The Report- Movie Review

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The Report - Still 1

This film was screened as part of the Modern Cinema film festival in Fort Worth, TX.

Truth is the nature of the game in The Report– it’s subversion, it’s practice, and it’s power.  In the intelligence community, truth is a commodity, and for a film that is about a hot button real issue, it’s important to tell a story before making an argument. The Report does this, detailing the history of the torture practices in the United States through the eyes of an analyst, and through his eyes we see the extent of the practice and how it was both justified and covered up. The emotional hook doesn’t come from a particularly dynamic set of characters, but comes from seeing a debate sustained over years of infighting and political backstabbing.

Writer/director Scott Z. Burns knows how to do process; a veteran screenwriter with many noted collaborations with Stephen Soderbergh (including The Informant!, Side Effects and Contagion), Burns is in no way afraid of throwing too much information at the audience. There’s a lot of legal jargon being thrown around- who defines torture? Which agencies have access to prisoners? How do different administrations handle a program? Burns relies on the whipsmart dialouge to engage us, and he isn’t obsessed with trying to turn this into a quippy, clever Sorkin imitator. This is a film that uses legal minutia to address ethical questions.

These ethical questions largely come from the mouth of senate staffer Daniel Jones (Adam Driver), a straight laced patriot who investigates the practice of torture by the C.I.A. following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. As Jones researches the classified documents, he finds that the details of the tortures have been largely hidden from the public, and as he pursues a path to unclassify this information he finds himself the target of scrutiny by the C.I.A and The White House.

Driver is perfect in this sort of role; we don’t know a ton about his history or family, and we never even see him outside of work. It doesn’t matter, because everything we need to know about the importance of Jones in this story comes from his ethical foundations. The questions Jones raises are both ethical (How will our soldiers be treated if this is how we treat prisoners?), legal (If this is legal why is it being covered up?), and pragmatic (What’s the purpose of the program if it doesn’t prevent threats?), and the extent to which Jones’s idealism defines him becomes clear as he faces waves of backlash and threats. He’s an audience avatar, but also a character who becomes increasinly aware of the complexity of the situation.

Outside of Jones, the rest of the cast comes off as morally grey. Dianne Feinstein (Anette Bening) is the closest thing Jones has to an ally, but she’s also concerned with winning reelection and balancing public issues- things Jones isn’t concerned with. While some of the C.I.A. inner circle can come off as slightly transparent in their motivations, they aren’t cartoon villains; Burns equips each character with a means to defend their actions, bolstered by a sense of urgency. Jones is so desperate to get this out as soon as possible, putting the pressure on the C.I.A. and government to find a way to discredit him.

The film is shot in a cinema verite style that puts the viewers up close and personal with the events, which make the dialouge feel authentic. There are flashbacks to the origin of the program in the first half, and they serve an important purpose in visualizing events that will be debated throughout. These flashbacks are largely absent in the second half of the film, which focuses on the transition between Presdential staffs and the increased pressure to silence Jones as his report becomes finalized, but the bifurcated structure isn’t distracting. The images we see early on are impossible to forget, and in a way they become more potent as they’re dismissed as talking points by guys in suits.

The Report is gripping in its bluntess and engrossing in its details; this isn’t a film that tries to announce its importance, but it never forgets the fact that there are people on all sides of this event. The amount of research that went into the film’s creation is mind-boggling to think about, and the depiction of such nuanced material in of itself is an achievment. Like Jones’s report, it’s not enough for the film to just exist- it also has to be seen. Grade: A-

 

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Pain and Glory- Movie Review

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This film was screened as part of the Modern Cinema film festival in Fort Worth, TX.

Pain and Glory is the work of reflection by an artist, about an artist in refelction; perhaps the parallels to writer/director Pedro Almodovar’s own career are easy to point out, but the film uses an archetype that Almodovar is clearly comfortable with to tell its story. It’s not a self-indulgent portrait, however, as the film asks deeper questions about how to deal with memory and the events that shape the creative spirit. I appriciate that it isn’t cut and dry; ideas don’t always spring from one clear inciting incident, and the web of influences is often messy. Almodovar details the level of seperation that an artist can feel from what they created.

Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas) is a legendary filmmaker who has since retired and is preparing an anniversary screening of one of his early films. Mallo has removed himself from the writing process, but the upcoming screening forces him to meet up with the lead actor from his film, Alberto Crespo (Asier Exteandia), who he hasn’t spoken to in thirty years. Mallo struggles with an ilnness, and in flashbacks explores how he came from humble beginnings and lived under his domineering mother.

The idea of an artist reflecting on their past work risks being narcasstic, but there’s a comedy that comes from the relationship between Salvador and Alberto. The petty disagreements they had feel inconsequential now, but there’s part of Salvador that can never forgive Alberto for not giving the performance he imagined. Salvador has now made enough films that these qualms don’t come up regularly, but his initally earnest attempts to heal old wounds end up remeerging. The film is smart in that it doesn’t show clips from Salvador’s films; we get everything we need to know from these conversations.

The flashbacks are also integral in that they hint at the ideas that ripple into Salvador’s work, but aren’t as simple as him literally lifting events from his childhood into stories. It’s more subtle than that; in many ways Salvador’s gifts denied him a regular childhood, as he was put in a situation where he often taught to adults and rose among his peers. It’s not overtly sentimental, but an encounter with a childhood friend shows that Salvador’s primary senses of love and loss have permeated from the films he’s made, not the other way around.

Antonio Banderas is truly excellent; Salvador often feels a prisoner to his memories, and thus is often stuck in intimate, uncomfortable situations, such as a claustrophobic doctor’s office or his lavish apartment. There’s a sense of seperation from the material world that requires a riveting performance at its center, and Banderas plays Salvador as unpretentious and candid about his feelings. His memories often feel more lived in and expansive than his reality, and through a genius piece of framing later on are revealed to be a piece of selective interpretation.

For a film about aging, Pain and Glory is surprisngly upbeat, as Salvador is removed enough from his past that he can comment on it with some wisdom. There’s a meta commentary at points about how films are to keen to link events that could never exist in reality, but for the most part it’s a completely sincere reflective piece from Almodovar. Playing like a hangout movie at times, Pain and Glory is about the search for wisdom and the effort it takes to move forward and create again. Grade: A-

El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie- Movie Review

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WARNING: The following review does not contain any spoilers for the film, but will disclose plot points of the five seasons of Breaking Bad. If you haven’t seen Breaking Bad, I’d highly encourage doing so, and reading my piece on it as part of the best shows of the decade.

How do you follow up to something that inherently had a perfect ending? The final season of Breaking Bad isn’t just great television, but one of the most perfectly crafted closures to any story told in the film medium. Every character ended on a note of finality, some satisfying and some ambiguous, but it felt like the last possible story to be told in that universe. Of course, the excellent spinoff series Better Call Saul explores events prior to the show’s timeline, but the idea of returning to the denomout of this saga is one that admittedly induces some anxiety on whether or not a story can ever end.

El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie is not quite a continuation; it is a sequel to the end of Breaking Bad, but if anything it feels like an extended closure for Jesse Pinkman. It’s not taking the story in any wild new direction, and the only thing that differentiates it from an extended episode of the show is that it doesn’t feature Walter White and it’s two hours long. This is Jesse taking a new step forward by looking at the path behind him, and it’s ending doesn’t exactly venture into a different direction thematically from the one Jesse ended on in Breaking Bad’s finale “Felina.”

After escaping imprisonment and losing his mentor and best friend Walter White (Bryan Cranston), Jesse (Aaron Paul) is now on the run from the law, as he’s implicated in the gang slayings that were seen in “Felina.” Looking for a new identity and a fresh start, Jesse is looking for cash that would enable his new direction, but the old wounds still haunt him as he’s caught deep in reflection about how his life came to be this way.

Jesse was always the heart of Breaking Bad; in many ways he was just as tragic as Walt, and was always more of a moral center than an enabler. Things happened around Jesse and forces beyond his control kept him in the drug business, and Paul was always able to turn this once comedic sidekick into a product of the tragedy that surrounded him. In that sense, the best thing that can be said about El Camino is that it’s cathartic; El Camino details the pain inflicted to Jesse with the same amount of excruciating detail, but it also doesn’t turn him into a flawless action hero who comes in to save the day. Jesse was always my favorite character (which is true for a lot of people), and by revisiting the moments that built him, El Camino reflects on the legacy he has.

This legacy comes in the form of flashbacks that tie in events that happen around the fifth season with Jesse’s current on the run mission. There are a lot of familiar faces, and while it’s more than a checklist of cameos, there’s not a lot of new dramatic material being unearthed. I like that Jesse gets to see Skinny Pete and Badger again; those characters are great and it’s a moment of levity that shows the life Jesse left behind. They serve a purpose in moving the plot forward, but they’re also fan service, which isn’t something that Breaking Bad has ever really been about.

Most of the flashbacks show Jesse’s torture and captivity, but one in particular gives a glimpse into what Jesse was earlier in the story. Without spoiling anything (although it seemed rather obvious), this gives a glimpse at a different Jesse with different priorities, and although it doesn’t have any clear plot purpose, it’s a perfect way to counterbalance the character we see now. 

More curious is the large presence of Todd (Jesse Plemons), the quirky sociopath who made Jesse’s life a living hell. Plemons is phenomenal and brings back the darkly amusing, Coens-esque sensibility he gave to the show, but his character takes up a massive amount of screen time that reiterates the same point about what Jesse went through. There’s a great moment that actually enhances the final season by showing the extent to which Jesse was under Todd’s thumb, but it seemed like the film could’ve either shown us more familiar characters or gone in a completely new direction.

This is a film that is light on story; Jesse’s task is simple and perhaps gone about in a convoluted way, but the beauty of Breaking Bad was always its unique perspective on the process of problem solving. Unique situations arose where characters needed to make fast decisions, and in El Camino there’s some expertly crafted tense setpieces where Jesse is faced with difficult moral decisions and must lay his cards out on the table. A scene in which Jesse is trapped in Todd’s apartment carries all the existential dread and visceral spontaneity that the show had, with Jesse caught in over his head and forced to question the extent he’s willing to go.

I’ve gone so far without mentioning too much about Paul, but suffice to say it’s a performance of jaw dropping magnitude. Paul ended Breaking Bad screaming in confusion and fury, and now he’s left with the afterthoughts of all these feelings as he is forced to go back to painful memories. There isn’t a definitive light at the end of the tunnel for Jesse, and this version has a more steely resolve, and doesn’t instantly revert to the “yeah, bitch!” quippy character we once knew. If Jesse was always the heart of the show, than this is a film that puts much more emphasis on feeling and requires a performance of the highest caliber; Paul carries an entire history on his shoulders, and suggests that even if Jesse doesn’t know what his future will be he just needs to forget the past.

El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie is certainly an expertly directed film from Vince Gilligan; it’s exciting, visually inventive, and reflects the same process that the show had. It doesn’t really add anything to Jesse as a character; it enhances the things we’ve seen before and solidifies the direction he was going, but it isn’t a chapter that will drastically change the viewing of Breaking Bad, nor does it present a particularly original take on the “man on the run” mythology. That being said, it’s a fun treat for fans, and there’s nothing inauthentic here; if Vince Gilligan and Aaron Paul decided that this was a story worth telling I respect their desire for closure, and the great craftsmanship and acting make it a respectable entry into the show’s canon. At the end of the day, I missed Jesse. I’m glad he’s back. Grade: B

Joker- Movie Review

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joker

The interesting thing about the character of Joker is that he’s always been a counterpart to Batman; there’s no better way to conflict the darkest, most brooding superhero than with a chaotic, colorful force of nature. Without a doubt, Joker is the most iconic super-villain in the history of comics, and his onscreen depiction has become somewhat of a modern day Shakespearean role; it seems that every generation a great actor tries their hand at being the Clown Prince of Crime, with some good (Jack Nicholson in 1989’s Batman), some bad (Jared Leto in Suicide Squad), and some downright classic (Health Ledger in The Dark Knight).

There’s a power to the character that is inherent, but there’s also a power to how each film chooses to interpret Joker’s ideology, specifically as a foil to the caped crusader. Even in a Batman-less film, it’s clear that the best part of Joker is the performance by Joaquin Phoenix; he’s one of the best actors working today, and here he’s not a villain formed in contrast to Batman, but one molded by society at large. Phoenix is brilliant, and for the most part he’s also a lot better than the movie he’s in.

Phoenix starts off as Arthur Fleck, a for hire clown who’s senselessly beaten in the first few minutes of the film. Fleck has a condition that causes uncontrollable laughter that often physically pains him, isolating him from others. Arthur cares for his sickly mother, but dreams of becoming a comedian like his idol Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), a talk show host on a local television station.

It goes without saying that Phoenix is terrific in the role- he always is. The key here is that Joker is so clearly written to be an actor’s showcase, and the blueprint it’s working off of isn’t always great. We’re meant to instantly be aware of Arthur’s tragic life, and there’s not necessarily a lot of complexity to a lot of situations (Arthur’s bullies, uncaring therapist, and greedy coworkers all feel like hallmark “movie characters”), but Phoenix is acting his ass off in each scene to make us feel uncomfortable. 

Without spoiling anything, a scene in which Arthur tries his hand at standup comedy is perfectly set up; we know as an audience that Arthur won’t be able to handle the situation, and the tension that revolves around the inevitable embarrassment is skin crawling. This is a character that is set up to fail from the beginning, so his evolution into Joker is smartly never treated like a twist. The interesting part of the film lies in how he gets there.

Writer/director Todd Phillips has stated on numerous occasions that he molded the film in the style of 70s Scorsese films, particularly Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, and the influence is beyond obvious. Take away a few billboards and you’d have no problem mistaking Gotham City for 1980s New York City; there’s even a classic movie style opening and closing credits that if nothing else make a statement on what type of film Phillips intended to make.

There’s a point when tribute is acceptable, but there’s also a point where it’s homages feel like near duplicates; a scene in which Arthur has an imagined friendship with Murray is so similar to The King of Comedy that it’s hard to give it any credit, although the homages to the mirrors in Taxi Driver are much better handled. Taxi Driver didn’t invent the idea of a guy talking to himself in a mirror, but it’s synonymous for a moment in Travis Bickle’s arc, and in Joker a similar scene marks a major point in Arthur’s life. It’s a great melding of self realization and evolution, and molds this classic scene in a new image.

The point remains that Phoenix is often acting circles around a script that’s not quite as subtle as it thinks it is. Joker rules down its lead character’s motivations to two clear ideas: the treatment of those with mental illness and class differences. Of the two, the depiction of mental illness is vastly more successful; we see up close how stigmatized Arthur is, how he’s taken advantage of by those around him, and how he’s only able to offer a meek explanation for his condition if people give him a chance and hear him out. Even if Arthur’s self awareness is sometimes abrupt (his attempts to make jokes about mental illness in his comedy act come off as a little on the nose), the way he’s treated isn’t necessarily unrealistic.

The film’s handling of class differences, on the other hand, is much less subtle or effective. Arthur is poor- we know this. There are rich people that are mean, and they’re exemplified by Thomas Wayne (Brent Cullen), a billionaire running for mayor. 

Cullen is pretty good, but the film’s mishandling of his character is linked to its best aspect; we see everything from Arthur’s perspective. This works well in establishing the Joker character, but when the film starts to make sweeping statements about how Gotham at large has been affected by violence, it mostly comes from TV news reports and expositional dialogue. We hear constantly that people are being inspired to take vengeance against the upper class, but we never see Gotham as a whole because we’re mostly staying with Arthur.

The societal elements also just feel less personal, and thus becomes easier to scrutinize for logical errors. In particular, there’s a subplot featuring two police detectives (played by two of my favorite character actors, Shea Whigham and Bill Camp) that seems to only show up when the script finds it relevant. There’s also an ease and quickness in which events lead to one another and find themselves in the media spotlight; again, this is a 120 minute movie and I can forgive speeding up these things, but a film like Taxi Driver showed Senator Charles Palantine’s influence in a way that intertwined with Travis Bickle’s arc.

The depiction of Arthur’s growing resentment of the upper class also puts him in direct conflict with De Niro’s role as Murray Franklin. Franklin is a great framing device for the film; even before they meet, he has an importance to Arthur and serves as a great way to both feed us information and give Arthur a clear goal. De Niro is perhaps my favorite actor of all-time, and although he’s been through a few years of not having great parts, I’m happy to report that he’s perfect as a local celebrity molded by years of being worshipped.

The handling of other characters in Arthur’s life ranges from brilliant to wasteful, and the clash between restraint and bluntness on the part of Phillips is best represented by the two main female characters. On the one hand, you have Sophie (Zazie Beets), a character who represents a bright spot in Arthur’s life, and gives him someone who is more normal, but may share some of his values. Sophie is a great foil to Arthur whose only flaw is the awkward way she’s introduced, yet her inclusion ends up being one of the film’s best elements once her real purpose in the story is revealed. Phillips puts trust in the fact that we’re going to hear this story out until the end, and takes a storytelling risk that pays odd.

On the other hand, you have Arthur’s mother Penny (Frances Conroy). The dynamic between the two is initially interesting, but you get a sense of what it is and what it will be very early on, and it doesn’t leave much room to get any more intersting than that. Phillips puts a strange amount of attention on Arthur learning new things about his mother’s past, and these convoluted plot mechanics only end up proving a point that the film already made about the two. It’s a strange amount of time dedicated to a subplot that goes nowhere that feel misused when considering the other great character actors in the film that Arthur could have interacted with more.

It seems as if I’ve come down as very critical of Todd Phillips, but this is a very well directed film. Even if some visual cues are overused, Phillips has an acute sense of space and framing, and is able to make the claustrophobia of the cramped apartments, subway trains, and comedy clubs almost suffocating in the pressure it puts on Arthur. It’s a colorful film too; even if we don’t see a lot of Gotham, it feels like a vibrant, multifaceted place, and one that could exist both within a graphic novel and a 70s neo-noir film.

The one glaringly off putting element of the film is the music. The score, from Sicario: Day of the Soldado composer Hildur Guðnadóttir is quite menacing and eerie, but is mixed in such a way that is overbearing and distracting. Like some of the weaker script moments, it seems like just more evidence to prove that Arthur has made a change in key scenes, and its extra evidence that we don’t really need. There’s also some baffling song choices; one, during the much hyped stairway scene, is so strange in its placement that it feels like a deliberate means of shocking the audience.

Speaking of shocking the audience, while much has been debated regarding the film’s brutality, the violence itself is done in a way that’s integral to the story. Some might feel that the film is too restrained, but I found the build up to the goriest moments to be effective; this is by no means an action film. When the violence does come, it’s chaotic and not obviously choreographed- there’s an awkwardness to how quickly a situation can escalate and how Arthur becomes spurred into action, and the lack of punches pulled with the realism makes it effectively sickening.

This brings me to my main confusion with the film; for a story that is so deliberate in standing apart from any established cinematic universe, the end of the film marks an awkward combination of genuine consideration of the root of extremism with a fascination with the Joker mythology. This just never melds right; at one instance we feel as if the film is holding a mirror to our own world, but next it’s fulfilling the iconography that we need for something in the DC Universe. Without spoiling anything, these events are tangentially related through themes exploring the cycle and nature of violence, but they feel like they’re at odds with one another and in pursuit of two different goals.

The final act of the film is quite strange, and I’m not entirely sure what Phillips’s intention was. The film seems to go on with a series of scenes that all seem like they could be the actual ending, but when it comes to the choice of final scene, it’s an odd one that seems more focused on leaving an impression than satisfying a viewer. Again, I won’t spoil anything, but the last act is also when some of the worst tendencies of Phillips’s screenplay come out; we’re first met with an interesting ideological clash between Arthur and another character that leads to some interesting sparring, and while it’s end results are effective, they’re preceded by moments where Arthur just spells things out in extended monologues.

Phillips has stated that he wanted to make an adult drama disguised as a comic book movie, and I think he succeeded, but by the same token the very notion that this is a comic book movie will generate more attention than other drama films of this nature would receive. This is a good thing! More people will be talking about a dark, complicated movie than they normally would, and I sincerely hope that many fans that check out Joker will take the time to seek out the films that inspired it. If I had to summarize the main difference between Joker and Taxi Driver or The King of Comedy, it’s that its a more intentionally provocative discussion starter, and one that will most certainly be discussed for quite some time. I think Joker will be an interesting footnote in cinema history- Todd Phillips is no Martin Scorsese, but then again, who is? Grade: B+

NTXFF in Review: Marriage Story, Dolemite is My Name, and The Two Popes

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This past weekend, I attended the first North Texas Film Festival in Plano, Texas, and got to check out some of the fall’s most anticipated releases, including Marriage Story, Dolemite is My Name, and The Two Popes.

 

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Marriage Story comes from writer/director Noah Baumbach, who has a history of directing clever, touching films about family dysfunction, including Frances Ha, Mistress America, While We’re Young, and The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected). His latest has similar themes, as it follows a couple’s divorce and custody hearings, but this one is less quirky and ironic; Marriage Story is almost uncomfortably accurate in its depiction of how two people who seemed so right for each other could end up growing apart.

Adam Driver stars as Charlie, a New York theater director whose made a living running his own theater company, with Scarlett Johansson as his wife Nicole, an L.A. born actress who gave up her film career to star in Charlie’s plays. The genius of Marriage Story is that we don’t end up hating either party, and it’s not as if either of them is abusive, malicious, or greedy beyond what is rational; Charlie seems content with the status quo, and Nicole wants a radical change that involves the couple moving from New York to L.A. At some point a compromise will have to be made, and the film’s tension rests on where exactly that will be.

The seeds of discontent between the two are evident from the beginning, but Baumbach never loses the fact that their divorce isn’t about hatred. They share the same goal of raising their child in the best possible environment, and the cultural differences between New York and L.A. speak to the different environments they feel that a child would fit best in. Even after a nasty court hearing, Charlie and Nicole still have to coordinate their child’s playdates and Halloween parties; regardless of their feelings about one another, they will always be collaborators.

Marriage Story isn’t arguing that they’re meant for each other, but it does shine a light on how difficult and illogical a court proceeding can be; as lawyers and legal procedures are involved, these two are forced to be ugly with one another and use ruthless methods of outdoing one another. This is demonstrated perfectly when Charlie and Nicole hire individual lawyers, played by Laura Dern and Ray Liotta, each of whom exemplify their worst traits.

As far as performances go, this is the best that Driver and Johnasson have ever been. The biggest hurdle the script and actors have to handle is implying a history that we never see; the film stars when their marriage is already far gone, but we have to understand that there was a time in which this match was ideal. Driver and Johansson feel so natural as parents, and are able to reference in jokes and history that make their relationship feel so fleshed out. The scenes of screaming and crying are fairly sparse, but given the gravity of the situation they never are anything less than 100% vulnerable.

Marriage Story isn’t always an easy film to watch; each scene is played out to a point that becomes almost uncomfortably unflinching, but it’s also not a complete misery. Lots of people get divorced, and Marriage Story shows one where the outcome is tragic because we genuinely care for everyone involved. It’s hard to make that compromise, and the film’s strength lies in finding something that has the potential to work, but will always remain broken. Grade: A+

 

dolemite

I also caught the new biographical film Dolemite Is My Name, in which Eddie Murphy plays legendary comedian and film star Rudy Ray Moore. I’ll admit that going in my knowledge of Rudy Ray Moore’s films was limited, but Eddie Murphy has always been in my eyes one of the greatest comedic actors of all-time. Looking back at his early work, such as Beverly Hills Cop, Trading Places, Coming to America, and 48 Hrs, it’s incredible how easily he was able to slip into new characters and create entire worlds with his humor.

I’m happy to say that this is the best performance that Murphy has given in years; the film follows Moore through his early days as a record shop employee who decides to share his crazy collection of stories through a comedy routine in which he takes on a new persona: Dolemite. The film follows the rise of Dolemite, as the comedy records grow into a phenomenon that inspires Moore to take Dolemite to the big screen.

Dolemite Is My Name is written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, the screenwriting duo that also penned Ed Wood, and here they have found another character that is charming in his mix of earnestness and ridiculousness. Unlike Ed Wood, Moore never comes off as a fool; he’s an incredibly resourceful guy with a great amount of empathy for those that aided him in his journey, and the bond that he forms with his audience is genuinely touching. Yes, there are elements of the films Moore made that are silly and incompetent, but they’re also the product of brave, independent filmmaking by a collection of people with varying skillsets- the result is a crazy combination of genres and artists that makes for a really unique series of films.

What Murphy does so well is sell us on the idea that Moore is someone who could find the best in people, including himself; his perception of himself as a self made man also extends to seeing everyone around him as a potential partner in need of a boost. Moore’s challenge in the film is always those that don’t believe in him, but he’s never a product of selfishness. Murphy is able to tap into the generosity of the role, but he’s also able to light up the screen with his unmatched ability to do a bit; between the running gag of Rudy’s obsession with karate to his quirky relationship with his aunt, Murphy lights up the screen with personality.

The best part of the film is undoubtedly the filming of the first Dolemite film, which exemplifies all the best elements of the story; we get flashy costumes, great physical comedy, and hilarious side roles from a great cast, with a particularly humorous performance by Wesley Snipes as D’Urville Martin, who’s seen as a somewhat professional who quickly grows sick of Moore’s “let’s figure this out as we go” schtick. The earlier scenes that chronicle Moore’s rise to prominence in stand up are interesting, but they definitely feel as if they’re leading to something that will end up being more rewarding.

Dolemite Is My Name is the type of biopic I enjoy because it’s unabashedly celebratory; from Ruth Carter’s excellent costume work to the terrific score by Scott Bomar (which incorporates tracks from the original Dolemite films), the film always feels like an accurate representation of its era, and it’s easy to see why Rudy Ray Moore had such an influence and meant so much to so many people. In a somewhat meta way, it’s also a commentary on the return of Eddie Murphy; here we have one of the greatest comedic forces of nature on the planet allowed to be completely himself. Grade: B+

 

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The final film I saw was Fernando Meirelles’s historical drama The Two Popes, which follows the succession of Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins) and his eventual replacement that led to the appointment of Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce). I definitely wasn’t expecting a film about the papacy to have this much ABBA music, nor was I expecting the film to be as funny, touching, and thought provoking as it was.

The film is mostly centered around conversations between Benedict and Francis, starting with their brief initial meeting during Benedict’s election following the death of Pope John Paul II, and following their relationship throughout Benedict’s term. At the beginning we see the differences between the two; Francis’s ideology is radically different and above all other things he doesn’t seek the papacy for himself, in fact he initially journeys to Rome to ask Benedict to approve his retirement.

For the most part, this is a film about a series of conversations between the two, and while there’s news footage and the ever brief flashback to back up the film’s assertions, we mostly hear about the nature of faith that affects 1.2 billion people from the words of these two men. What’s clear is that there’s a difference in the direction that they intend to take; Francis isn’t just dedicated to helping the disenfranchised of the world out of moral duty, but because he’s lived among them, and has seen the impact firsthand.

Pryce and Hopkins are just on another level here; both need to be both completely committed to duty, and Pryce’s depiction of Francis as a portrait of humility has to come with great wit and intelligence, and Hopkins has to match him line for line with a deep sense of knowledge. Neither can come off as a fool and neither can make their intentions entirely clear, especially as Benedict becomes increasingly aware that a change in leadership could result in Francis’s ascension. The bonding that we see between the two doesn’t see either caving to each other, but trying to understand one another more as individuals, and not just pillars of ideology.

This is also just an incredibly witty, insightful film- of course we are familiar with these two Popes from a public persona, but there’s a lot more to their lives than that, and seeing the ways in which these monumental figures live their lives outside of duty is fascinating. How are you supposed to lead the faith of 1.2 billion people when you have a favorite soccer team? What does the Pope watch on TV? What type of food does a Pope eat, and does he still pray if he’s ordering take out pizza? The film isn’t posing these questions as obvious setups for jokes, but rather trying to grasp the humanity behind these important figures, and it never comes off as anything less than completely authentic.

It’s also a rather quick paced film, and although an extended flashback into Francis’s life occasionally slows it down, it offers so much development to his worldview that it still feels relevant. The Two Popes never forgets the gravity of the situation, but it also uses the real events to mold a completely winning buddy movie for the ages. Grade: A

Judy- Movie Review

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judy

What stands out about Judy is that it’s about the beginning and the end of Judy Garland; the middle of her life, in which she became one of the icons of Hollywood’s Golden Age, is never seen, and we’re left to witness the impact that a life of stardom has on a person, with brief glimpses at the origins of how these problems began. It’s a real downer for that reason, but it’s also suppose to be; Judy reflects that she’s “only Judy Garland for one hour a week,” and that for the rest of the time she’s a mother and person, but of course it’s that hour per week that we’re left to remember her by.

The film follows Garland (Renee Zellweger) on her final tour in 1968, in which she’s desperate to regain custody of her children and is forced into a grueling concert schedule that takes a toll on her emotionally and physically. Zellweger is undoubtably gunning for the Best Actress prize at next year’s Academy Awards, and the praise granted to her is completely justified. Zellweger disappears within the role; Judy is often charming and able to have a sense of humor, but there’s something that is clearly very wrong.

The scenes between Judy and her children are often brief, but they serve a pivotal role. The film suggests that Judy isn’t just looking to save her children, but they very idea of childhood, as her own youth was corrupted by those who were ruthless in depicting her as “the girl next door”- a persona she never got to live. This is done well through flashbacks with a younger Judy, played by Darci Shaw (who is downright magnificent). The flashbacks never impede on the narrative, and add appropriate context to how childhood trauma carries over into adulthood.

It’s also intersting that the concert sequences are few and far between, and again this is an intentional choice. Characters are always keen to remind Judy of how important she is, but we never really see it, which reflects how Judy doesn’t see it either. When the concert scenes do arrive, they’re often stressfully shot, yet also have beauty; even at her worst, Judy is always there to put on a show.

This is often such a glum film, with various characters doing their worst to take advantage of Judy and not treat her as a person, so when genuine warmth comes across it’s a major break. The warmth mainly comes from Judy’s relationship with a couple who are both massive fans of Judy’s work and befriend her on her tour. These scenes could easily feel tacky, but they’re so genuinely uplifting that it’s impossible to not be charmed. It’s also a more positive representation of Judy’s status as an icon; even if she’s been denied her individuality, her music definitely resonates with people.

Zellweger is undoubtably a powerhouse here; the film’s biggest hurdle is to make us empathize with someone whose situation is nearly impossible to understand? Judy seeks to look at what it’s liked to have an image forced upon you, and what it’s like when you no longer fit that mold. It’s able to celebrate Judy’s work within the industry and doesn’t take away from what she achieved, but in many ways it takes the highlights of her legacy and tries to mold them within an image she’s made for herself. Grade: B

The Best Television Shows of the Decade

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Ranking television shows is much harder than ranking movies. While movies are judged primarily by a singular, 90 minute to three hour experience, shows can span different lengths, change in quality over time, and leave more confounding and complicated legacies. It’s also harder to be comprehensive; I feel confident in saying my list of favorite movies is very complete and researched, but there are certainly gaps in my knowledge of television.

This all being said, television is one of the most exciting art forms of our time and as a fan of the visual medium, I feel as if I should take the time to celebrate the best this decade offers. I’m taking into consideration the lasting impact of these shows, and even if some have weaker seasons or episodes, they have left an impact in one way or another. I’m also including shows that began airing the previous decade if enough of it aired during the 2010s.

These are my picks for the best shows of the 2010s.

Honorable Mentions:
The Crown
The Musketeers
Trust
The Night Manager
Parks and Recreation
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
Boardwalk Empire
Bloodline
Ozark
Narcos and Narcos: Mexico
Maniac
The End of the F***ing World
Sharp Objects
True Detective
Homecoming
Bodyguard
20. Legion

legionThe rare superhero story that’s more interested in using color, style, and vignettes to convey mood and character shifts rather than traditional structure, Legion is easily one of the most visually and aesthetically dazzling achievements of the decade that revels in its own indulgence to create a wholly original method of storytelling.

Best Episode: “Chapter 14” (Season 2, Episode 6)

 

19. Sherlock

sherlock
While it eventually became more interested in fan service and plot twists than satisfying story, the early Sherlock episodes were a brilliant modern take on the classic detective duo, perfectly taking the original Arthur Conan Doyle stories and inserting them in a 21st Century context. Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman have chemistry to spare, and Andrew Scott’s take on Moriarty remains one of the better TV villains of the decade.

Best Episode: “A Scandal in Belgravia” (Season 2, Episode 1)

 

18. Better Call Saul

bettercallsaul.jpgOne of the more creative television spinoffs, Better Call Saul takes the comic relief Saul Goodman of Breaking Bad and uses him as a catalyst to tell the slow, methodical breakdown of a lawyer’s morality as he fights family and allies to come out on top. Bob Odenkirk nails a role that soon becomes as nuanced as Cranston’s, and is somehow able to make the world of legal sabotage as accessible as the drug conflicts of Breaking Bad.

Best Episode: “Chicanery” (Season 3, Episode 5)

 

17. Killing Eve

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The epitome of what a great cat and mouse game looks like; tracking the parasitic, obsessive relationship between a witty MI5 analyst (Sandra Oh) and a sarcastic, psychopathic assassin (Jodie Comer), Killing Eve takes a look at what happens when justice becomes personal and whether the ends will justify the means.

Best Episode: “Don’t I Know You?” (Season 1, Episode 3)

 

16. House of Cards

houseofcards
While its legacy is complicated due to the both the fallout of the Kevin Spacey allegations and the show’s general decline in quality overtime, it’s also easy to see why House of Cards kicked off the streaming boom; the first two seasons make for a cutthroat, thrilling take on what it takes to get to the top off the political game, and were able to draw us into the behind the scenes of political maneuvering through a great Macbeth/ Lady Macbeth character duo.

Best Episode: “Chapter 26” (Season 2, Episode 13)

 

15. Fargo

fargo
Adopting the style of the Coen Brothers’ classic to tell a wholly new story, Fargo features a wonderful collection of standalone stories that include masquerading hitmen, midlife crisis murderers, naive police lovers, incompetent FBI agents, and fixers. Despite its often shocking violence and perpetual weirdness, Fargo is rooted in deep sincerity as it wraps its head around this crazy world.

Best Episode: “Buridan’s Ass” (Season 1, Episode 6)

 

14. The Good Place

goodplaceSimultaneously a response to the serialization of television and an exercise in breaking down complex philosophical concepts through idiosyncratic humor, The Good Place is the best example of a network sitcom in an era where the genre isn’t typically associated with artistic audacity. Filled with witty characters and an ever expanding world, the series is able to dissect the very complex question of what makes someone good without ever compromising its refreshingly good-natured comedy.

Best Episode: “Michael’s Gambit” (Season 1, Episode 13)

 

13. Daredevil

daredevilEasily the greatest television adaptation of a comic book character ever, Daredevil infused the moral struggle of Matt Murdock as he balances being a superhero, a lawyer, and a man of faith with brilliant action sequences and the overwhelmingly great Vincent D’Onofrio as the villain Wilson Fisk.

Best Episode: “Blindsided” (Season 3, Episode 4)

 

12. Stranger Things

strangerthingssteveMore than just a collection of references to ‘80s films, Stranger Things has been able to capture the tone and style of classic hits such as The Goonies, E.T. the Extra Terrestrial, and Gremlins by its unique blend of memorable and relatable characters and rich world building.

Best Episode: “The Mind Flayer” (Season 2, Episode 8)

 

11. Westworld

westworld.jpgIt’s all about the journey. Westworld is so fun to watch because it’s so fun to figure out, and any of its endless mysteries could feel like gimmicks if they weren’t so perfectly paid off and able to approach the concept of intelligence and consciousness in such an accessible way.

Best Episode: “Kiksuya” (Season 2, Episode 8)

 

10. Barry

barryA great character piece about a dark and disturbed lead, Barry never sacrifices story for jokes, and is able to effortlessly glide between the hilarious and devastating as we follow a complicated hitman turned actor who we’re not sure we should be rooting for, even if we really, really want to.

Best Episode: “ronny/lily” (Season 2, Episode 5)

 

9. The Leftovers

leftovers.pngThe Leftovers is simultaneously able to inform us of the stakes, rules, and dynamics of its own mysterious sci-fi tragedy, yet is also able to ground everything in a nuanced depiction of grief and loss that could never have been expressed in a film. The journey to reach the conclusion of its mystery is thrilling, but it’s the individual moments of empathy throughout that make the series a masterpiece.

Best Episode: “International Assassin” (Season 2, Episode 7)

 

8. BoJack Horseman

bojackWho knew an animated sitcom about a washed up actor (who’s also a horse) would be one of the deepest and most affecting dramas on television? BoJack Horseman draws us in with its deep wit (including a lot of animal puns) and consistently comes to startling and fascinating conclusions about celebrity, trauma, depression, and the human (?) condition.

Best Episode: “Fish Out of Water” (Season 3, Episode 4)

 

7. Mindhunter

mindhunterA fascinating insight into the minds of serial killers, Mindhunter asks the big questions about the nature of evil through a highly specific, morally challenging perspective that combines ‘70s stylistic choices with gripping mystery. Like it’s brilliant lead Jonathan Groff, it’s both unnerving and charismatic.

Best Episode: “Episode 10” (Season 1, Episode 10)

 

6. Succession

successionThe excesses of wealth are hard to even grasp, yet Succession puts us in a deeply technical corporate family power struggle with nearly no redeeming character- yet it’s gripping? The level of character writing and performances are simply astounding, as we revel in the wit and plotting of each lead, whilst silently sitting in disgust at the implication that we’re even remotely involved in this world.

Best Episode: “Nobody is Ever Missing” (Season 1, Episode 10)

 

5. Breaking Bad

saymynameUnfolding like a five act Shakespearean drama, Breaking Bad is the taught, tight journey of Bryan Cranston’s Walter White as he turns from pathetic high school teacher to drug kingpin. Cranston’s work is among the best in history, and Breaking Bad’s strong collection of supporting character actors make for an often devastating, yet always entertaining slow burn.

Best Episode: “Felina” (Season 5, Episode 16)

 

4. Mad Men

madmenIf Breaking Bad is a modern Shakespeare tragedy, Mad Men unfolds like a great American novel; the passing of time throughout a highly eventful decade is felt as Jon Hamm’s Don Draper and the eclectic cast are always there to warp our perspective and challenge our view. Mad Men encapsulated the excitement, fear, inequality, charm, and impact of the ‘60s through the eyes of an advertising firm, concluding in what is still the greatest finale in television history.

Best Episode: “Person to Person” (Season 7, Episode 14)

 

3. Game of Thrones

battlebastardsThere has never been an artistic creation like Game of Thrones; here is a series filled to the brim with characters, histories, backstories, mythology, and events that grips its audience through a genius-level staging of events that make for some of the most memorable moments in entertainment history. There are so many terrific moments that benefit from our commitment and patience that they it would be silly to try and list them all, but I’m left most remembering the wonderful characters that inhabit this fantasy and took us on this nine year journey.

Best Episode: “The Winds of Winter” (Season 6, Episode 10)

 

2. Mr. Robot

robotsubwayCreative and daring in a way that shows rarely are, Mr. Robot brought to life the surprisingly thrilling world of hacking and secret politics to life to tell the deeply personal story of a young man dealing with mental illness and trauma. Rami Malek delivers consistently electrifying work in a show that is always able to break its own format; from sitcoms to one shots to bottle thrillers, Mr. Robot has it all.

Best Episode: “eps3.5_kill-pr0cess.inc” (Season 3, Episode 6)

 

1. Twin Peaks: The Return

Kyle MacLachlan in a still from Twin Peaks. Photo: Suzanne Tenner/SHOWTIMEA cinematic achievement like no other, David Lynch’s memorizing return to his landmark series pushed the medium forward through its tantalizing contextualization of the original Twin Peaks saga within the never-ending struggle to confront evil. Filled with quirkiness, genuine terror, and plenty of shocks, The Return never went the way we expected, and we’re still left analyzing. Like Lynch’s cinematic works of Eraserhead or Mulholland Dr, this can be viewed countless times to soak up the nuanced meaning of each scene, and we’ll still never fully understand.

Best Episode: “Part 16” (Season 3, Episode 16)

Ad Astra- Movie Review

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adastra

Ad Astra does something I’ve never really seen before with a space movie; it’s purposefully desensitizing. The scale and scope is no less grandiose than any other modern space epic, but its clear early on that this is a film about finding meaning, and traveling infinite distance to confront what seems like ever present emptiness. Rebirth is a theme that is commonly tackled in space movies, but its impressive that writer/director James Gray is able to consistently show us amazing visual feats, yet pick and choose which ones should wow us.

Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is a lifelong astronaut, and is the son of renowned astronaut Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), whose been immortalized as a hero on Earth for his deep space missions. Clifford was lost years ago in a mission that stretched to the outer reaches of the solar system, but Roy soon learns that this may not be the case, and that his father may have something to do with cataclysmic accidents that have threatened Earth’s surface. On a mission to find his father, Roy is encouraged to suppress any feelings and contact his father directly and ask him to return.

The opening scene features a cataclysmic sequence in which Roy is nearly killed by an accident involving a space station orbiting above Earth. It’s a terrifying sequence that instantly informs us of the scale the movie is playing with, but its also a great character building moment for Roy. Roy has become desensitized to the vastness of space, and to nearly every element of his life; space isn’t even an escape for him, but rather his reality, and the lack of feeling has in turn made him the best candidate for the mission. Roy is tasked with finding his father not because of a personal connection, but because he’s simply the best.

This is something Pitt plays upon in his performance, which I think instantly stacks up against some of his best work (which is not a small statement, as I consider him to be one of the greatest actors of all-time). The story of the film isn’t neccessarily that complex, and for the most part we’re trapped in isolation with Pitt as his mission begins to provoke questions about purpose. Yes, this is about the search for a father figure, but its also about the search for a reason to move forward- as we see in futuristic visions of the Moon and Mars, the mystery of the galactic frontier has been replaced by another version of the same cynicism we have back on Earth.

I don’t always enjoy voiceover as a framing device, but literally getting into Roy’s head gives us some insight into his decision making process. We’re treated with some wondrous spectacle, include a great chase sequence on the lunar surface and a nail biting encounter with a space creature that borrows the best elements from Alien, but these are meant to be thrilling on a purely visceral level. The stakes aren’t there because Roy doesn’t have a clear motivation for surviving- that’s not a critique of the character, but my best way of describing him. As Roy learns, being the best isn’t a virtue because its not something he seeks, and it comes not out of ego, but in the absence of anything else.

It is definitely no easy feat to frame a movie around someone whose will is developed at such a gradual pace, which is why James Gray has done such a great job making a film that is essentially a tone poem. There’s clever world building and an acute detail to how real world developments would play out (I particularly like that operatives on Mars have the enthusiasm of DMV attendants and the Moon has become a tourist hub), but again we’re seeing these things from Roy’s perspective.

This tone poem comes out of dazzling visuals from cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema and composer Max Richter. Hoytema previously helmed the similar space spectacle Interstellar, and Ad Astra plays as the perfect half of that double feature. If the visuals of Interstellar were there to show the immense beauty, visceral thrills, and kinetic intensity of space travel in the overly emotional search to return home, Ad Astra finds grace within even the most scary moments; when everything is dazzling we begin to ponder what it is we’re searching for, a perfect theme as Roy considers how his father’s absence affected him.

The plot mechanics that it takes to get to the confrontation between father and son aren’t for me to spoil, but I will reveal that a scene about halfway through is one of the most singularly impressive feats of acting I’ve seen from Pitt. He’s finally forced, in the midst of the line of duty, to reach out to his father and given the chance to speak with someone he thought to be lost, and the breakthrough of emotion comes as a moment of cathartic revelation- these aren’t feelings that were purposefully buried, but ones that seemingly emerge from a deep sleep. The final act of the film packs an emotional wallop I wasn’t expecting, particularly due to the observations the film makes on humanity; I think it can be interpreted as either positive or negative depending on which character you relate to.

Ad Astra is certainly not for everyone. The perpetual moroseness may not engage all viewers, and the emphasis on emotional development over plot momentum is certainly going to be divisive. I, however, simply cannot deny the impact that the film had on me, nor can I deny how swept away I was by Pitt’s performance. In the catalogue of the best space movies this decade had, and believe me there are many of them, Ad Astra stands out as the movie that cost $100 million that was able to confront isolation. Grade: A

It Chapter Two- Movie Review

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it-chapter-2-still

How do you end something that, essentially, has always had an issue being resolved? It’s no secret that the second half of Stephen King’s beloved novel isn’t quite as beloved as its first half, an issue that has always stood in the way of an adaptation. It’s not hard to see why; It‘s first half, which was adapted into the excellent 2017 film, deals with the scariness of growing up, materializing coming of age fears into a literal embodiment of fear, and while the second half has a lot of interesting ideas about how childhood trauma stays with us into adulthood, it’s also a hard thing to do without revisiting the same material.

Unfortunately, It Chapter Two has this exact issue, and is so keen to remind us of what has already occurred within the lives of each character that it doesn’t really develop them as adults. It’s also worse in every technical level; the scares are more elaborate, but less specific to the fears we’ve already seen, the CGI is overused and generally doesn’t look great, and the emotional throughlines for each character are less clear.

27 years after they defeated Pennywise, the Loser’s Club returns to Derry after Mike (Isaiah Mustafa) uncovers clues following a horrific hate crime. Bill (James McAvoy) is now a screenwriter and author who can’t seem to end his stories, Beverly (Jessica Chastain) is in an abusive relationship with a man much like her father, Richie (Bill Hader) is a struggling standup comedian, Eddie (James Ransome) has failed to overcome his anxieties, Ben (Jay Ryan) has found success as an architect but still feels the pain inflicted upon him by bullies, and Stan (Andy Bean) has seemingly adjusted well to adulthood, yet is crushed by fear of returning to his hometown.

It seems like the film would do well to spend time with these characters and show how their trauma is part of their everyday lives, but the film barely dedicates a scene to each character before thrusting them back into the quest to kill Pennywise. The brief glance at how they may interact together is seen in a great dinner scene in which they reconnect, but even that is abruptly cut short to get into the plot. Yes, it’s hard to spend time with seven leads, but this is a nearly three hour movie that is much less judicious with its time than its predecessor was.

One of the joys of said predecessor was the interactions between the group, but It Chapter Two is quick to separate them as they go on their own quests to find artifacts from their past that will be used to kill Pennywise. This seems like a good idea in theory to give each character the chance to literally confront their fears and get completely vulnerable, but the majority of these scenes are shown using the younger child actors. Not only do these stories mostly retread the themes of the first film, but they’re also more over the top and for the most part lack any real insight into how these characters have changed.

Yes, we get some scenes with the cast together, but due to the relentless pace they’re mostly scenes needed to progress the plot or spell out key emotional moments. These aren’t the types of scenes that made the first It work so well; that film benefited from the growing comradery between the group, the in jokes and moments of humanity that built up the characters before they confronted true evil. These are also the types of scenes missing in It Chapter Two, and it sticks out. The hyper sincerity of the emotional revelations in the first film didn’t feel cheesy because these kids were fleshed out (and also younger, and less refined in their language), but they stick out more in Chapter Two because of the weird structure (the actual mythology behind the artifacts themselves is also strange and vague).

This is essentially a three hour movie where very little happens, and it also features a far less intimidating Pennywise- the titular clown is barely featured in the second act, and his absence makes the stakes feel less frantic. This is a much more violent film that the first, but it’s not as scary; one of the joys of the first film was that the entire town of Derry was creeping with dark secrets and creepy people, and that these kids had to fight the very notion of their town (and in turn their childhood). That’s not really a thing here, as we don’t get much interactions within Derry, and Pennywise’s depiction is filled with huge CGI spectacle that fails to terrify in the same way because it doesn’t resemble an actual scary concept.

Enough complaining though- the one thing the film really knocks out is the casting, and while I have gripes with the story arcs, the chemistry between the group works brilliantly. This feels like childhood friends reuniting after a long time; they’re not entirely comfortable, and while they remember the familiar feelings that haunt them they have lost many specific memories (a framing device the film uses to explore its flashbacks). Seeing these actors slip back into their familiar company incorporates many great moments.

Despite their strong portrayals in the first film, Ben and Beverly aren’t particularly well handled here. This is no jab at McAvoy or Chastain, who are some of our best living actors, but Bill’s story arc indistinguishable from the first film, and I’m not exactly sure what Bev’s arc was intended to be. McAvoy and Chastain are able to elevate the material, and the way in which they slip into familiar habits when faced with flashbacks is very well handled.

That being said, it’s actually Eddie and Richie who prove to be the film’s standouts; Eddie has been stuck in a loop of insecurity and anxiety that permeated his childhood, and is tragically stuck playing the role. I can’t say enough good things about Bill Hader as Richie; we see now the motivations for Richie’s behavior and how his humor is a deflection; while the rest of the characters are caught reliving past development, Richie’s arc allows us to see the first film in a new light, and Hader’s tour de force performance is able to induce tears on at least three key occasions.

The oddest thing is that the film really sticks the landing; when it’s not focusing on the mythology of Pennywise (which becomes more convoluted and less interesting), It Chapter Two has the feeling of an epic, and the last fifteen minutes feel like the conclusion to a grand saga of character we really grew to love. It’s easy to become so engrossed in the losers as people that we’re willing to forget the flaws along the way- we remember the good more than the bad, much like a certain summer in Derry.

There’s a running gag throughout the film about Bill’s inability to craft a good ending, but the self aware gags are actually ironic; the ending isn’t the issue with the film, but its saving grace. Despite all the issues it took to get there, It Chapter Two doesn’t only have a good ending, but it is a good ending to this story, a worthwhile fulfillment to the series that doesn’t really stand on its own. For that reason alone, I’m recommending It Chapter Two even though I don’t think it’s particularly good- it’s an event film, one we don’t see very much of anymore because it has something that is sorely forgotten- closure. Grade: C+

Midsommar (Director’s Cut)- Movie Review

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midsommar

With Hereditary, writer/director Ari Aster delivered a fearless horror film rooted in real emotions about grief and loss- it was an incredibly bold debut that like all horror classics, was about how people would respond to it. Of all the things in Midsommar that I find fascinating (and there are many), I’m curious most how it will stack up once Aster has more features under his way. Will this shocking, cruel treatment of his characters be his staple, and will it be a mold he’s trapped in? That remains to be seen, but it’s worked so far- Midsommar is an instant classic and conversation starter in its own right.

This isn’t to suggest that Midsommar isn’t innovative- it is. The most obvious element of this is the visuals; the film is bright and colorful, and finds the horror within the dread of sitting by and letting things happen around you. Starting off with its own devastating inciting incident (one not quite as anxiety inducing as Hereditary, but horrifically disturbing nonetheless), Midsommar actually takes awhile for heads to start flying, so to speak. This is first and foremost a breakup movie, one about how passiveness can be the real danger.

After a tragic event, Dani (Florence Pugh) begins to lean even more heavily on her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor), who has grown sick of her anxiety and paranoia. In a half hearted attempt to rekindle their relationship, Christian invites Dani to join him and his college friends on a research trip to study a Swedish festival that occurs once every ninety years. To Christian’s shock, Dani decides she wants to go, much to the dismay of Christian’s friends, and they take part in a secret ritual that goes to unexpected places.

The film doesn’t disguise that its about a breakup from the beginning, and its a very nuanced depiction of how two incompatible people can alienate each other. Florence Pugh is one of the breakout performances of the year; her consistent sense of unease as she’s forced to calm down and reassure herself when no one else seems to care is unsettling from the get go, and its consistently painful to watch as she has to apologize for going through stages of grief. In this depiction, it could have been easy for Jack Reynor to play his character as a generic crappy boyfriend, but his ambivalence to the world around him (including creepy cults and his traumatized girlfriend) is unlikable but not unrealistic, and his vague and generally minimal attempts to care are always transparent in their intentions.

The lack of scares to start off with doesn’t slow down the film, but allows us to slowly understand how this cult (in theory) could be a means of coping for some people, and is painstakingly crafted in its detailing of tradition and willful seclusion. The violence, when it hits, never fails to leave our mind, but the film is also built more on the gradual breakdown of sanity than anything else. Best of all, Aster understands how ridiculous this premise is- so there’s some humor! Instead of using cheap jokes to defuse the tension, Aster allows us to naturally laugh at the absurdity of these situations and how people would react to traditions that are important within a culture, no matter how horrific they may be.

This is such a great character piece that I didn’t need to become completely invested within the mythology- everything about how the ritual works and why everyone is there makes sense, and its never dull seeing the ways in which the rituals are carried out, but its more interesting to see it through the perspective of people we care about. I also love the ensemble that Aster assembled as Christian’s friends- this feels like a real group of companions. William Jackson Harper as the neurotic, curious nerd (not far off from his role on The Good Place but he was cast for a reason), Will Poulter as the obnoxious dude bro (the character is completely shallow, but its not unrealistic), and another great breakout role from Vilhelm Blomgren as a member of the Swedish community who initially invites Christian.

Even at the staggering 171 minute run time of the director’s cut, Midsommar never bores us, and even the scenes that don’t feel essential contribute to the vibe, the development of the central relationship, or the richness of the environment. Certainly not for the faint of heart, Midsommar is just gorgeously made for something so nihilistic. Not to spoil anything, but it ends on a perfect note; its not shocking or even particularly unnerving, but after the insanity that preceded it, it feels like the only ways things could have gone. Grade: A