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A creative and entertaining movie...about Dick Cheney?
I generally recommend against getting one's history from films, especially dramatizations. Great story telling does not necessarily equate to great truth telling, after all. This movie has some pretty strong opinions - about Dick Cheney's motivations, about the Bush administration, about what we could/should learn from the years 2000-2008 (and all that led us there). What's absolutely beyond debate is that this film tells that story creatively and ingeniously. I wondered whether the little tricks of "The Big Short" would get old, but they just plain work here. Between those brilliant little satirical explanations and self aware jokes and some amazing performances (especially by Carrell and Bale), this movie is just...good. You may or may not agree with this version of history, but it's definitely the most entertaining and amusing approach you can take to a political movie like this. There are some silly leaps and the comedy does not always land, but I cannot wait to see what McKay does next.
A 90 minute episode...of a genuinely amuisng show
Parents know that there is nothing quite like cartoons that amuse both kids AND adults. Teen Titans absolutely qualifies in our house - plenty of satirical references, lots of laughs, and multiple parody songs. It works on TV, and it works as a movie too. I'm semi-surprised that this 90 minute episode (because that's absolutely what this was) succeeded in theaters because it feels a bit more like a TV special...but it also feels like a TV special that is truly funny. I laughed throughout - sometimes chuckles and sometimes guffaws, but I was amused the whole time. Thanks, kids!
High Flying Bird (2019)
A little more style than story
This film is interesting, not just because it was shot entirely on iPhones, but also because it is a different type of model for film making - a small cast, limited sets, and a simple story...but yet this sense that it is a bigger production in budget and scope. It is like Soderberg wanted to show us what movie making could become. Thankfully, the cast is great and the concept is intriguing (plus, the director could make just about anything compelling). The problem is that the script is just a little too convenient. The machinations and plot jumps made a point, but they did not make sense. So I was intrigued, but wished that the story would have lived up to the style.
If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)
More than just a story
Three words: Barry. Jenkins. WOW. After watching Moonlight and this, I will see anything the man makes. Much like its predecessor, this movie is absolutely breathtaking...less like something you see in a movie theater and more like something you see in a museum. At points the cinematography almost felt like a still life painting. At points the music made you feel like you were attending a symphony. At points the narration of these scenes offered something like moving poetry. All I know is it never felt like anything I had seen before. The fidelity to Baldwin's words was the most unique thing, I think - the result was more like a play than a movie, but the cadence pulled you in over time (as did the stellar performances) across the board). At times I did wish the dialogue would feel a bit more "real," but the audience would have lost something without that choice. In the end, this story became more than just one story. It was a look into a particular experience of America and an almost visual metaphor. You have to be in the right space for the whole thing to work, but that's what film should be: a journey to someplace new we could never have imagined. Baldwin would have been proud.
Ocean's Eight (2018)
Super stylish, but not super interesting.
I have stated before that I am a sucker for heist movies, and this film had all the elements: the cast of characters, the soundtrack, the flashes back and forward. It is even well done and well acted. Buuuut I was kinda bored. Super stylish, but not super interesting. I guess the whole thing just felt a little too paint by numbers, which makes sense because that's how the previous Oceans sequel felt too. Heists are great, but at some point you do have to wonder if they will pull this off. I never did. The heroes/villains always seemed in command, and the plan's problems always seemed pretty small. The movie worked well enough, but I would have rather rewatched Lucky Logan .
Beauty and the Beast (2017)
Save yourself some time and watch the cartoon
This film was pretty well done and well acted, but I have to ask: "Why?" Why do they keep remaking Disney classics as live action films? Why do they add songs or scenes so the movies become longer than 2 hours? I guess there's nothing wrong with this version of the story, but I prefer the original...both because I like cartoons more than bad CGI and because it was 45 minutes shorter.
Same old Shyamalan
The issue with recent Shyamalan movies has never been style or execution. Unfortunatey, though, his solid (and often gorgeous) film making often hides a fundamentally flawed story - desperate attempts at his trademark twist, shoddy character development, giant plot holes. Sometimes he nails it, but sometimes he misses badly. Since this one did well at the box office, I assumed it was a return to form. Kind of? I mean, there were some really interesting suspense and horror moments. The central characters were mostly developed well. But the resolution (like many of his films since - well - Sixth Sense) tried a little too hard. It was solidly entertaining, but not one I will think about much after this.
They don't make them like this anymore...but they should.
They literally don't make them like this anymore. So much has changed since this movie was made - about Hollywood, about politics, about our capacity for optimism. But this movie channelled Capra in the best of ways. Kline is absolutely amazing, the script is great, the direction hits every beat. Even the most ridiculous moments - solving the federal budget over an hour long meeting or impassioned speeches that try slightly too hard - work. And they work well. I re-watched this with my 12 year old son, and he loved it too. Who wouldn't love a well made comedy that makes you want to believe again? They don't make them like this anymore...but I wish they did.
Avengers: Endgame (2019)
A fitting climax
Well, it finally happened: I got emotional during a Marvel movie. Sorry, not sorry. This film truly was a fitting conclusion to a decade of MCU films. While it was a classic action sequel, it was also filled with surprises, homages, laughs, and emotional moments. Unfortunately, that's a LOT to accomplish in one movie (hence the 3 hour runtime). Fortunately, almost all of it worked. They wanted to bring 22 movies to an epic climax...mission accomplished. I'm not sure that I would put this one alongside the best stand alone MCU chapters (Winter Soldier, Black Panther, Ragnarok, Iron Man, etc.), but it somehow pulled all those movies together in a pretty magical way. I complain a lot about the comic book-ification of film, but I can also recognize the accomplishment that is the MCU.
Sometimes ridiculous works...mostly.
This movie is about as comic book-y as it gets. From silly hero costumes to ridiculous plot set-ups, the story feels like it is pulled straight from a super friends episode in the early 80s. There are pros and cons there. Embracing the ridiculousness really pays off comedically; the movie is at its best when it is essentially "Big" with super powers, and Levi and Grazer make for a great combo during those scenes. However, that same ridiculousness is responsible for some of the characters (from our super villain to our super friends/family) feeling more like cardboard cut-outs than real people, and all those relationships develop a little too quickly. I basically wanted to watch WAY more comedy and WAY less action, because that's what this story was made for. I was entertained enough, but there were some missed opportunities there.
Needs more salt (and a better screenplay)
Remember all those decidedly mediocre reviews about this film? Pretty accurate. It IS really well acted and directed. You care about the characters, even Cooper's insufferable protagonist. You cannot help but get sucked into the food preparation and quieter moments. But the screenplay just left a lot to be desired. This is not what opening a restaurant looks like, and this is not how people talk with each other in real life. If you want a chef rehabilitation story, go watch "Chef" with Jon Favreau. The fact that this story is still moderately enjoyable is a testament to Cooper, the cast, and the way they gradually/silently became a team over a couple hours. Still, there were some pretty big flaws here. (Side note: Cooper could basically play lovably arrogant burnouts for the rest of his career without much of a problem - he has a gift for this role.)
Free Solo (2018)
I would write a review, but I'm still catching my breath. This movie was absolutely staggering - an amazing cinematic experience, a loving tribute to a historic accomplishment, and enough breathtaking moments to keep you completely and utterly scared for 90 straight minutes. I'm not sure I have more understanding of WHY anybody would climb a couple thousand feet up without ropes, but I understand what that feat requires. That alone makes the film worth it. Add some of the best cinematography imaginable, and you have a winning formula. Alex Honnold was an odd guy to hang out with for a couple hours, but I'm grateful that he shared his journey with us (and that I did not watch him plummet to his death).
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
Inconsistent, but a ride worth taking
The Cohen brothers have never made a truly awful movie - there's always an interesting moment or a great character or a laugh you didn't see coming. This film was no exception. It's structure was ingenious, and it was filled with fascinating characters and compelling stories. Even when I knew what was coming, I loved getting there. Of course, the downside of telling ALL those varied stories is inconsistency. This movie fell prey to just that trap. It also fell prey to tired cartoonish stereotypes of American Indians. In short, there were flaws. But a bad movie? They have not made one of those yet. And honestly, I would rewatch some of these vignettes right now...just not all of them.
Full of surprises (and great performances)
Full disclosure: I am not a horror film buff. That makes it pretty tough for me to compare this film with others in its genre or write eloquently about all its homages, references, and influences. But you know what I can say? This movie was REALLY well done, and Jordan Peele is already a must watch director for me. "Us" consistently surprised me, from the story to the characters to the humor. (Plus, Lupita Nyong'o alone is worth the price of admission.) Much like "Get Out," this story worked on many levels. Yes, it scared me...but it also made me think. So while it was a bit more gruesome and the plot had far more holes, I would still line up to watch it again. After all, it is not often a movie sends me off to look up Bible verses and director interviews, but that's where I'm off to next. I don't want horror that's about nothing more than violence and thrills, but if it is about something more? Well, I'm suddenly interested.
Triple Frontier (2019)
Could have been more, but it was still enough
I'm a sucker for heist movies anyway, and this one happened to involve a solid cast and an even more solid writer/director combo. Given that, it is no surprise I was entertained throughout. The characters somehow manage to be likable assholes, the story sucks you in, and it is the most beautifully shot action movie in some time. That said, I wanted it to be more. Despite coming from a couple filmmakers who have excelled at showing and not telling, every thematic moment seems to involve awkward dialogue. So we touch on the military industrial complex and post traumatic stress and loyalty...but it always feels forced. In the end, it is mostly just a heist that goes disastrously wrong. But that still ain't bad.
Captain Marvel (2019)
An "old fashioned" action movie
Considering this movie is about alien warfare erupting on earth in the 90s, It is surprising how seriously it takes itself. Yes, our protagonist engages in witty banter with friends and enemies alike, but this is not Guardians of the Galaxy or Ant Man...there are comedic moments, yes, but nobody will mistake it for a comedy. This movie cares deeply about its characters - even the aliens, even the supporting cast. Honestly, that was refreshing. It is almost like Marvel turned time back to an era when action movies could be about finding ourselves, discovering our power, and sacrificing for others. The down side of that is this story feels a little cliche and predictable at points. (We have seen it before, after all.) The upside? It never gets too serious or too sappy or too sarcastic, and those are traps many comics movies have fallen into in recent years. There's a good balance here. It wasn't my favorite MCU movie, but it was solid nonetheless.
A great crime drama (and more)
In some ways, McQueen's latest film represents a significant departure from "12 Years a Slave," but there are some clear similarities: long lingering camera shots, beautifully framed scenes, and an amazing ensemble that is trusted to carry each moment. You can tell the man behind the camera is all about visual storytelling...an artist as opposed to a blockbuster machine. If every crime drama was filmed like this, well, I would probably watch a lot more of them (and so would others). This is what movie making should be: get some great actors, find a compelling story with tons of twists/conflict, and then film it well. No super heroes needed, and no Oscar bait either. Just gripping drama. Also, as a Chicagoan, I loved seeing a story that was all about power, race, and class in our city, but managed to not be didactic. This story felt way more local than many others that have been filmed here.
Plenty of jokes, but not enough story
Well, let's start with what works: the animation is still endlessly watchable, the comic sensibility is still there, and the real world family tensions being explored still make for interesting Lego world battles. But nothing feels fresh or surprising. We have seen this before (and even once more, thanks to the Lego Batman movie). That's a challenge with all sequels, but it is especially problematic here. In an attempt to make this "even more fun," we get more musical numbers and more characters and more one liners...but not more story. There's a middle stretch where the plot seems entirely beside the point, and that is never a good sign. It is still an entertaining enough sequel, but it isn't as good as its predecessor. There's a sense that we have done this before and the movie's trying a little too hard as a result.
Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
A movie that sucks...and mostly works
This film is basically a Queen medley with occasional scenes, but a fake set of teeth and an amazing catalog of songs is apparently enough to make a fairly watchable movie, as silly as that seems. Stephen Hyden of Grantland/Ringer fame captured it well: "Bohemian Rhapsody has been likened to a 'glorified Wikipedia entry,' but that's actually a disservice to Wikipedia....still, if you regard Bohemian Rhapsody as an excuse to sit in the dark and listen to Queen songs, well, there are far less entertaining ways to spend two hours." I mean, this movie was cartoonish and inaccurate and not especially good. But I could not take my eyes away from it. It never should have garnered awards nominations, but it I can still see why everyone flocked to theaters for it. When I think of 2018 musicals, I will think of "A Star Is Born." But that movie did not have a soundtrack by Queen.
At least this movie didn't take itself seriously?
If the first Jurassic World proved that we can clone Spielberg movies, this one proves we can clone the crappy sequels too. The only difference is a worse script, way too much cgi, and the most annoying version of Chris Pratt I have ever seen. He manages to smirk even while outrunning lava and dinosaurs. (Also, he is a world class swimmer!) The action sequences here might have been fun on a big screen, but they can't save the island - or the movie - from imploding.
The Favourite (2018)
I don't usually like place intrigue...but this works
Don't really enjoy palace intrigue stories much, but I enjoyed this one. The big difference? Farce. Most films about courts take themselves sooooo seriously (and move sooooo slowly). This on did not. And every extreme (from events to performances to dance moves) pays off with a laugh. Plus, those laughs never undercut the tension created by the main characters. I had seen this story before, but I had not seen it done this well.
Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018)
Funny (and more)
I gotta hand it to Disney here. They easily could have just made a cartoon sequel. The idea of Wreck It Ralph and Vanellope visiting the internet is comedy gold (and they mine that concept for all it is worth - all the one liners, references, self-mockery, and grown-up jokes you can imagine). That could have been the movie, and it probably would have made just as much cash. But they decided to make this a reflection on friendship and loss and how we grow apart. That's heavy stuff for a cartoon, but the choice to go there really works. Instead of a movie of internet jokes, you get a real story about semi-complex characters. Sometimes I take the kids to watch a movie and think, "This was mostly for them." All of us enjoyed this one.
Absolutely stunning...but a little distant too.
Roma may have been the most beautifully filmed movie I have seen this decade, let alone this year. Whether I was watching someone park a car or fight a fire or wade into the ocean, it was absolutely breathtaking. In many ways, that was enough to keep me watching and caring. The protagonist's journey mattered, and the city's journey mattered. The care with which the movie was shot made that impossible to miss. But I always stayed slightly distant too. I was observing how the story was told rather than being sucked into the story itself. There were literally central characters whose names I never learned and whose fates felt less than important as a result. Was it well done? Unquestionably. But was it a great story? I would say mostly. The people in it felt real. Their city felt real. The moments felt real. And every scene was shot like life depended on the outcome. The end result was gorgeous, even if I wanted a bit more drama.
Mary Poppins Returns (2018)
Not for me.
This movie knows its target audience: lovers of Mary Poppins, fans of classic Disney, and people who adore music/dance numbers. Unfortunately, I am none of those things. This movie's a remarkably well done homage to the original Mary Poppins, but (gasp) I never really loved that movie. How does the chimney sweep know the magical nanny? Why are they in an animated scene? What is this song about, exactly? And this film matches that one beat for beat, from Mary's appearance to the animated sequences to the silly songs. It is almost more remake than sequel. As a result, I can think the cast was great and that the film was well done...but still be kinda bored. And it doesn't help that the stakes felt low throughout. LMM and Blunt are constantly smiling, the resolution is predictable, and I never really doubted that everything would work out fine. There are some cool moments, but I'm not sure we needed another Mary Poppins and I'm positive that Mary Poppins is not for me.
I thought this was a bad idea. And I was wrong.
When I heard the set-up for this movie, I thought, "No way. We have already had entirely too many Spider-man movies, and the concept's kinda weird, and they are trying to fit WAY too many characters and plots into this one story." I could not have been more wrong. The degree of difficulty here was super-high, but Marvel still stuck the landing. They introduced a new Spider-man while paying homage to other Spider-man stories and creating something that felt entirely original...and they did it without rehashing the origin story all over again. There were moments where there was a little too much happening, but the choices almost entirely paid off and almost all the characters were given their due. Plus, the animation was just plain gorgeous and the soundtrack was great. Overall, it was a great movie experience. I might have liked a simpler story a little more, but mostly I just want more of the Miles Morales Spider-man in my life.