“National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” Movie Review

Almost everyone who celebrates Christmas has some unique family traditions they try to bring back every year. And if yours are anything like the shenanigans in this film, then you’re truly living a big life. This slapstick Christmas comedy was originally released in theater by Warner Bros. on December 1st, 1989. After coming in second its opening weekend, it went on to gross over $71.4 million at the worldwide box office. Against a budget of roughly $25 million, this made it the highest-grossing film in the Vacation franchise for about 25 years. Although it received mixed reviews during its initial run, it is now considered a modern Christmas classi among many film fans, this one included. Directed by Jeremiah S. Chechik, the screenplay by John Hughes was originally written as a short story called “Christmas ’59” published in the National Lampoon magazine. He only agreed to do it for the studio because of the quality of the story and left the series for good afterwards. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone director Chris Columbus was originally set at the helm before leaving after clashing with its main star consistently. Columbus and Hughes would later try and work together again on the future holiday classic Home Alone. Chevy Chase stars as Clark Griswold, the energetic and enthusiastic patriarch of the oddball Griswold family. As the winter season progresses, he sets out to try and give his family the best Christmas of all time by any means necessary. As more members of his extended family arrive, more and more absurd problems arise as Clark attempts to save old traditions. Just like It’s a Wonderful Life, I wanted to go ahead and close out my New Year’s Resolution with a pair of Christmas films that are considered classics. Sure, there’s a whole lot of cheese in places like Hallmark and Lifetime, but there are plenty of films that take the genre in great ways. And it’s nice to have a traditional rewatch every season, whether it’s a real decades-old classic or a recent gem. I decided to go ahead and look back on a film that’s renowned but not usually discussed in the pantheon along others like Miracle on 34th Street. My feelings on National Lampoon as a whole are kind of mixed, but their Vacation franchise provides some big laughs every now and then. And after all these years, Christmas Vacation still proves to be the best of them and a genuinely fun holiday regular. If you’re hoping for a strong narrative in your yuletide films, you’ll be disappointed because the plot and setup here are extremely simplistic. But that ultimately works to its advantage because it allows breathing room both for the hilarious jokes and the more heartwarming moments. It’s primary theme of trying to find what it means for a truly great Christmas season is really resonant and universal for audiences, no matter how dysfunctional your family may be. The one issue that keeps Christmas Vacation from being a complete classic for me is an unnecessary fantasy pool scene. It comes at around the beginning of the third act and just doesn’t fit in with the rest of the film before or after. But if you can ignore that one scene, (I’ve begun just fast-forwarding through it on each rewatch) the rest of the film is pretty fun across multiple demographics. Although most people associate him with Community and his days on Saturday Night Live, Chevy Chase was really at the top of his game here. As Clark Griswold, he’s extremely energetic and enthusiastic about bringing all of his family’s traditions into the fold this year. He tries to bottle up his frustration with failures and work but finally lets it all out in one of the best and funniest tirades in cinematic history. By his side, Beverly D’Angelo is amazing and endlessly funny as his confused and deadpan wife Ellen. She plays it more like the straight-laced partner who acts completely rational compared to her husband’s wild behavior. Juliette Lewis and Johnny Galicki play the Griswolds’ daughter and son, respectively, which continues the gag of their children always changing actors. They’re both earnest in their desire to make Christmas great but are constantly unsure about their father’s unorthodox methods to get to it. In a way, they act more as an audience surrogate as we witness the bizarre and absurd take hold in their household in gradual fashion. John Randolph, Randy Quaid, Diane Ladd, William Hickey, and Mae Questel round out the memorable members of the Griswold family while Sam McMurray, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Nicholas Guest, and Brian Doyle-Murray play some of their various acquaintances. With the exception of Quaid and Louis-Dreyfus, not many of the supporting cast really stand out or leave a huge impression. None of them really have big character arcs but they provide some decent laughs and contribute to the overall package. And from a technical point-of-view, Christmas Vacation has just enough flare to distinguish itself from other comedies of the decade. Thomas E. Ackerman’s cinematography here is, by and large, straightforward and pretentious. There aren’t really any clever movements, aside from a dramatic push-in on Clark when the house lights finally come on. It mostly places the camera in one or two different static positions during a scene and finds a way to make the humor more visually satisfying and timed well. The main colors associated with the holiday- blue, red, white, and green -are often seen throughout in many different ways and the frame captures them pretty decently. It’s really the editing, which is a joint effort from Jerry Greenberg and Michael A. Stevenson, that brings out the personality. The film often cuts between something really obscene with something more warmhearted for the holiday season, creating a very funny dichotomy. Each scene is nicely cut together to a tea and knows what to focus on for the specific moment. It also makes a wise decision of when to include a pause or when to cut away to the punchline. The aforementioned tirade is mostly shown in a long take of Clark in his living room and he kicks the furniture around him and gathers his breath. The fact that the camera doesn’t cut away during this moment makes it very hard not to break out in laughter as he pours out his true feelings for the first time. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation is a jolly good time with some really timeless jokes and heart. Excluding that unnecessary pool scene, Jeremiah S. Chechik and John Hughes have crafted a really nice classic in the already crowded pantheon of Christmas movies. Your mileage for the film as a whole may vary, but it’s Chevy Chase’s inimitably hilarious turn as Clark Griswold that makes it worth rewatching time and again. A fantastic way to close out the 1980’s, this comedy is sure to bring plenty of yuletide joy and laughter to the family.

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“Parasite” Movie Review

Every now and then, I watch a movie that can be absolutely hilarious in one scene and then make you question why you’re laughing in the next. If that’s the kind thing that floats your boat, then you’re going to have a grand time here. This dark comedy-drama premiered in the Offical Competition section at the 71st Cannes Film Festival. It went on to win the prestigious Palme d’Or, making it the first Korean film to do so and the first one with a unanimous vote in 6 years. Although it was released in South Korea and other international territories in late May, Neon gave it a theatrical release in North America beginning October 18th, 2019. Made for the budget of roughly $11 million, it has thus far grossed over $127.4 million at the worldwide box office. This makes it one of the country’s highest-grossing features and it has the best-ever per-venue average for a foreign-language film. Directed by Bong Joon-ho, the idea for the film had been in his head for some time. He has repeatedly stated that he and co-writer Han Ji-won were inspired by several of Alfred Hitchcock’s films, incorporating some of his most common motifs. The house in the film was built completely from scratch by the production designers and was specifically designed to cast light in a certain way. Song Kang-ho stars as Kim Ki-taek, the patriarch of a low-income Korean family struggling to make ends meet. When all of them are on the verge of losing their jobs, the son Ki-woo, played by Choi Woo-shik, is bestowed a golden opportunity. Posing as a university student, he is hired as a tutor for the daughter of the wealthy Park family while his friend is studying abroad. As time goes along, each Kim family member slowly becomes ingratiated with the Parks, to the point where they barely recognize the life they’re living anymore. While I’ve admittedly yet to watch all of his films, I really like Bong Joon-ho’s filmography and personal style. He’s always able to blend the very absurd with the realistic in films like The Host and Okja, both of which are among the most underrated films of the century. Plus, his English-language debut Snowpiercer was actually one of the very first films I ever wrote a review for. Prior to actually seeing it, I had been advised by many sources to avoid all trailers and reviews for the film, only watching the trailer once during a screening for another film. Although I usually like learning about whatever film I’m about to watch, here, I decided it would probably be best to go in as cold as possible. And that decision has paid off in spades because Parasite isn’t only Bong Joon-ho’s best film to date, but it’s also now become one of my favorite foreign-language pictures of all time. Like many of the director’s other films, this movie is really about the intersection between class differences, capitalism, and circumstance in our modern world. Rather than giving an easy solution to income inequality, the film shows the nuance in a situation like this and throws unexpected curveballs now and again. The dichotomy in how the rich and the poor react to things so mundane as the rainfall is fascinating and a wonderful way to highlight the difference in their socioeconomic standings. And like I said at the beginning, Parasite is able to generate some laughs from uniquely hilarious moments. The first half of the movie plays out more like a dark comedy and just when the tone seems set in stone, it transforms into something much more sinister. The transition between moods is so seamless and one of the many reasons why this film works so well. Another reason why is Song Kang-ho, who, in his 4th collaboration with the director, gives an incredible lead performance. As Kim Ki-taek, he always has the best interest of his family at heart even if it comes at the expense of others. He’s very thoughtful and quiet, making any sudden outbursts he has feel completely surprising and intimidating. His two children, meanwhile, are both played by Choi Woo-shik and Park So-dam, who demonstrate immense range with their roles. Woo-shik acts kind of as the innocent, wide-eyed man who wants his family to benefit without harming the Parks. So-dam, meanwhile, is more a calculating mastermind who cares about her loved ones but is cynical about the rest of the world. Both of them bounce their ideas of deception off one another even if they disagree about how to go about it. Cho Yeo-jeong also definitely shouldn’t be overlooked as Yeon-gyo, the mother of the wealthy Park family. Although she means well and tries to treat those around her with kindness, it’s clear she is quite dim-witted and oblivious to the con being played. Her aloof attitude provides some of the biggest laughs in the film, and a welcome levity to the story. The rest of the supporting cast, while relatively small, bring a great sense of memorability to the film. This includes Lee Sun-kyun as the stern and stoic patriarch of the Park family, Lee Jung-eun as their loyal yet eccentric housekeeper, Chang Hyae-jin as the assertive mother of the Kims, and Park Seo-joon as a friend of the Kim son who sets them up in the first place. Each player works masterfully under the director’s guidance and finds a uniquely dramatic and comedic angle in every scene. And from a pure filmmaking perspective, Parasite finds Joon-ho working at the absolute peak of his powers. Hong Kyung-pyo’s cinematography is exquisitely detailed and mapped out in such a beautiful way in every scene. The camera movement and positioning are perfectly placed as they find the right amount of negative space for the action. It uses the lighting and production design to its advantage by always blocking the actors with precision. There’s a healthy amount of static wides throughout which equally help to create a sense of unnerving dread and deadpan humor. Yang Jin-mo’s editing job also does wonders for the structure and pacing of the film as it moves from one scene to another. No shot is ever too long or too short for its effect to take hold on audiences. The opening sequence perfectly sets up the characters and their environment, brilliantly showcasing their relevant surroundings. There are also a handful of mini-montages sprinkled throughout that showcase the gradual infiltration between the families. It really demonstrates how methodical and careful the Kims are with their plans. Jeong Jae-il provides the instrumental film score here, and although the Academy apparently disagrees, it’s one of the best of the year. The film opens with a solemn piano piece that immediately sets the mood and it only gets better from there. The soundtrack utilizes numerous different instruments to realize the attitude and position of the characters throughout. This includes plucked strings for more mischievous moments and a high-octave chorus to illustrate the more luxurious life of the Parks. The end credits also feature an original song called “Soju One Glass” written by Jae-il and sung by Choi Woo-shik. Although it starts off with a really mellow guitar melody, it soon shifts into something deceptively enticing. In that, it might just be the perfect tune to end the film on. With an excellent ensemble, tight direction, and one of the most biting screenplays in recent memory, Parasite is an utter masterclass on all filmmaking fronts with immense social consciousness. By tackling its subject matter head on but refusing to give easy answers, Bong Joon-ho has crafted not only of the year’s best films but also proven that he’s an artist that demands to be taken seriously. Its stunning and scathing critique of the effects of capitalism is absolutely incredible but also never forgets the specific cultural context. This also acts as a fantastic example of how to use the setting to help tell your story, and is honestly inspiring to me in this and many other ways.

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“It’s a Wonderful Life” Movie Review

If you’re not in the mood for the sappy schmaltz of Hallmark movies or the action-heavy bravado of Die Hard, you can always look to the “Golden Age” for holiday favorites. This holiday romantic fantasy drama was originally released in theaters worldwide by RKO Pictures on December 20th, 1946. Despite being able to recoup its $3.18 million production budget, the film failed to break even due to stiff competition, and it wasn’t close. Many experts and historians attributed this as the start of the once-popular director’s decline in his favor with the major studios. Nowadays, it is considered to be one of the greatest films of all time. Directed by Frank Capra, the film was originally inspired by the short story “The Greatest Gift” by Philip Van Doren Stern. The studio initially set it up as a starring vehicle for Cary Grant with Dalton Trumbo writing the screenplay before all of their ideas were scrapped. Capra came in and did extensive (And apparently strenuous) work on the new script with Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich and auditioned several actors for all bu the main role. A few months after the release of the film, there was a memo sent out to the public by the FBI accusing the film of having Communist sympathies. Set in the fictional small town of Bedford Falls, Jimmy Stewart stars as George Bailey, a young man working as a building and loan banker. As the film goes along, we witness all the things in his life leading up to a series of particularly miserable decisions and bad luck. On Christmas Eve 1945, he becomes so depressed from his situation that he contemplates suicide, only to be saved by his guardian angel Clarence Odbody, played by Henry Travers. In an effort to show him how different life would be, Clarence takes George to a version of the world where he was never born and the consequences therein. I’ve made it clear in the past that Die Hard is my favorite Christmas movie of all time and I firmly stand by that. However, I also recognize that sometimes it’s nice to find something a little older and more family-friendly to watch over the holiday break. And although it could from household to household, more often than not, it comes down to this film and White Christmas. I had personally not seen this film for the better part of a decade, even though I distinctly remember loving it the first time. I finally got the chance to watch it again in the past few weeks, hoping that my older eyes would see it in a new light. And it’s with a brightened heart and a lifted spirit that I say It’s a Wonderful Life is still fabulous and even improves on repeat viewings. The central premise is a question we’ve all asked ourselves before; would the world be much different without me? This film paints Bedford Falls as a genuinely kind town and in the scenario without George Bailey around, it becomes a much darker and colder place called “Pottersville.” It does a fantastic job at showing how much the protagonist has made the lives of those around him better, even if he himself can’t realize it. Interestingly, something you may notice is that It’s a Wonderful Life doesn’t really get to Clarence or the alternate world until over an hour into the film. The whole movie leading up to that moment is spent with the voices in Heaven recounting George’s whole life story from childhood to present day. It not only helps further establish context for him and his loved ones but also creates a big emotional payoff for the iconic and heartwarming ending. Jimmy Stewart has built his whole career playing the likable American everyman, and I’m convinced that this might be his best work outside of Alfred Hitchcock’s films. As George Bailey, he’s immensely compassionate and is able think on his feet rather quickly when financial situations come up. Although he’s clearly happy to help his fellow neighbors, seeing him sacrificing his dreams of leaving Bedford Falls time and again shows his growing frustration of wanting to live a bigger life but never getting to. In direct contrast to him, Lionel Barrymore is extremely memorable as Mr. Henry F. Potter, the richest man in town. Although he doesn’t move much outside of his wheelchair, he’s successfully able to make both Bedford Falls citizens and audience members despise him as he only cares about buying and owning everything. He prides himself on manipulating various businesspeople on deals and loans for his own gain and only seems to get angrier and greedier as the film goes along. Henry Travers also delights as the guardian angel in training Clarence Odbody, one of the best side characters in cinema. Despite his cheerful and optimistic attitude, he’s determined to show George why his life truly matters and isn’t afraid to show the darkness. It’s almost like a learning experience for both him and us as we learn everything about this town and its people right alongside Clarence and the value of human decency. The supporting cast includes Donna Reed as George’s loving and quick-witted wife, Thomas Mitchell as his caring but dim-witted uncle Billy, Todd Karns as his innocent yet honest younger brother, H.B. Warner as a well-meaning but oft-drunk druggist, and Frank Albertson as George’s wealth but absent old friend. Each one plays an important part in the story of the main character and it’s clear they all are impacted by him. Even if George himself can’t see it, their lives are much better with him around and radiate a genuine warmth and neighborly presence in each scene. And from a technical point of view, It’s a Wonderful Life showcases Capra’s real brilliance behind the camera. Because of the difficulty of production, three cinematographers were credited: Joseph Biroc, Victor Milner, and Joseph Walker. Despite this, the black-and-white cinematography is still timelessly great, filled with long takes for dialogue-heavy scenes between all of the characters. There are a surprising amount of close-up shots used, either used to capture an actor’s internalized emotions or highlight important information on a document. Although a colorized version does exist, the black-and-white original makes the frame feel much more natural and the smooth movements make it seem almost like a fairytale. The editing job by William Hornbeck is equally excellent, being able to showcase everything with great precision and timing. As previously stated, there are several long takes throughout the film. But there are also numerous scenes where it cuts back and forth between different points of view to provide variety and tension, especially during arguments. A handful of times, the frame will freeze so that Clarence and his superiors in Heaven can fill in some blanks on lost time. It’s a brilliant way to keep the audience engaged without trying to hold their hand the whole way through. Dimitri Tiomkin, who previously worked on the director’s prior films, provides the instrumental film score for what would be their last effort together. It has all the sweeping greatness of many old-school Hollywood films, with a full orchestra and more. The main suite is a grand theme that mixes multiple different sounds and instruments together in a great manner. The mixture of strings and brass help create an emotional environment as George moves from one thing in his life to another. It also utilizes both subtle and overt choral moments that highlight the ethereal nature of the story. And best of all, it also knows when to let their be no music whatsoever, making it land much more effectively. A true cinematic classic if ever there was one, It’s a Wonderful Life is a beautiful and humanistic tribute to all the small moments in our lives. Arguably Frank Capra’s masterpiece, the film shows us how much of an impact we all have on the people immediately around us, even if we don’t fully realize it. Jimmy Stewart has quite possibly never been better than here and George Bailey is undoubtedly one of the best heroes in movie history. There is perhaps nothing more true to the “Christmas spirit” than for us to appreciate the time and space we share with our loved ones, and this film shows that wonderfully.

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“Knives Out” Movie Review

Every time I see an author in a film or show, I almost always want their fictional work to be real so I can read it. Even if their in-universe bibliography is extensive, I just want to get my hands on it, however possible. This darkly comedic murder-mystery premiered at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival to a rapturous response. After closing out Fantastic Fest, it was released in theaters worldwide by Lionsgate on November 27th, 2019. Having already made over $167.5 million against a $40 million, it should have no problem becoming a box office hit over the holidays. depending on how strong word of mouth ends up being, it could end up becoming one of the year’s most profitable films. Written and directed by Rian Johnson, the filmmaker had wanted to make a murder mystery for a while. He had originally planned on making it his fourth feature after finishing Looper but made Star Wars: The Last Jedi instead. It’s said to have been inspired by numerous Agatha Christie novels and films like Clue and Gosford Park. The film came together very quickly, with the cast and crew being announced within a month of its initial announcement. Daniel Craig stars as Detective Benoit Blanc, a well-renowned Southern private investigator. On the night of his 85th birthday, wealthy crime novelist Harlan Thrombey, played by Christopher Plummer, dies of apparent suicide. Suspecting foul play, Blanc is brought in to help question Harlan’s deeply dysfunctional family, including his South American caretaker Marta Cabrera, played by Ana de Armas. It soon becomes clear that everyone in the family is lying and all of them seem to have reasonable motives. I love a good murder mystery story every now and then and there aren’t enough movies these days in the genre. I’ve been a fan of Rian Johnson’s work for a while, from his perfectly directed episodes of Breaking Bad to the original sci-fi flick Looper and The Last Jedi, which I maintain is a genuinely great movie. Hearing news that he would be tackling a Christie-esque whodunnit set in the modern era made me practically giddy with excitement. As each player in the massively impressive ensemble signed on for the project, my excitement for it only grew exponentially. And hearing that it would be releasing over the long Thanksgiving weekend made me think it was going to become a real populist hit. And that’s just the case because Knives Out is an absolute delight of a film that is sure to become a huge crowd pleaser. From it’s very first scene, it’s perfectly clear that this is a film that understands its own genre and seeks to upend it in exciting ways. By focusing on a highly rich crime novelist, it’s able to examine greed, privilege, and entitlement in a way that bites hard. It’s evident that the majority of Harlan’s family members only care about getting in the will and how much they get, regardless if they actually deserve or earned it. But rather than being bitter and pessimistic, Knives Out also benefits from a darkly hilarious screenplay. Watching the various members of the Thrombrey clan obviously lie about the night of his death, plus how they all savagely treat each other provides some great laughs. And the dim-witted local authorities musing over missing clues, including a particularly convoluted metaphor about donut holes from the main protagonist, seal the deal for this original package of a movie. Daniel Craig takes a break from his tenure as James Bond for Detective Benoit Blanc, the eccentric private eye with a penchant for wordplay and cigars. With a thick Southern accent and loads of swagger, he quickly shakes off any imitations of Hercule Poirot as he gets right down to the case. Although we don’t get to know much about him personally, Craig’s subtle mannerisms and delivery of lines like “I suspect foul play, and I have eliminated no suspects” add so much to him. After a series of small supporting roles, Ana de Armas gets the breakout she really deserves with her performance here. As Marta Cabrera, she’s so pure-hearted and clearly has no interest in material wealth like the rest of the Thrombrey clan, who patronize her about her nationality. During the second act, she becomes the unexpected hero of the story as things shake up and she’s forced to confront things she’d rather have no business dealing with. Her facial cues and silence tell a lot about her character and just knowing she’ll be a big star is already exciting to me. Chris Evans also manages to surprise as Ransom Thrombrey-Drysdale, Harlan’s spoiled and narcissistic grandson. A total departure from his years-long MCU tenure, he goes to a lot of effort making his character a selfish bastard who never has any interest in being likable to those around him. Things take a turn, however, when he unexpectedly makes a change about halfway through where he admits to feeling vain and empty from the material life he’s lived. And Rian Johnson has managed to put together one of the best ensembles this side of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The family members consist of Don Johnson, Jamie Lee Curtis, Katherine Langford, Toni Collette, Michael Shannon, Jaeden Martell, Riki Lindhome, K Callan, and Christopher Plummer, while Lakeith Stanfield, Frank Oz, and Edi Patterson fill out smaller but equally important roles. Each player clearly looks like they’re having a blast as everyone clearly knows something the rest don’t, and their interplay with one another is aces. Meanwhile, from a filmmaking perspective, Knives Out sees Rian Johnson working in tip-top formation. Steve Yedlin, the director’s regular cinematographer, captures the picture in exquisite detail and precision. The opening scene features multiple shots of the Thrombrey mansion, clearly establishing the layout of the home and the legacy of the victim. There are some pretty creative shots that play with the visual composition of the characters and creates a great amount of negative space. We also get to see some amazing movements and techniques such as a dramatic dolly during an epiphany or a slow tilt for a revelation. This matches up quite well with the editing job by Bob Duscay, which keeps the pacing up despite a runtime of 2 hours and 10 minutes. In the first 20-30 minutes, we get a brisk montage of the police interviewing every member of the family as they give their of the story. Watching it cut back and forth between each of them is a great way to get insight into their characters and find new details that the others may be hiding. It also cuts to an occasional flashback to the night of Harlan’s death and shows it from multiple perspectives, adding to the mystery. The director’s cousin Nathan Johnson provides the instrumental film score here, and their fourth collaboration is absolutely brilliant. It has a certain jangly sound and rhythm to it as it utilizes plucked strings and percussion to build the suspense and intrigue. A handful of tracks also use a full symphonic orchestra in a sort of homage to old-school whodunnits Hollywood used to be obsessed with. The implementation of woodwinds and double reed instruments also creates a feeling of modernity to the story. There’s a certain underlying dread and melancholy to the tracks that by turns can be both tragic and ironic. The film ends with the song “Sweet Virginia” by the Rolling Stones, which perfectly fits the mood of the final moments. The lyrics and instrumentation surmises the themes and ideas of the film as a whole, and leaves on one of the best final shots in the last couple of years. Loaded with charm and personality and riding off of a killer script, Knives Out is an enormously satisfying crowd-pleaser with a fantastically committed ensemble. By prodding at the conventions of its dusty genre, Rian Johnson is able to craft a loving and pointed murder mystery with tons of social bite. The whole cast of veterans and stars give it their all and Ana de Armas is finally given a proper chance to shine in the spotlight. In an age where IPs are rampant in the market, this is one film that I wouldn’t mind becoming a new franchise. Even if it’s less shocking than it is clever, it practically begs to be seen with a big crowd and rewatched for a long time to come.

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“Highlander” Movie Review

After watching and reviewing a slew of critically acclaimed “classics” for My New Year’s resolution, I decided to have a bit of a change of pace. And I honestly couldn’t be prouder of the decision. This fantasy adventure film was originally released in U.S. theaters by 20th Century Fox on March 7th, 1986. It was eventually brought to theaters in the U.K. about 5 months later on August 29th of that year by the now-defunct EMI Films. Made for the budget of around $19 million, it failed to recuperate that with a final box office intake of just $12.9 million. It also didn’t help that critical reviews for the film at the time ranged from dismissive to outright panning it. Despite this, it later found some newfound success when it was released on home media, becoming something of a gem with a huge worldwide cult following. It also, for some reason, spawned a franchise that included four sequels, an animated film, and a T.V. spinoff. Directed by Russell Mulcahy, the screenplay was originally written while screenwriter Gregory Widen was an undergrad student at UCLA, and sold it for $200,000. The original concept was apparently much darker and more violent but was watered down after the studio brought Larry Ferguson and Peter Bellwood to rewrite several drafts. Filming was apparently a grueling process for all involved, particularly with getting locations figured out and the logistics of certain shots. Beginning in Scotland 1536, Christopher Lambert stars as Conor MacLeod, a warrior and patron of his family clan. After apparently dying on the field of battle, he discovers that he is one of a group of immortals that can only be killed by decapitation. Fast forward to 1985, Conor is living in New York City under the alias Russell Nash and learns that his lifelong enemy The Kurgan, played by Clancy Brown, has found him. Knowing that their confrontation could decide the fate of the universe, Conor remembers all his teachings and prepares for the final battle. If that premise alone doesn’t automatically scream the 1980s, then I honestly don’t know what does. It was a time when the industry, while heavily commercialized and influenced by the Reagan Era, still churned out original blockbusters at a steady rate. Even if all of the movies from that decade weren’t great or even good, it’s cool to see something so admittedly bonkers get bankrolled by a major studio at the time. This was one of those movies that I had always heard a weird response about, with just as many people proclaiming it a genre classic as there were those who denounced it completely. It had been in my Blu-Ray collection for many years, but now I finally had the chance to sit down and watch it myself. Make absolutely no mistake; Highlander is objectively a bad movie on several fronts, but I just couldn’t help but be totally entertained by it. In my personal experience, there are two different types of “guilty pleasure” movies to watch. There are the ones that are so atrocious that they’re hilariously fun to watch with a crowd, and then those that you love even with the full knowledge that it’s not good at all.  The 80s had plenty of both types, and I consider this film to be among the latter category. I also feel like Highlander is a movie that could only really have worked if it were made in this specific time frame. If they had made it today, (And apparently, there are efforts to try and reboot it) it would have taken everything way too seriously and tried to find some sort of thematic resonance. And while there is a glimpse of looking at immortals cursed to walk the Earth forever, it’s really the zany silliness that makes the movie what it is. Christopher Lambert is not a good actor and his performance as Conor MacLeod in this film is iconic in a different way. As stoic as a statue of William Wallace, he can either go too far into a scene or not far enough depending on the emotional requirements. It’s also arguable that no other actor could’ve portrayed him like this, especially with all of that luscious hair. In more positive notes, Clancy Brown seems to be having the time of his life playing The Kurgan in this film. The future voice actor for Mr. Krabs chews up how overtly villainous and contemptible his character is, covered in many scars and undesirable clothing. Aside from an epic voice and a litany of swear words, he also gets credit for uttering the film’s most iconic line, “There can be only one!” Sir Sean Connery is also noteworthy as Juan Sánchez Villa-Lobos Ramírez, Conor’s immortal mentor during his early days. The only one in the film with a convincing Scottish accent, it’s both perplexing and amusing trying to figure out what background his character is supposed to be. As he rides through the gorgeous hills with a flamboyant costume in tow, he espouses some observations on the values of love for men like them and just hams it up the best he can. Roxanne Hart, Beatie Edney, Alan North, Jon Polito, Sheila Gish, and Hugh Quarshie round out the relevant players in the supporting cast. There’s a decent variety of performance here, with some playing it straight and others going all-or-nothing. I wouldn’t put these actors up as the most memorable roles of the decade or even their careers, but for what it is, they do a fine job. Meanwhile, the technical aspects of Highlander are a mixed bag, ranging from good to jarring. The cinematography by Gerry Fisher bares a sort of sheen of plasticity found in many films from the era. Many colors are weirdly washed out, but come bursting out in bits and pieces such as Juan’s extravagant outfits. It often trades big, swooping landscape shots for many intimate medium or close-ups to try and bring it back to the characters. With only one exception relatively early on, most of the shots are consistent in style and quality as it moves from scene to scene. Speaking of which, the editing job by Peter Hoeness can be highly inconsistent. The transitions from scenes in the present day to 16th-century Scotland are pretty clever and subtle for the most part. But during the fight sequences, the cuts between multiple, drastically different shots is bizarre at best and incomprehensible at worst. A couple of battles even take place mostly in dark shadows as if to hide the stunt doubles, which is a shame because a number of them are decently choreographed. But the incorporation of practical sets and effects is mighty cool and at least feels like an attempt at authenticity. The soundtrack is noteworthy because it reeks of the 1980s in the best way possible. Immortal British rock band Queen write a handful of songs for the film, which eventually were composited into their album Kind of Magic. The two most notable songs they contributed are “Princes of the Universe” and “Who Wants to Live Forever.” Both feature the band’s typical, synth-heavy sound from the decade, while Freddie Mercury’s inimitable vocals fit perfectly for the grand scope of the adventure. Although the former song discuss the cosmic implications of the main story and characters, the latter is more of a somber love ballad for Conor’s doomed attempts at mortal romance. Iconic in ways both genuine and ironic, Highlander is a shamelessly cheesy adventure with entertaining yet unreached potential. Although it definitely leaves much to be desired and could easily find more meat with its premise, Russell Mulcahy and Gregory Widen still managed to create an original mythology that finds a great place in its crowded era. Christopher Lambert may not be able to act well, (Or at all, really) but Conor MacLeod is a hero worth rooting for who gets the chance to go head-to-head in a swordfight against Mr. Krabs. I mean, is there anything else you could possibly ask for?

“The Irishman” Movie Review

Let me just start this review by saying that this whole “Marvel isn’t cinema” debate is completely futile and overblown. People can love whatever they love or hate what they hate as long as they have legitimate reasons for it and as long as they don’t bemoan others for not feeling the same way. Now, let’s gladly and respectfully move onto this film. This epic crime drama premiered as the opening night selection for the 2019 New York Film Festival. Although the major chains refused to screen it, it received a limited theatrical release starting on November 1st, 2019, in which it reportedly made around $5 million against a production budget of $159 million. It was later dropped on the streaming service Netflix on November 27th to high anticipation from cinephiles. Directed by Martin Scorsese, the film, based on the book I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt, has been in development since at least 2007. The three main stars were always in mind for their respective parts, but it didn’t gain much traction until Steven Zaillian signed on as the screenwriter 8 years later. Originally set up at the director’s regular distributor Paramount Pictures, the film was subsequently dropped due to its climbing budget. When other studios proved to be hesitant, Netflix scooped it up for around $105 million and essentially blank-checked the entire project upfront. Allegedly based on a true story, (More on that later) Robert De Niro stars as Frank Sheeran, a World War II veteran and teamster or truck driver. After performing some crimes on the side to provide for his family, he becomes acquainted with and employed by Russell Bufalino, played by Joe Pesci, the head boss for the Northeastern Pennsylvania crime family. When the banks won’t give the Mafia loans to build casinos and hotels, they seek out help from Jimmy Hoffa, played by Al Pacino, president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters labor union. As Frank rises through the ranks and serves as muscle over the decades, he becomes torn between his loyalty to Jimmy and Russell as their relationship becomes severely tested. Martin Scorsese, for me, is one of the few directors whose name being attached is reason enough for excitement. I had heard talk of this particular film for years, and not many movies make it out of development hell. So hearing news that it was finally being made with the promised cast was almost like a dream come true for me and others. Hearing that it would be released on Netflix saddened me a little as I wouldn’t be able to see it in a theater. Nevertheless, I eagerly awaited the director’s return to the gangster genre after so many years. And I must say, The Irishman just about lives up to the tremendous hype and is a stellar addition both to the director’s canon and the streaming service’s output. If you sit down and watch this hoping to see another version of Goodfellas or Casino, you’ll be surprised by how slow and contemplative it is. It makes sense why it took so long to make because it’s more a film about older men wrestling with the violence and pain their line of work has brought to others. It’s nice to have someone who follows orders without question, but what happens when that person suddenly is confronted with its consequences? What if it’s too late for reconciliation? It should definitely be noted, however, that the real-life Frank Sheeran, who died shortly after the book was published, was likely full of it. Numerous experts and writers have discredited several of the film’s claims about history, particularly in relation to its approach with the infamous disappearance of Hoffa. But if you watch it more as a piece of historical fiction rather than a true-story drama, it’s very powerful and even surprisingly funny in parts. After a string of hit-or-miss roles, Robert De Niro delivers a powerhouse performance in his 9th collaboration with Scorsese. As Frank Sheeran, he has no problem dealing out violent crimes on behalf of his superiors and remains passionate about union efforts throughout the country. He’s a real man’s man, never allowing people to see his true emotions, and watching him internalize them all is very devastating as he comes to terms with his actions. In his first movie with the director, Al Pacino is almost just as amazing as Jimmy Hoffa, a brazen and foul-mouthed leader of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. Although he doesn’t fully appear until about an hour into the film, he creates a lasting impact with a dichotomous obsession with gaining more power and standing by his union members. It’s almost a Shakespearean tragedy because he’s a man who refuses to compromise his views or ambitions, even when threatened by multiple different parties. Joe Pesci arguably does the best job of the bunch as Russell Bufalino, the calm and calculating head of the Philadelphia crime syndicate. A far cry from his earlier, volatile roles, he has a certain wisdom and weathered experience that makes him a menacing figure in the criminal underworld. Pesci reportedly turned down the role 50 times before saying yes, and if this is truly his last film performance, he does it with such grace and thoughtfulness. The expansive supporting cast is an ensemble worthy of the director’s reputation. This includes Bobby Cannavale as a brutal enforcer for Russell and his organization, Ray Romano as his pragmatic attorney cousin, Jesse Plemons as Jimmy’s loyal foster son, Stephen Graham as one of Hoffa’s biggest union rivals, Harvey Keitel as an elderly Don acquainted with the main trio, Sebastian Maniscalco as the unpredictable hitman “Crazy Joe” Gallo, and Jack Huston as the relentless attorney general who tries to take down Hoffa and the mob. There’s also been much discussion on Peggy Sheeran, Frank’s daughter played by Anna Paquin and Lucy Gallina, respectively. She has very few lines of dialogue, with Paquin only speaking about 7 words total as an adult in the film. While some have criticized it for this, I would argue that it works really well because her silence says much more than anything she could put into a sentence. And just looking at the technical aspects, The Irishman shows that Scorsese’s still got it at the ripe old age of 77. Shot by his recent muse, Rodrigo Prieto, the cinematography is impressive as it moves from decade to decade. Many of Scorsese’s classic camera techniques are found throughout the film, including his penchant for swooping push-ins and careful tracking shots. This makes it feel like one of his older films in the best way, as we get to see every detail of each scene captured tremendously. There are also a couple of scenes told from the POV of a static wide shot, which makes sudden acts of violence both anticlimactic and shocking at the same time. As expected, Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing job is simply immaculate. Despite its mammoth runtime of 3 hours and 29 minutes, it moves along at an even clip thanks to her understanding of pacing. The film often cuts back and forth between different timelines to help create a context for the themes. Huge swaths of the film are just scenes of the characters sitting down and talking, and Schoonmaker cuts them in a way that makes it interesting to watch. This includes two pivotal phone calls between Frank and Hoffa early on and towards the end of the film as it moves between their two environments. And now we get to the much-discussed visual effect of digitally de-aging the central trio of actors. This was one of the primary reasons for it taking so long to develop and one aspect of the film I was somewhat worried about. However, unlike other recent examples of the technology, the work done here by Industrial Lights & Magic is pretty convincing. Although it takes a few minutes to get adjusted, and there is one shot in the first hour that remains a little jarring, you quickly fall into it as the actors really sell their behavior throughout the decades. In fact, it became a little hard for me to figure out what their “true age” looked like after a while. With a well-balanced tone that’s equal parts energy and melancholy, The Irishman is a fantastic and somber meditation on the cost of loyalty and a great swansong for its genre. Although not quite his best, Martin Scorsese still shows impressive maturity and wisdom in a passion project that feels like the natural culmination of his career’s work. De Niro, Pacino, and Pesci are all wonderful in some of their best work as we see them work towards their own self-enrichment until it’s far too late to realize the damage left behind. I don’t know if we’ll ever get another film like this again, but if this is the end of the road on gangster films for most of the people involved, it was a hell of a ride. Or to quote Russell Bufalino, “It’s what it is.”

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“Dolemite Is My Name” Movie Review

There’s something really inspiring about watching a bunch of goofballs genuinely trying to make something just for the fun of it. This biographical comedy-drama initially premiered at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival. After a brief theatrical run that last for 3 weeks, it landed on the streaming service Netflix on October 25th, 2019. It has thus far amassed some of the best reviews for a film this year so far, not to mention for Netflix films. Directed by Craig Brewer, the film had long been a major passion project for its star and producer. He had met with screenwriting duo Scott Alexander and Larry Karazewski as far back as 2003 and despite getting extensive details from the real-life subject himself, early versions never made it past the initial stage. It never really saw the light of day again until 2018, when Black Snake Moan and Hustle and Flow director Brewer signed on and found life once more. It’s the star’s first R-rated movie in 20 years, and even features a heartfelt tribute to his late older brother Charlie. Based on the true story, Eddie Murphy stars as Rudy Ray Moore, an African-American artist struggling to make ends’ meet. After scraping by as a local amateur singer and shake dancer, he comes up with the character of Dolemite, a vulgar pimp with rhymes and punchlines for days. When his comedy records featuring the character become successful, he becomes inspired to put Dolemite on the big screen in a film made and funded entirely by himself and his friends. Recruiting talent including respected actor D’Urville Martin as director, played by Wesley Snipes, Rudy and his crew set out to make what would become a defining film for the Blaxploitation genre. It’s been a good while since I was actually excited to see a film starring Eddie Murphy in the lead. The trailer made it seem like a role he had been dying to play for the longest time and hearing raves about it out of TIFF was even more encouraging. Seeing the massive talent he had managed to line up here also certainly didn’t hurt its chances with me. I’m also always a big sucker for movies that have to do with the business of filmmaking in some capacity. The fact that it’s based on a real person and the guerilla-like efforts they made to get their movie off the ground makes it even more fascinating. And thankfully, Dolemite Is My Name isn’t only a brilliant return for Eddie Murphy as an actor but the rest of the film itself is full of great actors and craft. From the very first frame until the last, it’s clear that this is a passion project for Murphy and all others involved. Although I’m not personally familiar with the movie Dolemite or the Blaxploitation genre as a whole, it’s hard not to appreciate the respect and reverence shown towards Rudy Ray Moore. He’s just a guy who wants to make art and share it with the world no matter what, and always wants to include as many people as possible in the experience. It also helps that Dolemite Is My Name is very funny, and not just from all the raunchiness of Rudy’s character. Seeing the whole crew trying to figure out how to make a movie as they go along is highly amusing because it’s clear they don’t know what they’re doing. That sort of naïve charm, much like Alexander and Karaszewski’s work Ed Wood, is perhaps the biggest emotional throughline of the whole picture. There’s been talk recently of Eddie Murphy making a comeback starting with this film; that rings true as we watch one of his best performances ever. As Rudy, he brings an infectiousness that’s hard to deny as he tries to make his way through the entertainment industry in any way possible. Murphy’s classic nonstop energy and boisterous personality are easily seen in the scenes where he acts out as Dolemite on stage or on-screen. But he also surprises with more quiet, reserved moments where he discusses his insecurities with his entourage of supporters. Wesley Snipes also makes a big impression as D’Urville Martin, an acclaimed actor and the director of the real-life film-within-a-film. His charisma and sense of humor shine through as he gradually realizes the inexperience of all his cast and crew members. While he seems elitist, he’s also very pragmatic and understanding about how the film industry works, especially for people of color. The supporting cast, meanwhile, features a treasure trove of great actors and artists both of current trends and yesteryear. This includes Keegan Michael-Key as the serious-minded playwright Rudy hires for the script, Craig Robinson as the golden-voiced singer behind the soundtrack, Snoop Dogg and Chris Rock as cynical radio hosts who want Rudy to succeed, Luell as his well-meaning and comedic aunt, and Titus Burgess as his flamboyant friend running a record store. Each player brings vibrant life to their characters and add something new and substantial to the table. But the real scene-stealer is newcomer Da’Vine Joy Randolph as Lady Reed, a single mother Rudy meets on his journey. Dramatic and comedic in equal measure, she proves a force to be reckoned with, even when she’s on-screen with the main star. She has a demeanor that changes from guarded to more open, confessing near the end of the film, “I’ve never seen nobody that looks like me up on that big screen.” I’m already excited for the long and successful career that she deserves. And from a technical point of view, Dolemite Is My Name has plenty to offer besides just excellent performances from the cast. Shot by Jason Reitman’s regular collaborator Eric Steelberg, the cinematography has a certain grainy tinge to it appropriate for the era. Overall, the movements and angles of the film are straightforward and unpretentious, going for a mix of static medium shots and short tracking ones. It still leaves plenty of room for the camera to capture the fantastic period costumes and gets a really excellent color palette across many frames. Billy Fox’s editing job also finds an amazing energy to match its main character as he moves all over. It knows exactly when to add a cut either for comic or dramatic effect, almost feeling like an old-school comedy that Murphy would’ve made back in his prime. It also lets some shots breathe as they draw out the awkward nature of the film they’re all making and wait for a proper punchline to come. It has a couple of montage sequences throughout, such as watching Rudy go from studio to studio trying to seel his movie and his crew putting the set together. This refusal to rush to an easy laugh is part of what makes it so funny and effective. With plenty of laughs to go along with its engaging story, Dolemite Is My Name is an invigorating and heartfelt tribute to an icon of underground cinema. Craig Brewer manages to find a dynamite groove to what should be a fairly straightforward and formulaic picture. And not only do we get arguably Eddie Murphy’s best performance of his career, but it introduces Da’Vine Joy Randolph as an absolute force to be reckoned with. It’s easily one of Netflix’s best offerings, and it may even inspire some to pick up a camera and make something with their friends.