Category Archives: War

“Vice” Movie Review

I’ve read some people recently talking about how they want things to go back to when things in politics and government were simpler. But here’s a film to offer a rebuttal to anyone who thinks that they’d rather live in those times than these ones. This politically-charged biographical comedy-drama was released in theaters worldwide on Christmas Day of 2018. Although it faced some stiff competition in the holiday market, it has managed to respectably well in the specialty box office with a total intake of $41.2 million thus far. With a production budget of around $60 million, it is the emerging studio’s largest production to date, and its success (Or lack thereof) could predict their future. Written and directed by Adam McKay, the Academy Award-winning man behind The Big Short, the film was originally set up at Paramount Pictures under the original title Backseat, announced right after the 2016 presidential election. Eventually, something happened where the distribution rights were given over to Annapurna Pictures, with Brad Pitt’s Plan B and Will Ferrell (Yes, THE Will Ferrell) co-producing. At one point during production, the director suffered a heart attack, much like his central protagonist. Based on the true story, Christian Bale stars as Richard “Dick” Cheney, a Wyoming native. Over the course of over 40 years, he goes from an alcoholic lineman to the CEO of the company Halliburton and to a big political player in Washington D.C. Then, in the early 2000s, Cheney was chosen to be the running mate of Texas Governor George W. Bush, played by Sam Rockwell. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks and other convenient circumstances, Cheney uses his private persona to become arguably the most powerful and influential Vice President in the history of the United States. I’ve enjoyed Adam McKay’s work on comedies like Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and The Other Guys. He’s definitely not afraid to turn some heads with some material that’s truly “out there,” whether it be very wacky or very political. And I did like his dramatic debut in The Big Short, but some part of it just didn’t quite make it that great for me. Color me mighty intrigued to hear him tackle another relevant topic, especially with an all-star cast like this one. Particularly with someone like Dick Cheney, one of the most notoriously reclusive and secretive figures in politics, as the primary subject of focus. I can definitely say that I like Vice more than The Big Short, even if it’s not always entirely successful. It’s a bit hard for me to review this film objectively because, politically, I agree with several points McKay makes in this movie. Much like his previous film, he’s got a lot to say a pivotal part of America from the early 21st Century, and he says it with a lot of fury. Vice speaks a lot on the corruption, greed, and total amorality that people like Cheney and Rumsfeld used to gain more power and run the government to their liking. At times, it becomes in danger of letting all of that anger make it become more like incoherent babble. And like The Big Short, it most definitely holds the audience’s hand throughout the movie, using a narrator named Kurt, played wonderfully by Jesse Plemons, to explain concepts like the Unitary executive theory and “enhanced interrogation techniques.” For many viewers, this will probably be an issue, especially for those who have already lived through it once. But it does manage to balance both entertainment and education fairly well, as we start to understand the plot more as we learn more little details. Particularly because the two aforementioned ideas are very much used today by the Trump administration. Christian Bale has made a career out of being a chameleon, and he once again completely disappears as Dick Cheney. Considering how little is actually known of him in the public sector, it’s impressive how much he commits to the politician. With an unrecognizable look and around 40 pounds put on, his subtle movements and sly way of talking evoke the controversial man so much. Opposite him is Amy Adams as essentially his Lady Macbeth-esque wife Lynne, who proves herself a force to be reckoned with. You can tell that she desires a certain amount of power that women would’ve never been given when she grew up. Steve Carrell also shines as Donald Rumsfeld, Cheney’s political mentor and virtual partner-in-crime. He’s so slimy and unrepentant for all of his actions, that I hated watching his scenes, which is a testament to the actor. There’s also Allision Pill as Cheney’s gay daughter Mary, Sam Rockwell as the goofball of a president Dubya, Lily Rabe as Cheney’s ambitious older daughter Liz, Justin Kirk as the VP’s eyes and ears inside the bureaucracy, and a surprisingly serious Tyler Perry as General Colin Powell. As far as technical aspects go, Vice finds Adam McKay having more formal control behind the camera than his previous effort. Greig Fraser’s cinematography can be very dynamic, often switching between handheld scenes and Steadicam motions. This seemingly tries to reflect the state of the protagonist’s place in power or life, whether he’s totally in control of the situation or completely off-balance. The editing is done by Hank Corwin, who was previously nominated for an Oscar for his work on The Big Short. There are a number of freeze frames used throughout the film, some of which create hilarious results. It also rapidly moves between numerous events or atrocities, showing off a dichotomy of images that can be either disturbing or relaxing. Nicholas Britell, who’s seemingly becoming a red-hot star in Hollywood the last few years, composed and conducted the musical score. The main orchestral suite is a suitably dramatic and suspenseful one, utilizing melded strings and piano melodies to suggest that something (Or someone) is about to shake the world as we know it. There are also a handful of tracks that use more mysterious instruments such as oboes and trumpets. Interestingly, the sound as a whole feels distinctly American, most likely an intentional decision to incapsulate such a controversial figure and what he stood for. Lastly, there’s an unexpected mid-credits scene, which has arguably garnered the most controversy. Without spoiling anything, I can definitely say that it’s a very bold and scathing coda to everything the director had put forth prior to. We could debate about whether he’s right or wrong, but it’s hard to argue that he wasn’t smug while making it. And in all seriousness, depending on your views, it could hinder the message or thesis for the entire film. In any case, Vice is a messy but undeniably ambitious portrait of American politics and its biggest players. I’m not really convinced that Adam McKay is the generational spokesperson he’s making himself out to be, but he definitely wants to educate people while also entertaining them. Plus, we also get treated to some truly excellent performances from unrecognizable turns in Christian Bale and Amy Adams. Regardless of how well the film ultimately sticks the landing, I really appreciate the effort. Nothing more, nothing less.

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“Aquaman” Movie Review

In this movie, there’s a giant, ancient Kracken voiced by Dame Julie Andrews hanging around in the deep sea. If that doesn’t let you know what kind of movie you’re in for, then I really don’t know what will. This superhero adventure film was released in theaters worldwide on December 21st, 2018, marking the sixth official installment of the DC Extended Universe franchise. Against numerous expectations, the film has managed to gross over $978 million worldwide at the box office, against a budget of around $170 million. Much of that intake comes from overseas in places like China, beating out other films in its genre recently and easily becoming the highest-grossing entry in its franchise. It also broke pre-sale ticket records for the service Atom Tickets and also made a lot from pre-screenings seen by Amazon Prime members. Directed by James Wan, the same man behind Saw and The Conjuring, Warner Bros. had planned for a long time to bring the titular character to life. Aside from a canceled T.V. show on the W.B., the studio hired Will Beall and Kurt Johnstad to write two separate scripts on dual track but only one would be selected. Beall’s edition was ultimately chosen, with David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick attending to some rewrites. It was ultimately pushed back from its originally planned release date for the summer of 2018, but that doesn’t seem to have harmed it too much. Taking place about a year after the events of Justice League, the story follows Jason Momoa as Arthur Curry/Aquaman, a half-human half-Atlantean warrior keeping the Seven Seas as safe as possible. Heir to the throne of the underwater kingdom of Atlantis, he is reluctantly drawn into a conflict where his half-brother Orm, played by Patrick Wilson, is attempting to mount a massive invasion of the surface world. Arthur must find the courage to claim his rightful place beneath the ocean and lead his people towards peace. I still remember when I was a young child that Aquaman was considered something of a joke. A blonde man in a green-and-orange jumpsuit communicating with underwater creatures is inherently hard to take seriously for a lot of people. It wasn’t until the last few years that he was reinvented as a total badass and turned out to be one of the most powerful characters in DC Comics. I’ve always been curious to see what a feature-length movie would look like centered on the Atlantean Prince. James Wan’s horror background on great movies like the original Saw worked well, but I wasn’t sure if his sensibilities were fit for a swashbuckling high-seas adventure, as he has described it. At the end of the day, Aquaman has many problems with it, but it’s still surprisingly entertaining and diverting. My main issue with it is how the film feels too conventional for its own good a lot of the time. This is supposed to be an absolutely weird world we discover, packed with crazy monsters and whatnot. While there are certainly some designs and concepts that are really out there, the overall story structure is one we’ve seen so much and strangely doesn’t have much problem flowing through it. I’d actually respect Aquaman more if it went all-in on its balls to the wall ridiculousness, with nothing held back. It runs at 2 hours and 23 minutes, but there’s nothing in the plot to convince me that that runtime is justified. But hey, we do get to see a whole fleet of underwater humans using laser sharks to fight an army of sentient crab people. And in some ways, that’s good enough. Jason Momoa is pretty inspired casting for the titular hero, a far cry from his brutal role as Khal Drogo on Game of Thrones. He has incredible charisma and physical strength befitting of the hero, cranking out numerous cheesy one-liners like a good old action star. He uses his half-Native Hawaiian background to the fullest advantage to internalize the struggle of someone torn between two worlds. Amber Heard is mostly able to subvert the trope of being a damsel in distress as Mera, Arthur’s primary Atlantean ally. Her bright red hair and green suit reminded me heavily of Ariel from The Little Mermaid, although this time, it definitely felt like she had more control of her agency. Wan’s frequent collaborator Patrick Wilson is also noteworthy as the main villain Orm. While his motivations and craziness are pretty typical for a comic book villain like this, Wilson does a good job at containing a lot of it but can’t quite make it memorable enough. Other players include Temuera Morrison and Nicole Kidman as Arthur’s long-separated parents, Willem Dafoe as his conflicted mentor, Dolph Lundgren as the King of a vital underwater nation, and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as a bitter and violent sea pirate with a major grudge out on the titular hero. Some are able to leave better impressions than others, but I can’t quite say that anyone was actually bad in their roles. Meanwhile, the technical aspects of Aquaman are pretty damn sweet to swim through. Robert Zemeckis’ longtime cinematographer handles the camerawork here, to some nice results. The camera almost always feels like it’s roving around or exploring the unique world with a certain fluidity. Although, it gets kind of cheesy as there are several shots where the actors make obvious poses. Kirk Morri’s editing job works well to move between the action scenes with enough cuts to keep it engaging without making it incomprehensible. The biggest thing propelling this film are the visual effects. Containing just under 2,300 VFX shots, the environments underwater, particularly the Kingdom of Atlantis, are actually quite beautiful and vibrant. The work done by Industrial Lights & Magic and a handful of other production companies isn’t too shabby, as there are convincing movements of characters underwater. Very few scenes take place on the surface world, so it can become a little obvious after a while. But in fairness, it is rather easy for me to see why the director was mad the film didn’t make the Best Visual Effects shortlist. Rupert Gregson-Williams composed and conducted the instrumental film score, and it’s one of the better ones from a superhero film this year. A surprising number of tracks involve synthesizers for its backbone, especially the main theme for our hero and when we first see Atlantis. It infuses pretty well with conventional instrumentations like trumpets, strings, and electric guitars to get an “out-of-this-world” feeling. Also, for some reason, the film ends with an orchestral pop ballad called “Everything I Need” by singer-songwriter Skylar Grey. It utilizes deeply booming percussion and repetitive piano chords as its main medley. But aside from Grey’s lovely vocals, it’s an entirely forgettable song that just doesn’t really fit with the rest of the soundtrack. Neither terribly awful nor remarkable enough to be superior to many other entries of its genre, Aquaman is a colorful and enjoyably diverting high-seas adventure that never fully takes advantage of its weirdness. James Wan is surely capable of a superhero epic behind the camera, and you can tell he and the cast had a fun time making it. It is refreshing since it doesn’t forcibly setup a big teaser for the next Justice League, as the DCEU is still on course correction. But there’s still something a little unsatisfying about the whole thing. Oh well.

“Mary Queen of Scots” Movie Review

I mean, I guess. There were a ton of other routes they could have taken with this story, but this one seemed like it was already on autopilot. This historical drama initially premiered as the closing night selection for the 2018 AFI Fest in mid-November of 2018. It was then released in U.S. theaters by Focus Features on December 7th, 2018, and has struggled to gross much more than $7.2 million at the box office against a budget of $25 million. It has also received mixed critical reviews along with numerous critiques for its apparent historical inaccuracies. The film marks the feature directorial debut of Josie Rourke, a highly prolific stage director with an extensive background in British theatre. Written by Beau Willimon, creator and longtime showrunner of the Netflix drama House of Cards, the film is loosely based on the book Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart by John Guy. It had originally been in production with Scarlett Johannson attached to star as far back as 2007 but soon languished in development hell. It then achingly started gearing up for commencement once more over the last, very slow 6 years. Set in Scotland circa 1569, Saoirse Ronan stars as the titular Mary Stuart, a young woman claiming to have legitimacy not only to the Scottish throne but to the whole of the United Kingdom. She challenges her cousin Queen Elizabeth I of England, played by Margot Robbie, a virgin who cannot have any children or heirs. However, their mutual steadfast refusal to marry politically or heed word from their male-dominated councils puts them into a tricky position for their respective peoples, who begin to see both Queens as unfit to rule. This is a film that feels like something right out of Miramax’s awards season playbook from the late 1990s. Take from that what you will, but to me, large budget costume dramas like these haven’t had a major hit in a long time. I can’t really say that I’m a fan of House of Cards, but I do love the two main actresses and will seek out whatever they’re in. And this is a sect of history that I’m really not that familiar with, so I was curious to see what this sort of conflict would look like for these people. Unfortunately, Mary Queen of Scots succumbs to many of the same problems historical movies have always had. When it comes down to it, this is ultimately a case of a great burgeoning director fighting against a weak screenplay. Based on the few episodes I’ve seen from House of Cards, I can tell that Beau Willimon is definitely interested in politics and their machinations. But, also like that Netflix show, it seems like he doesn’t have a clear understanding of how politics works, no matter what era. To him, it’s just a bunch of cruel and selfish people destroying anyone in their way in their quest to the top of the throne room; the lack of any further nuance or insight makes this angle and the characters one-dimensional and uninteresting. This stands in contrast to Josie Rourke’s direction, which highlights an excellent knack for staging. She does her best working with the material she’s given, and it makes me interested in what she does for the future. But there are some things in it that she simply doesn’t seem equipped to overcome, as there are a number of instances that stretch both its historical accuracy and believability. For what it’s worth, though, Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie do good work in their respective roles. Although it feels cliché and unbelievable to position Mary as an underdog, Ronan is uncompromising and fierce as the Scottish Queen. Robbie also manages to be strong-willed and determined, despite her sad circumstances with no hope of reprieve. Interestingly, there’s only one scene in the entire film where they share the screen together, but their chemistry in that one moment was dynamite and empathetic. In comparison to these two, most of the other actors fall short. Gemma Chan and Guy Pearce look a tad uncomfortable in their roles as two of Elizabeth’s advisors, while Jack Lowden and James McArdle portray Mary’s second husband and traitorous brother, respectively. They all remain confined to their archetypal roles, and in a few instances change their attitudes or traits in such a fast and unbelievable manner. The only other player here who leaves something of an impression is former Doctor Who David Tennant as John Knox, a thick-bearded Protestant cleric. Proclaiming that a woman sitting on the throne is an affront to God’s will, he is frequently seen delivering fiery sermons to the Scottish people in an effort to turn them against their Queen. He acts and speaks like a 16th Century version of Fred Phelps, which in some instances pulled me out of the movie, and in others kept me engaged. The technical aspects of Mary Queen of Scots, are very inconsistent, being great in parts but never as a whole. Ridley Scott’s frequent cinematographer John Mathieson captures both kingdoms in gloomy, washed out colors primarily. While the beautiful Scottish countryside is used for great background, both it and the almost-solely castle-set England feel a little too monochromatic. Thankfully, the controlled and focused movements and angles capture good lighting throughout the councils’ various quarrels. Chris Dickens edits the film in an intriguing way, albeit one that’s occasionally choppy or unbalanced. During verbal arguments, it frequently intercuts with other scenes to add more momentum to whatever is going on on-screen. The film runs at 2 hours and 5 minutes, but it often feels like it was originally a 3 hour-long epic cut down for commercial purposes. The best aspects of the film are undoubtedly Alexandra Byrnes’ elegant costumes, Jenny Shircore’s wide-ranging makeup and hairstyling, and James Merifield’s excellent production design. Without these 3 elements, late Medieval Great Britain would have felt far more staid and lifeless. The highly prolific and talented composer Max Richter provides the instrumental film score. In some ways, it feels similar to much of his regular work, and in other instances, it doesn’t. With his traditional backing of string instruments, there are a handful of melancholy tracks for some of the characters and their fates. There are also some rather rousing and exciting tracks using booming percussion instruments and occasionally something like subtle flutes and oboes. I can’t say that I’d necessarily pick it up on Apple Music, but it definitely fit for the context of the film. Neither remarkably awful nor astoundingly great, Mary Queen of Scots is a deeply conflicted portrait of two strong women wrestling with royalty and privilege. Again, Josie Rourke shows some considerable talent behind the camera and the two leading ladies are quite appealing in their roles. The bummer is that the supporting cast and script surrounding them just don’t really ever measure up to them.

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“Children of Men” Movie Review

My God. The things that Man will do to one another when they forget the sound of cries and laughter from children. This science-fiction drama thriller initially premiered at the 63rd Venice International Film Festival, where it won an award for achievement in cinematography. And although it debuted to the top spot in the United Kingdom, when it was released in the U.S. on Christmas Day of that year, it failed to really make a dent. The Universal Pictures production ended up only making back $70 million against a $75 million  budget. Although, it was nominated for various year-end awards, and has grown dramatically in reputation in the years since its release. Directed and co-written by Alfonso Cuarón, the film is an extremely loose adaptation of P.D. James’ novel of the same name, the first draft of which was written back in 2001. Shooting was temporarily pushed back while the director worked on Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, during which he drew several influences from The Battle of Algiers as well as his own experiences living in Britain. During production, the infamous 7/7 London bombings occurred, but this apparently did not deter the cast or crew in much capacity. Set in the year 2027, humanity has been completely infertile for nearly two decades, causing most of society as we know it to collapse. The few functioning governments left create massive, harsh sanctions against immigrants or refugees of any kind, causing consistent violence. In the city of London, a bureaucrat named Theo Faron, played by Clive Owen, is approached by a militant, pro-immigrant activist group called the Fishes and is strong-armed into escorting a young refugee named Kee away from the chaos. It becomes especially important since Kee is, miraculously, the first woman to become pregnant in 18 years. As the 24th and final film in my New Year’s resolution, I wanted to tackle yet another highly regarded picture that I had never seen before. I had heard many a great chatter about this film for a long time, with some people even going so far as to say that it’s the best sci-fi movie of the 21st Century so far. And I have loved virtually every film that Alfonso Cuarón has made since Y Tu Mamá Tambien, so this felt like a completion of sorts. Plus, it was super enticing to see what his take on a near-apocalyptic future would look like. And I couldn’t have picked a better film to round out my resolution with because Children of Men is an essential, moving, and utterly captivating film to behold. I’m sure many people have said it already, but I feel one of the biggest reasons for its power is how it has- unfortunately -only become more relevant in recent years. 2027 is not that far away anymore and while there has yet to be an infertility pandemic, more and more countries are closing off their borders and turning to fear-mongering as their next generations are seemingly ignored or forgotten. Through context, we learn of the decadence that the remains of humanity have turned to in a child-less world, one where there’s seemingly no hope for the future. What makes Children of Men so terrifying is how much Cuarón grounds the story in reality, creating a plausible scenario where the last hope of our species is surrounded by a bleak world. I’ve liked Clive Owen in various projects over the years, but his turn as Theo Faron is easily the best performance of his career. Having apparently been heavily involved in early writing, he completely owns this character as a cynical man who’s lost nearly all faith in his fellow man. But when the time comes, he truly steps up to the plate in complete selflessness to protect what’s really important. Julianne Moore and Michael Caine do respectable work as Faron’s ex-wife/the leader of the Fishes and his drug dealing friend, respectively. Although they’re not in the movie for very long, each leaves a lasting impact as they relish roles unusual for their careers and we really feel a past history they had with Theo. There are also a number of unexpectedly strong supporting players such as Chiwetel Ejiofor, Charlie Hunnam, Danny Huston, Peter Mullan, Oana Pellea, and Pam Farris. Then, there’s Kee, played by Claire Hope-Ashitey. Although her character doesn’t exist in the original novel, she stands as the embodiment of the recent single-origin hypothesis- that all human life began on Africa. It’s a beautiful allegory and she carries many of her scenes with all of the confusion and strength and weight of a young mother-to-be. We immediately grow to care about her, and not just because she potentially has the key to human survival, but that others seek to take advantage of this. Meanwhile, the filmmaking aspects of Children of Men show Alfonso Cuarón being in complete control of his craft once more. With his regular collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki, the cinematography helps to make an utterly bleak future look quite gorgeous. There are a number of extremely impressive long takes, such as a mounted perspective of an attack on the group in a car or a shaky camera following Theo through a violent war-torn city. The use of natural lighting is especially effective as we get to gradually see details of this world come into focus through the sunlight or by other ways. Cuarón also edits the film like many of his other works, this time in collaboration with longtime friend Alex Rodríguez. There are thankfully a number of good cuts to go around, as some of the one-take scenes begin to get exhausting after a little bit. It also manages to help capture certain parts of the action from different angles and perspectives, which keeps things consistently interesting. There is a instrumental film score, albeit a minimal one, composed and conducted by the late John Tavener. It’s not a traditional score, as the few tracks written feel extremely fluid with one another. The most predominant track is “Fragments of a Prayer,” which uses both dynamic vocals and ethereal strings to create a spiritual atmosphere. Some of the others use full-scale choirs and even flutes and unique percussion instruments. Many of these elements come together for a scene near the end that creates a true sense of emotional beauty. My jaw dropped and my heart stopped as it went on, a momentary pause in a fictional world so devoid of any hope. I can’t really write about it here because it’s so hard to describe in its power, despite its apparent simplicity, but all I can say is that I was left stunned. Frighteningly relevant today, but never succumbing to its bleakness, Children of Men is a hauntingly stark vision of human nature in dystopia. It celebrates some of our best qualities while simultaneously condemning the ones that make us worse off. Alfonso Cuarón is a true master of finding incredible subtext within even the simplest of stories, painting a sci-fi world in a way that feels like it could become a reality. Let’s hope that it never does.

“Hold the Dark” Movie Review

If this and Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia prove anything, it’s that the Alaskan Wilderness is a scary environment to go hunting for killers. I don’t care how pretty the scenery may be, if someone (Or something*) up there is wanted in questioning, I want no part in any of it. This horror thriller was initially set to premiere out of competition at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. However, following a series of heated clashes between the distributor and festival elites, it was pulled away from its original summer release and instead premiered at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival in mid-September to somewhat polarized reactions. Following another screening at Fantastic Fest, it was released (very briefly) in art house theaters and on the streaming service Netflix on September 28th, 2018. Directed by Jeremy Saulnier, the same man behind Blue Ruin and Green Room, his childhood friend and frequent star Macon Blair adapted the screenplay from the 2014 novel of the same name by William Giraldi. A24, the same production company that released Green Room, was initially supposed to distribute the film, before Netflix acquired worldwide rights in January of 2017. Set in December of 2004, the film opens with a young woman named Medora Slone, played by Riley Keough, whose young son is seemingly taken and murdered by wolves near a tiny Alaskan village named Keelut. She writes to Russell Core, played by Jeffrey Wright, a writer and retired naturalist who studies wolf behavior, begging him to help track down the wolves and kill them. She wants to make sure she at least has something to show her husband when he returns home, who’s currently deployed in Iraq. But while Core agrees and is out on the job, he accidentally gets drawn into a very dark mystery that the rest of the village seems to be in on. I’m a pretty big fan of Jeremy Saulnier’s two previous directorial efforts, Green Room and Blue Ruin. While the characters in both films were victims to making stupid choices, they both illustrated an exciting new filmmaker with a tight control on his voice. So getting the opportunity to see his next picture from the comfort of my dark living room in the evening made me anticipate Hold the Dark, not to mention the wonderful cast assembled. In particular, I wanted to see how he would be able to handle the bigger-scaled story compared with what he had previously written and directed. While it’s admittedly not really as great as those films, it’s still a solid thriller worth watching at least once. It’s clear in its metaphors that Saulnier has much he wants to say about human nature and our violent natural instincts. We witness numerous heinous acts committed by humans in either the village in Alaska or over in the Iraq warzone, ranging from murder to rape. In comparison, the wolves of Alaska, which are often viewed as savage and uncivilized, are oblivious to their own actions; everything that happens to them is seen as natural. Similar to his previous films, Hold The Dark doesn’t hold back on gruesome violence, but none of it ever happens unless it’s in service to the story. In fairness, Saulnier and Blair ultimately get carried away with their metaphors as the film doesn’t seem to lead anywhere totally concrete. It attempts to hint at something a little more supernatural, but rarely does something totally meaningful with it. I’ve enjoyed seeing Jeffrey Wright in a number of supporting roles over the years in both T.V. and film. And he proves here that he’s fully capable of carrying a feature-length picture as a lead character. As Russell Core, there’s a quiet aura and history of sadness and loneliness surrounding him, and we watch him trying to cling to reason and do what’s right. Riley Keough and Alexander Skarsgård also do great work as the Slone couple, who never seem quite right when they’re separated. From the very minute that these two first appear onscreen, they exude a cold, observational outlook on the remainder of their community. Julian Black Antelope and Tantoo Cardinal do superb supporting work as indigenous locals who seem to know something isn’t right with the family in question, while James Badge Dale is wonderfully subdued and grizzled as the honest cop hopelessly looking for answers. There are also tiny but effective parts by Peter McRobbie and Macon Blair himself that leave something of an impression. Meanwhile, the technical aspects of Hold the Dark reveal reasons why Saulnier is a talent worth watching out for. Magnus Nordenhof Jønck’s cinematography is quite gripping, using the bleak snowy environment to create a strong yet melancholic atmosphere. The way that it focuses on subjects and their every movements is very reminiscent of David Fincher, especially in the slow way that it reveals certain things. The editing by Julia Bloch, collaborator for the director on his previous efforts, cuts the movie in an extremely patient, slow to roll manner. Whenever violence bursts out, such as an intense shootout at a barn, it refuses to linger on gratuitous or bloody images for too long. It also focuses on certain subjects while other things are happening offscreen, as if to create a distant and observational look at the events displayed. Brooke Blair and Will Blair, Macon’s younger brothers and who have previously scored Saulnier’s last two features, have written some music for this film. It is in line with material they’ve written in the past, as it mostly consists of somber synthesizers and strings, reflecting the sad world the characters all live in. It also has a couple of tracks using the same instrumentation but instead arranged to rack up intensity. Filled with atmosphere and perhaps more metaphors than it can afford to carry, Hold the Dark is a sturdy, if unsatisfying slow-burn with a tight central mystery. Jeremy Saulnier proves that he’s able to handle a bigger budget, even if the results don’t always work. Moreover, Jeffrey Wright and Alexander Skarsgård provide some of their best work yet and show why they should be taken more seriously by studios and filmmakers. If for nothing else, this movie stands as further proof why I never want to live in Alaska.

“Outlaw King” Movie Review

I have some bad news for anyone who wants to watch this movie because they heard Chris Pine shows his full-frontal genitalia; it’s a very quick shot, practically blink-and-you’ll-miss-it. Most people will stay for the movie itself. This epic historical action drama premiered as the opening night feature for the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival. After a mixed-to negative reception from critics and industry insiders, two weeks later the director announced he was shaving nearly 23 minutes off the picture. It was then released in a condensed format in select theaters and on the streaming service Netflix on November 9th, 2018, finished on a budget of $120 million. Directed and co-written by David Mackenzie, who also helmed the 2016 neo-Western Hell of High Water, the film was a passion project of his that took over five years to develop. Initially undertaken with extensive research and a couple of playwrights by his side, the completed screenplay was credited to as many as five different writers. He was apparently dismayed by the reaction at TIFF, but felt relieved when the distributor gave him a chance to fix his errors. Set in Scotland in 1304, Chris Pine stars as Robert the Bruce, a well-regarded man with a legitimate claim to his country’s throne. Following the near-crushing defeat of their Rebellion a few years prior led by William Wallace, the remaining Scottish nobility reluctantly swear fealty to King Edward I of England, played by Stephen Dillane, in order to keep their lands intact. Civil unrest and terrible circumstances force Robert to be crowned King of Scotland, triggering an all-out guerilla war against the much larger English army. I absolutely adored Mackenzie’s previous directorial effort, Hell or High Water, released back in 2016. Although I haven’t yet seen any of his other works, that one was such a smart, understated, and beautifully simple character piece with incredible performances out its three main leads. Hearing the director was developing a Medieval epic with one of those leads returning (Pine) for Netflix was enticing, especially after hearing about its emphasis on historical accuracy. Because while I really love Braveheart, it’s really hard for me to overlook the laughable inaccuracies shown throughout. And honestly, even after all of the critical hullabaloo that this film has been through, I found Outlaw King to be a surprisingly entertaining and engaging film. Now, I’m not saying that it’s an amazing movie by any means. While I’ve heard that the cut on Netflix is a major improvement over its TIFF screening, the pacing felt a bit uneven. Even though its runtime now only clocks in right at 2 hours and 1 minute, it feels like it drags in some of the more dramatic moments, as it’s clearly meant to be more of an action-oriented film. Plus, it still feels as though most of the supporting characters from either side of the conflict weren’t fleshed out enough to bring the stakes up higher. Chris Pine does a surprisingly good job as Robert the Bruce, a proud man left with an intensely unhappy country to tend to. His Scottish accent was a bit dodgy at first, but it seemed like he got more into it as it went along. Despite the brutal violence he and his followers commit, he still shows a tenderness towards his people and his family. Game of Thrones alum Stephen Dillane plays King Edward I, and he seems quite comfortable in the role. Channeling bits of Stannis Baratheon, he does a great job internalizing his frustration with trying to control Scotland consistently and is unafraid to kill hundreds to get to Robert. Despite this, he’s not completely heartless and would much rather negotiate peace, telling Robert early on, “You had the courage to stand up to me, and the wisdom to step down.” And while other actors do great such as Aaron Johnson as the unpredictable Black Douglas, Billy Howle as the deranged Prince of Wales, Tony Curran as a feisty loyalist to Robert, and more, the only one who really leaves an impression is Florence Pugh as Elizabeth de Burgh, the Bruce’s English wife. Her journey from meek observer to staunch supporting of Scottish independence is a tad jarring at first, but she never loses sight of her strength and compassion. She does her best making decisions based on SHE wants- not her powerful parents, not her outlaw husband, no one. I’m genuinely eager to see her in more films, and her slate this upcoming year will hopefully satisfy that palette. Meanwhile, the technical aspects of Outlaw King make it pretty clear where that massive budget went to. Shot by Barry Ackroyd, a regular Ken Loach and Paul Greengrass collaborator, he surprisingly restrains his documentarian, cinéma vérité style in favor of something more controlled. The film opens with a stunning, 8 minute-long take that follows the Scottish nobility at their surrender to King Edward I with amazing fluidity. Even during the impressively staged action scenes, the camera remains steady and focused on its subjects. There are also, of course, obligatory swooping shots, which reveal the gorgeous landscape of Scotland. It goes nicely with the editing by Jake Roberts, who cuts each scene together without losing sight of what’s important. It doesn’t particularly feel choppy, despite the near-last-minute trimming of the film, and allows the audience to see the action, especially the glorious, muddy final battle, in full form. Bringing home the historical accuracy is the fantastic sets and the costume designs by Jane Petrie. With rough chainmail, dirty armor patches, and nary a kilt or drop of blue face paint in sight, it feels incredibly lived-in and realistic. The musical score is composed by Tony Doogan and Lucie Treacher, and it’s more or less what I expected to hear. There are a number of tracks filled with sorrowful strings and ghostly hymnal choirs, almost prophesizing the death toll this war will take on Scotland. While it’s great to listen to, it’s not very memorable. There is an original song called “Land O the Leal” by Grey Dogs that plays over the end credits. Featuring the fair voice of Kathryn Joseph, it’s a melancholy piano ballad lamenting on the bloodied homeland of Robert the Bruce. It’s a nice song, but hardly one worth listening to more than a few times. Well-meaning but often misguided in its vision, Outlaw King is a flawed epic celebrating both spectacle and a truly noble man. Maybe I’m a bit fickle and old, but I’d be lying to you if I said that I wasn’t entertained throughout this movie. David Mackenzie gets to show off his Scottish pride with great commitment while Chris Pine plays a classical Medieval hero and Florence Pugh emerges as a talent to watch. Hopefully, it will find a new appreciation and audience, in spite of what happened behind the scenes.

 

“The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” Movie Review

Alright, so I had originally planned on reviewing this film last year as part of Red Dead Redemption 2‘s release. However, since that video game had been delayed by virtually a whole year, I postponed it. Now that it’s officially out on the shelves and as part of my New Year’s Resolution, now’s as good a time as any to review. This epic Spaghetti Western was originally released in Italy on December 23rd, 1966. It reached cinemas in the United States about a full year later, mere months after its two predecessors hit theaters there as well. While it managed to gross over $25 million at the box office against a $1.2 million budget, surprisingly, the film was initially received negatively by American critics, primarily for its exaggerated depiction of violence. Today, it is rightfully considered one of the great films of its decade and genre. Directed and co-written by Sergio Leone, the film was originally pitched by screenwriter Luciano Vincenzoni, which received backing by the Hollywood studio United Artists. Its star initially was hesitant to return out of fear that a supporting player would steal the spotlight from him. Based on the timeline and events of the film, it’s actually a prequel to the previous two film, A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More. Clint Eastwood returns for the 3rd time as The Man With No Name, nicknamed “Blondie,” a morally ambiguous gunslinger drifting through the New Mexican desert. In 1862, at the height of the American Civil War, he and two other rogues- bandit Tuco and mercenary Angel Eyes -learn of a cache containing $200,000 of Confederate gold. Each man, some having a little more knowledge than others, set off to find it, all while trying to avoid the ongoing carnage from the Union and Confederacy. If you guys read any of my reviews from spring of last year, you might have noticed that I’m a pretty big fan of Western movies. While I had only seen one other Spaghetti Western at that point, Once Upon a Time in the West also directed by Sergio Leone, watching (and reviewing) them had made me find a new appreciation for the genre in certain areas. I got the chance to watch The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly for the first time a few years ago, but it was very late at night. After watching the first two in the Man With No Name Trilogy last year, I decided to revisit it and see if it was as brilliant as I thought it was. Spoiler alert: it completely succeeded my expectations. It’s a bit unfair, though, because after watching The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, it becomes incredibly hard to watch or enjoy other Western movies. The genre used to be a hotbed for Hollywood for about 30 to 40 years, mostly ones that were starring John Wayne or Yul Brenner. While the vast majority of them played a straight story of good riders and bad, cowboys and Indians, there emerged a huge subgenre in Italy that was low-budget but highly profitable. Leone was one of those leaders, crafting a morality play that satirizes the absurdity of war and the lengths some men go to just for a cache of gold. The main star would later address this Frontier issue in his own film Unforgiven, this is simply on a more epic scale. Speaking of its star, this film launched Clint Eastwood’s huge career for a good reason. While he doesn’t speak much and is almost always scowling, his is the type of cool masculinity that illustrates why you should never cross them. He also displays some great sarcastic wit, saying “I’ve never seen so many men wasted so badly” after witnessing a bloody Civil War battle. Lee Van Cleef is also excellent as Angel Eyes, the “bad” gunslinger of the trio, playing a cold-hearted mercenary willing to kill innocent people to get the job done. His stoic demeanor and sociopathic behavior towards others demonstrates a violent ruthlessness on the level of Anton Chigurh or The Terminator. Finally, there’s Eli Wallach as Tuco, the more comical and irresponsible of the bunch. His delivery of some deadpan lines provides a great and unexpected sense of humor as he virtually bumbles from point to point in the desert. In a way, it’s more of Tuco’s journey with the amount of focus the story puts on him. Meanwhile, with the technical aspects, we get to revel in a truly wonderous motion picture with some revolutionary techniques. Tonino Delli Colli’s cinematography is extremely precise in how it can really draw out a violent confrontation between characters. Along with some gorgeous wide shots of the Italian and Spanish plateaus, there are an abundance of close ups on the subjects. It uses these shots to build the anticipation of the conflict, moving between extreme close ups of faces and sweeping longs to highlight the space between the characters. Thanks to the immaculate editing of Nino Baragli and Eugenio Alabiso, the flow between these shots is perfect. Whether it’s like a bird’s eye view of a massive Civil War set piece or a more intimate shootout between outlaws, we’re always present where the violence occurs. Ennio Morricone may have finally won the Oscar for The Hateful Eight a couple years ago, but he deserve more recognition for his iconic film score in this film. Utilizing a wide arrangement of different instruments, we truly get to feel the scope and scale of this story. Some of the characters have more specific leitmotifs, such as wood flutes, whistling or yodeling. But other pieces make brilliant use of percussion, an actual coyote howl, and trumpet solos to create gun-like sound effects. Sure, the main theme is one that everyone knows, and plays over the memorable opening credit sequence. Yet it’s because of tracks like “The Ecstasy of Gold” and “The Trio” that hep truly mark its place in history. All of these elements come together for the immortal final showdown, a Mexican standoff between the three titular gunslingers. Without any dialogue spoken at all, a beautiful score, and fantastic camerawork, it keeps me on the edge of my seat each time I watch it. If ever there were a moment in cinema that defined why I loved movies, that scene would certainly be up near the top. While its deliberately slow pace and lack of verbal exposition may make it seem like a chore to some, to cinephiles, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is a stunningly beautiful and captivating Western defiant to age. You literally don’t need to have seen either A Fistful of Dollars or For a Few Dollars More in order to watch this classic. It defined a genre, it defined an era, and it defined the career one of the biggest movie stars ever to appear on the silver screen.