Category Archives: movies

“The Post” a solid piece of craftsmanship

When a film’s writing, directing and acting all work together, the result, no matter the film’s other shortcomings, is poetry. “The Post” finds director Steven Spielberg with stars Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep and writers Josh Singer working together and balancing their talents to create a great film.

“The Post” focuses on the Washington Post’s decision on whether or not to publish the Pentagon papers, leaked classified documents that show that the United States knew the Vietnam War was unwinnable, but continued to send troops to die anyway. Kay Graham (Meryl Streep), the Post’s owner, must grapple with whether the risk of taking on the federal government is worth it to print the truth, a truth which hurts one of her dear friends, Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood). Meanwhile, editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) pushes to uphold the right of the freedom of the press despite the consequences.

The film is a taught examination of a single choice and the consequences that stem from that choice. It masterfully builds up the pressures put on the characters and uses their backstories to drive their actions, creating greater empathy and eventual repercussions. Hanks and Streep’s acting, along with Bob Odenkirk and the entire cast really, convey the desperation of their choices and the repercussions it could have for future journalists.

Spielberg has always focused on the simple actions of good people and the positive influence they can have on the world. Whether it be Oskar Schindler saving the Jews in his factory despite the risks or Abraham Lincoln choosing to liberate the slaves over peace or the platoon in “Saving Private Ryan” trekking across Europe to save Private Ryan despite the craziness of risking all their lives for one man. The Post’s decision to publish the papers sparks the same moral compass: the truth should win out. In a world of moral grayness, finding the right solution and sticking to that is what matters.

While Spielberg sometimes indulges in the cheerleader ra-ra moments of fist pumping that are unnecessary, his focused direction on the story and characters combined with his ability to infuse action with deeper meaning make the film breeze along and engage the viewer.

At times feeling a bit too messaged-focus especially in the light of today’s news, “The Post” nevertheless is another strong example of the newspaper film that exemplifies the honorable duty of the newsman and newswoman.

Advertisements

“Call Me By Your Name” a timeless coming-of-age story

Directed by Luca Guadagnino “Call Me By Your Name” is definitely a gay movie, but it is certainly more than that. A coming of age tale about love and heartbreak, it is a very universal story that all viewers can relate to.

It is 1983. Elio (Timothée Chalamet) is a 17-year-old boy who lives in northern Italy with his family. His father’s research assistant, Oliver (Armie Hammer), visits from the United States and the two begin a relationship in secret. As Elio’s sexuality burgeons, the weight of love bears down on him and how he views himself and his world changes.

The emotional journey of Elio keeps the story timeless. As he goes from naive young man to flirty adolescent to passionate lover to heartbroken adult, we see through him our own stories of love. Even though its plot is about two gay men needing to keep their relationship a secret in a world that doesn’t accept them, it is really a story of learning about love and the joy and pain that entails and that makes it pertinent to every viewer.

The film is anchored by its two standout leads, Chalamet and Hammer. They have incredible chemistry together and each give a powerful performance. The role of Elio’s father played by Michael Stuhlbarg and his off-again, on-again girlfriend played by Esther Garrel are also strong, but it is the leads who give the film its emotional heft and memorability.

The film utilizes a slow buildup to its emotional beats, not focusing on big, dramatic moments but on small gestures. Oliver massages Elio’s back during a game of volleyball. Elio takes Oliver to his secret spot where he reads books for hours on end. Elio has trouble dancing with his girlfriend in front of Oliver. What might at first be considered unnecessary filler are actually important character beats that let you into the minds of Elio and Oliver. Through these small actions, we can see their struggles, their desires and the undercurrents of emotions that flow within them.

“Call Me By Your Name” is not a big flashy drama, but it is a moving portrait of forbidden love and growing up. Featuring some of the best acting of the year, it is a subtle story focused on complex themes.

Best Movies of 2002

2002 was a seminal year for film in a variety of genres. The musical and fantasy adventure film were given some of their strongest entries in decades and classic films with themes of love, poverty and desire were produced. As the world settled into a post-9/11 mentality, filmmaking reflected both a need to escape current worries and to reflect on recent events.

Best Film – City of God by Fernando Meirelles

Fernando Meirelles’ City of God was hailed as an instant classic at its release over ten years ago. Its glow has not diminished since.

The story of two boys, Rocket and Li’l Zé, growing up in the 1960s in Rio de Janeiro, the film illustrates life in a crime-ridden world where violence is everywhere and moral corruption begins at a young age. Rocket is trying to figure out his life and just wants to be a photographer. Li’l Zé is hell-bent on power and will do anything to get it. By showing these two alternate roads, the film illustrates how difficult it is for youth to rise above their environment and the great temptation that environment has to corrupt.

Terrifying in its visual style and deeply moving, City of God is an incredibly visceral film that presents a history of violence. For those wondering how violence and poverty correlate in a world that is seemingly spinning out of control, this film explains it all.

Adaptation by Spike Jonze

Strange, funny, dramatic and at times disturbing, Adaptation focuses on not just the problem of writing, but the problem of finding meaning in something you create, a task far more daunting.

Written by the great Charlie Kaufman and directed by Spike Jonze, once the film starts, it never pulls back. Putting himself in his own screenplay, Charlie Kaufman (Nicholas Cage) has been given the task of adapting Susan Orleans’ (Meryl Streep) novel, “The Orchid Thief”, a tale starring orchid hunter John Laroche (Chris Coopet), into a film. Bewildered and suffering a crisis of confidence, Kaufman struggles as his own idiot twin brother (also played by Cage) develops his own ridiculous projects.

Strongly acted, stylishly directed and wonderfully written, the film embraces a number of genres to illustrate the difficulty of any act of creation, even the one presented to you now.

Chicago by Rob Marshall

With Moulin Rouge reviving the musical genre the year before, Rob Marshall and company took Bob Fosse’s classic Broadway show “Chicago” and brought it to cinemas. The result may be the greatest movie musical of all-time.

Starring Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Queen Latifah, Richard Gere and John C. Reilly, Chicago tells the story of a young wannabe star who ends up murdering her lover and gaining infamy in prison through a desperate appeal to the press as her case comes to trial.

By presenting the musical numbers through the mind of Zellweger’s character, the film avoids the awkward intercut between music and dialogue. In addition, the editing allowed the filmmakers to move the story along with the songs, keeping a vibrant pace that smooths out the narrative. Wonderfully designed and endlessly watchable, the film is not only the most fun of the year, but also one of the best made.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers by Peter Jackson

Peter Jackson continued his foray into Middle-Earth with the second installment of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Two Towers.

With the fellowship broken, Frodo, Sam, Aragorn, Gandalf and the rest of the free peoples of Middle-Earth must fend off a growing horde of evil as the forces of darkness march against them. Culminating with one of the greatest cinematic battles of the modern era at Helm’s Deep, the film also finally introduced audiences to Gollum, a CGI creature that forever changed the way movies were made.

Not just a breathtaking war story, the film also goes deeper into each of the characters, their struggles and themes of sacrifice and companionship. Perhaps the most beloved of the now decade-old trilogy, the film firmly established The Lord of the Rings franchise as a pop culture phenomenon.

Talk to Her by Pedro Almodóvar

Pedro Almodóvar delivered one of his best films in Talk to Her, the story of two men joined together by difficult circumstances and struggling to make sense of love and fate.

Benigno (Javier Cámara) and Marco (Darío Grandinetti), after a chance meeting at a movie theater, meet again at a private clinic where they discover that they are each caring for a woman in a coma, Benigno caring for a Alicia (Leonor Watling), a ballet student, and Marco caring for Lydia (Rosario Flores), a matador. As they are encouraged to talk to the women despite their unresponsiveness, they learn intimate details about love and unrelenting desire.

Flashing back and forth from past to present, the films delves into fantasies and produces images that are thought-provoking, grotesque and beautiful all at the same time.

 

Best Movies of 2001

There are always top movies lists that come out every year.

On the one hand, it’s condescending to rank different emotional experiences on a subjective level. Artistic quality is hard to judge across different genres and there are hundreds of films released every year, and no one could possibly view them all (a reason why you find so many similar titles on best film lists is critics simply copy from one another).

On the other hand, lists are helpful to the viewer and enable them to get a grasp of the supposed best films.

As will all lists, it is important to remember that personal liking plays a huge role (despite what other critics may state). So here are my top films from the year 2001, presented with the top film and then alphabetical order for the other four, the first year of my true vested interest in film.

Best Film: Spirited Away by Hayao Miyazaki

It may be a bit much to call Hayao Miyazaki a national treasure, but his films, some of the most imaginative ever made, will endure as not only great works of animation, but cultural milestones for Japan.

Spirited Away tells the story of Chihiro (voiced by Rumi Hiiragi), a young girl moving to a small town. When her father takes a wrong turn on the road, they end up driving into an old amusement park (never a good idea) where she wanders away, befriending a boy named Haku (Miyu Irino) who tells her that her parents are in great danger. She returns to discover that her mother and father have been transformed into pigs, and she must work through a mystical maze of creatures, demons and spectres to save her them all.

Full of imagination, heart and some of the best anime ever put to screen, Spirited Away is a fairy tale for adults and children, a sometimes haunting journey that Aesop himself wished he had written, and it stands as the best film of 2001.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring by Peter Jackson

It is important to remember that The Lord of the Rings films were quite a gamble at the time. Now regarded as one of the most successful franchises ever, J.R.R. Tolkien’s books were considered unfilmable and making three films at once was an unprecedented risk. Should the first one fail, all subsequent films would fail as well. It must have been a great relief for the filmmakers and studio when their first foray into Middle-earth not only met expectations, but surpassed them.

The story of a hobbit, Frodo (Elijah Woods), given a quest to destroy the evil ring of power, the film deals with a multitude of races, Men, Elves, Dwarfs, Orcs, as well as a great many languages and dozens of characters, including the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), king-in-waiting Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and Elven queen Galadriel (Cate Blanchett).

What could have been a train wreck of too many things happening at once is treated with the utmost respect and the adventure is brought thrillingly to life. Clocking in at almost three hours, the film evokes memories of grand epics such as Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Seven Samurai (1954), but always stays focused on the tale of a small hobbit and the struggle to find his courage.

Moulin Rouge by Baz Luhrmann

Baz Luhrmann’s films have always been a mishmash of technical wizardry, simple themes and erratic characters. Loved by some, reviled by others, he finally found a film that achieved both success and critical acclaim with Moulin Rouge.

The story of a penniless writer, Christian (Ewan McGregor), who falls for the seductive courtesan, Satine (Nicole Kidman), the film combined current songs into a medley that may have restored the musical to the movie world. Without Moulin Rouge, there probably would not have been Chicago (2002) or Les Miserables (2012) or Dreamgirls (2006) or La La Land (2016).

Dabbling into themes of jealousy and lust and displaying the kind of swervy camerawork and illustrious sets that Luhrmann is known for, the film succeeds mainly because of the strong acting of Kidman and McGregor and a timeless story both romantic and heartbreaking. Overdone at times, decidedly one-tone at moments, the film is a beautiful tribute to everything we go to the movies for: entertainment, allure, fun, dramatics and passion.

The Others by Alejandro Amenábar

Another Nicole Kidman film, where Moulin Rouge celebrated Hollywood spectacle, The Others gave a new spin on the modern ghost story.

Nicole Kidman is Grace Stewart, a mom with two children, Anne (Alakina Mann) and Nicholas (James Bentley), each of whom suffers from photosensitivity, meaning they literally have to stay in a big, creepy house as they are allergic to light. This sets the stage for a natural proclivity towards darkened interiors and suspenseful camerawork as Grace must look after the safety of her children as seemingly supernatural demons haunt their post-WW2 home. Rather than being a boring one-scare-at-a-time thriller, the film develops interesting characters and builds towards a terrifying conclusion that makes the entire story relevant and intensely interesting.

The twist at the end provides a vital “ah-ha” moment that makes audiences crave repeat viewings. Beautifully shot, masterfully rendered, The Others proves that ghost stories still have a lot to offer and that they needn’t be cheaply made gimmicks as they too often are, but moving tales of macabre.

Y Tu Mama También by Alfonso Cuarón

Before Alfonso Cuarón was making blockbuster films such as Gravity (2013) and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), he gained fame as one of Mexico’s most intriguing new filmmakers with this film about a pair of teenagers trying to woo an older woman on a road trip to a beach that does not exist.

Starring Gael García Bernal, Diego Luna and Maribel Verdú, the film is an exploration into sexuality and what it means at different stages of our lives. Whether we are dying or angry or young or old, it means different things at different times to different people. Secrets are revealed and revelations made about love, loss and friendship along the way.

What could have been a very cheese sexploitation film (and the sex scenes are very intense) is portrayed as a film about reawakening in the most immediate sense. Melancholic and evocative, Y Tu Mama También is a haunting examination of youth.

“The Last Jedi” a mixed bag

*SPOILERS ABOUND*

 

There are some great scenes in the latest “Star Wars” film. A confrontation in the throne room of Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) between both apprentices, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and Rey (Daisy Ridley). A daring sacrifice to save the remnants of the Resistance fleet by Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern). Luke staring down his former apprentice on the slopes of a planet covered in salt.

Then there are some terrible scenes. Yoda’s ghost (Frank Oz) showing up and somehow blowing up a sacred tree. BB-8 taking control of an imperial walker. Leia (Carrie Fisher) floating in space back to her ship after it explodes.

There are subplots that work (Finn and Rose on a gambling planet is fun if pointless). There are subplots that don’t work (anything having to do with Poe). There are some good new characters (Rose), and there are some bad new characters (Holdo and DJ). It seems so consequential to characters such as Luke and Snoke and so inconsequential to everyone else. To say “The Last Jedi” is a mess of good and bad is an understatement.

The film picks up on the promise of the previous entry, “The Force Awakens.” Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has been found. Rey travels to meet him and begin her Jedi training, after her mentor, Han Solo (Harrison Ford), was murdered by his evil son, Kylo Ren. Finn (John Boyega), a former stormtrooper, has joined the Rebellion after being recruited by his friend, Poe (Oscar Isaac).

The film is disjointed. Characters are introduced just to be killed off. Storylines go nowhere. The humor is hit and miss and generally more miss. It feels rushed, as if more time was needed to really iron out the story and character arcs. But in a cinematic world where franchises need to come out with new entries every year, filmmakers aren’t given the right amount of time to really get a grasp for their story. And the results are clunky films.

But the biggest issue facing this franchise is a lack of originality and purpose. While some have complained that the plot to “Force Awakens” is a carbon copy of “A New Hope” (justifiably so), the film felt like a part of the “Star Wars” canon. It seemed like a natural continuation of the saga and posed several interesting questions: Who were Rey’s parents? Why does the force call out to her? Who is Snoke? What is his backstory? What is the history between Kylo Ren and Luke? Will Luke rejoin the fight? These questions kept up the intrigue in the story. For a franchise starving for ideas (there are only so many different ways good can fight evil), these questions promised a potential new direction.

So it is disappointing that “The Last Jedi”‘s response to those questions was to just brush them away. Rey’s parents are no one. She’s important simply because she is. Snoke is dead and probably won’t be mentioned again. We’ll never learn about him and by ignoring his story, his death had little dramatic weight. There is no great revelation about the force or the Skywalker family or anything really. The big surprise in the film is that there is no big surprise. And that is a giant shame. It’s like setting up a joke and then not giving the punchline. It leaves you with a hollow feeling of disappointment.

While “The Force Awakens” promised intrigue, “The Last Jedi” offers more of the same. It’s another good versus evil, pedantic story of a young Jedi, an evil figure in a mask and failed mentors. The viewer left the theater of “Force Awakens” eager to see where the story was going. With “Last Jedi”, there is no desire. There are no lingering questions. We already know where the story is heading; Rey must fight Kylo and stop the First Order.

Just imagine this instead:

The film begins months after the events of “Force Awakens.” Rey has found Luke and begun her training, after great reluctance from the old Jedi. He questions if what he is doing is the right thing after his failing to save Ben Solo and the destruction of the rebuilt Jedi order. Rey learns about the strength of the Force, branching out, but she feels the lure of the dark side. She is frustrated with Luke’s depression and begins mentally connecting with Kylo Ren, seeing his struggle, and she sees how similar they are.

Meanwhile, the First Order reigns down havoc against the old republic. The regime that emerged from the ashes of the Empire has returned. The resistance is desperate. Leia tries to manage the war in her headquarters, but sees little hope. She recounts how Snoke appeared from nowhere, how he managed to coral the last vestiges of the empire to his will and how he needs to end.

Poe and Finn work together on missions for the Resistance, but their confidence wanes as well. Finn asks Poe how he first joined the Resistance and he remarks how he first heard the stories of Leia and Luke and how they were heroes to him on his world, a beautiful planet that was ruined by the Empire. They inspired him to become a freedom fighter. Finn remarks how he has never known freedom and Poe tells him that one day he will feel it.

Leia recruits them for a top secret mission, a last dire choice in their struggle against the First Order. Finn will go back to the stormtrooper corps as a spy and rejoin their ranks. He will offer them secret information and work his way up to Snoke in order to assassinate him. Poe works as his handler and sneaks aboard the imperial cruiser.

Snoke chastises Kylo for his failure to snuff out the Resistance or find Skywalker. He reminds Kylo that he still mentors the Knights of Ren, the other apprentices taken from Skywalker, with him, and that any of them could one day replace Kylo. Kylo, angry, vents his frustrations to Rey through their communications. She sees the anger and divide in him and wonders if he is a good man haunted by bad mentors. She questions Luke and his methods. Kylo hints that Luke knows more about her past than he lets on and reveals how his Jedi training failed because Luke was obsessed with making sure the dark side never came to his students, in a way ensuring that it did.

Rey challenges Luke to reveal what he knows. Luke refuses to tell her, but Rey keeps pushing him. Luke eventually relents and reveals her parentage (something dark that ties her into the Skywalker family/Snoke in some way). Conversely, Finn, in his mission to gain the trust of the First Order, discovers the past of Snoke and how it too connects with Rey. Crushed, Rey abandons her training and seeks out Kylo.

Finn and Poe are captured by the First Order as Finn is about to assassinate Snoke. Kylo meets with Rey and the two of them talk about how their masters have failed them. Kylo talks about his desire to tear down the systems of the galaxy and rebuild from the ground up. Rey tries to talk to him about how the power of compassion can save them. Kylo tells her about the captured Finn and Poe. Rey begs to save them, but Kylo does not understand her feelings. He questions why she cares so much about Finn, but agrees to help her.

Luke, tortured by another perceived failure, ruminates with R2-D2. He hints at other prophecies that have yet to come true and wonders about his role in this galaxy. Knowing that Rey will try to contact Kylo, he decides to stop her.

Finn and Poe are tortured by Snoke and his men. Poe tells Finn to remember to keep searching for that sense of freedom before he dies. Rey and Kylo arrive in time to save Finn. Snoke tries to lure his old apprentice back, but Kylo, consumed in anger, refuses. Snoke unleashes the Knights of Ren and everyone fights. As the situation appears dire, Luke appears. He confronts Kylo and reminds him that he sees the good in him, the spirit of Han Solo. For a moment, he gets through to his old apprentice. Together, they fight and kill Snoke. As the ship explodes around them, Luke sacrifices himself to save his students. The remaining characters disperse to escape pods.

Kylo and Rey end up in a ship together alone. Kylo offers to join with her and create a new order. Rey is torn, unsure whether to trust him. She accepts his offer.

The fate of the galaxy now rests on this uneasy alliance. How will these two former adversaries work together, neither with a master anymore? What will happen to the other Knights? Will the romance between Rey and Finn work out or will she grow feelings towards Kylo? What was the final part of the prophecy Luke had foreseen?

This is sort of where I saw “The Last Jedi” heading. Answering some questions but leaving others open. Raising the stakes for the characters. Forcing them into more consequential decisions that reveal more about their inner selves. This is what “The Empire Strikes Back” did for the original “Star Wars.” Luke learns about the darkness inside him, further deepening his inner turmoil. Leia and Han learn about their feelings towards each other, but that also raises complications: Han is taken by the bounty hunter, Boba Fett, and they know that their relationship could strain their friendship with Luke. Even Darth Vader, who was seen as a simple evil villain in the first film, now faces an internal test: can he convert his son to evil, against his better judgment, revealing that even he has inner struggle?

“The Last Jedi” fails in deepening the conflict within the characters. They face no great internal struggle and the audience has no mystery leading into the final chapter of this trilogy. We know Rey’s history. We know Kylo’s history. Luke is gone. Poe is uninteresting. Finn is uninteresting. It’s just a simple good versus evil story. The middle chapter of a saga should have viewers on the edge of their seats, anxious to see how the mysteries and questions posed by the previous entries will unravel. Instead, we feel nothing about the final chapter.

For a franchise that seemed to be getting back on its feet, “The Last Jedi” is a step backwards in a way. While thrilling and emotional at times, it lacks clear progression and delves into monotony. With JJ Abrams returning to helm the final installment, perhaps a bit of that old “Star Wars” magic he captured with “Force Awakens” will return.

“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” a powerhouse film

Writer-director Martin McDonagh’s “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” tells the story of Mildred (Frances McDormand), a mother struggling with the rape and murder of her daughter. Frustrated with the police investigation, she buys three billboards near her home and writes the message, “Raped while dying and still no arrests. How come, Chief Willoughby?” across them. This sets the town into an uproar as Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and fellow officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell) must confront the hardheaded Mildred and their own personal failures.

The film is an emotional tour-de-force, featuring great acting, solid directing and superb writing. It is a character examination of Mildred and Dixon in particular as they each come to terms with finding some form of justice in the world. They are as deep and interesting as novel characters, and the film in many ways come across as a long-form novel. The twists and turns of the story leave the characters facing heavier and heavier burdens and the stakes of finding Mildred’s daughter’s killer continue to grow.

There are some uneven moments throughout the narrative, especially in regards to Chief Willoughby’s character arc, and the film is decidedly not a straightforward mystery. The ending to the film is vastly different than how most of these types of films end and is sure to please some but anger many. At times, the film is clunky and some scenes don’t serve much purpose, but the emotional core and character dynamics keep the story sturdy.

The film deftly veers between comedic elements and dramatic scenes, providing an all-encompassing view of life that is both melancholic and hopeful. It is the journey that is important to these characters, their continuous striving towards a just outcome despite the obstacles in their way. And the obstacles in a world that doesn’t seem to value righteousness are indeed great.

“Three Billboards” is a harrowing look at our world that wears it’s heart on its sleeve. The fully dynamic characters and surprising plot make the film unforgettable.

‘Lady Bird’ a well-made, if familiar coming-of-age tale

Greta Gerwig’s impassioned look at youth coming of age in 2002 is being hailed as one of the best films of the year. I’m not sure I’d go that far, but it is certainly a very well-made movie.

Lady Bird’s real name is Christine (Saoirse Ronan), but she refuses to go by it. She spends her final high school year arguing with her mother (Laurie Metcalf), trying to find the perfect boyfriend and fitting in with the ‘cool’ kids in the rich neighborhood. In a Christian school, she yearns to break out of her Sacramento upbringing and hit the East Coast. As the pressures of life mount, it seems as though she is trying to be anyone but herself.

Saoirse Ronan is terrific in the lead role, totally encapsulating the angst, desire and anguish of youth. Her confrontations with her mother are heated yet loving.

There are some chuckles throughout a story that primarily focuses on the bonds we have with others and have they influence us. Lady Bird’s relationship with her mother, father, brother, best friend, the cool girl at school and various boys all test the boundaries of how she defines herself. It is a very universal story of acceptance of oneself.

There’s a lot to like about the film, but it is not really anything we haven’t seen before. There’s great writing, strong directing and powerful acting, but not much in the way of original ideas.