphere of New York City as something almost otherworldly. Other times, the tracks are more bombastic and visceral to match the energy with which Howard is trying to hustle. The opening credits feature a psychadelic coloscopy that establishes the tone for the rest of the soundtrack.

Holding absolutely nothing back and never letting up from the first scene to the last, Uncut Gems is a relentless and brilliantly performed examination of truly depraved characters. Benny and Josh Safdie have crafted yet another exquisite portrait of a New York CIty so far removed from the glamorous view often seen in movies and aren’t afraid to explore how dark their characters can get. It also benefits from being anchored by a career-best performance from Adam Sandler that shows once and for all that he is a great actor when given the right material to work with.

Image result for uncut gems poster

“Jojo Rabbit” Movie Review

Imagine your imaginary best friend being the caricature of a famous (Or infamous) world leader. Like you’re just going about your daily routine and a dumbed-down Justin Trudeau or Emmanuel Macron suddenly comes in and starts giving obviously bad advice to you. That thought is both disturbing and intriguing all at once.

This satirical period black comedy-drama initially premiered at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival. Despite some polarizing responses from critics, it managed to win the coveted Grolsch People’s Choice Award. After screening at other festivals such as Fantastic Fest, it was later released in select theaters by Fox Searchlight on October 18th, 2019. After making a killing by selling out theaters early on, it gradually expanded to more cities each week, grossing about $25.2 million against a production budget of $14 million. And while it’s generally had mixed reviews among critics, it has proven to be popular among audiences and casual moviegoers alike.

Written and directed by Taika Waititi, the film is loosely based on the book Caging Skies by Christine Leunens. The director apparently felt so strongly about the project that he put his live-action Akira adaptation on hold and dropped his stop-motion animated feature to work on it. He claims to have done almost no research outside the source material and used his own personality as a reference point in several areas. It was originally reported that, sometime after Disney acquired Fox, executives were extremely uncomfortable during an early test screening.

Set towards the end of World War II, newcomer Roman Griffin Davis stars as Johannes “Jojo” Beltzer, a 10-year-old boy who passionately supports Nazi Germany. Although his single mother Rosie, played by Scarlett Johansson, encourages him to find more empathy, his devotion to the Third Reich is so big that his best friend is an imaginary, idiotic version of Adolf Hitler, played by Taika himself. After a weekend away at a Hitler Youth camp goes awry, he comes home to discover that his mother has been hiding a young Jewish girl named Elsa Korr, played by Thomasin McKenzie, in a cupboard upstairs. Initially frightened, Jojo is convinced by imaginary Adolf to gather more info about the Jews from Elsa, and his long-held beliefs start crashing down as the Allies close in.

Having seen What We Do in the Shadows, Hunt For The Wilderpeople, and Thor: Ragnarok prior to this, I can say I really like Taika Waititi’s unique style of filmmaking. Many have said that he’s the New Zealand version of Wes Anderson, but I believe that he has an artistic voice that’s wholly his own. Seeing him make the full swing to blockbuster filmmaking with Ragnarok and still make it his own personal vision also demonstrated his ability to reach out to the masses in a satisfying way.

When I first heard about what his next film would be, it felt like risky material but one he could surely pull off. The initially polarizing response between critics and audiences also convinced me that it could be a potential conversation starter in the best way possible. And I’m happy to report that Jojo Rabbit is exactly the kind of anti-hate, antiwar satire what I was hoping for.

I feel like in someone else’s hands, this story would have turned into a complete misfire on several fronts. But thankfully, Taika knows exactly how to handle the subject matter, finding a delicate balance between the absurdly funny and the upsettingly real. The tone is very fluid and manages to create unexpected empathy for the characters as they’re all trapped in an unfair system.

I also don’t really agree with the criticism that Jojo Rabbit is too flippant towards its depiction of Nazi Germany. As this story is told through the perspective of a pure-hearted child, it only makes sense that the world around him is shown in an unconventional manner and creates a great tragic irony. Plus, there is perhaps no better time in history than the now for people around the world to laugh in the face of bigots and fascists.

Waititi has a penchant for finding fantastic child talent and Roman Griffin Davis is no exception here. As Jojo Beltzer, he has an enormous amount of enthusiasm for what he believes is a righteous cause and is unafraid to loudly voice his opinion. But as the film goes along, he gradually starts questioning everything he’s stood for and tries to find a good explanation for why his perceptions have been so wrong.

Opposite him for most of the film, the young Thomasin McKenzie gives yet another excellent performance as Elsa Korr. From their first scene together, it’s clear that she holds total power over him and doesn’t hesitate to embellish stories of Jewish people to him. But it soon becomes clear that aside from Jojo and Rosie, she’s completely alone and has no idea what the outside world is like anymore.

Scarlett Johansson, Stephen Merchant, Rebel Wilson, Sam Rockwell, Alfie Allen, and newcomer Archie Yates round out the wonderful supporting cast here. All of them swing brilliantly from deadpan hilarity to deadly serious with surprising ease and confidence.

But the best of the bunch has to be the director himself, Taika Waititi as the imaginary version of Adolf Hitler. He plays it up absolutely perfectly, using his own self-deprecating personality to portray the notorious leader with a decent German accent. As the plot rolls by, he gradually becomes angrier and more confused by Jojo’s open-mindedness and is much more convincing than I anticipated. And to top it off, it’s hard to think of a bigger middle finger to the head of the Nazis than to have him played by a Polynesian Jew.

And from a technical point of view, Jojo Rabbit showcases Taika Waititi developing his cinematic voice even further than before. Shot by the underrated Mihai Mălaimare Jr., the cinematography is very deliberate and precise in its movements and placement. The fullscreen view uses a lot of wideshots that either remain still or move around in the scene to keep its eye of the characters. These techniques are able to capture the comical absurdity of various scenes beautifully while also providing some Expressionist exposition on the setting. The use of slow-motion and saturated colors also brings out the unique personality of the film.

Tom Eagle’s editing job also does wonders to help elevate the storytelling. It very much knows when to cut away to the punchline and when to give an actor space for their own dialogue scene. It also frequently reminds viewers of its bleak setting by keeping deeply upsetting imagery just out of reach from the frame. There are also a handful of montages throughout that highlight Jojo’s unwavering nationalism, including an opening one which mixes him getting ready for camp with real newsreel footage of Hitler in huge crowds. They can be by turns both ironic and intriguing.

Michael Giacchino, one of the most prolific and versatile composers of our time, provides the instrumental film score. It’s a highly unique one, especially for its genre, yet it beautifully fits the tone of the story. The use of light instruments such as plucked strings and the glockenspiel give off the feeling of a children’s fairytale. Flutes, low brass, and militant snare drums also make a welcome addition to the soundtrack as they bring back the feeling of wartime. What’s truly fascinating is how it also uses a recorder in some parts to reflect the childlike perspective of Jojo.

It also features the German versions of a handful of popular songs to contextualize what is happening. The first is “I Want to Hold You Hand” by The Beatles in the beginning, which plays well into showing the obsessive fanaticism among youth in that time period. The other one is David Bowie’s “Heroes,” which plays during the final scene and over the end credits. It really hammers home the theme of love conquering all even in the face of a great monstrosity like bigotry and fascism.

Taking huge swings at a tough subject matter and making no apologies for it, Jojo Rabbit is a fearlessly funny and heartfelt story about one of the darkest chapters of human history. Taika Waititi never shies away from the disturbing aspects of the story but utterly refuses to give in to the cynicism that would be so easy. The humor and touching moments have a genuine earnestness that’s hard to shake, and the spot-on cast help seal the deal.

Our imaginary friends don’t always know best, especially if they encourage scary actions or emotions from us. And it may sound cliché and overdone in the year of our Lord 2019, but to quote one of the characters of this film, “Love is the strongest thing in the world.”

Image result for jojo rabbit poster