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Avengers: Endgame (2019)
The zenith of the MCU franchise.
I feel like I'm wasting my time writing down my thoughts about Avengers: Endgame, because nothing I (or any critic) could say about it would ever dissuade a prospective viewer from seeing it. But after having had the chance to watch it at a preview screening, I can't help but say a few spoiler-free words.
I'm not your average fanboy -- most long-running franchises have bored me at this point, and I couldn't care less about the newest Star Wars episode or whether there will be another film set in the Harry Potter universe.
But Marvel films have been consistently watchable, with many solid entries and a few great ones (Winter Soldier, Ragnarok, the first Guardians of the Galaxy among others). And after Infinity War ended with a cliffhanger, I was looking forward to the conclusion. Boy, was I not disappointed!
Very few highly-anticipated movies live up to the hype, but Avengers: Endgame is one of them. It's the perfect follow up to Infinity War, and the absolute zenith of the Marvel franchise. It's hard to see how they'll be able to top this one.
It's surprisingly inventive (even when you know where the story is headed, the plot takes a few tangents getting there), emotionally engaging (a few people were crying in the theater) and surprisingly funny (this is probably the most I've laughed in a Marvel film since Thor: Ragnarok). Visually speaking, it's a true spectacle (topping Infinity War in the 'epic battle' stakes), and even though it's three hours long, it doesn't feel bloated. The only times I glanced at my watch was because I was hoping there would be more time before the end.
Yes, it's a superhero movie, but an immensely entertaining one (especially for fans who have seen all the pictures that came before it: there are tons of references and inside jokes to reward the faithful).
If "Return of the King" managed to win Best picture at the 2003 Oscars Avengers: Endgame deserves at least a nomination. It's as good (and in many ways better) a conclusion to a fantasy/genre series as the Peter Jackson film,.
Go see it.
Get Out (2017)
A surprisingly subtle and effective horror film for our times
Producer Jason Blum is the new Roger Corman: he's making a fortune producing smart low budget genre films that make a ton of money at the box office. Since his costs are low, he can afford to take chances on riskier edgy fare that studios wouldn't touch, and on relatively unproven talent.
There's no better example of this than Get Out, a truly surprising film by first time writer-director Jordan Peele. Better known as one half of comedy due Key & Peele, Jordan Peele isn't a name you would normally associate with horror/suspense films, which makes his effort all the more impressive. Get Out feels like the work of a very experienced craftsman who has seen a lot of classic horror films and truly wants to pay homage to them without slavishly copying or ripping them off.
If you've seen the trailer, you know the basic "Meet the Parents/Stepford Wives"-mashup storyline: rich white girl Rose (Alison Williams) brings black boyfriend Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) back home to meet her parents Dean and Missy Armitage (Bradford Whitford and Catherine Keener) for the first time. Although mom & dad (who were not told beforehand that Chris is black) seem friendly enough, things immediately look weird: the house is very isolated, the basement is off limits due to a 'black mold problem', and the only other black people are a maid and a caretaker whose robotic behavior doesn't seem to be noticed by anyone except Chris. It's clear something's off but is it just racial awkwardness or something more sinister? This being a horror film (with some comedy elements of very black comedy), the audience knows Chris' suspicions are likely correct, and the hints and strange events keep piling up (Dean is a brain surgeon and Missy is a psychiatrist whose expertise is hypnosis) but we don't find out exactly what's going until very late in the proceedings, and this guessing game (and its ultimate answer) are part of the film's power.
I mentioned "The Stepford Wives" earlier, but the film actually has more in common with Rosemary's Baby (not coincidentally, another Ira Levin adaptation): without going into spoiler territory, Chris's situation and his relationship with Rose's parents is clearly inspired by Rosemary's predicament and relationship with her new neighbors Roman and Minnie Castavet, who also appear to be caring and doting but turn out to have a very sinister agenda. Those who are familiar with Roman Polanski's masterpiece will notice how entire scenes in Get Out (particularly a party with a lot of oddball guests, almost all of whom are white and older than Chris) pay direct homage to the earlier film.
But whereas Rosemary's sense of alienation came from being a first time expectant mother (in itself a disconcerting experience) transplanted into a new environment (the Dakota building and its assortment of strange tenants), Chris' predicament has the added layer of racial conflict bubbling under the surface. He's the only black person in the entire place, save for the domestic help, and although everyone is nice and courteous, he (and the audience) can't help but feel that it's all the phony facade behind which something very unsettling is going on. Chris' suspicions are fueled by his occasional phone conversation with his friend Rod (LilRel Howery), a TSA agent who is house-sitting for Chris back in New York. Rod know something's up and keeps telling Chris to 'get out' of there because he's afraid the Armitages will turn him into a sex slave, but Chris is too polite (or intimidated by prospect of outright social/racial conflict) to take his advice.
Get Out's narrative is straightforward enough once you figure out where the story is going, but getting there is where the fun is. The cast is uniformly fantastic: like many actors turned directors, Jordan Peele gets great, nuanced performances by everyone, especially lead Daniel Kaluuya (in a star-making turn).
The racial aspects of the story are what makes Get Out so effective: without them, this would have been yet another installment in a long series of films where a seemingly nice family or close-knit suburban community turns out to harbor unpleasantness under the surface.. But the race conflict isn't an exploitative gimmick: Chris's race is an integral part of the story
In this day and age, it's safe to say a film featuring a black lead being victimized by a group of white folks could have been very incendiary, but the fact that Jordan Peele is black adds an extra layer of credibility to the film and helps deflects accusations of being exploitative. Rather than being brash and confrontational, the film is surprisingly apolitical and doesn't hit the viewer on the head with blunt racial allegories and heavy-handed caricatures.
Rose's parents are not the stereotypical racist old white folks: they are affluent, liberal intellectuals who (in her dad's own words) would have voted for Obama a third time if they could have. For most of the film, their courtesy and hospitality towards Chris feel unforced and genuine, if a bit stilted, which makes what happens in the third act a lot more believable and creepy.
The twist, if you can call it that, is effective because it's completely logical within the context of the film. The villains of the story have a very good (twisted) reason for their behavior, and are very civilized and professional about it. Not unlike the 'good Germans' during Hitler's regime, they think they're acting in pursuit of a greater good (listen to Dean's story at the beginning when he tells Chris of his admiration for Jesse Owens at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, where his own father also competed)
Get Out is the best kind of socially-conscious horror film: like Dawn of the Dead's anti-consumerism and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre pro-vegetarian stance, you don't need to notice the underlying message to enjoy the film, but it's there in plain sight, and surprisingly effective.
The Neon Demon (2016)
I wouldn't really recommend The Neon Demon unconditionally to my friends; not because it's a bad film (quite the opposite) but because it's the kind of movie that would inevitably lead some of them to think "he told me to watch it and said it was great. What kind of freak could possibly like that kind of stuff?"
To call it "not for all tastes" is the understatement of the year, since the majority of audiences probably won't really appreciate its very droll mix of violence, cannibalism, dark comedy, necrophilia and fetishism. In fact, I will be very surprised if there isn't any condemnation or manifestation of outrage from groups or individuals arguing that it's yet another shallow male-directed film that objectifies, stereotypes and vilifies women. I'd also be willing to bet that Nicolas Winding Refn, who, like his fellow countryman Lars Von Trier, has a reputation for being a provocateur par excellence, had exactly this type of reaction in mind when he made it. There is a semi-gratuitous maybe-it's-a-dream sequence where a female character is forced to fellate a knife blade that seems designed precisely to elicit that sort of response.
Deliberate excesses aside, The Neon Demon is possibly Nicolas Winding Refn's most straightforward narrative in a while (certainly more linear than Only God Forgives or Bronson). The film follows Jesse (Elle Fanning), a 16-year-old ingenue who moves to L.A. (or, to be exact, to a seedy motel in Pasadena, run by a sleazy and sinister manager played by a cast-against-type Keanu Reeves) hoping to become a model. Her naïveté and awkwardness notwithstanding, she first catches the eye of a powerful model agency head (Christina Hendrickson), then an influential photographer (Desmond Harrington) and finally a big fashion designer (Alessandro Nivola) who casts her as the centerpiece of his new show, much to the chagrin of established models Sarah (Abby Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote), who don't take kindly to being laid by the wayside to make room for a fresh new face.
She is also befriended by Ruby (Jena Malone), a seemingly well- meaning fashion make-up artist who moonlights at the local mortuary by applying her skills to make cadavers more presentable, and by an impossibly nice young man named Dean (Karl Glusman) who would like to be Jesse's boyfriend and protector. This being a horror film, at least on the surface, things starts to get weird for Jesse when her new friend and rivals decide to do something about her rapid ascent to the rank of top model. To say more would stray into spoiler territory, so I'll stop here.
Like Quentin Tarantino, Nicolas Winding Refn is a master regurgitator of old genre films. "Drive" was the bastard son of Michael Mann's "Thief" and Walter Hill's "Driver", with a few other ingredients tossed in for good measure (the film also owed a huge debt to Jean-Pierre Melville's "Le Samourai"). "The Neon Demon" is his love song to Dario Argento (in particular "Suspiria", which is visually and thematically referenced multiple times) and to countless Euro-thrillers from the seventies, starting with the fantastic but little-seen (in the USA) Belgian lesbian vampire/Countess Bathory retelling "Daughters of Darkness".
Punctuated by a great electronic score by Cliff Martinez (which sounds like the best soundtrack that Goblin never wrote in the last 20 years), The Neon Demon is a visual feast that makes the neon- drenched "Drive" and "Only God Forgives" look almost drab by comparison. This is a gorgeous-looking film, set in beautiful locations, with a cast to match.
The women are all impossibly beautiful and incredibly shallow and repellent at the same time: they look and move like poisonous snakes whose skin you would really like to reach out and caress, knowing full well that you are likely to receive a painful bite. Male characters on the other hand are almost uniformly visually unpleasant and slimy or feral-looking (Desmond Harrington's photographer in particular looks gaunt and menacing like a wolf circling a wounded animal). Only Dean, the prospective boyfriend, seems like a good, decent human being, but this is a movie that seems hell-bent on confirming the old adage that "nice guys finish last".
Elle Fanning is good, especially at the beginning of the film where she is required to look shy and insecure -- in fact there are no weaklings in the whole cast. But the film belongs to Jena Malone, whose character undergoes the most startling transformation as the story progresses. Her performance is truly daring and committed and easily the most memorable in a film filled with weird and eye- catching characters. When you see the film, you'll know what I'm talking about.
Although The Neon Demon is ostensibly a horror film, underneath all the scary movie trappings lies a very black (and bleak) comedy about a superficial world where appearances are everything and the only way to survive is to embrace (quite literally) a dog-eat-dog attitude. It's most definitely not a movie for everyone (and the only film in recent memory where a scene involving an act of lesbian necrophilia doesn't feel gratuitous and out of place), but it's the product of a talented director who has completed a metamorphosis, which began with Bronson (2009), from "simple" genre filmmaker into full- blown auteur, with a personal and distinctive visual and narrative style. If you are at all interested in cinema beyond regular multiplex fare, it's definitely worth investing 2 hours of your time.
The Patriot (1998)
Mr. Seagal must be seriously out of touch with his audience. People who go see his movies expect action, violence, stunts and martial-arts combat: what they get here instead are a lot of boring speeches and sequences teaching us that oriental/traditional remedies are better than western medicine, that biological warfare is a bad thing, that militia members are a bunch of overweight or underage weirdos in camouflage outfits, that native americans (especially their elder) are always wise and peaceful and so on.
I thought "On Deadly Ground" and "The Glimmer Man" were bad, but compared to "The Patriot" they both look like serious contenders for an Oscar. There's more action in a Meg Ryan picture than in this film. No wonder this was released outside the USA first. I wouldn't be surprised if this sinks like a stone in USA theaters and then comes out quickly on video/cable.
I admire Seagal's honesty: he looks sincere and desperate to convey his positive message to the audience, but judging from the overall quality of "The Patriot", he'll manage to reach only a few hundreds people and further alienate his fans.
Maybe all the good bits were left on the cutting room floor: the trailers show a couple of scenes that are not in the theatrical release. But I don't think I'll be buying the Director's Cut, should it ever come out on video...
Incredibly boring and dull psychodrama.
When an abusive man's girlfriend ends up in a wheelchair and another one jumps in front of a car to end her misery, attorney William Hurt decides to bring him to trial. Emotionally-scarred Robin Wright is called to testify at a court hearing against her former lover.
Sounds like the beginning of a good courtroom drama, and with a cast that also includes Sean Penn, Joanna Cassidy and Amy Madigan, how can you go wrong?
A lot, actually. What we have here is a strong contender for the title of Most Boring Film of the Decade. I honestly can't recall seeing a duller, slower, more sophorific piece of filmmaking.
Does director/writer Erin Dignam think real people talk and act like these characters? I'm all for psychological dramas and introspective stories but they have to be somewhat interesting. Even depressing stories can be compelling, but compared to this, Ingmar Bergman's films look like Die Hard meets Rambo. This film is so sleep-inducing, it could be used by dentists as an anesthetic.
Don't take my word, see it and judge for yourself. But make sure you have plenty of coffee available, or you may never reach the end with your eyes open.
Good Will Hunting (1997)
Manipulative but well done.
How many handsome mathematical geniuses working as janitors and whose ambition in life is to get drunk and get into as many fistfights as possible have you ever met in your life?
The main problem with Good Will Hunting is that the main character is as believable as Godzilla or Forrest Gump: it takes a lot of suspension of disbelief to swallow Will Hunting's behaviour and motivations. At least Forrest Gump was a nice guy: Will Hunting's attitude, which is supposed to be the product of an abusive upbringing and therefore "not his fault", gets on your nerves after a while. Sure, it's satisfying seeing poor Will defy the establishment figures (judges, psychiatrists and snob rich college students) and getting away with it. For a while. Too bad this get boring after a while, with the viewer always ahead of the story until the predictable finale. But as long as you don't think too long about the implausibilities of the movie's setup, the story is convincingly acted and reasonably well-told, though director Gus Van Sant doesn't show any of the offbeat touches that marked his earlier efforts (the closer he gets here is a weird slow-motion courtyard fight).
Robin Williams is fine as always, and more restrained than usual; the rest of the cast is adequate, though I would have loved to see more of Stellan Skaarsgard's math professor, easily the most interesting character.