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Vice (I) (2018)
Shockingly Bad Dick Cheney Biopic/Mockumentary
27 December 2018
I was really looking forward to this movie for a long time and for a variety of reasons, despite my aversion to Dick Cheney and his policies. I love the cast as well as satire/dark humor, and loved "The Big Short" (which I saw in theaters in 2015 and rated a 9 out of 10.) A dark satire about an unpopular and infamous vice president was always going to be a difficult task to pull off, but I was not expecting anything near the startling failure that this film turned out to be. I genuinely can't believe that this film turned out to be such a mess.

First and foremost, the editing in the film is simply horrendous. I understand that McKay wanted to do this film in an unconventional style, which I normally would support given that the conventional tropes of the biopic genre have grown stale and old. However, the film's juxtaposition of quick cuts is too jarring for even the most seasoned viewers to keep straight. Sometimes the use of quick cuts is necessary (i.e. war footage,) but other times it is questionable (repeated analogous or symbolic references) or completely ridiculous. The film's perceived self-awareness is all over the place, trying to make itself seem more comedic and dumbed down at times, as if the viewer needed to be punished, and its often-bizarre narration is just silly. The acting tends to weirdly alternate between being overdone and undercooked--which is truly puzzling given the film's outstanding cast.

Also, McKay failed to understand this time how to deliver stark political commentary without seeming schlocky or over-the-top (a la Michael Moore and Oliver Stone.) Speaking of Moore and Stone, the film is essentially a love child of both of their filmographies--and that's not always a good thing. The reason is because the film seems to not always be concerned with proper presentation of facts. I'm a lifelong Democrat and no fan of Cheney myself, and while much of the film is likely accurate, some of it probably is not (which the film seems to inadvertently acknowledge as it commences) or presented misleadingly. The bizarre editing also causes grave damage to the possibility that more viewers will see the film as credible. And while the film will certainly infuriate liberals, it not only offers no commentary on solutions on how to best move on from Cheney's (and now Trump's) worldview--it explicitly feels solely like preaching to the choir from beginning to end. While McKay rightly criticizes Fox News in the film for its use of schlocky, highly biased and opinionated information, he fails to understand that sometimes his film feels like a liberal version of a Fox News broadcast rather than a more thorough and potent critique of Cheney. After the outstanding "The Big Short," I'm truly puzzled that this film turned out this bad. 3/10
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Blunt is Great, but "Mary Poppins" Sequel Otherwise Underwhelms
23 December 2018
"Mary Poppins Returns" has been long-awaited by many as a sequel to Disney's classic Julie Andrews musical. Emily Blunt's casting as Mary Poppins sparked a lot of buzz when it was announced, and she does her very best to play the iconic character. She brings a sense of wit and whimsy to the character that slightly differentiates this portrayal from Julie Andrews, yet still carries the film. Lin-Manuel Miranda also does a good job in his role. Several other actors I really like, such as Colin Firth and Meryl Streep, also do a great job.

Regrettably though, the film definitely falls short of what makes the original. The film's music is incredibly formulaic and predictable, and the story's pace is often erratic. Surprisingly little of anything of real importance to the film's narrative happens in the first two acts. Good musicals are able to use music numbers to enhance and complement the plot, but unfortunately this is not the case here. Rather, the music numbers serve as a "distraction" from the plot, which definitely wasn't true in the original film. It's refreshing to see 2D, hand-drawn animation on screen again during the musical numbers given that animation form's nearly extinct status in mainstream cinema today. Yet all in all, viewers don't really take away much of anything from "Mary Poppins Returns." It is a saccharine spoonful of sugar that's a safe option for young children over Christmas break, but the film probably won't resonate with today's generation like the original did with the past two generations. Only recommended to fans. 6/10
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Roma (2018)
Utterly Brilliant Slice of Life
16 December 2018
Alfonso Cuarón has made several brilliant films, but he has truly outdone himself and made his true masterpiece with this searing, thoughtful drama set in Mexico City in the early 1970s. "Roma" is absolutely stunning, and the best film of the year. The film is an ode to Cuarón's childhood and what he perceives to be a Mexico of a somewhat distant past. It is a drama that primarily surrounds Cleo, a maid, and the family of the house she cleans, yet the film's depth is so much more than a simple one-sentence synopsis could provide. Once you see this film, you will not be able to forget it.

Cuarón clearly intended the tone of "Roma" to be deeply rooted in realism, which is evident by the film's extraordinary black-and-white cinematography. The film is a technical marvel, with cinematography that helps each frame stand out. While the film does not really have a score, viewers won't miss it, as Cuarón's sound design is expertly constructed to an almost intoxicating degree. Even though I love many of the scores of films I really admire, this movie makes you appreciate just how much emotional power is delivered through the characters, cinematography and sound design that the absence of a score actually enhances the film in many parts. The film's third act is extremely powerful and a true roller coaster of intense emotions, yet each and every emotion Cuarón brings to the frame is truly genuine. Every sight and sound in the film has a purpose in tandem with the narrative, making the film's plot structure seem meticulous. The film's realism is present in its inherent motifs as well. For example, while the film certainly provides commentary on the deep-seated inequality present in Mexican society, its worldview is also pluralistic and universal in that lines of unity rather than division between characters are often emphasized. I particularly took note of this during the scenes with both Cleo and Sofia (the household matriarch,) many of which are incredibly poignant. The movie also pulls off an incredible feat of depicting social and political unrest around this time in Mexico City in considerable detail, without ever feeling overtly political or preachy as a film as a whole. (The story is didactic, but never preachy or melodramatic.) The film is lighter on dialogue than many dramas, but this is certainly not detrimental to the story given that the screenplay does a brilliant job communicating as much as possible in as few lines of dialogue as possible--which is, of course, what master screenwriters always strive to do.

As a family drama, a slice-of-life film, an ode to Mexican society and culture, and an epic, "Roma" succeeds with flying colors. 10/10
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Entertaining, Visually-Stunning, Creative Spider-Man Movie
14 December 2018
Featuring a unique animation style and plenty of clever writing, "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse" is a Spider-Man movie like none other. The film centers on Miles Morales, a teenager from Brooklyn who finds that he can possess powers of Spider-Man in both this reality as well as another reality. Eventually, his paths collide with Peter Parker as well as several others, as they must stop a villain named Kingpin. The film's stylized animation style is intended to look and feel just like a comic book, and that it does. While some viewers might find it a bit jarring from time to time, the animation looks outstanding and has an extraordinary level of attention to detail. A scene near the climax with Miles Morales web-swinging through Manhattan is utterly stunning. The film has plenty of Easter eggs throughout as well, which superhero fans will most certainly appreciate, as well as a great soundtrack.

The story is engaging and entertaining, and the film is well-paced without ever dragging. The narrative opens up many dimensions (pun intended) to the plot, but is able to properly tie up all loose ends by the film's thrilling and engaging climax. Unlike some superhero movies, a real emotional connection between many of the principal characters is formed in that you actually feel for them. The characters are also quite well-developed, even if such development is formed in a somewhat repetitive manner at times. My only real criticism of the film is that the villains (besides Kingpin) were not always enthralling and did not always add as much to the narrative as they could have in the scenes in which they appeared. Otherwise, this highly entertaining and original take on Spider-Man is a breath of fresh air for those of us getting tired of some of the more derivative superhero movies. Gladly recommended. 8/10

Note: I saw the film in Dolby Cinema. My friend and I both agreed that the format really enhanced the experience, as the sound and picture quality were both very strong. The use of the "rumble" effect was effective and immersive, and was used more frequently than other films I have seen in Dolby.
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Vox Lux (2018)
Interesting, Artsy Drama Headlined by Natalie Portman
7 December 2018
The reviews and trailer for this film promised a strong performance by Natalie Portman as a troubled pop star. While some of the praise for her role in "Vox Lux" may be somewhat overhyped, she does give a generally good performance in this drama directed by Brady Corbet. She plays Celeste, a now-famous pop star who survived a school shooting in 1999. The film gives viewers a grip on how those who get too all-consumed in the superficiality of pop music culture can lose control over their lives, although sometimes the dialogue and writing during these scenes can sometimes feel almost too on-the-nose to be truly impactful on the viewer.

The film is stunningly shot, and its score is often stirring and potent. Jude Law's supporting performance is outstanding, providing a powerfully subdued complement to the main narrative as Celeste's manager. With the exception of the memorial song sung by a young Celeste at a vigil for the shooting victims about ten minutes after film's commencement, the rest of the film's songs (which are pop-based) are generally not too appealing. However, this is likely intentional, as Corbet's direction is intended to make the viewer critique popular culture and its effects on music and society, as well as the possibility that our social obsessions may breed tragic and wretched acts. Despite such potentially-thoughtful commentary, it's not clear by the end of the film what Corbet really wants to say or offer as a message to the narrative besides simply saying that excess tackiness is bad. While superficiality is an important topic, for a film that poses far deeper, existential and angst-filled questions, the film's attempts to thread loose ends of its messaging before the film's finale (a pop concert) feel somewhat skimpy. The film's stronger elements would make it worth of recommending to those who like Natalie Portman and can appreciate sometimes-audacious and challenging films. 7/10
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OK but Somewhat Underwhelming Sequel
24 November 2018
I really enjoyed the first "Wreck-It Ralph" movie, and was looking forward to this sequel. While it's amusing enough and inoffensive, it's certainly a bit underwhelming compared to the original. It's great to see John C. Reilly and Sarah Silverman's undeniable voice talent back on the big screen, and the film admittedly does have a good concept: a plot structured around Ralph and Vanellope heading to the internet to find a missing part for the latter's "Sugar Rush" game. The animation is generally pretty good, and there's a fair amount of reasonably fun humor. While some of the jokes don't really work (Ralph asking if goggles are sold at "Google,") many do.

The main problems with the movie are two-fold: its attempt at messaging satire over the potential dangers of the internet comes off as too heavy-handed and surface-level, and the film can sometimes feel repetitive. The film attempts to show excessive fame on the internet as a (rightly) dangerous force, but it borders on being preachy while trying to do so. Additionally, many of the film's attempts at satire of internet and pop culture do come off as too undeveloped. Just like "Ready Player One" (a film I did not like,) the filmmakers here attempt to go for quantity rather than quality when dissecting pop culture references. Just having blue birds that make tweeting noises to take a jab at Twitter isn't particularly original or funny. The pop culture jokes are better than "Ready Player One," but certainly not as profound as the first "Wreck-It Ralph," where they were more developed (such as the Q-Bert scene.) I also thought the new characters weren't all that interesting. The Slaughter Race game and Gal Gadot's character felt fairly meh, and simply don't compare to "Hero's Duty" and Jane Lynch's character in the first film.

It's certainly not bad, but ultimately "Ralph Breaks the Internet" is a slight miss. If you have kids that are clamoring to go, it could make a OK family matinee, but all others (including fans of the first movie) can wait to rent this. 6/10
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A Disastrous Entry to the Wizarding World Canon
19 November 2018
I'm a (fairly casual) fan of the Wizarding World and love the original Harry Potter series. I enjoyed the first "Fantastic Beasts" film, but this sequel ("Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald") is a dumpster fire. The film is focused primarily on trying to set up sequels. In fact, it's so focused on trying to set up sequels that it completely shuns good storytelling and entertainment value. The film's first 20-25 minutes are admittedly good, with a thrilling and suspenseful opening scene and some good set-up of the narrative. After that, though, it's all downhill from there.

What also makes the film a complete misfire is that the film even fails to develop a primary conflict arc between Newt and Grindelwald. After all, do we really care that much about the extended family trees of various supporting characters? The movie gets unbearably convoluted even for fans of the Wizarding World, and goes out of its way to alienate casual fans. Unbelievably, the film's characters are either too developed to make further sense of them (which almost never occurs in mainstream filmmaking) or underdeveloped. After all, while I like the first "Fantastic Beasts" film, I'm not a huge fan of any of its main characters besides Newt. The acting is mostly sub-par, and Johnny Depp's performance as Grindelwald is flat and wooden. Speaking of Grindelwald, he's a very disappointing villain: one devoid of motivation or even any sort of personality. The Wizarding World was never going to top Voldemort or even probably Bellatrix as villains, but J.K. Rowling should have been able to write a more engaging antagonist. Jude Law is good as Dumbledore, but gets far too little screen time. The Hogwarts scenes probably only last a total of 10 minutes, which was very disappointing.

The film's messy climax lacks any sort of impact on the viewer and rather simply comes off as "blue lights vs. orange lights," and the resolution at the end makes the narrative even more convoluted and ridiculous. All in all, barring amazing marketing or reviews, I'm out on "Fantastic Beasts 3." 3/10
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Widows (2018)
Well-Made Heist Thriller
18 November 2018
Steve McQueen's Chicago-set heist/crime movie is an intriguing blend of popcorn thrills and social commentary on real-life inequalities and violence plaguing the Windy City. This film has a truly stunning ensemble cast, and most of the actors and actresses are very good here. Even though the ensemble is large, most of the characters are surprisingly well-developed--a rarity in films with this number of characters. Viola Davis is outstanding as the lead actress. Other standouts in the cast include Colin Farrell as the son to a crooked and openly racist machine politician (Robert Duvall,) and Daniel Kaluuya as a psychopathic criminal.

The film's heist scenes are suspenseful and well-executed, although quite fleeting in duration. The same is true with the scenes regarding the actual planning of the heist. Audiences should know that the film is more of a political drama than the trailers are selling it as, which I didn't mind, but many casual audiences would mind. The film's simple, understated score enhances the tension and drama in the film. While the movie could have used a bit of (well-written) comic relief, the tone generally communicates McQueen's messages and artistic intentions. The film's attempts at social commentary hit rather than miss most of the time, but the few attempts at social commentary that don't leave much of a mark seem rather glaring within the context of the associated scenes as a whole. The use of juxtaposition as both a narrative and aesthetic device at certain points in the movie enhances the viewer's experience as well as his or her absorption of the story's messages.

"Widows" is a good film but not a great one, containing a few clear-cut flaws. With an ambitious tone rooted in urban and social issues and a number of plotlines, the film does bite off a bit more than it can chew. It is also irregularly paced, as most of the planning and execution of the heist occur in the film's final 30 minutes. Yet despite this, the film almost feels a bit too long. 15 minutes of the film's first act could have easily been trimmed without detriment to the viewer or the narrative. That said, this is a good heist movie that should satisfy viewers that know what they're in for when they walk in. 7/10
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Venom (2018)
Terrible Supervillain Origin Film
16 October 2018
Despite poor reviews from critics, "Venom" is making quite a lot of money at the box office right now. Maybe it's because of the popularity of the character, or maybe even the fact that some casual audiences may (incorrectly) believe it is part of the MCU. I didn't think it looked very good and was not planning to see it in theaters originally, and only went to see it because of an online ticketing coupon which made it free. That said, I went in optimistic, as there have been some films this year that looked unappealing yet I ended up finding them enjoyable (e.g. "The Spy Who Dumped Me.") But despite my optimistic sentiment, "Venom" was not just bad, it was really bad.

I like Tom Hardy as an actor, but his acting is incredibly weak here. He is not really given much of a range to work with, which isn't necessarily his fault, but his portrayal of Eddie Brock is wholly unconvincing. The film's "origin story" tropes are rather tired, but that's nothing compared to the film's atrocious script. The script for this film is one of the worst in recent memory, with unbelievably cheesy dialogue or very cliché dialogue (e.g. Brock saying "what is wrong with me?" after feeling sick, etc.) coming at the viewer in almost every scene. Additionally, the film's tonal mishaps give the film a major identity crisis. "Venom" can't decide whether it wants to be an action-comedy a la traditional Marvel movies or a sci-fi horror flick a la "Alien." The problem is that the movie struggles with both tones. The attempts at humor in the movie feel incredibly forced and unfunny. Despite some creepy images of body horror and one or two jump scares, the movie is not particularly scary either. As a result, the movie just feels like a mishmash that was thrown together. The only remotely decent thing about it is an engaging car chase scene about halfway through. Definitely not recommended. 2/10
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Jenkins' Adaptation of James Baldwin is Deeply Powerful
14 October 2018
Two years after sending shockwaves through the film world with "Moonlight," which went on to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards, Barry Jenkins is back with "If Beale Street Could Talk." Needless to say, the film is excellent and is everything one could hope a follow-up to "Moonlight" would be. The film follows a young African-American couple in Harlem before and during when the man is wrongfully accused of sexual assault. While such difficult subject matter could feel slightly tone-deaf to some in the era of #MeToo, viewers should rest assured that Jenkins handles the material with a delicate and incredibly thoughtful sense of sensitivity. Like "Moonlight," the film's aesthetic qualities feel almost lyrical in tone, which is a beautiful sight to behold. The score is also superb as well, managing to be both quietly rousing and emotionally stirring.

Jenkins' technique of characterizing the setting or settings where his films are set is put to great use here. New York City feels almost like a character in this film, as it adds a rich tapestry to the film's narrative. This sense is heightened further when paired with a meticulous sound design, where even simple and day-to-day sounds like a subway car rolling into the station enhance the viewing experience. The acting is strong and quietly powerful from beginning to end, and the amount of thoughtful character development that Jenkins deploys throughout the story's narrative is commendable. The same can be said to the film's frequent use of narration. In many other films, this could have come off as annoying, but the film uses this tactic to great ends here by primarily using it to enhance the audience's emotional connection to the characters. Such a connection further builds up the powerful nature of the film's narrative, which makes a powerful and deeply tragic statement on the nature of racism without ever resorting to feeling heavy-handed by the end. I will note that the film does take some time to get going and has a few minor redundancies in its beginning scenes. But otherwise, this film is superb and on par with "Moonlight" in quality. Baldwin's prose is not just honored in this film, but it is cherished. 9/10
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First Man (2018)
Well-Intentioned but Generic Recreation of a Great Event in History
12 October 2018
Being a fan of Damien Chazelle's other films as well as of Ryan Gosling's acting, I was excited to see their interpretation of Neil Armstrong's famous moon landing, an event which has served as an inspiring symbol of the greatness that mankind can aspire to be. In a time when franchise movies and blockbusters dominate the marquee at mainstream multiplexes, it's refreshing to see good old-fashioned adult dramas in wide release like this and "A Star Is Born" (even though, of course, I do enjoy some blockbusters.) While the film has some good cinematography and a commendable lead performance by Gosling, the film feels dry and rather generic.

I understand and respect what Chazelle was trying to do here, and I acknowledge that the moon landing has been depicted enough times in popular art that it can be difficult to depict it one more time and still feel uniquely authentic, but the film unfortunately does have some serious flaws. The film's pacing is rather strange, as much of the middle section of the film feels melodramatic in a way that is directly at odds with its rousing opening scene and climax. Gosling's performance is poignant and thoughtful in its inner simplicity, but unfortunately Claire Foy is not given too much to do here as Janet Armstrong. (Too bad, because she certainly has acting talent.) Additionally, the film's juxtaposition of scenes is rather unusual. Before the moon landing finale, the film jumps from moment to moment dealing with Armstrong's life, yet not all of it adds up. These depictions generally miss the mark in terms of making you further care about Armstrong moreso than what you see in the space scenes. I liked that Chazelle shot some of the space scenes in the cockpit to allow the viewer to engage in the intensity of the experience, but the cinematography sometimes felt off during these moments. Perhaps it could have been even more effective and immersive to film some of the space scenes in first-person from Armstrong's perspective. With their old-fashioned aesthetic and simple dialogue, many of these scenes feel like Chazelle is playing it far too "safe" here. It's commendable that he wanted to show respect to Armstrong and his family, but he's a seasoned auteur who could definitely have created a thoroughly respectful portrait of Neil Armstrong while taking a bit more artistic risk.

All in all, I didn't dislike "First Man" by any means, but I wasn't too enthused about it either. 6/10

Note: I saw this movie in IMAX. The opening scene and moon landing scene were both very good in IMAX, but the rest of the movie (which adds up to a little under two hours) barely uses the format at all to enhance the viewing experience, even slightly.
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Cold War (2018)
Beautifully Made Drama from Poland
9 October 2018
This superbly shot and acted black-and-white drama from Poland is a worthy film from Pawel Pawlikowski. It doesn't quite live up to his outstanding previous film "Ida," but it comes close. Like "Ida," this film runs a fleeting 90 minutes and is shot in black and white using simple (but gorgeous) cinematography. For a film of such short runtime, "Cold War" is deeply ambitious, and for the most part, the ambition pays off. It is set over a considerable period of time both inside and outside of the Iron Curtain, and centers on a love story between a man and his student who meet at a state-run music academy in communist Poland.

The film's use of a variety of filmmaking techniques to depict the history and culture of postwar Europe through using historical context is outstanding. The simple and very powerful music is beautiful, as is every key shot in black-and-white. The two leads both give excellent performances, mixing desire for purpose in life with an intense feeling of passion that is prevalent among ambitious individuals in the era. Some of these strengths in the movie are even combined together to excellent results, such as a chilling scene when young women from the state music academy sing songs pledging absolute loyalty to Stalin on stage in performance. The juxtaposition of the different scenes in the movie is also done very well, as each scene simply cuts to black before the next major scene (set in a different region or area of Europe) begins. The only real complaint I have about this film is that while I really appreciated the ending for the most part, the tone of the film's finale felt slightly anti-climactic. Otherwise, this is a gem. Gladly recommended. 8/10
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Cooper Delivers A Potent Directorial Debut
6 October 2018
Bradley Cooper's directorial debut, "A Star Is Born," is a very satisfying and well-made remake of the classic story. While it does have some flaws, the film is generally powerful and thoughtful. In the film, Cooper stars as a troubled country/rock musician who falls in love with a pop star (Lady Gaga.) Viewers will likely be thrilled by the considerable musical talent on display here, as the songs are incredibly well performed. The acting in the film is very strong, with Bradley Cooper giving a wholly convincing performance as such an ambiguous and flawed protagonist. I didn't expect Lady Gaga to be completely convincing in her role, but she did a great job with both acting as well as singing (she has several moments in the spotlight during the film's concert or other music-based moments.) Sam Elliott headlines the film's supporting cast, and he also does not disappoint either. Look for these positive qualities to absolutely be recognized during awards season this winter.

While the film's music and acting are superb, some notable lapses are present over the course of the movie's 135-minute running time. The first concern with the film that I have is that it does run a bit too long, and could have easily trimmed 20 or 25 minutes off its running time without sacrificing anything of importance. The film does, from time to time, take the unfortunate route of indulging in some cheesy clichés of romantic dramas. This isn't surprising, but it's a bit unfortunate for a film that otherwise feels fairly structurally unique despite being a remake of a film that has been made multiple times before. But at the end of the day, viewers who see this film are here for strong performances and a great soundtrack. On those merits, they will certainly be rewarded, and I do recommend this film for sure. 7.5/10
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Redford Charms in Breezy, Repetitive Heist Comedy
29 September 2018
Robert Redford headlines this new dramedy from David Lowery (whose last film, "A Ghost Story," I found riveting,) by playing an elderly bank robber who has escaped from prison over a dozen times, and is looking to find love with a woman (Sissy Spacek) while being investigated by law enforcement. The film's old-fashioned color palette, low-key charms, and leisurely pacing feel like a throwback to classic filmmaking in a manner almost never seen in today's modern films, even independent ones. It's impossible not to smile at Redford and Spacek's charisma, and the simple score is charming and lovely. The film certainly has its fair share of amusing and entertaining moments, many of which involve bank robbery attempts and prison escapes. That said, the movie has some noticeable problems with its narrative.

The main problem with the film's story is not that it is contrived (it can be, but it is not too difficult for the viewer to suspend disbelief while watching this film.) Rather, it is that the film can be repetitive. The film's use of montages and similar plot devices (like juxtapositions of bank robbery scenes followed by subsequent juxtapositions of scenes showing the personal lives of major characters) get too repetitive, so much that it is somewhat difficult to feel impacted by their stylistic role in the narrative. For a movie that only lasts a fleeting 93 minutes, the film oddly feels a bit long as well. These narrative issues are (unfortunately) very structural in terms of how they affect the film as a whole, which can be judged by the viewer against the film's positive elements (the performances, simple aesthetics, and tone.) Recommended for theatrical viewing to fans of the cast; all others should probably wait to rent it. 6.5/10
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The Favourite (2018)
Well-Shot, Unconventional but Flawed Period Piece
29 September 2018
I'm somewhat of a fan of Greek auteur Yorgos Lanthimos, and was excited to see this new dark comedy from him set in period Britain. The film centers around the relationship between Queen Anne and Sarah Churchill, and how such relationship is affected when the cousin of the latter arrives seeking employment. The film offers an eclectic mix of dark comedy and great cinematography, but doesn't completely hold together, which was slightly disappointing.

Lanthimos' unique cinematography is outstanding throughout, as are many of his commendable aesthetic choices that help enrich the film's unique quality and tone. The acting is generally strong throughout, with the distinct nature of each performance among the three lead actresses enhancing the viewing experience. Unfortunately, however, the film's script has a number of concerns. The film's writing attempts to be witty and funny much of the time, but such lines of wit and humor do not always land. Some of the more raunchy moments are well-placed, but others just feel puerile or ridiculous. For a prestige film from an acclaimed auteur revered by many serious film buffs, the film can end up feeling quite lowbrow at times, which can alienate the viewer from some of the more serious commentary of the time period Lanthimos is depicting, particularly with regards to the issue of gender roles and the patriarchal nature of the society and culture. The total shifts can be quite jarring, even more so when one stops to consider that not all scenes played for comedic effect are particularly funny or even amusing at face or literal value. A majority of the film is paced properly and well, yet the third act can come off as anti-climactic. Ultimately, while I didn't dislike "The Favourite," I did expect a bit more from what some pundits have determined will likely be a top-tier Oscar contender this fall. 6/10
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The Wife (I) (2017)
Impeccably Made Drama With Stunning Lead Performance
24 August 2018
Based on Meg Wollitzer's novel, this drama surrounding the heated marriage between a husband and wife, Joe and Joan Castleman. Joe is slated to receive a Nobel Prize in Stockholm for achievements in literary excellence. While in Stockholm with his wife, hard truths begin to spill out that have profound effects on the two individuals as a couple. The film is a masterpiece from start to finish, as it manages to excel in acting, writing, score, and cinematography.

Glenn Close's performance as Joan is most certainly Oscar-worthy; she manages to cover an entire and plentiful range of emotion and works miracles of suspense with her devotion to the character during the film's most intense moments of drama. Jonathan Price creates a powerful character study while playing Joe, and manages to ooze out a deep and systemic feeling of pervasive self-absorption and dishonesty in each frame. The film's pace is outstanding and keeps the viewer engaged from beginning to end. The drama continues to simmer and simmer up until the climax, when it can boil over. The pacing allows for flashbacks of college-age Joan and Joe that manage to take us out of the present day without ever feeling disjointed or clunky. Another standout in the cast is Glenn Close's daughter, who plays Young Joan during the flashback scenes. The deeply sophisticated script sparks the interest of the viewer at the narrative's commencement and rewards your patience during the climax and ending. The exploration of key feminist themes surrounding how society may not equally celebrate the accomplishments of women provides the narrative with a strong and original sense of social consciousness as well. But what makes this script so truly unique is the sense in the writing that actions truly are capable of producing reciprocal consequences. While some films attempt to maintain a form of narrative gravity akin to that, they often feel contrived rather than genuine in their attempts to do so. In this film's story, every decision impacts and is impacted by other decisions. This is done through multiple dimensions, rather than feeling similar to something like a line of dominoes. It makes the film's drama all the more believable, thoughtful, and impactful.

Aesthetically, "The Wife" is also superb, which is not necessarily expected in a relatively low-key drama like this--but absolutely welcomed. The film's simple and often wide-shot cinematography of Stockholm and the surrounding areas are outstanding, as is the simple score which increases the senses of emotion and tension throughout the film's duration. All in all, the film is a nearly perfect drama headlined by an outstanding and awards-worthy performance from Close. It's my favorite film of the year so far. Very highly recommended. 10/10
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Surprisingly Good Action-Comedy
10 August 2018
I will preface this review by stating that I only saw this in theaters because I had a free ticket. Even though I love spy movies, I thought the trailers for this didn't look very good and went in with low expectations. While it's not a masterpiece by any means, it's actually a very fun and entertaining action-comedy that surpassed my expectations. If you keep your expectations in check, you can have a very good time with this film.

The plot centers around a woman who must go on the run with her best friend to finish a mission surrounding her boyfriend (a spy,) who recently broke up with her. Even though I'm not a huge fan of Kunis and McKinnon normally, they both had very good chemistry in the film. One of the things that I was most pleased by about this movie was how good the action scenes are. The action scenes are intense, immersive and surprisingly brutal. The film uses a mix of chase scenes, shootouts and fight scenes. While some of those elements may sound derivative (and they can be, for sure) of other action movies, the film's script incorporates unique elements to the film's characters and their role at the intersection of the film's narrative to add a sense of depth to the action. Now make no mistake, the action isn't on the level of "Mission: Impossible--Fallout" or "Mad Max: Fury Road," but it's still definitely quite good. A climactic action scene on a trapeze feels wholly original and uniquely clever.

"The Spy Who Dumped Me" also has potent cinematography too, with simple but beautiful shots of key European cities as the plot moves from location to location. Such cities include Vienna, Prague, Paris, Budapest and Berlin. The film has a great score and is also generally paced well, although the second act drags a little and feels a bit more disjointed than the first and third acts, respectively. The main flaw with the film is the comedy. The film's one-liners tend to miss more than they hit, and the ones that miss range from being cheesy to just flat-out stupid. But there still are plenty of amusing and funny moments of humor. All in all, "The Spy Who Dumped Me" was definitely better than I thought. Recommended. 7/10
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Interesting New Spike Lee Joint
9 August 2018
Spike Lee has returned with the thoughtful and intensely relevant "BlacKkKlansman," a drama about an African-American police officer in Colorado Springs attempting to infiltrate a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s. The film uses a wide variety of common motifs in Spike Lee's films that enhance the story and the viewing experience considerably. Such motifs include deeply topical social commentary and analysis on the nature of racism and hatred, clever homages to other films of the time period (especially Blaxploitation films,) and a variety of visual tricks to help direct the viewer's attention to what is most important in the scene. The story moves along quickly and thoroughly, and its use of characterization is generally well-planned. Ron Stallworth is a charismatic and generally well-developed lead character, and most of the film's major supporting characters all serve unique purposes akin to the plot. The only possible weak link in the cast is Topher Grace as David Duke. While he does not give a bad performance, his portrayal of the infamous KKK leader can sometimes feel rather tepid at times.

Some might say that the film could have been enhanced by generally not reducing its depiction of KKK members to primarily cartoon stereotypes, but I would argue that this depiction actually helps Lee's greater point about the true nature of the Klan. Lee is trying to portray that their cataclysmic ignorance and buffoonishness breeds their insidious racism. The film's script includes a lot of current political commentary, which generally feels well-placed but can sometimes feel too on-the-nose or predictable. The film's story is engaging and entertaining, but does contain some cliches and relatively formulaic elements. Deeply disturbing real-world images and materials are effectively used by Lee to help synthesize the film's structure. The film's tonal shifts between comedy and dark drama do not feel poorly planned at all, although some could say they are a bit jarring. While it isn't Spike Lee's best, this is still a solid and highly thought-provoking film that should definitely please Lee's fans. Recommended. 7/10
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Thrilling, Exhilarating Action...and Not Much Else
28 July 2018
I really enjoy the "Mission: Impossible" films, and was eagerly anticipating this new installment. I rate it on par with, but slightly below, the last film ("Rogue Nation") of the saga in terms of quality. The film certainly brings the goods with intense, adrenaline-rush action scenes. Viewers will gasp in unison as Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) HALO jumps out of a plane, embarks on a high-speed motorcycle chase through Paris, scales buildings in London, and pilots a perilous helicopter ride. Cruise still packs plenty of charisma and swagger playing Hunt, and the film's supporting cast is generally good as well. Henry Cavill, a new addition to this franchise, gives an interesting performance as the film's only character with truly multiple dimensions to their characterization.

The main criticism I have of this film is that "Fallout" is the first "Mission: Impossible" film to treat its action sequences as primary plot devices, rather than treat action sequences as logical and entertaining extensions of primary plot devices. While the film is paced well and certainly has connective tissue between its action set pieces, the density of its narrative is a bit skimpy for a film with a 2.5-hour running time. Many audiences, however, won't care about this, as they will be so enthralled by how intense and genuine the action scenes are. Cruise, who reportedly does his own stunts for these films, makes defying death look remarkably easy (and I mean that in the best way possible.) Despite this key flaw, the action, globe-trotting settings, and characters make the film tons of fun to watch. Fans of the franchise will have a great time. Those looking for a very thoughtful and dense spy film a la "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" might be a bit let down, but all others who expect not much beyond (admittedly great) action scenes will be incredibly entertained. And of course, there's something great about hearing that classic "Mission: Impossible" theme song that we all love with the sound up loud on the big screen. Recommended. 7.5/10

Note 1: Here is my updated ranking of the "Mission: Impossible" films from best to worst--(1) M:I-Ghost Protocol, (2) M:I, (3) M:I-Rogue Nation, (4) M:I-Fallout, (5) M:I-2, (6) M:I-3.

Note 2: I saw the film in Dolby Cinema. The intense Dolby Atmos surround sound system and Dolby Vision picture quality certainly helped enhance the experience and made the action scenes all the more engaging. That said, I think I probably prefer IMAX to Dolby Cinema (even though the latter has more comfortable seats) since I find the rumbling/vibrating of the Dolby seats to be a bit annoying. That said, I still look forward to enjoying future films in both formats.
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Thoughtful Father-Daughter Drama
19 July 2018
This new indie drama centers on a father with post-traumatic stress disorder and his teenage daughter who live off the grid in Oregon. This film has received nearly unanimous praise from critics, and having seen it I can say that it is a worthwhile cinematic venture. The film's cinematography of the Oregon wilderness is nothing short of superb, drawing predominately from neoclassical-inspired wide shots that help the viewer maintain a sense of scope and scale surrounding the natural world in which the film takes place in. The film's two main performances are generally strong from beginning to end, as both characters are placed in a variety of physically and emotionally demanding quagmires. In many ways, the film's exceptionally simple music and writing choices enhance the film because it allows the viewer to focus his or her undivided attention on the scenery and characters.

While the film is well-directed, there certainly could have been more surface to dig into regarding character development, particularly for the young girl. Also, the amount of implicit and explicit emotional power the viewer develops and takes in from watching these two characters could have been increased while still feeling genuine, although I suppose the intentional depiction of overt stoicism among the father character depletes that critique to a certain extent. The film's pacing is very slow, but this is not a complaint against the film--once again, the slow pace allows (patient) viewers to maintain focus from beginning to end. Overall, this is a well-shot drama that will satisfy sophisticated audiences looking for an alternative to the big blockbusters of this summer. 7/10
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Denzel Delivers A Solid, If Unspectacular, Follow-Up
19 July 2018
I'm a fan of Denzel Washington and enjoyed the first "Equalizer" movie. That said, "The Equalizer" was not a film I was necessarily clamoring for a sequel to--although I still was looking forward to it since Denzel Washington and the action scenes in the trailer would be worthwhile. After seeing "The Equalizer 2" at an advance screening, I can say that while the film is not perfect, it's an entertaining ride for adult action junkies that is on par with the first movie in terms of quality.

Denzel returns as Robert McCall, a vigilante-type figure and former special forces operative who begins the movie on a mission in Turkey. After such prologue, the film centers in on its primary narrative thread: a woman who he worked with on multiple missions has been killed by thugs in Brussels. The rest of the film primarily concerns McCall's attempt to bring the perpetrators of such heinous crime to justice, although the film also contains multiple sub-plots--including a new, older adolescent-age character who could theoretically become somewhat of a protégé to McCall in a possible third movie in the franchise.

The action scenes in "The Equalizer 2" are thrilling and intense. Sometimes the intersection of Fuqua's cinematography choices and sound edits can feel and appear a bit choppy at times, but the film certainly brings the white-knuckle goods. The film's action-packed finale scene, a climatic showdown in the midst of an incredibly rough hurricane, is thoroughly effective and satisfying. Just like the first movie, the violence in "The Equalizer 2" certainly earns its R rating. Denzel Washington is great as McCall, blending a unique mix of charisma and ferocity. Just like in the first movie, he is able to carry the film on all of its levels from beginning to end. That said, the film does have one large flaw--that of which the story is highly predictable. If you've seen any other "vigilante"-style action movie before, you'll be able to guess the key plot elements well before they unfold, and the film's sole attempt at a plot twist can be guessed within the first 20 minutes of the movie.

Fans of the first movie and Denzel Washington should be able to look past such banality and enjoy the action-packed ride, and I do recommend the film to them. 7/10
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Hysterical, Thoughtful Satire
29 June 2018
I walked into this movie at an advance screening expecting something unique, but nothing could have prepared me for the sheer brilliance of this satirical masterwork. Hilarious from beginning to end while also subversive, this film joins some of the finest satires of its generation--from "South Park" to some of the best episodes of "Saturday Night Live" to "Wild Tales."

The story follows Cassius, an African-American telemarketer in Oakland. When told to use his "white voice" on the job while making calls, he quickly rises through the ranks of his profession--and ends up getting a hefty promotion. All of a sudden, things start to spiral out of control. I definitely won't give anything else away, as doing so would spoil what clearly must be experienced for oneself. The film's script is incredibly strong and is consistently hilarious. I laughed more while watching this film than any other movie in recent memory. Its dialogue is not only humorous, but incredibly frank and on-the-nose in its brutal honesty. The film's social consciousness and commentary intersect in ways that are thoughtful, snappy, and deeply rooted in (often unfortunately) a sense of genuine realism. Yet the film's image of the world is not equal to our society with microscopic precision, as its humor often tends to look at current societal issues with the mirror of a macabre fun-house.

Performances in the film are outstanding throughout, and the film is incredibly engaging throughout its run time. Free of pacing issues, it moves at a fast pace and twists and turns so unusually that one will never know what could happen next. This erratic nature is truly part of the film's genius. If such a style of narrative filmmaking was attempted to be used as a technique in almost any other film, it would fail miserably, but Boots Riley was able to commendably stay one step ahead of audiences while making them laugh profusely and question why and how our society may be in deep-seated decline. Also noteworthy is the film's soundtrack, which is a superb mix of rap and pop. The movie can often be strange, but viewers will be all the more thankful for its genuine audaciousness upon the film's conclusion.

Riley's ambitious filmmaking has a variety of possible influences (Spike Lee, Jordan Peele, Alejandro Inarritu, Charles Kaufman) yet feels wholly original--and genuinely, howlingly funny and socially relevant despite being so unconventional--from beginning to end. Very highly recommended. 10/10
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Tag (I) (2018)
Amusing (but only sporadically funny) R-rated Laughs
15 June 2018
Few studio comedies have a premise as ludicrous at first glance than "Tag," which centers on a group of 40-something men playing the playground game of tag for a month every year. They play the game with absolutely no holds barred, and the best player in the group (who has never been tagged,) is about to marry.

The cast in this film is generally quite strong throughout. I'm a fan of much of the ensemble, which was the primary reason I took interest in this comedy. The chemistry between the leading men is strong, and the female roles are also enjoyable to watch while adding narrative tissue to the film. It's certainly enjoyable and entertaining to see such a talented cast just have fun with each other. The plot is generally amusing, and the slapstick "action" sequences as players avoid being tagged are fairly creative and fun to watch. That said, the film does have some very notable flaws which bring it down a notch compared to similar mainstream comedy films.

The first key flaw with the movie is the clear and present lack of conflict, since the characters agree to a book of rules for the game--so even though players can be afraid of being tagged, there's a pretty drastic lack of suspense or even a sense of thrill in these moments at times. The writing is fine and there are some good jokes, but plenty of them don't work. Much of the humor tends to come from the absurdity of the situations in the game rather than any written plot devices. Also, the movie seems to (maybe unintentionally?) send a mixed message about the friends' game of tag. It means to be a silly comedy that doesn't take itself seriously, and also wants to portray the friend group as tight knit. Then again, it also portrays the game of tag as something that does have clear negative consequences--albeit to a fleeting and finite extent. Of course the movie is intended to be over-the-top, but even in far-fetched scenarios like this, there is a psychological limit to just how long the viewer can suspend their disbelief. That doesn't mean they won't have some fun watching it, but it means that the movie's concept could have been executed slightly better.

If you are a fan of someone in the cast, I liked "Tag" just enough to recommend that you see it, but others can probably just wait to rent it. 6/10
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Hereditary (2018)
Very Well-Acted but Slightly Erratic Horror Film
9 June 2018
With its outstanding reviews, strong buzz, and creepily powerful marketing, "Hereditary" has come to theaters with far more buzz than the typical independent horror film. This can be chalked up at least in part to the outstanding track record and marketing efforts of indie distributor A24, whose other films tend to be of great quality. While not quite as great as last year's horror film "It Comes At Night" from them, this is a solid film that has much to commend on its own merits.

It would practically be a crime to spoil this movie for the uninitiated, but all I will say is that the film tells the grim tale of a family struggling with the death of the matriarch (Toni Colette)'s mother. Things start to spiral out of control from there, in ways both expected and unexpected. Right from the first frames, talented first-time director Ari Aster grabs you with an intense and almost oppressive sense of psychological dread and never lets go until the finale. The ability to create such a feeling of dread and doom in a realistic--rather than cheesy or ludicrous--manner is truly commendable. The film's simple music and score is its greatest instrument (no pun intended) in creating such a visceral personal feeling of deep unease. Unfortunately, such score also feels quite repetitive at times which occasionally can dilute its prospective impact late in the film--but it still generally works well. In particular, attempts to create emotional power with the score during the film's more dramatic moments could have been improved. The film's performances are very strong throughout, with a particular emphasis on Toni Colette. Colette nails the role of Annie, an artistic and grieving mother of two, with skillful precision. From her facial expressions to her visceral processing of grief, her performance feels wholly authentic and impactful. The film does feel consistently intense and scary throughout, and credit must be given to Aster for not emphasizing the ultimate tired and lazy horror cliché--the jump scene. (There is only one real jump scene, but it is properly timed to be truly unexpected and quite well-done.)

Despite is positive qualities, "Hereditary" does have some flaws as well. The film's pacing can be a bit of a mixed bag. On one hand, I truly appreciate Aster's intention to frame the film within the context of a slow-burn, tense family drama to promote the establishment of thoughtful character development and associated thinking. On the other hand, this pacing means that the horror elements often feel a bit rushed near the end. In particular, the film's last ten minutes feel like they are paced outrageously fast--which may, to some degree, reduce the psychological impact of such scenes. Also, while the film contains many original elements, its frantic finale also deploys some rather common and predictable motifs in the horror genre without creating a spin on such elements to differentiate them from other common representations within horror movies. That said, this is a well-made film that fans of the genre will likely appreciate--although it remains to be seen whether mainstream audiences will, as the film may be too slow for much of its runtime for many of them. 7/10
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Superbly Made Mr. Rogers Documentary
8 June 2018
When I was very young, I occasionally remember watching Mr. Rogers, although I never bothered to learn much about him before seeing this movie. I wanted to see this documentary due to the rave reviews it received from the Sundance film festival, as well as the fact that it is from the director of the outstanding "20 Feet From Stardom." Needless to say, this is an outstanding documentary that is able to warm hearts while also discussing necessary and thought-provoking complexities of today's world.

The film chronicles Fred Rogers, a Presbyterian minister and children's television host, by emphasizing his primary work on the show "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood." The film discusses Rogers' life and legacy with a wide variety of individuals close to him; each represents a unique, diverse and wholly refreshing viewpoint on the man, so much so that no interview or piece of information in the documentary seems or feels deficient in necessity. This is a key part of what elevates this documentary above other nonfiction or other examples factually-centered filmmaking, but it is not the only thing that makes this film special. The film also does a good job examining Rogers as a human being--and this includes being a human susceptible to flaws, as we all are. All too often, biographical documentaries of revered figures attempt to only portray their subjects in the most flattering light possible. Such a one-sided attempt at filmmaking, even when a generally "good" person is being depicted, fails to portray the subject's personality in the documentary of having multiple dimensions. The film frankly explains, for example, how Rogers was initially uncomfortable that another actor on the show was gay (unfortunate, but unsurprising given the time period.) That said, Rogers' positive contributions to society and to American children are the primary focus of the film--as they should be. His work served as a thoughtful and measured alternative to much of the schlocky television programming of the late 20th century.

Finally, this documentary is remarkably emotionally powerful. It would have been easy to make this film feel sappy and sentimental, but it wisely avoids such traps. The film shoots directly from the heart to the gut, and truly makes you feel something--and something great--about Rogers and his legacy. It's refreshing to be able to analyze human decency, such as what made Rogers unique, during a sad moment in history when our political climate is severely lacking in it. All in all, this is an excellent documentary and one that I am very happy to recommend. 9/10
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