Won’t You Be My Neighbor?- Movie Review

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Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a brilliant piece of filmmaking; it’s the rare documentary that is able to trace the impact of an individual on the a larger cultural movement as well as singling out his specific achievements. The documentary does a great job at tracking Fred Rogers’s journey from childhood to his career on television and eventual stardom, but what makes it such a moving piece of work is the pureness of Rogers’s personality; here was a man whose purity and compassion made him peculiar, and Won’t You Be My Neighbor? beautifully takes the time to look at how these core values educated people in their darkest times.

While the film follows a fairly straightforward path of Rogers’s origins on television and tracks the success of his series henceforth, the documentary smartly focuses on clustered thematic ideas, showing how Rogers crafted his characters based on the people in his life and how he used current events to craft the show’s storylines. The interviews give the perfect amount of personal connection needed to exemplify the importance of these events, yet it’s often that the film’s best moments are when it simply rolls footage of Rogers; here was a man that gave so much and cared deeply about people, and the purity of these acts of kindness feel all the more touching when considering Roger’s surroundings and troubles.

Perhaps the message of Won’t You Be My Neighbor? may be simple, and while the film does an impressive job at showing how an inventive man harnessed a new medium in order to attract an immense fanbase, it’s ultimately about the power of empathy and installing a sense of emotional maturity at a young age. Perhaps the most moving thing is that Rogers was at some points unaware of what an impact he had, and that his persona onscreen wasn’t a character. Anything considered even remotely radical about Rogers was done so out of compassion, and Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a beautiful tribute. Grade: A+

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Ant-Man and the Wasp- Movie Review

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Marvel had commonly prided itself on delivering films that are fun and lack self-serious, and of all the characters in their mythology, Ant-Man demands that attention more than any. 2015’s Ant-Man may not rank as one of the best of the genre, but its approach to the genre as a relatively low-key story about a father trying to atone for his mistakes and pull off a heist was perfect. Ant-Man and the Wasp delivers on many of the same factor, but also gives us more of what was demanded from the first film, namely more creative action, more humor, and more Evangeline Lily.

After aiding Captain America in battle, Scott Lang/ Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) is under house arrest and has avoided contact with his former associates. After receiving a mysterious message from the long lost Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), Scott teams up again with Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lily) and her father Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) to find her, while a threat looms in the form of an enigmatic figure known as Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen).

Rudd is a naturally charismatic screen presence, and his hapless, goofy persona is a welcome contrast to the superheroes we usually see. There’s a definite development to the character, as we see his desire to save people as a superhero contrasted with his desire to protect his daughter. Similar to how the first film’s heart was centered on the relationship between Lang and his daughter, Ant-Man and the Wasp draws its motional core from the search for Janet and the excellent relationship between Lily and Douglas. Lily is perfect as Scott’s more competent partner, yet the familial tragedy gives her the needed vulnerability.

Rudd, Lily, and Douglas work extremely well together and have developed a great onscreen repertoire with some terrific banter, and their charismatic relationship leads much of the film. This is definitely a comedy first, with many side plots and elements feeling somewhat unimportant to the overall story other than to add comedy, and for the tone of the film, they fit in well. Randall Park is uproarious as a quirky FBI agent looking for his big break, and I also enjoyed Walton Goggins’s sweet-talking southern arms dealer and the charming duo of Judy Greer and Bobby Cannavale. That being said, the film is once again stolen by Michael Pena, who’s quirky anecdotes, memorable one-liners, and perspective on the events of the film make him the standout of the cast.

While the character of Ghost may lack the screen presence held by Infinity War’s Thanos or Black Panther‘s Killmonger, the character’s backstory is set up reasonably well, specifically involving the incorporation of Laurence Fishburne as a character genuinely caught in the crossfire. The character’s backstory is definitely tragic, but for the most part Ant-Man and the Wasp keeps things light and fluffy, and despite many diversions, none of the gags overstay their welcome. The action is also genuinely jaw dropping at some points; director Peyton Reed has found a way to use scale and the characters’ powers creatively, and the third act is genuinely relentless in delivering an exciting chase spectacle with the perfect sprinklings of spectacle.

Ant-Man and the Wasp delivers everything I wanted in a sequel, and while it may not have as strong of an emotional character arc as the first film, it definitely expands the world and characters in a creative manner while also keeping the stakes personal and the comedy consistent. As a comedy alone there’s the appeal of many charismatic people delivering solid jokes, and as a comic book film it’s well rounded, while not leaning too hard on it’s connections to the overall Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s a blast. Grade: B+

A look at how I’d fit Ant-Man and the Wasp into my rankings of the Marvel Cinematic Universe films:

20. Iron Man 2

19. Thor: The Dark World

18. Thor

17. The Incredible Hulk

16. Ant-Man

15. Captain America: The First Avenger

14. Iron Man 3

13. Avengers: Age of Ultron

12. Ant-Man and the Wasp

11. Doctor Strange

10. Avengers: Infinity War

9. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

8. Black Panther

7. Iron Man

6. Guardians of the Galaxy

5. Captain America: The Winter Soldier

4. Spider-Man: Homecoming

3. Thor: Ragnorak

2. The Avengers

1.Captain America: Civil War

Sicario: Day of the Soldado- Movie Review

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While I was very impressed by 2015’s Sicario, I wasn’t completely convinced that the film needed a sequel. I’m still not entirely convinced that the film needed a sequel, but Sicario: Day of the Soldado is a very impressively made thriller, and while it will most likely be dissected for its continuation of the “cycle of violence” themes perpetrated by the first film, its a purely visceral experience that’s operating on a high functioning technical level. While he doesn’t quite have as taught and reserved a touch as Denis Villeneuve, director Stefeno Sollima has crafted a nail biting suspense piece that uses violence and set pieces to only increase our sense of dread and anxiety.

With drug cartels now classified as terrorist organizations, C.I.A. agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) is enlisted by the U.S. Government to start a conflict amongst the drug cartels. Graver enlists his old ally Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), but Alejandro has his own motivations for hunting down cartel leadership and is determined to carry out justice his own way. Despite some mildly cheesy military dialogue and a strange desire to give every character a “badass introduction moment,” the character work here is very strong; Graver is forced to wrestle with the ugly side of an already ugly business, and Alejandro remains an enigmatic character who’s tragic history guides his hyper-focused missions.

While the film asks a lot of questions about the place of the U.S. on the border and its role in the violent conflicts, perhaps too many questions to be asked in a two hour action movie, it’s a relatively straightforward story regarding the capture of a cartel leader’s daughter. While the scope is lightly less focused than in the first film, the simplicity of the story allows the hyper-violent shootouts and brutality to see more authentic, and even when it’s easy to get lost in the nuances of the story, Benicio del Toro remains a riveting actor to watch onscreen. The side characters all contribute to the story and are given payoffs overtime, and while some could accuse the ending of being a little corny and on the nose, I liked the way it opened up the possibilities of the universe while acknowledging the harshness of its reality.

The final act of Sicario: Day of the Soldado is a masterful sequence of seemingly catastrophic events, where each sequence could’ve easily served as a denouement. It’s surprising, shocking, and very well executed, with Sollima keeping the audience on the edge of their seats throughout the film. It’s a thoroughly nasty film, and while it lacks the moral center that Emily Blunt’s character provided to the first film, it’s a captivating experience. Grade: B+

American Animals- Movie Review

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American Animals is truly one of the more interesting heist films in recent memory; not only does the incorporation of real-life interviews make the film more authentic and playful at the same time, but directory Bart Layton takes the time to look at post-heist anxieties and examine the implications of an event like this on young men. Unlike most heist films, these characters are not in it for the glory or fame, but rather a fulfillment that’s been lacking in their lives, and American Animals takes the time to look at these men and the lines they cross in their search for meaning in life.

Based on a true story, the film follows a heist to steal rare priceless books carried out by four Transylvania University students: Spencer (Barry Keoghan), Warren (Evan Peters), Chas (Blake Jenner), and Eric (Jared Abrahamson). The dynamic between Keoghan and Peters is established early on, and the film smartly establishes Keoghan as a moral compass and Peters as a unreliable narrator. Abrahamson also does some great work here, specifically as he struggles with the possibility of violence, and while I felt Jenner was underused and underdeveloped overall, he has a fantastic emotional breakdown that stands among the film’s best scenes.

The heist scenes are executed brilliantly and feel frantic and desperate, just as the characters are. While the film takes painstaking detail in the details of the plan and its implications, the last minute anxieties and changes make for some truly thrilling sequences. The post-heist scenes are just as thrilling; this is a rare robbery film that focuses on post-traumatic stress and allows us to empathize with the crushing pressure forced upon the characters, yet the film is more interested in tracing the roots of their desires to pull off the heist than justify them, which makes for a stronger experience overall.

American Animals is a unique true crime experiment, as it uses its narrative and characters to look at themes of ambition and desire, yet still delivers a tour de force thriller that makes the most of its small scale. I was invested in the story of four friends searching for an escape from reality, yet I was simultaneously able to reflect upon how the real actions of these men affected their community. It’s an interesting balancing act of exploring characters and real people at the same time, and I was riveted by the sense of dread perpetuated by this harrowing thriller. Grade: A-

Ocean’s 8- Movie Review

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Ocean’s 8 is an amicable, good natured summer romp, and despite some structural issues, the film is very sleek, whimsical, and fun. A film like this relies both on the “gee whiz” zaniness of pulling off a seemingly impossible heist and a good deal of charisma from it’s impressive cast, and in both senses I think the film succeeds.

After being released from prison, Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock), sister of the infamous criminal Danny Ocean, has her mind set on another impossible heist stealing jewels from the Met Gala. Teaming with her best friend Lou (Cate Blanchette), Debbie pulls together a unique group of women, each with their own speciality, in order to pull off the heist. It’s hard to balance a cast like this, but each character has a moment to shine, with each group member filling an important role in the heist.

The Ocean’s series has always benefited from the sleek charisma of movie stars, and Sandra Bullock is really strong here, giving hints of vulnerability throughout whilst remaining the mastermind needed to anchor the group. While I felt that Blanchette was underused, I enjoyed the dynamic she had with Bullock. Anne Hathaway’s character has by far the most interesting arc, with Hathaway handling some of the film’s most outwardly funny moments. It’s not a comedy in the strictest sense, but the cast gets some good quips, and the dialogue throughout is fairly strong.

If I had to pick out some structural issues, I think the film could’ve spent more time developing the characters prior to the heist, and while it’s hard to give each character a full arc, the film’s post-heist events are somewhat stretched out, and I would much rather have spent some time focused on letting the cast shine. While there Debbie has an interesting enough motivation in trying to get revenge on her ex-lover (Richard Armitage), there’s a lack of tension in the heist, and I would’ve liked more scenes of conflict between the characters.

Stephen Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven is one of my favorite films of all-time; a masterpiece in style, tone, and payoffs, it’s a subtle tribute to the power of movie stars that’s more about conning the audience’s emotional and literal expectations than it’s effective plot mechanics. There’s a little bit of the Soderbergh magic that’s lost in Ocean’s 8, but overall I found it to be a very enjoyable heist film with some thrilling heist scenes, as well as some gleefully fun transitional moments that are elevated by the sly direction. I’d be up for more adventures with this cast, and Ocean’s 8 fulfills its desire to redo a modern classic. Grade: B

Tag- Movie Review

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Tag has a great premise- “what if a group of middle-aged men continued a childhood game for over thirty years?,” and for the most part it justifies its own existence. A film like this lives for the absurdity, and while Tag is perhaps caught between a genuinely sweet look at lifelong friends and a borderline fantastical chase flick, there’s a lot of good stuff here, especially when it comes to the cast.

For over thirty years, childhood friends Jerry (Jeremy Renner), Hogan (Ed Helms), Bob (Jon Hamm), Randy (Jake Johnson), and Kevin (Hannibal Buress) have played tag during the month of May, tracking each other across the country to participate in elaborate stunts. Jerry has never been tagged, and in the days prior to his wedding, his friends make resolve to finally tag him through any means necessary.

The film relies on two main factors: the likability of the cast and the ridiculous scenes of tagging. Yes, the stunts are very stupid, and there definitely could’ve been more done with the group playing tag before they decided to team up on Jerry, but in general it’s very funny. The lack of any sort of realism makes for some really funny stunts, and the elaborate and implausible steps taken by Jerry to avoid being tagged and outwit everyone else are quite clever. If I had to highlight a main flaw with the film, their are definitely scenes of dialogue (perhaps improv) that drag on too long; while there are some good running jokes and off hand comments, some of the jokes are stretched out to the point that they become stale and slow down the pace of the film.

The cast is very likable, not just due to the talents assembled, but the interesting mix of comedic voices seen in the film; unlike a Will Ferrell/John C. Reilly or a James Franco/Seth Rogen, these aren’t actors that we associate with each other. We have Jake Johnson for stoner humor, Ed Helms for the over the top physical gags, Hannibal Buress for the surrealist humor, and the different styles keep the film mostly dynamic. While Renner and Hamm aren’t generally seen as traditionally comedic actors, Renner is having fun as the “antagonist” whose one step ahead of everyone, and Hamm is able to be the (comparatively speaking) straight man while still delivering some great lines (I’m still hoping that Hamm will get better work after giving one of the all-time great performances in Mad Men).

Tag is a little misguided at points, devoting a little too much time to some failed bits and not enough to developing the development of the game over time, but overall it’s a very satisfying summer comedy that had me consistently amused and occasionally uproarious. The film is really a tribute to friendship, and the friends we grow old with, and I was more than happy to spend time with people who looked like they were having a great time. Grade: B

Incredibles 2- Movie Review

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2004’s The Incredibles ranks not only as one of Pixar’s greatest achievements, but one of the greatest superhero movies ever made. Although on the surface it seems like a superhero film geared towards children, The Incredibles was an in depth look at the roles of superheroes in society and the pressures of both fans and citizens. Incredibles 2 is a terrific follow up; the direct follow up continues the unique union of crime fighting and family, and is able to move forward the commentary on the perception of superheroes while still delivering dazzling action and good deal of humor.

After a somewhat disastrous encounter with a super-villain, Bob Parr/ Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson), Helen Parr/Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), Violet (Sarah Vowell), and Dash (Huck Milner) are once again forced to set aside their superhero identities in the wake of laws banning superhero activities. When a charismatic businessman (Bob Odenkirk) offers Elastigirl an opportunity to be the new face of superheroes, Bob must take on parental duties. Meanwhile, a mysterious figure known as “Screenslayer” threatens all superheroes.

The role reversal isn’t neccessarily an original setup, but the scenes of Bob Parr learning to become a better father are genuinely hilarious, and at times quite uproariously funny. The themes of family bonding, and how parenting itself is inherently a heroic act, are touching and tender, and the world created by Brad Bird allows mundane activities such as teenage dating, math homework, and taking care of children to be much more interesting. Most importantly, all the humor is rooted in character, and the animated superfamily is fleshed out wonderfully throughout the film.

On top of the humor and heart, the film is a simply dazzling visual experience, with each character, ability, environment, and action sequence bringing something dazzling and interesting. In his career in animation, Brad Bird has shown that complex cinematography can exist within animated films, and each set piece feels uniquely crafted in a way that few live action films do. It’s impressive the depth that’s reached with the animation, and the attention to detail makes the experience all the more visceral.

Incredibles 2 is a film that fully understands the appeal of the first film and expands on its core ideas, while still giving us more of what we wanted to see in terms of superhero action. It’s a profoundly funny, and although the first film was able to deal with the introspective “Watchmen for kids” look at the superhero genre in more depth, Incredibles 2 is an impressive action spectacle that’s emotionally layered. Grade: A

Hereditary- Movie Review

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Hereditary ranks as one of, if not the most disturbing films ever made; the film is filled with haunting imagery and gut wrenching visuals that evoke real horror, as even the most eccentric scares are based in real emotions. The film is a haunting portrayal of guilt, loss, grief, and familial anxieties, evoking a very personal nightmare within its audience. Perhaps that alone is a quality to praise, but the overall film is perfectly paced, with slow burn moments leading to its climactic scares and gradual revelations leading to terrifying truths.

The film follows the Gragham family; Annie (Toni Collette) and Steve (Gabriel Byrne) struggle to connect to their children Peter (Alex Wolff) and Charlie (Milly Shapiro) in the wake of tragedy, and attempt to cope with unspeakable loss when a deeper evil surfaces within their households. While the film’s scares are striking, much of the deeply disturbing moments are anchored by scenes of family interactions, and the excellent cast sells these scenes. Toni Collette in particular is haunting and powerful as a mother at her wits end who feels cursed by the consistent tragedy (and delivers the film’s most effective monologue), and Alex Wolff is remarkable as a teenager who’s awakened from his self-centric world and thrust into the darkness of his family history; I will be disappointed if both don’t receive Oscar nominations come next year.

This is a striking debut from Ari Aster, who is able to give each scene a nightmarish quality, and uses the methodical miniature houses created by the Gragham family to shape his environments. While the first section of the film could easily be interpreted as “boring” or “slow” by a less attuned audience, it sets up the dynamics of the family perfectly, leading to the most white-knuckle and terrifying sequence I’ve possibly ever seen (which just so happens to feature no demons or possession), and from then on delivers on the maximum potential of how such an event could shape the darkest aspects of our minds.

I struggle with grading a film like Hereditary; on one hand, I’d like to give it an A+, because as a film its pretty much flawless, and I honestly can’t think of another film that has truly scared me to this degree. That being said, the film got under my skin to the point that I almost regret seeing it, because the psychological journey of entering these characters’ minds was traumatic on a level that I simply didn’t want to see in a film. It’s undoubtably a masterpiece of the genre, one that is uncompromising and unflinching, but I think its up to the viewer if they can handle the haunting plane of existence that Hereditary occupies. Grade: A

Solo: A Star Wars Story- Movie Review

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Of all the things that Solo: A Star Wars Story does right, and there are a lot of things, I was most impressed by the interpretation of Han Solo. The Solo we see is a cocky, wisecracking hothead who’s just crazy enough to be a hero, but he’s not quite Harrison Ford- at least not quite yet. The film is about the development of the character, not an impersonation, and it’s a great look at a Han Solo who may not have the skill to justify his confidence, but at the end of the day is still the good guy, and the thematic core of a good guy who doesn’t want to admit it is the most powerful aspect of the film.

Years before the events of the original Star Wars trilogy, Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) is a petty thief trying to reunite with his love Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), and teams up with his future partner Chewbacca, the rogue Captain Beckett (Woody Harrelson), and the charming swindler Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) to pull off a seemingly impossible heist for the gangster Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany).

Alden Ehrenreich is perfect as Han; there are hints of how the character will mature into Ford’s iconic performance, but Ehrenreich makes it his own, giving the character the perfect blend of unexpected morality, overconfidence, and wit, all while being as charismatic as seemingly possible. Taking on such a role is no easy feat, but Ehrenreich makes us believe from the very first scene that he’s the rogue smuggler we all love, and the charm of seeing his dynamic with Chewbacca is undoubtably a highlight of the film.

Donald Glover is similarly brilliant as Lando, and used in just the right capacity to service Han’s journey. I enjoyed everything with Woody Harrelson, who may feel like a Star Wars character in real life, and feels like a gunslinging pirate that would fit in this universe. Of all the things the film throws at us, I wasn’t expecting the emotional weight of Han and Qi’ra’s relationship to be as impactful as it was, and while a commend Emilia Clarke for her performance, the brilliance is in Lawrence Kasdan’s script. Kasdan, the mind behind The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark, gives us great script with memorable exchanges, genuinely funny moments, and a lot of heart.

Director Ron Howard gives us a pretty much breathless film with stunning visuals by Bradford Young, transitioning seamlessly from setpiece to setpiece, while still giving breathing room for character bits whilst not squandering time. Howard gives us some really innovative action; while it could easily just be people running around and shooting each other, Howard delivers some creative action pieces, from chases to dogfights to monsters to shootouts. It doesn’t feel repetitive, and the ending sequence is a genuinely well thought out climax that peaks with the memorable cast of characters attempting to outwit each other.

I expected to like Solo: A Star Wars Story, as Ron Howard is a highly competent director that can deliver spectacle and heart, but I didn’t expect to be gripped by this sweeping journey. In the same way that The Last Jedi understood the appeal of the Force and the mystical elements of Star Wars better than ever before, Solo understands the appeal of the pulp side- it’s pirates, gunslingers, and gangsters- but in space! I didn’t know you could isolate that element of the original trilogy and succeed so well, but Solo: A Star Wars Story is the adventure worth taking and the story worth telling. Grade: A-

Deadpool 2- Movie Review

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The first Deadpool film was a refreshingly self aware take on the superhero movie, a film that was able to lampoon the growingly popular genre while still maintaining a surprising amount of heart. Deadpool 2 is more or less the same thing, except this time it’s crazier, louder, and perhaps a little dumber, but if you can forgive the film’s plot for making close to no sense, the film is relentlessly funny with a concurrent succession of gags that are increasingly funny and appeal to the teenage boy in everyone.

Now a full on crime fighter, Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) has been traveling the world in order to fight evil. When the teenage mutant Russell Collins (Julian Dennison) is targeted by the futuristic mutant Cable (Josh Brolin), Deadpool assembles a team of superheroes in order to stop a potentially world shattering event. Despite the world building and franchise building, the film keeps the stakes mostly personal, which works for the character more than a more overarching plot would.

To start off, director David Leitch (of John Wick and Atomic Blonde fame) has delivered another great action piece; while the fights still feel intimate, Leitch has crafted some truly incredible set pieces, including a brilliant street way chase and a great prison that rank among the best set pieces in recent memory. Leitch uses Deadpool’s unique powers and sensibilities to get creative with the brutality, and the colorful cast of mutants each bring a different presence that stop the fights from getting redundant.

The heart of the film lies in the relationship between Deadpool and Russell, and while the film does give us some genuine touching moments between the two, it also never asks us to take it too seriously, and in the same way the MCU films are able to touch on darker themes while still reverting to a fun spectacle, Deadpool 2 is able to take on themes of loss and regret through it’s own prism of self-irony. The more serious stuff is there, but for those only looking for a ridiculous spectacle of humor and violence, the film delivers with more laughs and more action.

I prefer the first Deadpool to it’s sequel; the first film had a more straightforward narrative, and I felt that Deadpool’s romantic relationship was better developed and more engaging than the family building elements of the sequel. That being said, Deadpool 2 isn’t neccessarily asking you to take anything seriously, and I think that’s probably a good thing. This is a comedy first, and the script is littered with fun nods and clever one-liners, as well as some creative physical and visual humor. It’s an unrelenting series of jokes, and even if the script is mostly stringing together set pieces and gags, it’s most definitely a rude worth taking. Grade: B+